The resurgence of takfiri jihad across the Middle East — Egypt, the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq — in just the last few weeks is a scary development demonstrating the weakness of Arab governments. It has brightened al Qaida’s star considerably, as well, leading to inevitable worries about the effects on American security. Luckily for people in the U.S., the rise of Salafi jihadism does not necessarily portend a new Osama bin Laden. Indeed, it’s worth recalling what made bin Laden so unusual as a terrorist threat.
Jihad, in the view of Gilles Kepel and many others, is the manifestation of a struggle between “moderate” and extremist versions of Islam. Modern jihad’s roots lie with Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian who was imprisoned and executed in 1966 for his caustic writings. Qutb held that Arab regimes in his time were akin to pre-Islamic rulers and could be treated as such. Qutb’s followers therefore aimed to resurrect Muhammad’s caliphate in their own societies.
The innovation of Abdullah Azzam, bin Laden’s mentor and co-founder of al Qaida, was to emphasize the “far enemy” — the West — over the “near enemy,” the local regimes. Azzam was hesitant to invoke takfir and believed fighting the influences of the West was the most important duty of jihad. Muslims who were eager to wage war on non-Salafi Muslims where, in his eyes, “simply youth with much zeal.” He was also unconcerned with national borders and believed all Muslims ought to unite their various fights.
None other than the current leader of al Qaida, Ayman al-Zawahiri, came from a different school of jihadi thought which emphasized replacing Muslim regimes first. Zawahiri’s goal since he was a teenager, when Qutb was executed, has been to overthrow the Egyptian state. Zawahiri’s politics are local.
With the exception of bin Laden’s plans, almost all jihad has been fought in Muslim land. The current fights happening across the Middle East only reinforce that point. The war in Syria is a war over Syria, being fought by people who “would never have even been allowed into the [pre-Sept. 11] movement,” said one expert. Al Qaida under bin Laden was something like an elite special operations force targeting the West. Jihad in its more typical form attempts to become a semi-regular army focusing on conquering territory. Zawahiri is likely to be more focused on helping those fighters than on attacking the United States at this moment.
There are, of course, security risks that stem from the thousands of foreign fighters engaged in jihad right now. Still, the number of Americans fighting there is small, and the number who will return wanting to conduct jihad is smaller still. It is true, that jihad is stronger than it possibly has ever been. However, Americans are much safer from large-scale terrorist attacks than they were before 9/11.
There is certainly a pushback from “traditional” conservative circles against tea partiers for nearly bringing down the world financial system. Orrin Hatch, John McCain, Peter King, Rich Lowry, Charles Krauthammer, Jennifer Rubin, Lindsey Graham — a hodgepodge of right-wing opinion leaders — have admitted to everyone the blatantly obvious fact that Obamacare is the law of the land and shutting down government was a dangerous strategy to try to repeal it. They recognize there are forces in their midst they must counter so that it does not happen again.
This is a relief, but it is only the first step to restoring debate in this country that will avoid another band of overly confident zealots from leading us to the edge of a cliff. These supposedly responsible and mainstream figures (some, more than others) have allowed themselves to indulge in irresponsible political games and played along with a nationwide conservative delusion that has been in force for decades now, but has become even more acute recently.
The first fundamental problem is that their view of the country’s politics is skewed. Almost universal among conservative commentators and politicians is the idea that the country is “center-right” in its orientation. Watch as one writer at The American Conservative takes a look at a poll showing a typical self-labeled ideological breakdown (21% of the U.S. calls itself liberal, 35% as moderate, and 40% as conservative). From this he concludes that “Conservatism is the dominant political ideology … Conservative voters in 2012 seem to be sacrificing conservative principles for electability in order to beat Obama, a confusing ranking of priorities considering the similarities between Romney and the President.”
What this analysis fails to take into account is that Republicans guarantee a ceiling to their support if all they do is appeal to conservatives. If almost all conservatives vote for Republicans (which is what happens), then Democrats counter by getting the votes of all the liberals and a majority of the moderates — which also happens. In fact, Democratic candidates won more votes nationwide in the 2012 presidential election, the 2012 Senate elections, and even the 2012 House races. That’s right — even though Democrats didn’t win a majority of the races, more people voted for Democrats than for Republicans. A majority of liberals and moderates team up to support Democrats, while a minority of like-minded conservatives support the Republicans.
The most conservative Republicans tend to acknowledge this and simply argue they must turn out the base to win elections. Richard Mourdock, the tea partier who lost an open Senate seat in Indiana in 2012, said: “I have a mindset that says bipartisanship ought to consist of Democrats coming to the Republican point of view … One of the things I hope to do is to help build a conservative majority in the United States Senate and continue to help the House build a Republican majority and have a Republican White House and then bipartisanship becomes having Democrats come our way.”
Tea partiers and their enablers can made this work easily in the midterm elections, when the opposition to the incumbent president tends to be highly mobilized and the general public is less so. It’s easy to primary people in heavily Republican districts, where a small group of hardcore conservatives can oust a moderate. It’s harder to do in the Senate, where only 1/3 of the seats are up for election every 2 years, and also hard in presidential races when turnout is highest and candidates must compete in the Electoral College. Thus, the current makeup of government — a Democratic president, Democratic majority in the Senate, and a Republican minority in the house with a contingent of archconservatives — is easily understood by the structural limitations of each body.
The right, so beleaguered from a humiliating 2008 election which eventually resulted in a filibuster-proof 60 Democratic Senate seats and a majority in the House — with a gay man leading the Financial Services Committee and liberal icons leading other important committees — decided they would tap into anything to win another election. Richard Neustadt’s “paranoid" faction emerged, and mainstream conservatives seized on it. Rather than acknowledge how incredibly not-radical Obama’s politics are, and therefore how he was able to appeal to a wide range of people and legitimately win election — twice — conservatives decided there was a conspiracy afoot.
Remember, very early on in Obama’s presidency, when the Department of Homeland Security issued a report warning that there was a threat of domestic terrorism from right-wing extremists? DHS was talking about people like Timothy McVeigh and the KKK. Nothing about that report should have been controversial. But Michelle Malkin’s response was “It’s no small coincidence that Ms. Napolitano’s agency disseminated the assessment just a week before the nationwide April 15 Tax Day Tea Party protests.” Newt Gingrich and Sean Hannity followed suit. And yes, even John Boehner protested it. In effect, conservatives claimed even the most extreme right-wing factions of the country for their own — something nobody in their right mind would have ever anticipated or wished.
These conservative voices fed hyperbolic and conspiratorial language from the far-right and made it mainstream. Supposedly fair and balanced Fox News gave Glenn Beck institutional backing, where he spouted to millions of viewers that Cass Sunstein, Google, the entertainment industry, Arianna Huffington, the Foreign Service, and various other actors were conspiring to rob Americans of their way of life. And that they should buy gold instead of trust American treasury bills.
Compare this with how Democrats reacted to the loss of John Kerry in 2004 to a president they hated and believed could have easily been defeated. (Indeed, the election was very close.) Although there was no unified, grassroots hardcore liberal movement that could have been mobilized like the tea party, there were strongly anti-establishment figures like Cindy Sheehan that the party could have turned to as a way of building a new coalition. But they didn’t. In 2006, Democrats relied on a three-part strategy: run against a flailing Bush administration dealing incompetently with disasters in Iraq and New Orleans, chastise the corruption of Republican leadership (Tom DeLay, Jack Abramoff, Mark Foley, etc.), and run competitive candidates in swing districts. Democrats won narrow victories in the Senate thanks to centrists like Jim Webb and Jon Tester. The NRA boasted that November, “The 110th Congress will convene with 24 pro-gun freshmen — 11 Democrats and 13 Republicans.”
After election night 2012, I mentioned a problem facing conservatives who made themselves believe that mainstream polling organizations and Nate Silver were secretly skewing their numbers to favor Obama. It would not merely be enough to acknowledge that they had been wrong about the skewed polling data, but that the same cognitive processes that led them to be mistaken about polling data were also responsible for a host of other mental deceptions. The fruitless “unskewing” of polling data was a totally natural and inevitable consequence of the fundamental beliefs of conservatives in this country.
So, non-teabag Republicans want to recriminate the tea party for dragging them into a losing fight with Obama? Well, to you I say: If you said that Obamacare would create death panels; if you questioned even for a moment that Obama was a U.S. citizen; if you said that the individual mandate provision of Obamacare, whichhad its roots in a Heritage Foundation paper from 1989, was evidence of creeping socialism; if you said that people could go to jail for not buying insurance; if you treated the DHS memo on domestic terrorism as an attack on ordinary citizens; if you said that ACORN stole the 2008 and/or 2012 presidential elections for Obama; if you even so much as mentioned the possibility of armed revolution as an option in a democracy; if you defended the use of the filibuster to deny filling presidentially appointed positions no matter who the nominee was; then you fed this problem and it’s your responsibility to rid your party of not just the people who fervently believe this stuff, but also the mentality that allowed it to fester.
A responsible opposition doesn’t think that it, (often as a self-acknowledged minority!), has the right to bring down the whole system just to get its way. It wins elections and trusts the democratic process to eventually achieve the right outcomes. Michael Gerson quoted William F. Buckley accordingly: “I’ve always believed that conservatism is … the politics of reality and that reality ultimately asserts itself, in a reasonably free society, in behalf of the conservative position.” In other words, make your case to the American public — without trying to get a small band of ideologically cohesive but epistemically unhinged activists to force everyone into a world they don’t want. It runs totally counter to the idea of democratic pluralism, the operating principle under which James Madison wrote our Constitution.
Republicans have not had such serious ideological paralysis since the wake of the Great Depression, which discredited the laissez-faire approach and empowered a generation of New Deal Democrats who ruled the country until the mid-1960s, when the New Deal coalition fell apart over civil rights. It took 48 years from the time FDR was first elected to the time modern conservative Republicans got their first president. It was an agonizing wait, but the country grew and flourished in the intervening time period anyway. And it has continued to grow and flourish because American democracy is a powerful force for good. Republicans of all stripes need to have some faith in it.
There is historic potential in the so-called “charm offensive” by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his government. An optimistic reading of his outreach to the U.S. and the West sees an opportunity to resolve some of the most difficult challenges of American security—namely, the unrest in Syria, Iran’s nuclear progress, and our general relationship with Iran. A cynical reading sees Rouhani’s actions as a stalling and diversionary tactic to reduce pressure on Iran. And the alarmist position, voiced presently by the government of Israel, fears that many years of efforts to isolate Iran and delay its nuclear progress will be squandered through sham diplomacy—all but ensuring the necessity of military force to resolve the question.
The space for optimism is higher now than it has been in a long time. Recent developments in Syria have catalyzed interest in resolving that conflict. Iran, meanwhile, has been sending unambiguous signals it is interested in negotiations about its nuclear program. The state of Iran’s political dynamics is more favorable to diplomatic solutions, as well. Given the high potential rewards of engaging Iran, the low risks, and the high cost of foreclosing diplomatic options completely from our relationship with Iran, it is prudent to explore what can be accomplished.
The alarmists, meanwhile, have tools at their disposal to keep a solution from being reached. Coordinating American strategy with these alarmists is important for everyone involved. Luckily, this is doable if planned ahead of time.
First, I’ll run through what makes the current moment a unique opportunity to explore a diplomatic settlement with Iran, by looking at what’s changed in the Middle East as a whole and in Iran specifically. Then I’ll talk about the need to approach this issue with knowledge of the tripwires that could take apparent progress in unexpected directions.
What has changed in the region
The biggest difference in Iran’s posture internationally is its cost-benefit calculus with regard to propping up the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
First, Assad’s use of chemical weapons (and the world’s reaction) has managed to embarrass Iran. Rouhani explicitly condemned the use of chemical weapons, which all of a sudden Assad has confessed to possessing. Rouhani also mentioned recently that Iran would respect the outcome of free elections in Syria, no matter the victor. It’s a change in emphasis from the blunter language we’re used to.
Meanwhile, the Russian proposal to unhand Assad of these weapons has ironically put Iran in a position where it benefits from a more conciliatory policy. Iran wants a say in the outcome of the Syria mess, regardless of that outcome. But as Russia and the U.S. now start making critical decisions about Assad’s future, Iran has to demonstrate its interest in being a constructive player. Talking seriously about the nuclear program is one such way.
What has changed in Iran
Iran’s 2013 elections were not marked by mass protests against the regime like in 2009, but the message in the results was the same: we are unhappy with the status quo. The Iranian economy is ailing under the weight of American and world sanctions. According to Patrick Clawson, “Iran’s useable oil export revenue was around two-thirds less than it would otherwise have been this year. At about $30–$35 billion a year, Iran’s useable oil revenue now stands at a level last seen a decade ago.” Iran’s economy shrank more than 5% last year.
Rouhani’s mandate is to reverse these sanctions. He spoke at length on the campaign trail about how his experience in foreign policy would be an asset to Iran’s economy because he would be able to free Iran from the weight of the sanctions. He has appointed a technocratic government, including a foreign minister who has significant ties to the United States. He also moved the nuclear portfolio out of the hands of the security elite and into the foreign ministry. He’s offered to implement the IAEA Additional Protocol his country signed in 2003 (when he was the nuclear negotiator for Mohammad Khatami’s government) but never ratified—greatly improving the international community’s ability to verify the scope and safety of Iran’s nuclear technologies.
What makes the Iranian charm offensive so intriguing is that it is clearly being done with the blessing of Supreme Leader Khamenei. Khamenei, who has always had a deep suspicion of the West, nonetheless spoke publicly last week about the need for “heroic flexibility” in policy. He even drew upon Shi’a Islamic history to make this case. Khamenei’s backing of Rouhani’s outreach is critical to allowing the president the political space necessary to meet his mandate. (And as I’ve written before, negotiating with a divided Iran is no good.)
Mohsen Milani says this is the most willing the Islamic Republic has ever been to openly negotiate with the United States.
Skepticism and fear about diplomacy
The three groups most afraid of Rouhani’s diplomacy are the U.S. Congress, the Israeli government, and Arab allies like Saudi Arabia. It would be at Obama’s own peril to ignore the stumbling blocks posed by pursuing a policy of engagement without addressing the concerns these actors have.
Israel, in particular, is deeply displeased at the latest developments with Rouhani. The margin for error is smaller with Israel on Iran, and constant American pressure on Iran is actually what Israel considers to be the best-case scenario. The U.S. can marshal international support for the sanctions regime, enforce the sanctions, and threaten military force much more effectively than Israel can. With America distracted in diplomatic engagements, Israel feels more isolated and the pressure to act on her own grows. Only President Shimon Peres, who enjoys a good relationship with Obama, has expressed support for the project.
Likewise, America’s Arab allies will want to see a major change in Iranian behavior before they start trusting Iran’s diplomatic outreach. Saudi Arabia, in particular, will not hesitate to undermine Obama. Recall that the Saudis dispatched 1,200 troops to Bahrain right after U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates flew to the region and pressed on the Bahraini government to open space for dialogue with its protestors. It was a defiant act that demonstrated how seriously the Saudis believe the Iranian regime is trying to invade its sphere of influence.
The last group is Congress, which will continue to press Obama into further sanctions and demand significant Iranian concessions if Obama wants Congress’s permission to relax those sanctions.
Realistic limits of progress
I dislike the constant use of “rapprochement” to describe the course set out by Rouhani. Supreme Leader Khamenei is not interested in rapprochement with the United States and never has been at any point in his capacity as President or Supreme Leader of Iran. He is deeply suspicious of the West’s culture, seeing it as a pollutant of Iranian minds against the theocracy. Khamenei has not granted Rouhani permission to restore diplomatic ties and begin a strategic alliance with the United States; this would undermine one of the most fundamental principles of the Islamic revolution. What Khamenei has done is see if he can shore up the regime’s stability by easing sanctions on the nuclear program. As Khamenei elaborated in the speech in which he invoked “heroic flexibility,” any agreement with the U.S. must be narrow: “A wrestler sometimes shows flexibility for technical reasons. But he does not forget about his opponent nor about his main objective.”
Even if Rouhani’s desire to reach out is legitimate and Khamenei is willing to provide him a leash, the history of U.S.–Iran relations shows that even the littlest amount of goodwill is hard to sustain. Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the pragmatic president who succeeded Khomeini and is in some ways a mentor to Rouhani, cautiously tested whether improvements in relations with the U.S. were possible. One of his maneuvers was to help facilitate the release of remaining hostages that Hizballah held after the Lebanese Civil War. That eventually earned him the scorn of Iran’s principlists for capitulating to the West, and from President George H.W. Bush for being too slow in delivering the hostages. No rapprochement occurred.
As we’ve seen, Rouhani is already taking flak from the hardline elements of the Iranian regime for doing something as simple as acknowledging the brutality of the Holocaust. It may seem to the alarmists that Obama is now under great pressure to deliver “concrete” results, but so is Rouhani. Those results—the relaxation of sanctions—are a complicated process that can easily be halted by a dissatisfied Congress or show of defiance from hardliners in Iran.
Putting it all together, there’s an unusual apparent willingness on the part of the Supreme Leader of Iran to negotiate a nuclear deal. For the U.S. to not even explore this opportunity, given the range of undesirable alternative outcomes, would be irresponsible statecraft. The U.S. should come in to negotiations fully aware of the tight leash Rouhani is on. It should also be prepared to explain to jittery allies what is happening and what the contingency plans are. And lastly, Obama must formulate a base of support to be able to sell an agreement to Congress.
This will require extensive policy coordination with Europe, Israel, the Arab world, and Congress. That’s basically the only way we can negotiate with Iran right now—even on a technical issue.
A quick look at the demographic boundaries of Syria help explain how military dictatorship has become the preferred method of governance in this ancient land. With a weakened despot in nominal control and an insurgency under way, a summoning was called to jihadis. They have responded and are now flocking to Syria in droves. This is the same pattern we’ve seen in many other parts of the world, and it raises some questions about American strategy in the future.
Mobile jihad first began as we recognize it with the mujahideen of Afghanistan who fought the occupation of the Soviet Union. Muslim youth from the Arab world joined the native fighters and helped pave the way for what became the Taliban government. But it did not stop there. Soon after, Muslims were in conflict in the Balkans and in Chechnya, taking advantage of desperate rebels who feared domination by Slavs.
The attraction of outsiders into these insurgencies does not always pose an immediate security challenge to the U.S., and it may not prove to be one in Syria. Although the evilness of American influence is unchanged in jihadi ideology, the “American front” is of reduced importance at this time. The weakness of the Arab regimes and continued upheaval in spots like the Sinai offer jihadis a much more natural environment for battle.
Most jihadi organizations are focused on local battles against non-radical Muslims. Have you ever heard the phrase that “The jihad is a war not between Muslims and the West, but within Islam?” That’s what that expression means. The current battlefields of that war are in the Gaza Strip, the Sinai, Afghanistan-Pakistan, Nigeria, Mali, and Syria. The primary threat to Americans are “lone wolves” like the Tsarnaev brothers, who have never fought in any insurgency.
I see potential dangers if we end up committing military (aerial) forces to Syria in helping to depose the government and/or the jihadi groups. The temptation to use American air power to degrade the Assad regime, should it occur, could portend an extended mission where our forces also end up hitting jihadi targets. The decision to extend the mission to limited counterinsurgency should be made very carefully and in the context of both what it would mean for Syria’s replacement government — whatever its composition — and for U.S. safety, as it relates to the jihadis’ orientation and plans.
Helping to topple the Assad regime would allow the jihadis to partially fill the power vacuum in the country and likely establish control over some parts of the Sunni heartland. It could even exacerbate the civil war by “leveling” the playing field of factions to several relatively weak forces.
In the unlikely event American drones are used to quell the jihadi fighters but not the regime, we would also have to be prepared for the fact that we would be extending the survival of Assad in power and hurting the Free Syrian Army in the short and medium term. Unless it becomes implicit U.S. policy to tolerate the Assad regime, knocking out one of its main belligerents without also hitting the regime will end up solidifying Assad.
The effect of American confrontation with the jihadis in Syria could backfire if not planned ahead of time. All of this means to say that given two adversaries in this mess of a conflict, our future strategy needs to plan for our interactions with both of them. The impact of the jihadi presence in Syria is unknowable, but our approach to the Assad regime must take them into account as part of a comprehensive strategy.
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: