This morning brings news, clipped news thus far so perhaps not wholly accurate, that the U.S. government has taken responsibility for destroying Syrian chemical arms stocks—since, predictably, no other country could be found to agree to undertake the toxic task. That means, I’m assuming, that the U.S. government will also foot the bill. I’ve heard that we intend to perform these operations on ships at sea. The mind boggles.
As noted in previous posts, most of the roughly 1,000 tons of Syria’s CW stocks are obsolete, which does not mean denatured and safe. It means they have been superseded by better munitions. Way more than 90 percent of Syria’s stocks are militarily superfluous and useless—but very expensive to dispose of. These are the stocks mainly in the declared sites, not in the 5 or 6 undeclared sites; that’s where the “good stuff” is.
Syria has never built any such disposal facilities. In the past, its leaders probably counted on the USSR, and later Russia, to manage this problem for them, since that is where the program and the stocks mostly came from (even by indirection, since there is some reason to think that some Iraqi stocks were transferred to Syria, likely through Russian aegis, during the lead-up to the March 2003 war). So thanks to the latest juke of the Administration’s juke-and-jive ad hoc diplomacy, we get stuck with the job and the bill, and of course the civil war itself goes gruesomely on, with all the stakes involved, notwithstanding this diplomatic “success.”
How long will this take and how much will it cost? No one can possibly know. To my knowledge, we have never tried to neuter large stocks of CW at sea. I would be surprised if we already had sea-borne facilities—physical and trained personnel—sufficient to do this. So any cost estimate, or time estimate, would be a guess. Is Congress going to be asked to approve more money for this operation, or is the cost going to be ripped from existing O&M budgets—presumably mostly from the Navy’s O&M budget? What about the environmental risks involved in a sea-based operation? Has anyone carefully studied this? (I doubt it.) Where at sea are we going to do this—in other words, nearest which nations’ littorals? In the Med? In the Atlantic? Could that be a sensitive decision? I can’t imagine that it wouldn’t be.
Moral of the story? Well, one way to put it goes like this: If you impulsively or desperately jump off the lee shore with enough momentum to carry you from exposed rock to rock, you’d better keep moving if you don’t want to fall into the drink. And you better hope those rocks keep appearing within leaping distance until you reach the windward shore, because the more jumps you take the deeper the water’s going to be if you do fall in.
Now Iran. When I wrote about the November 24 deal on November 25, I made a faulty assumption about timing issues. Sorry. I assumed that with the P5+1 and Iranian government signatures, the deal went into effect—just as Cold War-era agreements did. Those old agreements were never signed until all technical issues had been resolved, even if sometimes they were not really resolved so much as papered over with unilateral “agreed statements” written into indices and sidebars. (Those who used to be in this business will remember well what I am referring to.) So I thought the interim accord would expire on May 24, 2014 and the aspirational one-year final accord completion date referred to November 24, 2014. Silly me.
I first became aware of my error when a colleague pointed out an astute question asked of State Department spokesperson Jan Psaki a few days later. Psaki for the first time, to my knowledge, acknowledged that the accord would not enter into effect until certain technical discussions had been completed. “Aw, oh!”, my brain involuntarily offered my consciousness. I know the model whereby the sherpas, technical and otherwise, bring the principals to the summit in order to toss ink on paper, but I never before heard of a model wherein the ink stays wet until the sherpas do their jobs post hoc. Gotta love all this change…….
So, so what? Well, in a Reuters dispatch dated 4:30 AM yesterday, we find out “so what.” It seems that Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi said in a television interview that Tehran considered the November 24 deal not yet legally binding and Iran had the right to undo it if the Western powers failed to hold up their end of the bargain. “The moment we feel that the opposite side is not meeting its obligations or its actions fall short, we will revert to our previous position and cease the process”, the Iranian news agency Fars quoted Araqchi as saying. He added: “We are in no way optimistic about the other side—we are pessimistic—and we have told them that we cannot trust you.” The Reuters dispatch then noted that an unnamed senior Western diplomat described the implementation phase of the deal, slated to start next week in Geneva, as “extremely complex and difficult.”
What does this tell us? Does it mean that internal Iranian dynamics have shifted in the past week or so, so that the Supreme Leader has had a change of heart about proceeding with the deal? Does it mean that the President and Secretary of State misled us about all this, claiming to have in hand a done deal when in fact many of the tough but critical details had not been locked down? It’s true that Obama and Kerry did not make outlandish Pollyannish claims about the deal as did some others, but where was any specific statement from either of them or their spokesmen about the need for technical talks to come in order to bring the agreement into force? I sure didn’t hear one.
Dean Acheson once said, without a hint of irony, that “things are not always as they seem, but sometimes they are.” Well, here is a case—two cases, actually—where, depending on your perspective, both of Acheson’s possibilities are true simultaneously! These deals concerning Syria and Iran were evidently not what they seemed, unless you’d already become inured to this Administration’s amateur-hour grasp of policy process, in which case they were. One can only wonder with anxious amazement what comes next.
Saturday’s Washington Post ran an interesting article on its front page, above the fold left, called “Virginia stays out of gaming as stakes rise.” As the author, with the very improbable name of J. Freedom du Lac, explains, Virginia is one of only ten states (plus the District of Columbia) to have successfully resisted the lure of legalized casino gambling and its legions of high-paid lobbyists—so far. Most of the essay is about Virginia, but it contains some important data about the gambling phenomenon on a national scale (unfortunately, it lacks completely any international angle). This is stuff everyone in this country should know about.
For example, did you know that 25 years ago the only two states with legal “casino” gambling were Nevada and New Jersey, and now there are, as I say, 40?
Of course, there were other states involved longer ago than that. I remember when slot machines were not only legal but prolific in certain countries in Maryland, including along route 301 headed down Waldorf way. My parents used to drag me, as a young child, to a place called the Wigwam, which was built in the shape of a gigantic teepee. It was noisy, with all those one-armed bandits being cranked over and over again, so back in 1959 I sat by the jukebox listening to Connie Frances sing “Lipstick on Your Collar” over and over and over again, at a nickel a pop. All the adults were feeding coins into a machine, so hey, why not me? (I didn't really mind; I knew my father would take me to Capital Arena soon to see the cavorting and grunting of Haystacks Calhoun and Argentino Apollo and the Golden Boy Arnold Scoland and the nasty Graham Brothers, amid floating clots of cigarette smoke above and layers of peanut shells and spilled popcorn below so thick you couldn't see the floor. Wow, that was great……)
The slots bred sleaze and corruption, as they always do. You could ask the former Governor of Maryland, Spiro Agnew, about it; he was up to his eyeballs in it despite having deflected a just-too-obvious $200,000 bribe while he was running for the job.
But that was nothing compared to what goes on today. Then we were talking small-time stuff. Now we’re talking very big bucks, national and international corporations and lobbyists galore. There are more than 500 commercial casinos and 425 tribal casinos across the country, and last year they raked in more than $65 billion in gross revenues. That’s more than mere grocery money, folks. What changed?
What changed was the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which allowed more casinos on tribal lands and then on Mississippi River gaming boats—Yancy Derringer redux. But the real tipping point came when a certain state legalized racetrack slots in 1994, and that state—this will come as no surprise at all to those who follow such matters—was Delaware.
Delaware has no state sales tax and very low income and property tax rates. The state instead acquires its money in three basic ways First is by robbing travelers on route 95 for exorbitant tolls. Second is by hosting dummy and shell corporations from all over the world, collecting registration fees but not requiring true beneficial owners to identify themselves. Other states do this too to some degree, but Delaware is by far the largest abuser, allowing criminals and even terrorists to launder money on U.S. soil, and making it much harder for Treasury and Justice Department officials, as well as city and state tax officials, to effectively pursue U.S. tax evaders who park their money in the Caymans and elsewhere. And third is gambling revenues. (If you’re wondering whether the Vice-President knows about all this, then maybe you really were born yesterday…)
After Delaware the avalanche began in earnest, more or less in parallel with the deterioration of state finances, especially acute after 2008. New York is the latest state to legalize casino gambling. Maryland greatly expanded gambling after a ballot measure passed in November 2012 (I wrote about that here at the time). New Hampshire will probably be next. In a few years only Utah and maybe Virginia will be the last holdouts.
Why tell you all this? What difference does it make? Well, two reasons, one petty, one substantive.
First, in the soon-to-be-released January-February 2014 issue of The American Interest you will please take note of an essay by David Blankenhorn called “Wanna Bet?” It’s a good essay, mainly about how the casino moguls and their lobbyists—and compliant, no doubt often corrupt state politicians—have distorted the language with which we talk about this issue. So there is no such thing as gambling, only “gaming.” Casinos are for “entertainment”, and do not differ in essence from any other kind of entertainment.
Blankenhorn also points out that most of the increase in commercial big-box gambling in recent years is nearly all in the new computerized slot machines. He also quotes experts on the addictive nature of gambling for many people, and he comments in passing on the regressive nature of states’ raising money this way, since gambling is overwhelmingly an activity that seems to appeal most to those who can least afford to lose their money.
Unfortunately, when I tried as editor to get Mr. Blankenhorn to widen the scope of his essay, and also to expand his moral indictment of the whole sordid mess, he refused to do so. So the essay, while fine for what it is, is less than what I had hoped for. In that light, let me do the expanding here he should have done there.
So second, as to substance, Blankenhorn’s main point, and his best sentence, I think, is this: “Here is the rule of thumb: If a thing is basically dishonest, its advocates will speak of it dishonestly.” He’s absolutely and even brilliantly right, and of course as a maxim it applies to a much wider spectrum of behaviors than gambling.
But so what? Hucksterism is as least as American as apple pie, and as the hard apple cider with which much of the country was awash before the 20th century. Americans have always gambled; poker is in a sense our national game (not that whist and dominos were far behind in yesteryear); Indians, too, gambled before Europeans ever set foot in North America; so why would states not tax that activity since they tax just about every other thing they possibly can tax? Besides, no one makes any American feed money into a slot machine, anymore than anyone forces anyone to eat the semi-toxic “fast food” that causes so many of our nation’s health problems. If people want to do stupid things, that’s their right. If, as P.T. Barnum supposedly said, “There’s a sucker born every minute”, why should governments try to change that, or protect suckers from themselves? Isn’t that a temperance-like vestige of Protestant asceticism, a puritanical atavism that, as we learned from Prohibition, invariably does more harm than good?
I’m sympathetic to all that, to a point. I like to play poker. I consider it entertainment, even when I don’t win. Certainly, government has no business whatsoever telling citizens that they can’t pay poker in private, or bingo, or roulette, as a form of entertainment and socializing. Respectable arguments can be made, too, that government—American government, at any rate—should not prohibit corporate business activity that in no way coerces anyone into doing something they would not otherwise do.
Similarly respectable arguments can be made, however, that government should aggressively tax behaviors that create broader social externalities, both to disincentivize them and to help pay to remediate the externalities they cause. We do that regularly with “sin taxes” on alcohol and tobacco. But we don’t do that with casino gambling; indeed, a lot of states vie to give casinos tax breaks in order to lure them onto their turf. This is despite the fact that studies consistently show that 35-55 percent of all casino gambling revenue derives from those with clinical addictions to gambling, addictions that cause serious problems for themselves and their family and friends. Big box casinos decisively depend for their revenue base on such vulnerable individuals, which is worse than “taking candy from a baby”; it’s robbing the livelihood upon which entire families depend.
Why is this so? Because the overwhelming majority of this revenue comes from slot machines, and slot machines of the new, computerized kind, cannot be beaten over time. Unlike the old one-armed bandits, and unlike other parlour games, there is no genuine randomizer in these machines, and there is no skill one can bring to “playing” them that can make any difference in the outcome. They pay out as bait, and they very, very rarely pay out big jackpots just so the casinos can pretend in their propaganda that the machines are genuine an fair mechanisms of chance. They are not; they are programmed to cause regular players to lose. They are, in short, “fixed” in ways that even the old one-armed bandit machines could not be. They are literally dishonest. One cannot gamble with them really; one can only be conned by them.
Since that is inarguably the case, there is, in my view, an acute political-moral problem with government not only allowing them to function, but actually encouraging them to function in order to suck off their tax revenue teets. In my view—and I expect many readers will not agree—it’s obscene for American government at any level to encourage slot-machine “gambling.” And I will go further in an effort to make myself unpopular: Not only have states increasingly legalized and allowed for the expansion of slot-machine stuffed casinos, but states themselves have instituted lotteries that function not only as regressive forms of taxation, but indirectly encourage the moral norming of gambling in our society as a whole.
The class discriminatory impact of all such policies is undeniable: The “dirty little secret” of state-sanctioned gambling today, as Blankenhorn rightly but only passingly notes, and the main reason for its bipartisan popularity, is that it offers cowardly legislators a way to pay for state government without raising property taxes on the affluent–that or being brave enough to slash wasteful or unsupportable patronage spending. State leaders who support casinos and state lotteries are complicit in taking money from the vulnerable and unwary and delivering a large portion of it to large tax-paying “gaming” corporations and to the state.
Indeed, a kind of positional race-to-the-bottom has arisen among some states to get their hands on that revenue. Thus, when Marylanders had to decide a ballot question about whether to expand casino gambling in November 2012, most of the “vote no” campaign ads appeared courtesy of self-interested gaming interests in West Virginia. If Virginia eventually gives in, one the arguments will be that, after all, why should Maryland and West Virginia get the money that Virginians are spending there if they’re going to gamble anyway? This is a scoundrel’s argument if there ever was one, akin to the “argument” that goes: “Well, why shouldn’t I steal from the restaurant or the store cash register since just about every other low-level employee is doing it?”
That governments are now eagerly doing what any respectable parent tells a teenager is just wrong represents yet another form of democratic institutional decay in our society. More than that (as I have also written about before), by no possible premise of democratic theory should those out of state be able to project such outsized influence into another state’s electoral process, as West Virginia gambling lobbyists projected into Maryland in November 2012. But there is no outrage over this. There is barely a whisper. This sort of political filth has become normalized, just as banks that have become extractive industries rather than partners in building wealth have become normalized.
State politicians who do the bidding of big-box gambling corporations should be ashamed of themselves for debasing the core institutions of American democracy, for abetting the transformation of one state, county and city after another from Bedford Falls into Pottersville. You don’t have to be an anti-dancing, blood-on-the-saddle Baptist to take that view, either; I do, and I’m not.
Some politicians at least act as though they’re ashamed, which is why we never see photos of them visiting casinos or “playing” slot machines, and why they reflexively mumble false formulas about how casinos provide jobs, grow the economy or expand “entertainment” options for the American public, whenever they are asked to justify what they are promoting. As Blankenhorn shows, their brains have been colonized by gamble-speak, which turns the most important words pertinent to the public policy debate into gibberish before any real conversation can even start, even as their campaign war-chests fill with cash from the “gaming industry.”
Speaking of campaign finance shenanigans, I can’t prove it, but my intuition tells me that old-fashioned payola-style graft to our clutch of endlessly venal politicians explains a lot of what has been going on lately. It sort of looks, feels, smells and quacks just like Maryland’s slot machine sleaze did back in the late 1940s and 1950s. (For details, see Wayne Goldstein, “Maryland’s Sordid Slots History is About To Be Repeated”, Maryland Politics Watch, November 3, 2008.)
You’re shocked, I know….. Actually, I wish you, and a lot more people, would actually be shocked. Our healthy sense of outrage ain’t what it uster be, and so it’s true: People in a democracy mostly get the quality of government they deserve. We no longer make an effort to clean up what stinks. Most of us don’t even hold our noses anymore. We’ve normed the stench, then? You betcha.
- See more at: http://blogs.the-american-interest.com/garfinkle/#sthash.9ZhBeCB1.dpuf
A lot has happened since I last wrote, on November 13, about the P5+1-Iran nuclear negotiations. The main development, of course, is that there is now a signed “interim” agreement and, as was not the case on November 12, there is a text to be perused. It’s not entirely obvious how or why we got from “no deal” then to a deal now, but just looking at the logic of the developments from the outside (always a risky thing to do, granted), it seems that the U.S. side essentially caved on the uranium enrichment issue, and the Iranian side lowered its demands regarding the Arak facility and the inspection regime. But language can move around in all parts of a document betwixt its being close to complete and being actually signed, so the full picture of what changed between November 12 and Sunday morning is available only to the negotiators themselves and their senior principals—and sometimes it’s not an entirely full picture even to them.
Let me explain what I mean by that with brief reference to a different arms control negotiation some 35 years ago. Arms control treaties are notoriously complex because they are so technical in nature—this quite aside from the notoriously critical problem of reading intentions, with which the technical stuff is inevitably enmeshed. Sometimes parts of an agreement that seem innocuous or even benign when seen apart look very different when analyzed together. Thus in the 1978-79 ordeal over SALT II, to make a long and complex story short, the “national technical means” verification aspects of the treaty and the “no new types” of ICBMs aspects seemed reasonable enough, until you looked at them together. When you did look at them together, it became clear (to some people, anyway) that the Soviets could introduce new types because the verification standards were too limited to prove otherwise, and verification by national technical means (which depended on intercepting and decrypting telemetry data) would in turn become much harder because new types could be introduced for which we had no base telemetry data.
It was a sort of an arms control version of a Catch-22, but a lot of people who liked the treaty chose to overlook or ignore such inconvenient arguments because they clashed with their core assessment of Soviet intentions. That was always the rub in those days. Did Soviet motives mirror ours in wanting to tame and stabilize the strategic nuclear competition, or were the Soviets trying to use the negotiations as part of a broader, multifaceted effort to gain unilateral advantage?
Today we’re talking about a different negotiating partner in Iran, a far less developed military capacity, and a much wider array of actors capable of influencing outcomes. But when you come right down to it, this interplay between the technical dynamic of a negotiation and the mutual assessment of intentions remains pretty much the same. There is always a close relationship between what goes on over and in the proverbial “four corners” of a document and what is going on outside them; i.e., between what is going on in the negotiating venue and what is going on in the wider world. At least when it comes to adversaries negotiating, as opposed to friends trying to wrap up a trade agreement, say, there are no exceptions. That is also why it is not generally possible to get anything important around a negotiating table that an actor is not evidently willing and capable of getting by other means. Reputation is the currency though which negotiating strategies are vindicated or found to fall short. And finally by way of general introduction, that is why the document signed yesterday cannot be understood except in terms of the context in which it rests.
Since, as usual, so many others have beaten me into electrons, let me dispense with a detailed blow-by-blow analysis of what the agreement actually says. We can make do with a few short summary statements.
First, the deal includes one element of rollback in the Iranian program—denaturing uranium that has reached the 20%-enrichment level. That is good because, assuming the verification regime is robust enough to prevent gross cheating, it means that Iran’s reputed six-bombs worth of fissile material will not exist for that purpose. Of course, nothing stops the Iranians from producing more such enriched uranium later on, because none of the centrifuges are shut down by the deal. And Iran’s obligation only lasts for six months according to the terms of the agreement (yet it need not begin until stage five months plus). But this limited “rollback” arguable widens the warning time we would have should Iran attempt a dash to a breakout capability, insofar as it is not reversed after six months. Here is one of this deal’s Catch-22s: The rollout is good and the six-month duration is seemingly innocuous, but seen together the latter limits the value of the former.
Second, the deal otherwise doesn’t freeze so much as cap what the Iranian side can do—as I insisted back in the November 13 post. It slows down the effort, but it does not halt it. Over time, Iran can make lots of progress on a range of tasks, including those having to do with delivery systems.
Third, the relaxation of sanctions may or may not lead to a general undermining of the entire sanctions regime when it comes to independent jobbers and Europeans and others—again, a matter I raised on November 13. I am skeptical here, but, as others have pointed out, once the diplomatic track got going, the failure to reach some kind of deal itself might have caused the erosion of the peripheral elements of the sanctions regime. Besides, this erosion is not a foregone conclusion. The U.S. government has various forms of leverage to use against excessively eager sanctions busters, and of course we should use it. Nor are we alone in this regard, inasmuch as the French position is aligned with our own on this point, which counts at least for something.
Fourth, while the reprocessing route seems to be narrower now (I am referring to the language over the Arak plant), the enrichment issue seems to have undergone a qualitative change. As other observers have been at pains to point out, the specific language in the agreement leapfrogs the matter of an Iranian “right” to an enrichment all the way to an explicit presumption that negotiations to come will determine not if but how much and under what conditions enrichment on Iranian soil will proceed. That language itself amounts to a “right” even though the word is not used, and that is so now, and will remain so even if no ensuing negotiations begin, let alone are completed successfully. The P5+1, not just the United States, have already granted the principle.
Fifth and finally by way of summary statements, the timetable for follow-on negotiations is peculiar, to say the least. The agreement contains an aspirational target of one year to a complete accord, but the interim agreement itself is understood to be a six-month proposition. So it expires on May 24, 2014. The question then becomes, what is the status of the actors’ obligations between May 24 and November 24, 2014? Well, the agreement says that the interim agreement is renewable by mutual consent, so if a final deal takes more than six months to complete, that is an option. In principle, it could be renewed several times if aspirations for a final agreement give way to a more recalcitrant reality. But of course mutual consent may turn out to be as elusive as agreement on a final arrangement, so what then?
Rather than go through all the permutations involved in a “what then?” sort of scenario, suffice it to say that the two main actors here, the U.S. and Iranian governments, will per force move the action from the negotiating table to what is going on outside of it. And here we are talking, in essence, about a leverage competition in which all factors impinging on the bilateral relationship can and probably will be relevant. The list is long: the progress of the Iranian nuclear program under the interim agreement umbrella; what is going on in Syria and Lebanon; what is happening in Iraq; the ISAF withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iran’s potential role in either expanding or ameliorating its discontents; the general political strength and domestic popularity of each government; how the United States, in particular, manages the qualms and constrains the behaviors of various allies in and beyond the region; what the Congress does with respect to the enforcement of current sanctions, the imposition of conditional new ones and the imposition of sanctions unrelated to the nuclear portfolio; and more besides. It comes down to interactive judgments about which side is more eager to get to a final agreement, and is willing to concede positions to achieve it, and those judgments will be tied to the ebb and flow of all the aforementioned issues intermingled. That is what we really mean, or should mean, by “context.”
So how is this leverage competition likely to play out? Of course, no one knows for sure. No one can say, either, that a similar competition would not have gone on had there been no diplomacy and no interim agreement—of course, such a competition was going on anyway. What has changed is that now the competition has by mutual consent moved under a diplomatic roof of sorts, albeit a roof with no walls or solid floor, so to speak. That changes some things, but not others. Most of all, it offers a more direct way to test theories of intention; but it is not and cannot be a foolproof way.
What are some of those theories? Not for the first time, they break down into parallel-universe style alternatives.
Some observers think that Iran has no intention of actually building a breakout nuclear weapons capability, but merely wants the political status of an all-but-nuclear power. Presumably, this would, in the minds of Iran’s leaders, increase the country’s prestige and enhance its deterrent power against those bent on regime change. Since the Iranians could achieve that status without any agreements, assuming the United States determined not to risk a war to stop it (and could prevent others from stopping it), being under the roof gives the United States more leverage over the terms of that eventual status, should an agreement obviating it become unattainable. It is true, too, that the interim agreement and what it may presage must be evaluated against realistic alternatives. The idea that negotiations can undo years of accomplished technical facts on the ground in Iran, even under the pain of sanctions, is not realistic.
It may be, too, that the Iranians think they can achieve this status of all-but-nuclear power without stimulating regional proliferation energies. But given the optic that Iranian policy broadly communicates in the region, this is unlikely. The activation of the Saudi-Pak arrangement long in quiet escrow, and likely efforts by Turkey and Egypt and perhaps other states, have low thresholds because lead times are relatively long and suspicions are historically deep. Indeed, from a longer-term perspective, it may well be that the Iranian quest for nuclear weapons status is strategically counterproductive, and the actions of others in moving to keep pace with Iran’s efforts might usefully signal that possibility. So what might look like dangerous developments to us could be positive developments in the end, so long as they do not come to full fruition. Some believe that the negotiating process itself can also be useful in persuading the Iranians of this, based on the premise that negotiations often acquire their own inner logic and dynamic.
If any of this is true, or becomes true, then it is possible to imagine a negotiating outcome that snags the brass ring from the U.S. point of view—halting the Iranian nuclear weapons effort before it achieves any deliverable capability and, more important, persuading the Iranians that such an achievement isn’t worth the risks it would entail. In the end, some kind of U.S. pledge, in writing, that it really and truly does not seek and will not support others’ efforts toward regime change in Tehran may be required. But, in this view, it would be worth it, and the repetitional costs could be offset if accompanied by explicit U.S. pledges in perpetuity to bring U.S. allies under the U.S. nuclear umbrella should the Iranians in future have a change of heart.
An arrangement of that sort would amount to an existential entente, if not a full-fledged one encompassing regional issues outside the nuclear portfolio, something the two countries have not “enjoyed”, if one can call it that, since 1978-79. But an entente might be expanded in the fullness of time into a more normal and less fraught relationship. That the prospect of that development can be fairly said to help an Iranian President politically says something both about the power of Iranian opinion and the regime’s sensitivity to it. That’s a potentially useful point of leverage for us. In this scenario, too, time is on our side, not Iran’s. (And let us simply note in passing that there may be some privately held evidence in favor of this interpretation; after all, if NSA has for years been tapping into the private communications of German, Brazilian and other leaders, why not Iranian leaders?)
Obviously, there is another way to assess intentions and context. Maybe the Iranians believe that nothing under heaven can disabuse the United States from wanting regime change in Iran, and that a nuclear weapons capability—whatever else it may or may not be good for—is the best long-term protection from the machinations of the Great Satan. If they looked around and assessed U.S. behavior with regard to aspiring WMD rogue states like Iraq, as opposed to rogue states that have achieved WMD capacity like North Korea, they would be hard-pressed to reach any other conclusion. In this scenario, Iran is eager to take advantage of a temporarily weak America presided over by a meek commander-in-chief to make the United States an unwitting co-conspirator in its rush to nuclear weapons status.
If one sees things this way, then the logic is that Iran is trying to escape the strictures of the sanctions regime mainly in order to buy time for it to pursue its long game with the Americans, the presumption being that Washington is more risk-averse than Tehran and that the deal on the table will get better and better as time passes. If that’s the case, no acceptable final agreement that includes mutual accord about the nature of and constraints against Iranian enrichment will be forthcoming. Negotiations won’t be done in a year; they won’t be done at all save if the U.S. position collapses entirely.
In such a scenario, therefore, it would well suit Iranian strategy to want to extend the interim accord, holding out (false) promise of a final arrangement that might be acceptable to the United States and other P5+1 countries. One reason this might be attractive to Iran is that it furnishes a tool—a wedge, specifically—that can be used to roil U.S.-Israeli relations, because as long as negotiations are continuing, many will argue that they have a chance to succeed and should be given that chance. That will deter Israel from using force except at the presumably prohibitive cost of all but destroying the U.S.-Israel “special relationship.” The Obama Administration would be hard-pressed to decline an extension, and not just to keep Israel from going kinetic. If things go sour in subsequent negotiations, as they have in earlier failed arrangement with the Iranians, and the interim accord expires, the Obama Administration would in most respects be back to square one—but actually worse off for having granted the principle of an implicit Iran “right” to enrichment on its own soil. The cessation of negotiations with no follow-on action would look like a U.S. failure. So the Administration would probably be willing to pay Iran to keep the interim accord alive. What would the currency of that payment be? Something concerning Afghanistan, perhaps? Syria? Iraq? Who knows? The menu is rich with possibilities. In this scenario, time and opportunity are on Iran’s side, not ours.
Some observers are already sure that one scenario or the other is bound to play out. I am not sure, and I don’t really know how anyone can be. Now, it is certainly true, again as many have said, that U.S. body language throughout the behind-the-scenes negotiations leading up to Sunday’s signing has indicated a real lack of backbone, and an apparent desire to reduce American engagement in and commitments to the Middle East. Nothing could please the mullahs more. And yes, what matters in asymmetrical contests like the protracted one between Iran and the United States is not some absolute objective balance of power, but rather the subjective balance of interests. Iran cares existentially about the outcome of this contest; U.S. stakes are hardly trivial, but they are nonetheless vastly lower than that. So body language matters if one wants to close the gap between those with naturally vital interests because they are in and of the region, and those like the United States, which is in but not of the region. Outside actors have to go the extra mile to be taken seriously in such contests, to make credible a willingness to bring power advantages to bear on situations where less-than-existential stakes are in play. The Obama Administration has not done that. It has rather been in reverse gear, most vividly over Syria, but arguably over Iraq and Afghanistan and even Egypt as well.
That said, Iranian leaders could be making a huge mistake if they conclude that the U.S. appetite for pusillanimity is limitless. In a year’s time, with the mid-term elections behind him, President Obama could turn ferocious about one of the few foreign policy/national security portfolios he seems to care about—nonproliferation—if he thinks he has become the entrée rather than one of the diner guests at the negotiating table. Events elsewhere in the world, as far away as the South China Sea, might influence American perceptions of the stakes. Iranian leaders might misinterpret increasingly strong language coming from the Administration as merely a way to manage Israeli and Saudi unhappiness, and they could end up dead wrong about that.
All this is another way of saying that the meaning of the interim agreement remains a hostage to decisions not yet taken, and decisions over which both main sides have considerable discretion. But for the United States to achieve its aims as time passes, or to minimize diplomacy-produced liabilities if things come to that, it must remain exquisitely attuned to the complexities of context, as defined above. It certainly cannot afford to draw more red lines whose challenge it ignores. Can this Administration, with its extraordinary penchant for policy process antics, actually do any of that? We’ll find out, I suppose.
Just a final coda for now, if I may—because I know that some of my regular readers have a yet unanswered question: “But is it good for the Jews?”
It is interesting to observe the different styles of reaction of the Israeli and Saudi governments to the signing of Sunday’s deal. The Saudis have kept their mouths shut, in public at least. The Israelis have done anything but. Given that it is not hard for Prime Minister Netanyahu or King Abdallah to communicate pretty much anything in private to Washington at the highest level, I think the Saudi approach is much the wiser.
I wonder if Prime Minister Netanyahu realizes that the more negative loud noises he makes about this agreement, the more likely, all else equal, that President Obama will make concessions to Iran six months from now, eight months from now, going on a year from now, too, lest the diplomatic effort collapse into the open maw of a possible Israeli military effort. Everyone knows that Israel is not going to do anything kinetic in the next six months, lest it be blamed, justifiably in most eyes, for sabotaging an effort before anyone can know its actual prospects. But whatever the negotiations bring, the United States will have an additional incentive to not allow the diplomatic track to end if Israeli public hectoring keeps up. If things do not go so well, as the Prime Minister predicts, it’s hard to see how this could be in Israel’s best interest. I can think of all sorts of tactical reasons for the Prime Minister’s recent behavior, including the fact that what he is doing is broadly popular politically. But I can’t think of any national security reasons that actually justify it on balance.
Finally, Obama knows that Netanyahu knows that Obama knows that the Israeli Prime Minister can hurt him politically in the United States. He can mobilize Jewish and Christian Zionists alike, the latter being even more numerous than the former (especially these days, if recent Pew polls are to be believed for what they say about falling levels of American Jewish support for certain Israeli policies.) The same is not true in reverse; there’s no organized pro-America lobby in Israel. Proud and successful politicians like Barack Obama resent that sort of thing, and they are capable of resenting it enough to affect their judgment. It is, I think, Obama’s judgment that Netanyahu has tried before to harm him politically, and now by doing it again Netanyahu risks introducing a rogue psychological twist into the President’s decisions. I just don’t see how playing that kind of ultra-serious game right now is “good for the Jews.”
Everyone keeps telling me that short posts sprayed out more frequently are vastly better in the blogosphere than long-form, more deeply considered analysis less often offered. But they never say better for what, or for whom. Well, never mind that for now. I’m so busy with other, higher priorities, that I’m in a rare mood for some disconnected staccato notes—exactly the sort of “tune” so dear to the segmented presentism of what passes for a discourse. I already feel icky about it, but here come three shorts.
First, notice theNYT piece in today’s paper, page A10 of the print edition, by Sanger, Shanker and Schmitt, about the CW mess in Syria. The gist? No one has agreed to protect the convoys of toxic goop, no one is willing to pay for the conveyance and destruction operations, and while Norway seems willing to do the marine transport, there’s no place to transport the stuff to. Albania declined after riots shook the government, which was considering the idea. Not even the Russians, whose fault it is that all the stuff is there in the first place, have offered. (Big surprise.)
Worse, there is some evidence, not cited in the NYT article, that the al-Nusra types are trying to get hands on some of this stuff, however foolish that may be on their untrained part, and may have already succeeded. This is ironic, of course, because the chances of that happening were much less before the location of the chem sites were revealed in the course of implementing the deal, and will be much greater still if anyone actually tries to move this stuff in the middle of a war. The original half-witted notion we had, that the destruction would take place within Syria, would have required financing in the billions of dollars and years just to build the proper facilities—this the NYT article does point out.
Inescapable conclusion: The Obama Administration bought into this Russian-inspired CW deal idea out of political desperation, to rescue itself from its own mistakes, without ever having thought through how it could work. And now we’re in a situation where the entire effort not only looks to come a cropper, but might even produce serious counterproductive outcomes.
Why tell you all this? Because if you’ve been reading my blog on a fairly regular basis, you already knew what this NYT article would say. I warned from the start that this deal, aside from being a sideshow compared to the civil war itself, was likely to prove unworkable. You can go back and look it up—my November 13, September 30, September 20 and September 11 posts should do the trick.
Second, in my Nov. 5 essay in Tablet, I warned that the wheels of the “special relationship” between the United States and Israel were coming off. I explained the complexity of the three-sided causal formula, and projected it into the future at a greater remove than most folks these days care to think about or plan for. Some folks did not pick up on that…..and others were sure I was exaggerating, if not just plain wrong.
Well, take a look around today, not even two weeks later: Was I? I never imagined when I sat down to write in late September that both the President and especially his Secretary of State would utter the hurtful and foolish things they have said in recent days. Labeling anyone who dares to criticize them, or points to inconsistencies in their own behavior, as “warmongers” is really beyond the pale. I wish Prime Minister Netanyahu had been more reserved and judicious in his public remarks—but then I’ve wished for that for decades now, in vain—but the sudden and sharp deterioration in the relationship clearly owes more this time to Washington’s misdeeds, not Jerusalem’s. I did not want to be proved right so nastily and so soon, but I have to say: Go back and reread the Tablet piece—or read it for the first time, as the case may be—and perhaps the deeper reasons why what is happening is happening will become clearer to you.
Inescapable conclusion: Administration principals ran their mouths in public about Israel to cover up their own broken promises and rash concessions without having thought through how it would affect the relationship or the issues at play. And now we’re in a situation where the episode might produce serious counterproductive outcomes, even possibly a desperate Israeli military strike on Iranian facilities.
Third, for something completely different, a juxtaposition for your delectation concerning Obamacare and voter identification provisions.
As to voter ID laws and regulations in the states, you are no doubt aware of the fracas that’s been going on over this, all the way to the Supreme Court, because it elides on the renewal (or lack thereof) or amendment of the Voting Rights Act. Suffice it to say, it’s not hard getting me to believe that the motives for restrictive laws may be partisan in nature—specifically, the idea that making it necessary to have a valid photo ID in order to vote will disproportionately discourage would-be Democratic voters over would-be Republican ones. But it’s hard to prove motives.
The other side of the argument, meanwhile, is rarely voiced in the MSM, which is that it is simply absurd not to require voter identification in order to safeguard the integrity of the democratic process. Non-citizens should not be allowed to vote. Citizens should not be allowed to vote more than once per election in a given district. Citizens should not be allowed to vote multiple times in different districts. With all due respect to the zombie lobby, dead citizens should not be allowed to vote. Anyone who disagrees with any of this needs a remedial course in democratic theory and practice, either that or a psychiatrist.
But all of that is possible nowadays in lots of places. When I go to vote in Montgomery County, Maryland, all I have to do is give my name and confirm my address with a grunt. No one asks for any ID. I could be pretty much anyone, from anywhere. This is ridiculous. But the Democratic activiste types are actually fine with that, because, for example, having undocumented aliens vote helps them. It’s the lax pro-Democrat status quo that’s the outrage, not sincere attempts to mend it.
Hence the nonsensical fictions about how hard it is to get a photo ID, and how having to do so discriminates against the handicapped, old people, illiterate people and so on. It is actually not that hard to get a photo ID…..if you actually are a citizen. And it’s not very expensive. If some people can’t readily get to a place that makes one on their own, and if they can’t find the necessary documentation, all sorts of community service folks will help you. In many places they will fall over each other trying to assist, including giving you the money you need.
Ah, but it’s supposedly simple for these same poor, illiterate or semi-literate or handicapped people to sign up for insurance on the new insurance exchanges. Horse twaddle it is. To use that website, even when it’s working, you also have to have ID of some sort to establish at least a scintilla of eligibility, and then you have to make your way through page after page after page of bureaucratese. And of course you must be basically computer-literate, and have access to a computer with internet, even to start the process.
Democrats are doing big-time double-speak here, assuming ease when it suits their politics interests and assuming difficulty when it doesn’t. Republicans do the same thing, of course, but this particular juxtaposition is particularly glaring.
I warned long, long ago in this blog (you could look it up) that Obamacare might not survive its own administrative birth. After all, we saw signs of this many months ago already when one aspect after another of the plan got delayed—usually announced on Friday afternoon so’s no one would hardly notice. But even I did not suspect that the train wreck would be as telegenic as it’s been. And it could easily get worse. The main fear of the Administration right now is that not enough healthy young uninsured people will sign up to make the arrangement financially feasible. If the insurance pool is too small, the rates will skyrocket, and the government’s promise to subsidize poorer people will break the budget and the bank to the point that it will become politically impossible and collapse of its own weight.
Inescapable conclusion: The Obama Administration launched the Obamacare program for purely political reasons, without ever really having thought through how it could work. And now we’re in a situation where the entire effort not only looks to come a cropper, but might even produce serious counterproductive outcomes.
Ah, but Republicans who want to wreck the Obamacare experiment have an obvious and relatively easy way to ensure that outcome. All they have to do is promise to reimburse fines for rejecting the personal mandate once it kicks in in a few months. A lot more uninsured people will stay away from Obamacare if it’s free to them. All they’d need to do to get reimbursed is show proof of having paid the fine—if the Republicans can get it together to launch such an effort, whether in their own name or in some barely disguised super-pac incarnation. The effort, which would be unambiguously legal, might not be cheap, but it would certainly be affordable compared to the outsized sums the GOP spends on campaigns nationwide. The fact that, so far as I’m aware, no senior Republican figure has raised such an idea is just more evidence of how brain-dead these guys are. (No, I’m not even a Republican…..)
What a country. What an Administration.
- See more at: http://blogs.the-american-interest.com/garfinkle/#sthash.azum1soM.dpuf
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.
- See more at: http://blogs.the-american-interest.com/garfinkle/#sthash.azum1soM.dpuf