Paul Pillar

Politics versus Policy: Follow-up to the Iran Nuclear Agreement

Paul Pillar

The Obama administration had to expend considerable political capital in fending off attempts, during the recent Congressional review period, to kill the agreement to restrict Iran's nuclear program. As a matter of policy toward that program, such expenditure should never have been necessary; the strict limitations and scrutiny of the program that are embodied in the agreement are clearly better for U.S. interests than the absence of such limitations and scrutiny if the agreement had been killed. But the expenditure was required to beat back opposition to the agreement that was rooted not in any consideration of the merits of the agreement itself but instead in other reasons that opponents had to oppose the administration and to keep Iran isolated. It is not surprising, given how domestic politics tends to work, that since the agreement survived last month's Congressional gauntlet we have been seeing a sort of rebalancing of political accounts in which the forces opposing the agreement are being propitiated in other respects. Although the propitiation is understandable in terms of domestic politics, it is damaging U.S. foreign policy interests. It undermines the prospects for constructively building on the agreement to advance other U.S. interests in the Middle East, and it may even imperil the nuclear agreement itself.

The political rebalancing is manifested in an amplification of hostility toward, and threats against, Iran. All the negative things that were said about Iran in the course of earlier debate on the nuclear agreement are being said, across the political spectrum and across the different branches of government as well as in public discourse, with as much loudness as they were before. All the required mantras about the need to oppose the “nefarious” things that Iran supposedly is doing in its region are being recited as automatically as they were before. Every opportunity is taken to kick Iran in the shins verbally and to disavow any possibility of American friendship with it. These themes are apparent not only in the general rhetoric in Washington but also in draft legislation. This includes Senator Ben Cardin's bill for an “Iran Policy Oversight Act,” which includes almost nothing about building positively on the agreement but instead is mostly about expressing hostility and making threats, including the threat of reimposing sanctions on Iran.

None of this makes any sense if one goes beyond domestic American politics and considers what the agreement has or has not changed. It makes no sense as a response to a diplomatic accord in which Iran has committed itself to keep its nuclear program peaceful and has backed up that commitment by subjecting itself to unprecedented monitoring of, and limitations on, the program. The negativity would make much more sense if the Iranian behavior had been the opposite of what it really was—that is, if Tehran had walked away from the negotiations and, amid more threat-making of its own, had resumed expansion of an unrestricted nuclear program.

The negativity-infused political rebalancing jeopardizes the prospects for the United States advancing its interests in the Middle East through a more complete and unfettered diplomacy on several important issues in which Iran also has an interest. The security situations in, and political futures of, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan top the list of those issues, but there are other important topics as well, including broader questions of security in the Persian Gulf region. Building on the nuclear agreement means taking advantage of the ice-breaking effect of the nuclear negotiations, which moved away from a situation in which U.S. and Iranian officials were not even talking to each other, to conduct effective and mutually beneficial business on these other matters.

Notwithstanding earlier anti-agreement rhetoric to the effect that we should not expect Iran to become nice because of the nuclear accord, what is involved is not niceness. What is involved is Iran acting on behalf of its own interests—some of which parallel U.S. interests and some of which diverge from U.S. interests on each of the issues just mentioned. That is the sort of non-zero-sum situation that is the stuff of the normal give-and-take in normal diplomacy. And for the United States, building on the diplomatic breakthrough of the nuclear accord is less a matter of unshackling Iranian diplomacy than of unshackling its own diplomacy, and of availing itself of a full box of tools for pursuing its interests in the Middle East.

The amplified negativity and animosity toward Iran that emanate from the U.S. domestic political pot not only threaten to get in the way of a broader and more effective U.S. diplomacy in the region but also takes no account of the fact that the Iranians have domestic politics as well. The hostile vibes from Washington weaken the position of President Rouhani and those who are inclined to be part of a more constructive regional diplomacy, and play into the hands of unreconstructed hardliners who would be more content with Iran remaining an isolated rogue. The political dynamics involved, of hostility begetting more hostility and of hardliners in each capital helping the other's cause, are a threat not only to effective diplomacy on other topics but also to the nuclear agreement itself. Iranian hardliners who never liked the agreement will be eager to seize on anything that enables them to argue that all of Iran's concessions bought it nothing but endless enmity from the United States.

A major part of the U.S. political rebalancing act is a push to provide yet more U.S. assistance to regional rivals of Iran, which mainly means the Gulf Arab states and Israel. Again, there is no logic to this in terms of what the nuclear agreement did and did not change. Iran's placing of its nuclear program under additional restrictions and scrutiny does not make Iran more of a threat to anyone than it was before. Iran's becoming less of an isolated rogue and more of a normal actor in regional politics does not make Iran any more of a threat to anyone than it was before. And notwithstanding how heavily opponents of the nuclear agreement tried to rely on the argument that sanctions relief will give Iran a financial windfall that it will use to fund more “nefarious” activity in the region, that argument still is no more valid than it ever was—given how most of the funds in question are already committed to purposes where they have been frozen outside the region, how the needed uses for the funds include domestic economic development and strengthening Iran's international finances, and how there is no evidence that Iran makes its regional policy according to the balance in its bank account, no evidence that “nefarious” activity went down when severe sanctions were imposed, and thus no reason to expect that it will go up when the same sanctions are loosened.

The Gulf Arabs and Israel have their own reasons to try to hinder and isolate their Iranian rival, but these are not interests the United States shares and they do not involve genuine security threats to the countries concerned. The Arab states of the Gulf Cooperation Council already have clear military superiority over the Iranian armed forces. In the case of Israel, it has overwhelming military superiority over everybody else in the region, both at the conventional level and at the level the agreement with Iran was designed to address.

That superiority will continue even if the United States were not to lift a finger on Israel's behalf in the years ahead. A pattern nonetheless prevails in which the United States has given Israel $124 billion in no-strings-attached aid and continues giving it at a clip of about $3.1 billion a year, not counting hundreds of millions of additional assistance in the form of joint defense projects. The aid is being given to a state that is among the richest one-fifth of the countries of the world, as ranked by GDP per capita. That pattern ought to make every American taxpayer cringe, especially when reminded of budget-constrained cuts to programs for the benefit of Americans themselves. The pattern is cringe-worthy even without getting into questions of what sort of Israeli policies and practices the United States is in effect subsidizing. And yet there is talk today of increasing aid to Israel even further.

If policy could trump politics rather than the other way around, policy would take advantage of the political achievement of being able to get the nuclear agreement through Congress despite the huge effort to defeat it by the lobby that works on behalf of the right-wing Israeli government. The episode demonstrates that it is possible to defy the lobby on a matter on which it has pulled out all the stops, and still survive to tell the tale. A far-sighted and courageous response to this episode would seize the occasion to make several policy adjustments. One would be long-overdue rectification of the aid pattern just described. Related to that would be construction of policy toward Israel that would make the important point that no foreign government will be rewarded for behaving toward the United States the way that particular government behaved regarding the nuclear agreement, which was to do everything it could to subvert U.S. diplomacy and foreign policy, including through blatant interference in domestic U.S. politics. And another response would be to address, seriously and effectively and not just with wrist-slaps, the unresolved Israel-Palestinian conflict, including changing the practice of automatically providing political cover to Israel at the United Nations no matter what the resolution on the table may say.

Unfortunately, none of this appears likely to happen. President Obama, in his speech at the United Nations General Assembly, gave no hint that he was about to move in a new direction regarding the Palestinian question. The one potentially justifiable reason for going with the current flow regarding the post-nuclear-accord political rebalancing is that the agreement itself is important enough, and the continued efforts to sabotage it will be persistent enough, that the Congressional Democrats who supported the agreement need enough political cover and need to make enough anti-Iranian noise to keep them away from any clearly agreement-killing measures. Maybe so, but this approach is hardly far-sighted and courageous. It looks like nearsightedness and folding to fear will again prevail. Politics probably will trump sound policy on these matters, as usual. And that means missing major opportunities to advance U.S. interests.                      

TopicsIran Israel Nonproliferation RegionsMiddle East

The Destructive U.S.-Backed Campaign in Yemen

Paul Pillar

The killing earlier this week of at least 131 civilians at a wedding party was only the latest and deadliest event in a campaign of airstrikes in Yemen by a foreign coalition led by Saudi Arabia. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) reports that during a six-month period from late March until last week (even before the incident involving the wedding) at least 2,355 civilians had been killed in the fighting in Yemen, with almost two-thirds of the deaths caused by airstrikes conducted by Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Arab allies. The same Saudi-led coalition is maintaining a blockade of Yemen's main seaports that has further exacerbated a humanitarian crisis in which, according to UNHCR, four out of five Yemenis require assistance.

This carnage and associated suffering are being largely overlooked and even excused in the United States. In fact, according to official White House statements, the Obama administration is providing “logistical and intelligence support” to the Saudi-led military intervention. Insufficient attention to what is really going on in Yemen can be partly explained by the distractions of what is going on elsewhere in the Middle East. Most recently this has included the Russian military intervention in Syria, which has received far more attention than the Yemeni war but, especially with this week's Russian airstrikes, is remarkably similar in both nature and purpose to what the Saudis are doing in Yemen. Another major reason for the inappropriate American attitudes and posture toward what is going on in Yemen is a habit of rigidly thinking of all events especially in the Middle East in terms of a fixed line-up of “allies” and foes, without regard to any consistency in upholding standards of international behavior or to any careful consideration of where U.S. interests do and do not lie.

The single biggest member of this perceived, mind-numbing line-up is Iran, the focus of the politically correct habit of thinking of it as nothing but a foe, and the arch-foe in the region at that. The required ritual references to “nefarious” Iranian activity that is “destabilizing” the Middle East flow off lips so automatically they probably could flow in one's sleep, and are routinely uttered with no reference at all to what Iran actually is or is not doing in the region.

The Iranian connection to the Yemeni conflict is Tehran's sympathy, and some undetermined degree of material support, for the Houthis, who have been one of the most significant and successful players in that multidimensional conflict. The Houthi movement has been a major player in Yemen for over a decade and has needed no instigation from Iran to assert itself. For the Houthis, who are Zaidi Shiites, the motivations for assertion include concern over the rise of Sunni extremism—including in the form of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)—as well as longer-standing issues of distribution of political and economic power within Yemen. Iran's perspective is based partly on sectarian sympathy, although amid a region and a wider Muslim world in which Sunnis outnumber Shiites, Tehran does not have any strong incentive to exacerbate sectarian conflict. Iran tried to dissuade the Houthis from moving against the Yemeni capital Sana, but the Houthis ignored that advice and captured the city anyway. In any event, whatever material aid Iran has given to the Houthis pales in comparison with the direct air, ground, and naval role that Saudi Arabia and its allies are playing in Yemen.

The Houthis' activity is only a part of a bigger and more complex set of conflicts in Yemen, a country where no one has ever really controlled the whole thing and that was not even officially a single country until North and South Yemen merged in 1990. Southern resistance to what is seen as northern domination of the merged state has ever since been a major part of Yemeni instability. The instability of more recent years was initiated not by anything the Houthis did but instead by an Arab Spring-style uprising that pushed out the longstanding president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. He was replaced by Saleh's former vice president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, whose claim to legitimacy was an “election” in which he was the only candidate, who himself later became the target of demonstrations for not carrying out promised reforms, and whom the Saudis wound up taking under their wing. Perhaps the most significant development leading to the current level of violence and suffering in Yemen was the accession to power in Riyadh of King Salman and his young son the defense minister and aspirant to the throne, who decided to use Yemen to make a statement about who's boss in the Arabian Peninsula.

To appreciate the inconsistency in the application in Yemen of standards of international behavior, imagine that Iran had been doing anything like what the Saudis have been doing in Yemen, including using its air force to conduct strikes like the one against the wedding party. The uproar in this country would be deafening, perhaps enough to derail the recently completed nuclear agreement.

There is no good justification for the United States to be identifying itself with, much less materially supporting, the Saudi intervention in Yemen. It is supporting the cause of most of the destruction and suffering in the country, rather than reducing the destruction and suffering (although the United States is furnishing some humanitarian aid for Yemen). It is earning opprobrium and resentment for being associated with the Saudi campaign. It is making matters even worse for itself by knuckling under to the Saudi preference to prevent even an impartial United Nations inquiry into wartime excesses by all sides in the Yemeni conflict, including the Houthis.

The United States does not have a direct stake in the internal contests for power and influence in Yemen. Even if it did, it would be hard to explain the side it is taking now. Saleh was considered a U.S. partner during his long time in power, and now he is allied with the Houthis.

The United States does have a stake in how instability in Yemen can reverberate in the form of transnational terrorism and extremism, but again it is on the wrong side. The Houthi movement does not do international terrorism. AQAP certainly does, and it has tried to do it repeatedly against the United States. In the otherwise confused lines of conflict within Yemen, the Houthis and AQAP are each other's clearest enemies.

And the United States certainly does not have a good reason to take sides in sectarian conflicts in Yemen or anywhere else in the Muslim world.

Mistaken policies such as the U.S. posture toward Yemen will continue as long as U.S. policy is made in a domestic political climate in which prevailing sentiment automatically labels some foreign states as “allies” and others as practitioners of “nefarious” behavior, and insists that the United States always align itself with the former and always oppose anything having to do with the latter.              

TopicsYemen Iran Saudi Arabia RegionsMiddle East

The Foreign Costs of Domestic Political Craziness

Paul Pillar

The U.S. political class and political system in effect grant a lot of leeway and a lot of tolerance to excesses of American politicians, including excesses exhibited during election campaigns. There is little consistency and almost no principle in determining which comments by candidates come to be considered as campaign-crippling gaffes and which do not. Much gets said that does not cripple a campaign but which a majority of decent Americans, if they carefully thought about it, would probably agree is unreasonable, untrue, mean, inflammatory, bigoted, or extreme.

The tolerance comes partly from an acceptance that, oh well, politicians will be politicians, and that especially during a race for a party's nomination extreme things will be said to appeal to the angriest and most active part of a party's base and will not necessarily endure during a general election campaign let alone once the winner takes office. It comes partly from a quest for even-handedness, especially among the press, involving a supposed need to give equal respect to every position expressed merely because it is expressed, regardless of the unreasonableness of its content. And it comes partly from how much all of us who are political junkies (which includes to varying degrees a large proportion of the U.S. population) are entertained by the spectacle. This last factor has been especially at work this year with the phenomenon that is Donald Trump, who first came to be known to most Americans primarily as an entertainer. What is extreme and unreasonable gets treated as harmless fun.

Essays can and should be written on how the fun isn't really harmless even when confining our perspective to the United States—about how this sort of crude followership rather than the exercise of true leadership by contenders in political races is a race to the bottom when it comes to reason and decency, and how it encourages a further lowering of political and moral standards among the America public as a whole and not just in the portions of the electorate that are the main targets of the crude appeals. But what may be even more likely to be overlooked is the effect such discourse has on perceptions overseas.

American politics unfortunately has not been stopping at the water's edge, in at least a couple of respects. One, which we saw recently with opposition to the nuclear agreement with Iran, involves how much domestic politics complicates and impedes the making and implementation of U.S. foreign policy. Another involves foreign governments and publics forming impressions about the United States and about Americans based on what they see and hear going on in American politics, including the crazy and disgusting aspects of it. Globalization and modern mass communications have made this second factor more important and more inescapable than ever.

Every indication of dysfunction in U.S. politics diminishes in foreign eyes the reliability and trustworthiness of the United States as a partner and leader in world affairs. Foreigners just got another such indication with the resignation of the speaker of the House of Representatives because members of his own party considered him insufficiently obdurate and too willing to work cooperatively with others.

Beyond the general picture of dysfunction are more specific hateful or prejudicial positions that some politicians get away with taking, which leads foreigners to conclude reasonably that such views must be shared by much and even most of the American public. This greatly harms the image of America as an open and tolerant land and the substantial soft power that has flowed from it.

The problem has been most acute in recent years, though by no means limited to, the frequent indications of Islamophobia. It is bad enough when impressions are conveyed to foreigners by the words and actions of Koran-burning pastors or religiously biased army generals. It has become even worse with leading (according to opinion polls) candidates for the presidential nomination of one of the two major U.S. political parties appearing to go along with statements that “We have a problem in this country—it's called Muslims” or stating themselves (notwithstanding Article VI of the U.S. Constitution) that a Muslim should never be president of the United States.

The deleterious effects in majority Muslim countries of such postures taken by U.S. politicians are multiple. The belief that the United States as a whole is out to persecute or subjugate Muslims gets entrenched, making it that much harder for the United States to win trust and get accomplished what it wants to accomplish in those parts of the world. Foreign governments, sensitive to their own public opinion, find it politically harder to cooperate with the United States. The motivations for anti-U.S. extremist violence grow stronger, and thus the probability of such violence increases.

Politicians who like to appeal to the baser sentiments of a political base ought to think hard about such consequences. If they nonetheless continue such appeals, they ought to be condemned for doing so and voters ought to reject them, decisively.                      

TopicsDomestic Politics RegionsUnited States

The Pope, Markets, and Volkswagen

Paul Pillar

Anticipating this week's visit by Pope Francis, different political factions and interests in the United States have been hoping to hear words from the popular pontiff that are consistent with their own agendas. They also are poised to spin, or if necessary dismiss, any papal statements that are not particularly consistent with those agendas. One set of issues sure to be subject to such treatment concerns the environment. Francis issued a powerful and cogent encyclical on that subject earlier this year, to which American political interests of the pro-pollution and climate-change-denying variety have already had to use their spinning and dismissing skills in response.

The pope's statements on the environment have elicited debate on what his true views are on free markets. Scott Tong of the public radio program Marketplace had a useful report on this question the other day. To get the perspective from one extreme end of the continuum of views about this, Tong went to what is for market capitalism what the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is for Roman Catholicism—i.e., the economics department at the University of Chicago. An assistant professor there named Steve Cicala said about the pope's position on climate change and the role of markets, “It's sort of too far beyond the pale to even be engaged by serious people.” That is an unfair and closed-minded comment. A more accurate characterization of what the pope has said comes from Carolyn Woo, who besides being the chief executive of Catholic Relief Services is also a former business school dean. She observes that Francis is not anti-capitalism or anti-market but does see the need for regulation of markets, which is something that free market Western countries already do in numerous ways for numerous purposes.

As for the fundamental problem that underlies all this, included in Tong's report was the very plausible statement from Lord Nicholas Stern of the London School of Economics that climate change is “the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen.” It is a simple matter of externalities; polluters do not have to pay for their use of the atmosphere as a dump, and thus there is not a market correction for the practice.

We should keep all of this in mind as we reflect on the outrageous conduct of executives at Volkswagen, who had diesel cars they have been selling in the United States and elsewhere intentionally programmed to cheat on emissions tests. Volkswagen almost got away with it. It took the combined efforts of U.S. government regulators and independent, non-profit testing groups to get the company to admit to the scheme. For decision-makers at the company, the market imposed no discipline at all. The market was demanding what they were delivering: vehicles that offered good performance on the highway while still getting their owners a “pass” sticker on the windshield when they took the car in for a required emissions test.

The market does not even offer a corrective for the cars already on the road with the cheating software installed, now that the scheme has been exposed. Of course there are some unhappy VW owners, such as the environmentally conscious man the New York Times found in Sacramento who had considered buying a Toyota Prius but opted instead for a Volkswagen Jetta because it was peppier and more fun to drive. But consider the incentives for most VW owners when deciding whether to bring their car in to the dealer once a recall notice finally is issued. Unlike most recalls, where bringing the vehicle in means correcting a safety defect, in this case bringing it in only offers to the car-owner—who does not pay for the externalities shooting out of his exhaust pipe—the prospect of a car that performs worse than it did before.

No, this does not call for a rejection of markets, by the pope or anyone else. Socialized manufacture of autos is not the answer—as demonstrated by the East German-made Trabant, which was not only one of the worst polluters ever put on the road with its two-stroke engine, but also one of the worst cars overall. The Volkswagen case demonstrates that Francis is right insofar as he is saying that there are some important things that markets simply cannot do, at least not without the regulation that only governments can provide. Following the most rigid and doctrinaire views of high priests of market capitalism will not enable us to prevent ruin of the planet.                        

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 

TopicsPope FrancisVW RegionsUnited States

Russian Involvement and a Redirection of Policy on Syria

Paul Pillar

The recently increased Russian involvement in Syria ought to be viewed as an opportunity, more so than as a threat or as something that needs to be countered. Although Moscow's current involvement is only an extension of its longtime relationship with the Syrian regime, it represents just enough of a change to serve as the closest thing we are likely to have to a peg on which to hang some needed rethinking about the Syrian conflict. The need for such rethinking is reflected in the fact that everyone, including the Obama administration, seems to recognize that the current trajectory of this civil war is unpropitious, notwithstanding disagreements over what to do about the situation.

The most important principle in any revision of policy toward the war needs to be that the untoward effects of this war will be ameliorated only insofar as peace is established in Syria, or as close as Syrians and the international community can come to establishing something passing for peace. It is the continuation of the war, much more than any particular outcome of the war or any particular political configuration of Syria, that is the source of most of the trouble that is worth worrying about.

This is true of at least three major types of trouble. One is the possible spread, quite possibly inadvertent, of instability and combat beyond Syria's borders. The war has, for example, increased the chance of a new war between Israel and Lebanese Hezbollah, given Hezbollah's substantial involvement in the Syrian war and Israel's reactions to Hezbollah activity in Syria.

A second problem is the increase in violent extremism, as represented chiefly but not entirely by the so-called Islamic State or ISIS. It was the outbreak of the Syria war that enabled ISIS to spread its activity, suddenly and significantly, beyond its birthplace in Iraq. This should not be surprising; physical chaos and power vacuums have long been favorable ground for terrorist and other extremist groups.

A third problem, which has become the chief crisis of the day for Europe as well as an issue for the United States, is the surge of migrants fleeing the war for the West.

The needed focus on tamping down the war, rather than trying to tilt the outcome of it at the risk of further escalation, requires getting away from at least three unhelpful patterns of thought that have prevailed in discussion and debate about Syria. One is the dictum that “Assad must go.” Note that the aforementioned varieties of trouble stem not from the mere existence of the Assad regime but instead from the war that emerged from confrontation between the regime and its opponents. That is true of any spillover of armed conflict across international borders. It is true also of the expansion of ISIS outside Iraq, which occurred only after the Syrian war got under way. And it certainly is true of the migration of refugees. However much the migrants coming from Syria may have disliked the regime, it was only the physical danger and disruption of war that motivated any significant numbers of them to undertake perilous journeys to Europe.

The Assad regime certainly has many undesirable and even despicable characteristics—but so do many other regimes elsewhere in the world, and despicability alone is not grounds for escalating an internal war to try to influence the result. We also should note that some of the most despicable things this regime has been doing are, again, part of the war itself and do not predate the war. Before the war began, the regime was not indiscriminately barrel-bombing civilian neighborhoods.

Those who are especially solicitous about Israel should also note that Israel had enjoyed decades of relative stability along the Golan front with the devil the Israelis know, the Assad regime. It is only with the war in Syria and the loss of regime control of parts of that front that significant and immediate security questions related to Syria have more recently arisen for Israel.

The perpetuation of the Assad-must-go mentality is rooted in notions, found most conspicuously in neoconservative and liberal interventionist thinking, about democratization and liberalization being one-way processes and likely to result from any stirring of a political pot. This thinking has come to be applied especially to the Middle East because of the vain hopes attached to the neocon project known as the Iraq War and because of more broadly held hopes of what would come from the Arab Spring. Another root, given the alliance between Damascus and Tehran, is the idea that anything associated with Iran must be bad. Neither of these roots provides a realistic basis for formulating policy toward the Syrian war.

The one respect in which one could plausibly argue that the very character of the Assad regime is a basis for instability and the border-crossing consequences that can result from it is that the sort of authoritarian rule the regime represents will never be the foundation for political consensus in the way that Western liberal democracies know it. But that is a long-term consideration. Right now there is a fire to be contained; discussion of what sort of political arrangements might be kindling for fires in the future is, for the time being, a digression.

Probably the one possible development that is most likely to make the chaotic Syrian situation even more chaotic, as some members of the U.S. Congress evidently have come to recognize, would be a collapse of the regime with an ensuing political and administrative vacuum. A similar recognition may underlie recent comments from the Obama administration suggesting that, although the administration cannot bring itself to abandon the Assad-must-go formulation, the timing of his departure is negotiable.

Another unhelpful pattern has been persistence of the unfounded faith in developing a “moderate” opposition with enough unity and armed clout to be the nucleus of a force that would defeat both the regime and ISIS. If earlier events had not been enough to do away with that faith, then surely it ought to be dispelled by the embarrassing acknowledgment the other day by the top U.S. military commander for the region that the number of fighters that the United States has been able to put into the fray for this purpose can be counted on the fingers of one hand. The reason for this result is not perverse foot-dragging by the administration. One reason for it is the unresolved tension between the objectives of fighting the regime and fighting ISIS. Another reason is the inherent difficulty of vetting “moderates” amid a civil war, the waging of which is an inherently immoderate act. (And if some fighter who had passed through a U.S.-supported vetting, training, and equipping program were later, say, to be involved in a terrorist attack against a U.S. target, some U.S. critics pushing now to expand such programs more rapidly would not hesitate to lambaste the administration for that terrorist result.) Assertions of a woulda coulda shoulda variety, as one finds in the incessant drum-beating about Syria by the Washington Post editorial page, that if only a program to develop a moderate force had been implemented earlier with more gusto the result today would be better, is cheap talk that is unsubstantiated either by the experience of either this civil war or other ones.

With the latest Russian moves another unhelpful thought pattern comes into play, which is the tendency to view any Russian activism or extension of influence abroad as undesirable and something to be countered. This tendency is firmly rooted in old Cold War habits and has infused much thinking about other matters involving Russia, including in Europe. A corrective to this tendency, as far as the Middle East is concerned, is to reflect on how vastly different the Cold War circumstances were from what prevails today. Beginning with the financing of the Aswan high dam in the 1950s, the USSR was making major inroads in the Middle East, not only in Syria but in Egypt, Iraq, Libya, South Yemen, and elsewhere. The Soviet activity had implications for strategic postures as well the global ideological competition. That activity was worth worrying about, and worth countering. But today Russia is not a superpower, there is not a global ideological competition with Moscow, and the Russian presence in Syria pales in comparison with the much broader U.S. posture, including military posture, in the Middle East.

There has been much speculation about Vladimir Putin's motives underlying the latest Russian moves in Syria. Of course we should not necessarily take what his government says at face value, and of course not all of the Russian motives are congruent with U.S. interests. But the situation regarding Syria is not zero-sum, and the United States needs to be open to ways in which the Russian posture, even with underlying motives divergent from our own, may help to bring closer possibilities for ameliorating the Syrian mess.

One thing that enhanced Russian involvement in Syria means is that Russia will be absorbing more of costs, and more of the opprobrium associated with collateral damage, from efforts that involve at least in part the containment of ISIS. To the extent this shifts some of a burden from the United States, that is a good thing. Russian aims are surely not purely anti-ISIS aims, but Russia has at least as much reason to worry about the group as the United States does. The United States has no equivalent to the concentrated, predominantly Muslim populations of the North Caucasus.

Another thing the Russian involvement means is that Moscow, to limit the extent and duration of its own costs, has that much more of a stake in stabilizing Syria and in tamping down the conflict sooner rather than later. A further implication is that greater Russian support for the Assad regime may yield greater Russian leverage over that regime with regard to any moves toward peace.

An overall conclusion is that the Russian moves mark an appropriate occasion for U.S. policy toward Syria to pivot away from feckless attempts to engineer a particular military outcome on the ground and toward greater emphasis on multilateral diplomacy aimed at finding a political resolution of the conflict. Russia will necessarily be heavily involved in any such effort. Talks between U.S. and Russian defense ministers for purposes of military deconfliction on the ground are fine, but talks between the foreign ministers will be even more important. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran also will necessarily be fully involved. None of this implies that the prospects for a political resolution of this war any time soon, even apart from the ISIS problem, are very bright; they aren't. The apparent intractability of some of the positions taken by rebel groups, even as they accept in principle a political solution, are discouraging. But exploring every opportunity for diminishing the current fire in Syria is more likely to ameliorate the problems this conflict has caused than will adding more fuel to the fire.                      

TopicsSyria Russia RegionsMiddle East

The Saudi Problem

Paul Pillar

Saudi King Salman visits Washington this week amid disagreement between the United States and Saudi Arabia on a broad range of issues. Moreover, the disagreements are rooted in fundamental characteristics of the anachronistic Saudi regime. Many regimes around the world, and the political and social systems of which they are a part, are markedly different from what is found in the United States, but the Saudi polity is one of the most different. The anachronism that is Saudi Arabia represents a major problem for U.S. foreign policy, both because of the impact Saudi-related matters have on the Middle East and beyond and because of the close association between Saudi Arabia and the United States that has come to be taken for granted.

Little of this has anything to do with the just-completed agreement to restrict Iran's nuclear program, despite the attention that subject has been receiving. Riyadh is more likely to accept the agreement as a done deal—and already has publicly indicated its formal acceptance—than the accord's opponents in the United States and Israel. The Saudis will continue to look for ways to discourage others, including the United States, from developing warm relations with their rival across the Persian Gulf, but this will not preclude the Saudis themselves, along with the other Gulf Arabs, from undertaking their own rapprochement with Tehran, just as they have done in the past.

In hot spot after hot spot in the Middle East, U.S. and Saudi objectives and priorities diverge, even if in some loose sense they are considered to be on the same side. In war-torn Syria, the United States and Saudi Arabia have never agreed on whether the ouster of the Assad regime or the containment of ISIS should be the main objective. Saudi priorities are based on a variety of considerations that are specific to it and not to the United States, including hatred of the Assads for whatever role they may have played in the assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri, a special friend of the Saudis. Reflecting the different priorities and objectives is disagreement over selection and vetting of Syrian rebels to be deemed worthy of support.

In Iraq, Saudi priorities are influenced by some of the same sectarian motives that shape Saudi policy toward Syria. And again, such motives are quite different from U.S. interests. Desired overthrow of the regime is not the factor that it is in Syria, but distrust of the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad is a major part of the Saudi approach toward Iraq.

In Yemen, the United States has allowed itself to become associated with a destructive and misguided Saudi military expedition, and thus also with the humanitarian tragedy that the operation has entailed. The main Saudi objective is to show who's boss on the Arabian Peninsula, another objective not shared with the United States. Saudi Arabia's operation has shown itself, more so than Iran, to be a destabilizing force intent on throwing its weight around in the neighborhood.

In his most recent column Tom Friedman identifies what may be the most worrisome thing about Saudi Arabia for U.S. interests: “the billions and billions of dollars the Saudis have invested since the 1970s into wiping out the pluralism of Islam — the Sufi, moderate Sunni and Shiite versions — and imposing in its place the puritanical, anti-modern, anti-women, anti-Western, anti-pluralistic Wahhabi Salafist brand of Islam promoted by the Saudi religious establishment.” Friedman notes that Islamist extremist groups that the United States has come to consider preeminent security concerns, including Al Qaeda and now ISIS, “are the ideological offspring of the Wahhabism injected by Saudi Arabia into mosques and madrasas from Morocco to Pakistan to Indonesia.”

The specific terrorist consequences of what the Saudis have done is justifiably an immediate concern for U.S. policy-makers. But the underlying bargain that Ibn Saud, the founder of the current Saudi kingdom, reached years ago with the Wahhabis also underlies much else that makes Saudi Arabia what it is today, and makes it the problem that it is. The kingdom's troublesome characteristics are inextricably linked to how Ibn Saud's offspring are trying to claim legitimacy and thus to cling to power.

Consider some of the chief characteristics of the kingdom. Saudi Arabia is a family-run enterprise in which the distribution and exercise of political power are every bit as medieval as they ever were in any country ruled by the Plantagenets. There is no religious freedom. Human rights in many other respects are sorely lacking. Women are still subordinated. It was considered a big deal when they recently were told they could vote and run as candidates—in elections to local councils with scant power and in which the king will still appoint half the members—but women still cannot function as independent persons in many aspects of daily life. They still are not allowed to drive.

It ought to be astounding that a place this far removed from the liberal democratic values with which the United States likes to be associated, even without considering the aforementioned divergence of objectives elsewhere in the region, still is considered a close partner of the United States. The usual, and to a large degree valid, explanation is that, as Friedman puts it, “we’re addicted to their oil and addicts never tell the truth to their pushers.” But there is another American attitude involved, which persists even in the shale-fracking era. Once a nation is considered a partner or ally in a region that is perceptually divided into allies and adversaries, the perceived line-up tends to stay fixed until and unless there is a political alteration sufficiently great to be labeled regime change.

And regime change would be the most troubling chapter of all in the Saudi story. Some Saudi leaders, including the late King Abdullah, seem to have recognized the need to move in the direction of modernization and liberalization, even if only at the glacial pace that is possible in a Wahhabi-committed family enterprise. It is an open question whether the regime will be able to keep this kind of change ahead of demands for change of a more drastic and radical sort. If it fails to do so, and the revolution comes, then the association of the United States with the ancien régime will an even greater problem for U.S. policy-makers than what they face now.        

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle East

The Effort to Destroy the Iran Agreement: Chapter Two

Paul Pillar

Anyone tired of hearing about the agreement to restrict Iran's nuclear program is not going to get relief soon, despite the Congressional voting this month that is supposed to decide the matter. It now appears likely that even if the Republican-controlled Congress enacts a resolution of disapproval, any such resolution would not survive a presidential veto, which means the agreement itself will come into force. It also is possible that opponents will fail to get the 60 votes needed to get such a resolution through the Senate in the first place, in which case the outcome would be decided even earlier. If the Iranian nuclear issue were one that people with honestly expressed substantive differences had been addressing consistently in a sober and well-reasoned fashion, one might expect that those on the losing side of that outcome would accept the result and turn their attention to how they can participate effectively in vigorous oversight of the agreement's implementation. There are indeed substantial opportunities for Congress to exercise such oversight. But debate on this matter has had a deficit of sobriety and honesty. Some of the principal sources of opposition to the agreement have involved wanting the Iranian nuclear issue to fester indefinitely or for the Obama administration to fail in its efforts to do something about it.

The voting and possible vetoing that will take place later this month thus will mark only the end of one chapter in a continuing political contest. Opponents of the agreement will continue to try to subvert it even after it enters into force. The partisan divide in sentiment on the issue, which, as Jim Lobe points out, has become increasingly sharp as reflected in opinion polls over the past year, will be one of the drivers of continued opposition. The issue has exhibited a familiar pattern in which members of the public who have little substantive knowledge of the matter of question take their cues from leaders of the party with which they most identify. A self-reinforcing cycle of adamant opposition by Republican politicians and consequent opposition by a cue-taking Republican base has put the Iranian nuclear issue on a similar trajectory as the Affordable Care Act—i.e., endless preoccupation by the Congressional portion of half the political spectrum with killing it rather than implementing it, no matter what experience may show is working or not working.

Efforts to kill the agreement, after the votes this month that will determine whether the agreement will go into effect, will center on getting the United States not to live up to its end of the agreement. Given that the United States has no obligations under the agreement other than to end some of the punishment it has been inflicting in the form of economic sanctions, the agreement-killing strategy will entail slapping new sanctions on Iran until Tehran is pressed passed the limits of its tolerance for such accord-circumventing behavior. The specific tactics may involve in effect restoring some of the nuclear-related sanctions that are due to be relaxed under the agreement, but under some new label such as terrorism or something having to do with other Iranian behavior. Ideas have already been advanced along these lines. Other creative ideas of opponents include having states rather than the federal government sanction Iran. All such maneuvers will make it difficult for Iranian leaders committed to observance of the agreement to deflect charges from their domestic opponents that the United States snookered Iran and that it is not in Iran's interests to continue to live up to the agreement.

U.S. opponents of the agreement will supplement their sanctions maneuvers with continued efforts to play up any bit of Iranian behavior that is objectionable or can be portrayed as such. The prominence that already has been given to the opponents' contention that sanctions relief will be a “financial windfall” that will fund increased “nefarious” Iranian activity in the region sets the stage, of course, for later drawing attention to just about anything that Iran will actually or allegedly be doing in the Middle East that can be objected to. The argument will be that any such behavior is a direct consequence of the “windfall,” regardless of how much it actually is a matter of Tehran reacting to events not of its own making and has little or nothing to do with Iranian finances. This will all be in addition to making public issues out of anything that can be construed as an Iranian violation of the nuclear agreement itself (which is different from the necessary process of sustained, careful, responsible oversight). We have already gotten a preview of this sort of tactic with many such construals regarding Iranian observance of the Joint Plan of Action, the preliminary agreement reached in 2013, on which the actual Iranian record of compliance has been excellent.

The U.S. presidential election calendar has given diehard opponents of the nuclear agreement added incentive to inflict lethal sabotage on the agreement within the next 16 months. The prospect of a Republican entering the White House in January 2017 may in this respect present more of a vulnerability than an opportunity for opponents. Republican presidential candidates have been competing with each other in telling the primary-voter party base how quickly and peremptorily they would renounce the agreement with Iran—with the only differences being whether it would be on the very first day in office, whether renunciation would take place before or after consulting with advisers, etc. It would be tough for any of these candidates, if elected, to back down from such an oft-repeated pledge. But such a presidential renunciation would be a more direct and blatant unilateral U.S. reneging on a multilateral accord than even some of the more aggressive sanctions-restoring tactics mentioned earlier. And such a renunciation would come after three years (counting from when the JPOA came into effect) of Iran living up to its commitments under the agreement and not moving to make a nuclear weapon.

The discomfort that the future president would be feeling in this situation would reflect what has been the underlying concern of confirmed opponents of the nuclear agreement all along: not that the accord will fail, but that it will succeed.                             

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle East

Revealed: The Lessons of Khobar Towers

Paul Pillar

Saudi Arabia reportedly has taken custody of Ahmed al-Mughassil, accused of being a central figure in the truck bombing at Khobar Towers in eastern Saudi Arabia in 1996 in which 19 American airmen died. The report immediately raises questions about the timing of this story, the motives behind it, and the circumstances of the reported arrest. Supposedly Mughassil had been living in Beirut and somehow, in a way as yet unexplained, was turned over to the Saudis. It is probably too much of a coincidence for all of this to be unrelated to efforts, including by the Saudis, to remind people of all the reasons they should dislike Iran, as the agreement to restrict Iran's nuclear program is under consideration in the U.S. Congress. (Investigation of the attack at Khobar eventually led to the conclusion that it was perpetrated by Shia Saudi militants working with Iranian military officers and Iran's ally Lebanese Hezbollah.) But set those questions aside and consider some legitimate lessons that the Khobar episode has for present issues.

Notwithstanding Saudi Arabia's recent tough talk about Iran, and the (mistaken) interpretation of leaked cables supposedly showing that Saudi leaders would like the United States to cut off heads of snakes, the preferences and concerns in Riyadh in 1996 were much different. As David Kirkpatrick accurately recalls in his article in the New York Times about Mughassil's reported capture, Saudi leaders were worried back then that the United States would react too strongly against Iran, especially with reactions involving military force. The Saudis were trying to improve their relations with Tehran, and they did not want any U.S. response to the Khobar attack to upset that process. The Saudis thus dragged their feet in their part of the investigation, so much so that senior U.S. officials complained publicly about the inadequate Saudi cooperation. Saudi officials were reluctant to join the United States in blaming Iran even after indictments of the suspects were announced. The foot-dragging strategy worked; by the time the slow-moving investigation was completed, too much time had passed for a military response to be politically feasible, especially given the election in the meantime of the moderate Mohammad Khatami to the Iranian presidency.

Insufficient Saudi cooperation in investigating terrorism that claimed American lives on Saudi soil had already been exhibited in 1995, with the bombing of a military training facility in Riyadh in which five American advisers were killed. Saudi authorities arrested some suspects and beheaded them before the FBI had any chance to question them. The evident Saudi concern this time was not anything having to do with Iran but instead where an investigation of these suspects, who were Sunni extremists, would lead inside Saudi Arabia itself.

The Khobar Towers episode underscores how what the Saudi government says today about Iran is not some universal truth about Iranian behavior but instead a reflection of an unsurprising Saudi preference for other countries not to get friendly with its major Persian Gulf rival. What the Saudis are saying today to the United States about Iran is in no way incompatible with their undertaking again, as in the 1990s, their own rapprochement with Tehran. That is how triangular diplomacy can be used to advantage. (E.g., in Richard Nixon's time it served U.S. interests for there to be tension between the USSR and China at the same time the United States was cultivating its own relationships with each.) If there is for now a more combative Saudi tone to relations with Iran than there was in the 1990s this probably is because the Saudis themselves are being more physically combative and have become the most destabilizing element in their immediate neighborhood, particularly with the destructive fight they have picked in Yemen.

As for actual Iranian behavior, the Khobar Towers attack was the last terrorist attack against Americans in which an Iranian hand was established beyond any reasonable doubt. (And no, militia activity against U.S. troops in Iraq during the Iraq War does not invalidate that statement.) The attack was reprehensible, and a forceful response would have been appropriate. There is every reason to believe that the Clinton administration would have responded forcefully if Iranian involvement could have been established promptly in an unimpeded investigation. That same administration retaliated against Iraq with cruise missile strikes in 1993 when an investigation rapidly determined Iraqi government responsibility for an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate former president George H. W. Bush during a visit to Kuwait.

The Khobar attack was nineteen years ago—more than half the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran. That regime has changed greatly in many ways, and one of those ways is that it does not do anti-U.S. terrorism any more. For those who take the “once a terrorist, always a terrorist” approach, that change won't make any difference. But that is not the approach that the United States has implicitly taken in managing its relations with many other states, groups, and individuals. And managing relations in such a way that the other party is less, rather than more, likely to slip back into terrorism because of a lack of alternative ways of competing for influence is all to the good.

Without diminishing for a moment the reprehensible nature of the attack at Khobar, one additional lesson can be drawn concerning the circumstances that stimulated it. Anti-U.S. terrorism with an Iranian dimension always involved U.S. military deployments in the Middle East. As in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s, so it was in Lebanon in the 1980s, most notably with the truck bombing by Lebanese Hezbollah of the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983—the deadliest terrorist attack against Americans until 9/11. Iran and its allies are by no means the only ones who react this way to the placement of U.S. military power in their neighborhoods and their homelands. The U.S. military build-up in Saudi Arabia following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990—a build-up of which the airmen who died at Khobar were still a part—was the development that most radicalized Osama bin Laden and stimulated him to take the violent anti-American course that he did.  

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle East

Terrorists Always Will Find Targets

Paul Pillar

The foiled attack last week by a heavily armed gunman on a Paris-bound express train has generated a surge of discussion and hand-wringing in Europe about how better to protect against such attacks. There is nothing new about European trains as a terrorist target; an attack against commuter trains in Madrid eleven years ago that killed 191 people was a far more significant event. And the policy challenges involved are hardly specific either to Europe or to trains.

Security for particular types of potential terrorist targets is routinely a topic after even failed terrorist attacks, and protective security countermeasures constitute a large proportion of public measures to counter international terrorism. Nonetheless, a serious and inherent limitation to what can be accomplished on this front is the unlimited number of potential targets. This limitation flows from the very nature of terrorism as the use of violence to elicit a broader political and psychological effect rather than merely to disable the particular target that is attacked. Soft targets can be made harder, but then terrorists will turn to other soft targets. Commercial aviation—still a juicy terrorist target for several reasons—has been made much harder than it once was, but there are still plenty of trains to go after. And it's not just transportation; any public place with a lot of people, such as shopping malls, will do.

The vast number of soft public targets means it is beyond the resources of public authorities to protect them at all. And with some targets, substantial protection quickly comes into conflict with normal commerce and everyday life. The sorts of security measures that now surround civil aviation could not practically be applied to mass transit and commuter railroads.

Trends in international terrorism in recent years have featured not only unlimited targets but also unlimited terrorists. All the soft, vulnerable targets in our open societies are vulnerable not only to well-organized groups but also to any individuals, or duets or trios, with a grievance, and if the grievance is political then any violent actions they take are by definition terrorism. ISIS has grabbed our attention with its land-grabs in the Middle East, but it is focused on trying to sustain its so-called caliphate. Many of the operations conducted in its name, especially the farther one gets from the Middle East, are generated elsewhere with only the ISIS brand name being borrowed. So-called lone wolves are a bigger part of the problem in the West than they would be in Morocco or Bangladesh, and a bigger problem for the West than any attacks there by ISIS.

Counterterrorist measures are still, as they always have been, a matter of shifting odds rather than of being able to eradicate a problem. This is true of security countermeasures, even for potential targets that have been substantially hardened. One of the few trains in the West that has airport-style security screening of passengers is the Eurostar train that uses the tunnel under the English Channel. One wonders what sort of security vulnerabilities regarding that train were demonstrated when an illegal migrant recently walked almost the entire length of the tunnel before he was caught.

The shifting of odds is also involved in anything that affects the motivations of would-be terrorists. The objective here is to reduce the chance of people being angry and frustrated enough to resort to the extreme of terrorism. The relevant public policies include ones that affect the personal circumstances in which such people live. They also include any policies of Western governments that become the objects of anger. The shaping of neither of these types of policies commonly bears the label of counterterrorism. They are nonetheless where there is likely to be, over the long run, even greater potential for changing the odds of our soft public spaces being attacked than there is through security countermeasures. The potential also is greater than through offensive kinetic action taken against people who already have crossed the line into terrorism, including action taken broadly against groups or more narrowly against individuals. With both types of action the severe limitations, as well as counterproductive aspects that can generate more angry people and more terrorism, have been repeatedly demonstrated.                              

TopicsTerrorism RegionsEurope

The Iran Issue and the Exploitation of Ignorance

Paul Pillar

Polls of American public opinion on the agreement to restrict Iran's nuclear program have produced widely varying results. One can find polls to support whatever position one would like to portray as the prevailing public view on this issue. Poll results on this subject are especially sensitive to the wording of the question that is asked. This has meant fertile ground for push-polls, in which questions are worded in a way designed to bring about the result that the sponsor of the poll seeks.

High sensitivity to the wording of the specific question a pollster asks reflects low public knowledge of the subject at hand. It means many members of the public have not focused on the subject enough to form a view that is either strong or well-informed, and that the responses of these people are thus easily swayed by the last words they hear from the poll-taker before answering. It is not surprising that this pattern should be true of opinion on the Iranian nuclear agreement, which involves numerous technical matters well beyond the normal cognizance of most Americans.

Low knowledge of the Iranian nuclear topic has prevailed for some time with the American public, even without getting into technical details of the current agreement. Three years ago the Chicago Council on Global Affairs asked Americans, in a multiple choice question, what was the assessment of the U.S. intelligence services about Iran's nuclear program—an assessment that has been constant over the last several years and repeatedly expressed publicly in statements and testimony. Only 25 percent of respondents picked the correct answer: “Iran is producing some of the technical ability to build nuclear weapons, but has not decided to produce them or not.” A mere four percent erred in the reassuring direction by choosing “Iran is producing nuclear energy strictly for its energy needs.” A plurality, 48 percent, incorrectly chose “Iran has decided to produce nuclear weapons and is actively working to do so, but does not yet have nuclear weapons.” An additional 18 percent chose “Iran now has nuclear weapons.”

It is easy to see how deficient public knowledge on such a subject undermines support for an agreement such as the one before Congress. If one believes that Iran is intent on finding a way to acquire nuclear weapons—or even worse, as nearly a fifth of respondents believed, that it already has such weapons—that puts the agreement in a very different, and unfavorable, light than if one understands that the agreement is a bargain that trades sanctions relief for Iran committing itself to remain a non-nuclear-weapons state and subjecting itself to restrictions that ensure it remains one. And in general, greater knowledge about the agreement and the issues it entails is associated with support for the agreement, and lesser knowledge is associated with opposition to it.

This pattern has been reflected in polling results that have shown greater public support for the agreement when some explanation of what the agreement is about is offered than when no such explanation is given. The pattern was particularly clear in a recent CNN poll that split the sampled population in two and asked each half a different version of the question about support for the new agreement. One-half was asked a bare-bones version of the question: "As you may know, the U.S. Congress must approve the agreement the United States and five other countries reached with Iran that is aimed at preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons before it can take effect. Do you think Congress should approve or reject the deal with Iran?" Among these respondents, 41 percent said accept and 56 percent said reject. The question presented to the other half provided just a bit more explanation: "As you may know, the U.S. and other countries have imposed strict economic sanctions against Iran while that country has nuclear facilities which could eventually allow it to produce its own nuclear weapons. Do you favor or oppose an agreement that would ease some of those economic sanctions and in exchange require Iran to accept major restrictions on its nuclear program but not end it completely and submit to greater international inspection of its nuclear facilities?" Here the result was 50 percent saying favor and 46 saying oppose.

To CNN's credit, the second question does not seem to be slanted either for or against the agreement. If one were to get very picky and try to find any such bias, one would be at least as able to see a slant going against the agreement as in favor of it. After all, the question points out that Iran's program includes facilities that "could eventually allow it to produce its own nuclear weapons" and that the agreement would "not end [the program] completely". And yet, even the very small amount of explanation yielded significantly more support for the agreement than the other question did, to the extent that the plurality was reversed. (To its discredit, CNN then in its own news coverage focused on the half of the poll result that showed disapproval and ignored the other half.)

Mustering support for the agreement thus has consisted in large part of educating the public about the deal itself and about the issues at stake regarding its fate in Congress. Mustering opposition to the agreement has consisted of whatever is the opposite of public education. That has included obscuring the basic nature of the issue at stake, especially by criticizing terms of the agreement without noting how the alternative of no agreement would be distinctly worse on the very points on which the agreement is criticized. It has included throwing every possible argument against the agreement up on a wall and seeing what sticks, without regard to whether the entire barrage has any coherence or internal consistency. It has included encouraging the public not to learn about the agreement so much as merely to feel disgust at doing any business with a detested Iranian regime. And it has included seizing on any detail or leak that, if creatively misinterpreted, can be portrayed as a major flaw.

That last tactic has been much in evidence regarding international inspections in Iran. It was in evidence most recently with the accusation that Iran would be allowed "to do its own inspections" at a non-nuclear military facility that has been the subject of old accusations about work said to have been done there years ago. The accusation is simply untrue, and there is no reason to believe, even taking the leaked supposed fragment of a draft agreement at face value, that inspection arrangements at that facility or anywhere else in Iran will depart from well-established standards of scrutiny by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The tactic also has repeatedly surfaced with what became the "24-day" issue on inspections. The provision in the agreement that was seized upon in that case has nothing whatever to do with inspection of Iran's declared nuclear facilities, which will be subject to continuous monitoring. Even with undeclared, non-nuclear facilities the required advance notice is 24 hours, not 24 days. The provision that has been seized upon, far from being a loophole, was added as a further safeguard so that in the worst possible case, if Iran balked at a demanded inspection, a procedure would be in place to ensure that Iran would be outvoted and the inspection would take place (or in the very worst possible case, Iran would be found to be in violation with everything that implies regarding sanctions). Issues regarding inspection of undeclared facilities also have been treated in an anti-educational way by opponents of the agreement in that attention has been diverted from what really matters in any worrying about potential Iranian violations. What matters is not some single piece of work or equipment that could evade both inspectors' environmental swipes and the scrutiny of national intelligence services but rather a Manhattan Project-scale infrastructure—which would be too big to evade detection, especially with the enhanced international monitoring of all aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle.

The chief consequence of the exploitation (and encouragement) of public ignorance and misunderstanding by opponents of the nuclear agreement is that the matter has become a much closer call in Congress than it ever should have been, especially given that the agreement is not at all risky for the United States because the United States is not giving anything up except for some of the punishment it doles out, and that the agreement is clearly superior to the alternative of no agreement and no special restrictions on the Iranian program. A subsidiary consequence is the corruption and degradation of public debate, as illustrated by the aforementioned inspection issues.

That in turn has led to a lot of debate about the debate, and not just about the substantive issues. President Obama has taken criticism for the candid way in which he has spoken, especially in his speech earlier this month at American University, about the nature of the opposition to the agreement. The criticism is valid only insofar as the president could have given more of a nod to those who are genuinely confused or conflicted, are sincerely trying to arrive at a well-founded opinion about the accord, and amid the confusing arguments have honest concerns and reservations. They are the victims of the exploitation of ignorance, not the exploiters. With regard to the exploiters—those driving the opposition to the agreement—the president was speaking the truth.

The message that members of Congress ought to take away from the polls is that as far as public opinion is concerned, members have ample space to make a principled decision about the nuclear agreement. They do not have to fight against some well-entrenched public view. They will not suffer a backlash of public opinion—genuine public opinion—if they do their own part in educating the public and explaining the reasons for their position.

A gold standard for such education and explanation was set by Representative Jerrold Nadler, the New York Democrat who last week accompanied his announcement of support for the agreement with a remarkably thorough 5,200-word statement giving the reasons for his decision. The statement is one of the most insightful analyses of the relevant issues to come out of Congress or anywhere else, and it is very useful reading for any citizen looking for guidance and education on the subject. Not every member of Congress can be expected to be as thorough and diligent as Nadler has been, but he has shown what can be done along this line.

Members who come out differently are not necessarily intellectually lazy or incapable of understanding the relevant issues—and most of them aren't—nor are they misreading the public opinion polls. But they are being subjected to pressures that involve the role of money in politics, the Citizens United decision, and related matters that go beyond the direct influence being exerted on the Iran nuclear issue. This gets into reasons why even on some issues on which the American public does have a firm and reasonably well-informed prevailing view, such as Social Security, there still are significant political forces pushing in a different direction. It is for those general reasons, as well as the more specific sources of opposition to the Iranian nuclear agreement, that some members of Congress are exhibiting profiles in lack of courage. They are missing a good opportunity to show real leadership of the American public.

TopicsIran Nuclear Proliferation RegionsMiddle East