Paul Pillar

When Congress Should Assert Itself, and When It Shouldn't

Paul Pillar

David Sanger's article in the New York Times about how the Obama administration is seeking a nuclear accord with Iran that would not require any early votes in Congress has garnered a lot of attention. Naturally, the administration in response has offered assurances that Congress has a role to play and no one is trying to shove it out of the picture. Just as naturally, opponents of the administration accuse it of such shoving.

We all know what's going on and what's at stake here. The more of a role Congress does play in the immediate aftermath of signing a deal, the greater the chance that elements opposed to anyone reaching any agreement with Iran on anything will be able to torpedo the deal. This is reflected in the substantial record Congress has already compiled, as cataloged by Navid Hassibi's review of that record, of past attempts that would impede the negotiations. It also is reflected in the fact that some of those quickest to complain about a supposed offense to Congressional prerogatives on this matter are those who have been most determined all along to sabotage any agreement with Iran. So for anyone who realizes the advantages of having a deal to restrict Iran's nuclear program versus not having a deal, the less Congressional involvement right now the better.

A major caveat to this conclusion is that any lack of confidence on the part of the Iranians in the staying power of a deal in which the the United States fulfills its part of the bargain only through executive action may also make it harder to complete the negotiations. If the Iranians believe all they are getting in the way of sanctions relief is tentative and reversible, in an accord that can be undone by Congress or a later president, they understandably will be reluctant to offer anything other than tentative and reversible things in return. This is why the assertion that has routinely accompanied past efforts to slap more sanctions on Iran during negotiations—that this supposedly would increase U.S. bargaining power—is fallacious (and if it really did increase, why wouldn't any president want to have the added power?) Instead, the effect would be to make negotiations more difficult by increasing Iranian doubts about the administration's ability to fulfill U.S. commitments. Probably the best way to deal with all this is to rely, as Hassibi suggests, on the combination of a couple of years of compliance with an agreement and confirmation of its terms in a United Nations Security Council resolution to make the saboteurs' task harder.

None of this appears to be really about high constitutional principles concerning the relative powers of branches of the U.S. government. It is about whether the United States is going to seize or to blow the best opportunity to preclude an Iranian nuclear weapon and to do it in a way that will have other benefits for U.S. interests in the Middle East. There are, nonetheless, some more principled things to say about the role of Congress on different types of national security matters.

Consider the issue of the Iranian negotiations alongside another subject on which relative powers of the legislative and executive branches have received considerable attention: the use of military force. One legislator whose stance is worth looking at is Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia. Kaine has taken a responsible position regarding the Iran negotiations, opposing any Congressional interference with them in the form of new sanctions. He also has become quite an activist in asserting a Congressional prerogative to approve or disapprove the use of military force. In fact, he has broken openly with the president of his own party by arguing that the current use of force in Syria and Iraq should have first obtained Congressional authorization. Kaine's positions should be emulated, and here's why.

There is good reason that the Constitution placed the power to declare war with the people's representatives in Congress. It is a major and potentially highly costly departure. Expending blood and treasure in warfare is one of the riskiest and most consequential things the nation can do. As has been demonstrated painfully and recently, going to war has a way of dragging the nation into even costlier and longer-lasting commitments.

An agreement of the sort being negotiated with Iran is none of those things. The agreement would impose no new costs on the nation; in fact, it would involve reducing the cost that sanctions inflict on the United States. It does not create, as warfare does, any new exceptions to normal peacetime relations with other states; instead, it would be a move toward restoring normality. It does not, as do some other matters that are appropriately codified in treaties subject to Senate confirmation, impose any new legal obligations on U.S. persons; instead it is a step toward reducing the costly and cumbersome restrictions on U.S. business that the sanctions involve. It does not mark a departure in national goals and objectives, because it is an almost unanimously shared objective that Iran not acquire a nuclear weapon. The issue instead is what is the best way of executing policy to achieve that objective; that is part of what the executive branch is supposed to do.

Recognition of that last point is reflected in the laws about sanctions that give the president waiver authority and thus the flexibility needed to achieve the objectives that the sanctions were supposed to be all about. Those were laws that the U.S. Congress enacted. That is why it is ridiculous for Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen—one of the most consistently Iranophobic hardliners in Congress—to say, as she does in a “dear colleague” letter she is circulating, that the president is “circumventing” Congress by making use of waiver authority that is written into sanctions legislation that she sponsored.

There is a time and place for Congress to assert itself, and different times and places for it to defer to the executive branch in execution of its proper functions.             

TopicsIran RegionsMiddle East

Climate Change and National Security, Properly Defined

Paul Pillar

The Department of Defense recently released a "Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap" that relates the department's business to global warming and the accompanying climatic changes. The document is welcome in a couple of respects beyond assuring us that the department is properly tending to the various respects in which climate change is affecting its own operations and missions. First, it is a straightforward, unquestioning recognition of the reality and problem of climate change, by the largest executive branch department in the U.S. government. Second, by linking the problem to national security it may help to get the attention of at least some people who have no respect for tree huggers but get a rise out of any use of the U.S. military.

The document relates climate change to national security in two basic ways, as stated in the covering statement by Secretary of Defense Hagel. One is that climate change is a “threat multiplier” that can exacerbate problems that are already well known and which can lead to situations in which overseas involvement of the U.S. military may become an issue. Droughts and other climate-related resource scarcity, for example, may intensify conflicts over resources. The other way, which is what most of the document is about, is that climate change has numerous impacts on the U.S. military's operations, training, and facilities. The heavy concentration of military installations in Virginia's Hampton Roads region, for example, will mean a high impact on the military of the danger that low-lying region faces as one of the U.S. coastal areas most affected by rising sea levels.

These all are important matters, and it is appropriate for the Department of Defense to focus upon them. A document such as this carries the hazard, however, of suggesting that climate change is a national security issue only insofar as as it impinges on matters most traditionally considered to involve national security, especially matters involving the military. That is an artificially narrow conception of national security, consistent perhaps with some ideas of the past but not reflecting the fundamental meaning of national security.

Central to that meaning is the physical well-being of the nation's citizens. That well-being can be endangered by human action either directly, as with an invasion force or a terrorist group bombing people in the United States, or indirectly, as with the multiple physical effects of global warming. Increasing flooding endangers the security of the citizens of Hampton Roads whether there were any military bases in their neighborhood or not.

The security implications of climate change for Americans entail several causal paths, some more direct than others. They include the risk of being killed by extreme weather events, the impairment of food supplies, the loss of forest resources through northward migration of pests, and much else. But the implications do not even have to depend on these sorts of secondary events. The sheer heating up of the homeland matters, too. The health and attractiveness of the United States, and ultimately its strength, depend greatly on the country's fortunate geographic and climatological circumstances. Any impairment of those circumstances is in a real sense a loss of security, too.

As long as we remember those things then it is good to see a document such as the DoD roadmap, which might help to engage some people who have a narrower concept of national security. We need all the help on this we can get, given the continued prominence of American political figures whose views on climate change sound more in tune with the days when Earth was thought to be flat.

Image: Flickr.                       

 

TopicsClimate Change RegionsUnited States

Moral Hazard in the Gaza Strip

Paul Pillar

The passage in the British House of Commons of a resolution favoring recognition of a Palestinian state, coming on the heels of the Swedish government's announcement of its intention to extend such recognition, is the latest indicator of European disgust with Israeli policies. Recognizing a Palestinian state is, of course, an empty gesture as long as no such state exists on the ground, and the ground that would constitute such a state is under another state's occupation. But recognition is a peaceful and respectable way to express dismay. The Conservative MP who chairs the House of Commons foreign affairs committee probably was speaking for many both inside and outside Parliament when he said that he had “stood by Israel through thick and thin” but that “over the past 20 years...Israel has been slowly drifting away from world public opinion,” and that “such is my anger over Israel's behavior in recent months that I will not oppose the motion. I have to say to the government of Israel that if they are losing people like me, they will be losing a lot of people.”

As the comments of the MP suggest, the behavior that is the object of the dismay and anger has both long-term and short-term components. The long-term part is the continued Israel occupation of conquered territory, with the accompanying subjugation of Palestinians and denial to them of political rights. In the shorter term is the destruction that the Israeli military wreaked on the Gaza Strip earlier this year, in an operation that began when the Netanyahu government attempted to use force to disrupt a unity pact between the main Palestinian political factions. This week United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon toured the devastation in Gaza, remarking that “no amount of Security Council sessions, reports, or briefings could have prepared me for what I witnessed today.”

Another, even more recent, component of the Israeli-inflicted destruction in Gaza may also have influenced the mood of the Swedes, the MPs at Westminster, and indeed taxpayers in any Western country. At an international conference in Cairo participating countries pledged a total of $5.4 billion in aid, half for reconstruction in the Gaza Strip and the other half as budget support for the Palestinian Authority. Besides the sheer irksomeness of any of the rest of us in the world community having to pay to repair that damage, think about what this situation implies for Israeli incentives. The Israelis mow the lawn in Gaza as often as they like, and they don't even have to pay for the clean-up. They may even profit from it because any building supplies that Israel allows to enter the Strip generally come from Israeli sources. (Investment tip: it's time to be bullish on cement manufacturers in Israel.)

This is an example of what economists call moral hazard: of someone having no incentive to curtail risky (or in this case, outright destructive) behavior because someone else is covering the losses. This in turn is one reason to be pessimistic that the whole tragic cycle of periodic Israeli lawn-mowing will end any time soon. The Israelis' economic flank is covered by donor conferences, just as their political flank is covered by U.S. vetoes at the Security Council.

Those on the American political Right, who tend to be most sympathetic to those on the Israeli Right who are running that country, ought to think carefully about this situation and how it relates to the principles of economic policy in which they profess to believe. Governments, including the U.S. government, are stepping in with subsidies that are keeping people from being held accountable for their behavior and its consequences. This isn't just about makers and takers; it's makers and takers with the takers also being destroyers. The situation also ought to be thought of in terms of U.S. fiscal priorities. Any program for the benefit of the United States and U.S. citizens that gets brutalized in the Paul Ryan budget should be stacked up against U.S. subsidization of behavior by countries in the Middle East, and hard questions asked about what U.S. priorities ought to be.

Here's an approach to reconstruction from the most recent Gaza war that admittedly has no political chance of enactment but would be fair and principled: hold each side responsible for the destruction that it inflicted. Hamas would be responsible for paying for the damage it caused, including from rockets fired into Israel, and Israel would be responsible for the damage its forces inflicted.

Hamas by all reports is in tough financial shape; that's one of the incentives it had for making the unity agreement with Fatah. But the damage it caused in this summer's war was so small that Hamas's friends in Qatar and Turkey could cover the bill with loose change that has fallen between the cushions of their divans. Heck, one could probably even add to the bill the cost of the Iron Dome missiles that Israel fired at rockets that never caused any damage, and it would be a pretty painless check for the Qataris to write.

The damage that Israeli forces inflicted is many orders of magnitude greater. But Israel is also far wealthier. In terms of GDP per capita it ranks right between New Zealand and Spain, according to the International Monetary Fund. It certainly can pay the bill. And if it balks at doing so, there are established methods that can peacefully and legitimately be used to collect from deadbeats. The half of the pledges from the Cairo conference devoted to reconstruction in Gaza totals less than the more than $3 billion in annual aid the United States bestows on Israel. Apply a garnishment to less than a year's worth of the subsidy, and that bill is paid. Hold the taker/destroyer accountable.                                              

TopicsIsrael Palestinian Territories RegionsMiddle East

Why the Bombing Campaign in Syria Isn't Working Well

Paul Pillar

The U.S. air war in Syria has not gotten off to an encouraging start. For many observers the principal indicator of that is a lack of setbacks for ISIS, as the group continues to besiege a Kurdish-held town near the Turkish border. We ought to be at least as discouraged, however, by the negative reactions to the airstrikes from the “moderate” Syrian opposition groups that the strikes are supposed to help and in whom so much hope is being placed if U.S. policy toward the Syrian conflict is to begin to make any sense. Harakat Hazm, a group considered sufficiently moderate and effective to have received the first shipments of U.S.-made anti-tank weapons, called the U.S. campaign “a sign of failure whose devastation will spread to the whole region.”

It is early in that campaign, of course, and if searching hard enough one can also find some more encouraging signs. The airstrikes in Iraq still have more support. And ISIS in Syria at least seems to have seen the necessity of lowering its visibility in places it controls such as Raqqa—although its blending even more closely into the civilian population will make future airstrikes that much harder to do.

Despite administration statements about having to think in long-haul terms, patience in Washington will wear thin amid meager results. Pressures for escalation will increasingly be felt. In response to comments from opposition groups about how the airstrikes are insufficiently coordinated with, and have not aided, their operations on the ground, expect to hear more talk in Washington about a need for putting U.S. personnel on that ground.

That sort of talk ought to be met with a reminder of the fundamental reasons—the inconvenient facts of the Syrian situation that constitute a still-unsquared circle—that will continue to make for poor results.

One reason is the multidimensional nature of the Syrian conflict, in which in the absence of a credible Syrian political alternative the United States has in effect taken the side of a Syrian regime that it supposedly still wants to oust, and in which the opposition groups in which the United States has placed its faith have significantly different priorities from Washington. Opposition groups have been particularly critical of the United States targeting of the Al-Nusra Front, which is an understandable target for the United States given that group's status as an affiliate of Al-Qaeda, but which many of the other groups have seen as an effective ally in the fight against the Assad regime.

Another reason is the inevitable damage and resulting anger and resentment from airstrikes, even though high-tech U.S. weapons are far more discriminating than the Syrian regime's barrel bombs. Some of the resentment-generating impact of the US. strikes so far has been indirect and economic rather than direct and kinetic. Attacks on targets such as oil refineries, power plants, and granaries have caused shortages and price rises that have hurt civilians at least as much as they have impeded ISIS.

And related to that is the potential for the United States to make itself a bigger issue in Syria than either ISIS or the regime. There already are worrisome signs that Al-Nusra and ISIS are repairing their breach from last year and campaigning in tandem against the U.S. intervention by portraying it as a war against Islam.                            

TopicsSyria RegionsMiddle East

The Iran Nuclear Talks: Show Us Your Brackets

Paul Pillar

In any negotiation one can never be sure until the end how much either side is temporarily holding out for something more than what they will eventually accept. Some optimistic comments have been made about the nuclear negotiations with Iran, to the effect that we should not pay too much attention to indications of stalemate because both sides probably are saving their biggest remaining concessions until the last minute. Maybe, but there still seems to be good reason to worry that we may blow the best opportunity in a decade to get off a fruitless course of confrontation with Iran, to secure the declared objective of Iran never getting a nuclear weapon, and to unshackle U.S. diplomacy to deal better with other regional problems.

We will blow the opportunity if our side sticks stubbornly to the notion that limiting Iran's uranium enrichment program to X number of centrifuges or Y number of separative work units is so important it is worth killing an agreement altogether—in which case, of course, there would be no limits at all on Iran's enrichment program. It is not so important, and the fixation on “breakout” is badly misguided because any possible response to such an Iranian move would not depend on the sort of “breakout times” being talked about and because the fixation ignores the whole motivations and incentives side of an agreement.

One should hope that enough good sense will prevail to realize this, and that enough political fortitude will prevail to resist the demands of those who have been battling good sense on this issue all along. But with the current target date for completion of the negotiations just a few weeks away, it may be time for the authorities on both sides of this negotiation who realize the advantages of reaching an agreement to try something different.

So far not many details of what has been tentatively agreed to have leaked out. That generally is a good thing in any negotiation, and a sign of seriousness and good will on both sides. Keeping what is on the negotiating table confidential means neither side has shifted entirely to a mode of publicly assigning blame for failure, and the confidentiality is consistent with the principle that nothing is finally agreed to until everything is agreed to—a principle that facilitates flexibility in making offers and exploring the bargaining space. But with the danger of failure looming, it might be time to try something different.

According to the meager indications that have leaked out, the negotiators already have arrived at common language for the great majority of provisions in an agreement. Differences remain on just a few sticking points such as capacity for uranium enrichment and the length of time Iran would be subject to the one-of-a-kind restrictions that the agreement would entail. The parties should consider making public the draft agreement as it now stands, with the continuing disagreements indicated through bracketed language.

Doing so would be a recognition that in many ways the toughest political contest is being waged not between governments in the negotiating room but instead between each government and anti-agreement hardliners on its own side. Making public the draft bracketed agreement might help to overcome in several ways the hardliner opposition.

For one thing, exposing the draft agreement would underscore how far the parties have come, how close they are to inking a final deal, and how much of a shame it would be to throw the effort away through stubbornness that causes the talks to collapse. Making a bracketed text public also would place the burden of proof on those who would contend that something like the difference between X centrifuges and Z centrifuges is of deal-killing import—when in fact it is not.

Letting us all see the terms of a draft deal might help us get away from a silly mantra that has been so drummed into the discourse by opponents of any agreement with Iran that even those who support the negotiations sometimes voice it. The mantra is “no deal is better than a bad deal.” The mantra is a fatuous tautology. Whether a particular deal is good or bad depends on comparing it with no deal. Seeing the terms of an actual draft agreement would enable all of us to make that comparison. And what could then be demanded of the hardliners on both sides is: explain exactly why no agreement at all supposedly would be better than the terms you see before you—even with the bracketed language that the other side wants. Hardliners on our side would have to explain why the absence of agreement—meaning no restrictions on uranium enrichment, no enhanced inspection and monitoring, and nothing else in the way of special requirements being placed on Iran—would be better than allowing Z (rather than X) number of centrifuges.

Negotiating practice being what it is, such a public revelation probably won't happen unless the target date next month is reached without a deal being struck. But by then it may be too late.

 

TopicsIran RegionsMiddle East

Forgotten Lessons of Counterterrorism

Paul Pillar

International terrorism has evolved in significant ways even just in what could be called its modern era, over the past 45 years or so. Policies and practices in responding to it also have evolved during the same period. Useful lessons have been learned and applied. Enough time has gone by, however, and there have been enough discontinuities both in preferred terrorist methods and in official responses, that some of the lessons have been forgotten. This has been especially true in the United States, where much of the public appears to believe that the whole problem of international terrorism began on a September day 13 years ago.

In the 1960s, 1970s, and on into the 1980s, international terrorists—including Middle Easterners, as well as Western leftist radicals who were still active then—periodically seized headlines and public attention, in the United States as well as Europe. They most often did so by seizing hostages and threatening to kill or otherwise harm them if certain demands, often relating to release of previously captured terrorists, were not met. Sometimes the hostage-taking occurred on the ground, such as with the takeover of a meeting of OPEC leaders in Vienna in 1975. Sometimes it was accomplished by hijacking a commercial airliner along with its passengers and crew. Some of the hostage-taking incidents became extended dramas that played out over days. One that involved Americans, for example, was the hijacking by members of Lebanese Hezballah of TWA Flight 847 in 1985. The hostages were held (and one of them killed) during three days in the plane while it crisscrossed the Mediterranean and then for another two weeks in Lebanon before they were released.

Groups that employed such tactics were using them as theater. Getting their demands, such as release of incarcerated comrades, met was surely a plus for them, but at least as important was the impact on larger audiences, in the sense either of intimidation or of getting attention for a cause. Brian Jenkins, one of America's earliest genuine experts on terrorism, summed up this principle with the observation, “Terrorists want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead.”

After enough of these incidents, there arose a general awareness among officials and the media that anything that increased attention to these incidents and enhanced their dramatic appeal was, intentionally or not, serving the purposes of the terrorists. There was much soul-searching by the press about this. There was not really a school solution that was developed and adopted; even the most responsible news organization cannot completely self-censor coverage of what is still a genuine news event. But at least there was awareness and discussion of the interests at stake, and some effort to find ways to minimize the harm of giving free publicity to terrorists.

Further evolution of terrorist tactics over the next couple of decades saw a shift away from capturing people to threaten to kill them and toward operations that killed people straightaway. 9/11 was not the start of this trend but was the most spectacular and deadly example of it. Jenkins's observation remained partly correct in that terrorists still wanted a lot of people watching, but killing a lot of people was the way of getting other people to watch. Countering terrorism (by the government) and covering it (by the press) became focused on bombs suddenly going off without warning. Awareness of the issues and interests involved in hostage situations atrophied.

Now the group sometimes known as ISIS represents a further turn in terrorist groups' tactics. This is partly a matter of the use of armed force to capture and hold territory, but what has captured our collective attention at least as much is the serial drama of the group's hostages being individually threatened with death, and some of those threats being carried out—a drama being served up in slick videotaped fashion to milk as much publicity as possible from it. We, the public, and the media have responded by being duly fascinated and horrified and by being stimulated by the drama to push our policymakers into deeper military engagement in the Middle East. Meanwhile the sort of soul-searching about hostage dramas that was evident three decades ago is hard to find today. The lessons about this sort of thing that were learned back then seem to have been forgotten.

This is one of the ways, though not the only one, in which we have been playing into the hands of ISIS. As with those hostage incidents back in the 1970s and 1980s, the demands terrorists make are not necessarily their main objectives. Although the threats by ISIS to kill more hostages are ostensibly intended to deter Western military action, it is at least as likely that they are intended, as in fact is happening, to stimulate such action—all the better for the group to pose as the chief defender of the Sunni Muslim umma against depredations of the U.S.-led West.

We also serve the group's objectives every time we (including our government or the press) portray the group as ten feet tall and strong enough to warrant something akin to a declaration of war. A specific objective served is to increase the group's allure in the eyes of would-be Western recruits. We even serve those objectives with the way we label the group, with much of the Western press using its preferred name of Islamic State even though we have no interest in suggesting that the group's practices are consistent with Islam or that it is worthy of being recognized as a state. The press does not necessarily refer to other entities by their preferred but non-descriptive names (how many newspaper articles about North Korea do you see that identify it as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea?); why should it do so with this one? At least the U.S. government has wisely been using instead the mundane acronym ISIL.

Just about everyone who expounds on what the United States ought to be doing these days in Syria and Iraq seems to be claiming to be an expert on terrorism. Before making that claim they ought to learn some of those lessons that had been learned 30 years ago.                                        

TopicsTerrorism Iraq Syria RegionsMiddle East

The Futility of the Long U.S. War in the Middle East

Paul Pillar

Andrew Bacevich has done a tally of the number of countries in the Islamic world that, since 1980, the United States has invaded, bombed, or occupied, and in which members of the American military have either killed or been killed. Syria has become the 14th such country. Several of the countries have been the scene of U.S. military operations more than once. Most of the countries are in the Middle East, although the list also includes Afghanistan and Pakistan in South Asia, Bosnia and Kosovo in the Balkans, and Somalia in Africa. Probably most Americans, however much they may be aware of the latest U.S. military foray, have little appreciation for how extensive this list has become.

Bacevich also notes the sorry record of accomplishment from all this lethal activity, and gives one partial explanation: “American policymakers have repeatedly given in to the temptation to unleash a bit of near-term chaos, betting that longer-term order will emerge on the other end.”

This sort of bet often is placed in response to a desire, and political pressure, to do something about a perceived problem, with military force being the most visible and demonstrable way to “so something.” That is clearly a major part of the Obama administration's response to the perceived problem of ISIS. The biggest instance of unleashing chaos in the hope that long-term order will somehow emerge, however—the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the operation that gave birth to ISIS under a different name—was not a response to such pressures but instead entirely a war of choice. It was the leading example of the Jerry Rubin school of political-military affairs: of destroying things and then grooving on the rubble.

Several other reasons also account for the miserable U.S. record of military force in that part of the world—of so often making things worse rather than better. One is that although U.S. military force can help to accomplish some really important and beneficial things—such as, say, winning World War II, or in the Middle East, reversing blatant aggression as in Kuwait in 1991—it cannot accomplish many other things, given the nature of those things. The U.S. military is a wonderful hammer, but many of the thorniest problems in the part of the world we are talking about are not nails. Political and social order cannot be injected through the barrel of a gun. Creating a lasting order is about construction; guns are about destruction. Political culture and political will, especially the will to accommodate conflicting interests, are essential to creating order, and they cannot be created with military force.

Much of what needs to be accomplished to create new order needs to be accomplished by those who will be part of that order. Sometimes outsiders can help, but no matter how powerful and well-intentioned an outsider may be, unless a solution is owned by the locals it will not last. That's what happened with the “surge” in Iraq, which bought a temporary respite from the worst of the violence but failed to accomplish its more fundamental objective of providing the space to enable Iraqi political factions to reach an accommodation.

The current attempt to use force to counter ISIS illustrates in particularly acute form another sort of hazard, which comes from taking sides in someone else's civil war that is defined in mostly sectarian or ethnic terms. The United States has no national interest in taking sides in such conflicts. It is a prescription for making enemies on one side and getting little better than a “what have you done for me lately” response from the other side.

Not least important, the use of U.S. military force in internal turmoil in the Islamic world has repeatedly fostered resentment and hatred and the sort of anti-American extremism that thrives amid such resentment. This results partly from the collateral casualties and damage that are an almost unavoidable consequence of the application of military force in such situations. It is also partly from the mere fact of the superpower exercising its power in this way. Not putting boots on the ground helps to lessen this response, but dropping bombs on the ground isn't really better.

Several political and military dynamics, including the desire to double down on a bet that hasn't yet paid off, may drive escalation of the latest U.S. military effort in the region. Taking a larger perspective, something similar has been happening regarding the whole multi-decade U.S. military encounter with the Middle East. There is a strong inclination to believe that whatever is the current chapter in that encounter will bring the sort of payoff that previous chapters did not. Don't bet on it.                              

TopicsUnited States ISIS RegionsMiddle East

ISIS and the Politics of Surprise

Paul Pillar

The recent burst of recriminations about what the U.S. intelligence community did or did not tell the president of the United States in advance about the rise of the extremist group sometimes called ISIS, and about associated events in Iraq, is only a variation on some well-established tendencies in Washington discourse. The tendency that in recent years has, of course, become especially strongly entrenched is that of couching any issue in the way that is best designed to bash one's political opponents. For those determined to bash and frustrate Barack Obama at every turn, it is a tendency that trumps everything else. Thus we now have the curious circumstance of some of Mr. Obama's Republican critics, who in other contexts would be at least as quick as anyone else to come down on U.S. intelligence agencies (and most other parts of the federal bureaucracy) like a ton of bricks, saying that the president got good information but failed to act on it. (Some critics, however, have tried to lower their cognitive dissonance by saying that “everyone” could see what was coming with ISIS.)

Relationships between the intelligence community and presidential administrations over the past few decades have not fallen into any particular pattern distinguishable by party. One of the best relationships was with the administration of the elder George Bush—perhaps not surprisingly, given that president's prior experience as a Director of Central Intelligence under President Gerald Ford. Probably the worst was during the presidency of the younger George Bush, whose administration—in the course of selling the Iraq War—strove to discredit the intelligence community's judgments that contradicted the administration's assertions about an alliance between Iraq and al-Qaeda, pushed for public use of reporting about alleged weapons programs that the community did not consider credible, and ignored the community's judgments about the likely mess in Iraq that would follow the ouster of Saddam Hussein's regime. Relations also have varied under Democratic presidents. Mr. Obama, given the evidently deliberate and methodical way he weighs input, including from the civilian and military bureaucracy, before major national security decisions, probably has been one of the better users of intelligence, at least in the sense of paying attention to it. His remark on 60 Minutes that led to the accusations about ISIS, however, did sound like gratuitous blame-shifting.

One very longstanding and bipartisan tendency that this recent imbroglio has diluted (because the political motive to attack Obama is even stronger than political motives to attack intelligence agencies) is to assume that any apparently insufficient U.S. reaction to an untoward development overseas must be due to policymakers not being sufficiently informed, and this must be because intelligence services failed. It is remarkable how, when anything disturbing goes bump in the night overseas, the label “intelligence failure” gets quickly and automatically applied by those who have no basis whatever for knowing what the intelligence community did or did not say—in classified, intra-governmental channels—to policymakers.

The current case does demonstrate in undiluted form, however, several other recurrent tendencies, one of which is to affix the label “surprise” to certain events not so much because of the state of knowledge or understanding of those who make national security policy but more because we, the public—and the press and chattering class—were surprised. Or to be even more accurate, this often happens because those of us outside government weren't paying much attention to the developments in question until something especially dramatic seized our attention, even though we actually had enough information about the possibilities that we should not have been surprised. Thus the dramatic gains by ISIS earlier this year have been labeled a “surprise” because a swift territorial advance and gruesome videotaped killings grabbed public attention.

Another tendency is to believe that if government is working properly, surprises shouldn't happen. This belief disregards how much that is relevant to foreign policy and national security is unknowable, no matter how brilliant either an intelligence service or a policymaker may be. This is partly because of other countries and entities keeping secrets but even more so because some future events are inherently unpredictable—given that they involve decisions that others have not yet made, or social processes too complex or psychological mechanisms too fickle to model. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper was referring to this epistemological reality in the comment that he made recently about the Iraqi army's collapse and that the president erroneously characterized in his 60 Minutes interview. Clapper was not saying that the intelligence community messed up on this question; he instead was observing that this type of sudden loss of will in the heat of battle has always been unpredictable.

Yet another recurring tendency is to think that proper policy responses always flow from a good empirical understanding of the problem at hand, including the sort of information, analysis, and predictions that a well-functioning intelligence service might be expected to provide. In fact, proper responses often do not flow that way from an understanding of the problem. Often there are conflicting national interests at stake, there are serious costs and risks to possible responses, and the likely benefits of responses may not outweigh the likely costs. No matter how accurate a picture of ISIS the intelligence community may be providing to the president and his policy advisers, that picture is not likely to constitute a case for the United States to take more, rather than less, forceful action in Syria or Iraq. If President Obama is now taking more forceful measures in those places than he was earlier, it is neither because he is belatedly reacting to good intelligence nor because the intelligence community is belatedly getting its judgments right, but instead because he is responding to how the rest of us have decided that we are not just surprised but alarmed by ISIS.

Image: White House Flickr.                                                       

TopicsISIS RegionsMiddle East

Past Versus Future in the Iranian Nuclear Program

Paul Pillar

Some of the most recent efforts to derail a nuclear agreement with Iran have been focusing on what has come to be called “possible military dimensions” (PMD), a term that refers to any work Iran has performed in the past on designing nuclear weapons. One of the latest such efforts is a letter that the leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Edward Royce and Eliot Engel, have circulated for signature by their Congressional colleagues. The letter essentially says that all questions about PMD need to be cleared up before we can reach any agreement to restrict Iran's nuclear program.

The government of Iran will not issue during the next couple of months a public confession about past research or design work on nuclear weapons. This simply won't happen. So for the United States or its negotiating partners to make clearing up of all questions about PMD a prerequisite to signing an agreement would be a deal-killer. Most of those pushing the PMD issue hardest probably recognize it would be a deal-killer, which is why they are pushing it.

The Royce-Engel letter attempts to relate past behavior to future requirements in enforcing an agreement by asserting there must be a “baseline” of information about the past to assess Iran's current and future nuclear activity. That assertion lacks logic. Baseline information is important in many things, where what matters is the amount and direction of change in a continuing process—such as what is measured by achievement test scores in education, or by blood tests tracking the level of an antigen produced by the human body. But under an agreement with Iran no work on nuclear weapons would be allowed. It's not a matter of comparing the pace of current activity with the pace of past activity. Any such activity would be a clear violation of Iran's obligations under the agreement, as well as its existing obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

The single biggest reason, from the standpoint of preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon, for completing the agreement under negotiation is to extend and expand the inspection arrangements—already, under the preliminary agreement, unprecedented in their scope and intensity—including full adherence to the Additional Protocol governing inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. That is what is needed to be confident that the Iranian nuclear program remains peaceful—not some fessing up about something done in the distant past. Besides, if the Iranians really wanted to cheat, they would be stupid simply to pick up or duplicate what they had done in the past (and which they already knew Western governments and intelligence services were on to).

The distant past is getting steadily more distant, and even more irrelevant to present concerns. The publicly expressed judgment of the U.S. intelligence community on this subject is that Iran did work on the design of nuclear weapons but that it ceased such work in 2003, now more than a decade ago.

The basic choice in handling the PMD issue in the negotiations now in progress is between attempting to get a confession about behavior that ended more than a decade ago and getting an agreement that provides the best possible assurance that there will be no Iranian nuclear weapon in the future. The advantage of choosing the latter option should be obvious enough when the choice is phrased that way. It should be even more obvious when considering that in terms of actual results, the realistic alternatives are, on one hand, being hardline on the PMD issue and getting neither the confession nor an agreement, and on the other hand, getting an agreement that restricts and monitors Iran's nuclear program to an extent that years of pressure and hardlining on our side never were able to achieve.

In the history of nuclear nonproliferation efforts, the failures—including one conspicuous case of not acknowledging either past or current activity—have been offset by successes that have included several cases, ranging from Sweden to South Korea, in which states with nuclear weapons programs moved away from them and decided instead to commit themselves to a nuclear-weapons-free future. Isn't that what we supposedly want from Iran today? Those earlier cases did not involve past confessions but instead a straightforward commitment to keeping national nuclear programs peaceful in the present and future. In a speech on the floor of the Senate in January, Senator Dianne Feinstein referred to such earlier cases in stating, “I believe countries can change. This capacity to change also applies to the pursuit of nuclear weapons.” The question before us, said the senator, is whether Iran is “willing to change its past behavior.” It is change from past behavior, not a public confession about past behavior, that matters. It is the “job of diplomacy,” said Feinstein, “to push for that change.” It is the job of analysts and pundits to realize that agreements need to be assessed according to how they shape future behavior, not just make some statement about the past.     

TopicsIran RegionsMiddle East

Damage from the Airstrikes in Syria, Visible and Invisible

Paul Pillar

As the United States embarks on a new air war in Syria, disturbing anomalies abound. Some of them were reflected in the front-page headlines of a couple of major U.S. newspapers Tuesday morning, which probably also reflected slightly different deadlines of the two papers but were substantively telling nonetheless. The Washington Post's headline was “U.S. Launches Strikes in Syria”. In the corresponding place in the New York Times, in an edition evidently put to bed before the new offensive in Syria could be reported, we read, “Weeks of U.S. Strikes Fail to Dislodge ISIS in Iraq”. The question that immediately comes to mind is: why should we expect what has failed to dislodge—much less “destroy”—a group in Iraq to succeed if we simply do more of the same thing in Syria? The question is all the more acute given that the United States is aiding and cooperating with the government in Iraq but barely on speaking terms with the one in Syria.

Another disconcerting dichotomy concerns the organizations that were the targets of the newest strikes. The United States announced that it struck not just ISIS but also an al-Qaeda offshoot that has ambitions to conduct terrorist attacks in the West and possibly the United States. The carefully worded official announcements used the word “imminent” but leave us to conclude that what was imminent was not the carrying out of an actual attack in the West but only perhaps the planning for one—and that striking the group involved hitting a target of opportunity, made convenient by having these strikes coincide with the strikes against ISIS in Syria. But at least terrorist attacks in the West, consistent with the al-Qaeda strategy of attacking the “far enemy,” are evidently part of this group's ambitions—underscoring that this is not the case with ISIS, which is following a quite different strategy of trying to build its self-styled caliphate through direct application of force in the Middle East. So why have the president and others spoken so darkly about a terrorist threat to us from ISIS, especially when before yesterday they had not even mentioned this other group? (The correct answer to that question can be found in our own fears, politics, and habitual ways of thinking about foreign threats.)

The very complicated lines of conflict and suspicion that are relevant to the ISIS story and are barely concealed by affixing the term “coalition” to a subset of the players give rise to other anomalies. Russia criticized the United States for using force in Syria without obtaining something like an authorization from the United Nations Security Council; Iran made a similar criticism, albeit in a rather mild and pro forma way. But the regime in Syria—the country the Russians and Iranians have both considered an ally and whose sovereignty they evidently were sticking up for—sounded more positive. The United States, we are repeatedly told, did not “coordinate” with the Assad regime, but it informed that regime in advance about the strikes, and the regime tacitly cooperated by not using its air defense capabilities to mess with the forces conducting the strikes.

That leads to the uncomfortable unanswered question about the desired political end state in Syria. Nothing that has been said since the strikes has helped to answer that question. The operations director of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff essentially changed the subject when reporters asked about whether the air attack would aid the Assad regime. The “moderate” Syrian opposition—in whom the only apparent hope for answering the unanswered question has been placed—displayed this week some of the divisions that have been a major source of their weakness. The president of the Syrian Opposition Coalition made a positive statement, but the commander of Harakat Hazm—a rebel group often talked about as moderate and reliable enough to be entrusted with U.S. lethal assistance—said “the only beneficiary of foreign intervention in Syria is the Assad regime.”

Those are some of the most obvious anomalies about this offensive. We ought to be at least as disturbed about some the effects that may be less immediately visible, especially effects in hearts and minds of people in the region. The U.S. military has again demonstrated its awesome technical precision, in which it seems it is almost capable of firing a missile through the window of a bathroom and killing the person on the toilet while sparing others in the same house. But even with these technical capabilities, casualties among the innocent are inevitable. Reportedly there were civilian casualties from this week's strikes in Raqqa, the principal ISIS-held town in Syria. An unemployed university graduate in Raqqa said afterward, “We know the history of American strikes in Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen. When civilians are going to be killed, sorry is not enough.”

And whatever are the actual facts about collateral damage and casualties, the usual suspicions and cynicism that come into play whenever the superpower uses its military muscle in this part of the world are being aroused by this latest U.S. action. The sentiments are those of the columnist in Egypt's Al Ahram who wrote that the United States and its allies “want to divide our lands, destroy our nations, occupy our homelands and monopolize our choices, without shedding one drop of their blue blood. They have no problem that our cheap Arab blood flows in rivers, it it achieves their goals and purposes.”

Such beliefs are grossly inaccurate and unfair, of course, but the beliefs exist. If we are worried about anti-U.S. terrorism, we ought to worry at least as much about such perceptions and sentiments, and about the extremism they nurture, as about the kind of kinetic accomplishments that can be observed with a gun camera or a reconnaissance drone.

Image: U.S. Air Force Flickr.                           

TopicsSecurityPolitics RegionsUnited States

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