Israel Is Now Officially A Political Football

February 25, 2015 § 3 Comments

With more odd goings on yesterday surrounding Bibi’s upcoming speech to Congress, I thought I’d give my quick take on what I think is actually taking place, as it seems to make little sense on the face of it. On Monday, Democratic senators Dick Durbin and Dianne Feinstein invited Netanyahu to a closed door meeting with Senate Democrats while he is in Washington next week, explicitly tying their invitation to a desire for avoiding “lasting repercussions” stemming from the damage they allege has been done to the U.S.-Israel relationship due to Netanyahu’s speech turning Israel into a partisan political issue. On Tuesday, Netanyahu declined the invitation to meet, writing to the senators, “Though I greatly appreciate your kind invitation to meet with Democratic Senators, I believe that doing so at this time could compound the misperception of partisanship regarding my upcoming visit.” Durbin followed that with a statement saying, “We offered the Prime Minister an opportunity to balance the politically divisive invitation from Speaker Boehner with a private meeting with Democrats who are committed to keeping the bipartisan support of Israel strong. His refusal to meet is disappointing to those of us who have stood by Israel for decades.” For a lot of people, Netanyahu electing not to meet with Democratic senators and offending two senior and staunchly pro-Israel members of that group in the process is a puzzling decision at best, and a confirmation of his overt partisanship in favor of Republicans at worst. Whatever your view of Netanyahu, rejecting the offer to meet does not seem to be doing Israel any favors in terms of restoring whatever bipartisan support has been lost over the past month.

What’s really going on here is not, however, quite so cut and dry. Just as John Boehner was playing politics and using Israel to put the White House in an awkward position when he and Ron Dermer concocted the invitation for Netanyahu to speak before Congress, the Democrats are doing the same thing here to the Republicans and using Israel to score political points. By inviting Netanyahu, Durbin and Feinstein were setting him up in a way that made it impossible for him to win and impossible for them to lose. Had Netanyahu accepted the invitation to meet with Senate Democrats – and only Senate Democrats – behind closed doors, it would have been an implicit admission on his part that the speech to Congress was indeed a partisan maneuver intended to benefit Republicans and embarrass the White House, and that this was an appropriate way of belatedly balancing things out. After giving a gift to the GOP and having it backfire, meeting with Senate Democrats would have sent the message that a chastised Netanyahu had understood that he screwed things up, and that in order to set things right he’d have to give something to the Democrats in return. The benefit to the Democrats here would have been twofold: public confirmation of the what they’d been arguing since the speech was announced – namely that it was a partisan maneuver designed to put the administration in a box – and an electoral benefit in the form of being able to show their constituents that they are pro-Israel and have no problem with Netanyahu himself, but rather that their issue is solely with the timing of the speech before Congress and the way that it was handled.

Now that Netanyahu has declined, the Democrats still win. As Durbin’s statement makes clear, they are now going to double down on the argument that Netanyahu is injecting himself into partisan politics, endangering bipartisan support for Israel by favoring the Republicans, and not really interested in having a substantive conversation with Democrats. As it happens, I believe those arguments to be accurate, but it doesn’t change the facts that Senate Democrats issued the invitation to meet privately as a way of making the Republicans look bad rather than to restore any sense of real bipartisanship. Just as the Republicans were using Bibi for their own political purposes earlier, Democrats are doing so now in response. This has little to do with Israel and everything to do with the scorched earth tactics both political parties use against each other. Netanyahu loses here too in the larger sense of things, as it looks to all the world like he is favoring the Republicans and blind to the dangers of politicizing Israel as an issue with Congress. He also damages relations with two powerful Democratic senators whom he might have counted on going forward but who will not be inclined to be giving him any preferential treatment in the future.

Nevertheless, it should have been obvious from the second the invitation to meet was issued that Netanyahu would decline it. Accepting it would have meant confirming his mistake, both in openly plotting with the Republicans with no realization that there would be consequences to doing so and in making a speech that seems to be doing Israel more harm than good. Bibi is not one to admit mistakes, and he certainly cannot acknowledge this one given how high he has raised the stakes with his rhetoric on the issue and being in the final stages of an election campaign. It would mitigate whatever benefit he will get – and yes, he will benefit at home politically in some quarters – from standing before Congress and thundering about the Iranian nuclear threat and his sacred duty to protect Israel. So from Netanyahu’s perspective, it makes perfect political sense not to meet with Senate Democrats, even though to many it is a head-scratching decisions since it appears that Netanyahu just missed out on a perfect opportunity to make things right with one side of the aisle and restore some much needed bipartisan love.

And so Israel is being wielded by both sides as a cudgel in order to pummel political opponents, and Netanyahu’s mess of his own creation just keeps getting worse and worse. In the meantime, reports about the Iranian nuclear negotiations are increasingly worrisome as talk of sunset clauses is bandied about, and Democrats who might have been inclined to take a harder line are reluctant to do so as Netanyahu has set up an environment in which it will appear that they are taking his side rather than that of the president, and thus Israeli fears about Iran are compounded. Netanyahu wins at home while Israel’s political standing suffers, which could have been avoided had he just structured the timing of the speech differently. Really, is there anyone left who thinks that this speech is in any way a good idea for Israel, or that it was ever about anything but Netanyahu’s personal political ambitions?

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

February 10, 2015 § 12 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.

Is This What A Presidential Takeover Looks Like?

February 5, 2015 § 8 Comments

For political scientists interested in political development, it is in many ways more interesting to study why democracies break down than how democracies form. After all, the best predictor of whether a state is democratic at any given time is whether the state was a democracy previously, so delving into how and why authoritarian reversals occur is a fun field (for a deep dive into the subject, Jay Ulfelder does really good work, such as this). Democratic breakdowns come in a few flavors, but the two most common are military coups and incumbent takeovers (this latter category being when an elected government undermines democracy and the future electoral process). Writing in the British Journal of Political Science last year, Milan Svolik compellingly argued that we should be paying attention to the different categories of breakdown because doing so can give us a sense of where a state might be heading before breakdown occurs. The most interesting insight in Svolik’s article to me was his contention that democracies consolidate against military coups but not against incumbent takeovers. In other words, as a democracy ages and democratic rule becomes institutionalized, the risk of a military coup occurring substantially decreases at some point (according to Svolik, this happens somewhere between the 17th and 26th year of democratic government), but the risk of an incumbent takeover does not decrease. He also points to factors that make incumbent takeover a greater or lesser possibility, with a presidential system ten times more likely to break down than a parliamentary or mixed system, while having a history of past military rule makes incumbent takeover less likely because, in Svolik’s words, “In a democracy that lacks a history of military rule, an incumbent may succeed in accumulating enough power to subvert democracy, especially if aided by a presidential constitution and natural resources. But in a democracy that was preceded by a military dictatorship, these factors may be insufficient for a successful incumbent takeover because any such attempts will be preempted by a military coup.”

Why do I bring any of this stuff up? Because various happenings in Turkey make it look like the country is dangerously on the brink of an incumbent takeover, and Svolik’s piece is a useful guide in assessing what might be going on. It will come as no surprise to anyone who regularly reads this blog (or really anyone who keeps on top of international news) that things in Turkey have been going downhill for awhile. The question is not whether Turkish democracy has suffered, since it unquestionably has, but rather at what point do we cease talking about Turkey as a democracy and call it a flat out authoritarian state. I have never liked terms like illiberal democracy or quasi-democracy or troubled democracy, since I think of democracy similarly to the way I think about pregnancy: either a state is a democracy or it isn’t. Just as you can’t be sort of pregnant, you can’t be sort of democratic. So if Turkey has ceased to be a democracy, how will we know and what will that reversal look like?

My friend and erstwhile co-author Steven Cook has a piece in Politico comparing Tayyip Erdoğan’s rule to that of patrimonial Arab dictators, and laying out the ways in which Erdoğan has accumulated power and dominated politics. I’d add that since assuming the presidency, Erdoğan has done so in ways that subvert the Turkish constitution by taking over powers accorded to the prime ministry without formally amending the constitution. While it is true that the president has the constitutional power to preside over a cabinet meeting if he so chooses, this power is supposed to be reserved for extraordinary situations such as wars or other crises. And yet, there was Erdoğan last month chairing a meeting of the cabinet and purposefully not ruling out doing so again. Erdoğan has assembled a shadow cabinet of advisers around him that in many ways mimic Turkey’s actual cabinet, and he has asserted himself in all sorts of areas that are reserved for the prime minister. The biggest power play was actually symbolic but spoke volumes, when Erdoğan announced that Prime Minister Davutoğlu was to reside in the Çankaya presidential palace because Erdoğan was taking for himself the newly built, monstrously large palace that had been intended for the prime minister.

There is no question that Erdoğan is amassing power in what are unprecedented ways for Turkey since the death of the unapologetically all-powerful founder of the Turkish Republic Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. As former AKP parliamentary foreign affairs chief Suat Kınıklıoğlu writes, “Not a day goes by when our president is not to be seen on television, sometimes three times a day. Close to a dozen TV channels broadcast his speeches live. Even a prominent music channel cuts its broadcast and televises the speech. Total control. It is rather ironic to see how a political movement that aspired to break the authoritarianism of the old order has come to establish an even more effective authoritarian regime itself.” Everyone knows what is going on, as it is taking place in broad daylight and over the vociferous opposition of anyone not connected to the AKP. It is also in many ways completely and unabashedly shameless. Look at the government’s takeover of Bank Asya just yesterday, for example, which everyone knows is being done to punish Erdoğan’s current designee as Public Enemy Number One, Fethullah Gülen. The Gülenists in Turkey have hounded their own enemies for years, and their anguished cries of complete innocence are laughable, no matter what Gülen himself claims in the opinion pages of the New York Times (for a pitch perfect takedown of the op-ed, look no further than Claire Berlinski’s rejoinder to Hocaefendi yesterday). Nevertheless, whatever the Gülenist movement’s actual sins, nobody credibly believes that the “Bank Asya decision has no political dimension, it is a completely legal decision,” as Davutoğlu claimed with a straight face. This is a bill of attainder, pure and simple, and the fact that the people and institutions being targeted are themselves unabashed power-grabbers who subvert Turkey’s legal system for their own ends does not make the government’s actions democratic or legal. In a more candid moment, Davutoğlu said at a political rally yesterday that he doesn’t see why a religious movement needs a bank. Neither do I, but two wrongs don’t make a right.

The reason Svolik points to presidential systems as being prone to takeover is because presidential systems can be dangerous. The United States is a remarkable exception to this rule, but new democracies largely try to avoid them these days because of their instability. The only presidential democracy with an extended history of constitutional continuity is the U.S., and parliamentary democracies generally last more than three times as long as presidential democracies. A presidential system promotes a strong figure at the top of the food chain with an independent power base, which can be dangerous in divided societies or states without countervailing strong legislative and judicial institutions. Part of the argument against presidential systems comes from a sort of selection bias, in that they were adopted (and failed) in states where the conditions made them especially prone to failure, but the numbers also back up the fact that they lead to more short-lived democracies. Yet, just yesterday Davutoğlu had the following to say: “There is an argument that the presidential system will create authoritarianism. What’s your proof for that?  Those who have little knowledge of politics and political science know that democracy is implemented both under presidential and parliamentary systems. These are both described as democratic systems in comparative political studies. Inclinations for authoritarianism can come from parliamentary systems as well.” Yes, it is true that democracy is implemented in both types of systems, but it is also true that one breaks down at a rate ten times that of the other. Surely the prime minister does not think this is a mere coincidence.

The transformation of Turkey to a presidential system is worrying when it comes to incumbent takeover, but so is the military component, because Svolik’s reason for why a military past tends to prevent incumbent takeover does not apply here. The threat of a military coup is supposed to deter an incumbent from amassing too much power and eroding the democratic system, but Turkey’s military has been so hollowed out and beaten down by the AKP (and its former move-along-nothing-to-see-here Gülenist allies) that the chances of a coup are close to nil. In fact, in many ways Erdoğan is primarily motivated by Turkey’s military past and sees his attainment of more and more power as the ultimate victory over the era of military tutelage. The unique history of the relationship between Erdoğan and the military in the pre-AKP era and the relationship between the AKP and the military since 2002 – and particularly since the failed coup by memorandum attempt in 2007 – actually make Turkey’s military past an exacerbating factor rather than a mitigating one. Combined with what Erdoğan has been doing since his election last summer, I don’t think any warning about what is coming down the road can possibly be strident enough.

The long and short of it is that Erdoğan is trying to institute a presidential system, and he is determined to do it one way or another. If he (meaning the AKP, his “former” party) passes the magic 330 seat threshold in the June election, he will attempt to do it by using his parliamentary supermajority to amend the constitution without a referendum, and if the AKP falls short, he will just keep on doing what he’s been doing until it is a fait accompli. But presidential systems are dangerous vehicles for shaky democracies, and that is even more so when the president is vocal and open about his contempt for liberal and democratic norms, views the entire country as something to be controlled by his personal whims, and sees checks and balances as nothing but a minor inconvenience. I don’t know if a complete incumbent takeover has yet happened, but I do know that if we ask that question again five or ten years from now, it will likely be too late.

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