Some six weeks have passed since I wrote in this space on Middle Eastern matters. Forgive me, for I have not sinned. I have instead occupied myself with writing elsewhere, traveling both domestically and abroad, editing the January/February issue of The American Interest (which you will not want to miss), collecting native American persimmons and experimenting with new pudding and bread recipes, and enjoying the exhilaration of becoming a grandfather a second time over—this time thanks to the birth of a granddaughter. Anyone who thinks that frequent blog writing is more important than all this is, well, not of my tastes.
Besides, the hiatus has proved very useful for my present purpose. When “UNSCR 2118, UNSCR 1441” appeared on September 30, a form of diplomatic St. Vitus’s dance had broken out in many quarters of this city, and beyond. It was a time of buoyant expectations of multiple and reinforcing diplomatic successes across the region, from the Israeli-Palestinian portfolio to the Syrian civil war to the multiyear Iranian nuclear program “crisis.” Particularly for those partisans hoping to refute criticisms of the President’s policy process defects—notably his juke-and-jive acrobatics over the Administration’s Syria policy (if one can call it that)—the presumed trifecta of triumph seemed to smack its self-satisfied lips and coolly pronounce the delicious words: Told ya’ so. Obama doltish? No, deft. BHO sub-professional? No, sublime. POTUS adrift? No, adroit. Unconventional maybe, but change is good—remember?
I was not buying it. Speaking only of the Syria and Iran cases, where developments came especially close together, I wrote on September 30: “If you didn’t know any better, you’d suppose that the Administration has turned two related portfolios that seem very much in the dumps into huge, promising successes. If you do know better, well, you know better.” Enough time has passed, I think, to fully justify my skepticism. And so now I get to say, yet again: “Told ya’ so.”
Now, in truth, these sorts of issues in foreign policy—Arab-Israel, Syria, Iran—are very rarely “over” in the sense that the flow of events is punctuated decisively, either with a major breakthrough toward peace and reconciliation or, more often, with a spasm of clarifying but not necessarily cathartic violence. Most often they just sort of meander along, tossing trouble and vain hopes out the window as they go. That’s true now for these three issues. If we read the litter fairly, we can grant that there is still some prospect of progress on one or more of them, maybe even all three. If you’re working on these issues as your day job, it would be premature to give up on them. Diplomatic achievements (and failures), when they do come, tend to be products of non-linear dynamics, and that is because the process usually breaks up or down on the basis of abrupt key decisions by key actors. Still, as I say, enough time has passed to conclude that the voluble enthusiasms of late September and early October were wildly misplaced. They were as misplaced, and for some of the same reasons, as the bizarre and embarrassing optimism many American observers exuded over the so-called Arab Spring when it erupted nearly three years ago.
So where are we with these three issues? Let’s take them one by one.
Secretary Kerry did about as a good a job as anyone could of setting up the latest round of Israel-Palestinian talks. Never mind that this was a necessary remedial activity caused by the foolish missteps of the Administration back in 2009. He did it, and it seemed at first that serious bargaining might be in the offing because, for the first time ever, there were no leaks. Alas, these talks have dwindled to near nothingness. On September 26, Mahmud Abbas threatened to walk out of the talks because Israeli settlement activity began to recommence after a ten-month freeze. The next day he said he would reconsider. Then yesterday Saeb Erekat, the PA’s chief negotiator, threatened to resign because of a new announcement from the Israeli Housing Ministry concerning a plan to build 20,000 new units in an area on the wrong side of the Green Line near Jerusalem. Then this morning Erekat said he would reconsider, as Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu chastised his housing minister for blindsiding him, explaining calmly (for him) that it’s not such a great idea to piss off nearly the entire world when the Iran business looms far more important in Israeli security policy priorities.
All this is typically subpar for a very difficult course. It changes little, because the Israeli and Palestinian motives in playing nice with Secretary Kerry in the first place had to do with ancillary issues. The PA wants money and support against Hamas; the Israelis want a sympathetic American attitude toward the Iran problem. Neither side right now thinks a final status deal is achievable, and both sides understand that raising expectations beyond the carrying capacity of reality can be dangerous, politically and otherwise. So the two sides were sort of playing at negotiating to benefit other interests, which just so happens to be the best argument on the U.S. side for staying active in peace process diplomacy: It helps U.S. equities with several Arab parties whose cooperation is important to us over a whole range of issues. But we, too, should be mindful not to raise expectations too high, because as we ought to have learned from past experience, it is indeed counterproductive to eventual success to do so.
Unfortunately, Kerry (and Secretary Hagel and the President, insofar as he has formed views on the subject, and the authors of the Baker-Hamilton Report on Iraq back when, and I could go on, and on…..) is a true-believing linker. He thinks that solving the Palestinian puzzle will have major and salubrious effects all over the region and beyond. It would have some, and it’s worth the effort for its own sake—but it is a gratuitous error to imagine that everything that goes on in the region is linked to Israel or, to put it more bluntly, the Jews. This view is Jewcentric nonsense, which of course does not prevent otherwise intelligent people from believing it.
That so many highly placed people do believe it has a nasty corrosive effect on their logical prowess. If so much is at stake in these negotiations, cognitive processes common to all humans will render expectations of success higher. It will tend to cause believers to overlook, discount or disattend information and arguments that urge humility, patience and caution. Sober arguments against excessive optimism in the Israeli-Palestinian arena are not hard to find. Donald Horowitz, at the Duke University Law School, put the essence of it brilliantly a few years ago in his September/October 2010 TAI essay “Getting to No.” (http://www.the-american-interest.com/article.cfm?piece=864) Polls may show solid majorities on both sides of the divide theoretically in favor of a compromise two-state solution, but when the details come to be fleshed out and sequential implementation begins in stages, constituencies on both sides start feeling ox gorings in sensitive places one after another, and defect from the “yes” they glibly mouthed to pollsters.
There is another problem, too: The absence of leaders on both sides of the divide who are both willing and able to make those key decisions to drive a negotiation to a successful conclusion even before the parlous implementation challenges begin. When Yasir Arafat was alive and more centrist coalitions controlled Israeli decision-making, we had an unfortunate mismatch. Arafat could, but he wouldn’t—or, put slightly differently, he was able but not willing, and without him the Israelis were stuck at willing but not able—because, again folks, the key truth in international relations is that it takes at least two to make peace but only one to make war (and cause other sorts of mayhem).
Things have changed, and they also haven’t. Now Mahmud Abbas is willing but, with the Palestinians divided ideologically and territorially between the West Bank and Gaza, he may not be able to get to final status issues. It hardly matters for practical purposes, however, because Prime Minister Netanyahu, although able politically to make a deal—he is supported by Israeli public opinion on this point if not necessarily by the fragility of the various coalition arrangements he has put together—is not willing. And the reason is that, rightly or wrongly, accurately or not, he and most of his close associates, like Defense Minister Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon and the recently acquitted and returned Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, believe the Palestinians as a whole are not reconcilable to the existence and legitimacy of Israel within any borders whatsoever. The Palestinians, they believe, obsess over 1948, not 1967. They say so frequently, and the Palestinians frequently give them cause to do so. Thus Ya’alon told an Accountants’ Association meeting on November 7 that the Arab claim includes all sections of Israel: “There’s Sheikh Munis—Tel Aviv—and Majdal—Ashqelon. We left Gaza and they continue to attack us. They educate the younger generation that Haifa and Acre are Palestinian ports, and more. There’s no sign of compromise.”
Buttressed by this view, the Israeli government, as currently constituted, is determined to “establish facts” on the ground with settlements, to use Moshe Dayan’s famous phrase, but it tries to do it with some finesse so as not to piss off the Americans, the Europeans and nosy others. The Palestinians try to short-circuit this finesse by pointing to settlement activity whenever and wherever possible. It becomes sort of ridiculous, then, to argue over whether settlement activity is an obstacle to peace. Of course it is an obstacle both because it elicits such a reaction and, more essentially, because it signals to the Palestinians that Israel is “establishing facts” unilaterally in order to prejudice future outcomes either within or outside of negotiations; and of course it is also an obstacle to peace that so many Palestinians speak as Ya’alon quotes them doing, because it signals to Israelis an intention to disestablish facts—namely the fact of Israel. There is no need to choose between these intermixed and mutually reinforcing obstacles anymore than we need to choose between pancreatic cancer and a massive heart attack as dangers to our health.
So before, the Palestinians had locked themselves up ideologically, and now it’s the Israelis who are doing so. So that has changed. What has not changed is that the two sides are not lined up propitiously to advance a serious bargaining effort.
The truth is that neither the Palestinian nor the Israeli side is ideologically monolithic. Some Palestinians are obsessed over 1948, probably enough to make a final-status, end-of-conflict agreement unachievable for the time being. But a lot aren’t, and would be willing to cut and honor a two-state deal if they thought the Israeli side were also willing. In Israel, a lot of people think like Netanyahu, Ya’alon and Lieberman, but a lot do not. The percentages of who thinks what within each political community can be debated, but for present practical purposes these numbers do not really matter. What matters is, first of all, who is in office and, secondarily, which constituencies hold a veto over what sitting governments can do with their tenures.
Therefore, the best that a U.S.-mediated negotiation can achieve right now is the production of reasonable expectations that a final status, end-of-conflict agreement is possible, the purpose being to move the two major constituencies toward the status of political majorities in both camps. The basic idea is to reward and incentivize the willing and to punish and isolate the unwilling on both sides. This is not easy under any circumstances for an outside party like the United States, and it is harder when that party’s judgment and credibility are questioned and waning, as America’s are now thanks to the mistakes of both the present and the previous Administration.
If such a tack could be made to work, how long might that take, assuming that U.S. officials are skillful and persistent—and assuming that third parties and exogenous monkey-in-the-machine-room events do not intervene? Five years, maybe ten, maybe twenty. No one knows. Negotiations, and developments outside the negotiating room too, have their own unpredictable dynamics. So it’s a good idea to keep at it, because in the absence of U.S. effort things could easily slide backwards. But we’re still in the springtime gardening phase; a lot has to happen before the prospect of a harvest comes into view. John Kerry’s goal of getting a final status end-of-conflict agreement during his time in office just isn’t going to happen.
Now let’s discuss something a lot simpler: Syria. Again, if an observer did not know any better, he or she might think that things have gone swimmingly in Syria since the Russian-instigated chemical weapons deal was inked. To think this, of course, one would have to mistake a toothpick for a tree, believing that the chemical weapons aspect of the Syrian civil war is the most important thing about it. Some people actually believe this even when it is stated as starkly as that, either because they don’t understand what the civil war portends for the region as a whole or how it relates more pointedly to Iranian policy, or because they think that getting something like 1,000 tons of chemical poisons disposed of dramatically reduces the danger of those stocks falling into the hands of terrorists.
The latter is perhaps not a completely absurd view, but it’s very close. If terrorists choose to use chemical weapons in an attack on the United States or a European country, they would not need to rely on Syrian stockpiles to do so. Ricin and Sarin and VX and other lesser agents are, unfortunately, not that hard to make or to obtain elsewhere. Besides, chemical weapons are not really weapons of mass destruction compared to nuclear or biological weapons. They are battlefield sorts of weapons whose effectiveness depends on the spatial distribution of targets. If the would-be victims are not massed together or otherwise unable to flee, chemical weapons are not efficient means of mass murder. Again, biological weapons, which are as easy to conceal and deliver as chemical weapons—and both are vastly easier in those regards than nuclear weapons—are much more to be feared as a terrorist weapon of choice.
Which brings us back to the state of play in Syria. So far, the OPCW (Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) is said to have gained access to 23 of the 24 sites identified by the Syrian government. One is inaccessible because of the fighting. In these 23 sites the OPCW claims to have disabled some assorted machines. That sounds impressive, until the rest of the facts are put on the table.
There are not 24 sites in all, but at least 30. In the six or more sites the Syrian government did not declare, production as opposed to mere storage has been going on, and biological weapons production and storage has been going on in some of them as well. Let me repeat what I said on September 30 about this state of affairs:
. . . the Syrian regime needs only a small fraction of its chemical arsenal for any imaginable military purposes. Most of its stocks are old and of questionable potency; the only reason they’re still there is because it’s very expensive and dangerous to get rid of them. (We’re still getting rid of buried World War I-era stocks in Washington, DC, after all!) So even if (and it’s a very big “if”) the UN manages to get rid of 90 percent of Syria’s chemical stocks, the military significance of so doing will be zero. Note, too, that Syria’s cooperation with the OPCW so far is probably designed to give Syria the right to veto inspections of any site the regime has not “declared” in its manifest. The regime can declare 90 percent or more of the relevant sites and lose nothing in military terms. It even gains financially: Others will now pay to dispose of stuff that’s useless and dangerous, and the bill will be quite large—in the billions of dollars, very likely, if it ever comes to that.
So the military significance of the OPCW getting access to 23 chemical weapons storage sites in Syria is, to repeat, approximately zero. It certainly isn’t Nobel Peace prize worthy. Moreover, what is happening to all this nasty stuff? Nothing much. No country has yet agreed to provide a staging area for the neutralization and disposal of all this toxic crap. We’ve tried to bribe Albania into agreeing, but so far no soap. There are no other volunteers rushing to lend a hand, as far as I know.
And even if some hapless, cash-strapped government agrees to take a huge risk in accepting the job, there will yet be a need to transport this stuff out of Syria to its final destination. Who is going to offer to do that? Note that the OPCW itself lacks the resources. It is only a monitoring and verification shop. It has no appropriate vehicles. It has no facilities of its own. It has no police capacity to secure hazardous materials in transit. And it has virtually no money.
Speaking of money, so far the OPCW has spent anywhere from $10-15 million doing what it has already done. Reasonable estimates of what it would cost to destroy the stockpiles in those 23 sites exceed $1 billion, and I think the tab would probably be about double that. Where is this money going to come from? Who is volunteering to cough up such sums, even if some governments join up to transport the toxic sludge out of Syria? You guessed it: Nobody. So to call the Syria deal a success is at the very least premature. One can think of other language to characterize such claims, but I am a demure and polite person, so I will leave that other language to your imagination.
Now, the potential of the chemical weapons deal to really do any good in getting at the larger dangers posed by the civil war has always been its possible use as a wedge to stop the fighting on terms such as to allow a political settlement to sink first roots. This has not happened. The U.S. and Russian governments have repeatedly failed to set a date for a Geneva meeting, and the reason has heretofore been the same: incompatible demands over the future of Bashir al-Assad.
That could change if the rebel position collapses, which it may very well be in the process of doing. In recent days, some rebel voices have begun to sound a little like the Syrian Sunni establishment sounded in 1957-58, when, thanks to their complete inability to get along with each other, they opted to offer their entire country to Gamal Abdel Nasser rather than allow Syria’s small but ruthlessly organized Communist Party to seize control. The only difference is that instead of worrying about Communists, they’re now worried about salafi groups that have vilified, attacked and largely outmaneuvered them.
Note also that one of the consequences of the CW deal was a step-up in regime attacks on the rebels, figuring we would not be paying particularly close attention to the murder of unarmed civilians with mere bullets and bombs; and, of course, that was accurate figuring on its part. The increased pace and lethality of regime attacks coincided with a significant loss of morale over the substitution of a fake CW deal for a U.S. military strike. So the non-salafi opposition may soon be ready to talk.
But of course, if a Geneva meeting, or any other meeting, ends up being a mere ceremony for the surrender of the non-jihadi rebels to Assad and his thugs, it will not look, feel or smell anything like what U.S. policy has sought in its “Assad must go”, watch my “red lines” incarnations. The region and the entire world would view such an outcome as a U.S. policy defeat, which is because that, exactly, is what it would be.
Maybe there will be no Geneva meeting of any kind, and no formal or tacit rebel surrender either. Maybe the war will just continue to seethe. Maybe the salafi element among the rebels will pretty soon be the only one left standing. Maybe they will attract lots of fellow believers from all over the Muslim world, and maybe a lot of them will end up getting killed in Syria. Or maybe they will instead get lucky and win the war. Maybe the war will metastasize into a region-wide sectarian conflagration. Maybe the rebel territory beyond the reach of Damascus will turn into a new staging and training area for al-Qaeda cells, similar to Afghanistan under the Taliban regime. Already the war has reconnected al-Qaeda in Syria and Iraq (and probably elsewhere, like Yemen) to sources of funds from the Gulf that had dried up after 9/11.
No one knows for sure what will happen. From the U.S. perspective, however, all of these possibilities are equivalent in that U.S. influence over all prospective outcomes is approximately zero. We have not led from behind; we have alternately sat on and paddled our own behind–and there is a difference. Allies aplenty have urged us to do more, so we’ve had plenty of company to lead. But we’ve done as close to nothing as has been humanly and politically possible, and everyone knows it. In the longer run, and the shorter run, too, for that matter, that is vastly more significant for U.S. interests in Syria, the region and beyond than what happens to 1,000 tons of obsolete chemical weapons stockpiles.
And what of Iran? Well, the first thing to get out on the table is that evaluating a prospective agreement over Iran’s nuclear program is an extraordinarily difficult thing to do in brief for two reasons: its highly technical aspects; and the fact that no text exists in the public domain. So I have no intention of doing that here, except to make three very succinct points.
First, as others have noted, the characterization of the draft agreement as a freeze is disingenuous. It isn’t a freeze; it’s a cap to be placed both on Iranian activity and Western sanctions. But it’s an asymmetrical cap in many, many ways. Absent some dependable verification arrangement, it’s impossible to know how malleable the cap on Iranian activities would be. As to the sanctions regime, any hint that the “crisis” momentum has been stanched is likely to rapidly erode the sanctions regime among private jobbers and the Europeans, no matter what the U.S. Congress and Executive Branch do or say. (This asymmetrical situation bears certain similarities to the foolish “nuclear freeze” proposal of the early 1980s—as if U.S. foreign policy in its obsession with the Arab-Israeli conflict and arms control talks with Moscow isn’t atavistic enough already.)
Second, it is also disingenuous to characterize it as an interim agreement. No one can guarantee that the flaws or risks inherent in an interim agreement can be fixed in a follow-on agreement if one side insists that there be no follow-on agreement. As Adam Ulam once wrote, “Nothing endures in international relations like the provisional.” So the Administration might interpret an agreement’s implied acceptance of an Iranian “right” to enrich uranium as just temporary and never made explicit, but an agreement with no follow-on will very likely come to be understood as tacit U.S. acceptance of an Iranian “right” even though it that has no explicit basis in the NPT and contradicts not one but several UNSCR Article VII resolutions. In light of all that, maybe it’s better to shoot for a final agreement rather than an interim one.
Third, an agreement that does not touch the Arak heavy-water facility presently under construction would be properly construed by all serious observers as irresponsible from the perspective of U.S., Western, Arab, Israeli, Turkish and yes, Indian, interests. That facility has no conceivable cost-effective purpose other than weapons production. It is just deliciously shocking that the French, under a Socialist government no less, held up the strong end of that point against the Iranians. Who said God has no sense of humor? Mon Dieu, vive la France!
Had it not been for French insistence on this point, perhaps the Iranians would have agreed to sign, and of course if so, Secretary Kerry would have happily oozed ink all over the document as well. Had that happened, the agreement would have qualified as a bad agreement. Or maybe the Iranians really are insistent on getting an explicit “right” to enrich uranium on their soil. Or maybe they really did need to talk to the big guys back in Tehran, as they claimed. Let’s very briefly evaluate the possibilities.
Need to talk to the big guys back in Tehran? Not likely, not if one knows the biographies of the Iranian President and Foreign Minister.
Insisting on the explicit “right” to enrich uranium and not getting it? Maybe, but maybe not.
French insistence on including some limits in the Arak plant? More likely.
But even more likely than that is the fact that the Americans seem to be in a notably supine mood. We now know, thanks to a revealing article in the New York Times (Jay Solomon and Carol E. Lee, “U.S.-Iran Thaw Grew From Years of Behind-the-Scene Talks, November 7, 2013) that the White House went out of its way to tell the Iranian leadership that it sought a non-violent way to resolve the impasse. So even while it was saying in public that “all options remain on the table”, in private its body language gave exactly the opposite impression. This first major direct negotiation, with all issues on the table, produced so many important U.S. concessions—and would have produced even more had it not been for the French—that the Iranians would have to be rank diplomatic amateurs not to investigate further the potential for advantage. All the Iranians need to do is look at how disappointed John Kerry is, at how he has gone around during the past four days looking even more like Eeyore than usual, moping for what might have been. Does this man not know how to keep his emotions to himself, or understand the reasons for so doing?
We will see what the next stage of talks brings, but as long as the United States is more or less maxed out on sanctions, the Iranians can continue to build leverage as they build their program. The Iranian logic here, it seems to me, is that as time passes and the Iranians gain more assets, the deal will turn more and more in their favor. The first step is to relieve the pain of sanctions, because that above all else will facilitate the stringing out of the negotiating process and allow Tehran to get the best deal possible.
Or, as likely in my view, it will enable the Iranians to simply pocket the implied concessions of the process, and its enjoy its lateral strategic benefits in the region, and leave off signing any deal at all in the end. At the same time, the Iranians are likely to stop just short of assembling a weapon from the already six bombs-worth of weapons-grade material they have accumulated in order to prevent the easy assembly of a casus belli against them.
Now, some say that this situation, if it comes to pass, is not yet a cause for serious worry because Iran lags behind in missile technology, and so cannot marry a warhead to a rocket with enough accuracy to be credible in a breakout scenario. This is a huge blunder. We got used during the Cold War to think of nuclear warheads and missiles as inevitably and invariably paired, and of course that assumption was reinforced by the fact that the U.S.-Soviet arms control discourse was as much about missile numbers and capabilities as it was about warheads. But in the Middle East distances are such that an airplane is a cheaper, easier and even more accurate way to deliver a nuclear bomb than a missile. So if you hear people rattling on about using the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) as a way to minimize the Iranian threat, tell them they’re full of beans—and tell them why.
An Iranian nuclear weapon that is just a screwdriver turn or three away from creation will be enough to make Iran a virtual nuclear power for all political purposes, with the very somber non-proliferation policy implications it carries for Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and other countries. That, of course, would be disastrous for all concerned, except Iran—which will have reduced its security anxieties all around, not least with regard to Pakistan, a Sunni-Muslim neighbor with more than twice its population and plenty of nuclear weapons.
Against that prospective achievement, remember that years ago the recently deceased Judge William P. Clark, when he served as President Reagan’s National Security Advisor, referred derisively to the Iranians as a “bunch of rug merchants.” This man’s historical ignorance was hard to top (not that many others have not tried). The Iranians have a diplomatic tradition that goes back to Achaemenid times, some 3,000 years ago. Not that they are immune from mistakes and misjudgments, but as a firm rule they know what they’re doing. The question of the hour is: Do we?
The Administration promised that Assad must go. It laid down red lines not once but at least twice. It said in the Iran case that “a bad deal is worse than no deal.” When American Presidents and their senior associates utter such oaths, it can mean one of four things.
They can say it and mean it.
They can say it tactically to stave off criticism and opponents to buy some time for creative solutions.
They can say it and sort of mean it, until crunch time leads the President to cave in under pressure.
Or they can say it in a pathologically dissociated way, as a protective ideal that diverges from an uncooperative reality, which can sometimes lead to a highly strange insistence that in fact reality isn’t as real as their hopes for it. That, after all, is how we ended up fighting a war to end all wars, breeding a persistent illusion that lasted nearly twenty years for some people.
I’m still not sure which is the case in the Obama Administration, except that experience leads me to rule out possibility number one. All I know is that when these people say things like “don’t dare cross that red line” and “a bad deal is worse than no deal at all”, it’s a sure sign that it’s time to duck down and really start to worry. At least when it comes to Middle East policy, the Obama Administration is proving inversely true to its word.