The deep strangeness of Israel's national security debate

Buried within James Risen's interesting New York Times front-pager about the easing of Iran tensions is an even more interesting story about the deep weirdness that is going on within Israel's national security establishment on Iran: 

At the same time in Israel, the conservative government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been rocked by a series of public comments from current and former Israeli military and intelligence officials questioning the wisdom of attacking Iran.

The latest comments came from Yuval Diskin, the former chief of Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security service, who on Friday said Mr. Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak should not be trusted to determine policy on Iran. He said the judgments of both men have been clouded by “messianic feelings.” Mr. Diskin, who was chief of Shin Bet until last year, said an attack against Iran might cause it to speed up its nuclear program.

Just days before, Israel’s army chief of staff suggested in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that the the Iranian threat was not quite as imminent as Mr. Netanyahu has portrayed it. In his comments, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz suggested that he agreed with the intelligence assessments of the United States that Iran has not yet decided whether to build a nuclear bomb.

Iran “is going step by step to the place where it will be able to decide whether to manufacture a nuclear bomb. It hasn’t yet decided whether to go the extra mile,” General Gantz told Haaretz. He suggested that the crisis may not come to a head this year. But he said, “Clearly, the more the Iranians progress, the worse the situation is.”

Last month, Meir Dagan, the former chief of the Israeli spy agency Mossad, said he did not advocate a pre-emptive Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear program anytime soon. In an interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes,” Mr. Dagan said the Iranian government was “a very rational one,” and that Iranian officials were “considering all the implications of their actions.”

As someone who thought the Iran rhetoric coming from Jerusalem was decidedly overheated, I nevertheless have more mixed feelings about these developments than, say, Peter Beinart.  What's disturbing is that even though Israel's actual opposition party is evincing many of the same sentiments as the former military officers quoted above, they are not the ones moving the policy debate -- it's the ex-military/intel guys. 

That's a problem.  As much as candidates for higher office like to talk about "consulting the commanders on the ground" and the like, big decisions about national security policy should be the province of elected leaders.  Civilians need to be in control of these decisions -- the moment that elected leaders give up this control, then the voters have forfeited the most vital decisions of a republic.  This is why, in the United States, one of the rare sources of continuing bipartisan agreement is that when military commanders voice their policy opinions to the press in a way that contradicts the President, they need to be canned

Now, recently retired military and intelligence officials are in a slightly different category, but there's still a danger here.  I respect that these ;people should have a voice, particularly if they feel their country is on the precipice of a policy disaster -- but should their voice be louder than that of the main opposition party?  I don't think so, and it's a sign that there's a problem with Israeli democracy if that's the case.  I don't think this is entirely the fault of ex-IDF and Shin Bet leaders, mind you -- Netanyahu and Barak are part of the problem as well.  Still, at least the latter people won elections and must go back to the voters again. 

Developing... in a  very problematic manner. 

Daniel W. Drezner

How to have a pretty good foreign policy week... ruined by Joe Biden

So it turned out that this was the week that both the Romney campaign and the Obama campaign decided that foreign policy was an important thing to talk about during election season.  Speaking personally, this is great!! I seem to have moved up in the Rolodex of those covering the campaign.  Expect lots of juicy quotes in the months to come, and readers are warmly encouraged to proffer useful metaphors that I can provide in soundbite fashion  over the next six months.

Unfortunately for the Romney campaign, this was not a great week to ramp up attacks along this line.  The reasons is that, all told, the Obama administration had a pretty good foreign policy week.  Not all, or even most of this, was of its own doing, but consider the following: 

1)  Iran has signaled a genuine willingness to talk compromise on its nuclear program in order to avoid the EU oil embargo kicking in.  That might just be rhetoric, but it's interesting to note that even senior Israeli officials are starting to talk down the Iranian threat.  The less Iran becomes a thing, the lower gas prices can fall better for the administration. 

2)  The United States has maybe, just maybe, eliminated a major thorn in bilateral relations with Japan by finally reaching agreement on moving U.S. troops from Okinawa.  We'll see if this holds -- everyone assumed that a 2006 agreement had put this problem to rest before successive Japanese governments shot themselves in the foot raised it again,  but this is the thing on this list for which the administration deserves the most credit.  As an added bonus, the administration  actually got some nice words from John McCain on comity with the Senate.

3)  For some reason China seems to be in a more productive mood in their dealings with the United States, and Mark Landsler and Steven Lee Myers have taken notice in the New York Times: 

For years, China  stymied efforts to pressure Iran. Now, in addition to  throwing its weight behind the sanctions effort, officials say,  Beijing is also playing a more active role in the recently revived nuclear talks between Iran and six world powers — the United States, China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany. While in past negotiations, Beijing has followed in lockstep the positions taken by Russia, this time Chinese diplomats are offering their own proposals.

“One of the key elements of making this work is unity among the major powers,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic exchanges. “The Chinese have been very good partners in this regard.”

There are also signs of new cooperation on Syria. Only weeks after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called China’s veto of a United Nations Security Council resolution “despicable,” China is supporting Kofi Annan’s peace plan for the strife-torn country and is deploying monitors to help oversee it. Even on North Korea, which China has long sheltered from tougher international action, the Chinese government quickly signed on to a United Nations statement condemning the North’s recent attempt to launch a satellite.

And there is progress on the economic front: American officials said China recently loosened trading on its currency, the remninbi, which could help close a valuation gap with the dollar that has stoked trade tensions between China and the United States during an election year.

To some seasoned observers of China, these developments are less a harbinger of a new era of cooperation between Beijing and Washington than evidence that, at least for now, the interests of the two countries coincide in some important areas.

The administration will nevertheless be happy to pocket the policy dividends.

4)  Staying in Northeast Asia, it turns out that the big bad North Korean ICBMs are little more than a pipe dream -- and western analysts are starting to say that Kim Jong Un is naked in the public square:

North Korea tried to flex its military might with an extravagant parade on April 15, just three days after it admitted that its missile test had been a failure, but analysts now say that the new intercontinental ballistic missiles on display in the meticulously choreographed parade were nothing more than props.

The analysts studied photos of the six missiles and came to their conclusion for three primary reasons: 1. The missiles did not fit the launchers that carried them. 2. The missiles appear to be made out of both liquid-fuel and solid-fuel components that are unable to fly together. 3. The casings on the missiles undulate which suggests the metal is not thick enough to hold up during flight.

"There is no doubt that these missiles were mock-ups," Markus Schiller and Robert Schmucker, of Germany's Schmucker Technologie , wrote in a paper recently posted on Armscontrolwonk.com. "It remains unknown if they were designed this way to confuse foreign analysts, or if the designers simply did some sloppy work."

If the U.S. government can claim progress on Iran, China, North Korea, and Japan in one week, that's a good foreign policy week.  Of course, for a lot of these issues, the administration is the beneficieary of circumstances rather that pro-active policies.  Still, the administration deserves some credit for some of these development.

It's just one week, though.  And I fear the most memorable statement about American foreign policy is this rather unfortunate choice of words

NOTE TO WHITE HOUSE/CAMPAIGN SPEECHWRITERS:   In the future, avoid having Biden utter any of the following:  "big stick", "hard power", "pounding the enemy",  "won't take no for an answer", and "smooth-talking his adversaries".

Am I missing anything?