Paul Pillar

Asymmetric Warfare in Gaza

Paul Pillar

The score, as of late Friday, in the contest being waged in the Gaza Strip and Israel was 114-0, with the side in the lead continuing to run up the score. This is not some nightmare of a Brazilian soccer fan, but instead the deaths of men, women, and children, more than three-quarters of them civilians, according to the United Nations humanitarian affairs office. All of them are Palestinians in the Gaza Strip; so far in this match no Palestinian rockets have killed any Israelis.

The term asymmetric warfare is commonly used, of course, but to refer to different techniques for inflicting violence for political purposes. What is going on now in Gaza is highly asymmetric in terms of the amount of death, injury, destruction, and overall misery being inflicted by one side on the other. Perhaps the usual use of the term asymmetric warfare has contributed to warping our ability to evaluate what has been going on in this conflict. There is a tendency to think of death inflicted overtly by an F-16, at least if it is operated by someone labeled an ally, as somehow more legitimate than whatever a clandestinely deployed rocket can inflict.

We have curious habits in how we regard symmetry and asymmetry in armed conflicts and especially the unending series of conflagrations between Israel and Palestinians. In contrast to the assumed asymmetry about the legitimacy of different ways of inflicting violence, in other respects we speak as if there is perfect symmetry. It has become de rigueur to criticize excesses on both sides, which of course there have been, and to appeal for reasonableness on both sides, which of course there should be.

In major, glaring respects, however, this conflict is highly asymmetric, and not only in one side's physical ability to inflict far greater destruction on the other side. The larger Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one in which the far more powerful actor is occupying (in the case of the West Bank) or strangling (in the case of the Gaza Strip) the other side. It is also a conflict in which for many years now, one side and its Arab backers have repeatedly indicated their willingness to make a complete peace as long as this side can have its own state on the small part of Palestine left after Israel's war of independence, while the other side, through its actions on the ground as well as statements of its leaders, indicates its intention to hold on to all the land it has captured through force of arms, save perhaps for some carefully controlled bantustans.

Speaking in symmetrical terms carries a sense, even if a false sense, of fairness and equanimity, and of getting beyond squabbles and trying to achieve peace and stability. Parents exhibit this tendency when they tell squabbling children that they don't care who started the argument and instead just want both kids to behave. One can sympathize with John Kerry, and other diplomats who have tried to do something about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, if they feel the same way as parents.

But who started a fight does matter in how we should judge it and react to it, especially if it is a fight in which scores of innocent people are getting killed. Any careful and objective review of events leading up to the current conflagration (the timeline compiled by John Judis is one of the best) leads to the inescapable conclusion that this war is being fought because the government of Benjamin Netanyahu chose to launch it, capitalizing on grief over the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers to strike another blow against Hamas and even more so against its most recent unity agreement with Fatah, as well as providing another excuse for occupying the West Bank indefinitely. The conclusion is supported not only by the sequence of events but also by Netanyahu's immediate blaming of Hamas for the crime without—still—providing any evidence; all indications are that the perpetrators of the kidnapping were rogue actors who may have had their own reasons to try to subvert the unity deal. The conclusion also is supported by the Israeli government's extraordinary tactic of not informing the Israeli public or even the families of the victims when it knew the teenagers were dead—all the better to try to justify the government's wholesale actions in the West Bank in which several Palestinians were killed and, in what amounts to a reneging on a previous prisoner exchange deal reached with Hamas, hundreds more have been incarcerated.

By contrast, before all this started Hamas was giving no indication that it was looking for an armed conflict. Besides reaching the unity deal under which it would support Mahmoud Abbas's negotiating approach toward resolving the conflict with Israel, Hamas was observing a cease-fire. Until the Israeli government's forceful moves after the kidnapping/murders last month, Hamas had not fired any rockets into Israel since that cease-fire was reached in November 2012, despite several earlier Israeli provocations that Hamas considered to be violations of the cease-fire. Hamas even tried to restrain other groups from firing rockets after Israel had begun its wholesale incarcerations in the West Bank.

This is not, of course, the version of events that one hears from the Israeli government, and thus from most American politicians, and that is thus heard by most of the American public. According to this other version, the Israeli onslaught followed, and is only a response to, Palestinian rocket fire. This discrepancy between beliefs and facts gets to other major asymmetries, which involve the role the Israeli government plays, and no Palestinian entity does, in American politics.

American habits in perceiving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict dull not only American policy judgment but also Americans' moral sense. The Netanyahu government's wreaking of death and destruction today in the Gaza Strip is condemnable. It is wrong, in multiple senses of the word, for the U.S. House of Representatives to endorse that infliction of death and destruction, as it did on Friday.

Pretending to be fair by treating something as symmetrical when it is not impairs the ability to distinguish right from wrong, of which there is plenty of both in the world.              

Image: Wikicommons. 

TopicsIsrael Palestinian Territories RegionsMiddle East

Afghanistan Election Crisis: "Likely fraud on a million-vote scale is a big gap to bridge."

Paul Pillar

The two contenders in the disputed Afghan presidential election do not present a clear choice for us in the West to decide whom to root for, or root against. Both candidates are experienced, credible presidential timber, and we ought to be able to work constructively with either one as president. Ashraf Ghani is the more westernized of the two. He has a PhD from Columbia University, taught at other U.S. universities, worked at the World Bank, and was finance minister in the post-Taliban government of Hamid Karzai. Abdullah Abdullah is a physician (an ophthalmologist) with establishment roots in pre-communist Afghanistan; his step-father was a senior official under King Zahir Shah. Abdullah's main association with subsequent civil warfare in Afghanistan was as an adviser to America's favorite guerrilla: the Lion of Panjshir, Ahmad Shah Massoud. Abdullah served as foreign minister in the same post-Taliban government in which Ghani was finance minister. Abdullah, who is of mixed Tajik-Pashtun ancestry, embodies the ethnic heterogeneity of Afghanistan better than Ghani, who is a Pashtun.

Both candidates seem to be reasonable men. Abdullah's current talk about setting up an alternative government may not sound reasonable, but it is hardly surprising in view of the prima facie evidence that there was significant fraud in the runoff election. Abdullah had won a large plurality in the first round and subsequently received the endorsement of the third-place finisher, and yet the announced result of the runoff was that Ghani had won by more than a million votes. Ghani is showing reasonableness by agreeing to a large-scale audit of the vote tally.

The cause of the political crisis in Afghanistan is not, in other words, to be found in the character of the candidates. It is to be found instead in the lack of a political culture that nurtures the habits of thought and behavior critical to the smooth functioning of a stable democracy. Those habits include several involving fairness, inclusiveness, and observance of impartial rules—and confidence that one's political opponents are displaying those habits as well.

A lack, or a weakness, of such a culture is more the norm in most of the world than the exception. Afghanistan is hardly alone in that respect. The habits and confidence required for a stable democracy are fragile and should not be taken for granted. It should be enough to remind us not to take them for granted when we see departures from fairness and from respect for democracy in our own system—such as, in recent years, efforts to make voting more difficult in order to suppress votes that would be cast for the suppressors' opponents.

A failure to recognize the importance of a democratic political culture, its relative paucity in much of the world, and the time it takes to develop one has led repeatedly to the mistaken belief that in a troubled country (be it Afghanistan, Ukraine, Iraq, South Vietnam, or someplace else), if we just pick the right leader and give him enough support, including at times military support, stable democracy will prevail. In Afghanistan today, we have two respectable contending leaders, and more than twelve years of direct military support, and that still hasn't done the trick.

It is hard to predict where the current political impasse in Afghanistan will go. Afghans do have a long tradition of striking ad hoc deals as a way of bridging gaps between conflicting political interests. Perhaps that points to the kind of power-sharing arrangements that have been tried after disputed elections in countries such as Kenya or Zimbabwe. But likely fraud on a million-vote scale is a big gap to bridge.

Image: Flickr/ISAF.             

TopicsAfghanistan RegionsMiddile East

Benjamin Netanyahu's Excellent Adventure

Paul Pillar

The last few months have gone rather well for the right-wing Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu, in the sense of advancing its prime objective of indefinitely extending the occupation and colonization of Palestinian territory by ensuring failure of any diplomatic efforts to end the occupation. Netanyahu's success in this regard has been due both to his own tactical skill and to the luck of outside events.

Netanyahu achieved failure of the latest U.S. attempt to revive a peace process worthy of that name partly through the preemptory demand for the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a “Jewish state.” He also successfully used the stratagem of striking a deal with the Palestinian Authority that involved release of Palestinian prisoners, reneging on that deal by construing its meaning differently than originally intended, and then blaming the P.A. for not proceeding anyway with substantive talks as if nothing untoward had happened. The Israelis had to take some mild off-the-record blame for the breakdown from the Americans, but nothing that wasn't manageable.

More threatening to the Israeli government's strategy than John Kerry's diplomatic efforts was the latest effort by Hamas and Fatah to bridge their differences and jointly support a single Palestinian government. These intra-Palestinian acts of reconciliation have always been a problem for Netanyahu's strategy because they involve creating a negotiating partner that can speak for the great majority of Palestinians and because they belie the Israeli allegation that Hamas wants nothing but the destruction of Israel. The Hamas-Fatah deal and subsequent creation of a cabinet of technocrats clearly involved Hamas moving toward Mahmoud Abbas's position rather than the other way around. This latest reconciliation appeared even more threatening to Netanyahu's approach than the previous ones because it showed more sign of sticking. Perhaps most disturbing to Netanyahu is that the Obama administration indicated it was willing to work with any jointly supported Palestinian government that emerged from the deal.

Netanyahu has given the same vehement and unyielding reaction he has given to the previous efforts at Palestinian reconciliation, such as withholding tax revenue that belongs to the Palestinians. What most enabled him, however, to sustain his strategy in the face of this latest challenge—and here is one place where the luck of events has helped him—was the kidnapping and murder of three Jewish Israeli teenagers in the occupied West Bank. Netanyahu immediately blamed Hamas and repeatedly promised evidence, which still hasn't been forthcoming, that the group was responsible for the crime. Two men with ties to Hamas have been named as suspects. They are at large but their families' homes have already been demolished. No proof of guilt was furnished beforehand, but Israeli demolition of Palestinian homes in the West Bank is an everyday occurrence anyway.

The crime provided the occasion for the Israeli government to strike back more broadly and forcefully than that. As Mitchell Plitnick has described it, “Under the cover of searching for the kidnapped youths, Netanyahu launched a massive operation to cripple Hamas in the West Bank, further humiliate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and punish the entire Palestinian population for calling for a halt to the charade of the 'peace process' and, worse, moving toward a unified leadership.” This forceful stirring of the pot by Israel, which has involved the detention of hundreds of Palestinians and the death of several of them at the hands of Israeli security forces, helps to put any peace diplomacy even farther out of reach. It enables American supporters of Netanyahu's government to say for the umpteenth time that the time is not “ripe” for peace negotiations—and the government they support will do what it has to do to ensure that the time will never be ripe.

Netanyahu's strategy has benefited recently from other distractions, which have diverted any energy and attention that might otherwise be directed toward establishment of a Palestinian state. The principal distraction that Netanyahu has relied on has been, of course, his demonization of Iran. Other events have helped him. The world's attention was diverted greatly for a time by the crisis in Ukraine. Then came widespread alarm over the Sunni extremist group in Iraq and Syria that now calls itself the Islamic State. The latter scare has been even more useful for Netanyahu, who used it as another excuse to insist that Israeli troops must continue to occupy the Jordan River Valley indefinitely. Never mind that the chief of Mossad dismisses the notion of an Islamic State army marching across Jordan to invade Israel; the excuse still has a crude geographic appeal.

So Netanyahu has peace diplomacy right where he wants it: in the trash bin, but so far without having to shoulder unequivocal international blame for putting it there. His very success over the last few months in this regard, however, may over the next few months lead to reactions that will complicate further execution of his strategy. That the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation has gone as far as it has—farther than previous attempts—may lead many Palestinians to see it as a best shot at a genuinely comprehensive peace, one that would cover Gaza as well as the West Bank. Continued vehement Israeli rejection of this best shot may lead Palestinians to conclude that they have no shot—none, that is, at negotiating a bilateral accord with any Israeli government that looks at all like the current one. One resulting possibility—which the current volatility in the Palestinian territories shows is dangerously close to becoming a probability—is outbreak of a new full-blown intifada, an uprising with widespread violence.

Even without a new intifada, there are two other strategy-complicating possibilities. One is for the Palestinian Authority (presumably in the form of its Hamas-backed but non-party government) to drop its previous restraint in seeking the full involvement of international organizations in helping the Palestinians out of their plight and moving toward real statehood. The other is for the Palestinian Authority to dissolve itself, end the fiction that what exists in the West Bank is anything other than continued Israeli military occupation, and stop being an accessory to that occupation. Netanyahu in effect encourages Palestinians to reach that latter conclusion, and to realize that the P.A. is not really a government at all, when he does things such as disdaining Abbas's attempts to help in finding the killers of the Israeli teenagers and berating the P.A. even though the crime occurred in a portion of the West Bank where the P.A. has no security functions at all.

But Netanyahu is always focused on the short term, and he probably is not worrying much right now about those possibilities. It also is because he is focused on the short term that success in his strategy in fending off Palestinian statehood is not at all success for Israel. In fact, it is quite contrary to the long term interests of Israel and damaging to its prospects for living as a peaceful, prosperous, liberal state. The Netanyahu strategy fails to recognize that clinging to all the land to the Jordan River makes it impossible for Israel to be both a Jewish and a democratic state.

The strategy is one that entails unending conflict and animosity. As Israel sinks ever more deeply into hard-core apartheid, a corrosive effect continues to be seen in the public attitudes and morality of many Israelis as well as many Palestinians, an effect that is disturbing to the many other Israelis who are still thoughtful and humane. The phenomenon in question has become increasingly apparent in recent years in an intolerance in Israel that has evolved into overt hatred and prejudice against Arabs, matching anti-Jewish hatred that can be found on the other side. (Anti-Semitism probably is not the appropriate term in this context, only because both Jews and Arabs are Semites.)

In this atmosphere, nonofficial acts of inhumanity and violence become more likely—such as the killing of the three Jewish teenagers and the subsequent killing, possibly after being burned alive, of a Palestinian Arab teenager. The atmosphere also infects official acts. Those acts include much of what happens in the West Bank every week, including all those demolitions of homes. It also has reportedly included in the past few days the brutal beating by Israeli police of another Palestinian teenager—a cousin of the one who was burned and killed.

The victim of the police beating is an American: a high school sophomore from Tampa, Florida who was visiting his relatives. If the reports about his beating are confirmed, this ought to be an occasion for the U.S. to pull its kid gloves off at least a bit more in dealing with Netanyahu's government. When Israeli police are beating up U.S. citizens, the U.S. government ought to do more to steer the Israeli government off its disastrous path. Call it tough love if your prefer, but the emphasis needs to be on the toughness.

Image: Office of the Prime Minister.                       

TopicsIsrael Palestinian Territories RegionsMiddle East

Why the Iraq War Really Was Different From the Vietnam War

Paul Pillar

The Iraq War, as Heather Marie Stur tells us, should not be lumped together with the Vietnam War as blindly and repeatedly as many seem wont to do. Although the two military expeditions both rank among the costliest blunders in American history, there are indeed many differences between the two. Stur is correct to emphasize differences over similarities, but she completely misses the most significant differences—significant partly because of their implications for avoiding similar blunders in the future.

Difference number one sets the invasion of Iraq in 2003 apart not only from the intervention in Vietnam but from almost every other substantial use of U.S. military force. There was no policy process leading to the decision to launch the war. Whether invading Iraq was a good idea was never on the agenda of any meeting of policymakers, and never the subject of any options paper. Thus no part of the national security bureaucracy had any opportunity to weigh in on that decision (as distinct from being called on to help sell that decision to the public). Sources of relevant expertise both inside and outside the government were pointedly shunned. The absence of a policy process leading to the decision to launch the war is the single most extraordinary aspect of the war.

The U.S. intervention in Vietnam was entirely different. Although as the war went on the decision-making of Lyndon Johnson and his Tuesday lunch group became increasingly closed, the original decisions in 1964 and 1965 to initiate the U.S. air and ground wars in Vietnam were the result of an extensive policy process. The bureaucracy was fully engaged, and the policy alternatives exhaustively discussed and examined. However mistaken the decisions may have turned out to be, they could not be attributed to any short-cuts in the decision-making process.

A second distinctive aspect of the Iraq War is that it was a war of aggression. It was the first major offensive war that the United States had initiated in over a century. Every overseas use of U.S. military force in the twentieth century was either a minor expedition such as ones in the Caribbean or, in the case of major wars, a response to the use of force by someone else. The U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia was a case of the latter: a direct response to the use by North Vietnam of armed insurgency to take over South Vietnam.

This is another respect that sets the Iraq War apart not only from Vietnam but from many other U.S. wars, including a couple of relatively recent ones that Stur incorrectly likens to the Iraq War. Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in 2001 was a direct response to a terrorist attack by a group that was resident in Afghanistan and allied with its regime. Operation Desert Storm in 1991 was a direct response to blatant aggression by Iraq in invading and swallowing Kuwait. When that aggression was reversed by expelling the Iraqis from Kuwait, the U.S. mission really was accomplished.

Sometimes earlier wars have a lot to do with explaining much later events—and the centenary of World War I has stimulated some interesting analysis of how that war set in train events that still bedevil us today—but Stur's attempt to say something similar about the war in 1991 is mistaken. Some neoconservatives grumbled about Saddam Hussein being left in power, but the grumbling did not have to do with any problems created by Operation Desert Storm; it instead reflected the neocons' desire for other reasons to have a larger regime-changing war in Iraq.

This gets us to a third major difference, which is related to the first one. The Iraq War of 2003 was the project of a small,willful band of war-seekers—what Lawrence Wilkerson has called a “cabal”—who managed to get a weak and inexperienced president to go along with their project for his own political and psychological reasons. An assiduous selling campaign lasting more than a year, which exploited the post-9/11 political mood by conjuring up chimerical alliances with terrorists, mustered enough national support to launch the war. But the base for starting the project was always quite narrow.

By contrast, the United States sucked itself into the Vietnam quagmire on the basis of a very broadly held conventional wisdom about a global advance of monolithic communism, falling dominoes, and the need to uphold U.S. credibility. At the time of the intervention, opposition to the intervention was exceedingly narrow. The Gulf of Tonkin resolution authorizing the use of military force in Vietnam passed against only the lonely nay votes of Wayne Morse and Ernest Gruening in the Senate and no opposition at all in the House. The conventional wisdom pervaded the public and the media, including prominent journalists such as David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan who only later would become identified with publicizing the war's faults and fallacies.

Looking back on the mistakes involved in Vietnam War became a national exercise in painful retrospection. It included soul-searching by some of those most directly involved in launching the U.S. expedition; some of the most candid and insightful came from former secretary of defense Robert McNamara. The difference with the post-war posture of the people who brought us the Iraq War has been stark. Despite the much narrower original responsibility for that war, mea culpas from those who promoted it have been hard to find. The promoters have instead tried to find creative ways to blame the damage they caused on those who later had to clean it up.

All of this has implications for avoiding comparable blunders in the future. The Cold War is over, and the parts of the Vietnam-era conventional wisdom involving the nature of international communism are gone as well. We still see similar thought patterns, however, applied in other ways, especially with notions of upholding credibility and domino-like scenarios of geographically expanding threats. There still is Cold War-type thinking that treats Russia as if it were the Soviet Union, and that treats radical Islam as if it were a monolithic foe that is our enemy in a new world war.

Avoiding another blunder like the Iraq War means being wary not only of these sorts of thought patterns but also of a more direct hazard. The neocons who brought us that war are not only unrepentant but also very much around and still selling their wares. We most need to remember what they sold as the last time, and not to buy anything from them again.   

Image: U.S. Army Flickr. 

TopicsIraq Vietnam RegionsUnited States

The Worth of a Leader

Paul Pillar

With a change of leadership at the Department of Veterans Affairs, we will have a test of how much difference a top leader makes in how well a large organization functions. Will Robert McDonald get the department to have better reviews than it did under Eric Shinseki? Maybe, but my guess is that if this happens, it will have more to do with the natural ebb and flow of recriminations in Washington than with anything having to do with the leadership skills or acumen of the person at the top. There is ample reason to believe that the principal fundamental cause of problems in the department is under-funding related to insufficient recognition of the total, long-term costs of overseas wars. Those costs include, thanks partly to modern body armor, the long-term care of warriors who in earlier wars would have been killed but in recent ones have survived and are maimed. Shinseki's departure, moreover, bore all the markings of the Washington habit of head-rolling as a supposed solution to stubborn problems, when it really is more a sort of political catharsis.

McDonald's appointment provides an opportunity for a related test. Any mention of the worth of a leader raises the question of the sky-high compensation that has become the norm among corporate CEOs, and of whether most of them could possibly be worth that much to an organization. McDonald's annual compensation as CEO of Procter & Gamble was about $16 million. The salary of a cabinet secretary is about $200,000. If there were a correspondence between compensation and worth, then we taxpayers ought to be gleeful about the steal of a deal we are getting. We're hiring a leader who is 80 times as good as those who have never risen to fill anything more than the sort of U.S. cabinet position that McDonald is about to fill. Talk about someone being overqualified...

Before we get too excited about this deal, we might note the questions that have been raised about McDonald's performance at Procter & Gamble. It's not a good sign when the chief he replaced has been brought back to replace him. We might also note, if the size of an organization has anything to do with value of experience, that the Department of Veterans Affairs with its 300,000 employees is over twice as large as P&G with its 120,000.

Maybe taxpayers should be grateful to Mr. McDonald for taking a job that entails a 98.75 percent pay cut from his last position. That's almost like doing the job pro bono. But I don't think we're really getting a $16 million dollar man to do a $200,000 job. The numbers reflect the absurdly different cultures involved in self-referential corporate boardrooms, on one hand, and political attitudes toward public service, on the other.

There's still that matter of underfunding the care of wounded warriors. There is a lot to be said for the idea of requiring that funding be provided for the future medical care of veterans as part of any decision to go to war. That not only might help the maimed veterans we already have but will encourage long, hard thinking before creating more of them.

Image: Flickr/VA. 

Topicsveterans war RegionsUnited States

Aid to Syrian Rebels: How Does It End?

Paul Pillar

The Obama administration's proposal to spend $500 million on training and equipping “appropriately vetted elements of the moderate Syrian armed opposition” leaves unanswered some of the same questions that always have surrounded proposals to give lethal aid to Syrian rebels. Some of those questions involve the challenges in determining who qualifies as a “moderate.” “Vetting” sounds so much easier to do than it actually is to do. It is very difficult to do with anything that is even half as jumbled, confused, and extremist-ridden as is the current armed opposition to the Syrian regime. It is interesting how many of those in Washington who are quick to lambaste the national security bureaucracy for supposedly being unable to perceive and predict accurately who is doing what in the Middle East seem to have ample confidence in the ability of that same bureaucracy to “vet” Syrian rebels.

“Moderate” presumably refers to long-term political objectives rather than to current methods, given that anyone who is engaging in armed rebellion is by definition using non-moderate methods. The principal difficulty in identifying those political objectives stems not from faulty information or analysis today but rather from the impossibility of predicting the directions that groups or leaders, facing changed circumstances, will take in the future. History is replete with examples of leaders whose trajectories once in power could not have been extrapolated from what they did or said while they were still rebels.

Another complication is that fighters and the arms they carry have a way of moving from group to group. There already has been some of this movement in the Syrian civil war.

One hears the argument that the presence of many nasty and immoderate people in the Syrian opposition is all the more reason to aid moderate groups, so that fighters will gravitate toward the moderate groups rather than the extreme ones. But if allegiance and political inclination can be transferred or bought this easily, this calls into question the validity of any “vetting.”

The most fundamental question about any aid to Syrian rebels is exactly how this type of support advances whatever is our own political objective for Syria, or at least makes more likely an outcome of the war that is more rather than less consistent with U.S. interests. The White House statement about the aid proposal says the assistance is intended to “help defend the Syrian people, stabilize areas under opposition control, facilitate the provision of essential services, counter terrorist threats, and promote conditions for a negotiated settlement.” That sounds reasonable enough, although the nature of the objective concerning a negotiated settlement is unclear given that we never appear to have rescinded explicitly the previously stated objective that Assad must go.

Perhaps some aid to the rebellion would shift the momentum on the battlefield enough for some figures in the regime's camp to support a negotiated settlement more than they do now. If that is to happen, however, rather than aid to rebels being just one step in a new spiral of escalation, a more complete pro-negotiation strategy will have to become apparent, with everything that entails particularly for the roles of Russia and Iran.

We also should be wary of a dynamic we observed with some of our client groups in Afghanistan. When a group realizes that it is being aided only because of its role in an ongoing war, it has an incentive to keep the war ongoing. And that means it is more likely to oppose negotiations, at least under any terms that are reasonable and feasible, than to support them.

Meanwhile, we have the irony of the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad reportedly conducting air strikes against positions of the hated ISIS group in Iraq. The Iraqi prime minister says he didn't ask for the strikes but welcomes them. Some of the same Washington hawks who have been most gung-ho about toppling Assad have also been gung-ho about doing what Assad's own forces are doing in Western Iraq. You can't tell the players in the Middle East without a scorecard. Or rather, the line-ups are so confused even with a scorecard that we need to think again about trying to play whatever is the game that's going on.

It is unclear how much of what the Obama administration has been doing lately in Iraq and Syria, including this proposal to give lethal aid to Syrian rebels, it would have done without the political pressure from critics to “do something” in those countries. Both the administration and its critics need to keep end games and broad strategy in mind and continually to ask themselves—as well as making more clear for the rest of us—how any move today will make more probable a desired end state in either country.       

Image: Wikipedia. 

TopicsSyria Iraq RegionsMiddle East

The Bias for Action in U.S. Foreign Policy

Paul Pillar

A “bias for action” has long been a buzz phrase in the business world. Tom Peters and Robert Waterman in their best-selling book In Search of Excellence put the phrase at the top of their list of attributes of what they considered to be outstanding firms. For an individual hoping to make it big in business, it's not a bad phrase to keep in mind. Ambitious executives do not make names for themselves by saying they will take whatever organization they are responsible for and try not to screw it up. They make names by shaking things up. Moreover, the businesses with the most dramatic and admired garage-startup-to-behemoth histories necessarily had a bias for action.

Even in business, however, the behavior implied by the phrase has limitations. What is good for the rising career of an individual executive is not necessarily good for the firm. And for every Apple or Amazon we have heard about, there are many more companies we have not heard about in which the leader's bias for action led to unprofitable business lines, financial overextension, or other failures that caused the firm to crash and burn.

Applied to foreign policy, the soundness of behavior implied by a bias for action is even more questionable. Perhaps it is most valid when trying to build an empire. Otto von Bismarck, for example, had a bias for action when using wars against other European states as a means for putting together the German Empire. But for most states at most times, that is not the case. It is not the case for the United States today. The United States has a responsibility, to itself as well as to world order, less to build a bigger empire than to avoid screwing things up. And when the United States screws up, things can get very bad, not only because as the world's only superpower it is more powerful than anyone else but also because with global involvement it has a lot of vulnerabilities that other states do not have. Crashing and burning is not an option.

Even without the influence of business gurus such as Peters and Waterman, a bias for action is nonetheless at least as apparent in U.S. foreign policy as in commerce. One reason is the political pressure on leaders to be seen to be “doing something” about overseas problems. The partisan incentive to criticize opponents for doing nothing intensifies this pressure. In the United States the tendency is further exacerbated by a broader inclination to believe the United States ought to be able to solve any problem overseas.

We need to remember that a bias for action is exactly that: a bias. That means it is antithetical to an objective, unbiased assessment of what would be best for the United States to do or not to do. And that is not good. A bias for action has some of the qualities of the “ready, fire, aim” method of approaching a problem.

We can see some of these tendencies in the development of recent policy toward the turmoil in Iraq. The Obama administration's dispatch of a few hundred U.S. military personnel, although they will be serving legitimate purposes, is probably best understood as a response to the pressure to do something. It probably was the minimum military measure the administration could get away with without incurring intense accusations of doing nothing.

I was asked the other day to define U.S. objectives regarding the situation in Iraq. There are two ways to answer a question like that. One is the conventional way, which is the way any president or senior official would be expected to answer it. That way would mention things such as seeking regional stability and quashing terrorist threats against Americans.

The other way is to ask ourselves what are the most significant respects in which U.S. interests have been affected, for better or for worse, by developments in the Middle East over the past decade or so. Then our objective should be to repeat or build on what has affected our interests for the better, and to avoid repetition of the sorts of things that have affected them for the worse. By far the most consequential development for U.S. interests in the region was the Iraq War—and its effects on U.S. interests were overwhelmingly negative, with the thousands of Americans killed, the tens of thousands injured, the trillions of dollars in economic costs, and the stimulation of sectarian warfare and terrorism that we face today. The number one objective for dealing with a situation like the one in Iraq is to avoid doing anything that could lead to a mistake similar to launching the Iraq War.

No president, of course, could get away with defining U.S. objectives that way. It would sound too passive, and it would not embody a bias for action. It would not pass muster with Peters and Waterman, and it certainly would not pass muster with political critics. That's too bad, because it is a very legitimate way to define a prime objective. It takes account of the most important ways in which U.S. interests have been affected, and it takes account of how in any unbiased analysis of how to pursue and protect those interests there is no reason either action or inaction should be favored.                 

Image: Wikicommons. 

TopicsUnited States Iraq RegionsMiddle East

Advancing U.S. Interests Through Cooperation With Iran

Paul Pillar

Alarm about the advance in Iraq by the group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has led even as inveterate a hawk as Lindsey Graham to see some advantage in cooperating with Iran. The United States and Iran may indeed seem like the ultimate in strange bedfellows, but that is only because of rigid thinking that divides the world into allies and adversaries and rejects having anything to do with the adversaries. If those who subscribe to this Manichaean view would let go of it, they would see that the United States and Iran have numerous parallel interests, and America’s opportunities to advance its own interests through cooperation with Tehran go well beyond the current crisis in Iraq.

In Iraq itself, the convergence of American and Iranian interests goes beyond just stopping ISIS. Iranian objectives in Iraq are defined by the experience of Saddam Hussein launching the Iran-Iraq War, an eight-year-long conflict in which hundreds of thousands of Iranians died. Iran never wants to see an aggressive Iraq again, and neither should we. While Tehran might prefer an Iraq too weak to start another war, it does not want unending instability in its neighbor to the west. And while the Iranians are glad that their Shiite co-religionists are no longer subject to oppressive Sunni rule, they are smart enough to realize that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's narrow and increasingly authoritarian manner of governing is a recipe for the sort of Sunni extremism and unrest we see today. The best way for the United States and Iran to advance their shared interests in Iraq is to coordinate their messages to Maliki about political change being necessary to achieve anything approaching stability. There is no evidence, and no plausibility, behind the belief in parts of Washington that Iran wants to help al-Maliki turn this crisis into an all-out Sunni-Shiite war.

In Iran's neighbor to the east, the United States already has experience in cooperating with Iran to bring about political change. Following the ouster of the Taliban from power in late 2001, U.S. and Iranian diplomats worked effectively together to forge a new political order in Afghanistan that would be presided over by Hamid Karzai. This experience could have led to expanded cooperation in other areas—as the Iranian government of the reformist president Mohammad Khatami surely hoped and probably expected. But then the administration of George W. Bush slammed a door in Iran's face by declaring it to be part of an Axis of Evil.

The basis for fruitful U.S.-Iranian cooperation on Afghanistan continues today, as Karzai gives way to a successor and the U.S. troop presence winds down. Both the United States and Iran want a stable Afghanistan. Both want a broadly based system of governance that is not controlled only by Sunni Pashtuns and in which all ethnic and sectarian groups have a role. Iran also has a strong interest in getting the Afghan narcotics trade under control, given a major addiction problem among its own citizens.

To the south of Iran, security in the Persian Gulf is a subject in which Iran and the United States, in cooperation with the neighboring Arab countries, are the most important players. They are the two countries that most need to work together to ensure that incidents at sea and other possible misunderstandings do not escalate out of control. Both countries have an interest in not letting warfare endanger the oil trade.

Even where parallel interests are less apparent, such as with the civil war in Syria, interaction between Iran and the United States is not a zero-sum game. The relationship between Iran and the Assad regime has always been a marriage of convenience and not of love. The Iranians probably are open to political changes that would have a chance of concluding the war—indefinite continuation of which is not in the interest of either Iran or the United States.

The United States and Iran have wisely concentrated over the past year on negotiating an agreement on Iran's nuclear program, believing that premature broadening of the bilateral agenda would make conclusion of a nuclear deal even more complicated than it already is. Cooperation on other matters would have to wait. The security crisis in Iraq has compressed that timetable. Completing a nuclear agreement—and conscientiously implementing it, including the rolling back of U.S. sanctions on Iran—is more than ever important not only in its own right, but in opening the way for other fruitful U.S.-Iranian cooperation. A nuclear deal would impart momentum and confidence necessary to overcome many years of estrangement.

Even with a nuclear deal, Iran and the United States will regard each other more as rivals than as friends or allies. There still will be divergent interests along with parallel ones—as there are in any bilateral relationship, whether with an ally or an adversary. To cooperate constructively based on the parallel ones is not a gift to Iran; it is an unshackling of U.S. diplomacy that will facilitate the advance of America's own interests.

 

 

 

TopicsIran RegionsMiddle East

Fear of a Decrease in Fear of Iran

Paul Pillar

Many participants in debate on U.S. policy in the Middle East have a lot invested in maintaining the idea of the Islamic Republic of Iran as a bogeyman forever to be feared, despised, sanctioned, and shunned, and never to be cooperated with on anything. The lodestar for this school of advocacy is the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu, who proclaims to us nearly every day that Iran is the “real problem” underlying just about everything wrong in the region, and who adamantly opposes anyone reaching any agreement with Tehran on anything. Netanyahu does not want a significant regional competitor that would no longer be an ostracized pariah and that will freely speak its mind in a way that, say, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, with the other equities they have in Washington, cannot. He does not want the United States to come to realize that it need not be stuck rigidly to the side of—and always defer to the preferences of—“traditional allies” such as Israel and that it can sometimes advance U.S. interests by doing business with those who have worn the label of adversary. And of course the more that people focus on the “real problem” of Iran, the less attention will be devoted to topics Netanyahu would rather not talk about, such as the occupation of Palestinian territory.

For those in Washington who wave the anti-Iranian banner most fervently, the waving is not only a following of Netanyahu's lead but also a filling of the neoconservative need for bogeymen as justification and focus for militant, interventionist policies in the region. The neocons do not have Saddam Hussein to kick around any more, and they unsurprisingly would prefer not to dwell upon what transpired when they kicked him out. So it's natural to target the next nearest member of the Axis of Evil—and even when the neocons were still kicking Saddam, they were already telling Iran to “take a number.” The anti-Iranian banner-waving of neocons, despite the abysmal policy failure of the Iraq War that should have closed ears to what they are saying today—finds resonance among a general American public that historically has had a need for foreign monsters to destroy as one way to define America's mission and purpose.

The prospective reaching of a negotiated agreement to limit Iran's nuclear program has been a major concern and preoccupation of those who want to keep Iran a hated and feared pariah forever. An agreement would represent a major departure in U.S. relations with Iran. So the anti-Iran banner-wavers have been making a concerted effort for several months to undermine the negotiations and torpedo any agreement that is reached. Not reaching an agreement has become such a major goal that the banner-wavers have no compunction about taking the fundamentally illogical stance of exclaiming about the dangers of an Iranian nuclear weapon while opposing an agreement that would place substantially more restrictions on the Iranian program, and make an Iranian weapon less likely, than without an agreement.

At least the anti-agreement forces have had a game plan, involving such things as hyping “breakout” fears and pushing Congressional action that is disguised as support for the negotiations when it actually would undermine them. Now suddenly along comes a security crisis in Iraq, in which parallel U.S. and Iranian interests and the opportunity for some beneficial U.S.-Iranian dialogue are clear. Oh, no, think the banner-wavers, we didn't plan on this. One detects a tone of panic in their jumping into print with emergency sermons reminding us that Iranians are evil and we must never, ever be tempted into cooperating with them.

One of the more strident of these sermons comes from Michael Doran and Max Boot. The panicky nature of their piece is reflected in the fact that the first thing they do is to reach for the old, familiar Hitler analogy. The idea that the United States and Iran share any common interests is, they tell us, just like Neville Chamberlain working with Adolf Hitler.

The next thing they do is to match the most imaginative conspiracy theorists in the Middle East by suggesting that the government of Iran really is supporting and promoting the Sunni radicals of ISIS—yes, the same ISIS whose main calling card has been the beheading and massacre of the Iranians' fellow Shiites. The logic behind this conspiracy theory, explain Doran and Boot, is that a threat from ISIS makes Prime Minister Maliki and Iraqi Shiites “ever more dependent on Iranian protection.”

Then Doran and Boot go way into straw-man territory, saying the United States would be making a “historic error” if it assisted “an Iranian-orchestrated ethnic-cleansing campaign” carried out by ruthless Revolutionary Guards. Of course, the Obama administration isn't talking about doing anything of the sort. We weren't flies on the wall when Deputy Secretary of State William Burns talked earlier this week with the Iranian foreign minister about Iraq, but it is a safe bet that a theme of U.S. remarks was the need for greater cross-community inclusiveness in Iraq and the need not to stoke the fire of the sectarian civil war.

Besides dealing with straw men, Doran and Boot here exhibit another habit of the banner-wavers—which comes up a lot in discussion of the nuclear issue—which is to assume that Iran will do the worst, most destructive thing it is capable of doing regardless of whether doing so would be in Iran's own interests. What advantage could Tehran possibly see in propping up an increasingly beleaguered and unpopular Nouri al-Maliki with rampaging Revolutionary Guards? What Iranian interest would that serve?

This gets to one of the things that Doran and Boot do not address, which is what fundamental Iranian interests are in Iraq, including everything those interests involve in terms of stability and material costs to Iran. Even if Iran had so much influence with Maliki that he could be said to be in Tehran's pocket, what would Iran do with such influence? Here is displayed another habit of the banner-wavers, which is just to assume that any Iranian influence is bad, without stopping to examine the Iranian interests being served and whether they are consistent with, in conflict with, or irrelevant to U.S. interests.

The other major thing that Doran and Boot do not do is to mention what militant U.S. policies have had to do with Iranian behavior they don't like. In the course of loosely slinging as much mud on the Iranians as they can, they state that Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps “has been responsible for attacks against U.S. targets stretching back more than 30 years.” They do not offer any specifics. The only ones that come to mind involve a U.S. military intervention in Lebanon, U.S. support for Saddam Hussein's Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War, a U.S. troop presence in eastern Saudi Arabia, and the eight-year-long U.S. military occupation in Iraq.

Doran and Boot write that instead of having anything to do with the Iranians, we should develop a coalition of those “traditional allies” to prosecute a conflict on the “vast battlefield” that embraces Iraq and Syria. This sounds just like the talk of a coalition of “moderates” we heard during the George W. Bush administration. As then, the talk is apparently oblivious to ethnic, sectarian, and geographic realities. Doran and Boot suggest that clever covert work against “Iranian networks” would be enough to “pull the Iraqi government out of Iran's orbit.”

This sort of thinking represents not only a missed opportunity to make U.S. diplomacy more effective but also a recipe for further inflaming that vast battlefield.

TopicsIran Iraq RegionsMiddle East

Focusing on Little Bad Guys and Missing Big Pictures

Paul Pillar

It always has been difficult to discern any logic behind the endless recriminations about the fatal incident in Benghazi, Libya in September 2012 in which four Americans were killed—or rather about how the Obama administration is said to have described the incident at the time. A notion somehow appears to be involved that the president supposedly had been saying that international terrorism had been licked and didn't want to admit that the incident in Libya demonstrated that this was not so. But Mr. Obama never had said that terrorism was licked. In fact, he had been saying a lot about it being a threat and had been shooting missiles from drones at a rate that did not suggest otherwise. And losing four Americans at an overseas mission is a bad thing to happen on any president's watch regardless of whether the label of terrorism is applied or not.

Now the FBI, assisted by U.S. military commandos, has apprehended Ahmed Abu Khattala, who is accused of leading the fatal attack on the facility in Benghazi. So both the purveyors and the targets of the recriminations have occasion to make rhetorical adjustments. Supporters of the administration can say, “All right, if you want to focus on terrorists responsible for the incident you've been making such a big deal about, we got the main culprit.” Opponents of the administration can say that it should not have taken two years to get him. Mostly the opponents are falling into old habits in searching for ways to criticize Obama, by saying Abu Khattala should be taken to Guantanamo and kept out of the civilian criminal court system. That familiar posture, based on a chest-thumping desire to proclaim that we are at “war,” ignores how much Guantanamo has become a liability rather than an asset and how much more successful the regular criminal courts have been in meting out punishment to terrorists than have been the military tribunals, where the only two convictions of Guantanamo detainees who have been tried have been vacated on appeal.

Nabbing Abu Khattala and trying him for whatever role he had in the incident two years ago is the right thing to do. But the more we devote attention—regardless of one's political posture or opinions of administration policy—to a character such as him, the more we perpetuate a misdirection of attention that afflicts much American policy debate about problems in the Middle East. David Kirkpatrick's profile of Abu Khattala in the New York Times describes him as a “local, small-time Islamist militant” who stood out as being “erratic” as well as extremist. He had no known connections to international terrorist groups, according to officials who have been briefed on the relevant investigations. Oh, and as the attack in Benghazi was taking place, Abu Khattala was telling others that the assault was retaliation for the inflammatory video that administration opponents back here in the United States have strenuously argued had nothing to do with the incident. In short, the Benghazi episode is hardly a milestone in international terrorism. The apprehension of this local thug, although it serves justice, also will have little to do with the prospects for international terrorism.

The general tendency that this case illustrates, beyond the partisan motivations that have sustained the ridiculously prolonged preoccupation with this one incident, is a fixation on the malevolent intentions, real or sometimes imagined, of individual evil-doers who play leading roles in either groups or states. This fixation is at the expense of attention to broader patterns of public sentiment or political culture (and yes, sometimes even reactions to scurrilous videos) that have much more to do with where security problems will arise and where U.S. interests will be threatened.

We saw this tendency in George W. Bush's day, when threats to the United States were neatly packaged as “the terrorists”—so neat that a chimerical alliance between a regime and a terrorist group became a principal rationale for toppling a leader without paying attention to the broad forces this would unleash and the extremism this would stimulate, all of which is reflected in the violent mess that is Iraq today. We saw it more recently in the bipartisan support for military intervention in Libya, with again a focus on toppling a disliked leader and again inattention to the forces and culture that would be left in his place and that led to what happened at Benghazi two years ago.

We saw the tendency in a somewhat different way with the exuberance accompanying the killing of Osama bin Laden three years ago. Bin Laden obviously was a far more consequential figure than dozens of Abu Khattalas, but by the last part of his life in hiding he was doing little directing of operations. The exuberance exceeded the impact his death had on the course of international terrorism. President Obama never claimed that the raid at Abbottabad was a death knell of international terrorism, but Republicans' fears that it would be seen that way—what might be called Abbottabad envy—were a major motivation for hyping the Benghazi incident the way they have.

We have seen the tendency in excessive reliance on the use of armed drones, to the point that their counterproductive effect on counterterrorism through collateral casualties and associated anger may outweigh the benefit of eradicating the individual bad guys who are the targets. And we see it today in how alarm over ISIS focuses narrowly on the evil intentions of this one group while paying less heed to the broader conflicts and objectives that have more to do with the chaos that worries us—a focus that has led otherwise respectable people to flirt with craziness by calling for the United States to go to war simultaneously in both Syria and Iraq.

Image: U.S. Army Flickr. 

TopicsIraq Syria RegionsMiddle East

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