Paul Pillar

The Amtrak Disaster: Part of a Much Bigger Problem

Paul Pillar

The fatal crash of an Amtrak train in Philadelphia obviously is disturbing to those of us who often use the same service; it also is a symptom of a pattern, involving politics, economics, and morality, that is disturbing in a much larger sense. The chief investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board assesses that had a federally mandated automated system for restricting the speed of trains been in operation on the section of track involved, the crash would not have occurred. Amtrak has been ahead of the rest of the railroad industry in installing the system, but as is often the case, resources are the major factor in more rapid progress in installation not having been made. The day after the crash, and despite that fatal incident, a committee of the House of Representatives rejected a proposal for increased funding of Amtrak. This posture is indicative of a broader neglectful attitude toward America's notoriously deteriorating infrastructure. The anomaly of this situation prevailing within the world's superpower is apparent to any traveler who has enjoyed the use of more modern public services in any of several European countries, with rail transportation providing one of the most glaring contrasts.

At play here are some fundamental issues regarding attitudes toward, and management of, the commons—those assets and resources that are of use and importance to an entire community. The original formulation of the tragedy of the commons, which Garrett Hardin put in classic form nearly 50 years ago, involved how the marginal benefits and costs of any one individual's exploitation of a collective resource leads to excessive exploitation and deterioration of the resource. Each individual owner of livestock gets a net benefit from having his animals graze on a common pasture, but multiple owners following the same logic results in overgrazing and eventual ruin of the pasture. This kind of destructive dynamic is still very much in evidence with some important resources—most notably at the global level with how the marginal benefit exceeds the marginal cost for individual emitters of carbon into the atmosphere, with an eventual collective result threatening to be ruinous for all.

But at the national and sub-national levels, there also is another destructive dynamic that leads to deterioration of the commons, especially parts of the commons that are man-made. Some such parts can be ruined not only by too much exploitation but also by not enough attention and upkeep. The deterioration of roads and railways comes partly from use, but also from time, weather, ice, and rust. Left alone and given enough time, nature can restore a pasture to life, but nature cannot repair a bridge. The need for positive attention and upkeep is all the more apparent with common resources, such as public education, that are less a matter of physical structures than are roads and bridges.

The destructive logic of the new tragedy of the commons consists of those with the wherewithal to do so ending their own reliance on the commons and relying on privately owned assets instead. This results in less of a base of support for keeping the commons in good shape. It especially means less support from those whose support is especially important because of the wealth involved. The result, as with the first kind of tragedy, is deterioration and perhaps ruin of the commons, immediately to the disadvantage of many but ultimately to the disadvantage of all.

President Obama, at a recent event at Georgetown University, remarked about this kind of withdrawal from the commons and how apparent it has become in recent years in the United States; he made particular reference to wealthy parents keeping their children out of public schools and instead using private institutions for education and extracurricular activities. Also at the event and concurring in the president's observation was Robert Putnam, whose study Bowling Alone documented the withdrawal of Americans during recent decades from many forms of community commitment and involvement. It's not just a matter of schools, tennis clubs, or bowling leagues. One's interest in maintaining mass transportation, for example, declines or disappears if one uses a private jet instead.

In the United States these trends are exacerbated by two other factors. One is growing economic inequality, with an expanding divide between the large numbers who must rely on the commons, including public schools and mass transportation, and a smaller number who have other options. The increased concentration of wealth at the very top makes the private jet option a reality and not just a theoretical discussion point. And in a post-Citizens United world, the opportunities for the very wealthy to manipulate political perceptions in a way that blurs the meaning of the divide is greater than ever.

The other exacerbating factor is the prevalence in the United States of the ideologically driven belief that anything government does is ipso facto bad and that what the private sector does is by contrast good. This attitude ignores how, although markets do many things very well, there are many other important things that by their very nature markets cannot do well. It also ignores the fact that the private sector does not equate with free markets and that sometimes more, not less, governmental involvement is necessary to have a truly competitive free market (antitrust enforcement being an obvious but by no means the only example). Some of the worst consequences come when treating something that actually is part of the commons as if it were instead just another commodity to be traded in the market. Thus we increasingly have chaos and predation in the assignment of web addresses on the Internet. Some similar things have happened with another part of the commons: the part of the electromagnetic spectrum used for communication through the airwaves. Problems here were even a factor in the train wreck in Philadelphia. Delays in installing the automated train control system have been due not only to limited financial resources but also to the need for Amtrak to negotiate with private companies that have acquired ownership of portions of the spectrum that the system needs to operate. That negotiation process has taken years, even though government regulators at the Federal Communications Commission accomplished their part of the approval process in a matter of days.

To get a sense of the direction the withdrawal from the commons can be headed, look at any of many less developed countries in which a wealthy elite lives in effect in a separate world from the masses that surround them. The elite can, and do, rely on private resources for everything from transportation to clean water to power generation. They not only do not depend on the commons; they are barely even aware of the commons. An extreme example of this is the 34-story residence that an Indian tycoon built in South Mumbai and contains just about anything the owner might want. And if it isn't there, he can fly off his helipad to wherever he wants to go without even setting eyes on the streets below.

In those less developed countries, even security has become in large part privatized, with privately employed guards rather than police forces providing most of the security that matters for the residences and businesses of the elite. In the United States we still have a bit more of the sovereign concept of government having a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, but even that sense has weakened as the country has moved away from the idea that force in the form of firearms should be a matter of, in the words of the U.S. Constitution, well-regulated militias. It is no accident that repeated controversial high-profile incidents in recent years entailing the use of firepower on U.S. streets have involved either public police forces that are undermanned, insufficiently trained, and little respected, or private security elements such as armed neighborhood watch patrols.

For those concerned with the exercise of national power globally, a final observation about differing attitudes toward the commons is that the bifurcated elite/mass arrangements in less developed countries do not constitute a prescription for national power. Such a system may satisfy the immediate needs of the elite, but they are a poor way to mobilize the physical and especially the human resources of the country. That is not the direction that we ought to go. The domestic strength on which power and respect abroad are built must include strength of the commons. Being powerful requires being more like the countries that nurture and respect their own commons, and where trains run not only on time but safely.

Image: Creative Commons 3.0 

TopicsAmtrak RegionsUnited States

Currying Favor at Camp David

Paul Pillar

As crown princes and other leaders of Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf meet this week with President Obama, the first thing to keep in mind as background to this encounter is a truth that the president spoke last month in an interview with Tom Friedman of the New York Times. The president observed that the biggest threats those Arab countries face “may not be coming from Iran invading. It’s going to be from dissatisfaction inside their own countries” based on “populations that, in some cases, are alienated, youth that are underemployed, an ideology that is destructive and nihilistic, and in some cases, just a belief that there are no legitimate political outlets for grievances.” Of course that's not an observation that the rulers of those countries want to hear, and the president acknowledged that talking about such things is “a tough conversation to have” with those regimes, “but it's one that we have to have.” Sound foreign policy for our own country requires dealing in truths, even ones that make our interlocutors uncomfortable.

The president would have been on sound ground to make his point even more forcefully than he did. There will be no Iranian flotilla carrying an invasion force against the gulf. Anything remotely resembling such a fanciful scenario would be obvious folly for Iran and, even if were to occur, would be met with a forceful U.S.-led response with or without any explicit security guarantees from Washington. Nor does it require any instigation from the outside for the danger of internal unrest and instability to arise from the anachronistic, undemocratic political systems, coupled with narrowly based economies and sometimes sectarian-riven social structures, that prevail in these countries. The most serious instability that has occurred in the last few years in the immediate neighborhood of the Gulf Arab countries, in Bahrain and Yemen, was internally initiated and not instigated by any outside power, be it Iran or anyone else.

The next thing to ask about the gathering at Camp David is what these Arab regimes would, or even could, do if they return home displeased. The answer is: not much at all. Those regimes need the United States more than the United States needs them. They are highly reliant on U.S. help just to enable their military forces to operate their advanced weapons. They are even more reliant on the tacit blessing that the world's most powerful democracy confers on them every day by not making much of an issue of their undemocratic nature, notwithstanding how much talk one has heard in Washington, especially under the previous administration, about spreading democratic values in the Middle East. Moreover, the Gulf states are not in position today to express any displeasure by trying to wield oil as a weapon, 1970s style; Saudi Arabia has its own reasons right now not only to keep oil flowing but to keep prices low.

Administration policymakers surely are smart enough to realize all this, but they feel obligated to play a political game that involves catering to the Gulf Arabs' expressed anxieties, no matter how opportunistic those expressions may be—hence this week's meeting. The game is played mostly within Washington; it is a matter of the administration having to keep the Gulf Arabs from complaining too loudly about reaching an agreement to restrict Iran's nuclear program, lest the administration's domestic opponents amplify their accusations that the administration is selling “allies” down the river (or down the gulf) by making a deal with Tehran. The nuclear agreement actually does no such thing. The Gulf Arabs have reached their own rapprochements with Iran in the past, and they are smart enough to realize that an agreement that restricts the Iranian program and precludes an Iranian nuclear weapon is better for their own security than the alternative of no agreement and no restrictions.

Although some coddling of the Gulf Arabs may be worth it if this helps reduce the chance that the Iran agreement will be killed in the U.S. Congress, it would be a mistake to extend new security guarantees or similar commitments that would risk entangling the United States more deeply in the Arabs' own peculiar quarrels. Those quarrels involve religion, ethnicity, and intra-regional rivalries where the United States does not have an interest in taking sides, and that give rise to fights in which the United States does not have a dog.

The United States unfortunately has already gotten itself involved in a very local, very messy, and very multi-dimensional fight in Yemen—involvement that would be incomprehensible except as a kind of compensatory stroking of Saudi Arabia. If one looked for a more direct U.S. interest in the Yemeni fight it would involve long-distance terrorist threats from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula—but AQAP is on the opposite side of the Yemeni fight from the people the U.S.-backed Saudi military intervention is going after.

There are good reasons for the United States to maintain cordial and even close relations with the Gulf Arab countries, notwithstanding their political systems and values that are so antithetical to our own. But such relations should be part of an independent and flexible U.S. policy in the Middle East that does not involve getting dragged into other people's pet quarrels and does not involve getting held hostage to the Gulf Arabs' own expressions of displeasure or discomfort.

An additional complication in trying to please such “allies” is that pleasing one can annoy another. More arms sales to the Gulf Arabs has gotten talked about, but that quickly runs into the assumption that whatever any Arab state gets in the way of armaments must be kept inferior to whatever Israel gets. Israel illustrates better than any other case the futility of trying to buy cooperation from a complaining “ally” with not just arms aid but other supportive measures. The extraordinary largesse, political and material, that the United States bestows on Israel does not buy such cooperation—certainly not regarding the nuclear agreement on Iran, where the Israeli government vigorously opposes U.S. foreign policy and attempts to sabotage it at every turn. The Gulf Arabs are too polite to imitate Israel in blatantly poking sticks in their benefactor's eyes. But expect from them a more restrained “what have you done for me lately” posture.                   

 

TopicsSaudi Arabia Iran Yemen RegionsMiddle East

Nationalist Aspirations and a Tale of Two Elections

Paul Pillar

Two national elections during the past two months embody two different approaches to handling nationalist aspirations of subject populations, with two very different results.

One of the biggest story lines of this week's election result in the United Kingdom was the success of the Scottish National Party, which greatly increased its representation at Westminster by winning 56 of the 59 parliamentary seats in Scotland. Had the Labour Party won a plurality, the SNP very likely would have been a critical part of Labour's support, whether inside or outside a governing coalition. As it is, the SNP will occupy a major share of the opposition benches, a position it will use to press issues of special interest to Scotland.

The SNP's electoral success this week represents a continuation of a peaceful process of expressing Scottish nationalism and using political power to press the nationalist cause. Another major event in that process came last September with a referendum on Scottish independence. Enough Scots decided they would be better off remaining in the union for the “no” side to win that vote. But the referendum was the product of a negotiated agreement with the government in London, and there is every reason to believe that the government would be honoring the result if the outcome of the referendum had been different.

In short, Scottish nationalism, as well as the principle of self-determination, has been treated with respect by the English who hold most of the political power in Britain, notwithstanding how much most English may believe that sundering the United Kingdom would be a big mistake for everyone, or how much they may be annoyed by Scottish demands. And it is no accident that today the English do not live in fear of some Scottish terrorist group wreaking violence in the name of Scottish independence.

The British have had substantial experience with nationalist violence in lands under their control. Irish nationalism was a prominent example, first about a century ago involving the entire island of Ireland, and later in the form of terrorism by the Provisional Irish Republican Army centered on Ulster. The first wave of violence ended with the negotiated establishment of an independent Irish Free State. The second wave ended with another negotiated accord, known as the Good Friday Agreement, that provided for power-sharing in Northern Ireland and is generally considered a success.

Between those two waves of Irish violence, Britain was beset by violence in Palestine, perpetrated most notably by Menachem Begin's Irgun and an offshoot group, the Stern Gang, both of which conducted terrorist attacks in the name of establishing a Jewish state. Another future Israeli prime minister and one of the leaders of the Stern Gang, Yitzhak Shamir, modeled his efforts on the Irish resistance and adopted the nom de guerre “Michael” after the Irish nationalist Michael Collins. Britain did not seek to cling to Palestine indefinitely and, especially after the exhaustion of World War II, was only too happy to dump the problem into the lap of the United Nations. But Britain was still the power that, as a legacy of a League of Nations mandate, controlled Palestine, and Begin's and Shamir's terrorists pressed their violent campaign against British targets notwithstanding Britain's fight against Nazi Germany. The Stern Gang was created by Irgun members who wanted to continue anti-British attacks even during the war, and Irgun itself resumed its attacks well before the end of the war.

There is a direct organizational line from Irgun to what became the Herut party and later evolved into Likud, the party that won the largest share of seats in the election two months ago in Israel—the only one of the two states, one Jewish and one Arab, provided for in the UN partition plan for Palestine that ever came into existence. This week the Likud leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, finished assembling a new government just before his deadline for doing so. The government is if anything even more hard-line right-wing than Netanyahu's previous government. That means continuation of the policy of rejecting Palestinian nationalism and trying to suppress it forcefully. And that means no prospect for ending the tragic story of Israeli-Palestinian violence and all the disruptive oscillations it spreads throughout the Middle East and beyond.

Likely to be particularly influential in keeping Israel on this violent course is the far-right Jewish Home party, which takes second place to no one in its determination to keep the occupied West Bank under Israeli control forever. Because Jewish Home was able to drive a hard bargain while Netanyahu was trying to stitch together enough of a coalition to get a bare majority in the Knesset, it got key ministries that will help it to prevent any deviation from its preferred policies regarding the territories. One of those ministries is agriculture, which controls funding for settlements and will be headed by one of the most fervent Israeli proponents of expanding settlements in the West Bank. Jewish Home also is furnishing the justice minister, a notorious figure whose hateful anti-Palestinian statements have bordered on calling for genocide.

This is a very different approach to handling the nationalist aspirations of a subject population than we have seen with the English and Scots, and the results have been very different. Close off peaceful channels for pursuing and realizing such aspirations, and violent channels are the only ones left.

The difference in the two cases is not due to something in the nature or habits of the subject population. Scots showed plenty of feistiness and antagonism in violent confrontations with the English dating back to the days of William Wallace (played on film by Mel Gibson) and Robert the Bruce. The difference has been in the policies of those with the power.

One can imagine an alternative history in which English rulers endeavored to the present day to subjugate the Scots, to deny them political rights, and to seize and settle on their land. Scottish terrorist groups would be an inevitable part of such a history. Also likely to be part of it would be a rebuilding and reinforcement of Hadrian's Wall in an effort to defend against such terrorism, and the persistence of a miserable and costly military occupation in Scotland. All of Great Britain would be a far less congenial and civilized place than the sceptred isle we know today.

Policy choices on such matters can be made, and the choices that are made have major consequences.         

TopicsIsrael United Kingdom Terrorism RegionsMiddle East

Uncle Sam the Hand Holder

Paul Pillar

Sometimes it seems that a major part of the U.S. role in the world is to assuage the anxieties, fears, and hurt feelings of other nations. Parents do this with children, and clinical psychologists do this with patients; should the world's superpower be expected to do this with foreign states? Evidently it is. This month, for example, there will be a summit meeting at Camp David with Gulf Arab states, and the purpose is summed up in the headline of a newspaper article about preparations for the meeting: the gathering is intended to “ease fears” of Arabs in connection with the agreement on limiting Iran's nuclear program. Such U.S. hand-holding with putative allies in the Middle East is not limited to matters related to the Iranian nuclear deal, and such salving of feelings is not limited to the Middle East.

The question arises: why should we care about someone else's apparent angst? And why should the United States devote any resources, including the scarce resource of its leaders' time and attention, to doing something about it?

There are a couple of legitimate reasons it might make sense for the United States to be responsive to such foreign anxiety. One is that—if the foreign emotions are being expressed in the context of interests shared with the United States—such expression might be a useful indicator that something about the course of U.S. policy warrants rethinking. Such rethinking is certainly better than the sort of dismissive unilateralism that has helped to get the United States in trouble in the past. But shared interest is not the context for much of the angst being expressed toward the United States, including the current feelings of the Gulf Arabs related to Iran. Those “fears”—as well as similar expressions from Israel—have to do mainly with intra-regional contests for influence, often with a sectarian or ethnic coloration, that do not involve interests the United States shares.

Another possible reason to be responsive is that unassuaged anxiety might lead the anxious foreign state to do something damaging to our own interests. A classic worry of this type is that an ally of ours might become so disaffected that it decides to become an ally of someone else instead. This type of worrying is not necessarily good for international peace and stability, as some pre-World War I history demonstrated. Anyway, that's not the kind of situation we have in the Middle East today. Those who say they are fearful of Iran are not going to become allies of Iran (although if they move toward tension-reducing rapprochement with Tehran, so much the better for peace and stability in the Persian Gulf region)

Or maybe a fear-ridden state might lash out, like a threatened animal, and do something more damaging and destructive than merely switching alliances. Amid those fears being voiced in the Middle East today, probably the most destructive such reaction one can think of would be Israel starting a war with Iran. But the prospective nuclear agreement that supposedly is the basis of the fears would make such an attack less, not more, likely, because the attack would be all the more blatantly a destructive and unnecessary action.

Expressions of fear and anxiety will continue, and so will the presumed need for the United States to respond to them, for two basic reasons. One is that ostensibly fearful states have every reason to milk those emotions for all the arms sales, security guarantees, economic aid, and superpower attention they can get. Why wouldn't they, regardless of how sincere or insincere the emotions may be? The other reason is that displeased allies constitute a convenient theme that domestic opponents can use to criticize foreign policy. Never mind that such criticism may be inconsistent, with some of the same folks wringing hands over professed nervousness among Gulf Arabs or Israel apparently not caring about what America's major European allies, who actually have been party to the negotiations on the Iranian nuclear agreement, feel about it. (Some of the same people dismissed the views of Old Europe at the time the Iraq War was launched.)

Foreign nations often have genuine and well-founded fears, and it behooves us to try hard to understand those fears. Such understanding does not come easily to Americans, whose situation of power and geographic separation is quite different from the more vulnerable circumstances that most nations have faced. But understanding of this type is much different from catering to whatever anxieties someone claims to have, and makes a claim on the United States to relieve.

Sometimes the best U.S. response would be a diplomatic version of, “Tough. Not our problem.”                                        

TopicsIran Persian Gulf RegionsMiddle East

Upside-Down Congressional Involvement in Foreign Affairs

Paul Pillar

The role that the U.S. Congress has assumed for itself as a player in foreign policy exhibits an odd and indefensible pattern these days. Senator Chris Murphy calls it a "double standard," although that might be too mild a term. On one hand there are vigorous efforts to insert Congress into the negotiation of an agreement on Iran's nuclear program. The efforts extend even to attempts to interfere in the details of what is being negotiated, as reflected in a string of amendments being considered in debate in the Senate this week on a bill laying out a procedure for Congress to pass a quick judgment on the agreement. On the other hand there is inaction, with little or no prospect of any action, on an authorization for the use of military force against the so-called Islamic State.

That combination is exactly the opposite of the roles Congress should play, taking into account first principles of when and why the people's representatives ought to weigh in on the conduct of the nation's foreign relations. Going to war is probably the most consequential thing the nation can do overseas. It entails substantial costs to the nation, and as recent experience should remind us, carries the risk of far greater costs, both human and material, than may have been anticipated at the outset. It is quite appropriate for such a departure not to be left solely in the hands of the executive.

The impending nuclear agreement with Iran entails none of those things. No Americans are being put in danger. There is no risk of being dragged into wider or longer commitments to pacify, occupy, or do something else to land overseas. There is no drain on American taxpayers; in fact, to the extent that completion of the agreement will lead to lessening of economic sanctions on Iran, it will entail lifting of what has also been an economic burden on the United States. As the subject of a complicated international negotiation that involves several other states and in which compromises on all sides are essential, for national legislatures to intervene in the details with specific requirements or demands is simply a recipe for failure of the negotiations. It is entirely appropriate for this agreement, like the great majority of international agreements that the United States makes, to be a matter of executive action until fulfillment of the terms of the agreement requires legislative action.

Several reasons account for the inappropriate reverse nature of where Congress is weighing in and where it isn't. Debate about the nuclear deal and about the bill bearing Senator Corker's name isn't really about Congressional prerogatives, especially given that the bill is not necessary for Congress to express itself however it wants about the substance of whatever agreement emerges from the negotiations. It instead has been about whether opponents of any agreement with Iran would be able to use a procedural mechanism for increasing their chances of killing the deal. This is reflected in the current grumbling by diehard opponents of an agreement who see that the current version of the Corker bill does not give them as much of a chance for doing that as they had hoped.

The inaction on an authorization for the use of military force has a couple of explanations. The more respectable one is the inherent difficulty of crafting suitable language when the intended purpose of the military action is not as simple and straightforward as, say, defeating another nation-state. Instead the purpose involves a terrorist phenomenon in which both the geographic and temporal extent of what needs to be done is uncertain. It is hard to come up with a legally precise formula that gives the executive the authority it needs to do something effective but also imposes meaningful limits, in terms of time and place, on the military operations. The draft resolution that the administration sent to Capitol Hill has some questionable language; fixes to it will be necessary but difficult. The difficulty is not a reason not to try.

Not trying gets to the second explanation for the inaction, which is political pusillanimity. Members of Congress realize that taking a stand on such things involves taking a risk, Some members feel burned either for opposing one Persian Gulf war that turned out to be a smashing victory, or for authorizing another Persian Gulf war that turned out to be a costly mess. It's easier for them just not to commit themselves and to stay quiet while the White House asserts executive authority and uses military force anyway. And that posture is a cop-out.

TopicsCongress Iran War RegionsUnited States

Overstretching the Specter of Iranian Imperialism

Paul Pillar

Opponents of the nuclear agreement (really, of any agreement) with Iran continue, in an effort to divert attention from the relative advantages of having versus not having negotiated restrictions on Iran's nuclear program, to present an image of Iran as a ruthless and relentless imperialist intent on gaining control of the entire Middle East. Iran is repeatedly portrayed as being “on the march” toward regional domination or as “gobbling up” other countries. It never gets explained how this picture, even if it were true, would constitute a reason not to complete a nuclear agreement to ensure that this supposedly relentless imperialist power never gets the most powerful weapon mankind has ever invented. But logic is not what is being exercised here; instead it is more of an emotion-based effort to foster distaste for doing any business with such an ogre-like regime.

An additional twist to this line of anti-agreement agitation is found in an opinion piece by Soner Cagaptay, James Jeffrey, and Mehdi Khalaji, all of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The WINEP authors state that Iran is “a revolutionary power with hegemonic aspirations” and liken it to “hegemonic powers in the past”: Russia, France, Germany, Japan, and Britain—powers that “pushed the world into war” in 1914 and 1939.

Let us recall what those hegemonic powers did. The Russians used their armies to build an empire that encompassed much of the Eurasian land mass and whose successor state still spans eleven time zones. Britain dominated the oceans with the Royal Navy and used its power to build an empire on which the sun never set. France also captured and colonized vast parts of Africa and Asia and, when it had an emperor with sufficient talent, overran most of Europe as well. Japan used military force to seize control of huge parts of the eastern hemisphere. And as for Germany, the WINEP authors themselves—as part of the near-obligatory reference to Nazis in any anti-agreement writing about Iran—remind us that “Nazi Germany sought to dominate Europe from the Atlantic Ocean to the Volga River, reducing other countries to vassal states and establishing complete military, economic and diplomatic control.” Actually, it didn't just seek to do that; Nazi Germany used its preeminent military power to accomplish that objective, at least for a while.

Iran represents nothing that is even remotely akin to any of this, as a matter of accomplishment, capability, or aspiration. Certainly the current Islamic Republic of Iran does not come close, and one would have to reach far back into Persian history to start to get a taste of imperialism even at the reduced scale of the Persians' immediate neighborhood. The twist of the WINEP piece is that the authors reach back in exactly that way. They tell us that “Iran's hegemonic aspirations actually date back to the Safavid Dynasty of the 16th century.” You know that there is a lot of argumentative stretching going on when references to Safavids in the 16th century are used as a basis for opposing an agreement with someone else about a nuclear program in the 21st century.

The Safavid Dynasty faded out before anyone could judge what would have been its willingness to behave as a respectable member of the modern state system. Those other hegemonic powers named in the piece evolved into respectable members of the current international order (although debate related to the Ukraine crisis continues about the attitudes of the Russian government). So the WINEP authors, in trying to argue that Iran never could become a respectable, well-behaving member of the same order, contend that what sets Iran apart is not only that it has hegemonic aspirations but that it is “a revolutionary power with hegemonic aspirations.” And, they say, “Revolutionary hegemonic powers combine the imperialist lust for 'lebensraum' seen in Wilhelmine Germany”—gotta get in those comparisons to the Nazis—“with a religious or millennial worldview that rejects the principles of the classic international order.”

How far divorced from reality this line of argument is emerges from the authors' reference to yet another power whose strengths and ambitions are way out of Iran's league: China, which the authors want us to see as hegemonic but not revolutionary like Iran. They write, “Even today, countries with hegemonic tendencies, like China, acknowledge the legitimacy of this international order.” That is a remarkable statement in view of how much China's international behavior can be explained, and has been explained by innumerable analysts, in terms of China's rejection of aspects of the international order that were established by the West without Chinese participation. A recent example of this aspect of Chinese policy involves the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and other Chinese-created mechanisms as alternatives to Western-dominated international financial institutions.

In contrast, a major feature of the supposedly “revolutionary” Iranian regime's foreign policy has been to try to integrate Iran into as much of the existing international order as possible, notwithstanding its Western origins. (Iran, unlike China, does not have anywhere near the strength to erect alternatives to Western institutions even if it wanted to.) This strand of Iranian policy is reflected not only in what Iranian leaders say but also in what they do, such as participation in this week's Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference. The nuclear agreement currently being negotiated with the P5+1 is itself one of the clearest manifestations of the Iranian policy of making significant concessions and sacrifices in the interest of becoming a more integrated member of the international community.

The depiction of current-day Iran as “revolutionary” in the sense of upsetting the international apple cart requires as much ignoring of recent history and actual patterns of Iranian behavior as does the likening of current Iran to 16th century Safavid imperialism. In the early years of the Islamic Republic there was indeed a belief among many in Tehran that their own revolution might not survive without like-minded revolutions elsewhere in the neighborhood. But with the Islamic Republic having now survived for more than three decades, that perspective is obsolete.

A good case in point is Bahrain, given its Shia majority population and historical Iranian claims. Despite the unrest there in recent years, it has been a long time since any reliable reports of Iranian activity there that could honestly be described as subversive or revolutionary. In stark contrast to whatever minimal Iranian involvement there is in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia rolled its armed forces across the causeway to forcibly put down Shia unrest and prop up the Sunni regime in Manama. A similar contrast prevails today in Yemen, where any Iranian aid to the Houthis, whose rebellion was not instigated by Iran (and during which the Iranians reportedly have counseled restraint to the Houthis) is dwarfed by the Saudi airstrikes that have killed hundreds of civilians. (Tell us again—which Persian Gulf country is the hegemonic power?)

Stories of Iran as a supposedly threatening regional hegemon are not only not a reason to oppose reaching agreements with Tehran; the stories aren't even true.                                                 

TopicsIran RegionsMiddle East

Nuked: Does 'Napoleonic War' Have a Future?

Paul Pillar

Across much of the globe, the First World War—“the war to end all wars”—still exercises a fierce hold on popular imagination. And many aspects of the war remain a subject of debate, more so than the Second World War, for example, where the revisionist agendas of Germany, Italy and Japan were more fully exposed. Some of the flavor of that debate runs through the tranche of historical studies produced over recent years as the war’s centenary approached, including Hew Strachan’s The First World War, Margaret MacMillan’s The Year that Ended Peace, Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, and Paul Ham’s 1914: The Year The World Ended. I’m not proposing to explore those debates here. Rather, I want to consider where the First World War stands in relation to the Napoleonic model of war, and what that means for us today.

Napoleon exploited the age of revolution to bring mass to the modern battlefield. But his mass was principally one of manpower. Using the levée en masse—conscription—and adroit generalship, Napoleon searched for decisive battles where the enemy army could be defeated at its strongest point, and the war won. That approach worked while the battlefield remained the center of gravity in strategic contests. But his opponents also deployed larger armies. And even the Grand Armée was no match for the territorial vastness of Russia.

Great social and economic changes unfolded in the century between the end of the Napoleonic wars and the onset of WWI. Industrialization magnified the firepower available on the battlefield. Rifles, machine guns and artillery pieces took the place of muskets and cannons. The battlefield became a much more dangerous place. Mass was still being brought to the battlefield, but now as machine and motor as well as manpower.

The expansion in both size and strength of national armies made the search for decisive battles much more challenging. And, as they had in the US Civil War, trenches, machine guns and barbed wire typically gave defensive positions pre-eminence on the battlefield, at least until 1918. The cult of the offensive still sat at the heart of European military thinking—but offensives required unprotected soldiers to cross-exposed ground in the teeth of such firepower.

Because national industrial capacity was itself now a key enabler, temporary victory upon the battlefield became harder to exploit. The true ‘battlefield’ now included the home front—national will, industrial capacity and an efficient logistics train to keep supplies moving to the line of actual engagement. Paralysis at the front line enhanced the importance of the home front. War became an exercise in national attrition, not decisive battles.

WWI didn’t represent the zenith of mass war. That was WWII, of course, which killed over 50 million people and ended with two nuclear detonations over cities. By then war was an exercise in mechanized maneuver, not trenches and stasis. And the concept of the battlefield had truly stretched to include whole nations. But WWI was bad enough: it killed over 16 million and wounded another 20 million. And its endgame—the Treaty of Versailles—indirectly set the stage for WWII.

Some say it was the cataclysm that made possible all the other cataclysms of the 20th century. Was there an upside? Yes. We can’t re-run history, of course, but I suspect losing the war would have been considerably worse than winning it. That’s what Hew Strachan calls “the biggest paradox” in our understanding of the war: “On the one hand it was an unnecessary war fought in a manner that defied common sense, but on the other it was the war that shaped the world in which we still live.”

Does Napoleonic war have a future? Perhaps. Many countries have moved on from the notion of the citizen soldier. Amongst advanced militaries—and societies—the preference is for precision-strike, not massed armies. One-child Western families shrink from the concept of mass casualties that sits alongside the idea of mass war. And nuclear weapons have put a cap on most escalation ladders precisely because they’re so destructive. It’s hard to ‘out-mass’ a nuclear-armed opponent—though the nuclear arms race during the Cold War shows two superpowers were certainly prepared to give it a try. Various modes of warfare still flourish below the nuclear threshold, of course. And some argue we’re approaching a “fourth generation” of warfare that will have its basis in ideas rather than technology.

Still, those factors don’t bear down equally on all players in the international system. And a waning of the Napoleonic paradigm, especially in the West, doesn’t mean that major war itself is obsolete. Indeed, military force remains an important variable in today’s international relations. Great powers still jostle for position, even nuclear-armed ones. War—at some level—between nuclear-armed powers is possible, even if it’s not likely. Occasions may yet arise when the pursuit of politics by other means require us to put Australian soldiers in harm’s way.

Lest we forget.

This piece first appeared in ASPI's The Strategist here

TopicsDefense

Obama's Realism

Paul Pillar

Edward Luce in the Financial Times has a take on Barack Obama's foreign policy that is accurate and should be evident to all. But given the state of foreign policy discourse within American politics, perhaps it is not surprising that it falls to a longtime foreign observer of American policy and politics to make this particular observation. Luce states that as Mr. Obama's presidency “matures,” he “is showing qualities one would normally associate with Henry Kissinger—the arch-realist of U.S. diplomacy.” Luce points to Obama's handling of relations with both Iran and Cuba as evidence that he “is grasping the essence of diplomacy—when adversaries come to terms, neither achieves everything they want,” and that he realizes that “the perfect should not be the enemy of the good.”

Luce focuses especially on the Middle East as a region where President Obama, without acknowledging it, “is taking a leaf from Mr. Kissinger's book” by both pursuing a deal with Iran's regime and simultaneously “stepping up support for its equally dubious counterparts in the Sunni world.” It is a balance-of-power approach, in which the essence of the Obama administration's policy in the region is: “Rather than trying to convert the Middle East to our values, it seeks to limit the region's ability to export its pathologies.”

That Mr. Obama's foreign policy is in its main respects a sober, prudent—and mostly unoriginal—exercise of realism should be obvious but gets obscured by, most of all, the different colors with which his political opponents assiduously endeavor to paint it. The president is consistently portrayed as naive, or weak, or insufficiently assertive in advancing American values. Or as the Speaker of the House said the other day about the nuclear negotiations with Iran (in comments in which Mr. Boehner made clear he wants to kill the deal outright, dropping the pretense that those on his side of the aisle want a “better deal”), “It just appears to me that the administration wants a deal at almost any cost.” The groundless nature of that statement should be apparent to anyone who has looked at all seriously at the history of the negotiations, at what has been agreed to so far, and at who has had to make what concessions to get to this point.

The obscuring of the nature of the current administration's foreign policy also has other roots, including ones that do not necessarily involve the president's opponents. There has been talk about an “Obama doctrine,” reflecting a perpetual yearning among the chattering class in this country to apply such labels and to characterize each presidential administration in unique terms that would warrant such a label. Apply the label if you want, but it implies more uniqueness than is really there.

It is more boring, but also more accurate in characterizing the current administration's policies, to describe it as guided mostly by realist principles that have been applied not just by Henry Kissinger but many others in the past. Among those principles are that U.S. policy should be focused consistently on the most effective ways of pursuing carefully defined U.S. national interests, that the world must be dealt with as it really is and not as we might wish it to be, that in pursuing its interests the United States must use all available tools and deal with all other countries, and that compromise is inevitable and perfection impossible. Unexciting stuff, but wise stuff.

The widespread failure to recognize, with regard to this stuff, both what the Obama administration has been doing and what any administration ought to be doing is a sad comment on the state of foreign policy discourse in the United States today (and Luce notes that the realist strand in Mr. Obama's policy “goes heavily against the grain of the debate in Washington”). This discourse takes place in an environment in which sound and unexciting realism cannot be accepted for what it is without being dressed up with a snazzier label, and in which policies based on such realism get denigrated as weak or unprincipled or something else.

The political environment in which the discourse takes place is one in which the foreign policy of one of the major parties, which now controls the Congress, has been captured by neoconservatism, with a libertarian minority and a realist remnant—reflecting a tradition once represented by Mr. Kissinger and his boss, President Richard Nixon—that is an even smaller minority. The other major party—as a political beast separate from the Obama administration—has been having a hard time finding its foreign policy bearings amid a nationwide rightward shift. The Democrats seem likely to put up a presidential candidate who is substantially more hawkish than the party's rank-and-file, and many members seem less inclined to assert proudly any realist tradition than merely to limit the ability of the other side of the political spectrum to export its pathologies.

The political power of American exceptionalism, of which neoconservatism is the most muscular manifestation, leaves little basis for expecting that any of this will change any time soon. Completion and implementation of a nuclear agreement with Iran would be a significant realist achievement very much in the tradition of—and Luce makes this comparison explicit—what Kissinger and Nixon did in their opening with China. But first the agreement must be completed and implemented, and anti-realist sentiment is keeping uncertain whether that will happen.                               

TopicsU.S. Foreign Policy RegionsMiddle East

Yemen and the American Impulse to Take Sides

Paul Pillar

A strong Manichean streak runs through American perceptions of the outside world.  That streak involves a habit of seeing all conflict and instability in binomial terms, a presumption that one of the perceived two sides is good and the other bad, and an urge to weigh in on the presumptively good side. The influence that these tendencies have had on U.S. policy has varied over time. The influence was readily apparent, for example, during the George W. Bush administration's days of “you're either with us or with the terrorists.” The Obama administration has tried to move in a less Manichean and more realist direction, especially in conducting diplomacy with Iran and in so doing opening a door to a more fruitful all-azimuths diplomacy in the Middle East generally. But the current administration still operates in a political environment in which the old perceptual habits set limits on what the administration can do, or perhaps push it into doing things it might not otherwise have done.

There have been ample demonstrations throughout the Middle East of how inaccurate and inapplicable the Manichean perspective is. There is Iraq, where the United States and the Iranian bête noire are on the same side in countering the so-called Islamic State or ISIS. There is the even more complicated deadly brawl in Syria, where the people who from the viewpoint of the West are the closest thing to good guys are opposing the same regime that also is opposed by ISIS and the local al-Qaeda affiliate.

At least as clear a lesson both in the fallacies of the Manichean perspective and the mistake of the United States taking sides in such conflicts is found in the current strife in Yemen. But the lesson does not seem to have been learned, as reflected in U.S. support for the Saudi military intervention in Yemen. Three major features of the conflict in Yemen are pertinent to that lesson.

One is that the conflict is at least as complicated and multidimensional as any others in the Middle East. It is impossible to draw a line that would put everyone worth supporting on one side and everyone worth opposing on the other, or even to come close to doing that. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula—often considered the most capable Al-Qaeda affiliate today—is completely at odds with, and a confirmed enemy of, the Houthi forces who are the principal target of the U.S.-backed Saudi intervention. One of the most significant allies of the Houthis is Ali Abdullah Saleh, who for three decades was America's guy as ruler of Yemen.

Second, this war is, as Adam Baron has put it, “by and large, an internal Yemeni political conflict” that “remains deeply rooted in local Yemeni issues.” This fact has been obscured by those who, intent on depicting Iran as a dangerous wide-ranging regional renegade, portray the Houthi rebellion as part of some Iranian expansionist plan. It is nothing of the sort. The Houthis have been driven for years by grievances involving the distribution of resources and power within Yemen, and their more recent gains have mostly reflected the sympathy for those grievances among other Yemeni elements who have been similarly displeased and disadvantaged by the most recent Yemeni regimes.

Third, the motivations of outside actors intervening in this conflict are not ones that the United States ought to associate itself with. One set of motivations is sectarian. There is no advantage at all, and lots of disadvantage, for the United States to be seen identifying with one side or another in sectarian disputes within the Muslim world. Another set of motivations, rooted in decades of Saudi-Yemeni strife dating back to when the expansion of the Saudi kingdom first led to seizure of traditionally Yemeni provinces and to lingering border disputes, involves a Saudi desire to exercise dominance over the Arabian Peninsula and in particular this part of it. Graham Fuller observes, “Riyadh has always loathed Yemeni feistiness, independence, its revolutionary politics, and even its experiments with democracy.” The Saudis publicly play up the Iranian angle, but what they really don't like about the Houthis is that they haven't been able to buy off the Houthis as effectively as they have many other Yemeni elements. The Saudi objective of maintaining this kind of overlordship over its neighbors is also not an interest that the United States shares.

And yet the urge to take sides and intervene persists, as reflected in recent remarks about the Yemeni case by John McCain. The urge pays insufficient heed either to what is in U.S. interests or to what is effective. McCain asserted that the Saudis did not seek advance coordination with the United States concerning their intervention “because they believe we are siding with Iran.” Actually, according to a senior officer at U.S. Central Command, “The reason the Saudis didn’t inform us of their plans is because they knew we would have told them exactly what we think — that it was a bad idea.”

We know that the Obama administration is feeling the need these days to appear supportive of the Gulf Arabs because of angst related to the impending nuclear agreement with Iran. And if catering to that angst is one of the prices that has to be paid to get the agreement and, through it, to get closer to liberating U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East from rigid side-taking in the future, then this policy may turn out to be on balance worthwhile. But the Yemeni conflict itself still ought to serve as a lesson in the multiple reasons the United States would be better off to resist its side-taking urge.            

TopicsYemen Saudi Arabia Iran RegionsMiddle East

America's Not-So-Ultimate Weapon: Economic Warfare

Paul Pillar

The roots and manifestations of American exceptionalist thinking go way back. One of those manifestations is the use of economic measures as a weapon intended to coerce or deny. The specific thinking involved is that such measures employed by the United States, and even the United States alone, should be enough to induce or force change in other countries. The thinking is solipsistic insofar as it centers narrowly on the idea of American will and the exercise of American power and, as too often has been the case, pays insufficient attention either to the other nation's motivations or to what damage or denial the United States is inflicting on itself.

More than two centuries ago the young American republic made one of its first big attempts at such economic warfare. The Embargo Act of 1807 shut down U.S. overseas trade in an attempt to get the warring European powers Britain and France to respect U.S. neutrality. President Thomas Jefferson's intentions were honorable in that he genuinely sought neutrality in the European war—unlike so many today who, if they see an armed conflict going on somewhere in the world, believe it necessary for the United States to take sides even if there are bad guys on more than one side. Jefferson also saw the embargo as an alternative to war rather than a prelude to it—unlike many today, who are both sanctions hawks and military hawks.

But the embargo was a miserable failure on all counts. Prosecuting war in Europe with all means available was much more important to Britain and France than was anything that the American republic could do to them. The economic damage to the United States was severe, especially in New England, which sank into depression. And the United States would eventually wind up going to war anyway, against Britain in 1812. Realizing the mistake, Jefferson signed a repeal of the embargo in the closing days of his presidency in 1809.

With the American economy and American power having expanded over the subsequent 200 years, the temptation to think in terms of American denial of trade being an all-powerful tool has become all the greater. But the thinking is still erroneous, as demonstrated by the miserable failure of the half-century-old embargo against Cuba. That embargo has caused no favorable change in Cuban policies or politics, and probably has only retarded what change would have been taking place for other reasons. Economically it has not caused another depression in New England, but the fact that it has been a negative for the U.S. economy is reflected in support by U.S. business interests, as represented by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for change in policy toward Cuba. President Obama deserves credit for bringing about as much change as it is in his power to effect, but the embargo itself will not come down until the U.S. Congress displays changed thinking too.

The president also deserves similar credit for a redirection of policy on Iran, but there also is a similar solipsistic, sanctions-happy attitude in Congress that applies to Iran. That attitude persists despite the substantial damage to the U .S. economy from those sanctions, the years of a sanctions-centered approach having failed to achieve any positive results until there was also engagement and negotiation, and the self-contradictory nature of the stated purposes for keeping those sanctions in place.

The obsessive persistence of this attitude (besides, to be sure, the malign influence of other factors, such as an oppose-anything-Obama-does mindset) is demonstrated by Republican presidential candidates, including the just-declared Marco Rubio, saying that they would, if elected president, re-impose whatever sanctions had been suspended or lifted in accordance with any agreement on the Iranian nuclear program. The biggest question about such a pledge is why, if Iran had by that time complied for three years with severe restrictions on its program, any U.S. president would want to demolish all those restrictions on the Iranian program (because that's what deal-killing sanctions would do) and allow the Iranians to expand their nuclear activities as fast as they wanted. The further question about the sanctions themselves is how they could be expected to have any effect at all when the United States would be clearly responsible for killing the deal and when the rest of the world, operating under a new United Nations resolution, would have moved on toward doing normal business with Iran. The rest of the world includes our closest European allies—as Britain and France, among others, would help to write another chapter in America's unflattering history of ill-advised economic warfare. The United States would be left as lonely and feckless as it has been with the embargo against Cuba.

If even Thomas Jefferson screwed up on this subject, perhaps it's too much to expect today's politicians to do much better, although they do have a lot more national experience to go on. And Jefferson realized his mistake and corrected it much more quickly than what we've seen happening in Congress on Cuba and Iran.

Oh, and there's that issue about the danger of war. Given the way the Iranian nuclear issue has been playing out, the risk of a war occurring in the wake of a destruction by the United States of the negotiated agreement on the subject is probably even greater than the risk that impressment of seamen and other maritime issues posed leading up to war in 1812.

Image: Flickr.                         

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle East Latin America

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