Thursday, March 1, 2007

Ahistory is the new history

I definitely suggest reading Seymour Hersh's new article in the New Yorker Magazine. As per usual, Hersh manages to drop little tidbits about the secret goings-on in the Pentagon. White House and Foggy Bottom (now that State has been brought back in from the cold). The U.S. is supporting covert action against Iran and Syria, a Pentagon task force has been pulled together to plan out strikes against Iran's nuclear program, etc.

The most striking thing about Hersh's article is the incredulous manner in which he describes the Bush administration's decision to back friendly Sunni governments in the Near East:

The new American policy, in its broad outlines, has been discussed publicly. In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that there is “a new strategic alignment in the Middle East,” separating “reformers” and “extremists”; she pointed to the Sunni states as centers of moderation, and said that Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah were “on the other side of that divide.” (Syria’s Sunni majority is dominated by the Alawi sect.) Iran and Syria, she said, “have made their choice and their choice is to destabilize.”

Some of the core tactics of the redirection are not public, however. The clandestine operations have been kept secret, in some cases, by leaving the execution or the funding to the Saudis, or by finding other ways to work around the normal congressional appropriations process, current and former officials close to the Administration said.


The policy shift has brought Saudi Arabia and Israel into a new strategic embrace, largely because both countries see Iran as an existential threat. They have been involved in direct talks, and the Saudis, who believe that greater stability in Israel and Palestine will give Iran less leverage in the region, have become more involved in Arab-Israeli negotiations.

The new strategy “is a major shift in American policy—it’s a sea change,” a U.S. government consultant with close ties to Israel said. The Sunni states “were petrified of a Shiite resurgence, and there was growing resentment with our gambling on the moderate Shiites in Iraq,” he said. “We cannot reverse the Shiite gain in Iraq, but we can contain it.”

I know Mr. Hersh is a journalist by training, but I figured he might know something about history since he lived through all the juicy parts of the Cold War. The question I would pose to him is this: Since when has U.S. policy in the Near East not involved propping up Sunni governments that share our strategic aims at the expense other U.S. foreign policies and aims?

Since 1979, the U.S. has provided for the security of many of our Sunni allies through a combination of security guarantees, Foreign Military Financing (FMF) and loosened arms export rules under the policy-driven Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program.

Even if you take Israel ($2.26 billion) and Egypt's ($1.29) clearly out sized portions out of Fiscal Year (FY) 2006 FMF expenditures ($4.64 billion), four Sunni-led countries of the Near East (Lebanon, Jordon, Oman, and Bahrain), Tunisia and Pakistan comprise over 50% of the remaining $1.09 billion.

Things are pretty much the same on the FMS-side of U.S. policy in the Near East. Each country receiving FMF in the form of grants or loan subsidies spends their money on U.S. arms, in addition to their own (sometimes) generous expenditures. Then the oil-producing Sunni states (Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) each drop hundreds of millions annually on U.S. hardware (more than $700 million each in FY2006). When things are all said and done, the Near East (which includes Pakistan) buys more arms from the U.S. government than any other region in the world, including Europe (about $7.7 billion in 2006). (All of my figures from the FY2008 Foreign Operations budget justification, which is surprisingly navigable for being 700 pages)

Hersh's incredulity doesn't stop there, he also picks up on the negative consequences of U.S. policy in the Near East:

“It seems there has been a debate inside the government over what’s the biggest danger—Iran or Sunni radicals,” Vali Nasr, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who has written widely on Shiites, Iran, and Iraq, told me. “The Saudis and some in the Administration have been arguing that the biggest threat is Iran and the Sunni radicals are the lesser enemies. This is a victory for the Saudi line.”

Martin Indyk, a senior State Department official in the Clinton Administration who also served as Ambassador to Israel, said that “the Middle East is heading into a serious Sunni-Shiite Cold War.” Indyk, who is the director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, added that, in his opinion, it was not clear whether the White House was fully aware of the strategic implications of its new policy. “The White House is not just doubling the bet in Iraq,” he said. “It’s doubling the bet across the region. This could get very complicated. Everything is upside down.”


Flynt Leverett, a former Bush Administration National Security Council official, told me that “there is nothing coincidental or ironic” about the new strategy with regard to Iraq. “The Administration is trying to make a case that Iran is more dangerous and more provocative than the Sunni insurgents to American interests in Iraq, when—if you look at the actual casualty numbers—the punishment inflicted on America by the Sunnis is greater by an order of magnitude,” Leverett said. “This is all part of the campaign of provocative steps to increase the pressure on Iran. The idea is that at some point the Iranians will respond and then the Administration will have an open door to strike at them.”

Making Iran out to be the bad guy while downplaying the impact of Sunni extremism? Complicated relationship with Iraq? Toto's hit song "Africa" is at the top of the charts? All that is missing is a handshake like this:

U.S. strategic myopia has once again begun to shift away for complex transnational security issues that require well thought-out, nuanced solutions. It is time to fixate on the handful of international political conflicts that offer opportunities to articulate policies that easy for our Cold War-era government to implement, such as containment, deterrence, coercive diplomacy, sanctions and the Bush administration's favorite, punitive military action.

Look, I'm not saying that Bush administration policy is wrong or that we really have feasible policy given our circumstances. All I would like is for someone besides myself to acknowledge that except for a brief period in 2003, U.S. policy in the Near East hasn't changed much since the late 1980s.

Mr. Hersh, if you really want to know what is at the core of my concerns for America's future in the international community, it is not the Pentagon's plans for action against Iran. It is utter lack of originality and willingness to implement complex policies that require significant political commitment (arms control, regional security integration and diplomatic engagement) that makes me reluctant to bring children into this world.


A.E. said...

"It is utter lack of originality and willingness to implement complex policies that require significant political commitment (arms control, regional security integration and diplomatic engagement) that makes me reluctant to bring children into this world."

Ouch---no little Arms Control Otakus?

On a more serious note, Hersh is a great investigative reporter--probably the best in America--but he's not an analyst or a historian. In many ways, I think he also tends to be a mouthpiece for the intelligence services, the most likely source of many of his scoops. Still, compared to the placid dupes who write for the NYT and the WP, he's amazing.

Robot Economist said...

I'll agree that he is a fantastic investigator and writer, but I'm still pretty dubious about some of his sources.

Specifically, he has been relying on too many "consultants" with ties to the Pentagon or Israel for his pieces on Iran. I have a feeling he is getting more intended than unintended leaks - the Bush administration is getting very good at comprehensive message control.

A.E. said...

There's either two possibilities with Hersh.

(1) The military and intelligence establishment is unhappy with Bush but feels either too cowed or too patriotic to resign or speak out, and they leak to him in order to exercise some influence.

(2) The Bush administration has been feeding him misinformation in a calculated scheme to shape public opinion, mislead foreign adversaries, and divert media attention from its real plans.

I'm more inclined to lean toward #1, considering how tone-deaf the administration has been towards constructing grand strategies. But you're right--he could be getting false leads.