Amid the many controversies attending the election of Donald Trump is one easy to overlook: the mounting assault on “public goods” — public education, public lands, public information and public health, among them. The worldview of Trump and those he’s bringing into government is one in which seeking private interest is paramount, not only as a business aspiration but as a governing ideology. Of all the attitudes of the new administration, this may be the most threatening to democratic practice.
And so the inevitable is unfolding: a possible collapse of the U.S.-imposed Iraqi state, the apparent triumph of the most brutal extremists in the world, and more to come in Syria, Afghanistan, and possibly Jordan, Mali, Libya, and who knows where else. The first step to recovery -- if recovery is even feasible -- is an honest reckoning of why this is happening.
The Sad Reality of How Warmongers and Elite Media Desperately Avoid All Responsibility for Iraq Disaster
The Iraq War raises many questions still, 10 years after those first bombs sought out Saddam Hussein. Most of the coverage of this tenth anniversary will focus on the decisions leading to the war, the blend of lies and arrogance in the Bush administration, which never really learned a lesson from their vast carelessness. Others will focus on the naivetÃ© of the liberal hawks -- Hitchens, Remnick, Ignatieff, et al -- whose self-righteousness could have lit up a metropolis. Or the spotlight will be on the fallen soldiers and marines, the 4,488 killed in Iraq, and the effect on their families.
The nearly 400,000 documents on the Iraq War released by Wikileaks last Friday has stirred an unusual flurry of attention to the persistent brutalizing of civilians during the war, a topic forsaken by the major news media when the conflict was raging. But the English-language newspapers provided with the documents in advance -- the New York Times and the Guardian (London) -- are again misunderstanding the scope of the war’s mayhem.
For decades, political analysts have dissected the mechanisms in the U.S. government and other institutions to describe how foreign policy is made. The matter seems to rise with international crises, and those are upon us again: the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the confrontation with Iran, HIV/AIDS, and the pressures of climate change, among other issues, underscore the point. With the U.S. government split between parties, fractiousness is in full view.
With troubles for the U.S. global position mounting, it is easy to say that the foreign policy process is not working well. But what are the sources of trouble, and how readily can they be fixed?
This is not the first, doubtful moment for the wheels of the foreign policy mechanism. At the time of the Vietnam War, the criticism from the public was more deafening than today's, and it took Congress until 1971 to explore, via the Fulbright hearings, the course of the war. That same year, Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers, seeming to verify the malady of a dysfunctional apparatus. Later that decade, hearings conducted by Sen. Frank Church uncovered covert operations, revealing broad illegality. The Iran-contra affair, the nuclear-weapons and "star wars" buildup of the late 1970s and 1980s, and other controversial episodes earned broad scrutiny, typically spurred by public or media activism followed by congressional probes.
We have, in short, been down this road before. The question is what can better be done to make the process work more satisfactorily.
The Current Morass
What is unusual today is that the Iraq war became unpopular rather quickly, with little leadership from the Democrats or strong oppositional voices in the news media or civil society. From support above 70 percent in March 2003, for example, by February 2005 the public was evenly split on the decision to invade Iraq, and support has dwindled since. This has had an impact on accountability: the public's quick disapproval virtually demanded new answers, but Congress, under Republicans until this year, exercised little oversight, and Democrats were unwilling to challenge Bush until the midterm election season in 2006. For the first three years of the war, then, the public strong skepticism or disapproval was ignored by the workings of government.
Facing growing public unrest and political paralysis within the government, President Bush felt compelled to empanel a "fresh look" after a Republican congressman from Virginia, Frank Wolf, proposed such a review after visiting Iraq in late 2005. The White House was initially opposed, but Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice prevailed and Congress quickly appropriated the money. Former congressman Lee Hamilton and former secretary of state James Baker headed the panel, the Iraq Study Group (ISG).
It is relatively rare when a foreign policy issue that is current, unresolved, and extremely controversial would receive its most formal review and recommendations from a non-governmental body. Apart from the co-chairs, the ISG was comprised of members with little foreign policy experience; its forty or so experts are well-versed but were drawn from the foreign policy establishment; and its work was done in secret.3 It withheld its policy recommendations until after the 2006 midterm elections, and the administration immediately undermined its conclusions -- essentially declaring it would not heed such advice -- although in practice it gradually adopted some of its views. Altogether, then, the ISG is hardly a model for exploring options.
That it was freighted with responsibilities difficult to deliver on is less a comment on ISG's competence than the deeper ailments of the system that produced the Iraq catastrophe and allowed it to fester for years. Now in charge in Congress, the Democrats have not won many points in its oversight functions, either, fidgeting over withdrawal deadlines and the level of coercive language they can use, and failing to convince enough Republicans to come along. Meanwhile, the enormous human toll in Iraq -- one-half in "absolute poverty," high child malnourishment, 70 percent without clean water, and so on -- goes practically unnoticed. So the failure of accountability persists in both branches.
The "what went wrong?" question is not merely a matter of competence in foreign policy implementation, but indicative of more fundamental issues. At least four are visible: grand strategy, democratic principles, consultation with allies, adversaries, and international organizations, and matching resources to goals.
Strategy. The "preventive war" strategy bracing the Iraq invasion was partially a departure from previous U.S. strategy, which had relied mainly on deterrence of the use of nuclear weapons in particular, and diplomacy. But a broader strategy was also at work in the invasion and other actions in the region -- the attempt to transform the authoritarian political structures besetting several Arab states (and Iran) in one swiftly delivered blow and subsequent efforts at "coercive democratization." This broad goal, articulated in the 2002 National Security Strategy, was borne of the shock of the 9/11 attacks and a pre-existing desire by many in the Bush administration for a much more assertive military posture in the region and around the world.
But the strategy was hardly debated in foreign policy circles or Congress, much less among the broader public, before it was imbedded as the national strategy. Despite the abject failure in Iraq -- to find WMDs, or to transform the region to democracy and free markets, and at an enormous cost -- it remains official doctrine, and little discussed. While presidential doctrines may be the Washington equivalent of New Year's resolutions, the nation -- led by political leaders, intellectuals, and civil society -- needs to take this more seriously.
Democracy. The Bush administration has formed and conducted much of its foreign policy in secret, an anathema to democratic principles, and has avoided congressional involvement, even though the Constitution grants significant power to Congress in global affairs. On both counts, this behavior is stoutly anti-democratic.
Matters of secrecy are not merely anti-democratic in a formal sense; the practice has powerful consequences. As the Commission created to explore government secrecy in the mid-1990s put it, "secrecy has the potential to undermine well-informed judgment by limiting the opportunity for input, review, and criticism, thus allowing individuals and groups to avoid the type of scrutiny that might challenge long-accepted beliefs and ways of thinking."
That the Bush White House is resolutely closed to scrutiny is well established. Its secrecy about the reasons for going to war with Iraq, particularly the virtually nonexistent intelligence regarding WMDs, is now widely accepted as a colossal blunder. Secrecy is sometimes necessary, as all acknowledge, but the attempts at balance begun in the post-Cold War era have been set back drastically. And despite the foreign policy blunders, the current president's penchant for secrecy has not subsided, and Congress is not challenging that, either.
The role of Congress is always in play during foreign policy debacles. "War nourishes the presidency," Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., once noted, and presidential powers in foreign policy tend to be cumulative, rather than episodic. Scholars generally agree that Congress and the president equally share foreign policy power, though the lack of precision in the delegation of authority is an "invitation to struggle." And struggle there has been since 9/11, confrontations over funding for the Iraq war in particular, which reflects the main authority Congress clearly possesses -- the power of the purse.
Here, the current Congress -- in contrast to the rubber stampers of 2003-2006 -- has made minor inroads, at least forcing a debate about timing of withdrawal, but the spending is approved and indeed the record-sized military budget overall is sailing through Congress with few visible objections. In past episodes in Southeast Asia and Central America, funding cutoffs or restrictions were the preferred method to exercise congressional authority, and were sometimes circumvented illegally.
Even the relatively mild efforts at oversight, however, have been met by the administration with charges that oversight "emboldens the enemy." This tendentious language undermines cooperation and intensifies the struggle between the two branches, hindering effective dialogue, action, and accountability.
Consultation. The lack of consultation is not limited to Congress. The war in Iraq, in contrast to the war in Afghanistan, has been conducted without heed to multilateral institutions, including international law, or with longstanding allies, apart from the U.K. Rice's advice to Bush to "punish France, ignore Germany and forgive Russia" for their opposition to the Iraq war is emblematic of that attitude. Collective security decision-making is bound to be more cumbersome and cautious than the decision making of individual states, but that can be an advantage in situations that are not urgent.
Likewise, addressing foreign policy crises through multilateral institutions like the UN or NATO provide other benefits: legitimacy (and legality) of action, cost and burden sharing, better intelligence, and international (and cross cultural) dialogue, to name the most obvious. U.S. presidents in recent years have generated misleading expectations about the UN in particular by focusing on the supposed constraints of international institutions. In trade and other fields, however, multilateralism is welcome, because American interests are served and indeed preeminent. At least prospectively, the benefits of multilateralism should accrue both to economics and security.
Regional diplomacy is also a matter of consultation, and has been conducted sporadically and bilaterally until this spring, when very brief meetings of regional stakeholders in the Persian Gulf were convened. (A pivotal recommendation of the ISG, regional diplomacy remains meager and fraught with additional and divisive issues, such as Iran's nuclear program). This lack of consultation and negotiation is chronically problematic for U.S. foreign affairs.
Resources. As is widely noted, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, among other foreign policy priorities, are not supported by sufficient levels of resources. The wars, for example, have been financed by deficit spending, in effect, and are often presented as supplemental budgets, which are less transparent and subject to review than annual requests. Underfunding may be another problem: the near-universal conclusion that too few U.S. troops have been involved in Iraq from the beginning is in part a resource issue.
Prominent among the other areas of foreign policy implementation where resources did not match objectives is President Bush's HIV/AIDS initiative. Congress appropriated more money for prevention and treatment than is being spent. A number of critics also point to the homeland security effort, a lynchpin of the global war on terror, as clearly demonstrating a lack of adequate funds to realize its stated intentions.
The Bush administration is not the first presidency to set goals it could not achieve with the resources it was willing to mobilize. In combination with its strategic ambition, resistance to congressional involvement, opacity, and unilateralism, however, the failure to match resources to objectives is all the more disabling.
Examining the Process
While the policies themselves deserve more exploration by scholars, journalists, and policy professionals, as well as by Congress, the process of policy making and implementation should not be ignored. As a general rule, the right has favored more executive power and the left more congressional input. What are the relative merits and drawbacks of these two preferences? Can new mechanisms of accountability -- paying for wars with a special tax, for example -- proceed without excessively boxing in presidential authority? How can transparency in intelligence analysis and budgeting be facilitated? Can we have a national discussion about the U.S. role in the world -- for example, our relationship to multilateral institutions -- that is encouraged by political leaders?
Grappling in a sustained, sophisticated, and non-partisan way with the foreign policy process is long overdue. Iraq in particular demonstrates how badly broken the process is, a canary in the coal mine for U.S. globalism in the years to come.
The case of Haleh Esfandiari's imprisonment in Iran is sparking the kind of commotion that periodically grips America's intellectual class and, more ominously, is providing reasons for America's right wing to attack Iran.
Dr. Esfandiari, 67, was born and raised in Iran but has spent much of her professional life in the United States, now as the much-respected director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a leading think tank in Washington, D.C. At the end of a visit to her ailing mother in Tehran last winter, she was detained. She was recently arrested and is now in prison awaiting trial. A citizen of both America and Iran, she has been charged with trying to foment a "velvet revolution" in Iran -- soft, nonviolent regime change. She and everyone associated with her deny the charges.
Editorials have been lambasting Iran's Intelligence Ministry, which many see as responsible for this, and a number of important public intellectuals are calling for action. Juan Cole, professor of history at the University of Michigan and a specialist on the region, wrote in his highly regarded blog, Informed Comment, "I had been planning to go to a conference in Iran in July, hosted by some French scholars, but I have cancelled in protest against this detention of my friend. I don't see how normal intellectual life can go on when a scholar at the Wilson Center can't safely visit Iran."
A boycott was rumored but apparently is not actually afoot, as Ali Banuazizi, the eminent scholar at Boston College and past president of the Middle East Studies Association, told me. "Boycotts punish too many innocent people," he says, "but letters and statements send a signal." A strongly worded letter that Banuazizi helped craft and is signed by a Who's Who of Iran scholars in the United States, protested the arrest and imprisonment, rightly noting that "in her capacity as the director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, Dr. Esfandiari has been a staunch advocate of peaceful dialogue between Tehran and Washington in resolving their disputes."
Noam Chomsky, possibly the most influential intellectual in the world, also weighed in with a sharp rebuke, as have several others.
As if on cue, the hard right in the United States has tried to exploit the Esfandiari arrest to ridicule cooperation and dialogue. In an op-ed in the New York Times, Reuel Marc Gerecht, an American Enterprise Institute fixture who describes himself as belonging to the school of "suspicious, cynical, hawkish and religiously oriented analyses of the Islamic Republic," argued that those seeking to have some dialogue with Iran are getting their deserved comeuppance in the Tehran regime's treatment of Dr. Esfandiari.
The arrest is undeniably troubling, as was last year's arrest and long detention of Ramin Jahanbegloo, a Canadian intellectual, and detentions of many others, including the Open Society Institute's representative in Iran last week.
Beyond the simple human rights considerations, there are two other aspects of this grim matter that deserve mention. First is the way in which the intellectual elite in this country pick and choose their battles. Haleh Esfandiari, whom I know, certainly deserves the protest being stirred on her behalf. But we have many cases of abuse of freedom of travel and speech -- some committed by the U.S. government -- that gain little notice. Why some and not others? To some extent, the protest in effect reflects U.S. policy preferences and the drumbeat of anti-Iran media coverage in this country.
More important, however, is how the case is becoming fodder for the attack-Iran posse. As Chomsky says in his statement, "These actions [by Iran] are deplorable in themselves, and also are a gift to Western hardliners who are trying to organize support for military action against Iran. Now is a time for diplomacy, negotiations and relaxation of tensions, in accordance with the will of the overwhelming majority of Americans and Iranians, as recent polls reveal."
The U.S. Navy is conducting extensive exercises in the Persian Gulf, what William Arkin tartly calls "dumbboat diplomacy," but is clearly meant as a signal that the United States is ready to strike. Bush is proposing new sanctions to punish Iran for its alleged nuclear activities. A covert operation by the CIA to degrade Iranian financial assets and step up anti-cleric propaganda was revealed last week by ABC News, another set of actions -- among many reported -- to bring down the regime. In the political game in Washington, "Bash Iran" is a free card used by nearly everyone to look tough on foreign policy.
In this hostile climate, some elements in Tehran are in effect saying, "We want nothing to do with America," and they are sending that message with harsh actions. Engagement by American intellectuals, athletes, NGOs and cultural groups has proceeded for several years now and can be viewed as, at worst, harmless and, at best, beneficial toward building bridges of dialogue. It was precisely such activities during the Cold War that lowered tensions and empowered a peaceful conclusion to that far more dangerous confrontation.
Very few serious analysts of the situation in the Gulf believe that hostile American action will result in a more placid outcome. Many in the U.S. military are vehemently opposed to air strikes, not least because of the catastrophe in Iraq. The Tehran state is sturdy and, like it or not, democratic in many respects. The NGO and academic engagement must continue, just as we must continue to object strenuously to unwarranted arrests. Neither tactic, however, is aided by Washington's contemptible and counterproductive strategy of regime change.
In one way or another, we are headed for a new engagement with the regional players in an effort end the Iraq war. The idea of bringing in the neighbors to help stabilize and reduce the violence in Iraq is very attractive, and could contribute to a plausible exit strategy for the United States. The likelihood of "regionalization" being a success, however, depends on which version. And even with the more cooperative schemes being suggested, the closer one looks, the less promise it seems to hold.
For the White House, there has always been a regional strategy with respect to the Iraq war, but it is now -- like Iraq itself -- in complete disrepair. That strategy was the transformation of the region, with regime change in Tehran and Damascus openly discussed in Washington. So a cooperative approach by the Bush administration would represent a 180 degree reversal of fortune and intent. That is the first barrier to a regionalization strategy. It appears, moreover, that their compass is moving slightly toward a new regional strategy -- less one of victory and transformation than of searching for a face-saving retreat -- that may discount the value of more comprehensive strategies.
Politics of a New Approach
Such a broad and penetrating set of ideas is being offered by the Iraq Study Group (ISG) headed by former secretary of state James Baker and former congressman Lee Hamilton. The ISG is recommending regional engagement on Iraq, among other measures. The national debate about Iraq, particularly since the mid-term elections November 7, has focused on a regionalization strategy, which in various versions would include direct dialogue with Iran, Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan in particular, tradeoffs to gain cooperation, and broader regional issues -- Israeli-Palestinian issues especially -- also on the table.
While many in the administration demur from speaking with Syria and Iran particularly, there is acknowledgement of the need for more help from the neighbors, and some small movement in that direction. The Iraqi leadership itself is more openly welcom- ing of a stabilizing role from Iran, Syria, and the others, and dialogue with all neighbors is being pursued. But, thus far, the effort is incommensurate with the daunting tasks. More starkly, in the run-up to the release of the ISG report, the Bush team has signaled its indifference after a post-election moment of possible accommodation.
Most pointed was a memo authored by National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley after visiting Iraq in late October. He included a regional strategy of sorts by stating that the United States could help Iraq by continuing "to pressure Iran and Syria to end their interference in Iraq, in part by hitting back at Iranian proxies in Iraq"; by increasing "our efforts to get Saudi Arabia to take a leadership role" to reduce death squads, among other goals; and, most tellingly, by intending "to lean on Syria to terminate its support for Baathists and insurgent leaders." What is involved in "leaning on" Syria or "getting Saudi Arabia to take a leadership role" is not specified, but it appears to be much as before -- imperatives without incentives.
As if to underscore that approach, President Bush in late November reiterated his firm refusal to open talks with Syria or Iran; the case of the latter is conditioned on Iran's nuclear enrichment activities, which must be suspended, Bush says, before talks are possible. Yet other signals from the administration continued to gain notice, especially intensified diplomacy with our allies. This latter tendency, weak and not universally embraced within the administration, nonetheless may be the clearest recognition that a new regional strategy must be attempted.
Roles and Rewards
As many have noted, no credible exit strategy can exclude Iran's cooperation. Prime Minister Tony Blair appears to have recognized that fact, judging from his inviting comments in early November, and the politics of Iraq strongly endorse this view as well. Iran's relationship to the majority Shia, their political ties to the government and apparent support for other powerful actors, including militias, means they are the most significant regional player by far.
What would Iran want for cooperation, and what would cooperation mean? The first is likely easier to answer: Iran wants the same security guarantees -- that is, a new U.S. policy of not seeking regime change in Tehran -- that they are also seeking in the standoff over their nuclear development program. Beyond that, some gradual movement toward normalization, including the ending of punitive trade restrictions, would be in the cards. (Iranian leaders have also said that no action by Iran will be forthcoming as long as U.S. troops remain in Iraq. If the Iranians also resist redeployment in the Gulf theatre, as many suggest, then a new barrier will rise.) In return for these considerable concessions, the United States would expect stout restraint on Iran's allies, such as the militant Iraqi Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr, and perhaps even some restraint on Hizbollah in Lebanon.
The deal would be similar for Syria. Here, the equation would perhaps include movement on discussions, now in limbo, with Israel over the return of the Golan Heights. Reportedly, Washington blocked such discussions this autumn. Along with Jordan, Syria has borne the brunt of the enormous and growing numbers of refugees from Iraq -- now more than two million region-wide -- and some financial assistance on this would be an important piece in their puzzle.
Possibly more difficult to parse would be the role of Turkey, and what its interests dictate. Military leaders there have said repeatedly that if, as a result of a referendum next year, the city of Kirkuk becomes part of the Kurdish territory in northern Iraq, Turkey would move in to protect Turkomen in the area and to demonstrate clearly to Kurds that an independent Kurdish state would not be acceptable. However unlikely that is, the Turks now have 250,000 troops deployed along the border with Kurdish Iraq. One of the two oil pipelines from Kirkuk (which has as much as 25 percent of Iraqi petroleum reserves) goes through Turkey. The United States is reportedly supporting Kurdish separatists in Iran. So the entanglements are extensive, and messy.
For Turkey, as for Syria and Jordan, money would have to be part of the equation -- there needs to be a buy-off strategy that is not mere bribery, most effectively as part of a broader donor conference that would support long-term economic sustainability strategies. Jordan's war-related problems have much to do with the pro-American stance of King Abdullah and his dwindling political capital domestically; financial capital for economic development could be a balancing offset. For Turkey, and possibly for Syria, subsidized peacekeeping troops and construction contracts could be part of the mix of incentives, once the violence subsides. The habit of lavishing contracts on U.S. corporations for reconstruction has essentially failed; a localized or regionalized economic plan is now advisable. The other Gulf states, most notably Saudi Arabia, are also difficult reads. Like all neighbors, they are keen to keep Iraq united into a single state -- avoiding, they hope, the bleed out of the colossal political violence and refugees from a failed Sunni heartland. The prospect of a Shia-led government in Iraq aligned strongly with Iran has been troubling enough for the Saudis, which has a sizable Shia minority in its eastern province. The Saudis are holding Iraqi debt and see no reason to contribute to reconstruction of an oil-rich country.
A Grand Bargain?
In all the capitals of the region, there is a stark recognition of the parlous situation gripping Iraq, and the threats implicit in such disorder for every state. While not wanting the Americans to fully succeed or completely fail, the likelihood of the latter now worries all, and as a result they have an incentive to work with Washington and the government in Baghdad.
While the ISG recommendations are not likely to be swallowed whole, they remain the most enticing, fresh options on the table. The Pentagon's new ideas -- "Go Big" with an influx of U.S. troops for a few months; "Go Long" with reductions in troops but intensified training of Iraqis over years; or "Go Home," a full retreat -- do not have special needs for regional diplomacy. The notion of partitioning Iraq, most prominently advocated by Sen. Joseph Biden, has no traction in the region (apart from some Kurds and their partisans) and little in the United States, particularly among Iraq specialists.
A grand bargain reflecting the ISG program would be a very complex affair, however, with conflicting interests between the neighbors in addition to testy relations with Baghdad and Washington. Jordan's Abdullah has voiced concerns about the "arc of Shi'ism" in the region, and would rue an accommodation between the United States and Iran. The Saudis seem to harbor similar concerns. Turkey's issues with Kurds are well known. The Syrians play a cozy game with their porous border, may fear growing Iranian influence in Lebanon as well as Kurdish independence, and have anxieties about regime stability. Iran wants to make certain of Shia supremacy in Iraq, its longtime rival, which may set Tehran against Amman and Riyadh in particular.
Can these tricky currents be navigated? Does the Bush administration have the nimbleness, and the neutrality, to compromise and deliver suitable incentives? There are many assets in the region -- Turkey's able construction companies and security forces, Syrian and Jordanian credibility with Sunnis, Iranian political clout, and Saudi and Kuwaiti money. Each stands to benefit from a stable Iraq, but each is cautious about giving up too much, too quickly, to be the good neighbors Iraq needs.
Few if any peace processes can succeed without the neighbors' consent, and the more active that agreement is, the more likely the peace will be sustainable. That this was not recognized by the United States at the outset merely underscores the larger, deadly blunders of the whole enterprise. But here and now we have to find some accommodation with all the neighbors to ensure a safe and timely departure for U.S. forces.
That means giving up dreams of transformation that are moribund in any case, and bringing to the table a very large purse. Those two preconditions for Washington will not guarantee success. Conceivably, a third party may need to broker the deals, given the high level of distrust occasioned by the war and other issues. But the United States must, at some level, be intimately involved. And without flexible American participation, if not leadership, the neighbors will remain difficult to draw in, and the prospects for building a durable peace in Iraq will remain a faint hope.
The escalating violence in Iraq's civil war is now earning considerable attention as we pass yet another milestone -- U.S. occupation there, in two weeks, will exceed the length of the Second World War for America. While the news media have finally started to grapple with the colossal amount of killing, a number of misunderstandings persist. Some are willful deceptions. Let's look at a few of them:
What we now know about the London-based plot to destroy ten civilian airplanes points to six conclusions.