Innovation and fresh thinking are alien to American foreign policy – as is true in most countries. Conservatism of thought and method flows naturally from situations characterized by high risk and uncertainly – as is the norm in still unruly international relations. Rote repetition of the old, though, itself can carry heavy risk as problems smolder and opportunities for resolution are missed. Today, that is the case throughout the greater Middle East – in Iran, Palestine, Afghanistan and the Gulf. Washington’s diplomacy is up a blind alley everywhere yet the Obama administration plunges ahead robotically.
Blind to new ideas and spinning its wheels in the same old diplomatic ruts is a sterile exercise. It is only acceptable if our leaders believe that the status quo is acceptable and sustainable. They do. They are wrong on both counts. Let’s look first at Iran. The United States’ objective is to strip the IRI of all weapons relevant nuclear capabilities, including those permitted under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. It is relying mainly on coercive economic sanctions to force Tehran to bend the knee. A thinly disguised corollary aim is to topple the current regime which it deems irremediably hostile to the Washington and bent on gaining domination of the Persian Gulf region at the expense of American allies. It has rejected all suggestions, and overtures from Iran in 2003-2004, that the two parties hold comprehensive talks that would put on the table a full slate of issues – including Iran’s own legitimate security interests.
The election of Hassan Rouhani has complicated Washington’s strategy. Recognized as being a relatively pragmatic and non-dogmatic leader who was elected to the Presidency by a sizeable margin, he has publicly made the case for flexibility in dealings with the United States. To this tentative outreach, the Obama White House has responded drily that the test of Iranian intentions will be it acceptance of the terms that Washington laid down in the latest round of talks. Many have warned that such an unbending approach will be unavailing. If the U.S. does not adjust its position and its tactics, we will have missed an historic opportunity. There is no sign of such an intellectual and diplomatic adjustment even being seriously considered.
Similar obstinacy in sticking to a stale policy is on display in regard to Palestine. Secretary Kerry, in full Kissinger mode, has been spending an enormous amount of time shuttling between the Israelis and Palestinians in a push to have the two sides sit down for talks. The opening of talks per se had become the goal. Talks about talks is now promoted as a diplomatic breakthrough. The problem is that meetings in the absence of a prior agreement on principles will not work. That serves only the political interests of Bibi Netanyahu who has shown constantly that he is not interested in a two-state solution that has the slightest chance of being approved by the Palestinian leadership of Abbas – leaving aside the uncomfortable fact that Hamas, which won a free election in 2006 only to have it annulled and leaders jailed, has been excluded. The relentless expansion of Jewish settlements, tolerated by Washington, cripples any chance of a resolution. Yet, this crucial issue is not brought up by Mr. Kerry and his associates. Hence, we are pursuing another virtual diplomatic exercise that loses the United States credibility and leaves unattended a festering wound that poisons attitudes towards America at a time of unprecedented political turbulence.
Then there is Afghanistan. The Obama White House never has stated clearly over the past four and a half years what its goals are or what would constitute a satisfactory outcome. All we have heard is a string of ever changing slogans accompanied by ever shifting tactics. The time to have made the hard judgments was in 2009. Instead, the President came up with a logically incomprehensible plan that mixed a big build-up of forces with a fixed deadline for their withdrawal. Progress would be measured in reference to 50 “metrics’ about which nothing has been heard since.
Are we still demanding that the Taliban lay down their arms and participate on the basis of the current constitution? Should we batter them militarily (with reduced forces) until they agree or should we negotiate with them (with or without the participation of the Karzai government or the support of the Pakistanis)? How can we reach a settlement while placing the Haqqani network beyond the pale?
Nobody can answer those questions since the critical determinations have not been made about core American interests in Afghanistan, risk assessments and contingency plans, or comparative lines of approach. Instead, the various vectors of Washington policy continue along their largely independent trajectories. The military continues to fight the Taliban+ insurgency while “training” a huge Afghan army that no knowledgeable person expects will be able to replace the American dominated ISAF; the CIA conducts its own para-military operations alongside their own Afghans auxiliaries in a ruthless struggle with the Taliban who long since have supplanted a spectral al-Qaida as the atavistic enemy; the State Department and elements of the National Security Council devise schemes for opening talks in Qatar or elsewhere with various shadowy factions of the Taliban even as their compatriots deploy drones to kill some of those same people and even as the Embassy in Kabul neglects to tell the Karzai government, on whose behalf we supposedly will be negotiating, what is going on. As to the Pakistanis, they are ignored as being more enemy than friend despite the fact that they could contribute significantly to a settlement.
Meanwhile, the White House political operatives, who filter all that the administration does in foreign policy, are concerned only with how things will play among the American public – although Obama has run his last Presidential campaign and the outcome of Congressional off-year elections will turn almost entirely on domestic issues. Perhaps, the NSA could be mobilized to do a sophisticated network analysis in three dimensions of how all these parties within his administration interact. It might then usefully be passed on to the Commander-in-Chief who is supposed to be its hub and master.
The truly intractable and unpredictable situations in Egypt and Syria form their own category. There, the gap between a Washington presumption to being still the indispensable power and its actual marginal influence over fluid conditions widens by the week. Failure to acknowledge our lack of leverage, and to make adjustments in calculating interests accordingly, means that vacillation, disjuncture and ad hocism are the order of the day. That presents a not very pretty picture. It does, though, spare the Obama administration the ordeal of change.
Blind momentum without thought as to direction and purpose also characterizes the NSA’s omnivorous mega-data projects. General Keith Alexander has justified the indiscriminate vacuuming of electronic communications and accounts by claiming that in order to find the needle you have to build the haystack. The logical flaws in this statement are embarrassingly obvious. For one thing, we do not have a clear idea in advance of the needle that we supposedly are looking for – or even if it exists. The point of this cumbersome exercise is to rummage through the hay in the hope that it will reveal some sort of a needle. A kind of “spontaneous generation” approach to intelligence. We all have ways of amusing ourselves.
Two, the approach doesn’t work – no matter how refined your algorithms and matrixes. Following this approach, we hunted for Osama bin-Laden fruitlessly for a decade and came up short. Only a tip from the Pakistanis (and a possible betrayal) a decade later exposed his whereabouts. Three, as the OBL search indicates, effective intelligence requires human assets and critical analysts’ skills more than it needs masses of unprocessed data assembled at random, i.e. the haystack. Whatever clues may emerge eventually from data sifting, their meaning and significance can only be ascertained by the use of traditional methods. So, too, any action that is determined to be appropriate, feasible and focused.
General Alexander and his associates have become monomaniacal about robotic data collection. They bear resemblance to Captain Queeg in their compulsive and indiscriminate amassing of trillions of communications. A sensible and serious intelligence operation does not entail Uncle Sam stopping at every ATM machine to scoop up the forgotten receipts that he stuffs into pockets and then his computers.
There is an alternative approach. It begins by asking what national interests are – in maintaining constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties as well as in terms of threats. Let us set aside the former class of issues for the moment. In strict security terms, the argument that the core security of the United States is at stake looks specious. Anyone who buys into the security argument – President Obama, his administration, Congress, the think-tankers – should respond to these questions:
1. What EXACTLY in tangible terms is this threat?
2. What is the evidence that it exists?
3. What precisely is its magnitude?
4. What are the probabilities that it will materialize?
5. How does it compare to other threats the country has faced over the past century?
6. How do we measure that fraction of the INCREASE in the threat, as you define it, that stems from the actions we have been taking in the War-on-Terror?
Refer to evidence, e.g. statements of perpetrators and potential perpetrators.
Until the questions are posed, and answered in a way that justifies present programs, by the President and those who share his view, there is no basis for the massive surveillance and data collection project we have launched. Indeed, the lack of persuasive answers is itself prime facie evidence that the country has been the victim of a fraudulent enterprise of historic dimensions..
Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.