While I was gone

It was a beautiful day on Sunday in Singapore, and I listened to a live-stream of the Patriots game against the Broncos. (As I typed this, Tom Brady threw six touchdown passes far, which was gratifying for us New Englanders but didn't make for a very exciting contest).

It's been an interesting trip, but I have the distinct impression of having left the U.S. just when a lot of things got interesting. I was off the grid a good part of the time, and it drove home to me just how addicted I've become to having access to a constant stream of news. I didn't start catching up on events until I got to the airport in Dubai on Friday evening, and picked up a Wifi connection in the lounge. 

Here's just a few items that I wish I could have commented on in real-time.

 1. The Euro takes on water: As many of us expected, ratings agencies have started to down-grade the credit-worthiness of several Eurozone countries, including France. These agencies aren't infallible of course (i.e., several of them were complicit in the mortgage scandals that caused the 2007-2008 financial crisis), but this event confirms that all the activity last year to bail out Europe's finances haven't convinced these agencies (or the markets) that the problem is solved. Quite the contrary, in fact, which is why I think 2012 will be even rockier.

And I can't help but see the tragic grounding of an Italian cruise liner the other day as an apt metaphor for Europe's dilemma. For in the end the problem facing the Euro also arose from poor navigation and incompetent command, as well as a failure to prepare for rough seas or unfortunate accidents. And if the Euro ends up on the rocks, the people who steered it there are going to end up with prominent places in the annals of modern history. And not in a good way

 2. More Insanity about Iran:  I haven't been able to keep up with all of it, but the debate over what to do about Iran's nuclear program seems to be getting more and more unhinged. Another Iranian nuclear scientist was murdered, which fits the standard U.S. definition of an act of terrorism, and is surely something we would regard as an act of war were someone to do something like it here on American soil. The Obama administration says we were not involved, which doesn't leave a whole lot of other likely candidates.

As one would expect, the most bizarre ideas on Iran keep emanating from places like Commentary or the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where Iran seems to be seen as a combination of Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, the Soviet Union, and North Korea, but on steroids and raised to the Nth power. So WINEP's Patrick Clawson tells us that murdering Iranian scientists is a good thing because it might provoke Iran into doing something truly nasty, which would then provide us with a pretext to whack them. He used the examples of Pearl Harbor (!) and the sinking of the Lusitania as historical analogies (which is both inaccurate and suggests a remarkable indifference to the human consequences of blithely bombing other countries. And some people accuse realists of being amoral!) And let's not overlook the truly bizarre announcement that Senators Joe Lieberman and Lindsay Graham intend to introduce a resolution that would seek to rule out a strategy of trying to "contain" Iran.  Needless to say, their goal isn't to facilitate accommodation, but to hold Obama's feet to the fire about increased sanctions, or maybe preventive war. Gee, I wonder why some people in Iran think they might need a nuclear deterrent…

The Obama administration deserves credit for having assembled a more effective set of economic sanctions on Iran, which is clearly putting the regime under more pressure. But I keep wondering what the endgame looks like, and whether the United States would be willing to accept anything less than a complete Iranian capitulation and/or regime change. In other words, is there any Iranian offer short of complete surrender that we would say "yes" to?  I can't tell. Unfortunately, a diplomatic compromise would probably require the U.S. to accept Iran having its own enrichment capability and thus the potential to develop weapons if it so chose.   

In other words, we'd have to accept that Iran has legal rights (and also obligations) under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Of course, both Israel and the Israel lobby here in the United States are dead-set against that sort of deal, which means that Washington isn't likely to go that route. The confrontation is bound to continue, therefore, and therein lies the long-term danger. As we saw with Iraq in the 1990s through 2003, if a conflict keeps going with no resolution, and if well-connected hawks keep beating the drums for war, sooner or later the stars may line up as they did after 9/11, and somebody will decide to roll the iron dice. I think war is unlikely in the short-term, but I can't rule such folly out forever.

 4.  More "Help" from the "Special Relationship:"   Of course, we wouldn't even be discussing war with Iran if we weren't being egged on by Israel and by its supporters in the United States. Which is what makes Mark Perry's blockbuster reporting of an Israeli "false flag" operation so interesting and so disturbing. According to Perry, Mossad agents posed as CIA operatives in order to recruit a Pakistani-based terrorist group called Jundallah to conduct attacks inside Iran. They did this without U.S. approval, of course, and the obvious threat to U.S. interests is that we end up getting blamed for what was in fact an independent Israeli operation.

No good realists should be surprised when countries do deceitful or underhanded things to try to advance their interests, and if that's the way the Israelis want to play it, so be it. But this sort of behavior helps you understand why more and more U.S. officials are questioning the "special relationship," no matter what they have to say in public to keep the lobby quiet. And it's just another reminder that all that rhetoric you hear about the U.S. and Israel having nearly identical interests is a lot of nonsense. The United States and Israel have certain interests in common, but there are also important issues on which our interests diverge. Unfortunately, you can't say that if you're running for office, or if you're somebody who wants to have a high-flying career in Washington. 

In any case, you owe it to yourself to read Perry's article, and also the interesting interview he gave to the Israeli online magazine +972 here.

 5.  Burma Opens Up?   A top story in today's International Herald Tribune is the Burmese government's decision to release assorted political prisoners, as part of their continuing effort to get economic sanctions lifted and to restore better relations with the West, and the subsequent U.S. decision to restore fully diplomatic relations with it. One needs to be careful about direct analogies or comparisons wth other cases, but doesn't this positive development tell us something about the value of sanctions, of diplomacy, and most of all, patience? Might similar lessons apply in the case of Iran? Outside pressure clearly played a key role in Burma's change of heart, but notice that nobody was talking about going to war with them in order to get them to alter their policy. Burma wasn't pursuing a nuclear research program, of course, and its foreign policy wasn't as directly at odds with Washington's regional preferences. But threatening other states with military force isn't a very good way to convince them to reduce their own military potential, and repeated military threats aren't a very good way to conduct diplomacy. One really does wonder what U.S. diplomats could accomplish if we could deal with Iran in a more creative and patient manner.  

6. Tarnishing Democracy?   I like living in a democracy, and I frankly can't imagine ever choosing to live somewhere that I couldn't write or say what I thought. I also think the evidence shows that they have better human rights records than most (all?) authoritarian states and tend to do a better job (on average) of encouraging economic growth and social welfare. But some of the conversations I've had on this trip suggest that the current state of Western democracy isn't helping sell this system in some parts of the world. Defenders of autocracy point to the corrosive role of money in contemporary American politics, the gridlock and sheer nastiness that infects Washington, the unimpressive credentials of many members of Congress, the opera bouffe behavior of leaders like Silvio Berlusconi or even Nicolas Sarkozy, and the inability of Western democracies to take decisive action in the face of mounting problems.   Of course, monarchies, military dictatorships, and one-party autocracies have their own share of dysfunctions, and you aren't going to hear me defending them as an alternative.  My point is simply that the current state of Western-style democracy is making it harder for people like me to persuade others that they should move in similar directions. As I think I've said before, a lot of attack-dog media jocks and for-sale-to-the-highest-bidder politicians like to trumpet their patriotism, but their various antics are doing more to damage our global image than most of our genuine adversaries could even dream of.



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