Losing The Forest Of Iran Policy For The Trees Of A Nuclear Deal

February 10, 2015 § 6 Comments

There has been tons of discussion over the past week about Mike Doran’s recent voluminous piece in Mosaic in which he argues that President Obama’s foreign policy in the Middle East – his approach to Syria, ISIS, Israel, Iraq, Sunni allies, etc. – can be explained through the prism of a desired rapprochement with Iran and a goal of building a new regional order in which Iran plays an integral role. According to Doran, Obama sees the U.S. and Iran as natural allies and believes that blame for enmity between the two countries rests with the U.S., and thus the president’s strategy has been to accommodate rather than confront Iran in the hopes that a nuclear deal will lead to a larger grand bargain. In other words, the nuclear deal itself is a means rather than an end, which makes the particulars of any negotiated deal less important to the White House than the fact that a deal gets done in some form or another, as a deal on Iran’s nuclear program is the only pathway to a new Middle East in which the U.S. and Iran cooperate on a set of shared interests. Doran has long and detailed sections on how American inaction in Syria and bad relations between Obama and Bibi Netanyahu were impacted by this overarching goal, and he also spends a lot of time building a case that the U.S. has made permanent concessions to Iran in return for short term and easily reversible Iranian restraint. The result, according to Doran, is that the U.S. has given Iran all of the leverage and guaranteed that any emerging nuclear deal will be a disaster. I have quibbles with some of the details and sub-arguments (more on this below), but I find the overarching thesis convincing: that the White House’s ultimate goal is to turn Iran into an ally based on the view that the U.S. and Iran are natural partners with a set of common interests.

Building off Doran’s piece and off a Washington Post editorial that takes Obama to task over the nuclear negotiations, Walter Russell Mead lays out a list of problems with a nuclear deal that he sees the White House needing to address in order to gain real support for its Iran policy. These include enhancing Iranian power in the Middle East at the expense of a regional balance, assuming that a more powerful Iran will be less hostile to the U.S., linking more engagement with Iran to eventual regime liberalization and transition, and selling out a set of current allies without any guarantee of an adequate replacement. Even more so than Doran’s, Mead’s piece resonates because he is completely focused on the end game and on challenging the assumptions underlying the Obama administration’s view of a post-deal world. I agree with Doran that the administration’s strategy on nuclear negotiations is animated by wanting a grand bargain rather than wanting to deal with Iran’s nuclear program qua nuclear program, but I part ways with him when he focuses his ire on the nuclear deal itself. Not only am I not convinced that a nuclear deal is inherently a bad thing, I think that focusing on the nuclear aspect of Iran policy is a bad tactic. Those worried about Iranian intentions and Iranian power as a force of destabilization in the Middle East – and you can firmly include me in that camp – should assume that a deal is going to happen and should start thinking now about how to then contain a nuclear Iran in every way possible instead of wasting time trying to prevent what may be a fait accompli.

Why do I think that a nuclear deal is itself not a disaster? I’ll stipulate up front that I have no expertise in the science component of this or in knowing precisely how much enriched uranium constitutes a significant quantity, a.k.a. the point of no return in terms of preventing a usable bomb. But friends and colleagues who are experts in this stuff claim that the fighting about number of centrifuges is a red herring because the real issue is the 20% enrichment level, and nobody disputes that the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action successfully diluted the enriched uranium, which is what lengthens the breakout time. The ten thousand centrifuges that Iran already has are IR-1 centrifuges, but those are not the efficient ones that will allow a quick nuclear breakout, and the more efficient IR-8 centrifuges are the ones that the JPOA addressed. So any deal that preserves this status quo, meaning continued dilution of 20% enriched uranium and a cap on IR-8 centrifuges, makes a breakout period long enough to be easily detectable in time to verify it and take required action, military or otherwise.

Let’s assume for a moment though that this is wrong, and that somehow the Iranians will figure out a way to use the old centrifuges with greater efficiency and increase their stock of 20% enriched uranium. Let’s further – and much more concretely – assume that Iran is going to do everything it can to game the system and violate nuclear agreements, since all evidence suggests that it has tried to do so with degrees of success for years (see Fordow for the most prominent example). Let’s also assume that Iran sees a nuclear deal as nothing more than a way to lift sanctions and has no intention of genuinely freezing its nuclear program. Even in this situation – and to be clear, I am not playing devil’s advocate on these last two assumptions; I presume that this is precisely what will occur – isn’t a deal that creates an inspections regime the best way of preventing Iran’s attempts at cheating from being successful? If Iran wants a nuclear bomb, I’d much rather have as many roadblocks in place as possible than having no roadblocks at all. If a deal is not reached next month and further sanctions are slapped on Iran, that’s all fine and good, but sanctions alone are not going to stop a determined wannabe nuclear state from achieving that status. The most punishing sanctions conceivable will make it harder, but will not foreclose the eventual result. North Korea has no economy to speak of and is as isolated from the rest of the world as if the country exists in a different galaxy, and somehow it managed the trick. Put more simply, option one is to allow Iran to resume its nuclear program in a hellbent manner and with no inspections or safeguards in place, and option two is to put inspections and safeguards in place to try and frustrate Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Isn’t the logical choice here option two, even if it is a less than perfect solution? Isn’t something in this case much better than nothing if the actual ambition is to stop an Iranian bomb (as opposed to regime change)?

The argument against a deal at this point rests on the implicit assumption that military action will be used to stop Iran’s nuclear program (and perhaps overthrow the regime), and I don’t see that happening. It’s pretty clear to me that the Obama administration won’t do it, and anything short of an Iraq War-style ground invasion (as opposed to some targeted strikes against nuclear facilities) would be a band-aid solution anyway, whether such a limited strike is carried out by the U.S. or Israel. Regular inspections and continued dilution of 20% uranium are the only possible ways of preventing a nuclear Iran given current realities, so why not just strike a deal and watch Iran like a hawk for the next few decades? I agree that the administration has been too sanguine about Iran and its nuclear ambitions, but arguing about what could have been done better in the past is pointless. If your absolute and most pressing goal is to prevent Iran from going nuclear, and you recognize that a long and sustained military campaign is just not in the cards even if you think such a move would be wise (and I don’t), then the best way of doing so is a deal that puts intrusive inspections and limits in place, as it provides the highest chance of detecting Iran’s attempts at a surreptitious breakout.

The real action right now should not be on preventing a deal, but on preventing a larger policy of trying to turn Iran into a partner and ally. To call such a policy foolhardy would be charitable, as the regime’s very legitimacy is derived from its demonization of the West generally and the U.S. in particular. I wrote about this in September so there’s no need to extensively harp on it again now, but the Iranian regime cannot and will not risk its own domestic standing by significantly decreasing its public hostility to the U.S. To do so would put its entire rule in danger, as ideological states that allow their central governing political ideology to be delegitimized end up dealing a fatal blow to their own legitimacy and ultimately to their own survival by making themselves vulnerable to challenges from the opposition. The Iranian state’s rule and political institutions are structured around a revolutionary ideology that assumes opposition to the U.S. and the West as a raison d’être and thus betraying the revolution in such a blatant manner as openly reconciling, let alone partnering, with the U.S. is not a realistic or even rational move for the Supreme Leader and his cadre. In Iran’s case, this is magnified by the fact that the first generation of ideological and revolutionary true believers are still around, and to the extent that ideological states become post-ideological, it only happens once the originators of the ideology are off the scene, as they can be expected to have a deeper and more personal connection to the ideology than successive generations of leaders who have had the ideology instilled in them but were not present at the creation.

Hoping for a change in regime and a more friendly government to come to power and embrace the U.S. is barely more likely than the current regime changing its tune. As the past four years in the Middle East have demonstrated, revolutions frequently do not lead to regime change, and in the event that they do, there should not be any reasonable expectation of a liberal or pro-American government coming to power, no matter how educated/wealthy/enlightened/secular/fill-in-your-favorite-adjective the population is. Nobody likes to remember this, but the leaders of the Green Movement in 2009 were not opposed to Iran’s nuclear program, and in fact embraced it. Assuming that engagement with Iran will quickly lead to greater liberalization, political pressure from the masses, splits among ruling elites, and eventually a transition to democratic government is destined to end with dashed hopes. Political change in this manner is glacial in its pace, and the link between economic liberalization and political liberalization is dubious. Look at China for the best datapoint, which has economically liberalized relatively rapidly in the scheme of things (and by relatively rapidly, I mean over 20 or 30 years), but has moved far more slowly on political liberalization. The point here is that anyone assuming a grand bargain with Iran leading to cooperation on a variety of fronts and a new regional order anchored by a pro-American Iranian government is taking so many leaps of faith that are contradicted by theory and evidence as to make a serious argument in its favor crumble on sight.

For as much as Obama’s critics like to paint him as a slave to reflexive liberal ideology, when it comes to foreign policy the White House focuses on interests rather than ideology to the exclusion of all other factors. Obama behaves like an ideal type of a theoretical realist, and in nearly every situation assumes that states act according to their pure rational utility maximizing interests. It has led to a miscalculation of Russian behavior, and it is leading to what will be an even costlier miscalculation of Iranian behavior. What should be happening now is preparation for a full court press to see Iran completely bottled up in the aftermath of a nuclear deal, and a plan for reassuring our allies in the region – assuming that we still want to have any – with explicit security guarantees and large public demonstrations of military cooperation. A nuclear deal is only a bad thing if it means ceding the region to Iran in the aftermath of an agreement, and that does not have to happen. Separating out the nuclear deal from Iran policy writ large is difficult as the two are obviously connected, but it’s not impossible. To paraphrase Leon Wieseltier on a different topic, we should be working toward a deal as if there is no larger reason to contain and hinder Iran, and containing and hindering Iran as if there is no nuclear deal.

The Bilious Bond Between Bibi, Barack, and Boehner

January 22, 2015 § 30 Comments

Anyone reading this blog knows by now that it has been a wild and wacky 24 hours in the never-ending soap opera that is Prime Minister Netanyahu and his involvement – whether direct or indirect – in American politics. The newest chapter was sparked by President Obama’s State of the Union vow to veto any new sanctions bill that Congress passes targeting Iran, and Speaker John Boehner’s response the next day of inviting Netanyahu to address Congress and speak about “the threats posed by radical Islam and Iran.” While Netanyahu is often himself accused of trying to intervene in American politics, this was a clear cut case of someone else using Netanyahu to intervene in American politics, as Boehner’s hope is that a speech to Congress by Netanyahu will rally the troops and establish enough political cover for wavering legislators to override any future veto by Obama. The White House was obviously incensed, and declared this to be a breach of protocol since Boehner had invited a foreign head of state to Washington without first checking with his own head of state. Things started to become a bit more sticky today when Nancy Pelosi confirmed that she had nothing to do with the invitation and thus it was not a bipartisan invite, and then the White House stated that Netanyahu would not be meeting with Obama while in Washington because it is longstanding policy not to meet with visiting political candidates so soon before an election, and Netanyahu’s visit is going to be two weeks before Israeli elections on March 17.

This last point is key, because contra Max Fisher, who primarily sees this whole thing as the latest Netanyahu intervention into U.S. politics, I don’t think that is what Netanyahu is actually up to here. When Boehner was the one who invited Netanyahu in a clear effort to bolster GOP thinking on Iran policy, it strikes me as strange to argue that this is somehow a Netanyahu initiative, and that this is really the GOP cheerleading an anti-Obama campaign on Netanyahu’s part rather than the GOP using Netanyahu for its own ends. No doubt Netanyahu is as eager for new sanctions on Iran as his Republican friends, but the main reason speaking before Congress at the beginning of March holds appeal for him is because it is a unique campaign rally opportunity. One of the largest criticisms the Bujie Herzog-Tzipi Livni Zionist Camp alliance has had of Netanyahu’s conduct of foreign affairs is that he has needlessly alienated the Obama administration, and in so doing damaged relations with the U.S. and Israel’s standing in the world. Given the paucity of serious security figures in the Labor-Hatnua list, not to mention the fact that Labor’s comparative advantage when it comes to Israeli voters is on social and economic issues, harping on the alleged damage that Netanyahu has caused to U.S.-Israel ties is going to be the left’s biggest security and defense campaign issue. This is even more salient in the aftermath of this summer’s fighting in Gaza and given the widespread disillusionment with the Palestinian Authority and the peace process across the political spectrum, removing Netanyahu’s foot dragging on two states as a potent campaign issue.

In such a political climate, Netanyahu would be hard pressed to come up with a better rejoinder to the left’s argument about deteriorating relations with the U.S. on his watch than being invited to speak before Congress for a third time (tying his hero, Winston Churchill) and being cheered and applauded by members of both parties as he touts the common U.S.-Israel fight against Islamic extremism. The timing here couldn’t be better for him in terms of the vote, and no doubt he will use the speech during the final two weeks of his campaign as proof that the relationship with the U.S. is still rock solid and that Herzog and Livni are off-base with their criticisms, never mind the fact that Congress does not the entire U.S. government make.

While the logic might seem sound to both Boehner and Netanyahu, there are some potentially serious pitfalls in the plan. Starting with the GOP, there is the risk that the charge Fisher raises – of it being unseemly to side with the leader of a foreign country over one’s own president – will stick, particularly given the contention that it is inappropriate for Congress to invite a foreign leader without first consulting with, or at least informing, the president in advance (as an aside, I get the head of state argument, although I don’t see why Congress needs to clear its speaking invitations with the president, no more than the White House needs congressional approval to hold a joint Rose Garden press conference or hold a state dinner – I’d be grateful if any readers with particular expertise in constitutional law could elucidate whether there is a separation of powers problem here or not). More importantly for Boehner’s purposes, the Netanyahu invite could potentially backfire from a tactical perspective if there is a backlash against invoking the strength of the pro-Israel lobby to torpedo a president’s policy priority. This is precisely what happened in the 1981 fight during the Reagan administration over selling AWACS aircraft to Saudi Arabia, where the role of pro-Israel lobbying became a hot button topic. After public opinion had initially been opposed to the arms sale, with 73% opposed, Israel’s strident lobbying became an issue and public opinion shifted as a result, with 53% expressing that “once the President had decided to sell the planes to Saudi Arabia, it was important that Congress not embarrass him with the rest of the world,” and 52% agreeing that “the Israeli lobby in Washington had to be taken on and defeated so it’s a good thing the U.S. Senate upheld the plane sale to Saudi Arabia.” By explicitly tying Israel to new sanctions, Boehner is hoping to capitalize on Israel’s general popularity with voters and Netanyahu’s popularity among GOP and some Democratic lawmakers, but doing it so nakedly and overtly can have some unintended consequences.

Moving to Netanyahu, I’m not sure this is a winning maneuver for him, and I think he is actually taking a substantial risk. He is already being criticized at home for trying to subvert election laws through this speech to Congress, and in fact there has already been a petition filed to judicially block the speech from being aired on Israeli television. Furthermore, he is opening himself up to a mountain of opprobrium for further damaging relations with the Obama administration – and yes, the refusal to meet with Netanyahu when he is here may be justified given the election timing, but it is also an unambiguous slap down from a furious White House – and Democrats in general. Don’t forget that Pelosi has already hung him out to dry, and other Democrats will follow suit as they do not appreciate Netanyahu’s blatant coordination with the Republicans, irrespective of how they feel about Israel or further sanctions on Iran. If Herzog, Livni, Lapid, Kahlon, and the rest of the cast of characters looking to take down Bibi are smart about it, they will also seize on the fact that Netanyahu is being used as a political football here and either not aware enough to realize that it is going on, or worse, willingly allowing it happen. It does not speak well to Netanyahu’s instincts or leadership to be manipulated by Congressional Republicans for their own purposes and possibly damaging himself in the process.

Finally, in accepting such a charged invitation to speak, Netanyahu is keeping to a pattern of putting his personal political prospects ahead of Israel’s longterm interests with regard to the U.S., and that is where the real danger comes from. It’s one thing to blame Netanyahu for bad relations with a president who will be out of office in two years; one can argue that this is a problem that will resolve itself with no residual effects. But if you view Netanyahu’s machinations in a larger context, by constantly and openly favoring the Republican Party – either himself or through Ron Dermer’s actions in Washington – he is putting Israel itself at long term risk by helping make it a wedge issue in American politics. I constantly argue that Israel’s primacy of place in the U.S. is due to popular opinion, but the caveat there is that this only works when it is bipartisan popular opinion. Netanyahu’s actions, where he sides with the Republicans in a very exaggerated manner, are having a serious effect and eroding traditional cross-spectrum popular support for Israel, and once that passes a point of no return, Israel is going to have serious problems. I don’t place the blame for wavering support in the Democratic Party for Israel solely at Netanyahu’s feet by any means, but he is a big part of the problem and has stoked the fires at many points. The GOP has an obvious political interest in making Israel a full-fledged wedge issue and using it as a cudgel to hammer the Democrats as often as it can. The burning question for me is why Netanyahu is so willing to allow himself to be used in furthering this outcome when it is so obviously not in Israel’s interests.

Sticks And Stones May Break My Bones, And So Will Words

October 29, 2014 § 4 Comments

Frustrating the deeply held convictions of “Zionist Occupied Government” conspiracy theorists everywhere, it has not exactly been a banner week for the U.S.-Israel relationship. First there was the Bogie Ya’alon snub during his sojourn to Washington, where the Israeli defense minister met with Chuck Hagel and Samantha Power – the latter reportedly only because the White House was too late in trying to prevent it – but was not granted meetings with Joe Biden, John Kerry, or Susan Rice. Then came yesterday’s already legendary Jeff Goldberg piece in the Atlantic, henceforth known as the chickenshit article, during which an unnamed senior administration official used that moniker to describe Bibi Netanyahu. The piece, which proclaimed a crisis in U.S-Israel relations, was right and has now inflamed that crisis even further. As dedicated readers may recall, in July I wrote that despite the very bad personal relationship between Netanyahu and President Obama, the bilateral U.S.-Israel relationship was not going to be threatened in the long term, and I think that is still true. Nevertheless, what is going on now is certainly serious and can derail things in the short term. So to make up for my lack of recent blogging, and my even longer lack of blogging about Israel specifically, here are some semi-extensive thoughts about the entire contretemps.

First, just as Israeli officials are completely out of line and do damage to their own cause and interests when they make nasty comments about Obama, Kerry, and other U.S. government officials, the same goes for the inane and childish comments made to Goldberg about Netanyahu. I am and have been highly critical of Ya’alon, Naftali Bennett, and others who have launched inappropriate personal attacks; it reflects terribly upon them and does absolutely nothing to rectify whatever it is that has made them upset. This is no different, and the intensely personal nature of denigrating the courage of a former Israeli special forces commando is particularly ugly. Literally taunting an Israeli prime minister for not bombing Iran – as if the issue is a lack of guts rather than an array of barriers to doing so, from Israel’s security cabinet to intense differences of opinion about such a move across the political and military spectrum to serious pressure from the U.S. – is boorish and petty and smacks of smug, childish amateurism, not to mention a terrifyingly myopic and incomplete view of how foreign policy actually operates. I hope that the outrage expressed by some in the U.S. when Ya’alon has insulted Kerry in the press is also expressed today. On the flip side, those who found nothing wrong with Ya’alon’s remarks a few months ago should have the appropriate sense of self-perception to keep their mouths shut now as well. It’s not good when Israelis trash their American counterparts, and it’s not good when Americans trash their Israeli counterparts, but if you are a pro-Israel American, your outrage at one had better be matched by your outrage at the other.

Second, Netanyahu’s broadside in return today is a great example of a world leader who does not properly appreciate his country’s position in the international system. Israel is a regional power in its own right, but it is also largely dependent on the largesse of its great power patron – for which, by the way, it has no genuine feasible alternative replacements should that largesse ever be withdrawn. Despite the heady excitement Israelis have over increased trade ties with China and India, the optimism that this will translate into political support is misplaced, as excellently outlined by Rory Miller in Foreign Affairs, who demonstrated that both countries have completely delinked their economic relations with Israel from their political relations with Israel, and are not going to reverse that path any time soon. Were Netanyahu smart about this, he would have expressed his anger and disappointment behind closed doors, and publicly kept his mouth shut. The fact is that Israel and the U.S. will never be equal. There is an enormous power imbalance in the relationship, and the U.S. can afford to alienate Israel (although it shouldn’t and it would make things harder for U.S. initiatives in the region) but Israel can absolutely not afford to alienate the U.S. I get why Netanyahu’s impulse is to lash back out, but this is a tit-for-tat exchange that Israel will always lose. Israel’s greatest geopolitical advantage is its relationship with the U.S., and thus a well thought out plan would be to swallow whatever American insults come Israel’s way and do nothing to harm that relationship. Some Israeli leaders, including rightwing Likud politician President Ruby Rivlin, get this. Netanyahu quite obviously does not.

Third, leaving aside the damage in the day to day working relationship, the infamous chickenshit interview has potential to backfire on the U.S. when it comes to the Iranian nuclear program in two ways. One has to with Israel, and the other has to do with Iran. On the Israeli side of the equation, the White House is quite obviously happy that Jerusalem has so far sat on its hands and kept its planes far away from Fordow. In the context of an Israeli populace and political class that sees external threats rising up around it, nervousness that the U.S. is getting snookered by Iran in the nuclear negotiations and will agree to nearly any terms to just make the problem go away, and an election coming soon in which the threats to Netanyahu come not from the left but from the right, is there a better way of prompting Netanyahu into taking military action against Iran than denigrating him as a chickenshit who is too scared to use his military? It’s almost as if the person or persons who felt the need to go blabbing to Goldberg are trying to end up with egg all over their faces. I’d agree that the chances of Israeli action at this point are remote, but just listen to some of the saner and more respected security voices in Israel – Amos Yadlin and Ya’akov Amidror are two who come to mind – and you will quickly realize that Israel does not necessarily share the same view of these unnamed administration officials that a bombing run is completely off the table.

On the Iran side of the ledger, I agree with Dan Drezner that there is a component to this that involves signaling to Iran. I am not as certain that it is intentional, however; rather, my fear is that the U.S. is instead unwittingly and massively reducing its negotiating leverage by openly doubting Israel’s ability and willpower to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, and by implying that it sees a nuclear Iran as a near fait accompli. Any Iranian leader reading the Goldberg interview would logically assume that there is nothing Iran can do that will invite a strike against its nuclear program, and that it really has no reason to offer any negotiating concessions at all. Irrespective of whether or not the Obama administration has privately decided that it wants a deal with Iran at any cost, this is terrible negotiating strategy and very poor strategic behavior.

Fourth, the chickenshit comments are more likely than not going to exacerbate the type of Israeli behavior that frustrates the U.S. unless the insults and vitriol are ultimately accompanied by a genuine change in policy toward Israel. If things continue along the same path, meaning that there is no real penalty for increased settlement activity in the form of reduced intelligence and military cooperation, reduced defense aid, or reduced support at the United Nations, the takeaway message for Netanyahu is going to be that the only price for driving U.S. officials to apoplexy is having to absorb personal insults. I don’t know whether policy is going to change following the November elections or not; I have read some predictions that the cover for Israel at the U.N. in particular is something that will be endangered, but I have serious doubts as to whether that will be the case. The point is, if Goldberg’s unnamed official thinks that his or her words alone are going to have any real effect on Israeli policy, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for it.

Finally, it is pretty clear to me that this is not just a random attempt to make Bibi look bad here, but a deliberate ploy to damage his political prospects. There is a perception among Israeli elites that picking a real fight with the U.S. is fatal for Israeli politicians, and many in various U.S. administrations believe that as well. My friend Brent Sasley has argued otherwise, although others take a different view of the Shamir loss in 1992. In this case, in the short term the fight seems to have bolstered Bibi, with people like Bennett coming out and strongly backing him against the chickenshit comments. It makes him look like a stronger leader standing up to a petty and bullying American administration. In the long term, however, I think that the White House political calculation here is correct in the sense of wanting to play up the hostility between Netanyahu and the White House in order to damage him. There are going to be elections in the next few months, and there are plenty of rightwing politicians aspiring to unseat Bibi who can claim that they will stand up to Washington when need be but do not have the baggage that Bibi has. Ya’alon is obviously not in this camp, but Bennett, Moshe Kahlon, Avigdor Lieberman, and even Yair Lapid will all try to take advantage of this dynamic to siphon votes away from Likud and toward themselves.

Ultimately, whomever it was that has now made the term chickenshit a permanent part of the foreign policy lexicon may feel a lot better today after a self-satisfied venting session, but this kind of thing is entirely counterproductive. Allies can and do disagree, but this is not the way to do it. Nobody in the Obama administration should be too pleased with themselves this afternoon.

It’s Not The Size Of Government That Matters, But How You Use It

May 22, 2013 § 1 Comment

Every so often I feel compelled to write something that has nothing to do with Israel or Turkey, the wider Middle East, or foreign policy in general, and today is one of those days. Instead of my usual fare, let me take a brief moment and use the current controversies engulfing the Obama administration to rant about how the silly debate over the size of government is entirely misplaced. Conservatives look at the IRS targeting Tea Party groups applying for non-profit status and quite naturally take away the lesson that big government is the problem and that the size of the public sector needs to be reduced. Similarly, big government is viewed as the culprit now that news has emerged that the Department of Justice secretly seized phone records from the Associated Press and email and phone records from Fox News reporter James Rosen in the pursuit of leak investigations. The argument is that were the government not so big, such abuses, mistakes, scandals, or whatever one wants to term them would not take place because the government would not have the resources to go after its enemies or people whom it feels like targeting.

This is a nice theory, but not only is it entirely inapt in these particular cases, it threatens to divert attention from a far more serious problem that is literally a threat to our system of democracy (and no, I am not being hyperbolic). To begin with, reducing the size of government would have had no impact on these cases. In the IRS case, the evidence in the New York Times reporting suggests that the problem was a severely understaffed regional office populated by under-qualified employees who were not prepared for the flood of 501(c)(4) applications that came their way, and they thus came up with the highly problematic solution of coming up with a shortcut to isolate applications from groups that they suspected were not truly socially welfare oriented. There is no evidence to date that this was a result of political pressure from above, and in fact the IRS is made up career bureaucrats who work there for years, so it would be odd to suggest that somehow the IRS is populated with partisan liberal Democrats going on witch hunts. Rather than big government being the problem here, the truth is the opposite; were the IRS sufficiently funded and staffed, applications could actually be considered properly rather than be subjected to shortcuts designed to manage an unmanageable workload in a timely fashion. (Full disclaimer here: I work for an organization whose tax-exempt status is right now under consideration by the IRS, and I am furious that it will likely be delayed even further now due to the political uproar taking place.)

Let’s move on to the AP scandal, which is actually a much bigger deal. In this case, the DOJ went on a fishing expedition to determine who leaked information to the AP after the national security threat had passed. In other words, the White House was mad that the information was going to come out at all, and so it engaged in massive overreach in trying to find out who the leaker was in targeting phone records that were likely to be outside the narrow scope that the law permits. Furthermore, the government did not even ask the AP to comply with a request for the records before subpoenaing them, which to me says that it knew that its actions were way over the line of what is reasonable. Now, in this case as well, the problem is not a government that is too big. DOJ does not require massive amounts of funding or personnel to improperly subpoena phone records. The AP case does, however, illuminate the true problem, which is not how big the government is, but what power we allow it to acquire. The AP case is not the only one in the news involving government investigations of leaks. Fox News reporters James Rosen, who reported classified information that he was leaked about North Korea, had his work and personal phone records seized, his work and personal emails searched, his visits to the State Department tracked, and even his parents’ phone records were seized. Perhaps this is not overzealous behavior given that Rosen’s reporting may have put rare intelligence assets in North Korea at risk and so finding the leaker was of paramount importance. I am open to this argument despite having my doubts as to the necessity of casting such a wide net. But even granting that is the case, the government went one step further, and actually named Rosen in a court affidavit as a “an aider, abettor and/or co-conspirator.” Placing a reporter who benefits from a leak in one of these categories is literally unprecedented in American history, and if you don’t think this is a big deal that leads to a very slippery slope, then all I can say is that you are simply not paying close enough attention.

For those keeping score at home, the Obama administration has now been the first to claim the right of the government to kill an American citizen without sufficient due process of law by any reasonable definition of the term, and also the first to identify a reporter doing his First Amendment-protected job as a criminal co-conspirator. Neither of these two things have anything at all to do with the size of the government, and everything to do with the powers that we accord the government – or, more accurately in this case, the powers that the government claims unopposed. I frequently take to Twitter, as I did last week, to make a variation of the following point, which is that I do not understand how more people are not up in arms about this, and particularly Democrats. Every single datapoint from political theory and history demonstrates that once the government gains the power to do something, it never gives it back. Are we supposed to trust the White House on these issues because Obama campaigned on maintaining civil liberties despite the national security challenges the country faces, or because he gave a nice speech in 2009 at the National Archives claiming that we did not have to make any trade-offs between security and freedom? While talking the talk, the government has claimed powers under his watch that not even Bush and Cheney asserted that they had. I shudder to think of what the next administration will do given the precedents set by this one, and if you don’t think that the White House knows what a problem this is, recall that a year ago they were frantically trying to set down written legal guidelines (which so far do not exist) for the drone war since they realized how out of control things might become with a potential Romney administration.

The idea that we should trust Obama on these issues because he is a Democrat is ridiculous, and in fact it should make people even more outraged and even more willing to scream and yell and pressure the administration. I keep on waiting and waiting for someone other than Rand Paul to start raising these issues, and it is high time that Democrats do so, because before you know it, the government is going to start claiming powers in the interest of national security that are even more expansive and wider in scope. That may be fine for some people while Obama is in the White House, although I don’t quite understand why, but remember that government powers once claimed live on forever no matter how big or small that government is, and pretty soon someone else is going to be sitting in the Oval Office. Please watch Obama’s speech tomorrow that is supposed to serve as a bookend to his 2009 speech and listen carefully to what he has to say, because anything short of a repudiation of what has gone on under his gaze should be considered unacceptable.

Guest Post: Are Turks And Americans Friends?

May 17, 2013 § 5 Comments

Today’s post comes from the great mind of Alexander Slater, who aside from being a close friend and one of my all-time favorite intellectual sparring partners is also a counsel at O’Melveny & Myers, where he works in the White Collar and Corporate Investigations practice. He has degrees from Yale, Harvard, and Oxford, is a former foreign policy adviser to Chuck Schumer, and is a member of the Atlantic Council’s Young Atlanticist Network. He and I were in Turkey together in March, and as Prime Minister Erdoğan is visiting DC this week, it is a good opportunity for Ally to expound on the gap between the constant rhetoric from the U.S. and Turkish governments about the friendship between the two countries on the one hand and the reality of the public opinion numbers on the other.

When the Obama Administration originally announced yesterday’s White House meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it explained that “[t]he Prime Minister’s visit underscores the close friendship between the United States and Turkey.” But are Turkey and the United States really friends?

This is not an idle question. As the United States’ close relations with Canada and the United Kingdom show, genuine friendships among states, as opposed to alliances based on the coincidence of national interests, can be powerful strategic assets. Especially in electoral democracies, relationships based on a mutual admiration among their people, not merely their governments, can endure beyond momentary, or even lasting, differences in foreign policies. (Canada’s refusal to join the coalition of states participating in the Iraq War is a case in point.)

Given the importance that Turkey and the United States place on their bilateral relations, then, the White House’s statement should be seen as more than polite diplomatic speak. Unfortunately, it also appears to be wrong, at least if the results from Pew Research’s 2012 Global Attitudes Survey are to be believed.

According to the survey, only 15 percent of Turks have a favorable opinion of the United States. Even fewer —only 13 percent—indicated they have a “favorable view of the American people.” (This was the lowest score of people from any of the twenty-one countries surveyed. By contrast, 32 percent of Egyptians and 39 percent of Chinese—nationals of countries with arguably more contentious relations with the United States than Turkey—had a favorable view of Americans.) These results are surprising because many people from both countries have a lot in common, even if their historical, religious, and cultural backgrounds differ.

I know this because in March I spent two weeks in Turkey as a participant in the third installment of the Young Turkey, Young America program, an intercultural exchange run jointly by the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC, and Sabanci University’s Istanbul Policy Center. As part of the program, fifteen Turks and fifteen Americans, all young professionals, spent a month together traveling across the two countries, meeting with officials from their commercial, political and civil society communities. The Pew survey results paint a very different picture than what I saw and heard during our travels.

For instance, according to the Pew survey, only 14 percent of Turks said they “like[d] . . . American ways of doing business.” (Like the results discussed above, this was the lowest score of people from any of the twenty-one countries surveyed.) And yet, while in Turkey, I saw officials and executives promote commerce and conduct business in ways similar to Americans: The Izmir Chamber of Commerce advertised how the region was a great place for investment; a government official in Ankara proclaimed that Turkey would inspire other countries as a modern economic power where markets and debtors could be trusted; and, while in Istanbul, an executive at one of Turkey’s leading conglomerates sought our ideas on using social media to promote brand development.

There seems to be a similar dynamic at play on political issues. According to the Pew survey, only 13 percent of Turks said they “like[d] . . . American ideas about democracy.” (This was the second-lowest rating, ahead of only Pakistan.) However, what I observed of the practice of politics in Turkey reminded me of these activities in America. At a meeting with an AK Party official, we saw a savvy integration of public relations and religious overtones that could have come straight out of the political handbook of Karl Rove. And almost every day during the trip, newspapers carried stories about Prime Minister Erdogan’s efforts to resolve the Kurdish conflict, including a push for constitutional reform that recognizes Kurds’ minority rights, which would make Turkey’s democracy will look more, rather than less, like its American counterpart.

A sharp critic might respond that these observations are based only on visits to the urban areas of Izmir, Ankara, and Istanbul—places where one would expect there to be convergence with Western commerce and political practice. This is true. However, together, these three regions represent approximately 30 percent of Turkey’s population and 70 percent of Turks overall are city dwellers, with more moving in every day. These places are increasingly representative of what Turkey is all about.

The issue seems to be that, among large portions of the Turkish public, there are substantial misperceptions of Americans. While recent political differences over the Syrian conflict and the Iraq War may contribute to Turks’ overall negative view of the United States, these policy problems seem unrelated to their apparently unfavorable view of American ways of doing business and democracy. This negativity is all the more surprising given that President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Erdogan reportedly have a deep personal relationship.

As the survey data shows, however, a connection between leaders, no matter how popular they are, is not enough to create friendship among peoples: if the two administrations are intent on forming an American-Turkish alliance built on more than a coincidence of interests, they must also devote effort to building up its foundations. One place to start would be to add to a future agenda the development of a bilateral strategy to emphasize domestically what Turks and Americans have in common.

Netanyahu’s Outburst Is Not About The Presidential Campaign

September 13, 2012 § 5 Comments

We Americans have a tendency to look at situations and think that they revolve around us. The best recent example of this has been the debate over America’s role in the Arab Spring (or Arab Awakening, Islamist Winter, or whatever other term people are using these days) and the view that the U.S. was somehow the decisive actor in determining whether or not regimes fell. We can debate all day whether President Obama was right to withdraw support for Hosni Mubarak – and I for one firmly think that he was – but there is simply no question that Mubarak would have fallen anyway even if the U.S. had backed him to the hilt. The revolution in Egypt was not about us, nor did we have the ability or wherewithal to control it. Yet this idea persists that “we needed to back our allies” and that Mubarak would still be the modern day pharaoh of Cairo had we wanted him to stay put, all stemming from this mistaken paradigm that insists on seeing all world events as revolving around the U.S. In many, if not most, instances, political events overseas have little to do with the U.S. in more than a tangential manner, and even when they do involve the U.S., it is in an indirect way.

This brings me to the latest dustup between Obama and Bibi Netanyahu, which began when Netanyahu responded to Hillary Clinton’s statement that the U.S. did not see a need to issue any red lines over Iran by saying, “Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don’t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel.” This was of course a direct reference to the U.S. and set off all sorts of reverberations, beginning with Israel letting it be known that the White House had rejected a request for a meeting between the two leaders, Obama and Netanyahu speaking on the phone for an hour late Tuesday night, and Senator Barbara Boxer releasing an astonishing letter that she sent to Netanyahu in which she wrote, “Your remarks are utterly contrary to the extraordinary United States-Israel alliance, evidenced by President Obama’s record and the record of Congress,” and “I am stunned by the remarks that you made this week regarding U.S. support for Israel. Are you suggesting that the United States is not Israel’s closest ally and does not stand by Israel?”

The fireworks between the two countries were immediately interpreted as Netanyahu’s attempt to leverage the U.S. presidential campaign season against Obama. The very first sentence of the New York Times story on the affair is “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel inserted himself into the most contentious foreign policy issue of the American presidential campaign on Tuesday, criticizing the Obama administration for refusing to set clear ‘red lines’ on Iran’s nuclear progress that would prompt the United States to undertake a military strike.” New Yorker editor David Remnick wrote, “Now Netanyahu seems determined, more than ever, to alienate the President of the United States and, as an ally of Mitt Romney’s campaign, to make himself a factor in the 2012 election—one no less pivotal than the most super Super PAC.” The conventional wisdom is that Netanyahu’s statement lashing out at the administration over the lack of red lines on Iran is an attempt to force Obama’s hand before the election or to create enough problems for Obama with pro-Israel voters and groups that it will swing the election to Romney. In short, Andrew Sullivan’s most dire prediction come to life.

The focus on the presidential campaign is a misreading of what is actually going on here that stems from the American pathology I laid out at the top of this post. Netanyahu’s harsh words are not aimed at the presidential race but are a result of what I imagine to be his deep and maddening frustration that he cannot force an Israeli strike on Iran. The point of Netanyahu’s verbal barrage is not to sabotage Obama or influence the 2012 vote for president, and in fact is only directed at the U.S. because he has already emptied his chamber on Israeli leaders opposed to a strike and cannot publicly criticize the person – Ehud Barak – with whom he is actually frustrated. Barak has reportedly changed his mind about the wisdom of an Israeli strike because he has come to realize what it will mean for U.S.-Israel relations, and without Barak on board any hopes Netanyahu has of taking out Iranian nuclear facilities are completely dashed. Netanyahu cannot go after Barak, however, since he cannot afford to alienate him or to let everyone know that the two men are no longer of one mind on this issue, and so he is reduced to directing his intemperate words at the U.S. and the Obama administration as the indirect causes of his current anger. Netanyahu’s outburst is not about the presidential campaign or presidential politics, but about what he views as an Israeli national security imperative that is being stymied by an array of forces. The fact that this is campaign season in the U.S. is only incidental, since Netanyahu would have issued a similar statement at the beginning or middle of a presidential term. His prism is an Israeli one, not an American one, and his focus is on Iran rather than on U.S. politics. Believe it or not, Israel has other concerns aside from the Obama-Romney contest. Yes, what is going on in the U.S. obviously impacts this entire issue, but the notion that what Bibi said yesterday is about the presidential campaign here is just the latest data point for the case that knowledge of Israeli politics on this side of the ocean remains poor.

Obama, Erdoğan, And The Infamous Baseball Bat

August 3, 2012 § 3 Comments

For those who haven’t been paying attention, President Obama and Prime Minister Erdoğan spoke on the phone on Monday about the situation in Syria, but apparently far more newsworthy is the fact that, as seen in this photo, Obama was holding a baseball bat during their conversation. This has caused an uproar, with reporters asking White House press secretary Jay Carney whether there is a hidden meaning or symbolic message to be gleaned from the fact that Obama had what I assume is a Louisville Slugger in his hand. A columnist in the Asia Times summed up the message that Turks must have taken away from the picture, writing that “the Turks could see any number of reasons: Obama was likely grandstanding as a tough world leader; possibly, threatening Bashar; maybe, impressing Israel and Saudi Arabia – or, Iran and Russia. But they calmly concluded that Obama was conveying a blunt message to Erdogan to speed up the ‘regime change’ in Syria: ‘Whack Bashar, ErdoganBey’.” In fact, the baseball bat aroused so many questions in Turkey that the White House was forced to issue a statement clarifying that the sole purpose of posting the picture online was highlight the close relationship between Obama and Erdoğan.

While this appears to be nothing more than a silly incident, it actually holds some interesting lessons for the U.S.-Turkey relationship. To my American eyes, it is pretty obvious what is going on here; the administration released a photo during an election season that portrays Obama as a regular guy. He is holding a baseball bat, which shows that he is a baseball fan/sports aficionado, and it also shows him in a casual pose. A lot of times when I am working, I have a ball in my hand that I throw up and down since it helps me think, and if Obama has a similar tic, it helps voters identify with him, as silly and superficial as that may be. Had the caption on the photo informed us that Obama was talking on the phone to Harry Reid, nobody would have given it a second glance.

Obama wasn’t talking to Harry Reid though, which makes all the difference and is why it was foolish for the White House to send the photo out. To Turkish eyes, the fact that Obama was holding a bat while talking to Erdoğan about Syria might be wrought with symbolism and suggest that Obama is conveying the message to Erdoğan to get tougher with Bashar al-Assad. More likely, and quite understandably from the Turkish point of view, Obama holding a bat while talking to the Turkish prime minister is viewed as being disrespectful, and it plays on longstanding Turkish fears that the U.S. does not take Turkey seriously or view Turkey as an equal. The casual message that the White House wants to send to American voters conveys a very different and more damaging message to the Turks, and after nearly four years in office, the White House needs to be more aware of this type of stuff. The fact that the Turkish opposition saw the political utility in bringing up the bat incident is indicative that the whole thing is not just seen as a throwaway photo, but that it plays on fears that the U.S. essentially uses Turkey when it is convenient but does not accord Turkey the respect that it deserves. So in the future, the U.S. needs to be more mindful that the way things play here is not necessarily the way things play abroad, and that is particularly true when the political imagery involves a foreign country. As for Turkey? Well, sometimes a bat is just a bat.

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