Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Rick Santorum Shows Us the Strong and Weak Points of Republican Foreign Policy Thinking

By Barry Rubin

As Republican candidates begin to define a foreign policy alternative to President Barack Obama, it’s useful to analyze an international affairs’ speech given by presidential candidate Rick Santorum.

I am not writing to praise or criticize him as an individual—I’m not backing any candidate—but to show where strategic ideas are going and where they should be going. Everything said regarding Santorum also applies to Newt Gingrich and Mitch Romney.

Santorum is the most conservative. Note that this speech was given to an Orthodox Jewish synagogue audience in all-important Florida before the primary there. Thus, Santorum might be expected to pander by proving that he’s the most extreme and militant candidate supporting Israel and on the Iran issue. In fact, he doesn’t do so but rather proposes a policy that Democrats and real liberals should also support.

Note well that he explicitly rejects a military attack on Iran There has been much foolish talk either about how an attack is a great idea or that it is a terrible notion that those crazy, warmongering Republicans eagerly embrace. That’ wrong on both counts.

Actually, Santorum proposes the kind of policy that Democrats and real liberals should support, too. At the same time, though, it shows how conservatives and Republicans are often careless when talking about foreign policy.

Santorum begins:

“The president says `the threat of war is receding’ but he’s wrong.  The war is on, and its front lines are advancing towards us and our allies, above all toward Israel.”

But that’s not what Obama said but rather the “tide of war is receding” at the Pentagon recently, referring to direct U.S. engagement in Iran and Afghanistan. Santorum’s basic concept is right but the quote is taken out of context. He could have found a better one. That might not seem important to you but later in a campaign the mass media would have a field day ridiculing Santorum.

He continues:

“We're facing a global alliance that includes Russia, North Korea, China, Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador and of course Cuba.  They are outspoken in their desire to weaken us and drive us out of their regions.  Some of them-- Iran, and the radical Islamists whose rise to power has been facilitated by this president--speak eagerly of destroying us, and our allies, especially Israel.”

Again, this is the kind of carelessness could be easily ridiculed by Obama’s supporters. Are these countries in a ‘global alliance”? Of course not. Is there evidence of a Chinese attempt to drive America out of Asia? No. Does the United States want to treat both Russia and China as enemies despite some real problems with conflicting policies? Dangerous adventurism.

On substance, though, Santorum is correct: there are powerful radical forces attacking U.S. interests and subverting its allies. This is the number one issue to which the United States must respond.  Santorum says it perfectly when he continues: “We have no strategy to deal with this gathering storm.  Indeed, our leaders act as if things are getting better every day.”

Unfortunately, Santorum doesn’t evince any broad counter-strategy that would be better but it isn’t hard to articulate one in clear terms the public can understand:

Recognize and define the threat; form a broad international coalition under U.S. leadership to combat it; back U.S. allies; wage appropriate struggles everywhere to stop the radicals’ advance and if possible push them back....

Response to Ron Paul: Did U.S. Policy Make Today's Islamist Iran Hate America?

A different version of the following article was published in The Daily Caller.

By Barry Rubin

Presidential candidate Ron Paul has said repeatedly that Iranians hate America because of its role in the 1953 coup overthrowing Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadegh. Like his frequent claims that the September 11 attack was a response to a supposed decade-long U.S. bombing of Iraq.

In fact, about the only intense bombing of Iraq done by the United States in the last twenty years was for two weeks at the start of the 2003 war and one time in retaliation against an assassination plot against former president George Bush. From time to time, U.S. planes also hit Iraqi radar defenses but this was not a likely reason for the September 11 attacks. The picture that Paul's statement implies is some sort of constant attack targeting Iraqi civilians.  

Moreover, if you actually read what Usama bin Ladin and al-Qaida said, they were not complaining about bombing but about how the United States allegedly killed about one million Iraqi civilians by starving them to death through sanctions. That was a lie put out by Saddam Hussein' regime at a time when he was importing luxury goods for his family and elite while using money intended for buying food to buy arms instead.

So Ron Paul is actually just echoing Saddam's lies, passed on to bin Ladin, that America was committing genocide in Iraq. 

But people know far less about the 1953 case, though it has long been a source of complaint by left-wing critics of U.S. foreign policy. I was the first scholar to see the U.S. government records for the crisis when writing my book, Paved with Good Intentions: The American Experience and Iran, in 1979. Here is a brief summary of the key points.  

The nationalist government of Muhammad Mossadegh had nationalized the British oil company. While a well-intentioned democratic-minded modernizer, Mossadegh was also an erratic and incompetent personality and prime minister. And the social base for parliamentary democracy in Iran was clearly not strong enough. In the face of a British embargo on Iran selling its oil--the British argued that it was "stolen property"--and many domestic problems, the country was spiraling into chaos. While the British were interested in getting the oil company back, the United States was worried about a Communist takeover.  A group of pro-Shah Iranians teamed up with the British to propose a "counter-coup" in which the Shah would break openly with Mossadegh and the monarch's supporters would overthrow the prime minister.    

First, the pressure for the coup came from the British. The Truman Administration, which left in office in January 1953, opposed American involvement. However, the situation worsened and the Eisenhower Administration changed U.S. policy on the issue.

Mossadegh was an extremely unstable person and leader.  He was clearly losing control of the country and the Communist Party, which backed him, was gaining power steadily. A close examination of the documents shows that whether it was correct or not U.S. fear of a Communist takeover was based on serious evidence. This was the midst of the Cold War and the USSR was Iran’s northern neighbor. The Soviets had occupied northern Iran from 1941 to 1946, to secure the country’s oil during World War Two, set up puppet regimes inside the country, and withdrew only under intensive U.S. pressure.

On balance, and after long consideration, I think the coup was a proper move for U.S. policy. One can say that it denied Iran a democratic regime but the way things were going, the Iranian government was about to collapse into anarchy, a coup, or a Communist takeover anyway.

What is especially interesting in retrospect is that one of the main supporters of the move were the Iranian Muslim clerics, including Ayatollah Kashani, the man who would be a role model for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. I saw how he and his colleagues met with U.S. officials and urged a coup, since they also feared a Communist regime. It is ironic for Islamists to complain about a U.S. policy that they actively backed at the time.

Second, the U.S. and the Shah's supporters accurately argued that this was actually a “counter-coup” because the shah had the legal right to dismiss Mossadegh. The regime—as opposed to a particular prime minister—was not being overthrown by a coup but rather it was being saved from a coup by Mossadegh. This case is not rock-solid but has some standing. The situation was not like a Latin American military overthrowing a democratic government.

I have stated things here briefly and have not done justice to the complexity of the situation. A real argument can be mounted against U.S. policy at the time but in the end I don't find it convincing and this is certainly not a case of an unjustified action aimed against someone because he was a liberal reformer or moderate nationalist. 

But the most important point for today is the question of how this action reverberated over time: the Shah ruled for a quarter-century and basically did about as good a job as anyone was going to do there. He was a dictator, the regime had a high level of corruption, and the secret police used torture. Yet in many ways the succeeding regime has been even worse.

For U.S. policy, the two key questions were: did a better alternative exist and is a quarter-century success a failure because it comes to an end. I’d say a better alternative didn’t exist at the time and that if a policy works for 25 years that policy isn’t a failure.

As for the coming to power of a radical Islamist regime—as we are now seeing in countries like Egypt and Libya—that isn’t due to American backing for the previous ruler but to the nature of the societies involved.
All of this, however, only leads up to responding to Ron Paul’s claim. Liberal nationalist Iranians have blamed the United States for overthrowing Mossadegh, who after all was their leader. Yet these people have never been in power in Iran and only comprise a small portion of its population (though a larger portion of the exiled intelligentsia, the people who write book on the subject).  

One of the very first acts of the Islamist regime—whose predecessors in the 1950s supported U.S. policy by the way—was to repress the followers of Mossadegh. Consequently, a country whose rulers supported a coup and then repressed the opponents of the coup can scarcely be said to hate America for supporting the coup.   

There is one more point that doesn’t fit well with the currently hegemonic radical ideology expressed by the supporters of both Obama and Ron Paul but it must be included if one is ever going to understand Iran. Power is respected; weakness is not.  In 1978 and 1979 the Carter Administration basically refused to support the Shah in the belief that this diffidence would win Iranians’ love. In fact it led to disaster.

The Carter Administration in effect tried to do the opposite of what American policy had been in 1953. You can see the results for yourself. Many Iranians, especially those unhappy with the Islamist regime, believe that the United States put Khomeini in power the way that it returned the Shah to power a quarter-century earlier. In short, American power is exaggerated by Iranians who are either going to jump on the U.S. bandwagon or blame the United States no matter what happens.

Why is Ron Paul so much like Barack Obama on foreign policy? Because both men tend to blame America first and neither have a firm grasp of the realpolitik principles that must usually guide international policy. They also both overstate the role of things like popularity in global affairs. 

In Paul's case this makes him an isolationist, arguing that if the United States doesn't bother other countries they will leave America alone.

In Obama's case, he believes that America is bad for the world, mistakes America's enemies as the good guys, and rejects U.S. interests in the belief that it is better to please other countries believing it will make them leave America alone.   .

They also have something else in common: they ignore or misunderstand the internal realities of other countries. The Islamist regime in Iran doesn't hate America because of its past policy toward Iran but because it stands in the way of Tehran's program: Islamist revolutions everywhere; the destruction not only of Israel but of virtually all regimes in the region; and their replacement by Iran-style governments and societies.

The issue--as with the USSR and the fascist states--is not hatred of either U.S. policies or freedom but the fact that America is a geopolitical enemy, making it harder or impossible for their radical ideology to conquer the world or at least their part of it.

Barry Rubin's latest book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press.

For further reading on this issue, see:
Barry Rubin, Paved with Good Intentions: The American Experience and Iran, hardcover: Oxford University Press; paperback: Viking/Penguin. Published in Persian in Tehran as The War for Power in Iran.

“Regime Change and Iran: A Case Study,” Washington Quarterly, 2003, and published as "Lessons from Iran," in Alexander T. J. Lennon and Camille Eiss,Reshaping Rogue States: Preemption, Regime Change, and U.S. Policy toward Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, (Boston, MIT Press, 2004), pp. 141-156.



Sunday, January 29, 2012

Why Syria’s Regime is Surviving a Revolution

By Barry Rubin

Despite what is now the longest-running revolution in Middle Eastern history, the Syrian regime will probably be in power on December 31, 2012. I don’t say that because it’s what I want to happen—Syria’s revolution is more democratic-minded than those in Libya or Egypt; the government is far more repressive than the former dictatorships in Tunisia or Egypt—but because it seems inevitable.
Why is it that after so many months of massive demonstrations and really bloody repression, that President Bashar al-Assad seems likely to survive? Of course no one knows what will happen but there are three reasons to think that Assad's regime is surviving, though the cost of that is a great deal of suffering and the wrecking of the country.

First, the rulers know that it is a case of kill or be killed. Given the hated and sectarian nature of the regime—overwhelmingly dominated by Alawites who comprise only about 12 percent of the population—the elite can expect no mercy if it falls. At least, the Alawite elite and its closest allies among the Sunni Arab Muslims will lose their wealth and power; at most, they and even their families will lose their lives.
A negotiated solution of any sort is not a real possibility and the elite’s members—including army generals—are aware that they must all hang together or they will all hang separately.  When they look at Egypt, where they see the former president on trial and the armed forces under serious challenge, they are not encouraged to believe they should compromise with the opposition. And when they remember Libya and Iraq, where the former leaders were executed, that conclusion is reinforced.

Second, the revolutionaries don’t have a strategy for seizing state power. They daily hold courageous demonstrations and suffer severe losses through killings and repression, yet the protests cannot force a determined dictatorship out of power. As in Iran—but not as in Egypt and Tunisia, where the armies were unwilling to mow down their own people—the regime's ruthlessness makes it quite willing to pursue a strategy of brutality.

The Free Syrian Army is the opposition’s other potential route to power. But it remains too small, too inexperienced (many or most of its recruits are not former soldiers), and too lacking in international support to overthrow the dictatorship by force.
Third, the Syrian dictatorship is receiving ample international support, mainly from Iran but also from Russia.  While the Arab League has supposedly come out against the regime, its intervention is so toothless and time-wasting that it serves the regime because as long as the League doesn’t call for tougher measures neither will Western countries.

The lack of Western intervention is another international problem for the opposition and advantage for the regime.  At present, the opposition has two main requests, drawn from experience in Iraq and Libya. It asks that the West impose a no-fly zone on the Syrian military and that it helps establish an exclusion area along the Turkey-Syria frontier where refugees and dissidents can flee, an opposition government can create a liberated zone, and the Free Syrian Army can mobilize.
There does not appear to be the slightest chance of this happening. Why? I almost wish that I could say it was due to Western fear of an Islamist takeover of Syria. In fact, however, the U.S. government has actually helped the Islamists there. The real reason is fear of making another Middle East commitment, along with a strange radical ideology in the West which makes it more eager to help anti-Western forces than friendly ones.

Obviously, no one could seriously propose sending Western forces to Syria. Yet enforcing a no-flight zone would be a relatively easy, low-cost effort that might help break the regime that has been the main Arab sponsor of terrorism (always exceeding Iraq in that respect) during the last forty years and also the Arab government that has done the most to sabotage any Arab-Israeli negotiated settlement. Again, though, there isn’t any chance of this happening, certainly not under an Obama Administration. Indeed,Russia is selling Syria advanced warplanes so the regime can attack the opposition more effectively! So much for a no-fly zone.
What might break President Bashar al-Assad’s regime? Other than his being assassinated, the only likely development would be if some Syrian generals decided that the rest of the elite can only survive by eliminating him and his family. Even then, though, they would probably try to continue the regime under a different name, offering the opposition a face-saving compromise of making some concessions in exchange for an end to the revolt. This is an offer the opposition, unless it is really desperate by that point, might well reject as insufficient.

Nevertheless, the prospects are quite likely that Assad will be in power when the year ends. If the deadlock goes on without apparent end the revolution might die down, as it did in Iran. Syria will then be another case to show that revolutions usually succeed only when the elite is divided and loses its nerve, rather than being an inevitable response to oppression.
It will also show that in the Middle East only pro-Western regimes (including the temporarily “cooperative” Libyan dictatorship) get overthrown. In contrast, anti-Western governments prosper, often with Western protection or help. Go figure.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Where the “Counter-Obama” View of the Middle East is Right and Where It’s Wrong

By Barry Rubin

Jackson Diehl is by far the best journalist writing in the mass media about the Middle East.  In a recent column he tries to find some middle ground between the dominant ideas--that Islamist regimes are no problem at all and that the Muslim Brotherhood is really moderate—and what he defines as a too extreme conservative and Republican analysis.

While I don’t quite agree with him, there is much of merit in his dichotomy. We should all learn from it even though I’m going to suggest that it needs to be adjusted. Even if Obama's critics are on the right side about the Middle East and generally understand what's happening, many of them also make factual and analytical mistakes that undermine their credibility and may sometimes subvert their policies if they win office.

In addition, Diehl reminds us (how rarely that happens nowadays!) how good it feels to debate with people who actually think about the issues and cite evidence even if we disagree with them.  He actually believes that there is merit on both sides of the argument, again an attempt at balance that often seems close to extinction in this sad era.

Diehl begins with a highly critical account of a Fox news host and Governor Rick Perry’s hard-hitting but flawed account of contemporary Turkey.

The former said of Turkey—in Diehl’s view, a “mostly accurate but extremely one-sided description”—that since an “Islamist-oriented party took over . . . the murder rate of women has increased 1,400 percent. Press freedom has declined to the level of Russia. [Prime Minister Recep Erdogan] has embraced Hamas, and Turkey has threatened military force against both Israel and Cyprus.”
Diehl provides what he sees to be the other side, that the Turkish government:

“has just stationed an advanced radar on its territory that could be used to track and shoot down missiles from Iran; that joined the NATO operaiton against Moammar Gaddafi [sic] in Libya; that has become the host of the opposition to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad; and that, having repeatedly won free democratic elections, amended Turkey’s constitution to expand rights for women, ethnic minorities and unions.”

Diehl, to his credit (it’s amazing how rare any balanced account is in the mass media nowadays!) continues, “that, too, was a one-sided account of the Erdogan record. But that is precisely the point: Turkey has become a complex, dynamic, difficult, sometimes infuriating, sometimes very helpful and indisputably important ally of the United States.”

Now Diehl presented five items as being to the credit of Erdogan’s regime. But let’s take them one at a time:

Friday, January 27, 2012

As The State of the Union Speech Shows: The Problem with Obama Isn't Just Political or Ideological, It's Ignorance, Inexperience, Character, and Incompetence, Too,

By Barry Rubin

I’ve been waiting for someone to voice my reaction to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union message. But and since I haven’t seen anyone else do it—I’m not referring to the foreign policy aspects which I analyzed fully here but the whole speech—I’ll do it myself.
It was very scary.

Why? I am reminded of the famous scene in the "Caine Mutiny" in which the captain is testifying at the court-martial of officers who removed him from command during a storm on the basis of mental incompetence. Perhaps you remember the brilliant film performance by Humphrey Bogart. As he testifies about his fine job of command, the captain slowly breaks down into coherence. He pulls out of his pocket some little steel balls which he rolls endlessly in his hand. Click. Click. Click. The court martial officers look at each other and you can see in their faces what they are thinking: This man is bonkers.
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I don’t mean that Obama is crazy. What is so evident, however, is that he is so detached from reality.  Even assuming Obama's political goals,  how he goes about expressing and implementing them proves that point. The issues and the America Obama described in the speech have nothing to do with current issues and problems. The ridiculous bit with Warren Buffett’s secretary—income tax and capital gains tax are two different things—the talk about “fairness” and “teamwork,” simply don’t address what’s going on, things like costs of production being too high, investor's confidence shaken, and resources misapplied.

Obama’s major speech in Kansas, an echo of one given by Teddy Roosevelt in 1912, also indicates what’s wrong with this president. It’s as if he’s half in the past—populism against the big monopolistic corporations running roughshod over a feeble government and defenseless workers—and half in the future, pushing a green utopia.

Having a president—the most powerful single man in the world--who isn’t engaged with reality is very scary.
It’ not just about politics and ideology, there are three other factors....

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Israel Is Not About to Attack Iran and Neither is the United States: Get Used To It

By Barry Rubin

The radio superhero, The Shadow, had the power to “cloud men’s minds.” But nothing clouds men’s minds like anything that has to do with Jews or Israel. This year’s variation on that theme is the idea that Israel is about to attack Iran. Such a claim repeatedly appears in the media. Some have criticized Israel for attacking Iran and turning the Middle East into a cauldron of turmoil (not as if the region needs any help in that department) despite the fact that it hasn’t happened.


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On the surface, of course, there is apparent evidence for such a thesis.  Israel has talked about attacking Iran and one can make a case for such an operation. Yet any serious consideration of this scenario—based on actual research and real analysis rather than what the uninformed assemble in their own heads or Israeli leaders sending a message to create a situation where an attack isn't necessary—is this: It isn’t going to happen.

Indeed, the main leak from the Israeli government, by an ex-intelligence official who hates Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has been that the Israeli government already decided not to attack Iran. He says that he worries this might change in the future but there’s no hint that this has happened or will happen. Defense Minister Ehud Barak has publicly denied plans for an imminent attack as have other senior government official.

Of course, one might joke that the fact that Israeli leaders talk about attacking Iran is the biggest proof that they aren’t about to do it. But Israel, like other countries, should be subject to rational analysis. Articles being written by others are being spun as saying Israel is going to attack when that's not what they are saying. I stand by my analysis and before December 31 we will see who was right. I'm not at all worried about stating very clearly that Israel is not going to go to war with Iran.  

So why are Israelis talking about a potential attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities? Because that’s a good way –indeed, the only way Israel has--to pressure Western countries to work harder on the issue, to increase sanction and diplomatic efforts. If one believes that somehow pushing Tehran into slowing down or stopping its nuclear weapons’ drive is the only alternative to war, that greatly concentrates policymakers’ minds.  Personally, I don't participate--consciously or as an instrument--in disinformation campaigns, even if they are for a good cause.

Regarding Ronen Bergman's article in the New York Times, I think the answer is simple: Israeli leaders are not announcing that they are about to attack Iran. They are sending a message that the United States and Europe should act more decisively so that Israel does not feel the need to attack Iran in future. That is a debate that can be held but it does not deal with a different issue: Is Israel about to attack Iran. The answer is "no." 

Imagine a media report after an Israeli attack: A dozen Israeli warplanes hit Iranian nuclear installations today. Three places were damaged to some extent but Iran has a large number of such facilities. Iran and Israel are now in a full state of war. Oil prices zoomed up. The Obama Administration and EU condemned the attack. Iran said it would redouble its drive for nuclear weapons and use them in its defense. Tehran is expected to put the priority on facilities outside of Israel's range.

Why should Israel attack Iran now? Because one day Iran will have nuclear weapons that might be used to attack Israel. 

Does Iran have such deliverable weapons now? No.

If Israel attacks Iran now does that mean Iran would never get nuclear weapons? No, it would merely postpone that outcome for at most a year or two more than it would take otherwise. And then it would ensure an all-out endless bloody war thereafter.

If Israel attacks Iranian nuclear installations would that ensure future peace between the two countries? Would it make it less likely that the Tehran regime uses such weapons to strike at Israel in future? No. On the contrary, it would have the exact opposite effect. Again, it would ensure direct warfare between the two countries and make Iran’s use of nuclear weapons against Israel 100 percent probable.

Why is this different from Israeli attacks on Iraqi and Syrian nuclear facilities? Because in those case a single strike by a small number of planes would be sufficient to destroy a single building. And the two regimes, precisely because of the strategic situation, would and could not respond. And if you believe Iran's regime to be so totally irraitional then factor that point into how it would respond to a direct attack like that.  

If Israel attacks Iran would it have backing from anyone else in the world? No, in fact the United States strongly opposes such an operation. Iranian retaliation against oil shipping and terrorist attacks would lead (not overly brave and already appeasement-oriented) Western governments to blame Israel, not Iran. Launching such an attack would ensure a level of international isolation for Israel far higher than what exists today.  The idea that a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq makes an Israeli attack more attractive is absurd. U.S. forces and interests are in the Gulf and an Israeli attack would--according to the Obama Administration--endanger U.S. interests there. 

Would such an attack by Israel be likely to succeed even in doing maximum damage to Iranian facilities? No, a great deal could go wrong, especially against multiple hardened targets at the planes’ maximum range. Planes could get lost or crash or have to turn back. Planes arriving over the targets could miss, or accidentally drop their bombs on civilians, or simply not do much damage. Many targets would remain unscathed.

Additional waves of attack would be needed in a situation where Iran would be better prepared to shoot down the planes. And the second wave would face huge Western opposition. But it would be too late either way since Israel would now be in a full war with Iran.

Imagine a media report after an Israeli attack: A dozen Israeli warplanes hit Iranian nuclear installations today. Three places were damaged to some extent but Iran has a large number of such facilities. Iran and Israel are now in a full state of war. Oil prices zoomed up. The Obama Administration and EU condemned the attack. Iran said it would redouble its drive for nuclear weapons and use them in its defense. Tehran is expected to put the priority on facilities outside of Israel's range.

So given all of these factors why should Israel possibly attack Iran? It is an absurd idea.

The counter-argument is this: Iran’s regime is irrational and wants to destroy Israel even if the resulting counterattack would kill millions of Iranians and wreck the country.  Yet while that analysis should not be totally ruled out, it is far from a certainty. Tehran is seeking nuclear weapons to make itself invulnerable to the costs of its non-nuclear subversion and support for terrorist and revolutionary forces. And a lot of what the Iranian leadership says is demagoguery to build support for itself at home, and to convince the masses to ignore its incompetence and mismanagement.

Moreover, while you may have met Iranians whose grasp of reality is--let me put this politely--somewhat creative and even though the Iran regime evinces an extremist anti-Western, anti-American, and antisemitic ideology, the actual history of Iran (or more narrowly of the Iranian regime) does not show it to be an irrational actor. In other words, tries to implement highly radical, nasty, and terrorist-supporting actions in a careful and cautious manner. Islamist Iran did not invade any of its neighbors and it has not taken big foreign policy risks. In saying this, I'm not being naive or ignoring what Iran's leaders say or want but what they actually do.

Why does Iran want nuclear weapons? So it can go on sponsoring terrorism, spreading radical ideology, killing Americans through covert actions, and building a sphere of influence without anyone doing anything about it. In other words, the real threat is Iran's conventional foreign policy safeguarded by nuclear weapons. Are there precedents for this? Sure. More recently, Pakistan and North Korea, going back further in time, the Stalinist USSR.  

Yet given the points made above, even the Iran-as-irrational analysis--and even assuming it to be correct the probability of being right about Iran ever trying to launch a nuclear attack is far lower than 100 percent--does not justify an Israeli attack at this time.

Yet given the points made above, even the Iran as irrational analysis--and even assuming it to be correct the probability of being right about Iran ever trying to launch a nuclear attack is far lower than 100 percent--does not justify an Israeli attack at this time.

And, finally, Israel has other options.  The alternative is this:  As the Iranian regime works hard to get nuclear weapons and missiles capable of carrying them, Israel uses the time to build a multi-level defensive and offensive capability.  These layers include:

U.S. early warning stations and anti-missile missile installations in the Gulf; Israeli missile-launching submarines; Israel long-range planes whose crews have rehearsed and planned for strikes at Iranian facilities; different types of anti-missile missiles capable of knocking down the small number of missiles Iran could fire simultaneously;  covert operations, possibly including computer viruses and assassinations, to slow down Iran’s development of nuclear weapons; improved intelligence; help to the Iranian opposition (though the idea of "regime change" in the near future is a fantasy); and other measures.

If and when there was a clear Iranian threat to attack Israel, then Israel could launch a preemptive assault. And if no such threat ever materializes, Israel need never attack. Any future Iran-Israel war will happen if Iran’s regime makes it unavoidable, not in theory but in actual practice.

Note that attacking a limited number of missiles and launch facilities, that must be located closer to Israel within Iranian territory, is easy. Attacking multiple nuclear facilities buried deep in the ground anywhere in Iran is hard.

Ah, but what if Iran gives small nuclear devices to terrorists? Well ask yourself two simple questions:

1. Would an Israeli attack on Iran ensure that this didn't happen? Answer: Not at all.

2. Would an Israeli attack on Iran ensure that Iran would definitely give nuclear devices to terrorists and try to strike against Israel as quickly and as frequently as possible? Absolutely yes.

Does this Israeli strategy assume that Iran’s regime is “rational” and “peace-loving” and will be deterred by Israel’s ability to strike back? Absolutely not.  Indeed, quite the opposite. No such assumption is required. Israel will simply be ready and alert based on the assumption that Iran might attack some day. But such a war, however possible, is not inevitable. And since Israel cannot prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons by attacking, there is no point in doing so.

Whether you hope for or fear an Israeli attack on Iran, it isn’t going to happen.   

At the same time, a new theme in the America mass media--for example here and here--is that the United States is headed toward war with Iran either by electing a Republican president, the inevitable weight of events, or through having sanctions so effective that a cornered Iran will attack.  The fact is that neither country wants to have an armed conflict and such a battle is easily avoidable. Ironically, those who claim Iran is going to attack are using the crazy Tehran regime concept that they reject when it comes to nuclear weapons. And the "watch out for the warmongering Republicans slogan" is part of the election campaign.

Warning against tough sanctions is a way of avoiding tough sanctions. The argument boils down to saying that sanctions better not hurt Iran or else the consequences will be disastrous. We will be hearing the same argument soon about Hamas, Hizballah, Egypt, and maybe even Libya or Turkey. The effort to use U.S. leverage will be said as triggering war or an anti-American explosion among Muslims. Thus, for example, whatever the Egyptian regime does toward Israel or its own people, we will be told that reducing U.S. aid is not an option.

Going to war with Iran is a mistake and the hysteria on this issue, including claims the regime is about to fall, that it can easily be brought down, or that an Iranian nuclear attack on others is inevitable, should be reined in. That's precisely why sanctions and other measures should be applied to the fullest extent possible.

And there isn't going to be any war unless Iran's regime tries to use them or make a big mistake. It could, as Egypt did in 1967 or Saddam Hussein did in the late 1990s, rattle "nuclear sabers" enough to convince Israel that an attack is imminent. Even if it did not intend to attack, Tehran could push too hard and trigger an Israeli attack. By the same token, some Iranian attack on Western forces or on oil traffic in the Gulf--more likely triggered by a local commander without regime permission--could produce a slide into war with the United States.

But here's what's most likely going to happen: Iran will get nuclear weapons. Iran is not going to stop its nuclear drive (though it could stop short of actually building bombs or warheads ready to go). Western policies are not so bold or adventurous as to go to war; Israel's interests and capabilities do not make attacking sensible. An attack would not solve but increase problems. And no matter how crazy you think Iran's regime is, the inescapable predicable threat is not high enough to force policymakers to risk getting hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people killed, when the chance of avoiding such an outcome is very high.

Barry Rubin is director of the GLORIA Center, at IDC, and editor of MERIA Journal. His new book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Obama’s State of the Union Speech: My Response Discovers Some Curious Insights and Strange Formulations

Note: Don't miss my analysis of Obama's single sentence on Israel.

By Barry Rubin

In his State of the Union message, President Barack Obama began by wrapping himself in the flag, patriotism, and love of the armed forces while trying to highlight his foreign policy achievements. Among his points:

--“The United States [is] safer and more respected around the world.”

Presumably, a lot of Americans will believe this. The United States may be said to be safer in terms of facing direct terror attacks but that was basically true in 2002. As for “more repected”—a phrase no doubt chosen to seem more statesmanlike than saying “more popular,” that is a joke. If there’s one thing that should be obvious (and this is often revealed even by international public opinion polls) the United States is not more respected at all.

Moreover, while individual Americans may be relatively safe from terrorist attacks in their homes, neighborhoods and workplaces within the territory of the United States—a perception partly reinforced by redefining terrorist attacks as something else—U.S. interests abroad are far less safe.

“For the first time in nine years, there are no Americans fighting in Iraq.”

True, though the remaining forces may have to fight to defend themselves. This withdrawal, of course, was planned by Obama’s predecessor and Iraq is not doing so well today.

“For the first time in two decades, Osama bin Laden is not a threat to this country. Most of al Qaeda’s top lieutenants have been defeated.”

Aside from the lack of grammar here—was Obama trying to avoid saying that these people were killed?—the statement is true. The problem is that Hamas, Hizballah, the Turkish regime, Iran, Syria, and the Muslim Brotherhood add up to a far bigger threat, a problem magnified by Obama refusing to acknowledge they are a threat.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Unvarnished Reality of Contemporary U.S.-Israel Relations

The following article was published in Maariv newspaper in Hebrew. 

By Barry Rubin

Do not speak of it in public. Do not expect any Israeli official to admit it. But Israel is facing an issue unlike anything it has had to deal with during the past 50 years: It cannot depend on the United States.

True, the relationship in terms of weapons’ supply remains good. Old programs continue to provide advanced arms to Israel. Nor is the problem the one most people think of first: on Israel-Palestinian, “peace process” issues.

President Barack Obama’s Administration has seen that no real progress is possible on that front.  It tends to blame Israel in public and Obama intensely dislikes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu but those problems have little material effect. If that personal matter were the only issue involved Israel could muddle through as it has with other presidents.

The difficulty with Obama is that his entire strategy in the Middle East is contrary to Israeli interests, except for putting some sanction’ pressure on Iran regarding its nuclear weapons’ program.  The greatest threat to Israel today is the rise of radical Islamist regimes. Here is how Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh puts it:

"The Palestinian cause is winning. With the Muslim Brotherhood part of the government [in Egypt], they [the Egyptians] will not besiege Gaza. They will not arrest Palestinians. They will not give cover to Israel to launch a war....Israel is disturbed by this. It knows the strategic environment is changing. Iran is an enemy. Relations are deteriorating with Turkey. With Egypt, they are really cold. Israel is in a security situation they have never been in before."

Even though Israel has faced worst strategic situations and the Islamists are badly divided, Haniyeh has put his finger on the central strategic factor today. Radical Islamists who want to open a new round of battle against Israel now rule or are likely to do so very soon in Egypt, Gaza, Iran, Lebanon, Libya, Tunisia, and Turkey.

Here is where the problem with the United States comes in. Obama does not really view this trend as a threat. He spent the first half of his term engaging with Iran and its ally Syria. Obama and his administration regards the Islamists as people who are either already moderate or are likely to become so by governing.

This is, of course, the opposite of the Israeli assessment.  In Syria, the U.S. government even helped organize and supports an external opposition leadership in which Islamists form the majority even though it is doubtful that this reflects their level of support within the country.

To put it bluntly, the U.S. government does not even recognize the existence of the number-one threat to Israel.

And to make matters worse, the government that Obama looks to for advice, guidance, and interpretation of the region is not Israel but the Islamist regime in Turkey. That government’s sharp turn to a highly emotional anti-Israel policy has not cost it anything at all in terms of its relations with the White House, something that would have been unthinkable under any previous president.

That is why Israel, as well as the Middle East generally, is going to be an important issue in this year’s presidential election.  To preserve relations with the United States, Israeli leaders will neither do nor say anything about that contest. Yet nothing could be more obvious than that Obama’s reelection would be extremely damaging for Israel’s security.

Egypt's Parliament 75 percent Islamist; Egypt-Israel Peace Agreement is Dead Even if Treaty Still Exists

By Barry Rubin

We’re starting to get a good picture of what the lower house of Egypt’s parliament will be like, though it will take another month to be certain. Close to 50 percent of the seats will be held by the Muslim Brotherhood. Another 25 percent will be held by the al-Nour party of Salafists. With 75 percent the two Islamist parties will be able to do as they please.

But, they—or at least the Brotherhood—are determined to be cautious. Note that there is a big difference between actually being moderate and simply being patient, advancing step by step toward radical goals. The Western media will report that the Brotherhood is indeed moderate. Actually, as I review coverage over the last year it is almost impossible to find even a single article in the mass media that reports any such evidence, much less analysis, despite the massive documentation available to the contrary .

The non-Islamist seats will be held by the Wafd, nine percent, and the Free Egyptians Party, another nine percent, with the rest spread among a dozen different parties, mainly liberal with a small number of leftists. The Wafd will be willing to make deals with the Islamists in order to obtain a share of power for itself. Only the Free Egyptians will oppose them with determination.

There is no reason to believe the “moderates” will be able to work together; the Islamist parties also won’t unite. There is, however, an important difference. While the Wafd's cooperation with the Brotherhood will undermine the ability of anti-Islamist forces doing anything at all, the Salafists will pull the Brotherhood toward a more militant stance.

Both Islamist parties will support laws making Egypt more Islamist and when the Brotherhood does less than the Salafists want it will be proclaimed as moderate. Yet the two parties have no substantive difference on foreign policy except about how openly anti-American they will be and how active to push on conflict with Israel.  Internationally, the Brotherhood will be portrayed as a wonderful bulwark against the Salafists, even as it moves Egypt step by step down the road toward radical Islamism.

Two key events will dominate Egyptian politics: writing the Constitution and also the election of the president, currently expected in June. In order not to scare people, the Brotherhood continues its strategy of not directly sponsoring a presidential candidate. It is likely, however, that the Islamists will vote for Islamist candidates and in any run-off the likely two candidates will be an Islamist, probably Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, and the radical nationalist Amr Moussa. But here’s a thought: what if the two candidates that receive the largest number of votes in the first round are both Islamists? That could mean an all-Islamist run-off between the Brotherhood’s favorite and a Salafist.

As for the Egypt-Israel peace treaty...

Barry Rubin is director of the GLORIA Center and editor of MERIA Journal. His new book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press. 

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Why Contemporary Western Elites Don’t Understand the World and Why Their Foreign Policies Fail

By Barry Rubin

One of the benefits of spending much of my time talking to people from around the world is getting an original, fresh perspective on the United States, its policies, politics, and political culture.

Recently, I had a discussion with a brilliant academic who had grown up in a Communist country, has spent a lot of time in the United States, and studies this kind of thing. To explain how the U.S. conception of the world is shaped, he used the phrase, “engineering mentality.”

The “engineering mentality” is one of the main factors in America’s brilliant success. I take it to mean that one approaches problems with a can-do (another American phrase) style. One rules out extraneous, distracting cultural and historical factors in order to figure out a practical way to fix things. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead! Construct buildings, roads, and bridges; invent new products; revolutionize production methods. Don’t be intimidated by the traditional; don’t be afraid of change; just because it has never been done before doesn’t mean it cannot be done now. Forget about ideology or preconceived notions. Just get the job done as quickly, cheaply, and efficiently as possible.

Such energetic and fearless pragmatism conquered a continent, industrialized an agrarian nation, and won wars. A century ago it allowed America to turn disparate ethnic and religious groups into a single nation. In recent decades with remarkably little violence or disruption it broke down long-prevalent racial, gender, and other barriers.

In the face of all of these achievements, the currently prevalent view that America has a shameful history and is a failed society is ridiculous, notwithstanding past shortcomings.

But how does this “engineering” approach deal with the outside world? Not so well. By ignoring historical, cultural, ideological, religious, and other factors, one isn’t going to understand other countries. You can try to understand them or get them to change (“just do it!”) but these interpretations don’t work and the efforts to change fail. The idea that American know-how will go into a country like Iraq and Afghanistan and succeed in “nation-building” is, to say the least, greatly overestimated.

How have American leaders in the past found ways to overcome this “engineering” bias? By acknowledging differences, comprehending that other countries and peoples have their own orientation, worldview, and culture. Far from being something objectionable, the idea of American exceptionalism was a very useful concept; knowing that the United States has been more successful than other countries was an important element in dealing with reality because one then had to ask why this was so.

For example, the burden of tradition in other societies was too powerful to permit easy change. Class distinctions were more rigid. Ideas and institutions that might have worked in the past were now blocking development. Change had to come inside. Backwardness was not the result of external oppression but internal stagnation. All of these points are the opposite of the prevalent radical ideas in the West.