Paul Pillar

The Price of False Purity

Much discourse about U.S. foreign and security policy, and sometimes the policy itself, reflects a kind of fastidiousness aimed at avoiding any business with people we find distasteful or who have done things we don't like, without paying attention to the second-order effects of such attempts to keep our hands clean, or even to the first-order effects.  The fastidiousness takes varied forms.  One example is the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which, as interpreted by the Supreme Court this June, criminalizes some of the most benign and well-intentioned contacts with groups on an official list of foreign terrorist organizations.  More recently, some members of Congress have sought to reduce aid to the Lebanese army, an attempt apparently stimulated by a border incident earlier this month in which an Israeli officer (and three Lebanese) were killed and by displeasure over the role of Hizballah in Lebanese affairs.  Just today, there was shock, shock expressed over a report that some corrupt Afghan officials have been on the U.S. payroll.  And then there has been the eschewing for years of diplomatic contact or engagement with rogue regimes ranging from Cuba to Iran.

The consequences of the fastidiousness also are varied.  The issue of dealing with corrupt Afghan officials merely underscores the contradictions inherent in the U.S. war in Afghanistan, in which information and cooperation from such officials are needed to prosecute the war in the near term but a regime as corrupt as the current one in Afghanistan will be unable to achieve stability and legitimacy in the longer term.  A reduction (which the Obama administration opposes) in aid to the army of Lebanon will have the counterproductive effects of strengthening the influence of Hizballah by weakening the army and of encouraging the army to turn more to sources of support such as Iran and Syria.  The counterproductive results reach absurd levels with the anti-terrorism law, under which it is a crime to provide direct advice and counsel to a terrorist group encouraging it to forswear violence but, as long as direct contact with the group is avoided, it is a legal exercise of free speech to praise its terrorism.  The consequences of not engaging with rogue regimes include being unable to cooperate on matters in which our own interests parallel those of the rogues and being unable to provide incentives for the rogues to behave better.

Although sometimes principles worth preserving collide with practical consequences, this is not the case in such examples.  This is not principled behavior, and the purity we are achieving by trying to keep our hands clean is a false purity.  This is posturing, or an oversimplification of the issues at stake, or intellectual laziness in analyzing those issues.

National security is a complicated business in which what may appear to be the most direct and resolute way of advancing national security doesn't necessarily advance it.  We will be more secure to the extent we realize that.