Paul Pillar

ISIS Challenge in Iraq: Let the Neighbors Lead

Paul Pillar

If any governments, besides the one in Baghdad, ought to be especially concerned about the recent advances in western Iraq by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), it would be ones in the immediate Middle Eastern neighborhood at least as much as the United States. To the extent any action by outsiders can make a difference in what is happening in Iraq, it ought to be those neighboring states that undertake it. We in the United States have a hard time realizing that, however, for two reasons.

One is the habitual American tendency to equate problems anywhere in the world with problems that are assumed to be within the capacity of the United States to solve and thus are problems that the United States ought to solve. This tendency is, in other words, the inclination to think of the United States as the world's policeman—although put in that clichéd form, everyone would deny that this is what they want.

The other reason is the even stronger tendency to think of other players in world affairs in terms of rigid rosters of allies and adversaries. We condone what those on the first list do and condemn the actions of those on the second list, while failing to realize that each other country in the world, regardless of the labels we may habitually apply to it, has some interests it shares with us and others that conflict with our interests.

The ISIS story is leading Arabs in the Persian Gulf states, and especially in Saudi Arabia, to do some hand-wringing and forcing them to do some policy reappraisal. The Saudis, like Americans, have a habit of rigidly dividing their world into friends and foes, with all the automatic condoning or condemning involved, except that in the Saudis' case the division is defined in sectarian terms. In the Saudi view it's Sunni good, Shia bad. But ISIS is a Sunni group that is so nasty and vile that Saudis in and out of government surely realize it is bad news not just for Shia but for themselves as well. The Saudis could usefully try to exercise some direct influence, including with positive incentives, on the Maliki government, with the objective of enhancing the status and political role of Iraqi Sunnis and thereby undermining the main appeal of ISIS. But first the Saudis have to get over their disdain for dealing with Maliki at all.

The neighboring state that has perhaps the biggest concern about the ISIS story, however, is Iran. The ISIS surge is one of the most salient and clearest examples in which U.S. and Iranian interests are congruent. Both Washington and Tehran want ISIS to be stopped. Iranian public statements have been clear about this objective, although reports vary as to exactly what Iran has done so far regarding assistance or intervention in Iraq.

There is right now an excellent opportunity for useful coordination between Washington and Tehran regarding messages to be sent to, and pressure to be exerted on, Prime Minister Maliki. If both the United States and Iran—the two foreign states on which Maliki's future most depends—tell him the same thing about the need to move beyond his destructively narrow ways of governing, such pressure might begin to have a beneficial effect. Although the Iranians have been happy to see the Shia majority in Iraq finally get out from under Sunni political domination, they also are smart enough to realize that Maliki's performance is more a prescription for unending instability and Sunni radicalism, which neither the Iranians nor we want.

The United States and Iran have wisely been concentrating over the past year on the nuclear issue, so as not to complicate the negotiations with a premature broadening of the bilateral agenda. The ISIS offensive may be a reason to move up the broadening a bit.

If Iran starts taking, or is already taking, more forceful measures such as insertion of Revolutionary Guards into the fight, this probably will stimulate some of the usual alarms among commentators in the United States who are always alarmed about the idea of Iran doing just about anything in the region. The alarms will be misplaced. The immediate goal would be defeat of ISIS, a goal that we share. More broadly what the Iranians want most in Iraq is to prevent a return to the sort of aggressive Iraqi behavior that in the 1980s, with Saddam Hussein's launching of the Iran-Iraq War, brought immense suffering to Iran. Preventing such Iraqi behavior is certainly consistent with U.S. interests, too.

It has often and correctly been observed that by waging a very costly war that ousted Saddam Hussein, the United States did a big favor to Iran—which had far more reason than the United States did to regard Saddam as a menace. Wouldn't it be only fair for Iran now to do most of the heavy lifting in dealing with the current situation?

And if in so doing, the Iranians incurred substantial costs, got overextended, and started experiencing back home their own version of Iraq War syndrome, we wouldn't be unhappy about that either, would we?

Image Credit: White House Flickr.           

TopicsIraq Iran RegionsMiddle East

Panic over the ISIS Offensive in Iraq: "Everyone should take a deep breath."

Paul Pillar

The recent offensive action in Iraq by the group that currently calls itself the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, has generated a surplus of alarm and excitement among the policy cognoscenti in the United States. The capture by the group, at least for the time being, of the city of Mosul is described as a “game-changer.” Commentators cry out for mobilization to wage War on Terror II, seen as an urgent global struggle against bad guys from Mosul to Karachi and beyond. Such reactions stem partly from our spatial sense kicking in whenever events can be represented as lost territory or lost cities. Now ISIS is described as being on the march to Baghdad, just as a couple of years ago the Pakistani Taliban was described as being on the march to Islamabad.

Everyone should take a deep breath.

What makes both ISIS and its recent advances bad news can be recapitulated easily. This is a really vicious group that has done a lot of awful things to people under its control. Almost everything it stands for or represents is repugnant to our own values and interests. It has strengthened itself through its recent gains with capture of equipment and, as is usually the case amid conspicuous success on the ground, with increased recruitment appeal. Having said all that, several other observations are important to keep in mind in considering what U.S. policy ought to be.

We should be cautious about evaluating the significance of the latest events and labeling them as turning points or game-changers. There is a natural tendency to overstate the significance of the most recent happenings and to overlook longer-term developments of which they are a part. The longer-term developments of which the rise of ISIS is a part had their biggest game-changing moment about eleven years ago.

For ISIS to have control over more rather than less territory in western Iraq or eastern Syria is not what matters regarding any threat it may pose to U.S. interests. Having part of Nineveh Province in addition to part of Anbar does not increase the chance that U.S. citizens will die at the hands of ISIS, however much unpleasantness this entails for the citizens of Nineveh. To believe otherwise is to subscribe to the fallacy that real estate is what defines terrorist threats.

If ISIS were to turn its guns and its bombs directly against the United States, this would most likely be in response to the United States turning its guns directly against ISIS. Even among violent Sunni extremists, only a fraction ever subscribed to Osama bin Laden's strategy of hitting the far enemy as a strategy for toppling the near enemy. And even bin Laden was stirred into action only when the far enemy took up residence with the near enemy in the form of U.S. troops in his homeland of Saudi Arabia. Foreign military activity or occupation continue to be the prime motivators for terrorism against foreigners.

The current rise of ISIS has been made possible by the exclusionary practices and increasingly authoritarian tendencies of the Maliki government in Baghdad. Maliki's regime is a narrowly based Shiite regime, and most Sunni Arabs do not see a future for themselves in an Iraq led by Maliki. In such a situation, the extremist message has appeal. The political situation in Iraq is in this respect an unsurprising consequence of the political culture that was left when the Baathist regime was deposed. The one reasonable thing Washington can do with any hope of ameliorating the situation is to condition aid to the regime on substantially broadening political involvement and on decentralizing power to such an extent that (building on the autonomy that the Kurdish north has enjoyed for over two decades) Iraq would barely be a unitary state.

Any outside use of military power would at best furnish a temporary respite from the processes that we see playing out. We know that because we have been through all this before. The “surge” of several years ago was supposed to provide space and time for Iraqi political interests to work out their differences. 30,000 additional U.S. troops failed to lead to any working out of those differences, and the outcome is the mess we see today.

It is fantasy to think that any of this would have been any different by extending the unwelcome U.S. military presence any longer. Either fantasy, or just the usual playing of politics and bashing of the incumbent administration. It is not credible to contend that what was not achieved in eight and a half years could have been achieved in another two and a half years (or that there ever would arrive a time when the war would end and not be a failure). For those who supported the Iraq War to contend this is, as Joseph Cirincione puts it, like driving a car into a crowd of pedestrians and then blaming the emergency medical technicians for not saving the lives of the injured.

Although the practices of the Maliki regime are sustaining the appeal of radical messages, that appeal is shallow. ISIS does not offer anything that could be the basis of long-term support and legitimacy. We have experience to go on here, too. Even the temporary reduction in violence in an earlier phase of the Iraqi civil war was due not so much to the surge as to Sunni Arab disgust and abhorrence over the practices of radicals in Anbar who evolved into the present ISIS. If Iraqi Sunnis are given alternatives to an arrangement in which they are lorded over by a narrow, authoritarian Shiite regime, we will see a similar response.

Two final observations are directed especially at those who supported the game-changer of eleven years ago: the launching of the Iraq War. One is that all of the immense costs of that ill-fated expedition—the thousands of lost American lives, the greater numbers of broken bodies, the trillions in long-term monetary costs, and all the rest—are sunk costs. There is no way to get them back. There is thus no basis for investing still more in Iraq in a feckless effort somehow to gain redemption for one of the biggest and costliest mistakes in American history. Launching the Iraq War was a blunder; accept that and get over it. The psychological urge is strong to double down on losses with the idea that those who died shall not have died in vain. But psychological urges do not make good policy.

The last observation is that ISIS is a direct result of the U.S. launching of the Iraq War. Before the American invasion, nothing like it existed—not in Iraq anyway, but only in the fevered minds of war-makers eager to find themes to use as selling points to get public support for the war. If we feel fright and revulsion over this group, let that be a reminder of how mistaken was the decision to launch the war, and how mistaken is the broader exceptionalism-based belief, as Robert Merry discusses, in the magic of military intervention.

Image: Wikicommons

TopicsIraq RegionsMiddle East

Failing to Check Facts That Matter About Policy Toward Iran

Paul Pillar

Glenn Kessler's “Fact Checker” feature in the Washington Post performs a mostly useful service. With as many falsehoods as are customarily flying around in American political discourse, goodness knows we need as much journalistic calling to account of such dishonesty as we can get. Kessler's performance of this function often is deficient, however, in two respects. One is the arbitrary and unrepresentative way in which he seems to select statements to pounce upon; flagrant, serial misrepresentation doesn't get featured any more than statements that can be considered untrue only as a matter of nitpicking. The other is that he sometimes goes beyond the checking of facts and renders evaluations that are more a matter of policy or political judgment.

Earlier this week Kessler took President Obama and his speech-writers to task for a line in the president's West Point speech last month that referred to how against the background of an advancing Iranian nuclear program, the administration had since its beginning implemented a program of sanctions while “extending the hand of diplomacy” to the Iranians. Kessler thinks this was an unfair statement because starting in 2006 the George W. Bush administration was pushing anti-Iran sanctions at the United Nations Security Council while signing on with the Europeans to the concept of eventually negotiating a resolution of the Iranian nuclear question. Kessler gives the statement “Three Pinocchios,” which certainly is unwarranted in at least two respects. One is that the statement in the president's speech was not untrue; Kessler just doesn't think it was sufficiently fair politically to his predecessor. The other is that if Kessler is going to venture beyond fact-checking into judgments about policies toward Iran, he has missed completely the most important dimensions of what has transpired over the last several years.

Even after the Bush administration made its “major shift” (Kessler's words) in 2006, it continued to eschew direct dealings with Iran as if Iranian diplomats had cooties. That is a far cry from the engagement that the Obama administration has practiced, which included the direct involvement of the secretary of state in negotiation of the preliminary nuclear agreement last fall, and this week has had Deputy Secretary of State William Burns leading a U.S. team negotiating with the Iranians in Geneva. Observers of the nuclear negotiations nearly all agree that the most critical deal-making has to occur bilaterally between the United States and Iran.

Kessler erroneously assumes that working toward a nuclear agreement has been a constant progression in which events and policies of a few years ago built a foundation for the diplomacy of today. It has not been that. The story has instead been more one of opportunities either seized or missed, and of some events and decisions having hampered rather than helped today's diplomacy.

An early missed opportunity came in late 2001 and early 2002, when effective cooperation between U.S. and Iranian diplomats regarding Afghanistan could have grown into something bigger—until the Bush administration slammed a door in the Iranians' face by declaring the Axis of Evil. Another opportunity came in 2003, when Iran offered a bargain that would not only have addressed the nuclear issue (at a time when Iran had fewer than 200 uranium centrifuges, compared with 19,000 now) but also other concerns such as Iran's relationship with Hezbollah and posture toward Israel. But the Bush administration, around the time it was declaring mission accomplished in Iraq, wanted no dealings with Iran at all. Yet another missed opportunity was in 2005, when Hassan Rouhani, then Iran's nuclear negotiator, offered to the Europeans to freeze Iran's centrifuges at their level then of 3,000. The Bush administration, which refused even to sit at the multilateral negotiating table, made it known it would accept nothing other than zero.

Kessler makes no mention of the entire Iranian side of the political equation and how that has affected the coming and going of opportunities for the United States. The reformist Mohammad Khatami was president of Iran during the missed opportunities of the first five years of the Bush administration. Then came eight years of the love-to-hate President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. When Rouhani was elected president in a surprising first-round victory and succeeded Ahmadinejad last September, Obama's seizing of this new opportunity made it possible to meet Rouhani's goal of negotiating a preliminary nuclear agreement in his first 100 days in office.

Incredibly, Kessler describes U.S. policy toward Iran as “a model of bipartisan cooperation.” Paul Glastris at the Washington Monthly shows how ridiculous that characterization is. Much Republican opposition to the administration's Iran policy has come to resemble, as with the obsessive opposition to Obamacare, an effort to undermine whatever would be a significant achievement for the president. The resulting partisan pattern has been reflected, for example, in support for a deal-busting sanctions bill, S. 1881, that would violate the preliminary nuclear agreement and was beaten back, at least for the time being, with the help of an explicit presidential veto threat. All but two Senate Republicans (Rand Paul and Jeff Flake) became co-sponsors of the bill; only 17 of the 60 co-sponsors are Democrats.

The biggest problem with Kessler's treatment of this issue, however, is not unfairness in assessing the last two administrations or the positions of Republicans and Democrats. The main problem is perpetuation of some myths and analytical shortcomings that impair understanding of what it takes to reach a satisfactory agreement with Iran today. One myth is that what is needed to squeeze an acceptable deal out of the Iranians is more and more pressure, especially through economic sanctions. As Trita Parsi points out, the history of the pre-sanctions missed opportunities, to have gotten a deal that would have restricted the Iranian program even more than any feasible deal today, demonstrates that this proposition is false. A major analytical shortcoming is to ignore, as Kessler does, Iranian politics. We would be making a big mistake to miss the newest opportunity that Rouhani has presented to us, to disregard the limitations he faces in terms of what would be an acceptable deal for Iran, and to ignore how much completion of an agreement would encourage still more favorable political trends in Tehran.                                        

TopicsIran RegionsMiddle East

How Not to Make Comparisons Between Iran and China

Paul Pillar

One of the most famous zingers in American political history is Lloyd Bentsen's “you're no Jack Kennedy” line in his 1988 vice presidential candidates' debate with Dan Quayle. Quayle's preceding remark in the debate actually had not made any overall claim to comparability with Kennedy. Instead he was responding to a question about his relative youth and perceived inexperience, and about his ability to take over the presidency if necessary, by observing that his length of service in Congress was already comparable to that of Kennedy when the Massachusetts senator had been elected president. But nobody remembers that context—only Bentsen's immortal jibe.

A somewhat similar forced effort to be more comparative than a comparison being criticized comes from Ali Alfoneh of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, which these days endeavors not so much to defend democracies as to frustrate diplomacy of the most important democracy. His target is a recent piece of mine that, according to Alfoneh, makes an incorrect analogy between China and Iran and thus between Richard Nixon's opening to China and any thawing of U.S.-Iranian relations in connection with the nuclear deal currently under negotiation. I was in turn criticizing an op ed by Eric Edelman, Dennis Ross, and Ray Takeyh that argued for involving Congress earlier and more heavily in the nuclear negotiations. Edelman, et al. were the ones who mentioned Nixon's China policy, while contending that U.S.-Soviet strategic arms negotiations, in which there was significant Congressional involvement, was the most instructive precedent for how the Iran talks ought to be handled. I suggested instead that the China opening, which was prepared in great secrecy and did not involve Congress at all, was a more apt comparison for any rapprochement with a previously distrusted and ostracized regime, which is what Nixon's diplomacy in the 1970s was about.

Alfoneh says nothing about secrecy or Congressional involvement, and gives no clue that this was the subject of my essay. Instead he presents a catalog of various ways in which China differs from Iran, and Mao Zedong differed from Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. He could have mentioned many more differences. Chinese leaders, for example, speak Mandarin, while Iran's leaders speak Persian. Khamenei is a slender man, whereas Mao was rather corpulent. And so on. But Alfoneh does not explain how any of the differences, including the ones he mentions, have any significance for whether striking a nuclear deal is wise, or whether a larger rapprochement stemming from a deal with Iran would be wise, let alone implications for Congressional involvement or other aspects of how the Obama administration is handling Iran diplomacy.

One can read between the lines about what is going on here. The folks at FDD do not want any agreements with Iran, they want Iran to continue to be ostracized, and they are trying to torpedo the nuclear negotiations. The China opening is today widely and rightly seen as a significant and positive achievement by Nixon. So FDD endeavors to beat back any tendency to think of agreements or rapprochement with Iran in the same light as the China opening.

Okay, if they want to do full-blown comparisons between Iran and China, let's do that. But our friends at FDD ought to be careful what they wish for. There are, for one thing, Alfoneh's factual errors—such as saying Henry Kissinger was secretary of state at the time of the China opening, when in fact he was not. The man who was—William Rogers—was cut out of preparations for the initiative just as much as Congress was.

Then there is this interesting paragraph from Alfoneh:

It's also worth noting that the U.S.-China rapprochement came at a time when the Communist regime already possessed the nuclear bomb, and its military ambitions would not clash with American policies for nonproliferation. In the case of Iran, the Islamic Republic's nuclear ambitions are likely to remain a constant source of tension between the two states.”

So an improved relationship with Iran would be less of a problem—and more similar to the favorable U.S.-China rapprochement—if Iran did have nuclear weapons than if it did not? Are we to conclude that we thus should condone the Iranians building such weapons or even encourage them to do so, and then we could talk about a better relationship afterward? (Of course, removing the issue as a source of tension by keeping the Iranian nuclear program peaceful is part of the purpose of the current talks.)

Alfoneh tells us, as another item in his catalog of differences, that Khamenei is less powerful than Mao was. Interestingly, this seems to go against the thrust of what FDD's fellow opponents of an agreement habitually assert about internal Iranian politics, which is that we are foolish to be negotiating with President Hassan Rouhani because it is the supreme leader who really calls the shots. Alfoneh's picture of Iranian politics with contending factions and with a supreme leader who is far from an absolute dictator is a much more accurate description—and is all the more reason to be sensitive to how the nuclear negotiations will affect those politics. Successful conclusion of a deal will significantly help Rouhani's side of that political contest, and will tend to push the supreme leader and the rest of the regime more in Rouhani's—and our preferred—direction.

Alfoneh also wants us to know that Khamenei sees the United States as the biggest threat to Iran (supposedly another difference with Mao's China, which he says saw the USSR as a bigger threat). That statement about Khamenei's perceptions is undoubtedly true, and would make Iranian acceptance of a better relationship with the United States all the more of a strategic change for both countries (although Alfoneh wants us to believe that for Iran it would be only “tactical.”) Most conspicuously missing from Alfoneh's treatment is any explanation of why Khamenei and other Iranian leaders see the United States as a threat. It is not because hatred or suspicion of the United States is embedded in Iranian DNA. It is because the United States has given Iran ample reason to see it as a threat. Siding with the aggressor Iraq in an extremely bloody war, imposing years of debilitating economic sanctions, making repeated threats of military attack, making shows of force in Iran's immediate neighborhood, talking frequently about regime change, and tacitly condoning an anti-Iranian assassination campaign have a way of doing that.

In his piece Alfoneh says I have something to learn from National Interest editor Jacob Heilbrunn, who, citing the late British historian A.J.P. Taylor, warned against erroneous historical analogies. I can't claim to have known A.J.P. Taylor personally (although when I was at Oxford a friend of mine was writing his dissertation under Taylor's supervision). I do know Jacob Heilbrunn. Jacob Heilbrunn is a friend of mine. Mr. Alfoneh, you're no Jacob Heilbrunn.                 

TopicsSecurity RegionsUnited States

Leading from the Front on Carbon Dioxide

Paul Pillar

Leadership does not consist of simply ordering someone else to do something. Nor does it consist of dong something oneself whether or not it would make sense on other grounds for tasks to be distributed that way. It does involve persuasion of others of the importance of a task that must be accomplished jointly, and it involves the setting of an example through one's own conduct of what needs to be done. This characterizes President Obama's recent step regarding the curbing of emissions from coal-fired power plants.

It would be preferable for the nation's direction on this issue to be enshrined more in legislation and less in executive action. But one does what one can within current political limits. One of those limits is opposition to action on this issue from those whose priorities are weighted heavily toward the short-term, parochial, and pecuniary. Another is continued denial of the reality of the effect of human activity on the climate—denial that puts the deniers alongside members of the Flat Earth Society.

A constantly recurring theme in criticism of Mr. Obama's foreign policy is that he allegedly is a weak leader, or when he leads does so only from behind. An action such as his recent move on power plant emissions highlights how such accusations, insofar as they are not just opposition for the sake of opposition, really aren't about leadership at all but instead about disagreement on the substance of whatever issue is at hand.

Much criticism of the president has combined an image of him as a weak, stay-in-the-rear leader on foreign policy with a picture of an over-reaching, rule-flouting chief on domestic policy. Opponents will catalog the new rules on power plants in the latter category. Efforts to curb destructive emissions are ultimately a foreign policy problem, however, because Earth is a single planet with a single atmosphere. Pollution problems vary with the locale, and it may be sensible practical politics for the president to talk about respiratory problems among American children, but climate change is global. The heaviest lifting will involve getting China and other heavy polluters to do their part. It is a task as troubling and challenging as any that involve China using dashed lines on maps to make territorial claims.

The task is hard enough given the belief of developing countries that the United States and other Western nations already had their opportunity to develop and to become prosperous and to pollute with impunity as they did so. It would be discriminatory, according to this belief, for late developers to be subject for environmental reasons to more economic restraints than early ones. The least the United States can do, to keep this task from being any harder than it has to be, is to exercise leadership by setting an example and cleaning up its own act.

President Obama also gets criticized for playing small ball in foreign policy, a criticism he partly brings on himself by talking about hitting singles and doubles rather than home runs. Stopping climate change is not small ball. Saving the planet would be a home run. Small ball is played by those, Democrats as well as Republicans, who would rather talk about the health of the coal industry in Kentucky than about the health of the planet. And small ball is played by those who cannot or will not see beyond the powering of most of the world's economy through any means other than burning what alternative energy guru Amory Lovins has called “the rotten remains of primeval swamp goo.”

Image: Wikicommons/C.C. License 2.0         

TopicsClimate Change RegionsUnited States

Sergeant Bergdahl and the Militarization of Counterterrorism

Paul Pillar

Some of the critics of the trade that is bringing home Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, in exchange for five Afghan Taliban who had been imprisoned at Guantanamo, appear to have a valid point. Representative Mike Rogers (R-MI), chairman of the House intelligence committee, observes that any trade of captives has the potential for encouraging hostage-taking by demonstrating that hostages have trading value. It is for that reason that “no negotiations with terrorists” has been a core principle of U.S. counterterrorist policy, at least declaratory policy, for many years and through multiple administrations, both Republican and Democratic.

For most of those years U.S. counterterrorist policy in practice did not change much in other respects, either, and relied on a familiar set of tools in an effort to find, foil, and capture terrorists and to punish them appropriately. These included law enforcement resources and a long record of successfully prosecuting and incarcerating terrorists through the criminal justice system. Military force was used selectively and sparingly, mostly to retaliate for acts of state-sponsored terrorism. The sparing nature of the use of force reflected the fact that the terrorist activities that threaten us most, such as plots being hatched in Western cities (or prepared in U.S. flight schools), do not provide many good military targets.

Then a little more than a decade ago an ideological spear was thrust into counterterrorism. A “war on terror” was declared, and distinctions between counterterrorism and warfare, both in concept and in practice, were blurred or obliterated. Anyone who did not accept the obliteration was vulnerable to charges of being a wimp. This ideologically driven change raised multiple problems that continue to handicap us today, including handicapping efforts to reduce terrorism. One particular tool, the military one, was given preeminence with insufficient consideration to how all counterterrorist tools, including this one, have downsides as well as advantages. Our roster of enemies expanded because people became enemies in the course of our using military force. Assiduous efforts by some in Congress to preserve the “war” coloration of counterterrorism led to the erection of unfortunate impediments to the effective implementation of either war or counterterrorism, including resistance to use of the system of justice that has worked well in the past and perpetuation of the image-staining, legality-avoiding detention facility at Guantanamo. It was one of those impediments—a requirement for prior Congressional notification before moving any prisoners from Guantanamo—that the Obama administration decided it had to flout in order not to miss an opportunity to get Bergdahl back.

If you're going to be waging war, then you will need to accept certain conventions and practices that have long been part of warfare. One of those practices is exchanging prisoners. Such exchanges have for centuries been a frequent occurrence between belligerents. The Bergdahl-Taliban trade looks far more like one of those exchanges than like any kind of deal involving terrorist hostages. Bergdahl is, of course, a U.S. soldier who became a captive while on a military deployment in Afghanistan. (The exact explanation for how he got separated from his unit and into Taliban hands is a different question.) The five Taliban who have been released to Qatar reportedly have been involved in some nasty stuff in the Afghan civil war, and they are not men you would want your daughter to come home with, but they are not convicted terrorists who ever plotted to set off bombs in Western cities and are now being sprung from prison in a Western country. They instead are military leaders of a regime or proto-regime engaged in prosecuting that civil war. Like Bergdahl, they are battlefield captives.

The principal appropriate message to those members of Congress and other critics who have indulged in the obliteration of distinctions between war and counterterrorism and who now are finding fault with the Bergdahl deal is: you can't have it both ways. If we're doing war, then we're doing things associated with war, including prisoner exchanges. Whatever heartburn you are feeling now over the deal is one more negative consequence of the conceptual and practical confusion you have fostered.

Making clear that this deal really is an exchange of battlefield captives and nothing at all like springing convicts to free hostages taken in a terrorist operation will help to minimize the risk that Congressman Rogers legitimately highlights. The best way to minimize the risk of additional U.S. soldiers falling into enemy Afghan hands is to get them out of Afghanistan. That is not happening soon, but the president tells us it will happen by the end of 2016.

In the meantime, members of Congress might ask themselves, as they habitually do on some other issues, “What would Israel do?” The Israeli government makes a big deal about not doing business with certain groups it does not like such as Hamas, but when it comes to prisoner exchanges it actually has a long record of extensive dealings. Two and a half years ago Israel struck a deal with Hamas in which in exchange for freeing a single Israeli soldier, Corporal Gilad Shalit, Israel released 1,027 Palestinian prisoners. Israeli officials stated that the released prisoners were collectively responsible for the deaths of 569 Israelis. By that standard, with the Bergdahl trade the United States got a pretty good deal.                                     

RegionsSouth Asia

Congress and Attempts to Kill the Iran Deal

Paul Pillar

Those who want permanent pariahdom for Iran and thus oppose any agreement with the government in Tehran keep looking for ways to use the U.S. Congress to sabotage the deal that has been under negotiation in Vienna and would restrict Iran's nuclear program. A recent previous effort by the saboteurs was a bill that would have violated the preliminary agreement that was reached with Iran last November by imposing still more sanctions on Iran. That effort was beaten back, partly with an explicit veto threat by the president. Even more recently Senator Bob Corker, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, introduced an amendment that would have Congress holding a “vote of disapproval” within days after the negotiators reach agreement.

If something like Corker's proposal were adopted, the vote of disapproval would be exactly that, but based on the politics of the issue rather than on the merits of the agreement. Such a snap vote would allow little time for weighing the merits of the deal, or for alternatives to the agreement to be considered. It would allow no time for Iran to accumulate a track record of compliance with the full agreement. The political habits, among members from both parties, that would kick in when voting would be the ones that have been demonstrated time and time again with the parade of previous sanctions legislation. Bashing Iran is seen as good politics, and it is seen as “pro-Israel” (i.e., whatever the current government of Israel wants, as distinct from what is in the larger interests of the state of Israel). A vote against the agreement would be seen as bashing Iran, even though the agreement would restrict rather than expand what Iran could do with its nuclear program. As with any negotiated agreement, the deal will be a compromise and not perfect and it thus will always be easy to find specific provisions to be grounds for disapproval, without members being held accountable for considering the entire deal against the alternatives.

Congress is a co-equal policy-making branch, and it can and will be involved in resolution of this issue. But in shaping how the legislative branch will be involved one has to consider the political realities, not just procedural formalities. The saboteurs certainly have considered those realities, although they do not openly acknowledge them.

A recent op ed by Eric Edelman, Dennis Ross, and Ray Takeyh does not explicitly endorse the Corker proposal but argues more generally for more Congressional involvement, the earlier the better. They would have us believe that the issue at hand is no different from strategic arms control treaties with the USSR or earlier multilateral efforts to remake the international order after World War II. The writers' history is faulty and tendentious in several respects, but two items in particular stand out.

Edelman et al., in commenting on Richard Nixon's handling of strategic arms control, mention in passing that Nixon may be better known for the opening to China, as well as ending the Vietnam War. They do not mention that the opening to China, which truly was a historic and beneficial achievement, was one of the most closely held foreign policy initiatives ever, with not only Congress but even the State Department cut out of all the preparation. The political realities on that issue at that time dictated Nixon's secretive approach. The president was beginning a rapprochement with a despised and distrusted revolutionary regime, which had come to power more than two decades earlier and with which there had since been almost no interaction with the United States. In that regard the China opening is a far closer historical analogy to what is happening today between the United States and Iran than are strategic arms control treaties with the Soviet Union.

In the early 1970s Nixon was facing not only widespread distrust of the Chinese Communist regime but also narrower sources of resistance. Back then AIPAC had not yet hit its stride and become able to get seventy senators to sign a napkin, and the NRA had not yet experienced the change in leadership that would turn it into a lobby powerful enough to effectively rewrite the Second Amendment, but there was something called the China lobby. That lobby included diehard supporters of the Nationalist regime on Taiwan who resisted any dealing with the mainland regime and continued to resist full diplomatic recognition of Communist China even after Nixon's initiative. Lobbies wax and wane, but some of the sorts of challenges they pose to presidents undertaking important diplomatic initiatives have stayed pretty much the same.

The op ed writers also refer to the early Cold War years, when President Harry S. Truman “had to bring along a Republican Party skeptical of international engagement. He cultivated influential Republican lawmakers such as Sen. Arthur Vandenberg (Mich.) and paid close attention to their advice and suggestions.” This comment implies a grossly mistaken version of Vandenberg's political biography. He was indeed an isolationist in the interwar years, but Pearl Harbor changed all that. By the time Truman became president Vandenberg considered himself an energetic internationalist. The cooperation between the Truman administration and the Republican leader of the Foreign Relations Committee was fruitful not because the administration was reaching out to an isolationist but rather because Vandenberg's inclinations regarding such things as the creation of NATO were already going in the same direction as Truman's.

They don't make Arthur Vandenbergs any more. The Vandenberg of the 1940s, the one who cooperated with Truman, would not be welcome in today's Republican Party. Perhaps the closest thing to a modern-day counterpart is Richard Lugar—who isn't in Congress anymore, after losing a primary election to a Tea Party candidate a couple of years ago.

In the political reality on Capitol Hill today, any administration outreach regarding Iran immediately runs into two strong, obstinate, and uncooperative tendencies. One is the determination by the rightist government of Israel to do all it can to prevent agreement between the United States and Iran—with everything that determination implies regarding effects on U.S. politics. Some of AIPAC's napkins have become frayed over the last year or so, but the lobby is still formidable. The other is the tendency among many Republican members of Congress to oppose whatever Barack Obama proposes, and especially anything that would be considered a signature achievement for the president. If members vote more than three dozen times to repeal a health care law, some of the same members will similarly and reflexively oppose what would be a leading foreign policy achievement by Obama—next to getting out of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but members cannot do anything to prevent the commander-in-chief from doing that, just as diehard proponents of the Vietnam War could not prevent Nixon from getting out of that conflict.

The terms of an Iranian nuclear agreement are still under negotiation, but probably the implementation of each side's obligations will be phased and gradual. It would be sensible, as well as politically realistic, for Congress's necessary involvement to be phased in gradually as well, and certainly not to take the form of quickie votes. Probably the initial phases of sanctions relief would rely on executive action. Only later, after implementation of the agreement has become a going concern and both sides have had a chance to demonstrate their seriousness about compliance with the agreement, will Congress have to play its role with legislation.

Image: Wikicommons.

TopicsIran RegionsMiddle East

An Arbitrary End Versus No End in Afghanistan

Paul Pillar

The United States has a hard time ending wars—at least any wars beyond the limited category of those whose size and shape appeal to Americans' appetite for clear-cut victories over evil-doers. The American involvement in the civil war in Afghanistan, at twelve and a half years and counting, is a prime case.

Our understanding of this war has not been helped by the repeated coupling of it in public discussion with the misadventure in Iraq. How the United States got into each of these wars was vastly different. One involved a manufactured and illegitimate rationale; the other was a legitimate and understandable response to a direct attack on the United States by a terrorist group that at the time was resident in Afghanistan and in alliance with the regime that ruled most of Afghanistan. The United States could have and should have concluded its mission in Afghanistan once it rousted the group and ousted the regime, which it did in the first few months of its involvement. The Afghanistan War came to resemble the Iraq War only after it became an endless involvement with insurgency and civil war, with an inability to identify an obvious off-ramp.

The United States does not have any significant or direct interest in nation-building in Afghanistan or in the internal social and political arrangements of that country. The Taliban, who became our opponent, have no interest in the United States except insofar as the United States interferes with the Taliban's ambitions for those social and political arrangements. Even the U.S. counterterrorist interest in Afghanistan is nothing like it was before al-Qaeda was pushed out of its once-comfortable home. There is nothing unique about Afghanistan as a potential origin of anti-U.S. terrorism, and anyone who has paid attention to the evolution of international terrorism over the past decade realizes that other lands are at least as likely, and probably more likely, to be points of origin in this regard as Afghanistan is. The United States, having affected events in Afghanistan for so long (actually going back to stoking the insurgency against the Soviets in the 1980s) may have some responsibility under the Pottery Barn rule to extract itself in an orderly rather than a precipitate manner.

President Obama's announcement of a drawing down of remaining U.S. troops in Afghanistan over the next two years, to what will be an ordinary embassy presence by the end of 2016, sounds like it involves an arbitrary deadline that will enable him to say when he leaves office that he got the United States out of its foreign wars. Of course it does. And we should not fret about that. If we can't find an obvious off-ramp, the end of a presidential term is as good a ramp to use as any other. Give Mr. Obama's successor more of a clean foreign policy slate, all the better to concentrate on other matters.

Unsurprisingly, this approach engenders strong criticism from the usual quarters. Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Kelly Ayotte (the last of whom appears to have replaced Joe Lieberman in a trio that never meets a war it doesn't like) quickly issued a statement that blasts what they call the president's “monumental mistake.” The three senators assert that the alternative to the president's decision “was not war without end.” Actually, it was. The senators say they want a “limited assistance mission to help the Afghan Security Forces preserve momentum on the battlefield and create conditions for a negotiated end to the conflict.” They give us no idea what such conditions would look like or when they would arise. We may be forgiven in suspecting that the senators have no idea either—or that if they do, the sort of conditions that would permit the kind of negotiated end they would consider acceptable would never occur. It is fantasy to think that we could win a test of wills with the Taliban over who will persevere longer in determining the political make-up of their own home country. There is no reason to think that the next one, two, or twelve years will be any different in that regard from the last twelve.

Go ahead and criticize the president for setting an arbitrary deadline that is determined as much by his musing over his political legacy as it is by anything else. He no doubt expected plenty of such criticism. But no one has come up with any other ending for this war.

Image: U.S. Army Flickr.       

RegionsSouth Asia

Pope Francis and the Middle East Peace Process

Paul Pillar

The trip by Pope Francis to the Holy Land, billed in advance as solely religious, made some eye-catching intrusions into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Comments minimizing the significance of this aspect of the trip were quick to follow. Palestinian figure Hanan Ashrawi seemed to go out of her way to pooh-pooh the coming prayer meeting at the Vatican in which Israeli president Shimon Peres and Palestinian authority president Mahmoud Abbas will join Francis; Ashrawi accused the pope—probably inaccurately—of not realizing that Peres in his mostly ceremonial position wields little power. Skepticism about how much any leader of the Roman Catholic church can accomplish follows in the tradition of Stalin questioning how many divisions the pope has. The pope still doesn't have any divisions, and neither does Peres and of course neither does Abbas.

Francis's foray into Israeli-Palestinian matters nonetheless was encouraging, for several reasons. One is that for a credible and prominent world figure to do this reduces the chance that the Israeli government can, as Jacob Heilbrunn puts it, “derogate the Palestinian issue to the back burner of international relations.” The United States will not be venturing very far into this issue anytime soon, after Secretary Kerry's admirably energetic but ultimately futile efforts on the subject. More fundamentally, the United States still wears the self-imposed political shackles that prevent it from functioning effectively on this issue as anything other than Israel's lawyer. The U.S. role still will be critical if the Palestinian issue is ever to be resolved, but perhaps it will take more initiative by someone outside the United States to counteract the power and damaging effect of the shackles.

Another reason is that Francis has demonstrated a flair, and certainly has done so on this trip, for focusing attention sharply on an issue while still performing the balancing acts required of any statesman. The most potent image by far from the visit was the pope's stop at a section of the Israeli-constructed separation wall, with Francis bringing his head to the wall and praying. Here was the counterpart, in wall-for-a-wall balance, to the more familiar image of the distinguished visitor at Jerusalem's Western Wall. One wall is an ancient artifact that is one of the leading symbols of Israel's claim to all of Jerusalem; the other is an ugly modern contrivance that not only symbolizes Israel's unilateral slicing up of the West Bank but has practical consequences, negative and severe, on the Arab population that lives there. A couple of millennia from now, who will be praying at the latter wall, and in remembrance of what? Whether it was Francis himself or someone else in his entourage who thought up this photo op, it was brilliant.

That the pope is a man of religion may constitute another advantage, in trying to make religion less of a source of division related to this conflict than it is now. Israel's clinging to land rather than peace has several motives, including economic ones, but a religiously based notion of divine right to the land is important for a major part of the current government's right-wing constituency. Perhaps the most prominent leader of Christianity—another of the great monotheistic religions that arose in the Middle East and for which, like Judaism, the Holy Land is the number one place of importance to the faithful—is especially well equipped to teach that no one religious claim can be the basis for determining the outcome of a dispute between two people over the same land. He is probably even better equipped to do that than someone of the Islamic faith, for whom the Noble Sanctuary of Jerusalem also is important but is more of a number three behind Mecca and Medina.

The most important reason, however, to be encouraged by Francis's involvement stems from his larger set of priorities—and assiduously cultivated image—as the pope of the poor. Championing the cause of the downtrodden is clearly where Francis intends to make his mark. As such, his involvement in Israeli-Palestinian matters implicitly, even without the pontiff explicitly articulating this point, helps to frame the issue correctly as what it has been for a long time: a highly asymmetrical encounter in which security and power and control are almost all on one side, and the downtrodden are on the other side. This is not some kind of fair fight in which each side has significant material assets to bring to bear. The Israelis, as the occupiers, can end the occupation whenever they want. The Palestinians, as the occupied, have almost nothing going for them other than sympathy for the downtrodden and appeals to a sense of justice—which is why the Israeli government frantically resists any move that might give the Palestinians a wider forum for such appeals.

Along with the great asymmetry of security and military power and control there is a comparable asymmetry of wealth and well-being. The system, constructed and controlled by Israel, that determines how the occupied territories operate functions to the economic advantage of Israelis and to the marked economic disadvantage of Palestinian Arabs. This involves matters ranging from water resources to transportation arteries and the separation wall, which divides many Palestinians from their livelihoods and is just one of countless impediments to Palestinian business erected by the occupation authorities. There also are numerous less visible impediments, involving permit denials, restrictions on trade, and financial controls. Most recently Israel is using its control over currency to undermine Palestinian banking—with, as is the case with any banking system, negative ripple effects on other commerce that depends on the banks.

It should be no surprise that in the face of all these impediments the economic gulf between Israel and the Palestinians under occupation is huge and has been getting larger. GDP per capita in Israel is nearly 20 times that of the West Bank. It is 40 times that of the Gaza Strip, where a suffocating blockade and periodic military assault have made the squalor even worse.

For the pope of the poor, the plight of the Palestinians is a natural fit for his larger mission. Perhaps Francis can get enough people in the world thinking about this issue correctly—not in terms of diplomatic dances about who is recognizing whom but instead as the plight of an oppressed and downtrodden population—that even discourse in the United States, political shackles and all, would be affected. If so, the effect would be congruent with the other, more hard-nosed, reasons the United States should not allow this conflict to be consigned to the back burner.

Image: Wikicommons.                                                   

TopicsIsrael Palestinian Territories Vatican RegionsMiddle East

Capital Punishment and Shared Values

Paul Pillar

Recently the New York Times ran an article about capital punishment in Texas, where the execution of condemned prisoners is such a frequent and routine occurrence that it is carried out with assembly-line efficiency, in contrast to stories from some other states of botched executions. Even many critics of the death penalty acknowledge that executions in Texas demonstrate how if you do something often enough, you tend to get pretty good at it. One Houston law professor who has represented many death row inmates says of executions, “I think Texas does it as well as Iran.”


The comparison with Iran points to a pattern in the use of capital punishment of which most Americans are probably unaware. Only about a fifth of the world's nations regularly carry out executions. Some other countries have not formally abolished the death penalty but have executed no prisoners for at least a decade. A few others reserve the right to use it only in exceptional circumstances such as time of war. The United States is distinctly in a minority in regularly using death as a criminal punishment.


Even more striking is the pattern of who is and is not in that minority. Capital punishment has been abolished in all of Europe except for Belarus. It is not used anywhere in the Americas except for the United States. Among advanced democracies, the only other G-8 country that uses it is Japan, and its use has been far more sparing than that of the United States. U.S.-European differences over the death penalty, and some strong European feelings about the issue, have at times been a practical impediment to cooperation on matters such as the extradition of accused terrorists.


Except for the United States, regular use of capital punishment is confined to a swath of Asia, the Middle East, and northeast Africa. By far the most prodigious user of it in recent years has been China. Next comes Iran, and then Iraq and Saudi Arabia. The United States rounds out the top five, with Yemen not far behind it. Some company.


Reasonable arguments have long been made both for and against the death penalty, and some of those arguments refer to empirical questions such as the extent to which capital punishment does or does not deter other would-be criminals. That there are arguments on both sides is reflected in divisions in opinion among Americans, with about 60 percent favoring the death penalty for convicted murderers and 35 percent opposed; those numbers have varied, up and down, considerably over the past several decades. There also is a regional division in attitudes; Texas accounts for nearly 40 percent of all executions in the United States. Setting aside arguments about deterrence and the like, however, whether government is authorized to put any of its own citizens to death can surely be said to say something about a nation's values.


The patterns of international use of capital punishment similarly say something about the extent to which American values are or are not shared with others, and with particular others. This topic goes beyond just capital punishment to other aspects of national values. If a comprehensive inventory could somehow be done of shared values, going beyond ones reflected in convenient metrics such as number of executions—and examining actions and not just ideologies—the result probably would show that Americans do not share as much as we think we do with those countries with whom we routinely believe we have many common values, such as other advanced Western democracies, and that we share more than we think we do with countries we routinely believe are far different from ourselves, such as Iran.                          

Image: Wikicommons.

TopicsIran United States