Blogs: Paul Pillar

A Syria Deal Trump Should Make with Putin

The Plummeting of U.S. Standing in the World

The Growing Danger of War With Iran

Paul Pillar

Respectability given to regime change.  Another of the adults, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, recently told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that regime change is part of U.S. policy on Iran.  This comment resurrects a malevolent concept that amply deserves a place on the trash heap of U.S. foreign policy history, especially given the disastrous results under the previous two administrations of regime change in Iraq and Libya.  The concept is no more suitable to Iran, where there is not some political movement in our own image that is just waiting to be freed from the yoke of theocratic autocrats through a new revolution.  Those with other reasons for promoting hostility toward Iran also have been promoting the regime change idea.  The Sheldon Adelson-funded Foundation for Defense of Democracies, for example, shortly after the inauguration was pushing a paper at the National Security Council centered on regime change.  The specific notion usually being pushed is that forms of subversion short of armed conflict would do the job, but the fantasy outcome of a new and attractive regime in Tehran can easily become an objective of military operations initiated, or ostensibly initiated, for other reasons.  Meanwhile, the rhetoric of regime change adds to tension and distrust between Tehran and Washington that make destabilizing incidents increasingly likely.

Mission creep in Syria.  The crushing of the so-called Islamic State’s caliphate is close enough to completion that the difficult and deferred question of what becomes of the Syrian territory that had been part of the caliphate now must be faced directly.  Much commentary on this question in the United States is advocating what amounts to a significant expansion of U.S. objectives in Syria by confronting the Damascus regime and its Russian and Iranian backers.  U.S. actions on the ground and in the air already have moved in this direction.  Incidents have included shooting down Iranian drones and a manned Syrian aircraft, as well as U.S. attacks on what were described as “Iranian-supported” militias.  It is remarkable how much the mission in Syria already has creeped and evolved.  As Josh Wood puts it, “Over the course of his short tenure, Mr. Trump and his administration went from talking about potentially partnering with Damascus and Moscow against [Islamic State], to appearing absolutely disinterested in the civil war, to bombing Syrian government targets.”  The evolution of objectives in the next five months could be just as rapid as in the last five.  Given Iran’s significant role in Syria, and the expanding U.S. role there, Syria is one of the places most likely to spark direct warfare between the United States and Iran.

Displacement from Russia.  Incidents with the Syrian regime’s other major backer, Russia, certainly are worth worrying about along with incidents involving Iran.  But some of the very reasons for special worry about direct armed conflict with Russia—a nuclear-armed ex-superpower—are also reasons to expect special restraint, along lines similar to what the United States and the USSR displayed throughout the Cold War.  Moreover, under the Trump administration Russia does not play the sort of automatic, take-for-granted-as-an-adversary role that Iran plays.  We have yet to fathom the full reasons for Trump’s more qualified and even benign posture toward Russia, but there clearly are such reasons.  If the administration needs to strike at one of the beasts involved in the Syrian war, that beast will be Iran, even though Russian support probably has been at least as important as Iranian support in shoring up the Assad regime.

Delegation to the military.  Trump’s practice of delegating to the Pentagon major decisions, even of a more strategic than tactical nature, involving deployment or use of military forces could in some circumstances be an encouragement of restraint, given the disinclination of experienced military officers to be thrust into new conflicts in which the United States is not already involved.  But the United States is already involved in places such as Syria and the Persian Gulf where confrontation with the Iranians is possible, and with such involvement the military bias is in the direction of doing more rather than doing less.  The bias is toward being more aggressive to accomplish presumed objectives and especially to protect American forces.  At least one U.S. attack so far in Syria has been justified in terms of protection of U.S. forces.  Military decisions taken for military reasons may spark an expanded conflict.

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Echoes in Syria of Afghanistan in the 1990s

Paul Pillar

Respectability given to regime change.  Another of the adults, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, recently told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that regime change is part of U.S. policy on Iran.  This comment resurrects a malevolent concept that amply deserves a place on the trash heap of U.S. foreign policy history, especially given the disastrous results under the previous two administrations of regime change in Iraq and Libya.  The concept is no more suitable to Iran, where there is not some political movement in our own image that is just waiting to be freed from the yoke of theocratic autocrats through a new revolution.  Those with other reasons for promoting hostility toward Iran also have been promoting the regime change idea.  The Sheldon Adelson-funded Foundation for Defense of Democracies, for example, shortly after the inauguration was pushing a paper at the National Security Council centered on regime change.  The specific notion usually being pushed is that forms of subversion short of armed conflict would do the job, but the fantasy outcome of a new and attractive regime in Tehran can easily become an objective of military operations initiated, or ostensibly initiated, for other reasons.  Meanwhile, the rhetoric of regime change adds to tension and distrust between Tehran and Washington that make destabilizing incidents increasingly likely.

Mission creep in Syria.  The crushing of the so-called Islamic State’s caliphate is close enough to completion that the difficult and deferred question of what becomes of the Syrian territory that had been part of the caliphate now must be faced directly.  Much commentary on this question in the United States is advocating what amounts to a significant expansion of U.S. objectives in Syria by confronting the Damascus regime and its Russian and Iranian backers.  U.S. actions on the ground and in the air already have moved in this direction.  Incidents have included shooting down Iranian drones and a manned Syrian aircraft, as well as U.S. attacks on what were described as “Iranian-supported” militias.  It is remarkable how much the mission in Syria already has creeped and evolved.  As Josh Wood puts it, “Over the course of his short tenure, Mr. Trump and his administration went from talking about potentially partnering with Damascus and Moscow against [Islamic State], to appearing absolutely disinterested in the civil war, to bombing Syrian government targets.”  The evolution of objectives in the next five months could be just as rapid as in the last five.  Given Iran’s significant role in Syria, and the expanding U.S. role there, Syria is one of the places most likely to spark direct warfare between the United States and Iran.

Displacement from Russia.  Incidents with the Syrian regime’s other major backer, Russia, certainly are worth worrying about along with incidents involving Iran.  But some of the very reasons for special worry about direct armed conflict with Russia—a nuclear-armed ex-superpower—are also reasons to expect special restraint, along lines similar to what the United States and the USSR displayed throughout the Cold War.  Moreover, under the Trump administration Russia does not play the sort of automatic, take-for-granted-as-an-adversary role that Iran plays.  We have yet to fathom the full reasons for Trump’s more qualified and even benign posture toward Russia, but there clearly are such reasons.  If the administration needs to strike at one of the beasts involved in the Syrian war, that beast will be Iran, even though Russian support probably has been at least as important as Iranian support in shoring up the Assad regime.

Delegation to the military.  Trump’s practice of delegating to the Pentagon major decisions, even of a more strategic than tactical nature, involving deployment or use of military forces could in some circumstances be an encouragement of restraint, given the disinclination of experienced military officers to be thrust into new conflicts in which the United States is not already involved.  But the United States is already involved in places such as Syria and the Persian Gulf where confrontation with the Iranians is possible, and with such involvement the military bias is in the direction of doing more rather than doing less.  The bias is toward being more aggressive to accomplish presumed objectives and especially to protect American forces.  At least one U.S. attack so far in Syria has been justified in terms of protection of U.S. forces.  Military decisions taken for military reasons may spark an expanded conflict.

Pages

Instability and Salman's Nepotistic Power Play

Paul Pillar

Respectability given to regime change.  Another of the adults, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, recently told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that regime change is part of U.S. policy on Iran.  This comment resurrects a malevolent concept that amply deserves a place on the trash heap of U.S. foreign policy history, especially given the disastrous results under the previous two administrations of regime change in Iraq and Libya.  The concept is no more suitable to Iran, where there is not some political movement in our own image that is just waiting to be freed from the yoke of theocratic autocrats through a new revolution.  Those with other reasons for promoting hostility toward Iran also have been promoting the regime change idea.  The Sheldon Adelson-funded Foundation for Defense of Democracies, for example, shortly after the inauguration was pushing a paper at the National Security Council centered on regime change.  The specific notion usually being pushed is that forms of subversion short of armed conflict would do the job, but the fantasy outcome of a new and attractive regime in Tehran can easily become an objective of military operations initiated, or ostensibly initiated, for other reasons.  Meanwhile, the rhetoric of regime change adds to tension and distrust between Tehran and Washington that make destabilizing incidents increasingly likely.

Mission creep in Syria.  The crushing of the so-called Islamic State’s caliphate is close enough to completion that the difficult and deferred question of what becomes of the Syrian territory that had been part of the caliphate now must be faced directly.  Much commentary on this question in the United States is advocating what amounts to a significant expansion of U.S. objectives in Syria by confronting the Damascus regime and its Russian and Iranian backers.  U.S. actions on the ground and in the air already have moved in this direction.  Incidents have included shooting down Iranian drones and a manned Syrian aircraft, as well as U.S. attacks on what were described as “Iranian-supported” militias.  It is remarkable how much the mission in Syria already has creeped and evolved.  As Josh Wood puts it, “Over the course of his short tenure, Mr. Trump and his administration went from talking about potentially partnering with Damascus and Moscow against [Islamic State], to appearing absolutely disinterested in the civil war, to bombing Syrian government targets.”  The evolution of objectives in the next five months could be just as rapid as in the last five.  Given Iran’s significant role in Syria, and the expanding U.S. role there, Syria is one of the places most likely to spark direct warfare between the United States and Iran.

Displacement from Russia.  Incidents with the Syrian regime’s other major backer, Russia, certainly are worth worrying about along with incidents involving Iran.  But some of the very reasons for special worry about direct armed conflict with Russia—a nuclear-armed ex-superpower—are also reasons to expect special restraint, along lines similar to what the United States and the USSR displayed throughout the Cold War.  Moreover, under the Trump administration Russia does not play the sort of automatic, take-for-granted-as-an-adversary role that Iran plays.  We have yet to fathom the full reasons for Trump’s more qualified and even benign posture toward Russia, but there clearly are such reasons.  If the administration needs to strike at one of the beasts involved in the Syrian war, that beast will be Iran, even though Russian support probably has been at least as important as Iranian support in shoring up the Assad regime.

Delegation to the military.  Trump’s practice of delegating to the Pentagon major decisions, even of a more strategic than tactical nature, involving deployment or use of military forces could in some circumstances be an encouragement of restraint, given the disinclination of experienced military officers to be thrust into new conflicts in which the United States is not already involved.  But the United States is already involved in places such as Syria and the Persian Gulf where confrontation with the Iranians is possible, and with such involvement the military bias is in the direction of doing more rather than doing less.  The bias is toward being more aggressive to accomplish presumed objectives and especially to protect American forces.  At least one U.S. attack so far in Syria has been justified in terms of protection of U.S. forces.  Military decisions taken for military reasons may spark an expanded conflict.

Pages

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