The Monitor, Merrimac, and Middle East

American presidents love to describe the U.S. commitment to Israeli security as "ironclad." But do they mean it?

"Our ironclad commitment -- and I mean ironclad -- to Israel's security has meant the closest military cooperation between our two countries in history."

President Barack Obama has a new favorite adjective to describe the U.S.-Israeli relationship. In an apparent effort to silence any doubters about his administration's commitment to Israel, he invoked the word "ironclad" not once, but twice, in a key passage of his State of the Union address in January. One can almost envision the ayatollahs in Tehran throwing their hands up in surrender when they heard the second "ironclad" -- something like: "Mahmoud, forget about building the A-bomb. Two 'ironclads' -- Obama must be really, really serious!" 

But before the mullahs voluntarily mothball their enrichment plants they might want to ask a few basic questions: What does ironclad mean? How have presidents used the term in the past? And how strong, really, is an "ironclad commitment"?

The word "ironclad," as is commonly known, harkens back to mid-19th century naval shipbuilding, when the vulnerability of wooden ships set off a race among European powers to develop hulls that could survive the more powerful weaponry of the industrial age. The first of these new, well-protected vessels were old boats with metal plates installed on their hulls -- hence "iron clad." The French can claim the first ironclad, but it was the British who excelled in designing fast, powerful versions of these new type of ships, and soon transformed their entire fleet into ironclads.

Still, "ironclad" is forever associated with the United States, home of the first-ever maritime battle between such ships -- the legendary Civil War clash between the Union's Monitor and the Confederacy's Virginia (formerly, the Merrimac). That's the context of the first of 52 presidential uses of the term "ironclad" -- an April 5, 1862, executive order by Abraham Lincoln affirming the secretary of war's commendation for the "skillful and gallant movements" of Union troops and seamen that led to the "destruction of the rebel ironclad steamer Merrimac." (Data used throughout this article is taken from the indispensable American Presidency Project of the University of California at Santa Barbara.)

For the next 67 years, successive presidents always used the term "ironclad" the way Lincoln did -- to refer to a type of ship. But in the early years of the 20th century, when ironclads gave way to dreadnoughts, the term was unmoored from its nautical roots and evolved into a general description of something firm and solid.

In 1929, just weeks after the Great Crash, Herbert Hoover offered the first non-naval presidential usage of the term when he referred to "exact ironclad proposals" for improvements to the judicial system. Except for a fleeting reference by the former naval submariner Jimmy Carter, never again did a president use the word "ironclad" to refer to a boat.

But many chief executives liked the image that "ironclad" conjured up -- of something cast in stone. Harry Truman was proud of his "ironclad" budget," impervious to tinkering. Dwight Eisenhower wanted to negotiate "ironclad" arms control agreements, unbreakable accords that would be "self-enforcing." And Gerald Ford opposed across-the-board bans on abortion "so ironclad you couldn't under any circumstances have [the procedure]."

The notion of an "ironclad commitment" to a foreign nation -- Obama's terminology -- is an even more recent phenomenon, dating back only to Ronald Reagan. Despite the formation of great alliances to combat fascism in Europe and Asia, expansionism on the Korean peninsula, and communism throughout the world, presidents had never before characterized American guarantees to its allies as "ironclad." But once the Great Communicator used the word in 1982, it struck such a powerful chord that it soon became the most common presidential usage of the term. Of the 24 times that presidents have said the word "ironclad" over the last 30 years, nearly half have been in the context of an "ironclad commitment" to a foreign nation.

Even so, only three countries have earned "ironclad" presidential commitments -- a shoo-in for a 'Final Jeopardy' question one of these days.

In second and third place are Afghanistan and Poland, respectively. George W. Bush twice used this formulation regarding the government that replaced the Taliban, promising the Afghans an "ironclad and lasting partnership" in 2003, and an "ironclad commitment to help Afghanistan succeed and prosper" in 2004. And during a visit to Warsaw in 2011, Obama characterized the U.S.-Polish alliance as "cemented through NATO and the ironclad commitment that Article 5 of NATO" -- the mutual defense guarantee -- "represents."

In first place, far outstripping any other country to earn "ironclad" status, is Israel. American presidents have promised "ironclad commitments" to the Jewish state no fewer than seven times. And the usage is bipartisan -- Reagan was the first, employing the term in his landmark Sept. 1, 1982, speech laying out the "Reagan Plan" for Middle East peace, whereas Bill Clinton was the most frequent, promising an "ironclad commitment to Israel's security" four of the eight years of his presidency.

Interestingly, neither Bush -- not the father, who lost votes for being too critical of Israel, and not the son, who championed his status as Israel's best friend -- apparently ever used the phrase in the context of the Jewish state.

For decades, presidents of both parties have issued strong, powerful statements of friendship and support to Israel. The U.S.-Israel alliance is rightly viewed as a vital element of Israel's strategic deterrent. Still, when Israelis hear the term "ironclad commitment," should they take comfort? Not really.

First, with no disrespect to the Afghans or the Poles, Israel doesn't find itself in great company. Presidential promises notwithstanding, most Americans seem so eager to relegate the Afghan experience to history that it is difficult to imagine U.S. economic aid -- let alone a credible U.S. military commitment -- to Afghanistan a decade from now. And even with a rock-solid Article V commitment from NATO, poor Poland's track record of having been swallowed up by the Nazis and then the Soviets, despite Great Power promises, doesn't exactly inspire confidence.

Second, there has always been something conditional -- unspoken but still real -- about America's "ironclad commitment" to Israel's security. When Reagan introduced the phrase, it was designed to make the idea of Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank -- then still described as Palestinian "autonomy" -- more palatable to a Likud-led government. Menachem Begin, Israel's prime minister at the time, was not impressed, famously rejecting the Reagan peace plan with his "banana republic" tirade to then-U.S. ambassador Samuel W. Lewis.

Obama's appeal to an "ironclad commitment" was, like Reagan's, designed to offset a Likud-led government's fears about U.S. policy preferences in Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy. Obama first used the phrase just two days after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered his own version of a "banana republic" rebuke, when he reprimanded the president -- in the Oval Office, no less -- for calling on Israel to accept border negotiations based on the 1967 lines. So far, Obama's turn of phrase does not seem to have been any more successful than Reagan.

And then there are the fundamental drawbacks to the "ironclad" metaphor itself. Shielding boats with sheets of iron or steel was a tactic that worked for a limited time, and then was overtaken by the tide of change. What seemed invincible wasn't. Ironclads were sunk. That's why nobody builds them anymore.

If presidents want to signal the strength of American's commitment to Israel, they should consider scuttling the word "ironclad" and its has-been, so-last-century connotation and instead use timeless terms that emphasize the ends, not the means, of a policy. Three words that are long-time presidential favorites for signaling strength and constancy of purpose are unbreakable (92 presidential uses); unshakable (226); and unwavering (312) -- as in Jimmy Carter's "unbreakable ties of friendship with the Shah of Iran," Harry Truman's paean to the "unshakable unity" of the United Nations, and Lyndon Johnson's "unwavering" commitment to Vietnam. But that's another story.


The Debate the GOP Didn't Have in Florida

Instead of repeating tired applause lines about Fidel Castro, here are the vital Latin American issues the Republican candidates should be talking about.

One can be forgiven for assuming that a primary election in Florida -- a state with a huge Latino population, often touted as the gateway to Latin America -- would offer the best time and place to have a serious debate about how the United States should deal with its closest neighbors, its proverbial "backyard." But that would be ignoring past experience and today's political realities.

Indeed, when it comes to Latin American policy it is generally wise to keep expectations in check. The Republican candidates have eschewed the tough questions and preferred to fantasize about space centers rather than take a hard look at the countries nearest to Miami's shores. To the extent Latin America was treated at all, the discussion has been dominated by phantom threats and tired bromides.

There is, of course, a real threat ravaging a number of countries close to Florida -- and whose citizens make up a substantial share of the growing Latino population in the United States. Drug-fueled criminal violence has, according to official statistics, claimed close to 48,000 Mexican lives since 2006, when Felipe Calderón came to office. Mexico, which is holding elections in five months is, as George W. Bush once rightly said, the United States' "most important bilateral relationship."

What happens in Mexico is fundamental to U.S. interests. Yet not a serious word was uttered among the candidates about whether the current U.S. policy, reflected in an aid package known as the Merida Initiative, adequately addresses the problem -- or whether different approaches or ideas to the drug war should be considered.

The situation in the "northern triangle" countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador is even more alarming. Central American governments are overwhelmed and outmatched, unable to cope with a growing crime wave. A recent report in the Miami Herald about Honduras was particularly chilling. Honduras now has the world's highest homicide rate (82.1 per 100,000 residents). Nearly 7,000 homicides were recorded in 2011, a 250 percent increase in half a dozen years. Organized crime pervades the country's police forces.

How should the United States respond to such rampant lawlessness? Clearly the current Honduran government is overwhelmed and doesn't have sufficient resources or capacity. To be sure, in the Florida debate Rick Santorum was critical of Barack Obama's mistakes in responding to the June 2009 political crisis.  But how should the president deal with today's reality? And how does this grave situation compare with other foreign-policy priorities? Plausible scenarios are dire, but the United States has a fundamental interest in safeguarding fragile democracies in a neighboring region. (Obama also avoided this issue in his recent State of the Union address.)

Drug policy is a key dimension of the current crisis. Drugs -- in Central America, chiefly cocaine -- fuel much of the violence, yet are apparently an issue unworthy of discussion in a U.S. presidential race (with the exception of Ron Paul, who has no chance of being nominated). True, the inflated rhetoric associated with the "war on drugs" has notably abated. U.S. politicians no longer say, as George H. W. Bush did in 1989, that anti-drug efforts "will require the bravery and sacrifice that Americans have shown before and must again." But policies persist that, despite an investment of billions of dollars over the last four decades, have yielded few positive results. Much to the chagrin of most Latin Americans, there is no appetite in Washington to entertain alternative approaches.

A serious debate on the drug war would feature the candidates' responses to the recommendations made in a 2009 commission report headed by three respected Latin American ex-presidents -- Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, and César Gaviria of Colombia. The report underlines the risks posed by the growing drug problem to democracy in the region, calls for a wide-ranging policy review, and urges specific measures, such as the legalization of marijuana. Colombia's current president, Juan Manuel Santos, has also reiterated appeals for a global debate on drug policy, beginning with consumer countries such the United States. Far more Latin Americans have died in the ill-conceived drug war over the years than during the Arab uprisings. But few in Washington appear to care about the former.

The Republican candidates did, of course, talk about immigration, another major concern of most Latin Americans. But the debate was far from edifying, and there was no sense that for Latin Americans immigration is also a foreign-policy issue. Building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, for example, is seen as an affront to Latin Americans, and makes cooperation on other issues more problematic (of course, Democrats also view immigration as an entirely domestic issue). It will be difficult to build more constructive and deeper relationships with many countries in the region unless the broken U.S. immigration system -- reflected in millions of productive and hard-working Latinos living in fear of deportation -- is fixed.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has rightly linked immigration reform to the country's economic well-being, and in a number of interviews former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has stressed that comprehensive reform is essential. "Some of the harsher things said about immigration are both shortsighted and, ultimately, in the long-term, will undo one of the great strengths of the United States," she said recently.  Are any of the Republican candidates listening?

What about policies that seek to take fuller advantage of economic opportunities in Latin America? Virtually nothing has been said about this in Florida, a state whose economy is increasingly connected to the region.  A number of Latin American countries boast burgeoning economies and are looking for new markets. The Chinese (whose trade with Latin America surged by some 160 percent from 2006 to 2010) and other key global players are keenly interested in the region for commercial benefits. Has the U.S. response to increased competition been sufficiently vigorous? Are there other policies worth pursuing in Latin America that can help create more jobs in the United States? Is a review of protectionist agricultural policies for products like orange juice and sugar, which seal off avenues for trade with the region, warranted?

What about energy opportunities? As Daniel Yergin has persuasively argued in his latest book, the Western Hemisphere will be absolutely crucial to secure non-renewable energy supplies, particularly in light of the pre-salt discoveries off the coast of Brazil, the region's economic and political powerhouse and today the world's sixth largest economy. Brazil has also been in forefront in the production of sugarcane ethanol, which has important implications for the United States. Yet serious discussions about energy have been absent in the Florida debates.

There are reasonably good prospects for oil production off the coast of Cuba as well, yet not surprisingly, the debate in Florida boiled down to a contest about who can sound tougher on Fidel Castro and his creaking communist dictatorship. (Only Paul acknowledged that the long-time embargo has been counterproductive and has only helped the Castro brothers tighten their grip.)

To be sure, there are ample reasons to debate Cuba, along with other fiery issues like Venezuela and Iran's growing role in the region. But such debates should be anchored in facts and realities, and put in perspective. Across Latin America, there is a broad perception that Cuba occupies a disproportionate place on the U.S. policy agenda, the product of pressures from Florida's Cuban-American community. Washington is viewed as similarly obsessed with Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, who may be a nuisance and not a terribly constructive force in his country but whose regional influence has markedly declined in the past several years.

Latin Americans believe Iran's moves in the region should be closely watched, but that, given their hard-earned democratic peace and prosperity, they do not offer fertile terrain for nefarious, destabilizing acts. They further believe that Washington should be careful not to exaggerate Iran's influence in the region, as Santorum did when he said, "Iran is organizing a Latin terror network." Within an increasingly self-confident and assertive Latin America, Newt Gingrich's reference in Florida to Iran's "overt violation" of the (long-defunct) Monroe Doctrine must have sounded especially outlandish and insulting.

The Republican candidates could have usefully addressed whether they believe the United States might be hampered in conducting its Latin American policy when ambassadorial appointments are vacant in six countries (Bolivia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Uruguay, and Venezuela) and Roberta Jacobson, the respected nominee for assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, has not been confirmed for just over four months. Do the candidates believe it is important to have someone at the State Department in charge of the bureau, with full authority, at this moment in U.S.-Latin American relations? If not, why not?

Maybe I'm a hopeless dreamer. In the current political climate, is it even possible to have a serious debate about what the United States should be doing in Latin America? Does anyone care? It surely didn't happen in Florida, but perhaps it will in other primary contests, or in the general campaign. Like Newt Gingrich, we all have the right to fantasize.