Paul Pillar

The Latest Cost of Islamophobia

Paul Pillar

Richard Cheney spoke to Republican Congressmen at the Capitol Hill Club the other day, giving them a sort of pep talk on the importance of maintaining a Cheneyite view of the world and not letting the guy in the White House be seen as taking the lead in confronting ISIS, the feared terrorist group of the moment. Mr. Cheney's remarks were not publicly reported but according to one of the Congressmen in attendance the former vice president “basically said that President Obama has actually done things that have supported the Muslim Brotherhood. But on the other hand the Muslim Brotherhood is really the beginnings of all the Islamist groups that we’re now dealing with; Hamas, ISIS – all of those groups.”

Leave aside for now the absence of any reason for anyone to listen to advice on such matters from one of the chief promoters of the war of choice that directly spawned ISIS. Leave aside also whether the description of the Obama administration's posture toward the Muslim Brotherhood resembles its actual policy. The administration has done little more than wrist-slapping in response to the Egyptian military regime's overthrow of a democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood president and its subsequent brutal suppression of the group.

Focus instead on the lumping together into one undifferentiated stew of “all the Islamist groups.” Sadly, that primitive way of categorizing political actors in the Middle East is not limited to Mr. Cheney. Former presidential candidate Mitt Romney did much the same thing. Partly this practice reflects the usual politically motivated games of association. When something as fearsome and salient as ISIS appears on the scene, expect that game to be played. Thus Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his government's efforts to justify the recent turkey shoot in the Gaza Strip, has been fervently trying to equate Hamas with ISIS. Similarly, those endlessly waving the bloody shirt of Benghazi are making sure we hear Benghazi and ISIS in the same sentence. But there is ignorance, and probably prejudice, that runs more deeply than such political tactics.

Political Islam is not an ideology. It is more a sort of vocabulary that has been adopted by a very wide range of groups, parties, and movements, ranging from the most moderate and democratic to the most violent and extreme. It is a vocabulary that embraces a very large part of the political discourse in the Middle East, a fact that reflects the belief of adherents to one of the world's major monotheistic religions that their religion provides meaning and guidance for most human affairs, public as well as private. That vocabulary will not go away, and there will always be a plethora of diverse groups that define themselves in terms of that vocabulary.

Failure to understand all that means a failure to understand much of what is going on in the Muslim world and especially in the Middle East, from politics in Egypt to internal conflict in Iraq. With ISIS rearing its ugly head, one particular consequence of this failure deserves to be highlighted: bashing and rejecting “all the Islamist groups”no matter how peaceful and moderate—and lumping them indiscriminately with the most horrid and extreme groups—aids the cause of the violent and extreme groups. Without accepted peaceful channels for anyone with a grievance and an Islamic bent to pursue his objectives, the violent channels appear more attractive. The bashing and rejection also lend credence directly to the extremists' message that violence is the only way in which Islamic values will ever be incorporated into public life.

Egypt is an ongoing demonstration of this reality. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood was for many years remarkable in its forbearance in the face of being legally banned, rejecting the violent methods of radical Islamist groups such as the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and al-Gama'at al-Islamiyya. When it was finally given the chance to compete fully and openly, as well as peacefully, for political power, it did so. Now the al-Sisi regime's bludgeoning of the group has stimulated an upsurge in terrorist violence in Egypt, and most recently inroads in the country by ISIS.

The ISIS leadership no doubt welcomes the indiscriminate lumping of itself with everything Islamist, with the likes of the Muslim Brotherhood being taken down in the process, as the al-Sisi regime is doing in Egypt and as Mr. Cheney was doing on Capitol Hill. The lumping reduces the competition ISIS would otherwise be getting from more moderate groups appealing to an Islamist clientele which would have good reason to be appalled by the methods of ISIS. The lumping also helps ISIS to pose as the energetic champion of all Muslims against the depredations of a supposedly anti-Muslim United States.

Crude, primitive rejection of everything Islamist has many unfortunate effects. Helping ISIS is one of the effects we ought to worry about at the moment.                          

TopicsTerrorism Egypt RegionsMiddle East

Realism Versus Political Correctness in Opposing ISIS

Paul Pillar

As President Obama prepares for a speech in which he will describe his strategy for countering the group commonly known as ISIS, officials in his administration are preparing public expectations by saying the effort against ISIS may take three years to “complete.” Maybe the preparation is intended to dampen anticipation of rapid results, but it probably also is designed to cushion any sticker-shock reaction from people who will hear in the speech an effort that is larger and longer than they may have had in mind. Three years may sound like a lot, but consider that this week marks the 13th anniversary of the terrorist attack that stimulated a priority-monopolizing, invasion-facilitating, civil-liberties-revising “war on terror” which, although that latter term isn't used as routinely as it once was, never has received a certificate of completion.

Even without a spectacular terrorist attack, or any attack, on the U.S. homeland by the feared group du jour, much of the public discourse in the United States today about ISIS closely resembles the public discourse more than a decade ago about al-Qaeda. Of course, part of what we are hearing is a continued reaction to 9/11, even though ISIS had nothing to do with that attack. Firm action against ISIS has already become equated in the public mind with prevention of a future big terrorist attack in the United States, in a way that never would have occurred had there not been a 9/11.

Expectations about the duration of counterterrorist efforts against the most feared group of the day are one respect in which the public mood and discourse of today resemble what prevailed a dozen years ago. Three years probably seemed like a rather long time to most Americans back then, and thirteen years was probably outside the frame of reference of almost the entire public. Yet today there is still around not only plenty of radical Sunni terrorism but also the very group, al-Qaeda, that was the prime target of counterterrorism after 9/11. Just three years ago the White House released a national strategy on counterterrorism that was almost entirely about al-Qaeda and its affiliates. How many Americans listening to the president this week anticipate that a decade from now ISIS will still be a major policy concern of the United States? Probably almost none, and any who thought about it probably would consider such persistence, if it should occur, a mark of unsuccessful counterterrorist policies.

A political correctness that pervaded discussions of counterterrorism and al-Qaeda a decade or more ago pervades discussions today about ISIS. There was back then a requirement to speak only of defeating or destroying the group that represented the terrorism problem, or maybe even terrorism in general, and not to speak of just containing or degrading it. Woe to those (myself included, based on pre-9/11 writings) who pointed out that terrorism is an age-old tactic that can be managed with varying degrees of success but never eliminated. Today al-Qaeda, let alone terrorism in general or even the Sunni variants of it, has not been destroyed. Given the expansion and metastasis of it into groups such as ISIS, it would be hard even to say it has been defeated. Terrorism is better managed than it was 13 years ago, however, thanks in large part to enhanced defensive security measures, and the core al-Qaeda group has been significantly degraded and contained. The lessons of all of this seem to be lost on those today who insist on a whatever-it-takes mission of destroying ISIS.

The constraints imposed by the current political correctness regarding ISIS dovetail in an unfortunate way with some of the political vulnerabilities of the Obama administration. The administration probably seeks, for example, to avoid any posture that could be disparaged as “leading from behind,” which also would be out of tune with the current militant mood music about destroying ISIS quickly and forcefully. Leading from behind would in some respects, however, be the most effective U.S. approach toward countering ISIS in the Middle East, given how success in any such effort will depend heavily on whether Arab publics and governments, including Sunni ones in particular, are seen to be out front in opposing the group.

The administration will have to balance the demands of the current political zeitgeist against whatever it may privately consider to be the best way to protect and advance U.S. interests in the Middle East in the face of the ISIS phenomenon. Wherever it strikes that balance will unavoidably fail to satisfy entirely either of these opposing sets of criteria.           

TopicsTerrorism RegionsMiddle East

Obama's Burden and Rhetorical Asymmetry

Paul Pillar

President Obama has been having a rough summer, reflected in poll numbers that are as low as they have been during his presidency. Clearly a concatenation of developments overseas that appear to most Americans to be to some degree threatening accounts for much of the sour public mood and the broadsides being directed at the president and his administration for how they have responded to those developments. Go beyond the broadsides and look at specific available policy options, however, and one quickly sees that this negativity is not primarily the consequence of Mr. Obama's policies. In the public debate there is a surplus of dissatisfaction being expressed about nasty happenings abroad and a shortage of constructive ideas about what the United States can or should do differently about such happenings, much less any analysis about all the ramifications of trying to follow any conceivable alternative course. Typical of the complaining and criticizing is, for example, a Washington Post editorial the other day that bemoans what it labels as “big holes” in the administration's Middle East strategy but whose recommendation is basically, well, to do something more about regional problems such as ISIS and preferably something forceful.

Issues of Mr. Obama's style and salesmanship are partly, though only partly, to blame for the negativity. A meticulous and careful (and sometimes necessarily time-consuming) approach to policy-making is good for making good policy (and is much more likely to turn out good policy than the no-process, go-by-the-gut approach that Mr. Obama's predecessor applied to some major issues), but it doesn't sell very well. The president also hurt himself with his verbal gaffe about not yet having a strategy—a line that could have been written in the war room at the Republican National Committee.

The negativity is partly a function of the domestic political season, although only slightly so because in American politics today every season is a hyperpartisan political season. We may be seeing slightly more broadsides about foreign affairs than we otherwise would have from the president's political opponents because opponents who thought they could base an entire political campaign on berating Obamacare have had to confront increasing evidence that the Affordable Care Act is actually working rather well.

A more valid, as well as being the biggest and broadest, explanation for how this president has become a punching bag for so much of the current discourse about foreign affairs involves where history has happened to place Mr. Obama on the ever-changing American continuum of assertiveness vs. retrenchment, and where history also has placed him in this regard in the ever-changing push and pull between presidents and the American public. The historical role for some presidents has been to energize into action overseas an American public that was not especially inclined to be energized in this way. Franklin D. Roosevelt's role in the months leading up to the U.S. entry into World War II—before the attack on Pearl Harbor sealed his case—is a leading example. Mr. Obama's necessary role is in many ways the opposite: to keep a nation that is energized to do some stupid things from actually doing them.

Although the blunder of the Iraq War and fatigue with the war in Afghanistan are still reflected in poll numbers showing most of the American public disinclined to get immersed in another Middle Eastern war any time soon (and in this respect the president has been acting in accord with public preferences), two developments in particular have provided the stimulus and the energy to do more things and do more forceful things, and to express impatience with Mr. Obama for holding the anti-stupidity reins as tightly as he has. One is the Ukrainian crisis, along with all of Vladimir Putin's shenanigans, which has gotten Cold War juices flowing in the veins of people who do not stop to realize how this isn't really the Cold War any more. The other development is the dramatic rise of ISIS and its bone-chilling behavior, which has gotten post-9/11 juices flowing in many Americans who are uttering “if we don't stop them over there we will surely face them here at home” platitudes without realizing the lack of basis for such fears.

Barack Obama carries the heavy burden not only of reining in such amygdala-driven responses but of having to do so amid an asymmetric debating environment in which the side favoring doing more or doing something more forceful always has a rhetorical advantage over the side favoring restraint. This means the president gets little benefit, as a counterweight to the “do more” broadsides, either from the general public reservations about involvement in another war soon or from more specific criticisms from his left flank that he already is doing too much kinetic stuff such as drone strikes.

The rhetorical asymmetry has several bases. One is the mistaken habit of thinking of strong leadership as always involving doing more rather than doing less, and especially doing more visible and especially more forceful things. That is an unfortunately skewed view of true leadership, which does not entail that type of bias regarding action vs. restraint.

Another basis is the greater appeal of being seen to meet a threat rather than being seen to stand back in the face of a perceived threat. Careful consideration of the extent to which a perceived threat is real, or of whether a threat is dire enough to sustain severe costs in trying to counter it, or whether any specific effort to counter it may turn out to be counterproductive, always carry less weight in public debate than the simple theme of meeting and defeating a threat.

The simplicity vs. complexity distinction is in a broader sense another big part of the rhetorical asymmetry. It is why much of the criticism of President Obama is (even without being exacerbated by verbal gaffes of his own) phrased in terms of his supposedly not having a “strategy” or “organizing principle.” Having a “strategy” or being”strategic” always sounds good, no matter whether or not there is any specific substance in the minds of those who utter such terms. Stanford historian David Kennedy put this phenomenon nicely into perspective when he observed, “It's difficult virtually to the point of impossibility to have a grand strategy in a world that is so fluid and in which we no longer yield the power we once had. In a sense that is Obama's strategy, a recognition of that fact.”

The complexities do not have the rhetorical appeal but they are often what matter most in determining whether a U.S. initiative is going to be a success or a fiasco. With regard to Middle Eastern problems involving ISIS, Tom Friedman aptly described those problems as being inextricably embedded in not just one but several civil wars. U.S. involvement means taking sides in those civil wars, and that means making new enemies and eliciting more unfavorable reactions against U.S. interests.

Yet another foundation of the asymmetry that applies uniquely in the United States is the American exceptionalist tendency to view just about any significant problem in the world as a U.S. responsibility, and to believe that the United States, with the right policies, ought to be able to solve or resolve just about any problem in the world. That never actually has been the case, and certainly is not today. Kennedy notes, “There's an expectation especially since World War II that the United States and the president in particular can command events. That not true and less true today than ever.” The tendency to make world events at large a part of the incumbent U.S. president's report card is not unique to Mr. Obama, but it is worth noting that except for Libya the messes he is having to deal with are not of his own making.

Whatever good luck Barack Obama may have had earlier in his life that helped get him to the White House, it has been offset by some significant bad luck once he got there. At the beginning of his presidency he was given an awful legacy, including the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression, a soaring budget deficit, and a foreign war that was not only one of the biggest blunders in the history of U.S. foreign policy (and responsible for much of that budget deficit, which had been a surplus at the beginning of the previous administration) but also spawned such continuing problems as ISIS. Now moving into the last quarter of his presidency he is carrying the necessary but mostly thankless burden of having to be the restrainer-in-chief.

Peter Beinart, in observing how the very emotional American public and political reaction to the gruesome killing by ISIS of two freelance journalists resembles in some respects the deep emotional reaction by the American public to the taking hostage of U.S. diplomats in Tehran in 1979, sees some similarity between the current domestic politics of U.S. foreign policy and the politics during the latter part of Jimmy Carter's administration. This is another piece of bad luck for Obama: having to deal with such emotional—and very unhelpful in trying to win support for prudent and carefully constructed policy—public reactions to still more events that are not of his own making. But as Carter himself observed, life is unfair.

Image: White House Flickr.                                                   

TopicsUnited States Iraq Ukraine RegionsEurope Middle East

Israel's Nuclear Weapons: Widely Suspected Unmentionables

Paul Pillar

Some things, or possible things, are important enough that we would be foolish to presume or pretend that they do not exist even if we lack any official confirmation or acknowledgment that they in fact exist. One such possible thing is of high importance to security issues in the Middle East. Almost everyone outside of government who writes or speaks about these issues takes as a given that Israel has long had an arsenal of nuclear weapons. No Israeli government, however, has ever said publicly that Israel has such weapons, and neither has the U.S. government, under any administration, said so either.

Let us be very careful in how we discuss this subject. The world is full of widely accepted conventional wisdom, some of which turns out not to be true. After all, we do not know whether Israel has nuclear weapons. So let us not frame a discussion of this subject in terms of assertions of fact. Instead, we can play off the widely held consensus on the subject, discussing implications of the consensus itself and other implications if the consensus happened to be correct.

One disadvantage of this approach is that to adhere scrupulously to the agnostic qualifiers that the approach requires makes for clumsy prose that is uncomfortable to read. A way to cope with this problem is inspired by the late Alfred Kahn, the Cornell economist who served in Jimmy Carter's administration. Kahn is best known for deregulating the airline industry as chairman of the Civil Aeronautics Board. He later was Carter's anti-inflation czar, in which post the blunt-spoken Kahn was once chastised by his political betters at the White House for warning of a possible “depression”. Don't use the word depression, he was told. Kahn complied, but rather than resort to some awkward circumlocution such as “an economic downturn that is more serious than what is customarily called a recession” he started using the term banana as a substitute for the word he was not supposed to utter. When the head of the United Fruit Company complained to him about this negative use of the term, Kahn switched to kumquat as his substitute word whenever he discussed the danger of a depression.

Using both Kahn's technique and his term, in the rest of this essay let kumquats mean “Israel's widely suspected nuclear weapons” or, in its more complete form, “Israel's widely suspected nuclear weapons—so widely and strongly suspected that just about everyone who says anything about related topics takes them as a given, even though we cannot say for certain that they exist.”

Kumquats are not just a subject of conventional wisdom. They have been carefully addressed by serious historians and political scientists and have been taken into account in countless analyses of security problems in the Middle East. They also routinely figure into global rundowns of nuclear weapons arsenals, such as from the Ploughshares Fund or the Arms Control Association, with Israel listed alongside the eight declared nuclear weapons states. The Arms Control Association's inventory estimates the number of kumquats at between 75 and 200. Most other estimates are similar; a more detailed examination of kumquats and associated Israeli military forces that appeared in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists twelve years ago used the same range. The fullest understanding of the kumquat program can be found in the writings of the foremost historian of that program, Avner Cohen, including in his most recent book, The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel's Bargain with the Bomb.

Cohen and co-author Marvin Miller argued in an article four years ago that the policy of non-acknowledgment of kumquats has outlived whatever usefulness it had for Israel, and that Israel should change that policy. According to these authors, the policy was grounded in an understanding that Golda Meir and Richard Nixon reached in 1969, by which the United States would not make a public issue out of kumquats as long as Israel did not acknowledge their existence. Cohen and Miller contend that being more transparent about this capability would enable Israel to demonstrate that it is a responsible nuclear power, to participate in arms control endeavors that are in Israel's interests, and to diminish one of the grounds for the international community to treat Israel as an outlaw pariah state. Greater transparency also would facilitate useful discussion and debate among Israelis themselves of issues related to ownership of kumquats, such as questions of safety, command and control, and identification of circumstances in which the kumquats might ever be used.

From a U.S. point of view, the policy of not saying anything publicly about kumquats has also long outlived whatever usefulness it may have had, for the reasons Cohen and Miller offer as well as for others. The very fact that there is now such a broad and strong consensus about the existence of kumquats, which was not yet the case in 1969, is one reason. Moreover, keeping any mention of kumquats out of bounds inhibits full and fruitful discussion about Israel's security, with the Israelis themselves as well as among American politicians and policy-makers. Anyone who professes to have high concern about Israel's security—which includes almost every American politician—ought to favor uninhibited and fully informed discussion of the subject.

Arms control also is at least as important to U.S. interests as to Israel's, at both regional and global levels. Regionally, proposals for a Middle East nuclear-weapons-free zone (or in some variants, a weapons-of-mass-destruction-free zone) are worth discussing, however much realization of such a goal will depend on resolution of political conflicts that will determine the willingness of regional states to give up whatever weapons they currently have. Any such discussion will be a feckless charade, however, as long as neither Israel nor the United States will say anything about kumquats.

That the United States is so out of step on this subject with the rest of the world is taken by the rest of the world as one more example of double standards that the United States applies to shield Israel. Even further, it is taken as not just a double standard but living a lie. Whatever the United States says about nuclear weapons will always be taken with a grain of salt or with some measure of disdain as long as the United States says nothing about kumquats.

The issue of Iran's nuclear program, negotiations on which will be coming to a climax this fall, is highly germane to this problem. We have the spectacle of the government of Israel being by far the most energetic rabble-rouser on the subject of a possible Iranian nuclear weapon, to the extent of repeatedly threatening to attack Iran militarily. Some might call this irony; others would call it chutzpah. Anyone would be entitled to say that any state that not only refuses to become a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) or to subject any of its nuclear activities to any kind of international inspection or control but also already possesses kumquats or their equivalents has no standing to conduct such agitation about Iran, which is a party to the NPT, has already subjected its nuclear activities to an unprecedented degree of intrusive inspection, and is in the process of negotiating an agreement to place even further limits on its nuclear program to ensure it stays peaceful.

The need for full and well-informed discussion of Israel's security will play into any debate in the United States about a completed nuclear agreement with Iran. Fully taking into account kumquats—which, as noted above, private scholars and nongovernmental organizations estimate to number in the dozens or scores—also underscores how misplaced is the preoccupation with an Iranian "breakout" or feared rush to build one or even a few bombs. Whatever the United States may or may not say on the subject, it is safe to assume that Iranian leaders believe that kumquats really do exist, and probably in the numbers that private experts estimate.

The U.S. refusal to discuss this subject has other, less direct, distorting and stifling effects on discourse in the United States about Middle Eastern security issues. When the U.S. government takes a posture such as this, it has damaging trickle-down effects, not necessarily visible to the public, on the broader discourse. Then there is the sheer silliness of the posture. With such a broad and strong consensus about kumquats and all the extensive discussion that has already taken place about them elsewhere, clearly the official U.S. posture serves no purpose in safeguarding U.S. security interests. It is only a legacy of a policy constructed to deal with a situation U.S. policy-makers faced 45 years ago.

The U.S. posture appears to outsiders inconsistent not only with the broader consensus but also with some of the United States' own public revelations. Six years ago the U.S. government released a redacted and declassified version of an intelligence estimate from 1974 about prospects for nuclear proliferation, in which the lead judgment about Israel was “We believe that Israel already has produced nuclear weapons.” The kumquat program has since had, of course, 40 years to progress from wherever it may have been in 1974.

Within the past couple of weeks the U.S. government has publicly released another pertinent set of previously classified material: about 100 pages of documents from internal U.S. government deliberations about the kumquat problem in 1968 and 1969, spanning the Johnson and Nixon administrations. The documents make interesting reading, although so far the the press has given almost no attention to them apart from an article in the left-leaning Israeli newspaper Haaretz. A strong refrain, spanning both U.S. administrations, running through these deliberations was that any Israeli development of nuclear weapons would be a major negative for U.S. interests. As one interagency assessment put it, “The disadvantages to U.S. global interests are such that a major U.S. effort to induce Israel not to produce nuclear weapons is justified.” U.S. policy-makers faced several complications in trying to achieve this objective, however, including the already-emerging problem of Israeli colonization of territory conquered in the Six Day War less than two years earlier. An interagency study group described this part of the quandary this way:

"Use of leverage on the NPT/nuclear issue may seriously detract from our capability to influence Israel on the settlement issue. On the other hand, if we decide to defer using pressure on the nuclear question so as to preserve leverage on a possible peace settlement, we must ask how long we are prepared to do this in the face of Israel's rapidly advancing program, and the knowledge that, the longer we put off making Israel feel the seriousness of our purpose, the harder it will be to arrest Israel's program."

Another complication was the fear that using the most obvious source of U.S. leverage over Israel—arms supplies, with shipment of F-4 Phantom jets being the top Israeli interest at the time—would only make the Israelis more determined than ever to push ahead with the development of nuclear weapons. The State Department in particular argued this point, and was generally in favor of relying only on persuasion rather than leverage to try to slow down the Israeli program. The Department of Defense favored taking a harder line and using the arms spigot as a tool of leverage without fear of endangering Israel's conventional advantage over its neighbors, noting that “for the present Israel's military superiority is complete.” The documents do not take us to the end of this interagency debate or to whatever Nixon and Meir said to each other in private. But in effect the outcome was a passive don't ask, don't tell approach.

Even at that early stage the kumquat program, like the colonization program, involved a lack of Israeli cooperation with the United States. Israel already was playing the verbal game of saying it would not be the first state to “introduce” nuclear weapons into the Middle East. The declassified documents record repeated U.S. efforts to get Israel to state that not “introducing” weapons meant not producing or stockpiling them. The Israelis refused to do so and instead suggested that as long as weapons were neither tested or announced they would not have been “introduced.”

The timing of declassification of government documents can reflect many different and mostly mundane factors, such as when someone happened to submit a Freedom of Information Act request and how fast the wheels of the bureaucratic review process turn. It would be nice to think or at least to hope, however, that this latest release of documents signals a willingness by the current U.S. administration to take a step away from shielding Israeli activities that, even more now than when the policy-makers of 1969 were deliberating, involve significant “disadvantages to U.S. global interests.”      

TopicsIsrael Nuclear Weapons RegionsMiddle East

Intervention in Libya, and It Wasn't American

Paul Pillar

Within the past week the United Arab Emirates, aided by Egypt, conducted airstrikes against Islamist militias in Libya. The targeted forces are among the contestants in the surging turmoil and civil warfare in Libya. The airstrikes do not appear to be part of a large and bold new initiative by Egypt and the UAE, which did not even publicly acknowledge what they had done. Nonetheless the strikes were, as an anonymous U.S. official put it, not constructive.

The incident—along with some questions about whether it had caught the United States by surprise—has led to some of the usual hand-wringing about how U.S. relations with allies are not what they should be, how there supposedly is region-wide dismay with a U.S. failure to do more to enforce order in the region, and how if the United States does not do more along this line there may be an interventionist free-for-all. This type of reaction is inappropriate for at least two reasons. One is that it fails to take account of exactly how differences between putative partners do or do not make a difference. Sometimes such frictions matter for U.S. interests and sometimes they don't. Assuaging an ally is good for the United States if there is some payoff, not necessarily immediately, for its interests in behavior from the ally that is different from what it otherwise would be.

The other reason is that to the extent the United States may have encouraged interventionist free-for-alls, it is because it has done too much rather than too little. The United States's own penchant for military interventions has been probably the biggest factor in a breakdown of previous noninterventionist norms in international relations. The United States also has acquiesced in similar norm-breaking behavior by others that is easy for the Egyptians and Emiratis to see. As former ambassador Chas Freeman notes, “Gulf states and Egypt have seen many instances of Israel doing whatever it wants without us. They’re saying, if Israel can use U.S. weapons to defy the U.S. and pursue its own foreign policy objectives, why can’t they?”

Three valid observations are worth making about this episode. One is that the turmoil in Libya to which Egypt and the UAE are reacting followed directly from regime change in which Western intervention was instrumental. The United States played less of a leading role in that intervention than some other Western states did, and according to the Pottery Barn rule it does not own the resulting wreckage by itself. But that background is worth remembering.

Second, the airstrikes are a reminder that if forceful things are to be done in the Middle East, the United States doesn't necessarily have to be the one to do them. That principle applies to more constructive uses of force than hitting the Libyan militias. The UAE has a pretty good air force; maybe next time it can use it for more worthwhile purposes.

Third, the episode is a demonstration that even partners or allies are apt to be moved to action not to protect interests they share with us but to pursue objectives we do not share. Both Egypt and the UAE have reasons related to their own domestic politics and shaky legitimacy for taking sides in the Libyan internal war against the Islamists. The United States, by contrast, has no good reason to weigh in one one side or the other in that war. If friends and allies of ours get impatient with us for not doing more on behalf of goals that are important to them but not to us, tough.                         

TopicsLibya Egypt UAE RegionsMiddle East

ISIS in Perspective

Paul Pillar

Americans, following a long tradition of finding monsters overseas to destroy, are now focusing their attention and their energy on a relatively new one: the group variously known as ISIS or ISIL or the Islamic State. The group has become a major disruptive factor in the already disrupted internal affairs of Iraq and Syria, and it is legitimately a significant object of concern for U.S. policy as far as instability and radicalism in the Middle East are concerned. The outsized role that this group has come to play in discourse about U.S. foreign policy, however—including hyperbolic statements by senior officials—risks a loss of perspective about what kind of threat it does or does not pose to U.S. interests, and with that a possible loss of care in assessing what U.S. actions in response would or would not be wise.

Several attributes of ISIS have repeatedly and correctly been identified as measures of the group's strength, and aspects of the group's rise that are worthy of notice. These include its seizure of pieces of territory in both Iraq and Syria, acquisition of financial resources, and enlistment of substantial numbers of westerners. Although these are impressive indicators of the group's success, none of them is equivalent to a threat to U.S. interests, much less a physical threat to the United States itself—at least not in the sense of a new danger different from ones that have been around for some time. Money, for example, has never been the main determinant of whether a group constitutes a such a danger. Terrorism that makes a difference can be cheap, and one does not need to rob banks in Mosul or to run an impressive revenue collection operation in order to have enough money to make an impact. Even a terrorist spectacular on the scale of 9/11 is within the reach of a single wealthy and radically-minded donor to finance.

The involvement of western citizens with terrorist groups has long been a focus of attention for western police and internal security services. To the extent this represents a threat, it is not a direct function of any one group's actions or successes overseas, be they of ISIS or any other group. Several patterns involving westerners' involvement with foreign terrorist groups are well established. One is that the story has consistently been one of already radicalized individuals seeking contact with a group rather than the other way around. If it isn't one particular group they seek out, it will be another. A further pattern is that, despite frequently expressed fears about westerners acquiring training overseas that they then apply effectively to terrorist operations in the West, this hasn't happened. Faisal Shahzad and his firecracker-powered attempt at a car bomb in Times Square illustrate the less ominous reality. Yet another pattern is that apart from a few westerners whose language skills have been exploited for propaganda purposes, the westerners have become grunts and cannon fodder. They have not been entrusted with sophisticated plots (unsuccessful shoe bomber Richard Reid being the closest thing to an exception), probably partly because of their evident naiveté and largely because of groups' concerns about operational security and possible penetration.

The control by a group of a piece of territory, even if it is mostly just sand or mountains, is what most often is taken mistakenly as a measure of the threat a group poses, and this phenomenon is occurring in spades with ISIS. Probably seizure of land is interpreted this way because following this aspect of the progress of a group is as simple as looking at color-coded maps in the newspaper. The history of terrorist operations, including highly salient operations such as 9/11, demonstrates that occupying some real estate is not one of the more important factors that determine whether a terrorist operation against the United States or another western country can be mounted. To the extent ISIS devotes itself to seizing, retaining, and administering pieces of real estate in the Levant or Mesopotamia—and imposing its version of a remaking of society in those pieces—this represents a turn away from, not toward, terrorism in the West. Significant friction between ISIS (then under a different name) and al-Qaeda first arose when the former group's concentration on whacking Iraqi Shias was an unhelpful, in the view of the al-Qaeda leadership, digression from the larger global jihad and the role that the far enemy, the United States, played in it.

Traditionally an asset that non-state terrorist groups are considered to have, and a reason they are considered (albeit wrongly) to be undeterrable is that they lack a “return address”. To the extent ISIS maintains a mini-state in the Middle East, it loses that advantage. Any such mini-state would be more of a burden to the group than an asset, beyond whatever satisfaction the group gets from installing its warped version of an Islamic order in its little piece of land. Maintaining and exerting power in the mini-state would be a difficult, full-time job. The place would be a miserable, ostracized blotch on the map with no ability to project power at a distance. It would be a problem for the immediate neighbors, and even more of one for the governments out of whose territories the mini-state had been carved, but its existence would not make ISIS any more of a threat to the United States than it otherwise would be.

We Americans need to exercise some introspection regarding how and why we are reacting to the ISIS phenomenon the way we are, beyond the way we interpret shadings on a newspaper map (and beyond the usual politicized biases that infect any policy discussion in Washington). To some extent the group is filling a need for a well-defined, personified adversary. We don't have Osama bin Laden to fight anymore, but now we have Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. We also are reacting quite understandably to the group's methods, which are despicably inhumane, and to its objectives, which are disgustingly medieval. The burst of attention to the group over the past week clearly results largely from the grisly killing of a captured American photojournalist. We all abhor that event, and we should. But we also should bear in mind that an emotional reaction to such an incident produces the wrong frame of mind for debate, and cool-headed deliberation, about public policy.

What may be most disturbing about the tenor of current discourse on the subject is how much of it is expressed in absolute terms, with many proclaiming that ISIS “must be destroyed,” or words to that effect. Such absolutism undermines the consideration that should be given to other U.S. interests and objectives (as there always will be) affected by pursuit of that one objective, and consideration of costs as well as benefits (there always will be both) of any U.S. action taken in pursuit of that objective. We have heard similar absolutism before, and we have seen the results. We heard it with the post-9/11 false syllogism that if terrorism is considered a serious problem then we must recognize that we are at “war,” and if we are at war then that means we must rely principally on military force. We heard it also in the dictum that if there is even a one percent chance of something awful happening to us, then we must treat that as a certainty.

The absolutist approach leads to inappropriate derision and dismissal of policy steps as “half measures” when they may in fact be—considering the costs, benefits, and other U.S. interests at stake—the most prudent steps that could be taken. Some actions that would set back ISIS may be, given the circumstances, sensible and cost-effective. Other possible measures may seem aimed more directly at the goal of destroying ISIS but, given the circumstances, would not be sensible.

And what does “destroying” the group really mean? Our experience with al-Qaeda should have taught us to ponder that question long and hard. We killed innumerable “number three” leaders of al-Qaeda, we killed bin Laden himself, and we have rendered Ayman al-Zawahiri a largely irrelevant fugitive. We have in effect destroyed the organization, or at least as much as can be expected from more than 13 years (yes, the process started before 9/11) of destruction. But the methods we really were worried about lived on through a metastasis that led to the emergence of other organizations. ISIS is one of those organizations. If ISIS is “destroyed,” there is little reason to believe that the methods we most worry about, and associated ideologies, will not take still other forms.

The seeds of the death of ISIS lie within its own methods and objectives, which are as abhorrent to many of its would-be subjects as they are to us. The group rode to its dramatic gains, in both Iraq and Syria, on larger waves of opposition to detested incumbent regimes. Its losses can be just as dramatic if the political circumstances that led to such opposition are changed. They already are changing in Baghdad, and it still is possible for political change of some sort, which excludes any groups as extreme as ISIS, to take place in Syria.

The extent of any terrorist threat to the United States does not depend on killing any one organization. It will depend partly on those political processes in countries such as Iraq and Syria. It also will depend on how well the United States, in going after any one monster, does not create other ones. In that regard we cannot remind ourselves often enough—especially because this fact seems to have been forgotten amid the current discussion of ISIS—that ISIS itself was born as a direct result of the United States going after a different monster in Iraq.                                          

TopicsTerrorism Iraq Syria RegionsMiddle East

Messy Realities and the Unhelpful Debate on U.S. Foreign Policy

Paul Pillar

Much current debate in the United States about foreign policy can be boiled down—at the risk of the sort of oversimplification that too often characterizes the debate itself—to the following. On one side are calls for the United States to do more (exactly what it is supposed to do more of often does not seem to matter) in response to untoward happenings in hot spots such as Iraq, Syria, or Ukraine. On the other side, which includes most of the time the Obama administration, is a tempered restraint based on the limitations and complications of trying to do anything more in such places.

This line-up has some similarities to age-old confrontations between hedgehogs, who know (or think they know) one big thing, and foxes, who pay attention to a lot of things without having any one big idea. The nature of the debate has even more to do with the highly asymmetric nature of any argument between incumbent policy-makers, who have the burden of taking real action with real consequences and of dealing with all the messy and costly details, and of outside critics, who have the luxury of bemoaning bad things happening in the world without actually having to take any practical steps to do anything about them, and without having responsibility for the consequences.

This asymmetry has seemed especially marked with the current president, and not only because some of the biggest burdens of his foreign policy have involved cleaning up leftovers from his predecessor's foreign policy (including the premiere threat du jour, the group usually known as ISIS, whose birth was a direct consequence of the Iraq War). The current clear preference of the American public to avoid new entangling military encounters naturally gives rise to the charge that President Obama is merely bowing to that public opinion rather than exerting leadership.

The principal features of the non-incumbent side of the debate are seen over and over again, even if looking beyond such prominent and stalwart members of that side as Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who never met an entangling military encounter they didn't like. One sees these features in the pronouncements of, for example, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, or of the Washington Post editorial page, which has beaten its drum particularly hard for getting more deeply involved in the Syrian civil war. One familiar feature is the implicit assumption that if there is a nasty situation out there, the United States ought to be able to do something to solve it, coupled with the further assumption that the more actively involved the Untied States becomes in the problem, the more good will come out of the situation.

Another feature is a fondness for applying (again without supporting analysis) the most optimistic assumptions about how some hypothetical alternative policy in the past would have come out. E.g., the idea that if only the United States had done more earlier to assist a “moderate” opposition in Syria, we wouldn't have Assad, or ISIS, or both to deal with today. Or, if only we had come down harder on Putin he wouldn't be mucking around in eastern Ukraine today. Yet another repeated feature is an equation of leadership with forceful action, especially military action—as illustrated by Corker's charge that President Obama is “uncomfortable being commander in chief”.

Also recurrent is the invoking of very hedgehog-like calls for a single “coherent strategy” or “organizing principle” or some such thing, with those making the calls secure in the knowledge that rhetorically such formulations always have an advantage over anything that can be belittled as ad hoc or reactive. The oversimplification involved is grossest when applied to U.S. policy toward the entire world, but there is still oversimplification when such a call is applied even to a single country. We hear, for example, that problems of U.S. policy toward Iraq are a simple matter of deciding whether the United State has a mission of stabilizing Iraq. Actually, it's not really anywhere near that simple. Instability in Iraq has many different facets, some of which should concern the United States and some of which should not, and some of which are amenable to U.S. influence and some of which are not.

Hillary Clinton, whose recent pronouncements must be dismaying to progressive realists fearing they will not have any acceptable choice at the top of the ballot in November 2016, has been talking in the same mode. She tells us that not doing stupid stuff is not an “organizing principle,” and a great nation like the United States needs an organizing principle for its foreign policy. Two things about that comment make it, well, not quite smart. One is that the world is a very disorganized place, and any single organizing principle is too simple to be effective in dealing with all, or even most, of the problems the world throws at us.

The other thing wrong with that comment is that not doing stupid stuff is so important that it deserves to be at the top of any president's checklist, just as Hippocrates taught that “first do no harm” should be at the top of any physician's checklist. Think about the Middle East, and ask what development, whether involving an action or inaction by the United States, has had the biggest effects, for good or for ill, on U.S. interests in recent years. The answer has to be—firmly implanted on the “for ill” side of the ledger—the Iraq War. The most important thing any U.S. president should do is not to do stupid stuff like that, or to get into a position with a serious risk of sliding into something like that.

Mr. Obama's interview with Tom Friedman last week was a clear statement of the other side of the foreign policy debate. Friedman writes that “the president has a take on the world, born of many lessons over the last six years, and he has feisty answers for all his foreign policy critics.” The president's observations reflected at least as comprehensive view of the world as those throwing out the buzz phrases of comprehensive strategy and organizing principle, coupled with an awareness of the unavoidable complexities whether one is dealing with the whole world or with a single troubling country. His answers were not just feisty but insightful, such as explaining why the idea that putting more arms in the hands of “former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth” was never going to be a solution to the problems of Syria, and why in Iraq the incentives for political deal-makers in Baghdad will have at least as much to do with that country's future stability as munitions in Nineveh. The least persuasive aspect of his comments concerned his unwillingness to recognize intervention in Libya as a mistake.

One should hope that Mr. Obama, as a second term president, will not let his policies over the next two years be diverted by ill-aimed screeching of hawks. Even if he doesn't, however, the shape and tenor of current debate risks creating a narrative, the effects of which might not be felt until the next administration, that most of the world's maladies exist because the United States didn't do something more, whatever that something might be.

Image: White House Flickr.                                             

TopicsSecurity RegionsUnited States

The Twin Crises of 1956 and 2014

Paul Pillar

At or near the top of the list of foreign policy challenges that U.S. and European statesmen have had to handle the past couple of months are the escalation of tensions with Russia over events in eastern Ukraine and the war in the Gaza Strip. These two problems clamoring for attention at the same time bring to mind one of the most memorable pairs of simultaneous crises, which occurred in October and November of 1956: the Hungarian revolt and crushing of it by Soviet military force, and the Suez crisis brought on by an Israeli-French-British scheme to invade Egypt and seize the Suez Canal.

The crises of 1956 had some obvious parallels with those of 2014, besides the simultaneity factor. In each case one of the problems involved questions of the extent to which Soviet or Russian power would hold sway over an East European state and the extent to which Moscow would act forcefully to prevent rollback of its sphere of influence. In each case the other problem involved an Israeli military assault against neighboring Arabs. (The tripartite plan that precipitated the Suez crisis involved Israel beginning the war with an invasion and then France and Britain intervening under the guise of separating Israeli and Egyptian forces and protecting the canal.) There were important differences, too. The sort of neutrality that would make for a stable solution in Ukraine today is nothing like the domination the Soviets were enforcing over Hungary and other Warsaw Pact states in the 1950s. In the Middle East, Arab postures toward Israel have changed significantly from where they were in 1956, while Israeli military power relative to that of the Arabs has grown significantly, as has the amount of land Israel has seized and occupied through military force.

Facing two major crises simultaneously makes it harder to respond effectively to either one. This was generally seen to be the case in the autumn of 1956. One problem concerns consistency of standards of international behavior and the difficulty of mustering international support for enforcement of a standard if one appears to be flouting it elsewhere. This was a source of anguish for many in Britain who wanted to stand up to the Soviets for what they were doing in Hungary but recognized the difficulty of doing so while Britain was participating in what was being done to Egypt. A prominent member of the Liberal Party, Lady Violet Bonham Carter, said, “We cannot order Soviet Russia to obey the edict of the United Nations which we ourselves have defied, nor to withdraw her tanks and guns from Hungary while we are bombing and invading Egypt. Today we are standing in the dock with Russia.”

In the same vein, U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon later observed, “We couldn't on one hand complain about the Soviets intervening in Hungary and, on the other hand, approve of the British and the French picking that particular time to intervene against Nasser.” It was partly for that reason that President Eisenhower did not approve of what Britain, France, and Israel were doing but instead called for an immediate withdrawal of Israel's forces from Egyptian territory and for United Nations-approved economic sanctions against it if it did not comply. Eisenhower encountered Congressional opposition to pressuring Israel, and in the U.N. Security Council Britain and France vetoed resolutions calling for withdrawal.

A few echoes of this can be discerned in this year's crises. The European economic interests that matter most today involve not the Suez canal but rather trade and energy relationships with Russia. Possibly those interests made sanctions against Russia weaker and slower in coming than they otherwise would have been. In the same respect and bearing in mind the role of consistency, there was less of a constituency for sanctioning Israel than there might otherwise have been.

Although this year Britain has not had a direct military role in connivance with Israel as it did with the Suez affair, there are similarly disturbed consciences within Britain about what Israel was doing and whether the British government had done enough to stop it. A Conservative member of the cabinet (and the only Muslim member), Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, resigned over the issue. Now the Liberal Democrats are calling for suspension of all British arms sales to Israel.

Simultaneous crises also may be difficult to deal with because of the limits of time, attention, and priorities. Statesmen, including those of 1956, usually would say that they can walk and chew gum at the same time. But bandwidth in policy-making has been a problem since before the term bandwidth existed. Former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski has said that insufficient attention by senior Carter administration policy-makers to the Iranian revolution during its early stages was partly due to their circuits being overloaded at the time by other matters, including the Camp David negotiations and some U.S.-Soviet arms control issues.

The problem is not just a simple one of a limited number of hours in a policy-maker's working day. It also is a matter of expenditure of energy and of political chits, with everything this implies for the necessary bargaining and horse-trading involved in winning support for a position or major initiative. The most effective U.S. response to the tragedy in Gaza would have necessitated tackling head-on the underlying issues of occupation of the Palestinian territories. That would have required very large expenditure of energy and political chits, and John Kerry is still recovering from exhaustion from his last unsuccessful stab at the subject. This in turn is related to another significant difference between 1956 and now: the growth in power of the Israel lobby, which accounts for why the Gaza crisis has been discussed so differently in the United States than it has been in Britain. The resistance Eisenhower encountered in Congress was mild compared to what any president today would face, which is why it seems inconceivable that any president today would try to do what he did.

Statesmen do not get to choose when crises will happen, except for the ones they manufacture themselves. Usually they would prefer not to have more than one crisis going on at once, but sometimes that will happen. The fact that their attention may sometimes get divided in this way should be an additional reason for caution in undertaking big new initiatives or commitments. An initiative that might work satisfactorily if it gets undivided attention is more likely to encounter problems if it does not. There also is the drain on chits and bargaining power that any one commitment entails, making it that much harder to deal with some other challenge at the same time, not to mention the problem of winning support when it looks like one is applying standards inconsistently. Just as a rainy day fund for unknown future expenses is a good idea, so is the conservation of some political capital for handling crises that have not yet arisen.

Image: White House Flickr. 

TopicsRussia Ukraine Israel Egypt Palestinian Territories RegionsEurope Middle East

A Ceasefire, But Nothing More, in Gaza

Paul Pillar

Nick Casey of the Wall Street Journal, reporting from Gaza, noted one indication that the latest announced ceasefire in the war there may actually stick: a salvo of outgoing rockets launched shortly before the starting time for the ceasefire. Belligerents often try to get in a last lick before a ceasefire they expect to take hold, so that evidently was the expectation of Hamas. This brings back memories of being at Tan Son Nhut airbase near the end of the Vietnam War, when the Viet Cong unleashed a rocket barrage on the base 90 minutes before the ceasefire negotiated between Washington and Hanoi was due to begin.

Israel's timing in wrapping up its operation may be part of the natural rhythm of the Israeli lawn mower. Operation Protective Edge has been somewhat larger, but not greatly so, than Israel's last previous big assault on the Gaza Strip, Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009. Cast Lead went on for 23 days, about a week less than Protective Edge. The number of Palestinians killed in Protective Edge appears to be just short of 1900, compared to about 1400 in Cast Lead, with most of the dead being unarmed civilians in both cases, although with perhaps even a larger proportion of them being so in the latest assault. The biggest difference between the two episodes has been in Israeli military casualties. In Cast Lead ten Israel soldiers died, four of them from friendly fire. In Protective Edge 64 have died; we do not yet know how many of those were from friendly fire. Israeli civilian deaths in the two conflicts were the same: three in each case.

Although there is a basis for near-term optimism that the suffering that already has occurred will not be compounded by additional bloodshed tomorrow or next week, there are grounds for little but pessimism about anything else that is likely to ensue from this tragedy for the foreseeable future.

One could conceive of possible agreements that would involve some kind of monitoring of access to Gaza (to keep out munitions being acquired by Hamas) in return for allowing at least some legitimate imports. Israel has given Hamas almost no incentive, however, to change its positions or to take any risks in making any concessions. It is hard to imagine Hamas agreeing to something that could be called demilitarization when it and the civilian Palestinian population have just sustained a highly destructive month-long assault, there will be no demilitarization involving the Israeli forces that conducted the assault, and those forces already are getting their depleted stocks of munitions replenished with U.S. help. Moreover, the principal demands that Hamas has been making—to lift the blockade on the Gaza Strip and to release the Palestinians who were incarcerated in mass round-ups in the West Bank last month—would involve Israel living up to commitments it already made in previous agreements and on which it later reneged.

On the Israeli side, we have observed during this war further indications of longer-term trends—toward hardline militancy, unwavering reliance on force, and hostility toward Palestinian Arabs—that have been in evidence for some time. This has been reflected not only in the strong domestic support the Netanyahu government has had for this war but in dissents, including from those within the ruling right-wing coalition, that argue—with proposals that chill the spine—for even more extreme uses of force.

It would be nice to think, as relief from the pessimism regarding prospects for the months ahead, that the refreshingly and unusually direct criticism by the Obama administration on Sunday of what was then the latest Israeli military attack on civilians had something to do with the ceasefire. It probably did not. Mark Landler most likely has it right in his front-page article in the New York Times, portraying the Netanyahu government as having the political confidence to swat aside such criticism. Unanimous consent resolutions in Congress speak more loudly than Jen Psaki at the State Department.

The tendency to personalize disputes has led to an overemphasis on how much U.S.-Israeli frictions are an Obama-Netanyahu thing, when in fact there are deeper and more fundamental conflicts of interest between the United States and Israel that will continue—especially as long as an Israeli government with anything like the coloration of the current one remains in power—notwithstanding the political reasons in both countries to try to downplay those differences. The Israeli government can look past 2016, however, and anticipate that the next time they crank up their lawn mower either a Republican or Hillary Clinton will be in the White House, and they may not have to put up with even the sort of firmer-than-usual criticism they heard this week.

The whole awful cycle of endless lawn mowing can be broken only by addressing the underlying issues of occupation and self-determination. That would mean, among other things, dealing even with the hated Hamas, and as a political player, not just as a firer of rockets. But from the perspective of today, even if things stay quiet in the Gaza Strip, it is hard to see much basis for hope that will happen.  

Image: Office of the Prime Minister, Israel. 

TopicsIsrael Palestinian Territories RegionsMiddle East

Dedication, Destruction and Hamas

Paul Pillar

Applying a familiar label or phrase can be a substitute for good analysis, or for any analysis at all. The application activates a set of presumptions associated with the label or phrase while brushing aside any other relevant facts that may contradict those presumptions. The current conflict in Gaza has stimulated a surge in application of such rote phrases to one of the belligerents: Hamas. Besides the familiar label of “terrorist group,” which ignores other dimensions of Hamas as well as ignoring who is applying most lethal force against civilians, there also is the catchphrase that Hamas is “dedicated to the destruction of Israel.” It is not just the Israeli government that keeps uttering that phrase, or even commentators seeking to justify Israel actions; one sees it in mainstream press in what are supposed to be objectively reported articles.

In assessing the validity of the phrase, let us set aside some related issues that also are very important in assessing what is going on today in the Gaza Strip. One concerns the origin of this conflagration, which began when the Netanyahu government seized upon a kidnapping and murder in the West Bank, blamed it (falsely, we now know) on Hamas, launched large-scale raids and arrests, including detentions that reneged on a previous agreement with Hamas, and applied lethal force both in the West Bank and along the Gaza Strip that killed at least nine Palestinians—all before Hamas fired a single rocket or sent a single fighter through a tunnel in this round of fighting. A second concerns how the slaughter of innocent civilians has reached wholesale proportions far beyond what can be justified by even the most nefarious intentions imputed to the adversary or by excuses about difficulties of targeting in close quarters. A third involves how given the misery that had already been inflicted on Gazans in their open-air prison, it would be astounding if many did not hold intensely hostile attitudes toward Israel; if somehow Hamas could be made to go away it would just open space for groups more radical and unyielding than it.

Hamas does not have anything close to a capability to destroy Israel, and never will. The imbalance of strength is so lopsided as to make any talk of destruction of Israel, which has one of the most able military forces in the world, ludicrous. This is reflected in the results of the current fighting—and especially in the killing of innocent civilians, which is supposedly the chief focus of worries about Hamas. Hamas is probably giving everything it has got to the military effort, but the latest tally of civilians killed is three in Israel and probably more than a thousand in the Gaza Strip.

Moreover, Hamas leaders are certainly smart enough to realize their group will never have anything close to a capability to destroy Israel, even if they wanted to do so. Remember, these are the same leaders who currently are being given much credit for cleverness with regard to use of the tunnels. Hamas is not dedicated to something it knows it could never do anyway.

Most important, Hamas now has a substantial track record that contradicts the catchphrase. A recent article by John Judis reviews some of the relevant history. Hamas has repeatedly made it clear it will accept a long-term (meaning decades) hudna or truce with Israel, and who knows how much can change in decades, especially if there were such an agreed-upon peace. Hamas has repeatedly made it clear it would accept a comprehensive peace accord with Israel if approved by a majority of Palestinians in a referendum. In its recent pact with Fatah (destruction of that pact evidently being the main purpose of the Netanyahu government's aggressive moves leading to the current fighting), Hamas agreed to surrender power to, and to support, a Palestinian government in which Hamas was given no portfolios and which explicitly accepts all the usual Western demands about recognizing Israel, adhering to all previous agreements, and adhering to non-violence. If this is the record of a group dedicated to the destruction of Israel, then the term dedicated has some new and unknown meaning. Hamas certainly does have a longer term goal, more attractive to it; that goal is to wield power over Palestinians in a Palestinian state.

Reference keeps getting made to extreme language in a party's charter (just as it was for years to the PLO's charter) and to Hamas leaders not uttering explicitly some phrase such as “I recognize Israel's right to exist”. Why should they, when Israel clearly does not recognize any right of Hamas to exist, and has given no hints that it ever would? Rather than saying Hamas is dedicated to the destruction of Israel, it would be closer to the truth to say that Israel is dedicated to the destruction of Hamas—although even that statement is not entirely true, because the current Israeli government implicitly relies on Hamas to police the Gaza Strip and explicitly relies on it as a bugbear and excuse for not negotiating seriously about Palestinian statehood.

Acceptance of statehood on the other side is indeed the critical comparison. In contrast to Hamas making it clear it would accept a two-state solution, the current Israeli government has not. Some members of the ruling coalition have been explicit in rejecting it and talking about their objective of an Eretz Israel from sea to river. Netanyahu, who in many respects is one of the most moderate members of his own coalition, has given lip service to the idea of a Palestinian state but more recently, and evidently more honestly, has talked about Israel continuing a military occupation of the West Bank permanently. In assessing barriers to a complete peace settlement, let alone to a truce to end the current hostilities, one question to ask is: which side's ambitions, or dedication to objectives, is the larger impediment? A second question is: which matters more, words (even if they are either empty promises to the other side, or high-flown rhetoric to one's own side) or deeds?

It will be hard enough to obtain even a short-term ceasing of the ongoing bloodshed, without feeding the fire with familiar but false phrases about who supposedly is dedicated to the destruction of whom. One of the main reasons it is hard is that Israel appears dedicated to giving Hamas no reason to stop fighting. Part of the background to this problem, which Nathan Thrall summarizes in a new article, is the last Hamas-Israeli ceasefire agreement in November 2012, which Hamas did its best to observe but Israel did not. Violent acts in the first few months after the agreement, including gunfire at farmers and fishermen, were almost all committed by Israel, which also did not fulfill a commitment to end the blockade of Gaza and to initiate indirect talks with Hamas about implementation of the agreement. As Thrall observes, “The lesson for Hamas was clear. Even if an agreement was brokered by the US and Egypt, Israel could still fail to honor it.”

TopicsIsrael Palestinian Territories RegionsMiddle East

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