Paul Pillar

The Sources of Opposition to the Iran Agreement

Paul Pillar

An air of unreality pervades much of the debate on the agreement to restrict Iran's nuclear program. Opponents of the agreement raise issue after issue on which the agreement is clearly superior to the alternative that would exist if the opponents succeed in getting the U.S. Congress to kill the deal, but the opponents keep raising such issues anyway. There is, for example, long discussion of the details of inspection arrangements and exactly how many days will elapse between when an accusation is made and when international inspectors could enter a facility. But to the extent any of this is intended as criticism of the agreement it is beside the point because if the agreement is disapproved there would not be any such extraordinary inspections, with 24 days or 240 days or anything else in the way of an adjudication period. Indeed, if the agreement is killed the universe of possible Iranian “violations” of its obligations would be greatly shrunk because Iran would be under no restrictions at all regarding its nuclear program other than the basic commitment under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty not to build weapons. Similarly, complaints about the number of years certain limits on the Iranian program will be in effect are beside the point because if the agreement is killed there will be zero years of limits.

Everything that has been gained under this agreement in the way of restrictions on, and monitoring of, the Iranian nuclear program is a net, as well as a gross, gain over the situation that prevailed before the negotiations began and over the situation that would prevail if the agreement is killed. To get these gains, neither the United States nor its negotiating partners nor Iran's regional rivals have had to give up anything that involves any significant risks to themselves. As former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Hans Blix has put it, in return for all the far-reaching commitments Iran has made, the only commitment our side has had to make is to “drop punishment”.

If the current debate were being conducted solely on the merits of the agreement, the outcome would be almost a no-brainer; the agreement is obviously much better than the alternative of killing the agreement, even on a litany of issues that the opponents themselves have been raising. And yet the agreement's political fate on Capitol Hill does not reflect that. There is substantial probability that Congress will pass a resolution of disapproval—an action that, if allowed to stand, would kill the agreement. There is a lesser, but still significant, chance that Congress would override a presidential veto of such a resolution. The final outcome is likely to come down to the votes of only a few senators or representatives. None of this political prognosis is understandable if one focuses on the substance of the agreement itself. The prognosis is comprehensible only if one realizes that the opposition is being driven by other reasons some people have for wanting to kill this agreement and to preclude any agreement with Iran.

The forces at play will be easily understood and written about by future generations of political scientists. But the American public and politicians are being buffeted (or swept along) by those forces right now. It behooves us to recognize explicitly the principal ones responsible for opposition to this agreement, which are the following.

The Israeli government's political stratagem. Even the most fervent Israel-lobby-denier cannot deny that the Netanyahu government is leading the charge against the agreement at least as much as anyone else is leading it. In Israel, as in the United States, there is a disconnect between sober consideration of the substance of the agreement and other political incentives that are making that kind of sober consideration difficult. Significant and understandable concern exists across the Israeli political spectrum about any possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon. It makes sense, from the standpoint of security of the State of Israel, to support an agreement that restricts and scrutinizes Iran's nuclear program and not to favor killing such an agreement and thereby removing such restrictions. That is why many leading Israeli security professionals, who have dedicated careers to the safety and well-being of their nation, have, even while holding their noses over any dealings with the Islamic Republic of Iran, concluded that the agreement is in Israel's best interests. If Prime Minister Netanyahu were focusing chiefly and carefully on ensuring there will be no Iranian nuclear weapon, he would have announced the same conclusion. Clearly he has other motivations.

Netanyahu has come to center much of his political career on fearmongering about Iran. In addition to however this tactic works in his favor against domestic political opponents, with his posturing as a tough guy who stands up to foreign threats, endless enmity with an Iran that is endlessly treated as a rogue state serves other purposes for his government. Keeping Iran in an international penalty box lessens the competition for influence from a regime that will continue (certainly as long as the Palestinian issue remains unresolved) its extremely harsh criticism of Israeli policy. The Iranians may be no more irate about those policies than are the governments of the Gulf Arab states, but Iran is not as restrained in its rhetoric as the latter governments are because of their relationship with the United States.

Emphasizing an overriding threat from Iran, as Netanyahu does in any statement or speech about foreign affairs, also serves as a major rationale for continuation of the extraordinary U.S.-Israeli relationship and for framing Middle Eastern affairs in the moderates-vs.-bad-guys-led-by-Iran framework that Netanyahu's government prefers. Undermining any incipient rapprochement between the United States and Iran helps to sustain the notion that Israel is the only reliable partner for the United States in accomplishing anything important in the Middle East. Last but not least, repeatedly invoking Iran as the “real threat” in the Middle East serves to divert attention and change the subject whenever people start to talk about things, such as the occupation of Palestinian territory, that Netanyahu's government would rather not talk about.

Netanyahu surely does not want to see an Iranian nuclear weapon, but his own behavior and positions indicate that neither does he want to see the issue of Iran's nuclear program resolved. It serves his purposes to let the issue fester indefinitely, and to have tension with Iran continue indefinitely. To the extent that the new agreement does resolve the nuclear issue—and even worse from Netanyahu's point of view, to the extent it leads to the United States and Iran doing worthwhile business on other topics—all of the aforementioned advantages to him of endless enmity with, and endless rogue status for, Iran are undermined. And so he is doing everything he can to kill the agreement even though the agreement is in Israel's broader and longer-term interests.

Thus there are the rhetorical excesses such as endless fulminations about repeating Munich. There are Netanyahu's repeated warnings, which he has been making for many years even though they keep getting disproved, that Iran is just a few months away from having a nuclear weapon. There is plenty of other inconsistency and goalpost-shifting, as in presenting his cartoon bomb to the United Nations and then not saying anything more about it after an agreement was negotiated that drained his bomb, or in first denouncing the Joint Plan of Action of November 2013 and then backing off when he was denouncing a later and more comprehensive agreement. Consistency doesn't matter to him; what matters is throwing sand into the gears of U.S. diplomacy.

As always in American politics, when the Israeli government takes this unequivocal a position on something, its lobby springs into action. And so AIPAC is making a huge, cancel-staff-vacations effort to destroy the agreement. Although even AIPAC sometimes has had its own frustrations with the Netanyahu government when the latter has put a highly partisan slant on its interference in U.S. politics, the lobbying organization has its own institutional reasons to continue to beat the drum of Iran as an everlasting threat. An anonymous former AIPAC official comments, “Iran has been the group’s raison d’être for two decades and it doesn’t know what else to do; its troops are trained to attack Iran and the lobby can’t afford to admit failure lest it lose supporters.” The former official continues, “Iran has been an enormously lucrative fundraiser for AIPAC; just look at what they’re spending on this campaign alone. It needs to keep the issue alive for institutional imperatives.”

Partisanship. As conspicuous as the Israeli government's role in the campaign to kill the Iran agreement is the partisan divide in the United States. That divide is immediately apparent in the most recent hearings on the subject, as it has been all along with other Congressional action or attempted action to sabotage the negotiations, such as proposals for new sanctions that would have violated the Joint Plan of Action and torpedoed the whole process. There is nothing in declared Republican Party principles, such as support for free markets, low taxes, and a strong national defense, that explains opposition to the agreement. Nor does any determination to oppose resolutely any possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon explain the opposition when killing the agreement would mean lifting restrictions under which the Iranian nuclear program currently operates. A more plausible explanation for Republican opposition against the agreement is that it is a major initiative of Barack Obama.

The role of anti-Obamaism in Republican positions has been illustrated by the party's obsessive opposition to the Affordable Care Act, with the dozens of time-wasting repeal votes in Congress and refusal to countenance any acceptance of the act or constructive bipartisan tinkering with it, even though it uses a commercially-based formula that was Romneycare in Massachusetts before it became Obamacare. The ACA is widely regarded as President Obama's biggest single accomplishment in domestic affairs, and the nuclear agreement with Iran is widely regarded as what will be—if it is not killed—his single biggest achievement in foreign affairs. Thus the agreement excites the same partisan impulses and the same urge to kill, no matter what the consequences that killing would have on the subject it addresses. The reflexive, unthinking nature of what flows from those impulses was illustrated by how quickly a large majority of Republican senators (probably to the later regret of many of them) signed on to the atrocious open letter to the Iranians initiated by Tom Cotton, a freshman with less than two months on the job.

Once such a partisan pattern develops, it becomes, as with so many other questions both factual and prescriptive, a guide for party faithful in determining their own opinions. The partisan divide in the public's views of the Iran agreement as recorded in opinion polls reflects to a large extent individual citizens' taking of cues from leaders of the party with which they identify. The self-reinforcing nature of Republican hostility to the agreement has been reinforced further by the contest for the Republican presidential nomination, in which a platoon of contenders has to scramble to get enough attention from the party base just to make it onto a debate platform, and in which a candidate opens himself up for attack just by suggesting that it might not be prudent to demolish on one's first day in office an agreement that had been already working for a couple of years.

The Iran nuclear issue is by no means the first major national security issue in recent years in which careful consideration of what is best for national interests is superseded by reflexive partisanship. Peter Beinart notes significant parallels between the debate (or what passed for debate) on launching the war in Iraq and current debate about the Iran agreement, including how many of the same people who were the most enthusiastic supporters of that blunder of a war are among the most vocal opponents of this agreement. Another parallel, which Beinart does not go into in his piece, concerns how party politics played into each question. With Iraq when Congress voted on a war resolution in 2002, as with Iran today, most of the key swing votes were Democrats. The Democrats in 2002 faced a political hazard if they appeared to resist the post-9/11 tidal wave of American militancy that the war promoters exploited to muster support for their project. That hazard was great enough that the war resolution gained support from a majority of Democrats in the Senate (where most of the party's presidential hopefuls were to be found), though not from most Democrats in the House of Representatives. But the biggest support by far in both chambers came from the nearly unanimous yes votes of Republicans.

Michael Isikoff and David Corn in their book Hubris give an insight into some of the thinking among those Republicans with a quotation from Texas Republican Richard Armey, who was the majority leader in the House at the time. Armey had earlier expressed reservations about starting a war in Iraq. When he and other Congressional leaders received a pro-war briefing, complete with overhead imagery, from Vice President Dick Cheney, Armey was unimpressed. “If I'd gotten the same briefing from President Clinton or Al Gore I probably would have said, 'Ah, b***s***',” recalled Armey. But, he continued, “You don't do that to your own people.” Given the substantive choice between the Iran agreement and killing the agreement and what each of those alternatives would mean for restricting and monitoring the Iranian program, perhaps there are similar private thoughts among some Congressional Republicans today as they listen to arguments that opponents are firing at the agreement. And probably for most of those members party solidarity will again prevail.

Anti-Iran xenophobia. The Islamic Republic of Iran has come to fill, almost from the start of its existence but certainly since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the USSR, the role of chief bête noire in American minds as far as foreign countries are concerned (although lately Vladimir Putin's Russia has been making a bit of a comeback in that regard). The hostage crisis of 1979-1981 was the worst possible way to get off to a start with a new regime. American emotions and attitudes about Iran have never recovered, and they certainly have not kept pace with major evolution in the Islamic Republic's own attitudes and objectives, which long ago became post-revolutionary in nearly every sense of the term. Put simply, most Americans have a visceral dislike of Iran that leads the emotional to dominate the intellectual, that colors perceptions and fuels major misperceptions of what Iran is up to, and that caters to the most primitive and most negative depictions of the country's regime and its objectives.

Anyone who made a sober and rational appraisal of the alternatives of agreement and no agreement as far as the Iranian nuclear program is concerned could still, no matter how much he or she dislikes Iran, see the wisdom of the agreement. As the administration has repeatedly and truthfully noted, this is an agreement based on distrust, not trust. And as many others have correctly noted, some of the most important agreements one makes are with one's enemies, not one's friends. But in reality, emotionalism and bias often trump sobriety and rationality, as they have to a large degree in this case. The American public's feelings in this regard provide a fertile ground on which those who, for the reasons mentioned earlier, are determined to oppose the agreement can plant mistaken beliefs and can stir up still more negative emotion.

The anti-Iran sentiment affects the debate in several specific ways. The consistent worst-casing of Iranian objectives and intentions leads to many misperceptions because often the worst-case assumption is simply incorrect. (E.g., Iranian leaders are not really out to destroy Israel, and they are smart enough to realize there would be no way for them to do so even if they wanted to.) Clichés and sloppy formulations substitute for any careful examination of what Iran actually has and has not been doing (a problem especially apparent concerning Iran's activities in the Middle East). The regarding of anything Iran does as being by definition “nefarious” overlooks how Iranian actions relate to U.S. interests, sometimes complementing and sometimes conflicting with them. The assumption that Iranian intentions are uniformly malevolent and always will be malevolent leads to gross misunderstanding of actual Iranian intentions, how those intentions underlie what has already happened in the nuclear negotiations, and how intentions and not just capabilities are a major part of the agreement succeeding in the future. And simple distaste for doing any business with a disliked regime is a further impediment to getting public support no matter how much sense the particular business in question makes.

The Israeli government factor, party politics, and inchoate anti-Iran sentiments are the major reasons an agreement that is clearly in U.S. interests is nonetheless a close call in Congress. Other factors might be mentioned but are subsidiary and less in the nature of root causes than are the aforementioned reasons. Money is one such factor. Copious amounts of it are being spent in opposition to the agreement—far more than anything that can be found on the support side. When the public is largely ignorant about an agreement on a technical subject, money is all the more capable of molding opinions. That effect is in addition to what money that is spent for—and against—re-election campaigns can buy more directly in the way of Congressional votes.

The stakes of the agreement's fate in Congress are high. The most immediate and obvious stake is what Secretary Kerry laid out in his testimony this week: killing this agreement would mean an Iranian nuclear program that would be free of any restrictions and any monitoring other than the minimum to which it is subject under the NPT. Killing the agreement also would mean destroying one of the most significant steps in recent years on behalf of nuclear nonproliferation generally. More broadly and perhaps less obviously, it would mean losing an opportunity to remove a shackle from U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East and to be able to address more effectively and directly many other problems of concern to both the United States and Iran. It would mean damage to U.S. credibility and damage to relations with the European allies who were partners in negotiating the agreement.

Considering the chief reasons for opposition to the agreement brings into focus additional stakes. Killing the agreement would entail a subjugation of U.S. foreign policy to the baleful influences behind the opposition. It would mean a failure to break free of the influence of a foreign government that opposes the agreement for reasons that are not shared interests with the United States and in some respects are directly contrary to those interests (including telling the United States whom it can and cannot do business with). It would mean bowing to the money and the influence of bankrollers such as Sheldon Adelson, who favors dropping a nuclear weapon on Iran and who, although a U.S. citizen, wishes he had performed his military service with a foreign government. It would mean subjugating dispassionate consideration of U.S. national interests to raw party politics. It would mean subjugating it as well to xenophobic bias. None of this is America's better side.

Members of Congress need to think carefully about whether this is the way they want U.S. foreign policy to be made. 

 

TopicsIran Israel Nonproliferation RegionsMiddle East

Donald Trump and the American Attitude Toward National Service

Paul Pillar

The sheer outrageousness of some of Donald Trump's public utterances invites condemnation that is so justifiably quick and unqualified that it leads us to overlook respects in which what Trump says or stands for reflects larger patterns that many Americans do not condemn and may even support. There is a reason that Trump moved to the top of the polls of Republican primary voters, and the reason isn't his hair. Dana Milbank of the Washington Post addressed this phenomenon the other day in a column in which he noted how, when Trump briefly ran for the presidential nomination of the Reform Party in 2000, he distinguished himself from Pat Buchanan by taking relatively progressive positions on immigration and social issues. That's quite a contrast with how Trump, now running for the Republican nomination, has called Mexicans a bunch of rapists. Milbank's persuasive explanation is that what we have heard each time is much less any sincere convictions of Trump but instead the kind of red meat that he has calculated will most excite the constituency to which he happens to be appealing.

Trump's most recent outrageous comment—his disparaging of John McCain's military service—leads naturally and appropriately to comparing what those two individuals were doing as young men during the years in question. Michael Miller and Fred Barbash do a good job in the Post of relating how, while McCain was stoically enduring suffering in captivity in North Vietnam and heroically resisting his captors' demands for a “confession” in return for his release, Trump was enjoying a life of privilege, partying, and pecuniary pursuits. Student deferments and the luck of a high draft lottery number kept Trump out of the military.

Trump's story regarding military service was little different, however, from that of many other prominent American men from the same generation who have enjoyed political success. Some of those men did much more gaming of the system than Trump did. That was true of Bill Clinton, who cleverly worked the creaky draft board system. It was true as well of Dick (“I had other priorities in the '60s than military service”) Cheney, who may have gone so far as to manipulate his marriage and child-siring schedule to stay out of uniform. As for the Republican presidential nominee in 2012, he had, with the addition of a couple of years of deferment while a Mormon missionary, the same things going for him as Trump did—student deferments and a high lottery number—and thus was able, like Trump, to embark directly on a career that enriched himself through financial wheeling and dealing.

Amid a culture of American exceptionalism that is one of the most conspicuous examples in the current world of fervent nationalism, many Americans have yet to reconcile in any convincing way this overtly patriotic culture with the pattern just described regarding national service and the leaders they admire and support. We live in an age of chicken hawks, in which those who have never served in the military tend to be—not coincidentally—some of those most supportive of, and most confident in the success of, the application of military force by the United States. We also live in a time when collective responsibility and collective pursuits on behalf of the general welfare usually take a back seat to private pursuits. We are at least as likely to treat as heroes people who have conspicuously succeeded in private sector pursuits and sold us a better cell phone, as we would so treat anyone who has endured things while in any form of public service.

As far as the contemporary military's place is concerned, we deal with the patriotism-vs.-private indulgence disjuncture mainly by ritualistically voicing tribute to those who wear the uniform while keeping their world separate from our world. We salute them at sporting events, we give them priority boarding at airports, and we thank them for their service in other venues. By so doing, we check a box on the patriotism list.

The lack of conscription is, of course, critical for maintaining the separation and keeping the military world from intruding messily on our own. Probably that is one reason those who served in the Vietnam War did not, at the time, get the salutations at ball parks or other shows of appreciation.

The Vietnam War also had come to be perceived, by its last couple of years and by all except a few diehard believers in the wisdom of the expedition, as a losing endeavor. And so it clashed with the American tendency to associate heroism with winning. That, too, is a chord that Trump struck, in his outrageous way, in his insult against McCain. “He's a war hero because he was captured,” sneered Trump. “I like people that weren't captured.” That brings to mind the aphorism, associated with George S. Patton, that “You don't win wars by dying for your country. You win wars by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.” Although the statement may be apocryphal, George C. Scott said it in a movie, so Americans take it as genuine wisdom.

Trump's comment about McCain was so despicable that all, Republicans and Democrats alike, can comfortably condemn it. Another box checked. And then Americans can continue with their chicken hawkism, their focus on private pecuniary pursuits, their general disdain for public service and the public sector, their neglect of collective endeavors necessary for the general welfare, and their belief that patriotism and the military aspects of it are all about wins that we assume someone in uniform will get for us without having to discomfort ourselves with thoughts of costs and losses.

Topicsmilitary RegionsUnited States

The Iran Agreement and the Meaning of Risk

Paul Pillar

The first few days of argumentation about the recently completed agreement to restrict Iran's nuclear program have taken predictable directions—predictable not only because the shape of the deal was known well before all the drafting was finished in Vienna but also because the principal opposition to the agreement has little or nothing to do with the terms and instead is opposition to any dealing with Iran. A recurring pattern in discourse about the agreement this past week has been reluctance by opponents to talk about the alternative of no agreement—again, unsurprising, given that the alternative is patently worse on nearly all the points (inspections, duration, limits on enrichment, etc.) on which the agreement gets criticized. This has meant, as Peter Beinart has noted, much evasiveness and changing of the subject when opponents are asked about the alternative. The opposition approach has been dominated by two general lines of attack: shooting at provisions of the agreement as if the alternative were not the absence of an agreement but instead some perfect pact, notwithstanding the unattainability of that ideal; and reminding people of all the reasons they should dislike Iran, notwithstanding how far this gets from the nuclear nonproliferation objective that is what the agreement is all about.

Among the numerous obfuscating aspects of the public discourse on this subject are some more subtle ways in which the issue has gotten framed. One of these ways is to regard this agreement and its implementation as somehow riskier, or involving the taking of greater chances, than the alternative of no agreement. For example, David Sanger of the New York Times, who has made into an art form the weaving of his evident disdain for the agreement into reporting on the subject for the nation's premier newspaper of record, wrote after the agreement was reached about President Obama's “leap of faith” and “roll of the dice.” This sort of framing has already become so embedded in the discourse that even proponents of the deal, not to mention fence-sitters, have been using it, perhaps in part to insulate themselves from charges of being too gung-ho about the agreement. The president himself, in his interview this week with Tom Friedman, spoke of the agreement as “a risk we have to take.”

What risk, exactly?

Risk in taking a course of action implies that the course may lead to possible scenarios that were not possibilities before, that we cannot predict which of these scenarios may occur, and that at least some of them would significantly harm our interests if they did occur. The concept involves opening ourselves to some sort of loss to which we would not otherwise be open. It may be that the introduction of the vulnerability is worthwhile to get whatever benefit we hope to get from the course of action, but the added possibilities of loss or harm are intrinsic to the idea of risk. A risky investment, for example, is one that adds a significant possibility of losing money, a possibility that would not be there if we did not make the investment.

To understand how risk does or does not figure into the new Iran deal, compare it with international agreements that otherwise seem most similar to it, which are ones involving arms control. A classic arms control agreement is one in which two or more states agree to reduce or limit their own armaments in return for the other parties reducing or limiting theirs. This was true of the U.S.-Soviet agreements on reducing strategic nuclear forces. The element of risk involved is obvious. If the Soviets were not to live up to their side of the bargain while the United States, living up to its side, reduced its own forces, the United States could wake up to find itself in a position of strategic inferiority. Whatever one may have thought about the overall worth of such Cold War-era agreements or about how much difference any discrepancies in strategic nuclear forces of the time made to international politics, it made sense to talk about risk in embarking on those agreements, and specifically the risk of Soviet cheating. The details of inspection and monitoring arrangements associated with those arms control agreements were all the more important for that reason.

The agreement reached this week in Vienna is nothing like that. The only reductions and limitations, either of arms or of technical programs, are ones that apply to Iran. The United States is not giving up a single bullet. It will have every bit of its “military option” to hold over the head of the Iranians that it has now, and that it would have if there were no agreement. Neither are the rest of the P5+1 giving up anything in that regard, and neither are the regional rivals of Iran. Those rivals will have everything they have now and would have in the absence of an agreement, at either the nuclear level or the conventional level. At the conventional level, as Anthony Cordesman observes, Iran already is the loser in anything that can be called an arms race in the Persian Gulf region. If anything, implementation of the agreement will tilt the military balance even more in favor of the rivals to Iran because of the politically necessary compensation they will get from the United States in terms of more generous arms exports.

Even if one were to assume the worst possible cheating, or breaking out or sneaking out, on the part of Iran under the agreement, it is impossible for that scenario to be any more hazardous or harmful than what could occur under the state of affairs before the first preliminary agreement was reached two years ago or under what would be the state of affairs if the new agreement is killed. If such breaking or sneaking out for a nuclear weapon were Iran's plan or intention, it could implement that plan at least as easily without an agreement as with one. Reaching the agreement does not subject us, or the regional rivals of Iran, to any added risk in that regard.

There is a tendency to say that the United States is in fact “giving up” something, meaning sanctions. But the sanctions from which relief is to be granted have existed for the sole express purpose of inducing Iran to change its nuclear policies and practices. That is what the agreement does. These sanctions are worthless if they do not serve that purpose and there is no agreement. They already demonstrated their worthlessness in that sense by failing even to slow down advances in Iran's nuclear program until serious negotiations finally began and bore fruit just three months later.

Neither is there the sort of value in these sanctions that is being claimed by opponents of the agreement who want to repurpose them for supposedly preventing the Iranians from spending on “nefarious”—what has become one of the most overused, and carelessly and tendentiously used, adjectives in current Washingtonese—activities in the Middle East. Their worthlessness in that regard was demonstrated by the lack of any apparent reduction in Iranian regional activism when the sanctions came into effect. Moreover, as noted by Charles Naas, who was U.S. chargé d'affaires in Tehran when the Iranian revolution broke out, “This manufactured warning” about the prospect of supposedly nefarious spending “is risible in light of Arab wealth and their expenditures of many billions on purchases of modern arms and in support of Sunni extremist organizations.”

The concessions the United States made to Iran in the recent negotiations did not involve giving up anything that represents any losses or increased vulnerabilities or added potential for harm to our interests. Besides dealing with the pace of the sanctions that have value only insofar as they get a deal, the concessions were all about just how much the Iranians would be giving up in the way of restrictions on, and scrutiny of, their own nuclear operations. And the baseline for that—equivalent to the state of affairs before the negotiations began, and what would prevail if the deal is killed—was no restrictions or scrutiny at all beyond the minimum to which Iran was subject as a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Everything that the United States and P5+1 got beyond that is pure gravy for our side.

In sum, there really isn't a valid reason to talk of this agreement as entailing any more risk than the alternative of no agreement. Given the uncertainties under that alternative of a largely unrestricted Iranian nuclear program, the risks of the agreement are probably less.

 

 

 

 

TopicsIran Nuclear Proliferation RegionsMiddle East

The Iran Nuclear Agreement: The Choice

Paul Pillar

Completion of the agreement to restrict the Iranian nuclear program puts into sharp relief the choice for anyone who weighs in on the topic and especially for the U.S. Congress, which will have an opportunity to accept or reject the deal. Gone is any meaningful kibitzing on how well the negotiators are doing their jobs. Gone are endless speculative permutations of how different issues might be resolved. Gone is conjecturing about how the outline that was the framework agreement announced in April will be fleshed out with detailed terms. The question has been stripped down to a simple and easy-to-understand form: it is a choice between the agreement that has just been announced, and no agreement at all about the Iranian nuclear program.

We can finally get beyond the sterile rhetoric about good deals and bad deals and the vacuous cliché that no deal is better than a bad deal. Comparison between this agreement and no agreement is what determines whether the agreement is bad or good. A good deal is one that is better than no deal; a bad deal is one that is worse.

It has always been a fantasy that a "better deal" than what emerges from these negotiations would somehow be possible. The long, arduous, deadline-extending nature of the negotiations that ended in Vienna makes the notion that something “better” could have been wrung out of the Iranians seem all the more phantasmagorical. Awareness that five other countries besides the United States and Iran are parties to this agreement, and that some of the most recent hard negotiations have taken place within the P5+1, ought further to dispel this notion.

The alternative to the agreement—i.e., no agreement—would mean no restrictions on Iran's nuclear program beyond the basic obligations that apply to Iran as a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. It would mean that Iran could spin as many centrifuges as it wanted. It would mean Iran would be free to enrich as much uranium as it wanted, to whatever level of enrichment it wanted. It would mean Iran could configure nuclear reactors however it wanted no matter how much plutonium this produced. It would mean an end to unprecedented levels of international monitoring and inspection. It would mean discarding the most restrictive regimen that any state had ever negotiated to be placed on its own nuclear program.

It is remarkable how, on the very issues on which many opponents of any agreement with Iran claim to be focusing, matters would be much worse if they achieved their goal of killing the agreement. If a supposed problem is, for example, that Iran is being permitted to have too much enrichment infrastructure, it would be worse under the alternative of no agreement, in which Iran could expand that infrastructure without limit. Or if it is a problem that certain restrictions would be binding for only ten years or so, it would be worse under the no-agreement alternative, in which there would be zero years of restrictions. And so forth.

As the inevitable obfuscation about this agreement ensues over the coming weeks, the public and the Congress need to be reminded of exactly what the choice is, and of how simple and clear that choice is notwithstanding the obfuscation.

And those who argue or vote against the agreement should be held to account for what they in effect are arguing or voting for. They should be made to explain to the rest of the country why, whatever may be the true reasons for their opposition, they are supporting a step that would not only kill the best chance for ensuring the Iranian nuclear program remains peaceful but also would remove the special restrictions and scrutiny to which that program is subject now. They should be made to explain why, after their endless alarms about Iran's nuclear activity, they are supporting a step that would unleash that activity.        

Image: White House Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle East

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Prodigal U.S. Client

Paul Pillar

In a blast from the past in Afghanistan, a warlord who became a model for combining ruthless ambition and destructive methods with radical ideology, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, has advised his followers to support the so-called Islamic State or ISIS in fighting against the Afghan Taliban. While some in the West might see this as one more indication of ISIS spreading its tentacles with an ever-widening reach, a better lesson flows from observing that this is another instance of ISIS being invoked by a protagonist in a local conflict with local objectives. Hekmatyar's game has always been about seeking power in Afghanistan and bashing opponents of his efforts to do so.

A further lesson comes from noting that it is the Taliban that Hekmatyar finds to be either too moderate or too inconvenient for him right now. It probably is not coincidental that this statement by Hekmatyar comes just as the Afghan government and representatives of the Taliban have concluded what may be the most promising peace negotiations so far that are aimed at resolution of the long-running conflict in Afghanistan. All of these players—the government, the Taliban, and Hekmatyar's Hizb-e-Islami—are focused on struggles for power in their own country and not on transnational causes. Afghanistan is a nation in which politics and policy largely rest on ad hoc deals among various local power-holders, which are struck in ways that do not correspond to what might make sense to Westerners in terms of recognizable left-right, radical-moderate, or religious-secular dimensions. The outcome of the current multidimensional conflict in Afghanistan will depend on such deals. This ought to call into question the wisdom of calls to extend what has already been a 14-year U.S. military operation in the interests of beating back what gets portrayed as an undifferentiated set of bad guys.

Yet another lesson comes from reflecting on Hekmatyar's four decades as a major player in turmoil in Afghanistan. Although it is not true, as is sometimes alleged, that the United States once aided Osama bin Laden, it is true that a single-minded U.S. focus on defeating the Soviets in Afghanistan and their client regime under Najibullah led the United States to bestow its favors on some seedy characters. U.S. aid aimed at beating the Soviets was given, through the intermediary of Pakistan, to seven Afghan resistance organizations. Hekmatyar's group was probably the most radical of these but also, because it was a favorite of the Pakistanis, probably received as much of the U.S. aid as any other. The attitude within the Reagan administration toward the question of what further consequences would flow from aiding such radicalism was one of "we'll cross that bridge when we come to it." The later chapters of the Hekmatyar story involved fierce fighting against the other resistance groups once Najibullah fell, with Hekmatyar's forces shelling Kabul even as he was supposed to be the prime minister, and later his group making common cause with the Taliban before the most recent falling out.

A moral of this story is: don't put off thinking about those future bridge-crossings. In focusing on defeating whoever the enemy of the moment may be, worry also about how our intervention in a conflict may be sustaining others who can spell trouble. That's always been true in Afghanistan and is true in other places as well, such as Syria.                     

TopicsAfghanistan RegionsSouth Asia

The Heavy Historical Baggage of U.S. Policy Toward the Middle East

Paul Pillar

There is much to be said for what is commonly called a “zero-based review”—a fresh look at a problem or project unencumbered by existing assumptions and practices. Just about any organization or mission could benefit periodically from such an assessment, to make possible the removal of accumulated historical impedimenta. This is true of U.S. foreign policy, which exhibits far more continuity than is often assumed.

Failure to perceive that continuity stems from the tendency to think in a more disjointed way in terms of presidential administrations. “Doctrines” get attributed to different presidents whether or not the presidents themselves have spoken in such terms. If an administration does not seem doctrinal enough and distinctive enough to pundits, it is apt to be criticized for having “no strategy”. Continuity from one administration to another is not expected and is even rejected.

The underlying continuity that nevertheless exists is partly a reflection of, and a sensible response to, constancy in fundamental U.S. interests and in the constraints the country faces in pursuing those interests. That's good. But it also partly reflects adherence to certain familiar beliefs, themes, and objectives simply because those beliefs, themes, and objectives have always been there, at least in living memory, and it would be difficult and politically costly to challenge them. And that's not good.

That latter pattern certainly has been true of U.S. policy toward the Middle East, a region of especially costly U.S. involvement. Modern U.S. involvement in the area could be said to have been launched with Franklin Roosevelt's meeting with King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, the founder of today's Saudi Arabia, on a U.S. warship in the Great Bitter Lake during the closing months of World War II. The involvement enlarged as the United States displaced the United Kingdom as the principal outside power in the area while the British shed their obligations “east of Suez”. American attitudes and assumptions toward the Middle East, and thus U.S. policies toward the Middle East, have ever since been weighed down by accumulating historical baggage. Several events and factors have formed a large part of that baggage, including in no particular order the following.

The oil bargain. The understanding reached in that meeting between FDR and Ibn Saud, involving U.S. support for the Saudi state in return for an uninterrupted flow of oil and other considerations, has long outlasted conditions that may have made it understandable at the time. This was true even before the U.S. shale oil revolution, which at least has generated commentary about how a lessening of U.S. dependency on Middle East oil may make appropriate some rethinking of policy toward the region. Despite such commentary, the political distortions caused by the oil bargain persist. In any other historical context it would be bizarre for the United States to treat as a coddled ally a state that not only is a family-ruled authoritarian enterprise with zero freedom of religion and based on an intolerant ideology that is a basis for violent jihadi extremism but also more recently has been a destabilizing factor as the family pursues its own vendettas and narrow interests in other Middle Eastern states. This sort of baggage also has sucked the United States further into taking sides in sectarian rivalries in which it has no interest.

9/11. That one piece of severe national trauma 14 years ago has left an indelible imprint on American thinking about the Middle East, terrorism, and U.S. responses, with nary a thought about how trauma-induced reactions to single events are not necessarily a good basis for constructing sound policy on wider questions. Popular views of 9/11—more so than the actual history of the attack and its preparation—have cemented in American minds the belief that any patch of faraway real estate controlled by radical Arabs represents a threat to the U.S. homeland. The waging of a “war on terror” has meant that the combination of traditional dichotomous American attitudes toward war and peace and the ubiquitous and continuous use of terrorism as a tactic has made unending U.S. involvement in warfare in this part of the world the new normal. It also has led to perceptions of, and alarm about, the group calling itself Islamic State that disregard the major differences in strategy (and specifically strategy involving the United States) between it and Al Qaeda, the group that perpetrated 9/11.

The Tehran hostage crisis. There are multiple reasons that Iran occupies the place of primary bête noire in American discourse, but the big crisis that occurred shortly after the Islamic Republic's creation deserves to be singled out as setting the attitudinal stage for everything else that followed. Certainly the hostage-taking was shockingly reprehensible, and it is hard to think of a worse way to start off a relationship with a new regime. The lasting result has been major distortion, long ago molded into conventional wisdom, about many popular American beliefs associated with Iran. This has included assumptions about Iranian intentions whether or not the Iranians actually have them, and assumptions about Iranian objectives automatically conflicting with U.S. interests whether or not they actually do. The set of attitudes also has entailed looking at the Middle East in terms of rigid line-ups in which Iran is always on, and even the leader of, forces hostile to good guys and the United States, whether or not that's really the way politics in the Middle East work or most Middle Easterners really think.

The Israeli relationship. Given the outsized role in American politics of those who work on behalf of the objectives of the Israeli government, it is inevitable that the roots of much of what can be described as attitudinal distortion about the Middle East can be found here. Admittedly, we are talking more about sheer political power and political fears in the here-and-now than about historical baggage. But the history aids the perception-molding efforts of the lobby in question, in the sense that it has helped to mask changes over time that have made the extraordinary U.S.-Israeli relationship even less justifiable than it may have been in the past. The evolution in question has been one from a plucky little Jewish state, created in the shadow of the Holocaust and besieged by neighbors, to the militarily dominant power of the Middle East, which repeatedly throws its weight around with disregard for the sovereignty and security of others. It is a state that has moved ever farther from any commonality with laudable American values, given its maintenance of an apartheid system with a large subject population being denied political rights, and the increasing influence, including influence on Israeli policy, of racial and ethnic exclusivity and intolerance.

The Iraq War. Even though the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was such a monumental blunder that all except for a few diehard supporters of that war now acknowledge it was a mistake, American attitudes and discourse are still distorted by that departure, and not primarily in a reactive, Iraq-War-syndrome sort of way. Something extreme, even if a failure, can shift the whole frame of reference for debate and discourse in a direction that makes other ideas appear less extreme than they otherwise would have seemed. With the United States having taken just 12 years ago the extreme step of launching a major war of aggression, it is now accepted as respectable to talk about overthrowing other governments in the region by force if we don't happen to like them. The Iraq War has left other baggage as well, including more of a proprietary sense about Iraq itself than U.S. interests would ever warrant and a continuing expectation, ignoring the sunk nature of sunk costs, that we still must not “lose” Iraq. We also are still collectively prisoners of the sales campaign for the war, which emphasized purported weapons of mass destruction—even though that was neither the real reason for launching the war nor logically a sufficient justification for doing so—in that when some other government we don't like has even a suspected weapons program this is taken as a reason to start talking about the need to do something about it, including something forceful.

The whole history of heavy U.S. involvement in the region. Many things feed on themselves, and U.S. involvement, including military involvement, in the Middle East is one of those things. The fact of what is now prolonged U.S. involvement there, along with more specific events and considerations such as the ones mentioned above, has inured American politicians and the American public to such involvement and to the prospect of still more such involvement. The burden of proof has shifted, however unjustifiably, from those who argue for additional costly endeavors to those who might question whether U.S. interests would justify the costs.

A zero-based review would yield a U.S. policy toward the Middle East appreciably different from the U.S. policies that have prevailed in recent decades. A review-based policy would not approach the region in terms of line-ups of “allies” and adversaries but instead would use U.S. policy instruments more flexibly to advance U.S. interests through different types of interactions, involving both sticks and carrots, with all the states of the region. It would reflect current realities more than old bargains or old emotional relationships. It would apply a non-emotional calculation to how activity in the region, including extremist activity, does or does not affect the security of Americans. It almost certainly would entail fewer costly commitments and operations in the region than has actually been the case.

We are not likely to get that kind of policy. If an administration were to undertake a real zero-based review behind closed doors, it quickly would run up against political barriers. Apolitical policy planners would get trumped by political advisers. We get some hint of the dynamics involved with the difficulty that the current president, who has shown signs of wanting to break away from some prevailing U.S. approaches to the region, has had in doing so, including the difficulty in accomplishing his “pivot” to East Asia.

There also is a larger lesson here about democratic societies and foreign policy. The main knock against democracies regarding their ability to run a coherent and effective foreign policy has involved inconsistency due to passions of the moment and the inability to take a long term view. The United States certainly has provided material that would support this criticism, with lurches such as those we saw after 9/11. But another possible democratic weakness—one especially marked in the United States, with suffocating effects of public opinion similar to ones Tocqueville observed long ago—involves not too much propensity to change but too little. With limits to policy being set by deeply entrenched popular attitudes and beliefs that democratically elected politicians continually recite, the history that gave rise to those attitudes and beliefs is a heavy restraint on any leader who might see the wisdom of following a different path.                                                  ​

TopicsPublic Opinion RegionsMiddle East

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

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