September 28, 2012 § 4 Comments
Bibi Netanyahu gave a widely covered and dissected speech to the United Nations General Assembly yesterday in which the main takeaway seems to be that he watched a lot of Warner Brothers cartoons during his time as a teenager living in the U.S. Brent Sasley and Jeffrey Goldberg both weighed in on what Netanyahu was trying to accomplish, and Ali Gharib pointed out that Bibi actually made a mistake with his cartoon bomb, so I don’t need to rehash what others have already eloquently written. Instead I’d like to pick up on a theme that Robert Wright captured, which is that Netanyahu essentially conceded that Israel will not be bombing Iran any time soon. As regular O&Z readers know, I have thought for months that an Israeli strike is unlikely to happen, and so now that the conventional wisdom has caught up with me, it is worth rehashing why most people thought that an attack was going to happen during the summer or fall.
The thinking in the DC foreign policy community on an Israeli strike has largely been shaped by the notion that the decision to attack lies with Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, and so the speculation over whether Israel was on the brink of striking Iran’s nuclear facilities broke down into two camps. On one side are those who believe that Netanyahu and Barak are deadly serious about a strike. They view Israeli saber rattling as an effort to prepare the Israeli public for war and think that the reportedly reluctant Israeli military and political leadership will line up behind the prime minister and the defense minister once they decide to order military action. On the other side are those who believe that Netanyahu and Barak are engaged in an elaborate bluff designed to either pressure Iran into ceasing its uranium enrichment program or to convince the United States to handle the job of taking out the Iranian nuclear program. Israeli chatter about the looming threat from Iran is aimed at creating conditions under which the U.S. feels it has no choice but to do everything possible to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon and convincing the Europeans to back harsher sanctions on Iran. In this reading of the situation, the rest of the Israeli military and political leadership do not matter because Netanyahu and Barak are only interested in creating the perception that they are going to attack.
The question then of what Israel is going to do turns on Netanyahu and Barak’s true mindset; if they are serious about attacking they will attack, and if they are bluffing they won’t. It is a very simple dynamic, leading to an entire cottage industry designed to ascertain what precisely the two men’s intentions are, with an increasing focus on Barak – or, per his feeble attempt at anonymity, the “decision maker” – as the key figure. In this increasingly accepted view, there are only two possibilities and two outcomes, and the only people who matter are the Netanyahu-Barak tandem.
What this discussion has entirely missed, however, is that there is a plausible third outcome, which is that Netanyahu and Barak are dead set on launching a military operation against Iranian nuclear sites but that such an operation will not occur. People have discounted this possibility because they either misread the way in which national security decision making takes place in Israel or discount the Israeli political climate.
Netanyahu and Barak are not the only people who matter in this decision. When an American president wants to go to war, he generally gets his way irrespective of what his cabinet or generals want to do, with the Iraq War a good demonstration of how the president is truly The Decider. In contrast, Netanyahu and Barak will not be able to launch a strike on Iran without the near unanimous consent of the inner security cabinet and the larger political-security cabinet, and such authorization is not assured. Four of the nine members of the smaller group are currently believed to be opposed to a strike, and the fact that Netanyahu briefed Rav Ovadia Yosef in order to flip Eli Yishai’s support speaks volumes about Netanyahu and Barak’s power to order an attack against other ministers’ wishes.
There are also important constraints on Netanyahu and Barak’s decision making. Israeli public opinion does not favor a unilateral Israeli strike, the home front is woefully unprepared for retaliation from Iran or Hizballah, a myriad of current and former IDF and intelligence officials believe an attack is a bad idea at this point, and the specter of the Winograd Commission – which blasted former prime minister Ehud Olmert and the IDF chiefs for the 2006 war in Lebanon – hangs over everything. All of this is particularly salient given Netanyahu’s historical risk aversion when it comes to ordering military operations of any sort, compounded by the fact that this is an operation whose chances of success are seen to be limited to delaying Iran’s nuclear program rather than ending it and might end up with thousands of Israeli civilian casualties as retaliation. That the Obama administration is also opposed to an Israeli strike is an enormous constraint on Netanyahu given Israeli reliance on U.S. munitions and aid.
In the aftermath of yesterday’s speech, there is a rush of commentary focusing on the fact that Obama looks increasingly likely to be elected and so Netanyahu feels like he needs to back off and not risk angering the White House any further. I am sure that is part of what is going on, but this narrative implies that Netanyahu would have ordered a strike by now if Romney were ahead in the polls. I think that is wrong, and misses the fact that there is lots going on here on the Israeli side and that the U.S. is only one of many variables in this equation, and perhaps not even the most important one. If the focus is exclusively on the argument that U.S. pressure has sufficiently convinced Netanyahu to change his plans, then analysts are guaranteed to get it wrong again in the months or years ahead when trying to figure out what Israel is going to do.
September 27, 2012 § Leave a comment
Michael Doran and Max Boot wrote an op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times calling for U.S. intervention in Syria and arguing that there are a number of reasons why this is the opportune time to do so. Plenty of people who spend a lot more time than I do thinking about Syria and the costs and benefits of U.S. intervention, including Doran and Boot, have been writing about this issue for months, and so while I happen to think that intervention is not a great idea, I’m not sure that I have anything new to add to the debate. Doran and Boot did, however, invoke Turkey a number of times in their piece, and each time it was in the course of making claims about Turkey that are incorrect.
First, Doran and Boot wrote that “a more muscular American policy could keep the conflict from spreading. Syria’s civil war has already exacerbated sectarian strife in Lebanon and Iraq — and the Turkish government has accused Mr. Assad of supporting Kurdish militants in order to inflame tensions between the Kurds and Turkey.” Turkey has indeed accused the Syrian government on multiple occasions of supporting the PKK, and maybe Assad is and maybe he isn’t (I think that he probably is), but Doran and Boot are still inflating the benefits of intervention here. To begin with, the Syrian civil war is in absolutely zero danger of spreading to Turkey in the form of sectarian strife, and that won’t change even if it rages for a decade. More relevant though is that the PKK foothold in Syria is firmly established and American intervention and the removal of Assad will not change that. The PYD, which is the Syrian equivalent of the PKK, controls a large swath of territory along the Turkish-Syrian border, and American intervention would not be aimed at dislodging the PYD. What this means is that it actually doesn’t matter all that much anymore whether Assad stays or goes when it comes to the PKK inflaming tensions between Turkey and its Kurdish population since the PKK’s safe haven is pretty well established. That ship has already sailed, and using Turkish concerns about Assad’s support for the PKK as an excuse to advocate U.S. intervention is a red herring.
Second, they argue that “American leadership on Syria could improve relations with key allies like Turkey and Qatar. Both the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his Qatari counterpart have criticized the United States for offering only nonlethal support to the rebellion. Both favor establishing a no-fly zone and ‘safe zones’ for civilians in Syrian territory.” As anyone who spends any time studying the U.S.-Turkey relationship knows, bilateral ties between the two countries hardly need improving, and it can be argued that they have actually never been closer at any point in history as they are now. It is correct that Ankara is frustrated that it has not had much luck budging the Obama administration on intervening, but the implication that our relationship with Turkey is in need of repair falls somewhere between ludicrous and absurd. Doran and Boot are both extremely sophisticated analysts who know that catering to Turkish or Qatari wishes is not a good enough reason for the U.S. to undertake military action, and so they threw in the suggestion that by not intervening we are endangering ties with our allies in the region. As far as Turkey goes, that is just not the case.
Finally, in what is perhaps the most egregious mistake in their piece, Doran and Boot posited, “The F.S.A. already controls much of the territory between the city [Aleppo] and the Turkish border, only 40 miles away. With American support, Turkish troops could easily establish a corridor for humanitarian aid and military supplies.” Sounds like a piece of cake, right? In reality, the claim that this would be an easy and cost-free mission for the Turkish military is a highly dubious one. As it is, Turkey is having a difficult time dealing with the PKK inside its own borders and has suffered high military casualties in the past few months of fighting. Then consider the fact that establishing, but even more saliently then holding and defending, a corridor for aid and supply lines is no easy task under any circumstances, least of all during a civil war when you will be targeted along a miles-long corridor by whatever is left of Syrian troops, PKK terrorists, and possibly PYD fighters as well. Tack on that the Turkish military has no experience with this type of mission, is currently bogged down fighting the PKK, and is facing leadership and morale issues at the top stemming from the Ergenekon and Balyoz (Sledeghammer) cases and the simultaneous resignations of its chief of staff and service heads last year, and you will start to see just how the “easily establish a corridor” line begins to break down. In addition, from a political perspective, Turkey’s Syria policy is not popular domestically and a military invasion would be even less so. It would be certain to result in Turkish casualties, and so the decision to launch an invasion to establish a corridor inside Syria is not going to be an easy one for the government to make, which might explain why despite months of bellicose threats, it hasn’t yet happened.
There may be lots of good reasons why the U.S. should be intervening in Syria, but let’s not pretend that we should do so for Turkey’s benefit, or that our stepping in will solve Turkey’s PKK problem, or that our partnering with Turkey in a Syrian invasion will be a cost-free enterprise for our Turkish allies. If we are going to have a debate about intervention, it should be based on reality rather than on fantasy.
September 25, 2012 § 1 Comment
Remember on Friday when I wrote that Ehud Barak is looking ahead to elections and is going to try and distance himself from Bibi Netanyahu? We got some further confirmation of this yesterday with Barak’s interview in Israel Hayom (the full interview was published today), in which he advocated that Israel pursue a policy of unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank while holding onto the three largest settlement blocs – Ariel, Gush Etzion, and Maale Adumim – which contain 90% of the settler population in the West Bank. Predictably, Barak got blasted from both the left and the right and was accused by everyone of naked electioneering and fishing for votes.
There is something slightly off about Barak calling for unilateral withdrawal though in an effort to make himself more popular with voters. First, Barak was the first Israeli politician to attempt this maneuver when he withdrew Israeli forces from Lebanon during his stint as prime minister, and in the aftermath of the 2006 Lebanon War it is widely perceived to have been a strategic failure. Given that Barak is already associated with a failed unilateral withdrawal, it seems strange for him to remind voters of his previous failure by advocating for another unilateral move. Second, as Yesha head Dani Dayan and others pointed out in the course of criticizing Barak, unilateral withdrawal is not particularly popular with the Israeli public, and so you have this curious anomaly where a bunch of politicians are calling out Barak for trying to gin up votes while simultaneously reminding everyone that there are no votes to be had in what Barak is advocating. If Barak is trying to appeal to voters, why would he do so by pushing a policy that is massively unpopular? Third, new elections have yet to be scheduled and are unlikely to be held sooner than six months from now, so if Barak thinks that unilateral withdrawal is the key to his political resurgence, why bring it up now rather than closer to the election?
I think that Barak does indeed have politics in mind, but it is not so much about trying to lock down votes right now as it is about beginning the process of breaking up with Netanyahu. Barak is smart enough to see that while Netanyahu is almost certainly going to remain as prime minister after the next election, his stock and popularity have suffered a big hit. Barak at this point is going to do everything he can to put distance between himself and Bibi and try to make voters believe that he and Netanyahu have not been as close as everyone thinks. He is going to seize on any high profile issue, irrespective of its popularity, that creates a contrast with Netanyahu – unilateral withdrawal, dismantling illegal settlement outposts or neighborhoods, prosecuting settlers who build without a permit, etc. – in an attempt to reestablish his street cred with the center and the left, who think he has given cover to Bibi’s war talk on Iran. I am also going to go on record with the controversial call of the day, which is that at some point before the next election, Barak is going to go so far as to quit his post as defense minister. As I’ve written, I don’t think that an Israeli strike on Iran is in the cards at the moment, and that means that Barak’s raison d’être in this government is largely over. He is not going to be allowed to run on Likud’s list and there is no way or reason for him to continue to hitch his wagon to Netanyahu’s star. The visit with Rahm last week – which, by the way, Netanyahu did not know about – and the interview with Israel Hayom are the beginning of the end for the Netanyahu-Barak relationship of convenience.
September 21, 2012 § 1 Comment
Ehud Barak showed up in Chicago yesterday to meet with his old friend Rahm Emanuel amidst growing tension between the U.S. and Israel over the issue of red lines on Iran and just weeks before the presidential election. This was clearly not just a social call, and in fact Emanuel’s spokesman said that the meeting was an “official visit.” The question is what exactly Barak is up to, since Emanuel has no formal role in making foreign policy anymore now that he is the mayor of Chicago rather than President Obama’s chief of staff. Furthermore, Israeli national security advisor Yaakov Amidror has been in Washington the past couple of days for previously undisclosed meetings with the White House to smooth out differences between the U.S. and Israel over Iran, so there would be no reason for Barak to be talking national security issues with Emanuel.
According to both Ynet and Ha’aretz, Barak’s mission was to begin healing the rift between Washington and Jerusalem, although the two differed on whether Barak was here on a mission from Bibi Netanyahu or was acting on his own. According to Ynet, “it remains unclear whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was informed” of the meeting, while Ha’aretz reports that “Netanyahu sent a message of appeasement to the Obama campaign in the form of Minister of Defense Ehud Barak. The message: The Israeli leader is not meddling in the elections taking place in the United States.”
So what’s really going on here? Did Bibi dispatch Barak in order to send a message through an Obama confidante, or is Barak doing his own thing? If I had to guess, I’d go with the latter for a few reasons. First, if Netanyahu was trying to reassure Obama that he is not meddling in American presidential politics, he wouldn’t be sending Barak with that message, as the two Israelis have a partnership of strategic convenience but are not close political allies in any significant sense. Barak may be trusted in Washington to a much higher degree than Netanyahu, but the person to deliver a political message of that nature would be someone like Ron Dermer and not Barak. When the president of the United States is angry because he thinks that you are interfering in his country’s internal politics, you send one of your most trusted aides to rebut the assertion rather than send your defense minister who belongs to another party.
Second, I’m not sure that it is actually in Barak’s interests to try and help out Netanyahu with Obama, as opposed to making sure that the U.S.-Israel relationship remains strong. To put it bluntly, Barak’s priority is that Israel get all the defense and security and diplomatic help from the U.S. that it can muster and not whether Netanyahu can schedule meetings with Obama whenever he wants. It seems pretty clear to me that Netanyahu’s amateurish attempt to pressure the White House is an idea that he ginned up all on his own and that the rest of the political and defense establishment wants little part of it, and there is no reason for Barak to help Netanyahu climb down from the limb as long as the administration’s anger is directed at Netanyahu rather than Israel. The story about Barak trying to make sure that the relationship between the two countries remains strong rings truer to me than the version in which he is trying to spin Netanyahu’s public comments and interviews as benign.
Which brings me to the third point, which is that Barak is looking ahead to the next Israeli elections and is trying to set himself up for a resurgence. Barak is nothing if not a smart tactician, and I think he sees the handwriting on the wall at this point, which is that an Israeli strike is unlikely to occur and that makes him expendable to Netanyahu and the governing coalition since Likud hardliners are constantly after his head. Barak is trying to distance himself from Netanyahu so that he can make a credible run with Tzipi Livni or Yair Lapid in a new center-left party, which is why it was leaked that he no longer agrees with Netanyahu on the need for a strike and why he is going to start taking a harder stance on illegal settlement building. Meeting with Emanuel makes perfect sense given Rahm’s status within the Democratic Party and Barak’s position on the center-left of the Israeli political spectrum, since Barak wants to make sure that he maintains good ties with the Democrats and is seen as a credible figure by the U.S. Barak has a reputation for looking out for himself above all else, and I think the meeting with Emanuel fits into this patter. It is about letting the White House know that he does not agree with anything that Netanyahu is doing, and that should he find himself in a stronger political position after the next election he will make the relationship with the U.S. his top priority. There is no reason in the context of Israeli domestic politics for Barak to throw Netanyahu a lifeline; in fact, given outside events, there is every reason for Barak to let him drown.
September 20, 2012 § 3 Comments
Spend five minutes listening to Turkish politicians or reading their speeches and you immediately get a sense of how high Turkey’s ambitions are. The best recent example of this is a speech Ahmet Davutoğlu made in April in which he declared, “A new Middle East is about to be born. We will be the owner, pioneer and the servant of this new Middle East,” adding that “even your dreams can’t and won’t reach the place where our power has come to.” Hugh Eakin captures this notion of immense Turkish ambition in a piece that uses Prime Minister Erdoğan’s plans to build an enormous new mosque overlooking the Bosphorus as a metaphor for Turkey’s grand strategic plans. As Eakin notes, Turkey under the AKP wants to lead the Sunni Muslim world and take charge of the Middle East while building up Istanbul in a style reminiscent of development in Gulf states.
I think that some of what Eakin writes is either wrong or goes too far; for instance, he implies that Turkey is turning away from the West which is neither true nor even possible given Turkey’s presence in NATO and the fact that over 60% of its trade is with the EU. The thrust of Eakin’s piece is that the AKP is moving Turkey in a more religious direction, but the talk of increased religion misses the point in two ways though; first, Turkey is and always has been a traditional/conservative/religious society once you move away from Istanbul, Izmir, and other large cities, so I don’t think it is the government that is driving a religious revival, but rather a religious revival that is emboldening the government. Second, what should be the greater concern is not the move toward more overt acceptance of religion but the move toward more overt authoritarianism, which has absolutely nothing to do with religion and everything to do with the AKP transforming into a typical Turkish proto-authoritarian party. The focus on Islam is misplaced here, in my view, and risks overlooking the greater danger that is brewing. In any event, Eakin is making a larger point about Turkish ambitions, and it is certainly an accurate one.
Walter Russell Mead also wrote about Turkey earlier this week, but his argument was that Turkish ambitions are about to be dashed. In a typical Mead-ian historical flourish, he compares Erdoğan to Woodrow Wilson:
Everywhere he went in the Middle East, crowds hailed him. Like Wilson, he brought a political movement out of the wilderness into power at home. Like Wilson, for his followers he embodied a mix of conservative religious and progressive social ideas. Like Wilson, events propelled him to a position of huge international prominence when he appeared to have the power and the ideas that could reshape world politics in the places he cared most about. (And like Wilson, he ruthlessly suppressed dissent in the press, sending opponents and critics to jail.)
Today, Erdogan still looks a bit like Woodrow Wilson, but it is the sharply diminished, post-Versailles Wilson he most resembles. His magic moment has passed; the world did not transform. The voice of God that sounded so clearly now seems to have faded, become indistinct. His dream of leading the march of Islamist democracy through the Middle East looks tattered and worn. Libya, Syria, Egypt: none of them look like successes for Turkish diplomacy or leadership, and Syria is a fully fledged disaster that threatens instability inside Turkey itself.
September 19, 2012 § 4 Comments
This post is about a week overdue, but events in the news last week overtook my original blogging plans. As I wrote about here, I recently spent two weeks as part of an Atlantic Council exchange program called Young Turkey Young America that brought together emerging leaders from the U.S. and Turkey to discuss foreign policy issues with the aim of strengthening the bilateral relationship between the two countries. It was a great two weeks, lots of fun and also very informative, and I can’t wait to do the next leg of the program in Turkey in the spring. I was consistently impressed by everyone in the group, and the experience and knowledge that my colleagues all brought to the table was daunting. Since almost all of the meetings and discussions we had were off the record, I can’t write too much about the specific things we heard from government officials, policymakers, analysts, and others, but I did come away with some big picture takeaways that I’d like to share.
First is the absolutely overwhelming view expressed by nearly everyone we spoke with of Turkey’s global importance and the strength of the bilateral relationship. Only one of tens of speakers over two weeks threw some cold water on Turkey’s role in the world; everyone else was about as bullish as you can get. At first I thought that this might be a case of government officials and corporate leaders simply telling the Turks in our group what they wanted to hear, but it became apparent over time that this was not the case and that policymakers genuinely believe that Turkey plays an oversized role in the global economy, geopolitics, and helping secure American interests overseas. On the one hand, I think this is certainly a good thing since it bodes well for a deepening of U.S.-Turkey ties in the years ahead, and it demonstrates that both countries are over the Incirlik debacle of 2003. From a Turkish perspective, it is good to know that the global hegemon (to the extent that the U.S. can still be described as such) views Turkey as nearly indispensable and is grateful for Turkey’s assistance and support in a variety of areas. On the other hand though, I got a clear sense that any possible caution signals are being completely ignored by the U.S., such as Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian posture and limits on the press and freedom of expression in Turkey. Whether this is because Americans in positions of influence either do not realize the extent to which these things are problematic or because they are willing to just look the other way, I am not entirely sure. It is something that bears watching.
Second is the fact that the Turkey-U.S.-Israel triangle came up with current and former government officials over and over again. The deterioration in relations between Turkey and Israel is clearly weighing on policymakers’ minds, and it was repeatedly brought up as something that needs to be fixed before it starts to adversely affect Turkey’s relationship with the U.S. A couple of people made allusions to the fact that Israel is always going to politically win out over Turkey in the U.S. and so it is vital for Turkey that the two countries repair their ties. Given the prevailing view in Turkey that the fallout with Israel has been relatively cost-free, I think that some of my Turkish colleagues were surprised to hear that this was an issue that could possibly bleed over into U.S.-Turkey bilateral ties. It’s not terribly surprising from my perspective given that Israel and Turkey are two of the most important U.S. allies in the region and the U.S. would like to go back to the era of being able to coordinate with them in concert, but I’m not sure my Turkish friends had thought about it much from this angle.
Third and somewhat related to this was the viewpoint expressed by Turkish speakers and some of my Turkish colleagues of the importance of ethnic lobbies in creating U.S. foreign policy. There were conversations that centered around the Israel/Jewish lobby but also around the Greek and Armenian lobbies, and I found it fascinating to hear so much focus on ethnic politics as a driver of foreign policy decisions. My own view is that ethnic lobbies obviously have a role but are not powerful enough to override clear U.S. interests, but I can understand why some Turks subscribe to the view that Greeks and Armenians (and over the past couple of years, Israelis) are working to undermine Turkish national interests and priorities. It also got me thinking about just what a unique body the U.S. Congress is from a world historical perspective, in that it plays such a large role in foreign policy and has a clear set of preferences apart from the White House irrespective of which party controls each institution. I think that the interplay of views and competing pressures can be tough to keep track for anyone, let alone foreigners who are not used to how the system here works. In any event, I found that Turks of all stripes were much quicker to jump on the lobbying bandwagon than were Americans, and I think that says something about both groups’ perspectives.