Tag Archives: Justin Logan

Us And Egypt, Egypt And Us

Bruce Riedel at The Daily Beast:

The Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia has sent a shock wave through the Arab world. Never before has the street toppled a dictator. Now Egypt is shaking, Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year-old regime faces its most serious threat ever. The prospect of change in Egypt inevitably raises questions about the oldest and strongest opposition movement in the country, the Muslim Brotherhood , also known as Ikhwan. Can America work with an Egypt where the Ikhwan is part of a transition or even a new government?

The short answer is it is not our decision to make. Egyptians will decide the outcome, not Washington. We should not try to pick Egyptians’ rulers. Every time we have done so, from Vietnam’s generals to Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai, we have had buyer’s remorse. But our interests are very much involved so we have a great stake in the outcome. Understanding the Brotherhood is vital to understanding our options.

The Muslim Brethren was founded in 1928 by Shaykh Hassan al Banna as an Islamic alternative to weak secular nationalist parties that failed to secure Egypt’s freedom from British colonialism after World War I. Banna preached a fundamentalist Islamism and advocated the creation of an Islamic Egypt, but he was also open to importing techniques of political organization and propaganda from Europe that rapidly made the Brotherhood a fixture in Egyptian politics. Branches of the Brotherhood grew across the Arab world. By World War 2, it became more violent in its opposition to the British and the British-dominated monarchy, sponsoring assassinations and mass violence. After the army seized power in 1952, it briefly flirted with supporting Gamal Abdel Nasser’s government but then moved into opposition. Nasser ruthlessly suppressed it.

Andrew McCarthy at National Review on Riedel:

One might wonder how an organization can be thought to have renounced violence when it has inspired more jihadists than any other, and when its Palestinian branch, the Islamic Resistance Movement, is probably more familiar to you by the name Hamas — a terrorist organization committed by charter to the violent destruction of Israel. Indeed, in recent years, the Brotherhood (a.k.a., the Ikhwan) has enthusiastically praised jihad and even applauded — albeit in more muted tones — Osama bin Laden. None of that, though, is an obstacle for Mr. Riedel, a former CIA officer who is now a Brookings scholar and Obama administration national-security adviser. Following the template the progressive (and bipartisan) foreign-policy establishment has been sculpting for years, his “no worries” conclusion is woven from a laughably incomplete history of the Ikhwan.

By his account, Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna “preached a fundamentalist Islamism and advocated the creation of an Islamic Egypt, but he was also open to importing techniques of political organization and propaganda from Europe that rapidly made the Brotherhood a fixture in Egyptian politics.” What this omits, as I recount in The Grand Jihad, is that terrorism and paramilitary training were core parts of Banna’s program. It is by leveraging the resulting atmosphere of intimidation that the Brotherhood’s “politics” have achieved success. The Ikhwan’s activist organizations follow the same program in the United States, where they enjoy outsize political influence because of the terrorist onslaught.

Banna was a practical revolutionary. On the one hand, he instructed his votaries to prepare for violence. They had to understand that, in the end — when the time was right, when the Brotherhood was finally strong enough that violent attacks would more likely achieve Ikhwan objectives than provoke crippling blowback — violence would surely be necessary to complete the revolution (meaning, to institute sharia, Islam’s legal-political framework). Meanwhile, on the other hand, he taught that the Brothers should take whatever they could get from the regime, the political system, the legal system, and the culture. He shrewdly realized that, if the Brothers did not overplay their hand, if they duped the media, the intelligentsia, and the public into seeing them as fighters for social justice, these institutions would be apt to make substantial concessions. Appeasement, he knew, is often a society’s first response to a threat it does not wish to believe is existential.

Ron Radosh:

As bad as Mubarak is, and the Egyptian people have good reason to despise him, he is a lot better than other dictators who have led regimes in the Middle East. Remember Saddam Hussein, and also recall the forces that took power in Iran after the populace ousted the shah in 1979. I vividly remember all those student protesters on U.S. campuses bearing photos of the victims tortured by the shah’s secret police, and demanding the Shah’s ouster and his replacement by the great democratic revolutionaries led by the Ayatollah Khomeini. That was a popular theme as well in precincts of the always wise American left, symbolized by the arguments of Princeton University political scientist Richard Falk, or the comment of Jimmy Carter’s UN Ambassador Andrew Young that Khomeini was a “saint.”

It is most instructive to look back at Falk’s arguments, made a scant two weeks after the shah’s government fell and he fled Iran, and the Grand Ayatollah Khomeini returned to the country. Khomeini, Falk wrote in The New York Times (Feb.16, 1979), “has been depicted in a manner calculated to frighten,” and President Jimmy Carter had “associated him with religious fanaticism.” He was also “defamed” by the news media, some of whose pundits dared to call Khomeini an advocate of “theocratic fascism.”

Rather than being a religious leader who fit any of those dire characteristics made by his enemies, the movement had “a nonviolent record.” In addition, the would-be radical Islamist was a man who pleaded with Iran’s Jews to stay in the country. Certainly, even Falk had to acknowledge that the coming leader was against Israel. But that “of course” was due to the fact that Israel “supported the shah” and had not “resolved the Palestinian question.”

Khomeini was not dissembling, Falk assured his readers, since he expressed “his real views defiantly and without apology.” Moreover, his closest advisers were “uniformly composed of moderate, progressive individuals” and those he sought to lead a new government, all of whom “share a notable record of concern for human rights and see eager to achieve economic development that results in a modern society.” The reason the entire opposition deferred to Khomeini was not due to coercion, but because they knew that he and the Shiite “tradition is flexible in its approach to the Koran and evolves interpretations that correspond to the changing needs and experience of the people.” Its main desire and “religious orientation” was concern “with resisting oppression and promoting social justice.”

He knew that Khomeini sought “not to govern,” but instead simply to “inspire.” That is why he would live in the holy city of Qum, a place removed “from the daily exercise of power.” He would simply be a “guide or, if necessary, …a critic of the republic.” He would thus be able to show the world what “a genuine Islamic government can do on behalf of its people.” Falk assured readers that Khomeini scorned “so-called Islamic Governments in Saudi Arabia, Libya and Pakistan.” Thus one could talk of “Islam’s finest hour,” in which Khomeini had created “a new model of popular revolution based, for the most part, on nonviolent tactics.” Iran, he knew, would” provide us with a desperately needed model of humane governance for a third-world country.”

And you wonder why those of us who have become conservatives no longer trust the great spokesmen of the American left/liberal intelligentsia.

Ross Douthat in NYT:

The memory of Nasser is a reminder that even if post-Mubarak Egypt doesn’t descend into religious dictatorship, it’s still likely to lurch in a more anti-American direction. The long-term consequences of a more populist and nationalistic Egypt might be better for the United States than the stasis of the Mubarak era, and the terrorism that it helped inspire. But then again they might be worse. There are devils behind every door.

Americans don’t like to admit this. We take refuge in foreign policy systems: liberal internationalism or realpolitik, neoconservatism or noninterventionism. We have theories, and expect the facts to fall into line behind them. Support democracy, and stability will take care of itself. Don’t meddle, and nobody will meddle with you. International institutions will keep the peace. No, balance-of-power politics will do it.

But history makes fools of us all. We make deals with dictators, and reap the whirlwind of terrorism. We promote democracy, and watch Islamists gain power from Iraq to Palestine. We leap into humanitarian interventions, and get bloodied in Somalia. We stay out, and watch genocide engulf Rwanda. We intervene in Afghanistan and then depart, and watch the Taliban take over. We intervene in Afghanistan and stay, and end up trapped there, with no end in sight.

Sooner or later, the theories always fail. The world is too complicated for them, and too tragic. History has its upward arcs, but most crises require weighing unknowns against unknowns, and choosing between competing evils.

The only comfort, as we watch Egyptians struggle for their country’s future, is that some choices aren’t America’s to make.

Justin Logan at Cato on Douthat:

The fact that theories are imperfect does not make them any less necessary.  We take refuge in foreign policy theories because there is no alternative.  As Ben Friedman pointed out in responding to Douthat previously, it is impossible to have foreign policies without foreign-policy theories.  The same goes for economics, domestic politics, and a whole range of human behavior.  People take (or oppose) various actions based on their expectations about what outcomes the actions will (or will not) produce.  Whether people are conscious of it or not, our expectations are products of our theories.  People disagree about which theories are good and which are bad, but we all have them.

Laura Rozen at Politico:

Just got late word that Dunne, Kagan and others from their group including former Bush NSC Middle East hand Elliott Abrams, as well as George Washington University Middle East expert Marc Lynch, and the National Security Network’s Joel Rubin, formerly a U.S. Egypt desk officer, have been invited to the White House Monday.

“We do think-tank sessions on an almost weekly basis,” a senior administration official told POLITICO’s Playbook. “The goal is to bring in some of the top opinion leaders and thinkers on a given subject and have a candid conversion. We’ve done it with China, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc. Today’s topic is Egypt.”


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Gamma Gamma Gaza Gaga

Bret Stephens in The Wall Street Journal:

Pop quiz—What does more to galvanize radical anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world: (a) Israeli settlements on the West Bank; or (b) a Lady Gaga music video?

If your answer is (b) it means you probably have a grasp of the historical roots of modern jihadism. If, however, you answered (a), then congratulations: You are perfectly in synch with the new Beltway conventional wisdom, now jointly defined by Pat Buchanan and his strange bedfellows within the Obama administration.

What is that wisdom? In a March 26 column in Human Events, Mr. Buchanan put the case with his usual subtlety:

“Each new report of settlement expansion,” he wrote, “each new seizure of Palestinian property, each new West Bank clash between Palestinians and Israeli troops inflames the Arab street, humiliates our Arab allies, exposes America as a weakling that cannot stand up to Israel, and imperils our troops and their mission in Afghanistan and Iraq.”


Now consider Lady Gaga—or, if you prefer, Madonna, Farrah Fawcett, Marilyn Monroe, Josephine Baker or any other American woman who has, at one time or another, personified what the Egyptian Islamist writer Sayyid Qutb once called “the American Temptress.”

Qutb, for those unfamiliar with the name, is widely considered the intellectual godfather of al Qaeda; his 30-volume exegesis “In the Shade of the Quran” is canonical in jihadist circles. But Qutb, who spent time as a student in Colorado in the late 1940s, also decisively shaped jihadist views about the U.S.

In his 1951 essay “The America I Have Seen,” Qutb gave his account of the U.S. “in the scale of human values.” “I fear,” he wrote, “that a balance may not exist between America’s material greatness and the quality of her people.” Qutb was particularly exercised by what he saw as the “primitiveness” of American values, not least in matters of sex.

“The American girl,” he noted, “knows seductiveness lies in the round breasts, the full buttocks, and in the shapely thighs, sleek legs and she shows all this and does not hide it.” Nor did he approve of Jazz—”this music the savage bushmen created to satisfy their primitive desires”—or of American films, or clothes, or haircuts, or food. It was all, in his eyes, equally wretched.

Qutb’s disdain for America’s supposedly libertine culture would not matter much were it not wedded to a kind of theological Leninism that emphasized the necessity of violently overthrowing any political arrangement not based on Shariah law. No less violent was Qutb’s attitude toward Jews: “The war the Jews began to wage against Islam and Muslims in those early days [of Islamic history],” he wrote in the 1950s, “has raged to the present. The form and appearance may have changed, but the nature and the means remain the same.”

Needless to say, that passage was written long before Israel had “occupied” a single inch of Arab territory, unless one takes the view—held to this day by Hezbollah, Hamas, al Qaeda, Jemaah Islamiyah and every other jihadist group that owes an intellectual debt to Qutb, including significant elements of the “moderate” Palestinian Fatah—that Tel Aviv itself is occupied territory.

Bear in mind, too, that the America Qutb found so offensive had yet to discover Elvis, Playboy, the pill, women’s lib, acid tabs, gay rights, Studio 54, Jersey Shore and, of course, Lady Gaga. In other words, even in some dystopic hypothetical world in which hyper-conservatives were to seize power in the U.S. and turn the cultural clock back to 1948, America would still remain a swamp of degeneracy in the eyes of Qutb’s latter-day disciples.

This, then, is the core complaint that the Islamists from Waziristan to Tehran to Gaza have lodged against the West. It explains why jihadists remain aggrieved even after the U.S. addressed their previous casus belli by removing troops from Saudi Arabia, and why they will continue to remain aggrieved long after we’ve decamped from Iraq, Afghanistan and even the Persian Gulf. As for Israel, its offenses are literally inextricable: as a democracy, as a Jewish homeland, as a country in which liberalism in all its forms, including cultural, prevails.

Daniel Larison:

That must be why America was beset by jihadist attacks since at least 1948. Oh, wait, this never happened? How strange. That might mean that the decadence-as-cause-of-terrorism argument grossly exaggerates the importance of such cultural factors in explaining jihadist violence as a way of distracting us from remediable political grievances. In fact, attacks on Americans and American installations began after we inserted ourselves into the region’s conflicts and began establishing a military presence there. Hegemonists can obsess over the writings of Qutb all they want, but it will not change the reality that anti-American jihadist violence did not occur until the misguided 1982-83 intervention in Lebanon. U.S. and Israeli military operations and policies of occupation provoke much broader, more intense resentment among Muslims than any general dissatisfaction with the decadence of Western culture and its deleterious effects
on their own societies. The suicide bomber in Khost was radicalized by the treatment of Gaza, not the performances of Lady Gaga. It might suit a certain type of Westerner to associate fanaticism, political violence and strict moralism, but on the whole this is a misunderstanding and a distraction from the real causes of the problem.

The recent Moscow subway bombings are instructive on this point. The bombings are outrageous atrocities for which there is no excuse or justification, but one would have to be a blind fool to say that Chechen grievances, which outside jihadists have been exploiting for the last decade, are based in morally offensive Russian pop culture. It is acceptable for hegemonists to acknowledge this when Russia is the target of terrorist attacks, but when it comes to acknowledging U.S. and allied policies as important contributing factors we are treated instead to these sweeping cultural arguments and close readings of Sayyid Qutb.

Andrew Exum:

I have no idea if this is actually true. It seems to me that I have seen both empirical evidence and anecdotal evidence lending credence to the idea that outrage over the plight of the Palestinians is, in fact, a driver of conflict and/or anti-American sentiment in the Arabic-speaking world, but there may be more sophisticated research and analysis out there that proves otherwise. And Stephens leans heavily on the writings of Sayyid Qutb to support his arguments, which makes me nervous, because for all his talents, Stephens is no scholar of Islam, and a few things that should not be studied as a hobby include:

  1. Brain surgery
  2. Multilinear algebra
  3. The strands and evolution of Islamist thought

Many serious scholars have written very good work on Islamic fundamentalism, and for those wishing to learn more, allow me to recommend, among many other works, Marty and Appleby’s multi-volume Fundamentalism Project and Hourani’s single-volume, highly-readable Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age 1798-1939. The latter is a great primer on the intellectual roots of pretty much all the major ideas in the Arabic-speaking world of the 20th Century — to include Arab nationalism and Islamism.

But I am not weighing in to either defend or attack Israeli settlements or to explain the intellectual history of the Arabic-speaking world — two subjects I know just enough about to know that I should keep my mouth shut and let the experts do the talking. The purpose of this post is to highlight a key lesson of Middle East peacemaking: Leave Lady Gaga the hell out of it.

Brett Stephens may have read a few books on Islamist thought, but how many Arabic-language music videos has he watched? I ask because I have seen a lot (as they play pretty much 24-7 in 90% of the cafes and restaurants of the Arabic-speaking world), and I have also, this very morning, made a careful study of the oeuvre of Lady Gaga to determine which are more provocative sexually. The verdict? Lady Gaga is, in the words of my office mate (like Sayyid Qutb, an alumnus of the University of Northern Colorado!), “a brilliant art school trainwreck.” She is a ridiculous mess who uses sex among many other provocations to entertain. And as I have well-documented soft spot in my heart for Italian girls from Westchester County, I feel I need to stick up for her.

Haifa Wehbe, meanwhile? Well, judge for yourselves, but whereas Lady Gaga is a Tisch School-trained provocateuse, Hizballah-supporting Haifa strikes me as a less sophisticated one-trick pony pretty much mixing sex with music with, well, more sex. Regardless, with music videos like this one, Stephens can hardly argue that Lady Gaga is the one importing sexual provocation into the Arabic-speaking world and stirring things up, can he?

Spencer Ackerman:

I have no interest in pretending that a Wall Street Journal op-ed about Israel and the U.S. contains the slightest bit of intellectual honesty or rigor, but this Abu Muqawama post on — yes — Lady Gaga and the Israeli-Arab conflict takes a valuable detour into the salacious world of Arabic-language pop-tart-ery. When I was last in Iraqi Kurdistan I considered it a journalistic obligation to watch Hotbird-satellite-borne Haifa Wehbe videos in my hotel room, in order to thoroughly immerse myself in regional culture, and I treated this obligation with the professional solemnity and rigor it deserved. Suffice it to say no one in the Middle East will be shocked by Gaga.

Justin Logan at Cato:

Dangerously, though, Stephens veers back toward falsifiability by writing that “the core complaint that the Islamists from Waziristan to Tehran to Gaza have lodged against the West” is that we’re too sexed-up.  This is, of course, not accurate.  Bin Laden’s 1996 fatwa, after all, was not titled “Declaration of War against the Americans with their Supple Buttocks and Protuberant Breasts.”  Instead, it was called “Declaration of War against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places.”  Or you can take a look at the second fatwa, released in 1998.  The three big claims made against us in there were

  1. Our presence in Saudi Arabia and support for the Saudi government, which he hates;
  2. Our sanctions regime against Iraq and its alleged effects on Iraqi civilians; and
  3. Our support for Israel.

There’s a lot you can do with this information, up to and including supposing that bin Laden would not be satisfied even if these three conditions were somehow removed.  You can also read the actual fatwas and conclude that the Israel stuff was far from the centerpiece of the argument and seemed sort of tacked on at the end for good measure.  I actually think both these arguments are good ones.  But actually thinking about what’s in those texts should cause you to ask why, of all the grievances he could have lodged, including our reverence for Josephine Baker, did he pick those three issues? The answer that presents itself is that he is not an idiot and he thinks the three points he made will be most effective in recruiting people to the cause.

Once again, there’s a lot you can do with this, up to and including saying you don’t care what effect our policies may have on al Qaeda recruiting, continuing them is worth a lot to us so we’re going to do so.  And that’s fine.  But Stephens’ cute argumentation and burial of basic facts about these yahoos isn’t doing a service to the debate over what to do about them.

Similarly, Stephens could have looked for actual research on the topic.  For example, public opinion scholars Andrew Kohut and Richard Wike drew on six years of survey data in the Islamic world and concluded in 2008 that while “America’s image in much of the Muslim world remains abysmal,” “most of the story is opposition to American foreign policy rather than value divides or religious-based enmity.” Or look at the U.S. Defense Department’s reporting on the issue: “American direct intervention in the Muslim World has paradoxically elevated the stature of and support for radical Islamists, while diminishing support for the United States to single-digits in some Arab societies…Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,’ but rather, they hate our policies.” [.pdf]  Basically everybody who’s studied this question in any detail agrees with this general argument.

Stephens has a great pulpit on the Wall Street Journal’s op-ed page.  He should have more respect for his readers and more deference to the truth.

Thomas Hegghammer at Foreign Policy:

Stephens is absolutely right that Islamism as a general phenomenon is partly a reaction to cultural Westernization and modernization. Islamists are indeed defined by their rejection of secularism, and like religious activists from other faiths, they dislike consumerism and sexual promiscuity. However, Stephens is wrong when he asserts that Westernization is a major driver of anti-American terrorism and that what happens in Palestine does not matter for the fight against al Qaeda.

Islamism and anti-American militancy are not the same thing. There are millions of Islamists out there, but only some engage in violence and only a tiny fraction fight America. The available evidence suggests the latter care more about Palestine than Lady Gaga.

By citing Qutb at length, Stephens proves my point and undermines his own. Qutb was indeed disgusted by aspects of American culture, but he neither waged nor advocated violence against the United States. Qutb’s jihad was against the Egyptian regime, not America.

To the extent that Westernization causes militancy, the violence it inspires is nearly always directed at other Muslims, typically against regimes in Arab countries, because these legislate over matters of public morality. Jihadists are idealists, but they are not so utopian as to think they can stop Westernization by attacking America. However, they do think that by installing Islamist local governments, those governments can take measures to limit social liberalization.

Militants who attack the West, such as al Qaeda members, represent a different phenomenon. They argue that the fight against secular Muslim regimes (and by extension Westernization) is less urgent than attacking non-Muslims who kill Muslims and occupy Muslim territory.

How do we know that Palestine is more important than Westernization for the anti-American jihadists? First, al Qaeda’s leaders have spoken more often about Palestine and other political issues (pdf) than about moral corruption. Second, when al Qaeda recruits cite their reasons for joining, they more often mention Palestine, Chechnya, and other political issues (pdf) than they do examples of Westernization. Third, incidents of anti-American violence and vandalism in the Middle East have tended to increase during or shortly after dramatic events in Palestine. Fourth, recruitment to al Qaeda has tended to expand during or shortly after escalation of hostilities in Palestine. Fifth, al Qaeda militants are happy to embrace aspects of Western culture when it suits them — witness the use of videos and music in jihadi propaganda — and they are arguably more pragmatic about matters moral and ritual than many other Islamists.

Daniel Drezner:

One last thought.  Let’s ignore what these other bloggers have said for a moment.  Let’s temporarily accept Stephens’ assumption that Muslims in the Middle East are equally exercised about Israel/Palestine and the decadence of U.S. popular culture.  If that’s true, from a policy perspective, which issue should the United States prioritize?

If you think about this in terms of American national interests, it’s not a close call.  Pushing Israel/Palestine forward requires leaning a bit harder on an ally that is actually vulnerable to U.S. pressure.  Censoring U.S. popular culture would require massive domestic costs.  If you were offering the president advice among these policy options, which one would you say yields the greatest gain for the least cost to the United States?

UPDATE: Matthew Schmitz at The League

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Will You Be My Friend? Circle Y For Yes, Circle N For No

Laura Rozen and Ben Smith at Politico:

The Obama administration shifted this week from red hot anger at Benjamin Netanyahu to an icier suspicion of the Israeli prime minister, who made clear during marathon meetings with U.S. officials that he would give ground only grudgingly on their goal of stopping construction of new Israeli housing units on disputed territory.

Netanyahu met with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office on Tuesday evening for an unexpectedly long 89 minutes until about 7 p.m., then stayed to consult in the Roosevelt Room with his own staff, according to a source briefed on the meeting. Obama and Netanyahu then met again for 35 minutes at 8:20 p.m. at Netanyahu’s request, the source said. But the meetings were shrouded in unusual secrecy, in part because U.S. officials, who just ten days earlier called the surprise announcement of new housing in East Jerusalem an “insult” and an “affront,” made sure to reward Netanyahu with a series of small snubs: There were no photographs released from the meeting and no briefing for the press.

And as of late Tuesday evening, neither side had released the usual “readout” of the meetings’ content — a likely indicator of the distance between the sides.

Jackson Diehl at WaPo:

Obama has added more poison to a U.S.-Israeli relationship that already was at its lowest point in two decades. Tuesday night the White House refused to allow non-official photographers record the president’s meeting with Netanyahu; no statement was issued afterward. Netanyahu is being treated as if he were an unsavory Third World dictator, needed for strategic reasons but conspicuously held at arms length. That is something the rest of the world will be quick to notice and respond to. Just like the Palestinians, European governments cannot be more friendly to an Israeli leader than the United States. Would Britain have expelled a senior Israeli diplomat Tuesday because of a flap over forged passports if there were no daylight between Obama and Netanyahu? Maybe not.

The White House’s explanations for Obama’s behavior keep shifting. At first spokesmen insisted that the president had to respond to the “insult” of the settlement announcement during a visit to Jerusalem by Vice President Biden — even though the administration knew that, far from being a calculated snub, the decision by a local council had taken Netanyahu himself by surprise.

Next the administration argued that the scrap was a needed wake-up call for Netanyahu’s right-wing government, which, it was said, had been put on notice that its failure to move toward a settlement with Palestinians was endangering U.S. interests in the region. But — assuming for the moment that the administration’s premise is correct — Obama chose to challenge Netanyahu on a point that is not material to the creation of a Palestinian state. As the Israeli leader has pointed out, previous U.S. administrations and the Palestinians themselves have already accepted that Jewish neighborhoods in and around Jerusalem will be annexed to Israel in exchange for territory elsewhere.

U.S. pressure on Netanyahu will be needed if the peace process ever reaches the point where the genuinely contentious issues, like Palestinian refugees or the exact territorial tradeoffs, are on the table. But instead of waiting for that moment and pushing Netanyahu on a point where he might be vulnerable to domestic challenge, Obama picked a fight over something that virtually all Israelis agree on, and before serious discussions have even begun. As the veteran Middle East analyst Robert Malley put it to The Post’s Glenn Kessler, “U.S. pressure can work, but it needs to be at the right time, on the right issue and in the right political context. The administration is ready for a fight, but it realized the issue, timing and context were wrong.”

A new administration can be excused for making such a mistake in the treacherous and complex theater of Middle East diplomacy. That’s why Obama was given a pass by many when he made exactly the same mistake last year. The second time around, the president doesn’t look naive. He appears ideological — and vindictive.

Jennifer Rubin at Commentary:

Quite obviously the relationship is anything but “rock solid,” after 14 months of Obami Middle East policy. Having picked a losing fight over the issue nearest and dearest to Israelis and American Jews and provoking a retort that may now become a slogan of defiance (”Jerusalem is not a settlement — it’s our capital!”), the Obami have no where to go. More stony silence? More condemnation statements with each new housing announcement? The proximity talks, yet another accommodation to Palestinian intransigence, are a dead end. And meanwhile, the mullahs proceed with their nuclear program. A nuclear-armed Iran may be “unacceptable” to the Obami, but in all this brouhaha it should not go unnoticed that they are making no progress in thwarting the Iranians’ nuclear ambitions.

Quin Hillyer at American Spectator:

After yesterday’s meetings between Binyamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama, for the first time in my life I quite literally feel more allegiance to the head of a foreign state than I do to the president of the United States. Mind you, this is personal: NOT allegiance to the foreign state, nor allegiance to its office of PM over this American government or the office of the president, but a greater personal allegiance — greater trust in, greater belief that his goals and stances are actually better for the United States itself — to the person of Netanyahu than to that of The One. Just so the left and MSM can’t go screaming like madmen, let me be even more clear: Let me change the word “allegiance” to “trusting respect,” and let me say also that this means I believe Netanyahu’s words, trust his judgment, and feel more secure in his motives, more than I believe, trust, and feel more secure with Obama. (This has nothing whatsoever with my loyalty to the United States of America, of course, which is undying. All too often, too many people conflate the man with the office of the presidency, but they are not one and the same. Obama is my president. But he is not a good one, and I do not have to respect him for me to respect the office.)

I write this not as a Jew, but as a cradle Episcopalian, or a sort of hybrid Anglo-Catholic. In short, not based on faith, but on reason. If the Jewish state can’t allow free people to build housing in Jerusalem, then the Irish state may as well not let Irish build in Dublin.

Daniel Larison responds:

This is silly. No one contests the sovereignty of Ireland over any of Dublin’s territory. There is not a population of die-hard Unionists living in Dublin that desire their own state. The Irish government isn’t sponsoring construction for zealous republicans in Unionist parts of the city on territory seized during one of the Republic’s previous wars with Britain. I’m sure Mr. Hillyer knows the differences in status between Jerusalem and Dublin. Like other sympathizers with the Israeli government’s position, he simply chooses to ignore them and pretends that this is a matter of perfectly legitimate housing policy decisions. He is free to do this if he likes, just as the Israeli government can persist in claiming this, but it isn’t likely to persuade the rest of the world that it is wrong not to recognize Israeli sovereignty over East Jerusalem.

Having read Netanyahu’s address to AIPAC, I was trying to think of another example of a contested city that was politically divided before a war and then completely captured in wartime that the victorious party declared as its capital city. Making such a city into a national capital is a very unusual thing to do, but then the circumstances during and after 1967 were unusual. The special religious status of Jerusalem makes the situation even more unusual, and obviously the place of Jerusalem in Jewish history makes it unusually important to Israelis. Indeed, the most reasonable claims Israel has on East Jerusalem derive from recognition that Israelis have legitimate claims on Jerusalem based in prior history and general agreement that Jerusalem is a very special case that is unlike every other case of disputed territory. If that is not the case, it certainly does not help Israel’s position regarding new construction on occupied territory.

On a different, but related note, Robert Wright at NYT:

Are you anti-Israel? If you fear that, deep down, you might be, I have important news. The recent tension between Israel and the United States led various commentators to identify hallmarks of anti-Israelism, and these may be of diagnostic value.

As you’ll see, my own view is that they aren’t of much value, but I’ll leave it for you to judge.

Symptom no. 1: Believing that Israel shouldn’t build more settlements in East Jerusalem. President Obama holds this belief, and that seems to be the reason that Gary Bauer, who sought the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, deems Obama’s administration “the most anti-Israel administration in U.S. history.” Bauer notes that the East Jerusalem settlements are “entirely within the city of Jerusalem” and that Jerusalem is “the capital of Israel.”

That’s artful wording, but it doesn’t change the fact that East Jerusalem, far from being part of “the capital of Israel,” isn’t even part of Israel. East Jerusalem lies beyond Israel’s internationally recognized, pre-1967 borders. And the common assertion that Israel “annexed” East Jerusalem has roughly the same legal significance as my announcing that I’ve annexed my neighbor’s backyard. In 1980 the United Nations explicitly rejected Israel’s claim to possess East Jerusalem. And the United States, which normally vetoes U.N. resolutions that Israel finds threatening, chose not to do so in this case.

In short, accepting Gary Bauer’s idea of what it means to be anti-Israel seems to involve being anti-truth. So I don’t accept it. (And if you’re tempted to accept the common claim that Israel is building only in “traditionally Jewish” parts of East Jerusalem, a good antidote is this piece by Lara Friedman and Daniel Seidemann, published on Foreign Policy Magazine’s excellent new Middle East Channel.)

Gary Bauer responds to Wright at The Weekly Standard:

I’ve read Mr. Wright’s article a half dozen times, and I’m struggling to understand his strange definition of what it means to be pro-Israel. It seems that to Mr. Wright the more loudly you criticize Israel, the more pro-Israel you can claim to be. By that standard, the United Nations is a bastion of pro-Israel sentiment.

That’s a strange view of friendship. Wright and the Obama administration are in a frenzy over the view that Jews in certain Jerusalem neighborhoods are the biggest obstacle to peace in the Middle East. Wright certainly knows that most Palestinians consider all of Israel a “settlement.” They don’t want Jews in Jerusalem, and they don’t want them in Tel Aviv. They don’t want a Jewish state period.

The disputed area of Jerusalem, Ramat Shlomo, is not a settlement. It’s not in a Palestinian neighborhood. Twenty thousand Israeli Jews live there. The idea that neighborhoods like Ramat Shlomo should be relinquished has never been on the negotiating table. It’s not a neighborhood that the Palestinians have ever had any intention of taking control of until the Obama administration raised it as an issue.

Wright also, in criticizing remarks by Abe Foxman, says more “settlements” in East Jerusalem makes it “harder to find a two-state deal that leaves Palestinians with much of their dignity intact.” But it’s wrong to suggest that Palestinians’ dignity would be endangered by Jews living in their own country. Arabs are free to live anywhere in Israel. Does Mr. Wright think Jews would  be welcomed and be able to live safely in a new Palestinian state?

During the 19 years that Jordan occupied East Jerusalem, it expelled all the Jews living in what was historically the Jewish Quarter, and it destroyed all the synagogues and the homes of Jews. In contrast, when Israel reunited Jerusalem, it allowed Jews and Muslims to live in any part of the city and to worship freely.

There are some who publicly insist that America’s support for Israel irritates Middle East Muslims. But those in the Muslim world who hate America do so for many reasons. They dislike our support for Israel, but they also loathe our freedom. The truth is that many Muslims hate America—as they hate Israel—because we exist and insist on pluralism and tolerance.

Max Boot in Commentary:

The condescension — and ignorance — implicit in this argument is staggering. Wright suggests that Israel’s elected leaders from all the major parties — all of them united in supporting the construction of housing for Jews at least in traditionally Jewish parts of East Jerusalem — don’t know what’s good for their country. But he does. And anyone who disagrees with him is objectively “anti-Israel.”

Perhaps he could explain why the greatest progress toward a two-state solution was made in the 1990s, when construction continued in the West Bank, and why talks are at a standstill now even though Netanyahu agreed in November to halt all construction in the West Bank (though not in Jerusalem) for 10 months. Perhaps he could explain why Palestinian leaders have repeatedly refused to embrace Israeli offers to turn over almost all the West Bank and even part of Jerusalem in return for a lasting settlement. Or why Israeli concessions such as evacuating the Gaza Strip and southern Lebanon have been met with more attacks rather than any lasting peace. But no. The honest answers to those questions might shake his certitude that he knows better than those whose lives are actually on the line about what’s good for them.

Justin Logan at Cato:

I have been and remain skeptical that Washington could successfully force a deal on the Israelis and Palestinians.  To my mind, neither side seems willing to make the sorts of very painful concessions that would be necessary for peace.  I think that the big problem the I/P dispute presents for the United States is less inherent in the conflict than it is in the fact that the United States has placed itself in a position, as George Kennan wrote, where “each [side] has the impression that it is primarily through us that its desiderata can be achieved, with the result that we are always first to be blamed, no matter whose ox is gored; and all this in a situation where we actually have very little influence with either party.”

But as long as we’re implicated in this sorry affair, we ought to be throwing our weight around to try to push both parties in the directions we think they ought to go.  As Wright writes, smiling and nodding no matter what Israel does isn’t friendship.

Andrew Sullivan:

Here’s the impression I get. Obama just faced down a loud bully, the GOP base, in crafting a needed and moderate settlement on a deep domestic issue. Don’t the odds of his facing down Netanyahu thereby get a little bit better? Linkage, dear reader, linkage.

UPDATE: Paul Mirengoff at Powerline


Glenn Greenwald

UPDATE #2: Dan Drezner and Henry Farrell at Bloggingheads


Filed under Israel/Palestine, Political Figures

Do We Have A Mathematical Model For “Cursing, Sputtering Rage?”

Andrew Exum:

I have written a little about the utility of quantitative analysis in the field of security studies here and here. Last week, though, I finished Wall Street Journal reporter Scott Patterson’s book on how quantitative hedge funds — as opposed to “fundamental” investors like Warren Buffett — contributed to the Wall Street collapse of 2008. Patterson ends his book with the efforts of some quants to get their analysis to abide by a code of conduct. The resulting manifesto — written by Paul Wilmott and Emanuel Derman — can be read here. There are some useful passages, highlighted below, which address the uncomfortable reality that elegant mathmatical formulae don’t always describe messy human endeavors like the behavior of the markets — or war, for that matter.


Financial theory has tried hard to emulate the style and elegance of physics in order to discover its own laws. But markets are made of people, who are influenced by events, by their ephemeral feelings about events and by their expectations of other people’s feelings. The truth is that there are no fundamental laws in finance. And even if there were, there is no way to run repeatable experiments to verify them. …

The Modelers’ Hippocratic Oath

~ I will remember that I didn’t make the world, and it doesn’t satisfy my equations.

~ Though I will use models boldly to estimate value, I will not be overly impressed by mathematics.

~ I will never sacrifice reality for elegance without explaining why I have done so.

~ Nor will I give the people who use my model false comfort about its accuracy. Instead, I will make explicit its assumptions and oversights.

~ I understand that my work may have enormous effects on society and the economy, many of them beyond my comprehension.

I found the humility in this manifesto to be really refreshing. What might a similar manifesto look like for those using quantitative analysis to study war? And should the U.S. graduate programs in political science (and subsets of the field, like international relations and security studies) pushing their students toward quantitative analysis be more up-front about the explanatory limits of such analysis? Anyway, borrowing liberally (read: plagiarizing) from Wilmott and Derman, here is what I think a Hippocratic Oath for Quantitative Analysis in Security Studies should look like:

  • War is a human endeavor. I recognize that it is a phenomenon that does not conform to neat mathematical equations.
  • I will use quantitative analysis in conjunction with theory and qualitative analysis to describe what I see as phenomena in war and peace. I will be honest about the limits of both my theory and my analysis.
  • In war and peace, the variables are infinite, and not everything can be measured or assigned a numerical value.
  • I will not use numbers to signify what are fundamentally qualitative assessments without acknowledging to my reader that I have done so in order to satisfy a departmental requirement, gain tenure, or get published in the APSR. Or because I have been in graduate school for so long that I have forgotten how to effectively write in prose.
  • I recognize there are no mathematical equations in Vom Kriege and that it is nonetheless unlikely that my legacy will transcend that of Clausewitz.
  • I recognize that very few squad leaders in the 10th Mountain Division have ever taken a course in statistics yet probably know more about the conduct and realities of war than I do.

Stephen Walt in Foreign Policy:

Wise words indeed.  I’d just add that Nobel prize-winning economist and strategic guru Thomas Schelling offered a similar warning in The Strategy of Conflict, cautioning against any tendency “to treat the subject of strategy as thohttps://aroundthesphere.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post-new.phpugh it were, or should be, solely a branch of mathematics.”

That’s not to say that various types of mathematical analysis aren’t useful, whether one is talking about operations research, basic statistics, game theory, or whatever.  But it’s just a tool, and ought to be used in conjunction with other methods and with an appropriate degree of humility.

Drew Conway at Zero Intelligence Agents:

Yesterday, Andrew Exum—a person who admits his own ignorance of the current state-of-the-art in political science literature—presented his “manifesto” on the quantitative analysis of conflict. While Exum’s bonafides in counterinsurgency and military strategy go without saying, given that he knows almost nothing about quantitative analysis I found this manifest rather disingenuous. Furthermore, since he has referred to me as a quantitative “hired assassin,” I felt an additional duty to respond.

To be fair, Exum has recently praised the work of contemporary quantitative analysis of conflict by scholars such as Lyall, Berman and Shapiro, all three of which whom are well deserving of praise. As such, it is peculiar that Exum would feel the need to present this manifesto after having to first be told by others about this work (due presumedly to his own admitted ignorance); and second, actually liking it. To be sure, such an endeavor is useful, as it is clear that both subtle formal models and sophisticated statistical analyses can be manipulated and misinterpreted to present dangerous falsehoods; however, Exum’s attempt to undervalue the contributions of this work with respect to policy is equally dangerous.

Justin Logan at Cato:

First, let me put my cards on the table.  I am not a quant or a formal modeler.  (These two approaches are different, but Exum seems to lump them together.)  I have a rudimentary statistics background, and could identify supremely egregious errors in both quantitative and formal model papers if I were locked in a room and threatened with violence.  I am no partisan of either faction.  But I think Exum’s views are probably common in DC, so this could work as a forum for discussing part of what I think is wrong with the DC policy debate.

Take, to start, Exum’s suggested pledge that “War is a human endeavor. I recognize that it is a phenomenon that does not conform to neat mathematical equations,” and set it in the context of another one: “I recognize that very few squad leaders in the 10th Mountain Division have ever taken a course in statistics yet probably know more about the conduct and realities of war than I do. ”

The first claim is about modesty: social science is not the same as physical science.  It is harder to conduct controlled experiments in social science, for a variety of practical/political and moral/ethical reasons.  (The war in Iraq may be an exception.)  If what Exum is getting at here is a claim like “quantitative scholars can be arrogant and oversell their research,” then Amen.  But his second claim lionizes squad leaders in the 10th Mountain Division as superior in knowledge to social science researchers.  I find this juxtaposition very odd, and I think it’s basically a rejection of social scientific principles in general.  (It also seems to carry with it an implicit claim that military operations cannot be subject to scrutiny by non-military overseers.  As a helpful reviewer of this post wrote, “It’s the equivalent of saying that we should just do whatever teacher’s unions want in K-12 education policy, or that the guys who run meatpacking plants are qualified to offer opinions about food safety.”)

It just isn’t true that inducing inferences from anecdotal experience produces better explanations/predictions than do people who have larger universes of cases and can control for various factors.  Exum seems to support an approach to theory-building in which one directly observes facts and then induces theory based on those observed facts.  To put it mildly, this is a peculiar view of the philosophy of science.  So what starts as a lament about the arrogance of various factions of social scientists becomes a larger criticism of social science itself.

Henry Farrell:

In my opinion, this is the most important lesson that the social sciences have to offer to policy makers – be careful about selection bias. Policy debates in Washington DC are rife with selection effects, with advocates highlighting convenient cases for a particular policy argument and hiding inconvenient ones. I’m co-teaching a big MA intro course on IR theory and international affairs practice with a practitioner this semester. If I can get this one single point across to my students, so that they really understand it, I think I’ll have given them good value for money.

1 This is not my area of the social sciences, so I can’t speak ex cathedra or anything like it, but the case seems to me to be a strong one on its face.

Daniel Drezner:

let’s go through Exum’s rules, shall we?

War is a human endeavor. I recognize that it is a phenomenon that does not conform to neat mathematical equations.


I will use quantitative analysis in conjunction with theory and qualitative analysis to describe what I see as phenomena in war and peace. I will be honest about the limits of both my theory and my analysis

Of course.  Good job nailing the compulsories so far.

In war and peace, the variables are infinite, and not everything can be measured or assigned a numerical value

Um… the variables are infinite on just about every dimension of life.  No operationalization, econometric equation or formal model is going to completely capture reality.  I guarantee you, however, that no qualitiative analysis will perfectly capture reality either (I will further note that qualitative scholars often fool themselves into believing this is not the case, which gets them into all sorts of trouble — but some quant jockeys commit this sin as well).  This doesn’t mean you give up on explanation — it just means you acknowledge the limitations of your approach.

I will not use numbers to signify what are fundamentally qualitative assessments without acknowledging to my reader that I have done so in order to satisfy a departmental requirement, gain tenure, or get published in the APSR. Or because I have been in graduate school for so long that I have forgotten how to effectively write in prose.

Yeah, this is where Exum’s manifesto departs from the land of common sense and enters the world of unadulterated horses**t.    First, I’ve  occasionally used this kind of data, and I sure as hell didn’t do it to get tenure — I did it because I thought it was a good way to test my explanation.  Second, whether someone can write clear and crisp prose has nothing to do with whether they use quantitative methods or not.  That Exum seems not to know this is the first sign that we’re dealing with some very muddled thinking.

I recognize there are no mathematical equations in Vom Kriege and that it is nonetheless unlikely that my legacy will transcend that of Clausewitz.

Um… I could provide the undisputed, univerally-hailed-by-all explanation for why the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 and  my legacy wouldn’t transcend Clausewitz.  Or Thucydides.  But that’s a really high bar to set.

Just to turn things around, there are plenty of mathematical equations in Strategy of Conflict and it is nevertheless likely that Exum’s — or your — legacy will never transcend that of Thomas Schelling.

And finally:

I recognize that very few squad leaders in the 10th Mountain Division have ever taken a course in statistics yet probably know more about the conduct and realities of war than I do.

I think there is some truth to this statement.  It is also a fair statement, however, that very few graduate students in security studies have ever served a day in uniform yet probably know more about the causes of war than those squad leaders do.

Exum responds:

Much to my amusement, this post on the utlity of quantitative analysis caused quite a stir in the international relations blogosphere. I don’t know if folks in security studies just don’t have a sense of humor or if it’s true what Kissinger said about how university politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small. But what I think happened is that Stephen Walt read my post, chuckled, and his chuckling did two things: 1) it brought a lot of people to this site who were not aware that the posts on this blog are meant to be light and irreverent, and 2) it opened up an old fault line in security studies between traditionalists like Walt who aren’t so impressed by quantitative analysis and the Young Turks and political economists who have pushed to make it ascendent in political science departments across the United States. I have about as much interest getting involved in these scholarly disputes as I do catching the Ebola virus. But I did find some of the reaction pretty amusing. Like the fact that Hein Goemans, a brilliant scholar at the University of Rochester, was writing comments on my blog at 5:17 on a Friday afternoon. (Hein, buddy, it’s happy hour. Put down the TI-89, get off the internets and go drink a beer.) Or the fact that Cranky Dan Drezner was left in a cursing, sputtering rage over at his Foreign Policy blog. (I was particularly hurt that Drezner didn’t see the humor in my post, as I have always found his willingness to hold forth on the peoples and politics of the Arabic-speaking world and Iran without any time spent in the region or training in its languages to be hilarious.)

Spencer Ackerman:

Drezner Pwned!

All this shit is academic jargon that I don’t know or care about, but I do love a good pwning, and Andrew Exum delivers

Drezner responds:

Shorter Exum:  “the posts on this blog are meant to be light and irreverent…. I am sorry that folks got their proverbial panties in a twist about a post that was meant to be funny.”  He then outsourced a more substantive response to Scott Wedman, who said eminently reasonable things.

According to Spencer Ackerman, Exum also pwned me.

Some are dissatisfied with this response.  As for me… meh.  If Exum’s original post really was intended as a humorous lark, then so be it.  I apologize for misinterpreting and overreacting  — though I gotta say, the bulk of his recent posts aren’t exactly overflowing with wit.

Logan responds:

I’m not quite sure what to say, other than that this isn’t much of a response.  Note, though, that he obliquely makes the same argument he made last week, criticizing Dan Drezner’s “willingness to hold forth on the peoples and politics of the Arabic-speaking world and Iran without any time spent in the region or training in its languages.”

Richard Pipes made a similar argument when he argued that despite his lack of expertise in nuclear weapons or security studies he was qualified to lead the Team B project because of his “deep knowledge of the Russian soul.”  And we all remember how that turned out.

UPDATE: Heather Hurlburt and Dan Drezner at Bloggingheads

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Play The Game Called “Iran And Consequences”

James Phillips at The Heritage Foundation:

The Iranian regime’s drive for nuclear weapons, rapid progress in building up its ballistic missile arse­nal, ominous rhetoric about destroying Israel, and the failure of international diplomatic efforts to halt Iran’s nuclear weapons program have potentially created a–literally–explosive situation. Israel may launch a preventive strike against Iran’s nuclear weapons infra­structure.

The United States would almost certainly be drawn into an Israeli-Iranian conflict. The Obama Adminis­tration must start planning now to counter and mini­mize the destabilizing consequences of an expected Iranian backlash. To mitigate the threats posed by Iran to U.S. national security and to protect U.S. interests, the United States must:


  • Wash­ington should not seek to block Israel from taking what it considers to be necessary action against an existential threat. The United States does not have the power to guarantee that Israel would not be attacked by a nuclear Iran in the future, so it should not betray the trust of a democratic ally by tying its hands now. Although an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear program will entail increased risks for U.S. interests in the Middle East, these risks would be dwarfed by the threats posed by a nuclear-armed Iran. Not only would a nuclear Iran pose a much more dire direct threat to the U.S., Israel, and other allies, but Tehran might pass a nuclear weapon to one of its Islamist ter­rorist surrogates. Its support for terrorism against Israel, insurgent attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq, and subversive efforts against moderate Arab governments are likely to grow steadily if it believes its nuclear capability gives it a carte blanche to act with impunity. Moreover a nuclear Iran would induce many other Middle Eastern states to seek their own nuclear weapons. This cas­cade of nuclear proliferation would enormously increase the risks of a future nuclear exchange involving some combination of Middle Eastern nuclear powers, threaten Israel and other U.S. allies, and increase the risks of oil disruptions, even if Iran was not involved in a future crisis.
  • Prepare for war with Iran. Given that the United States is likely to be attacked by Iran in the aftermath of an Israeli strike anyway, it may be logical to consider joining Israel in a preven­tive war against Iran. But the Obama Administra­tion is extremely unlikely to follow this course. However, the Administration must be ready to respond to any Iranian attacks. It must prepare contingency plans and deploy sufficient forces to protect U.S. military forces and embassies in the Middle East; defend allies, oil facilities and oil tanker routes in the Persian Gulf; and target Iranian ballistic missile, naval, air force, and Rev­olutionary Guard forces for systematic destruc­tion. In the event of a conflict, Iran’s nuclear facilities should be relentlessly targeted until all known nuclear weapon-related sites are destroyed completely. Perhaps the preparations for such a war, combined with the knowledge that Washington will not restrain Israel, would enable cooler heads to prevail in Tehran before Israel is forced to take action to defend itself.

Steve Hynd at Newshoggers:

Let’s be clear here – Cohen is advocating a preventative nuclear attack by the US on Iran’s strategic facilities – that’s the only way any such attack from Iran could “fail”. And he’s advocating doing that if Israel first launches its own aggressive war on Iran, despite Russia’s seeing Iran as “a partner and an ad hoc ally to challenge U.S. power through the expansion of Russia’s regional and international influence”.

The Heritage Foundation wants the US to aid Israel while it starts World War 3. Lunacy.

Justin Logan at Cato:

Phillips notes uncritically Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu’s characterization of the Iranian state as a “a messianic apocalyptic cult” and points out that while the United States “has the advantage of being geographically further away from Iran than Israel and thus less vulnerable to an Iranian nuclear attack … it must be sensitive to its ally’s security perspective.”

Therefore we should accede to an Israeli preventive strike and prepare for the consequences.  What’s odd about Phillips’ piece is that he doesn’t seem to think that the United States should provide its own view as to when an attack would be smart and when it would not be.  Instead, we should just toss the keys to the Israelis and buckle up: “Wash­ington should not seek to block Israel from taking what it considers to be necessary action against an existential threat. The United States does not have the power to guarantee that Israel would not be attacked by a nuclear Iran in the future, so it should not betray the trust of a democratic ally by tying its hands now.”  This is a pretty high standard.  It’s very difficult to guarantee a third party won’t do something in the future.  If that’s the standard we’re using to determine when we allow ourselves to be sucked into wars, we’re in for a lot of wars.  Moreover, I’m clear on the logic of starting a war, but why wouldn’t we, as the larger power in the relationship, want to determine the timeline on which the attack occurs?  Why just defer to Tel Aviv?

Greg Scoblete:

Perhaps not surprisingly, while Phillips spends a lot of time in a very long report arguing for why and how the bombs should fall on Iran, and why the U.S. must fight for Israel, he writes not a single sentence – not one – discussing what steps the U.S. should take after it subjects Iranian sites to “systematic destruction.” Instead we’re treated to the potential for Iranian retribution and why the U.S. must subject itself to such reprisals for Israel’s sake and because a nuclear Iran would be a worse outcome than having both Iraq and Afghanistan destabilized, more U.S. troops killed, and a potentially recession-inducing naval showdown in Hormuz.

But I’m more interested in what happens after America attacks Iran. What if the government collapses? Do we occupy the country? Do we allow a power vacuum? Do we let a Revolutionary Guard commander assume control? A cleric? Could we exercise any control in Iran following an attack? And if the current regime hangs on and then redoubles their nuclear efforts, do we subject them to another pounding five years hence? As a famous general once observed, “tell me how this ends?”

We know from our rueful experience in Iraq that conservative defense intellectuals don’t pay much attention to the immediate aftermath of a conflict (with the exception of Max Boot). It’s apparently sufficient to start a war and then let the chips fall where they may. Not that we should have too much confidence in their predictive abilities on that front either, but it would be nice if those clamoring for a war with Iran could provide us with just a scintilla of analysis regarding U.S. policy in the aftermath.

Daniel Larison:

Conservative defense intellectuals tend not to pay much attention to the post-combat phase because they don’t believe the military should remain for very long after concluding “major combat operations” (as Mr. Bush described them six and a half years ago). There was little or no Phase IV planning in Iraq, as Ricks documented in Fiasco and Zelizer has noted in Arsenal of Democracy, because many of the top officials responsible for that planning had no desire and no real intention of remaining in Iraq long enough to need such planning.

Scoblete credits Boot with paying attention to post-combat planning, but we should remember that the reason Boot does this is that he is a neo-imperialist who openly advocates for pursuing an imperial role in the world. While Boot’s so-called “hard Wilsonians” are very willing to think about U.S. post-conflict policies, in that they have no trouble supporting prolonged or even permanent deployments all over the world, their policies are mostly informed by arrogant presumption, naive universalism and cultural ignorance. This usually dovetails with the conservative desire to do as little nation-building as possible, because most of Boot’s neoconservative colleagues assumed that Iraqi democratic government would spring up and flourish almost immediately on its own with a ready-made exile leadership. Other conservative internationalists may or may not have believed this, but it provided them with the reassurance that the war would not “devolve” into a nation-building exercise. As the mission largely became more focused on nation-building, most conservative internationalists did not abandon support for the war, but this was a function of undue conservative loyalty to the executive, especially when the President was from their own party.

A quick war to topple a dictatorial regime and install a friendly replacement appealed to a broad cross-section of conservatives, but the badly flawed predictions of what would happen after the invasion revealed the error of both the “light footprint” approach and the democratist political fantasy that made that approach seem workable. We heard all about how modernized, secular and educated Iraqis were, which made nation-building seem unnecessary and it made post-conflict policies seem redundant. More often than not, the “stabilization” the “hard Wilsonians” propose to bring to the country was not necessary before the war, and their willingness to stay does not reflect an interest in repairing the damage to the country devastated by their war. It is instead an opportunity to project U.S. power and to create new responsibilities for the military and national security state, which make it that much harder to reduce and/or reform both.


That brings us back to Iran. “Preventive” war against Iran unfortunately has considerable support, especially on the right, and one reason for this is the perceived low cost such a war would have. The cost is perceived to be low because it would initially be largely waged as an air war, and the memory of past U.S. air wars in the last twenty years is one of total dominance, success and very few American casualties. Of course, a war against Iran would not be an easy, short or cheap one, but I think the majority that supports such a war assumes that the costs would be few and the fighting would be over quickly. My guess is that James Phillips does not discuss what might or might not happen after the strikes on Iran’s nuclear sites because he does not think there is anything to discuss. This is another shared flaw that many conservatives who write on foreign policy and national security share, which is simple indifference to the consequences of our military actions.

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Where My Neocons At? Where My Neocons At?

Bret Stephens at WSJ:

Neoconservatives generally take the view that the internal character of a regime usually predicts the nature of its foreign policy. Governments that are answerable to their own people and accountable to a rule of law tend to respect the rights of their neighbors, honor their treaty commitments, and abide by the international rules of the road. By contrast, regimes that prey on their own citizens are likely to prey on their neighbors as well. Their word is the opposite of their bond.

That’s why neocons have no faith in any deals or “grand bargains” the U.S. might sign with North Korea or Iran over their nuclear programs: Cheating is in the DNA of both regimes, and the record is there to prove it. Nor do neocons put much stock in the notion that there’s a “reset” button with the Kremlin. Russia is the quintessential spoiler state, seeking its advantage in America’s troubles at home and abroad. Ditto for Syria, which has perfected the art of taking credit for solving problems of its own creation.

Where neocons do put their faith is in American power, not just military or economic power but also as an instrument of moral and political suasion. Disarmament? The last dictator to relinquish his nuclear program voluntarily was Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, who did so immediately following Saddam Hussein’s capture. Democratization? Contrary to current conventional wisdom, democracy is often imposed, or at least facilitated, by U.S. pressure—in the Philippines, in the Balkans and, yes, in Iraq. Human rights? Anwar Ibrahim, the beleaguered Malaysian opposition leader, told me last week that “the only country that can stand up” to abusive regimes is the United States. “If they know the administration is taking a soft stance [on human rights], they will go on a rampage.”

None of this is to say that neoconservatism represents some kind of infallible doctrine—or that it’s even a doctrine. Neocons have erred in overestimating the U.S. public’s willingness to engage in long struggles on behalf of other people. They have erred also in overestimating the willingness of other people to fight for themselves, or for their freedom.

But as the pendulum has swung to a U.S. foreign policy based on little more than the personal attractions of the president, it’s little wonder that the world is casting about for an alternative. And a view of the world that understands that American power still furnishes the margin between freedom and tyranny, and between prosperity and chaos, is starting to look better all the time. Even in France.

Jennifer Rubin in Commentary:

The question remains then what the “realists” believe. The crowd that was to put ideology off to the side has again and again substituted wishful thinking for clear-eyed analysis. We’d force a peace deal by insisting Israel do what Israel could never agree to do (enforce an absolute freeze on settlements) in the hopes the Palestinians would finally agree to do what they’ve never done (halt terrorism and recognize a Jewish state) in circumstances that suggest both parties are incapable of doing anything differently. This is “realism”?

In Honduras, the Obama team ignored the essential facts precipitating the ouster of Manuel Zelaya (the text of the Honduran constitution), the Honduran political scene (the military, middle class, Catholic Church, legislature, and Supreme Court all oppose Zelaya’s return), and the regional and international implications (boosting Hugo Chavez, who is fast becoming Ahmadinejad’s best pal). The Obama realists put their stock in a delusional follower of Chavez. Not much “realism” there either.

The list goes on. On Afghanistan the president is searching in vain for a mythical alternative to the counterinsurgency recommendation of his own general. The light-footprint model has proved unworkable, but experience does not matter much these days. Meanwhile, we yank the rug out from under Poland and the Czech Republic on missile defense because we know Iran isn’t working on long-range missiles and because the Russians will have to cooperate with us now. The Russians didn’t actually promise anything, but realists these days operate on warm fuzzy feelings and intuition about our adversaries.

There is not a single meaningful foreign policy decision—aside from the continuation of George W. Bush’s Iraq policy—that bears any trace of realism, if we understand realism to mean a foreign policy grounded in the world as it is, not as ideologues wish it to be. Past experience, current geopolitical realities, historical precedent, and common sense are nowhere in evidence. Instead we get gauzy rhetoric and undiluted faith in talking to those who plainly don’t want to talk to us (or who would be happy to talk while doing precisely what they want to anyway). And there’s plenty of stalling. So it seems that “realism” boils down to wishful thinking and a heavy dose of procrastination.

Danielle Pletka at AEI

Daniel Larison:

It is not at all clear that neoconservatives have “returned” in any way, and it seems highly unlikely that many people overseas are now craving the firm smack of incompetent warmongering that the neocons can offer. To a large extent, the neocons never went anywhere in domestic policy and political debates. This is because there has not been any accountability in either the foreign policy community or the conservative movement for their colossal failures and misjudgments. That said, they are not exactly riding high, either. Neocons continue to be taken far too seriously and they continue to have access to a great many media outlets, but for the most part they have been leading the Republican Party’s charge into spluttering irrelevance on foreign policy. Having destroyed the party’s political fortunes with the war in Iraq, they seem intent on sinking the party even deeper into the ditch into which it has crashed. If this is a “return,” I wonder what decline looks like.

One of the problems the GOP and the conservative movement has had over the last several years is the retreat inside their own echo chambers, in which they keep repeating the same nonsense to themselves and reinforcing all of their false assumptions. The foreign policy cocooning seems the worst to me, but the stagnation and persistence in error we see in most Republican foreign policy arguments are functions of the larger intellectual collapse on the right. Stephens’ op-ed is one example of this. The world is not looking for an alternative to Obama at the moment, but Stephens simply asserts that it is because a foreigner (a Frenchman, no less!) pitched a counterintuitive idea for a column to him. This assertion is similar to the repeated claims made by Iraq hawks throughout 2006 and after that the public had not turned against the war when it clearly had. It is understandable that ideologues feel compelled to ignore reality, because it almost never fits their predetermined schemes, but when they are reduced to making things up out of thin air they have reached a new depth of desperation.

Meanwhile, Daniel Blumenthal at AEI’s Center For Defense Studies:

China is not the only country that is rising. So is India. But we do not worry about India’s rise. That is because India is a democracy. Almost everything it does is transparent to us.   We share liberal values with India, including the desire to strengthen the post-World War II liberal international order of open trade and investment and the general desire among democracies to settle internal and external disputes peacefully and democratically. The fact that China is not a democracy matters greatly as it rises. It makes its rise more disruptive as countries have to divine its intentions and observe the gap between its rhetorical policy of a “Peaceful Rise” and some of its actions that are inconsistent with a peaceful rise.


Wouldn’t it be nice if China got on board with all the post-modern, feel-good notions about international politics put forth by the Obama Administration? In the 21st century, says the Obama team, all countries have common interests in confronting transnational issues like climate change and proliferation. Sorry guys, those who lead China think 21st century international politics will look more or less like it did in the past. They favor good old fashioned power politics. Unfortunately for Obama, that forces us to do the same.

Gary Schmitt at AEI’s Center For Defense Studies:

Taking his lead from Reinhold Niebuhr, Bacevich believes we are on an utopian mission to remake the world–or, in this instance, the Muslim world; it is a program that is immoral both because it is impossible (and hence counterproductive) given human nature and because, in pursuing it, we adopt policies that chip away at our own morality.  (The ends begin to justify the means, etc, etc.)  The more limited our ambitions in Bacevich’s view, the less damage we do to ourselves and others.

All of which contains a kernel of truth–but only a kernel.  Whatever problems we face domestically, it is just an historical fact that a broader American vision abroad has typically made us a better people at home.  Nor is there any evidence that a less expansive (and hence less expensive) foreign and defense policy would free up monies that miraculously would solve a problem like poverty or second-rate schools.  To the contrary, more government funds could well confound finding the policies that would actually help alleviate those problems.  However, the larger point is that Bacevich and other conservative critics, like George Will, are standing on unsound ground when they argue that the transformative goal of the Long War is utopian.  It might be long and it might be difficult but, if anything, the evidence so far suggests that the establishment of decent democratic regimes is possible in all kinds of regions and in countries with diverse cultural histories.  That hardly means that failure in the Long War isn’t possible; but to hear Bacevich and others tell it, is inevitable.

Justin Logan at Cato responds to both of the above:

In Schmitt’s reading, spending tax dollars on welfare or education “could well confound finding the policies that would actually help alleviate those problems.”  This is a fairly straightforward conservative argument.  What’s strange is that Schmitt makes the argument that while the U.S. government likely could not figure out how to improve education or the general welfare in the United States, it can parachute into faraway countries and improve the governance over there.  Or it at least ought to try, since “a broader American vision abroad has typically made us a better people at home.” This is, to my mind, utterly, profoundly incoherent.  I think the most important point is that we ought not to send our military overseas to kill and die so that we can be “a better people at home.”


I am reminded of Irving Kristol’s statement that “A nation whose politics turn on the cost of false teeth is a nation whose politics are squalid.” It’s something of a parlor game in IR to debate whether neoconservatism is its own IR theory; whether it’s a theory at all, of anything; whether it’s really just liberalism; et cetera, but what would be really good to have is a clear statement that could be scrutinized on its own merit.  Until then one is left guessing or, at best, turning up weird conspiracy theories about Leo Strauss and the University of Chicago on the internet.

Carl Franzen at The Atlantic has a round-up.

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Our Mr. Brooks

David Brooks

David Brooks in NYT:

The record suggests what Gen. Stanley McChrystal clearly understands — that only the full counterinsurgency doctrine offers a chance of success. This is a doctrine, as General McChrystal wrote in his remarkable report, that puts population protection at the center of the Afghanistan mission, that acknowledges that insurgencies can only be defeated when local communities and military forces work together.

To put it concretely, this is a doctrine in which small groups of American men and women are outside the wire in dangerous places in remote valleys, providing security, gathering intelligence, helping to establish courts and building schools and roads.

These are the realistic choices for America’s Afghanistan policy — all out or all in, surrender the place to the Taliban or do armed nation-building. And we might as well acknowledge that it’s not an easy call. The costs and rewards are tightly balanced. But in the end, President Obama was right: “You don’t muddle through the central front on terror. … You don’t muddle through stamping out the Taliban.”


Proponents of withdrawal often acknowledge the costs of defeat but argue that the cause is hopeless anyway. On this, let me note a certain pattern. When you interview people who know little about Afghanistan, they describe an anarchic place that is the graveyard of empires. When you interview people who live there or are experts, they think those stereotypes are rubbish. They usually take a hardened but guardedly optimistic view. Read Clare Lockhart’s Sept. 17 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to get a sense of the way many knowledgeable people view the situation.

Amidst all the problems, the NATO coalition has a few things going for it. First, American forces have become quite good at counterinsurgency. They have a battle-tested strategy, experienced troops and a superb new leadership team. According to the political scientists Andrew J. Enterline and Joseph Magagnoli, since World War II, counterinsurgency efforts that put population protection at their core have succeeded nearly 70 percent of the time.

Second, the enemy is wildly hated. Only 6 percent of Afghans want a Taliban return, while NATO is viewed with surprising favor. This is not Vietnam or even Iraq.

Third, while many Afghan institutions are now dysfunctional, there is a base on which to build. The Afghan Army is a successful institution. Local villages have their own centuries-old civic institutions. The National Solidarity Program was able to build development councils in 23,000 villages precisely because the remnants of civil society still exist.

Jennifer Rubin in Commentary:

David Brooks takes a rare venture into foreign policy and makes a compelling case for Obama to stick to Obama’s plan to rid Afghanistan of the Taliban and follow the advice of Obama’s generals. Brooks acknowledges the habitual desire for a war on the cheap, a remote war where young brave Americans don’t die, and the public’s ire about a difficult undertaking of indeterminate length can be sidestepped.


The finest and most experienced counterinsurgency forces in America, a hated enemy, and a respected Afghan military all weigh in our favor, as Brooks reminds us. So Brooks, in essence, implores the president to buck up, stop looking for easy ways out where there are none, and devote himself and the nation he leads to the war of “necessity” Obama described just months ago.

With all of that, why then is it such a struggle for Obama to make the right call? Well, suffice it to say he’d rather be doing other things. Remarkably, Afghanistan didn’t merit much of a mention in his UN speech. Global warming got paragraph after paragraph. The section on the moribund “peace process” went on interminably.

Glenn Greenwald disputes the notion that foreign policy is a rare venture for Brooks:

In today’s New York Times, the grizzled warrior David Brooks performs a chest-beating war dance over Afghanistan of the type he and his tough guy comrades perfected in the run-up to the Iraq War.  It’s filled with self-glorifying “war-is-hell” neocon platitudes that make the speaker feel tough and strong.  No more hiding like cowards in our bases.  It’s time to send “small groups of American men and women [] outside the wire in dangerous places.”  Those opposing escalation are succumbing to the “illusion of the easy path.”  Chomping on a cigar in his war room, he roars:  “all out or all in.”  The central question: will we “surrender the place to the Taliban?,” etc. etc.

Needless to say, Brooks was writing all the same things in late 2002 and early 2003 about Iraq — though, back then, he did so from the pages of Rupert Murdoch and Bill Kristol’s The Weekly Standard.  When I went back to read some of that this morning, I was — as always — struck by how extreme and noxious it all was:  the snide, hubristic superiority combined with absolute wrongness about everything.  What people like David Brooks were saying back then was so severe — so severely wrong, pompous, blind, warmongering and, as it turns out, destructive — that no matter how many times one reviews the record of the leading opinion-makers of that era, one will never be inured to how poisonous they are.

Jeffrey Goldberg:

I thought President Bush made sense when he told the world that those who harbor terrorists would be treated no differently than the terrorists themselves. But in fact there is a difference. The Taliban on its own would not have attacked New York and Washington, even putting aside the issue of capability. The attacks of 9/11 were rooted in a particularly Arab dysfunction, not in some sort of Afghan (or Persian, for that matter) pathology. The goal of the Afghan war, after all, is to deny terrorists who are mainly Arab a safe base of operations. The central front was, is and will be the Arab world. I don’t mean “central front,” by the way, as an exclusively military idea, or even partially. The Arab world is the central front of a civil war between two Muslim ideas, the Qaeda idea and the idea of modernity, of an Islam existing in harmony with the rest of the world. We are a sideshow to that fight. And rebuilding Afghanistan or not rebuilding Afghanistan — a country marginal to the development of Muslim thought — is immaterial in that struggle.

Andrew Sullivan

Justin Logan at Cato:

Population-centric counterinsurgency is all about large numbers of American men and women, not small numbers.  The promoters of COIN in Afghanistan have recently taken to including the Afghan National Army in the count of counterinsurgents, but the textbook — and as a result, obviously oversimplified — number of counterinsurgents you’d want in a place with a population, dysfunctional national government, and geography like Afghanistan pushes well up to around half a million.  It is an extraordinarily resource- and labor-intensive endeavor.  If you don’t believe me, perhaps you’ll take David Petraeus or David Kilcullen as authorities on the matter.

Brooks pushes his argument further, declaring that we possess only two choices in Afghanistan: “surrender the place to the Taliban or do armed nation-building.”  One paragraph later, Brooks writes of the fight against terrorism that “we shouldn’t pretend we understand how this conflict will evolve.”  That Brooks does not recognize the conflict between these views is telling.  See Rory Stewart for more on the swashbuckling certainty like what Brooks is displaying.

Then Brooks borrows from Stephen Biddle the claim that we must conduct a counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan not because of the war on terrorism in that country per se, but rather because:

“A Taliban conquest in Afghanistan would endanger the Pakistani regime at best, create a regional crisis for certain and lead to a nuclear-armed Al Qaeda at worst.”

This is really cranking it up to 11 on the hyperbole meter.  We may recall that in the 1990s when the Taliban was running Afghanistan, Pakistan was arguably more stable than it is today.

Stephen Walt in Foreign Policy:

Writing in today’s New York Times, columnist and armchair warrior David Brooks offers a spirited defense of the war in Afghanistan. In addition to being an unrepentant hawk with a miserable track record, Brooks is fond of citing academic literature to give his punditry a faux intellectual veneer. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to read these works very carefully.

In today’s column, he cites a recent study by political scientists Andrew Enterline and Joseph Magagnoli of the University of North Texas (available here at FP), which supposedly shows that “counterinsurgency efforts that put population protection at their core have succeeded nearly 70 percent of the time.” But political scientist Alexander Downes of Duke University, who is a much more careful reader than Brooks, points out on a private list-serve what the article really says (my emphasis):

“Unfortunately, Brooks engages in some very selective citation to support his argument in favor of fighting on in Afghanistan.  Enterline and Magagnoli collected data on 66 cases in the 20th century in which “a foreign state fought a counterinsurgency campaign to establish or protect central-government authority.”  The overall winning percentage for the state actor is 60%, but only 48% after World War II. The statistic that Brooks cites is that if the state actor switches from some other strategy to a “hearts and minds” strategy during the course of the war, their winning percentage increases to 75% (67% after World War II).

But Brooks omits two further important findings from Enterline and Magagnoli’s article. First, if the state actor switches to a hearts and minds strategy, the average conflict duration after the change is nine years. Switching to some strategy other than hearts and minds generates an average duration after the change of five years. Second, no state that switched to a hearts and minds strategy after fighting an insurgency for eight years (as the U.S. has in Afghanistan) has ever defeated the insurgency. In other words, if history is any guide, the U.S. can expect to continue fighting in Afghanistan for nearly a decade and still not be able to win.  That’s a pretty different message than the impression that Brooks conveys.””
Or as another correspondent of mine put it, “wouldn’t the relevant statistic be the number of foreign empires that have successfully occupied Afghanistan and installed their preferred government? That research is much less difficult to do. The answer is 0 for three if we count the Soviets, the British (who actually tried it twice and failed both times), and perhaps Alexander?”

Matthew Yglesias

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