Paul Pillar

Foreign Policy, Politics, and the Zivotofsky Decision

Paul Pillar

The Supreme Court's decision this month in Zivotofsky v. Kerry was not only the correct outcome of the case at hand and of the specific issues it raised but also an important statement about the need for consistency and coherence in the administration of U.S. foreign policy. The Court's majority scrupulously avoided wading into the politics underneath the case, but its decision has helped to minimize the extent to which political undercurrents make for incoherence in foreign policy.

The decision struck down, as an unconstitutional Congressional encroachment on executive branch powers, the portion of the Foreign Relations Authorization Act for 2003 that would have required the State Department to indicate on passports issued to U.S. citizens born in Jerusalem that the place of birth was “Israel” if the individual requested that designation. This requirement contradicted the longstanding U.S. position that the sovereignty of Jerusalem is a matter yet to be decided by international negotiation. That position also is consistent with the policies and practices of every other country besides Israel itself.

Justice Anthony Kennedy's majority opinion was firmly rooted in the concept that in foreign relations, the United States must speak with one voice. Recognition of foreign states—and the terms under which recognition is extended, as was true with the Carter administration's recognition of Communist China and the related special status of Taiwan—has always been a presidential prerogative. Even when Congress also has played a role, as was true with legislation relating to relations with Taiwan, presidential primacy on this subject has not been seriously challenged. And according to the majority opinion, what is said on a passport is inseparable from the broader issue of recognition.

Chief Justice John Roberts, in a dissent joined by Samuel Alito, questioned that last connection, contending that only a “perception” of recognition was involved, and that the majority was in effect submitting to an “international heckler's veto.” But there is no doubt that recognition was what Congress was attempting to deal with in the nullified section of the legislation, the title of which is “United States Policy with Respect to Jerusalem as the Capital of Israel”. Roberts's further argument that Congress is constitutionally empowered to do all sorts of things contrary to a president's policy toward a foreign government, including declaring war or establishing an embargo, is off the mark, since even a war or embargo does not necessarily speak to recognition of the foreign state in question. (E.g., the United States currently is sanctioning Russia but still recognizes it as a sovereign state.)

A separate dissent by Antonin Scalia, joined by Roberts and Alito, is best read in conjunction with a concurring opinion by Clarence Thomas, who, in a rare break with Scalia, agreed with the majority regarding the key question concerning passports. Thomas points out how loosely and expansively Scalia tries to apply the Necessary and Proper Clause of Article I of the Constitution in arguing for a Congressional role regarding the birthplace box on passports—far more loosely and expansively than is Scalia's custom in addressing many other issues. Thomas quotes back some of what Scalia has said on other cases and concludes that his conservative colleague's opinion in the present case represents a ”dubious way to undertake constitutional analysis.”

Strictly maintaining the policy that sovereignty over Jerusalem is yet to be settled through negotiation is essential if the United States is to have any hope of maintaining (or rather, salvaging) a useful role in attaining a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Going beyond the Jerusalem matter, the issue that first comes to mind as involving similar political dynamics is the impending nuclear agreement with Iran. As with the Jerusalem question, this is another instance of members of Congress marching to the Israeli government drummer and taking actions that contradict and undermine the executive branch's execution of an important element of U.S. foreign policy. The Iran issue has already demonstrated the chaotic result when Congress (or more precisely, what happens to be the current majority party in Congress) tries to conduct its own foreign relations at odds with the official policy that the executive branch is running. The chaos has included the notorious letter of Republican senators to the leadership of Iran and the uncoordinated invitation to the Israeli prime minister to address Congress for the purpose of denouncing U.S. diplomacy. The Supreme Court's decision represents at least a modest backtracking from this sort of damage.

More generally and more broadly, the Court's majority has reaffirmed that there is such a thing as the pursuit of national interests in the international arena that is distinct from domestic politics. In this regard it is worth noting that the U.S. policy regarding Jerusalem has been maintained by every U.S. administration, Republican and Democratic, ever since the United States recognized the new State of Israel during Harry Truman's presidency.

The domestic political process, including actions by the U .S. Congress, does play an important role in determining U.S. national interests, though more as a matter of broad objectives and values than as tactics and administrative details. That process is essential in addressing unavoidable trade-offs involving major decisions and major interests—such as weighing expected gains versus likely costs in any resort to warfare. That is why Congress ought to devote more of its energies to efforts such as enacting an authorization specifying objectives and limits for the current use of military force than to telling the State Department what it ought to write in a box on someone's passport.



TopicsIsrael Congress RegionsUnited States Middle East

No, Iran Isn't Destabilizing the Middle East

Paul Pillar

As the nuclear negotiations with Iran enter what may be their final lap, diehard opponents of any agreement with Tehran have been leaning more heavily than ever on the theme that Iran is a nasty actor in the Middle East intent on doing all manner of nefarious things in the region. Insofar as the theme is not just an effort to generate distaste for having any dealings with the Iranian regime and purports to have a connection with the nuclear agreement, the idea is that the sanctions relief that will be part of the agreement will give Iran more resources to do still more nefarious stuff in the region.

Several considerations invalidate this notion, just on the face of it, as a reason to oppose the nuclear agreement. The chief one is that if Iran really were intent on doing awful, destructive things in its neighborhood, that would be all the more reason to ensure it does not build a nuclear weapon—which is what the agreement being negotiated is all about.

Another consideration is that if the United States were to leave in place economic sanctions that supposedly were erected for reasons related to Iran's nuclear program, and to leave them in place to deny Iran resources to do other things, the United States would be telling not only Iran but also the rest of the world that the United States is a liar. The United States would have lied when it said that it had imposed these sanctions for the purpose of inducing concessions regarding Iran's nuclear policy. The damage to U.S. credibility whenever the United States attempts in the future to use sanctions to induce policy change should be obvious.

Interestingly, calls to keep current sanctions in place to deny funding for Iranian regional activities are coming from some of the same quarters that call for putting even more of an economic squeeze on Iran to get a "better deal". This position is contradictory. If the United States were to demonstrate that it is not going to remove existing sanctions in return for Iran's concessions on its nuclear program, the Iranians would have no reason to believe that still more concessions on their part would bring the removal of still more sanctions—and thus they would not make any more concessions.

An invalid assumption underlying the argument about freeing up resources is that the Iranians' regional policy is narrowly determined by how many rials they have in their bank account. This assumption contradicts, by the way, the assertion commonly made, again by some of the same quarters, that Iranian leaders are far from being green eyeshade types who do such careful calculations and instead are irrational religious fanatics who cannot be trusted with advanced technology let alone with a nuclear weapon. In any case, with Iran just as with other states, foreign policy is a function of many calculations of what is or is not in their national interest, and not just a matter of the available financial resources.

A related unwarranted assumption is each additional rial that does become available to the Iranians they will spend on regional shenanigans that we won't like. That assumption is never supported by any analysis; it just gets tossed into discussion to be taken for granted. If analysis is instead applied to the topic, a much different conclusion is reached; that Iran is far more likely to apply freed resources to domestic needs. This is a straightforward matter of political calculations and political survival, not only for President Rouhani but for other Iranian leaders who are acutely aware of the demands and expectations of the Iranian people in this regard.

But set aside for the moment all the logical inconsistencies and other reasons to reject the notion of an Iranian regional marauder as a reason to oppose the nuclear agreement. Focus instead on the image of an Iran whose current regional policy supposedly is already an assortment of destructive activities. This image has become the kind of conventional wisdom that repeatedly gets invoked (even, in this instance, by supporters of the nuclear agreement) without any felt need by those who invoke it to provide any supporting facts or analysis because it is taken for granted that everyone “knows” it to be true. The references to the image are almost always vague and general, couched in terms of Iran supposedly “destabilizing” the Middle East or seeking to “dominate” it or exercise “hegemony” over it, or that it is “on the march” to take over the region. Often there are references to “terrorism” and “subversion” without anything more specific being offered. Often the names of conflict-ridden countries in the region are recited, but again without any specifics as to who is doing what in those countries.

To get away from such uselessly general accusations, ask: (1) what exactly is Iran doing in the Middle East that is of concern; and (2) how does what Iran is doing differ from what other states are doing in the same places? A careful comparison of this sort leads to the conclusion that Iran, contrary to the conventional wisdom, does not stand out in doing aggressive, destabilizing, or hegemonic things.

Iran is one of the largest states in the Middle East and naturally, as with any such state, competes for influence in its region. To try to keep any such state, be it Iran or any other, from competing for such influence would be futile and damaging in its own right. To label Iranian policy as seeking “hegemony” or “domination” is only that—i.e., applying a label—when others are using more forceful and destructive ways of trying to extend their own influence in the same places. Iran, unlike others, has not launched wars or invaded neighboring territory (except in counterattacking during the war with Iraq that Saddam Hussein started). Nor has Iran drawn, China-like, any nine-dash lines and asserted unsupported domination over swaths of its own region.

The assumption that just about anything Iran does in the Middle East is contrary to U.S. interests keeps getting made despite what should be the glaringly obvious counterexample of the war in Iraq. Iran and the United States are on the same side there. They both are supporting the government of Iraq in trying to push back the radical group generally known as ISIS. Why should Iran's part of this effort be called part of regional trouble-making, while the U.S. part of it is given some more benign description? Those in the United States who would rather not face that counterexample are usually quick to mutter something like, “Yes, but the Iranians are doing this for their own malign purposes of spreading their influence in Iraq.” The first thing to note in response to such muttering is that if we are worried about increased Iranian influence in Iraq, that increase is due chiefly not to anything the Iranians have done but rather to a war of choice that the United States initiated.

The next thing is to ask on behalf of what interests the Iranians would use their influence in Iraq, and how that relates to U.S. interests. The preeminent Iranian objective regarding Iraq is to avoid anything resembling the incredibly costly Iran-Iraq War, and to have a regime in Baghdad—preferably friendly to Iran, but at least not hostile to it—that would not launch such a conflict again. Iran also does not want endless instability along its long western border, and its leaders are smart enough to realize that narrowly prejudicial sectarian politics are not a prescription for stability. These lines of thinking are consistent with U.S. interests; it is not only in the current fight against ISIS that U.S. and Iranian interests converge.

Look carefully also at another conflict-ridden Middle Eastern state whose name often gets casually invoked: Yemen. Iran and the United States are not on the same side of this civil war, although the United States probably has as much explaining to do as to why it has taken the side it has—the same side as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the most capable and threatening Al-Qaeda branch operating today—as Iran does. Iran has become identified with the side of the rebellious Houthi movement, although the most prominent Yemeni leader on the same side as the Houthis is Ali Abdullah Saleh, who as the Yemeni president for more than thirty years was seen as our guy in Yemen, not the Iranians' guy.

Iran did not instigate the Houthi rebellion, nor are the Houthis accurately described as “clients” of Iran much less “proxies,” as they often inaccurately are. Instead Iran was probably a source of restraint in advising the Houthis not to capture the capital of Sanaa, although the Houthis went ahead and did it anyway. The Iranians probably are glad to see the Saudis bleed some in Yemen, and whatever aid Tehran has given to the Houthis was given with that in mind. But any such aid pales in comparison to the extent and destructiveness of the Saudis' intervention in Yemen, which has included aerial assaults that have caused many hundreds of civilian casualties.

In the same vein consider Bahrain, which is an interesting case given historical Iranian claims to Bahrain and past Iranian activity there. Despite that background and despite Bahraini government accusations, there is an absence of reliable evidence of anything in recent years that could accurately be described as Iranian subversion in Bahrain. Instead it is again the Saudis who have used forceful methods to exert their influence on a neighbor, and in this case to prop up an unpopular Sunni regime in a Shia majority country. The principal Saudi military intervention in Bahrain came a few years ago, but it was an early shot in a campaign that has taken fuller shape under King Salman to use any available means, including military force, to expand Saudi influence in the region. If there is a Persian Gulf power that has been using damaging methods to try to become a regional hegemon, it is Saudi Arabia, not Iran.

The Saudis could claim to be acting on behalf of a status quo in Bahrain and Yemen, but then what about Syria, where it is Iran that is backing the existing regime? And as perhaps the most germane question, how can any one of the outside players that have mucked into that incredibly complicated civil war be singled out as a destabilizing regional marauder while the others (some of whom, such as the United States and Israel, have conducted their own airstrikes in the country) be given the benefit of more benign labeling? Iran did not start the Syrian war. And each of the most significant sides fighting that war are dominated by what we normally would consider certifiable bad guys: the Assad regime, ISIS, and an Islamist coalition led by the local Al-Qaeda branch. It is hard to see a clear and convincing basis for parceling out benign and malign labeling here when it comes to the outside players.

Then of course there is the rest of the Levantine part of the region, including Palestine; the aid relationships that Iran has had with the H groups—Hezbollah and Hamas—are continually invoked in any litany of Iranian regional activity. Lebanese Hezbollah certainly is still an important ally of Iran, although it has long since become strong enough to outgrow any Iranian hand-holding. We should never forget that prior to 9/11 Hezbollah was the group that had more U.S. blood on its hands through terrorism than any other group. We also should understand that Hezbollah has become a major player in Lebanese politics in a way in which many in the region, including its immediate political opponents, accept it as a legitimate political actor. Right now as a military actor it is deeply involved in the effort to support the Syrian regime, and it is not looking to stir up any new wars or instability anywhere else.

Hamas has never been anything remotely resembling a proxy of Iran, although it has accepted, somewhat reluctantly, Iranian aid in the absence of other help. To Iran, Hamas represents Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation of (or blockading and subjugation of) Palestinian territory, without being an accessory to that occupation, which is how the Palestinian Authority is widely seen. Hamas is the winner of the last free Palestinian election, and it has repeatedly made clear that its ambition is to hold political power among Palestinians and that it is willing to maintain a long-term truce with Israel. Right now Hamas is trying, unfortunately with only partial success, to keep small groups from overturning the current cease-fire with rocket firings into Israel. Again, none of this is a conflict that Iran has instigated or that Iran is stirring up or escalating. Iran is not the cause of the instability that already reigns. And the broader opposition to continued Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory is opposition that Iran shares with many others, including the whole Arab world.

As long as we are looking at this part of the region, it is impossible to escape notice that Iran does not hold a candle to Israel when it comes to forcefully throwing weight around in the neighborhood in damaging and destabilizing ways, even without considering the occupation of the West Bank. This has included multiple armed invasions of neighboring territory as well as other actions, such as the attack on Iraq years ago that stimulated Iraq to speed up its program to develop nuclear weapons.

And before we leave the Middle East as a whole, it also is impossible to escape notice that the single most destabilizing action in the region over the past couple of decades was the U.S. launch of a war of aggression in Iraq in 2003. Iran certainly has done nothing like that.

The ritualistically repeated notion that Iran is wreaking instability all over the region is a badly mistaken myth. There are important respects in which Iranian policies and actions do offend U.S. interests, but protection of those interests is not helped by perpetuating myths.

Perpetuation of this particular myth has several deleterious effects. The most immediate and obvious one is to corrupt debate over the nuclear deal. Another is to foster broader misunderstanding about Iranian behavior and intentions that threatens to corrupt debate over other issues as well.

Yet another consequence involves a failure to understand fully that every state competes for influence. Such efforts to compete are called foreign policy. It would be in our own interests for other states to wage that competition through peaceful and legitimate means. By misrepresenting who is doing what, and through what means, in the Middle East today, the myth about Iranian behavior maintains a constituency for isolating and ostracizing Iran—which makes it less, not more, likely that Iran, so ostracized, will use peaceful and legitimate means to pursue its interests in the future.

Image: Creative Commons 3.0.             

TopicsIran RegionsMiddle East

Watering Israel's Image

Paul Pillar

Israel is the object of widespread admiration for its economic and technical accomplishments and the ingenuity that went into them—for being a nation that made the desert bloom. Much of the admiration is quite warranted, with Israeli talent and resourcefulness having not only produced blooms on kibbutzes but also a leading high-tech sector today. The comparisons involved, however, usually leave unstated how much of the accomplishment rests on the prerogatives Israel has wrested for itself as an occupying power (not to mention the many billions through the years of U.S. assistance to Israel, which effectively has shifted burdens from Israeli to U.S. taxpayers).

Three years ago presidential candidate Mitt Romney made a speech in Jerusalem that illustrated the kind of incompletely based comparisons that are typical. Referring to the disparity (which he actually understated) between the per capita gross domestic product of Israel and that of areas assigned to the Palestinian Authority, Romney's explanation was: “Culture makes all the difference”—by which he meant that something akin to the Protestant work ethic drove Israeli enterprise but was missing from Arab culture. He made no mention of the numerous physical, legal, and resource impediments, within a few miles of where he was standing, to Palestinian economic activity that were part of the Israeli occupation, ranging from denial of building permits to prohibitions on Arab use of transportation networks. Of course, Romney's motivation for saying what he did undoubtedly had something to do with the audience and pocketbooks to which he was appealing (he was speaking at a fundraiser attended by prominent Jewish-American backers). Moreover, he is a very wealthy man who repeatedly demonstrated in other ways during the campaign his difficulty in comprehending the circumstances of those less well off. But his remarks suggested a view of Israel and the Palestinians that was both sincerely held and shared by many other Americans.

Even more to the point in understanding better the underpinnings of Israeli success are respects in which that success has benefited not only comparatively but absolutely from having conquered, and continuing to control, territory on which other people live. Israel has exploited resources in the Palestinian territories because it has the military strength to do so, with land being the most obvious and fundamental resource. With control of the land, Israel enforces differential use of man-made as well as natural resources, to the benefit of Israelis and the detriment of Palestinians. The reserving of the best highways in the West Bank for use only by Israelis, for example, bestows an obvious benefit on Israelis in enabling them to conduct their business more efficiently, without being slowed down by any annoying Palestinian vehicles. Think of this arrangement as HOT lanes in which who gets to use them is determined not by willingness to form a car pool or to pay a toll but instead by an occupying army that admits onto the entrance ramps only members of the favored ethnic group.

Among natural resources, water is vitally important and also involves Israelis benefiting absolutely as well as comparatively from their being an occupying power. That is why it is especially discouraging to read Isabel Kershner's article in the New York Times about management by Israel of water resources. Firmly in the blooming-desert tradition, the article is a laudatory piece about how through technology and shrewd regulation Israel has beaten a drought and taught the sort of lessons from which thirsty Californians could benefit. Half of the above-the-fold space on the Times front page is occupied by a picture of a sparkling blue hotel swimming pool against a backdrop of the barren Negev desert. The article barely mentions how water has been a factor in conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, and even that brief mention may leave only the impression that Israel is living up to its water-related obligations in the Oslo accords and that Palestinians are whining about the price they have to pay for water. The caption of the main picture (of an aqueduct in the West Bank) accompanying the after-the-jump portion of the article says that “Israel shares a mountain aquifer with the West Bank, and provides water to the Palestinians.”

What the article does not say is that a major factor in Israel's ability to beat droughts and to fulfill demand from its own citizens for water is that it uses its control over the Palestinian territories to consume, heavily and disproportionately, water resources from those territories—and in so doing, to deny those same resources to the Palestinians. This involves principally, though not exclusively, aquifers in the West Bank. Of water currently being drawn from West Bank aquifers, Palestinian residents of the West Bank use only 17 percent. Jewish settlers in the West Bank use 10 percent, and the remaining 73 percent goes to Israel proper. The water problems of West Bank Palestinians are exacerbated by Israeli restrictions on drilling new wells and repairing old pipes. The Israeli-built wall in the West Bank, which lies east of some of the most exploitable parts of the mountain aquifer, eases settler and Israeli use of the nearby wells and separates many Palestinians from their traditional water supplies.

A similar pattern of use prevails with Jordan River water. As Kershner's article notes, Israel extracts much of the water from the Jordan River system by moving it from Lake Tiberias to drier parts of Israel. Even though only a very small percentage of the Jordan River itself abuts Israeli territory and most of the river forms the boundary between the occupied West Bank and the kingdom of Jordan, Israel denies Palestinians any access to the river water.

The situation for residents of the Gaza Strip is even worse, and not only because of the damage to water infrastructure from Israel's military assaults and blockade. Gaza depends for water on a coaster aquifer that straddles the boundary with Israel and in which the underwater flow is from east to west. Israel has significantly reduced the amount of water that reaches the Gaza Strip by constructing a heavy concentration of deep wells on its side of the border. That Israeli upstream exploitation and the Palestinian drawing of what remains of the aquifer in the Gaza Strip have lowered both the level of the water table and water quality for Gazans, with much encroachment of saline sea water.

That swimming pool pictured on the front page of the Times is kept full not only because of Israeli ingenuity, although that is part of what is involved. It is full also because Israel uses its power over Palestinian resources to exploit them for the benefit of Israelis without regard for the deleterious effect on the Palestinians themselves.

The passionate American attachment to Israel has several roots, including well-founded admiration for Israeli accomplishments. But a further root is ignorance of many of the ways in which what may be admirable in what Israel has accomplished is based in part on policies and practices that are not. Management of water resources is but one example.


TopicsIsrael Palestinian Territories RegionsMiddle East

Smart Targeting of ISIS

Paul Pillar

Eric Schmitt reports in the New York Times that the U.S. military is refraining from attacking some sites it knows are ISIS facilities, including at the group's principal headquarters in Raqqa, Syria, to avoid the significant civilian casualties that such attacks would certainly entail. It seems the group has located some of its facilities, probably intentionally, immediately next to civilian concentrations or jails where it holds some of its innocent captives. This is the sort of restraint by the United States that is likely to spin up further the domestic opponents of the Obama administration who charge that the administration has been too timid in going after ISIS—or in diving into many other foreign conflicts, for that matter. Senator John McCain says we should be setting our hair on fire because of recent gains by ISIS. The syllogism underlying such alarmism seems to be: (1) ISIS is a despicable, brutal organization (which is true); (2) the United States military has the physical capability to inflict substantial damage on ISIS (also true); therefore the United States should use that capability more fully than it has so far (which does not necessarily follow).

The burning-hair approach has characterized much of the popular and political American attitude toward ISIS ever since the group scored dramatic territorial gains in Western Iraq last year and flaunted its stomach-turning brutality with beheadings of captives. The prevailing attitude focuses narrowly on the here-and-now of territorial gains and losses and on how military force could be applied to influence the tactical situation on the ground. But such a focus is not to be equated with what is in the best overall interests of the United States, especially in a conflict as complex as the one in Syria.

In one respect the territorial ebb and flow is indeed important for those interests: visible gains by ISIS have been an important factor in heightening the attractiveness of the ISIS brand in the eyes of radical individuals, including ones from the West, who have flocked to its banner. It is power and success more than ideology that have served as the group's main drawing card. But that observation begs the question of what such radicals would be doing anyway if they did not become factotums in ISIS's ministate or cannon fodder in the Syrian and Iraqi civil wars. The observation also ignores all the other respects, besides this one facet of recruitment, in which the ISIS problem does or does not bear on U.S. interests.

The restraint being shown by the U.S. military in the interest of avoiding collateral casualties is sound targeting policy on a couple of levels. One is the repeatedly demonstrated dynamic of how attacks that harm significant numbers of innocent civilians tend to anger and radicalize populations in a way that works to the advantage of extremist groups, is one of the most effective recruiting tools for such groups, and more than offsets the damage that the attacks directly inflict on the groups. This dynamic has long been in evidence with other groups even before ISIS became the main concern. None other than Donald Rumsfeld ruminated, with reference to other U.S. military action, whether we were creating more terrorists than we were killing.

The other level concerns how U.S. interests specifically are or are not involved, and how those interests differ from those of putative allies or clients. The fight against ISIS is, in multiple respects, not America's fight. The United States is not the principal original target of the group, and certainly not in the way that it served as the “far enemy” that Al-Qaeda wanted to attack as part of its strategy for getting at the near enemy. The fight is not one the United States can win; winning ultimately will depend on local will of the sort that, as the U.S. secretary of defense observed in his recent awkward but truthful comment, was lacking in the recent combat at Ramadi. Not least important, it is the United States that incurs the danger of additional radical responses to additional use of U.S. military force. Calls by supposed allies for more use of such force constitute cheap talk when it is the United States and not them that would carry the added risk of radical reprisal. The United States was not the original target of ISIS, but it makes itself a target (either for ISIS itself or for other like-minded radicals) the more it becomes directly involved in ISIS's conflict.

There are multiple wrong reasons for such involvement. One is the emotion and urge to strike back that stems from a group's dramatic gains or atrocities. Another is the general American tendency to think that if there is a problem somewhere in the world worth solving, then the United States can and should solve it. Yet another, applicable to the Iraqi side of the theater, is the relieving of cognitive dissonance for those who promoted or supported the launching of the Iraq War and would like to think, and would like the rest of us to think, that the turmoil that the invasion set off is instead due to later mismanagement of U.S. power.

Tom Friedman has it right when he observes, with specific reference to the fight against ISIS, “We cannot effectively intervene in a region where so few share our goals.”

TopicsSyria Iraq Terrorism RegionsMiddle East

A Missed Nonproliferation Opportunity

Paul Pillar

Last week the latest quinquennial review conference for the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) ended as a failure, without issuing a formal statement or report. The single biggest snag concerned whether to call for the convening of a conference on a Middle Eastern nuclear weapons free zone (MENWFZ). Fingers of blame were pointed in various directions, including at Egypt for pushing some procedural changes regarding the convening of such a conference that some other delegations regarded as needless complications. But the procedural issues were not much of an obstacle and could have been resolved. The more fundamental roadblock was the same one that has been decisive every time the subject of a MENWFZ has come up. Israel doesn't like the idea, and the United States, acting as Israel's lawyer (Israel itself, not being a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, was only an observer and not a full participant in the review conference), blocked approval of the draft statement that was on the table.

Israel doesn't like the idea because Israel itself would naturally be the chief focus of any discussion of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, given that it has kept itself outside the international nuclear nonproliferation regime and is the owner of what just about everyone in the world believes to be the only nuclear weapons possessed by any Middle Eastern state. Israel's official position regarding a conference is that discussion of nuclear weapons can only take place amid a discussion of “the broad range of security challenges in the region,” and it says it would consider joining the NPT only if Israel were at peace with the Arab states and Iran. That position is, of course, a formula for putting off the subject of a MENWFZ indefinitely, given that the Israeli government has sworn eternal hostility toward Iran and is determined—all the more so in the Israeli government's latest post-election configuration—not to settle its conflict with the Palestinians and therefore will not be at peace with most Arab states either.

None of this is altogether new. The 2010 NPT review conference did produce a recommendation to convene a regional conference by 2012, and considerable preparatory work was done under Finnish leadership. But the Israeli government was infuriated by the whole idea, and on its behalf the United States helped to throw enough dirt into the diplomatic gears for the regional conference never to take place.

What makes this month's failure to make progress on this front even more unfortunate is that another set of negotiations has made the opportunity for progress toward a MENWFZ greater than ever. These are the negotiations that are close to completing a comprehensive agreement to restrict and monitor Iran's nuclear program. Although Iran evidently has not decided to build nuclear weapons anyway, the impending agreement, if completed, would be a major accomplishment on behalf of the cause of nuclear nonproliferation. Iran is a significant country in this regard given that it is one of the largest countries in the Middle East, it has a substantial nuclear program, and it probably has in the past actively considered building nuclear weapons. The agreement currently being finalized provides for major restrictions on Iran's nuclear activities and a system of international monitoring of those activities that is more extensive and intrusive than what any other country has ever voluntarily imposed on itself. The agreement thus provides a very useful model for extending the cause of nuclear nonproliferation throughout the Middle East, while embodying the NPT's principle of reconciling the widespread peaceful use of nuclear energy with stringent safeguards to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. It provides a model, and it provides momentum. And despite the many sharp disagreements between Iranians and Arabs, a MENWFZ is one concept on which they agree.

The potential for the Iran agreement to serve as a region-wide model is underscored by how many of its provisions (as revealed in the partial “framework” agreement announced last month) resemble recommendations of a recent report from an independent group of nuclear experts on controlling fissile materials in the Middle East. These provisions include limiting enrichment of uranium to specified low levels, prohibiting the stockpiling of enriched uranium, banning the reprocessing of plutonium, and adhering to international safeguards such as the Additional Protocol for inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

All this potential gets swept out of sight by the campaign of those who for other reasons oppose reaching any agreement on anything with Iran and would have us inhabit an Alice-in-Wonderland world in which we are supposed to believe that placing major restrictions on someone's nuclear program is a blow against rather than in favor of nuclear nonproliferation. It is in the same topsy-turvy world that leading the charge against this agreement is the most prominent nuclear outlaw state in the Middle East.

All of this is regrettable, but doubly so when it means blowing a good opportunity to make progress toward keeping nuclear weapons from being part of this conflict-ridden region. 

TopicsIran Israel Nonproliferation RegionsMiddle East

Explained: Why America's Deadly Drones Keep Firing

Paul Pillar

President Obama's announcement last month that earlier this year a “U.S. counterterrorism operation” had killed two hostages, including an American citizen, has become a fresh occasion for questioning the rationales for continuing attacks from unmanned aerial vehicles aimed at presumed, suspected, or even confirmed terrorists. This questioning is desirable, although not mainly for hostage-related reasons connected to this incident. Sometimes an incident has a sufficient element of controversy to stoke debate even though what most needs to be debated is not an issue specific to the incident itself. More fundamental issues about the entire drone program need more attention than they are getting.

The plight of hostages held by terrorists has a long and sometimes tragic history, almost all of which has had nothing to do with drones. Hostage-taking has been an attractive terrorist tool for so long partly because of the inherent advantages that the hostage-holders always will have over counterterrorist forces. Those advantages include not only the ability to conceal the location of hostages—evidently a successful concealment in the case of the hostages mentioned in the president's announcement—but also the ability of terrorists to kill the hostages themselves and to do so quickly enough to make any rescue operation extraordinarily difficult. Even states highly skilled at such operations, most notably Israel, have for this reason suffered failed rescue attempts.

It is not obvious what the net effect of operations with armed drones is likely to be on the fate of other current or future hostages. The incident in Pakistan demonstrates one of the direct negative possibilities. Possibly an offsetting consideration is that fearing aerial attack and being kept on the run may make, for some terrorists, the taking of hostages less attractive and the management of their custody more difficult. But a hostage known to be in the same location as a terrorist may have the attraction to the latter of serving as a human shield.

The drone program overall has had both pluses and minuses, as anyone who is either a confirmed supporter or opponent of the program should admit. There is no question that a significant number of certified bad guys have been removed as a direct and immediate consequence of the attacks. But offsetting, and probably more than offsetting, that result are the anger and resentment from collateral casualties and damage and the stimulus to radicalization that the anger and resentment provide. There is a good chance that the aerial strikes have created more new terrorists bent on exacting revenge on the United States than the number of old terrorists the strikes have killed.

This possibility is all the more disturbing in light of what appears to be a significant discrepancy between the official U.S. posture regarding collateral casualties and the picture that comes from nonofficial sources of reporting and expertise. The public is at a disadvantage in trying to judge this subject and to assess who is right and who is wrong, but what has been pointed out by respected specialists such as Micah Zenko is enough to raise serious doubt about official versions both of the efforts made to avoid casualties among innocents and of how many innocents have become victims of the strikes.

The geographic areas in which the drone strikes are most feasible and most common are not necessarily the same places from which future terrorist attacks against the United States are most likely to originate. The core Al-Qaeda group, which has been the primary target and concern in northwest Pakistan, is but a shadow of its former self and not the threat it once was. Defenders of the drone strikes are entitled to claim that this development is in large part due to the strikes. But that leaves the question: why keep doing it now?

The principal explanation, as recognized in the relevant government circles, for the drone program has been that it is the only way to reach terrorists who cannot be reached by other tools or methods. It has been seen as the only counterterrorist game that could be played in some places. That still leaves more fundamental questions about the motivations for playing the game.

Policy-makers do not use a counterterrorist tool just because the tool is nifty—although that may be a contributing factor regarding the drones—but rather because they feel obligated to use every available tool to strike at terrorists as long as there are any terrorists against whom to strike. In the back of their minds is the thought of the next Big One, or maybe even a not so big terrorist attack on U.S. soil, occurring on their watch after not having done everything they could to prevent it, or doing what would later be seen in hindsight as having had the chance to prevent it.

The principal driver of such thoughts is the American public's zero tolerance attitude toward terrorism, in which every terrorist attack is seen as a preventable tragedy that should have been prevented, without fully factoring in the costs and risks of prevention or of attempted prevention. Presidents and the people who work for them will continue to fire missiles from drones and to do some other risky, costly, or even counterproductive things in the cause of counterterrorism because of the prospect of getting politically pilloried for not being seen to make the maximum effort on behalf of that cause.

TopicsTerrorism RegionsUnited States

Iran, Israel, and the North Korea Analogy

Paul Pillar

One of the lines of attack against the agreement to limit Iran's nuclear program is to liken it to the case of North Korea, with which the United States and other powers reached a deal in 1994—the so-called “Agreed Framework”—that did not stop North Korea from building and testing nuclear weapons. The most prominent opponent of any agreement with Iran, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has been among those who have tried to make this comparison. The comparison ignores many large and important differences between the two cases.

Even just a few of those differences are sufficient to show how misplaced the comparison is. Start with the nature of the regimes involved. Iran, despite its complicated institutional arrangements that constitute departures from full democracy, has a political system in which responsiveness to public demands and expectations matters. The political futures not only of President Rouhani but also of the supreme leader depend in large part on satisfying expectations for economic improvement that could come only from adherence to an agreement with the West that would bring some relief from economic sanctions. In Pyongyang, in contrast, is a family-led band of thugs posing as a government that has had no compunction about pursuing policies that have caused mass starvation among the North Korean population.

The agreement being negotiated by Iran and the P5+1 is nothing at all like the North Korean Agreed Framework, apart from each having to do with nuclear matters. The Agreed Framework was a sketchy four-page document that provided for little in the way of monitoring and enforcement. In contrast, the leading feature of the agreement being negotiated with Iran is its unprecedented degree of monitoring and inspections. The final agreement will have an enforcement and dispute resolution mechanism consistent with the Additional Protocol pertaining to work of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The agreement with Iran addresses, comprehensively and in detail, all possible routes to a nuclear weapon, from the mining of uranium to the internal design of nuclear reactors. In contrast, the Agreed Framework was a deal about reactors that did not address the uranium enrichment route at all.

As sketchy as the Agreed Framework was, it was broader than the Iran agreement in that part of the bargain was that in return for the restrictions North Korea was accepting on its nuclear program the United States was expected not only to provide help in building proliferation-resistant reactors but also to provide fuel oil and to move toward normal political and economic relations. In contrast, the Iran agreement is sharply focused on nuclear matters. Although successful implementation of the agreement might lead to worthwhile dialogue on other topics, the agreement will stand or fall on compliance by both sides regarding nuclear-related obligations.

This broader though vaguer aspect of the Agreed Framework was a large reason for the breakdown of the deal. However questionable North Korea's own behavior was, the North Koreans had good reason to be disappointed with what they regarded as Washington's failure to live up to its obligations. In addition to the aid in building new reactors never fully materializing, the Clinton administration was slow in moving toward more normal relations. The George W. Bush administration had even less interest in moving in that direction; it consigned North Korea to the Axis of Evil and was talking publicly about militarily attacking North Korea before Pyongyang withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and proceeded with its bomb-building program.

The compliance issues stemming from the Agreed Framework point to one worthwhile lesson to be applied to the Iranian case, and this has to do with the care and attention required in implementing an agreement. There will need to be more care and attention—and there is no reason there cannot be—in scrupulously living up to obligations in the agreement between Iran and the P5+1 than there was with North Korea if the Iranian agreement is to succeed. The experience of North Korea is one of the reasons for well-founded Iranian suspicion and doubt about the willingness of the United States to live up to its side of the deal. (Other reasons include some actions by the U.S. Treasury Department since the reaching of the preliminary agreement with Iran in 2013, and the majority party in the U.S. Congress saying it might destroy the deal once it has the ability to do so). The suspicion and doubt about U.S. compliance explain Iranian determination to retain certain capabilities, such as the underground facility at Fordo, that could function as an insurance policy should the agreement break down.

There is one other valid parallel between North Korea and what's going on now regarding the Iran negotiations. One of the most distinctive aspects of the North Korean regime's international behavior is to make trouble, and to threaten to make even more trouble, as a way of getting attention and getting its way on something else. The troublesome act that functions as a signal might be some bellicose action against South Korea, the firing of a ballistic missile over Japan, or something else. The nuclear weapons program also serves this purpose: North Korea threatens to be a troublesome proliferator and actually is troublesome along this line, as a way of trying to get material aid and recognition. The chief trouble-maker during the nuclear negotiations with Iran—the actor that has been endeavoring to sabotage the negotiations at every turn—is Netanyahu's Israeli government. Motivated less by the nuclear issue itself than by a desire to keep Iran ostracized and isolated, the Israeli government is not about to end its sabotage efforts. But it is now thinking of how it can use the threat of more troublemaking on the issue to get some other benefits for itself. This means telling the Obama administration to pay up or else face continued vigorous efforts by Israel to use its influence in Congress to derail the deal even after it is signed and has entered into force.

Israel doesn't have the material needs that North Korea does, but it always will welcome more advanced armaments to make its regional military superiority even more overwhelmingly superior—in addition, of course, to the United States providing unstinting political cover in international organizations for Israeli policies. The opportunities for Israel to exert this kind of pressure are enhanced by its tag-team effort with the Gulf Arabs, who have been making their own demands for more advanced arms. Then, invoking the article of faith that Israel always must be militarily superior to the Arab states, the Israeli demands go even higher.

Some of the Israeli government's followers in the U.S. Congress are going even farther and urging that Israel be given bunker-buster bombs. This would facilitate Israel being able to threaten a even greater degree of trouble: not just political shenanigans in Congress, but starting a new war in the Middle East—which would not only kill the nuclear agreement for sure but also cause all manner of other untoward consequences.

The Obama administration probably is going to have to allow itself, lest the benefits of the nuclear agreement be lost, to be bullied into playing to some degree this extortionate game. But playing it is still distasteful, and still damaging to sound and credible U.S. foreign policy, whether those imposing the game do so with a Korean accent or an Israeli one. 

TopicsIran Israel North Korea RegionsMiddle East

The Amtrak Disaster: Part of a Much Bigger Problem

Paul Pillar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image: Creative Commons 3.0 

TopicsAmtrak RegionsUnited States

Currying Favor at Camp David

Paul Pillar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


TopicsSaudi Arabia Iran Yemen RegionsMiddle East

Nationalist Aspirations and a Tale of Two Elections

Paul Pillar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TopicsIsrael United Kingdom Terrorism RegionsMiddle East