Iran Is the Great Distraction

Why Obama and Netanyahu are having the wrong conversation this week.

Iran has called America the Great Satan. Israel has called Iran an existential threat. For both the United States and Israel, whose leaders are meeting Monday to discuss how to handle Tehran's nuclear program, Iran should be called the Great Distraction.

By focusing on Iran, indeed by having some among Israel's top leaders seemingly obsessed about it, Israel is ignoring (or seeking an excuse to ignore) the real existential threats on and within its own borders -- demographic, social, and economic. By allowing Iran to occupy too much bandwidth, American leaders have also taken their eye off the ball. There are far greater national security threats and opportunities that require attention right now, from fixing the broken U.S. economic model to exploring the potential for a sound energy policy in order to both strengthen that economy and dramatically reduce the leverage and thereby the relevance of regimes like the one in Tehran.

This is not to suggest that Iran's nuclear program is not a cause for concern. Every available means short of an all-out war should be used to stop Iran from getting the bomb. But even with regard to Tehran's dangerous and expanding weapons efforts, the approach to addressing the problem shows a misplaced focus.

Israel speaks of the threat of a nuclear Iran as though it were something new and destabilizing. It is not. At the same time, the greatest threat it does pose is not being effectively addressed, while lesser ones are.

Iran is hardly the first of Israel's enemies to seek or even possess nuclear weapons capabilities. For the entire Cold War, Israel, as a vital U.S. ally in the Middle East, was vulnerable to nuclear attack from the Soviet bloc. Iraq and Syria, of course, sought nuclear weapons capabilities, and some of the countries that supported them in that endeavor remain a threat. One country that has represented such a proliferation threat in the broader region and is at least as great a state sponsor of terrorism as Iran is Pakistan -- a country with many more weapons than Iran could have for decades and one that is far less stable.

Senior Israelis have also correctly pointed out, as did Amos Yadlin, a former Israeli military intelligence chief in March 1's New York Times, that one cannot stop a country with sufficient economic and industrial resources from getting a bomb within a matter of a few years from making the decision to have one. Even a successful raid on Iran is likely to only delay that country's acquisition of nuclear weapons. At the same time, any failed raid is likely to only strengthen the Iranian regime, inflame the region, and, potentially, reveal in ways damaging to both the United States and Israel the limits of Israeli power.

The greatest threat associated with the Iranian nuclear program is that it might trigger a regional arms race that would be deeply destabilizing and would dramatically increase the risk of a weapon falling into the wrong hands, the use of such weapons, and an acceleration of weapons acquisition in middleweight powers worldwide. (Indeed, one mistake the Israelis have made in seeking to mobilize action against Iran has been not to emphasize this larger threat more.)

If a nuclear arms race is the greatest threat, then doesn't logic dictate that this should be the top priority for policymakers seeking to contain the problem? U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton long ago called for a security umbrella in the region. Putting teeth into this proposal could amount to getting countries threatened by a nuclear power in their midst to agree to respond collectively, backed up by the United States, to any such threat. Not only would this create meaningful deterrence, but it might also help extract promises from participating states not to go nuclear. Indeed, were they to do so, they would be expelled and become not a beneficiary but a target of the program.

Such an approach, particularly should it involve the participation of more than one or several of the world's leading nuclear powers, would address both proliferation and containment simultaneously. Given the clear ineffectiveness of the toothless current global nonproliferation regime and the inability to revise and refine it effectively, such an agreement -- smaller and with members with a pressing need to join in -- would be welcome. Indeed, were it successful, perhaps it might also create the opportunity to initiate a phased-in process of eliminating such weapons as did exist -- in the region and worldwide.

A world without nukes might seem far-fetched, but it is both the expressed policy objective of the president of the United States and the only way to ultimately solve the proliferation problem. As Obama suggested with his famous Prague speech, the only safe number of nuclear weapons states is zero.

If containing the proliferation threat is the dimension of the Iran nuclear standoff that deserves the most attention, both Israel and the United States ought to recognize the risks associated with ignoring the bigger threats that loom for each of them.

Israel's demographic clock is ticking, and its future as a Jewish state is threatened by the growing size of the Palestinian population on and within its borders. It also must recognize that the shifting political sands of the region surrounding it have fundamentally altered its security situation. Not only is Egypt likely to be a less dependable stabilizer, but the outcome of turmoil in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere may produce volatility that creates new risks. Further, the United States is losing interest in the region and has both the reasons and the resources to become less so in the future. Meanwhile, the countries whose presence in the Middle East is growing as they become greater and greater consumers of the region's oil -- China and India -- simply do not have the same historical, cultural, or other strategic ties to Israel.

Consequently, for Israel, the urgent business at hand is neither Iran nor even haggling over the specifics of its borders with a potential Palestinian state -- it is the recognition that the state already exists and that Israel's future depends heavily on both Palestine's economic viability and the degree to which it evolves as a productive economic partner of Israel's.

As for Americans, we will not be secure if we fail to address our fiscal vulnerability, the weakness of our job-creation machinery, the withering of the American dream of social mobility, and the American ideal of fairness and opportunity for all. One opportunity is staring us in the face: Blessed with peaking energy demand and massive, newly viable oil and gas reserves, the United States can grow dramatically less dependent on the turbulent Middle East. (We just need a little perspective. We debate, for example, having a higher gas tax to pay for infrastructure and energy exploration, but the past decade's misguided Middle East policies will have cost us trillions when they are done. That's some big gas tax.)

So, while Iran is a danger, it is not the greatest danger. And while it deserves our serious attention, these other threats -- from proliferation to the peace process, debt and competitiveness to energy -- demand even more focus and creativity. By resetting our priorities, both Israel and the United States, together with our allies around the world, can more effectively preserve our security, contain any potential Iranian threat, and at the same time advance not only our broader national interests but those of the region and the world.

Aaron Showalter-Pool/Getty Images

David Rothkopf

Brazil's New Swagger

South America's emerging superpower is coming into its own. But with great power comes great responsibility.

While America's halting path toward accepting the world's new multipolar reality involves a step backward for every step forward, an exceptionalist violation of sovereignty for every bit of teamwork in places like Libya, other countries are actively working to establish new rules for all nations to follow in the new era.

Among those at the forefront of this effort are Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and her highly regarded foreign minister, Antonio Patriota. He was in New York last week to advance this effort at the United Nations, and we sat down for lunch together.

The challenge facing Rousseff and Patriota as public servants is a daunting one. Each follows in the footsteps of a formidable predecessor. Admittedly, Rousseff's challenge is much greater and indeed, to many, seems almost insurmountable. She succeeds two presidents who were arguably the most important in her country's modern history, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who is credited with stabilizing the country's economy after years of volatility, and her immediate predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, not only her mentor but one of a tiny handful of the world's most important leaders of the past decade. But Patriota's predecessor, Celso Amorim, was also formidable, extremely influential, and a fixture on the Brazilian and international scenes. The bar was set high for her entire administration.

Nonetheless, after over a year in office, despite facing great domestic and international challenges, Rousseff has already earned a higher popularity rating than did Lula at a similar point in his tenure. And Patriota is quietly and, in the eyes of close observers, with great deftness, building on Amorim's groundbreaking work to establish Brazil as a leader among the world's major powers.

"We have a great advantage," notes Patriota. "We have no real enemies, no battles on our borders, no great historical or contemporary rivals among the ranks of the other important powers … and long-standing ties with many of the world's emerging and developed nations." This is a status enjoyed by none of the other BRICs -- China, India, and Russia -- nor, for that matter, by any of the world's traditional major powers.

This unusual position is strengthened further by the fact that Brazil is not investing as heavily as other rising powers in military capabilities. Indeed, as Tom Shannon, the U.S. ambassador to Brazil, has noted, the country is one of the few to effectively stake its future on the wise application of soft power -- diplomacy, economic leverage, common interests. It's surely no coincidence that, in areas from climate change to trade, from nonproliferation to development, Brazil under Lula and Amorim and under Rousseff and Patriota has been gaining strength by translating steady growth at home and active diplomacy abroad into effective international networks.

But Rousseff's administration is also breaking with the past. Whereas Cardoso and Lula achieved greatness by addressing and solving some of the most bedeviling problems of Brazil's past, from stabilizing the economy to addressing social inequality, Rousseff, while still cognizant of the work that remains to be done, has also turned her attention to creating opportunities and a clear path forward for Brazil's future. From her focus on education to her commitment to science and technology through innovative programs like "Science Without Borders," she is doing something that no Latin American leader has done before but that has been a proven formula in Asia. She is committed to moving Brazil from being a resource-based and thus dependent (which is to say vulnerable) economy to one that counts more for future growth on value-added industries, research and development, and educating more scientists and engineers.

Building upon this, Patriota is also looking ahead. He is moving beyond the era in Brazil's foreign policy when it was groundbreaking to have the country look outside its region and play an active role in global affairs to a period, not too many years from now, when Brazil, as a country with one of the world's five largest economies and populations, as a world leader in agribusiness and energy, is unhesitatingly assumed to deserve its place at the table.

Patriota was in New York because he thought that one of the first experiments of this era, the U.N.-sanctioned intervention in Libya, went off the tracks when the United Nations' mandate mission of protecting the Libyan people was set aside by the international forces that intervened and became instead a mission of regime change. He was no fan of Muammar al-Qaddafi, rest assured. But he does have an unwavering sense that if the international community is to work effectively together it must do so under rules that it not only collectively establishes but that are also collectively honored.

Inevitably, this approach ruffles feathers, especially among countries like the United States that are used to operating by their own set of rules. It's one reason that the 2010 Brazilian-Turkish initiative to cut a deal to defuse the Iranian nuclear crisis was so galling to Washington. The move, however naive many found it, anticipated the beginning of an era in which regional and emerging powers, like Turkey with Syria or China with Iran, are central to achieving the goals of the international community.

Patriota acknowledges that the United States, under Barack Obama, and other established powers have gone a long way toward adapting to this new reality. That said, he'd like to see Obama go further. For example, the Brazilians have been among those emerging powers pressing for real reform in the way international institutions are led. They think that the post-World War II order reflected in the power structure of the U.N. Security Council and in the automatic awarding of the leadership of the World Bank to an American is outdated and it is time for something that reflects 21st-century realities and is more consistent with the democratic principles on which these institutions were established.

It's hard to argue with the Brazilians or others on these points. And the inconsistency shown by the Obama administration on this front -- offering to support Indian but not Brazilian permanent membership on the Security Council, once seeming amenable to opening the World Bank top job to a non-American, more recently seeming to back away from this idea -- has been galling and, I would argue, ill-considered.

What Rousseff and Patriota are trying to do on the international front is, in fact, every bit as revolutionary as what their predecessors have done. They understand that successful multilateralism now requires not just large numbers of countries but openness to a multitude of ideas. During the Cold War, the debate was binary: Soviets or Americans? In its wake there was the brief delusion that we had entered an end-of-history moment in which a Washington Consensus-led philosophy of markets and democracy had earned a kind of monopoly status in the marketplace of ideas. But then came the hubris-born twin tragedies of Iraq and the 2008 financial crisis, the simultaneous rise of new powers like Brazil, China, India, and others -- and we have entered a new era. In my new book, Power, Inc., I refer to the economic side of this era as a period of competing capitalisms. But it is also a period of competing political philosophies, about the role of both state and international institutions. In that world, not only is the United States but one voice, but it is a diminished voice and one that should in any event be heard as merely the views of something under 5 percent of the planet's population.

At the same time, others must fill the void created by the resizing of U.S. influence. Brazil is attempting to do so and, it must be noted, in a way that is considerably more constructive than that evidenced by China and Russia in their pusillanimous performance regarding Syria in the Security Council. That said, emerging powers, Brazil included, must come to recognize that in this new world, if they are to play bigger roles, they are also going to have to make hard choices and not simply shrug off the complex issues as someone else's problem or as being beyond the reach of the evolving international system. They're increasingly going to have to accept that if wrongs go unchecked, the resulting costs will be laid at their doorstep.