The Drums of August

Israel is not bluffing.

It is easy to be skeptical when the alarms start going off about a pending Israeli attack on Iran. They seem to come with the seasons, a geopolitical biorhythm that reminds us never to be too comfortable with one of the world's most volatile relationships. But it is worth remembering that the punch line of the story about the little boy who cried wolf is that ultimately, the wolf shows up.

For all the good reasons Israel might want to show forbearance, seven of which were pointed out by the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg recently, the reasons to attack are also clearly growing more compelling for Israeli leaders, uniting them on this issue to a greater degree than at any time in the recent past. Diplomacy doesn't seem to be working. The Iranian nuclear program continues moving closer to weapons capability. And the Iranians themselves have matched their rhetoric about the annihilation of Israel with direct support for attacks on its people, like the suicide-bomb murder of five Israeli tourists in Bulgaria, which U.S. officials have linked to Iran.

It is often hard for Americans to grasp the idea of an existential threat to a nation. While one existed for Americans during the Cold War, since then the notion that any single actor with any single act could effectively obliterate Americans or their lifestyle is very hard for many people to get their brains around. But that is exactly the threat that Israelis face from even a "limited" Iranian nuclear attack. And though it is reasonable to debate whether the Iranians would actually use such a weapon against Israel given the likely consequences for them, from the Israeli perspective, given Iranian threats and actions, the risks of guessing wrong about the intent of the leaders in Tehran are so high that inaction could easily be seen to be the imprudent path.

This summarizes the carefully worded case made last week in the Wall Street Journal by Israel's ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren. His article was nothing less than a case for war, and, over lunch on Friday, Aug. 10, he underscored to me how much thought and care was put into its drafting. (Oren is, for the record, my longtime very good friend.) The response to the article included the unlikely endorsement of its core points by Khalid Al Khalifa, the foreign minister of Bahrain, who tweeted it with the words "Time Is Short For Iran Diplomacy." It also was seen as one of the most important of last week's signals that Israel's discomfort with the Iran situation is growing greater, signals that included on-the-record statements by Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon and off-the-record statements to journalist Ari Shavit (widely assumed to have been from Defense Minister Ehud Barak) that both underscored and amplified Oren's case for ramped-up pressure on Iran.

It is reasonable to ask what has triggered this recent ramping-up of concern. Oren asserts it is a combination of factors -- none more important than the increasing sense that diplomacy is not working and the sanctions, while taking a clear toll on the Iranian economy, are not doing so either. Iran's nuclear program, meanwhile, is accelerating, and its leaders continue to call for Israel's destruction. He is direct in noting that the broader series of shifts buffeting the Middle East must be seen as adding complexity and risk to the calculus about what Iran may do next.

"Iran's No. 1 ally in the region, Assad in Syria, is on the brink. While Iran is trying to prop him up, it would be a game-changer for them were his regime to collapse," notes Oren. But Oren is a historian, a very good one, the author of two seminal books on the region -- Six Days of War and Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present -- and in discussing these regional shifts, one really gets a sense that as big as the Iran threat may be, it is itself part of a historical sea change that is a source of a massive unease for the Israelis. This unease relates not only to the Iranian issue but to the entire structure of the Middle East as it has been understood to exist for generations.

Oren frames the discussion of this larger issue by going back all the way to the early years of the 19th century. "The Congress of Vienna worked. It worked for 100 years. It provided for a framework -- balance of power -- that worked for Europe until the original ideas behind it were forgotten by subsequent generations. Its principles were abandoned by key players, and the result was World War I," he says.

Oren sees a similar dynamic at work in the Middle East. "There was a certain stability that was brought to the region as a whole -- which had been greatly fragmented -- by the Sykes-Picot treaty in 1916," he notes. "But here we are almost a hundred years later, and the memories and ideas behind it too have started to fade. That's good in some ways. But the consequence is not localized but regionwide instability."

Sykes-Picot was an agreement to divvy up the Middle East into spheres of influence -- British, French, and, based on parallel conversations, Russian. Russia was to control the area around Turkey. France was to influence what is today Lebanon, Syria, and northern Iraq. Britain was to have sway over what is today Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, and areas south.

While the relative influence of these countries over the regional segments in question ebbed and flowed, a couple of core principles endured. One was that in a region that was largely tribal or at least broken into many subnational groups, there would be an effort to support the development of states -- or what passed for states, what might bluntly be called families with armies. In other words, an elite group was identified to rule and then would be supported in the development of the means necessary to maintain control over the people within its borders. The other key principle was that those elites would be backed up and influenced by outside powers, who were committed to remaining engaged and helping preserve order (and, of course, advancing their interests in the region).

What has happened in the Middle East is that we are seeing the centrifugal forces of tribal or religious or ethnically divided societies coming apart because the old guard has lost influence and credibility due to the passage of time, grassroots forces empowered by new technologies, deep frustrations, and, significantly, the disengagement of outside powers. This process began with the decline of European powers after World War II and accelerated with the end of the Cold War. But even after the Soviet Union collapsed, the United States remained engaged in Iraq, and then, post-9/11, U.S. engagement in parts of the region grew deeper.

But as Oren warned in remarks to Congress in the early days of the Iraq conflict, years before he was appointed ambassador, the United States may not have the stomach for the endlessly brutal and bloody process of state-making in the Middle East. (It may be surprising to some, but this ambassador now representing an Israeli government that is a favorite of the neoconservatives once actually questioned the basic neocon assumption that somehow the Americans would be welcomed with open arms in Iraq.)

Following that logic, one might point to the American invasion of Iraq as the beginning of the end for the old order. The war upset the balance in the region, inflamed certain old divisions, and then, more saliently, led the United States to want to pull back. Gradually, a host of factors -- America's constrained resources, similar economic challenges for the Europeans, the rise of domestic energy resources, the shift away from the "war on terror," and the greater engagement in the region of less hands-on powers like China and India -- led to the weakening of historical spheres of influence and thus to the lid they helped keep on regional disputes.

The result was a series of upheavals and potential upheavals that have literally left no country or relationship in the region unscathed. Throw into that the old tensions associated with some of the very artificiality of some of the "nations" created by Sykes-Picot and agreements like it -- some exacerbated by the rise of minorities or individual clans to assume the "families with armies" leadership roles (as in Syria, Iraq, or Libya) -- and the result is ferment that does not look like it is going to settle down for a while.

In fact, and I'm not sure Oren shares my view on this point, it may well be that the absence of a central organizing principle for this region is a greater threat to many countries in the Middle East, including Israel, than any specific threat currently in the headlines, including Iran's nuclear program. Protracted institutional decay, violence, spillage of conflicts across borders, withdrawal of investors, economic decline, collapse of the few stable regimes that remain, and similar problems could produce just the kind of void that came with the collapse of the Congress of Vienna. And as we know, new institutions did not emerge in Europe until two massive conflicts later. Indeed, almost a century after that collapse began, we're still not sure of the shape those institutions will ultimately take.

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David Rothkopf

The November Surprise

Forget October bombshells. The real surprise in the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign will come when disaffected voters shun the polls.

The most shocking thing about October surprises is that they happen so regularly that they really ought not to be called surprises. If anything, they have become a staple of American presidential and congressional politics, further proof that political parties will stoop to almost anything to win the jobs that most of them end up sacrificing to their empty political agendas.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, the October surprise is an event that takes place shortly before Election Day in the United States -- the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November -- and has the potential to impact the results.

The term was first used during the 1968 presidential campaign, when President Lyndon B. Johnson announced a suspension of bombing attacks on North Vietnam in the days before the election, allegedly to drum up support for his vice president, Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey. It has also been claimed that supporters of Humphrey's opponent, Richard Nixon, attempted their own "surprise" by sabotaging peace negotiations with the North Vietnamese. Four years later the announcement by Nixon's national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, that "peace is at hand" brought the term "October surprise" into more common parlance. It turned up again following allegations that Ronald Reagan's supporters had somehow cut a deal with Iranian leaders to hold onto the 52 American hostages in Tehran until after the 1980 election, thus undercutting incumbent Jimmy Carter's chances at the polls. (The hostages were ultimately released on the day of Reagan's inauguration.)

In later years, the "surprises" have become ever more predictable, including an indictment that raised the specter of George H.W. Bush's Iran-Contra involvement days before his contest against Bill Clinton, the surfacing of a drunk-driving violation deep in the past of candidate George W. Bush, and announcements in the weeks leading up to the 2006 midterm elections both of congressional sex scandals and the conviction of Saddam Hussein. Shortly before the 2004 contest, Osama bin Laden famously produced a pre-election video directed at the American people and explicitly mentioning both President Bush and Democratic candidate John Kerry.

Given that such stunners are now as much a staple of U.S. elections as poolside fundraisers in the backyards of billionaires and broken campaign promises, it is worth considering what political rabbits the masterminds of this year's campaign may be inclined to pull out of the hats their bosses long ago threw into the ring -- or what mischief foreign leaders might be willing to manufacture to affect the outcome of this year's U.S. vote.

Already, Washington insiders can be heard over their power breakfasts speculating whether some Middle Eastern leader might provoke a pre-election test of U.S. resolve or otherwise trigger a campaign season political reaction. Will Benjamin Netanyahu, who reportedly once said he "speaks English with a heavy Republican accent," create some kind of loyalty test for President Barack Obama that would either generate support for his coalition or help undermine the president with, say, Jewish voters in the key swing states of Florida and Pennsylvania? The obvious candidate for a crisis: Iran.

A more likely scenario is an old-fashioned political scandal. Perhaps Republicans are keeping their powder dry on investigations into national security leaks from the Obama White House until the fall, in the hope of convening hearings that might implicate or embarrass senior officials close to the president.

Democratic researchers, meanwhile, will almost certainly roll out new "revelations" about Mitt Romney's offshore finances or the activities of Bain Capital, his old firm, in the hope of countering voters' concerns about the economy with reasons to be suspicious of the Republican candidate.

Of course, other kinds of October surprises also have the White House worried -- the unexpected kind. Topping this list: major economic bad news that would support Republicans' narrative that the president is not up to fixing what ails America. A Wile E. Coyote moment in the eurozone, a sharp downturn in China, more bad jobs reports, or unrest triggered by high food prices could all fall into this category. So, too, could a terrorist attack or a Tet-like turn for the worse in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Pakistan.

My sense, however, is that we are in for a different sort of surprise, one that reflects not the gravity of issues being discussed but the banality of the personality-driven, money-intoxicated, big-ideas-light campaign that is being waged. This year's surprise will probably not happen in October, but in November, when -- despite campaign spending that could run into the billions (or perhaps because of it) -- we may well see record-low voter turnout. Perhaps this is all too predictable at a time when Americans increasingly view Washington politics as remote from their lives as the wave of elections in the far-off Middle East.

A national yawn at a potential turning point in the history of the country would be more than an indictment of the cynical approach to politics that has come to dominate the hack brain trusts in both parties. It would be a watershed in the history of the United States and the world because this is not only a moment of profoundly important choices for America. It is also a moment of great opportunity, an inflection point at which America is well placed to reinvent itself yet again.

More than any country in the world right now, America is poised to lead and prosper in the century ahead. I say this noting all the economic grimness of the past several years, the growing inequality, and the dysfunction of American politics. Consider that the United States is in the midst of an energy revolution that can create jobs and lower the cost of energy, and thus help attract investment and reduce dependence on oil from dangerous places like the Middle East. The country has educational and legal systems that give it a special advantage in a world in which labor and materials are less and less important to competitiveness than the production -- and protection -- of intellectual capital. America is still the most stable, wealthy, capital-endowed economy on Earth. It has a chance to rebuild its infrastructure at record-low costs thanks to near-negative interest rates -- if only we were to open our eyes to the critical difference between investment and mere spending. And the rest of the world is faltering in ways that make America look even better.

Sadly, this year's November surprise might be that too many Americans just don't care anymore, are too alienated by tawdry politics, have given up. That might make this the first great moment of opportunity in U.S. history when America did not rise to the occasion. This is how great powers fall.

Of course, America needn't fumble. There is still the chance for one other kind of surprise this fall -- a surprise in which one or both of the presidential candidates actually recognizes that this is a moment of huge possibilities for America and that he has a plan for tapping into them. It will require that they eschew the food fights and name-calling and be willing to fight institutionalized power in Washington. It will require that they get specific and think big. It will require that they truly lead. But that, of course, would be something more than a November surprise -- it would be a real shocker, one just like two defibrillator paddles on the chest of a patient in an intensive care ward.

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