Paul Pillar

American Nativism and the Newest Surge in Xenophobia

Paul Pillar

A couple of days ago President Obama made an appropriate refinement to how he describes the discriminatory and xenophobic tendencies that have become all too obvious in debate and posturing in the United States on issues related to Syria, ISIS, the Paris attacks, and refugees. A week earlier at a press conference in Turkey, in expressing dismay at how “those who have taken on leadership” in the party of George W. Bush ignore how Mr. Bush had made clear that counterterrorism was not a war on Islam, Mr. Obama said, “That's not who we are.” This past weekend, in remarks in Malaysia, the president said that some of the excuses being made for Americans to reject Syrian refugees are “not representative of the best of who we are.” Inclusion of the qualifier the best is important. Although American history has featured the concept of the melting pot and the idea of a new people being created and enriched by the inclusion of diverse other peoples without regard to ethnicity or religion, the United States also has had an ignoble strain of bias and nativism.

That strain has repeatedly surfaced throughout the nation's history, stimulated at different times by different fears and issues. Sometimes such prejudice has been targeted narrowly at some groups and in favor of others—which, in a sense, is the only kind of racial or ethnic bias one should be able to find in a nation of immigrants. This is true of the “Cubans si, Syrians no” approach to the admission of refugees that has become a sore point for certain presidential candidates who have been challenged about it. But underlying the specific manifestations has been a primitive, fearful way of looking at one's circumstances and at the world that says much more about the looker than about the target of the bias. It is a state of mind that involves prejudice against everyone not entirely like oneself. It is a state of mind that Mel Brooks satirized four decades ago in Blazing Saddles.

One of the most politically significant past manifestations of the nativist strain was the Know-Nothing Party (officially, the American Party), which enjoyed some electoral success in the 1850s. The Know-Nothing platform centered around opposition to immigrants and especially to Catholic immigrants from Ireland and Germany (although the party sought the support of native-born Catholics in the South). The party reached the peak of its strength in 1854, when it won 52 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives (more than one-fifth of the chamber) and won control of several large northern cities and the Massachusetts legislature. In the presidential election of 1856 the Know-Nothing ticket (led by former president Millard Fillmore, who did not seek the nomination) won 22 percent of the popular vote nationwide and carried the state of Maryland.

Later upsurges of nativism were mixed with other forms of bias, such as in the heyday of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. Repeatedly there has been a reluctance to welcome foreign refugees, including Jews fleeing Nazism in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, despite America being a nation of immigrants. Fear of terrorism also has gotten mixed into issues of immigration, as when activity of Lebanese Hezbollah in South America led to imaginary scenarios of terrorists wading into the United States across the Rio Grande.

Now fear of terrorism is again getting infused into issues of immigration and asylum for refugees. Such infusion has little or no merit. It is questionable whether it has merit even in Europe, where the attacks in Paris, accompanied by reports of some of the perpetrators having gotten into the flow of refugees from the Middle East, have fed similar fears on that side of the Atlantic. All of the attackers identified so far are nationals of European Union countries, and the reports of infiltration of refugee flows may be false.

Even assuming the worst as it applies to Europe, the situation in the United States is far different from that in Europe, with its huge numbers of refugees walking across the Balkans and some of them squeezing through border fences. Any sophisticated and reasonably well-heeled terrorist group would be stupid to rely on a U.S. refugee program to move operatives into the United States, given the very time-consuming and detailed vetting process involved. It would be quicker and easier to do so with tourist or business visas, as the 9/11 hijackers did.

The refugee asylum issue is being treated as it is in U.S. political debate because of the same sort of nativist inclinations that have repeatedly surfaced in the past. One indication of this is how big a role anti-immigrant themes had played in the contest for the Republican presidential nomination even before the events in Paris.

The Republican campaign also demonstrates how much the whole set of attitudes involved has become another of the multitude of issues and attitudes in this country that demonstrate a marked partisan split. The split is not total and clean, and it never has been with American nativism. The mayor of Roanoke, Virginia who approvingly referred to the internment of Japanese Americans (whom he mistakenly described as “Japanese foreign nationals") during World War II is a Democrat. And 47 of the 188 Democrats in the House of Representatives voted in favor of the recent bill that would curtail even the current small numbers of grants of asylum to Syrian refugees. But Republican support in the House for the same bill was a near-unanimous 242 votes. The leading Republican candidate for the presidential nomination has indicated he would support establishment of a registry of Muslim Americans, although he later maybe backed off a bit, blaming loud music for the way he had answered a question on that subject. His opponents for the nomination have tried to match his appeal to the sentiments involved by advancing ideas such as that only Christians and not Muslims should be admitted as refugees from deadly turmoil in the Middle East.

Islamophobia has been the dominant sub-thread in the most recent manifestation of the longstanding nativist, prejudicial thread in American attitudes. It too, demonstrates a marked partisan difference. Given the way Americans take many of their cues from leaders of whichever party they identify with, it is hard to say which came first, the demos or the demagogue. What can be said is that themes along this line in the Republican primary campaign are appeals to attitudes that opinion polling confirms exist in the party base. In a recent Bloomberg poll, a large majority of Republicans, 69 percent, versus only 36 percent of Democrats, opposed admitting any Syrian refugees to the United States. This finding is very likely related to attitudes uncovered by the question that the pollsters asked immediately before that and gets closer to tapping Islamophobia. Nearly twice as many Republicans as Democrats (32 percent to 17 percent), believed that “Islam is an inherently violent religion, which leads its followers to violent acts” rather than being a peaceful religion with “some who twist its teachings to justify violence.” There are respectable ways to debate related questions about a religion that expanded in large part by the sword, but it is a safe bet that the answers of the vast majority of respondents in this poll were not based on a study of Islamic history or exegesis of the Koran.

The rise and decline of the Know-Nothings occurred in a period of much flux in the American party system. The Know-Nothings benefited from the decline of the Whig Party. But then they themselves were hurt by the same intense divisions over slavery that helped to disable the Whigs. A new party, the Republican Party, emerged and quickly ascended by being clearly and firmly on the right side of the slavery issue.

The Republican Party has performed a great reversal with regard to issues of inclusiveness or exclusiveness and the attitudes to be applied to those with characteristics or backgrounds different from one's own. From the inclusiveness of the anti-slavery cause, it now has come to fill the role of the Know-Nothings. Unlike the Know-Nothings, it is not going away. There is no current issue comparable to slavery that has the same capacity to reshuffle the party system. And by amalgamating an issue such as immigration or asylum for refugees with issues of terrorism and security, it can present at least a verisimilitude of consistency and of having worthy reasons for its candidates to appeal to sentiments that represent not the best of who we are but rather something else.                


TopicsImmigration Syria RegionsMiddle East United States

The Amateurish Attacks in Paris

Paul Pillar

A strong tendency in the wake of major terrorist attacks is to associate the impact the event has on our own fears and thoughts (which generally are correlated with the number of Westerners who died in the incident) with the level of skill and sophistication of the attackers. The skill and sophistication in turn tend to be thought of as associated with the size and strength of some foreign organization that sponsored the attackers.

These presumed associations are false. The plain (and after such incidents, disturbing) fact is that the inherent vulnerabilities in our free and open Western societies are such that it does not require any noteworthy skill or sophistication to kill a lot of people. What it takes are extreme inclinations and a willingness to die in pursuit of malevolent ideas.

The terrorist attacks in Paris illustrate the point. Some organizational aptitude was needed to put together an operation that involved simultaneous dispatch of multiple attack teams, but this did not require organizing any more people than would be needed to put together a neighborhood soccer team. The death toll for all of the Paris attacks, as shocking as it understandably was, nonetheless was much less than a more skillfully conducted operation involving a comparable number of attackers would have inflicted. The attack team that went after the most target-rich location—a sports arena with tens of thousands of people—managed to kill only one other person besides themselves. The spraying of bullets in crowded places such as cafes or concert halls is not a high-skill endeavor, especially when the shooters have resigned themselves to being killed as well. Jack Shafer at Politico, who criticizes mainstream media for giving alleged attack organizer Abdelhamid Abaaoud too much credit by labeling him a “mastermind,” observes that earlier failed shooting attacks that Abaaoud was suspected of being behind “took about as much imagination and skill as ordering a pizza.”

Shafer also has done the math to determine that the Paris terrorists inflicted fewer deaths per attacker than did one deranged individual at Sandy Hook Elementary School. That is an apt comparison given the nature of the counterterrorist task that the FBI and other U.S. authorities currently face in trying to prevent mass-casualty attacks in the United States. Americans attempting to travel to ISIS-controlled territory in Syria and Iraq barely constitute a trickle: an average of only two persons a month since July. Battalions of radicals traveling to and from the ISIS mini-state clearly are not the core of any threat to American security. As a New York Times article about these patterns aptly puts it, “thwarting an Islamic State-inspired attack in the United States” is “less like stopping a traditional terrorist plot and more like trying to prevent a school shooting.” Washington Post editorial cartoonist Tom Toles illustrates the same basic point in another way.

As debate rages on about U.S. policy toward Syria, the debate would be more focused and useful if it could dispense with two persistent misconceptions. One is that being a skilled terrorist requires being sponsored and trained by some organization that occupies a piece of land overseas. The other is that inflicting a lot of casualties in a terrorist attack requires being skilled and trained. Ian Buruma provides a better insight in explaining why countering ISIS-inspired terrorism is more a matter of giving young men with a death wish a reason to live.

The future of the ISIS mini-state certainly is important for multiple reasons, many of which have much more to do with politics and stability in the Middle East than with terrorism in the West. A terrorist-related reason is that the fortunes of the ISIS enclave help determine how much inspiration it provides to already radicalized individuals and thus is an influence in determining the likelihood of such individuals performing acts that are both suicidal and lethal to others. It is a mistake to regard the ISIS entity as a font of critical skills needed to kill people.

Image: Creative Commons/Flickr.                         

TopicsTerrorism France Syria

The Folly of an Expanded U.S. War in Syria

Paul Pillar

President Obama has repeatedly made adjustments to what he probably considered privately to have been the best U.S. policy toward armed conflicts overseas, as he has had to cope with the pressures from public discourse in Washington, to count his available political capital, and to decide which political battles to fight at home while also deciding which military battles the United States should fight abroad. He has adjusted too much in the view of some of his critics on the left, who have not been happy about the extension of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan or the reinsertion of some U.S. troops into Iraq. Far louder criticism, however, has come from the opposite direction and has called for more, not less, use of military force in foreign conflicts, especially conflicts in the Middle East.

This latter criticism is partly a matter of the usual reflexive rhetorical attacks with a heavy partisan tinge, which seem to have become especially habitual when aimed at the current president. But there is an additional dynamic that comes into play no matter who is in the White House and that produces a bias in the Washington discourse in favor of more rather than less use of military force, notwithstanding the notice that may be taken from time to time of the public's lack of appetite for getting involved in another costly ground war. This dynamic partly comes out of the tendency to look at any problem overseas as not only a U.S. problem but also a problem the United States ought to be able to solve, and thus a black mark on whoever happens to be U.S. president. It comes as well from the false equating of doing something visible and forceful with the solving of a problem. There also are false equations between the use of military force and being tough, and between being tough and exercising leadership. There is the further luxury in opposition of being able to carp and criticize without the responsibility of implementing a policy that will actually improve matters. All of these patterns are accentuated at times of high emotional reaction to salient, jarring events, which is why they are especially apparent now in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris.

Mr. Obama, to his credit, is not adjusting his course in response to the current pressure to make the pseudo-tough move of significantly escalating U.S. military operations in Syria to battle the so-called Islamic State or ISIS, beyond the current carefully targeted airstrikes and the small special forces contingent that is already there. In particular, putting U.S. ground combat forces in Syria would be a bad idea for multiple reasons.

One reason is that it would not resolve the problem that it ostensibly would be intended to deal with, which is anti-Western terrorism conducted under the banner of ISIS. Whether an ISIS mini-state lives or dies in northeast Syria is not a critical variable that will determine whether radical and resourceful individuals and small groups determined to wreak havoc in Western cities will do so. Maybe something will yet emerge from investigation of the Paris attacks to suggest that the fate of the mini-state is such a variable, but so far nothing has. So far the picture is one of a Belgium-based gang being responsible for the attack, with only vague connections to Syria and not necessarily to an ISIS decision-making structure. If there is any evidence (and an after-the-fact claim statement is not it) of an order from an ISIS high command in Raqqa to conduct this operation, we in the public have not been told about it.

An expanded U.S.-led military operation would play directly into narratives favored by ISIS and like-minded radicals, about Middle Eastern Muslims being the targets of forceful domination by a predominantly Christian West. The United States should stand side by side with France with regard to the latter's role as a victim of terrorism. The United States has no interest in identifying with France as a colonial overseer of Syria in the interwar years, or a France that might be seen as trying to re-assert its dominance there. Problems of mistaken beliefs about a religious dimension of American intentions are made only worse by the abominable call from some presidential candidates to apply a religious test to decisions whether to admit refugees from Syria.

An expanded U.S.-led military expedition expands the radicalizing resentment, and the resulting recruiting ability of ISIS and extremist groups, from collateral damage from the military operations. This would be a result not only of a ground war but also a more indiscriminate air war. It certainly would be a result of following Ted Cruz's foolish advice that we should just not care about collateral damage.

The direct costs to American blood and treasure are what should be an obvious reason not to embark on something like a ground war in Syria, especially given the historical record of costs in such endeavors going well beyond what was originally projected. James Jeffrey, who calls for just such a U.S. ground war in an op ed in the Washington Post, assures us that this time would be different because, you see, an offensive in Syria would not be like those other messy endeavors but instead would be a “short,” “crisp,” “rapid takedown” of ISIS. We have heard similar assurances before. Reality has had a way of becoming much different from the images in the pre-war assurances. Shock and awe, anyone?

A reality in Syria is that rapidly taking down ISIS would leave the sort of chaos in that part of Syria that is itself fuel for radicalism, at least as long as the rest of the multifaceted Syrian war continues, and at least without a long foreign military occupation that would have huge direct costs as well as providing still more fuel for radicalizing resentment. Jeffrey is remarkably casual in brushing aside such considerations. All he has to say is that “while figuring out the 'day after' might be difficult and implementing any solutions costly,” he thinks a continuation of ISIS would be worse.

President Obama spoke trenchant truths at his press conference in Turkey on Monday. In response to a series of questions that were all just reworded versions of “Gee, those Paris attacks were really awful—don't you think you should do something much different from what you have been doing so far about ISIS?” Mr. Obama demonstrated much better understanding of the challenges involved than his “do something—anything” critics. In describing the nature of the terrorist threat we face, he explained, “It’s not their sophistication or the particular weapon that they possess, but it is the ideology that they carry with them and their willingness to die.” He acknowledged that the success of ISIS in establishing and maintaining its so-called caliphate is indeed a factor in the terrorist equation, but mainly as matter of perceptions; it makes the group “more attractive to potential recruits.”

Given that this is largely a problem of perceptions and beliefs and related emotions and resentment, it is important not to do things that only make matters worse along that dimension. In that regard, the president observed, “We play into the [ISIS] narrative when we act as if they’re a state, and we use routine military tactics that are designed to fight a state that is attacking another state. That’s not what’s going on here.” As for launching a U.S.-led ground war, Mr. Obama accurately said, “ We can retake territory. And as long as we leave our troops there, we can hold it, but that does not solve the underlying problem of eliminating the dynamics that are producing these kinds of violent extremist groups.”

The president also indirectly commented on the false equations that so much of the carping in Washington involves. He will not do things that “somehow, in the abstract, make America look tough, or make me look tough.” He is not interested, he said, “is posing or pursuing some notion of American leadership or America winning, or whatever other slogans they come up with that has no relationship to what is actually going to work to protect the American people.”

One of the oft-voiced but invalid comments about the previous administration's signature military adventure is that the escalation, several years into the Iraq War, that became known as the “surge” was an “act of courage” on the part of President George W. Bush. It was nothing of the sort. It was a way to tamp down temporarily the surging violence in Iraq and to hold it at a less egregious level long enough to get out of Washington and bequeath the remaining mess, including all the still-unresolved political problems in Iraq, to the next administration. President Obama, with just 14 months left in his presidency and getting all the political flak he is getting about ISIS, must feel tempted to do the same sort of thing now in Syria.

Think about it: if he did so he would not only take wind out of the sails of hawkish critics but also be able to claim a place in history as the leader who smashed ISIS. Of course, the terrorism and the chaos would still be there, as would an even messier and more complicated situation than before in Syria. But that would all be a problem for the next administration.

We should be glad that President Obama is showing enough responsibility and true leadership not to do anything like that.    

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle East

The Paris Attacks and the Demand for Action

Paul Pillar

As usual after a terrorist event as salient and jarring as the attacks in Paris, instant analysis and exhortation have gotten well ahead of the availability of information about the genesis of the attacks. A claim statement, a general pronouncement by the French president, and the few investigative tidbits that have become public so far are not nearly enough to reach sound conclusions about exactly where and how this operation was conceived, prepared, and directed, and thus what the most appropriate policy responses to it will be. The way that the name Islamic State or ISIS has been used to date leaves a range of possibilities in that regard. Nonetheless a strong public consensus has quickly been reached that this attack was ordered and organized by the people who, under that name, have been trying to run a radical mini-state from Raqqa, Syria. That may turn out to be the case, but whether it does or doesn't, Western policy-makers have at least a political imperative to respond as if this were already established fact.

The dominant theme in the surge of commentary in the first couple of days after the attack has been that ISIS is a global threat, not just a regional one, and must be confronted as such. Policy-makers will be expected to respond in a way consistent with that theme, too. As they do, however, they should be wary of the common conflation between military outcomes in other regions and terrorism and counterterrorism in the West. Any escalation of military efforts in Iraq and Syria should be undertaken with our eyes open to two realities. One is that we may be sustaining the motive for ISIS to strike back in retaliation in the West, even though the group earlier had every reason to stay focused on trying to build its so-called caliphate in the Middle East rather than to embark on a campaign of transnational terrorism. We may already be seeing a pattern in that regard with what has happened in the last two weeks in Beirut and the Sinai as well as Paris. The West and especially the United States already has crossed this particular Rubicon, however, and so the practical effect of awareness of this reality may be nil.

The other reality is that military success on a distant battlefield is not to be equated with elimination of a terrorist threat at home. Despite all the attention given to terrorist havens, possession of a sandy and distant piece of real estate is not one of the more important variables that determine who poses or doesn't pose a terrorist threat to one's homeland. The motivations and the tactical opportunities that are more significant variables will still be there. The chief beneficial effect, as far as transnational terrorism is concerned, of any military success against ISIS is to refute the belief that the group's expansion is inevitable and thus to dampen the group's attraction to would-be recruits.

Years of experience confronting Al Qaeda provide some relevant lessons in this regard. One is that smashing a center does not eliminate transnational terrorism from the periphery, with a group such as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula having become more significant in that regard than Al Qaeda central. (And lest we forget, ISIS was once one of those Al Qaeda affiliates.) Another lesson, looking at such post-9/11 anti-U.S. terrorists as Faisal Shahzad and Nidal Hasan, is that lethality does not necessarily correlate with training received from a group overseas.

Most of the effective counterterrorist work against the universe of radicals operating under the ISIS label will involve the same unspectacular security work that is commonly performed outside of public view. This fact will be a frustration for policy-makers looking for more visible ways of responding to demands for action. The incidence of terrorism in the West under the ISIS label also will involve, as such terrorism always has, social and economic issues within Western countries. One does not have to be a Le Pen-style exploiter of the Paris tragedy to note that according to one of those early tidbits, one suspected perpetrator was a French citizen with a long criminal record who had been on an extremist watch list since 2010.

We should also think about the diplomatic effects of the Paris attacks, especially given how efforts to counter ISIS have been badly impeded and confused by other quarrels involved in the complicated war in Syria. Secretary of State Kerry is correct that continuation of that war provides continued opportunities for ISIS. This is one example of how such strife has traditionally aided radical groups, both by breaking down whatever order would have prevented them from emerging in the first place and by enabling them to fill the role of the most forthright opponent of a despised power structure. In the case of ISIS, the group was born under a different name as a direct result of the internal warfare touched off by the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and it got a later boost by exploiting the civil war in Syria.

Curbing such benefits for ISIS is the principal reason for the U.S. to expend much effort on multilateral diplomacy aimed at somehow resolving the Syrian conflict. The idea is that if some workable compromise can be reached among the other players, both internal and external, a more organized and coherent effort against the ISIS presence in the country can ensue. The concept is sound as far as it goes, but it risks holding a coherent anti-ISIS effort hostage to resolution of other disputes that are so messy and involve such irreconcilable players that a stable and lasting compromise might not be achieved for years.

An alternative approach would be to devote more effort searching for ways to make the anti-ISIS effort at least marginally more organized even in the face of continued disagreement over the other power struggles in Syria. This approach has plenty of problems as well, and obvious formulas for implementing it do not present themselves. But the Paris attacks have strengthened arguments that could be used in favor of moving in this direction. Western governments can say, with even more conviction than before, to the other players both inside and outside Syria, “Look, the main reason we are interested in this mess is because of the connection it may have to threats against our citizens back home. Compared to that issue, we really don't care much about disputes over who has how much power in Damascus. We will deploy our resources, our leverage, and our attention accordingly.”

Such a message ought to have some resonance among other important outside players. The Russians say they are concerned about countering ISIS, and they may have received a taste of how ISIS-related transnational terrorism can affect their interests with the plane crash in the Sinai. The Iranians received a taste with the attacks on their Shiite and Hezbollah friends in Lebanon last week.                                       

TopicsTerrorism RegionsMiddle East

The Gulf Arabs Slip Out of Dodge

Paul Pillar

With little notice and no fanfare, although the New York Times mentioned it the other day, the Gulf Arab states have withdrawn from significant participation in the war in Syria. This move involves in particular the air forces of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. These are some of the same Arab governments that screamed long and loud about the need to do more in Syria. They are so exercised over the conflict in Syria that they are willing to fight there to the last American.

The Saudis and their colleagues are shifting most of their own air power to their armed intervention in Yemen. That intervention does nothing to advance U.S. interests, even though Washington managed to get itself maneuvered into supporting that expedition, too, through means short of direct U.S. military involvement. The Saudi-led air assault on Yemen has greatly exacerbated a humanitarian tragedy there. The side on which the Saudi have intervened—a side that includes Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)—is not one that the United States has any good reason to be identified with. Even if the United States had a good reason to take sides in the Saudis' contest with Iran for regional influence, which it doesn't, the Yemeni war would be a poor place to do so; the Houthi rebels, who are the staunchest Yemeni foes of AQAP, are not proxies of Iran and do not do Tehran's bidding.

Back in Syria, it's not as if the departure of the Gulf Arab forces makes much of a dent in what the United States is trying to do militarily. There has always been a big disconnect in the priorities and objectives that each government has had there. The Saudis have seemed even less interested in countering ISIS, as distinct from being fixated on the fate of the Assad regime, than the Russians have been, although they and the Russians are, of course, on opposite sides regarding the status of that regime. But more important than the direct material impact is the symbolism of whether the United States does or does not have broad support and joint participation for what it is doing in Syria. The withdrawal of Arab air forces makes the U.S. role all the more lonely and conspicuous. Participation of other Western powers already was lukewarm, and the U.S. role will get lonelier still with the promise by the new Trudeau government in Ottawa to end Canadian participation in military operations in Syria. All of this makes the United States that much more of a salient target for anger over the no-good-solution Syria situation and for related reprisals, including those of the terrorist variety.

The Syrian case and especially adoption of the “Assad must go” standard is one of the latest examples of how the United States, through several presidential administrations, has repeatedly allowed itself to get sucked into other people's quarrels in the Middle East. These include quarrels in which the United States should not have gotten involved at all, or in which it had no good reason to take the side it was enticed to take. Generous quantities of moral hazard often have been involved in that the United States has assumed burdens that were defined or created by someone else. The usual nature of political debate and the political process within the United States has exacerbated the problem. The tendencies to discuss any overseas problem as if it necessarily has a U.S. solution, and to invoke the need to support “allies” even when there is no treaty commitment and regardless of the nature of the particular issue at hand, put pressure on the administration of the day to take sides and to assume burdens. The burdens that have been assumed despite being contrary to U.S. interests have included ones defined by Gulf Arabs and certainly ones created by Israel.

The United States does have a interest, from the standpoint of counterterrorism, mitigation of refugee flows, and regional stability, to be deeply involved in multilateral diplomacy aimed at de-escalating and eventually resolving the extremely complicated conflict in Syria. While engaging in that diplomacy, and in crafting reactions to the ideas and proposals of others, including from Russia, U.S. policy-makers need to be careful not to slide into the habit of adopting the objectives of others just because they may be commonly labeled as “allies.”


TopicsSyria Saudi Arabia Russia RegionsMiddle East

Why the U.S. Should Pay Attention to the Plane Crash in the Sinai

Paul Pillar

As usual after incidents comparable to the crash of the Russian airliner in the Sinai, interpretations and theories have gotten ahead of facts and investigations. Amid the widespread assumption that a bomb downed the aircraft—which may well have been the case—we might remember TWA Flight 800, which exploded off Long Island shortly after taking off from New York City in 1996. That incident was the subject of comparably strong assumptions that terrorism was involved, until a very long investigation finally concluded that the explosion was caused by an electrical short circuit that ignited vapor in a fuel tank. Nonetheless, if a bomb indeed was what brought down the Russian plane, some useful albeit conditional analysis is still possible.

Suspicion immediately focused on the most active violent group in the Sinai, which formerly called itself Supporters of the Holy House but last year said it was affiliating with Islamic State or ISIS and now calls itself the Sinai Province of ISIS. While recognizing that there is another factual gap involved—if a bomb downed the plane, it remains to be proven that this particular group was the perpetrator—the suspicion is well-founded. The group has been carrying out a series of lethal attacks, especially in the two years since the Egyptian military under General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi ousted the country's elected president in a coup.

The fact that the Sinai group now carries the ISIS name has repeated a pattern that was prevalent when various violent groups in different countries were announcing that they were affiliating with al-Qaeda. This process of affiliation led to the habit in commentary of treating this network of groups as if it were a single organization even when it really wasn't. Al-Qaeda was functioning as a well-known brand name that groups adopted to identify with something larger than themselves, and with a cause larger than their own local concerns. Since the name ISIS—and ISIS itself began as one of those al-Qaeda affiliates—has displaced al-Qaeda as the most popular brand name in the world of Sunni radicals, a similar pattern has arisen under a different name, with similar habits in how this is all perceived in the West.

The attachment of the ISIS name to the Sinai group suspected of attacking the Russian airliner that flew out of Sharm el-Sheikh has understandably raised questions about what, if anything, the attack has to do with what the Russian military is doing in Syria. But given that the group now calling itself the Sinai Province of ISIS really is a distinct group from ISIS itself in Syria and Iraq, motives for the attack are at least as likely to do with the Sinai group's objectives in Egypt as with what is going on in Syria. Those objectives involve toppling the regime in Cairo. Attacking a plane carrying foreigners who vacationed at Sharm el-Sheikh is a way of attacking the tourist trade in Egypt, which is a way of degrading the Egyptian economy, which is a way of undermining the el-Sisi regime. This is basically the same strategy that an earlier generation of Egyptian terrorists tried to use against the Mubarak regime in the 1990s.

An implication here for U.S. policy has to do with how the policies of the el-Sisi regime, which are more repressive than those of Mubarak, are feeding an upsurge of Egyptian-based terrorism. For the United States, this should be a major factor in shaping U.S. relations with Cairo, including what is still a major aid relationship. The incident in the Sinai is a reminder that among the other costs of el-Sisi's repressive policies is a violent reaction that can take classic international terrorist forms and can harm interests well beyond Egypt itself.

Another implication for the United States involves that possible Syrian angle. Russian military activity in Syria to date, despite the way Moscow has described its campaign, has mostly not been directed at ISIS but instead at other Syrian opposition groups. The Russian airstrikes may actually have been helping ISIS indirectly by strengthening its ability to present itself as the only viable alternative to the Assad regime. This is all a reason to question whether ISIS would have had any motive to go after Russians in particular.

Retribution from ISIS is, however, a factor to be taken very seriously. ISIS, lacking Al-Qaeda's “hit the far enemy” doctrine and focused instead on building its so-called caliphate in Syria and Iraq, did not start out with a reason to go looking for ways to use transnational terrorism to strike at the West and the United States. But those who interfere with the group's caliphate-building plans make themselves potential ISIS targets by doing so. And it is the United States, not Russia, that is the outside power intervening most extensively against ISIS today.

The Russian airliner may have been a target of opportunity for someone able to infiltrate the airport at Sharm el-Sheikh and wanting to strike a blow against the Egyptian tourism industry. Russians have been the biggest foreign users of Sharm el-Sheikh, and U.S. airlines don't fly there. But a search for U.S. targets in response to what the United States is doing in Syria may already be under way.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Sergey Korovkin

TopicsEgypt Syria Russia Terrorism RegionsMiddle East

Acknowledging Reality in the U.S.-Israeli Relationship

Paul Pillar

On the eve of a visit by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Washington, we have gotten yet another of the statements from members of his government that are sufficiently unrestrained or unhinged to cause a flap both in the United States and Israel. While Netanyahu's own comment about the Holocaust being a Palestinian idea is still fresh in our minds, the latest ear-catching remarks come from Ran Baratz, an inhabitant of a West Bank settlement whom Netanyahu has chosen to be chief of hasbara, the selling of Israeli policies overseas. Baratz has posted a trail of entries on Facebook that have insulted, among others, President Rivlin of Israel, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, whom Baratz says has the mental capacity of a 12-year-old, and President Obama, whom he accuses of being anti-Semitic.

Netanyahu has reacted to the flap by saying that these postings do not represent the views of his government and that he will be reviewing the appointment of Baratz. But whether Baratz keeps or loses the job of chief propagandist doesn't really matter. The backtracking that customarily follows these sorts of Israeli comments (including Netanyahu's sort-of retraction of his assertion about the origin of the Holocaust) are less representative of what this Israeli government is about than were the original comments. The government's insulting or embarrassing of senior U.S. officials is nothing new and has happened repeatedly in the past, such as when it announced new construction of settlements in East Jerusalem while Vice President Biden was visiting Israel. The playing of the anti-Semitism card as a response to criticism of Israeli government policy is habitual, on the part of not only the Israeli government but also some of its most loyal supporters in the United States. Throughout the history of Netanyahu occasionally being pushed into saying something that could be interpreted as support for a Palestinian state, his more genuine statements, as indicated by their consistency with his actual policies, have come when he has not been pushed—such as his statement most recently that he intended to “control all of the territory” and “live forever by the sword.”

Rather than seeking a meaningless retraction or apology or mouthing of words we would like to hear, we should accept the original statements for what they are and not try to pretend that they were some sort of slip of the tongue. Statements that denigrate others may not be a slip at all but rather part of a pattern of shifting blame, even when a particular accusation is patently false. There is the pattern of placing all blame for the violence and endless continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on Palestinians, even when this includes asserting that Palestinians in general have genocidal aspirations. There is the pattern of attributing opposition to Israeli policies to ethnic bias, even when this includes calling Barack Obama an anti-Jewish bigot.

Statements that refer to Israel's own intentions should be taken as truthful and not as a slip when they reflect Israel's actual policies and practices on the ground. This certainly is true of a statement by the Israeli prime minister expressing his intention to cling forever to the occupied territories, using military force as necessary to do so.

There will be much evaluation of Netanyahu's meetings in Washington in terms of whether frictions between the two governments have been smoothed over, at least as far as the public face that they present is concerned. There already has been much commentary ahead of the visit that has essentially adopted that standard for assessing the meetings. But the kumbaya scale is not the right means for measuring success or failure of the visit. And harmonious U.S.-Israeli relations per se do not have value; harmony is valuable only if it advances U.S. interests.

Pretending there is more harmony of interests than there really is only obscures and confuses the diplomatic work that can and should be done. Such pretending also carries the additional disadvantage for the United States of associating it all the more closely with the actions of the other party in the relationship, including actions that are contrary to U.S. interests and that the rest of the world understandably condemns. As with any bilateral relationship, being honest about differing interests and objectives provides an accurate basis on which to address problems that need to be addressed. It also clarifies where there are truly convergent interests that can be the basis of mutually beneficial cooperation.

Major, substantial differences exist between U.S. interests and Israeli interests—at least given how the latter are defined by the current Israeli government. The differences were in full display with the strenuous efforts by Netanyahu's government to sabotage a major U.S. foreign policy priority: the multilateral agreement to restrict Iran's nuclear program. The underlying difference on that issue was between on one hand the U.S. interest in using all available diplomatic tools to pursue nonproliferation and other goals consistent with improving regional stability, and on the other hand the Netanyahu government's objective of keeping a competitor for regional influence isolated and maintaining conflict with Iran as a bête noire in perpetuity. Certainly major differences of interest also persist regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. More generally, the gulf between the United States and Israel has grown even wider insofar as Israel (including the territory it occupies) has become an increasingly intolerant place in which civil and political rights are apportioned according to ethnicity and religious belief.

About the best outcome from the U.S. standpoint—which is the standpoint that ought to matter to Americans—of Netanyahu's meetings that could reasonably be expected given the circumstances would be for the two sides to issue a communiqué saying that they had a “frank, businesslike exchange of views.” That is the sort of language that typically describes dialogue between governments with major differences that nonetheless are willing to talk honestly about those differences and to explore ways of possibly reducing them.

The public statements that actually will come out of the meetings probably will sound much more kumbaya-like than that. Netanyahu has a strong interest in making it appear that, despite all the attempted sabotage of U.S. policy and the pokes in U.S. eyes, his government is in good graces in Washington. We all are familiar with the realities of U.S. politics that lead players in the United States to go along with him in maintaining such an appearance. With this month's visit even a paragon of the liberal establishment such as the Center for American Progress is welcoming Netanyahu into its spaces, despite all his blatant interference in U.S. politics in a direction opposed to what CAP stands for. That decision probably has mostly to do with how Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign sees its near-term interests. But that is distinctly different from the interests of the United States—and even, over the long term and looking beyond the current government, the interests of Israel.   

TopicsIsrael United States RegionsMiddle East

The Campaign for a High and Frustrating Office

Paul Pillar

When Winston Churchill made his remark about democracy being the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried, the positive side of what he was saying about democracy had as background the Westminster system with which he was familiar and that has served Britain fairly well. As we contrast that system with the current U.S. presidential campaign, the latter exhibits some characteristics that might have led Churchill to conclude that some of those other forms of government could stack up fairly well. One specific contrast is presented by the fact that the two leading contenders for the presidential nomination of one of the two major U.S. political parties, along with a third candidate who has broken into the top tier of contenders in that same party, have absolutely zero experience in public service. Such a situation would not arise in Britain, where prime ministers typically arrive at the top after a political apprenticeship that has included backbench time, responsibilities as a junior minister, and service as a senior minister or shadow minister. (The recent selection of left-winger Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party is an aberration, although even he has been a member of parliament for three decades. Corbyn will never become prime minister, and British commentators almost unanimously predict that his party leadership will not last long.)

The extremely long presidential campaigns in the United States are sometimes seen as a substitute for inside-government political apprenticeship, and a gauntlet that provides ample opportunity for American voters to appraise and winnow down the field of contenders. But the winnowing process is very often one that would have made Churchill either wince or laugh. One of the headlines coming out of the most recent “debate” among Republican presidential candidates—besides how much the event became a contest in who could complain most loudly about the questions and the media—was that Marco Rubio's comeback to Jeb Bush's raising of Rubio's dismal attendance record in the Senate was snappier than anything Bush said during the evening, and thus Rubio was assessed to be a “winner” of the debate and Bush a “loser.” No one has explained what this sort of appraising and vetting has to do with the qualities required to be a successful president.

This most recent part of the winnowing process is even faultier when one considers that the issue Bush was raising was not just a matter of comparing Rubio's attendance record with that of previous senators who also were campaigning for president. By his own description, Rubio is “frustrated” in the Senate; he just doesn't like doing the job any more, and that's why he essentially has checked out of it even though the citizens of Florida elected him to do the job for six years. That brings to mind a comment by an American contemporary of Churchill who rose to the top. When Harry Truman was contemplating a victory by Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1952 presidential election, Truman said, ““He’ll sit here, and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike—it won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating.”

If Rubio were to be elected president next year and re-elected in 2020, he would still be in only his early 50s when leaving the White House. Why should we not expect that he would react to the frustrations of the presidency in some of the same ways that he has reacted to the frustrations of the Senate, while he looks forward to one of the best positions any American can hold: that of ex-president, which offers lots of prestige and financial opportunities with none of the heavy responsibilities of the president?

The U.S. presidency is a very frustrating job, even more so than in Truman's and Eisenhower's time. An apex of frustration has been reached with the current president, given the control by both houses of Congress by an opposition party determined to frustrate this president at nearly every turn and to oppose his most important domestic and foreign initiatives because they are his most important initiatives. Probably the current Republican contenders expect they would have a much different situation as long as Republican control of Congress continues into 2017. Perhaps, but they need to think about this further as they observe the obstreperous and fratricidal conduct of House Republicans, which already has cost one Speaker of the House his job.

A successful presidency has at least as much to do with how the president deals with obstructions and frustrations as with how he or she identifies and pursues lofty goals. A significant part of how we should evaluate Barack Obama's presidency, for example, will be how well or how poorly he has dealt with jingoist political pressures that have collided with prudent retrenchment overseas, and whether he has been able to fashion foreign and strategic policies that still make at least some strategic sense.

In the British system, the capacity to deal effectively with obstruction and frustration can be developed during the political apprenticeships of aspirants to high office. Those political careers also provide a basis for assessing who has or has not developed that capacity. A career with zero public service does not provide such a basis. Neither does a political campaign that gets scored in terms of zingers and who fulminates most loudly about tough questions.                   

TopicsPresidency Domestic Politics RegionsUnited States

Exploiting Russia's Fear of ISIS

Paul Pillar

As multilateral talks begin in Vienna to search for a possible resolution of the Syrian civil war, we should realize that even when a foreign government is not being entirely above board in explaining what it is up to, it still may be honest in identifying part of what motivates it. The principal government in question regarding the Syrian situation is that of Russia, which has said a lot about beating back the so-called Islamic State or ISIS but whose military operations so far in Syria seem to be saying something else. Russian military strikes directed against other opposition groups in Syria may actually be helping ISIS insofar as they bring ISIS closer to becoming, or at least appearing to be, the only viable alternative to the Assad regime.

Despite this apparent divergence between talk and action, Russia undoubtedly and genuinely considers ISIS to be a significant threat. This is partly because ISIS currently is the principal inspiration for individual Muslim radicals and would-be radicals within the Russian federation, especially in the north Caucasus. Estimates of the number of Russian citizens who have joined ISIS are in the thousands, with perhaps the single biggest concentration of them being from Dagestan, the province at the eastern end of the north Caucasus region. The problem for Russia is only likely to get worse, and statements from Russian officials indicate they realize that. So far an exodus of radicals to join the fight in the Middle East may have reduced the chance of trouble in Russia. The worry, which President Vladimir Putin has expressed, is over what happens when the radicals who survive return home.

It is impossible for us to measure the relative weights of the variety of Russian motives for militarily intervening in Syria. Notwithstanding all that has been said, however, about Moscow wanting to assert itself and maintain its presence in the Middle East, the ISIS-centered radical threat to Russia has to be one of the weightiest motivations. This concern exists against the background of several high-casualty terrorist attacks over the past decade and a half inside Russia by radicals from the Caucasus, with some of the attacks occurring within the city of Moscow. Homelands matter, for Russians as they do for Americans.

We should assume that Russian decision-making in the months ahead will be guided by the considerations just mentioned. Putin and his advisers probably are smart enough to understand the possible long-term counterproductive effects, as far as beating back ISIS is concerned, of some of their military operations to date, however much they wanted in the short term to shore up Assad's regime and to make whatever other statements they wished to make with their intervention. The United States and Russia have more interests in common with regard to Syria than current military operations may suggest—insofar as the United States is focused on countering ISIS and not distracted by the habit of measuring success in the Middle East by the number of regimes that get toppled.

As for what all this means for specific future Russian decisions on Syria (and perhaps on Iraq), Moscow has to perform the same sort of balancing of considerations that the United States does even if it were solely focused on countering ISIS. On one hand there is that problem of how the success of ISIS on the ground in the Middle East has been a malevolent inspiration for individual radicals back home. Push back ISIS on the ground, and it won't look so much like an inspiring winner. But on the other hand there is the danger of military operations in the Middle East provoking attacks against the country conducting those operations. The provocation may be a matter of calculated retaliation by a group or of rage and radicalization driven by the damage and casualties that such operations cause. If the Russians think this through, their thoughts may lead them to revise their targeting policies; the airstrikes against non-ISIS opposition groups can raise the risk of terrorist attacks against Russia while doing nothing to push back ISIS.

Pursuing this line of thought even further—and here's where U.S. and Russian interests begin to diverge again—it is in Russia's interest to have someone else, such as the United States, bear more of the dangerous terrorism-provoking burden of pushing back ISIS. The common goal of pushing back this group is achieved, while the more divisible cost of terrorist retaliation is borne by someone else.

The policy implication for the United States is that it should view the situation in a very similar way but with the roles reversed. It is in U.S. interests for someone else, such as Russia, to bear more of the danger and the costs of achieving the common goal of pushing ISIS back. This is the game that the United States and Russia are playing today in Syria—not some game of filling vacuums in which winning is seen as doing more things and having more of a presence in a foreign land than the other guy does.

In playing the true game of who does heavy and dangerous lifting in achieving a common goal, the United States ought to recognize—and exploit—the fact that Russia has more reasons to worry about ISIS than the United States does. This is partly a matter of geographic proximity. It is partly a matter of ISIS being ideologically distinct from Al-Qaeda, with its doctrine of hitting a “far enemy” that meant primarily the West and especially the United States. And it is in large part a matter of the United States not having anything like the vulnerability that Russia has in the form of concentrated, disaffected Muslim populations in the north Caucasus.

Image: Creative Commons.                                      

TopicsSyria RegionsMiddle East

Netanyahu's Stereotyping

Paul Pillar

Benjamin Netanyahu's bit of revisionist history about the origins of the Holocaust certainly deserves the outraged response it got this week. One wonders why he chose to push this line given the well-established and easily cited historical fact—which many of his critics did cite—that the Nazi regime's mass killing that would become known as the Holocaust was well under way before the meeting to which Netanyahu referred, between Adolf Hitler and the mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini. One further wonders why, given that if Netanyahu wanted to make a sharply negative comment about the mufti—who, as also has been well established, was a strongly anti-Jewish collaborator of the Nazis—he could have done so without adding his historically inaccurate twist about the significance of the meeting, and it would have been in order and unremarkable for him or any other prime minister of Israel to have done so.

Moving beyond denunciations of Netanyahu for playing fast and loose with history, this week's rhetorical episode invites some other observations, one of which goes well beyond Netanyahu himself. The comment does involve a crass exploitation of the Holocaust to make a point about current issues, and such usage tends to demean and diminish the significance of the Holocaust itself. (Critics of Netanyahu are less justified in charging that he was relieving the Nazis of responsibility; what Hitler did would still have been horrendously evil even if the mufti really had given him such ideas.) But cheap comparative references to the Nazis have long been the most grossly and inappropriately used historical allusions in circulation. The problem goes far beyond Netanyahu, and also beyond Israel. The usage is prevalent in foreign policy debates in the United States. And the usage extends not just to issues involving Israel. All manner of foreign foes who aren't at all equivalent to Hitler have been likened to him, and many policies and diplomatic transactions have been likened to Munich that aren't at all like a parley over the Sudentenland. It is likely that some of those waving their fingers disapprovingly at Netanyahu for the controversial passage in his speech this week have themselves been crass users of allusions to the Nazis.

Anther observation involves the substance of the fanciful dialogue that supposedly took place at the meeting between the mufti and the führer. According to Netanyahu, the mufti in essence said, “If you have a problem with Jews, don't foist the problem on us Palestinians.” That sounds a lot like the question that later Palestinians, with far greater innocence than can be attributed to the mufti, have asked of Western powers, “If you have a problem with what the Nazis did, why foist the problem on us Palestinians?” Today that question no longer should refer to the Zionist movement, given that Israel is an established and legitimate state. The question does refer appropriately to the continued plight of Palestinians under Israeli occupation. Was a subtext of Netanyahu's fictional vignette to cast aspersions on the asking of that question? Perhaps. In any case the question goes unanswered.

As for what the controversial passage in this week's speech says about Netanyahu's own methods and message, we can refer to his follow-up statement in which he did not back down from his assertion about what took place in the 1940s. Instead he spelled out more specifically what he was saying. He said his intention was “to show that the forefathers of the Palestinian nation, without a country and without the so-called occupation, without land and without settlements, even then aspired to systematic incitement to exterminate the Jews.” In other words, to enumerate his specific messages even more clearly: (1) occupation and settlements have nothing to do with Palestinians' aspirations or any militant and unfriendly thoughts they may have, so stop bugging us about those things; and (2) Palestinians of today have intentions just as vile and lethal as that Nazi-loving mufti, so don't expect us to make concessions or do business with people like that.

The first of those messages is a grossly inaccurate portrayal of why so many Palestinians feel the frustration and anger that they do, including those who today are feeling it to the point of conducting suicidal knife attacks on Jewish Israelis.

The equating, per the second message, of an entire ethnically or religiously defined people with the words or actions of an extreme few, and the further assumption that the negative qualities so attributed are innate and permanent, has become a standard Netanyahu technique. He has used it with more than one bête noire in the course of a political career built on fear-mongering. With Palestinians, it means that if one's a terrorist, then supposedly they are all—well, if not terrorists, then either inciting terrorism, or supporting it, or having in their hearts the same kind of thoughts that terrorists have. With Iranians, it means that if so much as one Iranian leader makes some derogatory comment about Israel, then supposedly Iranians in general are determined to wipe Israel off the map—and it would be dangerous to have any dealings with Iran at all.

Netanyahu has applied in a slightly different way to his own community the technique of equating an entire ethnically or religiously defined people with something much narrower. He repeatedly tries to present himself and his government as leading and representing not only Israel but also world Jewry. Many non-Israeli Jews have begged to differ. In particular, many progressive-minded American Jews have made clear that the Israeli prime minister, or at least this prime minister, does not speak for them.

This particular attempt by Netanyahu at a false equation can have a deleterious effect that gets us back to Haj Amin al-Husseini and the Nazis. If the same Israeli leader who tells us that Palestinians today are just like the mufti also tells us that his government is acting on behalf of all Jews, it should not be surprising if some people who dislike with good reason that government's policies transfer some of those negative feelings to all Jews. For some people that may mean a belief that Jews are racist oppressors. That prejudicial perception would be just as badly mistaken as a belief that all Palestinians have genocidal aspirations, but it is a thought process that naturally follows the rhetoric.

Yes, there has long been, and there still is, anti-Jewish sentiment that is based on the malign workings of biased minds and does not require a government's policies or even its rhetoric to exist. And no, Israeli policies regarding the occupation and the territories are not the only reason for whatever hateful thoughts may exist in some Palestinian minds. But Benjamin Netanyahu's shameless manipulation of fears and even historical facts can, in addition to his policies, only make the emotions that surround the unresolved conflict between his country and the Palestinians even worse.                 

TopicsIsrael Palestinian Territories RegionsMiddle East