James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne.
James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.
Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.
Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
This post follows one a few hours ago about the Heartbleed security failure, and for safety's sake it repeats information I have added to that post as an update.
Point 1: If you would like to test to see whether a site is exposed to the loophole created (over the past two years) by the OpenSSL bug, you can go here and enter the URL you are concerned about. (This tip via Bruce Schneier.) As explained in the FAQ, the test sometimes delivers "false positives" for vulnerability -- that is, it may report problems with a site that actually is OK, or that is in the middle of taking steps to protect itself. But the site's creator explains why "false negatives" -- OK signals when there actually is a problem -- should be very rare, and especially if you perform the test several times. Update Here is another good test site.
Point 2: If a site tests through as Safe, then it makes sense to change your password there. And all of my email and financial sites are now saying Safe, so the changes I am making there will stick.
But even if a site does not say Safe, the people I have asked say that it still makes sense to change -- even though you'll need to change again when the SSL for that site is fully repaired.
Reasoning: If you change it now, it's possible that a still-active hacker will capture info today. But if you don't change it now, anything exploited in the past two years is vulnerable. Also, many sites that are not yet fully protected are on higher alert than they would have been before this news, so hackers may have a tougher time in the new environment than when this was an unknown-unknown.
[Please see important UPDATE in a newer post, and repeated at the bottom of this post.] Most flaps about scary new Internet bugs are just typical scary Internet flaps. This latest one, the Heartbleed bug, I am taking seriously. Potentially it means that username/ password combos for the sites everyone considered secure have in fact been hacked and stolen.
Update: Just this second, I see that Bruce Schneier has declared the bug "catastrophic." Consider yourself warned. Schneier adds:"On the scale of 1 to 10, this is an 11." He has no track record as an alarmist.
Simplest way to understand the problem: one of the protocols that many sites use to protect their own security, in an implementation known as OpenSSL (for Secure Socket Layers), itself has a previously unknown bug. That bug, in place for the past two years, could in theory allow an attacker to harvest large amounts of name/password combos plus other info from sites believed to be perfectly safe. Because exploitation of the bug would have left no trace, no one (except a potential hacker) yet knows how many names have been taken, or from where.
A patched OpenSSL version exists and is being deployed. Until then, what should you do? Here's a five-point checklist, followed by explanations.
Change the passwords for the handful of sites that really matter to you. I'll explain how you can do this in a total of ten minutes or less. This probably isn't necessary, but just in case...
Do not ever use the same password at two sites that matter to you. Ever. Heartbleed or not, this lowers the security level of any site with that password to the level of the sleaziest and least-secure site where you've ever used it.
Use a password manager, which can generate an unlimited set of unique, "difficult" passwords and remember them for you.
Use "two-step" sign-in processes wherever they're available, starting with Gmail.
Read what happened in our family three years ago, when one of our Gmail accounts was taken over by someone in Africa, if you would like a real-world demonstration of why you should take these warnings seriously. It's from an article called "Hacked."
That's the action plan. Now the details.
What I am personally doing about Heartbleed, and why.
- I am changing my password for a handful of "important" sites. My finance-related sites: bank accounts, credit cards, mortgage-payment, investment accounts. The email accounts I actually use, three of them in total and all Gmail-based. Plus all social-media accounts. Even though on most of these accounts I am dormant rather than active, I'd rather not have someone take over the account and cause problems in that way. (UPDATE: In response to questions, you would need to do this again once the OpenSSL patch has been distributed or the sites have in other ways confirmed their safety. Nonetheless it seems worth doing even now, even given the possibility that a site is still vulnerable and could have new info intercepted as you're changing it, because otherwise you're exposed to any info collected over the past two years.)
- I am abiding by the watchword of never using the same password on two accounts that matter. Whoever is in charge of security at, say, HottestCheerleadersPlusCheapMedicineFromThailand.com (not an actual site I have visited) might not know how to protect against hacks, or might even dishonestly sell its user info to hackers. They could then blindly try the combos elsewhere.
- I am making all this easy on myself by using a password manager. The one I have used and liked for several years is LastPass, which was also the top choice in this recent PC Mag review. You can read reviews of a wide range of alternatives here and here. The idea behind all of them is that they store a vast range of passwords you could not possibly remember yourself; they automatically fill them in for your sites; and they have a range of very tough security measures to protect this precious central vault. In well under 1 minute per site, I can have Last Pass generate a new, "difficult," never-before-used password for important sites -- let's say u!YKhtAs7xQA , though that's not a real one -- and set my systems up to use that automatically.
For now I'm not getting into the conceptual question of whether one centralized password trove is theoretically more vulnerable than the "distributed" approach of trying to manage this all on your own. In reality, I'm convinced that it's better to use a password manager, and safer than the alternative of trying to keep track of a whole list of passwords on your own. (For instance, you can read Last Pass's explanation of how it does encryption right on each user's computer, not at the central site, so that even someone who got the main controls wouldn't know your passwords.) The only password I keep in my mind is a very long password for Last Pass itself. It's so long that it could never be cracked by brute force, much as no one will win Warren Buffett's billion-dollar bet on the NCAA tournament. But it's very easy for me to remember, because it's a long passage I can reel off by heart.
-- I am using two-step sign-in processes for every system that allows them, and you should too. Gmail does this, and in fact pioneered this as a free feature for mass, non-commercial users. Last Pass also does so. How this works: In certain circumstances, logging in requires not simply your password but an extra, real-time code that is sent to or generated by your mobile phone or other device. What it means: For all practical purposes, someone cannot take over your account from afar. Since so many destructive scams and hacks are carried out remotely -- from Russia, China, West Africa, Israel, the Stans, you name it -- this is the easiest possible protection you can take against a very broad category of attack.
Two-step systems can be mildly inconvenient, but a lot of that has been buffed away. For instance, you can set Gmail so that it doesn't need the second password as long as you are using your own computer or phone. For more details, see this and this.
More as the story develops. The point for now: none of us can do anything about larger architectural questions of security, surveillance, vulnerability, and so on for the Internet. But along the spectrum of what that architecture makes possible, we can make ourselves less rather than more vulnerable. These steps will help.
Update: Via Bruce Schneier, it is very much worth checking out this test site, to see whether a site you deal with frequently has been repaired to avoid the SSL bug. For instance, here -- fortunately -- is what you would see for the Atlantic's site:
In theory, changing a password on a not-yet-fixed site could create new vulnerability, if a hacker has just decided to start watching it today. In practice, most of the people I have checked with say it's worth doing, because otherwise you're exposed to anything captured within the past two years. Then, when a site becomes safe -- as shown above -- it certainly makes sense to change the password. For further explanation, see this follow-on post.
Ari Ofsevit, of the Boston area, sent out a Tweet this afternoon saying "If you're flying in to Boston right now, uh, you aren't." It included the image above, from Flight Aware.
WTF? The answer is that Air Force One, bearing POTUS, was at Boston's Logan Airport, so other planes were not allowed to operate there.
It's always exciting to hear, on the normal Air Traffic Control frequency, calls involving AF1. "November Five Sierra Romeo, climb and maintain six thousand feet." "Climbing six thousand, Five Sierra Romeo." "Air Force One, contact Atlanta Center on one-two-two point three." "Atlanta Center, one-two-two point three, Air Force One." But the idea that the plane should paralyze normal airport operations by its mere existence is an extension of security theater that comes across as Caesarian grandiosity, no matter who occupies the White House. (I will always remember being at the Wright Brothers centennial at Kitty Hawk NC, in 2003, when suddenly AF1, bearing one-time National Guard pilot George W. Bush, arrived, and a Praetorian guard of security officials put the whole area under its control.) As Ofsevit said in a follow-up note:
Watching POTUS fly in to Boston today (and listening in on LiveATC) I decided that it is quite silly anymore that we shut down the airport for AF1. Airports are just about as secure as it gets, and air traffic control is run in such a manner that there hasn't been a plane-to-plane collision in the US in decades. [JF note: For a riveting account of the most dramatic such collision, one between a TWA and a United flight over the Grand Canyon back in 1956, check out this.] Are we admitting that ATC is [fallible], since we ground everyone during presidential visits? Or is this a holdover from earlier days?
I understand, say, keeping planes off the active runway and taxiway when AF1 is landing as a precaution. But keeping everyone at the gate until the president not only lands and taxis, but until his motorcade has left the airport? Does it make any sense?
Once the plane is parked—usually on a section of airfield away from runways, taxiways and ramps, couldn't other planes push back and move towards the runways, and couldn't you land planes which have been circling?
I think this is security theater at its finest, but maybe there's an aviation or security answer beyond that. Is there?
On the Let's Be Reasonable side: American presidents are under a constant barrage of threats; Obama is under a special threat barrage of his own; it matters, and is a kind of miracle, that the violence against political figures that so grossly distorted the 1960s has not recurred. Thank you, Secret Service.
But -- at an airport? Already the distillation of America's security state? To imagine that one of the other airliners conducting normal operations might constitute a threat would require: knowing in advance when Air Force One was about to arrive, which is usually announced at the last minute; knowing in advance which airline crews would be on which planes to carry out a threat, also subject to last-minute change; somehow getting something on those planes that might be dangerous; knowing exactly where those airplanes would be, on the airport's runways, taxiways, and gates, at the moment Air Force One was parked and vulnerable; disregarding ATC instructions so as somehow to impinge on Air Force One's space; and so on. Anything could happen, but ...
In Washington DC, presidential "ground movements" -- the motorcades with all the police-motorcycle forerunners and the rest of the entourage -- have been worked out to paralyze the city as little as possible. Maybe we could apply that logic to airports too? Given that they are already so much more thoroughly controlled than our roads? Just a thought.
I won't drag this out indefinitely. (On the other hand, think about it: You may be saying to yourself, Okay, enough already, let this topic go, it's getting tedious. Meanwhile, Sgt. Remsburg and tens of thousands of other people will wake up every single morning for the rest of their lives and cope with the consequences of our open-ended wars.) Previously here and here.
But here is another message from a person now in uniform:
Thanks for writing about Cory Remsburg. I had no idea that it had happened until I had read your article, so I popped over to YouTube to see what I had missed. I'm an active duty service member who, thankfully, has only had to deploy once (so far), and my reaction to it pretty much mirrors yours and probably most of your readers. I won't go into detail how frustrating it was to watch, but I think it put on display a larger cultural problem.
At some point, during the last 12 years and some change the United States has been doing combat deployments, the people who deploy and the reasons for deploying them have become inseparable. People who deploy are undoubtedly brave (well, usually) and have to do absolutely shitty things to varying degrees, and deserve accolades for that.
The reasons behind the deployment are not always so praise-worthy, but to criticize the mission is seen as criticizing the *people*, taking away from what they gave up. I think the best recent example for this is Lone Survivor, where people saw that the movie maybe was critical of Operation Red Wings and lashed out against it, insisting that the *reason* behind the mission didn't matter, what mattered was how brave the SOCOM troops were. To criticize the reason why they were, and why multiple operators lost their lives, is to take away from their sacrifice.
That's what happened when SFC Remsburg was introduced. Why was he deployed ten times? Who the hell cares! What matters is that he was brave, and he volunteered his service, and his sacrifice was noble. To question why he was sent, if it really was necessary for him to get blown up, is to question his sacrifice, which can not be tolerated.
I'm a young guy, and can't really say if there's precedence for this sort of mentality in previous conflicts, but the best I can hope for is that when the conflict is over people will look back on it and say, "Yea, that was kind of screwed up."
And one more reader note about the same Congress that so earnestly applauded Remsburg:
The Cory Remsburg story seems like one more instance where we have lost our collective spirit to solve problems and take care of each other. As a previous emailer pointed out—10 tours of duty? It is no wonder these young men and women are returning home with serious problems.
I am the parent of 2 children in their 20's that have been spared this horror, and I know it is patently unfair, and in the long term, detrimental to who we are as a country. The recent passage of the Farm Bill which cut food stamps to millions is another example of disregarding our responsibilities to our fellow Americans.
To round it out and put it in context, a trenchant article by a Marine Corps adviser in Afghanistan on why our entire effort there is likely to come to nothing.
Barack Obama has always been said to take The Long View. It's a point he made several times in last night's speech, most explicitly here:
Climate change is a fact. And when our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did.
That's the answer the president "wants" to give his grandchildren; it's not the answer I "expect" any of us to be able to give. But at least he raised the question and expressed a hope.
There was another moment in the speech that I think will look worse in the long view. It was the emotionally charged ending, the tribute to the obviously courageous and grievously wounded Sergeant Cory Remsburg.
The moment was powerful human and political drama; it reflected deserved credit and gratitude on Remsburg and his family; and as I wrote earlier today, I think it was entirely sincere on the president's part, as a similar tribute would have been from his predecessor George W. Bush. With the significant difference that Bush initiated the wars these men and women have fought in, and Obama has been winding them down. And so the most favorable reading of the moment, as John Cassidy has argued, is that the president was trying to dramatize to the rest of the government the human cost of the open-ended wars many of them have egged on.
But I don't think that's how it came across to most of the Congress, or was processed by the commentariat. This was not presented as a "never again" moment; it was a "this is America's finest!" moment—which Cory Remsburg himself, and with his family, certainly is. (Also see Peter Beinart on this point.) For America as a whole, the episode did not show us at our finest. In the earlier item, I tried to explain why these few minutes will reflect badly on us and our times when our children's children view them years from now. Since the explanation was buried at the end of a long post, I repeat it at the end of this one.
Here is a reader note that makes the point more directly. A soldier in an earlier war writes:
When I was a draftee in the Army (1967-69) it was unusual to meet a soldier who'd served two tours in Vietnam and almost unheard of to meet one who'd served three tours. That's why I consider it almost unimaginable cruelty the sacrifices our politicians have forced on our troops in the past 12 years.
Ten tours! Good Lord, how much is a soldier—and his or her family—supposed to take in order to save a chickenhawk politician the odious task of voting for a draft to supply enough manpower for all the wars he wants others to fight?
A Congress that by default is pressuring the country toward war, most recently with Iran, and that would not dream of enacting either a special tax or any kind of enforced or shared service to sustain these wars, gives a prolonged, deserved ovation for a person who has dedicated his all to the country. Tears well up in many eyes; the cheering persists; the admiration for this young man is profound. Then everyone moves right on.
Years from now, people can play this clip and see something about the culture of our times. It's a moment of which only the Remsburg family will be proud.
Update: Another note that just came in:
I read about the reference to Cory Remsburg and pulled up the SOTU video to see what I had missed. Watching Mr. Remsburg wave his poorly functioning right hand with the help of his father, tears began to slowly well up.
But as the applause continued and the camera panned over the collection of privileged white men, I started to feel angry and frustrated. It was difficult to hear the President speak about sacrifice while knowing that few of the clapping members of Congress will put any of their children in similar harm’s way.
It was difficult to hear the President speak about Cory Remsburg as a case of an American fighting and pushing through adversity and life’s hard knocks, as if he was an entrepreneur who opened a business, went bankrupt, and is now working hard to rebuild a new business and provide for his family. This is a man who took 10 deployments overseas for reasons that members of Congress would struggle to explain in lucid and clear terms. I found it tasteless because it seemed that the President, as head of state and Chief in Command, wasn’t acknowledging his role in the adversity that Cory Remsburg and his family deal with every day.
I don’t mean to blame the President directly, but I would like the plight of people like Cory Remsburg publicly framed as a time of reflection and accountability for members of both the legislative and the executive rather than an opening for a 90 second clapping routine.
8) Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg. About the service and sacrifice of this brave man and other men and women like him, we cannot say enough. As Obama emphasized, Sgt. Remsburg's grave injury came on his tenth deployment. I do not doubt that Obama, like his wartime predecessors, is genuinely seized by both anguish and admiration about the people he has sent into harm's way. Even when, and perhaps more so when, like Obama he has been trying to withdraw those troops.
And no one can doubt the drama and power of the speech's closing minutes.
But while that moment reflected limitless credit on Sgt. Remsburg, his family, and others similarly situated; and while I believe it was genuinely respectful on the president's part, I don't think the sustained ovation reflected well on the America of 2014. It was a good and honorable moment for him and his family. But I think the spectacle should make most Americans uneasy.
The vast majority of us play no part whatsoever in these prolonged overseas campaigns; people like Sgt. Remsburg go out on 10 deployments; we rousingly cheer their courage and will; and then we move on. Last month I mentioned that the most memorable book I read in 2013 was Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain. It's about a group of U.S. soldiers who barely survive a terrible encounter in Iraq, and then are paraded around in a halftime tribute at a big Dallas Cowboys game. The crowd at Cowboys Stadium cheers in very much the way the Capitol audience did last night—then they get back to watching the game.
Following last night's China roundup, another batch of news items before we get back to Greenville, South Carolina:
1) The Iran deal: substance. As a reminder, the interim U.S.-U.K.-French-German-Russian-Chinese deal with Iran holds no guarantees. But if it should succeed in re-integrating Iran as a "normal" country, the benefits to the world in general and the U.S. in particular would be enormous, similar in concept (though not in scale) to the benefits of re-integrating China a generation ago. Thus it is worth giving the negotiations every chance to succeed—and resisting the cynical congressional effort to guarantee failure by adding impossible poison-pill conditions.
In the upcoming issue of The New York Review of Books, Jessica Tuchman Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former National Security Council staffer on proliferation issues, underscores the importance of the deal and the danger of the congressional effort. Her essay, headline shown above, begins:
In recent weeks, Iran and the United States, for the first time, have broken through more than a decade of impasse over Iran’s nuclear program. Significant differences remain, but at long last, both governments appear ready to work their way toward a resolution. Yet the US Congress, acting reflexively against Iran, and under intense pressure from Israel, seems ready to shatter the agreement with a bill that takes no account of Iranian political developments, misunderstands proliferation realities, and ignores the dire national security consequences for the United States.
She goes on to make the case on all counts. As does Steven Walt, in Foreign Policy, with a catalogue of the sweeping benefits for the United States if relations with Iran should improve. And Fred Kaplan in Slate.
Why is Congress threatening to make a deal impossible, before one can be struck? The only real opposition comes from some hardliners inside Iran, who have no U.S. constituency; plus the current governments of Saudi Arabia and Israel, who have an easier time getting the attention of U.S. legislators. Mathews says:
Prime Minister Netanyahu greeted the agreement with a barrage of criticism. Even before it was completed he called it a “Christmas present” for Iran; later, “a historic mistake.” His too attentive audience on Capitol Hill followed suit. Many of the criticisms suggest that the critics haven’t appreciated the terms of the agreement. Senator Charles Schumer dismissed it as “disproportionate.” The observation is correct, but upside down, for Iran gave far more than it got.
2) The Iran deal: politics. The poison-pill legislation is officially known as S. 1881, the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013 (full text here), and informally as the Kirk-Menendez bill, after Senators Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ). Most Republicans say they're for it; the Obama administration is (obviously) dead-set against it. The only discernible reason why some Democrats are lining up with the GOP is AIPAC's strong push for the bill.
A report this week by Ron Kampeas in JTA is worth reading closely on the political dynamics. For instance:
AIPAC has been stymied by a critical core of Senate Democrats who have sided with the Obama administration in the fight. While AIPAC’s bid to build a veto-busting majority has reached 59 — eight short of the needed 67 — it has stalled there in part because Democrats have more or less stopped signing on....
AIPAC, however, says its bid to pass sanctions is on track.
“Our top priority is stopping Iran’s nuclear program, and consequently we are very engaged in building support for the Menendez-Kirk bill which now has the bi-partisan co-sponsorship of 59 senators,” AIPAC’s spokesman, Marshall Wittman, wrote in an email to JTA. “This measure would provide our negotiators with critical leverage in their efforts to achieve a peaceful end to Iran’s nuclear weapons program.”
Kampeas has an update on the substance and politics here. And John Hudson, in Foreign Policy, describes the pressure AIPAC is putting on Debbie Wasserman Schultz, longtime representative from Florida and national chair of the Democratic National Committee, to switch away from her announced support for the administration's approach. And Mathews's article says:
The bill’s most egregious language explains why so many senators leapt onto this bandwagon: it has become a vehicle for expressing unquestioning support for Israel, rather than a deadly serious national security decision for the United States.... Senators report that AIPAC’s advocacy of the bill has been intensive, even by its usual standard.
In two previous big showdowns with the administration—over Chuck Hagel's nomination as secretary of defense, and over military intervention in Syria—AIPAC de-escalated and said it hadn't really been looking for a fight, once it became clear things weren't going its way.* As the Iran-sanctions issue gets more attention, my bet is that something similar will happen. For good reason, there is zero American-public appetite for a showdown with Iran. Since the interim deal was announced, polls have shown support for giving the talks the best possible chance. E.g.:
As the talks go on and everyone except the Saudis, the Netanyahu administration, and AIPAC extol their possibilities, it will be harder for leading Democrats to explain why it makes sense to defy their party's president, secretaries of state and defense, and congressional leadership, plus most of the rest of the world, on this issue. (Also see Greg Sargent in the WaPo, and another from Kampeas.)
[* The Syria situation was of course muddled. Initially AIPAC and the administration were both pro-intervention. After Obama's surprise decision to seek Congressional authorization, AIPAC pushed hard for a pro-intervention vote.]
3) Gates and Afghanistan: substance. It's worth reading this analysis, by Gareth Porter, of Obama's first-term approval of a "surge" in Afghanistan. Robert Gates's book appeared to put Obama's approach in a bad light. Porter makes the contrary case:
The Gates account omits two crucial historical facts necessary to understanding the issue. The first is that Obama agreed to the escalation only under strong pressure from his top national security officials and with very explicit reservations. The second is that Gen. David Petraeus reneged on his previous commitment to support Obama’s 2009 decision that troop withdrawal would begin by mid-2011.
Further details in his essay.
4) Gates and Afghanistan: politics. Mike Lofgren, author of The Party Is Over and veteran of Republican-side congressional politics, has an unromantic assessment of Gates's career and judgment. E.g., what Lofgren saw as a Senate staffer, when Gates replaced Donald Rumsfeld at DOD:
Because the Senate Armed Services Committee was overjoyed at seeing the last of Rumsfeld, they asked Gates no awkward questions, either about current strategy or about past events in which Gates had either inside knowledge or active participation – the "tilt to Iraq" which strengthened Saddam Hussein and helped lead inexorably to the first Gulf war and then the invasion of Iraq; or the arming of the Afghan mujaheddin, which helped lay the groundwork both for 9/11 and the Afghan quagmire that bedevils us yet.
No, at the time of the hearing, I got the sense that the Armed Services Committee members would have liked to carry him in triumph in a sedan chair to the floor of the Senate for confirmation, simply because he was not Rumsfeld.
Recently I argued that a dozen-plus Senate Democrats were doing something strange and reckless in signing on with most Republicans in an effort that would abort a potential deal to limit Iran's nuclear ambitions.
As a reminder: The U.S. government, along with those of France, Germany, the U.K., China, and Russia, all think this years-in-the-making deal is worth exploring. The governments of Saudi Arabia and Israel manifestly do not. Nearly all Senate Republicans and a significant number of Democratic allies are effectively saying: the Saudis and Israelis see things more clearly. We stand with their judgment—not that of our own government, the European mainstays, and even the Russians and Chinese.
Developments since then:
1) From Peter Beinart, in Haaretz, an item based on an important technical analysis of the pro-sanctions bill. Senators sponsoring the bill, Beinart says, claim that they are only trying to "support" the diplomatic process. That proves mainly that they haven't read, or don't understand, what they're signing onto, because in several crucial ways the bill's requirements are directly contrary to what the U.S./U.K./France/Germany/Russia/China have already agreed to with Iran.
Go to the technical analysis, by Edward Levine, for the point-by-point parsing. And you can see the full text of the bill itself here. But the two most obvious deal-breaker implications are:
(a) the requirement that, in order to lift sanctions, Obama must "certify" a number of extra things about Iran that are not germane to the agreement and are simply impossible to prove. For instance, Obama must demonstrate that "Iran has not directly, or through a proxy, supported, financed, planned, or otherwise carried out an act of terrorism against the United States or United States persons or property anywhere in the world," with no time limit on how far back (or forward) in time this certification is supposed to run. And:
(b) several clauses and references that apparently support the "zero enrichment" demand laid down by Benjamin Netanyahu but explicitly not endorsed by the U.S. government. These clauses, with repeated requirements that Iran "terminate" or "dismantle" its "illicit nuclear programs," are ambiguous but can (and presumably would) be read as applying to the entirety of Iran's nuclear infrastructure, peaceful or otherwise. This could mean a demand that Iran give up the right not just to weapons-grade uranium but also to low-level enrichment suitable for power plants and other non-military use.
For the background of the "zero enrichment" policy, see this 2009 paper by Matthew Bunn of Harvard's Belfer Center. He argues (as do many other people who have examined the issue) that the zero-option is theoretically appealing but in reality is completely unacceptable to Iran. Thus its inclusion in any set of "negotiating" points is a way to ensure that the negotiations fail. As Bunn puts it, "Insisting on zero will mean no agreement, leaving the world with the risks of acquiescence [to an Iranian nuclear-weapons program] or military strikes."
Now, you’ll hear arguments, including potentially from the Prime Minister [Netanyahu], that say we can’t accept any enrichment on Iranian soil. Period. Full stop. End of conversation...
One can envision an ideal world in which Iran said, we’ll destroy every element and facility and you name it, it’s all gone. I can envision a world in which Congress passed every one of my bills that I put forward. (Laughter.) I mean, there are a lot of things that I can envision that would be wonderful. (Laughter.)
But precisely because we don’t trust the nature of the Iranian regime, I think that we have to be more realistic and ask ourselves, what puts us in a strong position to assure ourselves that Iran is not having a nuclear weapon and that we are protected? What is required to accomplish that, and how does that compare to other options that we might take?
And it is my strong belief that we can envision a end state that gives us an assurance that even if they have some modest enrichment capability, it is so constrained and the inspections are so intrusive that they, as a practical matter, do not have breakout capacity.
To wrap this point up: The U.S. and its partners have already declared that they are not asking for the "zero option." That's the premise for the entire deal, and it is one that the Senate bill appears designed to reverse. It would be as if, in the middle of the SALT or START negotiations with the old Soviet Union, the Congress passed a bill requiring that any final agreement include the elimination of the full Soviet arsenal.
2) A speech on Tuesday by Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, on another important and underpublicized clause in the sanctions bill. It's 501(2) (b) (5), which says it is the "sense of the Congress" that if Israel decides to strike Iran, the U.S. presumptively should back the effort:
If the Government of Israel is compelled to take military action in legitimate self-defense against Iran's nuclear weapon program, the United States Government should stand with Israel and provide, in accordance with the law of the United States and the constitutional responsibility of Congress to authorize the use of military force, diplomatic, military, and economic support to the Government of Israel in its defense of its territory, people, and existence;
The "in accordance with the laws..." passage indicates that an Israeli decision would not technically constitute a U.S. declaration of war. It is the main distinction between this clause and a "key point" on AIPAC's current policy-agenda site, which reads:
3. America Must Stand with Israel.
The United States must back Israel if it feels compelled in its own legitimate self-defense to take military action against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.
But Feinstein, who supported the Iraq war, argued that such before-the-fact commitments unwisely limit U.S. options and could make conflict more likely. Her whole speech is worth reading, and you can see the C-Span video above. Here is the conclusion it built to:
I deeply believe that a vote for this legislation will cause negotiations to collapse. The United States, not Iran, then becomes the party that risks fracturing the international coalition that has enabled our sanctions to succeed in the first place....
Let me acknowledge Israel's real, well-founded concerns that a nuclear-armed Iran would threaten its very existence. I don't disagree with that. I agree with it, but they are not there yet.
While I recognize and share Israel's concern, we cannot let Israel determine when and where the United States goes to war. By stating that the United States should provide military support to Israel in a formal resolution should it attack Iran, I fear that is how this bill is going to be interpreted.
3) From a reader:
Here's my problem with your argument: it's incomplete. How can a Democrat, or anyone, evaluate whether the agreement should be given a chance without seeing the agreement? Yesterday we had two separate reports that, if true, would mean the agreement has *already* failed: 1) the Iranian's report of the terms (dubious, but the Administration continues to be coy and not release the main agreement or the reported side agreement) and 2) an alleged Russia-Iran deal that would obliterate the 6-month Agreement's limitations on sanctions.
Personally I too am for Congress holding off, but I'm put off by the tone of the "pro-Deal" crowd that the legislature needs to blindly trust Obama here. Isn't that what we did with George W. Bush? (The distinction between Colin Powell's misleading portfolio on WMDs and Kerry's thusfar blank portfolio (or heavily redacted portfolio) is too subtle to have meaning here).
The point is not that Congress must embrace a deal without knowing its full details. That will come later, when—and if—final terms are agreed to. Rather the point is that Congress should not guarantee the failure of the negotiations before they've run their course, which is what the sanctions bill would do.
If I had a senator, I would ask him or her to read this bill carefully, reflect on its destructive implications, and reflect as well, as Dianne Feinstein did in her speech, on the damage done by blank-check security legislation (from AUMF to the Patriot Act) over the past dozen-plus years. Then I would ask my hypothetical senators to vote 'No.'
UPDATE: Anthony Cordesman has a valuable update on the CSIS site, in which he discusses the pluses and minuses of the administration playing good cop and Congress playing bad cop toward Iran. Really worth reading, but a few highlights. First, on U.S. aims:
The United States now has every incentive to leverage the success of existing sanctions, take full advantage of the current climate, and to try to make the current negotiations work. They are by far the safest way to remove an Iranian nuclear threat, and it is critical to remember what the threat really is: The real objective is to deny Iran military capability, not to try to deny it technology it has already acquired.
On the strength of the emerging potential deal:
The P5+1 and the United States have not yet made fully public all of the terms of the progress they made in defining and implementing the terms of the interim agreement ...
At least to date, however, the limits on Iran in terms of permitted activities, improved transparency, and increased inspection would make even the most covert production, testing, and deployment of nuclear weapons extraordinarily difficult. Iran might quietly get to the point of a crude test of a gun or implosion device, but this test could scarcely then remain covert...
It is extraordinarily difficult to believe Iran could actually deploy reliable nuclear missile warheads and bombs without being detected
On the Congress's role as hard-line bad cop:
The key to success, however, will be for the “bad cop” to avoid pushing to the point of failure. The best way to move forward is to do what the Senate Majority Leader, Senator Harry Reid, evidently has already proposed to do: keep the option of new sanctions legislation constantly open, but not confront Iran and other nations by passing such legislation if and when the negotiations fail, or Iran is shown to violate an agreement.
Defer a vote on new sanctions until the ongoing efforts to fully define and create enforcement provisions for interim agreement effort fail or Iran violates them. And if Iran does move forward and complies with the interim agreement – defer a sanctions vote until it is clear whether Iran agrees to and complies with a permanent agreement.
Overall: This bill is a reckless and destructive gesture, and Democrats from Cory Booker to Mark Warner to Michael Bennet to Richard Blumenthal should give it a careful look and back off.
I have been on the road in the South, and staying in a place with no Internet, and doing interviews for another American Futures installment—this one about the way textile-dependent Southern cities have and have not recovered after those mills went away. That's what my wife and I will be talking about in the days ahead.
But this is a moment that counts, on an important, time-sensitive issue, so here goes:
The Obama Administration, along with some of the usual U.S. allies—the U.K., France, Germany—and such non-allied parties as Russia and China, has taken steps with the potential of peacefully ending Iran's 35-year estrangement from most of the rest of the world. That would be of enormous benefit and significance to Iran, the U.S., and nearly everyone else concerned.
Obviously potential is not a guarantee, and a year from now everyone could look back on this as a time of deluded hope. But today's potential is far greater than most "savvy" experts expected a year ago. As I argued last month, the U.S. may be in a position right now with Iran analogous to the one with China in the early stages of the Nixon-Mao rapprochement. Nothing is guaranteed, but the benefits of normalized relations would be so great that they must be given every chance to succeed.
Often there is cleavage within the executive branch—State, Defense, the White House—on the merits of a military commitment or a potential deal. Not this time. Very often there is similar disagreement among Western powers, and most of the time the Russians and Chinese find themselves on the opposite side of strategic calculations from the U.S. Again, not now. All involved view the benefits of re-engaging Iran to be so great, and the consequence of a drift toward war so dire, that they want to make sure that no artificial barriers to a deal get in the way.
(On the dire consequences of a drift toward war: Nearly 10 years ago, the Atlanticran a war game concluding that an air strike designed to take out Iran's nuclear potential would be the height of strategic folly for the attacking party, whether Israel or the United States. Nothing that has happened since then makes it a more plausible option.)
Two countries the U.S. cares about are known to oppose this deal: Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The Saudis, because a stronger, oil-exporting, Shiite Iran probably means a less influential Sunni Kingdom. The Israelis, because the Netanyahu government has cast Iran as the new Nazi Germany, with whom any deal or compromise is by definition doomed.
I believe that Netanyahu is wrong, but it's his country, and he is the elected leader. I don't like the idea of him (or the Saudis) trying to derail what our elected leaders so strongly considers to be in the interests of the United States.
That derailment is what seems to be underway in the Senate right now. Republicans led by Mitch McConnell are pushing for a sanctions bill that is universally recognized (except by its sponsors) as a poison-pill for the current negotiations. Fine; opposing the administration is the GOP's default position.
But a striking number of Democrats have joined them, for no evident reason other than AIPAC's whole-hearted, priority-one support for the sanctions bill. The screen clip below is from AIPAC's site, and here is some political reporting on AIPAC's role in the sanctions push: NYT, Politico, JTA, Jerusalem Post-JTA, and our own National Journal here and here. Also see Greg Sargent in the Washington Post.
In the long run, these Democrats are not in a tenable position. Or not a good one. They are opposing what their president, his secretaries of state and defense, our normal major allies, and even the Russians and Chinese view as a step toward peace. And their stated reason for doing so—that new sanction threats will "help" the negotiations, even though every American, French, British, German, etc., and Iranian figure involved in the talks says the reverse—doesn't pass the straight-face test.
Via the AP: "'I think that the Iran sanctions bill is meant to strengthen the president, not in any way impede the ongoing negotiation which should and hopefully will be successful,' Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a co-sponsor of the legislation, said Tuesday." Oh sure. You can imagine what a person as smart as Blumenthal—or Chuck Schumer, or Cory Booker, or Mark Warner, all supporting the sanctions—would do to similar assertions in normal circumstances.
I agree with Peter Beinart, who wrote last month that people tired of U.S. wars in the Middle East should be speaking up more clearly in support of this deal. As Fred Kaplan of Slate, no peacenik, did when the first agreement was announced:
See also Andrew Sullivan, and an arms-control expert on technical flaws in the sanctions bill. [Update: and my Atlantic colleague Jeffrey Goldberg, who also argues that this bill is torpedoing the best chance for avoiding an Iranian nuclear program.] Maybe this deal will fail. But if you'd rather that the failure not be engineered in the Capitol, let your representatives know.
Updates: 1) As many readers have pointed out, Senate Republicans are near-unanimous in supporting the sanctions bill, but Democrats including Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Chuck Schumer of New York have played a big role in promoting it;
2) Also as many readers have pointed out, one of the Democratic co-sponsors of the bill is Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, whose brother James is the Atlantic's editor-in-chief. Noted for the record.
3) And, yes, I would let my senators know -- if, as a resident of DC, I had any.
For those joining us late: two days ago, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made a well-publicized visit to Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. Yasukuni is where more than two million of Japan's war dead, including a number of "Class A War Criminals" from World War II, are honored. To many people in China and South Korea, Yasukuni is a symbol of Imperial Japan's aggression and of pacifist post-war Japan's relative lack of interest its wartime record. ("Relative," compared with post-war Germany.) To some right-wing and nationalist groups within Japan, it is a symbol of national dignity and strength.
The Yasukuni story is surprisingly tangled. For more on why Hirohito -- the wartime and post-war leader known in Japan as the Showa Emperor -- initially paid visits but stopped after war criminals were added to the list of enshrinees in 1978, you can start here or here. For the power of the "victors' justice" concept among some Japanese nationalists -- the argument that the main mistake Imperial Japan made was to lose the war -- see books like this and this, or academic articles like this and this or this. It is a deep and controversial theme.
But for practical purposes, the point right now is that visits to Yasukuni always fray tempers between Japan and (especially) China, and relations between Japan and China are already as dangerously frayed as they have been in decades.
What's the right non-Asian analogy for the impact of such a visit at such a time? I offered a quick, flawed suggestion; readers pointed out why it was wrong. Herewith one final installment.
Reagan in Mississippi. A reader writes in with the same suggestion that the Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates came up with at just the same time:
Wouldn't Ronald Reagan opening his 1980 presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers had been slain sixteen years earlier, be a closer analogy?
Yes, it would be. That's the moment shown above.
Reagan in Germany. Many readers also wrote in with another Reagan suggestion:
I am not sure why you are struggling so much for an analogy. It seems that Bitburg (where Reagan had a shameful moment) is the best analogy – a cemetery which includes World War II war criminals visited controversially by heads of state.
Another reader offered a refinement on Bitburg:
Not so much Reagan visiting it, but any German chancellor visiting it, and honoring the Nazi dead. No?
Reagan’s visiting it was insensitive enough, but a different kind of insensitive.
What about Gitmo? We get more into thought-experiment territory here. But an expat living and working in Japan writes:
How about this: an American president visiting Gitmo on 9/11 anniversary (maybe with special section still active ... in perpetuity)...
To give a slightly more nuanced response to the problem of Japan and its responsibility / lack of acknowledgement for the barbaric acts committed by the imperial army, I see Yasukuni as a symptom to a very messy cultural conundrum ... to be honest, let`s get some of the other, easier problems of the world taken care of first: such as the middle east and gun control in the US.
Luckily, no sacred cows there.
I guess I should not revert to sarcasm but I really do not see any way to solve this problem that reoccurs like clockwork. The above started out as a sincere attempt to further the discussion in a positive manner but I have been down this road countless times ... our voices [those of outsiders] do not count.
That reader went on to say that he agreed with someone I had quoted previously, who argued "Perhaps if we joined the Japanese in peacefully honoring their war dead, and just make Yasukuni just about a tragic loss, we can all move on."
Another reader writes to disagree specifically with the idea of "moving on" and offers a less sympathetic view:
I'd like to provide a little push-back to your last quoted emailer:
"Over time, however, I have grown to think that the rest of the world also needs to ask hard questions about itself, to give the Japanese the space to “move on.” ...
This sounds suspiciously to me like false equivalence.
Japan has had 70 years to "ask hard questions". The result is that, almost 70 years after the end of World War II, Yasukuni has enshrined Class A, B, and C War Criminals (those guilty of starting the war, as well as those who committed atrocities), and members of the Japanese government regularly visit the shrine.
Shinzo Abe, the current PM, rather than "asking hard questions" and "moving on" has actually *backtracked* by renouncing claims that Japan had done anything wrong to "comfort women," saying that Japan's Class A war criminals weren't really criminals, and questioning just how aggressive Japan's role in World War II was. Many ministers in his cabinet are just as bad, or worse. This is actively making things worse, not moving on.
Yes, other nations have honor countrymen who are guilty of crimes. But in the case of the US and UK, two of the countries your emailer refers to (the People's Republic of China and Mao is a whole different ballgame), there are many public efforts to discuss and analyze the crimes of such people. The Arthur Harris Memorial *is* controversial [see this], for example, and has had to be under guard for periods of time. Let me know when Nathan Bedford Forrest is re-buried in Arlington National Cemetery, and when US presidents routinely visit his grave.
The problem that your emailer fails to see is that Japan is quite happy to remember Japanese victims of World War II, but actively denies the existence of victims of Japanese forces in that war (and waffles over the role that Japanese authorities played in causing that war in the first place).
Admittedly, this seems to be a very human trait (it's reminiscent of the Turkish government's prickliness over talk about the Armenian genocide), but just because other peoples and countries are guilty of this and have their own obstacles to overcome in facing their history does not mean that Japan is doing exceptionally poorly at the task. And the fact that Japanese inability to deal with its own recent history is aggravating tensions between it, South Korea and China (these three countries being some of the world's biggest economies and militaries) makes it worrisome for everyone.
For the record, I also got several messages from people in Canada, Europe, and Japan saying it was pretty insensitive / offensive for any American, like me, to complain about militarism from any other source, given the modern U.S.'s record for sending troops everywhere and thinking about the consequences later. American hyper-militarism and related security-state mentality is indeed a problem, but it's a different one from what we're discussing here.
Everyone knows the "chessmaster or pawn" puzzle. As applied to President Obama's leadership style, it's the question of whether he is thinking five steps ahead of his adversaries, luring them into self-destructive over-reach -- or whether, on the contrary, he is the one always falling into traps. Here was my best attempt to wrestle with that topic as of early last year.
The same question applies to the Chinese government in its international dealings. Some people think that any step it makes reflects the far-sighted shrewdness of Chinese strategists from Sun Tzu (at right) onward. For whatever reason, such an outlook is particularly popular among Australian analysts. Eg this about the ADIZ and this more generally, though here is one from an American.
Others note that foreign policy is usually the lowest-priority item on the Chinese leadership's (collective) mind. What really matters in Zhongnanhai, the Communist Party's command center, is domestic security, stability, and growth, with anything beyond that as an afterthought. By this logic, China's foreign-policy and defense moves, far from fitting into a decades-long master plan, often seem ad-hoc at best and self-defeating at worst.
I'm in the second camp. On the grandest of all grand-strategic levels, I do think that both China and the United States have done an impressive job keeping their relationship as positive and cooperative as it has been these past 35+ years, despite the obvious conflicts and disagreements. No joke, I think that administrations from Nixon's onward on the U.S. side, and Deng's onward on the Chinese, deserve recognition for managing the relationship much better than anyone might have expected when Nixon first meet Chairman Mao.
But when it comes to moves below this grand-strategic level, I'm skeptical of interpretations that assume a seamlessly executed Chinese master plan.
1) "They're bad at predicting foreign reaction (as a result of only being able to read slanted news)." From a person I've known over the years, and who has an extensive background in U.S.-Chinese security issues. He starts by referring to the flap over China's test of an anti-satellite weapon six years ago:
Just came across this [from the original post]: " The most closely studied example of "creating new realities" was the Chinese test of an anti-satellite weapon in 2007, which left debris in the path of other satellites and was roundly criticized worldwide. Even now people debate who exactly gave the go-ahead for this move: someone inside the PLA, or the civilian leadership of then-president Hu Jintao."
I got to interview several PLA officers (including a couple at flag rank) and Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials about the ASAT [anti-satellite] decision. The version I heard was that the decision to launch went through military channels to the CMC [Central Military Commission, the highest command-level of the military], but was not coordinated with any civilian agency including MFA (which learned about it from reading the newspapers the next day).
One PLAN [Navy] Admiral told me “we have nothing like your National Security Council” and that stovepiped decision-making was common and a potential source of miscalculation. All of the members of the CMC are military except for the Chair (Hu, In this case). It would be like a much more insular Joints Chief of Staff making decisions without consulting State or the economic agencies.
It’s a decision-making process designed to miscalculate and it may explain the recent decision to create a National Security Commission - they've been thinking about this on and off for 20 years. To put that in context, we’ve been struggling to find Chinese counterparts to [Pentagon] civilians – they don’t exist. The Party exercises oversight, not the government. In one meeting one of my colleagues said “what about civilian control of the military and a Chinese official snapped back “that will never happen here.” ...
Stove-piped decision-making (along with insular views) is a major source of risk for relations with China. Another interesting part was that having used an insular, stove-piped process to decide to launch the ASAT, the Chinese told me that they were surprised at the outcry. They’re bad at predicting foreign reaction (a result of being able to read only slanted news). Sounds like the ADIZ decision.
2) I highly recommend this analysis by Francesco Sisci, an Italian writer who has reported for a very long time from China. It opens with the same genius-or-blunder question about the ADIZ:
If it was part of a strategy, well, this is almost useless to think about because this strategy would be self-defeating and bound to take China down the path of self-destruction because it has too many powerful neighbors to try to expand at their expense....
If it was a gross mistake, then China's poor assessment of the balance of power starts with miscomprehension of the strategic importance of the American presence in Asia.
The reason I hope you'll go on to read Sisci's whole essay is that he builds to an important and non-obvious point. He observes that every level of the Chinese leadership still harbors "strategic mistrust" of American intentions. Yes, yes, those smiling Americans may begin every speech saying that "America welcomes China's rise." But deep down they must still be plotting to block its way forward and impede its progress.
Sisci argues that if the United States really wanted to make trouble for China, it would -- paradoxically -- greatly pull back its military presence in Asia, and avoid steps like immediately sending its B-52s to challenge the new Chinese ADIZ. I'll leave the rest of the explanation to him, but his main point is that without the buffering U.S. presence, all other countries in the region would already be reacting more nervously, harshly, and dangerously to Chinese moves. Eg:
When China declared this ADIZ, what would have happened if America were not in the region? Japan would have had to defy the ADIZ to prove that it was not under the Chinese thumb, and even if Japan didn't, many others would have come up with ways to counter the new Chinese ambition...
China would then have to consider countermeasures; things could easily spin out of control. The fact that America decided to fly its planes in the area is a way of softening the Japanese reaction, and it immediately took hold of the situation... If it were Japan defying China, Chinese domestic opinion would put a lot of pressure on the leadership to respond to Tokyo.
3) To wrap up for the day, let's bring in our friend Mike Lofgren, author of The Party is Over and long-time Republican congressional staffer:
1. Geography: China, for all its economic clout, is an incredibly constricted country geographically. What are its natural routes to the world? North into Siberia is hardly an attractive trade route. All through the northwest, west, and southwest of the country, it is flanked by a semicircle of some of the highest mountains on earth. It has a long coastline, but this access to the open ocean is constricted by (from north to south): the Korean peninsula, Japan, Japan’s long extension of the Ryukyu chain, Taiwan, the Philippines, the Malaysian/Indonesian archipelago. The coastline is much longer, but strategically it is just as hemmed in as imperial Germany’s route to the open ocean was. These unalterable geographic factors will always constrict China’s strategic military reach, regardless of whether they build a technologically proficient and well-trained navy (which they emphatically do not have now).
2. Trade patterns: China possesses six of the world’s ten busiest container terminals. This is in itself a staggering fact which tells us a lot about the thrust of world industrial and trade development. But in the present context it also suggests an extreme strategic vulnerability, given the inflexible nature of geography. This is a windpipe that could easily be closed.
3. Comparative strategic advantage: Now and for the foreseeable future, the U.S. Navy paradoxically has easier strategic access to the East and South China seas than does Beijing.
4. Conclusion: China’s only rational option is to pursue an exclusively peaceful commercial path to greatness, as did Germany after 1945. The other alternative for Germany had unpleasant consequences, as a glance at twentieth century history demonstrates. Of course, the peaceful path requires rationality among China’s neighbors and the United States as well, which is not a given. The Pentagon’s “pivot to Asia” is unnecessary, because there is no vulnerability to be addressed. The last thing the world needs is a tit-for-tat competition between the U.S. and China in the manner of the Anglo-German naval competition prior to World War I.
Obviously there are some interesting connections and implications among the three perspectives shown above. But if I take time to spell them out, I will never get this finished. And I'll turn a minus into a plus by remembering the wisdom of Billy Wilder (left), as relayed to Cameron Crowe: "Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever."
We'll get back to our ongoing American Futures journey later today. [Please check out the latest installment, this morning from Rapid City, SD.]
I'll confess that in our stopover in DC, after three weeks away, the most startling change has been the sudden taken-for-granted assumption that it's time for another war and the only questions are the details, as reflected in this post today by my Atlantic colleague Garance Franke-Ruta. Yes, I'm aware of the chemical-weapon news that triggered this shift, and of President Obama's unwise earlier declaration of a "red line" necessitating attack. But America's strategic interests haven't been turned upside down in a handful of days, nor its economic and budgetary challenges, nor the can of worms inevitably opened by any war-of-choice.
In recent installments I've argued that "surgical" or "standoff" strikes never are as neat and clean as planned; that the people stumping hardest for attack are the very ones whose track record should disqualify them for further public comment on national-security judgment calls; and that it is the height of both strategic and political folly for President Obama to take this step without involving Congress. Now, from the readers.
First, from a businessman in the Midwest:
I confess to being a staunch opponent of both our Afghanistan and Iraq wars, so I come with bias. Nevertheless, it seems obvious to me (a small but very well-traveled international businessman with no formal training in international policy) that US intervention in Syria will exponentially increase all the bad will we have carelessly spread world-wide for the past decade.
You can trust me when I tell you I get an earful every time I travel in Malaysia, Indonesia, China, and virtually anywhere where educated people wonder what the hell the US was thinking during the Cheney Administration (intentional sic). [JF note: I trust you. This is my experience in those countries too.]
Thanks for telling the idiots to cool it. We can do no possible good in Syria, but we can certainly do a hell of a lot of bad if we get involved.
Now, a reader in California:
It seems like the perfect time for Obama to make another heart-felt soaring speech about why he is NOT going to interfere in Syria. That's the red line he should draw.
He needs to say that we keep being pulled into conflicts in the Middle East and it's not going to solve anything and in fact is likely to make things worse, there and here.... It seems to me we have this military so we keep using it.
Another reader in the Midwest:
In addition to declaring war, the Constitution also relegates another power to Congress:
"The Congress shall have power... To define and punish... Offenses against the Law of Nations... To declare War... To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces..."
The "define and punish" part is quite interesting, I think. That's exactly what we're talking about here, no? The “define” step is already completed, with the U.S. as signatory to the Geneva Conventions and other conventions on use of chemical and biological weapons, but the “punish”? That's not defined in any meaningful way and that should be precisely Congress's role here...
While I agree that Obama’s “red line” statement was critical to where we find ourselves now, I really am not sure that he had a better option at the time. Yes, he had other options, e.g. not saying anything, but were those better options? Imagine if he had not said anything about attacks with unconventional weapons by the Syrian government forces.
Can you imagine the outcry from the bulldog right after the recent attacks? Because I sure can: “Obama’s silence enables and encourages tyrannical and oppressive government to kill and suppress their people!”... This isn’t to say that I think the “red line” comment was well advised, but I don’t think it’s quite as poorly advised as it may seem without looking at the possible negative scenarios.
A reader in the Southwest said that I cited Eisenhower but, "for younger or non-history buff" readers, I should have spelled out what I meant. Here goes:
As the five-star Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, Dwight Eisenhower led what was then the strongest military force in world history. As president, he was extremely cautious about where and when he committed U.S. troops -- a kind of precursor to what, before Iraq, we thought of as the Powell Doctrine. Thus Eisenhower:
declined to rescue the French, at Dien Bien Phu in 1954;
declined to rescue the British and French and Israelis, in Suez in 1956;
declined, in the most heartbreaking case, to rescue the Hungarian Freedom Fighters before the Soviets crushed them, also in 1956;
declined to send troops to resist Fidel Castro's rebels in the late 1950s;
was chary of big U.S. commitments in the former French colonial territory of Vietnam and Laos.
Of course his record, like everyone's, was complex. In 1958 he sent a sizable U.S. troop deployment to Lebanon for three months, to shore up a pro-Western government. And it was under Eisenhower and his CIA director Allen Dulles that the U.S. engineered the famous anti-Mosaddegh coup in Iran 60 years ago this month -- as the agency has finally confirmed. Still, Eisenhower was no one's idea of a modern neocon, or liberal hawk. When in doubt, he declined to intervene.
This same reader makes a political point:
A very bad decision and a mess will terminally impact both Biden and Clinton as successors to Obama.
A candidate to Clinton's left will attack her lack of engagement and process in the Middle East during her tenure as fecklessness.
One more long reader-message after the jump, and then an invitation.
Now that I think about it, I kind of see how that could happen. You bomb a country, and the next thing you know you are pulled into a war. Good thing we have experts to help us connect the dots.
(Actually, apart from the Onion-esque headline, the contents of this front-page piece from today's WaPo are excellent, based on interviews with real military experts about the unforeseen and unforeseeable consequences of "limited" and "surgical" military actions.)
Here's a note just now from another genuine expert, my friend and one-time teacher Charles Stevenson, long of the National War College and the Senate Armed Services Committee staff:
I share your concerns about the consequences of punitive strikes against Syria -- too weak to change the military situation yet making America militarily involved with all manner of risky consequences.
I don't believe the President really needs congressional approval for a deliberately short and limited set of attacks on Syria, though he obviously should consult with congressional leaders. I also doubt that the current Congress could give advice and consent in a timely or coherent way, given the hyperpartisanship there and its failure to do more than bluster at the time of the Libyan raids.
On the other hand, I'm pleased that Britain, which lacks our explicit constitutional provisions for war powers, is still going to have a parliamentary vote on the issue. I wish we would do the same.
To Stevenson's proposal in the third paragraph: No kidding. And Obama himself should be the first to grasp the point. Completely apart from the procedural nicety of involving the rest of the government in authorizing the use of force, he has a compelling political interest in spreading the responsibility for this decision.
Even if Obama has already made up his mind to launch a strike, and even if that operation goes perfectly, something about it will go wrong. Messages will get blurred and bungled; the fog of war will interfere; innocents will be killed. How many people planning the bomb-Serbia campaign in 1999 imagined that it would create a crisis between the U.S. and China, because of the mistaken bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade?
Obama can't know what exactly will happen if he launches a strike. But he should know, for sure, that even the cleanest intervention will bring mistakes, tragedies, and eventual blame. Therefore it should be 100% in his interest to share responsibility for the decision before it is solely his. As Charlie Stevenson points out, the Brits don't have to do this, but the Cameron government is bringing it to a vote. Of course that works more easily in a Parliamentary system, where he can rely on a disciplined majority, than in our current dysfunctional mess. But it makes sense in any democracy, even ours.
UPDATE: Please also read William Pfaff's analysis of the terrible trap Obama created for himself with his "red line" statement last year. Heart of the argument:
When Barack Obama foolishly remarked last fall that if the Bashar al-Assad government in Syria made use of chemical weapons... it would cross a “red line” so far as the American government was concerned. His statement implied that the United States is in charge of international war and peace.
The obvious threat was that the United States would intervene in the war. How it would intervene, with what means, to what objective, he did not say....
One assumes that in speaking so casually and recklessly about a red line in Syria, President Obama failed to grasp -- how could he have done so? – that he was handing his Republican and neo-conservative opponents a primed bomb with which, as they certainly instantly understood, they could destroy him politically if there were a chemical attack and Mr. Obama did not go to war in Syria.
He was doing something else. He was giving the same bomb to any other international actor who might seek advantage in an American intervention in Syria that would spread the war, possibly to President Assad’s regional allies, Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, already active clandestinely....
This column over the weekend, by the British academic John Naughton in the Guardian, takes us one more step in assessing the damage to American interests in the broadest sense-- commercial, strategic, ideological - from the panopticon approach to "security" brought to us by NSA-style monitoring programs.
Naughton's essay doesn't technically tell us anything new. For instance, see earlier reports like this, this, and this. But it does sharpen the focus in a useful way. Whoever wrote the headline and especially the subhead did a great job of capturing the gist:
In short: because of what the U.S. government assumed it could do with information it had the technological ability to intercept, American companies and American interests are sure to suffer in their efforts to shape and benefit from the Internet's continued growth.
American companies, because no foreigners will believe these firms can guaranteesecurity from U.S. government surveillance;
American interests, because the United States has gravely compromised its plausibility as world-wide administrator of the Internet's standards and advocate for its open, above-politics goals.
Why were U.S. authorities in a position to get at so much of the world's digital data in the first place? Because so many of the world's customers have trusted* U.S.-based firms like Google, Yahoo, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, etc with their data; and because so many of the world's nations have tolerated an info-infrastructure in which an outsized share of data flows at some point through U.S. systems. Those are the conditions of trust and toleration that likely will change.
The problem for the companies, it's worth emphasizing, is not that they were so unduly eager to cooperate with U.S. government surveillance. Many seem to have done what they could to resist. The problem is what the U.S. government -- first under Bush and Cheney, now under Obama and Biden -- asked them to do. As long as they operate in U.S. territory and under U.S. laws, companies like Google or Facebook had no choice but to comply. But people around the world who have a choice about where to store their data, may understandably choose to avoid leaving it with companies subject to the way America now defines its security interests.
Here's Naughton's version of the implications:
The first is that the days of the internet as a truly global network are numbered. It was always a possibility that the system would eventually be Balkanised, ie divided into a number of geographical or jurisdiction-determined subnets as societies such as China, Russia, Iran and other Islamic states decided that they needed to control how their citizens communicated. Now, Balkanisation is a certainty....
Second, the issue of internet governance is about to become very contentious. Given what we now know about how the US and its satraps have been abusing their privileged position in the global infrastructure, the idea that the western powers can be allowed to continue to control it has become untenable.... Nothing, but nothing, that is stored in their [ie, US-based companies] "cloud" services can be guaranteed to be safe from surveillance or from illicit downloading by employees of the consultancies employed by the NSA.
The real threat from terrorism has never been the damage it does directly, even through attacks as horrific as those on 9/11. The more serious threat comes from the over-reaction, the collective insanity or the simple loss of perspective, that an attack evokes. Our government's ambition to do everything possible to keep us "safe" has put us at jeopardy in other ways.
One more note: it is also worth emphasizing that this damage was not done by Edward Snowden, except in an incidental and instrumental sense. The damage comes from the policies themselves, just as the lasting damage from Abu Ghraib came not from the leaked photos but from the abuse they portrayed.
What governments do eventually becomes known. Eventual disclosure is likely when a program involves even a handful of people. (Latest case in point: Seal Team Six.) It is certain when an effort stretches over many years, entails contracts worth billions of dollars, and requires the efforts of tens of thousands of people -- any one of whom, as we've seen from Snowden, may at any point decide to tell what he knows.
In launching such an effort, a government must assume as a given that what it is doing will become known, and then calculate whether it will still seem "worthwhile" when it does. Based on what we've seen so far, Prism would have failed that test.
* Of course the "trust" comes with the caveat that the companies have been piling up this data for their own commercial, ad-targeting, data-mining purposes. But that's a known risk, more or less. The demands placed on the companies by the U.S. government are, for the public at large, the main news of the Snowden revelations.
I'm not referring to Edward Snowden (nor to the man* above) but instead to someone who resisted in a different, very quiet way, more than a decade ago. The account below comes from a person I have known for a long time, and it describes someone I also know. It's worth reading both for the observations in the first half and for the personal story in the second. This reader writes:
I've been thinking about the recent leak investigations. I'm usually very sympathetic to my dad's [ca. age 80] very liberal take on these sorts of things. But I've been having a hard time getting too excited about it. To me, this is the inevitable result of the way that technology has developed.
Sadly, the tech visionaries who predicted that the internet would be revolutionary were correct, but not in the way that they expected. We all want to be able to seamlessly move our work and online lives from desktop to laptop to smartphone to ipads. Tech companies have given us this, and in the process have created vast warehouses of our digital lives that are assumed to have great value and you can bet that there is a constant effort at these companies to figure out how to monetize this digital storehouse. So the NSA is simply getting a copy of the information that already is being saved to be mined for possible profit.
The companies, like Obama, assure us that they strip out identifying information. The companies, like Obama, are asking us to trust them. To me, the only way to change this threat to our individual liberties would be to make it illegal for any collection of our digital footprints by anyone. And I don't see this happening.
This brings to mind a story about XX [our mutual acquaintance] not long after 9/11. He was head of the technical team at YY [one of the former Baby Bell companies] and he was getting pressured to set up digital taps based on secret government warrants shown to the company's executives by government representatives where the company could only look at the secret warrant, but not make a copy or take any notes. XX was bothered by the fact that once YY set up these digital taps, they were never turned off. He also was concerned that there was no way even to validate whether these requests even came from legitimate government representatives. And yet he wanted to keep his job.
So he told his bosses that he would be more than happy to have his team of engineers comply, but just needed to have the exact procedures written down so that they could keep accurate records because, "at YY, we are trained to document everything we do in writing very carefully to protect ourselves and the company."
This didn't make the government or the YY executives happy, so they flew him out to headquarters in [city ZZ] and basically tried to strong arm him into just doing it without asking any questions. He stuck to his "I am very happy to do this, but just want to protect my team and the company and make sure that we set up the same procedures here that we have for everything else we do" mantra. When he went back home he sent an email to company lawyers who had called him in laying out what his understanding of what they wanted him to do and how he should document the work.
And that's the last he heard and YY was one of the only phone companies that didn't comply with secret government digital tapping requests that came to light during the Bush presidency. Sadly, it seems that there are very few people like XX out there, so there you go...
If we finally are beginning the security-state "debate" that is many years overdue, one crucial element to examine is the interaction among technological possibilities, institutional imperatives, and the pressure on individuals to say Yes or No. It is too much to expect everyone, or even most people, to do what this telecom-company employee did. Yet his quiet example should be noted.
* The picture is of course from the wonderful German movie The Lives of Others. If you have seen it, you'll immediately understand why this image comes to mind. If you haven't seen it, please check it out soon.
UPDATE A reader writes in response to this message:
..when everything is so secret, how can one be sure that one is following orders (even a Court order -- ever heard of forgeries?) from legitimate authority?
("He also was concerned that there was no way even to validate whether these requests even came from legitimate government representatives. " -- from your latest post a few minutes ago)
I think that the danger of PRISM etc Is misuse of the data bases by people who are clearly operating _outside the law_... Snowden (for example and by his own claim) could have been using his data resources for insider trading...just go look into the email of the honchos at Morgan Stnley. They've made an information monoculture -- and you know how risky monocultures in agriculture.
1) I believe what I wrote two days ago: that the United States and the world have gained much more, in democratic accountability, than they have lost in any way with the revelation of these various NSA monitoring programs. That these programs are legal -- unlike the Nixon "Plumbers" operation, unlike various CIA assassination programs, unlike other objects of whistle-blower revelations over the years -- is the most important fact about them. They're being carried out in "our" name, ours as Americans, even though most of us have had no idea of what they entailed. The debate on the limits of the security-state is long overdue, and Edward Snowden has played an important role in hastening its onset.
2) Among the strongest arguments against a surveillance state is that it depends on the subjective judgment of its millions of employees (a) to be applied without over-reach or abuse, or (b) to exist at all. One 29-year-old has just demonstrated the second point. Edward Snowden didn't like the way the system worked, and so he has effectively blown it up. The bigger problem may be with the first point, option (a) -- people who think there should be more intrusiveness or prying. The Founders' fundamental concern, often distilled as "If men were angels...", was to avoid giving anyone powers that, in the wrong hands, could be abused. The surveillance state is giving too many people too much power -- either to destroy its workings, as Snowden has tried to do, or to abuse and extend them.
3) I am sorry that Snowden chose Hong Kong as his point of refuge. To be clear: I love Hong Kong. My own brother lived there for many years; I like everything about its verve of life and energy; I admire the determination of its press, judicial institutions, and civil society to maintain their independence after the transfer from British control to that of the People's Republic of China. As shown by these amazing headlines last week in the South China Morning Post (sent by a friend) on the 24th anniversary of the Tienanmen Square crackdown:
But here is the reality. Hong Kong is not a sovereign country. It is part of China -- a country that by the libertarian standards Edward Snowden says he cares about is worse, not better, than the United States. China has even more surveillance of its citizens (it has gone very far toward ensuring that it knows the real identity of everyone using the internet); its press is thoroughly government-controlled; it has no legal theory of protection for free speech; and it doesn't even have national elections. Hong Kong lives a time-limited separate existence, under the "one country, two systems" principle, but in a pinch, it is part of China.
I don't know all the choices Snowden had about his place of refuge. Maybe he thought this was his only real option. But if Snowden thinks, as some of his comments seem to suggest, that he has found a bastion of freer speech, then he is ill-informed; and if he knowingly chose to make his case from China he is playing a more complicated game.
And one more point: I have friends who work at Booz Allen Hamilton, Snowden's employer at the time he (apparently) decided to leak the PRISM info. I am sure they disagree with my claim that the leaks have done more good than harm. I am sorry for the damage to their firm, which is another reminder of the danger and folly of creating systems that can be upended by one dissenting voice.