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The Race for Iran


Our Yale University colleague, the distinguished professor of law and political science, and author, most recently of The Decline and Fall of the American Republic, Bruce Ackerman, published a very important piece last week in Foreign Policy.  To read the original with links, click here.  Excerpts are below:

By Bruce Ackerman

“In taking the country into a war with Libya, Barack Obama’s administration is breaking new ground in its construction of an imperial presidency — an executive who increasingly acts independently of Congress at home and abroad. Obtaining a U.N. Security Council resolution has legitimated U.S. bombing raids under international law. But the U.N. Charter is not a substitute for the U.S. Constitution, which gives Congress, not the president, the power ‘to declare war.’

After the Vietnam War, Congress passed the War Powers Resolution, which granted the president the power to act unilaterally for 60 days in response to a ‘national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces’…

But, again, these provisions have little to do with the constitutionality of the Libyan intervention, since Libya did not attack our ‘armed forces.’  The president failed to mention this fundamental point in giving Congress notice of his decision…

Without an armed “attack,” there is no compelling reason for the president to cut Congress out of a crucial decision on war and peace.

This is particularly striking since, in the Libyan case, the president had plenty of time to get congressional support. A broad coalition — from Senator John McCain to Senator John Kerry — could have been mobilized on behalf of a bipartisan resolution as the administration engaged in the necessary international diplomacy. But apparently Obama thought it more important to lobby the Arab League than the U.S. Congress.

In cutting out Congress, Obama has overstepped even the dubious precedent set when President Bill Clinton bombed Kosovo in 1999. Then, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel asserted that Congress had given its consent by appropriating funds for the Kosovo campaign. It was a big stretch, given the actual facts — but Obama can’t even take advantage of this same desperate expedient, since Congress has appropriated no funds for the Libyan war. The president is simply using money appropriated to the Pentagon for general purposes to conduct the current air campaign.

The War Powers Resolution doesn’t authorize a single day of Libyan bombing. But it does provide an escape hatch, stating that it is not “intended to alter the constitutional authority of the Congress or of the President.” So it’s open for Obama to assert that his power as commander in chief allows him to wage war without Congress, despite the Constitution’s insistence to the contrary.

Many modern presidents have made such claims, and Harry Truman acted upon this assertion in Korea. But it’s surprising to find Obama on the verge of ratifying such precedents. He was elected in reaction to the unilateralist assertions of John Yoo and other apologists for George W. Bush-era illegalities. Yet he is now moving onto ground that even Bush did not occupy. After a lot of talk about his inherent powers, Bush did get Congress to authorize his wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now, Obama is putting Bush-era talk into action in Libya — without congressional authorization.

The president’s insistence that his Libyan campaign is limited in its purposes and duration is no excuse. These are precisely the issues that he should have defined in collaboration with Congress. Now that he claims inherent power, why can’t he redefine U.S. objectives on his own? No less important, what is to stop some future president from using Obama’s precedent to justify even more aggressively unilateral actions? ” (emphasis added)



We commend the piece below, written by our colleague, Steve Walt, in Foreign Policy.  It can viewed at Foreign Policy by clicking here. Steve is the Robert and Renee Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.  His analysis of the “neocon-liberal alliance” has very powerful applications to understanding U.S. policymaking with regard to Iran.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

What Intervention in Libya Tells us About the Neocon-Liberal Alliance

By Stephen Walt

Last Wednesday I spoke at an event at Hofstra University, on the subject of “Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy.” The other panelists were former DNC chair and 2004 presidential candidate Howard Dean and longtime Republican campaign guru Ed Rollins. The organizers at Hofstra were efficient and friendly, the audience asked good questions, and I thought both Dean and Rollins were gracious and insightful in their comments. All in all, it was a very successful session.

During the Q & A, I talked about the narrowness of foreign policy debate in Washington and the close political kinship between the liberal interventionists of the Democratic Party and the neoconservatives that dominate the GOP. At one point, I said that “liberal inteventionists are just ‘kinder, gentler’ neocons, and neocons are just liberal interventionsts on steroids.”

Dean challenged me rather forcefully on this point, declaring that there was simply no similarity whatsoever between a smart and sensible person like U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice and a “crazy guy” like Paul Wolfowitz. (I didn’t write down Dean’s exact words, but I am certain that he portrayed Wolfowitz in more-or-less those terms). I responded by listing all the similarites between the two schools of thought, and the discussion went on from there.

I mention this anecdote because I wonder what Dean would say now. In case you hadn’t noticed, over the weekend President Obama took the nation to war against Libya, largely on the advice of liberal interventionists like Ambassador Rice, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and NSC aides Samantha Power and Michael McFaul. According to several news reports I’ve read, he did this despite objections from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon. 

The only important intellectual difference between neoconservatives and liberal interventionists is that the former have disdain for international institutions (which they see as constraints on U.S. power), and the latter see them as a useful way to legitimate American dominance. Both groups extol the virtues of democracy, both groups believe that U.S. power — and especially its military power — can be a highly effective tool of statecraft. Both groups are deeply alarmed at the prospect that WMD might be in the hands of anybody but the United States and its closest allies, and both groups think it is America’s right and responsibility to fix lots of problems all over the world. Both groups consistently over-estimate how easy it will be to do this, however, which is why each has a propensity to get us involved in conflicts where our vital interests are not engaged and that end up costing a lot more than they initially expect.

So if you’re baffled by how Mr. “Change You Can Believe In” morphed into Mr. “More of the Same,” you shouldn’t really be surprised. George Bush left in disgrace and Barack Obama took his place, but he brought with him a group of foreign policy advisors whose basic world views were not that different from the people they were replacing. I’m not saying their attitudes were identical, but the similarities are probably more important than the areas of disagreement. Most of the U.S. foreign policy establishment has become addicted to empire, it seems, and it doesn’t really matter which party happens to be occupying Pennsylvania Avenue.

So where does this leave us? For starters, Barack Obama now owns not one but two wars. He inherited a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, and he chose to escalate instead of withdrawing.  Instead of being George Bush’s mismanaged blunder, Afghanistan became “Obama’s War.” And now he’s taken on a second, potentially open-ended military commitment, after no public debate, scant consultation with Congress, without a clear articulation of national interest, and in the face of great public skepticism. Talk about going with a gut instinct.

When the Security Council passed Resolution 1973 last week and it was clear we were going to war, I credited the administration with letting Europe and the Arab League take the lead in the operation. My fear back then, however, was that the Europeans and Arab states would not be up to the job and that Uncle Sucker would end up holding the bag. But even there I gave them too much credit, insofar as U.S. forces have been extensively involved from the very start, and the Arab League has already gone wobbly on us. Can anyone really doubt that this affair will be perceived by people around the world as a United States-led operation, no matter what we say about it?

More importantly, despite Obama’s declaration that he would not send ground troops into Libya — a statement made to assuage an overcommitted military, reassure a skeptical public, or both — what is he going to do if the air assault doesn’t work? What if Qaddafi hangs tough, which would hardly be surprising given the dearth of attractive alternatives that he’s facing? What if his supporters see this as another case of illegitimate Western interferences, and continue to back him? What if he moves forces back into the cities he controls, blends them in with the local population, and dares us to bomb civilians? Will the United States and its allies continue to pummel Libya until he says uncle? Or will Obama and Sarkozy and Cameron then decide that now it’s time for special forces, or even ground troops?

And even if we are successful, what then? As in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, over forty years of Qaddafi’s erratic and despotic rule have left Libya in very poor shape despite its oil wealth. Apart from some potentially fractious tribes, the country is almost completely lacking in effective national institutions. If Qaddafi goes we will own the place, and we will probably have to do something substantial to rebuild it lest it turn into an exporter of refugees, a breeding ground for criminals, or the sort of terrorist “safe haven” we’re supposedly trying to prevent in Afghanistan.

But the real lesson is what it tells us about America’s inability to resist the temptation to meddle with military power. Because the United States seems so much stronger than a country like Libya, well-intentioned liberal hawks can easily convince themselves that they can use the mailed fist at low cost and without onerous unintended consequences. When you have a big hammer the whole world looks like a nail; when you have thousand of cruise missiles and smart bombs and lots of B-2s and F-18s, the whole world looks like a target set. The United States doesn’t get involved everywhere that despots crack down on rebels (as our limp reaction to the crackdowns in Yemen and Bahrain demonstrate), but lately we always seems to doing this sort of thing somewhere. Even a smart guy like Barack Obama couldn’t keep himself from going abroad in search of a monster to destroy.

And even if this little adventure goes better than I expect, it’s likely to come back to haunt us later. One reason that the Bush administration could stampede the country to war in Iraq was the apparent ease with which the United States had toppled the Taliban back in 2001. After a string of seeming successes dating back to the 1991 Gulf War, U.S. leaders and the American public had become convinced that the Pentagon had a magic formula for remaking whole countries without breaking a sweat. It took the debacle in Iraq and the Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan to remind us of the limits of military power, and it seems to have taken Obama less than two years on the job to forget that lesson. We may get reminded again in Libya, but if we don’t, the neocon/liberal alliance will be emboldened and we’ll be more likely to stumble into a quagmire somewhere else.

And who’s the big winner here? Back in Beijing, China’s leaders must be smiling as they watch Washington walk open-eyed into another potential quagmire.  



Photo by AFP/Getty Imades

Today, the White House confirmed, see here, that it was “aware, obviously, of the invitation” extended to Saudi Arabia to invade Bahrain.  But U.S. government officials continue to decline to say what Secretary of Defense Gates said or did not say to his Bahraini interlocutors 36 hours before Saudi Arabia’s military offensive.  And, U.S. government officials have refused to call for the removal of foreign troops from Bahrain.  

For many in Iran, and indeed for Shia throughout the Persian Gulf, this is painfully reminiscent of American silence when Iraq invaded the Islamic Republic in 1980.  And, as it became clear that the United States was supporting Saddam Hussein in his war of aggression against Iran, it seems increasingly likely that the Obama Administration will be seen as supporting the use of armed force against a Shia majority population in Bahrain.

In this regard, it is telling that the Obama Administration refuses to call for democracy in Bahrain.  According to the White House spokesman, President Obama, in phone conversations with Saudi King Abdullah and Bahraini King Hamad, “stressed the importance of a political process as the only way to peacefully address the legitimate grievances of Bahrainis and to lead to a Bahrain that is stable, just, more unified and responsive to its people.”

As Hillary Mann Leverett pointed out anew today on Al Jazeera, see here, the way the Obama Administration is speaking about what Saudi and Bahraini security forces are doing is strikingly similar to the way in which the United States speaks about how Israel treats Palestinians.  In both cases, Washington exhorts all parties to show restraint and not to do anything that would undermine possibilities for dialogue.  And, in both cases, it criticizes people trying to defend their rights for “instigating violence.”  The contrast between this and the way in which the Obama Administration insists that Qaddafi “must go” should prompt serious questioning of the real motives for U.S. policy.

The real difference is this: Qaddafi is never going to carry America’s water again.  But, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are key to America’s ability to project military power in the Persian Gulf.  If Bahrain got a government that actually represented the sentiments of its people, the U.S. Fifth Fleet might not get kicked out immediately—but, for sure, that government would not allow U.S. military forces operating out of Bahrain would to be used in an attack against Iran.  And that would mean the Obama administration could no longer credibly claim that “all options are on the table” against Iran.

So, in order to cover up for its failed Iran policy, the Obama Administration is prepared to put America’s long-term strategic position in the region and American lives at risk.  For, at this point, the United States is coming to be seen as complicit in Bahraini eyes in the armed occupation of Bahrain.  As a Bahraini teacher said to an American journalist: “I wish the Americans would help us.  But the day after your defense minister came here, the Saudi troops came in.”  As we’ve noted previously, the work of University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape brilliantly demonstrates that this is a formula which is likely to generate suicide terror attacks against U.S. interests.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



Photo by AP/Mandel Ngan

Hillary Mann Leverett appeared on Al Jazeera yesterday to talk about the deployment of Saudi troops to Bahrain and the direction of U.S. policy there; to see her segment, click here.  Her key question: What was U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates doing and saying—or not saying—in Bahrain about 36 hours before Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states sent troops into Bahrain to repress protesters there?  

Throughout yesterday, as Saudi troops took up positions inside Bahrain, the White House was hard put even to say the name “Saudi Arabia,” much less to acknowledge that Saudi troops had entered the country.   This follows on White House officials having said at various times this week that protesters in Bahrain were “instigating violence” (thereby justifying the prospective responses of Bahraini security forces as well as the deployment of foreign troops). 

When White House officials finally had to recognize the Saudi troop presence in Bahrain, they pointed out that these foreign troops had been “invited.”   Obama’s close ally, Senator John Kerry, chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, went so far as to say that, in fact, he saw the Saudi intervention as an attempt to create a framework for dialogue and reform.  “They are not looking for violence in the streets,” he said. “…They would like to encourage the king and others to engage in reforms and a dialogue.  What they are trying to do is create a framework in which that can take place.”

This rank propping up of a “pro-American” regime, using the manufactured pretense that Iran has masterminded this one case in the broader Arab call for independence—thereby “delegitimating” that case—will backfire unless the United States changes policy quickly and decisively.   Just as Vice President Biden had to swallow his claim that Egypt’s former President Mubarak was “not a dictator” because he was friends with Israel and Secretary of State Clinton had to swallow her assertion that Egypt was “stable” in face of reality, the Obama Administration needs to recognize reality in Bahrain.  If they do not, the United States seriously risks being seen as complicit, by the majority of Bahrain’s population, in the armed occupation of Bahrain.  As the work of University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape brilliantly demonstrates, this is a formula that is likely to generate suicide terror attacks against U.S. interests. 

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



Photo by AP/Alex Brandon

Our esteemed contributor, Arnold Evans, has written a comment that we think should be featured as a stand-alone piece.   Arnold’s piece puts the transformative events that are going on in the Middle East right now in a rich and sharply drawn historical context, and draws out provocative implications regarding the future direction of U.S. policy in the region.  As Arnold insightfully argues, U.S. strategy in the Middle East is at crossroads.

By Arnold Evans

The US has to a greater or lesser degree since the foundation of Israel and/or the end of the British colonial empire worked to ensure a balance of power in the region of the Middle East.  By balance of power, I mean it has had as a goal preventing one power, for example Iran from being in a position to overrun, for example, Arabia and coordinating the large stock of resources in a way that could directly or in alliance with any rival be harmful or threatening to the US.

This is not unique to the Middle East.  Germany and France should, according to US principles, each be unable to impose control over the other, Brazil and Argentina, Japan, Korea and China all should be roughly in balance.  Just enough that none of the powers are able to use the resources available as a unit in a way that could potentially harm the US.

What is unique to the Middle East is that there is a tiny country that the US has to a greater or lesser degree since its foundation, felt a responsibility to maintain.  This is important because, for example, Arabia has a lot of oil and plenty of resources that it can remain independent of Iran, make sure it is not worth Iran’s while to try to capture – except that an Arabia that is too strong, could and would render Israel non-viable.

So while the US pursues a balance of power strategy, in the Middle East it pursues a strategy of a balance of artificially weak powers.  Arabia has to be both immune from domination by Iraq or Iran and also weak enough not to threaten Israel.

Saddam Hussein, for his own reasons that are very interesting but tangential to this discussion was willing to attack Iran after Iran removed itself from the US colonial structure by expelling the Shah.  The United States and its remaining regional colonies supported Hussein in this attack as an effort toward “dual containment”.

By the time the war was over Iraq and Iran were both weakened.  The US plan for Iraq was that it was to remain weak indefinitely because of service of war debts to the US colonies, low oil prices and lastly Kuwait – at US direction – would actually pump and sell oil from under Iraqi territory.

When the Iran-Iraq war ended, the US did not need an active war in Iraq or Iran.  Both were sufficiently weak and could be kept so through various methods of indirect economic warfare – sanctions and oil policies of the more reliable colonies.

Hussein attempted to break out of Iraq’s containment by attacking Kuwait. I’ve read the report of the US ambassador to Iraq who some say encouraged Hussein to attack and I do not get that impression at all.  While there were probably warning signs, Hussein’s attack on Kuwait was unexpected and potentially threatening to the balance of powers that are artificially weak enough not to threaten Israel in the region.

The United States responded by directly intervening to remove Iraq from Kuwait and then by imposing sanctions far more brutal than those currently imposed by the US and Israel on Gaza.  The United States limited the supply of protein to Iraqi civilians as well as water treatment technology and caused the premature deaths of over one million Iraqis.

Which brings us to 2000.

The reason for the sanctions, indeed for the encouragement by the US and its colonies of the Iran-Iraq war was to maintain a balance of power where countries in the region are too weak to threaten each other or Israel which is a tiny territory with a small concentrated population.  The rationale of the sanctions was that Iraq had not complied with demands to remove any “weapons of mass destruction”.

Iraq had complied with those demands.  Iraq publicly and unambiguously stated on every possible occasion that it did not have them.  Once sanctions were over, Iraq, as every country, would have had the capacity to rebuild its stocks.  The United States, as it currently is regarding Iran, deliberately lied and effectively pressured the IAEA to go along with its lies in order to prevent Iraq from reaching a post-sanction state where it would be able to rebuild itself beyond the boundaries required in the US’ balance of artificially weak powers strategy for the region.

It is also very interesting though mostly tangential to this discussion exactly how the US works itself into lying about Iraq’s weapons.  It involves shifting definitions, presenting Iraq as a demon unworthy of any defense at all, tying the sanctions effort to anti-Semitism.  The United States worked itself into a frenzy and some of the Americans lying about Iraq could have easily passed lie detector tests or comfortably put their hands on stacks of bibles partly because they believed what they were saying, partly because they felt justified in making any possible negative statement about Iraq, just to be sure.

So what the United States faced in 2000 was a situation where the justification of the sanctions was wearing thinner, the effects of the sanctions were disgusting enough that it was becoming increasingly difficult for the United States to get cooperation in maintaining them and Hussein was developing ways to advance state aims despite the sanctions, and these methods would only become more effective over time.

The situation when George W. Bush came to office was actually sustainable from the US/Israel point of view for the most part.  Iraq was not going to be a threat to capture Kuwait or Arabia for an extended period of time even if it became better at managing the sanctions against it.  The situation though, was not optimal.  The US would have preferred Iraq be ruled by someone more like Mubarak, or Iran’s previous Shah or the leaders of the members of the US colonial structure in the region such as Saudi Arabia, UAE, Jordan, Kuwait and others.

Iraq could provide resources for anti-Israel groups and was an irritant but not a strategic threat and the pertinent question would have been would it be worth the cost to remove Hussein?  The answer in 1991 was no.  The US did not occupy the country.  That remained the answer through the Clinton administration and I think may have remained the answer to this day if there had been no 9/11 attack.

The 9/11 attacks unleashed in the United States a desire for vengeance against Muslims and against Arabs that Bush decided could be directed against Iraq.  Iraq was not in any conceivable way a threat to the United States and was an irritant but not a strategic threat to Israel. 

(As an aside, Iran, in showing how to prepare a group to actually hold its ground in full conflict with Israel, is moving from irritant to actual strategic threat to Israel, though it is not nearly as threatening as it would be if it, or a country anything as close to its people in policy preferences as Iran is was located, say, where Egypt is located.)

However, with the United States in a mood to avenge an attack by Arabs and Muslims and a figure in Ahmed Chalabi who seemed at the time to be willing and able to be for Iraq what Mubarak was for Egypt, an invasion of Iraq became feasible.

Here I also want to talk about the US vision of democracy.  Iraq was, by the 2003 US plan, to be a managed democracy, the way Afghanistan is.  US approved candidates would run essentially unopposed.  Political parties potentially hostile the US and Israel would be banned.  Joe Biden said, nearly at the height of the Tahrir Square protests, that Hosni Mubarak is not a dictator.  The intention in 2003 was for Chalabi to fill that position for Iraq – which would be, from the US point of view, a tremendous improvement over Hussein.

The WMD had just been a pretext to impose sanctions to savagely punish the Iraqi nation for attempting to break out of the balance of artificially weak powers the US maintains in the Middle East out of necessity for Israel.  When the US decided it might as well replace Hussein with Chalabi, the pretext moved over to a justification for an invasion.  That pretext had been transparently false ever since the George H.W. Bush administration said to the New York Times that it would not lift the sanctions as long as Hussein remained in power, regardless of removing any WMD.

Iraq’s Shiites, Sistani, and the remnants of Iraq’s military in their insurgency prevented the US from installing Chalabi as a stooge “not a dictator” against all expectations in the US in 2003.  How that happened is also an interesting but tangential story.

Which brings us to today.

The 2003 US project to turn Iraq into 2010 Egypt or 1978 Iran failed and the US has no hope of salvaging it.  Maintaining a balance of power in the medium term now pretty much means abandoning Israel and letting Arabia really develop an indigenous military capacity to hold its own balance.

Obama expressed hope that this situation could be avoided by reaching a negotiated settlement of the Palestinian conflict that would grant Israel legitimacy in the region so that a developed Arabia and region would not be a threat.  That hope, always unrealistic, has now been dashed except in the minds of the most stubborn supporters of Israel.

Obama also hopes that the US can trigger an economic crisis in Iran that can be exploited to remove Iran’s current government and replace it with one that rules in opposition to the values of the Iranian people the way the Shah did or Mubarak did Egypt.  Iran has been through externally imposed economic crises before.  This hope is also unrealistic – the vigorous efforts of people like George Soros and our own Scott Lucas notwithstanding.

The United States expended a tremendous amount of resources intervening in Iraq and, contrary to its expectations, failed.  If the United States was to try again in Iran, Syria and Iraq again, it would not have the expectations it had in 2003 it would just be knowingly throwing resources away.  We are not going to see that.  We are going to see the United States remove itself over the next 20 years from its balance of artificially weak powers strategy as gracefully as it can given Israel’s position in its domestic political situation, on terms as favorable as it can manage for Israel and for the Jewish people of Israel.

How favorable the most favorable terms the US can manage actually are remains to be seen.  But the 1948-2003 US Middle East strategy is over.