Paul Pillar

Nurturing Extremism in Gaza

Paul Pillar

The histories of many lands have repeatedly demonstrated two patterns in the relationship of extremism to political and economic conditions. One is that the combination of miserable economic circumstances and a lack of peaceful political channels for pursuing grievances tends to gravitate people toward extremist groups and ideologies. The second is that the resulting extremism is on a sliding scale. What may have been seen at one time as an extreme response to circumstances may, as misery continues and possibly worsens, come to be seen as part of an inadequate status quo and is eclipsed by something even more extreme.

Such a process is taking place today in the Gaza Strip, the open air prison in which 1.8 million people endure what for some time have been genuinely miserable circumstances. Blockade by Israel, aided to varying degrees by Egypt and punctuated by repeated Israeli military assaults, has destroyed much of the Gazan economy and kept residents in squalor. The estimated unemployment rate is around 44 percent, and the Strip is still strewn with rubble from the most recent Israeli assault last year, with lack of materials and other impediments permitting only minimal reconstruction so far.

An unsurprising result is growth in the number and activity of Gaza-based extremists—specifically and most recently ones claiming allegiance to the so-called Islamic State or ISIS. Their numbers have increased, according to an estimate by Nathan Thrall of the International Crisis Group, from several hundred a few years ago to a few thousand today. They act in opposition not only to Israel but also to Hamas, the group that tries to function as a governing authority in Gaza and is to the extremists a part of a despised status quo. “We will stay like a thorn in the throat of Hamas, and a thorn in the throat of Israel,” says a spokesman for groups that identify with ISIS.

The ill consequences of this rise of extremists in the Gaza Strip go beyond the undesirability of any expansion of the ISIS brand and ISIS influence. The extremists from time to time fire rockets into Israel despite the efforts of Hamas to stop such firings. The rockets endanger innocent citizens of Israel and also, given the Israeli government's pattern of blaming Hamas for anything that goes on in the Strip and striking back with force, carries the risk of precipitating the next Gaza war. The Gaza extremists, especially if they link up in any way with their ideological soulmates in the Sinai, also may stop a modest thawing in relations between Hamas and Egypt, which recently has slightly relaxed closure of its part of Gaza's borders. (Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's Egypt, by the way, is another prime exhibit of how repression and denial of political rights foster the growth of extremism and terrorist violence.)

Israel's suffocating blockade is very hard to explain, much less justify, even if one gets beyond the huge moral issue raised by inflicting such deprivation on 1.8 million people and uses as a frame of reference the narrow objectives of the right-wing Israeli government. The situation does help make possible the propaganda point, often invoked by that government and its supporters as an excuse for continuing to occupy the West Bank, that when Israel “withdrew” from the Gaza Strip the response supposedly was rocket fire and the Palestinians making a hash of things. No mention is made, of course, of how Israel has done everything it can to make the Gaza Strip ungovernable. And by branding Hamas as an irredeemable extremist group, there is a further propaganda point that the Palestinian Authority is getting in bed with “terrorists” any time it tries to achieve reconciliation with Hamas in the interests of Palestinian unity. No mention is made of how Hamas, which won the last free all-Palestinian election, has made it clear that if a Palestinian state is created it is prepared to observe an indefinite long-term cease-fire with Israel.

Destruction of Hamas seems to be a purpose of the blockade and military assaults, with the idea being that if ordinary Gazans suffer enough they will blame Hamas and withdraw support from it. But if that is the purpose, the policy has been a failure. The longer the policy goes on the more it starts to look like the failed half-century effort by the United States to use an embargo of Cuba to try to get rid of the Castro regime—with the difference that Israel has a much greater stranglehold on the Gaza Strip, and the suffering it has exacted on the targeted population has been much more severe.

Even if Israel could somehow kill off Hamas with this strategy, the increase of the ISIS-types in Gaza points to the last flaw in the strategy. If Hamas were to go, the replacement probably would be something that everyone ought to consider much worse. It is a further question whether the Israeli government recognizes this, and whether even if it does, it would nevertheless continue its self-destructive policies in its single-minded determination to destroy a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.                


TopicsIsrael Palestinian Territories Terrorism RegionsMiddle East

Chicken in Vienna

Paul Pillar

With the negotiations on Iran's nuclear program in its final days (and seven days of overtime having just been announced), a broken leg is not the most serious impairment to Secretary of State Kerry's ability to conclude an agreement that will ensure Iran remains a non-nuclear-weapons state and advances U.S. interests in other respects. The most serious impairment is the incessant urging by domestic critics that the U.S. administration should not show any of the flexibility that may be necessary to close the last few inches of the remaining gap between the parties and to avoid having the whole negotiating enterprise suffer a crashing failure.

The negotiations taking place in Vienna right now may be viewed as what game theorists call a game of chicken—named originally after the street competition in which daredevil hot-rodders speed toward each other to see who would swerve first. The logical structure of the game theorists' chicken game is one in which a player who does not cooperate scores some sort of points over a player who does (i.e., who swerves, or concedes), but in which non-cooperation by both players results in the worst possible outcome for both (a crash, or a lack of agreement).

The vast majority of the distance that needed to be traveled to reach an agreement ensuring that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon has already been traveled. Most of that distance had been traveled by November 2013 with completion of the preliminary agreement known as the Joint Plan of Action, in which the United States and its negotiating partners attained the most important restrictions on, and monitoring of, the Iranian program. Most of the remaining distance was traveled by this April with the Lausanne framework agreement. What remains to be traveled is a very small part of the trip.

But what has already been accomplished will be lost if that last small gap is not closed. Indefinitely extending the Joint Plan of Action would be dandy for our side, but there is no reason to expect the Iranians to go along with that idea, given that they received only minimal sanctions relief in the JPOA in return for giving up most of what there was to give up regarding their nuclear program. The JPOA has value to them as a way station toward a comprehensive agreement. And what was agreed to at Lausanne is formally only an outline that has no force until and unless the rest of the words get filled in.

The decision analysis that should be applied to the current negotiations involves weighing whatever advantage is to be had from getting our preference rather than the Iranians' preference on the remaining few points where brackets have to be removed and words still have to be written, against the risk of losing the whole arrangement—which would mean no enhanced inspections even of Iran's declared nuclear sites, no restrictions on the amount or level of uranium enrichment, no restrictions on plutonium-producing reactors, and all the rest. Given what has already been accomplished in the negotiations, the possible reward from inflexibility is small, and the risk quite large. If a game theorist were to draw the customary matrix, with numbers representing the utility functions of each player, to describe today's bargaining situation, the box that represents “no agreement” would have large negative numbers while the numbers in the other boxes would show relatively little difference from one another.

And don't believe that failure to conclude the current negotiations would leave us some way of getting out of the “no agreement” box. The notion of being able to get a “better deal” by ripping up what already has been negotiated is just as much of a fantasy as it always has been—all the more so given that the Iranian foreign minister has his own recalcitrants and red-line-drawers to deal with.

Those urging the Obama administration to be inflexible continue their urging notwithstanding these realities. For example, Gary Samore, president of the anti-agreement pressure group United Against a Nuclear Iran, says “Don’t make any more concessions to get a deal in early July. They need a deal more than we do.” That advice approaches the U.S. diplomatic task as if we were in some kind of contest to see who blinks first, rather than formulating a negotiating position based on a prudent weighing of risks and rewards. And Senator Bob Corker tells the president he should consider “walking away” from a deal—as if such a decision would be as innocuous as a walk. Instead it would be a costly crash, as with the reckless street-racers playing chicken.

Because many of those who have talked loudest about not making more concessions really don't want any agreement with Iran, their personal utility functions look a lot different. For them, the “no agreement” box has positive rather than negative numbers. But we should not let their agendas distort the nature of the risks and rewards at stake for the United States and for the cause of nuclear nonproliferation. We should hope they do not succeed in pressuring the administration into making the United States and nonproliferation big losers in the final stages of the game being played out in Vienna.

TopicsIran Nonproliferation RegionsMiddle East

The Homeland and Ignorance About Terrorism

Paul Pillar

Many misconceptions about terrorism prevail among the American public. Occasionally one of these misconceptions gets challenged when hard data conveying a different picture become available. This is true of a recent New America study showing that most of the deaths in the United States from terrorist attacks since September 2001 have been perpetrated not by jihadists or other radical Muslims but instead by white supremacists, antigovernment activists, and other non-Muslim extremists. The discrepancy between such findings and prevalent American beliefs about terrorism can be glaring enough for the discrepancy to become literally a front-page story. But even that sort of attention is insufficient to kill prevailing beliefs—in this case, the belief that terrorism and specifically terrorism that threatens Americans is overwhelmingly a radical Muslim thing. Information similar to that in the New America study has been around for some time; a survey of law enforcement agencies, for example, yielded similar data. The recent multiple killings by a white supremacist in a predominantly black church in Charleston, South Carolina has led some to raise a closely related issue of what tends to get called terrorism and what doesn't. But this incident is another attention-grabbing event that seems again unlikely to overturn the popular notions of who most terrorists are and what they believe.

The misconceptions have multiple roots. The experience of 9/11 unquestionably has been very important in shaping American beliefs. That one event was so salient and traumatic that it has fostered a host of other misconceptions, such as the notion that significant terrorist threats to the United States all began on that one day 14 years ago.

The attitude-shaping effect of 9/11 rested atop longer-standing American ways of perceiving threats to American security, based in large part on the wars of the twentieth century. Americans tend to see the biggest threats to their security coming from alien entities abroad. Jihadist groups based in the Middle East are among the latest such entities to fill this role.

The “war on terror” vocabulary prevalent after 9/11 exacerbated these tendencies. The concept of warring against a tactic never made sense. Making war against al-Qaeda—the perpetrator of 9/11—made more conceptual sense, but it had the further disadvantage of equating, in American minds, terrorism with this one foreign group (a conflation that persisted past the Bush administration and into the Obama administration).

Islamophobia is certainly another factor, despite a widespread reluctance to admit that it is. The dynamic involved is a simple, crude tendency, based on religious and ethnic identities, to be more likely to see threats and evil coming from people with identities different from one's own. Islamophobia is a significant reality in a predominantly Judeo-Christian America.

Political biases rooted in other interests have been factors as well, including in the tendency to downplay the right-wing extremist threats that the New America study showed to be the source of most terrorist attacks on Americans. In his New York Times article on the study, Scott Shane recalls the episode several years ago in which criticism from conservatives led the Department of Homeland Security to withdraw a report that highlighted a prospective threat of violence from white supremacists during Barack Obama's presidency—a threat of which the Charleston killings turned out to be one manifestation. Then there were the hearings of the House homeland security committee that were ostensibly about terrorist threats to the homeland but focused entirely on radical Islamism. The committee chairman who specified that scope for the hearings, Representative Peter King, had earlier shown that he had no problem at all with terrorism of the Irish nationalist variety.

The practical and policy consequences of these distortions in thinking about terrorism go beyond Americans not realizing where the greatest threats to their safety come from and extend to foreign policy. The so-called Islamic State or ISIS has displaced Al-Qaeda as the radical Islamist threat du jour in American minds, and this has shifted the whole discourse about policy toward the countries in which ISIS operates in a direction that would not be justified without the mistaken pattern of thinking about terrorist threats to the United States. It is a discourse in which the liberal columnist Richard Cohen, for example, avers that “if the Islamic State survives, the entity that would emerge would more than likely bring the war home to the United States...” That sounds eerily like the “we'll have to fight them over there or else we will fight them here” framing that has gotten the United States into trouble overseas before.

The equation of terrorism with foreign entities and the intrusion of other political motives means that states are highlighted as sources of terrorism—but only some states: ones that are disliked for other reasons and do not have political support for getting a pass. That is why the official U.S. list of state sponsors has never come close to being an accurate reflection of where sources of active terrorism are to be found. It also is why, with politically strong elements opposing any business with Iran, the theme of Iranian terrorism gets constantly invoked even though the most unambiguous terrorist attacks that Iran has been involved with in recent years have been attempted tit-for-tat reprisals for terrorist attacks that others--who get a pass--have inflicted on Iran

TopicsTerrorism RegionsUnited States

The Odd American View of Negotiation

Paul Pillar

One of the unfortunate corollaries of American exceptionalism is a warped and highly asymmetric conception of negotiation. This conception can become a major impediment to the effective exercise of U.S. diplomacy. Although the attitudes that are part of this view of negotiation are not altogether unique to the United States, they are especially associated with American exceptionalist thinking about the supposed intrinsic superiority of U.S. positions and about how the sole superpower ought always to get its way. The corollary about negotiation is, stated in its simplest and bluntest terms, that negotiation is an encounter between diplomats in which the United States makes its demands—sometimes expressed as “red lines”—and the other side accepts those demands, with the task of the diplomats being to work out the details of implementation. Or, if the other side is not going along with that script and acceding to U.S. demands, then the United States has to exert more pressure on the other side until it does accede.

This is markedly different from the rest of the world's conception of negotiation, in which each side begins with positions that neither side will get or expects to get entirely, followed by a process of give-and-take and mutual concession to arrive at a compromise that meets the needs of each side enough that it is better for each than no agreement at all.

Americans' domestic experience with negotiation has been only a partial corrective to their warped view of international negotiation, and that experience has become even less of a corrective in recent times. The United States has a long history of labor-management negotiations that have determined wages and working conditions of many Americans. But it also was in the United States that there arose Boulwarism, an approach to labor relations named after Lemuel R. Boulware, a vice president of General Electric in the 1950s, consisting of management putting a single, inflexible, take-it-or-leave-it formula on the table and refusing to make any concessions to unions. Boulwarism was found to be an unfair labor practice, but with the decline over the past few decades of labor unions and of the significance of collective bargaining for American workers, it in effect has come to prevail in much of the American economy.

Domestic American politics have followed a similar trajectory. Once upon a time, give-and-take and finding compromises were the daily stuff of American politics, including as practiced on Capitol Hill. Now, in a coarsened and hyper-partisan environment, they are so rare as to be a news item when they do still occur. What is now standard is the imposition of red lines—maybe called something else, such as litmus tests or no-tax pledges—and a focus on what kinds of pressure or extortion could achieve total defeat of the other side. Domestic trends, political and economic, thus have reinforced American ways of thinking about bargaining that have further entrenched the idiosyncratic and unhelpful American view of international negotiations.

A consequence of this view is to regard concessions and compromise not as necessary parts of negotiation but instead as a source of shame or a badge of weakness. We have seen this amid the flak the Obama administration is taking from its political opponents regarding its handling of the nuclear negotiations with Iran. Among the criticisms, as if this really should count as criticism, have been observations that the United States has not rigidly held to what may have been earlier positions and demands. This sort of flak is found, for example, in a recent letter to the president from Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Corker expresses dismay about how the negotiations have involved movement from the administration's “original goals and statements,” and he voices “alarm” about reports of—you'd better sit down before reading this—“potential concessions” by the United States on some issues on which full agreement has yet to be reached.

The proper response to such statements is: yes, the United States has been making concessions, and the Iranians have been making even more—that's called negotiating.

Americans may not like to think that they are in the kind of bargaining relationship one might be with a rug merchant, but a bargaining relationship may exist whether one party says so or not. Even Boulware was in a bargaining relationship with labor unions, despite trying to approach the issues at hand as if he weren't. Inflexibility is an approach toward bargaining, though not necessarily a good one; it is not a way of making the bargaining situation go away.

The fallacy of asymmetry in the American exceptionalist view of negotiation gets exposed when other parties issue reminders of how negotiation is really a two-way endeavor. Members of the Iranian majles did so this week with a bill co-sponsored by a majority of that legislature's members. “At the moment, the negotiating team is facing excessive demands from the United States,” said the chairman of the national security and foreign policy committee. “The bill is being introduced with the aim of supporting the negotiators,” he said, “and to protect the red lines drawn up by the supreme leader.” The bill then stated demands regarding some of the remaining issues regarding international inspections, research and development, and the timing of sanctions relief. The majles members probably know as much about rug merchandising as do legislators in any other country, and it is unlikely that their bill betokens any failure to understand the need for compromise. The measure instead is a message being sent to their counterparts in Washington that two can play the same game and that no one issued an exclusive license to the United States to draw red lines.

The give-and-take of negotiation serves at least a couple of functions that parties on both sides of any issue would be smart to exploit. One is that this aspect of negotiation is a form of information gathering, in which the parties feel out what the other side cares about the most and cares about less, and thus where within the bargaining space the most mutually advantageous deals can be struck. Making a particular concession might, of course, be a dumb move, but it might instead be a prudent response to having found out more, through the negotiation process, about the other side's preferences, objectives, and fears.

The give-and-take also means using concessions to get concessions. However distasteful some Americans may find this sort of trading, it is a fact of negotiating life, in international diplomacy as well as in other negotiating situations. Good negotiators recognize that, which is why they begin with “original goals and statements” that they fully expect they will not adhere to rigidly.

The American exceptionalist demand-and-pressure conception fosters misunderstanding of these realities. And this failure of understanding can lead to blowing good opportunities to use diplomacy to the fullest to strike bargains that advance U.S. interests.  

TopicsIran Negotiation RegionsUnited States

The Pope, the Planet, and Politicians

Paul Pillar

Pope Francis's encyclical On Care For Our Common Home is significant as a strong and unqualified declaration of the need for humankind to change course if it is to avoid calamitous physical degradation of the only planet it has as a home. Although the Roman Catholic pope lacks, as Stalin reminded us, any army divisions with which to exert his influence, he does have one of the most credible claims to worldwide moral authority. This week he is using that authority to tell the world that the environmental calamity of which he writes is, to quote from the encyclical, “one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.”

The encyclical is in some respects an oddly heterogeneous read, which intersperses theology between sections that sound more like the products of a think tank, a nerdy advocacy group, or a philosophical discussion group. The document is sprinkled with terms such as anthropocentrism and techno-economic paradigm. The encyclical addresses multiple aspects of the environmental damage that is despoiling our “common home,” but its single most important theme is acceptance of the mountain of scientific evidence that human activity is heating the planet, and the consequent need to change the direction of that activity.

The encyclical also is blunt and perceptive in describing the reasons for resistance to that message. “Many of those who possess more resources or economic or political power,” says Francis, “seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms...” The document further observes, “There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected.”

That is a good analysis of what underlies some of the resistant reaction to the encyclical, including from some American politicians who belong to the church that Francis heads. That includes Jeb Bush, who earlier this month was the sole Republican presidential candidate invited to speak at a golf and fishing retreat hosted by the coal industry, which is one of the most prominent of the special interests opposing action on global warming. Reacting to the papal encyclical, Bush said, “I don't get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinal or my pope.” Bush continued, “I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting in the political realm.” Bush did not appear to have qualms as governor of Florida about taking guidance from his church on things that get in the political realm; he often cited church teachings as a guide for public policy on matters such as abortion.

Even more prominent inconsistencies of that sort come from fellow Catholic and an avowedly Christianist politician, Rick Santorum, who said about the encyclical, “The church has gotten it wrong a few times on science, and I think that we probably are better off leaving science to the scientists...” Pope Francis, of course, far from trying to have the church make scientific pronouncements, was instead deferring to the overwhelming scientific consensus about global climate change and the reasons for it. Leaving science to the scientists is exactly what he is doing in the encyclical. This is much more respectful of Enlightment values and the scientific method than either outright climate change denial or the usual tactic of resistant American politicians who, realizing the stupidity of such denial, still try to cast doubt on the scientific consensus with a pseudo-agnostic "I'm not a scientist" tactic.

When it comes to being guided by teachings from the Holy See (on matters other than climate change), one of Santorum's most direct pronouncements, uttered during the 2012 presidential campaign, was a comment about John F. Kennedy's assurance a half century earlier that if he were elected president he would not impose his Catholic faith on the nation. Kennedy's reassuring statement about separation of church and state, said Santorum, made him “want to throw up.”

Now in response to publication of the new encyclical, Santorum says the church should focus on what it's “really good at, which is theology and morality.” Well, there certainly is a lot of both theology and morality in the encyclical. Francis frames global warming and other environmental degradation as a moral issue along two chief dimensions. One is rich versus poor, with the former's economic interests and political clout impeding action to correct environmental destruction that makes the poor suffer at least as much as anyone else. The other dimension involves the current generation versus future generations. The encyclical has a section titled “Justice Between the Generations.” It is wrong, says Francis, for the current generation, with a narrow focus on its own immediate economic interests, to ruin the planet on which future generations must live. That is a moral issue, as well as an economic issue and a political issue. Politicians must be made to confront the subject on all of those levels.            

TopicsEnvironment Vatican RegionsUnited States

NATO Ambivalence and Stashing Weapons in Eastern Europe

Paul Pillar

The U.S. Department of Defense reportedly has plans to place tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, and other heavy weapons in the Baltic countries and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. It is easy to see what this is about. It is an attempt to send a signal—a warning, of sorts—to Russia amid the continued tensions that events in Ukraine have heightened. The type of signal was chosen to be strong enough to be reassuring to East Europeans who are looking for reassurance and to meet domestic demands to be seen standing up to Vladimir Putin, while being restrained enough not to prod the Russians into making some destructive response. If this positioning of military equipment was the middle option on an options paper, the alternatives bracketing it were the weaker option of limiting policy toward Russia to non-military measures, or the more provocative one of stationing U.S. troops and not just equipment in those Eastern European locations. In other words, a half measure, similar to how economic sanctions are often seen as a compromise between doing nothing beyond a diplomatic demarche or sending in the Marines.

Military moves as signals have long been a part of international relations and of deterrence, but we still ought to ask about the strategic wisdom and rationale of the proposed equipment deployment. Even a mere signal loses its meaning and effectiveness if it is disconnected from material implications and consequences. The positioning of materiel sounds like some familiar U.S. moves in Cold War-era Europe, but it actually is different. U.S. troops in Europe became the prototypical “trip-wire” of the Cold War, with an attack against them being widely assumed to bring full U.S. engagement in any war in Europe. An attack against stored U.S. munitions, however, is not the same in that regard as an attack that kills U.S. soldiers. Prepositioning of equipment in Germany was another staple of Cold War logisticians, but that was part of a serious effort to facilitate U.S.-led resistance to any attempt by the Red Army to overrun Western Europe. The total stocks being considered for positioning in Eastern Europe would be about enough for a single brigade. Each of the three Baltic republics would be the location for equipment that would outfit a company of about 150 soldiers. It is hard to think of that in the same terms as the Cold War prepositioning. Probably one of the first things that would happen if Russia got aggressive against the Baltic states would be Russian capture of the prepositioned supplies.

Russia has issued its own warnings in response to the reported U.S. plans. That is to be expected, but it may be only the first step toward a local arms race. Do not be surprised by Russian deployments along border areas that would make quick capture of prepositioned U.S. supplies all the more feasible if Russian troops were to cross more borders. A Russian general already has said as much.

A fundamental and longstanding question underlying all of this is exactly what the United States would be willing as well as able to defend in response to any Russian aggression, or to serious military moves dressed up as something other than aggression. Questions were asked during the Cold War about whether Americans would be willing to risk New York or Washington to save Bonn or Paris. Such questions become all the more difficult to answer reassuringly when the subject is Riga and Tallinn rather than Bonn and Paris. The Article Five commitment in the North Atlantic Treaty still exists, but the imagined circumstances in which it could apply today, which might begin with little green men sneaking across a border, are far different from an imagined pouring of Red Army hordes through the Fulda Gap.

Closely related to all this is how attitudes toward NATO obligations have evolved within member countries. In a new Pew poll, when asked “If Russia got into a serious military conflict with one of its neighboring countries that is our NATO ally, do you think our country should or should not use military force to defend that country?” majorities in three of the most important European allies—Germany, France, and Italy—responded “should not”. This amounts to a repudiation of the Article Five obligation to consider an armed attack against any one member state as an attack against all. In the poll, Americans expressed the most intent to live up to that obligation, with 56 percent saying “should”. But 37 percent of American respondents said “should not”. In light of such alliance-wide attitudes, it is fair to ask what NATO stands for today.

That question, and the prospect of possible new arms races along the Russian borderlands, are embedded in the story of how one of the Cold War alliances did not end when the Cold War did. It is impossible to prove what European affairs would look like today under an alternate history in which NATO was not retained and enlarged eastward as a kind of unending victory lap for winning the Cold War. It is reasonable to conjecture, however, that under such an alternate history, in which the Russian nation was embraced as a co-victor for throwing off the Soviet yoke, we would not only not have so much discomfort about treaty obligations but also less need to think about the Russian-Western relationship going in directions in which those obligations might be invoked. But that was a road not taken, and it should not be surprising that sustaining and expanding a Cold War alliance has helped lead to circumstances in which we talk about a new Cold War, even without all of the ideological trappings of the old one.                            

TopicsRussia NATO RegionsEurope

Foreign Policy, Politics, and the Zivotofsky Decision

Paul Pillar

The Supreme Court's decision this month in Zivotofsky v. Kerry was not only the correct outcome of the case at hand and of the specific issues it raised but also an important statement about the need for consistency and coherence in the administration of U.S. foreign policy. The Court's majority scrupulously avoided wading into the politics underneath the case, but its decision has helped to minimize the extent to which political undercurrents make for incoherence in foreign policy.

The decision struck down, as an unconstitutional Congressional encroachment on executive branch powers, the portion of the Foreign Relations Authorization Act for 2003 that would have required the State Department to indicate on passports issued to U.S. citizens born in Jerusalem that the place of birth was “Israel” if the individual requested that designation. This requirement contradicted the longstanding U.S. position that the sovereignty of Jerusalem is a matter yet to be decided by international negotiation. That position also is consistent with the policies and practices of every other country besides Israel itself.

Justice Anthony Kennedy's majority opinion was firmly rooted in the concept that in foreign relations, the United States must speak with one voice. Recognition of foreign states—and the terms under which recognition is extended, as was true with the Carter administration's recognition of Communist China and the related special status of Taiwan—has always been a presidential prerogative. Even when Congress also has played a role, as was true with legislation relating to relations with Taiwan, presidential primacy on this subject has not been seriously challenged. And according to the majority opinion, what is said on a passport is inseparable from the broader issue of recognition.

Chief Justice John Roberts, in a dissent joined by Samuel Alito, questioned that last connection, contending that only a “perception” of recognition was involved, and that the majority was in effect submitting to an “international heckler's veto.” But there is no doubt that recognition was what Congress was attempting to deal with in the nullified section of the legislation, the title of which is “United States Policy with Respect to Jerusalem as the Capital of Israel”. Roberts's further argument that Congress is constitutionally empowered to do all sorts of things contrary to a president's policy toward a foreign government, including declaring war or establishing an embargo, is off the mark, since even a war or embargo does not necessarily speak to recognition of the foreign state in question. (E.g., the United States currently is sanctioning Russia but still recognizes it as a sovereign state.)

A separate dissent by Antonin Scalia, joined by Roberts and Alito, is best read in conjunction with a concurring opinion by Clarence Thomas, who, in a rare break with Scalia, agreed with the majority regarding the key question concerning passports. Thomas points out how loosely and expansively Scalia tries to apply the Necessary and Proper Clause of Article I of the Constitution in arguing for a Congressional role regarding the birthplace box on passports—far more loosely and expansively than is Scalia's custom in addressing many other issues. Thomas quotes back some of what Scalia has said on other cases and concludes that his conservative colleague's opinion in the present case represents a ”dubious way to undertake constitutional analysis.”

Strictly maintaining the policy that sovereignty over Jerusalem is yet to be settled through negotiation is essential if the United States is to have any hope of maintaining (or rather, salvaging) a useful role in attaining a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Going beyond the Jerusalem matter, the issue that first comes to mind as involving similar political dynamics is the impending nuclear agreement with Iran. As with the Jerusalem question, this is another instance of members of Congress marching to the Israeli government drummer and taking actions that contradict and undermine the executive branch's execution of an important element of U.S. foreign policy. The Iran issue has already demonstrated the chaotic result when Congress (or more precisely, what happens to be the current majority party in Congress) tries to conduct its own foreign relations at odds with the official policy that the executive branch is running. The chaos has included the notorious letter of Republican senators to the leadership of Iran and the uncoordinated invitation to the Israeli prime minister to address Congress for the purpose of denouncing U.S. diplomacy. The Supreme Court's decision represents at least a modest backtracking from this sort of damage.

More generally and more broadly, the Court's majority has reaffirmed that there is such a thing as the pursuit of national interests in the international arena that is distinct from domestic politics. In this regard it is worth noting that the U.S. policy regarding Jerusalem has been maintained by every U.S. administration, Republican and Democratic, ever since the United States recognized the new State of Israel during Harry Truman's presidency.

The domestic political process, including actions by the U .S. Congress, does play an important role in determining U.S. national interests, though more as a matter of broad objectives and values than as tactics and administrative details. That process is essential in addressing unavoidable trade-offs involving major decisions and major interests—such as weighing expected gains versus likely costs in any resort to warfare. That is why Congress ought to devote more of its energies to efforts such as enacting an authorization specifying objectives and limits for the current use of military force than to telling the State Department what it ought to write in a box on someone's passport.



TopicsIsrael Congress RegionsUnited States Middle East

No, Iran Isn't Destabilizing the Middle East

Paul Pillar

As the nuclear negotiations with Iran enter what may be their final lap, diehard opponents of any agreement with Tehran have been leaning more heavily than ever on the theme that Iran is a nasty actor in the Middle East intent on doing all manner of nefarious things in the region. Insofar as the theme is not just an effort to generate distaste for having any dealings with the Iranian regime and purports to have a connection with the nuclear agreement, the idea is that the sanctions relief that will be part of the agreement will give Iran more resources to do still more nefarious stuff in the region.

Several considerations invalidate this notion, just on the face of it, as a reason to oppose the nuclear agreement. The chief one is that if Iran really were intent on doing awful, destructive things in its neighborhood, that would be all the more reason to ensure it does not build a nuclear weapon—which is what the agreement being negotiated is all about.

Another consideration is that if the United States were to leave in place economic sanctions that supposedly were erected for reasons related to Iran's nuclear program, and to leave them in place to deny Iran resources to do other things, the United States would be telling not only Iran but also the rest of the world that the United States is a liar. The United States would have lied when it said that it had imposed these sanctions for the purpose of inducing concessions regarding Iran's nuclear policy. The damage to U.S. credibility whenever the United States attempts in the future to use sanctions to induce policy change should be obvious.

Interestingly, calls to keep current sanctions in place to deny funding for Iranian regional activities are coming from some of the same quarters that call for putting even more of an economic squeeze on Iran to get a "better deal". This position is contradictory. If the United States were to demonstrate that it is not going to remove existing sanctions in return for Iran's concessions on its nuclear program, the Iranians would have no reason to believe that still more concessions on their part would bring the removal of still more sanctions—and thus they would not make any more concessions.

An invalid assumption underlying the argument about freeing up resources is that the Iranians' regional policy is narrowly determined by how many rials they have in their bank account. This assumption contradicts, by the way, the assertion commonly made, again by some of the same quarters, that Iranian leaders are far from being green eyeshade types who do such careful calculations and instead are irrational religious fanatics who cannot be trusted with advanced technology let alone with a nuclear weapon. In any case, with Iran just as with other states, foreign policy is a function of many calculations of what is or is not in their national interest, and not just a matter of the available financial resources.

A related unwarranted assumption is each additional rial that does become available to the Iranians they will spend on regional shenanigans that we won't like. That assumption is never supported by any analysis; it just gets tossed into discussion to be taken for granted. If analysis is instead applied to the topic, a much different conclusion is reached; that Iran is far more likely to apply freed resources to domestic needs. This is a straightforward matter of political calculations and political survival, not only for President Rouhani but for other Iranian leaders who are acutely aware of the demands and expectations of the Iranian people in this regard.

But set aside for the moment all the logical inconsistencies and other reasons to reject the notion of an Iranian regional marauder as a reason to oppose the nuclear agreement. Focus instead on the image of an Iran whose current regional policy supposedly is already an assortment of destructive activities. This image has become the kind of conventional wisdom that repeatedly gets invoked (even, in this instance, by supporters of the nuclear agreement) without any felt need by those who invoke it to provide any supporting facts or analysis because it is taken for granted that everyone “knows” it to be true. The references to the image are almost always vague and general, couched in terms of Iran supposedly “destabilizing” the Middle East or seeking to “dominate” it or exercise “hegemony” over it, or that it is “on the march” to take over the region. Often there are references to “terrorism” and “subversion” without anything more specific being offered. Often the names of conflict-ridden countries in the region are recited, but again without any specifics as to who is doing what in those countries.

To get away from such uselessly general accusations, ask: (1) what exactly is Iran doing in the Middle East that is of concern; and (2) how does what Iran is doing differ from what other states are doing in the same places? A careful comparison of this sort leads to the conclusion that Iran, contrary to the conventional wisdom, does not stand out in doing aggressive, destabilizing, or hegemonic things.

Iran is one of the largest states in the Middle East and naturally, as with any such state, competes for influence in its region. To try to keep any such state, be it Iran or any other, from competing for such influence would be futile and damaging in its own right. To label Iranian policy as seeking “hegemony” or “domination” is only that—i.e., applying a label—when others are using more forceful and destructive ways of trying to extend their own influence in the same places. Iran, unlike others, has not launched wars or invaded neighboring territory (except in counterattacking during the war with Iraq that Saddam Hussein started). Nor has Iran drawn, China-like, any nine-dash lines and asserted unsupported domination over swaths of its own region.

The assumption that just about anything Iran does in the Middle East is contrary to U.S. interests keeps getting made despite what should be the glaringly obvious counterexample of the war in Iraq. Iran and the United States are on the same side there. They both are supporting the government of Iraq in trying to push back the radical group generally known as ISIS. Why should Iran's part of this effort be called part of regional trouble-making, while the U.S. part of it is given some more benign description? Those in the United States who would rather not face that counterexample are usually quick to mutter something like, “Yes, but the Iranians are doing this for their own malign purposes of spreading their influence in Iraq.” The first thing to note in response to such muttering is that if we are worried about increased Iranian influence in Iraq, that increase is due chiefly not to anything the Iranians have done but rather to a war of choice that the United States initiated.

The next thing is to ask on behalf of what interests the Iranians would use their influence in Iraq, and how that relates to U.S. interests. The preeminent Iranian objective regarding Iraq is to avoid anything resembling the incredibly costly Iran-Iraq War, and to have a regime in Baghdad—preferably friendly to Iran, but at least not hostile to it—that would not launch such a conflict again. Iran also does not want endless instability along its long western border, and its leaders are smart enough to realize that narrowly prejudicial sectarian politics are not a prescription for stability. These lines of thinking are consistent with U.S. interests; it is not only in the current fight against ISIS that U.S. and Iranian interests converge.

Look carefully also at another conflict-ridden Middle Eastern state whose name often gets casually invoked: Yemen. Iran and the United States are not on the same side of this civil war, although the United States probably has as much explaining to do as to why it has taken the side it has—the same side as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the most capable and threatening Al-Qaeda branch operating today—as Iran does. Iran has become identified with the side of the rebellious Houthi movement, although the most prominent Yemeni leader on the same side as the Houthis is Ali Abdullah Saleh, who as the Yemeni president for more than thirty years was seen as our guy in Yemen, not the Iranians' guy.

Iran did not instigate the Houthi rebellion, nor are the Houthis accurately described as “clients” of Iran much less “proxies,” as they often inaccurately are. Instead Iran was probably a source of restraint in advising the Houthis not to capture the capital of Sanaa, although the Houthis went ahead and did it anyway. The Iranians probably are glad to see the Saudis bleed some in Yemen, and whatever aid Tehran has given to the Houthis was given with that in mind. But any such aid pales in comparison to the extent and destructiveness of the Saudis' intervention in Yemen, which has included aerial assaults that have caused many hundreds of civilian casualties.

In the same vein consider Bahrain, which is an interesting case given historical Iranian claims to Bahrain and past Iranian activity there. Despite that background and despite Bahraini government accusations, there is an absence of reliable evidence of anything in recent years that could accurately be described as Iranian subversion in Bahrain. Instead it is again the Saudis who have used forceful methods to exert their influence on a neighbor, and in this case to prop up an unpopular Sunni regime in a Shia majority country. The principal Saudi military intervention in Bahrain came a few years ago, but it was an early shot in a campaign that has taken fuller shape under King Salman to use any available means, including military force, to expand Saudi influence in the region. If there is a Persian Gulf power that has been using damaging methods to try to become a regional hegemon, it is Saudi Arabia, not Iran.

The Saudis could claim to be acting on behalf of a status quo in Bahrain and Yemen, but then what about Syria, where it is Iran that is backing the existing regime? And as perhaps the most germane question, how can any one of the outside players that have mucked into that incredibly complicated civil war be singled out as a destabilizing regional marauder while the others (some of whom, such as the United States and Israel, have conducted their own airstrikes in the country) be given the benefit of more benign labeling? Iran did not start the Syrian war. And each of the most significant sides fighting that war are dominated by what we normally would consider certifiable bad guys: the Assad regime, ISIS, and an Islamist coalition led by the local Al-Qaeda branch. It is hard to see a clear and convincing basis for parceling out benign and malign labeling here when it comes to the outside players.

Then of course there is the rest of the Levantine part of the region, including Palestine; the aid relationships that Iran has had with the H groups—Hezbollah and Hamas—are continually invoked in any litany of Iranian regional activity. Lebanese Hezbollah certainly is still an important ally of Iran, although it has long since become strong enough to outgrow any Iranian hand-holding. We should never forget that prior to 9/11 Hezbollah was the group that had more U.S. blood on its hands through terrorism than any other group. We also should understand that Hezbollah has become a major player in Lebanese politics in a way in which many in the region, including its immediate political opponents, accept it as a legitimate political actor. Right now as a military actor it is deeply involved in the effort to support the Syrian regime, and it is not looking to stir up any new wars or instability anywhere else.

Hamas has never been anything remotely resembling a proxy of Iran, although it has accepted, somewhat reluctantly, Iranian aid in the absence of other help. To Iran, Hamas represents Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation of (or blockading and subjugation of) Palestinian territory, without being an accessory to that occupation, which is how the Palestinian Authority is widely seen. Hamas is the winner of the last free Palestinian election, and it has repeatedly made clear that its ambition is to hold political power among Palestinians and that it is willing to maintain a long-term truce with Israel. Right now Hamas is trying, unfortunately with only partial success, to keep small groups from overturning the current cease-fire with rocket firings into Israel. Again, none of this is a conflict that Iran has instigated or that Iran is stirring up or escalating. Iran is not the cause of the instability that already reigns. And the broader opposition to continued Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory is opposition that Iran shares with many others, including the whole Arab world.

As long as we are looking at this part of the region, it is impossible to escape notice that Iran does not hold a candle to Israel when it comes to forcefully throwing weight around in the neighborhood in damaging and destabilizing ways, even without considering the occupation of the West Bank. This has included multiple armed invasions of neighboring territory as well as other actions, such as the attack on Iraq years ago that stimulated Iraq to speed up its program to develop nuclear weapons.

And before we leave the Middle East as a whole, it also is impossible to escape notice that the single most destabilizing action in the region over the past couple of decades was the U.S. launch of a war of aggression in Iraq in 2003. Iran certainly has done nothing like that.

The ritualistically repeated notion that Iran is wreaking instability all over the region is a badly mistaken myth. There are important respects in which Iranian policies and actions do offend U.S. interests, but protection of those interests is not helped by perpetuating myths.

Perpetuation of this particular myth has several deleterious effects. The most immediate and obvious one is to corrupt debate over the nuclear deal. Another is to foster broader misunderstanding about Iranian behavior and intentions that threatens to corrupt debate over other issues as well.

Yet another consequence involves a failure to understand fully that every state competes for influence. Such efforts to compete are called foreign policy. It would be in our own interests for other states to wage that competition through peaceful and legitimate means. By misrepresenting who is doing what, and through what means, in the Middle East today, the myth about Iranian behavior maintains a constituency for isolating and ostracizing Iran—which makes it less, not more, likely that Iran, so ostracized, will use peaceful and legitimate means to pursue its interests in the future.

Image: Creative Commons 3.0.             

TopicsIran RegionsMiddle East

Watering Israel's Image

Paul Pillar

Israel is the object of widespread admiration for its economic and technical accomplishments and the ingenuity that went into them—for being a nation that made the desert bloom. Much of the admiration is quite warranted, with Israeli talent and resourcefulness having not only produced blooms on kibbutzes but also a leading high-tech sector today. The comparisons involved, however, usually leave unstated how much of the accomplishment rests on the prerogatives Israel has wrested for itself as an occupying power (not to mention the many billions through the years of U.S. assistance to Israel, which effectively has shifted burdens from Israeli to U.S. taxpayers).

Three years ago presidential candidate Mitt Romney made a speech in Jerusalem that illustrated the kind of incompletely based comparisons that are typical. Referring to the disparity (which he actually understated) between the per capita gross domestic product of Israel and that of areas assigned to the Palestinian Authority, Romney's explanation was: “Culture makes all the difference”—by which he meant that something akin to the Protestant work ethic drove Israeli enterprise but was missing from Arab culture. He made no mention of the numerous physical, legal, and resource impediments, within a few miles of where he was standing, to Palestinian economic activity that were part of the Israeli occupation, ranging from denial of building permits to prohibitions on Arab use of transportation networks. Of course, Romney's motivation for saying what he did undoubtedly had something to do with the audience and pocketbooks to which he was appealing (he was speaking at a fundraiser attended by prominent Jewish-American backers). Moreover, he is a very wealthy man who repeatedly demonstrated in other ways during the campaign his difficulty in comprehending the circumstances of those less well off. But his remarks suggested a view of Israel and the Palestinians that was both sincerely held and shared by many other Americans.

Even more to the point in understanding better the underpinnings of Israeli success are respects in which that success has benefited not only comparatively but absolutely from having conquered, and continuing to control, territory on which other people live. Israel has exploited resources in the Palestinian territories because it has the military strength to do so, with land being the most obvious and fundamental resource. With control of the land, Israel enforces differential use of man-made as well as natural resources, to the benefit of Israelis and the detriment of Palestinians. The reserving of the best highways in the West Bank for use only by Israelis, for example, bestows an obvious benefit on Israelis in enabling them to conduct their business more efficiently, without being slowed down by any annoying Palestinian vehicles. Think of this arrangement as HOT lanes in which who gets to use them is determined not by willingness to form a car pool or to pay a toll but instead by an occupying army that admits onto the entrance ramps only members of the favored ethnic group.

Among natural resources, water is vitally important and also involves Israelis benefiting absolutely as well as comparatively from their being an occupying power. That is why it is especially discouraging to read Isabel Kershner's article in the New York Times about management by Israel of water resources. Firmly in the blooming-desert tradition, the article is a laudatory piece about how through technology and shrewd regulation Israel has beaten a drought and taught the sort of lessons from which thirsty Californians could benefit. Half of the above-the-fold space on the Times front page is occupied by a picture of a sparkling blue hotel swimming pool against a backdrop of the barren Negev desert. The article barely mentions how water has been a factor in conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, and even that brief mention may leave only the impression that Israel is living up to its water-related obligations in the Oslo accords and that Palestinians are whining about the price they have to pay for water. The caption of the main picture (of an aqueduct in the West Bank) accompanying the after-the-jump portion of the article says that “Israel shares a mountain aquifer with the West Bank, and provides water to the Palestinians.”

What the article does not say is that a major factor in Israel's ability to beat droughts and to fulfill demand from its own citizens for water is that it uses its control over the Palestinian territories to consume, heavily and disproportionately, water resources from those territories—and in so doing, to deny those same resources to the Palestinians. This involves principally, though not exclusively, aquifers in the West Bank. Of water currently being drawn from West Bank aquifers, Palestinian residents of the West Bank use only 17 percent. Jewish settlers in the West Bank use 10 percent, and the remaining 73 percent goes to Israel proper. The water problems of West Bank Palestinians are exacerbated by Israeli restrictions on drilling new wells and repairing old pipes. The Israeli-built wall in the West Bank, which lies east of some of the most exploitable parts of the mountain aquifer, eases settler and Israeli use of the nearby wells and separates many Palestinians from their traditional water supplies.

A similar pattern of use prevails with Jordan River water. As Kershner's article notes, Israel extracts much of the water from the Jordan River system by moving it from Lake Tiberias to drier parts of Israel. Even though only a very small percentage of the Jordan River itself abuts Israeli territory and most of the river forms the boundary between the occupied West Bank and the kingdom of Jordan, Israel denies Palestinians any access to the river water.

The situation for residents of the Gaza Strip is even worse, and not only because of the damage to water infrastructure from Israel's military assaults and blockade. Gaza depends for water on a coaster aquifer that straddles the boundary with Israel and in which the underwater flow is from east to west. Israel has significantly reduced the amount of water that reaches the Gaza Strip by constructing a heavy concentration of deep wells on its side of the border. That Israeli upstream exploitation and the Palestinian drawing of what remains of the aquifer in the Gaza Strip have lowered both the level of the water table and water quality for Gazans, with much encroachment of saline sea water.

That swimming pool pictured on the front page of the Times is kept full not only because of Israeli ingenuity, although that is part of what is involved. It is full also because Israel uses its power over Palestinian resources to exploit them for the benefit of Israelis without regard for the deleterious effect on the Palestinians themselves.

The passionate American attachment to Israel has several roots, including well-founded admiration for Israeli accomplishments. But a further root is ignorance of many of the ways in which what may be admirable in what Israel has accomplished is based in part on policies and practices that are not. Management of water resources is but one example.


TopicsIsrael Palestinian Territories RegionsMiddle East

Smart Targeting of ISIS

Paul Pillar

Eric Schmitt reports in the New York Times that the U.S. military is refraining from attacking some sites it knows are ISIS facilities, including at the group's principal headquarters in Raqqa, Syria, to avoid the significant civilian casualties that such attacks would certainly entail. It seems the group has located some of its facilities, probably intentionally, immediately next to civilian concentrations or jails where it holds some of its innocent captives. This is the sort of restraint by the United States that is likely to spin up further the domestic opponents of the Obama administration who charge that the administration has been too timid in going after ISIS—or in diving into many other foreign conflicts, for that matter. Senator John McCain says we should be setting our hair on fire because of recent gains by ISIS. The syllogism underlying such alarmism seems to be: (1) ISIS is a despicable, brutal organization (which is true); (2) the United States military has the physical capability to inflict substantial damage on ISIS (also true); therefore the United States should use that capability more fully than it has so far (which does not necessarily follow).

The burning-hair approach has characterized much of the popular and political American attitude toward ISIS ever since the group scored dramatic territorial gains in Western Iraq last year and flaunted its stomach-turning brutality with beheadings of captives. The prevailing attitude focuses narrowly on the here-and-now of territorial gains and losses and on how military force could be applied to influence the tactical situation on the ground. But such a focus is not to be equated with what is in the best overall interests of the United States, especially in a conflict as complex as the one in Syria.

In one respect the territorial ebb and flow is indeed important for those interests: visible gains by ISIS have been an important factor in heightening the attractiveness of the ISIS brand in the eyes of radical individuals, including ones from the West, who have flocked to its banner. It is power and success more than ideology that have served as the group's main drawing card. But that observation begs the question of what such radicals would be doing anyway if they did not become factotums in ISIS's ministate or cannon fodder in the Syrian and Iraqi civil wars. The observation also ignores all the other respects, besides this one facet of recruitment, in which the ISIS problem does or does not bear on U.S. interests.

The restraint being shown by the U.S. military in the interest of avoiding collateral casualties is sound targeting policy on a couple of levels. One is the repeatedly demonstrated dynamic of how attacks that harm significant numbers of innocent civilians tend to anger and radicalize populations in a way that works to the advantage of extremist groups, is one of the most effective recruiting tools for such groups, and more than offsets the damage that the attacks directly inflict on the groups. This dynamic has long been in evidence with other groups even before ISIS became the main concern. None other than Donald Rumsfeld ruminated, with reference to other U.S. military action, whether we were creating more terrorists than we were killing.

The other level concerns how U.S. interests specifically are or are not involved, and how those interests differ from those of putative allies or clients. The fight against ISIS is, in multiple respects, not America's fight. The United States is not the principal original target of the group, and certainly not in the way that it served as the “far enemy” that Al-Qaeda wanted to attack as part of its strategy for getting at the near enemy. The fight is not one the United States can win; winning ultimately will depend on local will of the sort that, as the U.S. secretary of defense observed in his recent awkward but truthful comment, was lacking in the recent combat at Ramadi. Not least important, it is the United States that incurs the danger of additional radical responses to additional use of U.S. military force. Calls by supposed allies for more use of such force constitute cheap talk when it is the United States and not them that would carry the added risk of radical reprisal. The United States was not the original target of ISIS, but it makes itself a target (either for ISIS itself or for other like-minded radicals) the more it becomes directly involved in ISIS's conflict.

There are multiple wrong reasons for such involvement. One is the emotion and urge to strike back that stems from a group's dramatic gains or atrocities. Another is the general American tendency to think that if there is a problem somewhere in the world worth solving, then the United States can and should solve it. Yet another, applicable to the Iraqi side of the theater, is the relieving of cognitive dissonance for those who promoted or supported the launching of the Iraq War and would like to think, and would like the rest of us to think, that the turmoil that the invasion set off is instead due to later mismanagement of U.S. power.

Tom Friedman has it right when he observes, with specific reference to the fight against ISIS, “We cannot effectively intervene in a region where so few share our goals.”

TopicsSyria Iraq Terrorism RegionsMiddle East