Jordan Plays Defense: Will it Be Enough?

King Abdullah II: Can he play defense?

Talk of the wave of change sweeping the Arab world sometimes makes it sound as though every country in the region has experienced seismic political upheaval.  Many haven’t, including Jordan.  But according to a recent New York Times article, the small kingdom’s peace may be short-lived.  The reasons for popular restlessness should by now be clear; the question, in Jordan’s case, is why nothing happened sooner.

In 1998, Glenn E. Robinson described the forethought and skill displayed by the Jordanian monarchy in pursuing a strategy of defensive democratization: “The regime undertook sufficient reform to ensure its political longevity, but without altering the core structures of power in Jordan.”  What was this reform, and will it see the monarchy through the Arab Spring?

Jordan is unique in several respects.  Its monarchy comes from the once-powerful Arabian Hashemite clan, ousted by the Saudis; it lacks the capacity to exploit much of its energy resources, unlike other Arab monarchies; it has made peace with Israel, despite the many “West Bank Palestinians” it hosts; and it is a staunch American ally.  It also lacks the epochal cities of which other Arab states can boast: Marrakesh, Aleppo, Baghdad, Cairo, Jeddah, Beirut.  Jordan is also smaller than any of the states that have thus far shown their rulers the door (none of which are monarchies); it has 60% of Tunisia’s population, and less than a third of Syria’s or Yemen’s, and less than a tenth of teeming Egypt’s.  Jordan’s population (6.3 million, 2.5 million of whom live in Amman) is smaller even than Israel’s.

Jordan’s small, tribal (yet urban and educated) population, lack of clear geographic or economic nerve centers, and U.S. backing may help explain the durability of its monarchy.  But the Hashemites have been anticipating, outpacing, and pre-empting liberalizing forces in Jordan for decades.  To them, the Arab Spring is just another season.

In 1970, Jordan crushed the PLO and drove it into Lebanon in what became known as “Black September” or, as the government poetically remembers it, “the era of regrettable events.”  Since then, however, its style has been more subtle.  Like the Egyptian regime, King Hussein tolerated the Muslim Brotherhood as an anti-leftist bulwark while banning other political parties and suspending parliamentary sessions.  Thus began a show of pluralism which ultimately strengthened the monarchy.

Parliament was reconvened in response to unrest in 1989 stemming from the decline of aid transfers from rich Arab neighbors, which had paid for subsidies and welfare programs Jordanians had come to depend on.  King Hussein’s call for elections may seem more like “reactive” than “defensive” democratization, but it pre-empted calls for systemic, regime-level change and created a new arena in which political energy could be expended, full of new targets at which to direct it.  In 1992, the King had a National Charter written, and new elections were held in 1993.

More recently, King Abdallah II (Hussein’s son and Jordan’s fourth Hashemite king) has granted still more concessions: prominent political figures and businessmen are on trial, and key subsidies remain untouched.  Also, Jordanians have witnessed the turmoil in Iraq and the bloodshed in Syria.  Not everyone wants to rock the boat.

Still, calls for systemic change are more audible than in recent memory.  “Our main purpose is to return authority to the people and to have a monarchy similar to that in Britain, a constitutional monarchy,” said a former Parliament member at a recent anti-regime protest in Karak, long a regime stronghold.

Can the monarchy last?  Can it oversee a peaceful transition to democracy?  The Hashemites have played this game skillfully, without some of the benefits other monarchies enjoy.  But the people are saying things they have never said before.

Update: My friend Jason Stern hears similar rumblings in Jordan.

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The Longest War: What is Our Mission?

Last Sunday, the New York Times described the campaign of U.S. Army Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis to expose systematic embellishment by top military leaders of the status of mission in Afghanistan.  In Davis’ Afghanistan, in which he traveled and interviewed extensively, Afghan police have made secret pacts with the Taliban, U.S. forces barely control territory outside their own bases, and trust between American and Afghan soldiers is deservedly weak.

Yesterday, the newspaper ran a first-person piece by two special forces officers, an American and an Afghan, published (but not written) to contrast with the Davis story.  In their Afghanistan, the Afghan Army is disciplined, patriotic, scrappy, and eager for American tutelage.  They offer some criticisms, too; we need to better value and train military advisors, emphasize personal American-Afghan relationships, and recognize less measurable but more important metrics as indicators of success.  But the message is clear: we should not give up yet.

Ten years, four months, and one week

It is possible that both of these accounts are correct; Afghanistan is a big place, and events on the ground change quickly.  But Lt. Col. Davis’ main rhetorical question “How many more men must die in support of a mission that is not succeeding?” confronts President Obama with a stark reminder of the consequences of prolonging the longest war in American history until 2014.

The answer depends on whether or not our mission in Afghanistan is vital, which in turn raises the question of what our mission is.  If the mission is to defeat the Taliban, and it is vital, then the answer must be: “As many men must die as it takes to defeat the Taliban, whether that mission is succeeding right now or not.”  But defeating the Taliban appears no longer to be our mission.  If it were, Mitt Romney would be right to charge that setting a date for withdrawal is foolish.

Instead, the Pentagon is focused on training the Afghan Army and national police to wield legitimate, monopolized force on behalf of a legitimate, effective central government.  Policy analysts and academics have proposed several compromise strategies, including decentralized as opposed to centralized governance and containment as opposed to eradication of the Taliban.  Total victory is no longer spoken of; the best the President could do in his State of the Union–“The Taliban’s momentum has been broken”–  was widely dismissed as wishful.  (Having campaigned on a platform of refocusing on the good war in Afghanistan rather than the bad war in Iraq, the President is heavily invested in an honorable drawdown that looks something like a victory.)

Defeating the Taliban is also arguably no longer vital.  America attacked the Taliban because it was providing safe harbor to al-Qaeda, which is now already in retreat in much of the world and is certainly no longer based primarily in Afghanistan (most of its leadership is in Pakistan, with other franchises emerging elsewhere).  Even if a strong, secular, friendly federal state emerged in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda would continue to exist.  One might argue that al-Qaeda is sure to flood back into Afghanistan when American forces depart, and that may be true.  But it’s difficult to see how prolonging our presence will permanently change that reality, especially now that the Afghans and al-Qaeda know our departure date.

Our soldiers are dying.  This war is long.  Neither of these things alone mean that we should end it.  But what are we trying to accomplish?

Five Bad Arguments Against Humanitarian Intervention

The question of humanitarian intervention is complicated even if we pretend it is not.

NATO bombs a Serbian ammunition depot in Bosnia, 1995

A U.S.-led humanitarian intervention in Syria remains unlikely, even as sanctions intensify and the Free Syrian Army’s struggle against the al-Assad regime increasingly resembles a civil war.  China and Russia recently vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution against the regime, true to Russia’s word.  The veto, along with ongoing carnage in Homs, has refocused the world’s attention on the savagery in Syria.

America’s military will likely remain on the sidelines this time.  Despite what its March intervention in Libya might suggest, America remains averse to armed conflict.  Many favorable circumstances surrounded the Libya foray; these are absent in Syria. So emerges the difficult question: do we intervene?

Robert Pape’s nuanced New York Times op-ed establishes a potentially useful rule, or at least a significant independent variable, for determining the viability of humanitarian intervention: control by opposition forces of a large region of the country.  This condition was met in Libya, he writes; in Syria, the extent of the Free Syrian Army’s foothold remains unclear for now.

That Pape opposes humanitarian intervention in Syria (for now) does not make him unusual: see my earlier post on this matter.  What makes him unusual is that he does so intelligently.

Below are five much less intelligent but much more common ways to oppose humanitarian intervention.

1.      Recalling That the United States Has Done Bad Things Before

“What about the Native Americans?  What about Vietnam and Cambodia?  What about slavery?  What about Abu Ghraib?”

Good questions.  What about them?  Would you have opposed moving to stop those atrocities or not?  If so, then you’re categorically opposed to humanitarian intervention.  If not, then you support it sometimes and need to explain why you oppose it in this case, as Pape does.  If you’re just bringing these episodes up in order to question America’s right to impose humanitarian intervention elsewhere, then remember that many of America’s past crimes are crimes of passivity.  What about Rwanda?  What about Darfur?  If you believe these outrages should have been prevented (and know of a country without sin that can cast the first Tomahawk in America’s stead), speak up now.

2.      Pointing Out That the United States Does Not Intervene Every Time Bad Things Happen

“What about North Korea?  What about Zimbabwe?  What about Saudi Arabia?”

Pointing out that we do not consistently invade or not invade every unhappy place on earth does not, on its own, constitute an argument against humanitarian intervention.  The question, then, is why these other cases are being raised.  If they are being raised to argue that the United States should never intervene abroad, period, then so be it: Rwanda and Cambodia are our success stories.  If the point is that the United States always should, then more interventions are being argued for, not less.  If neither of the above points is being made, as is usually the case, then no point is being made at all.

3.      Grumbling That the United States Has Ulterior Motives

OK, I take that back.  Someone might also bring up other unsavory regimes to make a different point: that the United States is hypocritical for seeking to bring down one evil regime while it protects, arms, and funds others.  This is a sound argument for some purposes, but not for opposing a given instance of humanitarian intervention.  No country needs impeccable moral credentials in order to do the right thing today, and no country will ever have them.

Alternatively, it might be argued that while the intervention is the right thing to do, we are doing it for the wrong reasons (often “oil” or “imperialism”).  This also does not delegitimize the intervention itself.

4.      Warning That Things Will Go Wrong

As Pape shows, this argument can be made well.  Having researched the role of air power in the past, he writes that it “alone would probably not be sufficient to blunt the Assad loyalists entrenched in cities, and a heavy ground campaign would probably face stiff and bloody resistance.”  It is true that, unlike Qaddafi’s vulnerable and isolated attack force, al-Assad’s forces are difficult to bomb.

To be credible, though, this argument must come with an acknowledgement that nothing about the future is certain, and that inaction has its own consequences.  Syria is no exception to this rule: civilians will die with or without an intervention, and the international community is responsible both for what it does and for what it does not do.

5.      Eye-rolling

This is an easy one, and you don’t need to know anything to do it.  Most opposition to humanitarian intervention takes this form.

Catch-2012: Big-Spending Socialist, or Troop-Hating One?

The U.S. Navy plans to re-fit a decommissioned amphibious transport dock, called the U.S.S. Ponce, as a “mothership” for special operations forces, helicopters, and small high-speed boats.  The Ponce is to serve as a new offshore staging ground for small-scale operations in the Middle East.

The arrival of the Ponce in the Red Sea will coincide with a shift toward a leaner, better-trained military; the Pentagon has planned nearly half a trillion dollars in spending cuts over the next decade.  Overall troop strength will decline by nearly 100,000, returning to levels slightly higher than in 2000.  Our troop presence in Europe will be cut in half.  Ships will be retired and orders of the new F-35 fighter reduced.

The "Mothership" U.S.S. Ponce

No sane Republican presidential candidate will fail to leap upon the Pentagon budget cuts as evidence of President Obama’s insouciance/incompetence/malevolence (the diagnosis varies: is he a socialist menace? A golf-addicted dilettante?  An underqualified community organizer?).   They have ample incentive to do so.  Much of Obama’s remaining job approval lies in the foreign policy bucket, ready to be siphoned.  Apparently inverted is the conventional wisdom that Democratic presidents are soft on foreign policy (with only both world wars, Korea, Vietnam, the Balkans, Haiti, Somalia, Pakistan, and Libya, and a few other adventures to their credit) and strong on economic issues.

Yet even after a year of doctrinaire only-cuts-will-do politics from Republicans, the argument will be made with a straight face: By allowing the Pentagon to cut its budget, Obama is retreating from the world.  He’s appeasing China.  He’s letting Iran run amok.

This presumes a link between budget reduction and foreign policy passivity.  Programs can’t be effective without big budgets: there’s a conservative idea.

Voters have at least some sense of what philosophy (if not what policies) they will be supporting where economic issues are concerned.  Regarding our actions overseas, however, they cannot be so confident.  Ridiculing Obama’s supposed softness toward terror suspects will not get far with the general electorate, for whom the phrase “drone strike” has become a banality and the bin Laden raid a Call-of-Duty fantasy.  On this score it is Obama’s base, not those who would unseat him, to whom he must explain himself.

Obama has been tough on Iran, and prioritized the Pacific as the naval theatre of the future.  Attacking his handling of the Arab Spring remains risky; with the jury still out, that complex and still-unfolding episode is treacherous territory for criticism, which ranged from the tentative to the incoherent early in the campaign and has since petered out. Indeed, candidates now seem to have opted not to challenge the President’s non-Iran Middle East policies directly but instead to issue bizarre proncouncements that might earn them a few extra votes from the far right (“Palestinians are an invented people”/“Turkey is ruled by Islamic terrorists”).

The dispatch of the refitted Ponce to the Middle East represents a more efficient, modern military for a post-Soviet, post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan, post-profligacy era.  The rhetoric of the president’s challengers—insipid, tired, unimaginative—likewise needs retooling.

Ten Years of Guantanamo

Guantanamo Bay Prison Facility

The word terrorist comes freighted with associations.  When I hear it—to be honest—I do not picture Irishmen, Timothy McVeigh, or sarin attacks in Tokyo subway tunnels.  I picture crazy-looking bearded men, explosions, and sand.  Now, lest I be cast Juan Williams-like into the ring of hell reserved for the un-PC, I should emphasize that I do not say this is as it should be.  But subconscious associations like these pollute the debate, now recrudescent, over Guantanamo.

The baggage of the word terrorist owes most of its weight to the near-monopoly lately held by some enthusiastically Muslim Arab men over spectacular, ideologically motivated violence.  Non-Arabs and non-Muslims commit violence too, of course, but it is usually of a less spectacular or less ideological sort than that which emanates from the Arab Muslim community.  Most Americans who came of age at the turn of the millennium have therefore encountered the word terrorism in no other context, and are unable to separate abstract meaning from discrete experience.  Unlike war or human trafficking or theft, terrorism in most of our minds has specific geographic, religious, and historical dimensions. To consume media in the twenty-first century is to see picture after picture of exotic-looking Middle Eastern suspects while hearing the word terrorist. Repeat, repeat again, and the association forms.

The word Guantanamo is similarly compromised; like terrorist, it sags with baggage.  It evokes images of prisoner abuse and the excesses of Bush-era counterterrorism policy for some, and the words necessary evil (or just necessary) for others. Many of us select a position on Guantanamo either out of hatred for (presumably guilty) terrorists and contempt for the whiners who care about their rights, or out of outrage toward the prison as a house of post 9/11 horrors: abuse, neglect, and torture of blindfolded, orange-clad (presumably innocent) prisoners.

These associations, however, are irrelevant to the central question: that of Guantanamo’s fundamental legality.  This question is not about the justice of the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, the causes of terrorism, or even about what happens inside Guantanamo.  A prison should not be closed simply because it has seen abuse or housed innocent prisoners.  It should be closed, however, if its existence violates the law.

Two precedents compete to define the debate: the criminal justice precedent, better for attacking Guantanamo, and the war precedent, better for defending it.  In a recent New York Times Room for Debate on the subject, Eric Posner invoked war, and argued that even if the present arrangement is not ideal, no alternative exists which respects human rights any better.  Even if we did try enemy combatants criminally, he says, we would still need some sort of holding center for freshly caught suspects.  Guantanamo serves that purpose.  Opponents of this view—those who deem Guantanamo an illegal or immoral counterterrorism tool—complain that those interned therein are denied the rights guaranteed by both the Constitution and most of the Geneva Convention.

Thus, the criminal-combatant distinction emerges.  Do terrorists have the same rights as international criminals?  If not, why not?  How do international criminals cross the conceptual boundary and become terrorists?

Answer one question, and more spring forth: do constitutional rights apply to everyone in U.S. custody?  Either they do, or they do not.  Do they apply only to citizens?  It’s a yes-no question.  Under what circumstances are one’s rights nullified?  This must be clarified publicly before another U.S. citizen is deliberately killed in cold blood by our military, because Guantanamo’s implications reach beyond Cuba.

Anwar al-Awlaki, killed by a drone on September 30, was hard to arrest.  He was fairly dangerous.  He was in a country whose police were unwilling or unable to capture him.  He was a member of al-Qaeda.  But this is not a question of practicality; it is a question of legality.  Anwar al-Awlaki was an American citizen.  Either it is legal to kill dangerous, inaccessible, al-Qaeda-affiliated Americans in cold blood or it is not.

One might say that the whole point of Guantanamo is that the earlier questions must remain unanswered in the name of national security.  This argument leads one not down a slippery slope, but over a cliff beyond which no law exists and anything is permissible.

Marwa Daoudy: A Weak Case Against Military Intervention in Syria

Don't feed the rhetoric: Bashar al-Assad

Last Thursday on aljazeera.com, Marwa Daoudy argued against what virtually no one is arguing for: U.S. military intervention in Syria.

In her opening paragraph, Daoudy sets the mostly imagined controversy up as one unfolding between enlightened voices like hers and those of “neo-Orientalists,” who, she notes, “once characterized” the Arab world as “politically and economically stagnant.”  Confession: I have once or twice applied the same characterization.  Please forgive my neo-Orientalism.

The Warmongers

Prompting Daoudy’s call for restraint are articles recently released by Washington-based think tanks (The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the Foreign Policy Initiative, and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies) advocating a more aggressive foreign policy toward the Assad regime.  Instead of addressing the neoconservative think tanks’ arguments, and despite their stopping short of calling for regime change, Daoudy reminds us of their “history of pro-war advocacy” and links to the second Bush administration.  The think tanks, it seems, are on the march.

It gets worse.  The National Security Council itself has, apparently, investigated options for an intervention.  These options include establishing safe zones and humanitarian corridors.  The Syrian National Council, which represents the opposition, has also called for a no-fly zone to be established by the West (ah, so the neocons are not alone after all).

“The long term goal,” in Daoudy’s estimation, “is clearly strategic: to tame Syria as a key regional player” and “shape the country’s geopolitical links.”  Regime change, war, or tactical bombing would indeed serve those aims, but how would the humanitarian measures being proposed tame Syria as a regional player?  And this theory does not account for timing; it is Syria’s domestic murderousness, not its uncooperative foriegn policy, that is new here.  The options into which the NSC has looked seem more suited to the preservation of human life than the advancement of a geopolitical master plan; sorry if that sounds terribly naïve.

We Shall Overcome

Eventually, Daoudy meanders away from intonations about “pro-war” think tanks—who, to reiterate, do not advocate regime change or even all-out combat against Syrian forces—and toward an actual argument against military intervention (presumably by the U.S., since she addresses no other state’s foreign policy).  In doing this, she both selects the wrong target and aims poorly.

If a foreign military intervention happens in Syria, it will be Turkish, not American.  In fact, a Turkish intervention might already be said to have begun: Turkey has trained and harbored defectors of the Free Syrian Army, and Haaretz reports that Turkish officials today confiscated four Iranian truckloads of Syria-bound weapons.  His “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy doctrine apparently a victim of history, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has already called on Bashar al-Assad to step down and approved sanctions against Syria.  Despite this, Daoudy mentions Turkey twice, both times in passing.

But let us suppose that America were indeed dusting off the 2003 war drums.  Why not bomb Damascus?  First, Daoudy invokes the reviled Iraq War and the less-reviled Libya intervention, attempting to establish a pattern of interventions gone awry.  She asserts that these interventions “appalled” Syrians, to whom she ascribes no ability to distinguish between the two episodes, or between either episode and the current one.

Daoudy then acknowledges that Syrian suffering has reached an “unbearable” level, before arguing, in so many words, that Syrians should go on bearing it.  She describes worsening living conditions, rising violence perpetrated by military defectors and frustrated civilians, and the state-sponsored orgy of torture, murder, and intimidation that has only accelerated since the departure of Arab League monitors.  She then calls not only for foreign powers to mind their own business, but for Syrian rebels to lay down their weapons and emulate Gandhi.

Don’t Feed the Rhetoric

Armed resistance, writes Daoudy, “could feed into official rhetorics on foreign-led insurgency.”   First of all, the official rhetoric of Syria is clear to Syrians; it is made of bullets, shells, and mutilated children.  Also, note what is implied here: that anything on which an adversary’s rhetoric can feed should be avoided.  That doctrine gives our adversaries practically limitless control over our actions; if they want us not to do something, they need only harangue their subjects about our nefarious plans to do it.

Daoudy also cautions that unarmed resistance has drawn “momentum and power” by being peaceful.  How she knows this is a mystery.  To claim that the Syrian uprising has been gaining momentum at all is a stretch; to identify nonviolence as the sole source of that momentum requires powers of divination I do not possess.

Daoudy claims without qualification that any foreign intervention—again, we are talking here about no-fly zones or safe havens—would push all hitherto undecided Syrians into the arms of the regime.    No historical precedent comes to mind that justifies this causal assumption (the case of Libya appears to weaken it); please leave a comment if you think of one.

Eventually, Daoudy prescribes two measures for the international community—human rights fact-finding missions and, “with time,” targeted sanctions which spare the general population.  She urges restraint and nonviolence from Syrians.  Whether or not nonviolence is the best course, it seems presumptuous both to tell us how Syrians would react to foreign intervention and to tell Syrians how they should react to being massacred by their own state.

We Have the Wolf by the Ear: Cut Egypt’s Military Aid

Field Marshal Mohammed Tantawi

In 1820, the year the Missouri Compromise cleaved Maine from Massachusetts to maintain the Congressional balance between free and slave states, Thomas Jefferson wrote of the peculiar institution: “We have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.”

Until 2011, U.S. administrations were more or less content to hold close their Arab wolves (Mubarak, ben Ali, and the semi-tamed Qaddafi).  And in 2011, once the issue was forced, the wolves were rather easily let go.  But as Egypt’s Supreme Council of Armed Forces showed late last week when it raided the offices of NGOs dedicated to nourishing Egypt’s abused civil society, Hosni Mubarak was not the only wolf in Cairo.  The remaining wolves (Tantawi, Mohammed, Anan) present U.S. policymakers with a trickier problem than the old strongman.

Holding these wolves—which in concrete terms means continuing annual military aid payments of $1.3 billion, second only to Israel’s—will, to say the least, compromise the Obama administration’s attempt to demonstrate its solidarity with demonstrators.  On the other hand, some fear that letting them go will benefit the Islamic extremists they once held at bay.  This seemingly dichotomous choice results precisely from the ruthless trampling of centrist political movements over decades of military rule.

Indeed, as I heard John P. Entelis emphatically aver at a panel discussion at the Elliott School this fall, stage new elections anywhere in the Arab world and Islamists will win, in the first contest and probably in the second, too.  But, as he went on to say, this is not because of the immutable, violent Islamism warned against by Middle Eastern regimes; it is because of the very conditions those regimes deliberately created.  Where secular political opposition was too dangerous to brook, Islamism was useful as a bogeyman with which to scare the West—“it’s us or them.”  Thus did Islamist opposition groups accrue the advantages we see today.

We will never be certain that Arab democracy will produce friendly, docile allies.  In fact, in the short term we should assume that it will not.  The lesson of 2011, however, is that no moral alternative to democracy existed ever, and no practical alternative exists anymore, for America.  Our choice is not between democracy and theocracy, or between chaos and order.  Those choices are for Egyptians.  Our $1.3 billion choice is simple: do we hold the wolf or let it go?

Iran and America: 2012 Predictions

The withdrawal from Iraq in the dying days of 2011 does not, it seems, signal the end of America’s Middle East expedition.  This year gave us little cause to think it would: both Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s intransigence and the political crisis wracking Iraq’s government portend prolonged Western engagement, and perhaps a recommitment of troops.  Revolutionary fragility in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen present further causes for concern.  And yesterday, Iran issued its first challenge to America’s post-war role by threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which one-third of seaborne oil passes daily (including much of Iran’s).

All of this sets the stage for 2012, which will likely witness an Iranian-American contest for influence in an amorphous, volatile Arab world.  Both states will calibrate their aggression: The United States will aim to prod Iraqi politics in favorable directions, while Iran will continue to promote its own interests there and to press against the West in hopes of provoking a response against which to rally the people.

Iran’s attempt to seize the initiative makes sense.  In military terms, its threat against oil shipments is unenforceable, particularly against America’s Fifth Fleet (indeed, Iran’s threats barely shook oil prices).  But anything which might bring American military adventurism back into global headlines, distract from controversy surrounding Iran’s nuclear program, and signal Iran’s potency—Syria’s implosion notwithstanding—is worth pursuing.

What is America to do?  Iran’s leadership likely calculates that in an election year, the Great Satan’s incumbent executive lacks heart for sustained conflict, especially because fighting may involve the reversal of what American officials have striven to portray as a dignified withdrawal.  Further constraining American action is President Obama’s vulnerability to accusations that, while he focuses excessively on expensive foreign matters, his own citizens struggle to get by.  Iran is probably more or less right about this.  In 2012, barring certain catastrophic eventualities, American action in the Persian Gulf will be heavily circumscribed.

These pressures, however, will drive American policy in the right direction.  Iran’s leadership would welcome few American initiatives more than those which emanate from the Pentagon.  In 2011, it will be remembered, the great global political thaw brought down an entire ice sheet of Middle Eastern dictatorship.  The Iranian chunk has outlasted some others, but its time will come; the quickest way to defeat it is simply to let it melt.

This hands-off approach has its limits, however.  Iran may either miscalculate or choose to risk challenging the United States; if the regime determines that a warlike posture increases its chances of survival, expect it to assume one.  And if such aggression takes place on a sufficiently intolerable scale, America will retaliate (election year be damned).  Avoiding war in the event of a large-scale Iranian attack on Israel, an embargo of Persian Gulf oil, or a nuclear detonation is as politically untenable as launching war in the absence of one.

 

A Blog in Memory of Christopher Hitchens

One does not have to agree with a single thing Christopher Hitchens ever said or wrote in order to admire him.

Not one in the profusion of affectionate online tributes to the scathing, prolific, eloquent, smoking, drinking, infuriating Hitchens mentions how right he was about things. It is easy to see why; few can get through much of his oeuvre without being put off. He excoriated George W. Bush’s counterterrorism policies but supported his war; he railed against the religious for oppressing women (among other sins) but expressed doubts about both the morality of abortion and a woman’s talent for comedy; he abhorred both Israel’s encirclement of Gaza and the sea-bound “activists” who sought to break it.

What kind of person can hold such contradictory views? Answer: Hitchens’ views were not contradictory, which is what made them so unusual. For contradiction, look elsewhere: to conservatives who categorically decry an overbearing federal government while demanding that it prevent states from allowing gay marriage, and to liberals who are culturally relativistic toward Afghanistan but not Alabama.  What guides most opinion-making is not a coherent premise, but an unsatisfying cocktail of impulse, inertia, and ignorance.  If someone calls you an inconsistent liberal or conservative, congratulations: you may be thinking for yourself.

Foreign policy, one of Hitch’s better-trodden fields, offers stark examples of impulse, inertia, and ignorance at work. We just went into Libya for the oil. The claim exhibits fashionable cynicism, but explains America’s actions no better than it would if we had backed Qaddafi or remained aloof. Or, take this dramatic non sequitur: How dare you question the West Bank settlement project when Israel sits daily under the threat of rockets, suicide bombings, and nuclear annihilation?  Regardless of which side it comes from, this species of argument—facile, ideological, illogical—is a contagion in our body politic.

But Christopher Hitchens was immune. He deplored the Bush administration’s handling of the Iraq war, but applauded its aims; he trashed extremist settlers and Hamas suicide bombers in equal measure; he backed NATO’s intervention in Libya, but condemned the execution of Qaddafi. Most of us pick positions first—usually those of our family, party, or social scene—and then work backward to find the arguments to serve them (if we even go that far). Hitchens worked the other way around, drawing from a deep well of knowledge and applying a simple, robust framework based on individual freedom and secularism. These might also be called impulses, but impulses exist on a spectrum. A commitment to human freedom is a deep impulse. “I hate Democrats” is a superficial one.

The key to consistency over contradiction, as Hitchens demonstrated, is to maintain one’s distance from political camps and preserve one’s intellectual (if not ingestive) sobriety. An example, using one of the old man’s favorite topics: Suppose somebody puts it to you that the Iraq War was justified by Saddam Hussein’s nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons programs and aggression toward his neighbors. Now, you’re equipped to disagree with him—you can point, if you like, to evidence showing that Iraq’s weapons program to have been unthreatening (or less-than-existent), or that Saddam was no longer in the mood to invade his neighbors.

What you cannot do is smugly point out, say, that the United States had armed Hussein during his war against Iran in the 1980s. While true (we also armed Iran), it is irrelevant. Our having sold weapons to Saddam Hussein may suggest that American foreign policy in the 1980s was short-sighted, self-defeating, immoral, or amoral, but it suggests nothing about the wisdom of intervening there in 2003. This argument stems from an impulse to shatter illusions about American exceptionalism, to smear some gray onto a black and white worldview. It does not, however, make sense.

Making sense is my chief objective in starting this blog on the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy. To make sense is a humble-sounding aspiration, but Christopher Hitchens taught me how elegantly it can be done.