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Paul Pillar

Cultivating Extremists in Egypt

There were other ways of dealing with the camping-out protestors in Cairo. The ministry of interior had even talked about other ways—about some combination of tear gas and leaving open an exit route so the protestors could disperse. And surely it must have occurred to the Egyptian generals that the action they in the end took, just like the event in Tiananmen Square in 1989 that this week's event so readily evokes, would leave a lasting bloodstain on their legacy. The casualty total of what happened in Cairo Wednesday is uncertain, just as the toll of what happened in Tiananmen Square still is, but it is possible the numbers are of similar orders of magnitude.

There are many plot lines and accompanying explanations that can be applied to the current mess in Egypt, but one does not have to be a Middle Eastern conspiracy aficionado to look in particular at how the Egyptian generals and their shades-of-Nasser leader, Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, may be doing what they are doing as a way of staying within the embrace of the West and especially the United States. One of the most prominent things they have been doing over the past couple of months is to motivate Egyptians and especially Islamists to turn to extremism and violence. First there was the slamming of the door in the face of the Muslim Brotherhood, incarcerating its leaders and making it very clear the Brotherhood would not be welcome to participate in any new and purportedly democratic political process. Most of the Brotherhood's supporters were not ready to abandon the peaceful ways that the organization had followed for decades, but their dismay and anger made the protests and the camps inevitable. Now there is the bloody and brutal destruction of the camps, and at least some of those supporters are surely concluding that there is no method left to them but violence.

Wouldn't the breeding of more Egyptian terrorists be a bad thing from the viewpoint of Egyptian military leaders? Not if they wish to present themselves as a bastion against terrorism and to lay claim as such to American support. The brass may be more comfortable with this sort of claim than with one based on shepherding the introduction of true democracy—given all the uncertainties democracy is apt to pose for the highly privileged position of the Egyptian military and its officer corps.

The cultivation of more extremists and terrorists may be necessary to sustain any claim based on an Egyptian Islamist bogeyman. Mohamed Morsi's presidency certainly was not sufficient; it did not come close to realizing the old Islamophobic scenario of one man, one vote, one time. One of the most distinctive aspects of Morsi's one year in office was how he was not able to take control of the organs of state even though he supposedly was the chief executive. He came nowhere close to taking control of the all-important security forces. One of the bevy of army and police generals who have just been installed as provincial governors had earlier, when Morsi was still president, been demonstrably open about his intention not to take any action when a mob was ransacking offices of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The technique of following policies that cultivate more extremists and terrorists and then laying claim to a special relationship with Washington as a bastion against extremism and terrorism is not one that the Egyptian generals necessarily thought up themselves. They could have learned it from the masters of the technique next door in Israel. They are even collaborating with Israel in practicing the technique, as punctuated the other day by an Israeli drone strike, evidently condoned by Cairo, against oppositionists in the Sinai.

If the Egyptian generals have not seemed very worried about jeopardizing their one and a half billion in annual U.S. aid, maybe it is because they see how Israel gets twice that much, not to mention all those vetoes at the United Nations and other political cover, despite the Israelis repeatedly sticking their thumbs in American eyes. The latest thumb-sticking has been this week, with an announcement of more expansion of settlements in occupied territory just as Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are getting under way.

Secretary of State Kerry reassures us that this was not a surprise because Prime Minister Netanyahu had been “upfront” with him about the latest settlement expansion. Evidently even thumb-sticking is acceptable if those doing it are brazenly “upfront” about it. General el-Sisi looks like he has this kind of swagger.

Image: Flickr/Mohamed Adel. CC BY-SA 2.0.

Congressional Attention Deficit Disorder

Complaints have been heard that members of Congress are not sufficiently informed by the executive branch to conduct properly oversight of secret programs, such as those NSA collection activities that are the subject of much controversy. The complaints are misplaced. A bigger factor is the chronic attention deficit disorder afflicting most members of Congress, in which they pay disproportionate attention to flaps and controversies because they are flaps and controversies, and Congressional time and attention is not apportioned according to the intrinsic importance to the nation of each subject. In short, if there is insufficient oversight of some of those secret programs, it is less because information is not being made available to members than because members do not take the time and trouble to use the information already available to them. The Republican chairman of the House intelligence committee, Mike Rogers, says that “very few members” take advantage of his invitations to receive staff briefings on counterterrorist operations or the NSA surveillance activities.

One further indication that inattention is the main problem is the fact that Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall evidently did not have a shortage of information in devoting considerable energy to agitating—while being careful not to disclose classified information publicly—about what they regarded as an imbalance between security and privacy in intelligence collection programs. If other members had paid more attention to what they were saying and been more responsive to their agitation, the country would have had the debate it now has without needing any damaging compromise of information by a leaker-defector.

Another example, from 2002, is that fact that hardly any members of Congress bothered to look at a now-infamous intelligence estimate about Iraqi unconventional weapons programs even though they were about to vote on a resolution authorizing a war that supposedly was based largely on the subject that the estimate addressed. One of the few members who did read the document, Senate intelligence committee chairman Bob Graham, concluded that it did not support what the administration was saying on the subject and voted against the war resolution.

There have been instances, even since the current system of Congressional oversight of intelligence agencies was established in the 1970s, of intentional obscuring or withholding of relevant information from Congress with the apparent intention of frustrating or precluding oversight. A notable practitioner was the inveterate Cold Warrior William Casey, who, although he was appointed director of central intelligence would have preferred to be secretary of state and, in the words of his protégé Robert Gates, used the job as a platform “to wage war against the Soviet Union.” Casey's lack of forthrightness with members of Congress reportedly led to members looking for his deputy, Bobby Inman, nervously tugging at his socks as an indication that Casey was dissembling. Then-Senator Joe Biden put it this way:

They'd be sitting there, and Casey would be lying like a son of a bitch, and I'd look at Inman. I'd say, “Is such and such a covert action happening?” and Casey would be going mumble mumble mumble, and Inman would be reaching down pulling up his socks...It meant “Take this with a grain of salt.”

In the George W. Bush administration there was another instance of ideologically-driven limitation of Congressional awareness of secret activities, related to an effort centered in the vice president's office to assert an expanded sense of executive power and privilege. This led to warrantless wiretapping that was ended only after public disclosures and new legislation.

Despite the controversies swirling today over matters such as NSA collection programs, it is hard to find evidence of deliberate exclusion of Congressional awareness and oversight, based on motivations anything like those involved in these past episodes. What has given rise to charges of public misinformation has been mainly the putting of officials in the uncomfortable position of being asked in open testimony about sensitive programs. Besides wanting to protect classified information, among the chief motivations of executive branch professionals involved in such programs when they are dealing with the Hill is to obtain Congressional buy-in—the more buy-in the better, lest the professionals and the bureaucracies in which they work be left holding the bag when public sentiments change about something like the balance between security and privacy. Getting buy-in requires forthrightness and significant sharing of information.

The executive branch agencies have been able to share such information with considerable confidence that this does not significantly increase the risk of damaging leaks. Although leaks that do occur unfortunately too often cannot be traced to their source, the record of Congress in protecting classified information appears to be good. Members such as Wyden and Udall should be commended for striving to protect that record, despite their obvious frustration in holding their tongues publicly regarding the details of programs of which they have knowledge.

This confidence would be undone if members were to act on a bad idea from Bruce Ackerman of Yale, which is to exploit the “speech or debate clause” in Article I, Section 6 of the U.S. Constitution by reading classified material into the record and claiming immunity from prosecution for doing so. This would be an abuse of the clause, which clearly exists not to abet the breaking of rules—about handling classified material, or anything else—but instead to protect free debate within the legislature. Ackerman refers to the last time this issue was tested in the courts, when Senator Mike Gravel read part of the Pentagon Papers into a committee record. But Ackerman oversimplifies this history by saying that “the Supreme Court unanimously affirmed Gravel's right to publish documents labeled 'Top-Secret: Sensitive' under the speech or debate clause.” Gravel v. United States was mostly about whether one of Gravel's aides could be subpoenaed to testify to a grand jury. Although the majority opinion did appear to extend the speech or debate clause to what Gravel placed in the record in a subcommittee meeting, it also defined coverage of that clause narrowly to apply only to “legislative acts,” explicitly said the clause does not privilege a member “to violate an otherwise valid criminal law in preparing for or implementing legislative acts,” and explicitly said the constitutional provision did not make Gravel immune from prosecution for his role in the more extensive subsequent publication of the material by a private publisher.

If members of Congress started intentionally divulging classified information, the natural—and justified—response of executive branch officials would be to start interpreting their responsibility to share such material with Congress as narrowly as possible. And then members would have to start looking again for deputies with loose socks.

United States

A Terrorist Haven in Syria?

As the Syrian civil war spun up and drew in radicals on the anti-government side, worries mounted in the West, to the point now of front-page attention in the New York Times, about a new extremist haven being established in Syria. How should we approach this problem? One way we definitely should not approach it, which unfortunately has been all too common in overall discourse about the Syrian civil war, is to feel we must “do something”—anything—in response to our concerns. A more sober approach is to break the problem down into some constituent parts, each with an associated question.

One question concerns exactly what is the danger we are worried about. The concept of a physical safe haven is one of the more overrated components of a presumed terrorist threat. In a globalized era, a patch of physical real estate has not proven to be one of the more important variables determining the degree of such a threat—and is less important than exploitable grievances in a target population. Preparations for significant terrorist attacks—including the big one, 9/11—have not been confined to such a patch or depended on control of one.

Even if a physical haven contributes to the strength of a terrorist group, it is a fungible commodity. We used to talk more about Afghanistan as the critical place in this regard. Today there is more worry about Yemen, and more talk about a shift of the center of our fears from South Asia to there. Maybe some fear a shift from Yemen to Syria. If Syria were somehow brought under control, why wouldn't there be further shifts elsewhere?

Even if we agree that precluding any physical haven for a terrorist group is preferable, the next question is what measures are available to the United States and how effective would they be in promoting that objective. The United States cannot determine the outcome of the Syrian civil war, short of large-scale military intervention that would be beyond the tolerance of the American public as well as being unacceptably costly in other respects and still would not achieve lasting positive effects. Arguments that smaller forms of interference in the war would be enough to determine its outcome are based on multiple forms of wishful thinking. It is unrealistic to think that in the disorganized and ever-shifting Syrian opposition landscape, in which weapons often change owners and fighters often change primary allegiances, it is somehow possible to aid good rebels while vetting out the bad ones. It is also unrealistic to think that something like aid in the form of materiel buys moderation or buys gratitude.

Even if the course of the war were more subject to outside manipulation, a further question is what outcome of the war would be best with regard to the incipient terrorist haven we are supposed to be worried about. In the short term probably the best outcome in that respect would be prompt re-establishment of control by the Assad regime. Over the longer term rule by a brutal autocracy with a narrow sectarian identity would not be good for counterterrorism, but that does not mean the most likely alternative would necessarily be any better. A lesson is provided by Libya, where enough time has passed since the ouster of Muammar Qadhafi to demonstrate how the new order may not be much of an order at all but a form of disorder that provides more operating space for violent groups than there was before.

Regardless of the nature of the regime, the United States can consider unilateral means of trying to attack would-be terrorist havens, especially with drones. Here the most relevant lesson is in Yemen, where, as Gregory Johnsen explains, the net counterterrorist effect of the drone strikes has probably been negative, owing to the resentment and revenge that the strikes have incurred.

A broader question concerns the overall strategy to apply to whatever terrorist threat does emanate from Syria. Fareed Zakaria has the right idea, after rejecting counterinsurgency and more focused kinetic methods such as the drones, in recommending a third approach: “to try to get local governments to fight the terrorists.” Zakaria acknowledges that some of the very places we are concerned about are in large part ungovernable, yet points out:

The best policy in the long run would be to shift the struggle over to locals, who can most effectively win a long war against militants in territory they know better than any outsiders. It also shifts the struggle over to Muslims, who can most effectively battle al-Qaeda in the realm of ideas.

This does not mean the United States doing nothing. It can do a lot to affect the environment in which terrorists or would-be terrorists, in Syria or elsewhere, are either empowered or marginalized. Marc Lynch provides an insightful explanation of how the early chapters of the Arab Spring marginalized them, by effecting meaningful political change without resort to the sort of violence pitched by the extremists. Much of that beneficial effect has been undone, Lynch points out, by more recent developments such as the military coup in Egypt and the blurring of distinctions between Islamist terrorists and the Muslim Brotherhood. The implications for U.S. policy ought to be plain: construct policy toward politics and political conflicts in the Middle East that weaken, rather than strengthen, the extremist narrative. Besides policy toward the current situation in Egypt, this also involves exercising enough clout and political courage to make success possible in the just-begun negotiations to address what is the most salient issue to people across the Middle East: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Fortunately no one seems to be advocating anything like a repetition of the Iraq War, one of the chief selling points of which had to do with supposedly striking a blow against al-Qaeda-style terrorism. But lest we forget: among the enormous costs of that blunder was the creation of a haven of sorts for Islamist terrorists that did not previously exist, and the creation of a terrorist group—al-Qaeda in Iraq—that did not previously exist. The legacy of that result is being felt very directly today in the activity of extremists in Syria.

Image: Flickr/Jerzy Kociatkeiwicz. CC BY-SA 2.0.

Unfounded Interpretations of This Week's Terrorist Threat

Lots of people have been been extracting and propounding lots of conclusions about terrorism and counterterrorism from the warnings and closures of diplomatic missions the past few days. That's probably inevitable; the story commands attention. It's not every day, or even every year, that several U.S. embassies get closed like this, perhaps for as much as a week. But the factual basis for most of the extracting and propounding is exceedingly thin. All that those of us outside the government have to go on are a few backgrounded or leaked morsels, as well as cautiously worded official statements and the public comments of members of Congress who have been briefed on the matter. The episode is another instance, which has been seen repeatedly before, of over-interpretation of terrorist incidents or other scattered data points having to do with international terrorism.

Let us review some of the principal ways in which commentary stimulated by this latest episode has gone way beyond the publicly available evidence.

The topic addressed most often in the commentary is the overall magnitude of the threat from international terrorism, or more specifically from whatever goes under the label al-Qaeda. One hears comments such as, “Didn't the president say just a couple of months ago that al-Qaeda is washed up? Then why are we seeing such a big deal threat now?” Actually, the president did not say anything like that, although he did make a very sensible speech explaining why we need to get away from a boundless “war on terror.” Regardless of what he or anyone else has offered in the way of an overall appraisal of the continuing threat from al-Qaeda or international terrorism generally, the news of the past few days provides barely any basis for appraising the appraisals. What we are seeing this week is a response to information that evidently was at least somewhat stronger than the stuff that government counterterrorist analysts routinely see every week, with respect to the likelihood and imminence of a planned terrorist attack. It is a tactical response to tactical information. This is very different from the strategic question of the overall threat that al-Qaeda or anyone else is posing these days. Plans for individual attacks come and go, but that does not mean that a correct strategic assessment of the threat gyrates up and down as they do. Nor does it gyrate up and down as intelligence services happen to succeed or not succeed in collecting information about individual terrorist plots. We simply do not have any significant new basis for saying that terrorism ought to rank higher among national security concerns this week than it should have last week, last month, or last year.

A related topic concerns the relationship between the core and the periphery in the radical Sunni conglomeration called al-Qaeda. Reportedly a key piece of information underlying the embassy closures was a message from Ayman al-Zawahiri to the head of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula “ordering” an attack. But what may look like an order, and what the person issuing it would prefer to sound like an order, may actually be more of an exhortation. In the current case there is good reason to believe it was more of an exhortation. What has been publicly revealed about the material captured at Abbottabad, Pakistan in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden demonstrated that during at least the last couple of years of bin Laden's life he was doing much exhorting but commanded little and thus wasn't in a position to order many people to do anything. Zawahiri is unlikely to have established command relationships that bin Laden did not have. The events of this week are not grounds for revising the judgment that the core al-Qaeda group is a shadow of its former self and that most of the initiative in the movement for terrorist operations is coming from associated groups on the periphery.

In the wake of controversy over NSA collection programs, another reaction we hear to the story this week is that if such terrorist communications are still being collected then there must not have been much damage from Edward Snowden's revelations. Saying that makes about as much sense as saying that the fact you did not get lung cancer this month means the advice you got last month to stop smoking was unsound. That something does not destroy everything does not mean it does not damage anything. In any event, no one in officialdom has given any indication that the particular NSA programs that are the subject of controversy had anything to do with information collected about the current threat.

Other commentary has focused on the theme that closing the embassies was an overreaction. Maybe it was, and indeed much of the story of America's reaction to terrorism, especially during the past twelve years, has been one of overreaction. But how can any of us not privy to the classified information, and therefore not in a position to compare an evaluated threat against the costs of the response, make that sort of judgment about the particular case at hand at the moment?

A related observation we have heard, from those skeptical about the seriousness of this week's reported threat, is that the threat is being hyped and the embassies being closed as a way of obtaining political cover—whether it is NSA trying to prove its usefulness, the Obama administration not wanting to have another Benghazi, or even Congressional Republicans supporting the administration's response because they know that to do otherwise would look inconsistent with their continuing to harp about Benghazi. Aspects of this observation may be true, too, in the sense that the domestic political context always has much to do with the responses and policies. But just as paranoids can have real enemies, this observation about politically inspired posturing doesn't say anything one way or another about the extent of whatever actual threat exists beyond U.S. borders.

This gets to a current running underneath all of these comments and observations, which is that they say at least as much about our own psychology, expectations, and politics as they do about anything that terrorists are doing in the Middle East or elsewhere. What is to be considered a serious threat, or what should be termed an overreaction, is a function not only of terrorists' operations but of our own relative priorities and weighing of values, costs, and risks. And if there is defensive political posturing going on, it can be traced chiefly to the zero tolerance standard that the American public has applied to terrorist attacks.

Iran's Nuclear Legal Obligations

There are many respects in which a greater effort in the West and in particular the United States to understand Iranian perspectives and sentiments would facilitate more productive Western policies toward Iran, particularly with respect to that country's nuclear program. There is, for example, the issue of balance in proposed agreements, in which it should be understandable that Tehran opposes a trade that would place major restrictions on its nuclear activities in return for sanctions relief that would be almost trivial in comparison with the panoply of sanctions imposed on Iran. There is the comparably understandable Iranian suspicion, in watching behavior by the United States and especially the U.S. Congress, that the United States is only interested in punishing Iran, not negotiating an agreement with it. And there is the natural resistance in Iran—just as there would be in the United States—to caving in to foreign pressure, including threats of military force.

Iran's legal obligations regarding nuclear activities, and how well it has fulfilled those obligations, constitute another area where efforts to understand the Iranians' quite understandable perspective have been sorely lacking. A common catechism in American discourse on this subject is to refer to Iran being in “violation” of those obligations. But with regard to generally applicable legal obligations that Iran shares with any other party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) or participant in the International Atomic Energy Agency, it would be difficult to make a case that Iran is in violation of anything. There have been some instances in the past of Iranian nuclear activities coming to light before Iran declared them to the IAEA. But those instances have been cleared up, Iran may have intended to make a declaration when the operations in question actually came on line, and tardiness in declarations is hardly an uncommon infraction among other parties to the NPT. The nuclear activities Iran conducts today, including the enrichment of uranium, are allowed under the international nonproliferation regime and are the object of regular on-site monitoring by the IAEA.

Any mention of “violation” has to refer instead to a series of resolutions by the United Nations Security Council, which demanded that Iran cease enrichment and imposed sanctions when it did not. These resolutions are aimed uniquely against Iran and do not represent an application of generally applicable legal obligations. In short, they are bills of attainder. What the Security Council has done in this respect it can undo. In fact, it will have to undo it if any agreements on the subject are to be negotiated with Iran. It is the permanent members of the Security Council (plus Germany) that are doing the negotiating. Any formula that included the unique-to-Iran no-enrichment demand, which has no foundation in international law beyond the Security Council resolutions themselves, is a non-starter.

Iran's frustration at being singled out this way while dealing in the obligatory manner with the IAEA comes through in its formal response to the latest IAEA report on its nuclear activities. The Iranian document is filled with legal fastidiousness, but the Iranians' genuine exasperation is also palpable, being expressed at one place with multiple exclamation points (!!!!!). One of the most frequent sources of exasperation arises when Iran responds to a question or meets a requirement, only to have the issue at hand re-opened as if Iran had not responded at all.

The background to some of the Iranian complaints is conduct of the IAEA under its current director general, Yukiya Amano, that sometimes makes the agency look—to many eyes, and certainly to those of the Iranians—like a tool of adversaries of Iran. The Iranian response notes how often questions and accusations that the agency directs at Iran originate with material that is fed to it by “known sources hostile to Iran” but is never revealed enough for either Iran or anyone else to question the authenticity of the material itself. The response also calls the IAEA to account for evidently sharing on a real-time basis with David Albright's Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security information that was based on inspections of Iranian facilities and was supposed to remain confidential within the IAEA.

Much of the Iranians' heartburn concerns the relationship between the IAEA and the U.N. Security Council and how each has blurred what are supposed to be two distinct charters and missions. On one hand the IAEA has been, in the words of the Iranian response, “more Catholic than the Pope” in seeking to implement Security Council resolutions rather than sticking to what is supposed to be its job of monitoring nuclear safeguards agreements. On the other hand, the Security Council has waded into the implementation of safeguards agreements even though it has no business doing so if the IAEA has not made a determination—and it has not—that Iran has diverted nuclear material to military purposes or that there is a threat to international peace and security under the terms of the U.N. charter.

The Iranians come back to the U.N. charter near the end of their 20-page response and quote from Article 2 of the charter, which obligates member states to “settle their international disputes by peaceful means” and to “refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.” The Iranians further note, “Threats to use force against Iran's nuclear facilities are frequently expressed, including by some permanent members of the Security Council, while the Council has proven to be unable or unwilling to restrain such declarations and compel them to 'refrain in their international relations from the threat.' ”

Far shorter than the Iranian response is an Israeli response to a proposal from Arab states to place on the agenda of the IAEA General Conference an item titled “Israeli nuclear capabilities.” It's not surprising it is short; after all, what is there to say if you have the region's only nuclear weapons and you don't even admit their existence, as well as staying totally outside any international control and monitoring regime? The Israelis say a few familiar things about how any attention to what they are doing would be a time-wasting diversion from the “real challenges” in the region, of which Iran and its nuclear program are of course the biggest. “Full compliance by all regional states with their arms control and non-proliferation obligations,” declares the Israeli note, is indispensable. That's one way to be preachy about obligations—just don't assume any yourself.

Image: Flickr/Blake Burkhart. CC BY-SA 2.0.

Stop Bashing the NSA

The brouhaha over some of the National Security Agency's collection activities is the most recent example of a tendency—by the public, the press and the Congress—to treat certain controversial issues of public policy as if they were problems with particular government institutions even when they really aren't. Of course, government institutions, like other institutions, often have problems, whether of ineffectiveness, inefficiency or even malfeasance. But what I am referring to instead are policies and programs that, although implemented by a particular department or agency, exist for reasons found elsewhere—and with the mere existence of the policy or program, more than how it is implemented, being the main point of controversy.

This phenomenon can arise with any government component, but intelligence agencies seem especially liable to be viewed in this misplaced way. Scott Shane of the New York Times observes that U.S. intelligence agencies “have entered a period of broad public scrutiny and skepticism,” citing controversies over interrogation and drone strikes as well as the more recent attention to electronic surveillance. The fact that these agencies, by mission and charter, do not make policy means that any perceptions that they are the drivers of whatever policy is the subject of controversy are very likely incorrect. The secrecy that surrounds these agencies and contributes to ignorance about them is another factor, although occasionally journalists shed corrective light on the subject, as Walter Pincus of the Washington Post has done with regard to the specific NSA-implemented electronic collection programs that are at the center of the most recent controversies.

Those programs do not exist because someone at NSA thought it would be nifty to expand the agency's operations by doing something like that. They exist because the American public—with its desires and demands expressed through the political branches of government—wanted vigorous intelligence efforts on behalf of counterterrorism and because the technology is such that large-scale electronic collection is one of the most promising ways of making such efforts. NSA is implementing the programs because it is the component that happens to have the mission and capability to do such things. The purpose, general parameters and limitations of the programs all have been set outside the agency. The specific operational designs are the work of NSA, but any design that was not intensive and extensive would not have delivered the expected vigor.

The Central Intelligence Agency has figured even more often than NSA into such misdirected controversy. Although recent times have featured issues involving the handling of detainees, a variety of covert actions that later come to light have for many years illustrated the popular conflation of controversial policies with the agency charged with implementing them. The legal framework for covert action that has been in place since the 1970s forces the direct involvement of the most senior policy-makers, including the president, and Congressional leaders. What the agency doing the implementing can and cannot do is carefully detailed and circumscribed. CIA frequently gets involved in implementation because it happens to be the agency with the most capability to do things overseas covertly. But it makes about as much sense to refer to an operation as a “CIA covert action” as it would to refer to the “Department of Defense war in Iraq.”

One reason for the conflation of institutions with policies, and for the projection onto the former of controversies about the latter, is that this imparts a satisfying concreteness to what might otherwise be a rather inchoate and difficult-to-understand issue. Directing one's dissatisfaction to a known, named institution with familiar initials feels better than directing it against a policy process in which there may have been many hands. Hauling officials from those institutions before Congressional committees in public hearings makes things even more concrete and seemingly tractable by applying specific names and faces to the subject.

Another reason for treating controversies this way is that it helps the public and political leaders to avoid having to confront squarely the role that the public and political leaders themselves played in bringing about what became controversial. It makes it easier to overlook the inconsistency of their own mood swings, their changing demands, and their prior support for what later came to be seen as blunders or scandals.

This lack of self-confrontation by the public and political class (and often by the press) leads to the biggest cost of the misdirected conflation of institutions with issues. It impedes the correction of national mistakes. Reducing the chance of blunder or scandal in the future requires full discussion and understanding of everything that led to blunders and scandals in the past. Simply characterizing something as a problem with the XYZ agency does not do that.

There is a second, lesser though still significant, cost that concerns the impact of the conflation on the institutions themselves and the people who work in them. The people in the intelligence agencies are mostly accustomed to being buffeted by such uproars and are pretty good about soldiering on regardless of being knocked around over controversies not of their own making. But knock people around enough times and it is bound to have some effect on concentration and morale. The hazard is increased by the fact that these people are part of a larger federal work force that also has been subjected to other forms of abuse. If we keep treating people in such ways, then we are likely to see real institutional problems develop.

United States

The Nuclear Iran Promotion Act

Sometimes our political leaders act so contrary to their declared purposes, even in the face of repeated explanations and clear reasoning as to why what they are doing is counterproductive, that we have to move beyond the oft-ignored reasoning, squarely address the motives and politics involved, and think about how the leaders in question can be shamed if not coaxed into doing their jobs more responsibly. We have such an occasion with the passage in the House of Representatives on Wednesday, by a vote of 400 to 20, of H.R. 850, the “Nuclear Iran Prevention Act,” which among other pressures would endeavor to end what is left of Iran's oil exports by coercing remaining customers to cease their purchases.

The promoters of the legislation say they are acting in the name of precluding an Iranian nuclear weapon. In fact they are acting in the opposite direction, by significantly damaging the prospects of negotiating a nuclear agreement with Iran—an agreement that would be by far the most assured way of precluding an Iranian nuclear weapon. If simply piling on still more sanctions were ever to get the Iranians to cry “uncle” and unilaterally abandon all nuclear activities, this would have happened long ago as a result of the countless previous rounds of sanctions that Congress has imposed. No matter how much sanctions hurt, Iranian leaders have no incentive to make concessions unless they are presented with proposals in which concessions mean significant relief from the sanctions. This measure in the House will be further evidence to Tehran that the United States does not want an agreement and instead only wants to punish Iranians and to change their regime. In short, it helps to kill, not to elicit, the sorts of concessions we supposedly want from Iranian leaders. It also is a further indication of the sort of hostility that stokes whatever interest there might be in Tehran in building a nuclear weapon.

These realities do not have to be explained again here. I have addressed some of the relevant principles in the past.  The role of negotiations and the conditions needed for them to succeed are addressed in a letter from former senior U.S. security officials and in a letter that more than a quarter of the members of the House of Representatives itself sent to the president just within the past fortnight. The damaging effects of H.R. 850 in particular are addressed in more recent commentaries, such as from Mark Jansson of the Federation of American Scientists and from Usha Sahay of the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation.

Maybe there are a few members of Congress who actually believe they are acting on behalf of the stated purpose of preventing an Iranian nuke. Maybe some think that a good cop, bad cop approach by the executive branch and Congress will aid western negotiators. But if it did, one would expect the administration to encourage this sort of legislation at least privately, and there is no indication that has happened. Maybe some other members simply look on sanctions as an alternative to war. But in addition to overlooking what it takes to make sanctions support a negotiation rather than undermining it, this approach also overlooks the view of pro-war people that sanctions and failed negotiations are boxes to be checked before going to war.

Most members of Congress are smart people, as comes through much more readily in private conversation than when microphones and cameras are on. I doubt that many of them honestly believe that what they are doing in supporting a measure such as this week's legislation is actually reducing the chance of an Iranian nuclear weapon. (Some might believe that any damage to prospects for negotiations would be small enough that they won't feel too bad about the position they have taken.) H.R. 850 reflects the preferences of elements, some foreign and some domestic, that do not want a negotiated agreement with Iran and are trying to use actions such as this bill to kill the chances for such an agreement. They do not want an agreement because they welcome continued attention to the Iranian nuclear issue, partly to distract attention from other issues. Some of them would welcome a war with Iran. Many members of Congress go along with all this to stay in good graces with the elements in question, and because expressions of hostility to Iran win votes while anything that might look as being soft on Iran risks losing votes.

The timing of the introduction of this bill, rushed onto the floor and to a vote before the August recess and just before the new Iranian president takes office, reinforces this interpretation. Amid a few hopeful indications of fresh goodwill and reason in both Tehran and Washington, the anti-agreement forces decided this was a time they needed to push back with more legislative sabotage. The timing of the bill also serves as a slap in the face of the new management in Tehran, further reducing the prospects for negotiating success. And it's not as if the House of Representatives does not have other things it ought to be doing before the recess, such as passing appropriations bills.

In short, many members of Congress are, for these sorts of political reasons, knowingly acting against their declared purpose, and in so doing also acting against U.S. interests. They ought to be ashamed for doing so. As M. J. Rosenberg suggests, we ought to be angry with them for doing so.

Image: Flickr/A C Moraes. CC BY 2.0.

Giving Netanyahu a Chance

As the U.S.-Israeli-Palestinian talks about talks begin this week in Washington, the consensus of expectations is appropriately low. Most of the reasons that expectations ought to be low are too familiar to need reviewing. But there are pegs on which to hang some shreds of hope—real pegs, not just illusory ones illustrating that hope springs eternal. Aaron Miller mentions several of these; the one probably most worth noting is that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has publicly said some sensible things lately about how Israel's future identity as a democratic Jewish state depends on reaching an agreement with the Palestinians.

One must look for any pegs of hope primarily on the Israeli side, because of the immense asymmetry of this conflict. Israel is the powerful occupier that can make things, including a settlement, happen; the Palestinians are the relatively powerless subjects of the occupation. Queries that ask symmetrically whether the two sides really want an agreement need to be refocused squarely on Israel. For decades now the great majority of Palestinians have realized that ending their current miserable situation can be achieved only through a negotiated agreement with Israel leading to a two-state solution. (The main exceptions to that belief are Palestinians who have so thoroughly given up hope of attaining such an agreement that they are thinking more of trying to assert rights within a binational state shared with Jewish Israelis.) In a separate article Miller translates the asymmetry into political incentives for the leaders when he notes, “The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, needs an agreement on all the big issues, while the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, could not sign one and survive politically.”

The preponderance of evidence is still against the proposition that Netanyahu's more sensible statements reflect a change of heart or of direction. He has a history of giving lip service to the idea of a Palestinian state while doing nothing to achieve it and also making clear that his concept of such a “state” is instead a pale imitation of one in the form of subjugated bantustans. He leads a party that explicitly rejects a Palestinian state, and he is in coalition with other right-wingers who are just as explicit about not loosening Israel's grasp on the West Bank. Netanyahu has made a big deal about releasing some Palestinians from Israeli jails, but he has stoutly resisted changing the Israeli policy that is most directly antithetical to the negotiation of a bilateral agreement: the continued unilateral creation of facts on the ground in the form of expanding Israeli settlements in occupied territory. A very plausible, and perhaps the most plausible, interpretation of reasonable-sounding statements from Netanyahu about an agreement with the Palestinians is that such statements are merely tactical and are calculated to help him pose as a man of peace, to buy him some goodwill internationally, and perhaps to give him more room to do other destructive things such as starting a war with Iran.

Looking beyond Netanyahu and his cabinet, the most fundamental reason not to expect change in Israeli policy is that Israel simply isn't paying enough of a price for failing to change, notwithstanding jolts from time to time such as the European Union's recent move regarding not doing business with Israeli activities in the occupied territories. Life for most Jewish Israelis these days is pretty good, relatively safe, and still surrounded by a U.S.-provided political and economic cocoon made possible by the lock on American politics. Many Israelis are comfortable enough in the present not to face realities about the future. Some other Israelis, especially on the Right, apparently genuinely believe that the current apartheid arrangement can be sustained permanently.

Lest recall of these discouraging facts lead us to throw in the towel on peace negotiations, we need to realize that a prognosis—in the sense of an estimate of the most likely outcome—is different from a prescription. Sound policy does not mean merely adapting to what we think is most likely. It means taking into account all the costs, risks and potential benefits of different ways of pursuing more desirable rather than less desirable possible outcomes, while realizing all the while that our estimates might be wrong.

This principle is too often forgotten. It is forgotten in the Israeli-Palestinian context, for example, every time any dealings with Hamas are rejected on grounds that the group is “dedicated to the destruction of Israel” or some similar characterization. Such a description is outmoded and inaccurate, and it gives rise to an interesting inconsistency. A decades-old charter, even though it has effectively been countermanded by more recent declarations by Hamas leaders, is taken as the basis for saying that Hamas “does not recognize Israel's right to exist” and therefore should be shunned if not strangled. Yet the charter of the Likud Party, which explicitly rejects the right of a Palestinian state to exist—a rejection that prominent members of the party have in effect reasserted—is not taken as a reason for disqualifying Likud leaders as interlocutors in a negotiation ostensibly aimed at creating a Palestinian state. The important point for the present purpose, however, is that even if one believes that the worst things said about Hamas's objectives are probably true, careful consideration of cost, risks and possible benefits leads to the conclusion that Hamas should be engaged.

Let us approach Benjamin Netanyahu in the same spirit. We are entitled to retain healthy skepticism about his objectives, the more unfavorable interpretations of which may still turn out to be true. But we should give him every chance to demonstrate otherwise. We also should keep in mind how much the incentives, and the price of obstinacy, that are shaped by U.S. policy toward Israel will help determine whether we see a cooperative Netanyahu or an uncooperative one.

Post-Conflict

Eroding the Rule of Law

I have spent much time around government lawyers, and nearly all of the ones I have known have consistently conducted themselves with a couple of important objectives in mind. One is to apply legal analysis fully and fairly to whatever subject is at hand, not shying away from noting legal requirements even when they become policy inconveniences. Another is to support the larger missions of those they are advising by pointing out legal ways, if they exist, to accomplish those missions.

Against that background it is disconcerting to read that the issue of the most recent Egyptian military coup and its ramifications for U.S. aid is being side-stepped in Washington by just not offering any legal opinion about the nature of the Egyptian generals' move. A senior administration official said, “We will not say it was a coup, we will not say it was not a coup, we will just not say.”

Setting aside the legal issue about characterizing the coup, whether any suspension of U.S. aid to Egypt at this time makes sense is a question about which reasonable people can and do disagree. It is not a clear-cut policy call. I happen to believe that suspension would be an appropriate response to the overthrow by the military of a freely elected president. If the generals' promises about moving back in the direction of democracy are to be believed, such a suspension need not last long. There is good reason to believe a suspension would increase the likelihood the generals will keep their promises. The appropriateness of a suspension is made all the greater by indications since the military ousted Mohamed Morsi that so far the generals are moving less toward democracy than toward a replay of initial installation of military rule six decades ago.

The fact that there is a legal issue, given a statutory requirement to suspend aid in such circumstances, makes the costs of not recognizing the reality of the Egyptian coup all the greater. Failure to recognize this reality is an act of hypocrisy, which fosters additional foreign cynicism about anything the United States says concerning democratic or other values. It also is a staining of our own political culture. It is a compromise of our respect for the rule of law, even when it is our own law. The rule of law represents one of the most fundamental differences between the United States and the least desirable polities of the world. We cannot afford to treat it casually.

To be sure, there is a problem of Congress using legislation to tie the hands of the executive branch in unhelpful ways that can impede effective foreign policy. Congress does too much of this; it ought to do less, especially when doing so is essentially political posturing, as it often is. At a minimum, Congress ought to incorporate more consistently than it does in legislation related to foreign policy the possibility of an executive branch waiver. But this is all a larger problem that is not solved by simply flouting whatever law is, for better or for worse, on the books.

There have been in recent American history too many other indications of an erosion in respect for the rule of law, from those within government whose functions are all about making or executing the law. There has been, for example, the ignoring of judicial review requirements on a matter that, as we see in current debate about electronic surveillance, is controversial enough even when the law is observed. There have been presidential signing statements, which are a way of explaining an interpretation of a law but at times have been used instead to declare an intention not to obey a law. There is the falling into disuse of the Congressional declaration of war, replaced by Congressional expressions that are outdated or unclear regarding the legal basis for the use of military force. If these things are all part of a coherent pattern, we ought to be worried.

Egypt, United States

Attitudes Toward the Global Heavyweights

The nature and causes of negative attitudes toward the United States have long been a subject of debate. The lines of debate most often pit an emphasis on what is changeable because it flows from U.S. policies against what is unavoidable because it flows from the inherent attributes of a superpower. There is plenty of direct anecdotal evidence to shed light on this question, including what comes from the mouths of the most extreme adversaries of the United States. More systematic evidence comes from survey research, such as the most recent product of the Pew Global Attitudes Project, based on polling in over three dozen countries. The overall picture this survey provides of the standing of the United States in world opinion is familiar, including abysmal numbers in most of the Middle East. This survey also continues a broader pattern in which there has been some reduction of positive sentiment toward the United States since the early days of Barack Obama's presidency, but with the numbers still better in most of the world than they were under his predecessor.

The most interesting results of this latest survey, however, come from the same questions being asked about China that are asked about the United States. Such a comparison can aid in understanding the different components of sentiment toward the United States. Comparisons can be instructive because some aspects of China that might shape attitudes toward it are similar to the United States whereas other important attributes are very different.

Worldwide the United States still has a distinct lead over China as measured by the Pew survey's recording of overall favorable versus unfavorable sentiment. The margin is surprisingly small, however, in some countries where there is reason to expect it wouldn't be. In Britain the plurality for the United States over China in favorable ratings is ten percent, and in Australia it is only eight percent. Given that these are two of America's closest allies, these results provide food for thought.

Some survey questions addressed specific issues that may contribute to the general sentiments. Drone strikes, for example, are quite unpopular in most places; because the United States uses such strikes and China doesn't, this can only hurt the United States in the U.S.-China comparison. Conversely, the United States has a clear advantage on most elements of what is generally considered soft power—except science and technology, where China gets good marks.

One of the most instructive questions, despite its flaws, concerns whether each of the two major powers “considers” the interests of the respondent's own country in shaping its policies. The main flaw in the question is that someone else's interests can be “considered” from a hostile viewpoint, not just an accommodating one. Nonetheless, a perception that one's interests are not being considered at all is a significant data point. The clear overall pattern in the survey results is that most respondents in most countries believe that neither China nor the United States is considering their interests.

Majorities in nearly every European and Middle Eastern country believe that the United States does not consider their interests. That is also the belief of large majorities in major U.S. allies in the East Asia-Pacific region: Australia, Japan, and South Korea. Interestingly, one of the few countries in which a plurality (49 to 38 percent) of respondents believes the United States does consider their interests is China.

The comparable question that asked whether China considers the respondent's country's interests yielded similar majorities saying that it doesn't. An exception to this pattern, however, is Africa.

The issue of whether big, strong countries pay attention to the interests of littler ones probably—despite the multiple possible ways of interpreting this particular survey question—gets to what underlies a lot of the negative sentiment directed at the big countries. It is basically a matter of arrogance, and the perception of arrogance. In places such as sub-Saharan Africa, where China's resource-hungry engagement with no human rights strings attached has made it seem more solicitous of the locals (whether it really is or not), it has enjoyed a different image. But arrogance in the rising Middle Kingdom is still visible enough to shape a lot of opinion around the world.

To some extent the resentment involved is an almost inescapable part of being a big power with a big global footprint and many interests of its own to pursue and protect. This has been part of the image of the United States for years, and as China has grown stronger and projected more power it has taken on some of the same image. But the negative feelings among populations in other countries are by no means entirely inescapable. Either the United States or China could enhance its standing in the world relative to the other if it did a better job of avoiding the other's mistakes that come under the heading of the arrogance of power.

China, United States

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April 18, 2014