Paul Pillar

A Scholars' Boycott of Israel

Paul Pillar

As a matter of intent, justice, legality, and morality, the recent decision by the American Studies Association to boycott Israeli academic institutions is a righteous action. The problem that the association's decision (approved by two-thirds of its membership) addressed cannot be restated often enough, because although the nature of the problem should be obvious there are continuous efforts from other quarters to obscure it. The government of Israel, while paying lip service to the idea of a Palestinian state, occupies indefinitely, and continues to colonize, land that Israel conquered in a war it initiated 46 years ago and is home to Palestinian Arabs, and in so doing is depriving Palestinians not only of self-determination but of most of their political and civil rights as well as keeping them in economic subjugation.

The situation is commonly described, of course, as a bilateral conflict in which there are political and security concerns on both sides, which there are. But Palestinian leaders and the community of Arab states long ago accepted the idea of peace based on a Palestinian state limited to the 22 percent of the British mandate of Palestine left in Arab hands after earlier warfare in the 1940s. The shape of such a peace has long been clear. Israel is the occupier. It is easily the most powerful state in the region. It is in control. The Israeli government could make such a settlement a reality within weeks if it decided to. It instead prefers to cling to conquered land rather than to make peace, and to continue the colonization that threatens to put a peace out of reach.

That a gesture is righteous is not, however, sufficient grounds for judging that it is wise, or maybe even that it represents justice if one takes a broader view beyond the immediate conflict. The ASA's move, besides being subjected to the usual chorus of calumny whenever there is any criticism of Israeli policy, raises several legitimate issues.

One issue concerns the targeting of academic institutions, which is probably where some of the more enlightened and liberal thinking occurs inside Israel. That might seem an odd channel for going against the illiberal thinking that is the real target. One response to this concern is to note that the ASA is a body of academics, so naturally academic institutions are the entities its members would normally deal with. It would be a meaningless gesture for the ASA to announce a boycott of, say, the Israeli Defense Forces, with which it presumably has no relationship anyway. The ASA also supports its position by noting the denial of rights to Palestinian scholars as well as the multiple relationships that Israeli universities have, such as through training and technological development, with the Israeli military that administers the occupation.

Another legitimate question is whether a boycott, which inherently involves a cutting off of contact and communication, is an appropriate way to aim for an objective in which there would be a full peace with plenty of contact and communication among all concerned, including Israel. Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas appears to raise this concern when he says he favors limiting boycotts only to the products of Israeli settlements in occupied territory. “We don't ask anyone to boycott Israel itself,” says Abbas. “We have relations with Israel, we have mutual recognition of Israel.” Abbas, however, may be showing the side of the Palestinian Authority that constitutes a Potemkin village of self-determination under the shadow of what is still Israeli occupation. On this question he certainly is not speaking for Palestinian civil society, which strongly supports the broader boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel as a whole. In any case, the ASA's move does not affect the work of, or contacts with, individual Israeli scholars, and of course it does nothing to curtail governmental contacts.

A further question that can understandably be raised about the ASA's move is why it singles out Israel when the world is full of human rights violators. Saying, as one association member did, that one “has to start somewhere” does not quite cut it. The appropriate response starts with the fact that the members of this association are not just scholars of American studies; most of them are American scholars and American citizens. A huge piece of context for all of this is the critical role that the United States has played, through multiple administrations, in condoning the offensive Israeli behavior by providing diplomatic cover and many billions of no-strings-attached assistance. The United States is doing nothing of the sort for all those other human rights violators. Ideally what should be changed is the official policy; at a minimum, strings ought to be placed on assistance. But until that happens, U.S. citizens need to use what levers and gestures are available to them. Perhaps enough such gestures will start to change the political climate in the United States that supports the policies that condone the violations of human rights. Perhaps the gestures will chip away at the “standard trope of U.S. politics...that Israel is America's major ally in the Middle East,” as John Tirman of MIT puts it, when in fact “Israel's belligerent and persistent obstructionism is not the action of an ally.”

That gets to another response why Americans in particular are justified in making the kind of gesture the ASA made, which has to do with how Israel's occupation and its policies in the occupied territory significantly damage U.S. interests. Bruce Riedel powerfully and succinctly reviews why the unresolved Palestinian problem “is a national security threat to America. Indeed, American lives are being lost today because of the perpetuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” The reasons for this are, “First, this conflict creates anger, frustration and humiliation that fuel the enemies that are killing Americans today. Second, this conflict weakens our allies and friends, the moderates in the Islamic world, who are trying to fight our enemies.” On the first of those points, other academic research has repeatedly shown how the continued Israeli occupation, and the U.S. condoning of it, fuels extremist violence of the al-Qaeda ilk against U.S. interests. The occupation is a topic on which considerations of justice and a realist's considerations of U.S. interests converge.

The BDS movement, and thus contributions to it such as the ASA resolution, have a chance to do some good on this issue even though boycotts might have little effect on the policies of some of those other prominent human rights violators, such as the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe or the Karimov regime in Uzbekistan. If Israel, as its leaders and defenders are always quick to assert, shares with the United States important liberal democratic values—although the occupation represents the most glaring respect in which Israel does not share those values, or at least does not act on them—then those leaders and defenders ought to respect an expression of opposition that is peaceful and that is made through the free choices of consumers and scholars.

The example of overthrowing the South African version of apartheid continues to offer lessons in this regard. The Economist, in its obituary on Nelson Mandela, observed:

Mr. Mandela made political mistakes. The decision to abandon non-violence lost the ANC some support abroad, put no real military pressure on the government and, most seriously, diverted the movement’s energies from the task of organization at home, which was essential if strikes, boycotts and civil disobedience were to be effective.

The ASA's boycott is on balance the right thing to do, although it is not a slam dunk. Some who see the underlying issues rather clearly, such as Tom Friedman, nonetheless criticize the move. Everyone who expresses views on this or any other step relevant to the Israeli occupation should strive to get away from the all-too-prevalent, no-shades-of-gray tendency to lump every comment into a “pro-Israel” or “anti-Israel” camp. That tendency is damaging because it encourages scurrilous responses such as indiscriminate playing of the anti-Semitism card, and because such labels fail to distinguish between fundamental Israeli interests and the policies of the current Israeli government. Careful, detailed attention to what is effective as well as what is just is in order.

Image: Flickr/Takver. CC BY-SA 2.0.

TopicsCivil SocietyDomestic PoliticsHuman RightsEthicsPublic OpinionSanctions RegionsIsraelUnited StatesPalestinian territoriesSouth Africa

Harper, RGIII, and NSA

Paul Pillar

The advisory panel that the White House appointed to review operations of the National Security Agency amid the leak-stained controversies about those operations appears to be coming up with some sound ideas. According to David Sanger in the New York Times, the panel probably will recommend that the White House get more directly involved in weighing the benefits, costs, and risks of such intelligence collection operations, rather like it does now with covert actions assigned to the CIA. Such involvement is necessary and proper, given that the decisions to be made include essentially political judgments about the relative importance of competing national values and interests.

Sanger also, however, points to a continued tendency to expect the NSA itself to make most of these judgments. The article states that officials who have examined the agency's programs “say they have been surprised at how infrequently the agency has been challenged to weigh the intelligence benefits of its foreign collection operations against the damage that could be done if the programs were exposed.” Think about that statement for a moment. It implies there should be times when this intelligence agency should, on its own, forgo “intelligence benefits” out of fear of the damage that a future leaker might cause.

Such an expectation not only would be another act of surrender to leakers and to whatever is on their personal agendas; it also would be yet another example of the inconsistency over time of the expectations that the American public places on U.S. intelligence agencies. It really wasn't very many years ago that one of the pieces of conventional wisdom about these agencies, repeated endlessly by commentators and commissions, was that they were risk averse and that their unwillingness to take chances in collecting information was a major cause of intelligence failure. Google the combination of “intelligence agencies” and “risk averse” and you get more than 93,000 hits. But now, it seems, these same agencies are expected instead to be more, not less, averse to risk, with respect not only to something like a human agent being endangered but also to the damage that some future Edward Snowden might cause.

At both ends of this swing of this pendulum the public perceptions have been exaggerated. The intelligence agencies always were more willing to accept risk than they were perceived to be several years ago, and they are more conscious of the risks of unauthorized disclosures than they are perceived to be now. In any event, to expect an intelligence agency such as NSA to be the primary weigher of the competing values and objectives that its operations entail is a mistake for two reasons.

One is that these agencies are not well equipped to do such weighing and balancing. They have legions of lawyers to ensure that what they do stays within bounds of the law and the rules, but the considerations to be weighed go well beyond legality and conformity with rules. Those considerations include shifting political moods in America and the reconciliation of competing social values. People in the intelligence agencies are not trained and organized to make judgments about such things. We, the public, ought to be uncomfortable if agencies that are supposed to be restricted to foreign intelligence start getting that close to matters of domestic politics. Moreover, to the extent that officials in these agencies do participate in the weighing, their perspectives naturally will tend to be shaped disproportionately by their being heavily involved in intelligence collection. I would sooner rely on political types in the White House to make a well-rounded judgment as to what the American people would consider a balanced approach.

The other reason is that if the intelligence agencies start worrying more about these broader considerations they are apt to do a less focused, less effective job of carrying out their assigned mission of collecting and analyzing foreign intelligence. Here is where the old criticisms about risk aversion might have some relevance, although the problem is more one of distraction, preoccupation, and back-of-the-mind hesitation than it is about unwillingness to take risks.

People in Washington could make a comparison here with a couple of young stars on the local professional sports teams. One is Bryce Harper, an exciting player with the Nationals baseball team whose go-for-broke style has gotten him injured more than once as he smashed into outfield fences while chasing down batted balls. The other is Robert Griffin III, whose running game is much of what made him appear to be a franchise-rescuing quarterback for the Washington football team but also has contributed to debilitating knee injuries.

Although everyone realizes that the more such players are sidelined with injury the less useful they are to their teams, the smart money in pro sports seems to say that it would be a mistake to make such players tame their aggressiveness, which is an inseparable part of what makes them stars. The preoccupation about injury that has surrounded Griffin (including having him sit out all the preseason games) has probably been at least as much of a factor as injury itself in making his sophomore season a big disappointment after the promise of his rookie year. Harper's new manager, Matt Williams, says it would be a mistake to rein in his young outfielder, and he has no intention of doing so. “I love the way he plays the game,” says Williams, which is “the way it should be played...all-out, every day, all the time, every game,” even though Harper has “paid for it by getting injured and running into walls.”

Hesitation-producing preoccupation with potential damage from either injuries or leaks is part of what makes the difference between middling performers and excellent ones, whether the performers are professional athletes or intelligence agencies. The tendency toward mediocrity becomes all the worse when the performer is relied on to do most of the risk-weighing rather than being allowed to focus sharply on the assigned job while leaving it to a coach, manager, White House, or Congress to do most of the weighing and balancing of broader considerations.

Leaning on the National Security Agency to assume most of that broader task itself, besides being another example of inconsistent public expectations being placed on intelligence agencies, also is another example of expecting those agencies to perform functions that should be performed by political leaders or the public itself. Just as after the Iraq War went sour the intelligence community was expected somehow to have saved the country from the folly of its own elected leaders, now NSA is expected to rescue the American public from inattention to how much the public's own standards and values regarding security and privacy have changed over the past decade.

Image: Flickr/Ben Stanfield. CC BY-SA 2.0.

TopicsCongressPublic OpinionThe PresidencyIntelligence RegionsUnited States

The Wise Non-Attack on Syria

Paul Pillar

Passage of even just a few months adds valuable perspective to debates about prospective uses of military force—debates in which some positions were expressed with passion and conviction. Such has been happening regarding the civil war in Syria. Not very long ago the United States and some other Western states seemed on the verge of launching their own military strikes in Syria, in addition to providing assistance to opposition elements. Since then all the reasons then already becoming visible why a forceful intervention on the rebel side of this war would be a mistake have become even clearer. Disarray prevails among the opposition elements that would be helped, with only loose connections between politicians on the outside of Syria and people with guns on the inside. Purported moderates have been weak and ineffective. The strongest opposition groups—in both intra-opposition fighting and combat against the regime—include many extremists having little or nothing in common with any Western objectives. The latest turn in this story has been a suspension of any U.S. non-lethal aid to the opposition after a coalition of Islamist fighters called the Islamic Front broke into a warehouse and took control of equipment the United States had provided to someone else.

The character of some of the most influential opposition forces has become clear enough for more voices in the West to be saying that the opposition is worse than the Assad regime. Former U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker says we ought “to start talking to the Assad regime again...As bad as he is, he is not as bad as the jihadis who would take over in his absence.” Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at Oklahoma University, comments that a policy of arming Syrian rebels “blew up in our face,” and that “someone has got to bite the bullet and say Assad stays.” What goes for assisting rebels would go even more for direct external military intervention.

If the Western attack that almost took place earlier this year had in fact been carried out, it would have dragged the United States deeply into a conflict that seems nowhere close to ending. To the extent it would have tipped a balance, it would have done so in favor of a side that, as Crocker notes, is worse than the Syrian regime. The alternative—the events that have actually played out in the intervening months—is still not pretty to watch, and the politics and diplomacy that led to an attack being called off were essentially an improvised broken play. But the result has been decidedly less bad than immersion in this civil war. There even has been a positive development on behalf of arms control with the deal regarding destruction of Syria's chemical weapons.

There still will be those who—our of inertia, cognitive dissonance, or true belief in the unlimited efficacy of U.S. military power—will argue that things would be coming out better if we had only been quicker to act, not only directly but in assisting “moderates” in the opposition. That position overlooks what it has always overlooked, including the difficulty of distinguishing in this circumstance moderates from extremists, the impossibility of keeping aid only in the hands of the former, and the other realities of the Syrian conflict that have led extremists to gain the prominence they have among the opposition.

Comparing what we know now to what was argued several months ago is useful not only for understanding what is the path of wisdom in dealing with the Syrian problem. It also is useful in evaluating other, possibly broader debates about the use of military force. Most of our after-the-fact evaluation is based on instances in which we do use force. We can draw lessons, for example, from the Iraq War—and appropriately so, given the huge cost that misguided expedition inflicted on the United States. But drawing lessons only from such episodes involves a methodological problem that social scientists would call selecting on the dependent variable. Our data base is more complete if we consider lessons from every instance in which use of force became a major issue, whether or not the eventual policy decision was to use it.

Three types of assessment are assisted by such lessons. One is the general question of when military intervention is or is not apt to be advisable. A second concerns the performance of the policymakers. In the case of the Obama administration's handling of Syria, there was initially a misdirected use of the chemical weapons issue and later reliance on luck and help from the Russians in getting out of a hole, but the final and fundamental decision on the use of force was in the right direction.

A third type of assessment concerns the credibility and wisdom, or lack thereof, of those who engage in these debates. Arguing for what would be a mistaken use of force may not harm the republic if policymakers do not accept the argument, but it still reflects just as badly on those making the argument.

TopicsArms ControlHumanitarian Intervention RegionsUnited StatesSyria

International Protest and the Bedouin of the Negev

Paul Pillar

The recent passing of Nelson Mandela has been an occasion to recall the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa. That struggle combined the efforts of domestic opponents of the apartheid regime with what eventually became an enormous international coalition of opposition that included governments—which imposed sanctions on South Africa—and nongovernmental movements. The breadth of that international opposition contrasted with the relative narrowness and weakness of opposition to some current injustices, including ones involving apartheid practices.

On Thursday, however, opposition to such practices got at least a tentative boost, when the government of Israel announced it was shelving for the moment a plan for mandatory relocation of tens of thousands of Arab Bedouin from their historic homelands in the Negev desert. Many of the Bedouin, who are Israeli citizens and a subset of the larger population of Arab Israelis, have long lived a largely off-the-grid existence in the Negev in what the Israeli government considers “unrecognized” villages. Forcibly relocating them would be a blatant violation of human rights. The Israeli government asserts that the purpose of the move would be to improve the Bedouin's lives by bringing them into a more modern situation. But unfavorable experiences of other Bedouin who had already been brought into “recognized” towns, where they had a similar lack of services and also found it more difficult to live the pastoral life to which they were accustomed, did not make the prospective move popular among those who would be affected. In fact, Bedouin leaders strongly opposed the move. Former minister Benny Begin, a principal architect of the plan, acknowledged when making this week's announcement that he had never consulted with the Bedouin themselves.

The Jericho-based journalist Jonathan Cook describes the relocation plan as—and quotes Israeli leaders as saying the same thing—in effect a continuation of ethnic cleansing that took place during the 1948 war for Israeli independence. The plan to “concentrate,” in Begin's words, the Bedouin would clear land for the construction of new towns open only to Jews. Cook notes that the new Jewish towns would be “dispersed as widely as possible in contravention of Israel’s own national master plan, which requires denser building inside existing communities to protect scarce land resources.”

Two caveats qualify this week's good news about this issue. One is that the shelving of the plan may only be temporary. There is a good chance it will reappear, perhaps in slightly modified form, once world attention has drifted elsewhere. The other is that even this temporary halt was due partly to resistance from elements among the Israeli Right, who thought the plan lacked sufficient detail and was too generous to the Bedouin.

International opposition, however, certainly had something to do with this development. This shows how such opposition, even when short of what came to be mobilized against the South African version of apartheid, can make a difference. In particular, it shows the difference it can make against other aspects of the Israeli version of apartheid, which affects far more Arabs than only the Negev Bedouin.

Much of the international opposition came from Europe; significantly less came from the United States. Many British elites lent their name to the cause. The lesser involvement of Americans no doubt is linked to the well-known role of the Israeli government in American politics. But the difference might also be related to different aspects of national history. Maybe many in Britain, when they hear of Bedouin, think of the ones with whom, and on behalf of whom, T.E Lawrence fought. By contrast, a close parallel to what the Israelis have been planning to do to their Bedouin is what the United States did to its Native Americans: relocating and concentrating an indigenous, semi-nomadic population in a way that largely destroyed its way of life and opened up land for the dominant ethnic group. There is a lot of guilt about that now, but not enough to wipe the slate clean; look at what the football team in the national capital is still named.

TopicsHuman RightsPublic Opinion RegionsIsraelUnited StatesPalestinian territoriesUnited Kingdom

Big Data, Public and Private

Paul Pillar

The collection and maintaining of huge files of information on our communications, our movements, our online searching, and much else about our individual lives is, as Laura Bate notes, hardly something that the National Security Agency or any other arm of government originated. By far the greater share of the assembling, and the exploitation, of storehouses of data about the activities of individual Americans occurs in the private sector. So why should there be so much fuss about what a government agency may be doing along this line, while there is equanimity about the much greater amount of such activity by non-government enterprises? Is there something intrinsic to government that ought to make us more worried about such data mining? Let us consider the possible bases for concluding that there might be.

Potentially the strongest such basis has to do with the presence or absence of a free market, and related to that, whether or not the activity of the individuals on which data are being collected is voluntary. When I use a search engine on the Internet I am voluntarily using a free service in return for being exposed to some advertising and allowing the operator of the search engine or my Internet service provider to collect, and exploit, data about my interests. Most interactions with government agencies and especially security agencies do not involve as much voluntarism. So maybe it is logical to be more persnickety for this reason about what government entities are doing.

That makes sense as far as it goes. But in practice the logic quickly runs up against the fallacy of equating the private sector with free markets and free will. If I want land-line telephone service at my home (and I very much do), I'm stuck with Verizon. I am forced to let Verizon collect comprehensive records of my calls—the “metadata” we've heard so much about. And of course, if someone at Verizon wanted to listen in on the substance of my calls that could be done as well, although it is a reputable company and I would be surprised if that were happening. The point is that there is much less free will and free choice in private sector data-generating activity than we might like to think, and in many cases little or no more free choice than when a government agency is involved.

This is true not just of local utility monopolies such as land-line telephone systems but to a large degree of other services in the Internet age. Some such services, including online access itself, have quickly transitioned from being seen as nifty innovations to being regarded as necessities. And again, free choice is often much less than we would like. This fact was recognized with the antitrust action against Microsoft, which was using its commanding position in operating systems to muscle into a bigger share of the market for browsers and other applications.

When there is enough market competition for users theoretically to vote with their feet—or with their fingers on the keyboard—if they are worried about what is being done with data collected on them, in practice any market correction mechanism would be very slow and clumsy. Imagine that a rogue employee at Google started using information about embarrassing web searches to ruin the reputations of particular people he was out to get. If that sort of abuse happened enough times, then perhaps significant numbers of users would abandon Google's wonderfully effective search engine in favor of Bing or something else, and Google would become less able to sell as much advertising as it does now. But the corrective process would be slow and awkward, and in the meantime a bunch of people would have their reputations ruined.

Another possible basis for distinguishing the amassing of data in the public and private sectors is to ask what controls or checks apply to each. Here there is indeed a big difference, and the difference is in the direction of there being far more controls and checks applied to government agencies than to private sector enterprises. For the security agencies there is the whole legal structure, dating back to the 1970s and strengthened since then, of restrictions and Congressional oversight. Nothing remotely resembling those sorts of external controls exists for data mining in the private sector. Then there are all the internal checks and controls, which as Bate mentions in the case of NSA are extensive. These include compartmentation of information—second nature to the security agencies, which use compartmentation to protect sensitive national security information even if there is no issue of the personal privacy of U.S. citizens. NSA senior management says publicly that only 22 people at their agency are able to query the telephone metadata that are of concern. How many people at Verizon can do something with the comprehensive record of my telephone calls? I don't have the faintest idea, and probably no one else outside Verizon does either.

Another question to ask is how the public and private sectors may differ regarding the potential for abuse, in terms of not just access and capability but also incentives. For most conceivable types of individual abuse, there is no reason to expect the incentives for individual abuse to appear more in one type of organization than the other. A potential abuser thinking of, say, looking at an ex-spouse's calling record may pop up in either the public or private or sector. Disincentives to this kind of abuse probably are stronger in the security agencies, given the regular reinvestigation regimen that people with security clearances undergo.

As for incentives that are more institutional than individual, there are further differences. As an example of a mistaken and destructive use of data mining, think of an innocent person being put on a no-fly list and, as a result, having his business damaged because of his inability to fly. Government agencies have no conceivable incentive for this to happen. For them, false positives merely add clutter and make it more difficult to accomplish their assigned mission, such as keeping real terrorists off airplanes. And when a mistake of this sort does happen and becomes public, such as putting Ted Kennedy on a no-fly list, it is an embarrassment to the agencies responsible. In the private sector, however, there always are commercial and financial interests in play. Those interests may well provide an incentive—such as for competitors in the same line of business—to damage the business of someone else.

In addition to all of these criteria, one also should ask what benefit or greater good is going to the person about whom data are being collected, as well as perhaps to others. What is being bought, in other words, in return for whatever risks or intrusions are involved in amassing the data? With the sort of data mining that NSA does, the presumed benefit is in the form of greater protection against terrorists, or perhaps other contributions to national security. There has been debate, of course, about just how much of this type of benefit is being obtained, but at least the objective is one that most Americans would consider important. The corresponding answer for private sector use of big data is harder to come up with. It would seem to consist of something like better tailoring of ads that appear on the user's computer screen, which might streamline online shopping. Nice, perhaps, but hardly in the same league as national security.

Two overall conclusions follow. One is that there are substantially stronger reasons to worry about the collection and use of big data in the private sector than in government agencies.

The other is that the prevailing pattern of public consternation about this subject being nevertheless focused on government agencies indicates that the consternation is not driven by any careful consideration of risks, costs, benefits, incentives, and choices. Instead it is driven by a crude image of government agencies, and especially certain types of government agencies, as Big Brothers worthy of suspicion or even loathing. Sentiments toward private sector enterprises vary, but the biggest contrast to the image of government is enjoyed by the titans of Silicon Valley and the enterprises they run, having the status of heroes.

The crudeness driving the sentiments is one of the main reasons (inconsistency over time in what the American public expects from the government agencies involved is another big reason) we should not be surprised if morale at a place such as NSA is low.

TopicsPublic OpinionTerrorism RegionsUnited States

Disentangling Diplomacy in the Middle East

Paul Pillar

David Ignatius offers in his column some thoughts inspired by results of a Pew Research Center poll in which the headline item is that nearly half of Americans believe the United States “should mind its own business internationally,” a finding that the Pew people describe as “one of the highest readings of isolationist sentiment in decades.” In commenting on the issue of Iran's nuclear program, Ignatius notes that completion of a final agreement will require President Obama to secure agreement from Congress and the public, and that it looks now that he will have a tough time securing that support. Ignatius is right insofar as there already is deal-scuppering trouble-making in Congress and likely to be more to come. But then he tries to summarize the public mood by saying, “The public doesn’t want war, but it doesn’t seem to like entangling diplomacy much, either.”

“Entangling diplomacy”? Hold that thought while we move down the Washington Post opinion page to the next column, the one by George Will. Will evidently is so taken by Kenneth Pollack's new book on Iran that this is Will's second column in the last two weeks that is based on it. Will and Pollack are right on two very important propositions about the Iranian nuclear matter. One is that the idea of using military force to deal with it would be, for multiple reasons, a big and even disastrous mistake. The other is that if Iran ever did acquire a nuclear weapon, deterrence would work and the situation that is generally referred to as “containment” is one we can live with. I have made these same points in my own writing.

The rest of the viewpoint Will is defending involves a giving up of any possibility of reaching further agreements with an Iran whose nuclear program stays peaceful. To be fair to Pollack—and Will is fair enough to mention this—Pollack completed his book before the recent successful negotiation of an interim nuclear agreement with Tehran. But the negative fatalism that is being expressed errs in at least three ways.

One, it goes along with the erroneous tendency to assume that Iranian policymakers are chomping at the bit to make a nuclear weapon, and that they will not do so only if forced not to do so. This is a misreading of what are ever-more-clear Iranian intentions, in which not only has no decision to build a bomb been made but also the Iranian leadership sees a more normal relationship with the West—and a permanently peaceful nuclear program—as distinctly preferable to having a nuclear weapon. Will's position involves a self-fulfilling worst-case assumption.

Second is an apparent misreading of the obstacles to a comprehensive nuclear agreement. It is true that this is very far from a done deal, but the reason is not because the terms of an agreement that would satisfy both Western and Iranian interests are not fairly clear. Rather, the main obstacle is opposition to any U.S.-Iranian agreement from hardliners, especially hardliners outside Iran. It also is true that this opposition is formidable and is determined to keep doing whatever it can to prevent an agreement, but the opposition is beatable. It is narrow, consisting chiefly of the Israeli government, those in the United States who dance mainly to that government's tune, and assorted neocons who welcome eternal hostility with what they regard as forces of darkness in the Middle East and, unlike Will, would even welcome a war with them.

Pushing against this opposition is a president and his administration who, to their credit, already have shown more drive and moxie on this matter than on almost any other foreign policy issue, or on most domestic issues. Moreover, the narrow opposition does not speak for the American public. This is where Ignatius errs by throwing Congress and the public into the same pot. Opinion polling that has directly addressed the issue of diplomacy to reach a nuclear agreement has shown two-to-one support by the American public for a diplomatic solution. Americans both do not want war and they do want a negotiated agreement.

Third, the position Will presents pays inadequate attention to what the negative fatalism means we would be giving up. First and most obviously, we would be giving up the prospect of a Middle East in which Iran does not have a nuclear weapon, a situation which everyone—including Will, Pollack, me, Barack Obama, most Israelis, the Saudis, and even the Iranian leadership—believes would be preferable to a Middle East in which it does have a nuke.

It also means giving up the prospect of ever getting away from the lines of hostility and conflict that have badly constrained U.S. policy in the region. This is where we get back to Ignatius's idea of entangling diplomacy. Except that entanglement is what we have now—in which the United States is entangled in fixed lines of conflict in which it is expected to defer to the wishes of supposed allies, is barred from ever working for mutual benefit with those labeled forever as adversaries, and is sucked into the narrow agendas and conflicts of the purported allies. Agreement with Iran on the high-profile nuclear issue would be a step toward disentangling the United States from all that, and toward greater freedom for the United States in using further diplomacy to pursue its own interests, working selectively with different states on different matters as the issues and our own interests may dictate.

TopicsCongressDomestic PoliticsPublic OpinionThe PresidencyNuclear Proliferation RegionsIsraelIranUnited States

Sanctions Hurt Us

Paul Pillar

An infatuation with economic sanctions, applied against countries Americans do not like such as Iran, loses sight of the concept that sanctions are only a tool for trying to accomplish some other objective, rather than being an objective in their own right. This lack of understanding shows up mainly in the tendency to think of the economic pain that sanctions inflict on the target country as an end in itself, as if we lived in a completely zero-sum world in which pain for a country we don't like equates to gain for us. We do not live in such a world, and pain for someone else does not directly mean any gain for us.

We also tend to overlook, however, how our own sanctions inflict direct costs on ourselves. Think about this partly as a matter of economic theory. Sanctions represent government interference in the workings of the market. They prevent enterprises from doing what the market would otherwise determine to be the most efficient way of supply meeting demand. The interference inevitably entails added costs, which we Americans share.

The formidable, fear-inducing enforcement of U.S. sanctions against Iran entails substantial costs for U.S. companies. Not only are these companies excluded from some major opportunities for new business; they have to jump through additional hoops to make sure they do not run afoul of the enforcers in areas where they still are doing business. A Washington Post story concerns how this fear leads American companies to report to government regulators in excruciatingly minute detail anything they do that could conceivably brush up against the sanctions. Citibank, for example, felt it necessary to report that it made four dollars in profit from ATM transactions in Bahrain that involved a joint venture that included two Iranian-owned banks. It is remarkable that some members of Congress who otherwise do not hesitate to preach that onerous government regulations and the administrative burdens they impose are bad for the American economy are also enthusiastic backers of the sanctions.

With Iran there also is, of course, the effect on the oil market. The state of that market has been a major factor in the economic history of the United States over the past half century. In general (with the exception, of course, of the oil industry itself) it has been bad for the American economy when foreign oil producers and especially the OPEC cartel have gotten their act together enough to jack up prices, and good for the American economy when freer competition among producers has prevailed and oil prices have fallen. Higher oil prices mean higher costs of doing business for most of the American economy.

Notwithstanding all the high hopes about domestic shale oil production, production in the Middle East still matters a lot. We could use some more vigorous, price-depressing competition among foreign producers. West Texas Intermediate is going today for $97 per barrel, about twice what it was five years ago as the recession was close to hitting bottom. The Iranian oil minister says Iran would like to strike up exactly that type of competition. But it won't happen as long as the sanctions against Iran are in place.

Then there are all of the other non-economic and non-quantifiable but still significant costs to the United States of the sanctions. The enormous diplomatic effort expended in erecting and maintaining the sanctions regime has burned a lot of chits with other countries around the world, as well as much energy and attention of U.S. officials. It would be nice to see that political capital expended on something that has more direct benefit to U.S. interests.

And as illustration of another sort of cost, consider the case of a Ph.D. candidate at New York University whose field research in Iran was put on hold because of sanctions-inflicted complications and fears of those giving her a research grant that they might run afoul of the government enforcers. It took nine months of administrative hassles and thousands of dollars of legal expenses incurred by the university before she finally got Treasury Department approval to make her trip. Even then, she was prohibited from taking into Iran any laptop, hard drive, cell phone, audio recorder, or camera. Count this as a blow against greater American understanding, through academic research, of Iran.

This case brings to mind all the hand-wringing after the Iranian revolution in 1979 of how poorly Americans and American officials were said to have understood what was going on in Iran at the time. Some of the most enthusiastic American promoters of sanctions today make no secret of their longing for some sort of new Iranian revolution that would overthrow the current regime. They are unlikely to get their wish, but if they did, such political change would probably be all the more a surprise because of how their beloved sanctions are getting in the way of broad understanding of what is going on in Iran today.

Image: Flickr/Eli Duke. CC BY-SA 2.0.

TopicsBankingCongressPolitical EconomySanctions RegionsIranUnited States

The Lesson of Pre-World War II Germany

Paul Pillar

The victorious allies at the end of World War I were not entirely of one mind regarding the handling of the peace, but a strong sentiment (especially in France) was that it ought to be a tough, punitive peace. Germany had been defeated but not crushed during the war, and most of the combat had not even taken place on its territory. It was therefore the peace, in the minds of many of the victors, that ought to be crushing, including the payment by Germany of heavy reparations.

Given such terms, German consent to the treaty in 1919 was, as described by the British historian A.J. P. Taylor in his classic The Origins of the Second World War, “given grudgingly and unwillingly, after long debate whether it would not be better to refuse to sign.” Germans called the Versailles treaty “a Diktat or a slave-treaty.”

The Diktat had three unfortunate and major effects in Germany. One was a determination to undermine the treaty itself. In Taylor's words:

The peace of Versailles lacked moral validity from the start. It had to be enforced; it did not, as it were, enforce itself. This was obviously true in regard to the Germans. No German accepted the treaty as a fair settlement between equals...All Germans meant to shake off at any rate some part of the peace treaty as soon as it was convenient to do so.

Another effect was a determination to assert more broadly Germany's power and a dominant place for it in Europe, as a reaction to the treatment it was receiving at the hands of the World War I victors. And a third effect was to boost extremist elements that expressed these resentments in their starkest and sharpest form. The harsh peace was a political bonanza for the Nazi Party, which railed against it throughout its rise to power.

Economic pressure was a key ingredient in the harsh treatment of Germany. Some of the thoughts in the allied countries about this began during he war, when an economic blockade, writes Taylor, “was believed to have contributed decisively to Germany's defeat.” A continued blockade also “helped to push the German government into accepting the peace treaty in June 1919.” What sort of argument about a current issue does that remind you of?

The idea back then, as one hears now, is that if economic pressure helped to achieve some past success then keeping the pressure on would achieve still more success. This was part of thinking behind the reparations. But the reparations only accentuated all of the negative German responses to the peace treaty. The reparations came to be blamed for everything going wrong in Germany in the postwar years: for poverty, for unemployment, for the hyperinflation of 1923, and for the depression of 1929. As Taylor writes, “Every touch of economic hardship stirred the Germans to shake off 'the shackles of Versailles'.”

The strong negative sentiments came to be applied not just to the reparations themselves but to every other aspect of the peace that affected Germany. Taylor explains:

Once men reject a treaty, they cannot be expected to remember precisely which clause they reject. The Germans began with the more or less rational belief that they were being ruined by reparations. They soon proceeded to the less rational belief that they were being ruined by the peace treaty as a whole. Finally, retracing their steps, they concluded that they were being ruined by clauses of the treaty which had nothing to do with reparations.

For those reasons Germans came to reject disarmament. When Hitler had a chance, he discarded that part of the peace. For the same reasons the Germans came to reject the cession of land to Poland. And when Hitler had a chance he discarded that part of the peace as well.

Despite the implications of all of this for present-day handling by stronger powers of relations with economically pressured weaker powers, one seldom hears references to this piece of history. Instead one hears, ad infinitum, references to a piece of history about interwar Germany that came later—after the Nazi regime was firmly established. References to Munich and appeasement have become so commonplace and so loosely applied that they have long since debased the rhetorical currency involved and have come to constitute an insult to the victims of Nazi crimes. More such analogizing keeps getting done with reference to the current issue of Iran and its nuclear program. The analogy is very poor. Ali Khamenei is not Adolf Hitler, and Iran has neither the ability nor the will to try to conquer the rest of its region. Perhaps a new low of ridiculousness in such comparisons was reached the other day when the columnist Bret Stephens argued not just that there is an analogy here but that the interim agreement reached with the Iranians in Geneva is worse than what took place at Munich in 1938. As Daniel Larison at The American Conservative notes, this assertion is so absurd that probably even Stephens doesn't really believe it.

We indeed ought to extract lessons from the momentous events in Europe between the two world wars. And we ought not just to cry “Munich” as a substitute for thinking but instead to think carefully about how those lessons apply to current calls to keep turning the economic screws on Iran and to settle for nothing less than what would amount to capitulation by Iran on the nuclear issue. We should think about the experience with Germany when we hear, for example, Senator Lindsey Graham denounce the interim agreement because “we had a chance to deliver a body blow” but instead eased, to his distaste, some sanctions in return for Iranian concessions. A “body blow,” if this means Iran capitulating on the issues rather than genuine bargaining that produces an agreement both sides consider fair, is not achievable. Even if it were, it would be a bad thing from the standpoint of U.S. interests because it would encourage the sort of effects that the post-World War I treatment of Germany encouraged in that country. First, it would mean Iran would view any document it signed as a forced, unfair arrangement that it would have strong incentives to undermine and overturn when it was able to—rather than having, as is eminently achievable, an agreement that Iran as well as the West would have strong incentives to uphold. Second, it would stoke among all Iranians a desire to find ways to assert Iran's power and influence as redemption for the humiliation it had suffered. And third, it would boost politically the extreme, hardline tendencies in Iranian politics that favor the sorts of Iranian policies that we would consider most objectionable.

Image: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1972-062-01 / CC-BY-SA.

TopicsHistorySanctionsNuclear Proliferation RegionsIranGermanyUnited States

Cuba and the Sanctions Juggernaut

Paul Pillar

Last week the government of Cuba announced that it was ceasing nearly all of the consular services that it provides in the United States. The reason was that the sole U.S. bank that had been willing to handle an account for Cuba is no longer willing. With no bank account, the Cuban interests section cannot do such things as accept payment for visa fees. This development will curb what had been growing travel between the United States and Cuba. The impairment of travel is a bad thing not only from the point of view of the Cuban government, which needs revenue from tourism, but also the current U.S. government, which appropriately sees greater travel and unofficial contacts as relief for separated families as well as encouragement for the sorts of free economic and political ideas that have been stifled under an isolated Castro dictatorship.

The key constraint is Cuba's continued place on the official U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. That list, created under a 1979 law, long ago ceased to bear much resemblance to actual patterns of state sponsorship of terrorism, in terms of which countries are on the list as well as which ones are not. Cuba, which has been on the list longer (since 1982) than any other country currently listed, is one of the most glaring anomalies. The most recent official U.S. report on state sponsors of terrorism, the one for 2012, gives no reason to conclude otherwise. The report states that there is “no indication that the Cuban government provided weapons or paramilitary training to terrorist groups.” There are some retirees of the Basque terrorist group ETA (which appears on the verge of disbanding) in Cuba, but the report notes that the Cuban government evidently is trying to distance itself from them by denying them services such as travel documents. Some members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have been allowed into Cuba, but that was because Cuba was hosting peace talks between the FARC and the Colombian government.

The U.S. sanctions mechanism run by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) in the Treasury Department is so effective and formidable that it strikes fear into the hearts of banks and other private sector organizations that might otherwise consider dealing with a listed state, regardless of how flimsy are the reasons for a state being on the list and how much the current U.S. administration might actually welcome commerce with it. A lawyer in Miami who has worked on matters related to the international banking and the sanctions against Cuba observes, “Banks are very nervous about any type of misstep about money flowing to any country on the OFAC list, because the fines, even if you only make a small mistake, are huge. You have to scrutinize everything coming in and out. The problem is, who wants to take that on? You just can't make money on these accounts.”

This problem regarding Cuba reflects three unfortunate patterns that also have infected the American approach to certain other states as well, such as Iran.

First is the tendency to think that isolation and pressure are the only sound way to deal with regimes that for one reason or another we don't happen to like. The counterproductive nature of the decades-long unilateral U.S. embargo of Cuba has gradually come to be recognized, and is reflected in the Obama administration's welcoming of U.S.-Cuban travel. That the embargo has long outlived whatever usefulness it may have had is reflected in how diplomatic isolation of the United States on the matter is at least as prominent as any economic isolation of Cuba. Each year the United Nations General Assembly passes a resolution condemning the embargo. This year's vote was 188 in favor, two opposed (the United States and Israel), and three abstentions (Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Palau). But enough of the old pro-isolation thinking resides in American politics for Cuba to remain on that state sponsor list.

Second is the chronic misuse of counterterrorism as a banner under which to pursue some other agenda. Those pursuits have included such things as launching costly wars of choice abroad and extending unchecked executive power in the United States, as well as making archaic anti-Castro gestures. The costs of such misuse include not only the warping of debate regarding those other initiatives but also the discrediting of real counterterrorism.

Third is how sanctions and their use to inflict economic punishment have come to be used as if they were an end in itself rather than a tool to help accomplish some other objective. Give the folks at OFAC and Treasury credit for how well and how diligently they perform the task assigned to them. The fear in private sector institutions that makes it hard for Cuba to find a banker and that will keep sanctions against Iran from unraveling are evidence of how well those officials do their job. But if the objectives that sanctions are supposed to help achieve are to be achieved, there needs to be as much attention to winding sanctions down or taking them off as there is to winding them up and keeping pressure on.

TopicsBankingDomestic PoliticsUNSanctionsTerrorism RegionsCubaIranUnited States

In Search of a Mission in Afghanistan

Paul Pillar

With attention justifiably focused on the new nuclear deal with Iran, much less public notice has been taken of steps to make America's longest war even longer. Negotiations with a difficult Hamid Karzai over a bilateral security agreement (including a just-completed trip to Afghanistan by national security adviser Susan Rice) aim to provide a legal framework for keeping American troops in Afghanistan until 2024. U.S. forces intervened in the Afghan civil war in 2001. If a U.S. military presence continues for the duration of a new agreement, that's 23 years. Some soldiers who were part of the early deployments could have come home, gotten married, and had kids who will enlist and serve in the same war their parents did. The post-2014 missions are supposed to be training and counterterrorism, but amid an ongoing war, U.S. troops will be at war as long as they are there.

Karzai has been acting somewhat strangely lately, most recently with his refusal to sign promptly a draft agreement even though its endorsement by an Afghan loya jirga should have given him sufficient political cover to do so. The demands he has most recently been making of the United States as supposed conditions of signing sound reasonable at first glance, but upon further reflection it is hard to see exactly what the Obama administration could be expected to do in response. One demand is for help in getting peace talks going with the Taliban. The United States is already on the right side of that one. It always could give this cause more effort and priority, but with other diplomatic tasks—especially the Iran negotiations—on the plates of the president and secretary of state, it is probably wise that they not try to burn much more of their energy on this one. The other demand is for release of all Afghan citizens from Guantanamo. As Karzai should know, Mr. Obama's freedom of action to realize his goal of closing the detention facility at Guantanamo has been severely curtailed by Congress, although the Senate recently gave a glimmer of hope that this might change.

Karzai is a short-timer lame duck, and some of these negotiating problems may go away when he completes his term. But there are more fundamental problems with the American approach to Afghanistan that have to do with American politics and stale American conventional wisdom. President Obama avoided what would have been a new political issue when he firmly and correctly refused an earlier Karzai demand to apologize for the actions of American troops in raiding Afghan homes. Against the backdrop of the imaginary “apology tour” he was alleged to have taken in his first term, it is easy to imagine the hay that his domestic political opponents would have made of any acquiescence in that demand. But Mr. Obama is still burdened by the role that Afghanistan has played as the “good war” that has been a counterpoint to the bad war in Iraq that to his credit he opposed from the beginning. Bad war or not, his opponents criticized him for not trying hard enough to seal a deal with the Iraqi government to keep some U.S. troops there. Against that backdrop—and with the importance of his efforts to use diplomacy to avoid what would be another very bad war, with Iran—he cannot afford to do things in Afghanistan that make him look like an isolationist wimp. And so the push for a bilateral security agreement with Afghanistan continues.

The stale conventional wisdom is what has led many Americans and American policymakers of both parties to view impoverished Afghanistan, a graveyard of empires half a globe away from the United States, as somehow so key to U.S. security that it would warrant keeping U.S. troops in a civil war there for nearly a quarter century. This attitude is another of the unfortunate aftereffects of the national trauma that was 9/11. The attitude ignores how terrorist threats are not based primarily on possession of a piece of real estate, how the Afghan Taliban has no incentive (at least not without being under constant U.S. attack) for playing host again to al-Qaeda, how even if a piece of real estate is useful to terrorists Afghanistan is hardly the only piece available, and how the radical Sunni terrorist threat has already diffused far beyond Afghanistan.

Even if negotiations with the Taliban acquire momentum, future political arrangements in Afghanistan will depend mostly on what they always have depended on there: a lot of local deals rather than one single national one. And even if U.S. military trainers and advisers make good progress in imparting skills to Afghan troops, the loyalties of those troops will be as fragile and fungible as they always have been in Afghanistan.

The zero option for what kind of military presence the United States should have in Afghanistan after 2014 should not be regarded as just a failure of negotiations. It should be regarded as a possible outcome desirable in its own right. Karzai's frustrating negotiating behavior might be a useful hook for helping to get us there.

Image: U.S. State Department-Flickr

TopicsCounterinsurgencyCongressDomestic PoliticsPublic OpinionThe PresidencyTerrorism RegionsAfghanistanIranIraqUnited States