Paul Pillar

The Twin Crises of 1956 and 2014

Paul Pillar

At or near the top of the list of foreign policy challenges that U.S. and European statesmen have had to handle the past couple of months are the escalation of tensions with Russia over events in eastern Ukraine and the war in the Gaza Strip. These two problems clamoring for attention at the same time bring to mind one of the most memorable pairs of simultaneous crises, which occurred in October and November of 1956: the Hungarian revolt and crushing of it by Soviet military force, and the Suez crisis brought on by an Israeli-French-British scheme to invade Egypt and seize the Suez Canal.

The crises of 1956 had some obvious parallels with those of 2014, besides the simultaneity factor. In each case one of the problems involved questions of the extent to which Soviet or Russian power would hold sway over an East European state and the extent to which Moscow would act forcefully to prevent rollback of its sphere of influence. In each case the other problem involved an Israeli military assault against neighboring Arabs. (The tripartite plan that precipitated the Suez crisis involved Israel beginning the war with an invasion and then France and Britain intervening under the guise of separating Israeli and Egyptian forces and protecting the canal.) There were important differences, too. The sort of neutrality that would make for a stable solution in Ukraine today is nothing like the domination the Soviets were enforcing over Hungary and other Warsaw Pact states in the 1950s. In the Middle East, Arab postures toward Israel have changed significantly from where they were in 1956, while Israeli military power relative to that of the Arabs has grown significantly, as has the amount of land Israel has seized and occupied through military force.

Facing two major crises simultaneously makes it harder to respond effectively to either one. This was generally seen to be the case in the autumn of 1956. One problem concerns consistency of standards of international behavior and the difficulty of mustering international support for enforcement of a standard if one appears to be flouting it elsewhere. This was a source of anguish for many in Britain who wanted to stand up to the Soviets for what they were doing in Hungary but recognized the difficulty of doing so while Britain was participating in what was being done to Egypt. A prominent member of the Liberal Party, Lady Violet Bonham Carter, said, “We cannot order Soviet Russia to obey the edict of the United Nations which we ourselves have defied, nor to withdraw her tanks and guns from Hungary while we are bombing and invading Egypt. Today we are standing in the dock with Russia.”

In the same vein, U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon later observed, “We couldn't on one hand complain about the Soviets intervening in Hungary and, on the other hand, approve of the British and the French picking that particular time to intervene against Nasser.” It was partly for that reason that President Eisenhower did not approve of what Britain, France, and Israel were doing but instead called for an immediate withdrawal of Israel's forces from Egyptian territory and for United Nations-approved economic sanctions against it if it did not comply. Eisenhower encountered Congressional opposition to pressuring Israel, and in the U.N. Security Council Britain and France vetoed resolutions calling for withdrawal.

A few echoes of this can be discerned in this year's crises. The European economic interests that matter most today involve not the Suez canal but rather trade and energy relationships with Russia. Possibly those interests made sanctions against Russia weaker and slower in coming than they otherwise would have been. In the same respect and bearing in mind the role of consistency, there was less of a constituency for sanctioning Israel than there might otherwise have been.

Although this year Britain has not had a direct military role in connivance with Israel as it did with the Suez affair, there are similarly disturbed consciences within Britain about what Israel was doing and whether the British government had done enough to stop it. A Conservative member of the cabinet (and the only Muslim member), Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, resigned over the issue. Now the Liberal Democrats are calling for suspension of all British arms sales to Israel.

Simultaneous crises also may be difficult to deal with because of the limits of time, attention, and priorities. Statesmen, including those of 1956, usually would say that they can walk and chew gum at the same time. But bandwidth in policy-making has been a problem since before the term bandwidth existed. Former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski has said that insufficient attention by senior Carter administration policy-makers to the Iranian revolution during its early stages was partly due to their circuits being overloaded at the time by other matters, including the Camp David negotiations and some U.S.-Soviet arms control issues.

The problem is not just a simple one of a limited number of hours in a policy-maker's working day. It also is a matter of expenditure of energy and of political chits, with everything this implies for the necessary bargaining and horse-trading involved in winning support for a position or major initiative. The most effective U.S. response to the tragedy in Gaza would have necessitated tackling head-on the underlying issues of occupation of the Palestinian territories. That would have required very large expenditure of energy and political chits, and John Kerry is still recovering from exhaustion from his last unsuccessful stab at the subject. This in turn is related to another significant difference between 1956 and now: the growth in power of the Israel lobby, which accounts for why the Gaza crisis has been discussed so differently in the United States than it has been in Britain. The resistance Eisenhower encountered in Congress was mild compared to what any president today would face, which is why it seems inconceivable that any president today would try to do what he did.

Statesmen do not get to choose when crises will happen, except for the ones they manufacture themselves. Usually they would prefer not to have more than one crisis going on at once, but sometimes that will happen. The fact that their attention may sometimes get divided in this way should be an additional reason for caution in undertaking big new initiatives or commitments. An initiative that might work satisfactorily if it gets undivided attention is more likely to encounter problems if it does not. There also is the drain on chits and bargaining power that any one commitment entails, making it that much harder to deal with some other challenge at the same time, not to mention the problem of winning support when it looks like one is applying standards inconsistently. Just as a rainy day fund for unknown future expenses is a good idea, so is the conservation of some political capital for handling crises that have not yet arisen.

Image: White House Flickr. 

TopicsRussia Ukraine Israel Egypt Palestinian Territories RegionsEurope Middle East

A Ceasefire, But Nothing More, in Gaza

Paul Pillar

Nick Casey of the Wall Street Journal, reporting from Gaza, noted one indication that the latest announced ceasefire in the war there may actually stick: a salvo of outgoing rockets launched shortly before the starting time for the ceasefire. Belligerents often try to get in a last lick before a ceasefire they expect to take hold, so that evidently was the expectation of Hamas. This brings back memories of being at Tan Son Nhut airbase near the end of the Vietnam War, when the Viet Cong unleashed a rocket barrage on the base 90 minutes before the ceasefire negotiated between Washington and Hanoi was due to begin.

Israel's timing in wrapping up its operation may be part of the natural rhythm of the Israeli lawn mower. Operation Protective Edge has been somewhat larger, but not greatly so, than Israel's last previous big assault on the Gaza Strip, Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009. Cast Lead went on for 23 days, about a week less than Protective Edge. The number of Palestinians killed in Protective Edge appears to be just short of 1900, compared to about 1400 in Cast Lead, with most of the dead being unarmed civilians in both cases, although with perhaps even a larger proportion of them being so in the latest assault. The biggest difference between the two episodes has been in Israeli military casualties. In Cast Lead ten Israel soldiers died, four of them from friendly fire. In Protective Edge 64 have died; we do not yet know how many of those were from friendly fire. Israeli civilian deaths in the two conflicts were the same: three in each case.

Although there is a basis for near-term optimism that the suffering that already has occurred will not be compounded by additional bloodshed tomorrow or next week, there are grounds for little but pessimism about anything else that is likely to ensue from this tragedy for the foreseeable future.

One could conceive of possible agreements that would involve some kind of monitoring of access to Gaza (to keep out munitions being acquired by Hamas) in return for allowing at least some legitimate imports. Israel has given Hamas almost no incentive, however, to change its positions or to take any risks in making any concessions. It is hard to imagine Hamas agreeing to something that could be called demilitarization when it and the civilian Palestinian population have just sustained a highly destructive month-long assault, there will be no demilitarization involving the Israeli forces that conducted the assault, and those forces already are getting their depleted stocks of munitions replenished with U.S. help. Moreover, the principal demands that Hamas has been making—to lift the blockade on the Gaza Strip and to release the Palestinians who were incarcerated in mass round-ups in the West Bank last month—would involve Israel living up to commitments it already made in previous agreements and on which it later reneged.

On the Israeli side, we have observed during this war further indications of longer-term trends—toward hardline militancy, unwavering reliance on force, and hostility toward Palestinian Arabs—that have been in evidence for some time. This has been reflected not only in the strong domestic support the Netanyahu government has had for this war but in dissents, including from those within the ruling right-wing coalition, that argue—with proposals that chill the spine—for even more extreme uses of force.

It would be nice to think, as relief from the pessimism regarding prospects for the months ahead, that the refreshingly and unusually direct criticism by the Obama administration on Sunday of what was then the latest Israeli military attack on civilians had something to do with the ceasefire. It probably did not. Mark Landler most likely has it right in his front-page article in the New York Times, portraying the Netanyahu government as having the political confidence to swat aside such criticism. Unanimous consent resolutions in Congress speak more loudly than Jen Psaki at the State Department.

The tendency to personalize disputes has led to an overemphasis on how much U.S.-Israeli frictions are an Obama-Netanyahu thing, when in fact there are deeper and more fundamental conflicts of interest between the United States and Israel that will continue—especially as long as an Israeli government with anything like the coloration of the current one remains in power—notwithstanding the political reasons in both countries to try to downplay those differences. The Israeli government can look past 2016, however, and anticipate that the next time they crank up their lawn mower either a Republican or Hillary Clinton will be in the White House, and they may not have to put up with even the sort of firmer-than-usual criticism they heard this week.

The whole awful cycle of endless lawn mowing can be broken only by addressing the underlying issues of occupation and self-determination. That would mean, among other things, dealing even with the hated Hamas, and as a political player, not just as a firer of rockets. But from the perspective of today, even if things stay quiet in the Gaza Strip, it is hard to see much basis for hope that will happen.  

Image: Office of the Prime Minister, Israel. 

TopicsIsrael Palestinian Territories RegionsMiddle East

Dedication, Destruction and Hamas

Paul Pillar

Applying a familiar label or phrase can be a substitute for good analysis, or for any analysis at all. The application activates a set of presumptions associated with the label or phrase while brushing aside any other relevant facts that may contradict those presumptions. The current conflict in Gaza has stimulated a surge in application of such rote phrases to one of the belligerents: Hamas. Besides the familiar label of “terrorist group,” which ignores other dimensions of Hamas as well as ignoring who is applying most lethal force against civilians, there also is the catchphrase that Hamas is “dedicated to the destruction of Israel.” It is not just the Israeli government that keeps uttering that phrase, or even commentators seeking to justify Israel actions; one sees it in mainstream press in what are supposed to be objectively reported articles.

In assessing the validity of the phrase, let us set aside some related issues that also are very important in assessing what is going on today in the Gaza Strip. One concerns the origin of this conflagration, which began when the Netanyahu government seized upon a kidnapping and murder in the West Bank, blamed it (falsely, we now know) on Hamas, launched large-scale raids and arrests, including detentions that reneged on a previous agreement with Hamas, and applied lethal force both in the West Bank and along the Gaza Strip that killed at least nine Palestinians—all before Hamas fired a single rocket or sent a single fighter through a tunnel in this round of fighting. A second concerns how the slaughter of innocent civilians has reached wholesale proportions far beyond what can be justified by even the most nefarious intentions imputed to the adversary or by excuses about difficulties of targeting in close quarters. A third involves how given the misery that had already been inflicted on Gazans in their open-air prison, it would be astounding if many did not hold intensely hostile attitudes toward Israel; if somehow Hamas could be made to go away it would just open space for groups more radical and unyielding than it.

Hamas does not have anything close to a capability to destroy Israel, and never will. The imbalance of strength is so lopsided as to make any talk of destruction of Israel, which has one of the most able military forces in the world, ludicrous. This is reflected in the results of the current fighting—and especially in the killing of innocent civilians, which is supposedly the chief focus of worries about Hamas. Hamas is probably giving everything it has got to the military effort, but the latest tally of civilians killed is three in Israel and probably more than a thousand in the Gaza Strip.

Moreover, Hamas leaders are certainly smart enough to realize their group will never have anything close to a capability to destroy Israel, even if they wanted to do so. Remember, these are the same leaders who currently are being given much credit for cleverness with regard to use of the tunnels. Hamas is not dedicated to something it knows it could never do anyway.

Most important, Hamas now has a substantial track record that contradicts the catchphrase. A recent article by John Judis reviews some of the relevant history. Hamas has repeatedly made it clear it will accept a long-term (meaning decades) hudna or truce with Israel, and who knows how much can change in decades, especially if there were such an agreed-upon peace. Hamas has repeatedly made it clear it would accept a comprehensive peace accord with Israel if approved by a majority of Palestinians in a referendum. In its recent pact with Fatah (destruction of that pact evidently being the main purpose of the Netanyahu government's aggressive moves leading to the current fighting), Hamas agreed to surrender power to, and to support, a Palestinian government in which Hamas was given no portfolios and which explicitly accepts all the usual Western demands about recognizing Israel, adhering to all previous agreements, and adhering to non-violence. If this is the record of a group dedicated to the destruction of Israel, then the term dedicated has some new and unknown meaning. Hamas certainly does have a longer term goal, more attractive to it; that goal is to wield power over Palestinians in a Palestinian state.

Reference keeps getting made to extreme language in a party's charter (just as it was for years to the PLO's charter) and to Hamas leaders not uttering explicitly some phrase such as “I recognize Israel's right to exist”. Why should they, when Israel clearly does not recognize any right of Hamas to exist, and has given no hints that it ever would? Rather than saying Hamas is dedicated to the destruction of Israel, it would be closer to the truth to say that Israel is dedicated to the destruction of Hamas—although even that statement is not entirely true, because the current Israeli government implicitly relies on Hamas to police the Gaza Strip and explicitly relies on it as a bugbear and excuse for not negotiating seriously about Palestinian statehood.

Acceptance of statehood on the other side is indeed the critical comparison. In contrast to Hamas making it clear it would accept a two-state solution, the current Israeli government has not. Some members of the ruling coalition have been explicit in rejecting it and talking about their objective of an Eretz Israel from sea to river. Netanyahu, who in many respects is one of the most moderate members of his own coalition, has given lip service to the idea of a Palestinian state but more recently, and evidently more honestly, has talked about Israel continuing a military occupation of the West Bank permanently. In assessing barriers to a complete peace settlement, let alone to a truce to end the current hostilities, one question to ask is: which side's ambitions, or dedication to objectives, is the larger impediment? A second question is: which matters more, words (even if they are either empty promises to the other side, or high-flown rhetoric to one's own side) or deeds?

It will be hard enough to obtain even a short-term ceasing of the ongoing bloodshed, without feeding the fire with familiar but false phrases about who supposedly is dedicated to the destruction of whom. One of the main reasons it is hard is that Israel appears dedicated to giving Hamas no reason to stop fighting. Part of the background to this problem, which Nathan Thrall summarizes in a new article, is the last Hamas-Israeli ceasefire agreement in November 2012, which Hamas did its best to observe but Israel did not. Violent acts in the first few months after the agreement, including gunfire at farmers and fishermen, were almost all committed by Israel, which also did not fulfill a commitment to end the blockade of Gaza and to initiate indirect talks with Hamas about implementation of the agreement. As Thrall observes, “The lesson for Hamas was clear. Even if an agreement was brokered by the US and Egypt, Israel could still fail to honor it.”

TopicsIsrael Palestinian Territories RegionsMiddle East

Making Sanctions Against Russia Work

Paul Pillar

Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken was admirably clear and focused in speaking to reporters about the intentions behind the newest round of sanctions against Russia. The purpose, said Blinken, “is not to punish Russia but to make clear that it must cease its support for the separatists and stop destabilizing Ukraine.” We should hope that everything communicated about the sanctions, including what is discussed with Russian officials in private, exhibits comparable clarity and focus.

We can't be sure about that. President Obama's announcement of the new sanctions began with a discussion of the downing of the Malaysian airliner. He referred to buildups of troops on the Russian side of the Russian-Ukrainian side of the border. He talked about how sanctions already imposed have “made a weak Russian economy even weaker.” The reporters present did not help to restore focus. The only two questions the president took were about whether there is a new Cold War and whether he is considering lethal aid for Ukraine.

General discourse about sanctions, whether against Russia or against Iran or some other country, too often treats them as if they really were about punishment. The weakening of someone else's economy gets discussed as if such weakening were itself a plus for U.S. interests, which it is not. The weakening is only a means to some other end, involving a change in the target country's behavior.

Sometimes one might inflict punishment for a past deed in the hope of deterring similar deeds in the future, by either the same perpetrator or someone else. If that is being done, however, the punishment is a one-off action with a definite ending that does not depend on any changes in the other country's behavior. That is not the case with these latest sanctions. Moreover, the downing of the airliner is a poor focus for that kind of punishment because of the accidental nature of the incident. The tragedy of the airliner helps to demonstrate the danger of giving lethal toys to rebels, and politically it clearly had a significant role in moving the Europeans to take stronger action against Russia, but logically and strategically the sanctions should not be thought of as a response to that incident.

Sanctions are a means of affecting the target state's cost-benefit calculus, to increase the chance that state will stop doing something we don't want it to do or to start doing something we want it to do. The first step in a successful application of sanctions is to decide what that something is. This step is more complicated than it might seem, especially with an adversary with whom we have an assortment of grievances. The change in behavior has to be important enough to us to be worth the expenditure of political capital and other costs involved in applying sanctions, but also to be a reasonable enough demand that there is a decent chance the target state will comply. The broader are our demands, the better compliance would be for our interests but the less likely compliance—any compliance—will be achieved.

Blinken's formula that Russia must “cease its support for the separatists and stop destabilizing Ukraine” is a worthwhile and reasonable demand to attach to these sanctions. The stability of Ukraine is certainly important, and Russia's dealings with the separatists appear to have a great deal to do with its current instability. As a matter of international law as well as policy importance, the demand is on sound ground. By the same token, it muddies the water and reduces the chance of compliance to talk about Russia's military deployments on its own side of the border. Those deployments might make us or the Ukrainians nervous, but they are not destabilizing Ukraine. They are taking place on Russia's sovereign territory, there is no demilitarized zone that they violate, and Vladimir Putin would be on sound legal ground to disregard any Western demands about them.

Another step is to communicate clearly to the target country exactly what is the offensive behavior that needs to be changed. Specific, observable and measurable pieces of behavior need to be identified. It is necessary to be more specific with the Russians in private than we have been in public as to exactly what “stop destabilizing Ukraine” means.

An equally important step—one far too often overlooked in much discussion of sanctions—is to communicate persuasively to the target country that the demanded change in behavior is a sufficient as well as necessary condition for the sanctions to be lifted. The leadership of the target country needs to be convinced that, after compliance, sanctions will not be continued because of some other grievance or demand. As Andranik Migranyan notes, this is a hazard in the current instance in that Putin might believe that because of Crimea or some other issue (including those military deployments in Russian territory) sanctions will be left in place. If he does believe that, he has no incentive to comply with any demand.

Finally, it is important to remember that the sanctions are only one term in a cost-benefit calculation. They make it harder for the other country to persist in behavior we don't like. Just as important is to try to make it easier for the other side to switch to behavior we do like. One thing this means in the current instance is that Putin should know that if he does comply, he will be allowed to crow unchallenged about how the West backed down from unjustified economic warfare, and that he will not have to admit anything about arming the rebels in Ukraine—but rather just to end the arming quietly.

Another thing it means is that the United States needs to use its influence to address legitimate and reasonable Russian concerns about Ukraine, including that it not join any military alliances and that the rights and local powers of Russian-speakers in Ukraine be respected. Whether sanctions succeed in influencing decisions in Moscow will depend a lot on decisions in Kiev.

Image: White House Flickr.                                              

TopicsRussia Ukraine

Doing Damage While Keeping the Home Folks Content (For Now)

Paul Pillar

What do a plan by China to construct 50 coal gasification plants, and Israel's pressure on the United States to reverse a security-based ban (since lifted) by the Federal Aviation Administration on commercial flights to Tel Aviv, have in common? They both are examples of governments trying to shield their populations from immediate consequences of the government's own destructive policies, and thus to shield themselves from political pressure to change those policies. While coddled constituencies are spared right now from effects that otherwise might have gotten them riled up, the harm is felt by other populations, by future generations of the same country's population, or by the world at large.

The Chinese gasification project is intended to reduce the air pollution in the biggest Chinese cities, which results in large part from reliance on coal-fired power plants and which has become bad enough to be a major source of discontent among the politically relevant urban middle class. The air in the cities would not be so awful if they were electrified instead with coal-derived gas, but under the plan much pollution would simply be transferred to the less populous remote parts of the country where the gasification plants are being built. Even worse, the gasification process produces huge amounts of carbon dioxide. According to one estimate, the 50 projected plants would release carbon dioxide equal to about one-eighth the amount currently released by all of China, which already is the world's most profligate emitter of greenhouse gases. So global warming is accelerated and the planet, and its inhabitants, suffer accordingly while Chinese city-dwellers are kept sufficiently docile for now.

The FAA safety directive that the Israeli government did not like, and lobbied hard to reverse, was triggered by a Hamas-fired rocket that landed uncomfortably close to Ben Gurion International Airport. The government contended that those doing business with Israel need not worry and should continue to fly in and out of Tel Aviv without concern about their safety. The Israeli government's posture, as Mitchell Plitnick points out, involves a rather blatant contradiction: it is assuring business partners and other wanted visitors that all is safe and sound, while at the same time proclaiming that Hamas's rockets so endanger Israel as to justify the deadly devastation that Israel has been wreaking on the Gaza Strip. This contradiction is only a variation on the two faces of the current Israeli government's posture toward the Palestinians that has prevailed even during what passes for normal times, and not just during upsurges of violence such as Operation Protective Edge. Palestinians live under suffocating, debilitating blockade or occupation as well as regular applications of lethal Israel force, while just a few miles away most Israelis enjoy life in one of the more prosperous societies in the world. Most Israelis simply have not been made uncomfortable enough to press the government to change its policies. The government itself is determined that things stay that way.

China and Israel are not the only countries where governments structure things to keep their immediate constituents sufficiently content while the costs of their policies become externalities felt by others. We have seen something similar in the United States, particularly with costly overseas military expeditions. The all-volunteer military force has made it possible to conduct such expeditions while confining the direct American human costs to the small segment of the population that has worn the uniform. Regarding the fiscal costs, the outstanding example is the launching of an extremely costly war of choice in Iraq while also enacting unaffordable tax cuts, quickly turning what had been a budget surplus into a ballooning deficit (with those who holler most loudly today about deficits evidently not giving a hoot about them back then).

The costs of China's destructive energy policy will be borne by all of us, inhabitants of the planet Earth. The costs of Israel's destructive policies toward the Palestinian territories are borne most directly and heavily, of course, by the Palestinians, but they also will be borne by future Israelis as long as they live in a country that leads itself into isolation and permanent war. The financial costs of mistakes of the United States, and the fiscal carelessness that has accompanied them, will be borne by future generations of Americans.

It is politically difficult to counter these tendencies, because short-sighted shoring up of support in what are considered to be the most immediately relevant constituencies is something politicians everywhere do. No single ameliorative approach fits all situations, because each situation is different. The Chinese environmental problem may be the most difficult one of the examples mentioned above. Besides international shaming of planet-damaging policies, perhaps we need to place hope in the Chinese middle class becoming sophisticated enough to know that the environmental damage to themselves and their children is not limited to the airborne particulates that their eyes can see and their lungs can feel right now.

Hope for change in Israeli policies should not be placed in sufficient numbers of Israeli civilians feeling physically endangered. Physical harm to Israeli civilians is unacceptable, just as is physical harm to Palestinian civilians. Economic discomfort, however, is another matter; the Israeli government's objection to the FAA flight ban was ultimately driven by economic motivations. It has long been overdetermined that an end to the automatic U.S. subsidy of over $3 billion annually that Israel receives no matter what it does would be a wise step (however politically unrealistic it seems in Washington). It would be in the fiscal interest of the United States, and it would mean U.S. taxpayers would no longer be forced to pay for bombardment of apartment buildings in Gaza. And the more that Israeli taxpayers rather than U.S. taxpayers foot the direct bill for the destructive policies of their own government, the better would be the chance of meaningful pressure on that government to change the policies.

Fixing the short-sightedness embodied in such U.S. policies as expensive overseas military expeditions may mean institutionalizing a requirement to take longer-term costs into account. The proposal by Michael Cannon and Christopher Preble to make advance funding of medical care for veterans a part of any decision to go to war is an example of the sort of idea worth considering.                                      

TopicsChina Israel United States

Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 and Iran Air Flight 655

Paul Pillar

The heavy coverage by U.S. media of the downing last week of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over the rebellious portion of eastern Ukraine has made remarkably little reference to the prior event that most resembles it: the shooting down with a missile by the U.S. Navy cruiser Vincennes of Iran Air Flight 655 on July 3, 1988, killing all 290 persons aboard. The Vincennes was in the Persian Gulf as part of U.S. military operations there during the latter phase of the Iran-Iraq War, which had been affecting shipping to and from Arab countries on the south side of the Gulf. U.S. and Iranian naval forces already had clashed in the months before the downing of the airliner, and tensions were high.

The crew of the Vincennes mistakenly believed the airliner on their radar was an Iranian F-14 about to attack their ship. All indications are that the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner was a similar case of mistaken identity, not an intentional downing of a civilian aircraft. Indeed, part of the evidence made public to support the case that Ukrainian rebels were responsible involves conversations among the rebels expressing consternation when they discovered that what they had thought was a Ukrainian military plane was not.

One of the first thoughts that this pair of tragic incidents should elicit is: there, but for the grace of whatever force determines fate in such circumstances, go we. A frequent comment about the downing of the Malaysian airliner is that it was terribly irresponsible for Russia to put highly sophisticated weapons in the hands of a poorly controlled rebel force. Probably so, but the Iranian airliner was downed by a well-trained U.S. Navy crew that was part of a well-established chain of command and manning a ship with the most advanced available systems for tracking and identifying aircraft.

The comparison should be a reminder that our responses to the actions of other states should not hinge on accidents of fate, or probably on accidents at all. This certainly is not to excuse in any way what happened in the skies of eastern Ukraine. But we need to assess the behavior of the rebels and their patron on grounds that do not depend on such accidents. Any U.S. policy response needs to be fully defensible if the only planes the rebels had ever shot down were in fact Ukrainian military craft.

President Obama spoke of the Malaysia Airlines crash as a “wake-up call”. It is acceptable to refer to such an event in this way to try to elicit greater cooperation from others—in this case, to get more European cooperation in responding to Russian behavior in Ukraine. We need to distinguish clearly in our own minds, however, between this kind of tactical reference to a single salient, however accidental, event to persuade others to support our policies, and the sort of unemotional analysis, not dependent on accidents, required to formulate sound policies in the first place.

There are many differences, of course, in the circumstances surrounding these two tragic events. The events in the Persian Gulf do not have a clear counterpart to the Putin government's trouble-making in Ukraine. But before we too quickly use any differences to dismiss any comparison to the two episodes, we should note some of the other characteristics about what happened in 1988. In getting involved in the Iran-Iraq War, the United States was in effect intervening on the Iraqi side—the side of the original aggressor, Saddam Hussein. Tactically, it would be very hard to find grounds to excuse away what the Vincennes did, despite the tensions of the time and place involved. The airliner was flying on a well-established commercial route to Dubai and emitting all the proper signals for identification. It was increasing, not decreasing, in altitude at the time it was assumed to be an F-14 coming in for an attack. Other U.S. Navy ships in the immediate area did not identify it as hostile. The airliner was in Iranian airspace, and the Vincennes was in Iranian territorial waters, at the time of the shootdown.

Our own responses to the incident in the Persian Gulf ought to provide some perspective for looking at how others have responded to similar incidents. The downing of Iran Air Flight 655 was not taken in the United States as a black mark on American military history. The United States never issued a formal apology, although it did pay monetary compensation and expressed regret over the civilian deaths. The career of the captain of the Vincennes did not suffer; he received an award for his time as skipper of the ship, notwithstanding the 290 innocent civilians who were killed on his watch.

We also can use our own strong feelings about the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 to gain some perspective on how others view U.S.-caused accidents, whether or not they are viewed as accidents. The prevailing Iranian interpretation of the shooting down of Iran Air Flight 655 was, and probably still is, that it was intentional. Given the circumstances of the incident, including the advanced capabilities represented by the Vincennes and its crew, Iranians have found the description of the incident as an accident to be not credible. The episode, along with other indications of what Iranians take to be ill intentions of the United States, helps to explain why many Iranians still regard the United States as hostile and untrustworthy, with its statements of intentions not to be believed.                         

 

 

TopicsUkraine Russia Iran

What Will Determine a Ceasefire in Gaza

Paul Pillar

Anyone who reads about the carnage in the Gaza Strip and has at least an ounce of humanity is hoping that a ceasefire will come soon. Jodi Rudoren's coverage in the New York Times suggests that current calculations of the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu involve weighing the crippling of the physical ability of Hamas to attack Israel against international condemnation of Israel that is likely to mount as long as the Israeli operation continues. Those considerations are no doubt part of the Israeli government's thinking, but only a part and a rather tactical part at that. In anticipating when Netanyahu and his cabinet will call a halt to the operation, a more strategic view is required—or at least what Netanyahu would consider strategic.

So far Israel has sustained less condemnation than one might think, given that its explanation for the hugely disproportionate civilian casualties its operation has inflicted—that they are a result of Hamas's unprincipled hiding of its military assets among the civilians—patently lacks credibility. The infliction of death and destruction on the civilian population of the Gaza Strip is, as with so many other Israeli military offensives and as with the blockade and economic strangulation of Gaza itself, intended to reduce popular support for whatever group or government Israel happens to be opposing.

The paucity of appropriate condemnation is due first and foremost, as always, to the political pusillanimity of American politicians of both parties who are more concerned about not jeopardizing their reelection chances by crossing a powerful lobby than about advancing the long-term interests of the Israel they claim to support, let alone the United States they are supposed to serve. Little counterweight to this perpetual tendency is coming from European leaders, who are disinclined to sanction Israel at a moment when they are preoccupied with the latest turn in the Ukraine crisis and have economic reasons to be disinclined to do much about sanctioning Russia.

There will be a ceasefire after this round of fighting, as there has been after previous Israeli operations in the Gaza Strip. Maybe a ceasefire is a week or so away, which would make Operation Protective Edge about as long as Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009, in which some 1400 Palestinians died. Netanyahu does not want to keep mauling Gaza indefinitely, not only because of direct human costs to Israel (which so far consist—quite unlike the far greater Palestinian casualties—almost entirely of soldiers engaged in offensive operations) but also because he does not want to destroy Hamas. Netanyahu needs Hamas. Netanyahu may be blind to how his policies endanger Israel's long-term interests, but he is staunchly committed to the medium-term objective of retaining the West Bank. Having Hamas around as a hated, continually invoked reason never to get serious about negotiating a comprehensive settlement with the Palestinians serves that objective.

As the sequence of events preceding the current round of violence makes clear, Netanyahu saw as the biggest threat to that strategy the reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah, the dominant party in the Palestinian Authority. If the agreement held, excuses for not being serious about negotiating a comprehensive peace agreement and establishing a Palestinian state to replace the occupation would become too flimsy to maintain. So Netanyahu did everything he could to destroy the reconciliation, including the mass round-ups of Hamas members and other applications of force that led almost inevitably to the onslaught that followed. Netanyahu was aided and abetted in that strategy by the U.S.-led West, which accordingly shares responsibility for the bloodshed that has ensued. Now Netanyahu's government can continue to make all the familiar claims about how Israel doesn't have a negotiating partner, how half of the Palestinians are ruled by a terrorist group supposedly dedicated to the destruction of Israel, how rockets coming from Gaza show how Israel can never risk ending occupation of the West Bank, etc. etc.

He also can say that Hamas is resisting a ceasefire. Hamas deserves strong criticism for fighting on even when it knows this means the possibility of casualties among innocent Israeli civilians as well as the certainty that significantly more Palestinian civilians will die from Israeli bombs and gunfire. Sometimes it appears that the group forgets there are more important things than its objective of having political power over all Palestinians. But the response by Hamas certainly is not surprising. The Israeli government has succeeded in structuring the situation such that Hamas figures it has nothing to lose by continuing to fight, because it has nothing to gain from not fighting. It tried the peaceful route, by observing a ceasefire in the year and half since the previous ceasefire despite Israeli violations, and by surrendering much of its political power through the reconciliation pact, in which it agreed to support a Palestinian government with no Hamas members and with a commitment to negotiating a peace agreement with Israel. Netanyahu made sure Hamas got no payoff whatsoever for following the peaceful route, and instead paid a price for it.

All that Hamas can now see as in its immediate interests is to try to bolster its popular support and credibility by, as a first choice, holding out for some relief to Gazans from their status as inmates in what amounts to an open-air detention camp. Haunting that pursuit, however, will be the knowledge that after the deal Hamas struck with Israel in November 2012, the ceasefire that was called for did take hold, but the easing of the Israeli blockade of Gaza that also was supposed to occur largely did not—another example of an Israeli disincentive to Hamas to negotiate peacefully. Beyond that is an interest in getting Israel to observe the prisoner exchange deal that it violated by re-arresting hundreds of former prisoners. And if all that fails, there at least is whatever catharsis comes from futile whacks at Israel with a few more rockets or some fighters sneaking through tunnels. The more death and destruction that Israel inflicts on the Gaza Strip, the stronger will be the popular desire for catharsis and revenge.

Unless the underlying issues are addressed, the next ceasefire will not stop this tragic cycle. The stage will be set for another round, when Israel will mow the lawn again. Absent regime change in Israel, the cycle will continue until and unless political leaders in the U.S.-led West summon political courage they have not displayed and acknowledge that the objectives the current Israeli government is pursuing are not in their own country's interests, or even in Israel's.

Image: IDF Flickr. 

TopicsIsrael Palestinian Territories RegionsMiddle East

Five Things to Know About the Extension of the Iranian Nuclear Negotiations

Paul Pillar

The recently extended nuclear negotiations with Iran have had to compete for front-page attention with acute crises elsewhere. The agreement to extend both the negotiations and the interim commitments associated with them for another four months has nonetheless provoked comments from the usual quarters, including those who have never wanted any agreement with Iran and continue to try to sabotage the negotiations. Here are some key facts to bear in mind about the extension itself:

The extension makes possible a continuation of major negotiating progress. The progress to date has been remarkable. Few would have predicted it even a year ago. As Secretary Kerry commented in a statement on Friday, it was less than a year ago that a U.S. secretary of state and an Iranian foreign minister met for the first time in more than three decades. The key events making this possible were the advent of a new Iranian president with a much different orientation from that of his predecessor, and the willingness of the United States and its negotiating partners to seize this opportunity. The negotiations have gone from a standing start with no communication to an important interim agreement and a common text for a final agreement, with some remaining bracketed language and gaps yet to be negotiated.

The need for an extension is not surprising. In fact, the interim agreement, known as the Joint Plan of Action, that was reached last November specifically provided for the possibility of an extension beyond the original target date. The matters being negotiated are complicated and highly technical, from the design of nuclear reactors to the details of international financial transactions.

Both sides are negotiating seriously. The Iranian side has demonstrated its seriousness through its compliance, as confirmed by the International Atomic Energy Agency, with all of its commitments under the Joint Plan of Action. It also has demonstrated its seriousness through its acceptance already of lopsided concessions while gaining little so far in return (see next key fact). Nothing in the history of these talks, or of the history of the Iranian nuclear issue before the talks began, suggests that Iran needs to be squeezed harder to get it to negotiate earnestly and flexibly.

Iran already has the biggest motivation to conclude the negotiations swiftly. The P5+1 (the United States and its negotiating partners) clearly got the better deal in the interim agreement. The Joint Plan of Action froze or rolled back the aspects of Iran's nuclear program with the most concern regarding possible weapons proliferation, as well as introducing international inspections more intrusive and frequent than what any other nation undergoes. In return Iran got only minor sanctions relief, involving peripheral matters such as airplane parts and access to a small fraction of its overseas financial assets to which it has been denied access. This pattern continues under the additional agreement struck as part of last week's extension of the talks. Iran has committed to hasten the conversion of its remaining supply of medium enriched uranium into reactor fuel plates, which would make it even more difficult to use the material in weapons. In return it gets access to only a small additional slice ($2.8 billion out of more than $100 billion) of its frozen overseas financial assets. The main, debilitating sanctions regarding oil and banking remain in place. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani directly, and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei indirectly, have a big economic and political stake in reaching a final agreement promptly.

Diplomacy remains the surest way to preclude an Iranian nuclear weapon. The extension does not change this reality. With a negotiated agreement, Iran's nuclear activities would be subject to the most extensive international inspection and monitoring arrangements ever implemented, and Iran would have multiple major motivations not to let the agreement break down. Without an agreement, there would be far less comprehensive inspections, much less of an Iranian stake in keeping its program peaceful, and a political swing in Tehran away from those most determined to keep it peaceful.

Image: U.S. State Department Flickr.                          

TopicsIran RegionsMiddle East

Iran, Russia, Gaza: Why They Need to Be Considered Together

Paul Pillar

In the face of intense, high-profile, and especially fast-moving problems, the decision-making apparatus for foreign policy and national security has a narrow attention span. Limited policy bandwidth becomes even more of a problem than it normally is. The weighing of relevant considerations is subjected to shortcuts. The most difficult problems tend to be viewed in isolation. Just getting through the day or the week without making such a problem even more difficult becomes de facto a national objective.

But even reasonably careful attention to each serious problem, considered more or less separately, is not good enough. Different problems need to be considered together. This does not mean the kind of ethereally broad, grandly synoptic approach that is the subject of so much armchair strategizing and kibitzing. It instead means a mid-range awareness of how the way we handle one current, concrete problem might affect the nature of some other current, concrete problem.

Right now the United States faces in particular three big, important, fast-moving challenges, each of them worthy of whatever front-page space they get. One is the negotiation of an agreement, or likely extension of negotiations, on Iran's nuclear program as the previously established target date for completion of an agreement arrives this weekend. The second is a new negative turn in U.S. relations with Russia, with the imposition of added sanctions against Russia—a situation that would have been a significant challenge even without the major added complication Thursday of the downing of a Malaysian airliner over the rebellious part of eastern Ukraine. The third is the expansion of Israel's assault against the Gaza Strip, with the aerial bombardment that already had been ongoing being supplemented by a ground offensive. Each of these three situations can complicate the other two.

The most obvious candidate for complication concerns how the downturn in relations with Russia might affect the Iran negotiations. Some earlier worries about whether the Russians would continue to cooperate in its role as a member of the negotiating ensemble known as the P5+1 have not materialized. As Alexei Arbatov's excellent description of Russian interests in Iran points out, Russia does not want to see an Iranian nuclear weapon and in that respect does want to see an agreement that would be the best assurance against the advent of such a weapon. But the anti-Russian sanctions, and possibly any more severe damage to relations stemming from the airliner incident, have changed Moscow's situation and its calculus enough that a continuation of previous Russian behavior cannot be taken for granted. Russian responses can range from greater resistance to the stand that the United States might want to maintain regarding the permitted scale of Iranian uranium enrichment, to larger departures that might amount to Russia making its own separate deal with Iran. None of this need entail an abandonment of the Russian objectives of getting an agreement and not having an Iranian nuclear weapon; there are genuinely held differences of view even within the United States of what constitutes a good agreement and what is the best way to attain it.

The assault on Gaza crisis also can affect the Iranian negotiations, partly because the party conducting the assault also is the principal opponent of any agreement with Iran. Exactly what the effect will be is hard to determine, however. Given the contrived trade-offs that the Netanyahu government often sees in the balance sheet of its relationship with Washington, perhaps U.S. condoning of the assault will imply an understanding that the government of Israel should have that much less latitude in its efforts to sabotage an agreement with Iran. But the effect easily could work the other way. Impunity in getting away with what is happening in Gaza may impart political headiness in Jerusalem and political momentum in Washington that would mean more, not less, Israeli sabotage of an Iran deal. Whatever public distraction and political gain Netanyahu gets at home from the Gaza operation might make it easier for him to brush aside the voices in Israel who realize that an accord limiting Iran's nuclear program would be in Israel's interests and that sour relations with the administration in Washington are not.

An additional, ever-present factor is how the role of the United States as Israel's principal defender and protector against international criticism or condemnation uses up U.S. political and diplomatic capital. The more that Israeli behavior is subject to such criticism, the more U.S. political and diplomatic capital is consumed. That means there is less of it left to spend on other purposes, including holding together a coalition, and holding it together on U.S. terms, in negotiating with Iran. It also means less capital that might be needed to hold the Europeans together in a similar way in confronting Russia over Ukraine. This factor is likely to become increasing important to the extent that a continued Israeli operation in Gaza incurs moral repugnance among populations in European countries whose governments have not as yet clearly condemned the operation.

There are some symmetries among these three challenges, although not necessarily involving all three at once. The imposition of damaging sanctions on Russia is almost an open invitation for Moscow to become less cooperative regarding the damaging sanctions that have been imposed, under U.S. leadership, against Iran. The death toll in Gaza, after the opening shots on Thursday of the Israeli ground offensive, stood at 246. Given the history of past Israeli attacks there, especially Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009, it may take only a couple of more days for the number of dead to match the 298 who perished on the Malaysian airliner.

Image: White House Flickr.                                          

TopicsRussia Iran Israel

Breakout, Shmeakout: The Wrong Way to Assess a Nuclear Deal with Iran

Paul Pillar

Pens that diplomats wield can be mightier than swords, but not necessarily because they destroy swords, much less the ability to make them. An agreement reached through diplomacy is a joint affirmation that it is in the parties' mutual interest to behave in certain ways and a joint commitment not to do other things they are capable of doing. Even a surrender by a belligerent defeated in warfare involves a forgoing of continued resistance that would be possible but costly to both sides. In short, international agreements are more a matter of intentions and motivations than of capabilities.

A failure to understand this infects discussion of the nuclear negotiations with Iran, and may have infected the U.S. negotiating position. There is a preoccupation with “breakout”—a scenario in which an Iran supposedly determined to violate an agreement suddenly races to build a nuclear weapon—and with stripping away Iranian capabilities in order to lengthen the time required under such a scenario for Iran to produce enough fissile material for a weapon. The fixation with breakout, with the repeated references to it as a supposed reason to be wary of any agreement with Iran, is misplaced for several reasons. One is that any conceivable agreement would entail a longer breakout time than without an agreement. That time already has been lengthened by the preliminary agreement reached last year, under which Iran has eliminated its stock of medium-enriched uranium and stopped making any more of it, as well as capping its supply of low-enriched uranium.

In any event, breakout time is immaterial when, under the extensive and unprecedented monitoring arrangements that will be a central feature of the agreement and a major reason for concluding it, any Iranian cheating in its use of permitted nuclear facilities would immediately be detected. As Greg Thielmann and Robert Wright have noted, whether breakout time is two months or six months or something else makes no difference when any U.S. or other foreign response to cheating, including a possible military response, could be mounted within a couple of weeks. If there were any prospect of Iran using clandestine, undeclared facilities to build a bomb—which is the way all past proliferators have made their bombs—this would be at least as much of a possibility without an agreement, and without the expanded inspections that go with it, than with an agreement.

The most fundamental reason the narrow focus on breakout is misplaced is that it disregards Iranian intentions and motivations. A successful agreement will be one that codifies a shared interest in an Iran whose nuclear program stays entirely peaceful and is a normal member of the community of nations, not subject to the debilitating economic sanctions that the United States has maintained at significant political and economic cost to itself. A successful agreement also will be one that each side, including Iran, will have strong motivation to maintain because it is clearly more in its interests than a breakdown of the agreement would be.

Largely missing from discussion of Iran breaking out of such an agreement is attention to whether Iran would have the incentive to do so. It would not. Doing so would subject Iran to far more disadvantageous conditions than it would have under an accord, without gaining any strategic advantage. A single nuclear device, or even a few, would serve no purpose for Iran when even the mere attempt to flaunt such a device for influence would imply willingness to escalate an issue to the nuclear level, and escalation would face the reality of vastly superior nuclear weapons arsenals owned by the countries Iran would most likely confront.

Cheating, or disavowing the agreement, would immediately—even before completing a single nuclear weapon—throw Iran back into the worst costs and consequences of being an international pariah, from which it has been working so hard to free itself. The U.S. Congress undoubtedly would enact, as fast as clerks could call the roll, anti-Iranian sanctions more severe than ever before. A military attack on Iran also would suddenly become much more likely than before. Those in the United States and Israel who have argued for an attack on grounds that negotiating with duplicitous Iranians is a mistake would now start winning the argument—and the Iranians are smart enough to realize that.

In short, breakout is a scary fantasy, but no more than that. It is a badly flawed standard for formulating a negotiating position or for evaluating a deal with Iran.

If the nuclear negotiations fail—or if Congress effectively destroys an agreement by interfering with its implementation—because of details about the number of centrifuges spinning or the number of months required to enrich uranium, this would be a major missed opportunity and an unwisely counterproductive pursuit of the objective of keeping the Iranian program peaceful. It also would be a destructively small-minded approach toward the use of diplomacy to pursue U.S. interests.

Image: Wikicommons. 

TopicsIran RegionsMiddle East

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