Paul Pillar

Presidential Judgment and Unpredictable Outcomes

Paul Pillar

Right up until Joe Biden announced that he is not running for president, mainstream media deemed to be of significance the advice that he had given President Obama about whether to attempt the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011. This was seen as a measure of the relative judgment that he and another adviser to the president at the time, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, exhibited. Clinton has received kudos for reportedly being firmly in favor of an operation that achieved its immediate objective and is widely regarded as a major success; the advice Biden gave evidently is more uncertain. But whether each one voted yes or no while this operation was being discussed by the president's senior advisers in the Situation Room—with our giving more points in hindsight for a “yes” than a “no”—tells us much less about the presidential level of judgment that each was demonstrating than many seem to think it does. Using an episode such as this as a gauge of fitness for high office is another instance of the all too common practice of rating leaders in large part for events that are outside their control, rather than reserving praise or blame for things that are more in their control and that are better measures of good or bad judgment.

Based on what we know about the decision to go after bin Laden—and some journalists have been telling us that we may not know as much as we thought we knew—there were important things that the president himself and his advisers evidently did not know, beginning with whether bin Laden was for certain in the house that would be raided. The decision was not a straightforward matter of applying good judgment to known facts but instead a matter of taking a risk. Insofar as a president needs to take some risks to get things done, Mr. Obama deserves credit for being willing to take this one, but that evaluation should not depend on the particular outcome that the operation happened to have.

The operation easily could have gone wrong in several ways, and not just if bin Laden had turned out not to have been in the targeted compound. There could have been mishaps in the movement of the U.S. forces involved that would have prevented completion of the mission. Worst of all would have been a violent altercation with Pakistani forces. If any of these outcomes had materialized, then the operation would have been widely regarded as a failure, it would have been seen as a black mark for the president and his advisers, and association with the decision to attempt the raid would be seen as a political liability rather than an asset. But notwithstanding these public perceptions, the judgment represented by the advisers' recommendations would not actually have been any different than with the outcome that actually occurred.

Compare this with a daring U.S. operation that turned out to be a failure: the attempt in 1980 to rescue Americans held hostage at the U.S. embassy in Tehran, an incident usually remembered under the label Desert One. The failure resulted directly from very specific, down-in-the-weeds military mishaps: mechanical failure of helicopters and a fatal collision between two of the U.S. aircraft at the desert rendezvous site. Such happenings are not the stuff of presidential judgment. A president can press his military commanders about whether they have been thorough enough in their planning and preparation, and he can include in his own decision-making a fudge factor for how even the best-laid plans sometimes go awry, but beyond that he essentially has to leave much to chance as far as his own role is concerned.

Desert One was regarded as a low point in Jimmy Carter's presidency, and Carter himself singled out the failure to gain freedom of the hostages as the biggest reason he was defeated for re-election. But if Barack Obama deserves credit for making a gutsy, risky decision with the operation against bin Laden, then Carter deserves comparable credit for a gutsy decision to attempt the rescue in Iran. If the aircraft failures in the Iranian desert had not occurred and the operation succeeded in bringing the hostages home, the whole episode would have been perceived as a shining success and Carter's political stock would have risen significantly. But again, we really would not be justified in making an evaluation about Carter's judgment being good or bad that is any different with this counterfactual outcome of the operation from whatever evaluation of his judgment should be made given the actual outcome.

Giving inappropriate credit or blame to the person at the top for these sorts of unpredictable variations in the outcome of U.S.-initiated operations is a subtype of the larger tendency to assign credit or blame for unpredictable things in general, including ones the United States does not initiate, such as terrorist attacks. This issue has come up again with Donald Trump's assertions about George W. Bush and 9/11. Trump's accusations are inappropriate because no matter how soundly an administration may have assessed an underlying terrorist threat and attempted to respond to it, that is different from being able to detect and prevent a specific terrorist operation.

It is with the larger matters of assessing threats and setting strategic direction that we can confidently and appropriately evaluate presidential judgment. We should not blame George W. Bush for the occurrence of 9/11, but we can charge him with bad judgment for misunderstanding and/or twisting the nature of the underlying threat such that it somehow got translated into a problem with Iraq. He, and his most influential advisers, displayed atrocious judgment in initiating a war in Iraq. That war turned out to be such a costly mistake not because of unpredictable, tactical occurrences—and not for any reason having to do with the presence or absence of weapons of mass destruction. It had a very bad and costly outcome for reasons involving the political culture and political demography of Iraq and the limitations of military force. Those reasons were not only knowable but known, to experts inside and outside government, but Bush and his advisers did not avail themselves of that knowledge.                                                  

TopicsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States

Afghanistan, Iraq, and Endless War

Paul Pillar

It probably was inevitable, as a matter of how Washington as a whole approaches such things these days, that President Obama would make his decision about keeping 5,500 troops in Afghanistan into 2017. There is too much of an expectation that when internal violence prevails in a country in which the United States has had as much past involvement as it has had in Afghanistan, the United States should have its military forces on the scene to try to do something about it, no matter how dim are the prospects for accomplishing much there.

Things have not always been so. It is a departure for the United States to make a habit out of indefinitely stationing significant numbers of its military personnel amid other people's internal strife. This is not entirely a recent phenomenon; the United States did similar things, for example, in Nicaragua during the first third of the twentieth century and later on a much larger scale in Vietnam. But those instances are rightly regarded as failures, they did not have the makings of a habit, and they were not associated with the sort of political expectations about such things that are as persistent and widespread as those that prevail today.

Perhaps the record of long-term stationing of U.S. forces since World War II in such allied countries as Germany and South Korea has obscured how much of a departure are the sorts of long-term deployments we see today in the Middle East and South Asia. But that earlier stationing of forces was mostly about deterring external aggression, which is a very different business from doing something about internal disorder. In the former, if nothing happens over a long time while U.S. forces are overseas, that might be a mark of success; in the latter, if the status quo—which is a violent status quo—persists, that is definitely a failure.

The costs of stationing forces in allied countries for deterrence purposes are mostly limited to direct monetary costs, except for occasional blips such as local resistance to the Marine base on Okinawa. Inserting forces into internal conflicts, however, entails an assortment of consequences that make for greater and broader costs and risks to the United States and that can make the whole undertaking counterproductive. Those consequences, besides the obvious one of U.S. casualties, include the ill will that time and again in such situations has been incurred by destructive effects, however inadvertent or unintended, of the use of U.S. military force in internal conflicts. They include extremist and terrorist responses stimulated by such ill will. And they include the moral hazard involved in the United States carrying burdens that will have to be borne by locals if a local conflict is ever to be settled.

However logical the decision about retaining U.S. troops in Afghanistan may seem—and in a tactical sense may be—the decision leaves unanswered some important questions of a longer-term and more strategic nature. One is: if the United States has been unable to achieve its goals in Afghanistan with 14 years of direct military involvement, why should one think that additional time there will bring about any different result? A related question is: how much longer will it take to achieve whatever we are trying to achieve? The president said, “I do not support the idea of endless war.” But we are left to wonder what to make of the comment by his secretary of defense, “Is it going to be 5,500 forever? I mean, there I can only say this, that is our best estimate now of what we should plan for and are planning for and budgeting for for 2017.” Secretary Carter has acknowledged but failed to answer an important question.

Yet another strategic question is how Afghanistan figures into the larger picture of U.S. interests and grand strategy. Yes, there has been a lot of violence and instability there lately, but how exactly does that relate to U.S. interests, and interests important enough to warrant incurring the costs of an indefinite U.S. troop presence there? The intervention in Afghanistan in 2001 was a direct response to a major terrorist attack against the United States, and counterterrorism is usually invoked as the main rationale for still being there. But that invocation ignores the large differences between Al-Qaeda's situation in Afghanistan prior to 9/11 and what exists there now, the lack of any uniqueness of Afghanistan as a haven for terrorists, and the fact that havens in faraway places are not one of the more important determinants of terrorist threats to the United States. The transition from a retaliatory counterterrorist operation to a nation-building expedition in Afghanistan has never really been explained and justified.

Much of the instant analysis about President Obama's new decision on troops in Afghanistan has been making reference to one of the more dangerous and misleading notions lingering from the Iraq War, which is that the ending of that U.S. military expedition in 2011 was somehow responsible for messes in Iraq that followed, that the messes would have been prevented by extending the U.S. military presence in Iraq, and that Mr. Obama in effect acknowledged a mistake by later reinserting some U.S. troops there. This theme has long been pushed by political opponents of Mr. Obama and by many of those—an overlapping group—still trying to work off their cognitive dissonance for having promoted the launching of the Iraq War, but the theme has appeared in mainstream media in ways that come close to treating it as an accepted conclusion rather than just an accusation.

The Obama administration is correct in noting the important differences between Iraq then and Afghanistan now, with the Iraqi government being determined then that the U.S. military presence should end and the Obama administration implementing a withdrawal schedule that its predecessor had already negotiated. But some similarities between the two situations are also important. The same question about the 14 years of involvement in Afghanistan can be asked about the eight and a half years of military involvement in Iraq. The expedition in Iraq reached a peak of about 166,000 U.S. troops, substantially more than ever were in Afghanistan. If that level and duration of a U.S. expeditionary force were not sufficient to accomplish whatever the United States was supposed to accomplish in Iraq, why should we believe that the much smaller levels of a continuing force that were being talked about in 2011 would have been more likely to accomplish it?

The vaunted “surge” in Iraq demonstrably failed in its objective of enabling the contending political forces in Iraq to reach an accommodation. That is why, although a force as large and powerful as the U.S. force was then will naturally be able to put a temporary clamp on violence and disorder, the effect was not destined to last. The surge enabled the Bush administration to shove the demons of Iraq far enough into the closet to be able to slam the door and keep it shut just long enough to hand over the problem to its successor. President Obama is now being accused—with some validity, although at lower cost to American lives and resources—of doing something similar with Afghanistan.

Mr. Obama no doubt is sincere when he says he does not support endless war. He is bowing to the kind of thinking that is keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan indefinitely rather than being a promoter of such thinking. But the United States has already been sliding into endless war, and this sort of thinking, including especially the myth of a missed victory opportunity in Iraq, has been greasing the slope.  

TopicsAfghanistan Iraq RegionsMiddle East South Asia

Dominoes Falling in a Vacuum: The Hazards of Metaphors in Foreign Policy

Paul Pillar

Physical, spatial imagery has long been applied to discourse about U.S. foreign policy. During the earlier portion of the Cold War, for example, the image of oozing red paint as representing the advance of communism—somewhat like the “cover the earth” logo of the Sherwin-Williams paint company—was often used. An even more prevalent and influential physical metaphor during the Cold War was falling dominoes. The metaphor became treated as an analytic construct—the “domino theory”—and shaped the thinking of many people in the United States, including foreign policy elites across different administrations and different political parties. The metaphors of oozing paint and falling dominoes inculcated a badly flawed perception of international communism and of local conflicts in which communists played a role. The image of dominoes was one of the most important influences on the thinking that led to the tragic U.S. intervention in Vietnam. It was an influence more powerful than analyses that correctly saw communism and conflicts in Asia as not really working like dominoes.

Such imagery is influential because it involves a comfortable and familiar way of thinking. The physical metaphors conform to the operation of human brains, most of the evolution of which occurred when humans, to survive, had to stay focused on immediate physical hazards and processes such as trees falling, storms moving in, or predators patrolling territory. There is a direct correspondence between such prehistoric phenomena and physical mechanisms that involve modern props such as paint or dominoes. But the correspondence fades when applied to the more complicated interactions of modern civilization, including international relations. The habit of relying on the simplifying physical images is an example of how evolved human traits that worked well for cave men don't work so well for civilized mankind.

The most recent popular physical metaphor applied to foreign relations—so popular that its usage has become almost a fad—concerns a “vacuum” in the Middle East. A search on Google News (which covers only articles that have been “crawled” in the last 30 days) for items with both vacuum and Middle East yields 68,900 hits. The imagery has become a major part of criticism of President Obama from those who believe the United States ought to be intervening militarily in the Middle East more often and more deeply than it has been lately. The escalation of Russian military involvement in Syria has stimulated a chorus of commentary about how Russia is moving into a “vacuum” created by insufficient U.S. intervention in the region (and how this is bad).

The application of the “vacuum” imagery to Middle Eastern affairs is seriously misleading on several counts, beginning with the central fact that metaphor is not reality. Even the more physical aspects of foreign policy do not exhibit characteristics similar to true vacuums and how matter responds to them. Moreover, the Middle East is not a vacuum not only in the sense that it has an atmosphere with not much less than sea level pressure but also that it is filled with people, governments, armies, militias and much else that collectively make it what it is. The vacuum imagery implicitly assumes that there are important attributes of the region that don't really count unless they involve intervention by an external power, and especially by the United States. It is insufficient attention to the heat and pressure involving what already is in a particular country, and too much emphasis on what external intervention ought to be able to accomplish, that often has spelled trouble, for the external intervenor as well as for people inside the country.

The metaphor further assumes a sort of zero-sum quality to events in the region, comparable to how two bodies of gas cannot move into the same space without increasing heat and pressure, and to how if one body moves out that can create a vacuum that sucks the other body of gas in. International relations do not work that way. U.S. and Russian international activity are not really like two blobs of gas. The imagery takes no account, for example, of how external forces can work together and not just work to push each other out of the same space—and in Syria, external forces working together offer the only hope for de-escalating the civil war there.

The imagery, because it is physical imagery, tends to equate foreign policy and the pursuit and protection of a nation's interests with the most physically obvious manifestations of such pursuit, especially the application of military force. The metaphor suggests that the United States is not protecting its interests in a particular space if it is not injecting its military forces into that space. But the military is only one of several instruments for implementing a foreign policy, and not necessarily the best one in any specific situation. Some instruments that have no physical analogue at all, such as behind-closed-doors diplomacy, may be more useful and effective.

Finally, the way the vacuum metaphor is being used carries the implication that filling a space, whether through military force or other means, is to be equated with advancing U.S. interests. But the U.S. interests at stake with regard to any particular space may not be advanced at all by filling it. Trying to fill a space may entail far more costs than benefits, which unfortunately has been true of some very costly space-filling efforts in recent U.S. history.

Spatial and physical metaphors can be useful presentational devices, as an abbreviated and stylistic way to refer to an analytical point, as long as real analysis is there as well. The problem with metaphors starts when they begin to be used not as shorthand references to analysis but instead as a substitute for analysis, and for the careful inventory of costs, risks, and benefits that good foreign policy analysis requires. This problem has become increasingly apparent with much of the application of the vacuum metaphor to the Middle East, in a manner disturbingly reminiscent of how the domino metaphor was applied to Vietnam. The mode of thinking involved may be good for cave men, but not for us.                                

TopicsSyria Russia RegionsMiddle East

Echoes of Afghanistan in Syria

Paul Pillar

The Russian military intervention to shore up the Assad regime in Syria, coupled with the previously begun U.S.-led military intervention in the same country—amid uncertainty about U.S. war aims and a reluctance to part with the objective of ousting Assad—presents the specter of a proxy war between Russia and the United States. Before the specter gets any closer to becoming a reality, we should gain what insights we can from a country that hosted previous proxy warfare, that was the scene of military interventions by both Moscow and Washington, and that continues to be a problem for U.S. policy: Afghanistan. We should learn what lessons we can regarding both risks and opportunities in such places, while understanding the differences as well as the similarities between the conflicts in Afghanistan and Syria.

Whatever other motives Russian president Vladimir Putin has in doing what he is doing today in Syria, shoring up a beleaguered regime that has been a friend and client of Russia is clearly one of the immediate objectives. In that respect the action is very similar to what the Soviet Union did when it threw its forces into Afghanistan in 1979, in an effort to shore up a similarly beleaguered client regime in Kabul. Another similarity in the two conflicts is that the opposition to each regime comprised a variety of armed groups in a predominantly Sunni Muslim country, with the groups ranging from mostly secular to militant Islamist. And in each case opposition groups received material support from Arab states and, later, from the United States.

So far the Russian military operation in Syria is much smaller than the Soviet expedition in Afghanistan, which at its peak involved 115,000 troops. No Russian ground troops have yet been committed to combat in Syria, although hints from Moscow and the facts on the ground will make it unsurprising if Russian “volunteers” start participating directly in the fight. Regardless of the discrepancy in size of the two operations, the prospects for quagmire that have faced the Soviets and Russians in each place are comparable. Bashar Assad is no more secure today than Afghan president Babrak Karmal was in 1979. The insecurity in each case has been due not to any direct countervailing military intervention by outside powers—the United States and the USSR/Russia have not used their forces in Afghanistan at the same time as the other did—but to the deep unpopularity of each incumbent regime and the unlikelihood that it ever could form the basis of lasting stability in its country, in the face of persistent and in large part religiously inspired opposition.

How far Vladimir Putin wades into this quagmire before devoting more attention to finding a way out remains to be seen. But we can already say that the situation he faces in Syria is more like Afghanistan in the 1980s than like, say, Ukraine. In Ukraine he has had the limited objective of keeping Ukraine out of the Western orbit of the European Union and NATO. A relatively low-cost commitment along his own country's border to maintain a frozen conflict, with the use of a few little green men in unmarked uniforms, may serve that purpose. The conflict in Syria will not freeze, and it does not serve Russian purposes well to be propping up endlessly a besieged client regime in control of only a fraction of its country's territory.

The Afghan mujahedin's war against the Soviets is the subject of fond Cold War memories of many people on the U.S. side of the Cold War divide. The effort, begun under Jimmy Carter and continued under Ronald Reagan, to supply the mujahedin is widely perceived as having been instrumental in defeating the Soviets in Afghanistan, a defeat that in turn is often seen as contributing significantly to the downfall of the Soviet Union itself. The supply of man-portable air defense systems—the famous Stinger—to the rebels was the centerpiece of this aid. But it would be dangerous to attempt something comparable in Syria, where U.S. and allied aircraft and not just Russians operate. Distributing such systems to anyone in the fractured Syria opposition would result in a significant chance they would be used against American planes.

One of the principal lessons from Afghanistan is that defeat of a despised regime does not usher in peace, let alone anything resembling democracy. When the Afghan regime of Najibullah—whom the Soviets installed after Karmal demonstrated his inability to get control of the situation—fell three years after the last Soviet troops left, civil war continued unabated, with different militias that had received U.S. aid battling among themselves. This led to the Taliban sweeping to power over most (but not all) of the country, to the Taliban playing host to the Arabs of al-Qaeda, and the rest is history. And in a later phase of Afghan history, U.S. ouster of the Taliban again failed to bring anything resembling peace to Afghanistan.

The role of extremists and of terrorists who have struck against the United States and the West ought to be of high concern to Americans reflecting on history of the Afghan conflict, and on how earlier American policymakers may have focused too narrowly and shortsightedly on defeating the Soviets. The comparison with Syria ought to be too obvious to need much reflection, given the current reality of the radical group ISIS, as well as an al-Qaeda affiliate, forming a major part of the alternative to the Assad regime.

The Afghan experience as well as the Syrian conflict itself show why the oft-voiced counterfactual about how a bigger and earlier U.S. involvement in the Syrian war would somehow have produced a more viable and effective “moderate” opposition is invalid. The post-Najibullah phase of Afghan history demonstrated the pattern seen elsewhere as well, and being seen today in Syria, of radicals crowding out moderates in a situation of prolonged warfare and instability. It is in the nature of such situations for such a pattern to prevail, civil war being an inherently immoderate thing to wage. The Stingers and other U.S. aid bought the United States little or nothing in the way of subsequent influence.

One of the biggest, and most relevant for current policy questions, differences between the Soviet phase of the Afghan war and the current war in Syria is that there isn't a Cold War any more. There is no reason today to gauge the advance and retreat of U.S. interests worldwide in terms of the retreat and advance of the country whose capital is Moscow, as was habitually done during the Cold War. If Russia were to maintain all of the position and influence it hopes to maintain in whatever part of Syria the Assad regime controls, it would be small potatoes compared to how successfully the Soviet Union competed for influence throughout the Middle East during most of the Cold War. Countering Russia wasn't even part of the original reason for the United States to get involved in the Syrian conflict. It would be one of the worst examples of mission creep if this comes to be seen as a reason, and doubly unfortunate if the potential proxy war were allowed to become a real one.

Probably the biggest single lesson from the Afghan example concerns the quagmire potential, as demonstrated by the Soviets' experience as their military efforts dragged on through the 1980s, and as demonstrated by the U.S. experience after the mission of retaliation for 9/11 and ousting the Taliban and al-Qaeda from their comfortable places creeped into being a nation-building operation. In applying the quagmire dimension to Syria, think about how U.S. forces now have been in Afghanistan for 14 years (which doesn't even count, of course, the time during which the United States was giving significant material aid to Afghan insurgents, a process that began more than three decades ago). Then think about the possibility of debate in Washington in 2029, 14 years from now, about how many troops the United States ought to be keeping in Syria.

Vladimir Putin's gambit in Syria has poured fuel on a fire and has made a complicated and dangerous situation on the ground (and in the air) even more complicated and dangerous. But for now we ought to be glad to the extent that the costs of proto-quagmire fall on Russia and not on the United States. These include not only the material costs of fighting a war but also the extremist-fueling hatred that comes from stuff that happens, even inadvertently, in the course of fighting a war—such as, say, bombing a hospital. Here another lesson from Afghanistan is how the United States has for some time now been wearing out its welcome, as reflected in opinion polls that show much previous friendship and admiration for the United States among Afghans having dissipated.

We also ought to look to other silver linings in the gambit—which admittedly assume that Putin is as smart as he often is cracked up to be: that the Russian leader knows the only way to step out of a costly quagmire is to work diligently with other outside powers to negotiate some sort of resolution of the Syrian conflict; and that through Russia's intervention he has acquired more of the sort of leverage over the Assad regime that will be necessary to effect any such resolution.     

TopicsRussia Syria Afghanistan RegionsMiddle East

Politics versus Policy: Follow-up to the Iran Nuclear Agreement

Paul Pillar

The Obama administration had to expend considerable political capital in fending off attempts, during the recent Congressional review period, to kill the agreement to restrict Iran's nuclear program. As a matter of policy toward that program, such expenditure should never have been necessary; the strict limitations and scrutiny of the program that are embodied in the agreement are clearly better for U.S. interests than the absence of such limitations and scrutiny if the agreement had been killed. But the expenditure was required to beat back opposition to the agreement that was rooted not in any consideration of the merits of the agreement itself but instead in other reasons that opponents had to oppose the administration and to keep Iran isolated. It is not surprising, given how domestic politics tends to work, that since the agreement survived last month's Congressional gauntlet we have been seeing a sort of rebalancing of political accounts in which the forces opposing the agreement are being propitiated in other respects. Although the propitiation is understandable in terms of domestic politics, it is damaging U.S. foreign policy interests. It undermines the prospects for constructively building on the agreement to advance other U.S. interests in the Middle East, and it may even imperil the nuclear agreement itself.

The political rebalancing is manifested in an amplification of hostility toward, and threats against, Iran. All the negative things that were said about Iran in the course of earlier debate on the nuclear agreement are being said, across the political spectrum and across the different branches of government as well as in public discourse, with as much loudness as they were before. All the required mantras about the need to oppose the “nefarious” things that Iran supposedly is doing in its region are being recited as automatically as they were before. Every opportunity is taken to kick Iran in the shins verbally and to disavow any possibility of American friendship with it. These themes are apparent not only in the general rhetoric in Washington but also in draft legislation. This includes Senator Ben Cardin's bill for an “Iran Policy Oversight Act,” which includes almost nothing about building positively on the agreement but instead is mostly about expressing hostility and making threats, including the threat of reimposing sanctions on Iran.

None of this makes any sense if one goes beyond domestic American politics and considers what the agreement has or has not changed. It makes no sense as a response to a diplomatic accord in which Iran has committed itself to keep its nuclear program peaceful and has backed up that commitment by subjecting itself to unprecedented monitoring of, and limitations on, the program. The negativity would make much more sense if the Iranian behavior had been the opposite of what it really was—that is, if Tehran had walked away from the negotiations and, amid more threat-making of its own, had resumed expansion of an unrestricted nuclear program.

The negativity-infused political rebalancing jeopardizes the prospects for the United States advancing its interests in the Middle East through a more complete and unfettered diplomacy on several important issues in which Iran also has an interest. The security situations in, and political futures of, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan top the list of those issues, but there are other important topics as well, including broader questions of security in the Persian Gulf region. Building on the nuclear agreement means taking advantage of the ice-breaking effect of the nuclear negotiations, which moved away from a situation in which U.S. and Iranian officials were not even talking to each other, to conduct effective and mutually beneficial business on these other matters.

Notwithstanding earlier anti-agreement rhetoric to the effect that we should not expect Iran to become nice because of the nuclear accord, what is involved is not niceness. What is involved is Iran acting on behalf of its own interests—some of which parallel U.S. interests and some of which diverge from U.S. interests on each of the issues just mentioned. That is the sort of non-zero-sum situation that is the stuff of the normal give-and-take in normal diplomacy. And for the United States, building on the diplomatic breakthrough of the nuclear accord is less a matter of unshackling Iranian diplomacy than of unshackling its own diplomacy, and of availing itself of a full box of tools for pursuing its interests in the Middle East.

The amplified negativity and animosity toward Iran that emanate from the U.S. domestic political pot not only threaten to get in the way of a broader and more effective U.S. diplomacy in the region but also takes no account of the fact that the Iranians have domestic politics as well. The hostile vibes from Washington weaken the position of President Rouhani and those who are inclined to be part of a more constructive regional diplomacy, and play into the hands of unreconstructed hardliners who would be more content with Iran remaining an isolated rogue. The political dynamics involved, of hostility begetting more hostility and of hardliners in each capital helping the other's cause, are a threat not only to effective diplomacy on other topics but also to the nuclear agreement itself. Iranian hardliners who never liked the agreement will be eager to seize on anything that enables them to argue that all of Iran's concessions bought it nothing but endless enmity from the United States.

A major part of the U.S. political rebalancing act is a push to provide yet more U.S. assistance to regional rivals of Iran, which mainly means the Gulf Arab states and Israel. Again, there is no logic to this in terms of what the nuclear agreement did and did not change. Iran's placing of its nuclear program under additional restrictions and scrutiny does not make Iran more of a threat to anyone than it was before. Iran's becoming less of an isolated rogue and more of a normal actor in regional politics does not make Iran any more of a threat to anyone than it was before. And notwithstanding how heavily opponents of the nuclear agreement tried to rely on the argument that sanctions relief will give Iran a financial windfall that it will use to fund more “nefarious” activity in the region, that argument still is no more valid than it ever was—given how most of the funds in question are already committed to purposes where they have been frozen outside the region, how the needed uses for the funds include domestic economic development and strengthening Iran's international finances, and how there is no evidence that Iran makes its regional policy according to the balance in its bank account, no evidence that “nefarious” activity went down when severe sanctions were imposed, and thus no reason to expect that it will go up when the same sanctions are loosened.

The Gulf Arabs and Israel have their own reasons to try to hinder and isolate their Iranian rival, but these are not interests the United States shares and they do not involve genuine security threats to the countries concerned. The Arab states of the Gulf Cooperation Council already have clear military superiority over the Iranian armed forces. In the case of Israel, it has overwhelming military superiority over everybody else in the region, both at the conventional level and at the level the agreement with Iran was designed to address.

That superiority will continue even if the United States were not to lift a finger on Israel's behalf in the years ahead. A pattern nonetheless prevails in which the United States has given Israel $124 billion in no-strings-attached aid and continues giving it at a clip of about $3.1 billion a year, not counting hundreds of millions of additional assistance in the form of joint defense projects. The aid is being given to a state that is among the richest one-fifth of the countries of the world, as ranked by GDP per capita. That pattern ought to make every American taxpayer cringe, especially when reminded of budget-constrained cuts to programs for the benefit of Americans themselves. The pattern is cringe-worthy even without getting into questions of what sort of Israeli policies and practices the United States is in effect subsidizing. And yet there is talk today of increasing aid to Israel even further.

If policy could trump politics rather than the other way around, policy would take advantage of the political achievement of being able to get the nuclear agreement through Congress despite the huge effort to defeat it by the lobby that works on behalf of the right-wing Israeli government. The episode demonstrates that it is possible to defy the lobby on a matter on which it has pulled out all the stops, and still survive to tell the tale. A far-sighted and courageous response to this episode would seize the occasion to make several policy adjustments. One would be long-overdue rectification of the aid pattern just described. Related to that would be construction of policy toward Israel that would make the important point that no foreign government will be rewarded for behaving toward the United States the way that particular government behaved regarding the nuclear agreement, which was to do everything it could to subvert U.S. diplomacy and foreign policy, including through blatant interference in domestic U.S. politics. And another response would be to address, seriously and effectively and not just with wrist-slaps, the unresolved Israel-Palestinian conflict, including changing the practice of automatically providing political cover to Israel at the United Nations no matter what the resolution on the table may say.

Unfortunately, none of this appears likely to happen. President Obama, in his speech at the United Nations General Assembly, gave no hint that he was about to move in a new direction regarding the Palestinian question. The one potentially justifiable reason for going with the current flow regarding the post-nuclear-accord political rebalancing is that the agreement itself is important enough, and the continued efforts to sabotage it will be persistent enough, that the Congressional Democrats who supported the agreement need enough political cover and need to make enough anti-Iranian noise to keep them away from any clearly agreement-killing measures. Maybe so, but this approach is hardly far-sighted and courageous. It looks like nearsightedness and folding to fear will again prevail. Politics probably will trump sound policy on these matters, as usual. And that means missing major opportunities to advance U.S. interests.                      

TopicsIran Israel Nonproliferation RegionsMiddle East

The Destructive U.S.-Backed Campaign in Yemen

Paul Pillar

The killing earlier this week of at least 131 civilians at a wedding party was only the latest and deadliest event in a campaign of airstrikes in Yemen by a foreign coalition led by Saudi Arabia. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) reports that during a six-month period from late March until last week (even before the incident involving the wedding) at least 2,355 civilians had been killed in the fighting in Yemen, with almost two-thirds of the deaths caused by airstrikes conducted by Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Arab allies. The same Saudi-led coalition is maintaining a blockade of Yemen's main seaports that has further exacerbated a humanitarian crisis in which, according to UNHCR, four out of five Yemenis require assistance.

This carnage and associated suffering are being largely overlooked and even excused in the United States. In fact, according to official White House statements, the Obama administration is providing “logistical and intelligence support” to the Saudi-led military intervention. Insufficient attention to what is really going on in Yemen can be partly explained by the distractions of what is going on elsewhere in the Middle East. Most recently this has included the Russian military intervention in Syria, which has received far more attention than the Yemeni war but, especially with this week's Russian airstrikes, is remarkably similar in both nature and purpose to what the Saudis are doing in Yemen. Another major reason for the inappropriate American attitudes and posture toward what is going on in Yemen is a habit of rigidly thinking of all events especially in the Middle East in terms of a fixed line-up of “allies” and foes, without regard to any consistency in upholding standards of international behavior or to any careful consideration of where U.S. interests do and do not lie.

The single biggest member of this perceived, mind-numbing line-up is Iran, the focus of the politically correct habit of thinking of it as nothing but a foe, and the arch-foe in the region at that. The required ritual references to “nefarious” Iranian activity that is “destabilizing” the Middle East flow off lips so automatically they probably could flow in one's sleep, and are routinely uttered with no reference at all to what Iran actually is or is not doing in the region.

The Iranian connection to the Yemeni conflict is Tehran's sympathy, and some undetermined degree of material support, for the Houthis, who have been one of the most significant and successful players in that multidimensional conflict. The Houthi movement has been a major player in Yemen for over a decade and has needed no instigation from Iran to assert itself. For the Houthis, who are Zaidi Shiites, the motivations for assertion include concern over the rise of Sunni extremism—including in the form of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)—as well as longer-standing issues of distribution of political and economic power within Yemen. Iran's perspective is based partly on sectarian sympathy, although amid a region and a wider Muslim world in which Sunnis outnumber Shiites, Tehran does not have any strong incentive to exacerbate sectarian conflict. Iran tried to dissuade the Houthis from moving against the Yemeni capital Sana, but the Houthis ignored that advice and captured the city anyway. In any event, whatever material aid Iran has given to the Houthis pales in comparison with the direct air, ground, and naval role that Saudi Arabia and its allies are playing in Yemen.

The Houthis' activity is only a part of a bigger and more complex set of conflicts in Yemen, a country where no one has ever really controlled the whole thing and that was not even officially a single country until North and South Yemen merged in 1990. Southern resistance to what is seen as northern domination of the merged state has ever since been a major part of Yemeni instability. The instability of more recent years was initiated not by anything the Houthis did but instead by an Arab Spring-style uprising that pushed out the longstanding president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. He was replaced by Saleh's former vice president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, whose claim to legitimacy was an “election” in which he was the only candidate, who himself later became the target of demonstrations for not carrying out promised reforms, and whom the Saudis wound up taking under their wing. Perhaps the most significant development leading to the current level of violence and suffering in Yemen was the accession to power in Riyadh of King Salman and his young son the defense minister and aspirant to the throne, who decided to use Yemen to make a statement about who's boss in the Arabian Peninsula.

To appreciate the inconsistency in the application in Yemen of standards of international behavior, imagine that Iran had been doing anything like what the Saudis have been doing in Yemen, including using its air force to conduct strikes like the one against the wedding party. The uproar in this country would be deafening, perhaps enough to derail the recently completed nuclear agreement.

There is no good justification for the United States to be identifying itself with, much less materially supporting, the Saudi intervention in Yemen. It is supporting the cause of most of the destruction and suffering in the country, rather than reducing the destruction and suffering (although the United States is furnishing some humanitarian aid for Yemen). It is earning opprobrium and resentment for being associated with the Saudi campaign. It is making matters even worse for itself by knuckling under to the Saudi preference to prevent even an impartial United Nations inquiry into wartime excesses by all sides in the Yemeni conflict, including the Houthis.

The United States does not have a direct stake in the internal contests for power and influence in Yemen. Even if it did, it would be hard to explain the side it is taking now. Saleh was considered a U.S. partner during his long time in power, and now he is allied with the Houthis.

The United States does have a stake in how instability in Yemen can reverberate in the form of transnational terrorism and extremism, but again it is on the wrong side. The Houthi movement does not do international terrorism. AQAP certainly does, and it has tried to do it repeatedly against the United States. In the otherwise confused lines of conflict within Yemen, the Houthis and AQAP are each other's clearest enemies.

And the United States certainly does not have a good reason to take sides in sectarian conflicts in Yemen or anywhere else in the Muslim world.

Mistaken policies such as the U.S. posture toward Yemen will continue as long as U.S. policy is made in a domestic political climate in which prevailing sentiment automatically labels some foreign states as “allies” and others as practitioners of “nefarious” behavior, and insists that the United States always align itself with the former and always oppose anything having to do with the latter.              

TopicsYemen Iran Saudi Arabia RegionsMiddle East

The Foreign Costs of Domestic Political Craziness

Paul Pillar

The U.S. political class and political system in effect grant a lot of leeway and a lot of tolerance to excesses of American politicians, including excesses exhibited during election campaigns. There is little consistency and almost no principle in determining which comments by candidates come to be considered as campaign-crippling gaffes and which do not. Much gets said that does not cripple a campaign but which a majority of decent Americans, if they carefully thought about it, would probably agree is unreasonable, untrue, mean, inflammatory, bigoted, or extreme.

The tolerance comes partly from an acceptance that, oh well, politicians will be politicians, and that especially during a race for a party's nomination extreme things will be said to appeal to the angriest and most active part of a party's base and will not necessarily endure during a general election campaign let alone once the winner takes office. It comes partly from a quest for even-handedness, especially among the press, involving a supposed need to give equal respect to every position expressed merely because it is expressed, regardless of the unreasonableness of its content. And it comes partly from how much all of us who are political junkies (which includes to varying degrees a large proportion of the U.S. population) are entertained by the spectacle. This last factor has been especially at work this year with the phenomenon that is Donald Trump, who first came to be known to most Americans primarily as an entertainer. What is extreme and unreasonable gets treated as harmless fun.

Essays can and should be written on how the fun isn't really harmless even when confining our perspective to the United States—about how this sort of crude followership rather than the exercise of true leadership by contenders in political races is a race to the bottom when it comes to reason and decency, and how it encourages a further lowering of political and moral standards among the America public as a whole and not just in the portions of the electorate that are the main targets of the crude appeals. But what may be even more likely to be overlooked is the effect such discourse has on perceptions overseas.

American politics unfortunately has not been stopping at the water's edge, in at least a couple of respects. One, which we saw recently with opposition to the nuclear agreement with Iran, involves how much domestic politics complicates and impedes the making and implementation of U.S. foreign policy. Another involves foreign governments and publics forming impressions about the United States and about Americans based on what they see and hear going on in American politics, including the crazy and disgusting aspects of it. Globalization and modern mass communications have made this second factor more important and more inescapable than ever.

Every indication of dysfunction in U.S. politics diminishes in foreign eyes the reliability and trustworthiness of the United States as a partner and leader in world affairs. Foreigners just got another such indication with the resignation of the speaker of the House of Representatives because members of his own party considered him insufficiently obdurate and too willing to work cooperatively with others.

Beyond the general picture of dysfunction are more specific hateful or prejudicial positions that some politicians get away with taking, which leads foreigners to conclude reasonably that such views must be shared by much and even most of the American public. This greatly harms the image of America as an open and tolerant land and the substantial soft power that has flowed from it.

The problem has been most acute in recent years, though by no means limited to, the frequent indications of Islamophobia. It is bad enough when impressions are conveyed to foreigners by the words and actions of Koran-burning pastors or religiously biased army generals. It has become even worse with leading (according to opinion polls) candidates for the presidential nomination of one of the two major U.S. political parties appearing to go along with statements that “We have a problem in this country—it's called Muslims” or stating themselves (notwithstanding Article VI of the U.S. Constitution) that a Muslim should never be president of the United States.

The deleterious effects in majority Muslim countries of such postures taken by U.S. politicians are multiple. The belief that the United States as a whole is out to persecute or subjugate Muslims gets entrenched, making it that much harder for the United States to win trust and get accomplished what it wants to accomplish in those parts of the world. Foreign governments, sensitive to their own public opinion, find it politically harder to cooperate with the United States. The motivations for anti-U.S. extremist violence grow stronger, and thus the probability of such violence increases.

Politicians who like to appeal to the baser sentiments of a political base ought to think hard about such consequences. If they nonetheless continue such appeals, they ought to be condemned for doing so and voters ought to reject them, decisively.                      

TopicsDomestic Politics RegionsUnited States

The Pope, Markets, and Volkswagen

Paul Pillar

Anticipating this week's visit by Pope Francis, different political factions and interests in the United States have been hoping to hear words from the popular pontiff that are consistent with their own agendas. They also are poised to spin, or if necessary dismiss, any papal statements that are not particularly consistent with those agendas. One set of issues sure to be subject to such treatment concerns the environment. Francis issued a powerful and cogent encyclical on that subject earlier this year, to which American political interests of the pro-pollution and climate-change-denying variety have already had to use their spinning and dismissing skills in response.

The pope's statements on the environment have elicited debate on what his true views are on free markets. Scott Tong of the public radio program Marketplace had a useful report on this question the other day. To get the perspective from one extreme end of the continuum of views about this, Tong went to what is for market capitalism what the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is for Roman Catholicism—i.e., the economics department at the University of Chicago. An assistant professor there named Steve Cicala said about the pope's position on climate change and the role of markets, “It's sort of too far beyond the pale to even be engaged by serious people.” That is an unfair and closed-minded comment. A more accurate characterization of what the pope has said comes from Carolyn Woo, who besides being the chief executive of Catholic Relief Services is also a former business school dean. She observes that Francis is not anti-capitalism or anti-market but does see the need for regulation of markets, which is something that free market Western countries already do in numerous ways for numerous purposes.

As for the fundamental problem that underlies all this, included in Tong's report was the very plausible statement from Lord Nicholas Stern of the London School of Economics that climate change is “the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen.” It is a simple matter of externalities; polluters do not have to pay for their use of the atmosphere as a dump, and thus there is not a market correction for the practice.

We should keep all of this in mind as we reflect on the outrageous conduct of executives at Volkswagen, who had diesel cars they have been selling in the United States and elsewhere intentionally programmed to cheat on emissions tests. Volkswagen almost got away with it. It took the combined efforts of U.S. government regulators and independent, non-profit testing groups to get the company to admit to the scheme. For decision-makers at the company, the market imposed no discipline at all. The market was demanding what they were delivering: vehicles that offered good performance on the highway while still getting their owners a “pass” sticker on the windshield when they took the car in for a required emissions test.

The market does not even offer a corrective for the cars already on the road with the cheating software installed, now that the scheme has been exposed. Of course there are some unhappy VW owners, such as the environmentally conscious man the New York Times found in Sacramento who had considered buying a Toyota Prius but opted instead for a Volkswagen Jetta because it was peppier and more fun to drive. But consider the incentives for most VW owners when deciding whether to bring their car in to the dealer once a recall notice finally is issued. Unlike most recalls, where bringing the vehicle in means correcting a safety defect, in this case bringing it in only offers to the car-owner—who does not pay for the externalities shooting out of his exhaust pipe—the prospect of a car that performs worse than it did before.

No, this does not call for a rejection of markets, by the pope or anyone else. Socialized manufacture of autos is not the answer—as demonstrated by the East German-made Trabant, which was not only one of the worst polluters ever put on the road with its two-stroke engine, but also one of the worst cars overall. The Volkswagen case demonstrates that Francis is right insofar as he is saying that there are some important things that markets simply cannot do, at least not without the regulation that only governments can provide. Following the most rigid and doctrinaire views of high priests of market capitalism will not enable us to prevent ruin of the planet.                        

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 

TopicsPope FrancisVW RegionsUnited States

Russian Involvement and a Redirection of Policy on Syria

Paul Pillar

The recently increased Russian involvement in Syria ought to be viewed as an opportunity, more so than as a threat or as something that needs to be countered. Although Moscow's current involvement is only an extension of its longtime relationship with the Syrian regime, it represents just enough of a change to serve as the closest thing we are likely to have to a peg on which to hang some needed rethinking about the Syrian conflict. The need for such rethinking is reflected in the fact that everyone, including the Obama administration, seems to recognize that the current trajectory of this civil war is unpropitious, notwithstanding disagreements over what to do about the situation.

The most important principle in any revision of policy toward the war needs to be that the untoward effects of this war will be ameliorated only insofar as peace is established in Syria, or as close as Syrians and the international community can come to establishing something passing for peace. It is the continuation of the war, much more than any particular outcome of the war or any particular political configuration of Syria, that is the source of most of the trouble that is worth worrying about.

This is true of at least three major types of trouble. One is the possible spread, quite possibly inadvertent, of instability and combat beyond Syria's borders. The war has, for example, increased the chance of a new war between Israel and Lebanese Hezbollah, given Hezbollah's substantial involvement in the Syrian war and Israel's reactions to Hezbollah activity in Syria.

A second problem is the increase in violent extremism, as represented chiefly but not entirely by the so-called Islamic State or ISIS. It was the outbreak of the Syria war that enabled ISIS to spread its activity, suddenly and significantly, beyond its birthplace in Iraq. This should not be surprising; physical chaos and power vacuums have long been favorable ground for terrorist and other extremist groups.

A third problem, which has become the chief crisis of the day for Europe as well as an issue for the United States, is the surge of migrants fleeing the war for the West.

The needed focus on tamping down the war, rather than trying to tilt the outcome of it at the risk of further escalation, requires getting away from at least three unhelpful patterns of thought that have prevailed in discussion and debate about Syria. One is the dictum that “Assad must go.” Note that the aforementioned varieties of trouble stem not from the mere existence of the Assad regime but instead from the war that emerged from confrontation between the regime and its opponents. That is true of any spillover of armed conflict across international borders. It is true also of the expansion of ISIS outside Iraq, which occurred only after the Syrian war got under way. And it certainly is true of the migration of refugees. However much the migrants coming from Syria may have disliked the regime, it was only the physical danger and disruption of war that motivated any significant numbers of them to undertake perilous journeys to Europe.

The Assad regime certainly has many undesirable and even despicable characteristics—but so do many other regimes elsewhere in the world, and despicability alone is not grounds for escalating an internal war to try to influence the result. We also should note that some of the most despicable things this regime has been doing are, again, part of the war itself and do not predate the war. Before the war began, the regime was not indiscriminately barrel-bombing civilian neighborhoods.

Those who are especially solicitous about Israel should also note that Israel had enjoyed decades of relative stability along the Golan front with the devil the Israelis know, the Assad regime. It is only with the war in Syria and the loss of regime control of parts of that front that significant and immediate security questions related to Syria have more recently arisen for Israel.

The perpetuation of the Assad-must-go mentality is rooted in notions, found most conspicuously in neoconservative and liberal interventionist thinking, about democratization and liberalization being one-way processes and likely to result from any stirring of a political pot. This thinking has come to be applied especially to the Middle East because of the vain hopes attached to the neocon project known as the Iraq War and because of more broadly held hopes of what would come from the Arab Spring. Another root, given the alliance between Damascus and Tehran, is the idea that anything associated with Iran must be bad. Neither of these roots provides a realistic basis for formulating policy toward the Syrian war.

The one respect in which one could plausibly argue that the very character of the Assad regime is a basis for instability and the border-crossing consequences that can result from it is that the sort of authoritarian rule the regime represents will never be the foundation for political consensus in the way that Western liberal democracies know it. But that is a long-term consideration. Right now there is a fire to be contained; discussion of what sort of political arrangements might be kindling for fires in the future is, for the time being, a digression.

Probably the one possible development that is most likely to make the chaotic Syrian situation even more chaotic, as some members of the U.S. Congress evidently have come to recognize, would be a collapse of the regime with an ensuing political and administrative vacuum. A similar recognition may underlie recent comments from the Obama administration suggesting that, although the administration cannot bring itself to abandon the Assad-must-go formulation, the timing of his departure is negotiable.

Another unhelpful pattern has been persistence of the unfounded faith in developing a “moderate” opposition with enough unity and armed clout to be the nucleus of a force that would defeat both the regime and ISIS. If earlier events had not been enough to do away with that faith, then surely it ought to be dispelled by the embarrassing acknowledgment the other day by the top U.S. military commander for the region that the number of fighters that the United States has been able to put into the fray for this purpose can be counted on the fingers of one hand. The reason for this result is not perverse foot-dragging by the administration. One reason for it is the unresolved tension between the objectives of fighting the regime and fighting ISIS. Another reason is the inherent difficulty of vetting “moderates” amid a civil war, the waging of which is an inherently immoderate act. (And if some fighter who had passed through a U.S.-supported vetting, training, and equipping program were later, say, to be involved in a terrorist attack against a U.S. target, some U.S. critics pushing now to expand such programs more rapidly would not hesitate to lambaste the administration for that terrorist result.) Assertions of a woulda coulda shoulda variety, as one finds in the incessant drum-beating about Syria by the Washington Post editorial page, that if only a program to develop a moderate force had been implemented earlier with more gusto the result today would be better, is cheap talk that is unsubstantiated either by the experience of either this civil war or other ones.

With the latest Russian moves another unhelpful thought pattern comes into play, which is the tendency to view any Russian activism or extension of influence abroad as undesirable and something to be countered. This tendency is firmly rooted in old Cold War habits and has infused much thinking about other matters involving Russia, including in Europe. A corrective to this tendency, as far as the Middle East is concerned, is to reflect on how vastly different the Cold War circumstances were from what prevails today. Beginning with the financing of the Aswan high dam in the 1950s, the USSR was making major inroads in the Middle East, not only in Syria but in Egypt, Iraq, Libya, South Yemen, and elsewhere. The Soviet activity had implications for strategic postures as well the global ideological competition. That activity was worth worrying about, and worth countering. But today Russia is not a superpower, there is not a global ideological competition with Moscow, and the Russian presence in Syria pales in comparison with the much broader U.S. posture, including military posture, in the Middle East.

There has been much speculation about Vladimir Putin's motives underlying the latest Russian moves in Syria. Of course we should not necessarily take what his government says at face value, and of course not all of the Russian motives are congruent with U.S. interests. But the situation regarding Syria is not zero-sum, and the United States needs to be open to ways in which the Russian posture, even with underlying motives divergent from our own, may help to bring closer possibilities for ameliorating the Syrian mess.

One thing that enhanced Russian involvement in Syria means is that Russia will be absorbing more of costs, and more of the opprobrium associated with collateral damage, from efforts that involve at least in part the containment of ISIS. To the extent this shifts some of a burden from the United States, that is a good thing. Russian aims are surely not purely anti-ISIS aims, but Russia has at least as much reason to worry about the group as the United States does. The United States has no equivalent to the concentrated, predominantly Muslim populations of the North Caucasus.

Another thing the Russian involvement means is that Moscow, to limit the extent and duration of its own costs, has that much more of a stake in stabilizing Syria and in tamping down the conflict sooner rather than later. A further implication is that greater Russian support for the Assad regime may yield greater Russian leverage over that regime with regard to any moves toward peace.

An overall conclusion is that the Russian moves mark an appropriate occasion for U.S. policy toward Syria to pivot away from feckless attempts to engineer a particular military outcome on the ground and toward greater emphasis on multilateral diplomacy aimed at finding a political resolution of the conflict. Russia will necessarily be heavily involved in any such effort. Talks between U.S. and Russian defense ministers for purposes of military deconfliction on the ground are fine, but talks between the foreign ministers will be even more important. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran also will necessarily be fully involved. None of this implies that the prospects for a political resolution of this war any time soon, even apart from the ISIS problem, are very bright; they aren't. The apparent intractability of some of the positions taken by rebel groups, even as they accept in principle a political solution, are discouraging. But exploring every opportunity for diminishing the current fire in Syria is more likely to ameliorate the problems this conflict has caused than will adding more fuel to the fire.                      

TopicsSyria Russia RegionsMiddle East

The Saudi Problem

Paul Pillar

Saudi King Salman visits Washington this week amid disagreement between the United States and Saudi Arabia on a broad range of issues. Moreover, the disagreements are rooted in fundamental characteristics of the anachronistic Saudi regime. Many regimes around the world, and the political and social systems of which they are a part, are markedly different from what is found in the United States, but the Saudi polity is one of the most different. The anachronism that is Saudi Arabia represents a major problem for U.S. foreign policy, both because of the impact Saudi-related matters have on the Middle East and beyond and because of the close association between Saudi Arabia and the United States that has come to be taken for granted.

Little of this has anything to do with the just-completed agreement to restrict Iran's nuclear program, despite the attention that subject has been receiving. Riyadh is more likely to accept the agreement as a done deal—and already has publicly indicated its formal acceptance—than the accord's opponents in the United States and Israel. The Saudis will continue to look for ways to discourage others, including the United States, from developing warm relations with their rival across the Persian Gulf, but this will not preclude the Saudis themselves, along with the other Gulf Arabs, from undertaking their own rapprochement with Tehran, just as they have done in the past.

In hot spot after hot spot in the Middle East, U.S. and Saudi objectives and priorities diverge, even if in some loose sense they are considered to be on the same side. In war-torn Syria, the United States and Saudi Arabia have never agreed on whether the ouster of the Assad regime or the containment of ISIS should be the main objective. Saudi priorities are based on a variety of considerations that are specific to it and not to the United States, including hatred of the Assads for whatever role they may have played in the assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri, a special friend of the Saudis. Reflecting the different priorities and objectives is disagreement over selection and vetting of Syrian rebels to be deemed worthy of support.

In Iraq, Saudi priorities are influenced by some of the same sectarian motives that shape Saudi policy toward Syria. And again, such motives are quite different from U.S. interests. Desired overthrow of the regime is not the factor that it is in Syria, but distrust of the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad is a major part of the Saudi approach toward Iraq.

In Yemen, the United States has allowed itself to become associated with a destructive and misguided Saudi military expedition, and thus also with the humanitarian tragedy that the operation has entailed. The main Saudi objective is to show who's boss on the Arabian Peninsula, another objective not shared with the United States. Saudi Arabia's operation has shown itself, more so than Iran, to be a destabilizing force intent on throwing its weight around in the neighborhood.

In his most recent column Tom Friedman identifies what may be the most worrisome thing about Saudi Arabia for U.S. interests: “the billions and billions of dollars the Saudis have invested since the 1970s into wiping out the pluralism of Islam — the Sufi, moderate Sunni and Shiite versions — and imposing in its place the puritanical, anti-modern, anti-women, anti-Western, anti-pluralistic Wahhabi Salafist brand of Islam promoted by the Saudi religious establishment.” Friedman notes that Islamist extremist groups that the United States has come to consider preeminent security concerns, including Al Qaeda and now ISIS, “are the ideological offspring of the Wahhabism injected by Saudi Arabia into mosques and madrasas from Morocco to Pakistan to Indonesia.”

The specific terrorist consequences of what the Saudis have done is justifiably an immediate concern for U.S. policy-makers. But the underlying bargain that Ibn Saud, the founder of the current Saudi kingdom, reached years ago with the Wahhabis also underlies much else that makes Saudi Arabia what it is today, and makes it the problem that it is. The kingdom's troublesome characteristics are inextricably linked to how Ibn Saud's offspring are trying to claim legitimacy and thus to cling to power.

Consider some of the chief characteristics of the kingdom. Saudi Arabia is a family-run enterprise in which the distribution and exercise of political power are every bit as medieval as they ever were in any country ruled by the Plantagenets. There is no religious freedom. Human rights in many other respects are sorely lacking. Women are still subordinated. It was considered a big deal when they recently were told they could vote and run as candidates—in elections to local councils with scant power and in which the king will still appoint half the members—but women still cannot function as independent persons in many aspects of daily life. They still are not allowed to drive.

It ought to be astounding that a place this far removed from the liberal democratic values with which the United States likes to be associated, even without considering the aforementioned divergence of objectives elsewhere in the region, still is considered a close partner of the United States. The usual, and to a large degree valid, explanation is that, as Friedman puts it, “we’re addicted to their oil and addicts never tell the truth to their pushers.” But there is another American attitude involved, which persists even in the shale-fracking era. Once a nation is considered a partner or ally in a region that is perceptually divided into allies and adversaries, the perceived line-up tends to stay fixed until and unless there is a political alteration sufficiently great to be labeled regime change.

And regime change would be the most troubling chapter of all in the Saudi story. Some Saudi leaders, including the late King Abdullah, seem to have recognized the need to move in the direction of modernization and liberalization, even if only at the glacial pace that is possible in a Wahhabi-committed family enterprise. It is an open question whether the regime will be able to keep this kind of change ahead of demands for change of a more drastic and radical sort. If it fails to do so, and the revolution comes, then the association of the United States with the ancien régime will an even greater problem for U.S. policy-makers than what they face now.        

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle East