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?
June 1, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Since there isn’t any one particular subject that I feel compelled to write about today, I thought I’d pay tribute to my all-time favorite website and share some brief thoughts on a bunch of interesting items in the news.
Israeli politicians this week can’t seem to keep their feet out of their mouths. First Kadima MK Yulia Shamalov-Berkovich called for “all human rights activists” to be arrested, imprisoned, and then “transported to camps we are building.” The camps she is referring to are detention centers the government is building for migrants who are entering Israel illegally, but Shamalov-Berkovich apparently thinks they can be put to better use for people whose views she simply doesn’t like. Not to be outdone, Shas MK and Interior Minister Eli Yishai called South Tel Aviv – which has become an African immigrant stronghold – the garbage can of the country and claimed that many Israeli women have been raped by African migrants but are not coming forward and reporting it because they are afraid of the stigma of AIDS. He did not provide any evidence for this assertion, and was immediately rebutted by those who would know better. Somehow I get the feeling that Eli Yishai might be an Antoine Dodson fan.
The New York Times has a long report on President Obama’s efforts to launch an all-out cyber war against Iran’s nuclear program, detailing his decision to accelerate the cyber attacks in order to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon. I look forward to the spin from the usual quarters explaining how this demonstrates that Obama hates Israel, has no desire to prevent a nuclear Iran, and is selling out Israel’s security in order to curry favor with Muslims.
Also in the NYT today is a story about the Russian Orthodox Church’s opposition to intervention in Syria and how this in some ways guides Russian policy. Vladimir Putin has turned to the church for political support, and the church’s mission of protecting Christian minorities in the Middle East is bumping up against any Russian will to get rid of Assad (to the extent that any really exists at all). This is a useful reminder of what an immensely powerful religious lobby actually looks like and how it affects a state’s foreign policy, as opposed to an intellectually lazy and factually questionable argument along the same lines.
Finally, this op-ed by New York-based Turkish reporter Aydoğan Vatandaş on how U.S.-Israeli relations and its impact on American Jews affects the U.S. presidential race was interesting for a bunch of reasons. First, the reasons that Vatandaş lists for why the Israeli government is disappointed with the Obama administration includes the U.S. relationship with Turkey and focuses on Turkey’s request for Predator drones. I don’t think that Israel expects the U.S. to ditch Turkey, and I also don’t think that Israel is overly concerned about the U.S. selling Predators to Ankara for strategic reasons, since if Turkey and Israel ever actually exchanged hostilities, drones would not play a role. Israel does not, however, want the U.S. to sell Predators to Turkey simply as a way of pressuring Turkey to reconcile, and Vatandaş is strangely optimistic that the sale will occur, which has almost no chance of getting through Congress at the moment. The other thing that jumped out at me was some of the questionable or overly simplistic analysis, capped off by the conclusion, which reads, “It may sound strange, but what I have observed in America is that most American Jews today define themselves as Jews but also tend to be very secular. And, in terms of politics, they tend to be very liberal.” This is a fairly obvious point to any American who follows politics, but to a Turkish audience it might not be, and it got me wondering about whether my own analysis of Turkey reads as simplistically (or perhaps wrongly) to a Turkish audience. Something to think about…
May 8, 2012 § 10 Comments
Last night right after the news broke that Shaul Mofaz and Kadima were joining Bibi Netanyahu’s governing coalition and that the early elections that had been announced for September 4 are now off, I wrote this post on the implications of the deal for Israeli domestic politics. On the morning after, I have a few more thoughts pertaining to how the new unity government will affect changes in Israeli foreign policy. The short version is, it won’t.
The area in which some people are expecting Israeli policy to shift with the new government is Iran. Jeffrey Goldberg thinks that the larger coalition and unity government might make it easier for Netanyahu to strike Iranian nuclear sites should he be so inclined. I think it is true that it makes doing so easier since the new coalition comprises 93 out of 120 MKs, and a unity government deciding to launch an attack takes some of the bite out of the recent cascade of criticism coming from former defense and intelligence leaders. Kadima joining the coalition, however, does not alter the basic realities that were preventing Netanyahu and Barak from carrying out a strike months ago. Israeli public opinion is still ambivalent on a unilateral Israeli strike, U.S. and world pressure to wait and give sanctions more time has not disappeared, four out of the eight Shminiya (Octet) members are still opposed, and the security and intelligence establishment have raised legitimate concerns that cannot be waved away just because Kadima joined the government. Add to all this the fact that Israel has serious renewed security concerns on its southern border with Egypt and is keeping an eye on its northern border following reports that Scud missile installations being moved closer to the border in Syria, and attacking Iran appears to be a dicey proposition.
There is also the Mofaz factor, which does not necessarily weigh in favor of a strike. Looking at Mofaz’s position on Iran, a little over a month ago he blasted Netanyahu for pushing for a strike that he deemed would be premature and ineffective, and said that he would stand with any PM who ordered an attack as the last resort but that Israel was not yet at that stage. Just yesterday, he accused Netanyahu of politicizing the issue of a strike and endangering the relationship with the U.S. Now, anything Mofaz said in the guise of campaigning must be taken with a grain of salt, but that he chose to hit Bibi hard on Iran cannot just be brushed aside so easily. It is also important to remember that Mofaz was not campaigning primarily on security or defense issues but rather donned the mantle of social justice, and was particularly targeting preferential treatment for Haredim. The deal with Likud gives Mofaz and Kadima the task of leading the committee charged with coming up with a Tal Law alternative, which is again not a security-related issue. It is easy to think that bringing a former defense minister and IDF chief of staff on board must mean that Netanyahu is seeking to add another buffer against criticism should he choose to attack Iran, but the details of Mofaz’s campaign and the particulars of the unity deal do not necessarily point to this conclusion. There are now three former chiefs of staff in the cabinet – Barak, Mofaz, and Yaalon – and based on what we know, only one of them is on board for an imminent unilateral strike on Iran. Just because the cabinet is full of generals does not mean that they are all gung ho to launch a new military adventure.
There is, however, one important way in which Israeli foreign policy might change with this unity deal, and that is the renewed empowerment of the foreign minister should Avigdor Lieberman be indicted, which I expect will happen in light of Zeev Ben Arie’s indictment and plea bargain last week. If Lieberman has to leave the government, it is safe to assume that Mofaz will take his place, and Israel will then once again have a foreign minister who is actually trusted to carry out the state’s diplomacy. This would undoubtedly be a good development should it occur, since Israel’s Foreign Ministry is too important to be left in incompetent hands.
When all is said and done, I do not think this deal is about Iran. I think it was done for domestic political considerations first and foremost. Let’s remember that while Netanyahu has faced no real challenges, Likud has not been on nearly as solid footing as its party leader. It is right now the second largest party in the Knesset – and that Kadima is the largest but is only getting one minister slot out of this deal tells you all you need to know about its long term prospects – but had been facing a new threat from Yesh Atid, a Labor bump following summer social justice protests, and a rightwing revolt within its own ranks led by Moshe Feiglin, Danny Danon, and others who do not find Netanyahu sufficiently committed to the settlement cause. The deal with Kadima eliminates these problems or gives Netanyahu more time to deal with them. By bringing Kadima and Mofaz into the coalition, it increases the chances that an increasingly unpopular Kadima (polls had it coming in fourth or fifth were elections to be held in September) will simply merge back with Likud before October 2013 and undo the rift that Ariel Sharon created in order to pull out of Gaza. It also cuts the legs out from under Yair Lapid and his new party before it can really get off the ground, and while Yesh Atid might stick around and build support, October 2013 is a long ways away for a party that has no seats in the Knesset. A newly stabilized government gives Netanyahu more time to quell the growing backbench rebellion within Likud as well, and he can expect Kadima to now back him full-tilt on settlements once he backs Mofaz’s Tal Law alternative. In sum, this is move to bring in Kadima and cancel the early elections is a no-brainer that eliminates potential rival parties, strengthens Likud internally, and probably increases its vote share over what it would have gotten in September. Does it make it easier to attack Iran? Sure – Mofaz might now become Netanyahu’s Colin Powell inasmuch as his known reticence about a strike and his presence in the cabinet make it more credible should Netanyahu decide to act. But I don’t think that is the correct prism through which to view yesterday’s political machinations.
P.S. Related to all of this, Brent Sasley has a great post over at Mideast Matrix that is well worth a read because it gets to the root causes of Israel’s political dysfunction. The casual observer familiar only with the American form of government looks at the fact that the Israeli prime minister just decided on a whim to cancel his own call for early elections and put them off for over a year as a gross violation of democracy, when in fact it is par for the course in a parliamentary system. That does not mean, however, that all is well with Israeli politics, and Brent makes a great counter-intuitive argument that yesterday’s events actually strengthen Israel democracy by temporarily papering over some of the immense structural problems that exist in the system.
April 15, 2012 § Leave a Comment
The P5+1 talks that took place in Istanbul yesterday involve both Turkey and Israel with varying degrees of directness, so I am loathe to let the occasion pass without commenting at all. By all accounts, the talks went better than expected, with the parties agreeing to meet again in May and the six world powers leaving satisfied that Iran is willing to engage in serious negotiations over its nuclear program. Interestingly, there was complete silence from Israel after the talks concluded, with an anonymous official saying that Jerusalem is waiting to see how everything shakes out and that commenting would not be prudent.
There are three possible ways to interpret Israeli silence, particularly given the public disagreement last week that erupted between Netanyahu and Barak over what Israel’s redline is with regard to Iran. The first option is that Israel has decided to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities at some point during the spring or summer, and the P5+1 talks are going to have no bearing on Israel’s decision. If Israel believes that Iran is determined to become a nuclear power no matter the cost, then Saturday’s events will confirm Israeli suspicions, as Iran successfully placated the six countries on the other side of the table and furthermore insisted that the U.S. and Europe hold off striking Iran while negotiations are ongoing, yet did not make any tangible concessions. If Israel thinks that Iran is engaged in nothing more than delaying tactics, yesterday lent this theory plenty of credence.
The second option is that the Obama administration’s efforts to convince Israel to hold off and give sanctions time to work has been successful. It is out of character for Israel to practice rhetorical restraint when it comes to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, yet the public silence following the Istanbul talks can be interpreted in the simplest way possible and exactly how the unnamed Israeli spokesman explained it, which is that Israel actually does want to see how the talks play out before making any decision. Given the change in tone from the Iranian side that was reported following the talks and the sense that Iran is finally serious about negotiations, Israel may be reluctantly concluding that Obama’s strategy of forcing Iran into concessions through sanctions and diplomatic isolation is working. Erdoğan’s angry outburst directed at Iran last week also helps matters, since the loss of the only NATO member that had heretofore been neutral – if not actually leaning toward Iran – can only have helped to prod the Iranians to approach negotiations with a new attitude.
The third option is that Israel did not respond to Saturday’s talks because there is confusion at the highest levels about what the response should be. Netanyahu and Barak’s differing statements about what Israel’s position is on Iran did not reflect mere semantics, but a genuine policy dispute. Netanyahu’s position is a more hardline one, demanding that Iran give up all uranium enrichment efforts and any actual uranium that has already been enriched. Barak, in contrast, voiced his willingness to allow Iran to keep some enriched uranium and receive enriched fuel rods from an outside country if it opens up all of its nuclear facilities to IAEA inspectors and suspends (rather than permanently ends) its enrichment program. This reflects a serious disagreement between Israel’s two top decision makers on security matters, and their relationship is unusual enough that the balance of power between the two may actually tip in the defense minister’s favor rather than the prime minister’s. It may very well be that Israel’s policy on what it would require from Iran in order to avoid a strike is now up in the air and more unsettled than it has been in months, necessitating that Jerusalem keep quiet until Netanyahu and Barak are able to agree on what they want.
My view is that the answer lies mainly with the second option, with a dash of option three. I am on record as predicting that Israel is not going to strike Iran any time soon, and I think that Obama has successfully persuaded Netanyahu to give the U.S. strategy a chance, and implicitly promised that the U.S. will attack Iran if it fails. The Netanyahu-Barak argument also should not be discounted, and Israel is smart not to fall into a second situation in under a week in which it sends conflicting signals. If my reading of events is correct and Israel is publicly backing off on its threats for the time being, it will only increase pressure on the Iranian leadership by removing Israeli bellicosity as an excuse for Iranian nationalism, which has been a valuable shield for the regime.
UPDATE: It seems as if Israel’s silence was short lived, as Netanyahu has come out criticizing the talks, accusing the negotiating states of giving Iran a freebie and reiterating his position that Iran must give up all of its enriched uranium and dismantle its enrichment facilities immediately. This shifts the balance toward option 3, and as Barak Ravid notes in the Haaretz piece (and confirms what I wrote above), it means that the Netanyahu-Barak rift is growing. Netanyahu’s frustration seems to be boiling over at the prospect of his being stymied in striking Iranian nuclear sites, and it says to me that the U.S. campaign has not won him over but that it has won over his defense minister, who as I have noted previously is the more crucial figure that the U.S. needs to convince to withhold from attacking.
April 6, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Turkey’s patience with Iran appears to be running out. Erdoğan finally voiced the conclusion yesterday that the rest of the world has suspected for some time, namely that Iran is being less than forthright about its nuclear program. Erdoğan accused Tehran of not being being honest and of trying to sabotage the P5+1 nuclear talks before they begin by purposely suggesting venues that it knows will not be acceptable to the countries on the other side of the negotiating table. It seems that the PM received personal assurances from Khameini and Ahmadinejad while meeting with them last week that the Iranian nuclear program is benign and intended only for civilian purposes, and is now infuriated that after talking to Iranian leaders face to face they are refusing to hold talks in Istanbul and trying to delay negotiations. Erdoğan’s anger is reminiscent of what first led to the downgrade in Turkey’s relations with Israel, when Erdoğan felt personally insulted that Israel launched Operation Cast Lead without warning immediately after Erdoğan had met with Olmert to broker a peace deal with Syria. Turkish officials still routinely mention how betrayed and humiliated Erdoğan felt, and this residual anger is contributing as much as anything to the continuing feud between Israel and Turkey.
On the one hand, it is a positive thing that the Iranian leadership has shown its true colors and cost itself Turkey’s support. Turkey stood out as a NATO member and staunch Western ally insisting that Iran’s intentions were peaceful and that it should be given the benefit of the doubt, and if Turkey moves away from a trust-but-verify position regarding Iran, it will put more pressure on the Iranian government and hopefully avert a strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. It is not, however, a generally good idea to conduct foreign policy based on Erdoğan’s personal relationship with world leaders. Certainly it is not good for either Israel or Turkey to have downgraded their relationship so rapidly and intensely, and while there are of course many other contributing factors, Erdoğan’s bruised feelings drove the initial tension between the two countries. On Syria, Turkey lagged behind at the beginning and felt that Assad could eventually be brought around, which was due to the friendship between the countries’ leaders. The Turkish 180, culminating in the call for Assad to step down, was again partially the result of Erdoğan feeling betrayed by Assad’s lies to him about his intentions and repeated broken promises to stop killing civilians. Much like with Iran, the end result is a good one, but the delay in getting there resulted from a personal relationship between the PM and another world leader, and only once the personal relationship deteriorated did the policy shift. As Mehmet Ali Birand points out in Hurriyet, Turkey takes Iran’s words at face value, and Davutoğlu returned from Iran convinced that the Iranian leadership was being truthful and forthright. It is thus unsurprising that Erdoğan and Davutoğlu would now feel stabbed in the back, but it shouldn’t have taken a personal betrayal for them to wake up to the fact that Iran is not exactly a blameless actor. As Turkey takes on a greater geopolitical role and unveils its new “virtuous power” defense doctrine, it should take greater care to let objective analysis be the controlling factor at all times rather than passion and personalities.
March 19, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Last week I wrote about the puzzling fact that Israel does not seem to be preparing for any retaliation from Iran in the aftermath of an Israeli strike on their nuclear facilities, leading me to conclude that Netanyahu and Barak are engaging in a giant bluff. Via Jeffrey Goldberg’s Bloomberg column, it seems like there is another disturbing possibility, which is that the Israeli security establishment is convincing itself that any Iranian retaliation would be minimal, or perhaps even nonexistent. Goldberg also reports that Israeli officials think that Iran might cover up an Israeli strike in order to avoid the humiliation, and that Iran will not retaliate against American targets should Israel attack.
Setting aside the possibility that this is all part of the Israeli bluff and that Goldberg is being used by the Israelis to increase the odds of a U.S. strike, this is an extremely disheartening piece of reporting. Goldberg recounts hearing a number of best-case scenarios about the consequences of an Israeli attack, yet this is precisely the type of thinking that Israel needs to avoid if they are actually contemplating a raid on Iranian nuclear sites. On the contrary, the Israeli security establishment needs to assume that the absolute worst case scenario will occur before making a decision on Iran, because anything less will lead to irresponsible decision making and the potential for catastrophe. One need only hark so far back to 2006 and the war with Hizballah, where Israel was caught negligently unprepared after badly underestimating Hizballah’s capabilities and responses to Israeli military action, and did not take the necessary or even adequate steps to protect and support residents in the north. The Winograd Commission detailed a host of military, intelligence, and civil defense failures, all of which stemmed from the precise mistake it seems like the Israelis are making again, which was to assume the best-case scenario rather than assume the worst. Israel assumed that its air force could take out Hizballah and was wrong. It then sent in tanks and infantry to finish the job but was shocked by Hizballah’s anti-tank missiles and mines. Millions of Israelis did not have gas masks, adequate shelters, or emergency supplies because the Israeli government simply did not plan for the eventuality that these things would be required. Israel assumed that very little would go wrong, and instead the entire enterprise blew up its face beyond anything that it had imagined.
And so now on the heels of reports that Israel does not have the military capability to do the job on its own and that the U.S. military believes that an Israeli attack on Iran will result in American deaths and the U.S. being drawn into a regional war, Israel is actually assuming both of these facts away as mere inconveniences? Can this really happen again a mere six years later? Are Netanyahu, Barak, and other high-ranking Israeli military officials actually going to once again launch a significant military operation without making adequate civil defense arrangements first or considering the possibility that their rosy assumptions might not work out? This strikes me as the height of irresponsibility, if not outright insanity. I sincerely hope with every fiber of my being that if Israel ends up attacking Iran (and I hope that they do not), they do it with eyes wide open rather than with eyes wide shut.