Paul Pillar

Foreign Conduct as a Response to U.S. Policy

Psychologists have observed that most of us favor a self-serving way of explaining the good and bad conduct of others with whom we interact. While we are quite comfortable with attributing some of the good to our own benign influence, we attribute all of the bad to the other person's character and refuse to accept that our own conduct may have influenced what the other person is doing. This phenomenon arises frequently in foreign affairs. It is common with, for example, American perceptions of anti-U.S. international terrorism. The dominant popular concept is that terrorists do what they do because of their own malign nature. To the extent that terrorists focus on the United States, we like to think this is because, as former President George W. Bush put it, they hate our democratic values. This view refuses to accept that what the United States does overseas has anything to do with motivating the terrorism—even though countless interrogations of captured terrorists, statements by groups, and other evidence strongly indicate that U.S. actions abroad have indeed had much to do with such motivations.

A variation on this pattern that also arises in international relations involves logical inconsistency not only between attributions of desirable and undesirable conduct but also between explanations of the conduct of states we consider friends and the conduct of those we consider foes. This variation was visible in a panel discussion last week organized by the Middle East Institute and in which I participated. The subject of the event was policy toward Iran, and much of the discussion concerned intra-regional rivalries involving Iran, of which the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia is the most prominent. Those who favor taking the side of the Saudis in this rivalry need to deal with the reality that the interests of the participants in this contest are different from U.S. interests, and there is no good reason for the United States to take sides in such a local quarrel. Moreover, if what we are worried about is destructive and destabilizing behavior in the region, Saudi Arabia has been doing more of that lately than Iran, most conspicuously with its highly destructive military intervention in Yemen. Those who nonetheless want the United States to tilt even more in favor of the Saudis and against Iran than it already is thus need to be creative in contriving their arguments.

An argument that Dennis Ross has constructed is that “the Saudis acted in Yemen in no small part because they feared the United States would impose no limits on Iranian expansion in the area, and they felt the need to draw their own lines.” Even setting side how far divorced from reality is a perception that the United States is imposing “no limits on Iranian expansion” and how much more such a perception would say about Saudi paranoia than about U.S. policy, the argument is implausible—especially in view of the entire history of the Saudi perspective toward, and handling of, Yemeni affairs. The Saudis have long had much angst, for reasons that don't necessarily have anything to do with Iran, about its poorer and more densely populated neighbor to the south. Back in the 1960s they got involved in an earlier civil war in Yemen, when the other major external protagonist was Egypt. The Houthi rebels who are engaged in the current civil war have received some Iranian aid but they certainly are not Iranian proxies; they even reportedly rejected Iranian advice not to move into the capital Sana. The biggest changes pertinent to the more aggressive Saudi conduct in the past couple of years have been the accession of King Salman, with a determination to throw Saudi weight around the region more assertively than under his predecessor, and the accumulation of power by his young son Mohammed bin Salman, for whom the Yemeni war has been one of the biggest ways of making his mark. If there have been any Saudi thoughts about U.S. limit-drawing, they haven't had to do with Yemen, where the United States has very much taken sides and supported the Saudi military offensive.

Note what Ross's argument, implausible though it is, says about the presumed relationship between U.S. policy or action and a regional state's conduct. The presumption is that the state is hypersensitive to what the United States does and that U.S. policy is a big influence on the other state's conduct, even if the only variation in U.S. policy that is in question is between slightly greater or lesser degrees of favoritism in what already is a substantial U.S. tilt in that same state's favor.

Such a view is greatly different from the view, propounded by many of the same people, of how U.S. words and actions do or do not influence the conduct if Iran. With Iran, the presumption is instead that the sources of undesirable Iranian conduct are to be found in Iran itself. It is the psychologist's classic example of attributing bad behavior entirely to bad character on the part of the other party. Iran gets routinely described as led by hateful religious fanatics who don't think like ourselves or like other statesmen, who are out to destroy other countries, and who are so incorrigible in their bad traits that moderation over time is not to be expected. Some of this view was heard at last week's panel, with bills of particulars about Iranian conduct (the relevance of which rests on that implicit assumption about how the Islamic Republic of Iran will never change significantly) stretching back many years.