Blogs: Paul Pillar

ISIS and Endlessly Expanding War

Asymmetry in Syria and the Russian Drawdown

Obama the Realist

Paul Pillar

Pay heed to geopolitics. This is closely related to the specific need to take full account of how other states view their interests and the relative priority they place on those interests—and thus to what extent those states are or are not amenable to changing their policies. As basic a variable as geographic distance has a lot to do with how interests are defined. This applies to Mr. Obama's analysis of Middle Eastern problems, in which Middle Easterners themselves have a bigger stake than anyone else. It also applies to his perspective on Ukraine; he understands that Ukraine involves core Russian interests but not core American ones, and therefore Russia will always have escalatory dominance there.

Recognizing a problem is not the same as being able to solve it. The all-too-common notion that must be resisted here is one that flows from overoptimistic American exceptionalism. It is a notion that often leads to assumptions that if a situation is identified as a problem then that means it must be “the policy” of the United States to eliminate it somehow. It is the notion that, in President Obama's words, “if we use our moral authority to say 'This is a brutal regime, and this is not how a leader should treat his people,' once you've said that, once you do that, you are obliged to invade the country and install a government you prefer.” As the president correctly observes, “There are going to be times where we can do something about innocent people being killed, but there are going to be times where we can't.”

Solving a problem does not necessarily mean it is the United States that should do most of the work in solving it. This is another tendency rooted in American exceptionalism. It is a tendency that causes free rider problems, which Mr. Obama explicitly wants to avoid. It does not serve U.S. interests for, as he says, the Europeans and Arab states to be “holding our coats” while the United States does “all the fighting.”

Trade-offs and hard choices are unavoidable. Not all good things go together, not all important U.S. interests will be well-served by any one policy option, and not all problems can be solved with the same resources. In defining himself as a realist the president said, “we have to choose where we can make a real impact.”

States have no permanent friends or allies, only permanent interests. Lord Palmerston's dictum applies just as much to the United States of today as it did to the Britain of his day. President Obama rightly looks beyond the usual ways, sustained by habit and political lobbies, of categorizing other states as allies or adversaries and considers what each state is actually doing for or against U.S. interests, while recognizing that each state is likely to present a mixture of both. Not being stuck in the usual habit means not needlessly taking sides in other people's quarrels. He says, for example, that the Saudis need to “share” the Middle East with their Iranian rivals. As he explains, “An approach that said to our friends 'You are right, Iran is the source of all problems, and we will support you in dealing with Iran' would essentially mean that as these sectarian conflicts continue to rage and our Gulf partners, our traditional friends, do not have the ability to put out the flames on their own or decisively win on their own, and would mean that we have to start coming in and using our military to settle scores. And that would be in the interest neither of the United States nor of the Middle East.”

Besides realist principles for addressing any set of problems, the president's interviews with Goldberg demonstrate a sound substantive understanding of leading current problems. This is partly a matter of accurately perceiving relative importance—that “ISIS is not an existential threat to the United States,” for example, while “climate change is a potential existential threat to the entire world if we don't do something about it.”

It also is a matter of insight into the underpinnings of any one problem. When Goldberg asked the president a question, having to do with ISIS and insecurity in the Middle East, that made reference to Thomas Hobbes, Goldberg acknowledged that he probably would get laughed out of the room by his fourth estate colleagues if he were to ask the same question at a presidential press conference, where the more accepted way to address such subjects would be—to quote a question actually asked at one such recent press conference—“Why can't we get the bastards?” Mr. Obama responded fully to Goldberg's version of the question with a reply that touched among other things on trends in social order, what causes order to break down, the influence of tribal affiliations, the stresses associated with globalization, and how extremist groups take advantage of such stresses. It was an answer that indicated profound understanding of the roots of much of what constitutes security problems in the Middle East today.

The interviews with Goldberg also indicate a commitment to careful, rigorous analysis of policy decisions—also essential to sound foreign policy—and a rejection of more emotional approaches. What this means, in the president's words, “is that you care so much that you want to get it right and you're not going to indulge in either impetuous or, in some cases, manufactured responses that make good sound bites but don't produce results. The stakes are too high to play those games.”

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The Latest on Non-Nefarious Iranian Behavior

Paul Pillar

Pay heed to geopolitics. This is closely related to the specific need to take full account of how other states view their interests and the relative priority they place on those interests—and thus to what extent those states are or are not amenable to changing their policies. As basic a variable as geographic distance has a lot to do with how interests are defined. This applies to Mr. Obama's analysis of Middle Eastern problems, in which Middle Easterners themselves have a bigger stake than anyone else. It also applies to his perspective on Ukraine; he understands that Ukraine involves core Russian interests but not core American ones, and therefore Russia will always have escalatory dominance there.

Recognizing a problem is not the same as being able to solve it. The all-too-common notion that must be resisted here is one that flows from overoptimistic American exceptionalism. It is a notion that often leads to assumptions that if a situation is identified as a problem then that means it must be “the policy” of the United States to eliminate it somehow. It is the notion that, in President Obama's words, “if we use our moral authority to say 'This is a brutal regime, and this is not how a leader should treat his people,' once you've said that, once you do that, you are obliged to invade the country and install a government you prefer.” As the president correctly observes, “There are going to be times where we can do something about innocent people being killed, but there are going to be times where we can't.”

Solving a problem does not necessarily mean it is the United States that should do most of the work in solving it. This is another tendency rooted in American exceptionalism. It is a tendency that causes free rider problems, which Mr. Obama explicitly wants to avoid. It does not serve U.S. interests for, as he says, the Europeans and Arab states to be “holding our coats” while the United States does “all the fighting.”

Trade-offs and hard choices are unavoidable. Not all good things go together, not all important U.S. interests will be well-served by any one policy option, and not all problems can be solved with the same resources. In defining himself as a realist the president said, “we have to choose where we can make a real impact.”

States have no permanent friends or allies, only permanent interests. Lord Palmerston's dictum applies just as much to the United States of today as it did to the Britain of his day. President Obama rightly looks beyond the usual ways, sustained by habit and political lobbies, of categorizing other states as allies or adversaries and considers what each state is actually doing for or against U.S. interests, while recognizing that each state is likely to present a mixture of both. Not being stuck in the usual habit means not needlessly taking sides in other people's quarrels. He says, for example, that the Saudis need to “share” the Middle East with their Iranian rivals. As he explains, “An approach that said to our friends 'You are right, Iran is the source of all problems, and we will support you in dealing with Iran' would essentially mean that as these sectarian conflicts continue to rage and our Gulf partners, our traditional friends, do not have the ability to put out the flames on their own or decisively win on their own, and would mean that we have to start coming in and using our military to settle scores. And that would be in the interest neither of the United States nor of the Middle East.”

Besides realist principles for addressing any set of problems, the president's interviews with Goldberg demonstrate a sound substantive understanding of leading current problems. This is partly a matter of accurately perceiving relative importance—that “ISIS is not an existential threat to the United States,” for example, while “climate change is a potential existential threat to the entire world if we don't do something about it.”

It also is a matter of insight into the underpinnings of any one problem. When Goldberg asked the president a question, having to do with ISIS and insecurity in the Middle East, that made reference to Thomas Hobbes, Goldberg acknowledged that he probably would get laughed out of the room by his fourth estate colleagues if he were to ask the same question at a presidential press conference, where the more accepted way to address such subjects would be—to quote a question actually asked at one such recent press conference—“Why can't we get the bastards?” Mr. Obama responded fully to Goldberg's version of the question with a reply that touched among other things on trends in social order, what causes order to break down, the influence of tribal affiliations, the stresses associated with globalization, and how extremist groups take advantage of such stresses. It was an answer that indicated profound understanding of the roots of much of what constitutes security problems in the Middle East today.

The interviews with Goldberg also indicate a commitment to careful, rigorous analysis of policy decisions—also essential to sound foreign policy—and a rejection of more emotional approaches. What this means, in the president's words, “is that you care so much that you want to get it right and you're not going to indulge in either impetuous or, in some cases, manufactured responses that make good sound bites but don't produce results. The stakes are too high to play those games.”

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Tribal Beliefs and American Political Parties

Paul Pillar

Pay heed to geopolitics. This is closely related to the specific need to take full account of how other states view their interests and the relative priority they place on those interests—and thus to what extent those states are or are not amenable to changing their policies. As basic a variable as geographic distance has a lot to do with how interests are defined. This applies to Mr. Obama's analysis of Middle Eastern problems, in which Middle Easterners themselves have a bigger stake than anyone else. It also applies to his perspective on Ukraine; he understands that Ukraine involves core Russian interests but not core American ones, and therefore Russia will always have escalatory dominance there.

Recognizing a problem is not the same as being able to solve it. The all-too-common notion that must be resisted here is one that flows from overoptimistic American exceptionalism. It is a notion that often leads to assumptions that if a situation is identified as a problem then that means it must be “the policy” of the United States to eliminate it somehow. It is the notion that, in President Obama's words, “if we use our moral authority to say 'This is a brutal regime, and this is not how a leader should treat his people,' once you've said that, once you do that, you are obliged to invade the country and install a government you prefer.” As the president correctly observes, “There are going to be times where we can do something about innocent people being killed, but there are going to be times where we can't.”

Solving a problem does not necessarily mean it is the United States that should do most of the work in solving it. This is another tendency rooted in American exceptionalism. It is a tendency that causes free rider problems, which Mr. Obama explicitly wants to avoid. It does not serve U.S. interests for, as he says, the Europeans and Arab states to be “holding our coats” while the United States does “all the fighting.”

Trade-offs and hard choices are unavoidable. Not all good things go together, not all important U.S. interests will be well-served by any one policy option, and not all problems can be solved with the same resources. In defining himself as a realist the president said, “we have to choose where we can make a real impact.”

States have no permanent friends or allies, only permanent interests. Lord Palmerston's dictum applies just as much to the United States of today as it did to the Britain of his day. President Obama rightly looks beyond the usual ways, sustained by habit and political lobbies, of categorizing other states as allies or adversaries and considers what each state is actually doing for or against U.S. interests, while recognizing that each state is likely to present a mixture of both. Not being stuck in the usual habit means not needlessly taking sides in other people's quarrels. He says, for example, that the Saudis need to “share” the Middle East with their Iranian rivals. As he explains, “An approach that said to our friends 'You are right, Iran is the source of all problems, and we will support you in dealing with Iran' would essentially mean that as these sectarian conflicts continue to rage and our Gulf partners, our traditional friends, do not have the ability to put out the flames on their own or decisively win on their own, and would mean that we have to start coming in and using our military to settle scores. And that would be in the interest neither of the United States nor of the Middle East.”

Besides realist principles for addressing any set of problems, the president's interviews with Goldberg demonstrate a sound substantive understanding of leading current problems. This is partly a matter of accurately perceiving relative importance—that “ISIS is not an existential threat to the United States,” for example, while “climate change is a potential existential threat to the entire world if we don't do something about it.”

It also is a matter of insight into the underpinnings of any one problem. When Goldberg asked the president a question, having to do with ISIS and insecurity in the Middle East, that made reference to Thomas Hobbes, Goldberg acknowledged that he probably would get laughed out of the room by his fourth estate colleagues if he were to ask the same question at a presidential press conference, where the more accepted way to address such subjects would be—to quote a question actually asked at one such recent press conference—“Why can't we get the bastards?” Mr. Obama responded fully to Goldberg's version of the question with a reply that touched among other things on trends in social order, what causes order to break down, the influence of tribal affiliations, the stresses associated with globalization, and how extremist groups take advantage of such stresses. It was an answer that indicated profound understanding of the roots of much of what constitutes security problems in the Middle East today.

The interviews with Goldberg also indicate a commitment to careful, rigorous analysis of policy decisions—also essential to sound foreign policy—and a rejection of more emotional approaches. What this means, in the president's words, “is that you care so much that you want to get it right and you're not going to indulge in either impetuous or, in some cases, manufactured responses that make good sound bites but don't produce results. The stakes are too high to play those games.”

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