Paul Pillar

Warped Motives on Syria

Paul Pillar

With a U.S. military attack on Syria now being discussed in the media as a question of “when” rather than “if,” let us devote more honest thought to the “why.” I am not referring to any official rationale but instead to the actual political and emotional dynamics in the United States that have gotten us to this point. Even if, as it appears, this train has left the station and has gotten beyond the point of being able to apply well-reasoned assessment of likely consequences to well-founded objectives, maybe by being above-board now about what is propelling the train we will be better able to make sense of what happened once we survey whatever mess is left by our actions and people have moved on to the stage of recriminations, second-guessing, and lessons learned.

A major part of what is happening is that the heartstrings of non-Syrians, including Americans, are being tugged by the suffering of Syrians caught in Syria's civil war. When what appears to be an especially grisly episode occurs in this war, the heartstrings are yanked even harder. And so there is a constituency and domestic political market for “doing something” about what's going on in Syria. But the satisfaction of that constituency's yearnings is unaccompanied, at least so far, by an explanation and analysis of how something like an attack by U.S. air power would alleviate the Syrians' woes—bearing in mind that any such analysis would have to take full account of responses by both the Syrian regime and the opposition, responses of outsiders, and effects on the overall tempo and trajectory of the civil war. We should admit to ourselves that the objective is more about lessening the tension on those heartstrings and inducing a warm feeling in the tummies in the same torsos, than it is about actually improving the condition of suffering Syrians. That objective is not nearly as noble as its surface manifestation makes it appear.

Supposedly the one event that most got us to where we are today regarding policy on Syria was a reported use by the Syrian regime of chemical weapons. But the basic question of why this particular battlefield development and choice of a weapon should drive U.S. policy toward somebody else's civil war—even to the point of forcefully intervening in that war—remains unanswered, just as it was unanswered the first time the regime reportedly used such a weapon and President Obama declared that any such use by Assad's regime would be a “game changer.” Why should this one reported incident be given so much more status than the non-chemical warfare, by both sides in the civil war, that has killed a hundred times more people?

What we are seeing here is partly an effect of a popular fascination with all types of unconventional weapons, because they are more intriguing than plain old bombs and bullets and they provide better material for spell-binding scare stories. It is this fascination that underlies the persistent tendency to refer to chemical agents as “weapons of mass destruction” on a par with nuclear or biological weapons, even though they aren't that.

There is a more serious concern about chemical weapons that is expressed by what is generally known as the arms control community. That community is not usually known for belligerence, but in this case at least parts of it believe forceful action in Syria is appropriate for the purpose of deterring future use of chemical weapons. That concern leads to many other important unanswered questions. In particular: even if protecting a norm of non-use of CW is a worthwhile goal, since when did that goal become such an overriding priority, among all the other much greater U.S. interests at stake especially in the Middle East, that it would be given determinative weight to the point of impelling intervention in somebody else's civil war?

The norm about non-use of CW that the arms control aficionados want to protect has not been as sturdy as some would suggest. There has been repeated use of chemical weapons since the World War I experience that led to international conventions on the subject—by Egypt in Yemen, probably by the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and most notably by Iraq inside Iraq. That last instance was noteworthy partly because the United States turned a blind eye toward this use of CW at a time when it was tilting toward Iraq and against Iran in the Iran-Iraq War.  Especially given that well-known precedent, an attack on Syria will be seen less as a deterrence-upholding blow in favor of a non-use norm than as a use of the CW issue as an excuse to bash a regime the United States doesn't happen to like.

It is hard to see how Bashar Assad himself will be deterred against use of any particular weapon in his arsenal when he is fighting for his regime's and probably his own, life. It is even harder to see that happening if the reported use of CW that triggered the latest surge of threats was an unauthorized action taken below the top level of the regime, as may have been the case.  And what will happen, and how will deterrence supposedly be upheld, if Assad follows up with not just increasingly lethal non-chemical operations but even with additional chemical attacks? How will it be upheld, that is, without the United States getting drawn even more deeply into the Syrian war? Oh, but the sort of air strike being talked about isn't supposed to draw the United States in like that, is it?

Much of the propulsion for the train heading for an attack on Syria is coming from elements who have wanted all along for the United States to get involved in the war there, and for whom this business about chemical weapons is just a serendipitous selling point. These elements include those of the neoconservative persuasion who never met a U.S. military intervention they didn't like. Their position leaves unanswered even broader questions: What exactly is the U.S. national interest in this sectarian civil war? What reason could there be for favoring one side or the other when both sides are dominated by those holding values that are anathema to those of the United States? How could the United States bring about a particular outcome of the war even if one such outcome were clearly in its interests? And where does this all lead, and where does it all end?

For this part of the pro-intervention crowd, the chemical weapons issue would be, just as with the Iraq War, a rationale rather than the actual motivation for going to war. And just as with that earlier war, all the attention to did-he-or-didn't-he questions concerning unconventional weapons are irrelevant to the matters that will prove most important after the United States resorts to military force.

As has been pointed out often, a big difference between that earlier war and the current situation regarding Syria is that the incumbent U.S. administration is not itching to go to war. Far from selling others on the idea of military action, the Obama administration is worrying about how to deal with pressure from others to take such action. Perhaps the president and his advisers correctly see that a victory by neither side in the Syrian war serves U.S. interests, and the best thing to do is to let the sides bash each other. As Edward Luttwak observes, the Obama administration's policies to date have appeared well designed to do that.

The president's reluctance to get dragged into this war has, however, boomeranged on him regarding the CW issue. As of several months ago it may have seemed a convenient way to resist the pro-intervention pressure by saying in effect, “Not now, but if they use chemicals then I'll do something.” Now we hear lots of talk about how given Mr. Obama's earlier statements on this subject, he has to act to uphold his, and the country's credibility. That is another misplaced motive, because the historical record demonstrates that governments simply do not assess the credibility of other governments that way. But even if the notion about upholding credibility were valid, for this to be a reason to launch a military attack on Syria now would not be a case of two wrongs making a right. It would instead be an example of an administration compounding a mistake and digging itself into a deeper hole.

Perhaps the CW topic of the moment is now also serving for the administration a purpose similar to what it serves for the neocons: as a convenient peg on which to hang an intervention taken for other reasons. Except that for the administration it is not because it always wanted to intervene in Syria but instead has decided—after a couple of years of unrelenting nagging from others for it do so—that it finally has to act in some forceful way. Using a CW incident as a peg saves it from looking like it is changing a policy for no other reason than that it is succumbing to political pressure.

A glimpse of the underlying political calculations comes through in a comment from an anonymous U.S. official that the level of military attack being contemplated is “just enough not to get mocked.” Politically, that is an understandable calibration. But it is not a sound motive to enter a foreign war.

Some of the same people who have been pestering the administration about intervening in Syria have also been berating it more generally for being too tactical and reactive, especially in the Middle East, and not being sufficiently bold and strategic. But responding with an armed attack to a single reported use of a particular kind of weapon is about as tactical and reactive as one can get. A truly strategic approach to the topic would not only lay out a thorough sense of what is at stake for the U.S. in Syria and what we intend to accomplish there, but also would consider carefully the repercussions of any U.S. military action on other important U.S. equities in the region.

There are several of those equities that would need to be considered, but take, for example, just one: the negotiations with Iran about its nuclear program. Analysts' views vary regarding current Iranian perspectives toward Syria, but a U.S. military intervention would at a minimum complicate the effort to reach an agreement with Tehran and at worst would kill off what is, following the election of President Hassan Rouhani, an excellent chance to negotiate an accord. It surely would make it politically harder inside the Iranian government to sell the making of concessions to the United States. One Western diplomat stationed in Tehran says a U.S. attack on Syria would be “a game changer for negotiations with Iran.” So we come full circle from President Obama's comment about Syria use of CW as a game changer.

We also come full circle on the objective of controlling proliferation of unconventional weapons. The most reliable way to preclude an Iranian nuclear weapon is through a negotiated agreement placing restrictions on Iran's nuclear program. An attack made supposedly to deter use of one kind of unconventional weapon would thus increase the chance that another nation would develop a different kind of unconventional weapon—one that really is a weapon of mass destruction.

Of course, some of those pushing for U.S. intervention in the Syrian war are the same ones who want to kill the prospects for a negotiated agreement with Iran. That is one of the most warped motives of all for a U.S. attack.

TopicsArms ControlDomestic PoliticsThe PresidencyNuclear ProliferationWMD RegionsIranIraqSyria

Authoritarianism Pushes Back

Paul Pillar

In the 24 years since Francis Fukuyama wrote his seminal article in The National Interest describing liberal democracy as a sort of steady-state culmination of the history of political and economic organization, others have gone in different directions on the question of whether that history embodies a grand trend, whether it is leading to some sort of final equilibrium, and if so what the nature of that equilibrium will be. Many thoughts on the subject are, unsurprisingly, influenced by salient events of the day, just as critics of Fukuyama thought he was overly influenced by the Western victory over Soviet communism in the Cold War, which was getting wrapped up just about the time he was writing. More recently it has been the Middle East that has been supplying most of the salient short-term events that inspire thoughts about long-term trends such as democratization.

“Short-term” in this case means even shorter than the less than three years that the regional upheaval known as the Arab Spring has been going on. Fast-moving events have led to quick changes in prognoses about things such as trends in democratization. Early in the upheaval one heard lots of talk about democracy inexorably breaking out all over. More recent news from the likes of Syria and Egypt has led to similarly sweeping pronouncements that the Arab Spring will prove to be a bust.

Many of the arguments on this subject have appropriately focused on factors specific to the Middle East. There are, for example, the ways in which abundant natural resources can paradoxically redound to the political as well economic disadvantage of those who have them—a dynamic sometimes referred to as the oil curse. Then there is there is religiously driven conflict related to how the region is the birthplace of the three big monotheistic relations. It is also appropriate, however, to plug the Middle Eastern events into that broader question of grand trends in human history and perhaps link them to data points from elsewhere in the world.

One interesting data point from last week's news comes from China. A memo, known as Document No. 9, circulating among cadres of the Chinese Communist Party warns about the dangers from seven subversive influences, with “Western constitutional democracy” being at the top of the list, followed by such others as freedom of the press, civic participation, and ideas about universal human rights. What is striking, even for a document evidently not intended for external consumption, is how direct and blunt a rejection this is of values associated with liberal democracy. It is not a given that this would be the response of the CCP. If these values have such attractiveness—as followers of Fukuyama's argument would expect—to be seen as a threat to the current political order in China, one can imagine more nuanced and clever ways for party leaders to co-opt, adopt, or spin these values that would reduce the threat, rather than simply warning party members not to be tempted or tainted by them.

There are explanations that can be made for Document No. 9 in terms of internal CCP politics. Perhaps, for example, this was red meat that Xi Jinping believed he had to throw to party leftists to help get their support or acquiescence with other things on his agenda, such as fighting corruption.

But there also is a simple and straightforward way of interpreting Document No. 9—as simple and straightforward as the document itself—that addresses the big-picture question of long-term political evolution. Most authoritarian rulers (whether individuals or, as in China, a party or collective leadership) want to retain their power. Having power means they have wherewithal to do something about retaining that power. That is especially true in states that are big or wealthy. When feeling threatened by democratic or other sentiments challenging their rule, they have all the more incentive to step up their game and push back harder against such threats, and they do exactly that. And all of this is a major reason the world never gets to a worldwide liberal democratic end state.

Authoritarian regimes are focused on retaining power in (and of) their own countries, but in so doing they may retard democratic trends elsewhere. Saudi Arabia is doing exactly that by opening its checkbook for the benefit of the generals in Egypt. The Saudis are concerned about any Muslim Brotherhood influence in their own kingdom, because the Brotherhood demonstrates how Islam can be combined with democratic electoral politics and constitutes a direct challenge to the Saudis' own claim to religious legitimacy for their authoritarian rule. But the main effect of what they are doing is to set back hopes for democratization in the most populous Arab country, Egypt. Somewhat similarly, when China provides no-strings-attached bilateral aid it is usually doing so to gain access to resources for the economic benefit of China itself. But the main political effect in many of the recipient countries is to bolster authoritarian rule.

We can see some of the effects in one of the best scorecards for keeping track of trends in implementing liberal democratic values: the annual survey by Freedom House. That scorecard tells us that if there is, or was, a trend toward more liberal democracy, it has flat-lined for at least the last 15 years or so, since the improvements in the years immediately following the collapse of the Soviet empire. The proportion of countries that are free, that are not free, and that are electoral democracies are all essentially the same as they were in the mid-1990s.

Maybe there is a sort of end-state in political evolution, but it does not entail the global triumph of liberal democracy or any other single type of system. Instead, it is an equilibrium in which democratic and authoritarian forces pushing against each other lead to the kind of balance reflected in the relatively static Freedom House numbers. The balance involves actions and reactions, including authoritarian rulers pushing back harder at the very times that democratic forces might otherwise be gaining some momentum.

That observation, however, which primarily uses a time frame of a couple of decades, must immediately be coupled with a couple of caveats, one with a shorter frame of reference and the other with a longer one.

The short-term caveat is that none of these observations lessens the immediate policy challenges of dealing with a problem such as Egypt. Political trends as they manifest themselves there or anywhere else are not the inexorable outcome of some sort of historical determinism. Choices matter, choices have to be made, and important interests are at stake in making them.

The long-term caveat is that patterns we see over the past couple of decades are only suggestive of what might be the correct answer to the questions about political evolution and end states; they do not nail down the answer with certainty. Much more time may be needed to do that, if we can do it at all. In some natural systems a very long time frame is needed to get the whole picture of what is going on. The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould emphasized that most evolution has taken place in spurts, with long periods of relative stasis in between. If you looked just at one of the more static eons, you might mistakenly believe Darwin was wrong. We probably won't know in our lifetimes whether Fukuyama, his critics, or the observations above about equilibria will turn out to be right.

TopicsDemocracyHuman RightsForeign AidPolitical Theory RegionsChinaEgyptSaudi ArabiaMiddle East

Don't Worry About the Peace Treaty

Paul Pillar

As the Obama administration struggles to walk a fine policy line on Egypt that takes appropriate account of the diverse U.S. interests at stake, one subject that is often mentioned, but shouldn't be, as a reason to go easy on the head-cracking Egyptian generals is to maintain the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. This is not to say that Egyptian-Israeli peace is not still quite important to regional security as well as to U.S. interests; indeed it is. But the reason this topic should not be shaping U.S. policy toward the political drama today in Egypt is that the peace is simply not in danger. No Egyptian regime would see any advantage in breaching it.

That is so because not just the generals but also any Egyptian leader with at least half a brain would realize that in any new round of fighting the Egyptians would get clobbered by a vastly more capable Israeli force. Getting clobbered would mean not just military defeat but also the humiliation and political costs that would go with it.

The last time the Egyptians were able to hold their own militarily against Israel was in the opening days of the Yom Kippur War of 1973, when Anwar Sadat used the advantage of surprise to score just enough success on the battlefield to atone for the humiliation of the war six years earlier and make it politically possible for him to undertake the initiative that led to the peace treaty. Even that military success did not last long. By the time of the cease-fire Israeli forces had successfully counterattacked, had surrounded the Egyptian Third Army, and were rolling toward Cairo.

So as Israel lobbies western governments to keep supporting General el-Sisi and his colleagues, let us not act as if the Egyptian-Israeli peace is at stake when it really isn't. We might reflect instead on other possible and actual Israeli motives for taking that position. There is the understandable concern, which any country in Israel's geographic position would have, of violent militants operating in, and out of, the Sinai. But recent history lends little support to the idea that this problem is likely to diminish rather than to grow if the generals are left in charge and unpressured from outside the country. The opposite is more likely true, given the prospect their harsh policies will provoke increased violent militancy from battered Islamists. In any case, cross-border violence by militants is the sort of thing the Israelis have repeatedly shown themselves quick to address with their own means, regardless of what any government on the other side of the border may think.

Because the Egyptian generals' policies are most conspicuously a form of Islamist-bashing, the Israeli government naturally and reflexively smiles on those policies. Here again, however, the connection between political outcomes in Cairo and the effects that most interest the Israelis is not clear-cut. During his tenuous one year in office, Mohamed Morsi did not prove to be as steadfast a friend as Hamas—the Islamists Israel works hardest at bashing—had hoped he would be.

Some in the Israeli government may be thinking of a possible downside for them of emphasizing the idea that the peace treaty is endangered. This idea may bring to mind how the U.S.-Egyptian aid relationship is rooted in the bargains struck by Jimmy Carter at Camp David, in which voluminous U.S. assistance to Egypt was part of the price the United States paid to get Sadat to assume the costs and risks of making a separate peace with Israel. That in turn may bring to mind how Israel did not fulfill its part of the bargains, which was to make a peace with the Palestinians within five years and withdraw Israeli troops from Palestinian territory.

This subject leads to what may be the strongest motive for the Netanyahu government to oppose squeezing the flow of aid to Egypt, although it would not openly acknowledge it as a motive. The Israeli Right has to be discomfited by any thought of the United States using leverage based on a major aid relationship in that part of the world to get the recipient to change destructive policies. It is the failure of the United States to use the even greater leverage it could exert on Israel that permits Netanyahu's government to continue the occupation and colonization of conquered territory and, 35 years after Camp David, to deny the Palestinians self-determination.

TopicsHuman RightsForeign AidPost-Conflict RegionsIsraelEgyptUnited States

Playing the Terrorism Card

Paul Pillar

It hasn't taken long since Wednesday's bloodletting in Cairo for the regime there to make clear that it will rely heavily, as a rationale for its actions, on the idea that it is holding a line against international terrorism. "Egypt is facing terrorist acts aimed at government institutions and vital installations," declared the military's hand-picked interim president in a statement that responded to President Obama's comments about Egypt. Actually, except for the semi-lawless Sinai, there hasn't been much terrorism in Egypt since the Mubarak regime crushed the violent campaigns in the 1990s of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and Gama'a al-Islamiyya. After those campaigns failed, the EIJ's Ayman al-Zawahiri went off to South Asia to throw in his lot with Osama bin Laden, and what was left of the Gama'a announced that it was renouncing violence. The actions of the current Egyptian regime are likely to hasten a resurgence of true terrorism in Egypt, however; the official line has just gotten a little ahead of the reality that the regime's actions will help to bring about.

Playing the terrorist card as a justification for actions that on their own terms would appropriately be seen as harsh, intolerant, and even brutal is hardly unique to Egypt. Over the past decade we have seen numerous instances of it, from Russians dealing with Chechens to Chinese suppressing Uighurs. In the Middle East, it is certainly not limited to Egypt and Israel. Take Iraq, where there is plenty of real terrorism these days and where the political system can be described as a U.S. product since we bought it with an investment of trillions of dollars and many thousands of our own casualties. The increasingly authoritarian prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, whom Sami Moubayed of the Carnegie Middle East Center describes as a “lighter version of Saddam Hussein,” hardly seems like an asset to the United States as he cozies up to Iran and is not very forthcoming about policy toward Syria. But the terrorism issue is his trump card. Moubayed observes that although Maliki “has clearly positioned himself in the Syrian-Iranian orbit,” he “might still win the blessing of the U.S., marketing himself, yet again, as the man combating al-Qaeda in Iraq.”

Of course, many dictators and crackdown artists would shout the T-word as a justification for their actions regardless of what the United States does or says. “Terrorist” is an all-purpose pejorative. But the fact that the United States has made the subject such a preoccupation following one event twelve years ago has unquestionably increased the value of this particular card. Anything that is an obvious preoccupation of the superpower lends credibility to others claiming the same priorities. Invoking the issue also can serve as an appeal for support or at least tolerance from the superpower itself.

The playing of the terrorism card in this manner is in turn but one of the many ways in which the drastic swing of the pendulum of American political priorities in September 2001 still confounds much else the United States is doing, or trying to do, both foreign and domestic. Domestically, we are seeing this in the hullabaloo, which is generating more heat than light, caused by the post-9/11 demand for aggressive counterterrorist intelligence collection, followed by a tacit decline in this demand as time has gone by without a major anti-U.S. terrorist attack, followed by consternation as the public is confronted with the fact that the aggressive collection is still taking place.

This kind of domestic political dislocation in turn can affect foreign affairs. A leaker of information about the collection programs defects to Russia, which tips the balance in favor of canceling a U.S.-Russian summit meeting. That can mean a slowing, although it had slowed a lot already anyway, of work on issues such as possible further reduction in the U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals.

This process may make it seem as if terrorism is a more important topic than Cold War-style arms control or anything else on the U.S.-Russian agenda. The driver here, however, is not terrorism but instead our reaction to it. Strip away the reaction, and terrorism itself is not really the global game-changer it came to be perceived as. It is not really so much more important than a still nuclear-armed Russia, and it does not affect global affairs and U.S. interests as profoundly as a powerful China does in so many ways, beyond what it does to the Uighurs. But when we give dictators a card to play, we should not be surprised when they play it.

Image: Flickr/Senor Codo. CC BY-SA 2.0.

TopicsArms ControlHuman RightsPublic OpinionTerrorism RegionsChinaRussiaEgyptIraqUnited States

Cultivating Extremists in Egypt

Paul Pillar

There were other ways of dealing with the camping-out protestors in Cairo. The ministry of interior had even talked about other ways—about some combination of tear gas and leaving open an exit route so the protestors could disperse. And surely it must have occurred to the Egyptian generals that the action they in the end took, just like the event in Tiananmen Square in 1989 that this week's event so readily evokes, would leave a lasting bloodstain on their legacy. The casualty total of what happened in Cairo Wednesday is uncertain, just as the toll of what happened in Tiananmen Square still is, but it is possible the numbers are of similar orders of magnitude.

There are many plot lines and accompanying explanations that can be applied to the current mess in Egypt, but one does not have to be a Middle Eastern conspiracy aficionado to look in particular at how the Egyptian generals and their shades-of-Nasser leader, Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, may be doing what they are doing as a way of staying within the embrace of the West and especially the United States. One of the most prominent things they have been doing over the past couple of months is to motivate Egyptians and especially Islamists to turn to extremism and violence. First there was the slamming of the door in the face of the Muslim Brotherhood, incarcerating its leaders and making it very clear the Brotherhood would not be welcome to participate in any new and purportedly democratic political process. Most of the Brotherhood's supporters were not ready to abandon the peaceful ways that the organization had followed for decades, but their dismay and anger made the protests and the camps inevitable. Now there is the bloody and brutal destruction of the camps, and at least some of those supporters are surely concluding that there is no method left to them but violence.

Wouldn't the breeding of more Egyptian terrorists be a bad thing from the viewpoint of Egyptian military leaders? Not if they wish to present themselves as a bastion against terrorism and to lay claim as such to American support. The brass may be more comfortable with this sort of claim than with one based on shepherding the introduction of true democracy—given all the uncertainties democracy is apt to pose for the highly privileged position of the Egyptian military and its officer corps.

The cultivation of more extremists and terrorists may be necessary to sustain any claim based on an Egyptian Islamist bogeyman. Mohamed Morsi's presidency certainly was not sufficient; it did not come close to realizing the old Islamophobic scenario of one man, one vote, one time. One of the most distinctive aspects of Morsi's one year in office was how he was not able to take control of the organs of state even though he supposedly was the chief executive. He came nowhere close to taking control of the all-important security forces. One of the bevy of army and police generals who have just been installed as provincial governors had earlier, when Morsi was still president, been demonstrably open about his intention not to take any action when a mob was ransacking offices of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The technique of following policies that cultivate more extremists and terrorists and then laying claim to a special relationship with Washington as a bastion against extremism and terrorism is not one that the Egyptian generals necessarily thought up themselves. They could have learned it from the masters of the technique next door in Israel. They are even collaborating with Israel in practicing the technique, as punctuated the other day by an Israeli drone strike, evidently condoned by Cairo, against oppositionists in the Sinai.

If the Egyptian generals have not seemed very worried about jeopardizing their one and a half billion in annual U.S. aid, maybe it is because they see how Israel gets twice that much, not to mention all those vetoes at the United Nations and other political cover, despite the Israelis repeatedly sticking their thumbs in American eyes. The latest thumb-sticking has been this week, with an announcement of more expansion of settlements in occupied territory just as Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are getting under way.

Secretary of State Kerry reassures us that this was not a surprise because Prime Minister Netanyahu had been “upfront” with him about the latest settlement expansion. Evidently even thumb-sticking is acceptable if those doing it are brazenly “upfront” about it. General el-Sisi looks like he has this kind of swagger.

Image: Flickr/Mohamed Adel. CC BY-SA 2.0.

TopicsUNForeign AidReligionTerrorism RegionsIsraelEgyptUnited States

Congressional Attention Deficit Disorder

Paul Pillar

Complaints have been heard that members of Congress are not sufficiently informed by the executive branch to conduct properly oversight of secret programs, such as those NSA collection activities that are the subject of much controversy. The complaints are misplaced. A bigger factor is the chronic attention deficit disorder afflicting most members of Congress, in which they pay disproportionate attention to flaps and controversies because they are flaps and controversies, and Congressional time and attention is not apportioned according to the intrinsic importance to the nation of each subject. In short, if there is insufficient oversight of some of those secret programs, it is less because information is not being made available to members than because members do not take the time and trouble to use the information already available to them. The Republican chairman of the House intelligence committee, Mike Rogers, says that “very few members” take advantage of his invitations to receive staff briefings on counterterrorist operations or the NSA surveillance activities.

One further indication that inattention is the main problem is the fact that Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall evidently did not have a shortage of information in devoting considerable energy to agitating—while being careful not to disclose classified information publicly—about what they regarded as an imbalance between security and privacy in intelligence collection programs. If other members had paid more attention to what they were saying and been more responsive to their agitation, the country would have had the debate it now has without needing any damaging compromise of information by a leaker-defector.

Another example, from 2002, is that fact that hardly any members of Congress bothered to look at a now-infamous intelligence estimate about Iraqi unconventional weapons programs even though they were about to vote on a resolution authorizing a war that supposedly was based largely on the subject that the estimate addressed. One of the few members who did read the document, Senate intelligence committee chairman Bob Graham, concluded that it did not support what the administration was saying on the subject and voted against the war resolution.

There have been instances, even since the current system of Congressional oversight of intelligence agencies was established in the 1970s, of intentional obscuring or withholding of relevant information from Congress with the apparent intention of frustrating or precluding oversight. A notable practitioner was the inveterate Cold Warrior William Casey, who, although he was appointed director of central intelligence would have preferred to be secretary of state and, in the words of his protégé Robert Gates, used the job as a platform “to wage war against the Soviet Union.” Casey's lack of forthrightness with members of Congress reportedly led to members looking for his deputy, Bobby Inman, nervously tugging at his socks as an indication that Casey was dissembling. Then-Senator Joe Biden put it this way:

They'd be sitting there, and Casey would be lying like a son of a bitch, and I'd look at Inman. I'd say, “Is such and such a covert action happening?” and Casey would be going mumble mumble mumble, and Inman would be reaching down pulling up his socks...It meant “Take this with a grain of salt.”

In the George W. Bush administration there was another instance of ideologically-driven limitation of Congressional awareness of secret activities, related to an effort centered in the vice president's office to assert an expanded sense of executive power and privilege. This led to warrantless wiretapping that was ended only after public disclosures and new legislation.

Despite the controversies swirling today over matters such as NSA collection programs, it is hard to find evidence of deliberate exclusion of Congressional awareness and oversight, based on motivations anything like those involved in these past episodes. What has given rise to charges of public misinformation has been mainly the putting of officials in the uncomfortable position of being asked in open testimony about sensitive programs. Besides wanting to protect classified information, among the chief motivations of executive branch professionals involved in such programs when they are dealing with the Hill is to obtain Congressional buy-in—the more buy-in the better, lest the professionals and the bureaucracies in which they work be left holding the bag when public sentiments change about something like the balance between security and privacy. Getting buy-in requires forthrightness and significant sharing of information.

The executive branch agencies have been able to share such information with considerable confidence that this does not significantly increase the risk of damaging leaks. Although leaks that do occur unfortunately too often cannot be traced to their source, the record of Congress in protecting classified information appears to be good. Members such as Wyden and Udall should be commended for striving to protect that record, despite their obvious frustration in holding their tongues publicly regarding the details of programs of which they have knowledge.

This confidence would be undone if members were to act on a bad idea from Bruce Ackerman of Yale, which is to exploit the “speech or debate clause” in Article I, Section 6 of the U.S. Constitution by reading classified material into the record and claiming immunity from prosecution for doing so. This would be an abuse of the clause, which clearly exists not to abet the breaking of rules—about handling classified material, or anything else—but instead to protect free debate within the legislature. Ackerman refers to the last time this issue was tested in the courts, when Senator Mike Gravel read part of the Pentagon Papers into a committee record. But Ackerman oversimplifies this history by saying that “the Supreme Court unanimously affirmed Gravel's right to publish documents labeled 'Top-Secret: Sensitive' under the speech or debate clause.” Gravel v. United States was mostly about whether one of Gravel's aides could be subpoenaed to testify to a grand jury. Although the majority opinion did appear to extend the speech or debate clause to what Gravel placed in the record in a subcommittee meeting, it also defined coverage of that clause narrowly to apply only to “legislative acts,” explicitly said the clause does not privilege a member “to violate an otherwise valid criminal law in preparing for or implementing legislative acts,” and explicitly said the constitutional provision did not make Gravel immune from prosecution for his role in the more extensive subsequent publication of the material by a private publisher.

If members of Congress started intentionally divulging classified information, the natural—and justified—response of executive branch officials would be to start interpreting their responsibility to share such material with Congress as narrowly as possible. And then members would have to start looking again for deputies with loose socks.

TopicsCongressDomestic PoliticsIdeologyIntelligenceTerrorism RegionsUnited States

A Terrorist Haven in Syria?

Paul Pillar

As the Syrian civil war spun up and drew in radicals on the anti-government side, worries mounted in the West, to the point now of front-page attention in the New York Times, about a new extremist haven being established in Syria. How should we approach this problem? One way we definitely should not approach it, which unfortunately has been all too common in overall discourse about the Syrian civil war, is to feel we must “do something”—anything—in response to our concerns. A more sober approach is to break the problem down into some constituent parts, each with an associated question.

One question concerns exactly what is the danger we are worried about. The concept of a physical safe haven is one of the more overrated components of a presumed terrorist threat. In a globalized era, a patch of physical real estate has not proven to be one of the more important variables determining the degree of such a threat—and is less important than exploitable grievances in a target population. Preparations for significant terrorist attacks—including the big one, 9/11—have not been confined to such a patch or depended on control of one.

Even if a physical haven contributes to the strength of a terrorist group, it is a fungible commodity. We used to talk more about Afghanistan as the critical place in this regard. Today there is more worry about Yemen, and more talk about a shift of the center of our fears from South Asia to there. Maybe some fear a shift from Yemen to Syria. If Syria were somehow brought under control, why wouldn't there be further shifts elsewhere?

Even if we agree that precluding any physical haven for a terrorist group is preferable, the next question is what measures are available to the United States and how effective would they be in promoting that objective. The United States cannot determine the outcome of the Syrian civil war, short of large-scale military intervention that would be beyond the tolerance of the American public as well as being unacceptably costly in other respects and still would not achieve lasting positive effects. Arguments that smaller forms of interference in the war would be enough to determine its outcome are based on multiple forms of wishful thinking. It is unrealistic to think that in the disorganized and ever-shifting Syrian opposition landscape, in which weapons often change owners and fighters often change primary allegiances, it is somehow possible to aid good rebels while vetting out the bad ones. It is also unrealistic to think that something like aid in the form of materiel buys moderation or buys gratitude.

Even if the course of the war were more subject to outside manipulation, a further question is what outcome of the war would be best with regard to the incipient terrorist haven we are supposed to be worried about. In the short term probably the best outcome in that respect would be prompt re-establishment of control by the Assad regime. Over the longer term rule by a brutal autocracy with a narrow sectarian identity would not be good for counterterrorism, but that does not mean the most likely alternative would necessarily be any better. A lesson is provided by Libya, where enough time has passed since the ouster of Muammar Qadhafi to demonstrate how the new order may not be much of an order at all but a form of disorder that provides more operating space for violent groups than there was before.

Regardless of the nature of the regime, the United States can consider unilateral means of trying to attack would-be terrorist havens, especially with drones. Here the most relevant lesson is in Yemen, where, as Gregory Johnsen explains, the net counterterrorist effect of the drone strikes has probably been negative, owing to the resentment and revenge that the strikes have incurred.

A broader question concerns the overall strategy to apply to whatever terrorist threat does emanate from Syria. Fareed Zakaria has the right idea, after rejecting counterinsurgency and more focused kinetic methods such as the drones, in recommending a third approach: “to try to get local governments to fight the terrorists.” Zakaria acknowledges that some of the very places we are concerned about are in large part ungovernable, yet points out:

The best policy in the long run would be to shift the struggle over to locals, who can most effectively win a long war against militants in territory they know better than any outsiders. It also shifts the struggle over to Muslims, who can most effectively battle al-Qaeda in the realm of ideas.

This does not mean the United States doing nothing. It can do a lot to affect the environment in which terrorists or would-be terrorists, in Syria or elsewhere, are either empowered or marginalized. Marc Lynch provides an insightful explanation of how the early chapters of the Arab Spring marginalized them, by effecting meaningful political change without resort to the sort of violence pitched by the extremists. Much of that beneficial effect has been undone, Lynch points out, by more recent developments such as the military coup in Egypt and the blurring of distinctions between Islamist terrorists and the Muslim Brotherhood. The implications for U.S. policy ought to be plain: construct policy toward politics and political conflicts in the Middle East that weaken, rather than strengthen, the extremist narrative. Besides policy toward the current situation in Egypt, this also involves exercising enough clout and political courage to make success possible in the just-begun negotiations to address what is the most salient issue to people across the Middle East: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Fortunately no one seems to be advocating anything like a repetition of the Iraq War, one of the chief selling points of which had to do with supposedly striking a blow against al-Qaeda-style terrorism. But lest we forget: among the enormous costs of that blunder was the creation of a haven of sorts for Islamist terrorists that did not previously exist, and the creation of a terrorist group—al-Qaeda in Iraq—that did not previously exist. The legacy of that result is being felt very directly today in the activity of extremists in Syria.

Image: Flickr/Jerzy Kociatkeiwicz. CC BY-SA 2.0.

TopicsCounterinsurgencyIdeologyPublic OpinionPost-ConflictTerrorism RegionsEgyptIraqUnited StatesSyriaMiddle East

Unfounded Interpretations of This Week's Terrorist Threat

Paul Pillar

Lots of people have been been extracting and propounding lots of conclusions about terrorism and counterterrorism from the warnings and closures of diplomatic missions the past few days. That's probably inevitable; the story commands attention. It's not every day, or even every year, that several U.S. embassies get closed like this, perhaps for as much as a week. But the factual basis for most of the extracting and propounding is exceedingly thin. All that those of us outside the government have to go on are a few backgrounded or leaked morsels, as well as cautiously worded official statements and the public comments of members of Congress who have been briefed on the matter. The episode is another instance, which has been seen repeatedly before, of over-interpretation of terrorist incidents or other scattered data points having to do with international terrorism.

Let us review some of the principal ways in which commentary stimulated by this latest episode has gone way beyond the publicly available evidence.

The topic addressed most often in the commentary is the overall magnitude of the threat from international terrorism, or more specifically from whatever goes under the label al-Qaeda. One hears comments such as, “Didn't the president say just a couple of months ago that al-Qaeda is washed up? Then why are we seeing such a big deal threat now?” Actually, the president did not say anything like that, although he did make a very sensible speech explaining why we need to get away from a boundless “war on terror.” Regardless of what he or anyone else has offered in the way of an overall appraisal of the continuing threat from al-Qaeda or international terrorism generally, the news of the past few days provides barely any basis for appraising the appraisals. What we are seeing this week is a response to information that evidently was at least somewhat stronger than the stuff that government counterterrorist analysts routinely see every week, with respect to the likelihood and imminence of a planned terrorist attack. It is a tactical response to tactical information. This is very different from the strategic question of the overall threat that al-Qaeda or anyone else is posing these days. Plans for individual attacks come and go, but that does not mean that a correct strategic assessment of the threat gyrates up and down as they do. Nor does it gyrate up and down as intelligence services happen to succeed or not succeed in collecting information about individual terrorist plots. We simply do not have any significant new basis for saying that terrorism ought to rank higher among national security concerns this week than it should have last week, last month, or last year.

A related topic concerns the relationship between the core and the periphery in the radical Sunni conglomeration called al-Qaeda. Reportedly a key piece of information underlying the embassy closures was a message from Ayman al-Zawahiri to the head of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula “ordering” an attack. But what may look like an order, and what the person issuing it would prefer to sound like an order, may actually be more of an exhortation. In the current case there is good reason to believe it was more of an exhortation. What has been publicly revealed about the material captured at Abbottabad, Pakistan in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden demonstrated that during at least the last couple of years of bin Laden's life he was doing much exhorting but commanded little and thus wasn't in a position to order many people to do anything. Zawahiri is unlikely to have established command relationships that bin Laden did not have. The events of this week are not grounds for revising the judgment that the core al-Qaeda group is a shadow of its former self and that most of the initiative in the movement for terrorist operations is coming from associated groups on the periphery.

In the wake of controversy over NSA collection programs, another reaction we hear to the story this week is that if such terrorist communications are still being collected then there must not have been much damage from Edward Snowden's revelations. Saying that makes about as much sense as saying that the fact you did not get lung cancer this month means the advice you got last month to stop smoking was unsound. That something does not destroy everything does not mean it does not damage anything. In any event, no one in officialdom has given any indication that the particular NSA programs that are the subject of controversy had anything to do with information collected about the current threat.

Other commentary has focused on the theme that closing the embassies was an overreaction. Maybe it was, and indeed much of the story of America's reaction to terrorism, especially during the past twelve years, has been one of overreaction. But how can any of us not privy to the classified information, and therefore not in a position to compare an evaluated threat against the costs of the response, make that sort of judgment about the particular case at hand at the moment?

A related observation we have heard, from those skeptical about the seriousness of this week's reported threat, is that the threat is being hyped and the embassies being closed as a way of obtaining political cover—whether it is NSA trying to prove its usefulness, the Obama administration not wanting to have another Benghazi, or even Congressional Republicans supporting the administration's response because they know that to do otherwise would look inconsistent with their continuing to harp about Benghazi. Aspects of this observation may be true, too, in the sense that the domestic political context always has much to do with the responses and policies. But just as paranoids can have real enemies, this observation about politically inspired posturing doesn't say anything one way or another about the extent of whatever actual threat exists beyond U.S. borders.

This gets to a current running underneath all of these comments and observations, which is that they say at least as much about our own psychology, expectations, and politics as they do about anything that terrorists are doing in the Middle East or elsewhere. What is to be considered a serious threat, or what should be termed an overreaction, is a function not only of terrorists' operations but of our own relative priorities and weighing of values, costs, and risks. And if there is defensive political posturing going on, it can be traced chiefly to the zero tolerance standard that the American public has applied to terrorist attacks.

TopicsCongressDomestic PoliticsPublic OpinionThe PresidencyPsychologyIntelligenceTerrorism RegionsUnited StatesMiddle East

Iran's Nuclear Legal Obligations

Paul Pillar

There are many respects in which a greater effort in the West and in particular the United States to understand Iranian perspectives and sentiments would facilitate more productive Western policies toward Iran, particularly with respect to that country's nuclear program. There is, for example, the issue of balance in proposed agreements, in which it should be understandable that Tehran opposes a trade that would place major restrictions on its nuclear activities in return for sanctions relief that would be almost trivial in comparison with the panoply of sanctions imposed on Iran. There is the comparably understandable Iranian suspicion, in watching behavior by the United States and especially the U.S. Congress, that the United States is only interested in punishing Iran, not negotiating an agreement with it. And there is the natural resistance in Iran—just as there would be in the United States—to caving in to foreign pressure, including threats of military force.

Iran's legal obligations regarding nuclear activities, and how well it has fulfilled those obligations, constitute another area where efforts to understand the Iranians' quite understandable perspective have been sorely lacking. A common catechism in American discourse on this subject is to refer to Iran being in “violation” of those obligations. But with regard to generally applicable legal obligations that Iran shares with any other party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) or participant in the International Atomic Energy Agency, it would be difficult to make a case that Iran is in violation of anything. There have been some instances in the past of Iranian nuclear activities coming to light before Iran declared them to the IAEA. But those instances have been cleared up, Iran may have intended to make a declaration when the operations in question actually came on line, and tardiness in declarations is hardly an uncommon infraction among other parties to the NPT. The nuclear activities Iran conducts today, including the enrichment of uranium, are allowed under the international nonproliferation regime and are the object of regular on-site monitoring by the IAEA.

Any mention of “violation” has to refer instead to a series of resolutions by the United Nations Security Council, which demanded that Iran cease enrichment and imposed sanctions when it did not. These resolutions are aimed uniquely against Iran and do not represent an application of generally applicable legal obligations. In short, they are bills of attainder. What the Security Council has done in this respect it can undo. In fact, it will have to undo it if any agreements on the subject are to be negotiated with Iran. It is the permanent members of the Security Council (plus Germany) that are doing the negotiating. Any formula that included the unique-to-Iran no-enrichment demand, which has no foundation in international law beyond the Security Council resolutions themselves, is a non-starter.

Iran's frustration at being singled out this way while dealing in the obligatory manner with the IAEA comes through in its formal response to the latest IAEA report on its nuclear activities. The Iranian document is filled with legal fastidiousness, but the Iranians' genuine exasperation is also palpable, being expressed at one place with multiple exclamation points (!!!!!). One of the most frequent sources of exasperation arises when Iran responds to a question or meets a requirement, only to have the issue at hand re-opened as if Iran had not responded at all.

The background to some of the Iranian complaints is conduct of the IAEA under its current director general, Yukiya Amano, that sometimes makes the agency look—to many eyes, and certainly to those of the Iranians—like a tool of adversaries of Iran. The Iranian response notes how often questions and accusations that the agency directs at Iran originate with material that is fed to it by “known sources hostile to Iran” but is never revealed enough for either Iran or anyone else to question the authenticity of the material itself. The response also calls the IAEA to account for evidently sharing on a real-time basis with David Albright's Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security information that was based on inspections of Iranian facilities and was supposed to remain confidential within the IAEA.

Much of the Iranians' heartburn concerns the relationship between the IAEA and the U.N. Security Council and how each has blurred what are supposed to be two distinct charters and missions. On one hand the IAEA has been, in the words of the Iranian response, “more Catholic than the Pope” in seeking to implement Security Council resolutions rather than sticking to what is supposed to be its job of monitoring nuclear safeguards agreements. On the other hand, the Security Council has waded into the implementation of safeguards agreements even though it has no business doing so if the IAEA has not made a determination—and it has not—that Iran has diverted nuclear material to military purposes or that there is a threat to international peace and security under the terms of the U.N. charter.

The Iranians come back to the U.N. charter near the end of their 20-page response and quote from Article 2 of the charter, which obligates member states to “settle their international disputes by peaceful means” and to “refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.” The Iranians further note, “Threats to use force against Iran's nuclear facilities are frequently expressed, including by some permanent members of the Security Council, while the Council has proven to be unable or unwilling to restrain such declarations and compel them to 'refrain in their international relations from the threat.' ”

Far shorter than the Iranian response is an Israeli response to a proposal from Arab states to place on the agenda of the IAEA General Conference an item titled “Israeli nuclear capabilities.” It's not surprising it is short; after all, what is there to say if you have the region's only nuclear weapons and you don't even admit their existence, as well as staying totally outside any international control and monitoring regime? The Israelis say a few familiar things about how any attention to what they are doing would be a time-wasting diversion from the “real challenges” in the region, of which Iran and its nuclear program are of course the biggest. “Full compliance by all regional states with their arms control and non-proliferation obligations,” declares the Israeli note, is indispensable. That's one way to be preachy about obligations—just don't assume any yourself.

Image: Flickr/Blake Burkhart. CC BY-SA 2.0.

TopicsArms ControlCongressUNInternational LawSanctionsNuclear ProliferationWeapons Inspections RegionsIsraelIranUnited States

Stop Bashing the NSA

Paul Pillar

The brouhaha over some of the National Security Agency's collection activities is the most recent example of a tendency—by the public, the press and the Congress—to treat certain controversial issues of public policy as if they were problems with particular government institutions even when they really aren't. Of course, government institutions, like other institutions, often have problems, whether of ineffectiveness, inefficiency or even malfeasance. But what I am referring to instead are policies and programs that, although implemented by a particular department or agency, exist for reasons found elsewhere—and with the mere existence of the policy or program, more than how it is implemented, being the main point of controversy.

This phenomenon can arise with any government component, but intelligence agencies seem especially liable to be viewed in this misplaced way. Scott Shane of the New York Times observes that U.S. intelligence agencies “have entered a period of broad public scrutiny and skepticism,” citing controversies over interrogation and drone strikes as well as the more recent attention to electronic surveillance. The fact that these agencies, by mission and charter, do not make policy means that any perceptions that they are the drivers of whatever policy is the subject of controversy are very likely incorrect. The secrecy that surrounds these agencies and contributes to ignorance about them is another factor, although occasionally journalists shed corrective light on the subject, as Walter Pincus of the Washington Post has done with regard to the specific NSA-implemented electronic collection programs that are at the center of the most recent controversies.

Those programs do not exist because someone at NSA thought it would be nifty to expand the agency's operations by doing something like that. They exist because the American public—with its desires and demands expressed through the political branches of government—wanted vigorous intelligence efforts on behalf of counterterrorism and because the technology is such that large-scale electronic collection is one of the most promising ways of making such efforts. NSA is implementing the programs because it is the component that happens to have the mission and capability to do such things. The purpose, general parameters and limitations of the programs all have been set outside the agency. The specific operational designs are the work of NSA, but any design that was not intensive and extensive would not have delivered the expected vigor.

The Central Intelligence Agency has figured even more often than NSA into such misdirected controversy. Although recent times have featured issues involving the handling of detainees, a variety of covert actions that later come to light have for many years illustrated the popular conflation of controversial policies with the agency charged with implementing them. The legal framework for covert action that has been in place since the 1970s forces the direct involvement of the most senior policy-makers, including the president, and Congressional leaders. What the agency doing the implementing can and cannot do is carefully detailed and circumscribed. CIA frequently gets involved in implementation because it happens to be the agency with the most capability to do things overseas covertly. But it makes about as much sense to refer to an operation as a “CIA covert action” as it would to refer to the “Department of Defense war in Iraq.”

One reason for the conflation of institutions with policies, and for the projection onto the former of controversies about the latter, is that this imparts a satisfying concreteness to what might otherwise be a rather inchoate and difficult-to-understand issue. Directing one's dissatisfaction to a known, named institution with familiar initials feels better than directing it against a policy process in which there may have been many hands. Hauling officials from those institutions before Congressional committees in public hearings makes things even more concrete and seemingly tractable by applying specific names and faces to the subject.

Another reason for treating controversies this way is that it helps the public and political leaders to avoid having to confront squarely the role that the public and political leaders themselves played in bringing about what became controversial. It makes it easier to overlook the inconsistency of their own mood swings, their changing demands, and their prior support for what later came to be seen as blunders or scandals.

This lack of self-confrontation by the public and political class (and often by the press) leads to the biggest cost of the misdirected conflation of institutions with issues. It impedes the correction of national mistakes. Reducing the chance of blunder or scandal in the future requires full discussion and understanding of everything that led to blunders and scandals in the past. Simply characterizing something as a problem with the XYZ agency does not do that.

There is a second, lesser though still significant, cost that concerns the impact of the conflation on the institutions themselves and the people who work in them. The people in the intelligence agencies are mostly accustomed to being buffeted by such uproars and are pretty good about soldiering on regardless of being knocked around over controversies not of their own making. But knock people around enough times and it is bound to have some effect on concentration and morale. The hazard is increased by the fact that these people are part of a larger federal work force that also has been subjected to other forms of abuse. If we keep treating people in such ways, then we are likely to see real institutional problems develop.

TopicsBureaucracyCongressDomestic PoliticsMediaPublic OpinionIntelligence RegionsUnited States

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