Paul Pillar

Speculative Mischief and Flight 370

Paul Pillar

The longer the mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 continues, the more opportunity there will be for stories about what happened to the plane to take root and to endure well after an investigation has debunked them. The start of such a story does not require much beyond someone's sheer speculation—perhaps some scrap, some grain of truth, out of which an entire scenario gets spun. And then the story becomes another example of the urban legend phenomenon: of how nothing much more than the longevity and ubiquity of a belief leads many people to accept it as true.

Beliefs about happenings with uncertain explanations can have consequences for public policy. This is not necessarily wrong when investigations have yet to reach a conclusion and the belief in question might still turn out to be true. For some time after TWA Flight 800 exploded off Long Island in 1996, the possibility that the plane was intentionally downed contributed to an increase in resources the United States allocated to counterterrorism. The response reflected the occurrence in rapid succession of the plane crash and two actual terrorist attacks in 1996: a pipe bomb at the Atlanta Olympics and the truck bombing of a U.S. military barracks at Khobar Towers, Saudi Arabia.

What is certainly not warranted is to continue to run with a particular belief after a completed investigation has dismissed it. Eighteen years after the crash of TWA 800, it still provides fodder for those who refuse to accept the investigative finding that an accidental explosion in a fuel tank brought the plane down.

This kind of thing is mostly the work of the usual corps of private sector conspiracy theorists, What is even more inexcusable is when anyone with a policy agenda does something similar. Richard Cheney continued to refer to a meeting that 9/11 chief hijacker Mohamed Atta supposedly had with an Iraqi official in Prague, after U.S. agencies had exhaustively investigated the possibility and determined that no such meeting had taken place.

Perhaps a policy agenda has helped to generate a story that appeared during the past week at Al-Jazeera alleging that the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988 was the doing of Iran, working through the group known as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine—General Command. The idea that the PFLP-GC had planted the bomb was actually an early investigative hypothesis, although the state sponsor mentioned most often was Syria, which provided a haven to the group. The hypothesis proved to be a dead end. A very long and laborious investigation, which painstakingly pieced together the forensic evidence, determined conclusively that the bombing was instead the work of Libya.

There are multiple reasons to hope that there soon will be a breakthrough in the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and that investigators can rapidly get to the truth of what happened to the plane. One of the reasons is to prevent the build-up of momentum of untruthful stories about what happened to it.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Laurent ERRERA. CC BY-SA 2.0.

TopicsPublic OpinionTerrorism RegionsIranLibyaUnited StatesSyriaMalaysia

What the Saudis Fear

Paul Pillar

As the government of Saudi Arabia does strange things and pitches fits, such as at the beginning of this year declining to take up one of the usually-coveted rotational seats on the United Nations Security Council, we tend to view Saudi motivations and concerns through a lens that distorts confrontations in the Middle East into our own preferred way of looking at such conflicts. Thus we often view the Saudis as prominent members of a “moderate” bloc of regional states that are principally in confrontation with a different bloc led by Iran. This view was augmented by misinterpretation of a leaked diplomatic cable that was taken to mean that the Saudi leadership would welcome a U.S. military attack on Iran. Actually, the Saudis would view any such warfare in their neighborhood as a calamity. Riyadh certainly does have concerns about Iran, but its usual way of dealing with those concerns has been through rapprochement with Tehran. The Saudis are once again taking steps to improve relations with the cross-Gulf neighbor.

American perceptions of Saudi apoplexy about the Syrian civil war also tend to to be viewed in the context of debate and discussion among Americans—in this case, in terms of charges that American unwillingness or inability to do anything significant about the civil war is a manifestation of U.S. “retreat” from the world. But the apoplexy isn't about American retreat, either real or imagined. Rather, the Saudi concern is different and it is simple; it is about sectarian conflict. It is seeing fellow Sunnis fight against Alawites and Shia, and it believes it has a strong stake in the Sunnis winning.

This stake in another country's sectarian conflict is related to the peculiar nature of the al-Saud family's claim to legitimacy and to political power. It is a claim based on religion, and not at all on popular sovereignty. It is not for nothing that the Saudi king calls himself the custodian of the two holy mosques. Protection of Sunni brethren is part of upholding the claim to legitimacy.

Another piece of odd Saudi behavior—a vendetta against the Muslim Brotherhood—also is rooted in matters of political legitimacy and religion. Saudi Arabia, along with its allies Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, recently withdrew its ambassador from fellow Gulf Cooperation Council member Qatar. The Qataris have been a thorn in the Saudis' side for several reasons, but the biggest immediate one has been Qatari support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The Saudis have strongly supported the Egyptian military's coup that deposed the Muslim Brotherhood president of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi. Now the Saudis have formally designated the Brotherhood as a terrorist group—a designation that has no basis in the behavior of the Brotherhood, which foreswore violence many years ago and is the only organization on the Saudis' terrorist list that is not an armed group.

The Muslim Brotherhood evokes especially strong fear among Saudi royals not because of any moves it is making to undermine the Saudi regime directly but instead because it embodies a combination of religious commitment to Islam (on the Sunni side) and pursuit of political power through democratic means. This combination presents the greatest possible challenge to the legitimacy of the ruling Saudi family.

U.S. interests do not converge at all with the fears that are driving the Saudis. The United States has no stake in sectarian contests between Sunni and Shia, and it can only hurt itself by appearing to take sides. As for the Saudi confrontation with the Muslim Brotherhood, the American proclivity for viewing Islamists dimly, combined with the image of Saudi Arabia being among the “moderates,” has led Americans to overlook who in this confrontation is Islamist and democratic and who is Islamist and authoritarian.

The United States has valid realist reasons to be heavily engaged with Saudi Arabia. But it has nothing in common with the chief fears that are motivating Saudi Arabia's rulers.

Image: Flickr/Al Jazeera English. CC BY-SA 2.0.

TopicsAutocracyDemocracyUNReligionTerrorism RegionsEgyptIranQatarSaudi Arabia

Rice and the Toughness Fallacy

Paul Pillar

The rhetorical drumbeat from rightward portions of the commentariat, to the effect that Russia's moves in Ukraine should be attributed to a supposed pusillanimous “retreat” of American power and to adversaries responding by becoming more aggressive, shows no signs of abating. It continues even though, as Robert Golan-Vilella nicely explains and I have noted, the historical evidence simply does not show that the world works that way and that other governments make foreign policy decisions that way. The impetus for the drumbeat includes broader habits of exceptionalist thinking about American power and the more specific political objective of disparaging Barack Obama by blaming him for just about everything going wrong in the world. The theme regarding the latter objective is that Obama is weak and unassertive—this notion being basically a continuation of the mythical “apology tour” that Mitt Romney used to talk about.

An opinion piece by Condoleezza Rice illustrates another, complementary motivation, which is to try to paint over the failures of past policies that have laid claim to being strong and assertive. Rice's message is a simple one that more military spending, more obduracy, more militancy, and more deployments of armed forces are a good thing, and always will make others cower in the face of U.S. power. There is nary a bit of analysis, even of the limited sort that would fit in the confines of an op ed, as to exactly how any specific policy implied by what she is saying would be, with respect to any of the topics that she quickly mentions, better than the alternatives.

Rice even still seems to be in regime change mode. She says, “ We should reach out to Russian youth, especially students and young professionals...Democratic forces in Russia need to hear American support for their ambitions. They, not Putin, are Russia’s future.” So what conclusion is Putin supposed to draw, and how exactly is that supposed to influence his behavior or the behavior of any adversary anywhere else? Is he going to pull back from Crimea because our “reaching out” would cause his regime to totter? Hardly.

Give Rice credit for having the audacity to try to go on the argumentative offensive on some of the very topics on which she ought to be most defensive. One is the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008. The invasion—which was, as with Crimea, a Russian use of military force in a former Soviet republic—is Exhibit A for the proposition that the ostensibly tough policies that Rice favors do not dissuade people like Putin from doing things like that. The invasion occurred in the last year of the George W. Bush administration, after nearly eight years of such policies. Yet Rice would have us believe that by sending U.S. warships to the Black Sea and airlifting Georgian troops back home from Iraq, a Russian goal of toppling the Georgian government was foiled (“an admission made to me by the Russian foreign minister”). She blames the Russian military occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia on lily-livered Europeans unwilling to take tougher anti-Russian actions—later exacerbated, of course, by Obama's policies. She makes no mention of just what threat of military action was being communicated by U.S. moves, whether any such threat was credible given the consequences if it were executed, and what those consequences would be (a U.S.-Russian land war in the Caucasus?)

Rice says “signs that we are desperate for a nuclear agreement with Iran cannot be separated from Putin’s recent actions.” That's an odd formulation to begin with, given that Russia is part of the diplomatic coalition, as a partner of the United States, that is negotiating the agreement—so Russia must be just as “desperate.” And if one looks at the negotiations as not just an exercise in demonstrating toughness or weakness but instead in terms of their actual objective of placing strict and verifiable limits on Iran's nuclear program, Rice again is quietly whitewashing recent history. The Bush administration, uninterested in doing any business with Iran, blew an opportunity to limit that program when there were only a fraction of the Iranian centrifuges spinning that there are now. The preliminary agreement reached last November is the farthest-reaching restriction on the Iranian program ever achieved, with only minimal sanctions relief in return. If that's desperation, we need more of it.

In trying to connect assorted messiness in the Middle East to Obama's “retreat,” Rice refers to a “vacuum being filled by extremists such as al-Qaeda reborn in Iraq and Syria.” Al-Qaeda in Iraq was born, nor reborn, as a direct consequence of the Bush administration's war in Iraq. It didn't exist there before, and since the U.S. invasion it never went away. Now, in the form of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Shams (ISIS), it has become as well the most extreme participant in the violence in Syria.

If one were to try to make an argument about connections between the crisis in Ukraine and reputations nurtured by previous U.S. policies, a more plausible argument—more plausible than the one about lack of toughness encouraging tough guys to make trouble—involves the Iraq War. That act of U.S. aggression is recent enough that it still is a prominent detriment to U.S. credibility whenever the United States tries to complain about someone else's use of military force against another sovereign state, including Putin's use of force in Crimea. This damage is, along with ISIS and heightened sectarian conflict in the Middle East, part of the mess from his predecessor that Obama is having to deal with today.

As national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice had one of the most egregious failures that anyone holding that position could have: the absence of any policy process leading to a foreign policy decision as major as launching an offensive war. No meeting or option paper ever considered whether launching the war was a good idea. Had there been a policy process, maybe the likelihood of some of the resulting mess would have been considered. That horrendous failure cannot be undone, but we can at least resist Rice's later revision of history.

TopicsGrand StrategyGreat Powers RegionsRussiaIranGeorgiaUnited StatesUkraine

More Sanctioning Madness

Paul Pillar

Seventeen years ago Richard Haass, now president of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote an article titled “Sanctioning Madness”. The crux of his argument was:

With a few exceptions, the growing use of economic sanctions to promote foreign policy objectives is deplorable. This is not simply because sanctions are expensive, although they are. Nor is it strictly a matter of whether sanctions "work"; the answer to that question invariably depends on how demanding a task is set for a particular sanction. Rather, the problem with economic sanctions is that they frequently contribute little to American foreign policy goals while being costly and even counterproductive.

Haass was not saying to give up sanctions entirely. But they should not be the go-to tool, reached for habitually and unthinkingly, to address any foreign policy problem under the sun.

The American sanctions habit has not lessened at all during the intervening years, especially on Capitol Hill. Now Congress is getting out its sanctions pen yet again to see what it can do to Russia in response to the Crimean crisis. This may be an even clearer indication of the sanctions addiction than the recent unsuccessful effort to impose more sanctions on Iran, given that the latter move was more of a calculated attempt to sabotage an ongoing negotiation.

The multiple drawbacks and limitations of economic sanctions are too infrequently considered before sanctions are enacted. These include issues of who exactly in the target country will be hurt, and who might actually benefit. They also include consideration of counterproductive political reactions, including resistance to be seen buckling under pressure.

The costs, including economic costs, to ourselves of sanctions we impose are insufficiently acknowledged. In some situations trade patterns are such that the costs to ourselves may be minimal, but in those circumstances, and for that very reason, the desired impact on the target country is likely to be minimal as well. This may be the case with Russia today, with which the European Union has much more trade than the United States. Unilateral U.S. sanctions are thus likely to be ineffective with regard to Russia, while being needlessly disruptive to cooperation and common purpose with regard to the Europeans. Of course, any policy conducted with an attitude of “---- the E.U.”is not likely to be swayed by that concept.

The most important shortcoming to how sanctions tend to be used is a failure to link them carefully to the behavior we would like to see on the part of the target government. This means being very clear about exactly what it is to which we want the other side to say yes. It also means being clear in our own minds how the sanctions fit into an overall set of incentives and disincentives that will make saying yes seem more attractive than the alternative.

Ask someone pushing for sanctions against Russia today what they are intended to accomplish, and the answer is likely to be an end to Russian military occupation of Crimea. But that concept needs clarification, given that a reversal of moves made over the past week would still leave a Russian military presence on the peninsula by virtue of previous treaties and base leases. Needed also is a more complete package of understandings with the Ukrainians on matters of interest and concern to Russia, ranging from Ukraine not joining NATO to the status of the Russian language within Ukraine. It is unlikely that Russian military withdrawals will take place in the absence of some such understandings. It is thus unlikely U.S. sanctions would do any good unless carefully integrated into such a larger package.

The sanctions habit has persisted because imposing sanctions is a primitive, easy way to “do something” about difficult problems on which there is an urge to do something. It is a gesture. Congress needs to decide whether gestures are more important than making progress in getting out of the current crisis.

Image: Flickr/Kevin Dooley. CC BY 2.0.

TopicsSanctions RegionsRussiaUnited StatesUkraine

Netanyahu's Anti-Iranian Rant

Paul Pillar

Benjamin Netanyahu's tiresome vilification of Iran has taken on the characteristics of a rote obsession that diverges farther and farther from truth, reality, and his own ostensible objective. It is as if—in pursuing his real objective of keeping Iran ostracized, preventing any U.S. agreements with it, and keeping the specter of an Iranian threat permanently overshadowing everything else he'd rather not talk about—he has been reduced to a ritual, repetitive chant of “Iran bad, very bad” and does not care whether or not reflection on what he is saying shows it to make any sense.

Outside of the anti-Americanism that is heard so widely and often, it is hard to think of any other leader or government so dedicated to heaping calumnies unceasingly on another nation, at least one not currently waging war on the heaper's country. Maybe some American Cold Warriors fixated on the Evil Empire came close. Attacks on Iran occupied most of the first half of Netanyahu's speech Tuesday to AIPAC. Haaretz accompanied a transcript of the speech with one of those graphics depicting the frequency with which particular words have been used. For the entire speech Iran was mentioned far more than any word other than Israel.

Maybe the relentlessness of this latest iteration of the chant reflects Netanyahu's frustration over his recent failure to get the U.S. Congress to sabotage the nuclear negotiations with Iran by slapping on new, deal-breaking sanctions. Perhaps he also felt a need to amp up the attacks to bring attention back to the Iranian specter from the crisis in Ukraine.

Falsehoods continue to flow out of Netanyahu's mouth on this subject. Maybe the technique of getting people to believe something if it is repeated often enough is working, as reflected by some of the same falsehoods coming out of the mouths of members of Congress. He referred, for example, to the need for pressure to get Iranians to “abandon their nuclear weapons program.” No: according to the U.S. intelligence community, Iran has not decided to build a nuclear weapon, and Israeli intelligence does not disagree.

Netanyahu said that “Iran openly calls for our [i.e., Israel's] destruction.” No: the former Iranian president who once made a metaphorical statement that got mis-translated into something along that line isn't even around any more. Actually, the current Iranian government says if the Palestinian problem is resolved then it would be possible for Iran to extend formal recognition to the state of Israel.

Netanyahu asserted that Iran “continues to build ICBMs.” No: there is no evidence that Iran is building ICBMs or even intermediate range ballistic missiles. Iran does have medium range ballistic missiles, but testing and development even of those has been quiescent lately.

In an opening sequence in the speech in which Netanyahu referred to medical and other humanitarian aid that Israel furnishes overseas, he said that Iran doesn't do any such thing because “the only thing that Iran sends abroad are rockets, terrorists and missiles to murder, maim and menace the innocent.” No: actually Iran does provide medical and similar humanitarian aid.

The prime minister's analytical assertions are similarly divorced from reality. In arguing for the deal-breaking, impossible-to-achieve objective of no Iranian enrichment of uranium, he said that “letting Iran enrich uranium would open up the floodgates” of “nuclear proliferation in the Middle East and around the world.” But Iran already has been enriching uranium for some time, and no floodgates have opened. Even if Iran, contrary to its current policy, were to build a nuclear weapon, they still would be unlikely to open.

Netanyahu seemed to dare us not to take him seriously when, in a jarringly discordant note alongside all of the alarmism about a supposedly deadly and dire threat, he tried to crack a joke to accompany his falsehood about ICBMs: “You remember that beer commercial, 'this Bud’s for you'? Well, when you see Iran building ICBMs, just remember, America, that Scud’s for you.” Hardy har har.

Glaringly absent from the tirade was any of the perspective of a person living in a glass house who should be careful about not throwing stones. For example, along with self-congratulation for medical aid Netanyahu said Israel has provided Palestinians from the Gaza Strip, there was no mention of the misery that Israel has inflicted on people living in the same territory through a suffocating blockade and military-inflicted destruction. And alongside all of the alarums about a possible Iranian nuclear weapon there was of course no mention of Israel having the only nuclear weapons in the Middle East, totally outside any international control regime and with their existence not even admitted.

Nor was there any real application of logic to implications for policy, given that the most important policy fixture at the moment is the nuclear negotiation. If Netanyahu's objective really were to assure prevention of an Iranian nuke—rather than assuring persistence of the issue of a possible Iranian nuke—the conclusion would be to support the negotiations rather than to try to sabotage them. Even if one believed all the calumnies, they are either irrelevant to the nuclear talks or all the more reason to hope they succeed.

Listening to a speech such as this, it is a wonder that many Israelis condone a leader who is offering his country unending conflict and confrontation. And it is a wonder that many Americans, including ones with admiration and fondness for Israel, are influenced by him. He is not acting in the best interests of the state they admire and love, let alone in the interests of the United States. The reciter of the primitive chants of hate against Iran has a narrower objective. As Henry Siegman observes, “To say that Netanyahu is not a visionary leader is an understatement. To be sure, he is a clever tactician who knows how to stay in office. That goal, which he believes is unbreakably linked to retaining his leadership of Israel’s political right wing, trumps every other domestic and international challenge that faces Israel.”

Image: Avi Ohayon, GPO. Flickr/Prime Minister of Israel.

TopicsCongressDomestic PoliticsSanctionsNuclear Proliferation RegionsIsraelIranPalestinian territories

Crimea, Credibility, and Intervention

Paul Pillar

The Crimean crisis has energized those who wallow in a conventional wisdom that, as Fareed Zakaria noted last week, had already become a familiar theme on the opinion pages. This is the theme that the United States is in retreat, that it is insufficiently assertive, and that this lack of assertiveness is having awful consequences around the world. The crisis is tailor-made to encourage such wallowing, involving as it does a use of armed forces by the successor to the old Cold War adversary. So no time has been wasted by those who complain that soft U.S. policies have brought things in Ukraine to this juncture and who cry for more U.S. assertiveness in response, including saber-rattling with U.S. armed forces.

The conventional wisdom prospers, despite empirically mistaken aspects of it that Zakaria points out, partly because of the difference between punditry and incumbency and the related difference between posturing and policy-making. Pundits can do grand hand-wringing about supposed decline without the hard labor of thinking through which specific alternative options really exist with regard to specific problems and what their specific results are likely to be. It prospers also because of conceptual sloppiness that, as Paul Saunders notes, tends to equate leadership with the use of military force.

Most fundamentally, this conventional wisdom is one manifestation of a longstanding American tendency to view international politics as a single global game that pits the United States against sundry bad guys. The bad guys have taken various identities—the Soviet Union and world communism for the most part during the Cold War, and more often Islamists of some stripe today—but the distinctions don't seem to matter all that much if it is all seen as one big contest in which setbacks for one side somewhere on the global playing field mean that side is losing overall.

One of the major flaws in this perspective is that much of import that happens in the world, including much that is violent or disturbing, is not the work of the United States and is not within the power of the United States to prevent. Another major flaw is that there is not nearly as much of a connection between what happens in a situation one place on the globe and how players assess credibility and motivations in a different situation someplace else. Governments simply do not gauge the credibility of other governments that way.

Much more important than any vague global reputation are the specific interests and options involved in whatever is the situation currently at hand. And so, regarding the Crimean situation, rather than calling for more saber-rattling as if it were some sort of general elixir that boosts U.S. influence worldwide, it is better to ask exactly how it would relate to any actual moves it would make sense—in our eyes, as well as Vladimir Putin's—to take. Is anyone seriously contemplating, in a sort of updated replay of 1853, the introduction of U.S. military forces in Crimea? If so, let us hope that sanity can be restored. If not, then how does any threatening gesture involving military force either help to deal with the problem in Ukraine or to enhance U.S. credibility anywhere else?

Also, rather than simply tallying every apparent advance by presumed foreign adversaries as if it were yardage gained in a football game, we need to ask what a particular move does to affect the adversary's interests and, even more importantly, our own. This means asking, for example, as Jacob Heilbrunn does, what Putin actually would or would not be gaining if he were to make more of a military move into Ukraine.

The global, indiscriminate hardline approach lends itself to exploitation for other purposes that also do not advance U.S. interests. The theme about American retreat is, of course, an old stand-by for politically attacking Barack Obama. An example of another kind of exploitation is Elliott Abrams arguing that the Crimean crisis is somehow a reason for passing the Kirk-Menendez bill to slap more sanctions on Iran. Never mind that his argument shows no cognizance of what is most needed at this juncture to keep the Iranians negotiating seriously. In fact, never mind the argument at all, because it is delivered not to improve the chance of reaching an acceptable agreement with Iran but instead to prevent any such agreement. Just savor the inventiveness necessary to contend that a proper response to a Russian military move in Crimea is to bash Iran with more sanctions. That makes about as much sense—unsurprisingly, given the neocon source—as saying that a proper response to a terrorist act by an Afghanistan-based group is to launch a war against Iraq.

Considering in tandem a Middle Eastern problem and a Russian military action in its own sphere of influence brings to mind one of the great historical instances of accidental simultaneity: in 1956, the Soviet quashing of the Hungarian revolt and the Israeli-Anglo-French invasion of Egypt. Zakaria mentions the latter of those two crises, in the course of admiring Dwight Eisenhower for wisely deflecting repeated calls, which sounded very similar to ones we hear today, for the United States to intervene hither and yon lest freedom retreat all over the world. Indiscriminately assuming a hardline posture is if anything even more unwise with the challenges of the moment than it would have been in the autumn of 1956. Russia has a more plausible claim to having a lasting and legitimate interest in Crimea than the Soviets ever did in Hungary. And an Iran that is on track to negotiate a more normal and nuclear-weapons-free relationship with the rest of the world is much different from an Egyptian strongman who made a nuisance of himself by nationalizing canals.

TopicsDomestic PoliticsHistoryPublic OpinionGreat PowersThe PresidencySanctions RegionsRussiaIranUnited StatesUkraine

The Sauna Files

Paul Pillar

A sometimes fascinating sideshow to political upheaval has been the sudden opening to public view of material evidence of how those who had been powerful and privileged, but are now fallen, had lived. There was, for example, the shoe collection of Imelda Marcos. Now there is the opulent estate of deposed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, with its classic car collection, golf course, private zoo, and all the rest. Much of our fascination is basically the same as the titillation afforded by glimpses into the lives of our own rich and famous, of whom any compromise of personal privacy is accomplished not by rebellious mobs crashing through gates but only by paparazzi with long-range lenses.

Potentially more substantive revelations, which sometimes accompany the exposure of lavish lifestyles and sometimes don't, come from gate-crashing political action that provides access to troves of documents. One of the best-known instances in modern times, which had nothing to do with lavish living, was the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979. Officials at the embassy did their best to destroy documents as their compound was about to be overrun but were only partly successful. Some documents were seized intact. Others had been put through a shredder but were compromised anyway when Iranians laboriously pieced together the strips of paper. The Iranians published many of both types.

Now a large number of documents that also escaped hurried attempts at destruction are coming into the public domain from Yanukovych's compound as well as the also opulent residence of deposed Ukrainian prosecutor general Viktor Pshonka. Most of the documents had been thrown into a boat harbor at Yanukovych's place, some bearing the char marks from an earlier attempt at burning. The oppositionists who control the compound and fished the documents out of the water are posting them online as they are drying out. The discipline and organization the occupiers are displaying leads one to expect processing and exploitation of the documents that will be as comprehensive and detailed as that of the Iranians who put together the strips of shredded paper. The Washington Post's William Booth, who describes himself as an experienced connoisseur of revolutionary sackings, says he has “never experienced a more orderly and polite mob” than the one that took over Yanukovych's compound, noting that he has “seen more unruly gangs at Epcot Center.”

We thus can anticipate a stream of interesting document-backed revelations. One of the intriguing topics comes up in papers that were found in a sauna at Pshonka's estate. They concern the Ukrainian regime's hiring of the big American law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom to prepare a report in 2012 on the government's prosecution of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. The publicly released report served the regime's purpose in exonerating the government from the charge that the prosecution was politically motivated. The report also was very critical of Tymoshenko's conduct in the case, although it found some things wrong in the government's procedures as well. It was not clear, however, whether whatever investigation went into the report was focused so narrowly on the case itself that it was not in a position to find any evidence of politicization in bringing the case in the first place. As Victoria Nuland, the State Department's spokesperson at the time, put it, "our concern is that Skadden Arps lawyers were obviously not going to find political motivation if they weren't looking for it."

One of the papers found in the sauna was a draft of the Skadden report with annotations suggesting that the Ukrainian officials were trying to push the law firm into making the report even more favorable to the government. Whether Skadden—which issued a statement this week saying it had taken on the project on condition that it would be “totally independent”—bowed to any such influence will require further study of the documents.

Maybe the documents about the Skadden report were merely thrown into the sauna during a hasty exodus. But the story becomes more appealing with the possibility that work on the documents was done there as well. What a delightful image: the prosecutor general, perhaps with a couple of his aides, all sitting naked and sweating while poring over the law firm's report to see how it could be made more favorable to them.

There are weightier and more pressing questions concerning the current crisis in Ukraine. But it will be interesting to see what else comes from these documents as the water and the sweat evaporate. We may get an added perspective on Tymoshenko's prosecution. We may also get food for thought and discussion regarding what happens when a foreign government pays a law firm to produce what is supposed to be an objective assessment of the government's own actions.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Bleiglass. CC BY-SA 3.0.

TopicsEthics RegionsUkraine

False Cheers for Democracy

Paul Pillar

A familiar conventional wisdom about how the last two U.S. administrations have approached democratization abroad has come up repeatedly in connection with crises in several foreign countries. George W. Bush is seen as the president who tried to promote democracy actively and proactively, even using military force in the effort, while Barack Obama is described as favoring a more diffident, lead-from-behind approach that defers to the initiative of the people to be democratized. There certainly have been significant differences in the approaches of the two presidents regarding political change abroad, and supporters of each approach voice well-rehearsed arguments in Peter Baker's review in the New York Times of current policy debate about the turmoil in Ukraine. Former Bush administration official Paula Dobriansky accuses the Obama administration of “disinterest in democracy promotion and an unwillingness to lead,” while deputy national security adviser Benjamin Rhodes says, “These democratic movements will be more sustainable if they are seen as not an extension of America or any other country, but coming from within these societies.”

Note that both Dobriansky and Rhodes refer specifically to democracy or democratic movements even though democracy is only one of several attributes that we might like to see in foreign political systems, and toward which we might want systems lacking those attributes to evolve. There also are, for example, several attributes that would come under the liberal part of liberal democracy and that involve civil liberties and limitations on what a government can do to its citizens. Those may be very important both to us and to the populations concerned, but they are something different from democracy, which has to do with the selection of rulers through some active and orderly expression of preference by the ruled. It often has been observed that for democracy to work well requires more than just the holding of elections. That is true, but holding fair elections and respecting their results, although not sufficient for successful democracy, is necessary for it and even a core part of the concept of democracy.

Here is where the invocation of democracy has been mistaken and misplaced. Some of the most enthusiastic proponents of active, U.S.-led promotion of democracy have more than once in recent months cheered what is one of the clearest possible negations of democracy: overthrow through nondemocratic means of a freely elected leader. This happened last July in Egypt when the Egyptian military removed from office Mohamed Morsi, who had been chosen president in a free and fair election. Now it has happened again with the ouster from the Ukrainian presidency of Viktor Yanukovych. There were good reasons to doubt the fairness of the election when Yanukovych first tried for the presidency in 2004 and the Orange Revolution ensued. But that was not the case with the election of 2010. Yanukovych's political opponent Yulia Tymoshenko alleged that this election result also was fraudulent, but the allegations did not stand up. All the pre-election polls and exit polls had Yanukovych winning, and in the official tally his winning margin was almost a million votes. International observers accepted the election result as fair and valid.

In each of these two cases the ouster of the leader followed a combination of unrest in the streets of the capital and more pointed action by security forces. In Egypt that action was a traditional military coup. In Ukraine—where the military conspicuously stayed out of the conflict—it was police striking deals with protest leaders under which the police would walk away from their posts.

There are many criteria by which we in the West can assess what is good and what is bad about the events in these countries and any others in which similar political change occurs. What happens to democracy is only one of those criteria. There are the various issues of human rights and governmental integrity, and in this respect an end to the more thuggish and corrupt aspects of Yanukovych's presidency may be a good thing. (Zbigniew Brzezinski describes Yanukovych as “a mendacious schemer, a coward and a thief.”) And for realist observers, the foreign policy orientation of a government may be at least as important as any of the internal considerations.

Each individual case is worthy of assessment in its own right. The two cases mentioned here are quite different in important respects. Some of the cheering over Morsi's ouster reflected an ignoble Islamophobia that is not a factor in Ukraine. The alternatives to the ousted leadership are also quite different; in Egypt it is a restored authoritarian military regime, while in Ukraine we can still hope it will be something not just different but more to the benefit of the Ukrainian people.

In any assessment, we should be clear and honest about our concepts and terms. We should not apply the label of democracy where it does not belong. We should not automatically apply it to phenomena that involve in some messy way “people power”—while bearing in mind that people in the streets of a capital are not necessarily speaking and acting for most of their countrymen, or for people in the streets of, say, Kharkiv or Donetsk. Misuse of the term democracy exacerbates confusion in our own thinking about the criteria we are applying to assessments of foreign situations and the reasons we do, or should, favor or oppose a particular development. It also cheapens the concept of democracy itself and encourages cynicism about it.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Carlos Latuff. Public domain.

TopicsDemocracyElectionsHuman RightsThe Presidency RegionsEgyptUkraine

Chinese Touchiness

Paul Pillar

The White House played things about right in the face of the expected and usual snit by China regarding a meeting with the Dalai Lama: to proceed with the meeting—although not in the Oval Office—and to disregard Beijing's complaining. The complaint has no merit, no matter how much China whinges about interference in internal affairs. The Dalai Lama renounced a political role for himself a few years ago, he travels and speaks now as only a spiritual leader, and neither he nor President Obama favors anything like a secession of Tibet. If the conversation between the two leaders stirred up Chinese complaints, so much the better for getting increased attention to the cause of religious and cultural freedom.

So much the better also for distinguishing between what should and should not be respected regarding the sensitivities of foreign governments. There is a tendency, in assessing a relationship such as the one between the United States and China, to speak in terms of whether the overall relationship is, or should be, warm, cool, or whatever, while delving less into the merits of individual issues that affect the temperature. More attention ought to be paid to whether particular positions are or are not reasonable, even if it is just a matter of the other government griping about this or griping about that.

Part of a successful U.S. relationship with China certainly involves respect for China as a great power. But that does not mean respect for either behavior or statements that are petulant and unreasonable. The world has been watching China grow up slowly to true great power stature, on matters ranging from managing its currency in a way that would make it a feasible international reserve currency to shouldering responsibilities in multilateral peacekeeping operations. In some areas China still has growing up to do. It should not expect to be able to cavil like an adolescent if it wants to be respected as a grown-up great power.

Sometimes there seems to be no limit to how thin the Chinese skin can get about some things. The other day the official news agency Xinhua had a commentary complaining about a remark that House foreign affairs committee chairman Ed Royce had made about the Japanese prime minister's visit to the Yasukuni shrine. Royce criticized the visit, which should have pleased the Chinese. But he further explained that part of the problem with the visit was that it needlessly complicated relations among Japan, South Korea, and the United States as they try to coordinate policy toward China; Xinhua found this observation “really incredible.”

Perhaps we can find in recent Chinese handling of relations with Taiwan some hope for realistic behavior even where touchiness has long prevailed. Taiwan is another issue on which China has for many years made an unreasonable demand of other governments: that they cannot have normal relations with the government of a territory that is independent in every practical respect, that the People's Republic of China has never owned, and that for more than a century no Chinese government has ruled except for four years after the Japanese surrender at the end of World War II. Earlier this month, however, for the first time ever senior officials of China and Taiwan met in their governmental capacities to discuss trans-strait relations. A grown-up thing for both governments to do.

TopicsHuman RightsGreat PowersReligion RegionsChinaTaiwan

Prime Minister, You're No Winston Churchill

Paul Pillar

Since the wise setting aside of a negotiation-undermining bill that would have imposed still more sanctions on Iran, some members of Congress have been feeling itchy as a result of not getting their regular fix of votes that they can portray as support for Israel. Their unease is perhaps a testimony to the continued strength of the lobby that pushes for such votes, despite its recent setbacks on the sanctions bill and a couple of other issues. So some members of the House of Representatives have sent a letter to their chamber's leadership asking that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu be invited to address a joint session of Congress when he is in Washington next month to speak to AIPAC's annual mass meeting. “Doing so,” they say in the letter, “would send a clear message of U.S. support to Israel.”

Actually, the support involved would not be to Israel but instead to a particular Israeli government. In any event, one noteworthy attribute of the letter is the partisan make-up of the signatories: 79 Republicans and 17 Democrats. It is another indication of the increasing association of the lobby with only one side of the aisle, which cannot be very reassuring to the lobby. Possibly once the composition of the signatory list started to become clear some Republicans refrained from signing on to avoid making the partisan split appear even more lopsided.

If Netanyahu were invited to address Congress next month it would be an extraordinary instance of honoring someone who has repeatedly been poking a stick in the eye of the country bestowing the honor. Among other things, he has been doing everything he can to sabotage the current negotiations with Iran, which is one of the most important foreign policy initiatives the United States and its five foreign partners currently have going. He also has been pursuing policies—including continued colonization of occupied territory and the adding of new demands—likely to ensure failure of another set of negotiations important to the United States, the one involving the Palestinians.

Even if members of Congress were to ignore these factors, one might expect them to be mindful of not cheapening the currency when it comes to one of the few symbolically important ways that Congress can make a foreign policy statement. Ever since the Marquis de Lafayette became in 1824 the first foreigner to address Congress, the privilege has not been profligately bestowed. President Park Geun-hye of South Korea was the only foreign dignitary invited to do so last year. None were invited in 2012.

Now get this: Netanyahu already has addressed Congress twice: in 2011 and during his earlier stint as prime minister in 1996. Only one person has been given the honor of doing so three times: Winston Churchill—twice during World War II and again in 1952. People want to put the stick-poker on the same level as Churchill?

The preferences of the foreign government Netanyahu heads will get more than enough attention in Washington when he rallies his loyal troops at AIPAC.

TopicsCongressNuclear ProliferationPost-Conflict RegionsIsraelIranUnited StatesPalestinian territories