I did a guest post over at the Monkey Cage: “Will the US Restrain Israel on Iran? Unlikely.”
I did a Q & A on the one-year anniversary of the Arab uprisings.
If you are in the CT, New England, or NY area, come join us for a one-day conference at UConn in Storrs, CT:
“The Arab Uprisings and the Changing Global Order” (flyer)
Tuesday, March 27, 2012
Student Union 330 (Storrs, CT)
9:00 am — Opening remarks
Panel #1: Political Change in the Arab World
9:15 – 10:45 am
Issandr El Amrani, The Arabist
Eva Bellin, Brandeis University
Amaney Jamal, Princeton University
Panel #2: Regional Dynamics
11:00 am – 12:30 pm
Robert Blecher, International Crisis Group
Gregory Gause, University of Vermont
Jillian Schwedler, University of Massachusetts
Panel #3: The Uprisings and the United States
2:00 – 3:30 pm
Brian Katulis, Center for American Progress
Sarah Kreps, Cornell University
Malik Mufti, Tufts University
Panel #4: Concluding Roundtable
3:45 – 4:30 pm
Sponsored by the Alan R. Bennett Professor, CLAS, and POLS.
Co-sponsored by the Human Rights Institute and Middle Eastern Studies.
For questions, please contact email@example.com.
The push for a much more restrained US foreign policy, whether in the Middle East (as Gregory Gause argued) or around the world (as Stephen Walt would have it) makes eminent sense. But if pundits and policymakers are serious about moving the United States in that direction, it is going to require challenging two core beliefs: American exceptionalism and conditional sovereignty. Without challenging these pillars of American interventionism run amok, any shift toward restraint will be shallow and temporary.
The rise of the United States as a global power may have come about because of economic might, technological innovation, and military prowess, but it has also been intimately linked to a can-do attitude and a perception of inherent superiority. While a realist might emphasize that growth in US material power and what the US can do (see Monteiro here), we need to recognize that it has been married to an ideational commitment to using that power. From the moment the colonists prevailed over the mighty British Empire, this was a country that could overcome great odds and re-make the world in its image. We are the city on a hill, the arsenal of democracy, the indispensable nation. The American way is the best way.
History seemed only to add further proof of American supremacy. US forces crushed the native population and gathered the survivors in reservations. Territory, whether through war or dealmaking, led to the great expansion west – the Louisiana Purchase, Texas and the southwest, Alaska, and even faraway islands in the Pacific Ocean. Our doughboys helped turn the tide in WWI, and we vanquished Nazi Germany in WWII. With Europe in tatters, America saved the day with the Marshall Plan and NATO. Just 20 years ago, the United States won the Cold War, a massive accomplishment. In short, history is seen as proving that American expansion and intervention was good, necessary, and effective.
For U.S. political candidates, the idea of questioning America’s ability to be number one, to effect change, and to influence others remains a risky strategy. For the GOP presidential candidates this year, it has been an attack line against President Barack Obama. In the 2008 campaign, one thinks of the brouhaha when Michelle Obama said, “for the first time in my adult life I am proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback.” Critics pounced because expressing doubt about the United States was seen as unacceptable.
Of course since the United States has been a full-fledged superpower, the record has slipped in a way that you might think would lead to the “judicious” use of the U.S. military that then Gov. George W. Bush preached during the 2000 campaign. The military struggled in Korea and then more so in Vietnam. After the seeming redemption of the first Gulf War in 1991, the last decade has brought back the questions; Iraq and Afghanistan were and are a difficult slog. On the economic front, the 1950s and 1960s gave way to energy crises and the rise of other economic powers, whether Japan in the 1980s or China and India today.
Now if we were strict about sovereignty, we might have a problem meddling in countless countries. So hand in hand with American exceptionalism has been a commitment to the conditional nature of sovereignty. If Washington feels it needs to intervene, it does.
To be fair, sovereignty is not an impenetrable roadblock. International law makes exceptions for genocide, for example, and R2P is carving a much larger hole in sovereignty. Moreover, if the United States gets multilateral, regional, and/or UN blessing for proposed meddling, the sovereignty question fades even more from the debate.
The problem is that violations of sovereignty may come with a heavy price, a price far worse than the initial benefits. The US invasion of Iraq created a political vacuum that al-Qaeda exploited to the detriment of Iraqis and Americans. What is blowback, after all, if not US meddling coming back to bite Washington? When the United States kills 24 Pakistani soldiers or when a US drone crashes in Iran, we should all recognize the fluid take on sovereignty that such incidents represent and worry about the future implications of such behavior.
Aggressive internationalism, whether of the neoconservative or liberal variety, relies on a belief in U.S. effectiveness, on a missionary zeal (nicely captured by Dominic Tierney), and on the ability to waltz into and out of countries. So if the grand strategy needs rethinking, it will not be enough to simply table an alternative built on humility and restraint. It is going to take a much deeper debate about how we see ourselves in relation to the rest of the world and whether we are willing to reformulate our ideas. Is that a debate our polarized political system is ready to have?
Over at Mideast Matrix, I posted on the recent explosion at an Iranian nuclear facility and set it within the larger context of Obama foreign policy.
So finally the week of decision has arrived, and the Palestinian issue will be taken up at the United Nations. Claiming that the Palestinian appeal to the UN is bad for the peace process or is the death of Oslo rings hollow to me. There is no peace process right now if what one means by peace process is high-level Israeli-Palestinian negotiations aimed at resolving the conflict. Since President Barack Obama took office in January 2009, we have only witnessed a few weeks of such talks. So it is bad for something that does not exist?
Moreover, criticizing President Mahmoud Abbas and the PA for turning to the UN because it is a unilateral move also seems odd because a) the UN is the world’s central multilateral institution and b) the UN stamp of approval in 1947 was and is a key building block for Israel’s statehood. In a related sense, if one wants the Palestinians to reject violence, shouldn’t they be permitted diplomatic, political, and legal moves? A Fatah leader quoted in the excellent Crisis Group report: “The world is telling us that we should be doing only peaceful resistance, but what we are doing at the UN is not even resistance, it’s just a legal move, and we are being told that even that is illegitimate. Is there anything that would be considered legitimate?”
The reason we don’t have a peace process is interrelated Israeli and Palestinian opposition. Think of it like a Mobius strip. The Netanyahu government, and the majority of Israelis who support that government, don’t believe in a genuine two-state solution, as I explained here. They oppose a negotiated, genuine two-state solution a) because it runs counter to the Greater Israel project in the West Bank including East Jerusalem – so ideological opposition – and b) because of Hamas. Israelis don’t think the PA can deliver a peaceful state of affairs given Hamas and the Hamas position suggests Palestinians are not ready for peace. The problems associated with the Oslo process (1993-2001) and Gaza Disengagement (2005) fuel and reinforce such sentiments. Of course, Hamas holds some political power in part because Israel has been unwilling to stop settlements and expansion and, with its current government, is disinterested in a two-state solution. Round and round we go.
I have a hard time seeing that this Palestinian move at the UN leads anywhere productive except in one unlikely scenario: If enough Israelis turn on their government because of Israel’s intense political isolation around the world and strained relations with the Obama administration. (Tom Friedman goes house on the Israeli government.) Plausible but unlikely because more political isolation reinforces an Israeli perspective that sees the world as aligned against Israel regardless of Israeli policy.
What will Abbas do after the UN meetings? Abbas: “The Palestinian people and their leadership will pass through very difficult times after” the UN move. Okay, what does that mean? The Palestinians could lose a lot financially if Israel cuts off the return of Palestinian tax revenue that Israel collects and the U.S. Congress blocks aid to the PA. However, Israel might not want to cut off funds if that jeopardized Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation; there is no simple all-good or all-bad option here regardless of one’s interests and viewpoint. The Israeli government fears, and has planned for, mass Palestinian demonstrations and possible violence.
Is it too late to avert a showdown at the UN? Probably, but maybe someone will pull a rabbit out of a hat: a softer UN resolution, a Quartet statement in lieu of a UN debate, a renewal of bilateral talks. Still, it does not seem likely.
Just to make sure things look and feel bleak, let me close with this excerpt from the Crisis Group report (pages 37-38). It explains the PA’s situation even before any UN action:
This comes atop other worrying signals concerning the PA. Since Prime Minister Fayyad announced a cabinet reshuffle the day after Mubarak stepped down on 11 February, he has been unable to form a new government. The West Bank economy, economists say, has been softening; corruption investigations against two ministers are ongoing; and Fayyad has been demoralised by the way he was treated in the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation process. The PA’s financial crisis – acute even without a cut-off of U.S. aid or halt in Israel tax transfers – is causing distress among its employees, especially given that financial obligations are heightened during the summer. In addition delayed salary payments are becoming harder to bear, since many PA employees have taken out substantial loans.
At the same time, security coordination with Israel reportedly has decreased somewhat. The next in a sequence of National Security Forces battalions to be trained in Jordan under U.S. supervision has been delayed; granting of permission for Palestinian security forces to move between various areas in the West Bank has been slowed; and decisions that were taken by Israeli field commanders have been kicked up the chain. The PA seems as intent as ever on combating crime and Hamas, but forward movement on security reforms has ceased. All of this has further shaken popular confidence in their leader’s ability to deliver and in ministers’ faith in their ability to govern. The most difficult consequences may be yet to come: “Our budget situation is absolutely debilitating. We are now working on a very serious austerity budget that could fairly be described as draconian”, a senior PA official said.
I like to see how different writers depict what happened in and around 1948. Tony Karon had this one:
Recognizing that the Palestinian Arabs would not agree to more than half of British-ruled Palestine, in which they were the majority, being carved off for a separate Jewish state, the U.N. nonetheless voted to prescribe such a partition in 1947.
That didn’t settle matters, of course; the two sides fought a war first (involving troops from all of Israel’s Arab neighbors), which saw Israel grow its share of the partition from 55% to 78%, and which turned half the Palestinian population into refugees.
This is a clever shift of the argument (to be clear, clever is not always the same as accurate). So it is not that the Palestinians rejected the UN plan, as some of Israel’s defenders like to argue the point. Rather, it is that the United Nations and UNSCOP ignored the parameters the Palestinians had made clear to them as to what was unacceptable (not more than half).
I wonder if there is any documentary evidence to back up the claim that the Palestinians made that clear or that the UN officials even thought of an upper limit on the Jewish state’s land as a way to try to win Arab support.