Paul Pillar

The Complicated War in Yemen

No matter how much some in the United States try to apply to the war in Yemen a Manichean template for seeing the conflict as a simple contest between good guys and bad guys, the complexities of the war keep intruding.  Long overlooked has been how the supposedly good side—that is, the one on behalf of which Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have intervened—has been where some genuinely bad guys belonging to al-Qaeda have resided.  Similarly overlooked is how the Houthi movement seen as the bad side—because the Houthis have accepted some Iranian aid—has been among al-Qaeda’s staunch

The Damaging Decline of HPSCI

The most frequent and regular interaction that I, as a then-serving intelligence officer, had with the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI—referred to orally as “hip-see”) was in the 1980s.  Part of my duties involved preparation of weekly classified briefings, presented to the committee by a senior CIA official, on current developments in world hot spots.  The briefings aided the committee’s discharge of its responsibilities not only as an overseer of intelligence but as a consumer of it, and as an interface between the world of classified intelligence and the rest of t

Lessons From the Tet Offensive, A Half Century Later

Fifty years ago this Tuesday, communist forces launched the assaults across South Vietnam known as the Tet Offensive.  The offensive marked an inflection point in the Vietnam War.  President Lyndon Johnson denied a request the following month from his military commander in Vietnam, William Westmoreland, for 206,000 more U.S.

Pence Goes Over the Water's Edge

As recently as a generation or two ago, the mainstream of American politics observed an important limit whereby domestic politics did not operate beyond the nation’s boundaries.  This did not mean there weren’t sharp differences and vigorous debate about foreign policy, often along party lines.  There always have been those, going back to differing Federalist and Democratic-Republican sentiments toward Britain and France in the early days of the republic.  The limit was nonetheless based on recognizing a common national interest in America’s encounter with the rest of the world, and on beli

A New Decision to Go to War in Syria

Behind a façade of continuity, the deployment of U.S. armed forces in Syria for the purposes that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson described in a speech this week represents a departure from what such forces were originally sent to Syria to do.  The Trump administration is having U.S.

Remember Those Protests in Iran?

Accountability in policy debate in the United States is sorely lacking.  One reason is the casual use of hypothetical alternative histories and of related assertions that by their nature cannot be proved or disproved.  Arguments that policymaker X would have gotten a better result if he had only done Y instead of Z get repeated with an air of certainty even though they often are nothing more than evidence-free and analysis-free “woulda coulda shoulda” rhetoric.

Killing the Iran Nuclear Agreement with a Thousand Cuts

Don’t be either fooled or relieved by President Trump’s waiving, for now, of nuclear sanctions on Iran, and thus his forgoing of an explicit withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), otherwise known as the Iran nuclear agreement.  Trump still is determined to destroy the agreement, though not necessarily in the way he threatens, or in a way some have feared.

Ceding Diplomatic Leadership to Russia

Late this month Russia will host and broker a new round of Syrian peace talks in the Black Sea resort town of Sochi.  The Sochi talks will be an extension of talks that had earlier taken place in Astana, Kazakhstan, under the joint sponsorship of Russia, Turkey, and Iran.  If there is to be any diplomatic momentum in the weeks ahead regarding the Syrian conflict, that momentum most likely will be found in Sochi and Russia.  Although some Syrian opposition elements are still hoping the Un

Postures and Gestures Rather than Results

Last week an op ed appeared in The New York Times under the byline of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with the title “I Am Proud of Our Diplomacy”.  The piece did not seem to get much notice during the holiday period.  It evidently will serve as a defense of a thin and disappointing record as Tillerson nears the likely end of an unhappy tenure.  One has to have some sympathy for Tillerson, who seems to be a good man, however ill-suited he turned out to be for the job of chie

Epistemology, Rhetoric, and the Iranian Protests

With any country that, like Iran, has been the subject of acrimonious debate in Washington, pronouncements by American observers about events in that country have more to do with politics here than with what is going on over there.  So it has been with much of the spinning and interpreting of protests in Iranian streets during the past few days.  Some guidelines for intelligent, responsible, and useful commentary on those protests are in order, and applicable no matter what are the policy preferences of whoever is commenting.

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