Settling for more settlements

I'm sure most of you are "shocked, shocked" to hear that the Israeli government rejected U.S. requests that it extend the so-called freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank. Never mind that it wasn't a real freeze (i.e., it didn't stop existing projects or the expulsion of more Palestinians from East Jerusalem, etc.); the partial halt in new authorizations did have a certain symbolic value. By refusing to extend it, the Netanyahu government has shown that it cares more about continuing the 43-years-and-counting process of colonization than it does about achieving a final peace deal.

At this point, Obama's Middle East team will try to come up with some sort of face-saving maneuver to keep the negotiations alive. Translated: they need a fig leaf to conceal how badly they've bungled this issue. Because putting serious pressure on Israel is anathema (especially in an election year), they will have to get Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to stay at the table even as construction resumes, so that he can watch the bulldozers make a "viable state" impossible while the talk, talk, talk continues. They may succeed in keeping the charade going, but it will be a pyrrhic victory that changes nothing.

Two key points should be kept in mind as you watch this diplomatic train wreck.

First, one of the great myths of Middle East diplomacy is the old cliché that "the United States can't want it more than the parties do." This excuse for inaction is trotted out whenever the United States fails to exercise the enormous potential leverage at its disposal, and it's just plain silly. There's no reason why the United States can't want a settlement more than Israel or the Palestinians do, particularly if the two sides are so mired in dysfunctional politics or old Likudnik dreams that they need to be pushed hard to make a deal. Unfortunately, this conflict isn't just about them; it's also about us. And when U.S. interests are at stake, we can want a solution just as much -- and maybe even more -- than they do.

The reason is simple: given the "special relationship" between the United States and Israel, the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a significant national security problem for the United States. The combination of unconditional support for Israel and the continued expansion of Israel's illegal settlements undermines America's image in many countries and is contrary to basic U.S. values. It is also one of the things that inspired terrorist groups like al Qaeda and facilitates jihadi recruitment. And as Gen. David Petraeus noted a few months ago, it makes our tasks in places like Iraq and Afghanistan more difficult. This situation, in short, is not good for the United States.

As long as that special relationship continues, therefore, it is a national security priority for the United States to get the conflict settled. End the occupation and settle the conflict, and the special relationship would not be nearly so problematic. If U.S. negotiators ignored domestic politics and put U.S. interests first, therefore, they'd be using all the carrots and sticks at their disposal to push both sides to the basic deal whose outlines have been understood for a decade or more. And if it were Israel that refused to end the occupation and make a fair deal, then U.S. leaders would begin to move away from the current "special relationship" and towards something more consistent with U.S. interests. After all, let's not forget who the superpower is around here.

Second, some critics of Obama's policy probably think the problem is that he and his team are too "pro-Israel." That's not really true. By forcing Abbas to make repeated concessions with nothing to show for them, they are undermining his already fragile legitimacy to the point where he won't be able to sell whatever deal they might eventually coerce him into signing. And by letting Netanyahu thumb his nose at repeated U.S. requests without paying any penalty, they've encouraged Israelis to think there is essentially no cost to a hardline position. But this approach isn't "pro-Israel," because Obama and his advisors are helping make a two-state solution impossible and thereby making a "one-state" outcome nearly inevitable. Thoughtful Israelis understand that this is a perilous course, and President Obama said as much during his speech to the United Nations last week. But the administration's handling of this issue has made the one-state outcome more likely, which threatens Israel's future as both a Jewish and democratic state.

So if I were President Obama (and you can all be glad I'm not), I'd call my entire Middle East team into the Oval office for a little chat. Here's what I'd say:

"I made a promise to the American people, and to the world, that we would achieve 'two states for two peoples' during my first term. When I was in Cairo more than a year ago, I said this goal was in "America's interest, Israel's interest, the Palestinians' interest, and the world's interest." And I meant it. I trusted each of you to help me bring that goal about, and I've taken your advice for over twenty months. Let me be clear: it isn't working, and I'm not one who is satisfied with failure. Nor am I going to reward it. So I am telling each of you now: If you can't help me get this deal done within one year, I'm going to fire every one of you and get some new faces in here."

Fanciful? Of course it is, because the same political forces that make it nearly impossible for Obama to do the right thing would make it equally difficult for him to appoint a better team. But it's hardly more fanciful than thinking the United States can keep repeating the same mistakes and get a different result.

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Stephen M. Walt

Is NATO irrelevant?

NATO is by common consensus the most successful political-military alliance in modern history. It has lasted longer than almost all others, incorporates more members, and it achieved its central purpose(s) without firing a shot. After the Cold War ended, it managed to redefine itself by taking on a broader array of security missions and has played a modest but useful role in the war in Afghanistan. By surviving well beyond the demise of the Soviet Union, it has also defied realist predictions that its days (or at least its years) were numbered.

Nonetheless, I share William Pfaff's view that NATO doesn't have much of a future.

First, Europe's economic woes are forcing key NATO members (and especially the U.K.) to adopt draconian cuts in defense spending. NATO's European members already devote a much smaller percentage of GDP to defense than the United States does, and they are notoriously bad at translating even that modest amount into effective military power. The latest round of defense cuts means that Europe will be even less able to make a meaningful contribution to out-of-area missions in the future, and those are the only serious military missions NATO is likely to have.

Second, the ill-fated Afghan adventure will have divisive long-term effects on alliance solidarity. If the United States and its ISAF allies do not win a clear and decisive victory (a prospect that seems increasingly remote), there will be a lot of bitter finger-pointing afterwards. U.S. leaders will complain about the restrictions and conditions that some NATO allies (e.g., Germany) placed on their participation, while European publics will wonder why they let the United States get them bogged down there for over a decade. It won't really matter who is really responsible for the failure; the key point is that NATO is unlikely to take on another mission like this one anytime soon (if ever). And given that Europe itself is supposedly stable, reliably democratic, and further pacified by the EU, what other serious missions is NATO supposed to perform?

The third potential schism is Turkey, which has been a full NATO member since 1950. I'm not as concerned about Turkey's recent foreign policy initiatives as some people are, but there's little doubt that Ankara's diplomatic path is diverging on a number of key issues. The United States, United Kingdom, France, and Germany have been steadily ratcheting up pressure on Iran, while Turkey has moved closer to Tehran both diplomatically and economically. Turkey is increasingly at odds with Washington on Israel-Palestine issues, which is bound to have negative repercussions in the U.S. Congress. Rising Islamophobia in both the United States and Europe could easily reinforce these frictions. And given that Turkey has NATO's largest military forces (after the United States) and that NATO operates largely by consensus, a major rift could have paralyzing effects on the alliance as a whole.

Put all this together, and NATO's future as a meaningful force in world affairs doesn't look too bright. Of course, the usual response to such gloomy prognostications is to point out that NATO has experienced crises throughout its history (Suez, anyone?), and to remind people that it has always managed to weather them in the past. True enough, but most of these rifts occurred within the context of the Cold War, when there was an obvious reason for leaders in Europe and America to keep disputes within bounds.

Of course, given NATO's status as a symbol of transatlantic solidarity, no American president or European leader will want to preside over its demise. Plus, you've got all those bureaucrats in Brussels and Atlantophiles in Europe and America who regard NATO as their life's work. For all these reasons, I don't expect NATO to lose members or dissolve. I'll even be somewhat surprised if foreign policy elites even admit that it has serious problems. 

Instead, NATO is simply going to be increasingly irrelevant. As I wrote more than a decade ago:

. . .the Atlantic Alliance is beginning to resemble Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray, appearing youthful and robust as it grows older -- but becoming ever more infirm. The Washington Treaty may remain in force, the various ministerial meetings may continue to issue earnest and upbeat communiques, and the Brussels bureaucracy may keep NATO's web page up and running-all these superficial routines will go on, provided the alliance isn't asked to actually do anything else. The danger is that NATO will be dead before anyone notices, and we will only discover the corpse the moment we want it to rise and respond."

Looking back, I'd say I underestimated NATO's ability to rise from its sickbed. Specifically, it did manage to stagger through the Kosovo War in 1999 and even invoked Article V guarantees for the first time after 9/11. NATO members have sent mostly token forces to Afghanistan (though the United States, as usual, has done most of the heavy lifting). But even that rather modest effort has been exhausting, and isn't likely to be repeated. A continent that is shrinking, aging, and that faces no serious threat of foreign invasion isn't going to be an enthusiastic partner for future adventures in nation-building, and it certainly isn't likely to participate in any future U.S. effort to build a balancing coalition against a rising China.

The bad news, in short, is that one of the cornerstones of the global security architecture is likely to erode in the years ahead. The good news, however, is that it won't matter very much if it does.

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