Paul Pillar

Doing Damage While Keeping the Home Folks Content (For Now)

Paul Pillar

What do a plan by China to construct 50 coal gasification plants, and Israel's pressure on the United States to reverse a security-based ban (since lifted) by the Federal Aviation Administration on commercial flights to Tel Aviv, have in common? They both are examples of governments trying to shield their populations from immediate consequences of the government's own destructive policies, and thus to shield themselves from political pressure to change those policies. While coddled constituencies are spared right now from effects that otherwise might have gotten them riled up, the harm is felt by other populations, by future generations of the same country's population, or by the world at large.

The Chinese gasification project is intended to reduce the air pollution in the biggest Chinese cities, which results in large part from reliance on coal-fired power plants and which has become bad enough to be a major source of discontent among the politically relevant urban middle class. The air in the cities would not be so awful if they were electrified instead with coal-derived gas, but under the plan much pollution would simply be transferred to the less populous remote parts of the country where the gasification plants are being built. Even worse, the gasification process produces huge amounts of carbon dioxide. According to one estimate, the 50 projected plants would release carbon dioxide equal to about one-eighth the amount currently released by all of China, which already is the world's most profligate emitter of greenhouse gases. So global warming is accelerated and the planet, and its inhabitants, suffer accordingly while Chinese city-dwellers are kept sufficiently docile for now.

The FAA safety directive that the Israeli government did not like, and lobbied hard to reverse, was triggered by a Hamas-fired rocket that landed uncomfortably close to Ben Gurion International Airport. The government contended that those doing business with Israel need not worry and should continue to fly in and out of Tel Aviv without concern about their safety. The Israeli government's posture, as Mitchell Plitnick points out, involves a rather blatant contradiction: it is assuring business partners and other wanted visitors that all is safe and sound, while at the same time proclaiming that Hamas's rockets so endanger Israel as to justify the deadly devastation that Israel has been wreaking on the Gaza Strip. This contradiction is only a variation on the two faces of the current Israeli government's posture toward the Palestinians that has prevailed even during what passes for normal times, and not just during upsurges of violence such as Operation Protective Edge. Palestinians live under suffocating, debilitating blockade or occupation as well as regular applications of lethal Israel force, while just a few miles away most Israelis enjoy life in one of the more prosperous societies in the world. Most Israelis simply have not been made uncomfortable enough to press the government to change its policies. The government itself is determined that things stay that way.

China and Israel are not the only countries where governments structure things to keep their immediate constituents sufficiently content while the costs of their policies become externalities felt by others. We have seen something similar in the United States, particularly with costly overseas military expeditions. The all-volunteer military force has made it possible to conduct such expeditions while confining the direct American human costs to the small segment of the population that has worn the uniform. Regarding the fiscal costs, the outstanding example is the launching of an extremely costly war of choice in Iraq while also enacting unaffordable tax cuts, quickly turning what had been a budget surplus into a ballooning deficit (with those who holler most loudly today about deficits evidently not giving a hoot about them back then).

The costs of China's destructive energy policy will be borne by all of us, inhabitants of the planet Earth. The costs of Israel's destructive policies toward the Palestinian territories are borne most directly and heavily, of course, by the Palestinians, but they also will be borne by future Israelis as long as they live in a country that leads itself into isolation and permanent war. The financial costs of mistakes of the United States, and the fiscal carelessness that has accompanied them, will be borne by future generations of Americans.

It is politically difficult to counter these tendencies, because short-sighted shoring up of support in what are considered to be the most immediately relevant constituencies is something politicians everywhere do. No single ameliorative approach fits all situations, because each situation is different. The Chinese environmental problem may be the most difficult one of the examples mentioned above. Besides international shaming of planet-damaging policies, perhaps we need to place hope in the Chinese middle class becoming sophisticated enough to know that the environmental damage to themselves and their children is not limited to the airborne particulates that their eyes can see and their lungs can feel right now.

Hope for change in Israeli policies should not be placed in sufficient numbers of Israeli civilians feeling physically endangered. Physical harm to Israeli civilians is unacceptable, just as is physical harm to Palestinian civilians. Economic discomfort, however, is another matter; the Israeli government's objection to the FAA flight ban was ultimately driven by economic motivations. It has long been overdetermined that an end to the automatic U.S. subsidy of over $3 billion annually that Israel receives no matter what it does would be a wise step (however politically unrealistic it seems in Washington). It would be in the fiscal interest of the United States, and it would mean U.S. taxpayers would no longer be forced to pay for bombardment of apartment buildings in Gaza. And the more that Israeli taxpayers rather than U.S. taxpayers foot the direct bill for the destructive policies of their own government, the better would be the chance of meaningful pressure on that government to change the policies.

Fixing the short-sightedness embodied in such U.S. policies as expensive overseas military expeditions may mean institutionalizing a requirement to take longer-term costs into account. The proposal by Michael Cannon and Christopher Preble to make advance funding of medical care for veterans a part of any decision to go to war is an example of the sort of idea worth considering.                                      

TopicsChina Israel United States

Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 and Iran Air Flight 655

Paul Pillar

The heavy coverage by U.S. media of the downing last week of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over the rebellious portion of eastern Ukraine has made remarkably little reference to the prior event that most resembles it: the shooting down with a missile by the U.S. Navy cruiser Vincennes of Iran Air Flight 655 on July 3, 1988, killing all 290 persons aboard. The Vincennes was in the Persian Gulf as part of U.S. military operations there during the latter phase of the Iran-Iraq War, which had been affecting shipping to and from Arab countries on the south side of the Gulf. U.S. and Iranian naval forces already had clashed in the months before the downing of the airliner, and tensions were high.

The crew of the Vincennes mistakenly believed the airliner on their radar was an Iranian F-14 about to attack their ship. All indications are that the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner was a similar case of mistaken identity, not an intentional downing of a civilian aircraft. Indeed, part of the evidence made public to support the case that Ukrainian rebels were responsible involves conversations among the rebels expressing consternation when they discovered that what they had thought was a Ukrainian military plane was not.

One of the first thoughts that this pair of tragic incidents should elicit is: there, but for the grace of whatever force determines fate in such circumstances, go we. A frequent comment about the downing of the Malaysian airliner is that it was terribly irresponsible for Russia to put highly sophisticated weapons in the hands of a poorly controlled rebel force. Probably so, but the Iranian airliner was downed by a well-trained U.S. Navy crew that was part of a well-established chain of command and manning a ship with the most advanced available systems for tracking and identifying aircraft.

The comparison should be a reminder that our responses to the actions of other states should not hinge on accidents of fate, or probably on accidents at all. This certainly is not to excuse in any way what happened in the skies of eastern Ukraine. But we need to assess the behavior of the rebels and their patron on grounds that do not depend on such accidents. Any U.S. policy response needs to be fully defensible if the only planes the rebels had ever shot down were in fact Ukrainian military craft.

President Obama spoke of the Malaysia Airlines crash as a “wake-up call”. It is acceptable to refer to such an event in this way to try to elicit greater cooperation from others—in this case, to get more European cooperation in responding to Russian behavior in Ukraine. We need to distinguish clearly in our own minds, however, between this kind of tactical reference to a single salient, however accidental, event to persuade others to support our policies, and the sort of unemotional analysis, not dependent on accidents, required to formulate sound policies in the first place.

There are many differences, of course, in the circumstances surrounding these two tragic events. The events in the Persian Gulf do not have a clear counterpart to the Putin government's trouble-making in Ukraine. But before we too quickly use any differences to dismiss any comparison to the two episodes, we should note some of the other characteristics about what happened in 1988. In getting involved in the Iran-Iraq War, the United States was in effect intervening on the Iraqi side—the side of the original aggressor, Saddam Hussein. Tactically, it would be very hard to find grounds to excuse away what the Vincennes did, despite the tensions of the time and place involved. The airliner was flying on a well-established commercial route to Dubai and emitting all the proper signals for identification. It was increasing, not decreasing, in altitude at the time it was assumed to be an F-14 coming in for an attack. Other U.S. Navy ships in the immediate area did not identify it as hostile. The airliner was in Iranian airspace, and the Vincennes was in Iranian territorial waters, at the time of the shootdown.

Our own responses to the incident in the Persian Gulf ought to provide some perspective for looking at how others have responded to similar incidents. The downing of Iran Air Flight 655 was not taken in the United States as a black mark on American military history. The United States never issued a formal apology, although it did pay monetary compensation and expressed regret over the civilian deaths. The career of the captain of the Vincennes did not suffer; he received an award for his time as skipper of the ship, notwithstanding the 290 innocent civilians who were killed on his watch.

We also can use our own strong feelings about the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 to gain some perspective on how others view U.S.-caused accidents, whether or not they are viewed as accidents. The prevailing Iranian interpretation of the shooting down of Iran Air Flight 655 was, and probably still is, that it was intentional. Given the circumstances of the incident, including the advanced capabilities represented by the Vincennes and its crew, Iranians have found the description of the incident as an accident to be not credible. The episode, along with other indications of what Iranians take to be ill intentions of the United States, helps to explain why many Iranians still regard the United States as hostile and untrustworthy, with its statements of intentions not to be believed.                         

 

 

TopicsUkraine Russia Iran

What Will Determine a Ceasefire in Gaza

Paul Pillar

Anyone who reads about the carnage in the Gaza Strip and has at least an ounce of humanity is hoping that a ceasefire will come soon. Jodi Rudoren's coverage in the New York Times suggests that current calculations of the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu involve weighing the crippling of the physical ability of Hamas to attack Israel against international condemnation of Israel that is likely to mount as long as the Israeli operation continues. Those considerations are no doubt part of the Israeli government's thinking, but only a part and a rather tactical part at that. In anticipating when Netanyahu and his cabinet will call a halt to the operation, a more strategic view is required—or at least what Netanyahu would consider strategic.

So far Israel has sustained less condemnation than one might think, given that its explanation for the hugely disproportionate civilian casualties its operation has inflicted—that they are a result of Hamas's unprincipled hiding of its military assets among the civilians—patently lacks credibility. The infliction of death and destruction on the civilian population of the Gaza Strip is, as with so many other Israeli military offensives and as with the blockade and economic strangulation of Gaza itself, intended to reduce popular support for whatever group or government Israel happens to be opposing.

The paucity of appropriate condemnation is due first and foremost, as always, to the political pusillanimity of American politicians of both parties who are more concerned about not jeopardizing their reelection chances by crossing a powerful lobby than about advancing the long-term interests of the Israel they claim to support, let alone the United States they are supposed to serve. Little counterweight to this perpetual tendency is coming from European leaders, who are disinclined to sanction Israel at a moment when they are preoccupied with the latest turn in the Ukraine crisis and have economic reasons to be disinclined to do much about sanctioning Russia.

There will be a ceasefire after this round of fighting, as there has been after previous Israeli operations in the Gaza Strip. Maybe a ceasefire is a week or so away, which would make Operation Protective Edge about as long as Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009, in which some 1400 Palestinians died. Netanyahu does not want to keep mauling Gaza indefinitely, not only because of direct human costs to Israel (which so far consist—quite unlike the far greater Palestinian casualties—almost entirely of soldiers engaged in offensive operations) but also because he does not want to destroy Hamas. Netanyahu needs Hamas. Netanyahu may be blind to how his policies endanger Israel's long-term interests, but he is staunchly committed to the medium-term objective of retaining the West Bank. Having Hamas around as a hated, continually invoked reason never to get serious about negotiating a comprehensive settlement with the Palestinians serves that objective.

As the sequence of events preceding the current round of violence makes clear, Netanyahu saw as the biggest threat to that strategy the reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah, the dominant party in the Palestinian Authority. If the agreement held, excuses for not being serious about negotiating a comprehensive peace agreement and establishing a Palestinian state to replace the occupation would become too flimsy to maintain. So Netanyahu did everything he could to destroy the reconciliation, including the mass round-ups of Hamas members and other applications of force that led almost inevitably to the onslaught that followed. Netanyahu was aided and abetted in that strategy by the U.S.-led West, which accordingly shares responsibility for the bloodshed that has ensued. Now Netanyahu's government can continue to make all the familiar claims about how Israel doesn't have a negotiating partner, how half of the Palestinians are ruled by a terrorist group supposedly dedicated to the destruction of Israel, how rockets coming from Gaza show how Israel can never risk ending occupation of the West Bank, etc. etc.

He also can say that Hamas is resisting a ceasefire. Hamas deserves strong criticism for fighting on even when it knows this means the possibility of casualties among innocent Israeli civilians as well as the certainty that significantly more Palestinian civilians will die from Israeli bombs and gunfire. Sometimes it appears that the group forgets there are more important things than its objective of having political power over all Palestinians. But the response by Hamas certainly is not surprising. The Israeli government has succeeded in structuring the situation such that Hamas figures it has nothing to lose by continuing to fight, because it has nothing to gain from not fighting. It tried the peaceful route, by observing a ceasefire in the year and half since the previous ceasefire despite Israeli violations, and by surrendering much of its political power through the reconciliation pact, in which it agreed to support a Palestinian government with no Hamas members and with a commitment to negotiating a peace agreement with Israel. Netanyahu made sure Hamas got no payoff whatsoever for following the peaceful route, and instead paid a price for it.

All that Hamas can now see as in its immediate interests is to try to bolster its popular support and credibility by, as a first choice, holding out for some relief to Gazans from their status as inmates in what amounts to an open-air detention camp. Haunting that pursuit, however, will be the knowledge that after the deal Hamas struck with Israel in November 2012, the ceasefire that was called for did take hold, but the easing of the Israeli blockade of Gaza that also was supposed to occur largely did not—another example of an Israeli disincentive to Hamas to negotiate peacefully. Beyond that is an interest in getting Israel to observe the prisoner exchange deal that it violated by re-arresting hundreds of former prisoners. And if all that fails, there at least is whatever catharsis comes from futile whacks at Israel with a few more rockets or some fighters sneaking through tunnels. The more death and destruction that Israel inflicts on the Gaza Strip, the stronger will be the popular desire for catharsis and revenge.

Unless the underlying issues are addressed, the next ceasefire will not stop this tragic cycle. The stage will be set for another round, when Israel will mow the lawn again. Absent regime change in Israel, the cycle will continue until and unless political leaders in the U.S.-led West summon political courage they have not displayed and acknowledge that the objectives the current Israeli government is pursuing are not in their own country's interests, or even in Israel's.

Image: IDF Flickr. 

TopicsIsrael Palestinian Territories RegionsMiddle East

Five Things to Know About the Extension of the Iranian Nuclear Negotiations

Paul Pillar

The recently extended nuclear negotiations with Iran have had to compete for front-page attention with acute crises elsewhere. The agreement to extend both the negotiations and the interim commitments associated with them for another four months has nonetheless provoked comments from the usual quarters, including those who have never wanted any agreement with Iran and continue to try to sabotage the negotiations. Here are some key facts to bear in mind about the extension itself:

The extension makes possible a continuation of major negotiating progress. The progress to date has been remarkable. Few would have predicted it even a year ago. As Secretary Kerry commented in a statement on Friday, it was less than a year ago that a U.S. secretary of state and an Iranian foreign minister met for the first time in more than three decades. The key events making this possible were the advent of a new Iranian president with a much different orientation from that of his predecessor, and the willingness of the United States and its negotiating partners to seize this opportunity. The negotiations have gone from a standing start with no communication to an important interim agreement and a common text for a final agreement, with some remaining bracketed language and gaps yet to be negotiated.

The need for an extension is not surprising. In fact, the interim agreement, known as the Joint Plan of Action, that was reached last November specifically provided for the possibility of an extension beyond the original target date. The matters being negotiated are complicated and highly technical, from the design of nuclear reactors to the details of international financial transactions.

Both sides are negotiating seriously. The Iranian side has demonstrated its seriousness through its compliance, as confirmed by the International Atomic Energy Agency, with all of its commitments under the Joint Plan of Action. It also has demonstrated its seriousness through its acceptance already of lopsided concessions while gaining little so far in return (see next key fact). Nothing in the history of these talks, or of the history of the Iranian nuclear issue before the talks began, suggests that Iran needs to be squeezed harder to get it to negotiate earnestly and flexibly.

Iran already has the biggest motivation to conclude the negotiations swiftly. The P5+1 (the United States and its negotiating partners) clearly got the better deal in the interim agreement. The Joint Plan of Action froze or rolled back the aspects of Iran's nuclear program with the most concern regarding possible weapons proliferation, as well as introducing international inspections more intrusive and frequent than what any other nation undergoes. In return Iran got only minor sanctions relief, involving peripheral matters such as airplane parts and access to a small fraction of its overseas financial assets to which it has been denied access. This pattern continues under the additional agreement struck as part of last week's extension of the talks. Iran has committed to hasten the conversion of its remaining supply of medium enriched uranium into reactor fuel plates, which would make it even more difficult to use the material in weapons. In return it gets access to only a small additional slice ($2.8 billion out of more than $100 billion) of its frozen overseas financial assets. The main, debilitating sanctions regarding oil and banking remain in place. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani directly, and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei indirectly, have a big economic and political stake in reaching a final agreement promptly.

Diplomacy remains the surest way to preclude an Iranian nuclear weapon. The extension does not change this reality. With a negotiated agreement, Iran's nuclear activities would be subject to the most extensive international inspection and monitoring arrangements ever implemented, and Iran would have multiple major motivations not to let the agreement break down. Without an agreement, there would be far less comprehensive inspections, much less of an Iranian stake in keeping its program peaceful, and a political swing in Tehran away from those most determined to keep it peaceful.

Image: U.S. State Department Flickr.                          

TopicsIran RegionsMiddle East

Iran, Russia, Gaza: Why They Need to Be Considered Together

Paul Pillar

In the face of intense, high-profile, and especially fast-moving problems, the decision-making apparatus for foreign policy and national security has a narrow attention span. Limited policy bandwidth becomes even more of a problem than it normally is. The weighing of relevant considerations is subjected to shortcuts. The most difficult problems tend to be viewed in isolation. Just getting through the day or the week without making such a problem even more difficult becomes de facto a national objective.

But even reasonably careful attention to each serious problem, considered more or less separately, is not good enough. Different problems need to be considered together. This does not mean the kind of ethereally broad, grandly synoptic approach that is the subject of so much armchair strategizing and kibitzing. It instead means a mid-range awareness of how the way we handle one current, concrete problem might affect the nature of some other current, concrete problem.

Right now the United States faces in particular three big, important, fast-moving challenges, each of them worthy of whatever front-page space they get. One is the negotiation of an agreement, or likely extension of negotiations, on Iran's nuclear program as the previously established target date for completion of an agreement arrives this weekend. The second is a new negative turn in U.S. relations with Russia, with the imposition of added sanctions against Russia—a situation that would have been a significant challenge even without the major added complication Thursday of the downing of a Malaysian airliner over the rebellious part of eastern Ukraine. The third is the expansion of Israel's assault against the Gaza Strip, with the aerial bombardment that already had been ongoing being supplemented by a ground offensive. Each of these three situations can complicate the other two.

The most obvious candidate for complication concerns how the downturn in relations with Russia might affect the Iran negotiations. Some earlier worries about whether the Russians would continue to cooperate in its role as a member of the negotiating ensemble known as the P5+1 have not materialized. As Alexei Arbatov's excellent description of Russian interests in Iran points out, Russia does not want to see an Iranian nuclear weapon and in that respect does want to see an agreement that would be the best assurance against the advent of such a weapon. But the anti-Russian sanctions, and possibly any more severe damage to relations stemming from the airliner incident, have changed Moscow's situation and its calculus enough that a continuation of previous Russian behavior cannot be taken for granted. Russian responses can range from greater resistance to the stand that the United States might want to maintain regarding the permitted scale of Iranian uranium enrichment, to larger departures that might amount to Russia making its own separate deal with Iran. None of this need entail an abandonment of the Russian objectives of getting an agreement and not having an Iranian nuclear weapon; there are genuinely held differences of view even within the United States of what constitutes a good agreement and what is the best way to attain it.

The assault on Gaza crisis also can affect the Iranian negotiations, partly because the party conducting the assault also is the principal opponent of any agreement with Iran. Exactly what the effect will be is hard to determine, however. Given the contrived trade-offs that the Netanyahu government often sees in the balance sheet of its relationship with Washington, perhaps U.S. condoning of the assault will imply an understanding that the government of Israel should have that much less latitude in its efforts to sabotage an agreement with Iran. But the effect easily could work the other way. Impunity in getting away with what is happening in Gaza may impart political headiness in Jerusalem and political momentum in Washington that would mean more, not less, Israeli sabotage of an Iran deal. Whatever public distraction and political gain Netanyahu gets at home from the Gaza operation might make it easier for him to brush aside the voices in Israel who realize that an accord limiting Iran's nuclear program would be in Israel's interests and that sour relations with the administration in Washington are not.

An additional, ever-present factor is how the role of the United States as Israel's principal defender and protector against international criticism or condemnation uses up U.S. political and diplomatic capital. The more that Israeli behavior is subject to such criticism, the more U.S. political and diplomatic capital is consumed. That means there is less of it left to spend on other purposes, including holding together a coalition, and holding it together on U.S. terms, in negotiating with Iran. It also means less capital that might be needed to hold the Europeans together in a similar way in confronting Russia over Ukraine. This factor is likely to become increasing important to the extent that a continued Israeli operation in Gaza incurs moral repugnance among populations in European countries whose governments have not as yet clearly condemned the operation.

There are some symmetries among these three challenges, although not necessarily involving all three at once. The imposition of damaging sanctions on Russia is almost an open invitation for Moscow to become less cooperative regarding the damaging sanctions that have been imposed, under U.S. leadership, against Iran. The death toll in Gaza, after the opening shots on Thursday of the Israeli ground offensive, stood at 246. Given the history of past Israeli attacks there, especially Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009, it may take only a couple of more days for the number of dead to match the 298 who perished on the Malaysian airliner.

Image: White House Flickr.                                          

TopicsRussia Iran Israel

Breakout, Shmeakout: The Wrong Way to Assess a Nuclear Deal with Iran

Paul Pillar

Pens that diplomats wield can be mightier than swords, but not necessarily because they destroy swords, much less the ability to make them. An agreement reached through diplomacy is a joint affirmation that it is in the parties' mutual interest to behave in certain ways and a joint commitment not to do other things they are capable of doing. Even a surrender by a belligerent defeated in warfare involves a forgoing of continued resistance that would be possible but costly to both sides. In short, international agreements are more a matter of intentions and motivations than of capabilities.

A failure to understand this infects discussion of the nuclear negotiations with Iran, and may have infected the U.S. negotiating position. There is a preoccupation with “breakout”—a scenario in which an Iran supposedly determined to violate an agreement suddenly races to build a nuclear weapon—and with stripping away Iranian capabilities in order to lengthen the time required under such a scenario for Iran to produce enough fissile material for a weapon. The fixation with breakout, with the repeated references to it as a supposed reason to be wary of any agreement with Iran, is misplaced for several reasons. One is that any conceivable agreement would entail a longer breakout time than without an agreement. That time already has been lengthened by the preliminary agreement reached last year, under which Iran has eliminated its stock of medium-enriched uranium and stopped making any more of it, as well as capping its supply of low-enriched uranium.

In any event, breakout time is immaterial when, under the extensive and unprecedented monitoring arrangements that will be a central feature of the agreement and a major reason for concluding it, any Iranian cheating in its use of permitted nuclear facilities would immediately be detected. As Greg Thielmann and Robert Wright have noted, whether breakout time is two months or six months or something else makes no difference when any U.S. or other foreign response to cheating, including a possible military response, could be mounted within a couple of weeks. If there were any prospect of Iran using clandestine, undeclared facilities to build a bomb—which is the way all past proliferators have made their bombs—this would be at least as much of a possibility without an agreement, and without the expanded inspections that go with it, than with an agreement.

The most fundamental reason the narrow focus on breakout is misplaced is that it disregards Iranian intentions and motivations. A successful agreement will be one that codifies a shared interest in an Iran whose nuclear program stays entirely peaceful and is a normal member of the community of nations, not subject to the debilitating economic sanctions that the United States has maintained at significant political and economic cost to itself. A successful agreement also will be one that each side, including Iran, will have strong motivation to maintain because it is clearly more in its interests than a breakdown of the agreement would be.

Largely missing from discussion of Iran breaking out of such an agreement is attention to whether Iran would have the incentive to do so. It would not. Doing so would subject Iran to far more disadvantageous conditions than it would have under an accord, without gaining any strategic advantage. A single nuclear device, or even a few, would serve no purpose for Iran when even the mere attempt to flaunt such a device for influence would imply willingness to escalate an issue to the nuclear level, and escalation would face the reality of vastly superior nuclear weapons arsenals owned by the countries Iran would most likely confront.

Cheating, or disavowing the agreement, would immediately—even before completing a single nuclear weapon—throw Iran back into the worst costs and consequences of being an international pariah, from which it has been working so hard to free itself. The U.S. Congress undoubtedly would enact, as fast as clerks could call the roll, anti-Iranian sanctions more severe than ever before. A military attack on Iran also would suddenly become much more likely than before. Those in the United States and Israel who have argued for an attack on grounds that negotiating with duplicitous Iranians is a mistake would now start winning the argument—and the Iranians are smart enough to realize that.

In short, breakout is a scary fantasy, but no more than that. It is a badly flawed standard for formulating a negotiating position or for evaluating a deal with Iran.

If the nuclear negotiations fail—or if Congress effectively destroys an agreement by interfering with its implementation—because of details about the number of centrifuges spinning or the number of months required to enrich uranium, this would be a major missed opportunity and an unwisely counterproductive pursuit of the objective of keeping the Iranian program peaceful. It also would be a destructively small-minded approach toward the use of diplomacy to pursue U.S. interests.

Image: Wikicommons. 

TopicsIran RegionsMiddle East

Asymmetric Warfare in Gaza

Paul Pillar

The score, as of late Friday, in the contest being waged in the Gaza Strip and Israel was 114-0, with the side in the lead continuing to run up the score. This is not some nightmare of a Brazilian soccer fan, but instead the deaths of men, women, and children, more than three-quarters of them civilians, according to the United Nations humanitarian affairs office. All of them are Palestinians in the Gaza Strip; so far in this match no Palestinian rockets have killed any Israelis.

The term asymmetric warfare is commonly used, of course, but to refer to different techniques for inflicting violence for political purposes. What is going on now in Gaza is highly asymmetric in terms of the amount of death, injury, destruction, and overall misery being inflicted by one side on the other. Perhaps the usual use of the term asymmetric warfare has contributed to warping our ability to evaluate what has been going on in this conflict. There is a tendency to think of death inflicted overtly by an F-16, at least if it is operated by someone labeled an ally, as somehow more legitimate than whatever a clandestinely deployed rocket can inflict.

We have curious habits in how we regard symmetry and asymmetry in armed conflicts and especially the unending series of conflagrations between Israel and Palestinians. In contrast to the assumed asymmetry about the legitimacy of different ways of inflicting violence, in other respects we speak as if there is perfect symmetry. It has become de rigueur to criticize excesses on both sides, which of course there have been, and to appeal for reasonableness on both sides, which of course there should be.

In major, glaring respects, however, this conflict is highly asymmetric, and not only in one side's physical ability to inflict far greater destruction on the other side. The larger Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one in which the far more powerful actor is occupying (in the case of the West Bank) or strangling (in the case of the Gaza Strip) the other side. It is also a conflict in which for many years now, one side and its Arab backers have repeatedly indicated their willingness to make a complete peace as long as this side can have its own state on the small part of Palestine left after Israel's war of independence, while the other side, through its actions on the ground as well as statements of its leaders, indicates its intention to hold on to all the land it has captured through force of arms, save perhaps for some carefully controlled bantustans.

Speaking in symmetrical terms carries a sense, even if a false sense, of fairness and equanimity, and of getting beyond squabbles and trying to achieve peace and stability. Parents exhibit this tendency when they tell squabbling children that they don't care who started the argument and instead just want both kids to behave. One can sympathize with John Kerry, and other diplomats who have tried to do something about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, if they feel the same way as parents.

But who started a fight does matter in how we should judge it and react to it, especially if it is a fight in which scores of innocent people are getting killed. Any careful and objective review of events leading up to the current conflagration (the timeline compiled by John Judis is one of the best) leads to the inescapable conclusion that this war is being fought because the government of Benjamin Netanyahu chose to launch it, capitalizing on grief over the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers to strike another blow against Hamas and even more so against its most recent unity agreement with Fatah, as well as providing another excuse for occupying the West Bank indefinitely. The conclusion is supported not only by the sequence of events but also by Netanyahu's immediate blaming of Hamas for the crime without—still—providing any evidence; all indications are that the perpetrators of the kidnapping were rogue actors who may have had their own reasons to try to subvert the unity deal. The conclusion also is supported by the Israeli government's extraordinary tactic of not informing the Israeli public or even the families of the victims when it knew the teenagers were dead—all the better to try to justify the government's wholesale actions in the West Bank in which several Palestinians were killed and, in what amounts to a reneging on a previous prisoner exchange deal reached with Hamas, hundreds more have been incarcerated.

By contrast, before all this started Hamas was giving no indication that it was looking for an armed conflict. Besides reaching the unity deal under which it would support Mahmoud Abbas's negotiating approach toward resolving the conflict with Israel, Hamas was observing a cease-fire. Until the Israeli government's forceful moves after the kidnapping/murders last month, Hamas had not fired any rockets into Israel since that cease-fire was reached in November 2012, despite several earlier Israeli provocations that Hamas considered to be violations of the cease-fire. Hamas even tried to restrain other groups from firing rockets after Israel had begun its wholesale incarcerations in the West Bank.

This is not, of course, the version of events that one hears from the Israeli government, and thus from most American politicians, and that is thus heard by most of the American public. According to this other version, the Israeli onslaught followed, and is only a response to, Palestinian rocket fire. This discrepancy between beliefs and facts gets to other major asymmetries, which involve the role the Israeli government plays, and no Palestinian entity does, in American politics.

American habits in perceiving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict dull not only American policy judgment but also Americans' moral sense. The Netanyahu government's wreaking of death and destruction today in the Gaza Strip is condemnable. It is wrong, in multiple senses of the word, for the U.S. House of Representatives to endorse that infliction of death and destruction, as it did on Friday.

Pretending to be fair by treating something as symmetrical when it is not impairs the ability to distinguish right from wrong, of which there is plenty of both in the world.              

Image: Wikicommons. 

TopicsIsrael Palestinian Territories RegionsMiddle East

Afghanistan Election Crisis: "Likely fraud on a million-vote scale is a big gap to bridge."

Paul Pillar

The two contenders in the disputed Afghan presidential election do not present a clear choice for us in the West to decide whom to root for, or root against. Both candidates are experienced, credible presidential timber, and we ought to be able to work constructively with either one as president. Ashraf Ghani is the more westernized of the two. He has a PhD from Columbia University, taught at other U.S. universities, worked at the World Bank, and was finance minister in the post-Taliban government of Hamid Karzai. Abdullah Abdullah is a physician (an ophthalmologist) with establishment roots in pre-communist Afghanistan; his step-father was a senior official under King Zahir Shah. Abdullah's main association with subsequent civil warfare in Afghanistan was as an adviser to America's favorite guerrilla: the Lion of Panjshir, Ahmad Shah Massoud. Abdullah served as foreign minister in the same post-Taliban government in which Ghani was finance minister. Abdullah, who is of mixed Tajik-Pashtun ancestry, embodies the ethnic heterogeneity of Afghanistan better than Ghani, who is a Pashtun.

Both candidates seem to be reasonable men. Abdullah's current talk about setting up an alternative government may not sound reasonable, but it is hardly surprising in view of the prima facie evidence that there was significant fraud in the runoff election. Abdullah had won a large plurality in the first round and subsequently received the endorsement of the third-place finisher, and yet the announced result of the runoff was that Ghani had won by more than a million votes. Ghani is showing reasonableness by agreeing to a large-scale audit of the vote tally.

The cause of the political crisis in Afghanistan is not, in other words, to be found in the character of the candidates. It is to be found instead in the lack of a political culture that nurtures the habits of thought and behavior critical to the smooth functioning of a stable democracy. Those habits include several involving fairness, inclusiveness, and observance of impartial rules—and confidence that one's political opponents are displaying those habits as well.

A lack, or a weakness, of such a culture is more the norm in most of the world than the exception. Afghanistan is hardly alone in that respect. The habits and confidence required for a stable democracy are fragile and should not be taken for granted. It should be enough to remind us not to take them for granted when we see departures from fairness and from respect for democracy in our own system—such as, in recent years, efforts to make voting more difficult in order to suppress votes that would be cast for the suppressors' opponents.

A failure to recognize the importance of a democratic political culture, its relative paucity in much of the world, and the time it takes to develop one has led repeatedly to the mistaken belief that in a troubled country (be it Afghanistan, Ukraine, Iraq, South Vietnam, or someplace else), if we just pick the right leader and give him enough support, including at times military support, stable democracy will prevail. In Afghanistan today, we have two respectable contending leaders, and more than twelve years of direct military support, and that still hasn't done the trick.

It is hard to predict where the current political impasse in Afghanistan will go. Afghans do have a long tradition of striking ad hoc deals as a way of bridging gaps between conflicting political interests. Perhaps that points to the kind of power-sharing arrangements that have been tried after disputed elections in countries such as Kenya or Zimbabwe. But likely fraud on a million-vote scale is a big gap to bridge.

Image: Flickr/ISAF.             

TopicsAfghanistan RegionsMiddile East

Benjamin Netanyahu's Excellent Adventure

Paul Pillar

The last few months have gone rather well for the right-wing Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu, in the sense of advancing its prime objective of indefinitely extending the occupation and colonization of Palestinian territory by ensuring failure of any diplomatic efforts to end the occupation. Netanyahu's success in this regard has been due both to his own tactical skill and to the luck of outside events.

Netanyahu achieved failure of the latest U.S. attempt to revive a peace process worthy of that name partly through the preemptory demand for the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a “Jewish state.” He also successfully used the stratagem of striking a deal with the Palestinian Authority that involved release of Palestinian prisoners, reneging on that deal by construing its meaning differently than originally intended, and then blaming the P.A. for not proceeding anyway with substantive talks as if nothing untoward had happened. The Israelis had to take some mild off-the-record blame for the breakdown from the Americans, but nothing that wasn't manageable.

More threatening to the Israeli government's strategy than John Kerry's diplomatic efforts was the latest effort by Hamas and Fatah to bridge their differences and jointly support a single Palestinian government. These intra-Palestinian acts of reconciliation have always been a problem for Netanyahu's strategy because they involve creating a negotiating partner that can speak for the great majority of Palestinians and because they belie the Israeli allegation that Hamas wants nothing but the destruction of Israel. The Hamas-Fatah deal and subsequent creation of a cabinet of technocrats clearly involved Hamas moving toward Mahmoud Abbas's position rather than the other way around. This latest reconciliation appeared even more threatening to Netanyahu's approach than the previous ones because it showed more sign of sticking. Perhaps most disturbing to Netanyahu is that the Obama administration indicated it was willing to work with any jointly supported Palestinian government that emerged from the deal.

Netanyahu has given the same vehement and unyielding reaction he has given to the previous efforts at Palestinian reconciliation, such as withholding tax revenue that belongs to the Palestinians. What most enabled him, however, to sustain his strategy in the face of this latest challenge—and here is one place where the luck of events has helped him—was the kidnapping and murder of three Jewish Israeli teenagers in the occupied West Bank. Netanyahu immediately blamed Hamas and repeatedly promised evidence, which still hasn't been forthcoming, that the group was responsible for the crime. Two men with ties to Hamas have been named as suspects. They are at large but their families' homes have already been demolished. No proof of guilt was furnished beforehand, but Israeli demolition of Palestinian homes in the West Bank is an everyday occurrence anyway.

The crime provided the occasion for the Israeli government to strike back more broadly and forcefully than that. As Mitchell Plitnick has described it, “Under the cover of searching for the kidnapped youths, Netanyahu launched a massive operation to cripple Hamas in the West Bank, further humiliate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and punish the entire Palestinian population for calling for a halt to the charade of the 'peace process' and, worse, moving toward a unified leadership.” This forceful stirring of the pot by Israel, which has involved the detention of hundreds of Palestinians and the death of several of them at the hands of Israeli security forces, helps to put any peace diplomacy even farther out of reach. It enables American supporters of Netanyahu's government to say for the umpteenth time that the time is not “ripe” for peace negotiations—and the government they support will do what it has to do to ensure that the time will never be ripe.

Netanyahu's strategy has benefited recently from other distractions, which have diverted any energy and attention that might otherwise be directed toward establishment of a Palestinian state. The principal distraction that Netanyahu has relied on has been, of course, his demonization of Iran. Other events have helped him. The world's attention was diverted greatly for a time by the crisis in Ukraine. Then came widespread alarm over the Sunni extremist group in Iraq and Syria that now calls itself the Islamic State. The latter scare has been even more useful for Netanyahu, who used it as another excuse to insist that Israeli troops must continue to occupy the Jordan River Valley indefinitely. Never mind that the chief of Mossad dismisses the notion of an Islamic State army marching across Jordan to invade Israel; the excuse still has a crude geographic appeal.

So Netanyahu has peace diplomacy right where he wants it: in the trash bin, but so far without having to shoulder unequivocal international blame for putting it there. His very success over the last few months in this regard, however, may over the next few months lead to reactions that will complicate further execution of his strategy. That the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation has gone as far as it has—farther than previous attempts—may lead many Palestinians to see it as a best shot at a genuinely comprehensive peace, one that would cover Gaza as well as the West Bank. Continued vehement Israeli rejection of this best shot may lead Palestinians to conclude that they have no shot—none, that is, at negotiating a bilateral accord with any Israeli government that looks at all like the current one. One resulting possibility—which the current volatility in the Palestinian territories shows is dangerously close to becoming a probability—is outbreak of a new full-blown intifada, an uprising with widespread violence.

Even without a new intifada, there are two other strategy-complicating possibilities. One is for the Palestinian Authority (presumably in the form of its Hamas-backed but non-party government) to drop its previous restraint in seeking the full involvement of international organizations in helping the Palestinians out of their plight and moving toward real statehood. The other is for the Palestinian Authority to dissolve itself, end the fiction that what exists in the West Bank is anything other than continued Israeli military occupation, and stop being an accessory to that occupation. Netanyahu in effect encourages Palestinians to reach that latter conclusion, and to realize that the P.A. is not really a government at all, when he does things such as disdaining Abbas's attempts to help in finding the killers of the Israeli teenagers and berating the P.A. even though the crime occurred in a portion of the West Bank where the P.A. has no security functions at all.

But Netanyahu is always focused on the short term, and he probably is not worrying much right now about those possibilities. It also is because he is focused on the short term that success in his strategy in fending off Palestinian statehood is not at all success for Israel. In fact, it is quite contrary to the long term interests of Israel and damaging to its prospects for living as a peaceful, prosperous, liberal state. The Netanyahu strategy fails to recognize that clinging to all the land to the Jordan River makes it impossible for Israel to be both a Jewish and a democratic state.

The strategy is one that entails unending conflict and animosity. As Israel sinks ever more deeply into hard-core apartheid, a corrosive effect continues to be seen in the public attitudes and morality of many Israelis as well as many Palestinians, an effect that is disturbing to the many other Israelis who are still thoughtful and humane. The phenomenon in question has become increasingly apparent in recent years in an intolerance in Israel that has evolved into overt hatred and prejudice against Arabs, matching anti-Jewish hatred that can be found on the other side. (Anti-Semitism probably is not the appropriate term in this context, only because both Jews and Arabs are Semites.)

In this atmosphere, nonofficial acts of inhumanity and violence become more likely—such as the killing of the three Jewish teenagers and the subsequent killing, possibly after being burned alive, of a Palestinian Arab teenager. The atmosphere also infects official acts. Those acts include much of what happens in the West Bank every week, including all those demolitions of homes. It also has reportedly included in the past few days the brutal beating by Israeli police of another Palestinian teenager—a cousin of the one who was burned and killed.

The victim of the police beating is an American: a high school sophomore from Tampa, Florida who was visiting his relatives. If the reports about his beating are confirmed, this ought to be an occasion for the U.S. to pull its kid gloves off at least a bit more in dealing with Netanyahu's government. When Israeli police are beating up U.S. citizens, the U.S. government ought to do more to steer the Israeli government off its disastrous path. Call it tough love if your prefer, but the emphasis needs to be on the toughness.

Image: Office of the Prime Minister.                       

TopicsIsrael Palestinian Territories RegionsMiddle East

Why the Iraq War Really Was Different From the Vietnam War

Paul Pillar

The Iraq War, as Heather Marie Stur tells us, should not be lumped together with the Vietnam War as blindly and repeatedly as many seem wont to do. Although the two military expeditions both rank among the costliest blunders in American history, there are indeed many differences between the two. Stur is correct to emphasize differences over similarities, but she completely misses the most significant differences—significant partly because of their implications for avoiding similar blunders in the future.

Difference number one sets the invasion of Iraq in 2003 apart not only from the intervention in Vietnam but from almost every other substantial use of U.S. military force. There was no policy process leading to the decision to launch the war. Whether invading Iraq was a good idea was never on the agenda of any meeting of policymakers, and never the subject of any options paper. Thus no part of the national security bureaucracy had any opportunity to weigh in on that decision (as distinct from being called on to help sell that decision to the public). Sources of relevant expertise both inside and outside the government were pointedly shunned. The absence of a policy process leading to the decision to launch the war is the single most extraordinary aspect of the war.

The U.S. intervention in Vietnam was entirely different. Although as the war went on the decision-making of Lyndon Johnson and his Tuesday lunch group became increasingly closed, the original decisions in 1964 and 1965 to initiate the U.S. air and ground wars in Vietnam were the result of an extensive policy process. The bureaucracy was fully engaged, and the policy alternatives exhaustively discussed and examined. However mistaken the decisions may have turned out to be, they could not be attributed to any short-cuts in the decision-making process.

A second distinctive aspect of the Iraq War is that it was a war of aggression. It was the first major offensive war that the United States had initiated in over a century. Every overseas use of U.S. military force in the twentieth century was either a minor expedition such as ones in the Caribbean or, in the case of major wars, a response to the use of force by someone else. The U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia was a case of the latter: a direct response to the use by North Vietnam of armed insurgency to take over South Vietnam.

This is another respect that sets the Iraq War apart not only from Vietnam but from many other U.S. wars, including a couple of relatively recent ones that Stur incorrectly likens to the Iraq War. Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in 2001 was a direct response to a terrorist attack by a group that was resident in Afghanistan and allied with its regime. Operation Desert Storm in 1991 was a direct response to blatant aggression by Iraq in invading and swallowing Kuwait. When that aggression was reversed by expelling the Iraqis from Kuwait, the U.S. mission really was accomplished.

Sometimes earlier wars have a lot to do with explaining much later events—and the centenary of World War I has stimulated some interesting analysis of how that war set in train events that still bedevil us today—but Stur's attempt to say something similar about the war in 1991 is mistaken. Some neoconservatives grumbled about Saddam Hussein being left in power, but the grumbling did not have to do with any problems created by Operation Desert Storm; it instead reflected the neocons' desire for other reasons to have a larger regime-changing war in Iraq.

This gets us to a third major difference, which is related to the first one. The Iraq War of 2003 was the project of a small,willful band of war-seekers—what Lawrence Wilkerson has called a “cabal”—who managed to get a weak and inexperienced president to go along with their project for his own political and psychological reasons. An assiduous selling campaign lasting more than a year, which exploited the post-9/11 political mood by conjuring up chimerical alliances with terrorists, mustered enough national support to launch the war. But the base for starting the project was always quite narrow.

By contrast, the United States sucked itself into the Vietnam quagmire on the basis of a very broadly held conventional wisdom about a global advance of monolithic communism, falling dominoes, and the need to uphold U.S. credibility. At the time of the intervention, opposition to the intervention was exceedingly narrow. The Gulf of Tonkin resolution authorizing the use of military force in Vietnam passed against only the lonely nay votes of Wayne Morse and Ernest Gruening in the Senate and no opposition at all in the House. The conventional wisdom pervaded the public and the media, including prominent journalists such as David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan who only later would become identified with publicizing the war's faults and fallacies.

Looking back on the mistakes involved in Vietnam War became a national exercise in painful retrospection. It included soul-searching by some of those most directly involved in launching the U.S. expedition; some of the most candid and insightful came from former secretary of defense Robert McNamara. The difference with the post-war posture of the people who brought us the Iraq War has been stark. Despite the much narrower original responsibility for that war, mea culpas from those who promoted it have been hard to find. The promoters have instead tried to find creative ways to blame the damage they caused on those who later had to clean it up.

All of this has implications for avoiding comparable blunders in the future. The Cold War is over, and the parts of the Vietnam-era conventional wisdom involving the nature of international communism are gone as well. We still see similar thought patterns, however, applied in other ways, especially with notions of upholding credibility and domino-like scenarios of geographically expanding threats. There still is Cold War-type thinking that treats Russia as if it were the Soviet Union, and that treats radical Islam as if it were a monolithic foe that is our enemy in a new world war.

Avoiding another blunder like the Iraq War means being wary not only of these sorts of thought patterns but also of a more direct hazard. The neocons who brought us that war are not only unrepentant but also very much around and still selling their wares. We most need to remember what they sold as the last time, and not to buy anything from them again.   

Image: U.S. Army Flickr. 

TopicsIraq Vietnam RegionsUnited States

Pages