Focusing on a candidate's high school years strikes me as silly. As silly as focusing on a candidate's old girlfriends. But reading through this slideshow on Mitt Romney's years at Cranbrook Schools, you can see his name just below that of former CIA analyst Paul Pillar in the Class of 1965. Assuming this is the same Paul R. Pillar, high school reunuions must get awkward when talk turns to Iran or counter-terrorism.
I have written about the difference between capability and intent before, but in my World Politics Review column this week, I tackle the intelligence problems related to intent, which are normally much more difficult than those related to capability. Specifically, I tackle the (understandable) failure of U.S. intelligence agencies to determine whether or not Israel will attack Iran -- a failure that matches my own inability to do so.
My column was inspired by both a book I read and a conversation I had last week. On the way to and from my incredible, kick-ass hometown for a short trip, I read Bob Jervis's Why Intelligence Fails: Lessons from the Iranian Revolution and the Iraq War. Jervis provided me with much of the framework through which I examined the problem. I then followed that book up with a lengthy lunch conversation with Jeffrey Goldberg, who has written extensively about what might be going through the heads of Israel's leaders regarding Iran's nuclear weapons program. I first fleshed out the thesis of my column over lunch and was grateful for the pointed questions he asked.
(Goldberg noted, though, that it is problematic to call Israel, as I do, "by far the largest recipient of U.S. aid since the end of World War II." I referenced and hyperlinked a report by the Congressional Research Service (.pdf) that itself noted Israel is "the largest cumulative recipient of U.S. foreign assistance since World War II." But Goldberg noted that South Korea or Germany have received a lot more overall aid when you count U.S. military posture, and he has a good point. My sense is that most U.S. Congressmen and Americans do not count this as aid. But maybe they should. Also, we have never actually gone to war for Israel -- no matter what some loons say -- but we have gone to war for South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and others. That surely counts for something too, yes?)
Reuters reports that the U.S. intelligence community is worked up about the potential that Hizballah could attack U.S. civilians in the United States in the event of an attack on Iran:
There is a big difference between capability and intent, obviously. It would not be in the interests of Hizballah to attack U.S. civilian targets on the U.S. mainland. That would be incredibly dumb, actually, and would carry with it potentially catastrophic consequences for Hizballah's constituency. I write more about Hizballah's calculations regarding an attack on Iran here in case anyone is interested, and I think my analysis from last week remains sound.
That having been said, let's get real for a moment: there is an argument to be made, of course, that Iran might underestimate what a U.S. response to an attack would be. After all, Iran played a big role in killing at least 1,000 U.S. servicemen in Iraq, continues to support the insurgency in Afghanistan, and has carried out failed attacks on Israeli targets elsewhere. The response by both the Obama Administration and the Bush Administration before that has been to ... well, not do a hell of a lot.
That's just one interpretation of Iranian thinking, though. Another interpretation would be to look at stuff like Stuxnet, the assassination of scientists, and crippling sanctions as an aggressive U.S.-led campaign against the people of Iran.
And that's the trouble with perception and misperception in international politics. It's tough to know how the other guy sees the same things you do. Someone should write a book about this ...
What does Hizballah have in common with the United States aside from a love of paintball?
Hizballah, like the United States, would be caught up in a conflict between Iran and Israel. And like the United States, it has a lot of reasons for wanting to avoid a conflict right now.
That's the subject of my column in this week's World Politics Review, which you can read here.
Matthew Kroenig, Steven Walt and others have given us a real Christmas treat in the form of the debate over Matt's recent article in Foreign Affairs. Walt responded to Matt's article, as did Dan Drezner and Paul Pillar. Although I was inclined to agree with Walt when the debate began, I was put off by the condescension -- as I perceived it -- in his original response, so I was especially pleased to see him then allow Matt a chance to reply before posting one final time himself. Students of international relations and Middle East policy should take the time to read through the informative back-and-forth, and I thank both scholars for getting their ideas out there in the public sphere.
I have a few problems of my own with Matt's original article. Those problems all concern second and third-order effects.
If Iran gets the bomb, I have heard all kinds of worries about what would then happen in terms of regional security. But in conversations with leaders around the region, I have heard very few specifics. Why, exactly, would a nuclear Iran be so much worse than a non-nuclear Iran? Bear with me here: Let's say Iran gets a nuclear weapon. What happens next? Would other states bandwagon? What would that bandwagoning behavior look like in real terms? (For the record, I have never heard any compelling answer to this question in travels around the region.)
Would other states seek nuclear weapons? How, exactly? Let's pick one example: Saudi Arabia. Why, first off, has Saudi Arabia not already begun a nuclear energy program? (And don't say "oil," because there is an opportunity cost to Gulf states using oil for their own energy rather than selling it on the open market for $100 a barrel.) Does Saudi Arabia have the technical expertise to start a nuclear program? If so, how long would it take them? Would Saudi Arabia instead buy a bomb? From where? From Pakistan, perhaps? Why would the Pakistanis sell one to them? Why might the Pakistanis not sell one to them? You can see where I am going here: once you start trying examine the second and third order effects and their various branches, it's tough to explain how, exactly, a nuclear Iran would be that much more dangerous than a non-nuclear Iran. I am not saying it would not be more dangerous -- I am saying it is very hard to explain how, exactly, a nuclear Iran would be more dangerous. And I think those arguing for war with Iran have an obligation to sketch out those specifics to both policy makers and to the public.
On the flip side of the equation, what might be the adverse second and third order effects of a U.S. strike on Iran? I agree with Matt's critics that he gives us the best-case scenario. But how does the situation look if we work through the effects of a U.S. strike on Iran country-by-country? How might another war affect U.S. security and economic interests elsewhere in the region? How might such a war affect U.S. interests outside the region? How might Iran respond?
I like Matt as both a person and a scholar. I think he owes us more analysis, though, than he has thus far given us.
Update: On the other hand, I can think of few people less qualified to answer the questions I have asked in the above paragraphs than this freaking guy. I mean, why in the world would any responsible analyst or policy maker listen to what John Yoo, J.D., has to say about the regional security architecture of the Persian Gulf? Or military operations? It's not as if the Republican Party does not have plenty of smart people who can speak about each. I have no idea what the editors at the National Review were thinking.
A few things need to be said about Michael Doran's essay in Foreign Affairs:
1. The idea that the Bush Administration was entirely populated with people who knew nothing about the Arabic-speaking world is false and ugly. Doran was teaching at Princeton and had published widely on the Arabic-speaking world before joining the administration. He is a first-rate scholar of the peoples and history of the Middle East.
2. I was emailing with Parag Khanna this morning and told him I think it's too early for him or anyone else to be making broad claims about what these events mean for the Arabic-speaking world as a whole. As Doran correctly notes here (and Lisa Anderson notes elsewhere in the same issue of Foreign Affairs), this is hardly the first time the Arabic-speaking world has been swept up in revolutionary fervor in the past century. And as Anderson notes, the challenges of a state like Libya and a state like Egypt going forward are completely different.
3. Doran is correct, in my estimation, to be worried about current and future violent non-state actors in the Arabic-speaking world and the ways in which Iran might support them. This is something that would have worried a responsible policy maker as much in December 2010 as today -- and I don't just say that as a guy who wrote his dissertation on Hizballah.
4. Let us not be so blinded by what Iran may or may not do that we fail to take the opinions and preferences of Arabs seriously. Doran writes:
Faced with the accountability of the democratic process, Egypt's new rulers will not feel nearly as free as Mubarak did to side with Washington and Jerusalem when the next round of conflicts involving Israel erupts. In the post-Mubarak era, the resistance bloc has a new weapon: the Egyptian crowd, which is now freer than before to organize on its own. Renewed violence will undoubtedly spark massive street demonstrations, not only in Egypt but also in Iraq, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. But it is in Egypt where the bloc will concentrate its energies, providing the Muslim Brotherhood and similar groups with a pretext for organizing the mob and casting themselves as the conscience of the Egyptian people. They will demand that the military sever all ties with Israel and the United States -- and it is far from certain whether Egypt's insecure army officers will have the mettle to withstand the campaign.
I have no big problem with much of what Doran writes here. I do have a problem, though, with his emphasis on what he calls "the resistance bloc" -- Iran and Syria together with violent non-state actors like Hamas and Hizballah. Iran and its allies aside, Egyptians do not very much like Israeli policy toward the Palestinian people. Iran, Syria, and Hizballah could disappear off the face of the Earth tomorrow and that would still be the case. So when Egyptian leaders do not respond with the same timidity to the next Israeli incursion into Gaza as Hosni Mubarak did, those leaders will likely be reflecting the genuine policy preferences of the Egyptian electorate -- not creeping Iranian influence.
5. Issandr, in an epic rant on Arabist, wrote the following:
If things do come to a head between Saudi Arabia and Iran, I know which one I'll be rooting for: Iran, while its current regime is awful, is at least a sophisticated civilisation. Its current regime will hopefully one day fall. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, represents one corrupt family and its alliance with the most fanatical, retrograde interpretation of Islam in the world. Their downfall cannot come soon enough.
I'm not sure I would go that far (in fact, I know I would not), but the focus on Iran and Iranian influence in the Middle East is indeed a little curious considering the fact that Saudi-sponsored radical Sunni extremism has killed a lot more American citizens than Iran ever thought about. Saudi Arabia, with its oil reserves and spare refining capacity, is an exceptional case in terms of U.S. policy, I realize. But it's puzzling to me how Doran can take such a "black" view of Iran and Iranian influence and such a "white" view of Saudi Arabia and Saudi influence. To paraphrase one of my favorite works by the noted orientalist Robert Earl Keen, in the Middle East, we surely live and die by shades of gray.
Today, I read not only Jeffrey Goldberg's article on the policy options facing U.S. and Israeli leaders with respect to Iran's nuclear program but also Jon Lee Anderson's article built around an interview he conducted with that guy who wears the Members Only jacket. I greatly enjoyed both articles and recommend them to the readership, though I must confess to not understanding the business model at either the Atlantic or the New Yorker: these articles must have cost a fortune to produce in terms of travel and salaries for both writers, so how does giving them away for free on the internet make any sense at all? I subscribe to both the Atlantic and the New Yorker, and I am now feeling like a chump considering that fact that I read the first article online before it hit my mail box.
Anyway, the articles: they are good. I had some quibbles with each, though. At one point, Goldberg -- who, when reporting on Israeli and U.S. policy-makers, is pretty fantastic -- ponders the origins of Iranian anti-Semitism and ends up considering some stuff written by Shia clerics in the 16th and 17th centuries, perhaps unintentionally bolstering Hemingway's argument that writers should write what they know. I also wish Goldberg had spoken not just with the Netanyahu and Obama administrations but also with critics of the president. When an Esquire magazine writer recently asked some tough questions of Newt Gingrich on Iran, for example, it was kinda devastating:
You call Obama's Iran policy appeasement. But what's the alternative?
"Replace the government."
You're advocating war with Iran?
"Not necessarily. There's every reason to believe that if you simply targeted gasoline, and you maximized your support for dissidents in Iran, that within a year you'd replace the regime without a war."
That's it? After such an incendiary charge, your only solution is sanctions and speeches?
"The only thing you have to stop is gasoline," he repeats.
But that just seems like nuance, and only a minor difference with Obama's position.
"The difference between replacing a regime and appeasing a regime is pretty radical."
But you won't replace the regime that way. You're just tinkering with sanctions, which have never worked.
"I would cut off gasoline, and I would fund the dissidents," he repeats.
Oh... Anyway, I would have loved to see Goldberg ask questions of Palin or Gingrich or Romney on what U.S. policy toward Iran should be.
Anderson's article, meanwhile, has all the hallmarks of an article written by a writer who had to spin a story out of thin gruel. Anderson admits he was given very little cooperation by the Iranian regime outside of setting up the interview with Ahmembersonlyjad, but give Anderson credit for nonetheless making the article work. His article is a reminder that the Iranians are not just objects but agents in their own right: focusing on their agency and actions makes them both falible and all the more frightening in terms of what lies in store for the Middle East as a region in the years to come.
So a suicide bomber today killed "several top commanders in Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards" and the Iranians blamed the US and the UK. So far, so predictable. But away from the grandstanding, it was a slightly different story.
One of the Pakistani news channels just reported that the Iranian foreign minister called in the Pakistani ambassador to complain that his country's territory was being used as a launch pad by terrorists to attack Iran.
BBC is reporting that Jundullah, a Sunni terrorist group operating in Iranian Balouchistan, claimed responsibility for the attack.
The obvious question that springs to mind is whether an instable Pakistan is leaking fall out. It's one thing if Pakistani actors are cultivating mini armies to use against neighbours in a competition for influence or to bleed an opponent. It's quite another if Pakistani territory is being used by armed groups in a pre-9/11 Afghanistan type situation. In fact, it has the potential to be worse, because Afghanistan's Taliban government hadn't spent decades training mini armies that had support networks and physical assets all over their territory. Of course, it didn't also have nuclear weapons.
If something similar happens in China's Xinjiang provice, does Pakistan get like a toaster... free refill, or something?
I have several friends in the Israeli journalism community whose reporting I trust and admire, but when it comes to Hizballah, I am often wary of what is written from south of the Blue Line unless it focuses almost exclusively on Israeli operations. Sometimes the author is a little too sure of the conclusions he or she draws about Hizballah, something Beirut-based journalists like Nick Blanford and Mitch Prothero who report on Hizballah from north of the Blue Line and enjoy good contacts within the organization rarely do. (In case you are wondering, I cannot think of a single journalist in the Arabic language whose reporting on Hizballah's military activities I consider to be "must-read" and worth breaking out the old Hans Wehr. I suspect there are strong incentives for Lebanese journalists to not report on such activities.)
That said, I read and got something out of Ronen Bergman's op-ed on Israel's "Secret War" on Hizballah. Since 2006, Lebanon south of the Litani River has been turned over to the Lebanese Armed Forces and UNIFIL II, meaning it has been difficult for Hizballah to rebuild the kind of border defenses they used in the summer of 2006. (12,000 international soldiers, whatever their loyalties, kinda get in the way.) Most of their construction appears to have shifted just north of the Litani, while the villages of southern Lebanon appear to have been hardened and resupplied with caches of arms, food, water, etc. Smart people on both sides of the Blue Line tend to agree with this analysis, and it matches up with what I myself saw in southern Lebanon on multiple trips there between November 2006 and November 2008.
Since 2006, then, southern Lebanon has indeed been a kind of semi-demilitarized zone. At the very least, the hardened border defenses Hizballah built between 2000 and 2006 are no longer in place. Which, funnily enough, makes it a lot easier for Israeli commando teams to infiltrate southern Lebanon. And it seems to me that some kind of Israeli special operations raids are as good an explanation as any for those mysterious explosions that have been taking place in southern Lebanon lately. I cannot say for sure, of course, since the Israelis have no reason to acknowledge them and Hizballah has every reason to deny they are taking place, but such an explanation seems both plausible and probable.
I could spend several posts quibbling with things Bergman wrote in his op-ed, but I think he got the first half of his conclusion right:
In short, despite the fact that Hezbollah today is substantially stronger in purely military terms than it was three years ago, its political stature and its autonomy have been significantly reduced. It is clear that Nasrallah is cautious and he will weigh his options very carefully before embarking on any course of action that might lead to all-out war with Israel.
The second half, meanwhile, was more problematic.
There are some experts in Israel who believe that even Hezbollah's retaliatory role in the Iranian game plan is currently in question. Whether or not this is the case, all of this is being considered in Jerusalem as part of Israel's calculations about whether to strike Iran's nuclear facilities.
Danger, Will Robinson. One of things that bothered me about Bergman's op-ed and about some conversations I had with Israeli military officers last month is how, well, "cocky" they are these days.
"By all means, let the Hezbollah try," one officer told me two weeks ago when I asked if he was concerned about the possibility of warfare. "The welcome party that we are preparing for them is one that they will remember for a very long time." That sentiment is shared by many of his colleagues.
I recently read an excellent article by Richard Kohn that was recommended to me by a retired three-star I know and admire. Kohn writes that a decline in U.S. military professionalism -- especially the ability of U.S. officers to think strategically -- has been masked by the fact that "our military regularly demonstrates its operational effectiveness in battle." Like the United States, Israel can also be accused of letting operational brilliance be a substitute for sound strategy.
First off, both Hizballah and Israeli officers have been talking a lot of smack about how they would each bloody the other if 2006 were to be refought. And if -- Heaven forbid -- such a war were to be fought, I indeed think the Israeli military machine would punish Hizballah and the people and infrastructure of Lebanon to a horrific degree. If there is to be another war, the gloves would be off. But after the shooting stops and the Israelis inevitably go back across the Blue Line, what will have been accomplished in terms of Israeli policy aside from the further isolation of Israel within the international community? And from Hizballah's perspective, why on earth would you want to precipitate such a horrible conflict?
Second, one or two successful special operations raids into southern Lebanon should not should not should not inform your calculus as to whether or not you should attempt to strike Iranian nuclear facilities. Apples and freaking oranges. The former is a tactical exercise that carries with it moderate strategic risk. The latter is a strategic decision that carries with it enormous geopolitical consequences for you, your neighbors and your allies. I mean, how does the cabinet discussion go on that one? "Well, you know, we managed to send a seven-man team into southern Lebanon last night. Pretty awesome, yes. Who, then, is up for sending the entire IAF to Qom tonight? Anyone?"
Israelis are now realizing something I have long argued: that Israeli deterrence did not take the hit many said it did immediately after the 2006 war. It's doing quite well, actually. But the paradox of deterrence is that, in Schelling's words, "the power to hurt is most successful when held in reserve." Deterrence is, as John "The Warlord" Collins is fond of saying, a strategy for peace -- not for war. Like Bergman, I too feel Israeli deterrence vis a vis Hizballah is doing pretty well right now. But it all goes the way of the Dodo if one side or the other, like the Kinghts Hospitalier at Arsuf, gets restless enough to start something off without thinking through the endstate.
Iranian penetration of Latin America is a serious concern. Except, you know, when it doesn't exist:
MANAGUA, Nicaragua -- For months, the reports percolated in Washington and other capitals. Iran was constructing a major beachhead in Nicaragua as part of a diplomatic push into Latin America, featuring huge investment deals, new embassies and even TV programming from the Islamic republic.
"The Iranians are building a huge embassy in Managua," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned in May. "And you can only imagine what that's for."
But here in Nicaragua, no one can find any super-embassy.
Nicaraguan reporters scoured the sprawling tropical city in search of the embassy construction site. Nothing. Nicaraguan Chamber of Commerce chief Ernesto Porta laughed and said: "It doesn't exist." Government officials say the U.S. Embassy complex is the only "mega-embassy" in Managua. A U.S. diplomat in Managua conceded: "There is no huge Iranian Embassy being built as far as we can tell."
The mysterious, unseen giant embassy underscores how Iran's expansion into Latin America may be less substantive than some in Washington fear.
Iran's proposed investments in Nicaragua -- for a deep-water port, hydroelectric plants and a tractor factory -- have also failed to materialize, Nicaraguan officials say. At a time when Iran's oil revenue is falling, the same is true of many projects planned for Latin America, according to analysts.
U.S. officials emphasized that there is plenty of reason to be concerned about Iran, which they consider a state sponsor of terrorism. But the Iranian activity has revived Cold War-style rhetoric in Washington that at times doesn't match what is evident in places such as Managua.
Last month, Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) even told reporters in a call organized by the Israel Project that "the growing influence of Iran in the Western Hemisphere reminds me of the relationship between Russia and Cuba when we dealt with the Cuban missile crisis."
It is not clear where the report of the embassy in Managua began. But in the past two years, it has made its way into congressional testimony, think tank reports, press accounts, and diplomatic events in the United States and elsewhere.
Hey, maybe we just haven't sent the right man to find this super-secret base. But seriously, this seems like a pretty ridiculous flashback to the days when we saw Soviet conspiracies behind everything. Iran is certainly no friend of the United States and not to be underestimated, but let's not blow it out of proportion. Iran is no Soviet Union. I doubt its capacity to build a mega-anything, let alone a mega-embassy on the other side of the world. And I find it hard to believe that Iranian TV would catch on in Nicaragua.