The recent Twitter row between the United States and Egypt triggered a number of issues – freedom of expression; the role of media in modern societies; the balance between diplomacy and public diplomacy; between interests and values, both ours and theirs; and the ability to communicate not just governments but populations using traditional channels and social media. It represents a great teachable moment, for students (and professors) of public diplomacy and practitioners as well.
To briefly recap, the Morsi government (along with conservative elements within Egyptian society) has been cracking down on more and more political speech. The U.S. expressed concern privately, and then publicly following the detention of political satirist Bassem Youssef, Egypt’s Jon Stewart. Everything got amped up when the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, perhaps the most aggressive user of social media within the Department of State, tweeted a link to a segment about Youssef’s arrest by the real Jon Stewart.
The Egyptian government blasted back, on Twitter no less, criticizing the Embassy for its “negative political propaganda.” Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party piled on, calling the offending tweet “undiplomatic & unwise.”
The Embassy’s Twitter account was taken down, the link to the Jon Stewart removed and then brought back on line. The Egyptian government claims American Ambassador Anne Patterson apologized for the incident. The State Department has tried to say as little as possible about the whole flap, but apparently sees the posting of the Stewart clip as a mistake.
What should we make of all of this?
In Egypt’s transition from dictatorship to democracy, it is hardly surprising that political Islam and civil society are struggling to comfortably co-exist. The Morsi government claims it was not responsible for Youssef’s detention, although someone in authority was. Beyond government, under Egyptian law, anyone can sue over perceived offensive speech. Just this week, an Egyptian court dismissed a lawsuit by an Islamist lawyer that would have forced Youssef’s show off air. After his release, Youssef resumed his broadcast, seemingly unbowed.
Clearly, a necessary debate within Egypt and across the Arab world about democracy, the evolution of political Islam and the development of inclusive and tolerant civil societies is underway.
The United States has been drawn into this debate, significantly through Twitter and Facebook. For example, Embassy Cairo has engaged Egyptians of all stripes on these issues. They are all unhappy with the United States, but for different reasons, believing Washington has been too lenient on Morsi, too critical, or should have no opinion at all.
Spend some time on the Embassy Twitter feed, @USEmbassyCairo, and you see what digital public diplomacy can do. Its tweets are engaging, candid and direct. Some samples:
In the past, such conversations would occur in quiet settings involving mostly government officials and policy elites. Now exchanges are out in the open, with newly empowered citizens offering their views and hoping for a genuine dialogue.
If this is the future of public diplomacy, Embassy Cairo is a trendsetter. Its recent experience demonstrates both the potential and the risk regarding how it is employed. Social media have greatly expanded public diplomacy’s reach, where actions and reactions can quickly take on broader political and social significance.
Embassy Cairo knows this better than anyone. Last September, an attempt to mitigate Egyptian outcry (and aggressive demonstrations) over an obscure American video perceived as being disrespectful of Islam became an issue in the American presidential campaign.
What are the public diplomacy lessons in this latest case?
There was a “practice what we preach” aspect to The Daily Show link. Stewart pokes fun at both Democratic and Republican political figures. Stewart highlights Egyptian contributions to modern society. He commends Morsi for assurances that political speech will be protected. He reminds that critics love their country every bit as much as leaders.
That said, it was probably inappropriate for the Embassy to link to the segment on its Twitter feed. Stewart calls Morsi a “crazy guy.” It’s inevitable that many would view it as official agreement.
While edgy works, this went too far, an “in your face” action at a sensitive time when the new Egyptian government was likely to overreact to any perceived slight.
But once the tweet was out there, connecting to publicly available content, the Embassy compounded its first mistake by removing the link. The Ambassador’s private apology with a pledge to avoid a repeat in the future was all that was needed. The removal sent precisely the wrong message that objectionable speech can and should be curtailed, a point Egypt made repeatedly during last September’s film controversy.
The retreat also sends the wrong message to the State Department’s global communicators. Ambassadors and public diplomats should be fully engaged in the vigorous debate about the critical issues of the day, not on the sidelines where it’s safe. They should be pushing the envelope, even if it means going over the line once in a while.
While integrating transformational technology into U.S. public diplomacy programs, mistakes inevitably will be made. How organizations react says a lot about what lessons will be learned.
In Vietnam, the United States fought a counterinsurgent war on behalf of a government lacking popular legitimacy using primarily conventional tactics in support of a flawed strategic objective that turned out to be inconsequential to the broader Cold War struggle against Communism. The primary lesson learned, particularly within the Army, was “never again.”
However, a decade ago, a cadre of officers well schooled in irregular warfare and intrastate conflicts, eventually marshaled by General David Petraeus, scrambled to rearticulate the lost principles of counterinsurgency deliberately buried after Vietnam, incorporate them into a new Army doctrine and apply them (appropriately) in Iraq and (less so) in Afghanistan.
This experience is compellingly detailed in Fred Kaplan’s book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War.
Kaplan cautions whether the military is capturing the right lessons or adequately incorporating them into future planning. Coupled with the Obama administration’s understandable reluctance after unwinding two wars to engage in large-scale interventions any time soon, the risk is that the military will walk away from counterinsurgency doctrine when the war in Afghanistan ends next year, just as it did after Vietnam.
The first is the preeminence of political rather than military outcomes. As Kaplan relates, Petraeus adopted the dictum that counterinsurgency is 80 percent political and 20 percent military. That is likely to be true with any future intervention.
The United States entered Afghanistan and Iraq knowing what it wanted to eliminate – Osama bin Laden’s sanctuary and Saddam Hussein’s regime – but with only a vague conception of a desired strategic end state. In Iraq, the lack of a post-conflict strategy was not an oversight, but deliberate. In neither case was there a grasp of the political, social and cultural forces in those countries that would shape the eventual outcomes.
Regime change is not the end of the war, only the end of the first phase. The desired end state, a government with perceived legitimacy that earns the support of a large cross-section of the local population, is very difficult. This is not only clear from the mixed results achieved in Iraq and Afghanistan, but Libya as well.
An effective plan for the conflict and what happens afterwards requires integrated civilian and military action, a second lesson. This rarely happened over the past 12 years. While there was an effective partnership in Iraq between Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, the norm involved civilians and the military pulling in different directions. The worst case involved Paul Bremer’s ill-advised orders regarding the disbanding of the Iraqi Army and de-Ba’athification of the government, uncoordinated steps that fueled if not generated the insurgency.
Future interventions will involve a “whole of government” effort, involving not just soldiers and diplomats, but development experts in wide-ranging fields from agriculture, policing and justice to energy, commerce and communication. Unfortunately, the United States government is not structured to plan or naturally operate that way. As it is, Congress fully funds only one element of national power, the military. Given the military cuts associated with sequestration, Congress over time may be tempted to restore some of them with offsets from non-defense discretionary accounts. If so, this will only widen the gap between military and civilian capabilities.
The third lesson regards time. Wars of insurgency are by nature “slow and messy.” Kaplan questions whether the American people are unwilling to support such long, complicated and costly endeavors.
While this remains a richly debated field of study, the American people gave its leaders 12 years to succeed in Afghanistan and eight years in Iraq. While some have already argued the military has been withdrawn too quickly, the fact is the United States squandered too much time developing workable strategies and putting appropriate levels of resource in place.
Going forward, any intervention will be a race against time. Better strategic planning is an imperative. Given the emerging global media environment, the perceived legitimacy of any action is on the clock with no time to waste.
Given how lethal force can be delivered through more technology and fewer troops, future Presidents will be tempted to solve the time problem by engaging in high-tech wars without mobilizing the American people or the government. But given the proliferation of smartphones with cameras linked to the Internet and social media like Facebook and Twitter, future warfare will still be influenced by public opinion. Governments may choose to ignore the impact, as is happening now in Pakistan, but public pressure can be expected to increase, overseas if not at home.
The final lesson is simple, yet compelling. If we are not confident that military action can be decisive, the most prudent decision may be not to intervene militarily in the first place. This is certainly not easy with various constituencies calling on the United States to “do something.” But the reality is that, if future conflict is mostly political, military action may incur profound costs without actually solving the problem.
This appears to be the one lesson that has been put into practice. The result, right or wrong, is evident in Syria.
President Barack Obama, in his first inaugural address in 2009, said “the world has changed, and we must change with it.” The extent of a transformed domestic and international landscape was clear in his second inaugural address this week. Inaugurals are important opportunities for public diplomacy and his message will appeal to international audiences, but it was clearly tempered by four years of real-world experience. Obama talked at length about ongoing need to achieve equality and opportunity here at home, but gone was much of the soaring rhetoric targeted abroad that captivated international audiences four years ago.
Unlike previous second-terms where Presidents have been challenged politically at home and tried to pad their legacies abroad, Obama’s domestic is clearly going to animate his final four years in office. He outlined an ambitious agenda – a grand bargain on the budget that preserves social equality and promotes economic opportunity, enhanced gun regulation and immigration reform. These issues, along with energy and the environment, have important international dimensions as well.
If engagement was the international watchword four years ago, this time it was collaboration and the need to continue to strengthen the capacity of the international community to tackle major global challenges. He reemphasized a commitment to end a decade of war, rejecting the notion that U.S. security requires “perpetual war.” He renewed America’s support for democracy in a dramatically transformed international landscape.
Those pledges will be tested over the next four years in places like Syria, Mali, Iran, Pakistan and Egypt.
Saying “no one has a greater stake in a peaceful world than its most powerful nation,” President Obama committed to continued emphasis on collective action through formal alliances, major international organizations, regional structures and informal groups of like-minded nations. The past four years revealed the strengths and limitations of such an approach, with decisive international action in Libya but severe constraints in Syria. Patient and determined action with regional partners appears to be paying off in Somalia. That is a potential model for action in and around Mali, but more resources will need to be committed, and quickly.
Obama said four years ago that his national security strategy involved the “prudent use” of American power. The weight of effort against extremist groups shifted from large-scale deployments of U.S. ground forces to the aggressive use of technology, from unmanned drones to a computer worm. This strategy netted important accomplishments, such as the elimination of Osama bin Laden, but has generated international concerns regarding overly secretive actions that may be rewriting the laws of war and setting potentially far-reaching precedents. The administration is said to be codifying its approach within an American “playbook,” but it remains unclear to what degree this involves genuine partnerships with admittedly weak allies like Pakistan or Yemen.
Obama in his inaugural address encouraged resolving “differences with other nations peacefully, not because we are naïve about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear.” This approach will surely be tested in the coming months regarding the U.S. approach to Iran and whether sufficient time will be devoted to what will undoubtedly be a lengthy and difficult negotiation.
The United States will continue to support democracy “because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom.” But emerging democracies like Egypt will have a much different look and feel. The United States should help guide Egypt regarding vital elements of an enduring democracy – building effective institutions, protecting minorities, including all segments of society including women, tolerating and encouraging political dissent and peacefully transferring power following free and fair elections. But the United States will have to be patient, recognizing that the path forward will not be a straight line. The final construction should be consistent with long-term U.S. objectives, but will not have a stamp that says “made in America.”
There are a number of competing and overlapping terms to describe how governments communicate with or relate to their own citizens and those of other countries, including strategic communication, public diplomacy, public affairs, information operations and global engagement. Depending on who is saying what to whom and where, different authorities, funds, channels or even laws can apply.
For example, by law, the United States government cannot “propagandize” its own people, but is permitted to try to “persuade” others around the world to support U.S. interests and actions. It can “inform” anyone about U.S. policies, actions, history, culture and opportunities.
When the State or Defense Departments communicate with the American people, usually through the media, it is called public affairs. How the State Department interacts with global audience is termed public diplomacy. When the Department of Defense does something similar (but usually with a short-term objective) it has been known as strategic communication — until recently.
But late last month, the Department of Defense issued a memorandum announcing that the term strategic communication is out, and communication synchronization is in. Why the shift and what does it mean?
According to the memo, strategic communication, which has been a joint responsibility of DoD’s Public Affairs and Policy communities with lots of interested players on the margins, created bureaucratic and functional confusion regarding military planning and oversight. As Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs George Little wrote, “most things previously termed ‘SC’ are in fact Public Affairs responsibilities.” This makes sense.
But are strategic communication and communication synchronization the same? Not necessarily.
Communication synchronization can be viewed as constructing a narrative and sustaining it across the bureaucracy. The United States is actually pretty good at this. Take one recent celebrated example. Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, echoed talking points about Benghazi developed by the intelligence community when she appeared on several Sunday shows five days after the attack. The criticism from some Senators has been that she should have been less, well, synchronized.
The word strategic communicates importance, something directly related to a vital interest or a core function. The evolution of the concept of strategic communication within the military a decade or so ago reflected the emergence of a 24/7 global media environment, the interconnected world of the Internet, traditional media, satellite television and now social media and citizen journalists. In this world, governments communicate with each other and with broader society. People communicate vertically and horizontally and have access to more and better quality information than ever before.
United States policies, pronouncements and actions receive relentless scrutiny. In order to gain international understanding and support, to the extent possible, what we say and what we do need to complement and not contradict each other. Strategic communication is about keeping our words and deeds in the same zip code, or offering a quick and coherent explanation when one or the other strays beyond the established narrative.
This can be very difficult, particularly when policies and priorities, or interests and values, collide.
More often than we’d like to admit, our actions look one way to us, but are perceived very differently half a world away. Think of the bin Laden raid in Pakistan. From Kalamazoo, taking bin Laden off the battlefield was a no-brainer. From Karachi, it was a violation of sovereignty and a national humiliation.
Recognizing that the raid, necessary as it was, would inflame Pakistani public opinion, the initial description of the operation by President Obama was carefully constructed to try and mitigate these vastly different perceptions between the two countries. That’s strategic communication.
It’s not clear that communication synchronization addresses situations where our actions, no matter how well we attempt to explain them, have potentially far-reaching public policy consequences. Despite assertions to the contrary, the United States had no trouble communicating in Iraq. But what we viewed as liberation, others viewed as occupation. What we described as a war on terror, others perceived as a war against Islam. Our narrative was clear and consistent, but carried high costs we are still paying in a critical part of the world.
Going forward, the United States must recognize how consistent words and actions translate into effective and sustainable policies, regardless of what you call it.
In March of last year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (my former boss), in testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee, feared we were “losing an information war” to the Chinese, Russians and al Jazeera. She was certainly right that the United States faces greater competition from other nations, non-governmental entities and social actors who were aggressively challenging the U.S. narrative of global events and advancing alternative frames. Despite being the world’s only superpower – which means the United States has an interest in every corner of the world but also that every global citizen has an opinion on U.S. policy – our relative advantage had certainly diminished since the end of the Cold War. On balance, the rise of emerging powers like China, Russia, Turkey, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Iran and South Africa is positive, offering opportunities for cooperation and collaboration. But these countries will challenge U.S. leadership as well.
However, we are not losing this information war. Events of the past week reinforce why, as the United States clearly and compellingly defended universal standards of human rights in the case of Chen Guangcheng, a self-taught lawyer who had escaped house arrest and found his way to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. China, an emerging power and strategic competitor, suffered a serious loss in global perception.
People have come to admire China as they see its extraordinary economic performance and learn more about China through its Confucius Centers and media like Xinhua. They marveled at the Beijing Olympics. But they have also been exposed to the other side of China, a rising but insecure power that is afraid of its own people and routinely and too often ruthlessly violates universal rights including freedom of expression, assembly and the press.
Chen Guangcheng wanted to do something revolutionary. As an activist, he wanted to remain in China, to be free of government intimidation; study what and where he wanted; and continue to challenge government policies in an open and civil society. The United States advocated on his behalf, not just through our diplomats in Beijing but also thanks to technology with his dramatic participation in a (staged and shrill but nonetheless effective) Congressional hearing. When that negotiated arrangement with the Chinese government collapsed, the United States rapidly opened the door for Chen to travel and study in the United States. The Chinese government reluctantly agreed if only to move the issue off the global stage.
In the Middle East, while surviving autocrats take comfort in the transactional “ask no questions” nature of Chinese foreign policy, as Professor Marc Lynch at GW’s Elliott School describes in his new book Arab Uprising, an increasingly expanded and empowered public sphere is acutely aware of regional developments and what major players are or are not doing. The United States will be challenged even as it has thrown its rhetoric and actions (Bahrain and Palestine notable exceptions) behind change, most recently regarding Syria. Going forward, U.S. policies will face increasingly strong head winds. It will be challenged to back its rhetoric with appropriate actions that reflect values, not just interests. Not everyone will be happy with the U.S. posture on a particular issue of importance, but it is now China and Russia (which has its own problems with protests) that are the status quo powers, providing political cover for the Assad regime.
There is more than one side of history. In world events, it sometimes takes time to determine which is side is “right.” The United States does not have the influence in the world it once did – that world no longer exists – but it is better positioned and competing more effectively than may be realized. Actions ultimately do speak louder than words. What the United States did last week in defending the universal rights of Chen Guangcheng spoke volumes.
Bahrain’s monarchy was determined, having cancelled last year’s Formula One Grand Prix due to violent unrest that necessitated an armed intervention by neighboring Saudi Arabia, that this year would be different. The race would go on! And so it did, with Sebastian Vettel the winner. The early race reporting highlighted that it was “incident-free.” Hardly.
The grand prix was overshadowed by clashes between protesters and security forces in the days leading up to race day. Protesters demanded political reforms that Bahrain’s ruling family have promised, but so far not delivered. They hoped to create enough mayhem to force the government to cancel the race. The opposition was not successful, but they probably got more attention with the race being held than they would have otherwise.
A year ago, in the wake of dramatic change in Tunisia and Egypt, Bahrain was the start of the counter-revolution. The government literally blew up Pearl Square to avoid the fate of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, overwhelmed by the commanding photo of Tahrir Square he could not make disappear. Bahrain gradually receded from the headlines, supplanted by the NATO intervention in LIbya and more recently the tragic stalemate in Syria.
The protests put Bahrain back in the headlines. and not in the way the monarchy had in mind. The government promoted the Grand Prix as “UniF1ed – One Nation in Celebration.” The Al Khalifa family, Sunni rulers over a Shia majority kingdom in the shadow of more powerful and feuding neighbors Iran and Saudi Arabia, hoped the race would reverse its public diplomacy fortunes and once again depict the Kingdom as a progressive (in relative terms of course) financial, cultural and sports center. It tried to put to replace the images of political repression from a year ago. Instead, it only updated them.
And, in terms of U.S. public diplomacy, the Obama administration’s muted comments about respecting human rights and encouraging the Bahrain government to do more to implement the recommendations of an independent commission report issued late last year stand in stark contrast to its loud and repeated calls for political and social reform in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. Given the crisis in Syria and complex dance with Iran over its nuclear program, the United States has been largely an interested spectator with Bahrain over the past year, watching from the grandstand as the government and protesters go round and round the track. Unfortunately, like the Grand Prix, a year later, they remain pretty much where they started.
Tomorrow, President Obama meets Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani of Pakistan on the margins of the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul. A central topic is likely to be the status of relations between Pakistan and the United States, which have been severely strained in the aftermath of a military operation gone bad along the Afghan-Pakistan border in November. During the operation, due to what military investigators described as mistakes at higher echelons on both sides, U.S. and Pakistani forces exchanged fire. Twenty-four Pakistani soldiers were killed, inflaming public opinion in Pakistan, suspending military cooperation and putting its fragile civilian government on the defensive.
The other casualty in the episode was U.S. public diplomacy in Pakistan. Not so long ago, the United States and Pakistan were speaking of a long-term strategic partnership. But after a string of events over the past 15 months, the relationship is in intensive care. Even before the November border incident, two-thirds of Pakistanis viewed the United States as an enemy, not a partner. A pillar of the Obama administration’s regional strategy starting in 2009 was transforming the relationship with Pakistan’s civilian government – and the Pakistani people. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the late Special Representative Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, together with U.S. Ambassadors Anne Patterson and Cameron Munter, began a broad and candid conversation with different segments of the Pakistani population that chipped away at years of pent-up frustration and misperception. An aggressive U.S. response to destructive flooding in Pakistan in 2010 helped as well.
But these public diplomacy gains were easily swept aside last year. First, an intelligence operative with diplomatic status killed two Pakistanis on motorbikes (he claimed in self-defense) that led to a protracted standoff over treaty obligations under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. Pakistan released him after negotiating compensation for the victims’ families but the public diplomacy damage was severe. Three months later, there was the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, a justifiable action from the standpoint of U.S. security, but nonetheless perceived in Pakistan as a violation of sovereignty. And there is Pakistani public frustration with on going drone operations, which the government in Islamabad is more familiar with than it lets on publicly.
When it comes to public diplomacy, this is as difficult as it gets. But does this matter? Well, when it comes to reducing the ongoing threat of violent extremism, there is no country in the world more important than Pakistan. Pakistan’s links to the Taliban, the Mumbai attack and domestic plots involving David Headley, Faisal Shahzad and Najibullah Zazi are well chronicled. This is not to indict the entire country – Pakistan has suffered far more casualties from terrorism than the United States. It is to say that the U.S. cannot defeat, dismantle and deter al Qaeda and its affiliates, the reason we are militarily engaged in the region, without building a stable long-term relationship with Pakistan’s government and its people.
This will be a lengthy and difficult process, which can be the starting point for tomorrow’s meeting between the President and Prime Minister. They should begin the recovery by first acknowledging the pervasive mistrust that handicaps the relationship and undeniably contributed to the tragedy in November. Notwithstanding political tensions on both sides, they need to reaffirm that, once Pakistan completes its review, high-level delegations from both countries will reconvene to reach new understandings on cooperation and support. Ultimately, if the United States seeks a partnership with Pakistan, and vice versa, both countries need to be more forthcoming.
Do a web search for the Egyptian Influence Network and what emerges is a visual depiction of the social network that helped bring down President Hosni Mubarak a year ago. The United States government knew about broad public discontent, but did not have a meaningful relationship with these new digital elites. It certainly underestimated their power.
Earlier this week other digital actors released a dramatic film on the Lord’s Resistance Army, called KONY 2012. It instantly went viral; the State Department learned of it via the daughter of its Deputy Spokesman (in the interest of full disclosure, my former deputy). In this case, Jason Russell, the film’s producer, is trailing U.S. policy. The government months ago deployed military advisors to help improve the ability of regional governments to defeat the LRA.
Both cases underscore the dynamism of the digital age and the pressures it places on U.S. diplomacy. More and more people will have access to the kind and quality of information that was previously reserved for governments. Digital media do not fundamentally change the diplomatic process, but it expands the number of influencers, accelerates the process and can generate sudden shifts in public opinion.
As cell phones and other technologies become even more ubiquitous – equipped with cameras and connected to the Internet – everything we say and do will be increasingly visible. Government bureaucracies are going to struggle to keep pace and respond meaningfully in real time.
The State Department is already aggressively expanding its use of social media to communicate beyond governments directly to the people in multiple languages. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her first Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review has created a vision of a new breed of ambassador who will be more visible and more empowered than ever. Recently minted Ambassadors Robert Ford and Michael McFaul in Syria and Russia respectively are great examples of “early adopters” who have led significant engagement campaigns using social media.
But they are still the exceptions, not the rules. It will take some time to change bureaucratic culture whose first instinct is to carefully control the flow of information. But the global information infrastructure is simply too advanced to be controlled. The new digital elites must be engaged.
This will require both cultural and process changes to empower more leaders to willingly and effectively communicate with key audiences around the world. It will take a new generation of Foreign Service officers for whom information and communications technology is second nature. This will involve more engagement, more risk taking and greater focus on global public opinion.
Given what we are seeing in the Arab Awakening, public opinion will shape policies and diplomatic options in more countries of consequence to the United States. Policies are going to be more populist – the immediate impact of the Koran burning is another recent case in point.
Technologies are transformed much faster than cultures. They will change diplomacy, but it will take a while.
President Obama bought some time in his meeting this week with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to see if diplomacy and sanctions can pressure Iran to change course. This time would be well spent to build if not a regional consensus for military action, at least broader public acceptance of the need to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon. To do that, the administration should draw some lessons from past interventions, lessons to be both followed and avoided.
The first is to recognize that Iran can’t be Libya. U.S. Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder and Supreme Allied Commander Europe Admiral James Stavridis termed Libya a “model intervention.” It was, but as we have seen with Syria and most likely with Iran as well, it may be a one-off that will not soon be repeated. The Arab League is not likely to support a military strike against Iran publicly, even though many regional governments will privately welcome such a step. Prospects of a UN Security Council resolution are uncertain. But it will be vital to achieve the strong sense of legitimacy that gave the Libya intervention its strength.
Kosovo is a better model to consider. Russia blocked an authorizing UN Security Council resolution, so the Clinton administration sought authority from NATO to force Serbia out of Kosovo. In the end, former UN Secretary General Kofi Anan called the operation “illegal but legitimate.” Regarding Iran, the IAEA can help validate that Iran’s failure to meet its international obligations and that Iran is moving towards a breakout capability.
Military force must be viewed as a last resort to be credible. In upcoming negotiations, the so-called P5+1 must be viewed as the reasonable actor. Recall the power of the last-minute negotiating session in Geneva between Secretary of State James Baker and his Iraqi counterpart Tariq Aziz prior to the First Gulf War. The international community was viewed as going the extra mile to avoid conflict.
That did not happen with the Second Gulf War. The Bush administration put significant pressure on the United Nations to uphold a series of UN Security Council resolutions, and it netted meaningful concessions from Iraq including the reintroduction of UN weapons inspectors. But the United States appeared to the rest of the world to be rushing to war, which ultimately undercut its legitimacy.
More than anything else, patience will be vital as the United States and the international community works through his complex challenge. It needs to build a convincing narrative that Iran poses a clear danger not just to the United States and Israel, but to the region as a whole; that Iran is in fact determined to build a nuclear weapon, not just generate civilian energy; that it is taking action that the Ayatollah himself termed a “sin”; that the international community has patiently attempted to resolve this through diplomacy and sanction; and if necessary military action is necessary and limited.
The President said this week there is too much “loose talk of war.” He was right to quiet the drumbeats for the time being, but now he must lead a sustained and patient dialogue with a newly energized and empowered “street” across the Middle East that military action, while the last resort, may be necessary to resolve this problem once and for all.