Paul Pillar

Fearing Success of the Iranian Nuclear Agreement

Paul Pillar

Those determined to kill any agreement with Iran have trotted out a succession of rationales for doing so but have kept their focus firmly fixed on the U.S. Congress. That is hardly surprising, given that both houses of Congress are now controlled by the anti-Obama party and Congress is where the lobby that acts on behalf of the right-wing government in Israel exerts its power most directly. There have been multiple legislative vehicles that the anti-agreement forces have tried to use. Earlier ones had to do with using new sanctions to throw a wrench in the negotiating process, but currently the opponents' most viable vehicle is a bill sponsored by Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that would call for the Congress to do a quick vote on an agreement well before any legislation to implement the agreement was actually required.

By the standards of Congressional Republicans, Corker seems relatively reasonable and pragmatic, as reflected in his being one of the few senators in his party to abstain from signing that outrageous letter telling the Iranians not to trust the United States to keep its word in international agreements. But let's be honest about the game that is being played; it's still the same game that has been played all along, which is to take as many whacks as possible against the nuclear agreement and the negotiations leading to it and to hope that at least one of the whacks will be fatal. There is no way that the Corker bill—given the posture and approach of the majority party on this issue as indicated by the letter to the Iranians—could strengthen the basis of the agreement, or show that the United States is united, or have any positive result. The best result that could be hoped for from the kind of hasty vote that the bill calls for would be that an attempt to override a presidential veto of a resolution of disapproval would fall a few votes short—hardly the sort of scenario that makes foreign interlocutors more willing to take risks in dealing with Washington.

The nature of the game comes through clearly in some of the details of the bill, which contains booby-traps designed to maximize the chance of killing the deal. One provision, for example, requires the president to certify every 90 days that Iran “has not directly supported or carried out an act of terrorism against the United States or a United States person anywhere in the world.” So if, for example, Israel hits Lebanese Hezbollah and Hezbollah retaliates with a bomb somewhere that damages a U.S.-owned commercial property, the president cannot make that certification and poof, there is no more nuclear agreement.

The Corker bill does not even do what the bill purports to do, which is to give Congress a say on the nuclear agreement that it supposedly otherwise would not have had. Congressional action will be required in any case to enable any later sanctions relief that goes beyond what could be granted with a presidential waiver. Even before then, Congress could—with or without Corker's bill—pass a resolution of approval, or disapproval, or indifference regarding the nuclear deal any time it wants. What the bill does is to make it seem obligatory for Congress to pass a resolution hastily, as well as to make it clearer to the Iranians and to everyone else that Congressional disapproval would in fact kill the deal.

The bill calls for a rush to judgment. One of the provisions that demonstrates this is the bill's requirement for the executive branch to present to Congress within five days after an agreement is reached a comprehensive, fully coordinated assessment of the ability to verify all the agreement's provisions. Such an assessment is indeed an important part of evaluating the deal. But the timetable is ludicrous, and is one of the best indications in the bill of a lack of seriousness about wanting to consider the deal carefully. Those in the executive branch who will have analyze the verification issues will be fortunate just to get an authoritative copy of the agreement within five days after it is signed.

If members were really to be pragmatic and reasonable, they would ask: “Why the rush?” The risks of hastiness are nearly all on the side of hasty disapproval rather than letting implementation of the agreement begin. Hasty disapproval would mean collapsing the whole diplomatic process associated with the agreement, losing the restrictions on the Iranian program embodied in the Joint Plan of Action reached more than a year ago, and losing allied support for continued sanctions given that Washington clearly would be responsible for killing the arrangement. Letting implementation of the agreement begin, on the other hand, would be only the start of what will be a very gradual process in which most of the sanctions relief that Iran seeks would only come later, after perhaps a couple of years of Iranian adherence to the deal. The early phase of implementation will be an extension of the testing period (already begun under the Joint Plan of Action) in which Iran will have to demonstrate its commitment to live by severe restrictions on its nuclear program and to keep that program peaceful. Anyone in Congress or anywhere else who really wants to deliberate carefully on the deal ought to welcome that testing period rather than trying to short-circuit it.

The real answer to the question, “Why the rush?” is that opponents of any agreement with Iran want to kill this particular agreement before it has a chance to demonstrate its success. If a couple of more years go by in which Iran continues to observe stringent restrictions on its nuclear program and its commitment to a non-nuclear-weapons future, it will become harder than ever for opponents to argue with a straight face that it would be in U.S. interests to destroy the arrangement that had brought about that result.

This dynamic involves another parallel with the politics surrounding the Affordable Care Act, in addition to that act being, like a nuclear deal with Iran, one of the biggest achievements for President Obama and thus among the biggest things that the anti-Obama party would love to kill. As successes of the ACA have continued to become clear, the fear has grown among members of that party that, as newly declared presidential candidate Ted Cruz has put it, Americans will come to like Obamacare so much that it will be more difficult than ever for Republicans to repeal it. As with Obamacare, what opponents of a nuclear agreement with Iran fear most is not the agreement's failure but rather its success.  

TopicsIran RegionsMiddle East

Netanyahu's Latest Challenge to Obama

Paul Pillar

Faced with an unexpectedly tough electoral challenge, (at least according to Israeli opinion polls, however unreliable they later turned out to be) Benjamin Netanyahu in the closing days of his campaign decided that his best chance to stay in power would be to tack firmly to the Right—the hardest, narrowest, most intractable, and most prejudiced Right. After all the alarming and scaring that this prime minister has done, one of his final scares was to warn that Arab citizens of Israel would actually—you'd better sit down before you read this—vote. This was an even more blatant, and openly racist, approach to the subject of voter turnout among opposing parts of the electorate than the enactment of voter suppression laws in the United States. But Arab citizens constitute only 20 percent of the Israeli population, so if there was any negative effect on Netanyahu's re-election chances of this insult to those citizens it would have been less than the effect was, say, for Mitt Romney when Romney insulted 47 percent of the U.S. electorate.

In any event, Netanyahu's political calculation was correct; he won.

For the United States, the most significant of Netanyahu's statements in his appealing to the intractable Right of the Israeli electorate was to declare clearly and unequivocally his opposition to a Palestinian state. In so doing, and in affirming his determination to hold on to occupied territory, he offered no honorable alternative way to deal with the trilemma of how Israel cannot hold onto all that land and be a Jewish state and be democratic. Evidently he sees things the same way as his billionaire backer Sheldon Adelson, who said, “Israel isn't going to be a democratic state—so what?”

Of course, there is no surprise in the substance of Netanyahu's statement. It has long been abundantly clear from the conduct of himself and his government that he has had no intention of acceding to creation of a Palestinian state, and that past remarks suggesting that he did were only window dressing. But to move from window dressing and polite fiction to open declaration nonetheless has consequences, not only for the one making the declaration but also for others who have to deal with him. There is no longer any room for plausible denial about who is opposed to a two-state solution, or for proceeding with peace processing that is based on the presumption that both parties genuinely want a deal and it is just a matter of finding the right formula and a third party making the right guarantees.

No U.S. administration, including the current one, can dodge the reality that the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which multiple U.S. leaders have acknowledged is damaging to U.S. interests, is unresolved because one of the parties to that conflict—the one with the military power and with control of the land—does not want it resolved, and is now even openly admitting that it does not want it resolved.

The administration also needs to realize that this is not just a problem with Netanyahu. The prime minister's explicit rejection of a Palestinian state was part of a winning electoral strategy. With all due respect to the many Israelis who do understand the trilemma, who do want to live in a democratic state, and who accept the implications regarding resolving the conflict with the Palestinians, the Netanyahu/Adelson way of looking at things will dominate Israeli policy for the foreseeable future.

A big question for the Obama administration now is: what are you going to say, and more importantly do, about all this? How will you square the realities of the continued damaging effects of the unresolved conflict, the determination of the Israeli government not to resolve it, and the extraordinary relationship that government enjoys with the United States, with the many billions in aid and all those vetoes at the United Nations? (And remember, Mr. President, that you are in the final two years of your administration and will never have to run in another election.)

A more specific question the administration is going to face in the near term is how it will react to the Palestinians' effort to press their case for statehood. Netanyahu's admission strips away any remaining rationale for criticizing Palestinians for advancing that case at international organizations. The rationale wasn't valid in the first place; Palestinian endeavors in multilateral organizations to work toward self-determination never were “unilateral” moves that jeopardized bilateral negotiations in any way. Now it is clearer than ever that the Palestinians do not have a serious negotiating partner.

TopicsIsrael Palestinian Territories RegionsMiddle East

Why Nations (Including the U.S. and Iran) Comply With Their Agreements

Paul Pillar

Much of the latest discourse about a prospective nuclear agreement with Iran—with commentary on whether future U.S. presidents could renege on an agreement, on whether an agreement would be binding or non-binding, and so forth—reflects misconceptions on why nations observe international agreements to which they are party, and misconceptions even of the very nature of international agreements.

It may help to understand this by contrasting observance of international agreements with observance of domestic laws. I may believe a particular law enacted by the jurisdiction in which I live to be bad, and I may see no way in which compliance with this particular law, by myself or even by others, protects or advances my interests—except that I nevertheless am apt to comply because otherwise the sovereign authority involved, in the form of police, prosecutors, and courts, may punish me. At the international level there is no sovereign authority to exact such punishment. What we call international law is basically a set of understandings about international conduct that have come to be seen in general as in the interests of the society of nations. What may motivate a state to comply with international law is not enforcement by some sovereign authority but rather the prospect of reciprocal action by other states—action that will hurt the interests of the first state either because the tenet of international law at stake breaks down or because other states make other harmful responses. In other words, compliance comes from self-interest, defined more broadly than merely avoiding the sort of punishment I would receive for violating a domestic law.

An international agreement reached by two or some small number of states is a codification of some understanding about each state's behavior that is in those states' mutual interest to observe. Such understandings do not need to be codified, and many never are. The international system operates more smoothly and peacefully than it otherwise would because states observe countless unwritten understandings about behavior that would be of interest or concern to other states—regarding, for example, where military forces will be deployed. Codification nevertheless offers important advantages (regardless of what particular form—treaty, political agreement, etc.—the codification takes). It provides greater clarity and precision than is possible with unwritten understandings, and this is especially useful when getting into matters more technical than, say, an understanding that the naval forces of country X always will stay north of latitude Y. Codification makes it easier for states not just to observe current standards of behavior but to move to new patterns of behavior; without a written agreement, such a transition is likely to run aground on concerns about who moves first and uncertainty about exactly where the new limits of acceptable behavior will be drawn. A written agreement also sends clearer and stronger messages to domestic constituencies and provides a framework for any complementary changes in domestic law.

Just as with unwritten understandings, compliance with a written agreement ultimately depends on each of the states involved seeing compliance to be in their own interests. The chief interests concerned in an agreement by two or a handful of states are apt to be more parochial than the interests applicable to the whole community of nations that are involved in most international law. The dependence on continued consistency with self-interest is reflected in the very common use in such agreements of sunset clauses—a recognition that how states perceive some of their interests and the best way of serving them might change with time and changing circumstances. A further reflection of the same thing is another very common provision in international agreements: a clause explicitly providing for withdrawal from the agreement, usually with some advance notification required.

Consider one of the issues raised by that ill-conceived senatorial letter to the Iranians that was aimed at screwing up the negotiations by feeding doubts about U.S. credibility. This was the issue of whether a future U.S. president could or would reverse commitments that the current U.S. president made to Iran. Of course a future president could do that, but as others have observed, this sort of reversal of international agreements made by U.S. presidents has been very rare. It is rare not because of fear of punishment by a sovereign authority, and not even because of some warm fuzzy feeling about international law inside the tummies of presidents. It is rare because it has not been in U.S. interests to do such reversals. The interests involved include the interest the United States shares with others in having some predictability and reliability in international diplomacy—an interest somewhat similar to why stare decisis is an important principle in jurisprudence. The interests also include the more specific benefits that the agreement in question brought the United States in the first place. In the case of the Iran nuclear program, it is hard to conceive of any defensible reason that, if Iran had complied for at least a couple of years with an agreement that kept that program tightly restricted, heavily monitored, and entirely peaceful, any U.S. president would say it was in the U.S. interest to destroy that agreement.

As for the reasons Iran would comply with such an agreement, it again is all a matter of self-interest. The talk about differences between binding and non-binding forms of agreement are mostly beside the point. Iranian leaders will sign an agreement and will comply with it if they see the future that it prescribes—of a tightly restricted, heavily monitored, and entirely peaceful nuclear program coupled with relief from economic sanctions and international ostracism—as being more in their interests than the alternative. The fact that they have entered these negotiations and already observed for over a year the restrictions placed on them in the preliminary agreement of November 2013 indicates that they do see their interests that way.

Understanding these principles about international agreements clarifies why it is a fundamental mistake to try to squeeze and punish Iran still more in the hope that it would capitulate on outstanding issues about the nuclear program—and a mistake not only because there is no prospect that such capitulation would ever happen. Even if it were to happen, the result would be an agreement that Iran would have meager incentive to observe for long. The future of such an agreement would be bleak. U.S. interests will be served by an agreement that protects U.S. nonproliferation objectives and that Iran, as well as the United States, wants to uphold.                                           

TopicsIran RegionsMiddle East

International Organizations and Congressional Recalcitrance

Paul Pillar

Reminders of Congressional resistance getting in the way of the execution of U.S. foreign policy and the effective pursuit of U.S. interests abroad are not hard to find. The most recent reminder is not nearly as blatant and direct as that senatorial letter telling Iranians not to trust any commitments that the United States makes. Instead the reminder comes from an inappropriate statement by the Obama administration: its public criticism of the United Kingdom for deciding to become a member of a new Chinese-initiated international organization, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. That criticism is misplaced; Britain has legitimate and understandable reasons to take this step, and major roots of what is going on here regarding China are traceable not to London but to Washington, and more specifically to Capitol Hill.

The new bank is one of several international financial institutions that China recently has taken the lead in creating and that appear as alternatives to existing institutions with similar missions whose governance has been dominated by the United States, Europe, and Japan. Those existing institutions include not only the Asian Development Bank but also the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. It is impossible to say what moves China would or would not have made if the governance of those existing institutions had been different, but clearly at least a large part of the motivation for what Beijing is doing is the outdated nature of those governance arrangements, which have not kept pace with change in the global economy. The economic rise of China itself is the most conspicuous part, but not the only part, of that change.

The structure of the International Monetary Fund has been perhaps the leading issue in recent years. Negotiations reached agreement five years ago on a package of reforms of the IMF that coupled changes in members' monetary quotas and the Fund's lending authority with changes to members voting strength—the latter change in keeping with the principle adopted at the birth of the IMF to have voting weight reflect economic weight. The Obama administration played a leading role in conducting those negotiations and in protecting U.S. interests in the process.

Since then the administration has been pushing for Congressional approval of the package but has been unable to get approval from the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. The situation has gone on long enough that now the only thing standing between an outdated IMF and a reformed one is the U.S. Congress. Would-be reformers in other countries are now talking about possible ways to work around the U.S. resistance.

It is hard to find any good reasons for that resistance, given that the reform package does not harm the U.S. interests at stake. The United States would neither pay a larger share of the institution's budget nor lose its veto-capable voting strength (the increased voting share for rising powers like China would be coming mostly at the expense of the Europeans). The resistance in Congress seems to be a matter of old ideologically-laden habits—of disliking international organizations in general, of holding strange concepts of sovereignty when it comes to relations with international organizations, and of believing that the only way to deal with countries we dislike is to reject any of their proposals and not to do any business with them.

Such ill-founded recalcitrance harms U.S. interests in several ways. One concerns what role an increasingly powerful China is to play in the international system. It is in the interest of the United States for that role to be incorporated as much as possible, peacefully and without resentment, in existing structures rather than for a frustrated China to reject those structures or to compete with them.

A second interest concerns U.S. relations with other developing countries. It is not just the Chinese but also Brazilians, Indians, and others who are dissatisfied with outdated governance arrangements.

Finally, a failure to accept updating of institutions such as the IMF loses sight of the significant advantages that they provide the United States as long as the institutions themselves remain relevant. John Ikenberry has explained how the United States, by submitting to rules and principles of international organizations that it took the lead in creating at the end of World War II, has been able to extend its disproportionate global influence longer than other measures of national power would have enabled it to do. That big advantage may be lost altogether if the United States is unwilling to permit the institutions to keep pace with change in the rest of the world.                         

TopicsChina IMF RegionsEast Asia

The Damage to U.S. Interests Abroad of Domestic Political Intemperance

Paul Pillar

Tom Cotton's sophomoric stunt of an open letter to the Iranians telling them not to have confidence in whatever the United States puts on the negotiating table has received the broad and swift condemnation it deserves. Some of the strong criticism has come from editorial pages and other sources of commentary that generally are not very friendly toward the Obama administration in general or even to its policies on Iran in particular. A bright side to this incident that embarrasses and disgraces half of the United States Senate comes in the clarity it provides in terms of what games are being played and what is at stake. Even before this latest antic, Cotton deserved credit for being more honest about his objective than most of his colleagues who are engaged in the same destructive efforts to undermine diplomacy on Iran. Cotton has stated openly and explicitly that his goal is to kill off any agreement at all with Iran. Unlike many others, he has not tried to fool us with the subterfuge that legislative sabotage is aimed at getting a chimerical “better deal” with Iran. Now with the letter, the unwritten alliance between American hardliners and Iranian hardliners in opposing any agreement is made more open than ever.

What is going on here is not just the work of Tom Cotton. The outrageous letter to the Iranians flows naturally from a broader ongoing process. The fact that the great majority of Republican senators signed the letter is the most obvious indication of that. There no doubt is today much regret in the senatorial offices involved, but the fact is that 47 of them signed it. There are a couple of possible interpretations of what took place among the members, neither of which makes those members look good. One is that they are so distracted or careless that they can let a 37-year-old who has been in the Senate only two months rope them into doing something this stupid. The other, which is the more plausible interpretation, is that Cotton's letter was only the latest vehicle for a journey that the whole party has already been taking for some time.

The letter was a natural next step after bringing Benjamin Netanyahu to the Capitol for the express purpose of denouncing and opposing U.S. policy toward Iran. In each case it was a matter of Congressional Republicans enlisting foreigners to try to sabotage a major element of current U.S. foreign policy. Because Israel is considered an “ally,” Netanyahu got to use the podium in the House chamber whereas Iranian hardliners do not get that privilege. But the fundamental nature and purpose of what was taking place was the same.

The impact of all of this on the immediate prospects for completing a nuclear deal between the P5+1 and Iran is certainly important and has been the subject of much of the immediate commentary about the letter. There is a basis for optimism that this clownish overplaying of their hand by some of those who would like to sabotage the diplomacy will lessen the danger of such sabotage. The episode at least demonstrates why, if one wants U.S. policy toward Iran to be formulated and executed in a responsible and adult way, then for the time being the less Congressional involvement there is the better.

We ought to reflect also, however, on how the kind of irresponsible behavior we have just seen is part of a bigger pattern that goes well beyond policy toward Iran and has deleterious effects on U.S. interests abroad besides what happens to an Iranian nuclear deal. This behavior damages U.S. credibility. There is an irony here in that some of those who signed Cotton's letter have been among those who have bemoaned supposed diminishing of America's international credibility because of other matters, usually involving issues of whether the United States should persist in prosecuting overseas military operations where any direct U.S. interests being protected are questionable. U.S. credibility is not determined by military doggedness in such situations. It is partly determined by the United States living up to negotiated multilateral agreements that are clearly in its interests, as would be the case with a P5+1 agreement to restrict Iran's nuclear program. Probably the single most remarkable—and egregious—aspect of the Cotton letter is that it was blatantly and expressly designed to damage U.S. credibility. In the future, it will lack credibility for any signatory of this letter to complain about alleged damage to U.S. credibility regarding anything else.

The connection between the sort of behavior we are talking about and the standing of the United States overseas, however, is even broader than that and extends to the handling of domestic policy. Foreigners and foreign governments observe how the United States, the superpower with the world's largest economy, handles its own affairs, and they draw conclusions about how viable and reliable an interlocutor the United States would be on international matters. The foreigners are looking to see whether there is consistency and rationality in how the U.S. political system pursues U.S. national interests. If they do see those things, then the United States is someone they can do business with, whether as a rival or as an ally, even if U.S. interests differ from their own. If they do not see those things, then opportunities are lost for doing business that would benefit both the United States and the foreign state.

A nation does not represent itself as a viable interlocutor, whose execution of policy can be trusted by other nations, if passionate internal divisions supersede sober pursuit of the nation's interests. As an outsider we encounter such situations in, say, Iraq, where sectarian loyalties and hatreds make it impossible to rely on a government in Baghdad consistently pursuing an Iraqi national interest. We also see it in Bangladesh, where the personal animosity between the “two begums” who head each of the major political parties there have made Bangladeshi politics so dysfunctional that in the recent past the military has had to step in.

A pattern that is similar in some respects has, tragically, come to prevail in the United States. Foreigners could hear the then minority (now majority) leader of the United States Senate state a few years ago that his number one priority was not any particular U.S. national interest in either domestic or foreign affairs but instead the prevention of a second term for the incumbent U.S. president. Foreigners then were able to see the senator's party act along the same lines, using extortionate legislative methods to push a partisan agenda even at the expense of damaging the country's credit rating and causing disruptive interruptions to government operations. Once the same party achieved a majority in both houses of Congress there was much talk about how this would lead to newly responsible behavior, but the opening gavel of the new Congress had hardly fallen when once again there was the tactic of holding the operations of a government department hostage to press a specific partisan demand (this time on immigration) in opposition to the president's policies.

Foreigners can see today in the same party an animosity toward the other party and especially to the current U.S. president that is as passionate as the sectarian hatreds in Iraq or the personal hatreds between the begums in Bangladesh, and that leads to at-all-costs efforts to defeat any achievements by this president. The biggest such achievement in foreign policy would be an accord to restrict the Iranian nuclear program—hence all the pulling out of stops, aided by the role of Netanyahu and the Iranian hardliners, to defeat such an agreement. The biggest achievement in domestic policy has been the Affordable Care Act—hence while those proverbial crumbling roads and bridges in the U.S. infrastructure continue to crumble, the House of Representatives spends its time and effort on voting 56 times to repeal the Act. The campaign to destroy Obamacare has become an Ahab-against-the-white-whale obsession that is being endlessly pursued despite mounting evidence of the Act's success; observant foreigners must be shaking their heads wondering how a country in which such obsessions govern the political system ever got to be a superpower.

The closing of eyes even to the performance of public programs within the United States is but one example of an all-too-conspicuous denial of reality on other matters. Senator James Inhofe, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, gave another demonstration of this the other day when he tossed a snowball in the Senate chamber to emphasize his disbelief in climate change, a prank that rivals what the youngster Cotton has done in demeaning the world's supposedly greatest deliberative body. The foreign perceptions of all this that matter include not only whether CO2-belching China will live up to its side of international agreements to save the planet but also more broadly what foreigners think about the prospect of doing any business on anything with a government that has a major part of it so far apart from the reality-based community and so disinclined to work responsibly on behalf of its own national interests.

Senator Cotton's letter deserves all the scorn it has received as far as the Iranian nuclear issue is concerned. It also should dismay us because of the bigger problem it illustrates of domestic political passions undermining the standing of the United States in the world and its ability to do business with the rest of the world.                                                   

TopicsIran Congress RegionsMiddle East

The CIA and the Cult of Reorganization

Paul Pillar

Re-arranging bureaucracies has long been a favorite Washington way of pretending to make improvements. It is a handy recourse in the absence of good ideas to make real improvement. Revising a wiring diagram is the sort of change that can be made visible to the outside world. It does not require reaching consensus about significant increases or decreases in the priority given particular programs or their budgets. It offers a basis for convincing ourselves that the bureaucracies involved will perform better, even if the main reasons we don't get everything we would like to get from those bureaucracies are to be found in the inherent, unavoidable challenges of the tasks they are assigned to perform.

The urge to reorganize is not limited to government. Revising wiring diagrams is alluring to senior managers in private sector organizations as well. It is a way of showing initiative and appearing to be dedicated both to improving the organization and keeping pace with changes in the outside world. It is one of the most visible ways for any senior manager to leave a mark and establish a legacy.

Now the Central Intelligence Agency is being hit again with the reorganization bug, with changes that director John Brennan announced last week. The intelligence community has been subjected to this sort of thing at least as much as other parts of the federal bureaucracy. The most notable instance was a reorganization of the community a decade ago as the most visible part of the 9/11 Commission's response to a popular demand to shake things up after a terrible terrorist attack. That change added new bureaucracy on top of continuing old organizations, and in the years since has given us little or no reason to believe that it was a net improvement.

The principal feature of the changes that Brennan announced is to move all of the agency's operational and analytical work, and not just selected parts of it, into integrated “mission centers” covering issue areas defined either geographically or functionally. As with most other reorganizations, both criticism and praise tend to be overstated. Any change in a bureaucracy's performance, for good or for ill, resulting from changing the wiring diagram will not be nearly as pronounced as either critics or promoters usually would lead us to believe.

A criticism of this newest reorganization, for example, is that it would lead to still more focus on current doings at the expense of longer-range analysis. But within each issue area there is no reason to believe that worthwhile long-range analysis cannot be done in the mission centers. Another line of criticism involves a feared compromise of the integrity of analysis because of overly close association of the analysts with operators. This would only be a problem, however, where covert action is involved. Although some unfortunate experiences involving Central America in the 1980s demonstrate the corrupting potential, covert action—despite the public image of what the CIA does—constitutes a small (and usually well-compartmented) portion of the agency's work. There is a substantial hazard of policy preferences influencing analysis stemming from relations with policy-makers, but that is a separate matter from relations between analysts and operators within an intelligence agency.

The justification for the changes is also overstated—or fuzzy and hardly compelling. Mark Mazzetti's article in the New York Times about the announced changes mentions that Brennan relied heavily on “management jargon” to try to explain and justify what he was doing. There were all the unsurprising buzzwords about needing to “wring efficiencies” out of the system and having to modernize and about not wanting to become as obsolete as Kodak, but how this makes one particular wiring diagram better than another one is difficult to see. Brennan talked about the “array of very challenging, complex and serious threats to our national security”—the sort of language that any CIA director, at any time, uses—but what does that say about the supposed advantages of a particular organizational scheme? He said a central aim was to eliminate “seams” in coverage, but aren't there seams in any organizational arrangement, including the seams that will exist between the mission centers?

The particular organizational issues involving the CIA entail, as many such issues in other organizations do, inherent trade-offs, with each possible wiring diagram presenting both advantages and disadvantages when compared to other possible schemes. The main advantage of the announced new arrangement is to make the interface between analysts and collectors working on the same substantive issue as close and smooth as possible. This helps the analysts to understand better the sources of some of the information on which they are relying, and it helps the collectors to understand how the information they are collecting is being used and where are the most important information gaps that still need to be filled.

A significant disadvantage is that bureaucratizing whatever is considered at the moment to be worthy of its own mission center makes for a less flexible and less nimble organization as issues change and especially as new (and sometimes difficult to recognize initially as important) issues emerge. The seeds of future intelligence failures can be found in the seams between the centers. Interface is important not just between collectors and analysts but also between analysts working issues that are different but may turn out to be related in important ways.

Another set of disadvantages stems from breaking up what would otherwise have been critical masses of people working in the same discipline and with the same skill set. Doing so is generally not conducive to enhancing specialized skills, whether those skills involve the craft of espionage, or of analysis, or something else. Particular mission centers, depending on who leads them and what are the relative weights of different types of people assigned to them, may tend to be co-opted by certain disciplines at the expense of the necessary professional care and feeding of those in other disciplines. The further separation of missions and operational control from the management of employees' careers (and the new scheme will retain existing directorates, including those for operations and for analysis, for that latter purpose) will tend to exacerbate issues of personnel management, including loosening the tie between effective contribution to a specific assigned mission and reward in the form of promotions. Retention of the existing directorate structure in addition to more mission centers also makes the whole organizational structure of the agency more complicated.

A principle too rarely recognized is that the advantages of a new organizational structure are uncertain (when compared to the existing structure, which is apt to have to have evolved over time as experience has shown what works and what doesn't), but the costs and disruptions associated with any major reorganization are certain and substantial. The disruption involves everything from having to forge new relationships with bosses, co-workers, and customers, to having to figure out exactly where new lines of responsibility are to be drawn. Rather than impeding accomplishment of the mission with such disruption, it often is better just to let people get on with their jobs—although anyone who makes this observation risks being rebuked as a stuck-in-the-mud resistor of change.

In the face of the inevitable trade-offs, the current organizational arrangement in the CIA, in which there are some integrated centers for selected issues such as terrorism but not for everything, is probably a reasonable compromise. Unmentioned in much of the commentary so far on the announced changes is how much had already been done, outside the centers, to enhance communication and cooperation between collectors and analysts. This includes physical changes made years ago to locate in adjacent office space the analysts and operations officers working on the same geographic areas.

What we most need to be wary of with these latest announced changes in the CIA's organization is not some wave of corrupting influences that will destroy the integrity of analysis. We should instead ask whether this is yet another of the many examples of a senior manager using reorganization to try to make his mark and leave a legacy, especially a legacy that won't be centered on unflattering matters such as strained relations with Congressional oversight committees.                           



TopicsIntelligence RegionsUnited States

The Dressing Up of Bibi's Speech

Paul Pillar

There was so much that was improper about one political party giving a foreign leader a privileged platform in the U.S. Congress for the purpose of undermining U.S. foreign policy, and so much understandable criticism of this improper action, that what now sounds like a responsible and “sober” thing to say, as Shai Feldman presents himself as saying at The National Interest, is that we should not get distracted by all the commotion over how Benjamin Netanyahu came to give his speech, even though there may be grounds for criticizing his strategy in giving the speech, but instead should take seriously the substance of what he said. This posture sounds so reasonable that one can plausibly imagine Netanyahu and his American acolytes welcoming controversy over the unrespectable way in which the speech came about so that the substance of the speech would, by comparison, sound more respectable than it really was.

We should not be deceived by any such framing strategy. No matter how successfully we can put out of our minds the impropriety of giving any foreign leader this platform for this kind of purpose and the underhanded way the platform was given, the most sober possible appraisal of the speech is that it was (besides being in some respects a skillful oration) a scaremongering, internally inconsistent rant aimed at tying the hands of the makers of U.S. foreign policy. President Obama was stating the obvious when he remarked that Netanyahu offered no alternative to what the United States and its five foreign partners have been endeavoring to do for the past year and a half in negotiating an agreement to keep Iran's nuclear program peaceful.

Feldman states that a reading of the speech shows that “Israel's Prime Minister did not travel to Washington to prevent any deal with Iran.” Of course Netanyahu didn't say that was his purpose; if he had said that, he would have been blatantly and stupidly presenting himself as an incorrigible obstructionist. It makes much more tactical sense for him to sustain the impression that with the right terms he would accept an agreement with Iran—somewhat like how he has tried to sustain the impression that with the right terms he would accept an agreement creating a Palestinian state. But the only plausible interpretation of Netanyahu's behavior throughout on this issue is that preventing any agreement with Tehran is precisely his objective. Actions speak louder than words in understanding what he is trying to do, especially the action of trying hard to kill the best, and probably for the foreseeable future the only, opportunity to place restrictions on the Iranian nuclear program.

So what is supposedly the alternative formula that Netanyahu would accept? According to Netanyahu, and to Feldman, it's a “better deal.” That's it; don't expect anything more specific. Of course everyone would like a “better deal”; what do you suppose the U.S. Secretary of State has been spending an enormous amount of time and effort trying to achieve in those long negotiations? Whatever are the terms that Netanyahu supposedly would bless, all we know is that they would not be whatever terms emerge from the current negotiations. And given the prime minister's history of goalpost-moving, we have good reason to expect that no agreement, no matter what the terms, would ever get his support. When he was displaying his cartoon bomb at the United Nations, stopping Iran's medium-level enrichment of uranium was supposedly the main concern, but he later denounced a preliminary agreement with Iran that achieved, along with other measures, exactly that objective. Once a one-year “breakout” time sounded like it would be acceptable to Netanyahu in comparison with the couple of months without an agreement, but now that the Obama administration appears to be sticking firmly to that one-year figure Netanyahu seems to want more (but just how much more we are left to wonder). Formerly the sine qua non of any agreement of Iran was to halt the advance of the nuclear program, but now that the negotiators seem on the brink of achieving a deal on that supposedly overriding issue, Netanyahu is talking more (as Feldman himself notes) about bringing in other issues involving other forms of Iranian behavior. And so on.

According to Netanyahu, achieving a “better deal” is a simple matter of pressuring Iran with more sanctions. But the entire history of the nuclear issue and of Iran's other behavior, along with the realities of human nature, strongly suggest that this notion is a fantasy. We have direct, compelling experience of failure with this; when the sanctions screws were applied to Iran after the United States rejected the last previous opportunity to strike a deal on the subject with Tehran, the result was substantial expansion of the Iranian nuclear program over the subsequent decade.

Nancy Pelosi accurately commented that Netanyahu's lecturing about threats from Iran and about nuclear proliferation was an “insult to the intelligence of the United States.” It would be an insult to the intelligence of Benjamin Netanyahu to suggest that he doesn't understand fully that there is not some “better deal” that somehow would materialize and that rejection of whatever agreement emerges from the current negotiations would mean having no agreement at all.

Feldman turns to another theme that anti-agreement forces have increasingly seized upon of late, and he tries to make Netanyahu sound reasonable about that, too. This is the certainty that an agreement will have “sunset” provisions such that Iran would not be kept in international purgatory forever. Feldman's excuse for Netanyahu believing that Iran should be kept in purgatory forever is that “Iran remains committed to Israel's destruction.” Any discussion of policy toward Iran that claims to be sober would be well-advised to dispose of that trope. Iran is not committed to Israel's destruction, although it has had leaders who have used language that in the retelling and mistranslation gets so construed. Even if Iranian leaders did want to destroy Israel they realize it would be impossible for them to do so. They also realize that any attempt to do so would lead Israel to wreak far greater destruction on them in return.

With or without the tropes, the whole anti-agreement line of argument resting on sunset provisions is no more logical coming out of Netanyahu's mouth than it has been coming out of others. The principal reasons the argument doesn't make sense are nicely reviewed in John Allen Gay's dismantling of a similar line of argument from Ray Takeyh, who posited a strange scenario of the Iranian supreme leader planning to lie in ambush for a decade before springing a nuclear weapon on the world. One of the most glaring illogicalities of the whole anti-sunset idea is that to use this as an excuse for opposing the product of the current negotiations is to say that, while assuming the worst about Iranian intentions, we would rather face the consequences of an unrestrained Iranian nuclear program today than face it after it has been under ten years of restrictions. Besides, sunset provisions are standard diplomatic stuff, even in agreements that have been reached with Evil Empires.

Feldman talks about the need to “test” Iranian behavior over time. That is exactly what any nuclear deal, with a sunset provision, would entail. Whatever the time period involved, at the end of it Iran would face all the same disincentives, involving economic sanctions and maybe even military attack, against violating its continuing obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. In fact, if prospect theory is valid, the Iranians would feel even greater disincentive than they do now, given that such behavior would mean losing whatever economic gains they had gotten in the meantime in the form of sanctions relief.

Feldman, quoting Netanyahu, makes it sound as if there would be some open-minded “testing” of Iranian behavior, but they are not talking about observance of the provisions of a nuclear accord, and about how a decade or so of Iranian observance of the terms of the agreement would be a huge piece of evidence confirming Iran's commitment to a future without owning nuclear weapons. They are instead, in more goalpost-moving, talking about other Iranian behavior they say they don't like, and declaring that Iran should be required among other things to (in Feldman's words) “abandon...its commitment to Israel's destruction.” How exactly is Iran supposed to do that, especially if it is not committed to that objective in the first place? And how do you write something like that into an agreement?

Unmentioned in Feldman's piece are the glaring inconsistencies in Netanyahu's speech. Roger Cohen notes one of them, in which in one breath Netanyahu portrays Iran as a regional juggernaut that is “gobbling” up other countries and in a different breath says it is a “very vulnerable regime” on the brink of folding. “Well,” asks Cohen, “which is it?” One might also note inconsistency in portrayal of Iranian leaders as, on one hand, irrational, undeterrable religious fanatics who don't think like the rest of us and could never be trusted with dangerous weapons and, on the other hand, as people who, if faced with economic sanctions being cranked up a few more notches, would carefully count the hit to their foreign exchange earnings and make more concessions at the negotiating table. Again, which is it?

Feldman concludes with criticism of Netanyahu's political approach that has endangered Israel's relations with parts of the American political elite. But for U.S. citizens concerned about U.S. interests that is not the main problem in anything Netanyahu has done. The main problem is with a foreign government trying to prevent the United States from pursuing U.S. interests and international security with all the diplomatic and other tools available to it.                               

TopicsIran Israel RegionsMiddle East

An Agreement That Is Good for Israel, Bad for Netanyahu

Paul Pillar

One of the strangest aspects of the frantic crying of alarm over Iran's nuclear program—with the crying having reached its most publicized peak in Benjamin Netanyahu's Republican/Likud campaign rally in the House chamber—is that the chief crier is the government of a country that not only has the most advanced nuclear program in the Middle East but has kept that program completely out of the reach and scrutiny of any international control and inspection regime. It is hard to think of a better example in international politics of the pot calling the kettle black, and in this case the pot is much blacker than the kettle—and was so even before Iran put its program under the unprecedented restrictions and intrusive inspections to which it agreed more than a year ago in negotiations with the United States and the rest of the P5+1. As for any military dimensions (the focus, of course, of all that crying when it comes to Iran), although neither Israel nor the United States says publicly that Israel has nuclear weapons, just about everyone else on the planet who says anything on the subject takes it as a given that it does, and that it has a fairly sizable arsenal of such weapons.

The person outside government who has studied the Israeli nuclear program most extensively is Avner Cohen, an Israeli-born scholar currently based in the United States. Cohen has written two books on the subject, Israel and the Bomb and The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel's Bargain with the Bomb. He probably knows more than anyone outside the Israeli government about the Israeli program and the strategic thinking underlying it. It thus is especially interesting to hear what Cohen has to say about the current battle over the Iranian program. In a commentary just published in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Cohen writes about how, as I discussed the other day, the actions and lobbying of Benjamin Netanyahu are at odds with his own alarmist rhetoric, and about what this implies concerning Netanyahu's motivations.

Cohen criticizes Netanyahu's drumbeat message that the agreement being negotiated would be very bad for Israel; he notes the “potential advantages” of the agreement, which is from the standpoint of Israel's interests a “reasonable compromise.” He points out that the demand to prevent any Iranian enrichment of uranium will never be realized, and that the demand has no basis in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Cohen goes on to state that the emerging agreement “also contains unique advantages barely discussed in Israel. It clearly distances Iran from a nuclear bomb—from a few weeks as was the case in 2012 to about a year. Most importantly, it establishes a regime of safeguards and transparency for almost a generation.”

Cohen concludes by pointedly describing what Netanyahu's scaremongering efforts are really all about, which have to do with Netanyahu having made such alarmism his political signature music, on which he relies both to maintain political power in Israel and to rationalize his policies to the outside world:

“Despite its flaws, the proposed agreement is far from bad for Israel—the only nuclear power in the Middle East—but it is very bad for Netanyahu. The agreement offers Israel almost a generation, or even more if it succeeds, in which Netanyahu won’t be able to sow fear about Iran as an existential danger. It would leave Netanyahu as a leader whose raison d’être has been taken away from him.”

Netanyahu's narrowly-motivated efforts to destroy the diplomacy with Iran are not only directly contrary to U.S. interests; they also are contrary to Israel's interests. Those who really do care about Israel and its security, rather than just ritualistically referring to them while swaying and bobbing up and down to Netanyahu's music, need to realize that. 

TopicsIsrael Iran RegionsMiddle East

The Real Subject of Netanyahu's Congressional Spectacle (It Isn't Nukes)

Paul Pillar

Benjamin Netanyahu will talk next week, as he has innumerable times before, about how an Iranian nuclear weapon is supposedly an extremely grave and imminent (he has been saying for years that it is just around the corner) threat to world peace and to his nation. There has been genuine concern in Israel about this subject, but Netanyahu's own behavior and posture indicate this is not the concern that is driving his conduct and in particular his diplomacy-wrecking efforts. He is acting out of other motives, ones that—quite unlike the objective of avoiding an Iranian nuclear weapon—are not shared with the United States and instead directly conflict with U.S. interests.

There have been plenty of reasons to doubt all along Netanyahu's alarmist rhetoric. There has been his history of wolf-crying on the subject, against the background of an Iran that has not even decided to build a nuclear weapon. There is the further background of Israel's overwhelming military superiority in the region, at not only the conventional level but also at the level about which Netanyahu is raising such alarm. And there are the repeated indications that his alarmism goes beyond what even his own security services believe.

But even those reasons are not the main ones to conclude that Netanyahu is not acting on behalf of precluding an Iranian nuclear weapon. The main, and most obvious, reason is that he is pushing for an outcome that would remove restrictions and enhanced monitoring of the Iranian nuclear program and would give the Iranians more freedom to expand that program than they otherwise would have. That would be the result of destroying the negotiation process that Netanyahu is trying to destroy, while destroying along with it the preliminary agreement that has kept the Iranian program more heavily restricted and monitored than it had ever been before. An absence of agreement is the only plausible alternative to whatever agreement emerges from the current negotiations, and Netanyahu is smart enough to realize that.

The made-for-TV (and for Israeli campaign ads) platform in the House of Representatives chamber does not give members of Congress an opportunity to ask questions of Netanyahu. All that members can do is to bob up and down out of their seats in a gluteus-abusing way of supposedly expressing their “support for Israel.” But if they could ask questions, the glaring question begging to be asked is, “Mr. Prime Minister, if you really are so concerned about the possibility of the Iranian nuclear program leading to a nuclear weapon, why are you urging us to take actions that would result in that program having fewer restrictions, and less international monitoring, than it otherwise would?”

The prime objective that Netanyahu is pursuing, and that is quite consistent with his lobbying and other behavior, is not the prevention of an Iranian nuclear weapon but instead the prevention of any agreement with Iran. It is not the specific terms of an agreement that are most important to him, but instead whether there is to be any agreement at all. Netanyahu's defense minister recently made the nature of the objective explicit when he denounced in advance “every deal” that could be made between the West and Tehran. As accompaniments to an absence of any agreements between the West and Iran, the Israeli government's objective includes permanent pariah status for Iran and in particular an absence of any business being done, on any subject, between Washington and Tehran.

From Netanyahu's viewpoint this objective serves several purposes. It diminishes the freedom of action of a major competitor (the second most populous country in the Middle East) for regional influence, and one that will continue to be highly critical of Israel as long as the Palestinian issue endures. By postulating a permanent, ominous threat emanating from Iran, one of the assumptions underlying a U.S. strategic relationship with Israel is retained. By opposing—and to the extent Israeli efforts are successful, preventing—the United States from doing any worthwhile business with Iran, whether on nuclear matters or on anything else, the Israeli claim to being the only reliable and effective U.S. partner in the region sounds more convincing.

The specter of Iran and especially of its nuclear program also serves as the best possible distraction and diversion from issues in which Israel is the chief problem and that Netanyahu and his government would rather not talk about. This especially includes, of course, the continued Israeli occupation of, and policies in, Palestinian territory. Netanyahu repeatedly and quickly responds to efforts by others to engage on these other issues, and especially to any direct criticism of Israeli policies, by reminding us that Iran is the “real” threat to peace and security in the region. Permanent festering of the Iranian nuclear issue serves Netanyahu's objectives better than any resolution of the issue would.

The United States does not share an interest in any of these objectives, and some of them are clearly contrary to U.S. interests. The United States does not have an interest in blanket favoring of any one competitor for regional influence over others; it instead has interests in many individual issues, on some of which its interests might align with those of particular regional players and on others of which it may share interests with other players. It is contrary to U.S. interests to give the right-wing Israeli government any means to perpetuate the occupation and the unresolved conflict with the Palestinians, given the multiple ways, including having the United States share blame for the occupation in the eyes of most Middle Easterners, that the occupation redounds to the disadvantage of the United States.

Probably the most direct conflict with U.S. interests comes from Netanyahu in effect telling the United States that it cannot do business with certain other countries, and that it cannot fully use its diplomatic tools to pursue U.S. interests as it sees fit. It is in the U.S. interest to use diplomacy with Iran, most obviously and immediately to restrict the Iranian nuclear program but also potentially on many other issues of importance to the United States. Netanyahu is trying to keep one of the United States' hands tied behind its back. He is trying to restrict the freedom of action not just of Iran but of the United States.  That is bad for U.S. interests no matter what party is in power in Washington, no matter who is the U.S. president, no matter what other countries U.S. diplomacy may touch, and no matter what specific policies the U.S. administration of the day may want to achieve and ought to have both hands free to try to achieve.

Amid all the understandable controversy about the highly inappropriate way in which Netanyahu's Congressional appearance has come about, there have been appeals to focus on the substance at hand. Good advice—as long as we recognize the actual substance and the actual game being played. We should not be diverted by the scaremongering rhetoric from the man at the podium, who is acting so inconsistently with the implications of his own rhetoric, any more than we should dwell forever on the underhanded political games that got him there. In between the bounces on their seats, members of Congress should think hard about whether it is Likud's interests or U.S. interests that they have at heart, and how efforts associated with the former are undermining the latter.                                               

TopicsIsrael Iran RegionsMiddle East

Are Americans Sliding Into Another War?

Paul Pillar

The current U.S. administration has wrapped up U.S. involvement in a mistaken war in Iraq (albeit on a schedule set by the previous administration, and with subsequent reintroduction of some U.S. military personnel into Iraq), has wound down U.S. involvement in a war in Afghanistan that had metamorphosed from a counterterrorist operation into a nation-building attempt (albeit only after an Obama-era “surge” and now with apparent second thoughts about how much longer the 13-year-old U.S. military involvement will continue), and has resisted pressure to throw U.S. troops into the civil war in Syria (albeit while employing other forms of U.S. military involvement, including airstrikes). The general direction of the administration's policies (though not some of the exceptions and detours) has been sound in terms of both the proper criteria for expending American blood and treasure and the effectiveness, or limitations thereof, of applying U.S. military force in internal conflicts such as the ones in those lands. Some observers would say that this overall direction also has been good politics given the lack of enthusiasm of the American public, still feeling some effects of an Iraq War syndrome, for getting involved any time soon in anything that could be described as—in the legally fuzzy but politically relevant term in the administration's draft authorization for use of military force against ISIS—“enduring offensive ground combat operations.”

That last element may be changing. A just-released poll of American opinion by the Pew Research Center shows a significant shift in the last few months in favor of more extensive use of military force against ISIS. A question asked in October 2014 about possible use of ground forces against the group showed 39 percent in favor and 55 percent opposed. The same question in February 2015 showed an almost even split: 47 percent in favor and 49 percent opposed. There have been comparable shifts over the past year in responses to questions about support for the overall campaign against ISIS and about the best approach to “defeating global terrorism.” On that last question, those saying “using overwhelming military force is the best way to defeat terrorism” rose from 37 percent in March 2014 to 47 percent in February 2015. Those saying that “relying too much on military force to defeat terrorism creates hatred and more terrorism” decreased from 57 percent to 46 percent.

Several patterns in American public attitudes toward—and hence also in the political handling of—use of military force are at work in the views recorded by such polls, and have been displayed repeatedly in the past. One is that sentiments, either for or against use of military force, fade over time as whatever gave rise to the sentiment recedes farther into the past. There is regression toward the mean. This is true of militancy-stoking events, but it also is true of war-avoiding syndromes following failed wars.

Also at work is a heavy dose of emotion, usually embracing anger as well as fear, associated with the militancy-stoking events but also resting on beliefs that such events signify some broader threat. Probably the most glaring example is the American public response to the 9/11 terrorist attack, which involved an abrupt upward surge in militancy and in the willingness of the American public to use military force. The emotion concentrated on that one event was associated in the public mind with a broader perceived terrorist threat against the United States. The slide of the United States into the Vietnam War featured specific emotion-arousing incidents such as attacks (or supposed attacks) against U.S. warships in the Gulf of Tonkin, seen as manifestations of a larger Communist threat against U.S. interests.

Today ISIS arouses emotions especially with its grisly killings of captives, including Americans and other Westerners. There is again a popular perception of a connection with broader and more direct threats against the West and the United States. The significant shift over the past four months in sentiment about use of force against ISIS is probably connected to high-profile attacks in Western cities that—even though there may be little or no organizational connection to the ISIS that is waging war in Iraq and Syria—have been seen in the American public mind as all part of the same threat, and a threat to which the United States is vulnerable. Polling five months ago was already showing a large majority of Americans believing that ISIS had resources in place to conduct attacks within the United States.

Another mechanism in play is a classic form of the slippery slope, in which even a small degree of commitment to some objective overseas leads incrementally to larger commitments of resources on behalf of the same objective. The main decisions of the Johnson administration in the mid-1960s to escalate in a big way in Vietnam were based directly on the positing of the objective during the Kennedy administration of keeping South Vietnam non-Communist. The makers of the Iraq War in the George W. Bush administration were able to point to legislation signed by President Clinton that declared regime change in Iraq to be a U.S. policy objective, and to ask whether the United States was going to act to realize that objective. Besides the sheer slipperiness of such slopes, there also is commonly invoked the argument, however invalid, that U.S. credibility would suffer if the United States were to back away from any such objectives or perceived objectives.

Finally, not least important, partisanship and fears of domestic political losses often are a major factor. When Lyndon Johnson was deciding how to respond to the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964 he was running for his own presidential term against Barry Goldwater, who was beating the drums about Vietnam, criticizing the president (in Goldwater's acceptance speech at the Republican convention) for not clearly indicating “whether or not the objective over there is victory,” and saying, “I needn't remind you, but I will, it has been during Democratic years that a billion persons were cast into Communist captivity and their fates cynically sealed.”

And now, Republican presidential contenders see a push for more extensive U.S. military involvement against ISIS as an opportune, or maybe even a necessary, campaign strategy. As Jonathan Martin and Jeremy Peters write in the New York Times, this tack “is a tacit acknowledgment by Republicans that, with the economy improving, they need another issue to distinguish themselves from Democrats. And it offers them a way to link former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to President Obama on an issue where the president's approval ratings are weakening.”

Note that none of these factors shaping popular sentiment, and its reflection in what the political class says, are ingredients in sound foreign policy. They are instead a matter of popular inattention, public emotion, the hazards of incremental decision-making, and partisan politicking. Such things have led the United States in the past into bad, costly policies overseas, and they could do so again.

Note also that the American public doesn't seek long, costly wars. Americans just think, mistakenly as it has sometimes turned out, that uses of military force they do favor will be short and not all that costly. The pollster John Zogby notes that although public support for use of military force against terrorists was quite high in the wake of 9/11, the degree of support went down precipitously if the question projected a duration of the use of military force extending beyond a couple of years.

A lesson is to be very careful in the early stages of an overseas commitment, keeping in mind that it could be the first part of a slippery slope even if it is not immediately recognizable as such, and to eschew objectives the pursuit of which could become much costlier in the future than they are so far. Some past disasters might have been averted near the beginning of the slide if this sort of thinking had prevailed. This would have meant avoiding, two or three years before Johnson escalated the country into what we know as the Vietnam War, any declaration that Communist unification of Vietnam was a major U.S. objective. It also would have meant not enshrining as the law of the land in the 1990s an objective of regime change in Iraq.

The poll results about growing public support for use of ground troops against ISIS are an indication that we may again be on the first part of a slide into a larger war. We might not go far down the slide during the remainder of Barack Obama's term, but that guarantees nothing about what will subsequently happen regarding U.S. involvement in Iraq and Syria. Although it is possible that ISIS will flame out by then, that isn't guaranteed either. The civil war in Syria in particular seems likely to be long-lasting. And even if ISIS isn't generating as much fear a couple of years ago as it is now, we no doubt will hear reminders about how removal of the Assad regime was supposedly a U.S. objective too.                                                 

TopicsIraq Syria ISIS RegionsMiddle East