Paul Pillar

The Danger of Derailing the Iranian Nuclear Deal

Paul Pillar

Inflection points in the history of U.S. foreign relations sometimes are marked by new departures and new roads taken. But they might instead entail blown opportunities to take new and better roads, with significant damage resulting from the failure to take them. That failure involves opportunity costs at a minimum, and other costs as well. We may be getting close to the latter type of inflection point, with significant danger that opponents of any agreement to restrict Iran's nuclear program will succeed in wrecking the deal.

As of this writing the greatest chance of wrecking it appears to involve not what is going on at the negotiating tables in Europe but instead what the U.S. Congress may do back in Washington to sabotage the work of the diplomats. The energy for the Congressional wrecking ball comes, as it always has, from three sources.

One is a general need for a foreign enemy and a habit of viewing America's role as one of militant and uncompromising confrontation with that enemy. This habit and felt need have roots in some broader American attitudes, although they are manifested most starkly in neoconservatism. Iran has been filling this role of needed enemy for some time.

A second is the strong opposition of the right-wing Israel government—with everything that customarily implies regarding American politics—to anyone making any agreement with Iran. This opposition serves the Israeli government's purposes of fixing blame for regional problems firmly on someone else, of positing opposition to such an enemy as supposedly a basis for U.S.-Israeli strategic cooperation, and of diverting international attention from problems directly involving Israel itself.

The third driver, which has become especially relevant the more that the Iran negotiations have become a prominent effort in Barack Obama's foreign policy, is the determination of much of the Republican opposition to oppose anything that Mr. Obama favors and to deny him any achievements. The heightened acrimony over the issue of immigration has made this even more of a factor than before, if that is possible. Amid talk about government shutdowns and freezing of all appointment confirmations, trashing of a diplomatic agreement with Iran would be done while barely batting an eyelash.

If the deal-wreckers succeed, we will have a negative turning point in U.S. foreign relations because the opportunity for any kind of nuclear deal with Iran will be lost for an indefinite future. The conditions that made it possible for the two sides to get as close to agreement as they now would quickly unravel in multiple ways. The Iranian president would in effect become a lame duck, the influence of hardliners in Iran would rise, and credibility that had been built up during the negotiations would dissipate. The alternative to whatever deal emerges from the current negotiations would be no deal at all.

Having an agreement emerge during a lame duck Congress was supposed to be the most sabotage-resistant timing, and it probably is. But expectations now are that what will most likely be announced this month is not a complete agreement but rather some version of an extension of the previous interim deal and a partial agreement with additional details yet to be negotiated. This situation unfortunately will be an invitation to those wielding the wrecking ball to do serious damage after the new Congress convenes. They probably will take multiple whacks with the ball. There is, for example, a bill sponsored by the incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, that is designed to get a hasty vote of disapproval of the agreement before anyone would have much chance to study it. There also would be a push (most fervently from Senator Mark Kirk) to impose more sanctions, which would violate the interim agreements and provide cause for the Iranians to walk away from the table. The fact that keeping the terms of the current interim agreement in effect would achieve the presumed goal of freezing or rolling back the Iranian nuclear program would do little to slow down the deal-wreckers.

Blowing the opportunity for an agreement would be all the more a shame because, according to the preeminent criterion of preventing any Iranian nuclear weapon (not to mention other consequences of an agreement), the choice between a deal and no deal is almost a no-brainer. No deal would mean fewer restrictions on the Iranian program and lesser inspection and monitoring of it. Iran would have a much clearer path to a nuclear weapon, if it chose to take it, without an agreement than with one.

We are approaching a critical point in U.S. foreign relations. It is gut-check time especially for Democrats who have to decide whether they are going to take the responsible position for the sake of U.S. interests in the Middle East or instead be tempted into being part of a veto-proof Iran-bashing, “pro-Israel” majority. Perhaps taking the responsible route will be made a bit easier by seeing how the opposition to an agreement has become increasingly and blatantly partisan, as illustrated by a hard-line letter initiated this week by Kirk and Marco Rubio that got signatures from 43 Republican senators but not a single Democrat.         

 

TopicsIran RegionsMiddle East

The Damaging Myth About "Winning" the Iraq War

Paul Pillar

One of the most persistently voiced myths about U.S. foreign policy of the past several years—and because of that persistent voicing, one apparently already entrenched in the minds of many Americans—concerns the status as of about five years ago of the big experiment in regime change and nation-building known as the Iraq War. According to the myth, the war was all but won by then, with just a few more touches yet to be added to complete the forging of a stable Iraqi democracy, before the Obama administration snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by prematurely withdrawing the remaining U.S. troops that were need to finish the job. No matter how often the myth gets repeated, it is just as false now as the first part of the myth was five years ago.

It is easy to see the motivations for promoting the myth. Probably the leading motivation is to relieve the cognitive dissonance and the blow to personal reputations of those who promoted or strongly supported the war itself—the grandest neoconservative project ever and the biggest foreign policy endeavor of the George W. Bush administration—only to see it materialize as one of the biggest and costliest blunders in the history of U.S. foreign policy. Also rough on amour-propre, and in a way more worthy of understanding and even respect from the rest of us than is the case with the war-promoters, is how those in uniform who were given the task of carrying out the project have not been able to claim honestly that their efforts and sacrifices resulted in a victory. Yet another obvious motivation, which arises whenever Barack Obama's political opponents find a stick they can employ to beat him, is to use the troubles of Iraq today as one more such stick.

With regard particularly to that last motivation, it always has been puzzling how the part of the myth relating to Obama's policies gets propagated even though it was the Bush administration that established the schedule for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq by 2011. The Obama administration merely carried out the terms of the agreement that the Bush administration had negotiated with the Iraq government. In response to assertions that Mr. Obama “didn't try hard enough” to negotiate a new agreement with different terms, which implication are we supposed to draw: that Mr. Bush did not try hard enough in the first place, or that when Bush people and Obama people each try to do the same thing we should expect the Obama people to be better at it?

But the myth has more significant consequences than its effect on the partisan scorecard.

A reflection of the discrepancy between the myth and Iraqi reality arose in a public debate in which I participated a couple of months ago, the topic of which concerned the efficacy, or lack thereof, of additional applications of U.S. military force in the Middle East. One of my opponents on the pro-efficacy side (a prominent neocon pundit) asserted that Iraq was “at peace” in 2009. As one measure of what this supposedly peaceful state looked like, consider the statistics compiled by the Iraq Body Count project, which show 5,309 civilian deaths from the continued violence in Iraq in 2009. For comparison, that is more than total U.S. combat deaths for the entire war. It also includes only documented civilian deaths, which are basically collateral damage, and does not reflect either undocumented casualties or the full toll among government forces and militias who were the principal combatants.

The civil war unleashed by the U.S. invasion and ouster of the Iraqi regime has had an unbroken history, from then through today. Like most wars, its intensity has ebbed and flowed. The surge of U.S. troops in 2007 and 2008 was one factor, but only one, involved in one of the ebbs. And if there are more than 160,000 U.S. troops in a country, as there were in Iraq at the peak of the U.S. occupation, we certainly should expect some effect on the ebb and flow. Even with the temporary ebbing of the violence, the issues driving the civil war remained unsettled—fundamental issues involving distribution of political power in Iraq. The surge was intended to make it possible for Iraqis to resolve those issues, and in that respect the surge failed. There is an unbroken history from the conflict of interests that caused the civil war and its associated mélange of insurgencies to break out a decade ago, to the conflict of interests—which is mostly the same unresolved conflict of interests among sectarian and ethnic communities—that underlies the violence in Iraq today. There also is an unbroken history from the most violent and extreme of the groups in Iraq as of several years ago and the feared group ISIS—which is the same group with a new name and a new leader—that is such a preoccupation today.

There never has been a logic accompanying the myth. If eight and a half years of U.S troops in Iraq were not enough, then why should we expect a few more years (or would it turn out to be only a few?) of a troop presence to be sufficient? And if 160,000 troops were not enough, then why should we expect a smaller number (or would it re-escalate to a large number?) to be sufficient?

The myth seems to be predicated on some strange process of telepathic osmosis by which democratic thoughts in the minds of American troops in Iraq would somehow have gotten former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki to have turned away from his sectarian and authoritarian habits and nourished an inclusive, tolerant, multi-confessional democracy. What else exactly could U.S. troops in Iraq have done if they had lingered longer in Iraq to have made such a political difference? Threaten to overthrow Maliki, through a kind of U.S.-led military coup, if he didn't get with the program? If U.S. forces instead would have been helping to provide security against the extremist groups and Sunni insurgents whose support has been rooted all along in opposition to the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad, that would only have reduced rather than increased Maliki's incentive to reform and to be more inclusive.

If telepathic osmosis was not expected to work and whatever good U.S. troops would have done would be in spite of the unhelpful ways of Iraqi politicians such as Maliki, then the job would never be done, if the job is defined as making way for a stable Iraqi democracy standing on its own. Or at least it would not be done on any time scale less than generational—a time scale, measured in decades, long enough for a new political culture to evolve. Until then, U.S. troops would have been sitting forcefully and indefinitely on the ingredients of a volatile stew—a little like how Saddam Hussein sat on top of it in a much more brutal way, before the U.S. removed him and the stew boiled over.

No, we never won, or almost won, the Iraq War. One of the uniformed leaders who was given the task to try to do that, now retired three-star general Daniel Bolger, has painfully—but honestly, and not buying into myths that would be soothing for him and his colleagues—acknowledged this by writing:

“The surge in Iraq did not 'win' anything. It bought time. It allowed us to kill some more bad guys and feel better about ourselves. But in the end, shackled to a corrupt, sectarian government in Baghdad and hobbled by our fellow Americans' unwillingness to commit to a fight lasting decades, the surge just forestalled today's stalemate. Like a handful of aspirin gobbled by a fever patient, the surge cooled the symptoms. But the underlying disease didn't go away.”

The damage that the myth about Iraq inflicts is not limited to fostering public misunderstanding about an important episode in modern American history, although that is indeed harmful. It is not limited to fostering misunderstanding about who was right and who was wrong about that episode and thus who should and should not be listened to on similar matters, a misunderstanding that also is harmful. The damage extends to the encouragement of more general misconceptions about efficacy of the exertion of U.S. power overseas.

George Kennan made a somewhat similar observation about an earlier set of myths and recriminations concerning developments in another faraway country that has been a preoccupation of Americans. The belief that we “lost China,” wrote Kennan, “seriously distorted the understanding of a great many Americans about foreign policy, implying that our policy was always the decisive mover of events everywhere in the world; that in any country of the world, including China, we had it in our power to prevent the rise to positions of authority of people professing Marxist sympathies...”

The ideologies that Americans fear the most now are ones other than Marxism. And the myth involving Iraq is a more extensive one than the one involving China in that it posits the United States having “won” Iraq before “losing” it. But the damage Kennan identifies—the mistaken belief that if U.S. power and especially military power is applied with sufficient determination and persistence, the governments of other countries will be composed of people who are to our liking or at least act in accordance with our liking—is the same.                                                                                    

TopicsIraq RegionsMiddle East

A Home Run?: The Achievement in China on Climate Change

Paul Pillar

Yesterday's announcement of a U.S.-Chinese agreement on curbing greenhouse gases is very important, including in some ways that Michael Levi's expert analysis effectively captures. As Levi notes, this agreement was a marked departure for China not only in terms of the numerical goals set but also in the manner of setting them, in the form of an agreement negotiated with the United States. This goes against the prior Chinese habit of treating climate change, like Beijing treats many things, as a subject on which China must firmly assert its independence.

The agreement surprised many from the standpoint not only of Chinese policy-making habits but also of American politics. The dominant story line as President Obama left on his current trip was that, with his party having just gotten whupped in the mid-term election, he would struggle to assert U.S. power and influence. But instead his visit to China has been productive. Getting Beijing's signature on the environmental accord has been the biggest achievement, but other deliverables have included a substantial trade agreement and progress toward averting U.S.-Chinese incidents at sea. As Sarah Palin might remark if her political allegiances were different, “How's that weak-president-shuffling-off-to-Beijing thing workin' out for ya?”

Much more important than political story lines are the substance, symbolism, and momentum contained in the emissions accord itself. The sheer fact of the two biggest emitters of greenhouse gases jointly arriving at such an objective is itself significant. Any direct benefit involved will have a multiplier effect to the degree that it imparts momentum to efforts to negotiate broader multilateral commitments and action.

The effects also will be beneficial insofar as they affect debates in the United States, where pre-Enlightenment opposition to doing something about climate change is still all too deeply entrenched. The accord with China will at least help to refute the argument that it wouldn't make sense for the United States to get out in front on this issue when other emitters—and China is the biggest emitter of all—are not doing their part. Failed Hewlett-Packard executive and unsuccessful senatorial candidate Carly Fiorina made exactly this argument the other day in a pro-pollution op ed in which she blithely observed that “no form of energy is perfect” and that “action by a single state or nation will make little difference.”

The domestic political task of getting the United States to live up to negotiated goals and to doing its necessary share will still be formidable. The election result earlier this month made it even more formidable. Probably the person who personifies this unfortunate fact the most is Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, who has declared that “manmade global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.” In a fox-overseeing-the-henhouse situation, Inhofe will take over as chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Maybe, just maybe, the accord announced in Beijing will nudge the deniers and other opponents of action at least slightly away from their Dark Ages attitude toward science, from their narrow focus on denying not just scientifically derived knowledge but also anything that smells like an accomplishment for Barack Obama, and from a short-sighted focus on quarterly results of the coal industry on Kentucky or the oil industry in Oklahoma, and lead them to give some thought to doing the responsible thing to preserve a habitable environment.

Another of the standard knocks on President Obama is that he plays only small ball and hits only singles, and that he doesn't think strategically enough and go for home runs. There is nothing more strategic and big-picture than saving the planet. The agreement announced in Beijing cannot count for a home run because it is only the setting, and not yet the achieving, of a goal. But it is an important step toward getting around the bases.

Image: US State Department Flickr.                  

TopicsChina climate change RegionsUnited States

The Big Question: Who Wants to Defeat ISIS More--Iran or the U.S.?

Paul Pillar

The bursts of criticism—from those who inveterately oppose any dealing with Iran, and those who inveterately oppose anything Barack Obama is doing, which include some of the same people—of a letter Mr. Obama reportedly sent to the supreme leader of Iran can readily be dismissed for multiple reasons. There is, to begin with, the spectacle of critics getting up in arms about a letter the contents of which none of us outside the administration, including the critics, have seen. We only have a general sense, from the Wall Street Journal report that broke this story, of the message the letter conveyed.

There also is the old notion that merely communicating with another party, whether face-to-face or in writing, somehow shows weakness and/or is a reward to the other party. It is neither; communication is a tool for us to express and pursue our own preferences and objectives, and to explore ways to attain those objectives. As Farideh Farhi notes, most of the people who are objecting to letters being sent to the Iranian supreme leader previously objected in the same way to having any diplomacy with Iran at all—diplomacy that already has achieved major restraints on Iran's nuclear program that years of non-communication were unable to achieve.

Then there is the crude, unthinking primitiveness of slapping a label of enemy on someone and acting as if the mere label is sufficient reason not to do any business with, or even to communicate with, that someone, with no attention whatever being given to the best ways to pursue our own objectives. Thus we have John (“bomb, bomb, bomb Iran”) McCain saying that “they [Iran] are our enemy” and that any U.S. foreign policy that deals with Iran is “off the rails.” And we have Mitt Romney saying that sending the letter was “so far beyond the pale, I was stunned. I was speechless. The right kind of approach in dealing with Iran is that we consider them a pariah, their leaders are shunned...” The label-making approach to foreign policy, represented by these comments, helps to satisfy the urges of those who for their own reasons need an enemy and for whom Iran has long filled that role, but it certainly is not a good way to advance U.S. interests.

Before we move beyond this most recent bit of primitivism, however, there is a lesson here regarding linkage, leverage, and the deployment of U.S. resources on matters on which U.S. interests parallel those of other states. When last year the United States with its P5+1 partners began serious negotiations with Iran after Hassan Rouhani became the Iranian president, the two sides wisely agreed to focus narrowly on Iran's nuclear program and the nuclear-related sanctions. Each side has plenty of grievances with the opposite side on other matters, and if the agenda started expanding it would quickly continue to expand into an unmanageable smorgasbord of issues. But each side is, and should be, aware of how completion of a nuclear agreement would help to open the door to doing mutually beneficial business on other matters in the region on which U.S. and Iranian interests run parallel.

Awhile ago someone in Iranian officialdom commented publicly about how completion of a nuclear deal could lead to more effective Iranian and U.S. action against the newest Middle Eastern threat du jour, the group sometimes known as ISIS. The comment was a cue for opponents of the Obama administration in Washington to once again accuse the administration of being weak and allowing itself to be leveraged into making a bad deal. There is absolutely zero evidence in what is publicly known about the negotiations and U.S. negotiating behavior that this accusation is true. Besides, the Iranian comment was not even explicitly an attempt to exert leverage but rather a correct statement about some of the likely possibilities that completion of an agreement with open up.

Although we do not know the exact content, the sense that the Wall Street Journal report gives us about the recent letter to Ayatollah Khamenei is that it was an effort to persuade the ayatollah to endorse the additional Iranian concessions necessary to complete the agreement. As part of that effort at persuasion, the letter reportedly alluded not only to direct benefits to Iran that would be associated with a deal but also the prospect of more effective action against ISIS—in other words, the same sort of comment, conveyed in the reverse direction, as was heard from Tehran earlier. Domestic U.S. opponents who hopped on that earlier comment ought to be pleased that the Obama administration is turning the tables and that, if there is implicit leverage to be exercised, the United States is exercising it.

Which side succeeds in such maneuvers depends on who cares more about the issues at stake. The United States lost the Vietnam War because the Vietnamese adversary, riding nationalist sentiment in favor of uniting their country and freeing themselves from foreign domination, cared more about the outcome than the United States did.

To the extent we can make such comparisons (and admittedly we can make them only indirectly by inference, because direct inter-nation comparisons, like interpersonal comparisons, of utility are not really possible), it appears so far that Iran is the party that wants a nuclear deal more. The best indication of that is the Joint Plan of Action that was reached last year and in which Iran clearly made most of the concessions, freezing or rolling back the parts of its nuclear program that mattered most in return for relatively minor sanctions relief.

It also appears that Iran cares more about stopping and rolling back ISIS. The Iranians have been far more active on the ground, at higher cost and risk, in assisting the Iraqi government in combating ISIS than the United States has been so far. That is unsurprising and appropriate. The Iranians have better reason to be concerned about ISIS than we do. They live in the same neighborhood and have interests more directly threatened by ISIS than do we, who are more likely to be threatened only as a consequence of our own involvement against the group and the revenge that would flow from it.

The preceding set of facts makes for a state of affairs that ought to please us. Not only are we better positioned to play the game of implicit leverage; we can also see Iran do more of the heavy lifting against ISIS, both now and after a nuclear deal, but with even more opportunities for effective coordination of such anti-ISIS efforts in the wake of an agreement. Some Americans, however, are allowing their Iranophobic, label-directed approach to foreign policy to lead them to look this gift horse in the mouth.

We also lose some of our advantage each time we say or do something that makes it look like we care more about the fortunes of ISIS than the Iranians do. President Obama deserves criticism not for sending letters to the ayatollah and for mentioning ISIS in them but instead for saying things and moving troops in ways that foster the impression that ISIS is more important to us than to Iran. And American hawks deserve criticism the more they push Mr. Obama in this direction, which undercuts their own claim to be concerned about enhancing negotiating leverage against Iran. This is yet another example of a recurring tendency in American foreign policy, which is to insist on getting the United States so far in front in addressing problems that allies as well as adversaries become free riders rather than doing what ought to be their share of the pedaling.

Image: U.S. Air Force Flickr.            

TopicsIran Iraq terrorism RegionsMiddle East

It's Legacy Time, but History, like Life, Can be Unfair

Paul Pillar

Amid the usual post-election barrages of commentary about what messages the election result supposedly carries and how elected leaders ought to change their behavior in response, it is difficult to find any issue-specific messages about U.S. foreign policy in this week's result. As Michael Cohen points out, the available evidence from polls, including exit polls, is that foreign policy issues did not play a significant role in the outcome. It is true, as Gordon Adams observes, that a “witches' brew, fired up by Republican candidates,” of fears did play a role—fear of getting attacked by an ISIS terrorist, of catching Ebola, and of being swamped by immigrants flooding across the southern border. But as far as presidential policy is concerned these are not matters that were the making of the current president or are translatable into changes of course in his policies.

The one thing about Barack Obama that is different now that the election is over is, of course, that not only will he never be running for anything again but also no one else will be running for anything that will change the make-up of the U.S. Congress during his presidency. Some suggest that he still needs to be concerned about affecting the prospects for whoever will be his party's candidate for president in 2016, but that does not really need to be a constraint. Visible distance between Mr. Obama and the Democratic presidential candidate will not necessarily hurt the latter and might even help.

So now, more than ever, the president should think and act strictly and narrowly according to what is in his best judgment in the best interest of the nation while excluding from his calculations what is popular or politic. In practice this advice will frequently conflict with another common theme of post-election commentary, which is that the president needs to try more than ever to reach across the party divide to work with the opposition, now that the opposition has won big. The first type of advice should take precedence because we (and Mr. Obama) already have enough experience to know that the second type of advice will in the current circumstances yield few results. The Washington Post's Dana Milbank aptly summarized the political dynamics involved by observing that “Republicans didn't run on an agenda other than antipathy to all things Obama” and that “it was enough, electorally, for Republicans to say they were against whatever President Obama was for.” An optimistic view is that having majority status in both houses of Congress will impart a greater sense of ownership of policy and an associated sense of responsibility that has hitherto been lacking, but it is unrealistic to think that the target of the unrelenting antipathy that made for a winning electoral strategy is likely suddenly to be perceived instead as a partner in policymaking.

The senior senator from Kentucky, who is in line to become Senate majority leader, declared during Mr. Obama's first term that the number one goal of himself and his party colleagues in Congress was not to improve the state of the economy, to enhance the health and welfare of Americans, to strengthen the standing of the United States in the world, or to do anything else to further the national interest; according to the senator their number one goal was instead to deny President Obama a second term. They failed in that goal but instead did what was the nearest thing to it, which was, in Adams's words, to mount a campaign “to prevent the president from achieving any of his agenda—from health care to climate change to immigration.” Do not expect such habits to change now that a blocking minority in the Senate has become a majority.

In considering what a hypothetical president who is perfectly tuned to what is good for the national interest and not necessarily good politics ought to be concentrating on in foreign policy over the next two years, one should think first in terms of long-term trends and future challenges that are not fashionable fears of the moment such as ISIS, Ebola, or those scruffy immigrants. Climate change certainly deserves to be at or near the top of any such list, but also high on the list should be more of that pivoting to East Asia that so far has been more of a talked-about concept than a thorough addressing of America's future relations with China.

Middle Eastern problems will necessarily continue to limit the amount of pivoting, and within the Middle East the issues deserving priority include one to which Mr. Obama admirably has already devoted considerable political capital—conclusion of an agreement to limit Iran's nuclear program—and one to which he gave one shot and then pretty much gave up: the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These two issues could appropriately be treated as more linked than they usually are treated, given the motivations of the Israeli government in opposing any agreement with Iran and given how that government accounts for such a large part of the overall opposition to an agreement. Benjamin Netanyahu's government ought to be called explicitly to account for the phoniness of its opposition to an agreement, in a way that the United States has not explicitly done. In fact, just about anything having to do with Israel, given the extraordinary role Israel-related issues play in American politics, constitutes a prime area in which our hypothetical president would behave differently from real American politicians.

If Barack Obama is to become more like that hypothetical president who is selflessly guided by a dispassionate sense of the national interest rather than by politics, he will face a tough test in living up to a standard that he has talked about himself: not doing stupid stuff. The test is tough because not doing certain things detrimental to the national interest, as distinct from positively doing things that would further that interest, may run up not only against what is currently politically popular but also against the sorts of considerations that make for a favorably regarded legacy. History tends to treat presidents who accomplish positive and significant things more favorably than it treats presidents whose chief contributions to the republic were to resist pressures to do damaging things. Perhaps the closest thing to an exception was Dwight Eisenhower, who served the republic very well not only through his positive accomplishments but also by avoiding major mistakes even when friends and allies (e.g., Suez 1956) were doing stupid stuff.

If Mr. Obama is to become more like the hypothetical president, he should have begun showing signs of that after his own re-election in 2012. Some believe they see some such signs, but the signs are not clear. The president's policy toward ISIS, for example, looks to a large extent to be a bending to popular will and emotions. But he still has two more years to demonstrate otherwise.   

 

TopicsElections RegionsUnited States

Space, the Final Frontier Between the Public and Private Sectors

Paul Pillar

Private enterprise that is engaged in transportation to space and the upper atmosphere had two catastrophic failures within the last week: the explosion seconds after liftoff of an Antares rocket launched by Orbital Sciences Corporation under a NASA contract to ferry supplies to the international space station; and the crash, killing one of the test pilots, of a rocket plane that Virgin Galactic hopes to use to give passengers rides through the mesosphere. Accidents can happen to anyone, but the incidents point to some issues regarding the relative roles and performance of the public and private sectors and how those roles are commonly viewed. Two issues in particular.

One concerns how a well-founded appreciation for the working of free markets has too often been translated into a crude and unfounded, and ideologically driven, belief that the private sector is inherently better than the public sector over a very wide range of activities. Genuinely free markets are indeed wonderful mechanisms for using competition and pecuniary incentives to get the best possible product or service at the best possible price. But large parts of the private sector are far from operating as classic free markets. There are numerous possible reasons for this, involving departures from unfettered competition and small numbers of buyers or sellers.

Orbital Sciences contracting with NASA is not like General Motors trying to sell cars, in which success of the business depends on large numbers of potential customers deciding for themselves what they like or don't like about the products offered by GM and its competitors. Instead there is only one customer, NASA, that presumably is applying the same standard that it always applied under its previous model of managing space launch projects itself and using private industry only as suppliers for segments of the project. There is no more incentive to get things right, and to avoid incidents like last week's launch failure, whether the work is contracted out or not. Of course, Orbital Sciences would not want a string of failures that would lead NASA to redirect its business to SpaceX or someone else, but NASA would not want that either.

It is hard to see where private enterprise is offering any cost savings with an arrangement like this. For government to contract with a for-profit business means starting with the need to make up for additional overhead, including the business's profit. It also is hard to see where any extra innovation is being offered. Indeed, pecuniary motives may have been working against innovation. The main engine that Orbital Sciences was using in the booster that exploded is a modified version of a Russian engine that dates from the 1970s. An independent consultant remarked about the incident with the Antares, “Coming up with new engines is a very expensive proposition. That was probably one of the reasons the Russian engine was so attractive.”

The other issue concerns the standards that the public and the political class commonly apply to success and failure in the public and private sectors. Frequent failure and creative destruction—of failed products and sometimes of whole companies—are central to the working of free markets. It is thus appropriate that as long as no one else is getting hurt, we are nonchalant about such failures. (The awful situation of financial institutions that are “too big to fail” should be an exception precisely because a lot of other innocent people do get hurt by failure.) But a far more rigorous standard often gets applied to activities by government, even activities that are at least as inherently risky and subject to failure as what those in the private sector who introduced the Edsel or New Coke were doing. The zero-tolerance standard applied to stopping terrorist attacks is one example. NASA's exploration of space has been another, especially where human lives were involved. We are taking more notice of failures by private sector space enterprises than we otherwise would because private enterprise is getting into an activity that government had previously performed and to which the higher standards of success and failure had historically been applied.

The nature of a project and its relationship to any public purpose ought to be prime criteria in success and failure and who ought to do the project. Virgin Galactic's project is designed to provide brief thrill rides to people wealthy enough to want to spend a quarter of a million dollars per ticket for that sort of thrill. Obviously there is no role for government in anything like that. One can even question why the National Transportation Safety Board is using its resources to investigate last week's crash. Let the market handle it all. If would-be thrill riders have enough concern about safety to turn their backs on Virgin Galactic's project, or even on the entire space tourism business, so be it; there would be no harm to the public interest.

As for the many other endeavors—including some bold, risky endeavors—where the public interest is involved, let us remember that some of those are suitable for markets to play a role but others are not.

Image: Flickr/NASA.                                             

TopicsSpace RegionsUnited States

U.S.-Israeli Relations: Don't Call It a Crisis

Paul Pillar

A piece by Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic bearing the title “The Crisis in U.S.-Israeli Relations is Officially Here” has elicited much comment, including from colleagues at The National Interest. Goldberg has performed a useful service in at least two respects. One is that his piece highlights how friction in the U.S.-Israeli relationship is primarily an epiphenomenon of an Israeli policy trajectory that is detrimental to Israel itself—no matter what U.S. officials may or may not say about the policies, publicly or privately—and not only detrimental to others. In commenting, for example, on the latest insertion of right-wing Jewish settlers into Arab areas of East Jerusalem—which many Palestinians unsurprisingly see as another step in de-Palestinianizing East Jerusalem so much that it could not become capital of a Palestinian state—Goldberg writes, “It is the Netanyahu government that appears to be disconnected from reality. Jerusalem is on the verge of exploding into a third Palestinian uprising.” He's right about the potential for a new intifada, one that could emerge spontaneously from bottled-up frustration and anger and would not need to be ordered or directed by anyone.

Another service by Goldberg is to portray the relationship far more realistically than one would conclude from the boilerplate that both governments routinely serve up about supposedly unshakeable ties between close, bosom-buddy allies. The fact is that the interests that this Israeli government pursues (not to be confused with fundamental, long-term interests of Israel and Israelis generally) are in sharp and substantial conflict with U.S. interests. No amount of pablum from official spokespersons can hide that fact.

For both these reasons, Goldberg's article deserves a wide readership.

The most recent expressions that reflect the true nature of the relationship are not just a matter of unnamed U.S. officials mouthing off. Goldberg notes in the third sentence of his piece that the comments he is reporting are “representative of the gloves-off manner in which American and Israeli [emphasis added] officials now talk about each other behind closed doors.” So the barbed tongues extend in both directions, but with two differences. One is that in this relationship the United States is the giver (of many billions in aid, and much political cover in international organizations) and Israel is the taker; harsh comments are far harder to justify when they are directed by an ungrateful beneficiary to its patron rather than the other way around. The other difference is that Israeli leaders insult the United States not just through anonymous comments to journalists but also publicly and openly; the current Israeli defense minister is one of the more recent and blatant practitioners of this.

One can legitimately question some of the particular accusations by the U.S. officials that Goldberg reports, not to mention the scatological and indecorous terminology employed. But to concentrate on this is to overlook the larger and far more important contours of the relationship. The most fundamental truth about the relationship is that, notwithstanding routine references to Israel as an “ally,” it is not an ally of the United States beyond being the recipient of all that U.S. material and political largesse. An ally is someone who offers something comparably significant and useful in return, particularly on security matters. That this is not true of Israel's relationship with the United States is underscored by the priority that the United States has placed, during some of its own past conflicts in the Middle East such as Operation Desert Storm, on Israel not getting involved because such involvement would be a liability, not an asset.

The core policy around which much of this Israeli government's other behavior revolves, and which defines Israel in the eyes of much of the rest of the world, is the unending occupation of conquered territory under a practice of Israel never defining its own borders and thus never permitting political rights to Palestinians under either a two-state or a one-state formula. This policy is directly contrary to U.S. interests in multiple respects, not least in that the United States through its close association with Israel shares in the resulting widespread antagonism and opprobrium.

One of the biggest and most recent U.S. foreign policy endeavors is the negotiation of an agreement to restrict and monitor Iran's nuclear program to ensure it stays peaceful. Completion of an agreement would be a major accomplishment in the interest of nonproliferation and regional stability. The Israeli “ally” has been doing everything it can to sabotage the negotiations and prevent an agreement.

It is a fallacy to think that making nice to the Israeli government will get it to back off from its opposition. It is a fallacy because that government has shown it does not want any agreement with Iran no matter what the terms, and because it is dishonest in expressing its opposition. There certainly is genuine concern in Israel about the possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon, but that is clearly not what is behind the Israeli government's opposition because the sort of agreement that is shaping up would make it markedly less likely, in terms of both Iranian motivations and capabilities, for Iran ever to make a nuclear weapon than would be the case with no agreement. That's the very purpose of the agreement. The Israeli government instead seeks to keep Iran permanently in diplomatic exile, precluding any cooperation between Iran and the United States on other issues (which would dilute Israel's claim to being the only worthwhile U.S. partner in the Middle East) and retaining the specter of Iran and a nuclear threat from it as the “real problem” in the Middle East supposedly more worthy of international attention than the occupation and unresolved plight of the Palestinians. These objectives, as well as the setback for the cause of nonproliferation that collapse of an agreement with Iran would entail, also are directly contrary to U.S. interests.

The best way to handle the implacable opposition to an Iranian deal from Netanyahu—who, according to Goldberg's reporting, has “written off” the Obama administration—is to write off Netanyahu and any hope that he could be brought around on the subject. Needed instead is to expose—to Israelis, as well as to members of Congress and other Americans—the fundamental dishonesty of Netanyahu's opposition. Maybe a useful step in doing that would be to bring back Netanyahu's cartoon bomb that he displayed at the Untied Nations General Assembly and point out how the preliminary agreement reached with Iran last year (and which the Israeli prime minister consistently denounced) has already drained the bomb and moved the Iranian program back from the lines that the Israeli prime minister drew with his red marker.

Calling Netanyahu to account certainly is not a sufficient condition to achieve political change in Israel, with its ever steeper rightward tilt, but it is probably a necessary condition. The state of the relationship with the United States is highly salient and highly important to many Israelis, but it will not be a driver of political change as long as it remains masked by all that boilerplate about how great the “alliance” is.

There are a couple of problems with the title of Goldberg's piece (which is probably the doing of an editor, not Goldberg). One is that there isn't “officially” a crisis. The fact that official statements continue to talk about a supposedly rosy relationship is part of what is, as explained above, wrong.

The other problem is that in this context the word crisis is a misnomer. The term usually indicates a potential for a big turn for the worse, especially the outbreak of a war between whatever two parties are experiencing a crisis. That's not what's involved here. The only reason the term crisis comes up regarding U.S.-Israeli relations is the fictional, deliberately inflated view of the relationship as something qualitatively different that ought to defy any of the usual rules that apply to any patron and client or to any bilateral relationship. Sweep aside the politically-driven fiction about two countries that supposedly have everything in common and nothing in conflict and instead deal with reality, and the concept of crisis does not arise at all. What you have instead is a bilateral relationship that is like many others the United States has, with some parallel interests and objectives along with other objectives that diverge—sometimes sharply—and with honest recognition of the latter being a normal part of business. Being honest and realistic is good for U.S. interests, and in this case it would be good for the long-term interests of Israel as well.

Image: Office of the Prime Minister, Israel/Flickr.                   

TopicsIsrael United States RegionsMiddle East

A Maghreb Triptych: How the Arab Spring Has Worked Well or Worked Badly

Paul Pillar

 

Look across North Africa, and at three adjacent countries in particular, and one can see the best and some of the worst of what the Arab Spring has produced so far. Comparing the experiences of the three countries is a lesson in what helps move a country toward something resembling stable democracy, and what moves it in the opposite direction. History has determined some of the factors at play, but others are more amenable to being shaped by policy.

If there is any one bright spot after nearly four years of flux and upheaval in much of the Middle East, it is the place where the Arab Spring began: Tunisia. That country certainly has greater political liberty now than it did under the previous regime of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The road from Ben Ali's ouster has not been smooth, but it has been pointing in a favorable direction. This Sunday Tunisians voted freely for the second time since the revolution to elect a parliament. The election was scheduled after increased popular dissatisfaction with the performance, especially economic performance, of a coalition government led by the Ennahda Movement generated strikes and political gridlock. Ennahda did the responsible thing by stepping down and handing the reins of government to a caretaker cabinet.

Next door to Tunisia, Libya is in what can only be described as an awful mess. It may not be the very worst post-Arab Spring place in the Middle East—probably Syria deserves that distinction—but it comes close. Combat between dueling militias is far more prominent than anything that resembles a democratic political process.

Moving over one more country to the east brings one to Egypt, which is not as chaotic as Libya but has moved in a direction that may turn out to be at least as bad—for Egypt itself, and because of its greater size and weight in the region, for the Middle East. The regime of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi resembles the pre-Arab-Spring regime of Hosni Mubarak in that is led by a figure who rose to power through the military and for whom the military is still the critical source of support, while governing with the forms of a representative republic and even with some genuine popular support. But Sisi has promptly become more harshly authoritarian than Mubarak ever was, and in that respect political change in Egypt over the past four years represents a step backward. Sisi's regime has been mercilessly extinguishing all dissent and independent civil society. All political activity on university campuses is effectively banned. One respect in which the repression is likely to spell an even worse future for Egypt is that the absence of peaceful channels for expressing opposition and pursuing political objectives means that much more resort to violent channels. Sisi's Egypt already has become plagued by heightened terrorism, with a couple of attacks last week being recent and especially deadly demonstrations of this.

Some of the reasons for the widely varying results of upheaval in the Maghreb can be found in conditions that existed before the upheaval began. Tunisia, for example, has had the advantage of a relatively small and homogeneous population that has been a bit closer than the others to Europe not only geographically but probably in the mental habits of its citizens. Libya had the disadvantage of four decades of Muammar Qadhafi's rule, after which there was hardly anything left in the way of independent institutions, and thus almost nothing on which to build once the regime was gone. Egypt has had a military that is used to getting its way, including deciding when presidents ought to come and go. The varying results demonstrate a couple of other principles, however, that are more a matter of policy discretion.

One is the principle that if sentiments are not permitted to be expressed in a normal and peaceful way, they will find abnormal and violent outlets. This principle is especially illustrated by the handling of the main Islamist movements in each country. In Tunisia that movement is Ennahda. It has been treated as a responsible and legitimate political actor in a democratic process, and it has behaved as a responsible and legitimate actor. Its relinquishing of power to open the way for fresh elections, after Ennahda had lost too much public confidence to enable it to govern effectively, is an emphatic rebuttal to the “one man, one vote, one time” label that has routinely been placed on Islamist parties.

Here a useful contrast is with the next country to the west—Algeria—where, more than 20 years ago, a military coup that preempted a likely victory in a free election by the principal Islamist party there led to a ghastly civil war that may have killed upwards of 100,000 people. Algeria has been conspicuously absent from the Arab Spring, and probably a major reason is the fear of Algerians that any upsetting of the status quo would mean a return to such butchery. And so Algeria muddles along under the undemocratic influence of the mostly military power structure known as le pouvoir.

The Sisi regime has treated the largest Islamist group in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, far differently than Ennadha has been treated in Tunisia. The treatment of the Brotherhood is also much different from how it was handled under Mubarak, when, although officially outlawed, it was permitted to participate politically in various indirect ways. The Sisi regime by contrast has been doing everything it can to smash the Brotherhood. What is left of the Brotherhood's leadership says it remains committed to peaceful methods, but it is a safe bet that some former adherents of the Brotherhood are now being swayed by the extremist message that peaceful methods will always be smashed and that the only route to meaningful change is a violent one.

Another principle being illustrated is that getting rid of a disliked and distrusted leader is not necessarily a step toward democracy and stability. The United States and its European allies should have learned that lesson by now regarding their role in ousting Qadhafi. Those Egyptians who were not favorably inclined toward the Muslim Brotherhood and who smiled upon the military's coup that ousted the elected president, Mohamed Morsi, may also now be having some buyer's remorse. If anyone in the Maghreb is apt to demonstrate what “one man, one vote, one time” means, it probably will be Sisi.                                          

TopicsEgypt Libya Tunisia RegionsMiddle East

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

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