Saturday, November 28, 2009

The risks to U.S. interests should Israel attack Iran

Iran’s nuclear program was launched in the 1950’s as part of the Atoms for Peace program promoted by the United States. Western governments supported Iran’s nuclear program until the 1979 Islamic Revolution that toppled the Shah. Following the revolution, the Iranian government disbanded the nuclear program but revived it later.

Enrichment can be used to produce uranium for reactor fuel or (at higher enrichment levels) for weapons. Controversy over Iran's nuclear programs centers its failure to declare sensitive enrichment and reprocessing activities to the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) coinciding with belligerent rhetoric by the Iranian leadership towards Israel. Israel, unlike Iran, is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and therefore not obligated to allow inspections by or report nuclear activities to the IAEA. Israel, surrounded by states that have expressed varying degrees of hostility towards it, has made it a policy not to allow any nearby country to develop a nuclear weapons program that might surpass the capability of Israel to defend itself. The Israeli air force bombed nuclear weapons sites in Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007.

The likelihood of an Israeli attack on Iran has become a talking point with U.S. diplomats attempting to persuade Chinese support for pressuring Iran to give up its nuclear weapons program. The United States has a lot at stake in trying to resolve this conflict peacefully. Steven Simon at the Council for Foreign Relations (via Andrew Sullivan) assesses the risks to U.S. interests if Israel launches an attack on Iran:
Some observers would view an Israeli attack that significantly degraded Iran’s nuclear weapons capability as beneficial to U.S. counterproliferation objectives and ultimately to U.S. national security. The United States has a clear interest in the integrity of the NPT regime and the compliance of member states with meaningful inspection arrangements. The use of force against Iran’s nuclear program would, at a minimum, show that attempts to exploit the restraint of interested powers, manipulate the diplomatic process, game the NPT, and impede International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) access to nuclear-related facilities could carry serious penalties. Were Iran to acquire a nuclear weapons capability, the ability of the U.S. military forces to operate freely in the vicinity of Iran could, under some circumstances, be constrained. Looking into the future, a hostile Iran could also develop reliable long-range delivery systems for nuclear warheads that could strike American territory.

At the same time, an Israeli attack—even if operationally successful—would pose immediate risks to U.S. interests.

First, regardless of perceptions of U.S. complicity in the attack, the United States would probably become embroiled militarily in any Iranian retaliation against Israel or other countries in the region. Given uncertainties about the future of Iraq and a deepening commitment to Afghanistan, hostilities with Iran would stretch U.S. military capabilities at a particularly difficult time while potentially derailing domestic priorities.

Second, an Israeli strike would cause oil prices to spike and heighten concerns that energy supplies through the Persian Gulf may become disrupted. Should Iran attempt to block the Strait of Hormuz by mining, cruise missile strikes, or small boat attacks, these fears would become realized. According to the GAO, however, the loss of Iranian oil for eighteen months would increase prices by only $6 to $11/bbl, assuming that the International Energy Agency coordinated release of reserves. This said, at the onset of the crisis, prices might hit $200/bbl (up from the current level of around $77/bbl) for a short period but would likely quickly subside.

Third, since the United States would be viewed as having assisted Israel, U.S. efforts to foster better relations with the Muslim world would almost certainly suffer. The United States has an enduring strategic interest in fostering better relations with the Muslim world, which is distinct from the ruling elites on whom the United States depends for an array of regional objectives. In part, this interest derives from the need to lubricate cooperation between the United States and these governments by lowering some of the popular resentment of Washington that can hem in local leaders and impede their support for U.S. initiatives. A narrative less infused by anti-Americanism also facilitates counterterrorism goals and, from a longer-range perspective, hedges against regime change. The perceived involvement of the United States in an Israeli attack would undercut these interlocking interests, at least for a while.

Fourth, the United States has a strong interest in domestically generated regime change in Iran. Although some argue that the popular anger aroused in Iran by a strike would be turned against a discredited clerical regime that seemed to invite foreign attack after its bloody postelection repression of nonviolent opposition, it is more likely that Iranians of all stripes would rally around the flag. If so, the opposition Green movement would be undermined, while the ascendant hard-line clerics and Revolutionary Guard supporters would face fewer constraints in consolidating their hold on power.

Fifth, an Israeli attack might guarantee an overtly nuclear weapons capable Iran in the medium term.

Sixth, although progress toward an Israeli-Palestinian final status accord remains elusive, an Israeli strike, especially one that overflew Jordan or Saudi Arabia, would delay fruitful renewed negotiation indefinitely. Both Washington and Jerusalem would be too preoccupied with managing the consequences of an attack, while regional capitals would deflect U.S. appeals to upgrade relations with Israel as an incentive to concessions. If Hamas or Hezbollah were to retaliate against Israel, either spontaneously or in response to Iranian pressure to act, any revival of the peace process would be further set back.

Finally, the United States has an abiding interest in the safety and security of Israel. Depending on the circumstances surrounding an Israeli attack, the political-military relationship between Jerusalem and Washington could fray, which could erode unity among Democrats and embolden Republicans, thereby complicating the administration’s political situation, and weaken Israel’s deterrent. Even if an Israeli move on Iran did not dislocate the bilateral relationship, it could instead produce diplomatic rifts between the United States and its European and regional allies, reminiscent of tensions over the Iraq war.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Ft. Hood and the “clash of civilizations”

There is not much we know yet about the man who committed the crimes at Ft. Hood other than he was an officer and a Muslim and about to be deployed to Afghanistan. We know nothing about his motivations to commit violence whether he was mentally deranged or under the influence of some extremist ideology. There seems to be no evidence to date that he was part of a larger conspiracy.

However, the absence of evidence of a conspiracy or little information on what was driving this man to act as he did has not preventing some in the press and on the internet from seeing Muslim Americans as untrustworthy aliens within the midst of a Christian majority country. Some have even called for a ban on Muslim Americans from the military. The underlying assumptions of this circling-the-wagons mentality with one set of Americans on the inside and another set of Americans on the outside is as unfair as it is ridiculous. And, in a larger political-global context, it is self-defeating. Marc Lynch explains:
Since the Ft Hood atrocity, I've seen a meme going around that it somehow exposed a contradiction between "political correctness" and "security." The avoidance of Nidal Hassan's religion out of fear of offending anyone, goes the argument, created the conditions which allowed him to go undetected and unsanctioned in the months and years leading up to his rampage. American security, therefore, demands dropping the "political correctness" of avoiding a confrontation with Islamist ideas and asking the "tough questions" about Islam as a religion and the loyalty of Muslim-Americans.

This framing of the issue is almost 100% wrong. There is a connection between what these critics are calling "political correctness" and national security, but it runs in the opposite direction. The real linkage is that there is a strong security imperative to prevent the consolidation of a narrative in which America is engaged in a clash of civilizations with Islam, and instead to nurture a narrative in which al-Qaeda and its affiliates represent a marginal fringe to be jointly combatted. Fortunately, American leaders -- from the Obama administration through General George Casey and top counter-terrorism officials -- understand this and have been acting appropriately.

It's worth walking through the connection once again, because how America responds to Ft. Hood really is important in the wider attempt to change the nature of its engagement with Muslim publics across the world. Get the response right, as the administration thus far has done, and they show that things really have changed. Get it wrong, as its critics demand, and the world could tumble back down into the 'clash of civilizations' trap which al-Qaeda so dearly wants and which the improved American approach of the last couple of years has increasingly denied it.

The grand strategy of al-Qaeda and its affiliated ideologues is, and has always been, to generate a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West which does not currently exist. Their great challenge is that the vast majority of Muslims reject their theology, ideology, strategy and tactics. That's especially true of American Muslims. They therefore feel the need to change the environment in which Muslims live in order to change their calculations about the appropriateness of extremist identities and ideologies and actions.

Terrorism is a means towards that end. The object is to create a violent, polarized environment in which Muslims are forced to embrace a narrow, extreme version of Muslim identity. They want Muslims to accept a master narrative in which the Islamic umma is existentially threatened by Western aggression, and the only theologically and strategically appropriate individual response is to join the jihad in the path of god (as they have defined it).

They recognize that most Muslims won't embrace this radical conception of their identity just through messaging, internet rhetoric, or preaching. To make inroads with mainstream Muslim communities, they need to change the context in which they live -- to render their status quo unacceptable and to make their narrative resonate. And for that to happen, they need a lot of help -- for the targeted governments to take inflammatory measures against their Muslim populations, for the non-Muslim citizens in the targeted countries to discriminate against them, and for the media to fan the flames of hatred and mistrust.

Understanding this strategy points towards some fairly obvious guidelines for judging various responses. Al-Qaeda and its affiliated ideologues don't just want their targets to overreact with blanket crackdowns on the mainstream Muslim community -- they are counting on it. They want to create a homogenous, undifferentiated Islam on whose behalf they speak and a coherent master narrative which justifies and validates their actions. American reactions which feed AQ's master narrative, lump together disparate Muslim movements, and tar a wide range of Muslims with the AQ brush therefore serve al-Qaeda's strategy. Responses which disrupt AQ's narrative, disaggregate the Muslim world and relegate AQ to a marginal fringe frustrate its strategy.

A lot of people -- some well-meaning, some clowns or worse -- evidently want the American response to the Ft. Hood shootings to revive the post-9/11 "war of ideas" and "clash of civilizations" anti-Islamic discourse. It's a jihad, they shout, demanding careful scrutiny of the loyalty of American Muslims. That's what they seem to mean by the demand to throw away "political correctness" and confront the ideological menace. The overall effect of their recommendations, however, would be to revive the flagging al-Qaeda brand and to greatly strengthen the appeal of its narrative. And that's exactly what we should not want.

I don't think it's going to happen. President Obama and his national security team clearly rejects such strategic misconceptions. They understand the importance of combining effective police work and international cooperation with a carefully calibrated rhetoric and strategic communications campaign. Americans have learned a lot since 9/11. And if the careful police work and investigation uncovers real ties to al-Qaeda, then I expect they will pursue those leads and carry out the appropriate response quietly and efficiently --- but without inflaming public hostilities, scoring cheap political points, or fueling the al-Qaeda narrative.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The US Senate tradition of stonewalling democracy

Under our federal system of government established in the 18th century, the legislature is divided into two bodies – one that represents people and one that represents states. The latter is the United States Senate. There is very little that is democratic about the Senate. The apportionment of representation currently leaves approximately two-thirds of the Senators representing approximately one-third of the American population. Senators were not popularly elected until the passage of the 17th Amendment less than one-hundred years ago. And, of course, there are arcane rules such as the filibuster which is used to thwart majority rule.

Senate rules permit a senator, or a series of senators, to speak for as long as they wish and on any topic they choose, unless a 3/5ths of the Senate (60 out of 100 Senators – previously 2/3rds or 67 out of 100 before 1975), brings debate to a close by invoking cloture. Previously, the filibustering senator(s) could delay voting only by making an endless speech. Currently, they only need to indicate that they are filibustering, thereby preventing the Senate from moving on to other business until the motion is withdrawn or enough votes are gathered to allow the Senate to proceed with the nation’s business.

When the House of Representatives passed a proposal for national health-care reform, Senator Joseph Lieberman threatened to filibuster the bill when presented to the Senate. Benjamin Sarlin and Samuel Jacobs examine the tradition of obstructionism in the Senate:
When Sen. Joe Lieberman issued fresh threats to filibuster any health-care reform proposal including a public option, he did more than just blunt the momentum generated by the House of Representatives’ passage of a bill this weekend. Lieberman also took his place in a venerable line of legislators bent on using parliamentary procedure to hold up the works. The deans of delay have already been hard at work this Congress, blocking Obama’s nominations for the federal bench and slowing the appointment of the U.S. ambassador to Iraq. It's all becoming too much for Majority Leader Harry Reid, who let loose on the GOP for obstructionist tactics last week after Republicans held up a bill extending unemployment benefits for weeks, even though it passed unanimously after they relented.

These tactics have a rich history. Beginning in the 19th century—historians usually trace the first major threat of a legislative slowdown to 1841—the filibuster became the obstructionist’s weapon of last resort—a way for a passionate minority, sometimes a minority of one, to put the breaks on legislation. The marathon-length address embraced by crusaders and cranks alike—and knew no partisan bounds.

The filibuster was once a muscular event, if one that required a flair for the theatrical (Sen. Alfonse D’Amato of New York singing “South of the Border”) or absurd (Louisiana Sen. Huey Long giving recipes for fried oysters). Filibustering was as physical a contest as politicking could be—Thurmond spoke for 24 hours and 18 minutes; Sen. Wayne Morse held up an oil bill for 22 hours and 26 minutes in 1953; most recently, D’Amato filibustered for more than 15 hours against a bill that would close typewriter factory in his district. Senators had to put their backs, knees, and throats on the line in support of their principles.

“The onus has been turned on the leader to get the 60 votes,” said Sarah Binder, co-author of Politics or Principle: Filibustering in the United States Senate. “Why? Why don’t they put those senators' feet to the fire and make them stand all night? In large part there are such pressing agendas that no one really wants to sacrifice the time.”

Not everyone sees this change as an improvement. Harry McPherson, who has seen plenty of filibusters since serving as counsel to Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1950s, said it may be time to bring the sleepover back to the Senate.

“Why is it that certain people throw up their hands if they don’t have 60 votes? Why don’t they just go ahead and force the opponents to filibuster? Filibustering is not a pleasant thing to do,” McPherson said. “In 1960, the place was full of cots. Senators were sleeping in all kinds of places. Many of these people, more then than now, were elderly people. It was quite unpleasant.”

The filibuster isn’t the only weapon at a delay-minded senator’s disposal. The anonymous hold—by which one senator can secretly hold up a bill or appointment and force the majority leader to go through a time-consuming hoops to overcome the objections—has become increasingly popular in recent years. The use of such tactics helps explain why President Obama has had considerable difficulty getting his judicial nominees and executive-branch appointments confirmed.

So who are the most epic obstructionist senators today? While there is no reliable means of tallying filibusters and holds, some lawmakers have truly distinguished themselves in recent years. Remember: the further from the center of power a member is, the more attractive these tactics designed to protect the minority appear to be…..
Read the entire article here. Sarlin and Jacobs point to some the key obstructionists – Joe Lieberman, Tom Coburn, Jim DeMint, Mitch McConnell, Sam Brownback, and Robert Byrd – in the current Senate.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

The greatest health care system in the world?

Whenever there is a debate about any major change in the laws or services of society there is a perfectly legitimate concern about whether or not the change is really needed. It’s the old “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” line of thinking that comes into play. It is a reasonable concern to raise but sometimes some people will go out of their way to overlook the obvious in defending the status quo.

The American health care system is one of the least efficient in the delivery of services in the West and is one of the most expensive in the world. In the current debate about health care defenders of the status quo warn against any changes at all because of the superiority of the American system. Nicholas Kistof examines the outcomes of our health care system:
The moment of truth for health care is at hand, and the distortion that perhaps gets the most traction is this:

We have the greatest health care system in the world. Sure, it has flaws, but it saves lives in ways that other countries can only dream of. Abroad, people sit on waiting lists for months, so why should we squander billions of dollars to mess with a system that is the envy of the world? As Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama puts it, President Obama’s plans amount to “the first step in destroying the best health care system the world has ever known.”

That self-aggrandizing delusion may be the single greatest myth in the health care debate. In fact, America’s health care system is worse than Slov—er, oops, more on that later.

The United States ranks 31st in life expectancy (tied with Kuwait and Chile), according to the latest World Health Organization figures. We rank 37th in infant mortality (partly because of many premature births) and 34th in maternal mortality. A child in the United States is two-and-a-half times as likely to die by age 5 as in Singapore or Sweden, and an American woman is 11 times as likely to die in childbirth as a woman in Ireland.

Canadians live longer than Americans do after kidney transplants and after dialysis, and that may be typical of cross-border differences. One review examined 10 studies of how the American and Canadian systems dealt with various medical issues. The United States did better in two, Canada did better in five and in three they were similar or it was difficult to determine.

Yet another study, cited in a recent report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Urban Institute, looked at how well 19 developed countries succeeded in avoiding “preventable deaths,” such as those where a disease could be cured or forestalled. What Senator Shelby called “the best health care system” ranked in last place.

The figures are even worse for members of minority groups. An African-American in New Orleans has a shorter life expectancy than the average person in Vietnam or Honduras.

I regularly receive heartbreaking e-mails from readers simultaneously combating the predations of disease and insurers. One correspondent, Linda, told me how she had been diagnosed earlier this year with abdominal and bladder cancer — leading to battles with her insurance company.

“I will never forget standing outside the chemo treatment room knowing that the medication needed to save my life was only a few feet away, but that because I had private insurance it wasn’t available to me,” Linda wrote. “I read a comment from someone saying that they didn’t want a faceless government bureaucrat deciding if they would or would not get treatment. Well, a faceless bureaucrat from my private insurance made the decision that I wouldn’t get treatment and that I wasn’t worth saving.”

It’s true that Americans have shorter waits to see medical specialists than in most countries, although waits in Germany are shorter than in the United States. But citizens of other countries get longer hospital stays and more medication than Americans do because our insurance companies evict people from hospitals as soon as they can stagger out of bed.

For example, in the United States, 90 percent of hernia surgery is performed on an outpatient basis. In Britain, only 40 percent is, according to a report by the McKinsey Global Institute.

Likewise, Americans take 10 percent fewer drugs than citizens in other countries — but pay 118 percent more per pill that they do take, McKinsey said.

Opponents of reform assert that the wretched statistics in the United States are simply a consequence of unhealthy lifestyles and a diverse population with pockets of poverty. It’s true that America suffers more from obesity than other countries. But McKinsey found that over all, the disease burden in Europe is higher than in the United States, probably because Americans smoke less and because the American population is younger.

Moreover, there is one American health statistic that is strikingly above average: life expectancy for Americans who have already reached the age of 65. At that point, they can expect to live longer than the average in industrialized countries. That’s because Americans above age 65 actually have universal health care coverage: Medicare. Suddenly, a diverse population with pockets of poverty is no longer such a drawback.

That brings me to an apology.

In several columns, I’ve noted indignantly that we have worse health statistics than Slovenia. For example, I noted that an American child is twice as likely to die in its first year as a Slovenian child. The tone — worse than Slovenia! — gravely offended Slovenians. They resent having their fine universal health coverage compared with the notoriously dysfunctional American system.

As far as I can tell, every Slovenian has written to me. Twice. So, to all you Slovenians, I apologize profusely for the invidious comparison of our health systems. Yet I still don’t see anything wrong with us Americans aspiring for health care every bit as good as yours.