Friday, May 16, 2008

Obama Gets His Realist On

David Brooks interviews Obama, trying to figure out what all this talking to terrorists stuff is all about, and comes away somewhat reassured:
Is Obama na├»ve enough to think that an extremist ideological organization like Hezbollah can be mollified with a less corrupt patronage system and some electoral reform? Does he really believe that Hezbollah is a normal social welfare agency seeking more government services for its followers? Does Obama believe that even the most intractable enemies can be pacified with diplomacy? What “Lebanese consensus” can Hezbollah possibly be a part of?

If Obama believes all this, he’s not just a Jimmy Carter-style liberal. He’s off in Noam Chomskyland.

That didn’t strike me as right, so I spoke with Obama Tuesday to ask him what he meant by all this.

Right off the bat he reaffirmed that Hezbollah is “not a legitimate political party.” Instead, “It’s a destabilizing organization by any common-sense standard. This wouldn’t happen without the support of Iran and Syria.”

I asked him what he meant with all this emphasis on electoral and patronage reform. He said the U.S. should help the Lebanese government deliver better services to the Shiites “to peel support away from Hezbollah” and encourage the local populace to “view them as an oppressive force.” The U.S. should “find a mechanism whereby the disaffected have an effective outlet for their grievances, which assures them they are getting social services.”

The U.S. needs a foreign policy that “looks at the root causes of problems and dangers.” Obama compared Hezbollah to Hamas. Both need to be compelled to understand that “they’re going down a blind alley with violence that weakens their legitimate claims.” He knows these movements aren’t going away anytime soon (“Those missiles aren’t going to dissolve”), but “if they decide to shift, we’re going to recognize that. That’s an evolution that should be recognized.”

Obama being Obama, he understood the broader reason I was asking about Lebanon. Everybody knows that Obama is smart (and he was quite well informed about Lebanon). The question is whether he’s seasoned and tough enough to deal with implacable enemies.
Brooks's conclusion is that Obama is a foreign policy realist.

But let's think a little bit about "implacable enemies." What makes an enemy truly implacable? Only enemies that believe that it's either them or us are truly implacable. Al Qaeda is definitely an implacable enemy. The Japanese and Germans were ultimately implacable in World War II, although it might be better stated that we were Japan's and Germany's implacable enemies once the shooting started. (For example, Japan's strategy at the beginning of the war was to force us to negotiate an acceptance of their dominance of East Asia. We would have none of it.)

Were the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong our implacable enemies? Not really. They were perfectly happy to leave us alone if we would leave them alone. If we'd truly had vital interests in Southeast Asia, forcing us to stay there no matter what, they would have been implacable.

Are Hezbollah, Hamas, Iran, and Syria implacable enemies? If we could leave the Middle East, I'd say "no." But we can't leave the Middle East as long as we're dependent on unimpeded oil transport. So, at this point in history, they are indeed our implacable enemies. As long as the US has a presence in the Middle East, these states and groups are going to try to kill us.

So, how to deal with an implacable enemy? There are only three outcomes:
  1. You defeat them.

  2. You surrender to them.

  3. You find a way to change the facts on the ground so you can placate the implacable.
Note that all three of these outcomes require some degree of military pressure. This is not to say that diplomacy isn't needed but, with a truly implacable enemy, diplomacy directly with the implacable party is, almost by definition, futile, unless you can indeed placate the implacable enemy first.

The Democrats are very fond of telling us that there is no military solution to Iraq. (I suspect that they really mean that there's no military solution to the Middle East.) This, however, is incorrect. There is no purely military solution to the Middle East. But there is no purely diplomatic solution, either.

This is equivalent to stating that outcome #1 is unlikely. I agree with this, to some extent. It is also true that we can't afford outcome #2, since we can't do without the oil. This leaves us with outcome #3: changing the facts on the ground.

Now, Obama wants to do this through negotiation and allows for the possibility of direct negotiation. Sounds reasonable enough; what harm can be done by talking?

Here's what: When you accept the possibility of high-level negotiations, you are telling your enemy that you may be willing to change your positions, rather than insisting that he change his. So, before acceding to negotiations, we'd better be completely sure that we know what both sides' bottom lines are.

In our case, they're pretty simple. We need to guarantee the flow of oil from the Gulf. They only way we can guarantee that is to have a military presence in the Gulf sufficient to keep any aggressor away from the oil fields and the tankers transporting the oil out of the Gulf. A second (a distant second) requirement is to guarantee the continued existence of Israel.

What about Iran's bottom line? Unfortunately, it is also pretty simple: They need to guarantee that US troops leave the Gulf. If there are troops in Iraq, or Kuwait, or Qatar, or Saudi Arabia they pose an existential threat to Iran. This threat is only exacerbated by the fact that the location of our troops amounts to sacrilege. Since our bottom line position and theirs are in conflict, there is ultimately nothing to negotiate here.

A second bottom-line position for all four of our implacable groups is that the existence of Israel can't be tolerated. If push really came to shove on this one, we would reluctantly acquiesce to Israel's destruction. But since Israel is our friend, and since we can't leave anyway, this is also non-negotiable.

Again, high-level diplomacy is for negotiating these core issues. Since there is nothing to negotiate, an offer of high-level diplomacy is tantamount to an offer that the US is willing to compromise on a core issue. Since we aren't, an offer of diplomacy is worse than useless; it communicates to our enemies that we might do something that we fundamentally can't do. In short, it encourages our enemies and detracts from any efforts to convince them that they have to change their bottom lines.

This is not to say that there aren't plenty of things to negotiate at a low level, either because there are areas where we can find win-win situations or because we think we can trick our enemies into a situation that's strategically advantageous to us. There are also plenty of indirect negotiations third parties that may be vital to us.

But none of this gets us any closer to changing the core facts on the ground in our favor. Those facts change when Iran accepts a permanent US presence astride the oil supply, and when all parties agree that Israel gets to live. There is only one way to get them to accede to these requirements: They must become convinced that failure to accede will result in their destruction, either political, physical, or both.

This is doable, but it will require patience and fortitude. It does not require a hot war but it does require continued harassment, diplomatic maneuvering, covert action, and other attempts to subvert our enemies. None of these activities will be enhanced by direct, high-level negotiations.

Oddly enough, the one thing that our enemies will fear the most is the one thing that would actually allow us to leave the Middle East to its own devices: energy independence. If we don't need the oil, we can leave. But if we don't need the oil, our enemies revert to being third-world countries with little hope of growing modern economies. This is a significant weakness in their position: the only way to improve their situation is to act as an irritant on the American public. But when the succeed in this, they drive us closer to the critical mass we need as a society to render them irrelevant.

So, if Obama would like to spend more time thinking about energy independence and less time thinking about meaningless summits, I'd be a lot happier.

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