Paul Pillar

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

The Never Ending Libya Nightmare: Civil War, Benghazi and Beyond

Paul Pillar

Just when one might have thought the mess in Libya could not have gotten worse, it has.  The latest round in the multidimensional chaos that has prevailed since the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi was initiated by an ex-general named Khalifa Hiftar, who was trained in the Soviet Union, participated as a junior officer in the coup that brought Qaddafi to power in 1969, later broke with the Libyan dictator, and lived for years in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC, where he apparently became a U.S. citizen.  Hiftar returned to Libya after Qaddafi was ousted.  Now he has put together a force he calls the “Libyan National Army” and aims at removing the interim parliament in Tripoli.

Saudi Arabia and several other Arab states have evacuated their diplomats from Libya, the United States is preparing for possible evacuation of U.S. personnel, and the country appears on the brink of a larger civil war.  In any such war it would be difficult to keep score, or to know whom to root for.  The mélange of militias that have provided what has passed for law and order in most of Libya are choosing sides in no particular pattern.  Those in Libya closest to being called secular liberals seem to be associated with military officers of the old regime.  The current chief of staff of the Libyan army—at least that's his title, not to be confused with whatever actual power he wields—has “ordered” Islamist militias to confront Hiftar's force in the capital.

Those who would like to blame the now-deceased Muammar Qaddafi for this muddle would have a basis for doing so, in that during the four decades of his personal rule whatever could have formed the institutional basis for a healthy civil society and pluralistic politics was destroyed or allowed to wither.  We also need to hold responsible, however, all those who blithely overlooked this fact, who refuse to believe that political culture and recent political history have anything to do with the prospects for building a stable political order, and who think that getting rid of a despised dictator is all that is needed to bring such an order into existence.  We do not know exactly what would have been the course of the revolt against Qaddafi had outside states not intervened.  We do know that several states, including the United States, did intervene forcefully, and for that reason they share some responsibility for the situation in Libya today.

We now have another problem in a Middle Eastern country for which, as with the civil war in Syria, there are no good solutions for outsiders to adopt.  If the violence in Libya worsens, there nonetheless will be the usual calls to do something—anything—about it.  Some such calls may focus on the common fear that Islamists will acquire and consolidate power.  Such fear would take inadequate account of the convoluted scorecard in which it is very difficult to determine who should be considered a friend and who a foe.  Some calls probably will make a humanitarian appeal to help those who suffer amid a civil war.  Such calls would likely overlook that the armed Western intervention against Qaddafi also had a humanitarian rationale—a distorted one, in that a warning by the former dictator to deal harshly with those who took up arms against his regime was falsely translated into a prediction of a genocidal bloodbath. 

Policy debate always should focus on the the problems of today.  But with Libya there also is plenty of material for critical retroactive examination, going back to the Western intervention of 2011.  That is all the more reason why initiation of the umpteenth inquiry into a lethal incident in Benghazi in 2012 is a senseless digression.  There already were other reasons it made little sense.  There is no basis for believing that the umpteenth inquiry will find anything that the umpteen-minus-one inquiries already undertaken have not.  Amid the endless focus on supposedly competing (actually they aren't) explanations for an attack on a U.S. facility, no one has provided persuasive reasoning as to why any one explanation should have worked more to the political advantage or disadvantage of the administration than a different explanation.  The death of Americans is bad news no matter what the explanation.  And the whole continuing escapade is such a crass attempt to extract partisan advantage from human tragedy that one has to wonder whether backlash is beginning to outweigh any such advantage, even among gullible members of the American public.

Of course, we all know the political calculations involved.  A focus on one incident is an effort to discredit the current administration and a particular leading possible presidential candidate.  A focus on decisions about the whole Libyan situation that is the fundamental cause of the Benghazi incident would cast the net of responsibility much wider—to include liberal interventionists in the administration, neoconservatives outside it, and many others.

However tragic a single incident was to the people it touched, it is one piece of bad news in a cascade of such news coming out of Libya.  The intervention already has negatively affected U.S. interests, particularly in providing a disincentive to other regimes to do what Qaddafi did in negotiating an end to involvement in terrorism and an end to production of unconventional weapons.  The disorder in Libya threatens to affect U.S. interests negatively in other ways.  The obsession over the Benghazi incident has a rearranging-chairs-on-the-Titanic quality while the entire Libyan ship has been sinking.  

Image: Wikicommons.                                               

TopicsSecurity RegionsLibya

Iran and Saudi Arabia: Rapprochement on the Horizon?

Paul Pillar

The Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud Al-Faisal, has announced an invitation to his Iranian counterpart to visit Saudi Arabia.  This development is unsurprising, and it is welcome.  It follows visits that Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif made a few months ago to some of the other Arab members of the Gulf Cooperation Council.  Rapprochement between Iran and its Arab neighbors is good for the neighbors as well as for Iranians, good for stability in the Persian Gulf, and good for U.S. interests in the region.

Secretary of State Kerry's comments welcoming the Saudi move are doubly appropriate, given that the United States can claim some of the credit because of its role in currently negotiating an agreement with Iran to keep its nuclear program peaceful.  The Saudis' invitation is very likely being made partly in anticipation of successful completion of those negotiations and the prospect of Iran and the United States taking a step toward a more normal relationship.  This is the sequence that should be expected: the superpower leads, and lesser allies follow.  It is the sequence that should have been obvious to anyone who hasn't been trying to spin Arab reactions to the negotiations to cast doubts on where the negotiations are going.

Interestingly, some of the same people doing the spinning are also ones who have been quick to criticize President Obama for leading from behind, or not leading at all, on other matters in the Middle East.  But on this topic the critics seem to think it is best for the United States to bow to whatever parochial objectives may have been driving an ally's whining.  An objective may be to get the United States to take sides in sectarian conflicts in the region, which would not be in U.S. interests.  Another objective is to limit U.S. options in dealing with different regional powers, which also clearly is not in U.S. interests.  We should be pleased that in the current instance it is not the United States that has done the bowing but instead Saudi Arabia that has bowed to U.S. leadership, to geopolitical reality, and to the kingdom's own well-considered long-term interests by moving toward a less tense relationship with Tehran.

The only people bamboozled by this move are those who do not want to see any agreement with Iran, in order to limit those U.S. options and to keep Iran as a pariah and as the focus of the region's supposedly biggest threat.  The spinning about Gulf Arab reactions continues, but it seems rather confused.  One recent appeal for taking a hard line toward Iran, for example, warns that regional allies may respond to an impending nuclear agreement “both by confronting and accommodating Iran, perhaps simultaneously”—whatever that means.

The same commentary also suggests that allies may “cut side deals with Tehran inimical to U.S. desires.”  Such as what?  Mustafa Alani of the Gulf Research Center in Dubai assesses that the Saudis would not have issued the invitation without assurances of Iranian cooperation on some matter important to Saudi Arabia.  A very likely subject in this regard is Lebanon, where the Saudi ambassador recently returned to participate in efforts to end deadlock between the competing political coalitions over the choice of a new Lebanese president.  Is there anything wrong, from the standpoint of U.S. interests, with Iran and Saudi Arabia cooperating to reduce the chance of escalating conflict in Lebanon?  There isn't.

Nor is there anything wrong, and there is a good deal that is right, with the Saudis and Iranians talking about, and cooperating on, matters closer to their homes in the Persian Gulf, where they and we share interests in the security of the oil trade and in keeping tensions from escalating out of control.  The Iranian foreign ministry responded to the Saudi announcement by saying “We welcome negotiations and meetings to help solve regional conflicts, resolve misunderstandings and to expand bilateral relations.”  Good attitude.

Keeping the Iranian nuclear program peaceful is the chief and immediate reason to see the current negotiations in Vienna through to a successful completion and to implement and observe the agreement that emerges.  A broader and longer term reason is to move toward a situation in the Middle East and Persian Gulf in which the United States and all the regional powers deal with each other and with their mutual problems in a normal, flexible way.  Such a situation would be much more in U.S. interests than one of restricted, stifled diplomacy and permanent ostracism of important powers.

Image: Office of the President - Iran.

TopicsDiplomacy RegionsIran

A U.S. Policy of Weakness towards Russia?

Paul Pillar

Over the past several weeks of the Ukraine crisis, there has been much commentary in the United States to the effect that the West and the United States in particular has been letting Vladimir Putin run amok.  The commentary has been a sub-theme in a larger theme about Washington supposedly exuding weakness.  To the extent such criticism has been linked to specific alternative policy proposals, the proposals usually include some combination of being quicker in imposing more extensive sanctions on Russia, making threatening military deployments, and giving lethal military aid to the Ukrainians.

Over the past few days, Putin's policy on Ukraine has taken shape in two important ways.  First, he has not embraced the “referendum” organized by dissident leaders in the restive eastern portion of Ukraine.  Before the vote he called for it to be postponed; after the vote his government did not respond to dissident talk about accession to Russia, said it respects the “will of the population” of the eastern regions but did not recognize the result of the vote, and called for the whole matter to be resolved through negotiations with the government in Kiev.  Second, despite ominous military moves near the border, he has not used Russian military forces to invade eastern Ukraine.

Both of these developments are subject to varying interpretations.  Perhaps Putin could do more to influence the behavior of dissidents in Donetsk and Luhansk than he wants us to believe—the White House, based on its public statements, seems to think so—but this is not clear.  Neither do we really know what Putin's intentions were for the military forces that had been conducting maneuvers near the border.  Maybe he did not know himself.  But both of these developments are significant.  Not doing something can represent a decision, and not doing something can be just as important as doing it.

Maybe I've missed something, but there does not seem to be any surge of commentary taking account of these developments, from the same sources that had been wailing abut how we had been letting Putin kick us around.  Why has there not been acknowledgment that maybe the best way to deter additional undesirable behavior isn't to start firing away with more sanctions whether the behavior occurs or not, and that threatening military actions isn't necessarily the best way to get results when what we are threatening is a war that everyone knows we would rather not fight?  Why hasn't there been more updating of the scorecard on policy regarding Ukraine?

I hasten to add two caveats to these observations, lest the observations exhibit some of the same deficiencies as the subject commentary.  First, not everything that the Russian government, or any other foreign actor, does can be attributable to the influence of U.S. policy.  Much that happens is beyond the influence of the United States, and that includes many of the good things that happen as well as many of the bad things.  Second, this whole story is far from over.  Any assessment of policy is necessarily only an interim assessment.  Russian forces could invade Ukraine tomorrow, and the scorecard would need to be revised again.

Most of the criticism about a supposed U.S. policy of weakness giving free rein to Putin has ignored these two realities.  It vastly overstates the ability of the U.S. government to shape events, particularly in an area where U.S. interests are less than those of Russian interests.  And it includes grand judgments as if they will be the final word of history, when really they are only the perspective of a single point in time. 

The criticism also is like much commentary on other subjects in that it pays inadequate attention to non-events.  Non-events can include wars that are not launched, terrorist attacks that do not occur, or unconventional weapons that are not built.  Non-events are the other side of the same coin as events in their impact on U.S. interests.  They constitute important data points in assessing which policies work well and which ones do not.  The tendency to score policy performance only in terms of what has happened, without paying attention to what has not, produces an incomplete and biased scorecard.   

Image: White House Flickr.                         

TopicsSecurity RegionsUkraine

Coming to Terms with a Troubled Past

Paul Pillar

The recent brief jailing and interrogation of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams in connection with the murder of a Northern Ireland woman 42 years ago was a flashback to the Troubles in Ulster—which are now far enough in the past that they are beyond the living memory of many younger observers and analysts who ordinarily pay close attention to communal conflict and strife.  This case also illustrates a more general problem not limited to Northern Ireland: how to deal with those who have participated in such strife by committing grave offenses (including, but not limited to, terrorism) against the lives and rights of others but have since moved on, along with their movements and their countries, to more peaceful and less offensive ways of doing business.

The dilemma is that simply to move beyond what is bygone leaves unsatisfied a felt need for justice to be served, but to serve it through punishment of people who have committed past offenses may undermine the very progress that has made more peaceful times possible.  It may undermine the progress by taking out of action leaders who are among the few who can commit entire communities, or by perpetuating indefinitely a cycle of reprisal and retaliation in which each side in a conflict wants to get in the last lick.  Having justice be done is important, but isn't it at least as important for those who might be punished, and the communities to which they belong, to transition to more peaceful, just and harmonious ways of pursuing their interests?

There is no good solution to the dilemma. Any formula will be a compromise that will only partially achieve each objective, and only partially satisfy almost anyone involved in a conflict.  One criterion that nearly always ought to take precedence, however, is honesty.  Regardless of how else offenses of the past are to be dealt with today, it is almost always best to uncover and acknowledge the truth about those offenses.  In the case of Adams, there has not been honesty.  He strongly denies involvement in the killing of Jean McConville; the police released him after questioning him about the case, and the rest of us do not have enough to go on to pass judgment about this murder.  But Adams' longstanding contention that he is only a political leader who never was part of the IRA and any of its violent activities has never been plausible. 

Sweeping truth about past activities under a rug is not a lasting solution.  Lies are ultimately a flimsy foundation on which to build the trust necessary for a stable and peaceful political order.  Moreover, a suppressed past is apt to bubble up unexpectedly in improbable ways and places.  Resurrection of the McConville case and the possible involvement of Adams came about through an oral history compiled several years ago by researchers at Boston College. 

A process exemplified by South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission remains probably the best way to deal with the underlying dilemma.  It is a process of bearing witness to all that happened in the past, and to overcome the legacy of past offenses through acknowledgment and amnesty, not by lifting a rug and sweeping dirt there.  The South African process certainly had its critics and the shortcomings were apparent, but that is inevitable in a situation in which a less-than-perfect compromise is the very best one can hope for.  Adams has expressed support for some sort of truth and reconciliation process, which is good, but he seems to have in mind an international body with little or no involvement by the Northern Ireland parties themselves, which would be insufficient.

Insofar as the South African process was successful, an important reason was that it did not exhibit any asymmetries in its purpose or its charter.  Offenses committed by all the parties were subject to examination.  Symmetry in this respect is important so that all parties involved in a conflict can have confidence that their pain will be uncovered and their narratives will be told.  It is also important to dispel any erroneous asymmetries that the rest of us have accumulated over the years in our perceptions of the conflict—such as that only one side has terrorized the other—due to one side being better able than the other to propagandize us or to tug at our heartstrings. 

These principles can be applied to several conflicts around the world in which different peoples have contested a piece of land.  One that readily comes to mind of particular importance to the United States is the contest between Israelis and Palestinians.                                  

TopicsSinn Fein RegionsNorthern Ireland

Facts, Opinions and Hot Air

Paul Pillar

The National Climate Assessment released this week is a thorough and authoritative report that also really shouldn’t be necessary in telling us what we need to know about the underlying problem.  The problem is that human activity is changing the global climate in major and mostly undesirable ways.  The evidence has long been very apparent, and the evidence is overwhelming.  It includes mountains of data and it includes principles of physics and chemistry.  What this latest report does is to relate real, not just projected, climate change to present conditions in the United States, not just to consequences that are more distant in either time or place.


Unfortunately denial is still commonplace, and denial reflects some unfortunate tendencies that discourse in the United States not only on this issue but also other issues often exhibits.  There is a tendency not to recognize genuine questions and the difficult decisions that must be made about them, but instead to wish all this away by denying the facts.  There is a further tendency for factual beliefs to stem from policy preferences rather than the other way around.  The policy preferences involved may relate to constellations of issues that go well beyond the issue at hand.  Thus there appear to be Republican facts and Democratic facts, or conservative facts and liberal facts—even on matters of chemistry and physics, and not just on the social phenomena that would be more closely related to political ideologies.


A related tendency is to discount or discredit facts communicated to us by those whose ideologies or political affiliations we do not like.  Al Gore has been the most prominent American politician sounding alarms about climate change, and so those who never liked Al Gore’s politics are predisposed to disparage any similar messages on the subject.  Because there is an issue today of whether to build the Keystone XL pipeline, with American politicians carefully calculating how the interests at stake translate into political support or opposition for themselves, we hear this week members of Congress denigrating the just-released report as supposedly just a tactical ploy timed to affect debate on the pipeline issue.


Perhaps none of this should be surprising in a polity in which, in the not distant past, people close to the policy process claimed that they could create their own reality.  As a saying of longer vintage reminds us, however, one is entitled to one’s own opinions but not one’s own facts.  Neither can one make reality go away through force of political will.


For those of us who are not natural scientists but instead dwell in matters of national security and foreign policy, one thought is that there is no more basic aspect of national security than the habitability of the physical environment in which a nation’s citizens live.  Another thought is that avoiding further environmental deterioration involves complex problems of international relations.  The climate change experienced in the United States and documented in this week’s report reflects not only activity in the United States but also the burning of forests in Indonesia and the spewing of carbon by coal-fired power plants in China.  If effective international measures on this subject are ever to be taken, a necessary first step is to discard the denial and to recognize explicitly the facts and the painful economic and other trade-offs involved.


The most recent episode of the television series Cosmos hosted by Neil De Grasse Tyson described some really awful previous periods in Earth’s climatological history, triggered by bombardment from space or by volcanism in Siberia igniting vast amounts of coal.  The good news is that since the end of the last Ice Age and for the next several tens of thousands of years mankind is likely to have a very hospitable planet on which to live—if, that is, mankind does not mess it up through its own activity.  As Tyson put it, the dinosaurs had no way of knowing about the asteroid that did them in; what’s our excuse?                      

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

TopicsScience RegionsUnited States

The President Strikes a Nerve

Paul Pillar

President Obama has gotten much attention from a single extended response he gave to a question about his foreign policy from Ed Henry of Fox News in a press conference last week in Manila. The apparently strongly felt need, on the part of some of the president's hardline critics, to strike back at his remarks and to try to discredit them indicates that he spoke some embarrassing truths. Garden-variety disagreement with the substance of the president's policies and what he has said to support them would never have stimulated this kind of response.

The president made several perceptive observations about the less productive aspects of current discourse in Washington about Ukraine, Syria, and other difficult issues, but if there was a single “ouch” line that made the critics most uncomfortable it may have been Mr. Obama's comment that “for some reason many who were proponents of what I consider to be a disastrous decision to go into Iraq haven't really learned the lesson of the last decade, and they keep on just playing the same note over and over again.” It must be painful for Mr. Obama's opponents to be reminded how right he was about this issue while so many others—Democrats as well as Republicans—were wrong.

Some of the rest of us who have commented repeatedly on the lessons of that war could be accused (although the president, who is not a serial gloater on the subject, cannot) of playing our own note over and over again. It ought to be played—because the Iraq War was the biggest and costliest U.S. endeavor ever in the Middle East, because we continue to suffer from the domestic as well as the regional consequences of that misadventure, because what was bad about that war has parallels in what could easily happen with some current issues if they are not properly handled, and because it is astounding that the biggest promoters of the Iraq War somehow still seem to have an audience even though they have been proven to be guilty of gross malpractice as policy analysts.

If there is any ground for criticizing what the president said at the press conference in Manila, it is that he seemed implicitly to accept some of the simplistic frames of reference that characterize not only what his critics are saying but more general discussion in the United States of foreign policy. There is the tendency in that discussion, for example, to register anything good or bad happening in the world as a success or failure of the incumbent U.S. president. Thus Mr. Obama pointed to how security relations between the United States and the Philippines are far better today than they were a decade ago, without mentioning that some of the reasons for that really don't have much to do with his own foreign policy. There also is the tendency, amid the slapping on of sanctions against adversaries hither and yon, to treat someone else's pain or isolation as if it were an end in itself. Thus Mr. Obama stated that “Russia has never been more isolated,” without quickly pointing out that any isolation of Russia is only a means to try to induce certain changes in Russian behavior. But the president was, after all, only giving an impromptu response to criticism, and he did not make any specific claims about the meaning and significance of Filipino cooperation or Russian isolation.

If subsequent commentary by the critics were to be believed, the main takeaway from the president's remarks was that he was accusing his political opponents of being warmongers. But the president explicitly acknowledged, in referring to debates over Syria and Ukraine, that the opponents he has in mind have disavowed wanting to send U.S. troops into such conflicts. Mr. Obama's main point was instead that after making such disavowals, the critics either (1) fail to spell out what other action they have in mind, beyond what the administration already is doing; or (2) to the extent they do mention an alternative, fail to assess carefully the likely consequences both good and bad, and instead just make unsupported assertions that acting more boldly or aggressively will somehow help to solve the problem at hand.

The president's point is valid. In fact, it applies as well to a lot of criticism of the foreign policies of other U.S. presidents. It is a reflection of the luxury of non-incumbency. Only incumbent policy-makers have to come up with a course of action that, despite all the downsides, is most likely to help solve problems. Non-incumbent critics can sit back and carp about problems that are still unsolved, whether or not solution is really within the capability of the United States.

Charles Krauthammer is one of those critics whose nerve evidently has been struck by the president's comments. His reaction gives evidence of having been thrown into a spasm upon first hearing the comments and never going back to reread the transcript. He begins, for example, with the assertion that Mr. Obama “began with a complaint about negative coverage on Fox News.” Actually, in response to Henry's statement that “there have been a lot of unflattering portraits of your foreign policy right now,” the president simply observed that “there are actually some complimentary pieces as well about my foreign policy, but I'm not sure you ran them,” which falls short of a “complaint” about Fox's coverage, however much such a complaint would be warranted.

Krauthammer goes on at length on the theme of people being falsely accused of warmongering. He issues a challenge to name any U.S. political leader “who has called for sending troops into Ukraine,” disregarding that the president was not accusing anybody of doing that and instead specifically said his critics were not calling for that.

Trying to turn tables, Krauthammer writes, “wasn't it you, Mr. President, who decided to attack Libya...? Yes, it was, and there is significant valid criticism yet to be written about that decision. But it would not be Krauthammer who would be positioned to write it; he applauded the military intervention in the Libyan civil war and only wished at the time that the intervention had come sooner. He does not mention that fact, nor does he say anything about what lessons the continuing mess in Libya may hold for possible intervention in other Middle Eastern civil wars.

Another topic on which the Obama administration can be validly criticized was the drawing of a “red line” about chemical weapons use in Syria. But what needs to be criticized was the drawing of the line in the first place, not that the administration “retreated abjectly,” as Krauthammer puts it, because the administration never did that. Instead, the administration with help from the Russians made lemonade out of the lemon of a red line and won an agreement that already has resulted in the destruction of Syria's capability to manufacture prohibited chemical weapons and removed from Syria for destruction nearly all of the regime's stockpile of the weapons. This is a far greater blow in favor of the cause of nonproliferation and non-use of chemical weapons than anyone hoped for before the Syria war even began. And as Robert Golan-Vilella reminds us, it is hard to see how any cruise missile strikes on Syria merely to show that we are willing to use military force would have done an iota of good in the Syrian situation.

On Ukraine, Krauthammer does identify one specific policy alternative to what the administration has done so far—providing lethal aid to the Ukrainian military—and argues that this would get Putin to shape up. “The possibility of a bloody and prolonged Ukrainian resistance to infiltration or invasion would surely alter Putin's calculus...” he says. Surely it would, but there would likely be bloody and prolonged Ukrainian resistance with or without U.S. lethal aid. One question is whether such aid would change the prospective length and bloodiness of the resistance enough to make a critical difference in Putin's calculations. Another question is how much weight such an effect would have relative to any provocative effects of the United States, the leader of NATO, initiating such a military relationship with Ukraine. Krauthammer does not bother to address either question.

Just below Krauthammer's column on the same Washington Post opinion page is a piece by House Armed Services Committee chairman Buck McKeon, which is another “what, me a warmonger?” reaction to the president's comments in Manila. Besides the forced indignation over presidential accusations that were never made, this item is characterized mainly by unsupported assertions, without even an attempt to get at the multiple underlying questions that would have to be analyzed, that military saber-rattling always means less chance of war breaking out and more chance of reducing the intensity of wars already underway. On Syria, for example, McKeon says that “arming moderate rebel factions and restoring the U.S. military posture in the Mediterranean” could have prevented use of chemical weapons “or even shortened the conflict.” How? The divisions among opposition groups, the domination of the more extreme ones, and the fight-to-the-death determination of the regime's supporters make very unlikely that a further (beyond what Gulf Arabs were doing anyway) arming of the hard-to-identify “moderates” would have had such desired effects. And just what sort of threat would be implied by any further U.S. military deployments in the Mediterranean? You do seem to believe, Mr. Chairman, that we need to be willing to carry out threats that we make.

The most preposterous statement in the same piece is, “Increasing violence in Iraq, provocations by North Korea and an ongoing Iranian nuclear program stem from similar paralysis in the Oval Office.” The comment about Iraq seems to wipe eight years from recent history, including the mistaken launching of the war in the first place, rampant insurgency during the time of the previous administration, and a “surge” of U.S. forces that could only temporarily help to tamp the insurgency down. In North Korea, three generations of the Kim regime have made provocation a central aspect of grand strategy, with provocation being the most prominent feature of North Korean behavior for decades. And as for the Iranian nuclear program, which also has been ongoing for decades, the preliminary agreement negotiated last fall already has achieved severe limitations to the program that years of sanctions and bluster alone could not.

A hazard of the kind of flak represented by these misplaced criticisms is that they nourish a political climate that tends to push the administration toward mistaken paths, notwithstanding the kind of verbal pushback that Mr. Obama exhibited in Manila. The intervention in Libya and the “red line” in Syria may represent such mistakes—although, to be sure, there also were forces within the administration pushing in the same direction. Christopher Fettweis has aptly summarized the challenge:

We know...that a set of deeply pathological beliefs exists within the so-called "marketplace of ideas," or arena of debate over U.S. foreign policy. As a result, we also know that the Obama administration will continue to be bombarded by a variety of misapplied analogies and faulty reasoning, generated largely by people who ought to know better, and that the president will have to tune out a great deal of noise and filth, to paraphrase Kennan, if he is going to chart a wise path forward.

TopicsForeign Aid RegionsUnited States