Blogs: Paul Pillar

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

Paul Pillar

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.                                                  ​

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Nurturing Extremism in Gaza

Paul Pillar

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.                                                  ​

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Chicken in Vienna

Paul Pillar

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.                                                  ​

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The Homeland and Ignorance About Terrorism

Paul Pillar

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.                                                  ​

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