Paul Pillar

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

Paul Pillar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TopicsIsrael Iran RegionsMiddle East

Are Americans Sliding Into Another War?

Paul Pillar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TopicsIraq Syria ISIS RegionsMiddle East

Jeb Wishes the Bush War Away

Paul Pillar

Jeb Bush's foreign policy speech at the Chicago Council of Global Affairs has received generally poor reviews, and it not hard to see why. The slips of the tongue and of facts did not help, but more fundamental was the substance, or a lack thereof, that entitled people to ask, “where's the beef?” W. James Antle characterized accurately most of the substance as “interventionist clichés.” Bush endeavored to criticize the Obama administration, of course, for its policies toward the turbulent Middle East, but the listener was hard-pressed to discern from the speech exactly what Bush would be doing differently there.

That uncertainty makes all the more important Bush's handling of a topic that came up in the question-and-answer portion of his appearance: the Iraq War. One might be inclined to cut Bush some slack here in the interest of brotherly love, by not expecting him to repudiate, directly and explicitly, what was by far the biggest endeavor of his older sibling's presidency. But what about the presidency of his father, for whom Jeb Bush also expressed his love in his speech? George W. Bush's launching of the Iraq War was a repudiation of the wisdom of George H.W. Bush and his advisers in not following up the U.S. victory in Kuwait in 1991 with an attempt at regime change in Iraq. Later events, of course, confirmed that the 1991 decision was indeed a wise choice. The overall foreign policy of H.W. also was far more successful (including skillful management of the U.S. side of the end of the Cold War) than the policy of W. It would seem to be consistent with familial love and with good politics, as well as making good foreign policy sense, for Jeb Bush to identify more with the father than with the older brother.

Jeb Bush's partial and circumlocutious acknowledgment of some of the things associated with the Iraq War that went wrong did not reflect any such good sense, and only served to perpetuate some of the misconceptions that promoters of the war have pushed ever since. “There were mistakes made in Iraq,” said Bush, using one of the hoariest semantic devices to acknowledge in the passive voice that everyone realizes something is a disaster but to try to avoid identifying oneself with that disaster. Of course there was in Bush's answer the usual reference to bad intelligence about weapons of mass destruction, thus perpetuating the misconception that this is what drove the decision to go to war rather than being a convenient and scary selling point to muster public support for a war launched for other (mostly neocon) reasons. If Bush has any doubt about that he could ask one of the most fervent promoters of the war, Paul Wolfowitz, who admitted as much in an unguarded comment in an interview and who, astoundingly, has not been banished to a policy wonk wilderness for being so closely identified with the enormous blunder that the Iraq War was but instead is now on Jeb Bush's list of foreign policy advisers.

One of the mistakes that were made in Iraq, said Bush, was “not creating an environment of security after the successful taking-out of Hussein.” This perpetuates the myth, dear to many promoters of the war, that if things did not go well it was all just a matter of flawed execution. This totally evades the grand, fundamental mistake of launching the war in the first place. It also begs the question of just how big and costly an effort Bush thinks it would have taken to “create an environment of security.” Maybe he could refer back to the judgment of the Army chief of staff at the time, Eric Shinseki, whose assessment on this question got him shunned and expelled from the administration of George W. Bush.

Jeb Bush lauded his brother's re-escalation of the U.S. war in Iraq—the “surge” of 2007—as one of “the most heroic acts of courage politically that any president's done.” The surge tamped down the violence of the Iraqi civil war enough so that when George W. Bush left office he could say that the flames in Iraq were not leaping as high as they were a couple of years earlier, and he could leave the remaining mess to his successor without having to say that Iraq fell completely apart on his watch. That remaining mess included a civil war that was still being waged at a substantial, even if reduced, pace, a failure of the surge to facilitate political accommodation and compromise among the Iraqi factions, and the operations of extremist groups—including the group that now calls itself Islamic State and that was born as a result of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Shoving such messes aside (at a cost of additional American blood and treasure) just enough to be able to get out the door and slam it shut while leaving office is hardly an act of courage, political or otherwise.

The Iraq War was not just the biggest endeavor of George W. Bush's presidency; it was one of the biggest and costliest endeavors of U.S. foreign policy of the last several decades, as well as being the only major offensive war that the United States has initiated in more than a century. American voters are entitled to expect candidates for their nation's highest office to come fully to terms with the reality of that piece of recent history. Jeb Bush is not the only one who has to (Hillary Clinton still has to answer for the vote she cast as a senator in favor of the war resolution in 2002). But Bush's handling of the subject in his appearance this past week leaves several serious and gnawing questions. Would he, if president, put the nation at risk of getting into anything like the Iraq mess with another war of choice? What does his handling of this subject say about his attitudes about the use of military force, and his beliefs about what it can and cannot accomplish? Does he have any appreciation for the severe and widespread consequences the war has caused, and for the relationship of the war to some of the most serious problems in the Middle East today? Brotherly love is insufficient reason to sweep such questions under the rug.                                      

Image: Flickr/Marion Doss

TopicsIraq Politics RegionsMiddle East United States

The Declining Respect for the Search for Truth

Paul Pillar

It is unusual for a political leader to disavow truth-seeking as explicitly as Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin did when he tried to expunge from the longstanding mission statement of the University of Wisconsin a reference to “the search for truth” being a core purpose of the university. Walker backed off, but only after public outrage and only with a retraction of his previous retraction that blamed the proposed change on a “drafting error.” The change in the mission statement was one part of a larger proposal by Walker that would slash much of the state's subsidy of the university system.

(Disclosure: My son is a student at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. I thus have a personal interest in the university continuing to search for truth, as well as in the degrees it grants not being debased by the sort of degradation and decline that would result from big budget cuts. I also have an interest in what happens to out-of-state tuition rates, which the university chancellor says are sure to be hiked if the legislature approves Walker's cuts. I do not know what Governor Walker, who also has a son enrolled at UW-Madison, privately thinks about any of these things.)

The prevailing interpretation about Walker's moves is that striking blows against the elite intellectuals one finds on the campus of a leading university—and suggesting, as Walker did, that the university could adjust to budget cuts by increasing professors' work loads—pleases a sector of the Republican primary electorate to which Walker is appealing in seeking a presidential nomination in 2016. The same interpretation could be applied to Walker's recent refusal to say that he believes in evolution. This interpretation is undoubtedly correct, but for a leader to turn his back on truth, or more precisely the search for truth, as directly as Walker has is also part of a larger disturbing pattern in twenty-first century America and American politics.

Although direct and explicit rejections of truth-seeking are rare, Walker does not provide the only examples. Another one that comes to mind was the proud declaration by an anonymous aide in George W. Bush's administration (believed by many to be Karl Rove) that he and his colleagues were not part of the “reality-based community.”

Of course, rejection of reality and the truth by people in power, sometimes to a sweeping degree, is by no means an artifact of twenty-first century America. The Big Lie has long been a well-practiced technique of dictatorships abroad. But while such regimes have mangled and oppressed the truth, they have claimed to be pursuing it and acting in accordance with it. Even the department in George Orwell's Oceania that dispensed lie-laden propaganda called itself the Ministry of Truth.

The more unabashed willingness we see today to stray from respect for the truth has multiple roots. One could explain much by looking at the sort of political calculations that Walker and his advisers are making and at the underlying demographics and value systems of the sector of the electorate to which they are appealing. But there are some more widespread roots as well, some of which Joel Achenbach of the Washington Post identified in a recent article addressing why so many Americans are so dubious about science. The ubiquitous Internet, for example, “makes it easier than ever for science doubters to find their own information and experts.” Much of the turning away from truth does involve rejection of scientifically established patterns and causalities, with denial of climate change being perhaps the most obvious example.

It is rejecting the search for truth that is the most important and destructive phenomenon in question. Achenbach quotes the editor of the journal Science, who observes that science is not a body of facts but instead “a method for deciding whether what we choose to believe has a basis in the laws of nature or not.” It is a way of searching for truth, a way that has long proven itself to be effective. The antithesis of science is to take something as fact because it is a tenet of a political ideology or a revealed religion to which one adheres.

Besides the influence of unquestioning adherence to political ideologies and revealed religions, some of the blame for diminished respect for the truth ought to go to the world of the arts and the increasingly artful, and unapologetic, way in which fiction and nonfiction get blended. A historical novel used to mean a story about fictional characters set against the backdrop of real events. Now it may mean attributing made-up words and actions to real people. Occasionally, as with the portrayal of Lyndon Johnson in a recent movie about Martin Luther King, such attribution may become a matter of discussion and controversy. More often it is absorbed by much of the public as if it were fact. Many people believe significant falsehoods about real Americans and real American institutions because they saw them in an Oliver Stone movie. Film directors and novelists blithely rationalize the confusion of fact and fiction by saying that they bend facts only to make larger and more profound points. In other words, they are saying that the truth doesn't matter very much.

Political polarization in the current United States is another contributing factor. The partisan divide has nearly ended any search for better understanding of reality through a constructive dialogue between those with different points of view. And much of what is taken as fact by many adherents of one partisan camp or another is so taken merely because other people in the camp with which the person identifies say it is so. This is not a search for truth at all; it is just an expression of a creed. Perceived fact follows prescriptive ideology rather than the other way around.

The diminished respect for truth and the search for it has multiple bad consequences. Most obvious is that a lot of untruths are left floating around, free to become the basis for misguided policies. Another is that debates about public policy are rendered more confused and less effective by muddying the respective roles of facts and analysis, and description and prescription. Casual attitudes toward the truth, and having perceived fact flowing from preferred prescription, disguise fundamental choices and trade-offs. We have seen this with debate about the use of torture, in which many of those opposed to it have been determined to believe that it never works and many of those in favor of allowing it have been determined to believe that it does work. This has obscured the sort of hard choices that can arise when something is both effective and immoral.

To see so much straying from a dedicated search for truth is dismaying, for reasons that go far beyond a university campus in Wisconsin.                                      


TopicsPolitics RegionsUnited States

It's the Economy, and Bibi Isn't Stupid

Paul Pillar

A recent poll confirmed what other polls and many observers have noted about concerns of the Israeli public as Israel's general election next month approaches. Presented with a list of six subjects and asked which is the most important one for the government of Israel to address, 48 percent of all likely voters picked “economic issues.” Nineteen percent said it was relations with the Palestinians, 14 percent picked education, and only 10 percent chose “the Iranian threat.” Instability in the region, enlisting ultra-Orthodox, “other,” and “don't know” collectively got 11 percent. Compared with a poll that asked the same question two years ago, “economic issues” went up five percentage points and “the Iranian threat” went down two. Given how much the incumbent government unceasingly pounds away in its rhetoric on the Iranian issue and how dire a threat it portrays it to be, it may be remarkable how few respondents chose that subject.

Two salient facts about the Israeli economy provide the background to the views and concerns of Israeli citizens. First, Israel is a prosperous state with an economy that, looked at in a macro way, is admirably dynamic. Don't let that three billion in annual aid from the United States fool you into thinking that Israel needs that money; Israel is in the top 25 countries of the world in GDP per capita.

But second—and perhaps not surprisingly given that Israel has been ruled by a right-wing government for the last several years—Israel has some of the worst economic inequality among the developed countries that belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Israel's high-tech success has not trickled down to much of the rest of the economy. Despite the nation's overall prosperity, a good many ordinary Israelis strain to make do. This is especially true of young adults of the millennial generation, particularly with regard to finding affordable housing.

A demonstration of these patterns that was more dramatic than opinion polls came in huge street demonstrations in the summer of 2011, when many Israelis marched and chanted, “we demand social justice.” The hundreds of thousands of participants, bearing in mind the size of the Israeli population, represented a far bigger display than anything the Occupy Wall Street people were able to mount in the United States. There is a genuine opening here for the Israeli Center-Left. The Israeli public, compared to the American public, is more positively inclined toward a welfare state and more tolerant of government deficits and public sector spending.

The way Likud and the rest of the political Right counters this vulnerability is to keep trying to shift the focus by hammering away on what it presents as national security issues, keeping the Israeli public scared—notwithstanding the overwhelming regional military superiority that Israel enjoys at all levels—and portraying itself as best able to protect Israelis from what is scary.

For Benjamin Netanyahu, the specter of Iran and especially its nuclear program has been central to this political strategy. When Netanyahu comes to Washington and makes his Congressional appearance that Republican/Likud political operative Ron Dermer (aka the Israeli ambassador) arranged for him, he bolsters his domestic political standing in a couple of ways. One is that, insofar as he is successful in sabotaging any agreement to restrict the Iranian program, he can continue to fulminate about the Iranian bogeyman in as unrestrained fashion as he always has. If he can kill an agreement, he puts off the day when scaremongering about Iran gets even less of a rise out of the Israeli electorate than what the recent poll measured.

In the meantime, the speech itself enables Netanyahu to show the U.S. Congress again eating out of his hand, reassuring his voters that he has everything under control as far as U.S. politics are concerned, notwithstanding any unpleasantness with the current U.S. president. Lest there be any doubt about Netanyahu's use of Congress as an electoral prop in this way, in the last previous Israeli election in 2013, Netanyahu's political coalition broadcast a campaign ad that used footage from an earlier Congressional appearance of his, replete with several of those standing ovations from the members (and also used a clip of Netanyahu's display of his cartoon bomb before the U.N. General Assembly). The ad conveyed the message, “When Netanyahu speaks, the world listens.”

The structure of the Israeli economy thus does more harm besides making it hard for some Israelis to find housing and pay bills. It also provides an added political incentive for their government to undermine U.S. foreign policy, to constrain U.S. freedom of action in the Middle East, and to destroy the best chance the world has had to ensure that the Iranian nuclear program stays peaceful.                                       

TopicsIsrael Iran RegionsMiddle East

Why Authorizations of Force Against Terrorists Are Inevitably Troubled

Paul Pillar

The draft that the Obama administration submitted to Congress to authorize the use of military force against ISIS seems to be pleasing almost no one, and that was bound to be. Some of the strongest early criticism is coming from doves, including people who support Mr. Obama on most other issues, but hawks are complaining as well. One can see why this tardy submission of a draft resolution was preceded by months of an Alphonse-and-Gaston routine in which both the administration and the Congress were looking to the other to offer a proposal first. Each seemed to sense it was impossible to come up with something that would not have unavoidable and easily noted flaws. Probably the draft will be modified in the course of the coming Congressional debate, and probably the modifications will still leave many doves and many hawks dissatisfied.

Several questions and potential problems are worthy of attention in the debate. Perhaps the most significant question concerns the fact that this draft does not repeal the authorization that Congress passed in 2001 shortly after the 9/11 attack, and that two administrations subsequently have used as the legal basis for a variety of armed actions in several different countries. The current administration has been saying that this earlier resolution was all the authorization it needed for the military actions it already has been taking for months against ISIS. If the 2001 resolution, so interpreted, remains in force, then how can whatever limits are specified in a new resolution have any significance and any effect?

The coming debate in Congress, however overdue it is and however flawed will be whatever product comes out of it, is nonetheless welcome. It is part of a proper function of the legislative branch. This is not an instance, as has arisen on some other issues, of members trying to act like 535 secretaries of state and getting in the way of negotiating international agreements. Nor is it, at least not yet, a case of members trying to act like 535 commanders-in-chief and interfering in the management of military operations. Instead it is a matter of the people's representatives setting basic policy and priorities when it comes to deciding whether a particular goal overseas merits expending American blood and treasure and putting American lives in harm's way.

Whatever its outcome in terms of a specific resolution, the debate might help to illuminate why it is so difficult to put into legislative language a precise statement of what is intended. The fundamental reason goes back to the habit of thinking of counterterrorism in military terms, as reflected in the unfortunate phrase “war on terror.” Terrorism is a tactic, not an enemy. Wars end; terrorism doesn't. Military measures are only one type of tool, and not necessarily the most effective one, in countering terrorism. Regarding that last point, it would be appropriate for members of Congress to debate not only the legal issues involved in an authorization of force but also the practical and empirical issues pertaining to what is most likely to cause a group such as ISIS to wax or to wane.

Declaring war, or authorizing force, against a state involves a well-defined adversary, with the limits of the armed conflict defined by the activities of the target state. The organizational manifestations of international terrorism are much different, consisting of amoeba-like groups that shift shape and identity and that lack clear boundaries in terms of either structure or theaters of operation. Terrorist groups—including the ones that have most preoccupied the United States in recent years—metamorphose, splinter, and spread. The names assumed by groups are of little use in adding clarity to this chaos, because adoption of a name sometimes is nothing more than an expression of fondness for a certain ideology or of admiration for what another group carrying that name has done, or an attempt to sound scarier, rather than reflecting any organizational cohesion. This has been true of many who have adopted the al-Qaeda name as well as ones today adopting the ISIS name. This is why it is so hard to word a resolution authorizing force resolution against such groups, as if it could be done as clearly and precisely as declaring war against state X. It is why there is justified concern about whether any meaningful limit is being applied by the current draft resolution when the stated target is ISIS “or associated persons or forces” and this is further declared to mean “any closely-related successor entity in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners.” That is a very wide window.

It is good for Congress to try to come up with the least bad version of a resolution aimed at ISIS. But what is needed even more is a different kind of Congressional authorization—perhaps a much-improved version of the 2001 resolution—that recognizes that it might be appropriate in carefully selected times and places to apply the military tool in counterterrorism, without vainly pretending as if this could be done in the same way as declaring war against a particular state. But exactly what such an authorization would look like is not at all clear.                                 


TopicsTerrorism RegionsUnited States

America's Slide Into Sectarianism

Paul Pillar

President Obama gave a speech last week at the National Prayer Breakfast that was instructive, reasonable, accurate, and fair. It also contained messages that are all the more important to hear and heed in light of some of reactions to the speech itself. I'm not talking about the usual reflexive Obama-bashing, which happens all the time and is not worth paying attention to. I am referring instead to reactions that indicate some more fundamental attitudinal problems that jeopardize not only U.S. foreign policy but also some core American values. Some of the most outlandish reactions, such as former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore's comment that Mr. Obama's remarks at the event were “the most offensive I've ever heard a president make in my lifetime,” probably reflect these problems and are not just the familiar garden-variety partisanship.

Mr. Obama's remarks included upbeat and informal comments about the Dalai Lama's presence and an earlier speech by stock-car race driver Darrell Waltrip. They also included some observations—which seemed to get all the attention in the subsequent reactions—about how at different times through history different religions have been “twisted and distorted, used as a wedge,” sometimes with outrageously inhumane consequences. But the core of the speech consisted of three main points. The first was a call for “some basic humility”—for a recognition that “the starting point of faith is some doubt,” and that we should not be so full of ourselves that we think “God speaks only to us” and “somehow we alone are in possession of the truth.” The second point concerned the need “to uphold the distinction between our faith and our governments—between church and state.” And the third was to affirm the “Golden Rule that we should treat one another as we wish to be treated.”

It is hard to see how any American who isn't in active denial about the benefits to mankind of the Enlightenment could disagree with any of those three points. As for the first—and the president's preceding comments about how all religions, including Christianity, have at times been twisted for nefarious purposes—as E. J. Dionne observes, if acknowledging one's imperfections were to be considered an insult to one's religious faith, that would make St. Augustine a heretic. The second is a bedrock principle of the American political system, enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. The third is at the center of any ethical system apart from rationalizations of selfishness à la Ayn Rand.

In many ways, unfortunately, the United States has in its dealings with the rest of the world repeatedly flouted both the principle of humility and not assuming a monopoly of truth and the principle of treating others as we would want to be treated. We could go on at great length on those themes, but sticking to strictly religious issues leads to a comparably disturbing observation: that American discourse and American politics have been moving ever farther from separation of faith and government, and toward having the United States take sides in favor of some religions over others. This trend manifests itself in several ways.

One way is in the prominence and power in the United States of Christianist politicians—who are every bit as worthy of that descriptor as many politicians elsewhere merit the label Islamist. Overt religiosity among American political leaders and their tendency to apply religious faith to public policy issues has waxed and waned through different phases of the republic's history, but the trend over the most recent decades has been upward. A reflection of change in this regard over the past half century was the comment of Rick Santorum—a prominent example of a Christianist politician and a leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012—that his fellow Catholic John Kennedy's pledge to keep his religion out of the conduct of Kennedy's presidency made Santorum “want to throw up.” The latest phase of increasing prominence of overt Christianists in American politics coincides with increasingly reflexive negative views about Islamist politicians elsewhere.

Another manifestation has been a series of more specific attacks on the establishment clause of the First Amendment, no one of which may be earthshaking but which collectively represent a substantial weakening of that foundation of American constitutionalism. The attacks have included such things as proselytization at U.S. military academies, a Supreme Court decision (in the Hobby Lobby case) allowing one citizen's private religious beliefs to govern the content of other citizens' taxpayer-assisted medical care, and most recently defiance of that same Supreme Court on same-sex marriage by the chief justice of a state supreme court whose campaign to insert his religious beliefs into public affairs has included earlier defiance of a federal court order to remove a monument to the Ten Commandments that he had erected at a state courthouse.

A third indication of the trend, noticeable especially over the past decade and a half, has been increased Islamophobia—the overt rejection or distrust of an entire religion and not just of an extremist fringe. The sentiment has been pervasive in the private sector but repeatedly bleeds over into public and political space, as when Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal says that if American Muslims “want to set up their own culture and values, that's not immigration, that's really invasion.”

This entire pattern damages the effectiveness of U.S. foreign policy. It leads many foreigners to believe that U.S. actions are motivated by an objective of bashing one religion and advancing another, even if that is not their actual purpose. This belief leads to resentment and hatred of the United States and resistance against what it is trying to do. This is why the current administration wisely eschews the term “Islamic terrorism,” notwithstanding all the baiting it gets from domestic opponents on this semantic point. It is also why the previous administration wisely backed off from calling its counterterrorist effort a “crusade,” as George W. Bush initially called it shortly after 9/11.

But such resistance and reactions to U.S. foreign policy initiatives don't even constitute the most fundamental danger of going down the sectarian path. That danger has to do with how through the centuries religiously-defined and religiously-motivated conflict has been one of the biggest sources of organized bloodshed and human suffering. We see such bloodshed and suffering in abundance today in the Middle East, South Asia, and parts of Africa. The West has mostly extracted itself from that type of agony, but did so only after the agony of the Thirty Years War led Europeans to erect a state system that banished to the past the idea that religious difference should be the basis for one state waging war against another state. It would be disastrous for the United States to do anything that even hints at return to a pre-Westphalian mindset that unites sovereigns and scripture. Dionne notes that some secularists criticized President Obama's remarks last week for having “soft-pedaled the theological roots of violence.” They have a point, but a speech at a prayer breakfast would not have been an appropriate occasion for lecturing on that broader lesson.

There are fundamental values at risk at home in the United States, too. Mr. Obama gave a nod in his speech to the Founding Fathers, and rightly so. Anyone with an interest in the founders' intent should pay attention to their intent regarding the importance of non-establishment of religion. George Washington said, “The United States is not a Christian nation, any more than it is a Jewish or Mohammedan nation.” The founders' thinking on the subject was influenced both by the sordid history of religiously-driven conflict and by their awareness of how specific dominant religious identifications of some of the American colonies raised the risk of religious repression of those not part of the dominant sect. They saw non-establishment of religion by the state as critical to the preservation of religious freedom, one of the basic freedoms that are part of American values.

President Obama managed to hit the right notes for a prayer breakfast, speaking positively about religious faith, from the compassion of a spiritual leader such as the Dalai Lama to the role that prayer may have played for Darrell Waltrip as he was driving a race car 200 miles per hour. He also had an important message that should be heeded by anyone who makes any proposals about public policy that would involve the United States taking sides in favor of, or against, any particular religion.              


TopicsReligion RegionsUnited States

More Recklessness from the Washington Post Editorial Page

Paul Pillar

James Carden and Jacob Heilbrunn provided in the current issue of The National Interest an extensively documented review of how the ever-more-neocon editorial page of the Washington Post “responds to dangerous and complex problems with simplistic prescriptions.” The Post's most recent editorial about the nuclear negotiations with Iran is firmly in that same simplistic, destructive tradition. It is hard to know where to begin in pointing out the deficiencies in this effort by the Post's editorialists, but noting some of them can illustrate how the tendencies that Carden and Heilbrunn cataloged constitute, as the abstract for their article puts it, a crusade for doctrines “that have brought Washington to grief in the past.”

The current editorial offers a prescription that is so simplistic that it isn't really a prescription at all. And that—the absence of any plausible proposed alternative—is its most basic shortcoming. Instead it is just a collection of ways of saying, “We don't like where these negotiations are going.” Even though the writers claim that “we have long supported negotiations with Iran,” the effect of their piece is to add to the negative background music to which those determined to defeat and derail any agreement with Iran—including Benjamin Netanyahu and confirmed deal-saboteurs in the U.S. Congress—dance and from which they derive energy.

The editorial posits as one of its complaints a version of the familiar meme about the U.S. administration supposedly conceding too much to Iran—even though that image is quite at odds with the actual history of these negotiations, in which it is Iran that has made the most significant concessions. The editorial says the Obama administration supposedly “once aimed to eliminate Iran's ability to enrich uranium,” although there is little indication that this administration ever believed that a zero-enrichment formula could ever be the basis of an achievable agreement. It is interesting to note, however, that more than a decade ago a different administration, evidently thinking a demand for zero enrichment was the proper policy, spurned an opportunity to negotiate an agreement with Tehran when Iran had only a tiny fraction of the enrichment centrifuges it does now—and we all know how that policy worked out.

On the subject of uranium enrichment the editorial writers play familiar and hazardous semantic games in positing a goal of “eliminating Iran's potential to produce nuclear weapons” and “denying Iran the capability to develop a military nuclear option.” It is impossible to “eliminate” such a ”potential,” and Iran already has, after all those years of no negotiations, the “capability” to develop such an “option.” This kind of talk only helps the deal-saboteurs lay a trap by being able to say about any conceivable agreement that could emerge from any negotiations with Iran that it does not “eliminate” capabilities or potential or options.

The purpose of an agreement is to ensure that Iran does not exercise such an option. The most important element in providing this assurance is the unprecedented level of intrusive inspections that would make any move toward exercising such options immediately clear. The Post editorial pooh-poohs this by referring to “theoretically giving the world time to respond.” No—it's not just theoretically; the inspection arrangements would actually given the world plenty of time to respond.

The Post also bemoans how “even limited restrictions would remain in force for only a specified number of years.” Most observers of the negotiations expect that the time spans involved, and especially for enhanced inspections, would be many years, and perhaps a decade or more. The editorial gives no reason to suspect that the Iranians after all this time would have any motivation at all to discard everything they had gained from remaining a certified, inspected, restricted, non-nuclear weapon state. Nor does the editorial comment on what it would mean for the conclusions we ought to draw about Iran' s motivations and intentions if it demonstrated for several years its willingness to comply with an agreement that would be quite restrictive on Iran.

This gets to the issue of possible cheating or stealthy acquisition of a nuclear weapon. The editorial throws that up as another thing to get us worried. But it says nothing at all about why the possibility of stealthy building of a bomb would be any greater with a negotiated agreement than without one. It wouldn't, and if anything probably would be less, given the enhanced inspections under an agreement.

A second line of attack in the editorial is another recently much-used meme by opponents: the notion of “increasingly aggressive efforts by Iran to extend its influence across the Middle East.” In this respect the editorial exhibits one of the same basic deficiencies that is almost always exhibited when the notion is used this way: it says nothing about why, if such Iranian regional activity is a problem, it would be any worse under a nuclear agreement than without one. If such activity really is as much of a problem as the editorial suggests, then the years-long keep-Iran-in-the-penalty box approach hasn't worked very well, has it? The editorialists write that “rather than contest the Iranian bid for regional hegemony, as has every previous U.S. administration since the 1970s [again if that's the case, how well has that approach worked out?], Mr. Obama appears ready to concede Iran a place in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and beyond...” It is not up to the United States, or in the power of the United States, to “concede” such things; Iran is in the region, and will have relations with other states in the region, and along with other states will compete for influence in the region, whether we like it or not. Is Iran, by negotiating with us, “conceding” a place to the United States in Iraq, Syria, or elsewhere?

On the “regional aggression” theme the editorial also exhibits most of the other misconceptions that are exhibited when this theme comes up, such as the idea that everywhere there is any turmoil involving anyone with any link to Iran, that the turmoil is the result of Iranian expansionist initiatives, when in fact it is not. Or the idea that Tehran is operating a Comintern-like Shia international, when in fact it is not. An additional twist that the Post gives to the theme is to state that “the White House has avoided actions Iran might perceive as hostile—such as supporting military action against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.” Getting more deeply involved in the Syrian civil war is, of course, something the Post editorial board has been calling for repeatedly over the last couple of years. Amid all that war-drum-beating, it apparently doesn't occur to the board that the administration has very good reasons not to sink the United States into that tar pit, regardless of whether or not Iran would see such action as hostile.

The editorial calls for more Congressional involvement—another open invitation for more deal-killing activity by saboteurs on Capitol Hill. Although the editorial accurately quotes Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken about how the administration sees Congressional action as appropriate only later after Iran has demonstrated that it is living up to its end of a deal, it makes no mention of the logic behind that schedule. The logic ought to be appealing to anyone as distrustful of Iran as the editorial writers evidently are. The administration intends to limit any sanctions relief in the early phase of an agreement to executive action so that sanctions could be quickly reinstated in the event of any Iranian failure to observe the terms of the agreement—more quickly and easily than if new legislation had to be enacted.

The editorial near its end makes it sound as if there is some alternative that it is recommending by referring to how “the right response to the questions now being raised is to seek better terms from Iran...” Oh? How, exactly? Isn't such seeking what the negotiators have been doing for months? This sort of suggestion might be a disguised way of giving more momentum to sanctions legislation that is rationalized as strengthening the U.S. negotiating position but in fact is designed to kill the negotiations. Or the suggestion may reflect naiveté that is somewhat akin to the Post editorial board living in what Carden and Heilbrunn describe as “a foreign-policy fairy-tale land in which nasty authoritarian regimes can be magically transformed by American leadership into democratic ones.” In the same fairy-tale land, American leadership and toughness can magically get other governments to accept terms that are contrary to their interests.

The last few words of the editorial correctly raise what ought to be the key question in any evaluation of an agreement that emerges from these negotiations, which is to consider whether it “is better than the alternatives.” Except the editorialists don't examine what the alternatives really are. Indefinite continuation of the interim agreement currently in force would be helpful in fulfilling U.S. nonproliferation objectives, but the Iranians would be unlikely to accept being strung out like that, given that they are still under the economically damaging oil and financial sanctions. Besides, hardliners in the U.S. Congress have made it clear they would push hard for agreement-violating, deal-killing additional sanctions if there is no final accord by early summer. So the true alternative is no agreement at all—and that means no special restrictions on, and no intrusive inspections of, the Iranian nuclear program. Yes, let's indeed compare whatever agreement is reached with the alternative.

We should remember the grief that the crusading doctrines the Post has supported have brought us in the past. In particular we might recall the Post's support for the Iraq War, which among much other grief it caused the United States also was the single biggest cause in recent years of the expansion of Iranian influence in the Middle East—specifically, in Iraq itself. Then we might ask where else in the Post's fairy-tale land its current undermining of the Iran negotiations is likely to lead us.                   

TopicsIran RegionsMiddle East

Assad Will Have to Stay for Awhile

Paul Pillar

The intractable, multidimensional civil war in Syria is as intractable, and immune to clean solutions, as it ever has been. The basic conundrum is that we loathe two players in the conflict—the Assad regime and ISIS—and would like to be rid of them both, but they are the two strongest players and each constitutes the most significant opposition to the other. This multilateral structure of the war, however frustrating and policy-complicating it may be, is for the foreseeable future inescapable.

We are reminded, especially by those in what passes for a secular opposition in Syria, that the regime is genuinely brutal, with its barrel-bombing of civilian areas and similarly inexcusable tactics. But making sound policy, by the United States or any other outside power, is not a simple matter of reading a brutality meter—and that was true even before the most recent act of unspeakable brutality by ISIS. The most prudent, and least bad, U.S. policies toward Syria need to be based on the assumption that Bashar Assad is not likely to go away any time soon. There are at least three reasons that policy should be based on that assumption.

One reason involves a pragmatic recognition of reality, in that Assad's departure is simply beyond the ability of the United States or any player inside Syria to bring about any time soon (barring a full-scale U.S. military intervention, which would be folly for a host of other reasons). There are soft and brittle parts in this regime, but it would be useful to recall how many predictions of the regime's demise since the Syrian war began have proven to be wrong.

A second reason is that in most conflicts it would be a prescription for failure, and/or for embarking on an incredibly costly enterprise, to take on simultaneously two different antagonists who are fighting against each other. Think about what World War II in Europe would be like if the United States had tried to take on Nazi Germany and the Stalinist USSR at the same time.

The repeatedly expressed hopes placed in a Syrian “moderate opposition” as an alternative winning horse to back in this contest have repeatedly been shown to be held in vain. This situation is not something that can be corrected with more voluminous aid or more alacrity in dispensing it. If the dispensing has been measured and hesitant, that is an appropriate recognition of how with the fluid line-up of protagonists in this civil war, men and materiel easily move from one participant to another and get into what we would consider the wrong hands.

A third reason is that collapse of the current Syria regime under the pressure of war could easily mean the loss of the only structure separating Syria from anarchy that would be even worse than what exists there now. We should have learned some lessons in this regard from what happened in de-Baathicized Iraq and what is still happening today in Libya.

In recent months the Obama administration appears to have accepted an understanding of these realities and talks less than it did earlier about the ouster of Assad as a policy priority. Because of that, it has been criticized by some other governments in the region who have different priorities. The United States needs to consider its own interests in setting its own priorities rather than bowing to the priorities of others. The Turks, for example, have their own particular issues with Assad and Turkey-specific concerns about any cooperation with the Syrian Kurds. Many Arabs, especially in the Arabian Peninsula, think of Syrian affairs the same way they think of many Middle Eastern affairs, viewing them in terms of sectarian conflicts and asking first of all, “What's good for the Sunnis?” That is not the sort of question that should guide U.S. policy.

In the longer run, significant political change in Syria will be necessary for that country to have any hope of stability. Bashar Assad will not be atop any Syrian political order that is reasonably just and stable. But the near term is what we face now, and what needs to be navigated successfully before we ever get to the long term.

Image: Creative Commons 2.0.                                 

TopicsSyria RegionsMiddle East

Both Sides Need to Concede to Get an Iranian Nuclear Deal

Paul Pillar

Early in Diplomacy 101, one learns how international negotiation consists of give-and-take between two or more states, with each side yielding on some points in order to reap the benefit of the other side doing its own yielding. Also early in the course, one learns how this sort of mutual bargaining, by leading to mutually beneficial agreements, is an important tool for any state in advancing its own national interests. It is for similar reasons that in domestic affairs, the right to be sued is a fundamental individual right along with the right to sue; it represents the ability to advance one's interests by making concessions and enforceable commitments to others.

As basic as all this is, Americans seem to have a hard time understanding it. A one-way exceptionalist asymmetry infects much discussion in this country about international diplomacy and negotiation. The process is viewed not as mutual give-and-take but instead as the other side giving and the U.S. side taking. Hence issues under negotiation get discussed in terms of the United States imposing “redlines” and of how pressure can be exerted to get the other side to capitulate to U.S. demands. This perspective in turn gets exploited by anyone who does not want an agreement at all on whatever issue is at hand.

These patterns have been present in abundance in American discussion of the nuclear negotiations with Iran. Almost the entire discussion is about Iran making more concessions—what it would take to elicit such concessions, whether Iran can ever be expected to make such concessions, etc. Almost nothing is said about the need for the United States and its negotiating partners to make additional concessions, too. Instead there is, even among those who genuinely support reaching an agreement, an assumption that the United States has put a “reasonable” deal on the table and it is up to Iran to accept it.

One repeatedly hears some version of the now-trite refrain, “it all depends on whether the Iranian supreme leader wants a deal.” Well, he certainly does want a deal in the sense that he otherwise never would have allowed the negotiations to go as far as they already have, and Iran to make as many commitments as it already has. But there are some possible deals that he and other Iranian leaders would be willing to accept as being in Iran's interests, and other deals that they would not accept. The supreme leader surely does not believe that any deal is better than no deal. That gets to another refrain that has become trite through repetition in American discussion. If we don't think that considering any deal to be better than no deal should be the U.S. position—and indeed it should not be—we ought to realize it will not be the Iranian position either.

Also among the familiar refrains: political woe besets any U.S. leader who gives evidence of “wanting a deal more” than Iran. No such inter-country comparison of utility or motivation is actually possible, just as inter-personal comparisons of utility are not possible. But even if such a comparison were possible, it would not be the proper standard for assessing whether any particular agreement were in U.S. interests. An agreement would be in U.S. interests if it produces military, economic, or political conditions that are more congenial to those interests than what the absence of the agreement would produce—regardless of how much or how little someone else might “want” the agreement.

For those intent on making cross-country comparisons, here's a little background to what is currently being negotiated with Iran. The Iranians are being called upon to subject their nuclear program to restrictions, and to intrusive inspections, substantially greater than what any other country is subjected to. And they are being called on to do that to get even partial relief from economically debilitating sanctions that no other party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty is subjected to. In the preliminary agreement that is currently in force, the United States and its partners got the main restrictions and inspection requirements they wanted—so much so that indefinitely continuing the preliminary agreement (if that were somehow politically possible) would suit U.S. nonproliferation objectives just fine. The Iranians got what was, by any quantitative measure, relief from only a small fraction of the nuclear-related sanctions that have been placed on them. In short, it is undeniable that Iran has made most of the concessions in this negotiation so far. And if either side has more reason to “want” to push the negotiations ahead promptly to completion, given the nature of the interim deal it clearly is Iran that has reason to want it more.

For anyone keeping score of such things, the U.S. and its partners could henceforth make significant concessions to close a final deal and still be well ahead on the scorecard of concessions elicited from the other side. But assessment of any agreement should not be based on any such scorecard anyway. Again, it instead should be a matter of comparing the conditions produced by an agreement with the conditions under no agreement.

Another often-overlooked consideration is that a good agreement would be one that gives both sides reason to observe it, rather than being seen by either side as a forced imposition to be violated or discarded at the first opportunity. Give-and-take, not one-sided pressure, is the way to get such a durable agreement.

An indication of how far the Washington discourse has strayed from basic understanding of Diplomacy 101 is an opinion piece by Michael Singh of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who not only says we should “stop offering Iran nuclear concessions” but also calls for “toughening the U.S. negotiating stance on key issues such as Iran’s past weaponization research, monitoring and verification, Iran’s missile arsenal and the duration of an agreement.” This is rather like saying that if a store is unable to sell a product priced at $10, the way to get people to buy it is to increase the price to $15. Singh tries to make sense of this bizarre recommendation by arguing that such U.S. obdurateness could “secure the congressional support required to empower the president to credibly offer sanctions relief.” But any Iranian of even average IQ who has been following the handling of this issue in Washington knows that anything that has “Congress,” “sanctions” and “Iran” in the same sentence is all about killing a deal, not fine-tuning the terms; no admiration for the administration for “toughening” its position would deter those determined to kill any agreement with Iran. And that is not even to mention the further deal-killing effect of U.S. negotiators backtracking on progress the negotiations have already made.

For the Obama administration to get an agreement that will advance U.S. interests—never mind what will be the subsequent efforts of Congressional opponents to shoot it down, no matter what the terms—the United States will need to make additional concessions at the negotiating table. It cannot just contemplate how reasonable is whatever offer it has on the table now, however sincere is its perception of reasonableness, and wait for the Iranians to close all of the remaining gap. Those in Washington who genuinely support the diplomatic process will have to understand this need and defend the administration's flexibility in fulfilling it.

To do this, the administration and its supporters will need to overcome two principal hang-ups, regardless of whether the hang-ups are having a negotiation-retarding effect because administration policy-makers have internalized the hang-ups or because policy-makers are self-deterred by anticipating how certain terms would be received in Washington once an agreement is announced. One of the hang-ups is the fixation on “breakout” times, which is misplaced because the distinctions in question would make no practical difference for U.S. security or the risk of there ever being an Iranian nuclear weapon. Iranian president Hassan Rouhani made a speech a month ago in which he said that Iranian ideals are not bound to centrifuges. We ought to realize that American ideals are not bound to them either.

The other hang-up concerns how sanctions have come to be treated in Washington as if they were an end in themselves—as if keeping sanctions in place against regimes we don't like is of some intrinsic value to the United States. It isn't; sanctions are only a tool—in this case, a tool to help get an agreement to restrict Iran's nuclear program. If sanctions get in the way of achieving such an agreement rather than facilitating the agreement, they are useless. Or rather, they are worse than useless, because of the costs they impose on the United States.

If this diplomatic process fails it will not be the first time that the American exceptionalist, redline-bound, asymmetric approach to international negotiation will have worked against U.S. interests, but it will be a particularly unfortunate and unnecessary instance of it doing so.                

TopicsIran RegionsMiddle East