On our terrorism problem

Declaring that "the buck stops with me," President Obama announced a set of new directives in response to the foiled bombing of Northwest Flight 253 by the now-infamous "underpants bomber." The list of presidential orders is mostly unexceptionable, and may even make a repeat performance less likely. Of course, if al Qaeda is even remotely strategic, trying an exact repeat of this attempt would be silly. Instead, they'll study the new procedures, look for holes in them, and try some new variation. The good news is that air travel will still be incredibly safe, and no sensible person should alter their normal travel plans because they are worried about the "terrorist threat."

What's missing from Obama's list of new initiatives is any sense that U.S. foreign policy might need some rethinking too. There are several dimensions to the terrorism problem, only one of which are the various measures we take to "harden the target" here at home. Why? Because bombing airliners and other acts of terrorism are just tactics; they aren't al Qaeda's real raison d'être. Their goal, as veteran foreign affairs correspondent William Pfaff recently reminded us, is trying to topple various Arab governments that al Qaeda regards as corrupt and beholden to us and establish some unified Islamic caliphate. As Pfaff notes, this is a fanciful objective, but still one that can cause us a certain amount of trouble and grief. And if they can get us to act in ways that undermine those governments (even when we think we are trying to help them), then their objectives are advanced and ours are hindered.

So one key dimension of the problem is to not act in ways that inspire more people to want to undertake such actions, or at the very least to be aware that some of our policies might have that effect and that we should not continue them unless we are damn sure that the benefits outweigh the costs. And what's troubling is the extent to which the Obama administration appears to be continuing many of the same activities that have inspired anti-American extremism and undermined the governments that do seem to like us, without much consideration about the balance of costs and benefits that this may involve.

To continue with this gloomy theme: the underpants bomber ultimately failed, but al Qaeda did conduct a successful suicide bomb attack in Khost that killed eight people, including several of the CIA's top al Qaeda experts. The perpetrator of that attack was a Jordanian doctor, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, who had been recruited by the CIA (via Jordanian intelligence) to infiltrate al Qaeda. After providing us with some useful information (as any double-agent must to gain credibility), he was allowed to meet with a large number of CIA analysts, leading to the fateful attack on December 30.

In terms of the actual effort to defeat al Qaeda, that event might even be more significant than the Flight 253 affair, because it suggests that some of our top analysts were out-thought by the very organization they were trying to penetrate and destroy. It has also shed new light on the close connections between the CIA and Jordanian intelligence, which is hardly something that King Abdullah's regime needs right now. So while it's important to learn why an obvious suspect got a visa and boarded a plane to the United States, it may be even more important to figure out how some of our best counter-terrorism operatives got gulled so successfully.

One more thing. I noted yesterday that al-Balawi's brother told reporters that the doctor had been radicalized by the Israeli assault on Gaza last year. Today, Newsweek released an interview with the double-agent's wife, which makes it clear that she shares his opposition to U.S. policy in the region but traces his changing views to an earlier event. According to Newsweek:

Al-Balawi 'started to change,' says his wife, after the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. By 2004, she says, he began to talk to her about his strong belief in the need for violent jihad against Western occupiers of Muslim lands."

My point is not to rehash the whole debate over the invasion of Iraq (although to be honest, I don't think there's much debate to be had over the folly of that particular decision). My point is simply to reiterate that any serious effort to deal with our terrorism problem has to be multi-faceted, and has to include explicit consideration of the things we do that may encourage violent, anti-American movements. Only a complete head-in-the-sand approach to the issue would deny the connection between various aspects of U.S. foreign and military policy (military interventions, targeted assassinations, unconditional support for Israel, cozy relations with Arab dictatorships, etc.) and the fact that groups like al Qaeda keep finding people like al-Balawi to recruit to their cause. 

By itself, that mere fact does not mean that U.S. foreign policy is wrong. As I said a few days ago, one could make a case that our policy is mostly right, and that these problems are just the price we have to pay for them. But instead of having a serious debate on this question, we mostly ignore the possibility that our own actions might be making the problem worse, or we accuse anyone who does raise it of trying to "blame America first." 

President Obama's briefing yesterday wasn't the place for that discussion, but I'd like to think that somebody in his administration is still asking the question. Since that infamous (and increasingly inconsequential) Cairo speech, however, there's not much evidence of that.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt

Another invite lost in the mail

I was going to blog this morning about the Times's story that Dr. Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al-Balawi, the Jordanian double agent who killed 8 U.S. operatives in a suicide bomb attack last week, was reportedly motivated by his anger at Israel's pummeling of Gaza last year (you know, the war that President Bush didn't try to prevent, that President-elect Obama didn't talk about, and that the U.S. Congress apparently thinks was just fine.) Talk about blowback. But Phil Weiss and Glenn Greenwald are on the case, and you can just read them instead of me.

Instead, I want to share an invitation I was forwarded by a friend (for some inexplicable reason, I didn't get one myself). The email invited him to attend "Spotlight Iran," a special workshop sponsored by The Israel Project. Here's what it said:

From: The Israel Project [info@theisraelproject.org]
Sent: Tuesday, January 05, 2010 5:11 PM
Subject: You Are Invited to an Iran Conference in Washington, DC

Please join us for a community-wide grass-roots advocacy training program:
Israel Advocacy Training Institute: Spotlight Iran

Don't miss this hands-on training institute for Israel activists with special briefings by high level American and Israeli officials on the vital issues of Iran and grass roots advocacy. Gain new tools and learn how to effectively and efficiently make use of your time and resources to advocate for Israel in the halls of government, pages of newspaper print, radio airwaves, and internet sites of the new media.

Sunday, January 17, 12 noon- 4:30 p.m.
Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy
13300 Arctic Avenue, Rockville, MD

Plenary featuring:
-Dan Arbell, Deputy Chief of Mission at the Embassy of Israel
-Jennifer Laszlo-Mizrahi, President of The Israel Project

Workshop Sessions featuring:
*Congressional and Legislative Advocacy with AIPAC Mid-Atlantic Political Director Arie Lipnik and Congressional Legislative Assistants
*Online Advocacy: Blogging, Twitter and Social Media with "Press Guru" and Jewish Communications Expert Aaron Keyak
*How to Get Published and Write a Letter to the Editor with journalist and Reuters Editor Alan Elsner
*Israel Advocacy in the Synagogue with Rabbi Jonah Layman of Shaare Tefilah Congregation and President of Congregation B'nai Tzedek Helane Goldstein
*Advocacy and Radio strategy with Former White House Radio Director Richard Strauss
*Understanding Christian Perspectives on Israel: The Keys to Effective Advocacy with Ethan Felson and Josh Protas, Vice President and Washington Director of the JCPA
*Special Teen Track Workshops

Book signing featuring authors: Ilan Berman, Alan Elsner,
Michael Ledeen and Jonathan Schanzer

$18 standard track ? $10 teen track (includes lunch)

[followed by the usual contact info for those seeking additional information]

A few quick comments:

First, if anyone still doubts that groups in the Israel lobby work hard to shape public discourse about Middle East affairs...well, time to cast those doubts aside. Apart from hyping the threat from Iran, the clear purpose of this workshop is to train people on how to write op-eds, twitter posts, blogs, etc., that can push TIP's supposedly "pro-Israel" agenda.(Needless to say, its agenda on Iran is about pushing the United States to do whatever it takes to keep Iran from mastering the full fuel cycle, including the use of force.)

Second, there's nothing wrong with a group of Americans getting together to push their policy views; that's how our system of government works. This is in principle no different than Cuban-Americans organizing to preserve the misguided embargo on Castro's regime, NRA members meeting to figure out new ways to thwart gun control, farmers organizing to push for more crop subsidies, tea partyers getting together to sound off on their pet peeves, or birthers meeting to spread more goofy notions about Obama's heritage. Just good old-fashioned American interest group politics in all its glory. 

But notice that this event advertises an AIPAC representative, an Israeli diplomat and apparently several unnamed congressional legislative assistants. The latter are supposed to be public servants; we understand that they will be the objects of a lobbying groups efforts but here they seem to be actively helping one. Given the prominent role given to an official representative of a foreign government and the participation of several congressional aides, this event does seem to blur the line between being a purely domestic lobbying group and being something else. Isn't it a bit over-the-line to have an officially accredited diplomat give the plenary address to a workshop whose declared purpose is to teach Americans how to advocate on behalf of that same diplomat's country?

Third, my main point is to be clear about who is pushing for war with Iran and who isn't.  The Israel Project and other like-minded groups want the U.S. to confront Iran, and the main reason they want this is to protect Israel from what they believe (mistakenly, in my view) is a dire threat.  (I think Iran's activities are a legitimate concern, but not the apocalyptic danger that many Israelis seem to think.) They are entirely within their rights to hold those views, however, and to work within the American political system to try to advance their hard line agenda. If they want to organize seminars to build support for that position, and train people on how to advocate for it, fine by me.  And if other folks with similar views and agendas want to chime in, that's ok too. 

And let's be clear about one other thing. War with Iran is not a project that is backed by all Jewish-Americans, or only by Jewish-Americans. The same was true about the war in Iraq, which was dreamed up by the neocons and backed by key groups in the Israel lobby, but not by many American Jews. Indeed, by the time the United States went to war in 2003, surveys showed that American Jews were less supportive of war with Iraq than the U.S. population as a whole. 

But as in the run-up to Iraq, many of the most persistent advocates of a "kinetic response" to Iran are individuals or organization in the Israel lobby (including those bizarrely bellicose Christian Zionists), and as this invitation suggests, they aren't being especially bashful about making their policy preferences known. So if the United States does end up at war with Iran in the not-too-distant future, and if it turns out to leave us worse off than before, I hope these same people won't spend the aftermath denying that they had anything to do with it, or accusing people who discuss their role of being somehow bigoted.