Paul Pillar

Sanctions and Symmetry in the Iran Negotiations

Paul Pillar

Notwithstanding the obvious asymmetries in soon-to-resume nuclear negotiations with Iran (it's Iran's nuclear program, not the U.S. one, that is being restricted; it's the United States, not Iran, that is sanctioning someone else's economy) the perceptual and political similarities that Americans and Iranians have brought to this encounter are striking to anyone who has been following the subject closely. To begin with, the chief policy-makers in each country clearly want to reach an agreement. On the Iranian side this includes not only the foreign minister who has been conducting the negotiations and the president who has been directly overseeing them but also the Iranian policy-maker who matters most: the supreme leader. It is almost inconceivable that Ayatollah Khamenei would have made it possible for President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif to have gone as far as they have already gone, and to sign Iran up to the commitments they already have made in the preliminary agreement reached in late 2013, if he did not genuinely share the objective of completing the negotiations and reaching a final agreement.

Both the U.S. president and the Iranian supreme leader have publicly voiced skepticism, however, as to whether the negotiations will in fact succeed. Probably the expressed doubts are in each case partly tactical, to limit the perceived political damage to each leader should the negotiations fail. But the doubts probably also reflect genuine assessments of the challenges that each side faces in reaching, and securing domestic support for, an agreement.

That gets to one of the clearest elements of symmetry between the two sides. Each government is burdened with substantial opposition from domestic elements that oppose any U.S.-Iranian accord. The hardline opponents on each side act and sound remarkably alike. Each is embedded in a broader domestic political opposition to the incumbent presidential administration and is quick to exploit any setback to that administration for political advantage (and each realizes that if the nuclear negotiations can be torpedoed that would be a significant setback for the president they oppose). Each never tires of demonizing the other country and attributes the most malevolent intentions to it. Each fulminates about how its own country's leaders are supposedly conceding too much and giving away the store. Each couches its opposition in terms of getting a better agreement, when in fact it does not want any agreement at all.

A reminder of how much of a factor is hardline opposition in Iran came the other day when hardliners in the Iranian parliament forced a sort of no-confidence vote over how Zarif has been handling the negotiations. Zarif prevailed, but just barely. Only 125 of the 229 legislators present voted in his favor, with 86 voting against.

The next big ploy of hardline opponents in the United States will be to push a new version of sanctions legislation similar to what Senators Mark Kirk and Robert Menendez introduced in the previous Congress. The new version is still being written, but the previous version contained elements that might well have constituted a violation of the preliminary agreement, and if it had been enacted an unsurprising Iranian reaction—one that Iranian hardliners probably would have demanded—would have been to declare Iran's commitments under that agreement to be null and void and to walk away from the negotiating table. But let us assume, in line with what we have heard lately from the American hardliners, that the new version to be voted on as early as this month would not be a blatant violation of the existing agreement but instead would be a “conditional” measure that would impose additional sanctions on Iran if a final agreement were not reached by the deadlines that the negotiators had previously announced (March for a political agreement, and June for a full document with all technical details).

Now let us perform a thought experiment in which we imagine Iranian hardliners doing what would be their closest possible equivalent to what the American hardliners are trying to do. Imagine that the Iranian majlis, or parliament, enacts legislation that commits Iran to taking certain steps if agreement is not reached by the announced deadlines. Specifically, if there is no agreement, Iran would resume building up a stockpile of low-enriched uranium. It would resume enrichment of uranium to the 20 percent level. It would resume development of the nuclear reactor at Arak in ways that would facilitate use of it to produce plutonium. It would rescind the additional special access given to international inspectors and revert to the lesser level of inspection consistent with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and prior agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency. In other words, the Iranian hardliners' legislation, just like the American hardliners' legislation, would undo commitments made in the preliminary agreement of November 2013. And just like the American hardliners, the Iranian hardliners would justify their legislation as a conditional measure that would help to provide an incentive to the other side to negotiate seriously and not to drag out the talks indefinitely. As such, the measure would be portrayed as an aid to negotiations rather than an undermining of them.

What would the U.S. reaction be to such an action in the majlis? Would the legislation, as claimed, make the U.S. administration more inclined than before to make concessions, increasing the likelihood that an agreement would be reached on the announced schedule? Of course not. Americans of various political stripes would denounce the action of the majlis as a major show of Iranian bad faith. The talk in Washington would not be about making more U.S. concessions but instead about what the United States could do to pressure Iran in return. Those who had openly questioned Iran's seriousness about wanting an agreement would say, ”We told you so.” Even those in the U.S. administration with high confidence in the good will of Rouhani would have their faith shaken in his ability to implement the terms of an agreement. And American hardliners would voice the most outrage of all (however much they would privately welcome this boost to their own deal-killing endeavors).

What works in one direction works in the other. The responses to the imaginary legislation of Iranian hardliners point to the likely responses to the (unfortunately real) legislation being cooked up by American hardliners. Iranians of various stripes would see it as a major show of American bad faith. It would amplify the already considerable doubts in Tehran about true American intentions and about the ability of even a well-intentioned Barack Obama to make good on the U.S. side of a deal in the face of resistance by a Republican Congress. In Iranian eyes it would make any further Iranian concessions seem less apt to bring desirable results, thus more risky politically for any Iranian leader to offer, and thus less likely to be offered. Consequently the negotiations would be more likely to fail. U.S. officials conducting the negotiations know what, which is why they oppose the legislation. Those pushing the legislation know that, too, which is why they are pushing it.

It is usually only when speaking in private or when too inexperienced or naive to disguise true intentions that the pushers acknowledge their objective. More often they promote the idea that what they are doing will provide the United States with useful leverage and induce Iran to make still more concessions. And some people genuinely believe that. This is one of several respects in which Americans tend to believe that bargaining with another state works in an asymmetric, exceptionalist way, in which other humans respond to pressures and inducements in a fundamentally different manner from how Americans themselves respond, when in fact there is far more symmetry. Thinking in role-reversal terms might help to correct that mistaken belief.                                                   

 

TopicsIran RegionsMiddle East

America's Big Challenge: Finding the Off-Ramp in Iraq

Paul Pillar

Americans are not very good at ending their involvement in wars. No, that's not a pacifist statement about a need to stop fighting wars in general. It is instead an observation about how the United States, once it gets involved—for good or for ill—in any one war, has difficulty determining when and how to call it a day and go home. A major reason for this difficulty is that Americans are not Clausewitzians at heart. They tend not to see warfare as a continuation of policy by other means, but instead to think of war and peace as two very different conditions with clear dividing lines between them.

Americans thus are fine with wars that have as clear an ending as the surrenders of the Axis powers in World War II, which continues to be for many Americans the prototype of how a war should be begun, conceived, and concluded. But America's wars since then have not offered conclusions this satisfying. The one that came closest to doing so was Operation Desert Storm in 1991, which swiftly and decisively achieved its declared objective of reversing the Iraqi swallowing of Kuwait. Even that victory, however, left an unsatisfying aftertaste in some (mostly neocon) mouths, because Saddam Hussein remained in power in Baghdad.

It thus is difficult for U.S. leaders, even if they are capable of thinking in disciplined Clausewitzian terms, to explain and to justify to the American public, and to the political class that makes appeals to that public, the wrapping up of an overseas military involvement without a clear-cut, World War II-style victory. This is a problem no matter how well-founded and justified was the original decision to enter a war.

Other dynamics are commonly involved in such situations, including the one usually called mission creep—the tendency in an overseas military expedition for one thing to lead to another and for one's military forces gradually to take on jobs beyond the one that was the original reason for sending them overseas. Any nation can get sucked into mission creep, but Americans are especially vulnerable to it. The yearning for clear-cut and victorious conclusions to foreign military adventures is one reason. Others are the American tendencies to see any problem overseas as a problem for the superpower to deal with, and to expect that if the United States puts its minds and resources to the task it can solve any problem overseas.

Some insights about this subject can be gleaned from comparing two big recent U.S. military expeditions: the one in Iraq from 2003 to 2011 and the one in Afghanistan that began in 2001 and continues today. There is no comparison between the two regarding the original reasons for initiating them, and in that sense it is unfortunate how much the two came to be lumped together in subsequent discussion. One was a a war of aggression with a contrived and trumped-up rationale; the other was a direct and justified response to a lethal attack on the United States. Iraq really was the bad war and Afghanistan the good one. But as time and costs dragged on and Afghanistan became America's longest war ever, it gradually lost support among Americans and Afghans alike.

The failure in Afghanistan was in not finding, and taking, a suitable off-ramp. The off-ramp that should have been taken was reached within the first few months of the U.S. intervention, after the perpetrators of the 9/11 attack that was the reason for the intervention had been rousted from their home and their sometime allies, the Afghan Taliban, had been ousted from power. Regardless of what would have happened in Afghanistan after that, there would not have been a return to the pre-September 2001 situation there, both because the Taliban would have no reason to ally again with a bunch of Arab transnational terrorists who had brought about such a result, and because the United States's own rules of engagement changed so much that no such return would be allowed to occur whether or not U.S. troops were on the ground.

No good off-ramp was found with the Iraq War, and there never was going to be a really good one, given how ill-conceived the war was in the first place and how little thought the makers of the war had given to the post-invasion consequences. The U.S. administration that perpetrated the war did a political finesse of the problem, using a surge of force to reduce the violence in the civil war enough to be able to say that they did not leave Iraq falling apart, and then setting with the Iraqi government a schedule for U.S. withdrawal that would have to be implemented by the next administration. That set the stage, of course, for promoting the myth that the war had been “won” by the time power was handed over in the United States and for blaming the subsequent administration, when it duly implemented the withdrawal schedule it had been given, for all the later indications that the war clearly had not been “won.”

It also set the stage, now that the United States has troops back in Iraq, for talk about the need for a "long-term American presence" to avoid repeating the supposed mistake of cutting and running. How long is “long-term” does not get specified. In other words, no off-ramp is identified. In other words, it's again the familiar problem of not knowing how and when to wind up involvement in a foreign war. The error committed in Afghanistan, of missing the ramp and turning what had been a justified response to an attack on the U.S. homeland into an endless attempt at nation-building in a country thousands of miles away, risks being repeated in Iraq.

The problem of ISIS—the reason for the latest intervention in Iraq—will go away, but not in a sufficiently clear-cut manner to satisfy the American yearning for victory and for drawing bright lines to mark the division between war and peace. There won't be a surrender ceremony on the deck of a tugboat, let alone a battleship. The Obama administration needs to articulate as clearly and specifically as possible what the off-ramp will look like—a formulation such as “ultimately destroy” ISIS doesn't cut it. Public opinion needs to be prepared for a departure from Iraq that makes sense in terms of the specific U.S. interests served while being much less satisfying than securing someone's unconditional surrender or complete and unambiguous destruction. If departure is not to come from anything but impatience and exhaustion, the only other alternative is an endless U.S. military presence.

And an endless presence is no solution at all. It certainly is not from the standpoint of wise use of U.S. resources. Nor would it be from the standpoint of solving Iraq's problems, given how any such solution depends on political accommodation of differences among Iraqis themselves, and given the resentments that arise from the inevitable damaging effects of the use of U.S. military force—another lesson from the war in Afghanistan.             

Image: U.S. Marines Flickr.

TopicsIraq Afghanistan RegionsMiddle East

The UN, the PA, and the Peace Process

Paul Pillar

George Orwell, who imagined a Ministry of Truth that dispensed untruths, and Charles Dodgson, who as Lewis Carroll had Humpty Dumpty making words mean whatever he wanted them to mean, would appreciate how some concepts routinely get flipped and stood on their head in much of what is said about the unending Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One of the recurring examples was in full display this week as the United Nations Security Council failed to pass a pro-peace-agreement resolution. It seems that only in this conflict can involving the United Nations—the most multilateral forum on the planet—be routinely denounced as “unilateral.” This latest effort at UN involvement failed, while actual unilateral moves on the ground, which make a peace agreement ever more difficult, continue.

Routine abuse of other concepts in talking about this conflict also were evident at the Council this week, including in the statement made by U.S. ambassador Samantha Power while voting against the resolution. Power said her government opposed the resolution because peace “will come from hard choices and compromises that must be made at the negotiating table” and because hardships and threats associated with the conflict “will not subside until the parties reach a comprehensive settlement achieved through negotiations.” This continues the canard that a multilateral resolution of this sort is somehow a substitute for, or an attempt to circumvent, bilateral negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians when in fact it is nothing of the sort. The draft resolution repeatedly, and either explicitly or implicitly, recognizes that any agreement will have to emerge from such negotiations. A central operative paragraph is an exhortation to the parties “to act together in the pursuit of peace by negotiating in good faith.”

The resolution does get into some of the substance of what is to be considered an acceptable resolution of the conflict, but only in ways that already are broadly recognized by the international community—and for the most part explicitly by the United States—as necessary parts of any agreement that ever could be reached and would stick. Some principles are laid out, but specific hard choices and compromises will still have to be made at the negotiating table. The resolution states, for example, that the boundaries of the Israeli and Palestinian states should be based on the June 1967 borders with “mutually agreed” and “equivalent” land swaps; exactly what those swaps will be must come out of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The resolution calls for “a just and agreed solution to the Palestine refugee question” but does not presuppose what that solution should be.

Another commonly abused concept is “balance.” Power's statement asserted that the resolution is “deeply unbalanced” and “addresses the concerns of only one side.” In fact, the resolution is centered on the objective of “two independent, democratic and prosperous states, Israel and a sovereign, contiguous and viable State of Palestine.” It calls for security arrangements “that ensure the security of both Israel and Palestine through effective border security and by preventing the resurgence of terrorism.” It declares that a final status agreement shall put “an end to all claims and lead to immediate mutual recognition”; references in the resolution to the Arab League peace initiative lead to the clear conclusion that mutual recognition would include recognition of Israel not only by Palestine but by the other Arab states.

The resolution is about as balanced as it can be in the face of a highly unbalanced situation. An unhelpful fiction plaguing discussion of this issue is that the conflict is symmetric when in fact it is highly asymmetric. The fundamental asymmetry today is that one side is the occupier and the other side consists of those who are occupied. The occupier could, if it chose, make it possible for a Palestinian state to be established this year. Those who are occupied have no such power. The most peaceful and respectable thing they can do, in addition to negotiating in good faith at a bilateral negotiating table, is to plead their case at the United Nations.

The United States (and, of course, Israel) lobbied hard against the resolution, being particularly assiduous in twisting the arm of the Nigerian president. The pressure succeeded in getting enough abstentions (in addition to a “no” vote from Australia) that the resolution failed to get the nine affirmative votes needed for passage, even though it did get a majority. Thus the Obama administration can say that it was not the U.S. veto that prevented adoption of the resolution. But make no mistake: this pro-peace resolution failed because the United States, once again, did the bidding of the Israeli government and opposed it.

On the basis of what the resolution says, and of what the United States has repeatedly said it favors regarding an Israeli-Palestinian peace, the opposition made no sense. It might make sense if it is part of a calculated management of the balance sheet of favors and influence that tends to be involved in the Israel lobby's interaction with the U.S. Congress. Maintaining this kind of “pro-Israel” (actually, pro-Likud) position at the UN might make it slightly easier for the administration to ward off Congressional trouble-making on, in particular, a nuclear agreement with Iran. Senator Lindsey Graham issued a reminder of the potential for such trouble when he declared the other day that the Republican-controlled Congress, rather than exercising independent judgment about what is in U.S. interests regarding policy toward Iran, will instead “follow” the “lead” of the Israeli prime minister—who endeavors to undermine U.S. diplomacy on the subject.

Now Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, in the wake of the Palestinians' setback at the Security Council, is moving to have the PA join additional international treaties and organizations, including the International Criminal Court. This is generating the usual protests from the Israeli government, and thus from the U.S. government. The Palestinian action is described as another supposedly destructive “unilateral” move—or as members of the Israeli government have put it, “aggressively unilateral.” Amid such reactions, and what will be the usual forms of punishment, such as Israel withholding tax receipts that are supposed to belong to the Palestinians, one can lose sight of the nature of what the Palestinians are doing by adhering to such international conventions and institutions. They are voluntarily signing on to commitments to observe certain standards of behavior. That seems like just the sort of step that one should hope and expect to see from people who want their own state.

The point is underscored by a threat the Israeli government is voicing in response to the ICC move—viz., that if the Palestinians have any ideas about bringing suit in the court against Israel for its conduct during its most recent demolition of Gaza, then Israel will counter with accusations about Palestinian war crimes. Fine. It would be great to have a thorough airing before an international tribunal of everyone's conduct during that tragic episode (although there are reasons to question whether the ICC would be able and willing to assume that role).

But that would still leave the underlying, unresolved conflict. As long as it is unresolved, there will continue to be, in addition to many other regrettable things, periodic Israeli lawn mowing in Gaza, with more operations like Cast Lead and Protective Edge. This brings us to one of the most trouble-plagued concepts of all—because the concept itself is inherently weird—which concerns the nature and existence of the Palestinian Authority itself.

The PA was established two decades ago as supposedly a means to transition from naked occupation to a Palestinian state. Not only have the scheduled dates for that transition already gone far, far into the past; the PA has occupied a role that has made it more of an impediment to creation of a Palestinian state than the facilitator of one. With the PA existing as an entity that is supposed to have some state-like qualities but not be a state, Israelis who—like those currently in power in Jerusalem—oppose creation of a Palestinian state are able to have things both ways to keep such a state from ever coming into being.

The PA serves as the Palestinians on the plantation, as distinct from the ones in Gaza who are off the plantation. The notion of the PA as a transition mechanism keeps alive the fiction that the Israeli government really is committed to such a transition. It keeps alive the notion that Palestinians should “earn” statehood by building a state from below, while the occupier imposes conditions on it from above that never really enables it to do that kind of building. And if the PA gets uppity enough to start behaving like a real state, as it has done at the UN and in signing those international conventions, then it swiftly gets slapped down.

The most effective thing the PA has been permitted to do is to serve as an auxiliary administrator of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Those who denounce the PA for signing treaties on grounds that it is not a state are right; it is indeed not a state. It is more like a prison trusty.

Khalil Shikaki of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah says of the prospect that Abbas's ICC move will bring about crippling economic punishment from the United States as well as Israel, “This could indeed be the beginning of the end of the PA. They fully realize that.” If this happens and the trappings of a false transition are stripped away, and a gussied-up occupation becomes once again a naked occupation, it may turn out to be the most useful thing Abbas has ever done. Such a development may stir the international pot just enough, and get enough more Israelis to think hard about the costs and consequences to their nation of continuing the occupation, to save the possibility of, in the words of the failed Security Council resolution, “two independent, democratic and prosperous states, Israel and a sovereign, contiguous and viable State of Palestine.”

 

TopicsIsrael Palestinian Territories RegionsMiddle East

Lower Oil Prices Will Not Turn Producers into Pushovers

Paul Pillar

The steep drop in the price of oil during the latter half of 2014 has generated much comment about how this development has weakened major oil-producing countries and supposedly made their governments more pliable on issues that separate them from other countries. Such commentary flows partly from the tendency of media and the commentariat to over-analyze any major development and to identify winners and losers. In the current instance it also reflects how people have happily noticed that several of the significant producers whose revenues have been most adversely affected by the price decline are countries commonly identified as adversaries of the United States, including Venezuela, Russia, and Iran. Edward Luttwak remarks that the price decline “is knocking down America's principal opponents without us even trying.”

The commentary reflects in addition a belief that is in evidence whenever similar hopes are placed on the consequences of someone else's economic pain when that pain is imposed not by the market but instead by sanctions. The belief is that there is a reliable and positive correlation between the other country's economic discomfort and the willingness of its government to make diplomatic concessions.

That belief is mistaken, regardless of whether it is markets or sanctions that have caused the economic and fiscal damage. It is mistaken because the presumed connection between a country's economic discomfort and its regime's diplomatic flexibility considers only one half of the regime's calculations. The other half concerns whether, and how much, that regime believes it can improve its economic situation by making concessions to its adversaries. If it sees no prospect for improvement, it has no incentive to concede.

The point becomes all the clearer when, as with the recent drop in petroleum prices, it is a market that is causing the economic pain. Markets have no mechanism for pain reduction when someone changes a negotiating position or diplomatic posture. If lower oil prices really are making the leadership of Russia more willing to make concessions regarding the conflict in eastern Ukraine, what is supposed to happen regarding the prices and the pain if such concessions are made? That car-owners in the West will be so happy about this development that they will start driving more, thus burning more fuel, sending crude oil prices back up, and repairing the damage to Russian finances?

The further, usually implicit, assumption underlying false beliefs about market-induced economic discomfort leading to diplomatic flexibility in cases such as Russia or Iran is that the cumulative effect of both sanctions and lower prices will push a regime past some breaking point beyond which it ceases to resist. The notion of a breaking point has underlain other American foreign policy thinking, which has involved not only economic discomfort but also the infliction of physical pain through kinetic means. The notion was the basis for Operation Rolling Thunder, the Lyndon Johnson administration's prolonged and escalating bombardment of North Vietnam in the 1960s. The notion is somewhat akin to the gambler's fallacy that by persisting and playing a little longer one's results will change for the better.

The Vietnam War example illustrates another part of the logic pertinent to such situations that is essential but commonly overlooked when people place hopes on the consequences of someone else's pain. That part concerns the importance the other side places on the issues that are at stake. Regimes and nations will endure a great deal of pain on behalf of causes that are very important to them. Moreover, in such bargaining relationships the logic works both ways, and the relative importance to us and to the other guy of the issues at stake is critical, too. If it makes sense for us to think about the other side having a breaking point, then it would make just as much sense for the other side to think about our breaking point, even if that point is to be expressed not in intensity of pain at any one moment but instead in impatience and the duration of stalemate.

Even if the idea of a breaking point were valid, we Americans are poorly equipped to identify any such point as it applies to others, including the adversaries most at issue today. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, referring to the oil price drop, said, “We have been in much worse situations in our history, and every time we were getting out of these fixes much stronger. This will happen this time.” He's right about Russian history, which included among other ordeals the incredibly costly fight against the Nazis in World War II. The Iranians also have had their ordeals, with the most salient and costly one for current Iranian leaders being the eight-year war that Saddam Hussein's Iraq launched against their country.

The false hope being placed on lower oil prices and their presumed effect in softening the positions of adversaries may itself have the damaging effect of discouraging the flexibility that will be needed on the part of the United States to resolve important unresolved issues. Such flexibility, and not just contrition and concession from Vladimir Putin, will be required for even a partial resolution of the prolonged crisis in Ukraine. An even greater potential for damage concerns the nuclear negotiations with Iran. The hope for a more pained and supposedly more pliable Tehran as a result of reduced oil revenue probably is entrenching further the notion that Iran must make all remaining concessions to reach a deal. That notion, if it persists, is likely to mean the failure of the negotiations and the loss of a golden opportunity to resolve the issue and assure that Iran's nuclear program stays peaceful.  

Image: Wikicommons.       

TopicsSecurity RegionsIran

Why ISIS Could Destroy Itself

Paul Pillar

The fortunes of the extreme and violent group known variously as ISIS/ISIL/Islamic State seem to have changed markedly during the past few months. This summer the group was commonly portrayed, amid much alarm, as a relentless juggernaut that was scooping up so much real estate that it was a threat to overrun Baghdad and much else far beyond. But the progress that was so frightening to follow in maps in the newspaper has stopped. The juggernaut has stalled. There will be endless debate about the causes of this change of momentum, ranging from military measures that the United States has taken to the somewhat more enlightened policies of the Iraqi central government. These and other influences have their effects, but the larger phenomenon of the decline of ISIS—decline not just that has happened so far but is yet to come—can be explained most of all by the group's own policies and practices.

The abhorrent and inhumane methods of the group are a major part of that explanation. Just as we abhor such methods, it should be no surprise that most people in the Middle East abhor them, too. Methods such as the highly publicized killing of individual captives have, besides terrorizing ISIS's adversaries, increased the prominence of the group and probably impressed would-be foreign recruits by showing that ISIS is the meanest, baddest, and most consequential organization engaged in the conflicts in Iraq and Syria. But living under the rule of such a vicious group can be at least as repulsive to the locals as watching it from afar is to us. Such a way of exercising power locally is ultimately not a good way to win support. We saw a similar reaction in an earlier phase of the Iraqi civil war.

It behooves us to learn what we can, as those charged with directly confronting ISIS evidently are trying to do, about the basis for whatever appeal the group does have, and especially about any appealing ideas it offers. The good news is that ISIS offers hardly anything in the way of such ideas. It cannot become an ideological lodestar the way Osama bin Laden and his al-Qa'ida did, because ISIS offers nothing as original as Bin Laden's idea of hitting the far enemy as a way of getting eventually at despised near enemies. The appeal of ISIS to its recruits has been based not on ideology but on directly and brutally establishing facts on the ground. The appeal reduces to the principle that everybody loves a winner. But ISIS has stopped winning. It is like a shark that must keep moving forward to survive, but it is not still moving forward.

The establishment by ISIS of a de facto ministate was widely seen as an accomplishment and a sign of strength, but it also is a vulnerability. If you run a state, you are expected to make the trains run on time, and you will lose popularity if you don't. ISIS is demonstrating that it lacks the ability to manage a state, and people in the areas it controls—including even Raqqa, Syria, the major city it has held the longest—are suffering from a collapse of public services. Trying to run, however unsuccessfully, the ministate also represents for the ISIS leadership a drain on attention and resources that might otherwise be used for expansion.

The proclamation of a caliphate, although it has had some value for the group in impressing and attracting foreign recruits, lacks the sanction and recognition that in the eyes of the vast majority of Muslims such a move is supposed to have. Mainstream Muslim scholars and religious authorities have avoided anything that even hints at recognition. Some fundamentalist Salifis have even likened ISIS and the moves it has made to extremist outcasts at the time of the Prophet. To the extent that the self-styled caliphate is seen more as a usurpation of Muslim aspirations than a fulfillment of them, the proclamation of a caliphate will turn out to be more of a liability than an asset.

When an adversary is hurting his own cause, generally the most effective thing to do is to stand aside and not get in the way. This is true of political debate, civil wars, and many other forms of conflict. The United States cannot get entirely out of the way of this one, insofar as it can do a few things that, tactically and on a piecemeal basis, limit the short-term harm that ISIS inflicts. But taking a longer-term and more strategic view, which recognizes how ISIS is hurting its own cause, for the United States to do less rather than trying to do more (especially more that is visible and kinetic) is apt to be the wisest course. Injecting new focal points for controversy and collateral damage, on the basis of which ISIS can make new appeals, is apt to slow the process of the group greasing the ramp of its own decline. It also is apt to make the United States more of a direct target of whatever harm the group is still able to inflict.

Image: U.S. Air Force Flickr. 

TopicsIraq Syria RegionsMiddle East

The Sony Pictures Hack and Old Confusion About Terrorism

Paul Pillar

The suspected hack by North Korea into the computer system of an American movie company has gotten a lot of people excited without a lot of thinking about the significance, or lack of it, of what has happened and without addressing some longstanding conceptual problems that have plagued discussions related to terrorism. The problems persist even if we simplify matters by accepting the widespread assumption that the North Korean regime did in fact perpetrate the hack—an assumption that, based on public knowledge to date, is not necessarily correct.

It appears that the net effect of the electronic intrusion has been to delay release of a movie—not usually the stuff of which national security crises are made, or should be made. Some of those who are agitated about the incident refer to subsequent bellicose-sounding statements from the North Korean regime that, while denying responsibility for the computer intrusion, refer angrily to the same movie. Some of what that regime is said to have said in the current instance regarding threats against the United States it did not really say. Besides, Pyongyang makes bellicose-sounding statements, including ones specifically directed at the United States, all the time.

Perhaps some of those alarmed about this latest incident believe that the successful hack demonstrates a capability as well as a willingness to inflict more substantial harm on Americans who go to see the movie that the North Korean regime does not want them to see. The imagined scenario might involve something like North Korean hackers taking over the electronics of movie theaters in the United States and somehow manipulating the climate control system to have debilitating or lethal consequences on people in the audience. As ridiculous as such a scenario is, it is not improbable that such images are affecting the thinking of some Americans worrying about what North Korea might do, because this kind of fancifulness has roots in a larger tradition of American thinking about terrorism.

There has been fascination, dating at least back to the 1990s, with possible unconventional methods of terrorist attack, which is to say use of chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear (CBRN) means or anything having to do with cyber capabilities. And such hypothetical means do indeed make for fascinating scenarios. The sheer sexiness of the subject fires the imagination. That fascination has led to grossly disproportionate attention in commentary and alarmism about terrorism using CBRN and cyber methods—disproportionate when compared to the ways terrorists actually have been harming people.

An example of this misplaced focus and how long it has been around was an article that President Obama's nominee for secretary of defense, Ashton Carter, wrote 16 years ago along with John Deutch, another former deputy secretary of defense, and Philip Zelikow, who supervised writing of the 9/11 commission report. The danger the authors wanted to warn us about was that “terrorists may gain access to weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear devices, germ dispensers, poison gas weapons, and even computer viruses.” All of their imaginative hypothetical examples involved the use of either CBRN or cyber techniques. They argued that the big divide between, on one hand, terrorism we really ought to worry about more and would be “catastrophic,” and on the other hand conventional terrorism which the authors assured us was already getting sufficient attention, was whether or not such unconventional techniques or weapons were used.

The 9/11 attacks, which had nothing whatever to do with either cyber methods or CBRN capabilities, demonstrated how mistaken that analysis was. Nothing terrorists have done in the years since then suggests that the analysis is any less misdirected. And yet, the fascination continues, as do mistaken attributions of newness to threats that fit the fascinating mold. Thus, for example, David Rothkopf tells us this week that “we are at a critical juncture in the dawning days of the cyber era,” that we need “to start writing a new playbook” on foreign policy because of cyber threats, and that in response to the Sony Pictures incident we ought to be talking about using not just cyberattacks but even military action against North Korea. Senator John McCain, not to be outdone by anyone when it comes to talking about getting involved in wars, said the presumed North Korean hack of Sony was “the manifestation of a new form of warfare.”

Another old terrorism-related issue that the Sony matter has raised concerns the official U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. President Obama says he will review whether there is reason to put North Korea back on the list. Such a review would be appropriate insofar as it actually focuses on terrorism. The state sponsor designation has been one of the most abused listings the U.S. government promulgates, with most of the listings and delistings, under several different administrations, having little or nothing to do with terrorism. Cuba's remaining on the list long after ceasing to be involved in anything that could be considered sponsorship of terrorism has been a glaring anomaly, although one that may be corrected in the course of implementing the president's initiative on Cuba. Iraq under Saddam Hussein was moved off and on the list for reasons other than any change in Iraq's terrorism-related behavior; it came off during the Reagan administration as part of the U.S. tilt toward Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, and it was put back on when Saddam invaded Kuwait. North Korea perpetrated very nasty terrorism back in the 1980s but remained on the list for many years after it had stopped doing anything of the sort. When the George W. Bush administration removed it from the list six years ago the real reason had to do not with terrorism but with circumstances associated with the nuclear weapons issue.

Although the fascination with hypothetical cyber shenanigans as a terrorist tool, and the entrenchment of the term cyberterrorism in the language, provide an impetus for labeling the presumed North Korean action against Sony Pictures as terrorism, there surely is a case to be made for maintaining a clear distinction—in terminology as well as in responses—between actions that delay a movie's release and ones that have the more material effects commonly associated with terrorism.

Another reason for pause in applying the label of terrorism to what has occurred, and no doubt a reason the Obama administration is pausing before applying it, is to think about what the United States, or countries the United States calls allies, have done or might do with their own cyber capabilities overseas. If one action is to be called terrorism, then so must the other.

This gets to an asymmetry that has kept us Americans from fully coming to terms with how we and others use state-sanctioned violence for political purposes. The most common conceptions of terrorism mostly correspond to the legal U.S. definition that is used for another one of those official lists (the one for foreign terrorist organizations). That definition refers to politically motivated violence conducted against noncombatants by either a nonstate organization or clandestine agents of a state. Most of the politically motivated violence that we, or our purported allies, practice (much of which affects noncombatants, sometimes in very bloody ways) is conducted openly as military operations. Others may not have that opportunity, either because of weakness in military capabilities or lack of recognition as a state, or both. So we get to apply the label of terrorism to the other guy's politically motivated violence but don't have to apply it to our own, or perhaps to that of a putative ally. A distinction is made in semantics, even if not in morality or material effects. But if we apply the label to any hostile cyber operations in a foreign country and have conducted any such operations ourselves, we lose that convenient terminological asymmetry.

Of course, one could follow McCain's approach of simply calling everything war, but that leads to two other observations. One is that if we have conducted hostile cyber operations not in response to anything that could be called either terrorism or war but instead in response to something else (such as, say, a nuclear program we don't happen to like), then we would have to say we started a war. (And is that any better than initiating other forms of politically motivated violence?) The other observation is that if we are in a state of war any time a hacker goes after a movie he doesn't happen to like and affects its box office receipts, we are in worse trouble than any of us thought.                

TopicsNorth Korea RegionsEast Asia

Obama's Interesting Fourth Quarter

Paul Pillar

“My presidency is entering the fourth quarter. Interesting stuff happens in the fourth quarter, and I'm looking forward to it.”

-- Barack Obama, December 19. 2014

One should be careful about drawing conclusions concerning the intentions and state of mind of a president based on when he takes certain major actions. The background to almost any presidential action involves a bureaucratic process within the U.S. government and, with foreign policies, negotiations or consultations with other governments. Sometimes a step is taken at a particular time because that's when the processes and the negotiations happened to be completed. Sometimes timing is largely a matter of making room on a crowded plate with other issues demanding high-level attention. Nonetheless, President Obama's actions over the past several weeks are consistent with the analysis that he has become a more politically liberated and thus more energized national leader since the mid-term elections, which were the last elections which will put anyone into national-level office while Mr. Obama remains president. If the president really has made such a transition, any American who would rather see broader pursuit of the national interest take precedence over a narrow focus on the next election ought to be pleased about that.

Mr. Obama is putting the lie to accusations that he is a timid and indecisive leader, and revealing such accusations to be merely a combination of general Obama-bashing and specific preferred policies of the accuser. Many of his opponents who call for more assertive U.S. policies overseas equate assertiveness with bombing somebody rather than, say, asserting the right for the United States to practice diplomacy with anyone it wants or getting in front of efforts to keep Earth habitable. Many who say that people and governments overseas yearn for more forceful U.S. action (whiny Gulf Arab monarchies with their sectarian objectives seem to be a favorite reference point in this regard) are merely pushing certain narrow agendas on salient topics such as the Syrian civil war, while refusing to recognize the far broader international approval that Mr. Obama's recent actions have received.

Even if the president does not have any more elections to worry about, domestic politics still will have a lot to do with what he can or cannot achieve. That there will be continued obstructionism in Congress is a safe bet, especially given that the results of those same mid-term elections did not give the obstructionists any new incentive to change their ways. One of Mr. Obama's responses to this reality is to make the fullest possible use of his executive authority where constructive legislative action is unlikely. Another thing the president has going for him is that once he takes specific action, this clarifies the choices between those actions and the alternatives in a way that drains credibility from opponents who try to argue that the president's actions are against the national interest—and also clarifies likely electoral costs for opponents who are focusing on the next election—even on subjects where obstructionists might fare better in a debate waged in more abstract terms. Timothy Egan has made a similar observation this way:

“Are Republicans really going to spend the first year of their new majority trying to undo everything the president has done—to roll back the clock? Will they defend isolation of Cuba against the wishes of most young Cuban-Americans? Will they restore a family-destroying deportation policy, when Obama’s de-emphasis on sending illegal immigrants home has already given him a 15-point boost among Latinos? Will they take away health insurance from millions who never had it before? Will they insist that nothing can be done on climate change, while an agreement is on the table for the world’s two biggest polluters, the United States and China, to do something significant?”

If Mr. Obama really is going to make things interesting as well as productive for U.S. interests in the first few months of his fourth quarter and not just in the closing weeks of the third, two decision points in particular will bear watching—in addition to watching whether the president keeps the heat on, so to speak, on the problem of climate change. Taking the correct course of action at each of these decision points would involve, like the opening to Cuba, a removal of outdated and damaging impediments to U.S. diplomacy and foreign policy.

One of the two decision points concerns whether the president will inject into the U.S. negotiating position the flexibility that will be needed to conclude an agreement to restrict Iran's nuclear program. Although these are multilateral negotiations, the most critical decisions will be made by the president of the United States and the supreme leader of Iran. Of course there will be vigorous efforts from the same quarters that have been trying all along to undermine the negotiations to destroy whatever agreement may be reached, specifically through Congressional action. There will be cries about giving up the store and making too many concessions. But that will happen no matter what the terms of the agreement. And once an agreement is in hand and the implications between upholding the agreement and discarding it become clearer than ever, the issue will become like the others on Egan's list, with no reasonable case to be made in favor of discarding the deal, and discarding along with it any special restraints on, and monitoring of, the Iranian program.

The other issue to watch is the unresolved conflict between Israelis and Palestinians—where Mr. Obama's actions so far have mostly been limited to giving John Kerry a pat on the back and wishing him luck. For American politicians this issue is the grandaddy of all contradictions between doing what is in U.S. interests and bending in another direction because of fear of what will happen at the next election. If Barack Obama really does feel liberated by not having to think about the next election, this issue presents the toughest test of that proposition. And if anyone doubts what this festering conflict does not only to Palestinians but to Israel, and why it cannot be allowed to fester indefinitely, a good corrective read is Roger Cohen's most recent column.

There may actually be several decision points that this subject will present to Mr. Obama over the next two years, but an immediate issue concerns a draft resolution introduced at the United Nations Security Council on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, calling for an end to the Israeli occupation and conclusion of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement by a date certain sometime in the next couple of years. The language of the resolution will undergo more discussion and change before it is put to a vote. But if it basically says that the 47-year occupation has to end and that there should be established within the next couple of years a Palestinian state with boundaries negotiated by Israel and the Palestinian Authority, such a resolution will be worth supporting. It certainly should not be vetoed.

No such resolution will, by itself, bring a Palestinian state an inch closer to realization on the ground. Nor will it provide shortcuts to the tough bargaining that still will be necessary between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators. But for the United States not to veto such a resolution, and even more if it actively supports it, will be a salient and significant development—a much-noticed departure from past unfortunate practice—that will at least bring resolution of the conflict closer.

This gets to the standards that President Obama ought to apply in assessing where his leadership can accomplish things and thus where he should make bold moves on any topic. Accomplishment in most cases will not mean wrapping up a problem in the next two years. In most cases it will mean imparting new momentum to a necessarily longer term process. This clearly is the case with the climate problem; the agreement with China on reduction of emissions is an accomplishment because it imparts momentum to a process that will require many years and broad multilateral participation. Even most of the benefit of the initiative on Cuba will not materialize during the rest of Mr. Obama's term. The old U.S. policy toward Cuba had over half a century to show that it does not work; the new one deserves more than two years to show that it does (especially if Congressional resistance undermines the new policy).

And as for the Palestinian problem, for the United States not to oppose a UN resolution that explicitly criticizes the Israeli occupation will spur processes that are necessary to resolve the problem, even if it is not resolved in the next two years. The change in the U.S. posture will send a strong message to the rest of the world, ranging from extremists who repeatedly cite the unresolved conflict and the U.S. role in it as a reason for their anti-U.S. violence, to Israeli voters who have to think long and hard about the path their country is on. The message is that the United States realizes—and is willing to act on that realization—that indefinite continuation of this conflict on terms set by the right-wing rulers of Israel is contrary to U.S. interests, as well as being contrary to the interests of Palestinians and of Israel itself.                           

TopicsIsrael Iran Palestinian Territories RegionsMiddle East United States

The Cuba Opening: A Welcome Blow Against the Posturing School of Foreign Policy

Paul Pillar

China wasn't available to open up to, because Richard Nixon already did that over four decades ago, in a process that was completed when full diplomatic relations were established with the People's Republic during Jimmy Carter's presidency. Neither was the old enemy Vietnam available, given that full and even cordial relations with Hanoi came about through diplomacy during the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. And Cuba pales in importance, of course, compared with China in particular. But President Obama's move toward a more normal relationship with Cuba is a significant blow in favor of good sense, reality as well as realism, and rational pursuit of U.S. interests.

Having a normal relationship with the Caribbean nation is significant and newsworthy, and this week's step is a major accomplishment for Mr. Obama, only because of the major tendency in American politics—readily evident in the Congress and responsible for much that has been misguided in U.S. foreign policy—that sees foreign policy not as the calculated pursuit of national interests but instead as a series of postures in which we pronounce on what we like and what we don't like. The postures do not have to be consistent in what standards are applied to different countries, and there need not be more than the slightest pretense that our posture will make what we don't like any better. Much of this tendency is a reflection of domestic politics and the influence of particularly vocal constituencies. But for the politicians who exhibit it, there often seems to be something more emotional and reflexive that takes hold of them, beyond a careful counting of votes.

Cuba has long been one of the prime targets for this kind of reflexive and unproductive animosity among American politicians. Iran has been another major target in recent years. And there are worthwhile comparisons to be made between such cases; just as ostracism and rejection of the normal give-and-take of diplomacy has been utterly unproductive in the case of Cuba, so too has been the case with Iran, with positive results having been obtained only when real diplomacy began under the current U.S. administration. There has been some similar atavistic animosity, harking back to the Cold War, in attitudes toward Russia since the Ukraine crisis heated up this year, but at least in that case—amid a more dynamic situation and a crisis in the oil-driven Russian economy—there is a genuine basis for talking about possible prospects for sanctions helping to achieve some worthwhile changes.

What most distinguishes the case of Cuba is the sheer length of time during which the futile posture of attempted isolation and embargo has been sustained. We long, long ago passed the point where we can say with finality and high confidence that the policy does not work. It is hard to come up with a better example of how the longevity of futility has made such a conclusive case that a course of action is an unmitigated failure. Even if there were no basis for expecting that a different course would yield improvement—in fact, there is considerable basis for expecting it would, along lines the president mentioned in his statement—it would make sense to try a different course even just on the off-chance it would get some results.

Against this background, some of the quick criticism of the president's action is astounding. The lead editorial in the Washington Post closes by saying that the action gives the Cuban regime—a regime that has lasted more than half a century and has demonstrated its ability to endure the end of the Cold War and loss of its Soviet patron, the debility and resignation of its founder, and many other challenges—a “new lease on life.” It is hard to believe that whoever on the Post's editorial staff wrote that sentence did so with a straight face.

Or take the statement of former Florida governor and current presidential hopeful Jeb Bush that Mr. Obama's actions “undermine America's credibility.” Credibility with respect to what, exactly? The president is making good on his earlier statements and campaign promises on the subject. The most serious lack of credibility involved is what has inhered in the inconsistencies involved in the policy of isolation and punishment.

This has been conspicuously true of keeping Cuba on the official U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism even though the Cuban regime hasn't come close to sponsoring international terrorism for many years. The people at the State Department who have the job of preparing the annual country reports on terrorism have to say something to try to justify the continued listing of Cuba, and so they mention—and they must also have trouble keeping a straight face as they write—that a few retirees from the Basque group ETA and the Colombian group known as the FARC have lived in Cuba. Half of the very short write-up on Cuba is about how the Cuban government has worked in cooperation with the government of Colombia to facilitate the latter government's peace negotiations with the FARC. That's not sponsoring terrorism; that's helping to reduce it. Given how much the United States government talks about states sponsoring terrorism, it is a credibility-destroying joke to have Cuba still on the U.S. list on the subject.

Most of the other instant critics have been just stumbling for words, bereft of any real arguments. As Robert Golan-Vilella points out, Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham were reduced to reciting anti-Obama buzzwords with no reference at all to Cuba. Senator Marco Rubio was reduced to emotional blithering.

Rubio and other habitual critics no doubt were thrown off-balance by the president acting decisively with real effect, carrying through on earlier statements and commitments—and in a direction welcomed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—which runs counter to the anti-Obama script that depicts the president as weak, indecisive, and reactive. That and the usual reflexive response of opposing anything that would count as an achievement for Mr. Obama underlay Rubio's threats to try to use any Congressional tools available to kill the move to full diplomatic relations.

If Congress in the next session does that, and if it sustains the embargo that gets condemned annually at the United Nations by votes of laughing-stock proportions, we ought to think about (although it probably is too much to expect those who sustain such policies to think about it) how the rest of the world is going to interpret that. A common pattern in much of the world with respect to many different issues is to like and admire America but to dislike U.S. policies. But now we would have a policy from the White House that has received universal praise from abroad for a long-overdue step, but which might get stymied by the U.S. Congress. Foreigners will be left to wonder what it is about the United States that lets some Little Havana small-mindedness take over U.S. foreign policy to the extent of persisting in a half-century of failure.                                   

TopicsCuba RegionsLatin America

Friends, Not Just Enemies, of an Iranian Nuclear Deal are Imperiling It

Paul Pillar

U.S. and Iranian negotiators are in Geneva resuming work on an agreement to limit Iran's nuclear program. Whether the negotiations succeed in producing a deal is still very much in doubt, but not because it is doubtful that there is a deal to be had. The outlines of an agreement that meets the needs and objectives of both sides have been clear for some time and are largely embodied in the preliminary agreement reached over a year ago. Iran's acceptance of restrictions and inspection arrangements that go beyond what has been placed on any other country has made possible what both sides say they seek, which is integration of Iran in the community of nations with high assurance that there will not be an Iranian nuclear weapon.

The main impediments to such an agreement continue to come from those who don't want a deal and don't want any integration of Iran in the community of nations regardless of any terms of an agreement relating to nuclear weapons. The saboteurs of a deal continue their sabotage efforts on multiple fronts, including accusing Iran of violations of the interim deal that it has in fact observed, and throwing up on the wall anything negative about Iran and seeing what will stick, no matter how far removed it is from the nuclear issues under negotiation.

The sabotage could either prevent implementation of an agreement or sow enough doubt about implementation to prevent a deal from being reached at all. Much of the hardline talk in Congress about imposing additional sanctions on Iran probably has already made the negotiations more difficult by increasing Iranian doubts about the willingness or political ability of the United States to fulfill its part of a deal. Meanwhile the dishonesty of those who claim that such talk is aimed at facilitating negotiations by inducing more Iranian concessions becomes ever more apparent, as with a recent comment by Senator-elect Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, who let it slip that the reason he wants more sanctions is that this would be a good way “to put an end to these negotiations.”

Besides the sabotage of those who don't want any agreement, however, another reason that conclusion of an agreement is uncertain is the belief among many who really do want an agreement that the United States does not need to make more concessions to get one. There is a view among many pro-agreement people on Capitol Hill that the United States has put a reasonable deal on the table and that it is up to Iran to make whatever additional concessions are needed to finalize the agreement. If that view prevails and characterizes the U.S. negotiating position, the talks probably will fail.

It is hard to determine to what extent this Congressional view also prevails in the Obama administration; it is still a favorable sign that both sides in this negotiation have kept as many things behind the closed doors of the negotiating room as they have. But in any event, the Congressional view just described will help to determine the political space, or lack of it, that the administration has for cutting a deal. The administration has to think about not just cutting a deal with the Iranians but about defending it at home, and defending it among many of its customary supporters as well as beating back the efforts of the die-hard saboteurs.

The we-don't-need-to-make-concessions mindset is partly a manifestation of the unfortunate American habit of viewing diplomacy not as give-and-take bargaining and a process of reconciling interests that are partly convergent and partly conflicting, but instead of the United States making demands and getting other countries to accept them. The habit is especially unfortunate in this instance given that Iran clearly made more of the concessions to get to the preliminary agreement a year ago.

The mindset in this instance also exemplifies how people can get so heavily committed to something that is at best a means to an end that they start treating it as an end even though it isn't. This has been true of a commitment to sanctions against Iran, which figures into one of the reported continued areas of disagreement at the negotiating table, involving a schedule for relief from sanctions. People across the political spectrum in the United States have gotten into the habit of talking about anti-Iranian sanctions as if the sanctions themselves are a positive good for the United States. They aren't. Economically they are a negative for the United States. The only good that comes from sanctions is if they induce the Iranians to agree to a deal that is in fact in U.S. interests. Once they have achieved that purpose, the sanctions are useless to us.

An even greater inhibiting aspect of the mindset is the fixation on “breakout” times. Longer times rather than shorter times are treated as if they are a positive good for U.S. interests, when they are not. The U.S. interest is in not having any Iranian nuclear weapon at all. The difference between one breakout time versus another matters only if the response to a hypothetical Iranian abandonment of an agreement could be mustered within one time frame but not another. But the difference between, say, six months and a year is meaningless when any conceivable response, including military attack as well as enactment of the most debilitating possible sanctions, could be accomplished within a couple of weeks. And that does not even get into the question of why Iran would ever have any incentive to throw away all the results of an agreement it has worked so hard to achieve, to try to get one weapon (or even a few) it would have no practical way to use anyway. The fixation on breakout is badly misplaced; it simply does not matter.

It would be bad enough if the saboteurs get their way and because of that we lose the restrictions and monitoring of an agreement that provides assurance that the Iranian program stays peaceful, and the breakdown of the diplomatic process leads to heightened tension and conflict in the Persian Gulf and maybe even war. It would be just as tragic if the diplomatic process fails because even those with honest and good intentions regarding an agreement stick to the notion that the United States does not have to show more flexibility to get an agreement. Such flexibility is needed to close the deal, and it can be exercised with no damage to true U.S. interests at all.                  

TopicsIran RegionsMiddle East

Climate Change and the Meaning of Leadership

Paul Pillar

Much gets said in foreign policy debates in Washington about world leadership, and how the United States should, is, or isn't exerting it. Most often one hears reference to the subject in criticisms of the current administration, to the effect that it is not exercising leadership that it should. The topic especially comes up in connection with the soup of messy issues in the Middle East, amid calls for more use of U.S. military force and allusions to “allies” being unhappy about the United States not doing more to advance causes of particular interest to them.

Consider the key elements of leadership. It has to involve some shared interest or objective, just as leadership exhibited by a key player on a football team is exerted on behalf of the team's shared interest in winning games. It also does not involve the leader doing everything, or even most things, himself. Instead it consists of the leader, by gaining respect through some combination of persuasion and setting a favorable example, getting others to do their necessary part as well.

Now consider the attitudes toward the United States exhibited at the current negotiations on climate change at Lima Peru, as reported by Coral Davenport in the New York Times. An important part of the context, one that has made a huge difference from how the United States was regarded in earlier multilateral negotiations on the climate problem, is that the United States has recently reached a path-breaking agreement with mega-polluter China on reducing emissions of greenhouse gases, and the Obama administration has not just talked the talk but also walked the walk with new regulations to curb emissions from coal-fired power plants. A result has been “cheers, applause, thanks and praise” for U.S. negotiators. “The U.S. is now credible on climate change,” says the French ambassador who is his country's lead diplomat on the subject. Says a leading United Nations official with responsibilities on the subject, “Countries got weary of negotiations with the U.S.; it got tough in negotiations, but it didn’t deliver. Now the U.S. has policies in place to deliver on its word.” Delegates praised the personal involvement in the current talks of Secretary of State John Kerry.

This is true leadership in action. There certainly is a shared interest. Keeping the planet habitable is an interest that is as widely shared, and as important, as one can get. The United States is leading both by setting an example in doing its necessary part and through active diplomacy aimed at persuading others to do their parts. That leadership has changed the political and diplomatic climate in a way that, as indicated by the atmosphere at the Lima conference, significantly enhances the chance of meaningful multilateral action to slow the deterioration of the earth's climate and atmosphere.

Back here in Washington, some of those who are quick to criticize the administration in the name of calling for more U.S. leadership are revealing how inconsistent they are by retreating into a small-minded focus on next year's financial returns for coal mines in Kentucky. If such people use their voting power in the next Congress to overturn what the administration has done regarding restrictions on emissions, they will have struck a blow against U.S. leadership.

And on some of those other issues in the messy Middle East, they are not actually talking about true leadership. They are more often referring to matters where there are not shared interests but instead where countries in the region are complaining about things on which their interests differ from those of the United States. Nor are the people in Washington who claim to be talking about the need for more U.S. leadership really talking for the most part about getting others to do their part through the United States using persuasion (which internationally means diplomacy) and setting a positive example. Instead they just want the United States to do something more, especially something more forceful, itself.           

TopicsClimate Change RegionsUnited States

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