With the dust settling now in the Levant, it’s becoming easier to get a picture of the who, what, when, where, and why of Operation Pillar of Defense. Here are some important takeaways from the last week.
- Make no mistake: This was a fight Israel wanted to have. Tensions were high throughout early November, culminating in an attack on an IDF Jeep on November 10. Israel responded with airstrikes, and the Gaza groups upped their rocket activity. By November 12, the militant factions signaled readiness for a truce. Netanyahu clearly did not want a truce on those terms. On November 14, he oversaw the assassination of the chief of Hamas’s military wing, ensuring that a broader conflict would erupt. The assassination of Jaabari was an intentional escalation on the part of Israel, who saw the reigning “ceasefire” regime as weak and in need of a shakeup.
In addition, it is clear that Hamas’s stockpile of Fajr-5 missiles was a source of major concern for Israel. About a month ago, IAF jets took out a facility in Sudan that was probably full of these longer-range missiles. They would be smuggled through Egypt and into Gaza for Hamas’s use. Then, in the hours after Jaabari’s assassination, Fajr-5 launchers were the highest-priority bomb targets for the IAF’s first wave of strikes. Although Iron Dome has somewhat neutralized the threat from the Fajr, Israel clearly believes that they represent an unacceptable level of danger for Israeli.
- The Iron Dome system did both of its critical jobs: protect Israeli civilians from rocket fire, and preserve freedom of action for the Israeli government. Although not perfect, Iron Dome performed admirably in combat. It intercepted at least 342 rockets that would have landed in settled areas, including in the Tel Aviv area. By keeping Israelis mostly secure from the Palestinians’ main weapon, Netanyahu was able to delay—and then shelf—a costly ground operation in Gaza. Iron Dome is expensive to operate, but it has proven to be worth the cost. ($275 million in U.S. funding doesn’t hurt, either.) It is rumored that South Korea is now looking at purchasing the system to defend against short-range North Korean missiles.
- Netanyahu did a better job than I thought he would. When I anticipated the announcement of a ceasefire on November 14, and instead heard that Israel took out a senior Hamas leader, I was convinced it was Bibi at his worst. He had attempted assassinations on Hamas leaders before, even when the tactical benefit was dwarfed by the strategic cost. (The most egregious example was in 1997, when he poisoned Khaled Meshaal on Jordanian soil. An enraged King Hussein got Bill Clinton on Netanyahu’s case. Netanyahu then flew the head of the Mossad out to Amman to deliver the antidote. Netanyahu then had to release Hamas “spiritual leader” Ahmed Yassin to get the Mossad agents out of Jordan.)
As I discussed above, the blowback from the assassination was intended. Even so, Netanyahu was cautious. He demonstrated to Hamas that he had a wide range of options at his disposal by getting his cabinet to authorize the call-up of 75,000 reservists—enough manpower to, in theory, eject Hamas from its seat of power in Gaza. But he did not rush in with a ground invasion, recognizing the tremendous political and human costs that kind of operation would exact. He may have waited too long to sign a ceasefire, as people died today who would not have had a ceasefire been signed yesterday. Israel’s operational objectives were met already, which made the hang-up in arranging the ceasefire very frustrating for people outside the government.
- There’s one clear loser in this affair: Mahmoud Abbas. He has been busy campaigning for the Palestinian cause at the UN and other symbolic gestures. His total irrelevance to the conflict lays bare how weak the Palestinian Authority is. Worse, Israeli leaders seem not to care. Netanyahu’s policies often end up politically strengthening the elements he wishes to weaken. That’s fine if he’s willing to deal with Hamas politically, but he doesn’t seem to be.
- Relatedly, Israel still has no long-term strategy for dealing with Hamas. Stripping Hamas of long-range weaponry is a clear operational objective, but it is not a strategic one. The Palestinian Authority is not about to retake the Gaza Strip, so the only elements left in contention are Hamas and the Salafi radicals. Netanyahu sooner or later is going to have to develop something resembling a vision for Gaza beyond permanent containment. He also can’t continue to weaken Abbas and then claim Abbas is too weak to be a peace partner. The word for that is chutzpah.
The most meaningful victory for liberals in the U.S. is not yet assured, despite a night of great news. The votes will be cast informally over the weeks, months, and years ahead.
I speak of the American conservative movement, whose most dangerous philosophical tenet—that all information must be filtered through a conservative lens, and only conservative information sources can be trusted—was dealt a body blow. This phenomenon is known as “epistemic closure,” and its defeat is crucial for the health of the republic.
Ever since the establishment of Fox News in 1996, and especially in the last few years, the belief among conservatives that “mainstream” information outlets were biased against their cause has become a marker of “true conservatism.” Those who questioned that conclusion were often shown the door. The result was a closed sphere of information feedback that, like a room with no ventilation, grew stuffy and noxious over time as the same ideas fermented all over again.
There are countless examples of epistemic closure from the last few years. They moved beyond old favorites of conservative ire, like The New York Times, into egalitarian web platforms like Wikipedia. On the conservative alternative, Conservapedia, the entry of “liberalism” has a section called, “Similarities between Communism, Nazism and liberalism.”
For liberals, the most distressing thing about epistemic closure was its self-sustainability. Those conservatives who believed in 2008 that Barack Obama was born in Kenya were generally not swayed even after he revealed his long-term birth certificate in 2011. No amount of proof and refutation would satisfy them. Slowly, the conservatives built an entire universe based on fantasy. In this universe,
- Barack Obama is a Kenyan-born Muslim.
- Obamacare has a provision to create “death panels.”
- ACORN stole the 2008 presidential election.
- Norway’s Labor Party is akin to the Nazi Party.
- The Congressional Budget Office and Bureau of Labor Statistics are biased toward Democrats.
Election Day 2012 provides a rare opportunity for conservatives to kick this habit. In the weeks leading up to the election, an empirically verifiable experiment was set up (unconsciously). Election forecasters using conventional polling data were predicting a relatively easy win for Barack Obama. At Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog, he estimated that at no point in 2012 would Obama have lost had the election been on that day. Princeton Professor Sam Wang estimated on Election Day that Obama had a better than 99% chance of winning. The more cautious betting markets like InTrade also favored Obama, although with far narrower odds.
On the other hand, many conservatives became convinced that they were being lied to by the pollsters, and that Mitt Romney would win handily. One website rejiggered polls by “unskewing” them to reveal a Mitt Romney lead both nationally and in crucial swing states. Conservative pundits predicted a landslide Romney victory. Most astonishingly, Romney’s own campaign advisors bought into the “skewed polling” hype and anticipated a win.
The results of the experiment were unequivocal: the national polling had been accurate, and the mainstream election forecasters even more accurate. The conservatives were completely, wildly wrong.
The question was, and is, how they will react to being so wrong. Like Truman Burbank wandering into the sea, they are now confronted with the fact that the universe they had constructed for themselves was a lie. Faced with the choice of apologizing and acknowledging the error of their ways, or denying the facts themselves, Dick Morris and Dean Chambers chose the first option. On election night, Karl Rove (nearly alone) chose the second. Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, asking a refreshingly earnest question, queried the sad man, “Is this just math that you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better or is this real?”
The real test will be if conservatives can apply this lesson to all of the other things they taught themselves in their closed information circuit. Will they connect the dots and reject the conspiracy theories? Will they stop treating mainstream, non-partisan news as liberal propaganda? Will universally-accepted scientific theories be acknowledged, or dismissed? Will liberal arguments be treated as having some basis in reality?
These changes to conservative epistemology will be slow and probably incomplete; they may not happen at all. But this is the best chance we’ve got to at least start a political debate in the same universe.
There are a number of important things to glean from the tragic events of September 11, 2012.
1. It is virtually certain that the attack that killed Libyan Ambassador Chris Stevens was a coordinated terrorist operation. The current leader of al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, released a videotape confirming the death in June of one of his deputies, Abu Yahya al-Libi, and urging followers to avenge his death. As you might guess from his name, Libi was born in Libya. Zawahiri is Egyptian. The fact that these events happened on September 11, in the home countries of these two men, 24 hours after the Zawahiri tape was released online, is probably not a coincidence. It is also probably not a coincidence that Zawahiri’s brother, Muhammad, was at the Cairo protest, nor that the crowds he was with raised the flag of al Qaeda at the embassy.
It is not clear if the crowd in Libya knew it would be used as cover for a terrorist attack. But it almost certainly was.
2. It is unprecedented to have a politician in the U.S. criticize the President’s handling of a terrorist operationas it was still unfolding. It is without precedent because nobody had bothered to stoop that low before.
3. It’s still easy to blame the Jews and get away with it. Early media coverage of the “Sam Bacile” character should have looked very skeptically at his claims. First of all, the name Sam Bacile doesn’t sound remotely Jewish. Nor is there any evidence this person ever existed. Second, the claim that Bacile’s film was funded by “100 Hollywood Jewish donors” should haveimmediately set off alarm bells that this guy was playing on anti-Semitic tropes.
4. The events are a sign that old battles are still being waged. Deep splits in Arab societies between modern and pre-modern ideologies were papered over by the regimes in the 1990s and 2000s with a combination of co-optation and repression. The fact that football hooligans and Christians were in the crowds in Egypt for this riot shows that some people are still willing to be used as pawns in the propoganda campaigns of people they ought to hate. Part of being a free citizen is that you can protest in support of yourown ideals; you don’t have to be andshouldn’t be treated like an object by political movements. The faster this norm reaches the ground in the Arab world, the better.
The foreign policy question of our time: to use overt military force to stop Iran’s nuclear program. I have studied it for more than five years with great interest and emotional investment. I’ve attended debates, read countless articles, participated in simulations, and more. In the midst of this quest to understand I was frustrated by an inevitable wall of ambiguity. There’s just so much about this issue that is unknown and still more that is unknowable.
Formulating coherent policy is extremely difficult in such circumstances, and I can’t offer foolproof recommendations. But, at the very least, I think I have winnowed the debate on the military option down to three key questions:
- Is Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons sufficiently dangerous to the national interest so as to seriously consider air strikes?
- Are there realistic military options available to the attacker(s) that could effectively damage the nuclear infrastructure?
- Are the political, military, and human costs manageable enough to allow for military action?
I see these three questions as the test to which policymakers should subject themselves, only proceeding to the next question if there’s a “yes” to the previous one. Military action should only be taken, then, if the answer is “yes” to all three questions.
I will devote a post to each of these questions, starting naturally with number 1, the question of whether a nuclear Iran is that bad. I’m going to cheat a little bit on this one and re-post a large portion of a post I wrote back in October 2010:
[A] lot of Iranian “irrationality” is assumed and not demonstrated. There is also a tendency to resort to other unproven ideas like the “nuclear domino theory” where Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab powers would try to replicate the Iranian feat. I find this unlikely, though conventional arms purchases, enhancement of asymmetrical capabilities, and perhaps even biological and chemical weapons programs are likelier developments.
A real danger in defensive realism’s analysis of nuclear proliferation is not the assumption of “rational actors” — that states act in logical ways — but the assumption of unitary actors. State decision making, especially in Iran, is complicated and not always predictable. Worse, Iran experts say that the chain of command over the nuclear program is at best blurry. With the IRGC and the mullahs vying for internal power, this could get even more unstable.
But even setting aside all the other potential factors — the loss of American prestige, the gain in Iranian prestige, the blow to the non-proliferation treaty, the buildup of regional arms, the emboldening of Iranian leadership, the damage to the peace process — the worst reason of all to cite the relative safety of nuclear weapons is the non-incidence of Cold War nuclear detonations; the U.S. and Russia nearly used nuclear weapons on each other multiples times.
For instance, a scheduled U.S. ICBM test occurred during the Cuban missile crisis. If the Soviets had better early warning systems at that point, they probably would have assumed the test was an actual ICBM launch aimed at them. In 1983, false alarms of an American missile attack on Russia nearly set off a retaliatory strike. A NATO exercise later that year nearly convinced Russia to preempt what they thought was a coming nuclear strike; overzealous KGB agents interpreted the NATO move to DEFCON 1 as real and not a drill. Even as recently as 1995, mistaken identity of a rocket almost led to Russian use of nuclear weapons.
The U.S. and the Soviet Union understood and trusted each other very little throughout most of the Cold War. I think it is safe to say that Iranian hardliners trust and understand the U.S. even less. Anti-Americanism is a core part of their ideology; for them, the Islamic Revolution depends on anti-Americanism. To some degree, it’s irrelevant whether Iran’s leaders intend to commit suicide. What matters is whether they would be able to prevent misunderstanding and brinksmanship from making nuclear war a 1-in-100,000 event to a 1-in-6 event.
Iran is highly unlikely to use nuclear weapons unprovoked or pass them off to terrorists with the expectation that they will use them. There are also understandable defensive reasons for acquiring nuclear weapons. Regardless, the security picture in the Middle East becomes far murkier with a nuclear Iran. The substantial damage to American and Israeli interests merits further consideration of whether a military strike is wise. That analysis will follow.
Israeli leaders are right to be excited by a rare bit of good news in their effort to secure their public against rocket attacks. The development of the Iron Dome anti-rocket system, funded in part by the U.S., is a breakthrough in missile defense: It is the first active defense system against short-range projectiles. Although not perfect (no anti-missile system ever is), it has performed beyond expectations and given a sliver of breathing room to Israeli residents near Gaza.
Most importantly for Prime Minister Netanyahu and the IDF, Iron Dome creates a small degree of “freedom of action” that did not exist before. Given how constrained Israel is politically and militarily in spite of its considerable security challenges, freedom of action is a precious resource. Specifically, the new rocket protection allows Israel to conduct limited military operations in Gaza when a specific threat — in this case, a supposed terrorist attack along the Egyptian border — merits action. Without the threat of debilitating waves of rocket attacks, Israeli leaders will see less need to send in ground forces, as they did in Operation Cast Lead. At a time when Bibi would like to have the world focus on Iran, keeping ground forces out of Gaza is critical.
Hamas, already reeling from significant turmoil among its leadership, now has been challenged by hardline elements in Gaza like Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees. Whenever Hamas decides to de-emphasize violence, PIJ is happy to fill the void. PIJ seems unimpressed by Hamas’s shift away from Syria and Iran toward Egypt. Indeed, PIJ is probably now Iran’s truest representative in Gaza. If successful, the reported terrorist plot would have complicated the growing ties between Hamas and Egypt. As it is, PIJ and the PRC were able to provoke a battle in spite of Hamas’s desire to maintain calm. It also apparently forced Hamas to turn to Egypt as an arbitrator, highlighting Hamas’s own inability to keep the peace.
There is a palpable feeling of relief and even confidence emanating from some in the IDF, owing to the overall military success of the skirmishes and Hamas’s increasingly visible struggle to orient itself. But if Israeli leaders are not careful, they may wind up unprepared for what comes next.
Weakening Hamas’s monopoly on violence in Gaza may be tempting, but now is a particularly risky time to do it. Hamas’s organizational flux (among other factors) has drastically cut ideas of militarily engaging Israel. The smaller Islamist factions are taking Hamas’s place as the main instigators not only because of Hamas’s internal distractions, but because they sense a wider space in which to operate.
Lastly, anything that further cements ties between Hamas and Egypt increases the chance that Israel will find itself facing a unified front of Fatah, Hamas, Egypt, and Jordan. That scenario is unlikely to occur in the absolute, but even steps in that direction will create diplomatic headaches for Israel down the road.
Posted online within a few hours of each other:
If there’s one thing Ray Takeyh made clear in his excellent 2009 book Guardians of the Revolution: Iran in the Age of the Ayatollahs, it was that Iranian politics is a series of paradoxes. The 2012 Iranian legislative election is no different.
As Walter Russell Mead says, this election is basically a “contest among conservatives.” There are at least three main conservative blocs vying for seats, and determining their allegiances is a little more complicated than outside observers might expect. In light of Supreme Leader Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad’s very public power struggle, a number of Western media outlets have simplified the election to a battle between Ahmadinejad supporters and Khamenei supporters. This actually understates the division among conservatives.
The primary conservative bloc is the United Front of Principlists, whose ranks are more traditional in their outlook and tend to be more pragmatic in their political views. They are the ones commonly characterized as being pro-Khamenei, and they tend to be aligned with the mainstream clergy.
Their main competition is the Stability Front, the supposedly pro-Ahmadinejad faction. They were Ahmadinejad’s base of support earlier in his presidency, composed of a few radical clerics and a fair number of IRGC members. They are quite hostile to the West and are very nationalistic.
The paradox comes from the fact that common perceptions of Khamenei and Ahmadinejad have flipped in the last few years. It used to be that Khamenei was considered the pragmatist, the consensus-builder, the careful thinker, and Ahmadinejad was the incorrigibly anti-West fire-breather. Lately, however, Khamenei has criticized Ahmadinejad’s reliance on Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, a pragmatist, as his chief of staff. (Khamenei even forced Mashaei to resign as Vice President last year.) Ahmadinejad now seeks outreach to the West, while Khamenei views these efforts as dangerous.
Mashaei’s Monotheism and Justice Party is really the only group running in the elections that offers unequivocal support of Ahmadinejad — and its support is minimal. The United Front has frequently criticized his handling of the economy, while the Stability Front seeks to diminish Mashaei’s influence and force Ahmadinejad into more hardline foreign policies. The Stability Front offers some support for Ahmadinejad, but the President has strayed from their agenda in his power struggle with the Supreme Leader.
This means Ahmadinejad will have less free rein than ever. Even if the Stability Front does well, he will be made weaker. Khamenei has orchestrated a political scene that allows him to divide and conquer at will.
Whatever limited effect the election will have on Iran’s nuclear policy is uncertain. The only thing we know for sure is that the reformists will be absent from the discussion.
Israel’s early generations of leaders were gifted with a strong pragmatic instinct that stood out in a region where self-deluded demagogues made one foolish move after another. Lately, however, Israel’s political elite has been abandoning sensible thought for a strange combination of alarmism and bravado. A look at Bibi Netanyahu’s approach to each of the major challenges and opportunities in front of him reveals a continuing paralysis coupled with a mentality of denial and wishful thinking.
To take one important issue, Israel is treating the Arab Spring all wrong. Israeli leaders are right to note the potential downside to a new Arab political environment. However, this should not be their public face; they need to engage positively with the Arab world, even if it is not reciprocated immediately. That means Netanyahu should stop referring to the events as moving the Middle East “backward.” Such a verbal champion of democracy should know better than to condescend Arabs by calling their desire for a representative government “illiberal.” This is hypocrisy.
What’s worse, Israel’s own claim to democracy is getting muddied by fascistic elements who bear no respect for the rule of law. The “price tag” campaign of sabotage — borderline terrorism — against Palestinians has now also become an insurgency against the state itself. In the year 2011, more acts of terror were committed by Jews than by Palestinians in the West Bank. Although Netanyahu and his defense minister may grasp the necessity of disrupting the movement, they desperately must confront an even grimmer reality: that 70% of the country’s national-religious and ultra-Orthodox approve to some degree of the attacks, as well as 46% of the country as a whole. That kind of attitude is unhealthy for a liberal society.
Meanwhile, there is a deeply uncomfortable realization that must set into Israeli minds: The Palestinian future will include Hamas. The Palestinian Authority has failed to realize its political aims time and time again, and at the same time Hamas is gaining friends in the Middle East. Add the rise of Islamists in Egypt and Syria’s downward spiral, and geopolitics has encouraged Hamas’s movement into the mainstream. Hamas leaders are not ready to signal a true strategic departure toward non-violence, but a number of forces are subtly changing the group’s cost-benefit calculus toward moderation.
Israel, rather than hiding from these developments, must grab the bull by the horns. Specifically, it should test Hamas’s intentions by using the other Arab states as intermediaries. Although these Arab states are mostly focused inward on feeding their populations, I am certain that an Israeli request to meet secretly with Hamas leaders would command attention. If Israel felt uncomfortable linking Hamas too closely with Egypt, countries like Qatar or Tunisia might be able to serve as substitutes.
According to some recent reports, Hamas leaders are quietly contemplating a switch to non-violence. If that is the case, then a back channel with a trustworthy Arab government would be the perfect way to learn about it — both for Hamas and for Israel. Hamas seeks regional legitimacy, while it would behoove Israel to establish positive relations with the new governments of the region.
It is not clear that Hamas is ready to become a responsible actor yet. That is why Israel should keep these conversations out of sight for now. But it is also not clear that there will ever be a better time to “trap” Hamas in a non-belligerent mindset. That is why sitting back as Hamas determines its future without any Israeli input is strategic folly for Netanyahu. That Israel would have to imagine negotiating with Hamas does not seem fair at all. But most of the hard decisions Israel has made in its history were not made because they were fair, but because they were prudent.
Talk of attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities is springing up again, on the heels of two major developments: one is an an IAEA report on the progress of the nuclear program, and the other is a column by Israeli journalist Nahum Barnea outlining the debate in Israel’s security establishment over whether to attack.
This has forced the question in Washington: What is the next step once our current prevention strategy runs its course? I am still skeptical that the military option will be exercised anytime soon, despite all the recent chatter. One thing we learned as a result of the debate in Israel is that a number of crucial political and military figures are opposed to an attack at this stage. These include IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, the heads of the Mossad and Shabak (Israel’s internal security service), influential members of Knesset Moshe Ya’alon and Shaul Mofaz (who have both served as defense minister and IDF Chief of Staff), Intelligence Minister Dan Meridor, and even Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Also importantly, President Barack Obama is opposed.
One answer which I have previously rejected may be a better option due to changed circumstances. That option is the “naming and shaming” route, to aggressively wage a “PR war” against Iran’s systemic human rights abuses and illegal clandestine operations.
These circumstances have changed somewhat. With the quantum of credibility that the Obama Administration has received on human rights as a result of the Arab Spring, Iranian allegations of American hypocrisy sound less credible. (Note to realists and conservatives: This is what is known as soft power.)
Russia and China will still refuse to endorse the language of Europe and the U.S., but they must now be more cautious not to tread on Arab popular sentiment. For the first time, their insistence on “non-interference” could draw political costs. Arab rulers have discovered that they cannot make policy completely independent of Arab public opinion. Soon, other countries will, too.
This is why it would have been strategic folly to have backed Mubarak to a bitter end. And it is why Saudi Arabia’s backing of the repression in Bahrain was foolish. Building resonance with an angry Arab public is undermined by such short-sighted duplicity. (It has also had the effect of pushing some Bahraini Shia to align closer with Iran than they did before.)
Going the quasi-humanitarian route on Iran is not guaranteed to work, but it is an option that U.S. could not have exercised as easily a year ago. It also helps maximize our gains in the war of narratives with Iran, putting us in better position to influence affairs throughout the region. As long as we do not initiate military action (in the foreseeable future), those gains could mean a whole lot for American foreign policy.
It is with increasing frustration that I see Paul Pillar continually rant against those who consider Iran a dangerous country. I am stunned how frequently he writes about the topic, all without addressing the most important development in Iranian politics — the consolidation of political power behind Supreme Leader Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards. His posts resemble each other so much that I have decided to keep a checklist. Here’s how he scores in his latest post:
- Warning that this “just like Iraq” ✔
- Blaming domestic pro-Israel voices ✔
- Assumption that war is inevitable without his preferred solutions ✔
- Hysterical accusations and word choice ✔
- Blaming Iran’s behavior on U.S. policy (a usual feature)
- Analysis of Iranian institutions, policy, culture, leadership, etc., as is relevant to the discussion
I eagerly wait being able to check off that last one!