May 1, 2013 § 7 Comments
Ben Alter (who has done yeoman’s work editing the last couple of pieces I’ve written for Foreign Affairs) and Ed Fishman wrote an insightful op-ed for the New York Times this past Sunday in which they argued that American energy independence – which may be a reality by the end of the next decade – will have a downside too, which is that it will lead to massive destabilization in states that rely on high global energy prices. States like Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain depend on revenues from oil and natural gas to maintain to dole out patronage and co-opt the opposition, but the introduction of U.S. shale gas into the global marketplace will lower energy prices worldwide, and Alter and Fishman argue that it will create domestic unrest and even regime change in petrostates, which will in turn put shipping lanes in harm’s way, endanger counterterrorism cooperation and efforts to deal with Iran between the U.S. and Arab Gulf monarchies, and force Russia into a more aggressive and territorial foreign policy. The upshot here is that energy independence will not allow the U.S. to withdraw from the world as it is no longer dependent on Middle Eastern oil producing states, but rather the U.S. will still have to act as the liberal hegemon guaranteeing the safety of global trade, maintaining great power stability, and working to spread democracy so that the international system remains relatively stable.
Writing in Forbes in response, Christopher Helman says that Alter and Fishman baked a faulty assumption into their argument since the price of oil will never get as low as $50 a barrel (and he accuses them of taking liberties with the report that they presumably cite), and that even if the global price did hit that floor, it wouldn’t remain there as unrest in petrostates would cause global prices to skyrocket once more. Another scenario is that OPEC states would cut their production in order to inflate prices back up to $90-$100 per barrel in order to maintain their current levels of government spending. While this criticism may be accurate, Helman is misreading the important takeaway from Alter and Fishman’s piece, which is that there are unintended consequences that emanate from even what appear to be the rosiest of scenarios. In short, U.S. energy independence and lower energy prices will be a great development for the U.S. in many respects, but it will also create a host of negative externalities that will require the U.S. to stay on its toes.
While reading the Alter/Fishman piece, I couldn’t help but think about how their argument applies to Iran and the question of whether a nuclear arms race in the Middle East will ensue should Iran achieve nuclear status. There is a wide-ranging debate over whether this scenario is a realistic one, with no less than President Obama (and thus presumably the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies) warning that a nuclear Iran will set off a regional nuclear arms race, and analysts such as my close friend Steven Cook arguing that nuclear dominoes will not fall in the Middle East as Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia either don’t have the scientific capability and infrastructure or the cash on hand to build their own bombs. I do not claim to have any expertise in this area at all, and Steven certainly knows his stuff, but let’s assume for a moment that of these three candidates, Saudi Arabia could conceivably go nuclear given that the Saudis have the cash to buy the technology and build the infrastructure they would need in a hurry. Let’s also assume that Alter and Fishman’s predictions unfold, and U.S. energy independence destabilizes Saudi Arabia in fifteen years and leads to the fall of the ruling family and the government. Isn’t this in many ways the ultimate nightmare scenario – not that the current governments in the Middle East will become nuclear powers, but that whomever or whatever replaces them will be nuclear powers?
Anyone who knows anything about U.S. foreign and defense policy knows that the most pressing problem facing the U.S. right now is not the rise of China or the fight against al-Qaida. It is the possibility that the Pakistani government will fall and that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons will be taken over by extremists. Only slightly less worrisome is that the lax command and control structure that exists for Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile – and for those who don’t pay close attention to these things, it turns out that the Pakistani government moves its nukes in and out of traffic in barely guarded civilian vans so that we won’t steal them – will lead to a nuke being stolen or even accidentally launched. This is the reason that the U.S. keeps on propping up the Pakistani government and throwing money into a Pakistani black hole despite mountains of evidence that Pakistan is not our ally and actually works to undermine the U.S. in Afghanistan and other places.
Now let’s replicate this situation in Iran, or Saudi Arabia, or any other slightly shaky Middle Eastern state that may be inclined to try and acquire nuclear weapons in response to Iran, and that later falls due to the instability unleashed by the Arab Spring or the instability unleashed by falling oil prices. Or imagine the nightmare that we would be dealing with right now in Syria if Israel had not bombed the Syrian reactor a few years ago and Syria had somehow made a successful mad dash for a nuke, and that instead of worrying about missing Syrian chemical weapons, we were worrying about missing Syrian nuclear weapons. I am not someone who worries about the current Iranian regime actually using a nuke should it develop the capability to build one – although I do worry about the cascade effects of Iran having the bomb and thus making its support for international terrorism and groups like Hizballah largely untouchable – but I certainly worry enormously about what would happen to an Iranian nuke in the chaos following the current regime falling, or a Saudi nuke in the chaos of the monarchy falling. Maybe I have missed the conversation on this issue, which would be understandable since I am not a nuclear policy person, but shouldn’t the conversation surrounding Iran and its nuclear program be a little more focused on the Pakistanization of this problem in a regional context when energy prices fall rather than solely on whether the Iranian regime can be trusted not to nuke Tel Aviv?
November 7, 2012 § 5 Comments
As it became clear last night that President Obama was headed for an easy victory, a bunch of people on my twitter feed began speculating – or more accurately, making jokes – about what this would mean for Bibi Netanyahu. The joking actually turned into a serious conversation about whether Obama will somehow punish Netanyahu for his perceived support of Romney and clashes with the president, with some going so far as to speculate that he will tell Netanyahu that no help on Iran is forthcoming. It seems that Netanyahu is worried himself, as he is already clamping down on Likud members who are expressing negative reactions to Obama’s reelection out of fear that it will damage his standing with the White House even further.
Despite what is obviously not a great relationship between the two men, I don’t quite see how Obama’s reelection is going to have much of a negative effect on Netanyahu or the U.S.-Israel relationship at large. This is true for a few reasons. First, as Steven Cook persuasively argued last month, the relationship is institutionalized to the point that personal animosity between the countries’ leaders is not going to have much of an effect, if any. Let’s assume that Obama decides this morning that he wants to put the screws on Netanyahu – what precisely is he going to do? Aid to Israel is controlled by Congress, the joint military and intelligence cooperation is so deeply ingrained that it would take a long time to reverse, and there are deep ties between the two countries at all levels of government, business, and society. There are smaller things that Obama could do on the margins, but the immediate consequences are close to zero.
Second, and I cannot stress this enough, if you think that the myriad of ways in which Obama supported Israel during his first term was just a feint to win an election, then you are falling victim to the same delusion that said Nate Silver and all of the polls predicting an Obama win were deliberately skewing the evidence. Quite simply, there is absolutely nothing to suggest that all of a sudden funding for Iron Dome, joint military exercises, vetoing of anti-Israel UN resolutions, and other similar actions are going to stop now that Obama doesn’t have to worry about senior citizens’ votes in Florida. I will bet any amount of money that there is no drop-off in the administration’s support of Israel in the security and diplomatic spheres, and the folks who think otherwise have a large burden of proof to overcome that cannot be swept away merely by shouting “but he didn’t visit Israel” or “he left Netanyahu waiting while he ate dinner with his family.”
Third, Obama is not very popular among Israelis, and so even if he wanted to punish Netanyahu by trying to interfere in the Israeli election, it just wouldn’t work. Bill Clinton might have been able to sway Israelis when he was president, but Obama does not have the popularity, credibility, or familiarity with Israeli voters to pull of such a move. The fact that Obama was reelected is not going to factor into Israelis’ calculations when they go to the polls, as Brent Sasley helpfully pointed out previously. The idea that Netanyahu now has to be running scared because his hopes to have Romney elected did not pan out is a pretty flimsy one.
Finally, the suggestion that Obama is now going to tell Netanyahu that the U.S. has no interest in confronting Iran makes little sense to me based on previous U.S. actions and Obama’s long record of statements indicating that he views an Iranian nuclear bomb as a real problem. Aside from Stuxnet, crippling sanctions, and an increased carrier presence in the Gulf, Obama has made clear that preventing nuclear proliferation is perhaps the foreign policy issue that he holds most dear. The disagreement between he and Netanyahu over the red line of nuclear capability vs. nuclear weapons is still going to be there, but Obama has held firm to his own timeline so far and he is not going to now somehow make it even more firm because he has been reelected. The bottom line here is that Obama is worried about an Iranian nuclear weapon as well, and he is not going to drop his concerns just because he and Netanyahu do not get along very well.
P.S. For another argument on why the Obama revenge meme is an ill-informed one that focuses on different variables than mine, check out Peter Beinart this morning.
October 15, 2012 § 1 Comment
As anyone who watched the vice-presidential debate on Thursday night may have noticed – and as I noted myself on Friday – Joe Biden repeatedly brought up Prime Minister Netanyahu but always referred to him by his nickname, Bibi. On Friday I wrote, “I get that Biden was trying to push how well he knows Netanyahu and that informality is part of Biden’s natural shtick, but can you imagine Biden talking about any other foreign leader in such an informal manner? Not sure if this says more about Biden, Netanyahu, or the U.S.-Israel relationship more broadly, but it’s worth thinking about.”
I actually did spend some time thinking about it for The Atlantic, and here’s what I came up with:
When the subject of Iran’s nuclear program came up during last night’s vice presidential debate, Joe Biden began talking about his friend, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Biden likes to play up his long-standing connections with foreign leaders, so mentioning Netanyahu by name was not in itself surprising. The odd part is that Biden never referred to Netanyahu in any way but “Bibi,” which is Netanyahu’s often-used nickname.
While Netanyahu is referred to as Bibi in a number of settings (in line with Israelis’ proclivity toward nicknames, especially in the military), Biden’s use of his friend’s nickname stood out in a formal political debate. Even more noticeable is that Biden initially referred to “Bibi” without even providing his last name or his position as prime minister of Israel. It is impossible to imagine this happening with any other world leader, but Biden did it repeatedly and with ease when it came to Netanyahu.
It is easy to chalk this up to Biden’s generally informal nature, or his desire to create a contrast between his own decades of foreign policy experience and Ryan’s relative dearth of foreign policy chops. Yet even if Biden did so unintentionally, there are some lessons to be learned from the vice president’s colloquialism about Netanyahu and the current state of the U.S.-Israel relationship.
The rest of the article can be found on The Atlantic’s website here, and as always please let me know what you think.
October 12, 2012 § 4 Comments
Unlike the first debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney, last night’s vice presidential debate had plenty of talk about foreign policy (thank you, Martha Raddatz!). As I had hoped, both Israel and Turkey got mentioned during the mix of topics, and there are some conclusions that can be drawn from what both Joe Biden and Paul Ryan had to say.
On Israel, unsurprisingly both candidates were climbing over each other to note their support. Israel is popular with the American public, so this was a smart move for both sides. The strategy for each man was slightly different though; Ryan noted a couple of times that he and Romney have adopted a policy of stopping Iran from gaining nuclear capability rather than building a nuclear weapon, which is official Israeli policy as well, while Biden went out of his way to emphasize how closely the administration has worked with Israel and how he himself has a close and longstanding personal relationship with Bibi Netanyahu. Biden’s approach might reflect one of two things: either that he generally likes to brag about his relationships with other world leaders and knows that he has an advantage in this area since Ryan is a foreign affairs neophyte and cannot make a similar claim, or that the Obama campaign has numbers suggesting that Netanyahu is popular with Americans at large and also within the American Jewish community.
On a related note, I do have to say that it was a bit strange to hear Biden repeatedly refer in a televised debate to “Bibi” as if he were some random childhood buddy or family member. I get that Biden was trying to push how well he knows Netanyahu and that informality is part of Biden’s natural shtick, but can you imagine Biden talking about any other foreign leader in such an informal manner? Not sure if this says more about Biden, Netanyahu, or the U.S.-Israel relationship more broadly, but it’s worth thinking about.
Also significant is that Raddatz did not actually ask a question about Israel, but the candidates brought it up in conjunction with talking about the Iranian nuclear program. This suggests to me that despite Netanyahu being stymied so far by his own domestic politics and by the U.S. on striking Iranian nuclear facilities, his constant barrage on the issue has still had a large effect, in that he has managed to make Israeli concerns an important part of the debate around Iran here in the U.S. I am in no way suggesting that the U.S. is in thrall to Israeli interests and will do anything solely because Israel wants it to (hear that, Mearsheimer and Walt?), but Netanyahu has done a good job of making sure that Israel’s concerns are duly noted at the upper echelons of the U.S. national security apparatus.
There was less mention of Turkey than there was of Israel last night, but it did come up in the context of Syria. Biden mentioned that we are working “hand in glove” with a number of countries, including Turkey, which is technically true, but I doubt that Erdoğan and the Turks would describe things the same way. We are certainly working with them, but the implication is that we are on the same page, which is not the case since the Turks would love to have us support an outside intervention. Of course we are trying to coordinate with Turkey, but U.S. goals and Turkish goals are very different in this case. The U.S. wants to manage the situation and keep Syria from exploding outside its borders without having to do anything particularly active, whereas Turkey wants the U.S. to ultimately get involved militarily, whether it be in establishing a no-fly zone or even to go as far as contributing troops and air support for a ground invasion to get rid of Assad. The last scenario will never happen and I am deeply skeptical that the first one will happen either, but Biden did a nifty job of glossing over these differences in pretending that the U.S. and Turkey are of one mind on this. As for Ryan, he said we should have deferred to “our allies the Turks” in coming up with a better plan for Syria. I found Ryan’s remarks on foreign policy last night to sound as if he had read from a briefing book without really thinking through the issues, and I thought his comments on Syria were far and away his weakest and most unintelligible, but hopefully somewhere Rick Perry is sitting around dazed and confused that the GOP nominee for vice president recognizes that Turkey is our ally and not run by “Islamic terrorists.”
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.
August 14, 2012 § 6 Comments
I don’t know if you guys have heard, but apparently Israel is about to go to war with Iran. Not only that, but it doesn’t actually matter what is going in Israel or the rest of the world, because any event or environment can be interpreted to mean that an Israeli strike is just around the corner. In fact, an imminent Israeli attack can be predicted based on two diametrically opposed sets of facts. For instance, in May it was reported that the decision to attack was imminent because Israeli officials were being uncharacteristically silent, and this speculation lockdown meant that an attack was about to come. As one unnamed Israeli official said, ”Nobody is saying anything publicly. That in itself tells you a lot about where things stand.” So the lesson is that when things are quiet, an attack is on the way. But wait – now there is a slew of reports that Israel has decided to attack because all sorts of officials are openly talking about it, and everyone knows that rampant speculation means that an attack is about to come. So the lesson now is that when there is lots of noise about an attack, an attack is on the way. Isn’t it nifty how that works? No matter what Israeli officials are saying and doing, a strike on Iranian facilities can be easily predicted.
The same can be applied to the looming presence of Bibi Netanyahu’s father, Ben-Zion Netanyahu. When Ben-Zion was alive, his influence over his son meant a strike was more likely. Now that he recently passed away, Bibi’s desire to heed his father’s warnings and sense of history make a strike more likely. How about the Likud-Kadima unity deal? When it was announced, some interpreted it to mean that a strike on Iran was now coming (which, for the record, I pointed out as bad analysis at the time). Now that Mofaz is even more clear that he opposes a unilateral Israeli strike, I have no doubt that someone somewhere has made the argument that Bibi let the coalition fall apart in order to pave the way for an attack on Iran. I could go on, but you get my point. The process at work here seems to assume that an attack will happen and then reverse engineer the facts to support that conclusion, rather than looking at the facts and trying to ascertain in light of those facts what is most likely to occur.
Rather than interpret any and every event as leading to war, let’s take a step back and assess actual factors that might mean an Israeli strike is more or less likely. To my mind, the recent extremely public chatter weighs against things, since successful Israeli strikes in the past – Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007 – were complete surprises and were not in any way publicly telegraphed. In contrast, we have heard that Israel was readying to strike at Iran for nearly a decade now, and yet it still hasn’t happened.
Also weighing against an attack is the fact that there is a lack of support for such a move from three influential groups. First is the Israeli public, which opposes a unilateral Israeli strike by 46% to 32%, and which has increasingly rated Netanyahu’s job performance as unsatisfactory over the past three months as he has ratcheted the war talk back up. Second is the U.S., whose top officials have repeatedly stated that sanctions should be given more time to work and have pleaded with Israel not to launch an attack. Third, and perhaps most significantly, Israeli officials aside from Netanyahu and Barak are staunchly opposed to a strike, and while the IDF has to carry out whatever orders are given, when the IDF chief of staff thinks that an attack is a bad idea, he is probably going to be listened to. There is also the inconvenient fact that there is no majority in the Shminiyah (or Octet), which is the inner security cabinet, for a strike on Iran, with Eli Yishai, Benny Begin, Dan Meridor, and Boogie Ya’alon all firmly opposed and Avigdor Lieberman and Yuval Steinitz reportedly wavering back and forth. Netanyahu and Barak are probably banking on the fact that the other six ministers will back them when push comes to shove, but that’s a real risk to take and the prime minister and defense minister cannot just make the decision on their own without the support of the rest of this group. In fact, one could make a good case that all of the recent war talk from the two men at the top is directed entirely at the Octet and that the chatter is completely about stirring up public pressure on them.
There are also the problems that Israel does not have the military capability to do the job thoroughly and completely by itself, that an attack on Iran would devastate the Israeli economy according to Israel’s central banker Stanley Fischer, and that the home front is woefully underprepared. There are indications that Netanyahu and Barak are deluding themselves about this last factor with their speculation that a retaliation from Iran would claim no more than 500 Israeli lives, but one would think that they will conduct a real and thorough analysis of the potential damage and loss of life before making any decision.
There are, however, two new factors that point to the conclusion that Netanyahu and Barak are readying an attack. First, the government just handed Netanyahu unprecedented procedural powers to delay ministerial committee decisions and to give himself a vote on every ministerial committee irrespective of whether he serves on it or not. This to me seems like a move to make a vote on Iran go Bibi’s way by eliminating debate and making it easier to put every single other issue to the side until the Iran outcome is to his liking. Second, after waiting months to appoint a replacement for outgoing Home Front Defense Minister Matan Vilnai, Netanyahu appointed Avi Dichter last night as Vilnai’s replacement, the Home Front Command is testing the emergency text message alert system this week, and gas masks and supply kits are being distributed around the country. This indicates that the government is suddenly taking the mission seriously of preparing its citizens for war, and unlike hawkish rhetoric, the recent moves are tangible and actually cost something.
So, all in all, it appears to me that a strike on Iran is still unlikely, but it is not out of the question. More stuff like this from the press and various analysts would be helpful, rather than people running around with their hair on fire and claiming that an attack is coming because the sun rose in the east this morning and will set in the west this evening. More facts please, and less rampant breathless speculation.
August 13, 2012 § 2 Comments
The big news in the Middle East over the weekend was new Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi’s sacking of the twin leaders of the SCAF, defense minister Hussein Tantawi and chief of staff Sami Anan, and annulling the SCAF’s previous constitutional declaration that gave it wide ranging legislative and executive powers. For some analysis about what all of this might mean, try Marc Lynch or Issandr El Amrani or my friend and fellow Georgetown compatriot Hesham Sallam. I have my own thoughts, but I’d instead like to make a wider point about what this tells us about American influence. One of the most notable aspects of what happened yesterday is that the president of Egypt got rid of the defense minister, chief of staff, and service heads with one fell swoop, yet the U.S. had absolutely no hint that this was coming. To give you a sense of just how much of a surprise this was, remember that last month Hillary Clinton met with Tantawi separate from her meeting with Morsi while in Egypt, and I’d wager that the meeting with Tantawi was the one that contained a more in-depth and far-ranging discussion. A couple of weeks ago Leon Panetta was in Egypt and he met with Tantawi as well and afterward said that “it’s my view, based on what I have seen and the discussions I’ve had, that President Morsi and Field Marshal Tantawi have a very good relationship and are working together towards the same ends.” Doesn’t sound like a guy expecting Tantawi to be forced into early retirement just two weeks later, does it? It also doesn’t sound like a guy particularly eager for such a step to be taken.
I do not mean to suggest that Egypt has any obligation to run its policy by the U.S. before doing anything, since Egypt is a sovereign state and has the right to do whatever it likes in this regard. It is certainly curious though that Egypt receives $1.3 billion annually from the U.S. in military aid, not to mention the fact that the U.S.-Egypt relationship is largely built on military to military ties and security issues, and Morsi did not feel the need to even give the U.S. a heads up that this was coming down the road. I understand the need to keep a move like this quiet before it happens, but there’s no way this was a snap decision; it’s not like Morsi woke up yesterday morning and just felt like replacing Egypt’s entire military leadership. That the administration or DoD did not know about this beforehand – and David Ignatius is clear on the fact that they did not – says a lot about the limits of American influence these days. Clinton and Panetta just wasted a whole lot of time for nothing, and irrespective of whether Morsi did this on his own or whether it was the result of an internal military coup (after all, Tantawi and Anan were both replaced by other SCAF members), the shadow of the U.S. should be long enough that either Morsi or other senior officers would have told someone here what was about to go down. It’s tough to imagine the U.S. having zero inkling of a complete turnover of Egyptian military leadership five or ten years ago, and I think this isn’t just about Morsi but about the Egyptian military as well.
Egypt is not the only place where the limits of U.S. influence are strikingly apparent. Israel is awash in speculation that Bibi Netanyahu and Ehud Barak have made the decision to strike Iranian nuclear facilities this fall, despite the fact that the U.S. has sent a parade of officials to Jerusalem – including Panetta on that same trip two weeks ago - pleading with Israel to give sanctions some more time. Again, as with Egypt, Israel has every right to do what it wants, particularly when it has legitimate fears about Iran, but compare this to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, during which U.S. influence with Israel was so strong that it was able to convince Israel to sit tight as Saddam Hussein launched 42 Scud missiles at Tel Aviv and other Israeli populations centers. Of course, Israel has not yet launched an attack (and I plan on writing later this week about why I remain skeptical that it will), but the fact that it is being so openly contemplated and Israeli officials are saying nasty things to the press about American knowledge and intelligence capabilities demonstrates the depths to which U.S. influence with Israel has fallen. Israel is contemplating a strike despite not having the weaponry to completely eliminate Iran’s nuclear program and despite U.S. public and private assurances that it will not tolerate Iran producing a nuclear weapon, and that tells you all you need to know about waning American sway.
Power can be measured in lots of different ways. From a military/resources standpoint, the U.S. is doing perfectly fine. But power consists of many other things as well, such as persuasion or being kept in the loop. On these other measures, this weekend highlighted pretty clearly that U.S. influence could use some real strengthening.
August 10, 2012 § 1 Comment
One of the consequences of the disparities in threat perception and capabilities between the U.S. and Israel when it comes to Iran is that Israel has a strong incentive to pressure the U.S. into acting. Israel faces a graver and more imminent threat than the U.S. from an Iranian nuclear weapon given its proximity to Iran, the fact that Iran has repeatedly threatened Israel with violence and annihilation (and noting this does not automatically mean that Israel should strike at Iran, but by the same token pretending that this is not the case makes those who invoke the argument appear to be naively foolish), and the fact that Israel has been a frequent target of Iranian-sponsored terrorism that will only increase once Iran has a measure of nuclear deterrence. This is combined with the fact that by all accounts Israel is not equipped to destroy the Iranian nuclear program in its entirely but only to set it back a year or two, while the U.S. is assumed to have the aerial capability and munitions to destroy Iran’s nuclear sites in their entirety. The obvious result of all this is that Israel is engaged in a delicate dance to portray itself as willing to attack Iran at any time while working to convince the U.S. that Iran presents as large a threat to Israeli interests as it does to U.S. interests and thus is a job for the U.S. to take care of. Lest anyone accuse me of advancing pernicious theories about the Israel lobby (which would be a strange thing coming from me in light of this and this), let me state in the strongest possible terms that Israel’s actions on this front are both entirely understandable and entirely out in the open, and nothing more than run-of-the-mill statecraft.
Israel’s strategy to convince the U.S. to act has been to play up Iran’s willingness to use a bomb should it acquire one, reiterate its view that Iran is so far not being deterred by verbal threats and sanctions from ending its nuclear program, and insist that Iran has made greater progress on developing a weapon than has been realized. This strategy reached its climax yesterday when Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak first claimed that President Obama had received a new National Intelligence Estimate that was in line with Israel’s claim about Iran’s accelerated progress toward reaching nuclear capability, and then backtracked on the N.I.E. claim but said that there was an American intelligence report backing Israel’s view of the situation. John Schindler blogging at The XX Committee highlights how irregular and unprecedented it is for Barak to publicly release information about U.S. intelligence assessments, and Barak’s claims were immediately disputed by the U.S.
It is hard to overstate just how head scratching this move was by Barak. If the recent AP reporting that the CIA considers Israel to be a top counterintelligence threat is accurate, it is simply dumbfounding that Barak would go and publicly trumpet highly classified information coming from the U.S. that Washington clearly does not want getting out. It is also only going to understandably enrage the Obama administration, which has been publicly stating that Iran presents a vital threat to U.S. interests and that it will not tolerate Iran developing a nuclear weapon, all the while providing Israel with extra funds for military expenditures like Iron Dome, but keeping to its own timeline on Iran. Assuming that what Barak said is accurate, the White House is right to feel betrayed that classified intelligence it shared with Israel was blithely repeated to the press by Israel’s defense minister in an effort to pressure the U.S. into acting before it is ready to do so. If what Barak said is not accurate, then it is even worse. No matter what, it is not going to contribute to better U.S-Israeli coordination, and if anything it will make the U.S. think twice before sharing significant information with Jerusalem going forward. Barak’s leak is also not going to successfully pressure the U.S. into attacking Iran before it thinks it is necessary to do so, and one has to wonder what happened to Israel’s most decorated soldier’s penchant for strategic thinking.
On the one hand, it is surprising that Barak would do something like this considering that he appears to have a better relationship with Obama and other administration figures than Bibi Netanyahu does. Barak is the one who is constantly touting the unprecedented military and intelligence cooperation between Israel and the U.S. under Obama, and Obama has hinted that his relationship with Barak is stronger than it is with Netanyahu, telling Jeffrey Goldberg, “I think the prime minister — and certainly the defense minister — would acknowledge that we’ve never had closer military and intelligence cooperation.” If an Israeli official was going to do something boneheaded that damaged the level of trust with the U.S., I would not have guessed that Barak would be the man to do it. On the other hand, there is a reason that Barak, despite being Israel’s most decorated soldier and a former IDF chief of staff and prime minister, is widely distrusted and even reviled in his own country. The knock on Barak is that he has no convictions and is willing to do or say anything to secure his own position, explaining his recent bolting from Labor and forming his own Atzmaut (Independence) Party in order to remain as defense minister once Labor left the government coalition. His political instincts are anything but stellar, and his military instincts have come into question in recent years as well as he has publicly feuded with a succession of IDF chiefs of staff. In many ways, the casual leak of classified American intelligence is classic Barak, as he does anything necessary to further his own goal of pressuring the U.S. to strike Iran irrespective of what relationships get burned in the process. This time, however, Barak has actually undermined his own cause, and one can only hope that he has not caused long term damage to Israel and its relationship with the U.S.