January 22, 2009
What Would Real--Rather Than Rhetorical--Change in U.S. Foreign Policy Look Like?
It is hard to overstate the immense occasion that is Barack Hussein Obama’s inauguration as the 44th President of the United States. His name alone stuns, at least as that of a U.S. President, the surname eerily similar to the West’s post 9/11 arch-villain Osama bin Laden, his middle name the very surname of the dethroned Iraqi strongman. Throw in his status as the first African-American U.S. President since inception of the Republic and it is little wonder the whole nation (indeed the world) paused to marvel, not only at the momentous sight of this man taking the oath of office, but also America’s near awe-inspiring ability to re-invent itself.
So there is a sense of profound optimism that real change is afoot, if couched by a subtext of fear given the massive economic challenges facing the incoming Administration. And yet partly because of these very economic challenges—and the consuming efforts that will need to be directed towards alleviating them--one is concerned the scope of change required in the foreign policy realm may not prove quite as dramatic as necessary, perhaps with President Obama not being able to devote as much attention to same as he might otherwise.
Below I list six critical areas for Obama and his foreign policy team’s consideration, that is, if we are to move beyond the merely rhetorical (if inspirational-sounding) change, to the real thing, meaning a truly fresh start for American foreign policy after the profound strategic blunders of the Bush era.
1) Don’t Let Afghanistan Become Your Administration’s Iraq
The Iraq/Afghanistan narrative has become too trite these past years during the seemingly permanent election season. It goes something like there was a “good” war (Afghanistan) and a “bad” one (Iraq). Rapid de-escalation from the Mesopotamian morass is required, not only to hit a strategic ‘re-set’ button of sorts in the center of the Arab Middle East, but also the story has it, to allow for more man-power to be channeled to Afghanistan. While I agree with the former statement, I disagree with the latter one. And yet, too few skeptics in positions of influence question the wisdom of ratcheting up our involvement in Afghanistan (I’ve espied a few individuals like Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jim Webb, perhaps several others).
Here’s why it’s not such a no-brainer to march tens of thousands of reinforcements into the wilds of Afghanistan. Counter-terrorism is not nation-building. Retention of counter-terror surgical strike capacities and requisite intelligence-gathering capabilities can be maintained via a modest presence in key cities like Kabul, perhaps too temporarily bases like Bagram as we nonetheless move to phase them out, ‘over the horizon’ forces, drone strikes, a heightened ‘train and equip’ effort for the Afghan Army, and the like. U.S. marines should not be dying to try to de-Talibanize, if we might call it that, remote portions of the Pashtun south of Afghanistan. Why? First off, it’s a losing battle. The presence of foreign troops (like it or not, they are widely viewed as occupiers) only serves to further radicalize local Afghans (have the experiences of the Soviets, and before them, the British—thought us nothing?). Second, al-Qaeda is mostly scattered in parts Pakistan, rather than portions of Afghanistan where Marines are operating. And, even if not, or they move too freely back and forth, query: what was it about the 9/11 hijackers, say, that made it so critical that they’d enjoyed a safe-haven in Afghanistan? Was this safe haven needed to allow some of the hijackers to attend flight school in Florida, say, as former UK diplomat Rory Stewart has quipped? Can one only learn the finer usages of box-cutters—or more ambitious chemical and biological schemes for that matter—in far-away Afghanistan (to the contrary, one might argue it’s much harder in such parts, rather than in more advanced societies with easier access to the relevant technologies etc.)?
In fact, our most worrisome terror threats are probably far afield from Afghanistan, no matter how intellectually consuming and fodder for myriad think-tank ‘studies’ the latest folly-like fantasy of turning Afghanistan into a modern state might be (perhaps we can turn it into a Pakistan, say, albeit even this relatively ‘modest’ goal would require hundreds of thousands of men, tens upon tens of billions dollars—perhaps some TARP funds can be deployed?—as well as decades plus of far too many G.I.s on the ground). Put simply, any rational cost/benefit analysis should have us, not only forging and speedily implementing a responsible exit strategy from Iraq, but also accomplishing the same in Afghanistan. As I’ve said, the realer threats instead persist in Internet cafes and empty store-fronts in portions of the Parisian banlieu, the fringes of East London, and so on.
The alternative Mr. Obama confronts? Doubling-down for the long haul in a counterinsurgency effort all but doomed to failure, this in a country far larger and with more difficult terrain than Iraq, with NATO slowly but likely inexorably being torn asunder as too few other member states—certainly their populations—really believe in the ‘mission’, ultimately. And they are right not too, as we largely accomplished it already when al-Qaeda mostly scattered into parts South Waziristan in neighboring Pakistan, where last I checked no one sane was calling for a sustained nation-building effort, or alternately, an on the ground, years-long, robust counter-insurgency effort.
Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke is an immensely talented negotiator—with few able to cajole, harrumph, corral, threaten, bluster as relentlessly as he. In the context of his new role for Afghanistan and Pakistan matters I would hope that some of that relentless energy is spent—not having us sucked deeper into the Afghan counter-insurgency with Holbrooke thereby also spending precious time with the proverbial cup out for more NATO forces in varied European capitals, but rather, focused on helping stabilize critical parts of each country (say Kabul, Jalalabad, Peshawar and even Islamabad, for instance), while not forgetting to think about high level mediation efforts over Kashmir. A deal between India and Pakistan over that issue—however unimaginable it might seem from where we sit today—would go a long way towards de-radicalizing large swaths of Pakistani opinion, and help allow for a possibly viable rapprochement between New Delhi and Islamabad, while assisting our anti-terror efforts in Pakistan at the same time. A man of Holbrooke’s talents should be focused more on such issues, in my view, rather than spending too much time getting knee-deep with the Generals on a counter-insurgency effort I believe destined to fail.
This being said, we cannot underestimate how our presence--not to mention varied rhetoric and policies emitting from Washington during the Bush years--has helped contribute to an intensification of Taliban efforts, on both sides of the Afghanistan/Pakistan border (see this piece for vivid insights into the gravity of the situation, including how Pakistani Chief of Staff Kiyani is reticent to open up a second anti-Jihadi front in Punjab given he has his hands full in the Northwest Frontier Province, or NWFP, another reason incidentally Holbrooke should not forget the Kashmir issue as part of his mandate), so that I would stress again important cities and key populations centers like Kabul and Peshawar must be better protected, the former by NATO forces for the time being (as we continue to train and equip the Afghan Army), the latter where we should certainly be liaising with the Pakistanis as very closely as possible so as to monitor the efficacy of their efforts in strategic areas like Peshawar. This more limited mandate is at least a more realistic prescription than trying to convert 'hearts and minds' in a protracted counter-insurgency deep in the Pashtun heartlands.
2) De-Mystify Al-Qaeda, It’s Not All That
This young, charismatic new President has a near unique chance to captivate the world, more than any of his predecessors since at least John F. Kennedy. Imagine a major speech in Jakarta showing real sensitivity to the arrayed hundreds of thousands that this new African-American President whose middle name is Hussein understands that the phrase “global war on terrorism” (or ‘war on terror’, which the new President apparently is still employing) sounds far too much like a substitute for a “global war on Islam” to the billion plus Muslim faithful with whom we share this planet. Barack Obama can stand above the herd of typical politicians, and appeal not only to our better angels here at home, but across the world, as a reservoir of genuine good will exists for him to tap.
In this vein, there is no reason, Ahab-like, to get in the trenches obsessing about the GWOT and, in particular, Osama bin Laden. Robert Fisk is often derided in Western circles, but as a journalist with true regional expertise, courage and intensity, few can match him, as most of his fairer critics well realize. Here he is recounting his meeting with bin Laden in his gripping book “The Great War for Civilization”:
“Mr Robert," he began, and he looked around at the other men in combat jackets and soft brown hats who had crowded into the tent. "Mr Robert, one of our brothers had a dream. He dreamed that you came to us one day on a horse, that you had a beard and that you were a spiritual person. You wore a robe like us. This means you are a true Muslim." This was terrifying. It was one of the most fearful moments of my life. I understood Bin Laden's meaning a split second in front of each of his words. Dream. Horse. Beard. Spiritual. Robe. Muslim. The other men in the tent were all nodding and looking at me, some smiling, others silently staring at the Englishman who had appeared in the dream of the "brother." I was appalled. It was both a trap and an invitation, and the most dangerous moment to be among the most dangerous men in the world. I could not reject the "dream" lest I suggest Bin Laden was lying. Yet I could not accept its meaning without myself lying, without suggesting that what was clearly intended of me - that I should accept this "dream" as a prophecy and a divine instruction - might be fulfilled. For this man to trust me, a foreigner, to come to them without prejudice, that was one thing. But to imagine that I would join them in their struggle, that I would become one with them, was beyond any possibility. The coven was waiting for a reply.
Doesn’t bin Laden feel, well, small? And remember, this is in 1997, before the largest international man-hunt in history—still fumbled, alas—was in motion. Osama is probably even more desperate for news clipping these days, I’d think. Obama should keep him small and getting smaller, which is to say, not dignify him with any specialness (this is not to say U.S. forces should still not energetically be searching for him, but we should not elevate this mission to some special level of import in our public discourse, for instance, Ambassador Holbrooke should make very clear his Afghanistan-Pakistan mandate goes far beyond ‘bringing to justice’, to use an oft-used phrase, UBL). He has become yesterday’s man, even if he is alive (which I’m not certain he is), one can well imagine him barely cognizant of the events of the day, perhaps until weeks or months later, a vanishing specter we should not dignify with too great attention.
All this said, let us agree with the new President who said during his inaugural speech: “(f)or those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror . . . we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.” There is no doubt the perils we face on the terror front remain very real, and surely the intelligence briefings Obama has already been receiving during the transition period and now in office bear this out to some degree, but I am asking for some perspective, and that we not put Osama bin Laden on the same pedestal as we’ve done these past years, if understandably originally, emerging from the trauma of 9/11.
Beyond this, I am also suggesting that we re-order our national priorities so that, to be sure, combating extremism (in whatever manifestations) remains front and center, but that the sine qua non of U.S. foreign policy not be carried forward or advertised as part and parcel of the ‘global war on terror’. There are too many other threats to confront, and it is overly convenient to rebrand al-Qaeda’s brand of terrorism as the new ‘ism to replace communism and fascism as decades long center-piece of this country’s entire national security apparatus, which to my mind would prove too much of a distraction from the many other pressing challenges which confront us as well.
3) Resuscitate the Middle East Peace Process, But For Real This Time
The Middle East Peace Process, or lack thereof, seems everyone’s favorite topic, whipping-horse, perennial bugaboo—almost always approached with too much emotion and too little reason—by whomever is chiming in with their (usually grossly biased) views regarding same. Indeed, have we not all become tired of the various theories and clichés: ‘The Road to Jerusalem Runs Through Baghdad’, or is that the ‘The Road to Jerusalem Runs Through Teheran’, or perhaps Damascus, and so on? The platitudes and agenda-ridden sloganeering fatigues, with some wanting to prioritize neo-con like militarism via threats of regime change in Iran (and Syria), and others stressing that the Arab-Israeli conflict—were it to be solved—would serve as some region-wide panacea, so that Pavlovian-like ‘peace-processing’ is needed, nothing more, damn the intentions of the ‘bad guys’ on the ground (while I of course sympathize much more with the latter view, I am only pointing out that there are various other critical challenges that wouldn’t disappear the day after even a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace deal were inked, to include Iraq, Iran, Kashmir, and more).
What is nonetheless clear, however, as much as some would like to wish it away, is that the Arab-Israeli conflict acts as a toxin materially hampering forward progress in the wider region—while radicalizing tens of thousands, such as Mohamed Atta, to take one prominent example. Meantime the outgoing Bush Administration’s obsession (born of insecurity) to follow ‘ABC’ (“Anything But [Bill] Clinton”, e.g. no robust peace-making), isolate Arafat, forsake more of an ‘honest-broker’ role—while simultaneously airily obsessing about ‘free’ elections—all helped usher in Hamas’ rise to greater power in Palestine, with such radicalization further fanned by the war in Iraq.
All this, of course, hasn’t helped much. The result, the pitiable Annapolis process or not, is very clear to most if not all sober-eyed observers, which is to say, parts of the region are in flames or grappling now with Grozny-like misery, American leadership is at a depressing nadir (the French, Qataris, Turks, Egyptians and others have been vying to fill the vacuum, but none have any real influence where it counts—Tel Aviv—so that their efforts can only prove ultimately ineffective, and too often annoyingly poseur-like, frankly, particularly a recent spate of mostly feckless European interventions), the peace process in tatters and thoroughly moribund given this abject neglect, meantime the blood of far too many civilians needlessly lost in the recent conflicts in Lebanon and Gaza, Israel still without peace, of course, with her reputation near an all-time low internationally after the Gaza onslaught, and on and on.
(And so where were these United States these past 8 years, one asks? Mostly a bystander, with our former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice something of a Lilliputian in search of a legacy, uttering recently in a Washington Post exit interview “(t)here would have been no 1701 without me” (about the grossly belated Lebanon Resolution at the UNSC) or still, about Iraq, breathlessly relaying as if to showcase its democratic bona fides that Iraq even “declared Christmas a national holiday”. The mind still reels, now eight years into this horror show of massive incompetence masquerading as moral righteousness and ‘transformationalist’ diplomacy, or whatever its been called).
If we mean to cause real change then, we need to book-end this sorry chapter, and quickly. President Obama must immediately move to inject competence and strength into the uppermost reaches of American diplomacy, while also changing the substance and tone of America’s Middle East policy, not least, by recognizing the needs of both sides, to help restore our reputation as ‘honest broker’, rather than, in David Aaron’s Miller’s words, too often acting as “Israel’s lawyer.” (While Miller’s op-ed title might sound somewhat inflammatory to some, it is really anything but. Miller was merely calling for more pragmatic, even-handed handling of important negotiations, hardly controversial or incendiary fare, at least if one is sober-minded and interested in results-oriented diplomacy).
In this vein, I believe it a very positive signal that George Mitchell has been appointed special Middle East envoy (apparently with responsibility mainly for the Palestinian-Israeli brief, but also the Israeli-Syrian and Lebanese-Israeli tracks, all of which will doubtless demand much dialogue with the Egyptians and Saudis as well, in particular). I would recommend that Mr. Mitchell appoint a deputy (Dan Kurtzer, for example, a former U.S. Ambassador to Israel) bringing additional energy and more direct on the ground experience, to complement Mr. Mitchell’s gravitas, negotiating skills, and disciplined legal temperament, while also not being shy to fully use the Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs as well (to include the many talented and dedicated professionals in that Bureau).
And once the immediate, and inevitable, crisis management clean-up of the recent wreckage in Gaza is accomplished (first we need to help, if through proxies, mediate schisms as between Hamas and the PA, as well as more directly liaise with differing Israeli factions set to squabble mightily during the impending political silly-season there, where we may well end up dealing with the re-emergence of Prime Minister Netanyahu after the elections), thereafter the Taba precedent should be speedily used as launching pad, of sorts, with additionally other bold strokes considered, like asking the Israelis to free Marwan Barghouti, so as to help restore Fatah as credible counter-party to Hamas, and thereafter lead the negotiations on behalf of Palestine with the Israelis. Only a leader with charisma can close a deal of such magnitude and controversy, and Abu Mazen doesn’t have what it takes, particularly after Israel’s latest operation, given these grim (if woefully predictable) tidings.
In short it is high time to cease the hapless by-standing (pre-Annapolis), or alternately, the empty spectacle (Annapolis), and instead roll up our sleeves and get to the hard work of forging a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace without a moment’s delay, and with relentless energy (without getting bogged down necessarily in a months long series of anti-smuggling discussions with the Egyptians, in large part a waste of time given factors such as these, rather than focusing on the larger strategic picture). Such hard toil can and likely will pay-off (see Camp David, Madrid, Oslo, etc), but only if all instruments of American national power are used, and focus, intelligence and intensity are brought to bear consistently from the Presidential level on down, with pressure applied even-handedly to get to the (so elusive, but not impossible) goal-line. This, and follow-through, so that gains (as Madrid and Oslo) are not then frittered away. As I said, all things being equal, the appointment of George Mitchell alone is a strong start by the President and his Secretary of State, but the effort will need to be all hands on deck, hard-charging and even-handed (that phrase again), with bold ‘out-of-the-box’ strokes employed on occasion.
4) Iran: A New Paradigm, Moving Beyond “Carrots & Sticks”
It has become conventional wisdom to predict that the greatest (or at least most immediate) major foreign policy challenge awaiting the new President is that presented by the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is mostly of course because of the reasonably marked progress Iran is making on its nuclear program (though not quite as expedited as some would have it) and on this basis indeed makes sense as a major priority (though like General Abizaid and others of similar ilk have said, I am not persuaded we might not have to accept that the Iranians will ultimately either possess or have the capability to expeditiously produce nuclear weapons, so that aside from focusing solely on preventing same thought should also be devoted to how best to integrate such a capability into the regional security architecture, ideally without setting off an arms race including possibly the Saudis, Turks and Egyptians, and where a pledged U.S. security deterrent could play a strong role).
Obama has already made very clear he is keen to employ a new approach with the Iranians, and with some pull-back unfortunately having been signaled here and there (ironically, resulting from his campaign when then opponent Hillary Clinton took a more hawkish stance forcing Obama to retrench some) this nonetheless apparently still includes the prospect of direct negotiations without preconditions (leading up to Presidential level). Related and perhaps towards this end, I’d like to recommend this excellent article which has several key points, including: 1) don’t rush it (a major diplomatic push might well profit from waiting until after the impending Iranian elections), 2) link Iran negotiations to additional tracks beyond the nuclear issue to include Iraq and Afghanistan (each of where Iran can possibly be of some assistance to us where mutual interests converge, areas demanding fulsome dialogue and inquiry), and 3) employ a new tone in our discussions with Teheran.
I would add the following too. Additional tracks should be considered as well, meaning beyond the nuclear, Afghanistan and Iraq tracks, for instance, Iran’s role in supporting Hamas and Hezbollah. This track should not be included merely to scold and berate, however, but also to see if there is room for maneuver and collaboration (even if very limited) with the Iranians on the Arab-Israeli front (say liaison with Damascus-based elements of Hamas on new modalities for Hamas’ behavior in Gaza). Worth noting, a set-back on one track (say, Iraq, but more likely, the nuclear issue), should not result in freezing discussions on Afghanistan or the Middle East. Instead, an approach should be taken whereby dialogue is pushed ahead on all fronts as very much as possible—not necessarily to reach some likely chimerical ‘grand bargain’—but to better understand each parties’ ultimate red-lines, must-haves, etc. with regard to each individual track, thus facilitating making better informed strategic decisions regarding the overarching U.S.-Iranian relationship once a genuinely multi-faceted, good faith dialogue on all these issues has been sufficiently advanced.
Related, Secretary of State Clinton will need to give serious thought to whom will handle aspects of this dialogue, for instance, George Mitchell would seem the logical candidate to interface on Iranian issues as they related to Arab-Israeli peace, and Dick Holbrooke with regard to Afghanistan (as Iran is opposed to the Taliban and other Sunni extremists so can possibly be constructive there). And while I have heard rumors that a special Iran envoy might be appointed as well, we risk having too many envoys for one wider region, I fear, so that perhaps Secretary Clinton might take-up the Iran issue personally, as aided by appropriate Foggy Bottom and/or extant Special Envoy back-up, as necessary (frankly I’m tempted to have seen Holbrooke given the Iran mandate too, but then Iraq is left a bit off-kilter in neither of the two announced envoys bailiwick, so we will likely need to monitor how Clinton fills out the bench and better gauge logical responsibilities going forward).
Last, on Iran, we must not forget to employ a new tone in our conversations with the Iranians, something I’d advocated in the cyber-pages of this blog quite a while back
As the Ambassador put it:
If you deal with the other side as less than a human society, then don’t expect to have multiple outcomes. What I’m saying is that in Western terminology, concepts are used that would infuriate the other sides. Even the terminologies used by the United States in the liberal realist tradition—such as “carrot and stick”—are not meant for humans, but rather for donkeys. In studies of Orientalism, the Eastern part of the world is dealt with as an object rather than as serious, real human societies with longer, older civilizations with concerns and needs that have to be dealt with. [emphasis added]
It was therefore very gratifying to finally see prominent commentators like Pickering and Luers (full disclosure, I am acquainted and a fan of both men) making the same point in the pages of the NYRB:
A new policy also requires a new tone. Iran is a proud nation with roots in a centuries-old civilization; its insistence on being treated with mutual respect is not empty rhetoric. Continued denunciation of the regime will likely produce greater intransigence, especially as Iran enters its presidential campaign. Iranians bristle at the use of the phrase "carrots and sticks," which they associate with the treatment of donkeys and which in any case suggests that they can be either bought off or beaten into submission. More generally, the US government would do well to follow a first principle of diplomacy—when you want to change a bad situation, start by shutting up.
Not only Secretary Clinton, but the new President himself (who has used the ‘carrots and sticks’ phraseology, I believe, and in connection with Iran) might well profit from thinking through these subtleties of approach, perhaps with some luck paying real heed to them. It could make a difference towards getting to a break-through with the Iranians, at least certainly cannot hurt.
5) A New Approach to Russia?
Another area begging for real change in American foreign policy is our relationship with Russia. To start off strongly on a different foot, I would suggest a dramatic opening to the Russians whereby we signal we are contemplating revisiting so-called missile defense shield arrangements—at least to some extent and degree—in Poland and the Czech Republic (where we are moving along with interceptors and a radar station, respectively). Meantime my views on the Georgian fiasco are decently known in the blogosphere (see, in close chronological order, here, here and here), and I would suggest we not prioritize rushing, say, Ukrainian and/or Georgian NATO Membership Actions Plans, highly controversial given historic Russian interests in Crimea and the Caucasus.
There are critical issues where the Russians could be of significant assistance to us (notably nuclear proliferation issues, to include Iran, among many others) and nothing would be more effective to this end than signaling to the Russians that we are not simply hell-bent on extending some fictitious Pax Americana to the outskirts of Moscow and St. Petersburg via ‘encirclement’ on their southern underbelly (Georgia), and/or to their West (the missile defense issue in Eastern Europe)—which, like it or not, far too many in Moscow believe--rather than helping foster a high-level strategic dialogue with the Russians on these issues (having moved to put these particularly controversial issues on the table to signal our seriousness of intent about trying to forge a re-fashioned relationship).
Regardless, let us think seriously for a moment. Who really believes the Iranians, as if in some re-do of Islamic hordes charging the Gates of Vienna, are set to perpetrate missile strikes against Europe? And while it is true the Shahab-3 missiles have a range of some 1200 or so miles (enough to reach Bulgaria or Greece, say) do we really believe they are keen to attack Athens, Bucharest or Sophia? Or indeed if they roll out a Shahab-4 with longer-range in coming years, that Vienna or Berlin will suddenly be in their sights? Why would the Iranians do this? Please let us not pretend in ribald fashion because they are but ‘mad Mullahs’ or some such, with a collective suicide wish. As I said, this is farcical, and displays an ignorance of the complexities of Iranian statesmanship and the behavior of the Iranian nation-state.
Given this back-drop, we therefore might forgive the Russians not believing us that the true rationale for the contemplated missile shield system is really about Iran—or some other to be concocted Middle Eastern rogue hell-bent on lobbing missiles into central Europe--rather than as is more likely another 'legacy' containment tool aimed at Moscow. (Nor does it help, indeed it adds rather a good dollop of insult to injury, that such anti-missile shields are to be based in former Warsaw Pact nations under Soviet dominion not so long ago.)
Put simply, and at minimum, you would hope the incoming team would at least review both NATO enlargement and Eastern European missile shields anew for sense and impact on relations with Russia, as we have a major moment of opportunity with Moscow to re-fashion the relationship occasioned by the new American Administration having assumed power.
6) Guantanamo, Torture, and Looking Ahead Rather Than Backwards
Last but not least, real change would also mean shuttering Guantanamo and declaring unequivocally and without any ambiguity that the United States will no longer torture. It appears both goals are being followed by the new President, for which he should be lauded (though a more explicit statement that Army Field Manual interrogation practices will wholly apply also to the CIA might not be unwarranted). And while it would have been a more dramatic flourish to close Guantanamo within the first 100 days of his new Administration, it is understandable that there are several complexities and challenges to accomplishing same, some of which Matthew Waxman touches on here. This said all best efforts must be made to close Guantanamo within the first year of the new Administration, so that at least when the new decade is ushered in this gross stain on America’s repute will be no more. Indeed, and as has been vividly pointed out (hat tip:
But I write here, mostly, to broach Obama’s seeming unwillingness to prioritize analyzing whether war crimes or other illegal acts were undertaken by the prior Administration. First, a confession, Obama is a better man than this writer. His ability not to nurse grudges, his poise, his persistent optimism—we have seen it often already now. And second, he has said that Eric Holder will be the “people’s lawyer”, and certainly hasn’t indicated there will be a white-wash, and that whatever relevant evidence will be diligently analyzed. And yet, the emphasis has strongly been to move forward rather than look backwards, and while I understand the temptation of same, even some might argue, the wisdom (a perceived auto de fe could poison Obama’s attempts to position himself as a sunny Reagan of the center-left and there are myriad critical items on his agenda he doubtless thinks might be of even greater import than these war crime investigations, perhaps at least to the lives of ordinary Americans struggling without adequate access to health care, with jobs being lost by the hundreds of thousands, and the rest of a long laundry list of pressing issues). Still, however, there was something about the contempt shown by certain actors in the prior Administration (I am thinking less about Bush, whom I’ll confess I felt tinges of muted sympathy for as he hugged Obama with sincerity and wished him the best at the inaugural, in fairness too, he handled the transition reasonably well, and perhaps worth noting, the crimes committed were more often the acts of the real evil-doers who took advantage of his profound historical and constitutional ignorance) meaning men like David Addington, John Yoo, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld, among others. We must at least ask that Eric Holder be allowed to do a ‘deep-dive’ into this dossier, and share his unfiltered findings with the American people, to the extent possible, so collectively we might better gauge the best way forward at the time. Let’s recall, after all, human beings died under American custody due to torture, quite a few of them, and this is therefore a tremendously grave matter, among other reasons too, meriting the most serious attention by the incoming Administration.
There are many other issues that would similarly present opportunities for real change and that I’d be keen to broach, but time and space constraints counsel ending here, rather than discussing Iraq (where a responsible draw-down needs to be implemented and the Baker-Hamilton report dusted off, as political issues will become increasingly important and problematic to its future, requiring major diplomatic efforts by ourselves and other interested parties), the far too ignored relationship with Latin America, particularly Brazil and Mexico, better managing an economic dialogue with China, a still rocky situation with North Korea, and putting Trans-Atlantic relations on a better footing, but to close, I would suggest a real departure point from the Bush Administration could well profit from some of the above recommendations, if only at least consideration of them, as they relate to Afghanistan, international terrorism, the Arab-Israeli peace process, Iran, Russia, and the legacy of the prior Administration’s torture policy.
January 12, 2009
Of War, and Tent Hospitals
I saw Sally Quinn, an adjunct member of my Torah study group, last night, and she had a smart idea: Why not erect a massive tent hospital in Sderot, staff it with Israeli army doctors, and treat the Palestinian wounded there? Israel is taking in some of the Palestinian wounded, but not enough of them. And Israel, as those of you who have been there know, has a lot of doctors. Sally's idea would be, at the same time, the right thing to do and a public relations coup. I told her I'm more cynical than she is -- that these sorts of sensible ideas don't get done, for whatever reason, but it would be nice to be proven wrong by the government of Israel.
This reminded me of a recent op-ed by Gideon Levy, who almost alone among high profile commentators in Israel has courageously been questioning the fundamental wisdom of Israel's operation in Gaza. Mr. Levy writes about his colleague Ari Shavit, but he could have just as easily been writing about, at least in this specific instance, Sally Quinn, or Mr. Goldberg, for that matter:
Rightists, nationalists, chauvinists and militarists are the only legitimate bon ton in town. Don't bother us about humaneness and compassion. Only at the edges of the camp can a voice of protest be heard - illegitimate, ostracized and ignored by media coverage - from a small but brave group of Jews and Arabs.
There is a lot of truth in what Mr. Levy writes above, and I urge commentators to honestly grapple with the issues he flags. This being said, I wish to be very clear. No country can tolerate frequent rocket attacks without punitive action being taken in response. This is true even when the fatalities have proven relatively low since Israel's withdrawal from Gaza several years back (I believe fewer than a dozen or so). And unlike the summer '06 war in Lebanon (which I addressed here, here and here at the time), it is quite likely that Israel's operation in Gaza may prove more successful, at least in the very short term. The topography in Gaza is more amenable, Ehud Barak is a more capable military leader than Amir Peretz ever was, and Hamas has neither the same stockpile of missiles (whether quantity or quality) nor level of training as enjoyed Hezbollah.
There is also the reality, of course, that Hamas militiamen have very little room to maneuver, much like the civilians in Gaza they are proverbial 'fish in the barrel' at this point (with the Egyptian border closed to boot). In addition, and even despite Condi Rice's terrific bungling of the cease-fire efforts surrounding the ill-fated Lebanon War (remember the gloried talk of 'birth pangs'?), there is arguably more of a carte blanche these past 15 plus days granted the Israelis than during the Lebanese fiasco (although the recent U.S. absention at the UNSC perhaps portends Israel's time for unfettered maneuver may be beginning to run out a bit, if for no other reason than the sheer scale of human misery ratcheting daily).
Throw in too the near total vacuum of power in Washington during the final days of the Bush-Barack hand-off interregnum, as well as Israel's hand being additionally advantaged by Mubarak's anti-Hamas stance (recall Hamas is an offshoot of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, an ardent thorn in Mubarak's side for decades), as well as Sarkozy's relative pro-Israeli tilt (he remains de facto European standard-bearer of late, even with France no longer holding the Euro-Zone Presidency), you might say Israel has played a pretty strong hand. In short then, Barak (along with Olmert and Livni) might really believe they are pursuing a reasonably successful operation, perhaps even beginning to praise themselves that victory may be nigh.
This however is most certainly not my view, for yet again (and as with the misadventure in Lebanon) the Israeli action is materially disproportionate to the threat being faced, thus reducing its ultimate prospects for success given a too heavy hand lending itself to further radicalization. I know, I know. Those who fancy themselves pro-Israeli scoff at the 'p' word (proportion). And yet true friends of Israel well realize that one cannot decimate terrorist or resistance movements through force of arms alone, even under the cover of phosphorus and half-ton bombs. Nor even fully eradicate the threat of rocket attacks, as Tzipi Livni seems to be signaling of late is the end-game marker the Israeli Government has set down for itself. Instead, you play into the hands of the radicals, while putting pressure on friendly governments through the region like Cairo and Amman forced to reckon with roiling bouts of popular anger, while not necessarily even having affected permanent changes to the security situation in the south of Israel given some of these strategic shortcomings.
And when you are operating in one of the densest areas on earth, matters surrounding the rights and wrongs of civilian casualties get very fuzzy indeed, in terms of allocating blame. For we can all agree, can we not, that a Hamas suicide bomber entering Israel to blow himself up amongst Israeli civilians in a pizzeria, say, is a terrorist. He posseses the specific intent to murder and cause mayhem to innocents, and coldly carries out his plans with all the horror this entails. But what of a bombing campaign so ferocious in an area densely packed with civilians—even when supposedly only targeting ‘militants’—that it is a virtual certainty that innocents will die, many of them? The serried ranks of the commentariat in this country making the rounds on mind-numbingly inane television news-shows have a pat answer, that is, it is unfortunate, but Hamas uses the population as ‘human shields’, or so we are told must be the case with any innocent that has been felled. It's Hamas fault, each and every time, you see? Thus the lines of morality that many argue can get quite blurred are instead unimpeachable, specific intent to kill civilians on the one hand (the Hamas suicide bomber say) is pitted against, not possible recklessness of scope of military action or even willfull misconduct in the heat of battle on occasion, but rather there can be no culpability or blame for the other side to the conflict, so that Hamas becomes responsible for all the IDF actions and ordinance too. But this is too convenient, I’m afraid. For example, let us for a moment ponder this grisly reportage from the NYT:
The story of the Samouni family has horrified many since Red Cross officials on Wednesday publicized their discovery of four emaciated Samouni children trapped for days in a home with the corpses of their mothers. The Red Cross said the Israeli military denied its paramedics access to the area for several days after the ground invasion began on Jan. 3, part of the offensive against Hamas that Israel says is intended to stop the firing of rockets into southern Israel.
It is all well and good to drop 'warning' leaflets urging residents to flee (but to where, one might ask?), to talk of funding and erecting tent hospitals, to have three-hour cease-fires that pass in a flicker to allow for another measly quotient of humanitarian aid to enter Gaza that is manifestly and woefully inadequate to the vast carnage and needs at hand. But the realities are far grimmer, are they not? There will soon likely be some 1,000 Palestinians dead (by Tuesday, at this rate?), many hundreds of them civilians, scores and scores of them children. Thousands more injured, some of them being carted about by donkey cart, literally, per the story quoted above. Children discovered helpless near their dead mothers, heart-wrenching in the extreme.
For what concretely realizable ends this ghastly suffering? To re-establish a 'new reality' in Israel's South? Mostly bunk, I'm afraid, as Hamas is all but sure to preserve at least some rocket-fire capacity, unless the IDF is ready to go into each and every back alley and basement of Gaza for another 60-90 days, in hand to hand fighting that would turn Gaza into a Grozny-on-the-Mediterranean, if it hasn't been already, or even worse. To show a re-invigorated deterrent to the 'neighborhood', notably Iran, after the Lebanon sortie that proved so ineffective? But the Iranians well know a campaign against Iran is of a magnitude wholly different by an exponential degree than against Gaza (so much so that even President Bush refused Israeli entreaties to pursue such an action), so they will not be particularly impressed.
Has real harm been inflicted on Hamas? Yes, to be sure, but could not similar ends have been achieved with less brutish force being employed, in better accord with international legal norms, with more humanitarian supplies let in? And must we hear of ‘shock and awe’ now each time a military campaign is launched (how horrid this phrase has become but braggadocio-infused code for savage bombing campaigns showcasing technological superiority to devastating effect, too often in terms of the innocents slaughtered) where local gendarmerie are bombed to death in broad daylight, and targets whose legitimacy is questionable reduced to rubble? Again, is there not a more civilized sense of proportion that can be employed by the Middle East's strongest democracy so as to advance more calibrated actions and rational outcomes?
Look, what the Israelis are doing is no worse than similar suffering that has been unleashed by US forces (notably via aerial bombardments against erroneous targets causing 'collateral' damage, a matter too rarely discussed in this country where war is more of a 'pass the popcorn' phenomenon among the masses, and it would seem, most of our 'elites') in places like rural Afghanistan and parts of Iraq. We have been sucked into the Middle East gyre too, alas, as occupiers now of Islamic lands along with the Israelis. But little good will ultimately come of any of this and the President-Elect must focus now on diplomacy, not only for us, but also on behalf of our friends and allies as well. Too much blood is being shorn, and in too haphazard a fashion.
In Israel (and, to a lesser extent, the U.S.) a different war is being seen in print and television:
Overall, 13 Israelis have been killed since the Israeli military offensive began Dec. 27, and each death has received blanket media coverage, complete with family interviews and anguished funeral scenes.
And yet empathy or no empathy, Hamas will likely survive in some capacity, perhaps even end up stronger over the medium term if peace-making doesn't restore some equilibrium to a devastated area, and most of the million plus residents of Gaza will still be there too once the guns fall silent. Neither party can wholly forget the existence of the other, even if they try to (as they both do), and even if they staunchly refuse to try to put each other in the others' shoes for a moment or two, if for no other reason than as simple thought experiment. Short of mass population transfer, or shunting Gaza off to Egypt (which Cairo won’t accept, ditto the West Bank back to Jordan), or quasi-genocidal action—Israel is struck with its Palestinian neighbors, and therefore there is simply no military solution, ultimately. To stress, the Gazans won’t now rush into the arms of Mohammed Dahlan so as to re-institute Fatah control, or some such, I wouldn't think.
No, there will instead be fresh grievances to nurse, and the cycle of retribution will likely churn on. To end this perennial madness, adult supervision is desperately needed, meaning President-elect Obama prioritizing a wholly resurrected peace process (including dialogue with Hamas via Turkish, Egyptian and perhaps European proxies) that allows for serious discussions to resume based off the Taba precedent, which has been ingloriously gathering dust during the reign of perhaps the most incompetent foreign policy team Washington has ever witnessed. This is a large task that will require something that had been missing from the Middle East for some eight long years. That is, responsible American leadership, an ‘honest broker’ that is also competent and seriously engaged, and never has it been more needed than before, both for the Israelis and Palestinians. True friends of Israel (think people like Dan Kurtzer, Aaron David Miller, Yossi Beilin, others, indeed, I suspect Jeffrey Goldberg as well) realize this. Let us hope President-Elect Obama, as well as his Secretary of State-designate, do as well. There is no time to waste, and the endless spilling of blood must cease so that this madness is brought to heel and both nations can begin to move forward towards a better future. In short, what we need now is an immediate cease-fire and a very ambitious, disciplined and persistent diplomatic initiative (an anti-Annapolis, if you will), one with region-wide ambitions so at minimum to include the Syrian and Lebanese tracks as well (as an aside, and like Richard Armitage, I am skeptical of too many special envoys being appointed by Hillary--Iran, India-Pakistan, others?--but let's stay tuned in the coming days). This would signal meaningful--rather than merely rhetorical--change to the international community, wouldn't it?
Israel hoped that the war in Gaza would not only cripple Hamas, but eventually strengthen its secular rival, the Palestinian Authority, and even allow it to claw its way back into Gaza.
Who could have known it?
About Belgravia Dispatch
Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.
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