Paul Pillar

The Anti-ISIS Campaign: Beware the Seeds of Escalation

Paul Pillar

The wisdom of any application of military force will involve much more than the goals initially laid out and the resources initially applied to achieve those goals. Those initial conditions are only a snapshot in time of what is inevitably a dynamic process. History has repeatedly shown that overseas military endeavors have a way of becoming something much different from what they began as. History also has repeatedly shown that the dominant type of change is escalation to something bigger and costlier than originally intended, sometimes even to the point of expanding to blunders of tragic proportions.

Several processes, working together or independently, drive the process of escalation. Some of these processes are, considered in isolation, logical and reasonable. Some of them are rooted in universal human nature; some are more characteristically American.

The “Win the War” Objective. A distinctively American (and non-Clausewitzian) way of approaching the use of military force is to believe that if something is worth fighting for, then we ought to realize that we are “at war” and ought to do whatever it takes to “win” the war. This mindset has had a huge influence through the years on discourse in the United States about using the military instrument in foreign affairs, including in more recent years with a so-called “war on terror”. The attitude severs the use of force from all other calculations about the costs and benefits of using it in particular ways and particular circumstances. There thus is no limit to potential escalation as the sometimes elusive “win” is pursued.

Standard Procedures and the Military's Operational Requirements. Military forces, for quite understandable reasons of operational security or effectiveness, insist that if they are called on to perform certain missions then they must be permitted to use certain minimal levels of forces, to put their troops in certain places, or to operate in certain other ways regardless of the political or diplomatic side-effects. Some of the classic and most consequential examples occurred at the onset of World War I, when mobilization schedules of armies helped to push statesmen into a much bigger armed confrontation than they wanted, and when German troops violated Belgian neutrality because that's what a military plan called for. More recent U.S. military history has had many more modest examples of military requirements driving escalation, such as ground forces being needed to provide security for air bases. In the interest of force security, a remarkably large amount of firepower has sometimes been used in support of quite small objectives (such as the deposition and capture of Manuel Noriega in Panama in 1989).

Hoping That Just a Little More Will Do It. If a given level of force does not accomplish the declared objective, then an understandable and quite reasonable next question is whether a bit more force will be sufficient to do the trick. It may be logically sound to decide that it is worth trying some more force. The calculation of the moment weighs the marginal costs of doing so against the marginal benefits. The marginal cost of a slight escalation may be low, with the benefit being the chance of a significant breakthrough. But a series of individual decisions like this, while they may be individually justifiable, can result in escalation to total costs that are far out of proportion to any possible benefit. The U.S. escalation of the Vietnam War from 1965 to 1968 is an example.

One Objective Leads to Another. The nature of some objectives is such that if they are to be achieved—or as a consequence of being achieved—some other objective needs to be pursued as well. Or even if it does not really need to be pursued, it comes into play naturally and is not easily dismissed amid the momentum and fog of war. This is the process that often is given the name mission creep. An example is how Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, which began as an offensive to oust the Taliban, became a long-term nation-building effort.

Responding to the Adversary's Escalation. It take two to tango and to make war. The adversary has many of these same reasons to escalate a conflict against us, and perhaps other reasons as well. When he does, we are apt to counter-escalate, not only for emotional reasons of revenge but also perhaps for more justifiable reasons of deterrence. This is the chief type of escalation that was the subject of much strategic doctrine developed during the Cold War.

Domestic Political Vulnerability. Statesmen do not make their decisions about military force in a political vacuum. They have domestic political flanks to protect. Mitigating charges of weakness or wimpiness is an added, and possibly even the principal, motivation to escalate the use of force against what is widely perceived as a threat.

The emerging military campaign against ISIS will not become another World War I or Vietnam War, but all of the above factors are seeds of escalation of that campaign, possibly to levels well above what either the Obama administration or its more hawkish critics are talking about. Some of the factors are already quite evidently in play. The absolutist vocabulary about being at war and having to win the war is very prevalent. The president already has been pushed by the political and rhetorical forces this vocabulary represents toward greater use of military force than he otherwise would have preferred. The dynamic of each side in the armed conflict escalating in response to the other side's escalation also has already begun. A major stimulant for the American public's alarmist and militant attitude toward ISIS was the group's intentionally provocative videotaped killings—which the group described as retaliation for U.S. military strikes against it.

The military's operational requirements are also starting to come into play as a mechanism of escalation, as we hear military experts telling us how air and ground operations really are inseparable, and how effective air strikes depend on reliable spotters on the ground. There also will no doubt be decision points ahead about whether a little more use of force will do the job, as the United States pursues the impossible to accomplish declared objective of “destroying” ISIS. Finally, the potential for mission creep is substantial, with unanswered questions about what will follow in the countries in conflict even if ISIS could be “destroyed.” Perhaps the most glaring such question is in Syria, where, given the anathema toward dealing with the Assad regime, it remains unclear what would fill any vacuum left by a destroyed ISIS—and what the United States can, should, or will do about it. The much-discussed "moderate" forces are far from constituting a credible answer to that question

There is significant danger of the campaign against ISIS and the costs it incurs getting far, far out of proportion to any threat the group poses to U.S. interests.

Image: U.S. Army Flickr. 

TopicsTerrorism RegionsMiddle East

Good Regional Vibrations from a Nuclear Deal with Iran

Paul Pillar

The negotiations between Iran and the consortium known as the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany) about the future of Iran's nuclear program are inching back into the news after being largely obscured by other diplomatic tasks and events over the past couple of months. The two sides will be fully engaged in the talks during the remainder of this month, in anticipation of a late-November target date for completing a deal. We are hearing again technical and numerical details about centrifuges and capacity for enriching uranium that represent much of what evidently needs to be resolved for a final agreement. But the significance of an agreement, and thus what is at stake in whether or not one is reached, go far beyond the nuclear minutiae. They extend to the capacity of the United States to address fully and effectively many problems in the Middle East and South Asia.

This week The Iran Project, a group led by former U.S. ambassadors and dedicated to supporting U.S. interests through diplomacy on matters that involve Iran, released a report on likely regional implications of a nuclear deal with Iran. (I am involved with The Iran Project and participated in preparation of the report.) The report has some thirty signatories and endorsers, including former national security advisers and other former senior officials. A premise of the report is that a successful nuclear agreement, by resolving the issue that has so heavily dominated for years the U.S.-Iranian relationship in particular, is likely to have other repercussions in the Middle East. This is partly because it would open up opportunities in the U.S.-Iranian relationship itself to address other problems of mutual concern. It is also because, given the importance of the United States to many states in the region, there are apt to be secondary effects involving the relations of those states with Iran.

In anticipating any such regional changes, it is important to distinguish actual interests and likely post-agreement behavior from what regimes may say disingenuously for effect today. This is most obviously the case with Israel, where smart people concerned about a possible Iranian nuclear weapon realize that the object of their concern is much less likely to materialize with an agreement than without one, but where the right-wing government is doing everything it can to kill a deal in order to keep Iran in the international doghouse, suppress it as a competitor for regional influence and U.S. attention, and retain it as an all-purpose bogeyman to distract attention from things the Israeli government would rather not talk about.

To a lesser degree there is some of the same divergence with the Gulf Arabs and especially Saudi Arabia, whose preferences regarding Iran have long been subject to misinterpretation. Certainly the Saudis have long seen Iran as a competitor for economic and political influence, going back to the days of the shah. But the Saudis also have their own history of rapprochement with Iran, including with the Islamic Republic. The two big Persian Gulf states, along with the smaller Gulf Arab monarchies, share an interest in not letting instability in their neighborhood spin out of control and threaten, among other things, the oil trade. Over the last several months the Gulf Arabs, probably stimulated by the prospect of better U.S.-Iranian relations, have once again moved toward their own rapprochement with Tehran, as reflected in some high-level visits.

Iran's own perspectives toward the region have evolved significantly since the first few years after the revolution. In those early days of the Islamic Republic, there was a view that the revolution would not survive if it did not spawn like-minded upheaval in nearby countries. Three and a half decades later, Iranian leaders know that is not the case. There still is an Iranian sense—more ostentatiously apparent under the shah—of Iran as a nation with a glorious history and rightfully exercising a regional leadership role. But right now the main Iranian goal is to get out of the doghouse and enjoy full and normal relations with the rest of the region. That means all of the region, not just a Shia crescent. As Iranians know, there are more Sunnis that Shiites.

Some of the irreconcilable hardline American opponents of an agreement have been putting a few more of their cards on the table in the last few months and in effect admitting that what they don't want is not just a “bad” deal but any deal at all with Iran. Sign an agreement with Tehran and start lifting sanctions, they say, and Iran will exert more influence in the region—as if that were ipso facto bad. But whether it really would be bad, good, or neutral depends on what that influence would be used for, and how the Iranian objectives relate to U.S. interests.

In fact there are conspicuous parallel interests that the United States and Iran share in the region, and they have just gotten more conspicuous and parallel with the surge of alarm about ISIS. The parallel interests are most apparent in the countries immediately adjacent to Iran, to its east and its west. To the east is Afghanistan, where after 9/11 and the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom, U.S. and Iranian officials worked very effectively together in forging a new and moderate Afghan political order under Hamid Karzai—until the George W. Bush administration slammed the door in the Iranians' face by declaring them to be part of an axis of evil. The United States and Iran continue to share interests in a stable Afghanistan in which extremists such as the Taliban do not rule, religious and ethnic minorities have their rights respected and share in political power, violence is not exported, and the drug trade is curtailed.

To the west in Iraq, the principal Iranian objective is never again to see a regime that would, as did Saddam Hussein in 1980, launch a war of aggression. The Iranians do not want endless instability on their western border. They want Iraqi Shiites to have power commensurate with their majority numbers, while they realize—as indicated by their welcoming the departure of former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki—that narrowly sectarian or authoritarian rule does not serve either Iraqi stability or their own interests. They definitely oppose the rise of Sunni fanatics such as those of ISIS, as indicated by the very active support that Iran is giving to the Iraqi government in opposing ISIS. All of these objectives are consistent with and even supportive of U.S. interests. And on the last topic, they are directly supportive of what has come to be seen in the United States as a pressing policy priority.

The potential for—and the need for—greater coordination and communication between the United States and Iran should be obvious, and a nuclear agreement would open the door to more such coordination and communication. Evidently it is not obvious, however, to some of the members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who questioned Secretary of State Kerry this week and wanted to make darned sure that the United States was not coordinating with Iran about confronting ISIS. Evidently some members, however much they may be fired up about anti-ISIS measures, believe that uncoordinated measures are better than the coordinated variety. Iran is more evil than ISIS, explained one member. Such attitudes are directly detrimental to the pursuit of important U.S. interests in the Middle East.

If the negotiators succeed in reaching a deal, by all means let us evaluate it according to the specific declared purpose of making an Iranian nuclear weapon less likely, and let us discuss whether the agreement does a better job of that than the absence of an agreement would. But let us also weigh an agreement versus no agreement according to all the other U.S. interests in the region that might be affected. Movement toward a more normal U.S.-Iranian relationship would be a step toward making possible the practice of U.S. regional diplomacy without having one hand tied behind our back—tied by ourselves because we have subordinated so much else to the nuclear obsession.                        

Image: U.S. State Department Flickr. 

TopicsIran Iraq terrorism RegionsMiddle East

The Blurred Lines of Religious Zealotry

Paul Pillar

Last week I commented on the unhelpful habit of throwing everything Islamist, no matter how extreme or moderate, into a single conceptual bucket and writing off the whole lot as incorrigible adversaries. That habit entails a gross misunderstanding of events and conflicts in the Middle East, and has the more specific harm of aiding extreme groups at the expense of moderate ones. Shortly afterward Dennis Ross of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy presented a piece titled “Islamists Are Not Our Friends,” which illustrates almost in caricatured form some of the misleading attributes of the single-bucket attitude that I was discussing.

Ross's article probably is not grounded in Islamophobia, although it partly appeals to such sentiment. The piece ostensibly is about how “a fundamental division between Islamists and non-Islamists” is a “new fault line in the Middle East” that provides “a real opportunity for America” and ought to guide U.S. policy toward the region. In fact it is a contrived effort to draw that line—however squiggly it needs to be—to place what Ross wants us to consider bad guys on one side of the line and good guys on the other side. The reasons for that division do not necessarily have much, if anything, to do with Islamist orientation. Thus anyone who has been unfriendly to Hamas or to its more peaceful ideological confreres in the Muslim Brotherhood are placed on the good side of the line, Iran and those doing business with it are put on the bad side, and so forth.

Ross tries to portray something more orderly by asserting that “what the Islamists all have in common is that they subordinate national identities to an Islamic identity” and that the problem with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood was that “it was Islamist before it was Egyptian.” What, exactly, does that mean, with particular reference to the short, unhappy presidency of Mohamed Morsi? There were several reasons that presidency was both unhappy and short, but trying to push an Islamist-more-than-Egyptian agenda was not one of them. (And never mind that Ross is risking going places he surely would not want to go by making accusations of religious identification trumping national loyalty on matters relevant to U.S. policy toward the Middle East.) It would make at least as much sense to say that the current president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, was more authoritarian and more in tune with fellow military strongmen than he was Egyptian.

Where Ross's schema completely breaks down is with some of the biggest and most contorted squiggles in the line he has drawn. He places Saudi Arabia in the “non-Islamist” camp because it has supported el-Sisi in his bashing of the Brotherhood and wasn't especially supportive of Hamas when Israel was bashing the Gaza Strip. Saudi Arabia—where the head of state has the title Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, the country's constitution is the Koran, and thieves have their hands amputated—is “non-Islamist”? Remarkable. Conversely, the Assad regime in Syria, which is one of the most secular regimes in the region notwithstanding the sectarian lines of its base of support, is pointedly excluded from Ross's “non-Islamist” side of the line because of, he says, Syrian dependence on Iran and Hezbollah. Of course, any such alliances refute the whole idea of a “fundamental division” in the region between Islamists and non-Islamists, but Ross does not seem to notice.

Getting past such tendentious classification schemes, we ought to ask whether there is a more valid basis on which we ought to be concerned about states or influential political movements defining themselves in religious terms. If we are to be not merely Islamophobes but true children of the Enlightenment, our concern ought to be with any attempt, regardless of the particular creed involved, to impose the dogma of revealed religion on public affairs, especially in ways that affect the lives and liberties of those with different beliefs.

Such attempts by Christians, as far as the Middle East is concerned, are to be found these days mainly among dispensationalists in America rather in the dwindling and largely marginalized Christian communities in the Middle East itself. In a far more strongly situated community, that of Jewish Israelis, the imposition of religious belief on public affairs in ways that affect the lives and liberties of others is quite apparent. Indeed, the demographic, political, and societal trends during Israel's 66-year history can be described in large part in terms of an increasingly militant right-wing nationalism in which religious dogma and zealotry have come to play major roles. Self-definition as a Jewish state has been erected as a seemingly all-important basis for relating to Arab neighbors, religion is in effect the basis for different classes of citizenship, and religious zeal is a major driver of the Israeli colonization of conquered territory, which sustains perpetual conflict with, and subjugation of, the Palestinian Arabs.

When religious zealotry involves bloodshed, especially large-scale bloodshed, is when we when ought to be most concerned with its infusion into public affairs. The capacity for zealotry and large-scale application of violence to combine has increased in Israel with the steady increase of religiosity in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and its officer corps. A prominent exemplar of this trend is Colonel Ofer Winter, commander of the IDF's Gilati Brigade, who has received attention for the heavily religious content of his instructions to his troops. With his brigade poised near the Gaza Strip before the most recent round of destruction there, Winter said in a letter to his troops that he looked forward to a ground invasion so that he could be in the vanguard of a fight against “the terrorist enemy that dares to curse, blaspheme and scorn the God of Israel.” After Winter's brigade did get to join the fight, he said that a mysterious "cloud" appeared and provided cover for his forces, an event he attributed to divine intervention. Quoting from Deuteronomy, he said, “It really was a fulfillment of the verse ‘For the Lord your God is the one who goes with you to give you victory.’”

Winter's brigade was involved in what could be described as a culmination of the synthesis of zealotry and bloodshed. When an Israeli soldier was missing and suspected (incorrectly, as it later turned out) to have been captured alive by Hamas in a battle at Rafah, Winter executed the "Hannibal" directive, an Israeli protocol according to which as much violence as necessary is used to avoid having any Israeli become a prisoner, no matter how many civilians or others are killed and no matter that the captured Israeli soldier himself is killed. Over the next several hours a relentless barrage of artillery and airstrikes reduced this area of Rafah to rubble, while Israeli forces surrounded the area so that no one could escape it alive. This one Israeli operation killed 190 Palestinians, including 55 children. There may have been other implementations of the Hannibal directive in the recent Israeli offensive in Gaza; this one is confirmed because Winter himself later spoke openly and proudly about it. Although some secular-minded private citizens in Israel have objected to the heavily religious content of Winter's leadership, officially there does not appear to be anything but approval for anything he has said or done. He is an exemplar, not a rogue.

In short, an operation officially sanctioned and led in the name of a national god was conducted to slaughter scores of innocents as well as one of the operators' own countrymen. We ought to think carefully about this incident and about what Colonel Winter represents when we decide how to conceive of fault lines in the Middle East, what it means to insert religion into politics or to be a religious zealot, exactly what it is we fear or ought to fear about religiosity in public affairs, and which players in the Middle East have most in common with, or in conflict with, our own—Enlightment-infused, one hopes—values.
 

 

TopicsIsrael Palestinian Territories RegionsMiddle East

We Have Met the Source of Questionable Strategy and He Is Us

Paul Pillar

The voluminous commentary about President Obama's speech on going after ISIS reflects the usual mixture of genuine policy analysis and pursuit of political agendas. A prevalent misdirection exhibited both by those politically opposed to this particular president and those who support him, as well as by many of those who are neutral, is to assume that the strategy laid out in the speech is primarily the product of Barack Obama's thinking and preferences. It isn't. Many of us, if we took full account of current American perceptions and sentiments about ISIS, longer American habits in thinking about terrorism, and the political requirements of serving as U.S. president could have written pretty much the same speech. The strategy in it is primarily the product of those public perceptions, sentiments, and habits, which are too strong for most American politicians, including those in Congress as well as the White House, to resist.

We cannot read Barack Obama's mind, but the frequently voiced comment, mostly from confirmed critics of the president, that he only slowly realized ISIS to be a serious menace and is belatedly recognizing the need to act forcefully against it is very likely incorrect. It is far more probable that the president's assessment of the group and of the costs and risks of the various measures that might be taken against it has stayed fairly constant. What evolved, and evolved rapidly, was the public alarm about the group. This latter interpretation conforms more closely to how we have seen Barack Obama operate and how we have seen American public opinion (and the political responses to it) operate. Mr. Obama had tried (somewhat, though not hard enough) to convey a careful and reasonable assessment of the group's significance, and of the downsides of possible further U.S. actions in the Middle East. But reasonableness lost out to a groundswell of public sentiment.

There will be disappointments and failures in some of the measures the president described in his speech, and some of the risks involved are apt to materialize into serious costs to U.S. interests. The failures and costs, as well as whatever successes might come from the measures to be taken, should be attributed less to the mind of Barack Obama than to the collective mental habits of the American public.

The most fundamental respect in which this is true is with the overall degree of alarm about ISIS, which far exceeds what would be warranted by careful and sober analysis of the threat that this group, notwithstanding its abhorrent brutality, poses to U.S. interests. Prevailing public sentiment has equated gains in dusty territory in the Middle East with the threat of a terrorist spectacular in the U.S. homeland. The American public is basing its perception on emotion, and its record in gauging terrorist threats that way is poor. It reacts to the past rather than assessing the future. It is reacting now not only to the past trauma of 9/11 but to also to the gruesomeness of recent videotaped killings of captives—which does not tell us much more about ISIS than we already knew, apart from confirming the group's willingness to do deadly things in response to U.S. use of force against it, which does not constitute an argument to use force.

The American public looks at terrorism in general not as the timeless tactic that it is but rather in terms of its embodiment in specific named groups or individuals—“the terrorists”—whom the public believes must be eliminated. This view overlooks the frequently changing roster of groups emerging and dying, splitting and metastasizing. It also overlooks the whole motivations side of when and why anyone either joins or forms a group that has used terrorism, and when and why a resistance group already in existence would resort to terrorism, especially terrorism against the United States. And it overlooks whether mounting a very visible campaign against a group may play into the group's own plans and ambitions.

The conception of counterterrorism as consisting of the elimination of a fixed group of bad guys is related to the further American inclination to equate counterterrorism with use of military force. The whole “war on terror” metaphor exacerbated this unfortunate tendency. Military force is only one of several counterterrorist instruments, it is not necessarily the best one to use in any one circumstance, and the sorts of terrorist activity that ought to worry us the most present few good military targets. Disproportionate emphasis on the military instrument also tends to be associated with underestimation of the counterproductive effects that ensue when collateral damage leads to more anger and more motivation to resort to terrorism.

This emphasis also has been associated with the argument advanced by political opponents of Mr. Obama that somehow if he had found a way to extend the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq beyond the eight and a half years it had already lasted that ISIS would not have been a problem. This argument has always been rather rich, given that ISIS, under a different name, came into existence as a direct result of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and overthrow of the incumbent regime. The historical amnesia involved with the argument extends as well to events later in the last decade, when even the “surge”—although it temporarily reversed the escalating violence in Iraq, as 30,000 U.S. troops ought to have been able to do—failed to achieve its more fundamental objective of making possible political accommodations in Baghdad that in turn would make possible stability in Iraq. This experience shows how especially fanciful is the notion that a later and smaller presence of U.S. troops would somehow have made Nouri al-Maliki behave like a good prime minister who would practice inclusive and non-authoritarian politics.

Another recurring pattern in the American public philosophy that is not unique to the issue of terrorism but has been been especially apparent with it is that, simply put, any problem has a feasible solution, and that it is within the power of the United States to achieve that solution. If a serious problem persists, according to this view, then it is only because incumbent U.S. policy-makers have lacked the will or the smarts to find and implement the right solution. This mindset will be the basic source of disappointment with any expectation of “destroying” a terrorist group rather than just degrading or containing it.

The same mindset also keeps knocking up against reality in Syria, where there have been no good solutions, for the United States any more than for others to implement. Here is where we hear another recurring “if only”argument from opponents of the administration, to the effect that if only more aid had been given earlier to “moderate” oppositionists, extremists such as ISIS would not have become as much of a problem as they have. This search for, and focus on, the elusive moderates has been such a salient issue for so long that it is a safe bet that it has been one of the most exhaustively studied topics for the administration, well before this week's presidential speech. Among the realities that any such study would have uncovered are that what passes for a moderate Syrian opposition has always been badly divided and lacking in internal support, that the dynamics of civil warfare inherently favor the less inhibited—by definition, less moderate—elements, that it is almost impossible to provide material aid to such elements without some of that aid making its way (as it already has) into the hands of the very forces such as ISIS that we want to counter, and that there is no way of squaring the circle of beating back ISIS without effectively aiding the Syrian regime that we also supposedly would like to be defeated.

But in a larger anti-ISIS arena in which good solutions also may be hard to come by, and in which the popular and political American resistance to reintroducing U.S. combat troops is still a major factor, we keep coming back by default to this business of trying to aid “moderate” Syrian rebels. Congressional pusillanimity plays a significant role here: members of neither party want to vote before midterm elections on an authorization to use U.S. military forces, but supporting anything about aiding the proverbial moderates in Syria is a no-U.S.-boots-on-the-ground way for members to show their anti-ISIS enthusiasm. Bob Corker, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, commented that “since there has been bipartisan support for arming the moderate opposition,” maybe the administration gave it a prominent place in its anti-ISIS package “because they thought this is the one piece that they could get a lot of congressional buy-in on without doing a lot of selling” He's probably right.

Yep, there is a lot in that package that deserves questioning and criticism. In searching for the reasons why, most Americans ought to look first not at the man in the White House but instead in the mirror. 

TopicsTerrorism Iraq Syria RegionsMiddle East

The Latest Cost of Islamophobia

Paul Pillar

Richard Cheney spoke to Republican Congressmen at the Capitol Hill Club the other day, giving them a sort of pep talk on the importance of maintaining a Cheneyite view of the world and not letting the guy in the White House be seen as taking the lead in confronting ISIS, the feared terrorist group of the moment. Mr. Cheney's remarks were not publicly reported but according to one of the Congressmen in attendance the former vice president “basically said that President Obama has actually done things that have supported the Muslim Brotherhood. But on the other hand the Muslim Brotherhood is really the beginnings of all the Islamist groups that we’re now dealing with; Hamas, ISIS – all of those groups.”

Leave aside for now the absence of any reason for anyone to listen to advice on such matters from one of the chief promoters of the war of choice that directly spawned ISIS. Leave aside also whether the description of the Obama administration's posture toward the Muslim Brotherhood resembles its actual policy. The administration has done little more than wrist-slapping in response to the Egyptian military regime's overthrow of a democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood president and its subsequent brutal suppression of the group.

Focus instead on the lumping together into one undifferentiated stew of “all the Islamist groups.” Sadly, that primitive way of categorizing political actors in the Middle East is not limited to Mr. Cheney. Former presidential candidate Mitt Romney did much the same thing. Partly this practice reflects the usual politically motivated games of association. When something as fearsome and salient as ISIS appears on the scene, expect that game to be played. Thus Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his government's efforts to justify the recent turkey shoot in the Gaza Strip, has been fervently trying to equate Hamas with ISIS. Similarly, those endlessly waving the bloody shirt of Benghazi are making sure we hear Benghazi and ISIS in the same sentence. But there is ignorance, and probably prejudice, that runs more deeply than such political tactics.

Political Islam is not an ideology. It is more a sort of vocabulary that has been adopted by a very wide range of groups, parties, and movements, ranging from the most moderate and democratic to the most violent and extreme. It is a vocabulary that embraces a very large part of the political discourse in the Middle East, a fact that reflects the belief of adherents to one of the world's major monotheistic religions that their religion provides meaning and guidance for most human affairs, public as well as private. That vocabulary will not go away, and there will always be a plethora of diverse groups that define themselves in terms of that vocabulary.

Failure to understand all that means a failure to understand much of what is going on in the Muslim world and especially in the Middle East, from politics in Egypt to internal conflict in Iraq. With ISIS rearing its ugly head, one particular consequence of this failure deserves to be highlighted: bashing and rejecting “all the Islamist groups”no matter how peaceful and moderate—and lumping them indiscriminately with the most horrid and extreme groups—aids the cause of the violent and extreme groups. Without accepted peaceful channels for anyone with a grievance and an Islamic bent to pursue his objectives, the violent channels appear more attractive. The bashing and rejection also lend credence directly to the extremists' message that violence is the only way in which Islamic values will ever be incorporated into public life.

Egypt is an ongoing demonstration of this reality. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood was for many years remarkable in its forbearance in the face of being legally banned, rejecting the violent methods of radical Islamist groups such as the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and al-Gama'at al-Islamiyya. When it was finally given the chance to compete fully and openly, as well as peacefully, for political power, it did so. Now the al-Sisi regime's bludgeoning of the group has stimulated an upsurge in terrorist violence in Egypt, and most recently inroads in the country by ISIS.

The ISIS leadership no doubt welcomes the indiscriminate lumping of itself with everything Islamist, with the likes of the Muslim Brotherhood being taken down in the process, as the al-Sisi regime is doing in Egypt and as Mr. Cheney was doing on Capitol Hill. The lumping reduces the competition ISIS would otherwise be getting from more moderate groups appealing to an Islamist clientele which would have good reason to be appalled by the methods of ISIS. The lumping also helps ISIS to pose as the energetic champion of all Muslims against the depredations of a supposedly anti-Muslim United States.

Crude, primitive rejection of everything Islamist has many unfortunate effects. Helping ISIS is one of the effects we ought to worry about at the moment.                          

TopicsTerrorism Egypt RegionsMiddle East

Realism Versus Political Correctness in Opposing ISIS

Paul Pillar

As President Obama prepares for a speech in which he will describe his strategy for countering the group commonly known as ISIS, officials in his administration are preparing public expectations by saying the effort against ISIS may take three years to “complete.” Maybe the preparation is intended to dampen anticipation of rapid results, but it probably also is designed to cushion any sticker-shock reaction from people who will hear in the speech an effort that is larger and longer than they may have had in mind. Three years may sound like a lot, but consider that this week marks the 13th anniversary of the terrorist attack that stimulated a priority-monopolizing, invasion-facilitating, civil-liberties-revising “war on terror” which, although that latter term isn't used as routinely as it once was, never has received a certificate of completion.

Even without a spectacular terrorist attack, or any attack, on the U.S. homeland by the feared group du jour, much of the public discourse in the United States today about ISIS closely resembles the public discourse more than a decade ago about al-Qaeda. Of course, part of what we are hearing is a continued reaction to 9/11, even though ISIS had nothing to do with that attack. Firm action against ISIS has already become equated in the public mind with prevention of a future big terrorist attack in the United States, in a way that never would have occurred had there not been a 9/11.

Expectations about the duration of counterterrorist efforts against the most feared group of the day are one respect in which the public mood and discourse of today resemble what prevailed a dozen years ago. Three years probably seemed like a rather long time to most Americans back then, and thirteen years was probably outside the frame of reference of almost the entire public. Yet today there is still around not only plenty of radical Sunni terrorism but also the very group, al-Qaeda, that was the prime target of counterterrorism after 9/11. Just three years ago the White House released a national strategy on counterterrorism that was almost entirely about al-Qaeda and its affiliates. How many Americans listening to the president this week anticipate that a decade from now ISIS will still be a major policy concern of the United States? Probably almost none, and any who thought about it probably would consider such persistence, if it should occur, a mark of unsuccessful counterterrorist policies.

A political correctness that pervaded discussions of counterterrorism and al-Qaeda a decade or more ago pervades discussions today about ISIS. There was back then a requirement to speak only of defeating or destroying the group that represented the terrorism problem, or maybe even terrorism in general, and not to speak of just containing or degrading it. Woe to those (myself included, based on pre-9/11 writings) who pointed out that terrorism is an age-old tactic that can be managed with varying degrees of success but never eliminated. Today al-Qaeda, let alone terrorism in general or even the Sunni variants of it, has not been destroyed. Given the expansion and metastasis of it into groups such as ISIS, it would be hard even to say it has been defeated. Terrorism is better managed than it was 13 years ago, however, thanks in large part to enhanced defensive security measures, and the core al-Qaeda group has been significantly degraded and contained. The lessons of all of this seem to be lost on those today who insist on a whatever-it-takes mission of destroying ISIS.

The constraints imposed by the current political correctness regarding ISIS dovetail in an unfortunate way with some of the political vulnerabilities of the Obama administration. The administration probably seeks, for example, to avoid any posture that could be disparaged as “leading from behind,” which also would be out of tune with the current militant mood music about destroying ISIS quickly and forcefully. Leading from behind would in some respects, however, be the most effective U.S. approach toward countering ISIS in the Middle East, given how success in any such effort will depend heavily on whether Arab publics and governments, including Sunni ones in particular, are seen to be out front in opposing the group.

The administration will have to balance the demands of the current political zeitgeist against whatever it may privately consider to be the best way to protect and advance U.S. interests in the Middle East in the face of the ISIS phenomenon. Wherever it strikes that balance will unavoidably fail to satisfy entirely either of these opposing sets of criteria.           

TopicsTerrorism RegionsMiddle East

Obama's Burden and Rhetorical Asymmetry

Paul Pillar

President Obama has been having a rough summer, reflected in poll numbers that are as low as they have been during his presidency. Clearly a concatenation of developments overseas that appear to most Americans to be to some degree threatening accounts for much of the sour public mood and the broadsides being directed at the president and his administration for how they have responded to those developments. Go beyond the broadsides and look at specific available policy options, however, and one quickly sees that this negativity is not primarily the consequence of Mr. Obama's policies. In the public debate there is a surplus of dissatisfaction being expressed about nasty happenings abroad and a shortage of constructive ideas about what the United States can or should do differently about such happenings, much less any analysis about all the ramifications of trying to follow any conceivable alternative course. Typical of the complaining and criticizing is, for example, a Washington Post editorial the other day that bemoans what it labels as “big holes” in the administration's Middle East strategy but whose recommendation is basically, well, to do something more about regional problems such as ISIS and preferably something forceful.

Issues of Mr. Obama's style and salesmanship are partly, though only partly, to blame for the negativity. A meticulous and careful (and sometimes necessarily time-consuming) approach to policy-making is good for making good policy (and is much more likely to turn out good policy than the no-process, go-by-the-gut approach that Mr. Obama's predecessor applied to some major issues), but it doesn't sell very well. The president also hurt himself with his verbal gaffe about not yet having a strategy—a line that could have been written in the war room at the Republican National Committee.

The negativity is partly a function of the domestic political season, although only slightly so because in American politics today every season is a hyperpartisan political season. We may be seeing slightly more broadsides about foreign affairs than we otherwise would have from the president's political opponents because opponents who thought they could base an entire political campaign on berating Obamacare have had to confront increasing evidence that the Affordable Care Act is actually working rather well.

A more valid, as well as being the biggest and broadest, explanation for how this president has become a punching bag for so much of the current discourse about foreign affairs involves where history has happened to place Mr. Obama on the ever-changing American continuum of assertiveness vs. retrenchment, and where history also has placed him in this regard in the ever-changing push and pull between presidents and the American public. The historical role for some presidents has been to energize into action overseas an American public that was not especially inclined to be energized in this way. Franklin D. Roosevelt's role in the months leading up to the U.S. entry into World War II—before the attack on Pearl Harbor sealed his case—is a leading example. Mr. Obama's necessary role is in many ways the opposite: to keep a nation that is energized to do some stupid things from actually doing them.

Although the blunder of the Iraq War and fatigue with the war in Afghanistan are still reflected in poll numbers showing most of the American public disinclined to get immersed in another Middle Eastern war any time soon (and in this respect the president has been acting in accord with public preferences), two developments in particular have provided the stimulus and the energy to do more things and do more forceful things, and to express impatience with Mr. Obama for holding the anti-stupidity reins as tightly as he has. One is the Ukrainian crisis, along with all of Vladimir Putin's shenanigans, which has gotten Cold War juices flowing in the veins of people who do not stop to realize how this isn't really the Cold War any more. The other development is the dramatic rise of ISIS and its bone-chilling behavior, which has gotten post-9/11 juices flowing in many Americans who are uttering “if we don't stop them over there we will surely face them here at home” platitudes without realizing the lack of basis for such fears.

Barack Obama carries the heavy burden not only of reining in such amygdala-driven responses but of having to do so amid an asymmetric debating environment in which the side favoring doing more or doing something more forceful always has a rhetorical advantage over the side favoring restraint. This means the president gets little benefit, as a counterweight to the “do more” broadsides, either from the general public reservations about involvement in another war soon or from more specific criticisms from his left flank that he already is doing too much kinetic stuff such as drone strikes.

The rhetorical asymmetry has several bases. One is the mistaken habit of thinking of strong leadership as always involving doing more rather than doing less, and especially doing more visible and especially more forceful things. That is an unfortunately skewed view of true leadership, which does not entail that type of bias regarding action vs. restraint.

Another basis is the greater appeal of being seen to meet a threat rather than being seen to stand back in the face of a perceived threat. Careful consideration of the extent to which a perceived threat is real, or of whether a threat is dire enough to sustain severe costs in trying to counter it, or whether any specific effort to counter it may turn out to be counterproductive, always carry less weight in public debate than the simple theme of meeting and defeating a threat.

The simplicity vs. complexity distinction is in a broader sense another big part of the rhetorical asymmetry. It is why much of the criticism of President Obama is (even without being exacerbated by verbal gaffes of his own) phrased in terms of his supposedly not having a “strategy” or “organizing principle.” Having a “strategy” or being”strategic” always sounds good, no matter whether or not there is any specific substance in the minds of those who utter such terms. Stanford historian David Kennedy put this phenomenon nicely into perspective when he observed, “It's difficult virtually to the point of impossibility to have a grand strategy in a world that is so fluid and in which we no longer yield the power we once had. In a sense that is Obama's strategy, a recognition of that fact.”

The complexities do not have the rhetorical appeal but they are often what matter most in determining whether a U.S. initiative is going to be a success or a fiasco. With regard to Middle Eastern problems involving ISIS, Tom Friedman aptly described those problems as being inextricably embedded in not just one but several civil wars. U.S. involvement means taking sides in those civil wars, and that means making new enemies and eliciting more unfavorable reactions against U.S. interests.

Yet another foundation of the asymmetry that applies uniquely in the United States is the American exceptionalist tendency to view just about any significant problem in the world as a U.S. responsibility, and to believe that the United States, with the right policies, ought to be able to solve or resolve just about any problem in the world. That never actually has been the case, and certainly is not today. Kennedy notes, “There's an expectation especially since World War II that the United States and the president in particular can command events. That not true and less true today than ever.” The tendency to make world events at large a part of the incumbent U.S. president's report card is not unique to Mr. Obama, but it is worth noting that except for Libya the messes he is having to deal with are not of his own making.

Whatever good luck Barack Obama may have had earlier in his life that helped get him to the White House, it has been offset by some significant bad luck once he got there. At the beginning of his presidency he was given an awful legacy, including the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression, a soaring budget deficit, and a foreign war that was not only one of the biggest blunders in the history of U.S. foreign policy (and responsible for much of that budget deficit, which had been a surplus at the beginning of the previous administration) but also spawned such continuing problems as ISIS. Now moving into the last quarter of his presidency he is carrying the necessary but mostly thankless burden of having to be the restrainer-in-chief.

Peter Beinart, in observing how the very emotional American public and political reaction to the gruesome killing by ISIS of two freelance journalists resembles in some respects the deep emotional reaction by the American public to the taking hostage of U.S. diplomats in Tehran in 1979, sees some similarity between the current domestic politics of U.S. foreign policy and the politics during the latter part of Jimmy Carter's administration. This is another piece of bad luck for Obama: having to deal with such emotional—and very unhelpful in trying to win support for prudent and carefully constructed policy—public reactions to still more events that are not of his own making. But as Carter himself observed, life is unfair.

Image: White House Flickr.                                                   

TopicsUnited States Iraq Ukraine RegionsEurope Middle East

Israel's Nuclear Weapons: Widely Suspected Unmentionables

Paul Pillar

Some things, or possible things, are important enough that we would be foolish to presume or pretend that they do not exist even if we lack any official confirmation or acknowledgment that they in fact exist. One such possible thing is of high importance to security issues in the Middle East. Almost everyone outside of government who writes or speaks about these issues takes as a given that Israel has long had an arsenal of nuclear weapons. No Israeli government, however, has ever said publicly that Israel has such weapons, and neither has the U.S. government, under any administration, said so either.

Let us be very careful in how we discuss this subject. The world is full of widely accepted conventional wisdom, some of which turns out not to be true. After all, we do not know whether Israel has nuclear weapons. So let us not frame a discussion of this subject in terms of assertions of fact. Instead, we can play off the widely held consensus on the subject, discussing implications of the consensus itself and other implications if the consensus happened to be correct.

One disadvantage of this approach is that to adhere scrupulously to the agnostic qualifiers that the approach requires makes for clumsy prose that is uncomfortable to read. A way to cope with this problem is inspired by the late Alfred Kahn, the Cornell economist who served in Jimmy Carter's administration. Kahn is best known for deregulating the airline industry as chairman of the Civil Aeronautics Board. He later was Carter's anti-inflation czar, in which post the blunt-spoken Kahn was once chastised by his political betters at the White House for warning of a possible “depression”. Don't use the word depression, he was told. Kahn complied, but rather than resort to some awkward circumlocution such as “an economic downturn that is more serious than what is customarily called a recession” he started using the term banana as a substitute for the word he was not supposed to utter. When the head of the United Fruit Company complained to him about this negative use of the term, Kahn switched to kumquat as his substitute word whenever he discussed the danger of a depression.

Using both Kahn's technique and his term, in the rest of this essay let kumquats mean “Israel's widely suspected nuclear weapons” or, in its more complete form, “Israel's widely suspected nuclear weapons—so widely and strongly suspected that just about everyone who says anything about related topics takes them as a given, even though we cannot say for certain that they exist.”

Kumquats are not just a subject of conventional wisdom. They have been carefully addressed by serious historians and political scientists and have been taken into account in countless analyses of security problems in the Middle East. They also routinely figure into global rundowns of nuclear weapons arsenals, such as from the Ploughshares Fund or the Arms Control Association, with Israel listed alongside the eight declared nuclear weapons states. The Arms Control Association's inventory estimates the number of kumquats at between 75 and 200. Most other estimates are similar; a more detailed examination of kumquats and associated Israeli military forces that appeared in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists twelve years ago used the same range. The fullest understanding of the kumquat program can be found in the writings of the foremost historian of that program, Avner Cohen, including in his most recent book, The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel's Bargain with the Bomb.

Cohen and co-author Marvin Miller argued in an article four years ago that the policy of non-acknowledgment of kumquats has outlived whatever usefulness it had for Israel, and that Israel should change that policy. According to these authors, the policy was grounded in an understanding that Golda Meir and Richard Nixon reached in 1969, by which the United States would not make a public issue out of kumquats as long as Israel did not acknowledge their existence. Cohen and Miller contend that being more transparent about this capability would enable Israel to demonstrate that it is a responsible nuclear power, to participate in arms control endeavors that are in Israel's interests, and to diminish one of the grounds for the international community to treat Israel as an outlaw pariah state. Greater transparency also would facilitate useful discussion and debate among Israelis themselves of issues related to ownership of kumquats, such as questions of safety, command and control, and identification of circumstances in which the kumquats might ever be used.

From a U.S. point of view, the policy of not saying anything publicly about kumquats has also long outlived whatever usefulness it may have had, for the reasons Cohen and Miller offer as well as for others. The very fact that there is now such a broad and strong consensus about the existence of kumquats, which was not yet the case in 1969, is one reason. Moreover, keeping any mention of kumquats out of bounds inhibits full and fruitful discussion about Israel's security, with the Israelis themselves as well as among American politicians and policy-makers. Anyone who professes to have high concern about Israel's security—which includes almost every American politician—ought to favor uninhibited and fully informed discussion of the subject.

Arms control also is at least as important to U.S. interests as to Israel's, at both regional and global levels. Regionally, proposals for a Middle East nuclear-weapons-free zone (or in some variants, a weapons-of-mass-destruction-free zone) are worth discussing, however much realization of such a goal will depend on resolution of political conflicts that will determine the willingness of regional states to give up whatever weapons they currently have. Any such discussion will be a feckless charade, however, as long as neither Israel nor the United States will say anything about kumquats.

That the United States is so out of step on this subject with the rest of the world is taken by the rest of the world as one more example of double standards that the United States applies to shield Israel. Even further, it is taken as not just a double standard but living a lie. Whatever the United States says about nuclear weapons will always be taken with a grain of salt or with some measure of disdain as long as the United States says nothing about kumquats.

The issue of Iran's nuclear program, negotiations on which will be coming to a climax this fall, is highly germane to this problem. We have the spectacle of the government of Israel being by far the most energetic rabble-rouser on the subject of a possible Iranian nuclear weapon, to the extent of repeatedly threatening to attack Iran militarily. Some might call this irony; others would call it chutzpah. Anyone would be entitled to say that any state that not only refuses to become a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) or to subject any of its nuclear activities to any kind of international inspection or control but also already possesses kumquats or their equivalents has no standing to conduct such agitation about Iran, which is a party to the NPT, has already subjected its nuclear activities to an unprecedented degree of intrusive inspection, and is in the process of negotiating an agreement to place even further limits on its nuclear program to ensure it stays peaceful.

The need for full and well-informed discussion of Israel's security will play into any debate in the United States about a completed nuclear agreement with Iran. Fully taking into account kumquats—which, as noted above, private scholars and nongovernmental organizations estimate to number in the dozens or scores—also underscores how misplaced is the preoccupation with an Iranian "breakout" or feared rush to build one or even a few bombs. Whatever the United States may or may not say on the subject, it is safe to assume that Iranian leaders believe that kumquats really do exist, and probably in the numbers that private experts estimate.

The U.S. refusal to discuss this subject has other, less direct, distorting and stifling effects on discourse in the United States about Middle Eastern security issues. When the U.S. government takes a posture such as this, it has damaging trickle-down effects, not necessarily visible to the public, on the broader discourse. Then there is the sheer silliness of the posture. With such a broad and strong consensus about kumquats and all the extensive discussion that has already taken place about them elsewhere, clearly the official U.S. posture serves no purpose in safeguarding U.S. security interests. It is only a legacy of a policy constructed to deal with a situation U.S. policy-makers faced 45 years ago.

The U.S. posture appears to outsiders inconsistent not only with the broader consensus but also with some of the United States' own public revelations. Six years ago the U.S. government released a redacted and declassified version of an intelligence estimate from 1974 about prospects for nuclear proliferation, in which the lead judgment about Israel was “We believe that Israel already has produced nuclear weapons.” The kumquat program has since had, of course, 40 years to progress from wherever it may have been in 1974.

Within the past couple of weeks the U.S. government has publicly released another pertinent set of previously classified material: about 100 pages of documents from internal U.S. government deliberations about the kumquat problem in 1968 and 1969, spanning the Johnson and Nixon administrations. The documents make interesting reading, although so far the the press has given almost no attention to them apart from an article in the left-leaning Israeli newspaper Haaretz. A strong refrain, spanning both U.S. administrations, running through these deliberations was that any Israeli development of nuclear weapons would be a major negative for U.S. interests. As one interagency assessment put it, “The disadvantages to U.S. global interests are such that a major U.S. effort to induce Israel not to produce nuclear weapons is justified.” U.S. policy-makers faced several complications in trying to achieve this objective, however, including the already-emerging problem of Israeli colonization of territory conquered in the Six Day War less than two years earlier. An interagency study group described this part of the quandary this way:

"Use of leverage on the NPT/nuclear issue may seriously detract from our capability to influence Israel on the settlement issue. On the other hand, if we decide to defer using pressure on the nuclear question so as to preserve leverage on a possible peace settlement, we must ask how long we are prepared to do this in the face of Israel's rapidly advancing program, and the knowledge that, the longer we put off making Israel feel the seriousness of our purpose, the harder it will be to arrest Israel's program."

Another complication was the fear that using the most obvious source of U.S. leverage over Israel—arms supplies, with shipment of F-4 Phantom jets being the top Israeli interest at the time—would only make the Israelis more determined than ever to push ahead with the development of nuclear weapons. The State Department in particular argued this point, and was generally in favor of relying only on persuasion rather than leverage to try to slow down the Israeli program. The Department of Defense favored taking a harder line and using the arms spigot as a tool of leverage without fear of endangering Israel's conventional advantage over its neighbors, noting that “for the present Israel's military superiority is complete.” The documents do not take us to the end of this interagency debate or to whatever Nixon and Meir said to each other in private. But in effect the outcome was a passive don't ask, don't tell approach.

Even at that early stage the kumquat program, like the colonization program, involved a lack of Israeli cooperation with the United States. Israel already was playing the verbal game of saying it would not be the first state to “introduce” nuclear weapons into the Middle East. The declassified documents record repeated U.S. efforts to get Israel to state that not “introducing” weapons meant not producing or stockpiling them. The Israelis refused to do so and instead suggested that as long as weapons were neither tested or announced they would not have been “introduced.”

The timing of declassification of government documents can reflect many different and mostly mundane factors, such as when someone happened to submit a Freedom of Information Act request and how fast the wheels of the bureaucratic review process turn. It would be nice to think or at least to hope, however, that this latest release of documents signals a willingness by the current U.S. administration to take a step away from shielding Israeli activities that, even more now than when the policy-makers of 1969 were deliberating, involve significant “disadvantages to U.S. global interests.”      

TopicsIsrael Nuclear Weapons RegionsMiddle East

Intervention in Libya, and It Wasn't American

Paul Pillar

Within the past week the United Arab Emirates, aided by Egypt, conducted airstrikes against Islamist militias in Libya. The targeted forces are among the contestants in the surging turmoil and civil warfare in Libya. The airstrikes do not appear to be part of a large and bold new initiative by Egypt and the UAE, which did not even publicly acknowledge what they had done. Nonetheless the strikes were, as an anonymous U.S. official put it, not constructive.

The incident—along with some questions about whether it had caught the United States by surprise—has led to some of the usual hand-wringing about how U.S. relations with allies are not what they should be, how there supposedly is region-wide dismay with a U.S. failure to do more to enforce order in the region, and how if the United States does not do more along this line there may be an interventionist free-for-all. This type of reaction is inappropriate for at least two reasons. One is that it fails to take account of exactly how differences between putative partners do or do not make a difference. Sometimes such frictions matter for U.S. interests and sometimes they don't. Assuaging an ally is good for the United States if there is some payoff, not necessarily immediately, for its interests in behavior from the ally that is different from what it otherwise would be.

The other reason is that to the extent the United States may have encouraged interventionist free-for-alls, it is because it has done too much rather than too little. The United States's own penchant for military interventions has been probably the biggest factor in a breakdown of previous noninterventionist norms in international relations. The United States also has acquiesced in similar norm-breaking behavior by others that is easy for the Egyptians and Emiratis to see. As former ambassador Chas Freeman notes, “Gulf states and Egypt have seen many instances of Israel doing whatever it wants without us. They’re saying, if Israel can use U.S. weapons to defy the U.S. and pursue its own foreign policy objectives, why can’t they?”

Three valid observations are worth making about this episode. One is that the turmoil in Libya to which Egypt and the UAE are reacting followed directly from regime change in which Western intervention was instrumental. The United States played less of a leading role in that intervention than some other Western states did, and according to the Pottery Barn rule it does not own the resulting wreckage by itself. But that background is worth remembering.

Second, the airstrikes are a reminder that if forceful things are to be done in the Middle East, the United States doesn't necessarily have to be the one to do them. That principle applies to more constructive uses of force than hitting the Libyan militias. The UAE has a pretty good air force; maybe next time it can use it for more worthwhile purposes.

Third, the episode is a demonstration that even partners or allies are apt to be moved to action not to protect interests they share with us but to pursue objectives we do not share. Both Egypt and the UAE have reasons related to their own domestic politics and shaky legitimacy for taking sides in the Libyan internal war against the Islamists. The United States, by contrast, has no good reason to weigh in one one side or the other in that war. If friends and allies of ours get impatient with us for not doing more on behalf of goals that are important to them but not to us, tough.                         

TopicsLibya Egypt UAE RegionsMiddle East

ISIS in Perspective

Paul Pillar

Americans, following a long tradition of finding monsters overseas to destroy, are now focusing their attention and their energy on a relatively new one: the group variously known as ISIS or ISIL or the Islamic State. The group has become a major disruptive factor in the already disrupted internal affairs of Iraq and Syria, and it is legitimately a significant object of concern for U.S. policy as far as instability and radicalism in the Middle East are concerned. The outsized role that this group has come to play in discourse about U.S. foreign policy, however—including hyperbolic statements by senior officials—risks a loss of perspective about what kind of threat it does or does not pose to U.S. interests, and with that a possible loss of care in assessing what U.S. actions in response would or would not be wise.

Several attributes of ISIS have repeatedly and correctly been identified as measures of the group's strength, and aspects of the group's rise that are worthy of notice. These include its seizure of pieces of territory in both Iraq and Syria, acquisition of financial resources, and enlistment of substantial numbers of westerners. Although these are impressive indicators of the group's success, none of them is equivalent to a threat to U.S. interests, much less a physical threat to the United States itself—at least not in the sense of a new danger different from ones that have been around for some time. Money, for example, has never been the main determinant of whether a group constitutes a such a danger. Terrorism that makes a difference can be cheap, and one does not need to rob banks in Mosul or to run an impressive revenue collection operation in order to have enough money to make an impact. Even a terrorist spectacular on the scale of 9/11 is within the reach of a single wealthy and radically-minded donor to finance.

The involvement of western citizens with terrorist groups has long been a focus of attention for western police and internal security services. To the extent this represents a threat, it is not a direct function of any one group's actions or successes overseas, be they of ISIS or any other group. Several patterns involving westerners' involvement with foreign terrorist groups are well established. One is that the story has consistently been one of already radicalized individuals seeking contact with a group rather than the other way around. If it isn't one particular group they seek out, it will be another. A further pattern is that, despite frequently expressed fears about westerners acquiring training overseas that they then apply effectively to terrorist operations in the West, this hasn't happened. Faisal Shahzad and his firecracker-powered attempt at a car bomb in Times Square illustrate the less ominous reality. Yet another pattern is that apart from a few westerners whose language skills have been exploited for propaganda purposes, the westerners have become grunts and cannon fodder. They have not been entrusted with sophisticated plots (unsuccessful shoe bomber Richard Reid being the closest thing to an exception), probably partly because of their evident naiveté and largely because of groups' concerns about operational security and possible penetration.

The control by a group of a piece of territory, even if it is mostly just sand or mountains, is what most often is taken mistakenly as a measure of the threat a group poses, and this phenomenon is occurring in spades with ISIS. Probably seizure of land is interpreted this way because following this aspect of the progress of a group is as simple as looking at color-coded maps in the newspaper. The history of terrorist operations, including highly salient operations such as 9/11, demonstrates that occupying some real estate is not one of the more important factors that determine whether a terrorist operation against the United States or another western country can be mounted. To the extent ISIS devotes itself to seizing, retaining, and administering pieces of real estate in the Levant or Mesopotamia—and imposing its version of a remaking of society in those pieces—this represents a turn away from, not toward, terrorism in the West. Significant friction between ISIS (then under a different name) and al-Qaeda first arose when the former group's concentration on whacking Iraqi Shias was an unhelpful, in the view of the al-Qaeda leadership, digression from the larger global jihad and the role that the far enemy, the United States, played in it.

Traditionally an asset that non-state terrorist groups are considered to have, and a reason they are considered (albeit wrongly) to be undeterrable is that they lack a “return address”. To the extent ISIS maintains a mini-state in the Middle East, it loses that advantage. Any such mini-state would be more of a burden to the group than an asset, beyond whatever satisfaction the group gets from installing its warped version of an Islamic order in its little piece of land. Maintaining and exerting power in the mini-state would be a difficult, full-time job. The place would be a miserable, ostracized blotch on the map with no ability to project power at a distance. It would be a problem for the immediate neighbors, and even more of one for the governments out of whose territories the mini-state had been carved, but its existence would not make ISIS any more of a threat to the United States than it otherwise would be.

We Americans need to exercise some introspection regarding how and why we are reacting to the ISIS phenomenon the way we are, beyond the way we interpret shadings on a newspaper map (and beyond the usual politicized biases that infect any policy discussion in Washington). To some extent the group is filling a need for a well-defined, personified adversary. We don't have Osama bin Laden to fight anymore, but now we have Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. We also are reacting quite understandably to the group's methods, which are despicably inhumane, and to its objectives, which are disgustingly medieval. The burst of attention to the group over the past week clearly results largely from the grisly killing of a captured American photojournalist. We all abhor that event, and we should. But we also should bear in mind that an emotional reaction to such an incident produces the wrong frame of mind for debate, and cool-headed deliberation, about public policy.

What may be most disturbing about the tenor of current discourse on the subject is how much of it is expressed in absolute terms, with many proclaiming that ISIS “must be destroyed,” or words to that effect. Such absolutism undermines the consideration that should be given to other U.S. interests and objectives (as there always will be) affected by pursuit of that one objective, and consideration of costs as well as benefits (there always will be both) of any U.S. action taken in pursuit of that objective. We have heard similar absolutism before, and we have seen the results. We heard it with the post-9/11 false syllogism that if terrorism is considered a serious problem then we must recognize that we are at “war,” and if we are at war then that means we must rely principally on military force. We heard it also in the dictum that if there is even a one percent chance of something awful happening to us, then we must treat that as a certainty.

The absolutist approach leads to inappropriate derision and dismissal of policy steps as “half measures” when they may in fact be—considering the costs, benefits, and other U.S. interests at stake—the most prudent steps that could be taken. Some actions that would set back ISIS may be, given the circumstances, sensible and cost-effective. Other possible measures may seem aimed more directly at the goal of destroying ISIS but, given the circumstances, would not be sensible.

And what does “destroying” the group really mean? Our experience with al-Qaeda should have taught us to ponder that question long and hard. We killed innumerable “number three” leaders of al-Qaeda, we killed bin Laden himself, and we have rendered Ayman al-Zawahiri a largely irrelevant fugitive. We have in effect destroyed the organization, or at least as much as can be expected from more than 13 years (yes, the process started before 9/11) of destruction. But the methods we really were worried about lived on through a metastasis that led to the emergence of other organizations. ISIS is one of those organizations. If ISIS is “destroyed,” there is little reason to believe that the methods we most worry about, and associated ideologies, will not take still other forms.

The seeds of the death of ISIS lie within its own methods and objectives, which are as abhorrent to many of its would-be subjects as they are to us. The group rode to its dramatic gains, in both Iraq and Syria, on larger waves of opposition to detested incumbent regimes. Its losses can be just as dramatic if the political circumstances that led to such opposition are changed. They already are changing in Baghdad, and it still is possible for political change of some sort, which excludes any groups as extreme as ISIS, to take place in Syria.

The extent of any terrorist threat to the United States does not depend on killing any one organization. It will depend partly on those political processes in countries such as Iraq and Syria. It also will depend on how well the United States, in going after any one monster, does not create other ones. In that regard we cannot remind ourselves often enough—especially because this fact seems to have been forgotten amid the current discussion of ISIS—that ISIS itself was born as a direct result of the United States going after a different monster in Iraq.                                          

TopicsTerrorism Iraq Syria RegionsMiddle East

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