Paul Pillar

America's Slide Into Sectarianism

Paul Pillar

President Obama gave a speech last week at the National Prayer Breakfast that was instructive, reasonable, accurate, and fair. It also contained messages that are all the more important to hear and heed in light of some of reactions to the speech itself. I'm not talking about the usual reflexive Obama-bashing, which happens all the time and is not worth paying attention to. I am referring instead to reactions that indicate some more fundamental attitudinal problems that jeopardize not only U.S. foreign policy but also some core American values. Some of the most outlandish reactions, such as former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore's comment that Mr. Obama's remarks at the event were “the most offensive I've ever heard a president make in my lifetime,” probably reflect these problems and are not just the familiar garden-variety partisanship.

Mr. Obama's remarks included upbeat and informal comments about the Dalai Lama's presence and an earlier speech by stock-car race driver Darrell Waltrip. They also included some observations—which seemed to get all the attention in the subsequent reactions—about how at different times through history different religions have been “twisted and distorted, used as a wedge,” sometimes with outrageously inhumane consequences. But the core of the speech consisted of three main points. The first was a call for “some basic humility”—for a recognition that “the starting point of faith is some doubt,” and that we should not be so full of ourselves that we think “God speaks only to us” and “somehow we alone are in possession of the truth.” The second point concerned the need “to uphold the distinction between our faith and our governments—between church and state.” And the third was to affirm the “Golden Rule that we should treat one another as we wish to be treated.”

It is hard to see how any American who isn't in active denial about the benefits to mankind of the Enlightenment could disagree with any of those three points. As for the first—and the president's preceding comments about how all religions, including Christianity, have at times been twisted for nefarious purposes—as E. J. Dionne observes, if acknowledging one's imperfections were to be considered an insult to one's religious faith, that would make St. Augustine a heretic. The second is a bedrock principle of the American political system, enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. The third is at the center of any ethical system apart from rationalizations of selfishness à la Ayn Rand.

In many ways, unfortunately, the United States has in its dealings with the rest of the world repeatedly flouted both the principle of humility and not assuming a monopoly of truth and the principle of treating others as we would want to be treated. We could go on at great length on those themes, but sticking to strictly religious issues leads to a comparably disturbing observation: that American discourse and American politics have been moving ever farther from separation of faith and government, and toward having the United States take sides in favor of some religions over others. This trend manifests itself in several ways.

One way is in the prominence and power in the United States of Christianist politicians—who are every bit as worthy of that descriptor as many politicians elsewhere merit the label Islamist. Overt religiosity among American political leaders and their tendency to apply religious faith to public policy issues has waxed and waned through different phases of the republic's history, but the trend over the most recent decades has been upward. A reflection of change in this regard over the past half century was the comment of Rick Santorum—a prominent example of a Christianist politician and a leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012—that his fellow Catholic John Kennedy's pledge to keep his religion out of the conduct of Kennedy's presidency made Santorum “want to throw up.” The latest phase of increasing prominence of overt Christianists in American politics coincides with increasingly reflexive negative views about Islamist politicians elsewhere.

Another manifestation has been a series of more specific attacks on the establishment clause of the First Amendment, no one of which may be earthshaking but which collectively represent a substantial weakening of that foundation of American constitutionalism. The attacks have included such things as proselytization at U.S. military academies, a Supreme Court decision (in the Hobby Lobby case) allowing one citizen's private religious beliefs to govern the content of other citizens' taxpayer-assisted medical care, and most recently defiance of that same Supreme Court on same-sex marriage by the chief justice of a state supreme court whose campaign to insert his religious beliefs into public affairs has included earlier defiance of a federal court order to remove a monument to the Ten Commandments that he had erected at a state courthouse.

A third indication of the trend, noticeable especially over the past decade and a half, has been increased Islamophobia—the overt rejection or distrust of an entire religion and not just of an extremist fringe. The sentiment has been pervasive in the private sector but repeatedly bleeds over into public and political space, as when Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal says that if American Muslims “want to set up their own culture and values, that's not immigration, that's really invasion.”

This entire pattern damages the effectiveness of U.S. foreign policy. It leads many foreigners to believe that U.S. actions are motivated by an objective of bashing one religion and advancing another, even if that is not their actual purpose. This belief leads to resentment and hatred of the United States and resistance against what it is trying to do. This is why the current administration wisely eschews the term “Islamic terrorism,” notwithstanding all the baiting it gets from domestic opponents on this semantic point. It is also why the previous administration wisely backed off from calling its counterterrorist effort a “crusade,” as George W. Bush initially called it shortly after 9/11.

But such resistance and reactions to U.S. foreign policy initiatives don't even constitute the most fundamental danger of going down the sectarian path. That danger has to do with how through the centuries religiously-defined and religiously-motivated conflict has been one of the biggest sources of organized bloodshed and human suffering. We see such bloodshed and suffering in abundance today in the Middle East, South Asia, and parts of Africa. The West has mostly extracted itself from that type of agony, but did so only after the agony of the Thirty Years War led Europeans to erect a state system that banished to the past the idea that religious difference should be the basis for one state waging war against another state. It would be disastrous for the United States to do anything that even hints at return to a pre-Westphalian mindset that unites sovereigns and scripture. Dionne notes that some secularists criticized President Obama's remarks last week for having “soft-pedaled the theological roots of violence.” They have a point, but a speech at a prayer breakfast would not have been an appropriate occasion for lecturing on that broader lesson.

There are fundamental values at risk at home in the United States, too. Mr. Obama gave a nod in his speech to the Founding Fathers, and rightly so. Anyone with an interest in the founders' intent should pay attention to their intent regarding the importance of non-establishment of religion. George Washington said, “The United States is not a Christian nation, any more than it is a Jewish or Mohammedan nation.” The founders' thinking on the subject was influenced both by the sordid history of religiously-driven conflict and by their awareness of how specific dominant religious identifications of some of the American colonies raised the risk of religious repression of those not part of the dominant sect. They saw non-establishment of religion by the state as critical to the preservation of religious freedom, one of the basic freedoms that are part of American values.

President Obama managed to hit the right notes for a prayer breakfast, speaking positively about religious faith, from the compassion of a spiritual leader such as the Dalai Lama to the role that prayer may have played for Darrell Waltrip as he was driving a race car 200 miles per hour. He also had an important message that should be heeded by anyone who makes any proposals about public policy that would involve the United States taking sides in favor of, or against, any particular religion.              


TopicsReligion RegionsUnited States

More Recklessness from the Washington Post Editorial Page

Paul Pillar

James Carden and Jacob Heilbrunn provided in the current issue of The National Interest an extensively documented review of how the ever-more-neocon editorial page of the Washington Post “responds to dangerous and complex problems with simplistic prescriptions.” The Post's most recent editorial about the nuclear negotiations with Iran is firmly in that same simplistic, destructive tradition. It is hard to know where to begin in pointing out the deficiencies in this effort by the Post's editorialists, but noting some of them can illustrate how the tendencies that Carden and Heilbrunn cataloged constitute, as the abstract for their article puts it, a crusade for doctrines “that have brought Washington to grief in the past.”

The current editorial offers a prescription that is so simplistic that it isn't really a prescription at all. And that—the absence of any plausible proposed alternative—is its most basic shortcoming. Instead it is just a collection of ways of saying, “We don't like where these negotiations are going.” Even though the writers claim that “we have long supported negotiations with Iran,” the effect of their piece is to add to the negative background music to which those determined to defeat and derail any agreement with Iran—including Benjamin Netanyahu and confirmed deal-saboteurs in the U.S. Congress—dance and from which they derive energy.

The editorial posits as one of its complaints a version of the familiar meme about the U.S. administration supposedly conceding too much to Iran—even though that image is quite at odds with the actual history of these negotiations, in which it is Iran that has made the most significant concessions. The editorial says the Obama administration supposedly “once aimed to eliminate Iran's ability to enrich uranium,” although there is little indication that this administration ever believed that a zero-enrichment formula could ever be the basis of an achievable agreement. It is interesting to note, however, that more than a decade ago a different administration, evidently thinking a demand for zero enrichment was the proper policy, spurned an opportunity to negotiate an agreement with Tehran when Iran had only a tiny fraction of the enrichment centrifuges it does now—and we all know how that policy worked out.

On the subject of uranium enrichment the editorial writers play familiar and hazardous semantic games in positing a goal of “eliminating Iran's potential to produce nuclear weapons” and “denying Iran the capability to develop a military nuclear option.” It is impossible to “eliminate” such a ”potential,” and Iran already has, after all those years of no negotiations, the “capability” to develop such an “option.” This kind of talk only helps the deal-saboteurs lay a trap by being able to say about any conceivable agreement that could emerge from any negotiations with Iran that it does not “eliminate” capabilities or potential or options.

The purpose of an agreement is to ensure that Iran does not exercise such an option. The most important element in providing this assurance is the unprecedented level of intrusive inspections that would make any move toward exercising such options immediately clear. The Post editorial pooh-poohs this by referring to “theoretically giving the world time to respond.” No—it's not just theoretically; the inspection arrangements would actually given the world plenty of time to respond.

The Post also bemoans how “even limited restrictions would remain in force for only a specified number of years.” Most observers of the negotiations expect that the time spans involved, and especially for enhanced inspections, would be many years, and perhaps a decade or more. The editorial gives no reason to suspect that the Iranians after all this time would have any motivation at all to discard everything they had gained from remaining a certified, inspected, restricted, non-nuclear weapon state. Nor does the editorial comment on what it would mean for the conclusions we ought to draw about Iran' s motivations and intentions if it demonstrated for several years its willingness to comply with an agreement that would be quite restrictive on Iran.

This gets to the issue of possible cheating or stealthy acquisition of a nuclear weapon. The editorial throws that up as another thing to get us worried. But it says nothing at all about why the possibility of stealthy building of a bomb would be any greater with a negotiated agreement than without one. It wouldn't, and if anything probably would be less, given the enhanced inspections under an agreement.

A second line of attack in the editorial is another recently much-used meme by opponents: the notion of “increasingly aggressive efforts by Iran to extend its influence across the Middle East.” In this respect the editorial exhibits one of the same basic deficiencies that is almost always exhibited when the notion is used this way: it says nothing about why, if such Iranian regional activity is a problem, it would be any worse under a nuclear agreement than without one. If such activity really is as much of a problem as the editorial suggests, then the years-long keep-Iran-in-the-penalty box approach hasn't worked very well, has it? The editorialists write that “rather than contest the Iranian bid for regional hegemony, as has every previous U.S. administration since the 1970s [again if that's the case, how well has that approach worked out?], Mr. Obama appears ready to concede Iran a place in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and beyond...” It is not up to the United States, or in the power of the United States, to “concede” such things; Iran is in the region, and will have relations with other states in the region, and along with other states will compete for influence in the region, whether we like it or not. Is Iran, by negotiating with us, “conceding” a place to the United States in Iraq, Syria, or elsewhere?

On the “regional aggression” theme the editorial also exhibits most of the other misconceptions that are exhibited when this theme comes up, such as the idea that everywhere there is any turmoil involving anyone with any link to Iran, that the turmoil is the result of Iranian expansionist initiatives, when in fact it is not. Or the idea that Tehran is operating a Comintern-like Shia international, when in fact it is not. An additional twist that the Post gives to the theme is to state that “the White House has avoided actions Iran might perceive as hostile—such as supporting military action against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.” Getting more deeply involved in the Syrian civil war is, of course, something the Post editorial board has been calling for repeatedly over the last couple of years. Amid all that war-drum-beating, it apparently doesn't occur to the board that the administration has very good reasons not to sink the United States into that tar pit, regardless of whether or not Iran would see such action as hostile.

The editorial calls for more Congressional involvement—another open invitation for more deal-killing activity by saboteurs on Capitol Hill. Although the editorial accurately quotes Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken about how the administration sees Congressional action as appropriate only later after Iran has demonstrated that it is living up to its end of a deal, it makes no mention of the logic behind that schedule. The logic ought to be appealing to anyone as distrustful of Iran as the editorial writers evidently are. The administration intends to limit any sanctions relief in the early phase of an agreement to executive action so that sanctions could be quickly reinstated in the event of any Iranian failure to observe the terms of the agreement—more quickly and easily than if new legislation had to be enacted.

The editorial near its end makes it sound as if there is some alternative that it is recommending by referring to how “the right response to the questions now being raised is to seek better terms from Iran...” Oh? How, exactly? Isn't such seeking what the negotiators have been doing for months? This sort of suggestion might be a disguised way of giving more momentum to sanctions legislation that is rationalized as strengthening the U.S. negotiating position but in fact is designed to kill the negotiations. Or the suggestion may reflect naiveté that is somewhat akin to the Post editorial board living in what Carden and Heilbrunn describe as “a foreign-policy fairy-tale land in which nasty authoritarian regimes can be magically transformed by American leadership into democratic ones.” In the same fairy-tale land, American leadership and toughness can magically get other governments to accept terms that are contrary to their interests.

The last few words of the editorial correctly raise what ought to be the key question in any evaluation of an agreement that emerges from these negotiations, which is to consider whether it “is better than the alternatives.” Except the editorialists don't examine what the alternatives really are. Indefinite continuation of the interim agreement currently in force would be helpful in fulfilling U.S. nonproliferation objectives, but the Iranians would be unlikely to accept being strung out like that, given that they are still under the economically damaging oil and financial sanctions. Besides, hardliners in the U.S. Congress have made it clear they would push hard for agreement-violating, deal-killing additional sanctions if there is no final accord by early summer. So the true alternative is no agreement at all—and that means no special restrictions on, and no intrusive inspections of, the Iranian nuclear program. Yes, let's indeed compare whatever agreement is reached with the alternative.

We should remember the grief that the crusading doctrines the Post has supported have brought us in the past. In particular we might recall the Post's support for the Iraq War, which among much other grief it caused the United States also was the single biggest cause in recent years of the expansion of Iranian influence in the Middle East—specifically, in Iraq itself. Then we might ask where else in the Post's fairy-tale land its current undermining of the Iran negotiations is likely to lead us.                   

TopicsIran RegionsMiddle East

Assad Will Have to Stay for Awhile

Paul Pillar

The intractable, multidimensional civil war in Syria is as intractable, and immune to clean solutions, as it ever has been. The basic conundrum is that we loathe two players in the conflict—the Assad regime and ISIS—and would like to be rid of them both, but they are the two strongest players and each constitutes the most significant opposition to the other. This multilateral structure of the war, however frustrating and policy-complicating it may be, is for the foreseeable future inescapable.

We are reminded, especially by those in what passes for a secular opposition in Syria, that the regime is genuinely brutal, with its barrel-bombing of civilian areas and similarly inexcusable tactics. But making sound policy, by the United States or any other outside power, is not a simple matter of reading a brutality meter—and that was true even before the most recent act of unspeakable brutality by ISIS. The most prudent, and least bad, U.S. policies toward Syria need to be based on the assumption that Bashar Assad is not likely to go away any time soon. There are at least three reasons that policy should be based on that assumption.

One reason involves a pragmatic recognition of reality, in that Assad's departure is simply beyond the ability of the United States or any player inside Syria to bring about any time soon (barring a full-scale U.S. military intervention, which would be folly for a host of other reasons). There are soft and brittle parts in this regime, but it would be useful to recall how many predictions of the regime's demise since the Syrian war began have proven to be wrong.

A second reason is that in most conflicts it would be a prescription for failure, and/or for embarking on an incredibly costly enterprise, to take on simultaneously two different antagonists who are fighting against each other. Think about what World War II in Europe would be like if the United States had tried to take on Nazi Germany and the Stalinist USSR at the same time.

The repeatedly expressed hopes placed in a Syrian “moderate opposition” as an alternative winning horse to back in this contest have repeatedly been shown to be held in vain. This situation is not something that can be corrected with more voluminous aid or more alacrity in dispensing it. If the dispensing has been measured and hesitant, that is an appropriate recognition of how with the fluid line-up of protagonists in this civil war, men and materiel easily move from one participant to another and get into what we would consider the wrong hands.

A third reason is that collapse of the current Syria regime under the pressure of war could easily mean the loss of the only structure separating Syria from anarchy that would be even worse than what exists there now. We should have learned some lessons in this regard from what happened in de-Baathicized Iraq and what is still happening today in Libya.

In recent months the Obama administration appears to have accepted an understanding of these realities and talks less than it did earlier about the ouster of Assad as a policy priority. Because of that, it has been criticized by some other governments in the region who have different priorities. The United States needs to consider its own interests in setting its own priorities rather than bowing to the priorities of others. The Turks, for example, have their own particular issues with Assad and Turkey-specific concerns about any cooperation with the Syrian Kurds. Many Arabs, especially in the Arabian Peninsula, think of Syrian affairs the same way they think of many Middle Eastern affairs, viewing them in terms of sectarian conflicts and asking first of all, “What's good for the Sunnis?” That is not the sort of question that should guide U.S. policy.

In the longer run, significant political change in Syria will be necessary for that country to have any hope of stability. Bashar Assad will not be atop any Syrian political order that is reasonably just and stable. But the near term is what we face now, and what needs to be navigated successfully before we ever get to the long term.

Image: Creative Commons 2.0.                                 

TopicsSyria RegionsMiddle East

Both Sides Need to Concede to Get an Iranian Nuclear Deal

Paul Pillar

Early in Diplomacy 101, one learns how international negotiation consists of give-and-take between two or more states, with each side yielding on some points in order to reap the benefit of the other side doing its own yielding. Also early in the course, one learns how this sort of mutual bargaining, by leading to mutually beneficial agreements, is an important tool for any state in advancing its own national interests. It is for similar reasons that in domestic affairs, the right to be sued is a fundamental individual right along with the right to sue; it represents the ability to advance one's interests by making concessions and enforceable commitments to others.

As basic as all this is, Americans seem to have a hard time understanding it. A one-way exceptionalist asymmetry infects much discussion in this country about international diplomacy and negotiation. The process is viewed not as mutual give-and-take but instead as the other side giving and the U.S. side taking. Hence issues under negotiation get discussed in terms of the United States imposing “redlines” and of how pressure can be exerted to get the other side to capitulate to U.S. demands. This perspective in turn gets exploited by anyone who does not want an agreement at all on whatever issue is at hand.

These patterns have been present in abundance in American discussion of the nuclear negotiations with Iran. Almost the entire discussion is about Iran making more concessions—what it would take to elicit such concessions, whether Iran can ever be expected to make such concessions, etc. Almost nothing is said about the need for the United States and its negotiating partners to make additional concessions, too. Instead there is, even among those who genuinely support reaching an agreement, an assumption that the United States has put a “reasonable” deal on the table and it is up to Iran to accept it.

One repeatedly hears some version of the now-trite refrain, “it all depends on whether the Iranian supreme leader wants a deal.” Well, he certainly does want a deal in the sense that he otherwise never would have allowed the negotiations to go as far as they already have, and Iran to make as many commitments as it already has. But there are some possible deals that he and other Iranian leaders would be willing to accept as being in Iran's interests, and other deals that they would not accept. The supreme leader surely does not believe that any deal is better than no deal. That gets to another refrain that has become trite through repetition in American discussion. If we don't think that considering any deal to be better than no deal should be the U.S. position—and indeed it should not be—we ought to realize it will not be the Iranian position either.

Also among the familiar refrains: political woe besets any U.S. leader who gives evidence of “wanting a deal more” than Iran. No such inter-country comparison of utility or motivation is actually possible, just as inter-personal comparisons of utility are not possible. But even if such a comparison were possible, it would not be the proper standard for assessing whether any particular agreement were in U.S. interests. An agreement would be in U.S. interests if it produces military, economic, or political conditions that are more congenial to those interests than what the absence of the agreement would produce—regardless of how much or how little someone else might “want” the agreement.

For those intent on making cross-country comparisons, here's a little background to what is currently being negotiated with Iran. The Iranians are being called upon to subject their nuclear program to restrictions, and to intrusive inspections, substantially greater than what any other country is subjected to. And they are being called on to do that to get even partial relief from economically debilitating sanctions that no other party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty is subjected to. In the preliminary agreement that is currently in force, the United States and its partners got the main restrictions and inspection requirements they wanted—so much so that indefinitely continuing the preliminary agreement (if that were somehow politically possible) would suit U.S. nonproliferation objectives just fine. The Iranians got what was, by any quantitative measure, relief from only a small fraction of the nuclear-related sanctions that have been placed on them. In short, it is undeniable that Iran has made most of the concessions in this negotiation so far. And if either side has more reason to “want” to push the negotiations ahead promptly to completion, given the nature of the interim deal it clearly is Iran that has reason to want it more.

For anyone keeping score of such things, the U.S. and its partners could henceforth make significant concessions to close a final deal and still be well ahead on the scorecard of concessions elicited from the other side. But assessment of any agreement should not be based on any such scorecard anyway. Again, it instead should be a matter of comparing the conditions produced by an agreement with the conditions under no agreement.

Another often-overlooked consideration is that a good agreement would be one that gives both sides reason to observe it, rather than being seen by either side as a forced imposition to be violated or discarded at the first opportunity. Give-and-take, not one-sided pressure, is the way to get such a durable agreement.

An indication of how far the Washington discourse has strayed from basic understanding of Diplomacy 101 is an opinion piece by Michael Singh of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who not only says we should “stop offering Iran nuclear concessions” but also calls for “toughening the U.S. negotiating stance on key issues such as Iran’s past weaponization research, monitoring and verification, Iran’s missile arsenal and the duration of an agreement.” This is rather like saying that if a store is unable to sell a product priced at $10, the way to get people to buy it is to increase the price to $15. Singh tries to make sense of this bizarre recommendation by arguing that such U.S. obdurateness could “secure the congressional support required to empower the president to credibly offer sanctions relief.” But any Iranian of even average IQ who has been following the handling of this issue in Washington knows that anything that has “Congress,” “sanctions” and “Iran” in the same sentence is all about killing a deal, not fine-tuning the terms; no admiration for the administration for “toughening” its position would deter those determined to kill any agreement with Iran. And that is not even to mention the further deal-killing effect of U.S. negotiators backtracking on progress the negotiations have already made.

For the Obama administration to get an agreement that will advance U.S. interests—never mind what will be the subsequent efforts of Congressional opponents to shoot it down, no matter what the terms—the United States will need to make additional concessions at the negotiating table. It cannot just contemplate how reasonable is whatever offer it has on the table now, however sincere is its perception of reasonableness, and wait for the Iranians to close all of the remaining gap. Those in Washington who genuinely support the diplomatic process will have to understand this need and defend the administration's flexibility in fulfilling it.

To do this, the administration and its supporters will need to overcome two principal hang-ups, regardless of whether the hang-ups are having a negotiation-retarding effect because administration policy-makers have internalized the hang-ups or because policy-makers are self-deterred by anticipating how certain terms would be received in Washington once an agreement is announced. One of the hang-ups is the fixation on “breakout” times, which is misplaced because the distinctions in question would make no practical difference for U.S. security or the risk of there ever being an Iranian nuclear weapon. Iranian president Hassan Rouhani made a speech a month ago in which he said that Iranian ideals are not bound to centrifuges. We ought to realize that American ideals are not bound to them either.

The other hang-up concerns how sanctions have come to be treated in Washington as if they were an end in themselves—as if keeping sanctions in place against regimes we don't like is of some intrinsic value to the United States. It isn't; sanctions are only a tool—in this case, a tool to help get an agreement to restrict Iran's nuclear program. If sanctions get in the way of achieving such an agreement rather than facilitating the agreement, they are useless. Or rather, they are worse than useless, because of the costs they impose on the United States.

If this diplomatic process fails it will not be the first time that the American exceptionalist, redline-bound, asymmetric approach to international negotiation will have worked against U.S. interests, but it will be a particularly unfortunate and unnecessary instance of it doing so.                

TopicsIran RegionsMiddle East

Are Israel and Hezbollah About to Go to War?

Paul Pillar

An exchange of lethal attacks during the past fortnight between Israel and Hezbollah has raised the risk that escalation of fighting between these old antagonists might be added to the intractable mess that Syria already is. Israel and Hezbollah have a long history of tit-for-tat reprisals, with the most conspicuous examples involving Hezbollah titting in response to Israeli tatting. The two major car bomb attacks by Hezbollah in Buenos Aires in the early 1990s, for example, were each a direct response to deadly actions that Israel had taken back in the Middle East a month or six weeks earlier. The bombing of the Israeli embassy in 1992 followed an Israeli airstrike that killed Hezbollah leader Abbas Moussawi and his five-year-old son. The attack in 1994 on a Jewish community center—recently back in the news as the Argentine government tries to dance around the mysterious death of a prosecutor who had been investigating how the original investigation of the attack had been handled—was a response to two Israeli actions in rapid succession. One was Israel's kidnapping of Mustafa Ali Dirani, leader of the Hezbollah-associated Amal movement. The other—possibly facilitated by information the Israelis extracted from Dirani—was an aerial attack on a Hezbollah facility that killed dozens of the group's members.

The pattern resembles some of the tit-for-tat that also has taken place between Israel and Hezbollah's ally Iran. Some not-very-successful attacks against Israeli diplomatic personnel a couple of years ago were clearly intended as retaliation—right down to mimicking the method of attack—for the assassinations of several Iranian scientists.

The most recent Israel-Hezbollah exchange began with an Israeli attack from the air on cars traveling within Syria, close to but wholly beyond the armistice line that separates the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights from the rest of Syria. A half dozen people were killed, including the 25-year-old son of former Hezbollah security chief Imad Mughniyah (who himself was killed several years ago by a car bomb in Syria—an attack that many assume also to have been the work of Israel). Hezbollah's retaliation came this week with a carefully executed attack on an Israeli convoy in the disputed Shebaa Farms area, reportedly killing two Israeli soldiers and wounding several others. Hezbollah made it abundantly clear that its action was retaliation for the previous week's attack by Israel, even giving the unit that carried out the attack the claim name of the Quneitra Martyrs Brigade, a reference to the location of the Israeli attack.

Even when neither party in this kind of vicious dyad wants escalation, it sometimes nevertheless occurs. The war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006, which neither side can convincingly claim to have won, can be seen in this way. Several dynamics are at work. There is a tendency for propaganda and public belief to get confused as it is forgotten how the other side's action was a response to something one's own side did. There is a natural tendency to want to get in the last lick. And even if one tries to match rather than to exceed what the other side did, it sometimes is hard to calibrate very precisely the impact of an operation in which guns and bombs are going off.

Hezbollah clearly does not want any escalation from the most recent exchange. Although it bases its legitimacy in Lebanon in large part on the declared mission of defending Lebanese against Israel, it currently has its hands full with other matters in Syria. In fact, Hezbollah has sent a message to Israel explicitly saying it does not want to escalate. The group did a rather good job of calibrating its operation to keep the casualties on a similar scale as what the Israelis had inflicted, foregoing an opportunity it had for more deadly follow-up to the initial attack on the convoy.

Hezbollah also signaled its desire for restraint by selecting Shebaa Farms as the location for its reprisal. Shebaa Farms has the odd distinction of being a piece of land that Israel says was part of Syria, while Syria usually says it is part of Lebanon (although Syria did control it prior to 1967). When Israel evacuated its troops from southern Lebanon in 2000, it used its version of claims to ownership to keep Shebaa Farms and annex it (an annexation that no one else recognizes) along with all of the Golan Heights it also captured from Syria in the 1967 war. The importance of this for the current situation is that Hezbollah chose not to conduct an operation on land that any non-Israeli considers to be part of Israel, even though the Israeli attack for which this was a reprisal was conducted entirely outside Israel.

Whether this episode does escalate into something bigger thus is in the hands of Benjamin Netanyahu and his government. Right now it is not clear what that government will do. The timing of the Israeli attack that started it all is odd; the most plausible explanation is the one offered by retired Israeli general Yoav Galant, currently an opposition candidate for the Knesset, who said that the attack and its timing were a function of domestic Israeli politics. The attack was intended, under this explanation, to bolster the chances of Netanyahu and the Israeli Right, who currently are facing a stiffer than usual challenge from center-left parties, by exploiting the usual way in which the Right profits from fears and resentments centered on foreign threats. If this was the purpose, some in the Israeli government may not consider that purpose to have been fully served by letting Hezbollah get in the last word, and there will be a desire to strike again and to escalate. But the election is still several weeks away, and starting something big now may leave enough time for it to evolve, as past Israeli military adventures in Lebanon have, into a conflict costly and unpopular enough to be more of a political liability than an asset. Of course, Israeli escalation also would be dimly viewed by the world community, but Netanyahu and the Israeli Right have given ample evidence that they just don't care what the world community thinks about such things.                              

TopicsSecurity RegionsIsrael

Hey, America: Give the Balance of Power a Chance

Paul Pillar

President Obama and his team scored an early success in the president's visit to India that didn't really require any effort on their part. The first 45 minutes of the president's meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi was devoted to discussing China, with the U.S. side pleased to find Modi sharing their own concerns about implications of China's rise for the strategic situation in the region. Not only were the U.S. and Indian assessments about China congruent; Modi took the initiative in suggesting revival of an informal security network that included the United States, India, Australia, and Japan.

Modi's posture on this subject was much different from what has characterized India's overall strategic posture for most of its history since independence. Throughout the Cold War a major element of Indian diplomacy was what bore the label of neutralism, and later was more often called nonalignment. Neutralism did not sit well at all with U.S. policymakers, some of whom—most notably Secretary of State John Foster Dulles—sharply criticized it. In 1956 Dulles stated, “These neutral governments do not seem to realize that the Communist intentions are so diabolical and so hostile to their freedom and independence.” He said that neutralist countries “would eventually succumb unless they could develop a crusading spirit against the evil forces of Communism.” Dulles especially angered the Indians by referring to their variety of neutralism as “immoral”.

Dulles may have been more unrestrained than most in the language he applied to this topic, but he was reflecting a strong and recurring American outlook that has been applied as well to other situations in international politics. That outlook is one of seeing the world divided fairly clearly between good guys and bad guys, of becoming impatient with those who do not see it the same way, and of using U.S. initiative to get the laggards to take their proper place in the good-vs.-bad lineup. That outlook manifested itself years after the Cold War when President George W. Bush told everyone else in the world that they were either with us or with the terrorists.

Two basic problems have limited the effectiveness of this habitual American approach. One is that many people and governments do not see the global lineup the same way, and they have good reasons not to. International conflict is just not that simple, and cannot be reduced to such orderly lines. The other reason is that most people and governments do not like being prodded by the United States into standing in particular spots in the lineup as the United States defines it. They would rather reach their own conclusions and make their own decisions in acting on those conclusions. Certainly this last consideration has been for many years a major factor in shaping Indian policies.

A different and better approach for the United States would be more often to let the natural rhythm of the balance of power work. This would be understood by serious realists, for whom balancing in international politics is a core concept. There is something of a hidden hand at work, akin to how such a hand works economically in free markets. The hidden hand does not write the same script each time, and political scientists have explored the conditions under which balancing rather than bandwagoning is most likely, and vice versa. But if something a would-be hegemon is doing worries us, it probably is worrying others as well.

And thus expansion of Chinese power, including into India's own ocean, naturally makes Modi worry, without our having to tell him that he should be worried, and makes him willing to do something about it. The favorable result at the New Delhi meeting demonstrates how a balancing approach that relies on others' own interests and conclusions usually will be more successful than lecturing people, pushing and prodding them into our preferred position, or casting moral aspersions on them.

Image: White House Flickr.                         

TopicsIndia China RegionsSouth Asia

Middle Eastern Turmoil and the Scaremongering on Iran

Paul Pillar

It has not been a smooth month for those who want to keep Iran in pariahdom forever and thus seek to kill any international agreement on Iran's nuclear program. The sanctions bill that is the deal-killers' principal vehicle at the moment and is in the Senate banking committee has not been attracting the hoped-for Democratic co-sponsors. The strong position taken on the issue by President Obama obviously is a major reason for this. And however unlikely this may seem with almost anything that happens these days in Congress, reason and good sense have probably had some effect—among those who realize that the bill adds no negotiating value whatever in threatening additional sanctions on an Iran that already knows full well such sanctions would follow any breakdown of negotiations. With the exception of Robert Menendez (who has alienated himself from the president by wanting not only Iran but also Cuba to be in pariahdom forever), the deal-killing campaign has increasingly taken on an all-Republican flavor. That makes all the more obvious how, in addition to the other motivations behind the campaign, it has become a partisan endeavor to deny Mr. Obama a foreign policy achievement.

There also has been the widespread and thoroughly justified criticism of Speaker of the House John Boehner's invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress on the subject—criticism that has been wider than Boehner probably expected. The inappropriateness of this invitation was apparent even to many people who may not fully appreciate how much Netanyahu has been trying to undermine U.S. foreign policy, and how he is much more of an adversary of the United States than an ally on this issue. His unwavering opposition to any agreement with Tehran, even an agreement that moves Iran farther away from having a nuclear weapon, is motivated by objectives the United States does not share and in some respects—such as the objective of limiting U.S. freedom of action regarding whom it cooperates with on Middle Eastern issues—is directly opposed to U.S. interests.

Many people also recognized the narrowness and cheapness of what Boehner did. He ignored the usual procedure, as former speaker Nancy Pelosi described it, of consulting with Congressional leaders of both parties before offering someone the high honor and exceptional privilege of addressing a joint session of the U.S. Congress. People recognize that it debases the currency of this privilege to extend it a third time to Netanyahu when the only person so far to have addressed Congress three times is Winston Churchill. (We Americans knew Winston Churchill well. Winston Churchill was a friend. Bibi, you're no Winston Churchill.)

People also recognize that it is an indignity for the People's House if a foreign leader is to use it as a prop to berate the host country's policies as well as to try to score points with his voters in his own country in an election just a couple of weeks after he is scheduled to speak. He would be using Congress as a prop just as he used as a prop a cartoon drawing of a bomb—which he doesn't use anymore because the preliminary agreement that Netanyahu has always denounced drained his cartoon bomb by ending Iran's medium-level enrichment of uranium.

Zbigniew Brzezinski summarized well the nature of Boehner's move: “Speaker Boehner has an odd definition of leadership: inviting a foreign leader to undermine our President's policy in front of Congress?”

The opponents of an agreement may be increasingly aware that their fiction about supposedly just wanting to strengthen the U.S. negotiating position is wearing thin. There have been compromises of this cover story that have become difficult to hide, such as the direct, willing, and repeated admission of the freshman senator from Arkansas that the purpose of new sanctions legislation would be to kill the negotiations, not to aid them.

Further wearing away of the fiction has come from Israel, where the director of Mossad, Tamir Pardo, told visiting U.S. officials that new sanctions legislation would serve as a grenade that would blow up the negotiations. Pardo later tried to spin the story backward by saying that yes, the negotiations would blow up but what he meant was that this would be a good thing because negotiations could reconvene later under more favorable circumstances. That was a nice try by the Mossad chief to minimize the apparent rift with his prime minister—and a politically prudent try, given how already well known it has been that heads and former heads of Israel's security services disagree with Netanyahu's declared positions on Iran—but there won't be any more favorable circumstances. The current political circumstances in Iran are as good as they're going to get for this sort of deal for the foreseeable future, and if the current negotiations are blown apart by a legislative act of bad faith they will not come back together for a long time.

Against the backdrop of these setbacks to the anti-agreement campaign, the campaigners have recently been relying more on a strategy that isn't really new but has a new twist. That strategy involves going beyond the nuclear question and repeatedly voicing alarm about other aspects of Iranian policy and behavior. The strategy tacitly recognizes that the campaigners do not have logic and reason on their side regarding the objective of preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon, because an agreement of the sort that is being negotiated clearly would be much better at achieving that objective than the alternative, which would be the absence of an agreement and the loss of all the special restrictions on, and monitoring of, the Iranian program that already have been won through negotiations.

The strategy of reminding people of everything Iran does that we don't like, or that the campaigners tell us we're not supposed to like, operates on two levels. To some extent the anti-agreement forces try to make an argument that letting Iran out of its international penalty box will enable an ill-intentioned state to do even more ill-intentioned things. But to a large extent the appeal is simply an emotional, non-intellectual one that relies on popular distaste for doing any business with people we don't like. It is the sort of appeal that tacitly rejects the principle that the need for diplomacy and doing business with other states is at least as great with one's adversaries as it is with one's allies.

The newest twist is to recite some of the most recent turmoil in the region, such as the governmental collapse in Yemen, to interpret that turmoil as the consequence of Iran's evil doings, and to suggest that regional messiness is all of a piece with the nuclear question. Thus Charles Krauthammer, in his column on Friday under the headline “Iran's emerging empire” sounds an alarm about how “Iran's march toward a nuclear bomb” has combined with “Iran's march toward conventional domination of the Arab world” to make for an Iranian-created threatening mess in the Middle East. Yemen, Syria, Iraq, along with terrified Gulf Arab states—the whole set of conflicts is all, according to Krauthammer, one big Iranian campaign to establish an empire throughout the region. And then in the last part of the piece he says that he does not like those nuclear negotiations at all, and that given all that Iranian empire-building we should not like the negotiations either.

Published on the same day as Krauthammer's column, a piece by Dennis Ross, Eric Edelman, and Ray Takeyh centers on the same notion that “Iran is on the march in the Middle East.” (Evidently the current talking points from the anti-agreement war room recommend generous use of the term march.) Ross et al. say that “the American alliance system stands bruised and battered” while “our friends” in the region see the Iranian advance as even more rapid than a march: they “perceive Iran and its resistance-front galloping across the region.” The piece maintains the fiction about supposedly wanting an agreement, while recommending aggressive measures that, like new sanctions legislation, would be designed to derail the negotiations and prevent an agreement. The measures include a “revamped coercive strategy” that is vague but seems to consist of intentionally butting heads with the Iranians in any civil war we can find, as well as a “political warfare campaign” against Tehran and, in the most direct sort of negotiation-derailer, willingness of U.S. diplomats “to walk away from the table and even suspend the talks.”

One of the problems in these two pieces is that what is depicted as a grand Iranian scheme for achieving regional hegemony is instead a matter of diverse conflicts with many different causes and instigators and in which any Iranian roles have been largely reactive. Krauthammer draws our attention, for example, to the presence of Hezbollah fighters and an Iranian officer who were near the armistice line in the Golan Heights and were killed the other day by an Israeli airstrike, and mentions dark possibilities about Iran wanting to open a new front against Israel. In fact, the target of Hezbollah and its Iranian ally in that area was much more likely the Al Qaeda-asssociated Al Nusra Front, which had expanded its operations in that area within the past few months. The most noteworthy thing about the incident was the Israeli airstrike itself, which appeared aimed at eliciting a Hezbollah response and benefiting Netanyahu's party in the coming election, although Hezbollah did not take the bait.

Even if one assumes the worst about Iranian intentions, a more fundamental deficiency of these two articles and similar anti-Iranian broadsides is that they lose all sight of the key question in evaluating the current nuclear negotiations and any final agreement that emerges from them: will Iranian policies and behavior be better for our interests with such an agreement or without it? (Of course, insofar as such broadsides are an emotions-based appeal for us not to want to have anything to do with Iranians, losing sight of this question is the whole idea.) The policy question involved is not to be equated with a popularity contest in which Iran is a contestant. There will be plenty of things for us to dislike about Iranian policies, both foreign and domestic, with or without a nuclear agreement. An agreement will very much make a difference with regard to one set of Iranian policies important to us; it will help to keep the Iranian nuclear program peaceful. Any follow-on effects on other matters require further analysis. Krauthammer and Ross et al. don't address this at all and give us no reason to believe that any of the Iranian behaviors they consider so nasty would be any better without an agreement than with one. Making Iran a permanent pariah does nothing to improve those behaviors, and instead is more likely, out of an absence of alternative channels for Iran to pursue its interests, to make them even worse. By contrast, the opening of greater communication and patterns of cooperation that a nuclear agreement would encourage presents better opportunities for getting Iran to act constructively on some of the very conflicts and problems that these two pieces highlight.

That leads to another fundamental deficiency of the broadsides, which is that they make no effort to sort out what is good, bad, or neutral for U.S. interests in what the Iranians do. Instead there is just the blanket—and because of that, erroneous—assumption that any Iranian action, participation, or influence on anything anywhere in the region is ipso facto bad. This approach is remarkable in light of how much U.S. and Iranian interests run parallel on some of the most salient conflicts involved. This is most obvious with regard to ISIS and efforts to check its expansion. Ross et al. try to disguise this fact with a reference regarding Iraq to what “appears to be Iran's invasion of the country under the banner of disarming the Islamic State.” So what exactly are the alternative scenarios in Iraq they have in mind, which of those are better for U.S. interests and why, and what is the Iranian role in each? They don't say. If Iranians are doing heavy lifting on the ground in killing ISIS fighters, and in the process getting their own people killed and sustaining other costs in the process, rather than that happening to us, why should that make us unhappy?

Krauthammer does something similar regarding Yemen, where he laments how the current turmoil there is interfering with U.S. drone operations against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). And the cause of the turmoil, he says, is the advance by the rebel Houthis, who are “agents” of Iran (they aren't, although they probably do get some Iranian aid). In fact, the Houthis hate AQAP. They fight against AQAP. And again, if such people fight and die while acting against this Al Qaeda affiliate, why should we be unhappy about that? If that kind of action on the ground means fewer U.S. drone strikes, and thus less of the accompanying grief the United States gets from such strikes because of the symbolism and the collateral damage involved, that is a good thing for us. But Krauthammer evidently gets a rise out of drone strikes and considers them more important than facilitating the most cost-effective way (from the standpoint of U.S. interests) of reining in a group such as AQAP.

Yet another fundamental deficiency in these sorts of attempts to undermine the nuclear negotiations is that they say nothing about internal Iranian politics. The outcome of the nuclear negotiations will have significant effects on Iranian politics, with consequences for the sorts of Iranian regional policies that these authors don't like. Specifically, failure of the negotiations will be a major blow to the moderate and pragmatic elements represented by President Rouhani, and a boost to the hardliners who, just like hardliners on our side, don't want an agreement and thrive on perceived threats from the other country. Failure of the negotiations would be more apt to increase, and certainly would not decrease, the sorts of Iranian behavior about which Krauthammer and Ross et al. are raising such alarms.

These more fundamental flaws hardly exhaust what is badly mistaken about these two pieces. Krauthammer, for example, is seemingly unaware of all the official, disinterested judgments on the subject when he asserts that Iran is “marching toward a nuclear bomb.” In fact, Iranian leaders probably have not decided to build a bomb. When bemoaning extensions of the negotiations he says not a word about the critical limitations on Iran's program that the negotiations already have achieved. And most of his picture of supposed region-wide Iranian empire building is really an observation about the salience of the Sunni-Shia divide and its role in contemporary Middle Eastern conflict. If he is going to focus on that, he needs to explain why the United States should have any interest in taking sides in that sectarian dispute within the Muslim world.

Ross et al. are living in an alternative universe when it comes to just about everything they say about the nuclear negotiations. According to them, the talks are “stalemated”; no—as arms control and similar multilateral endeavors go, the progress has actually been rather rapid, on what is necessarily a complex and technical set of topics. The authors repeatedly talk about a “generous catalogue of concessions from the West” as contrasted with supposed Iranian inflexibility. Even a cursory look at the Joint Plan of Action, the preliminary agreement that established the obligations that the parties are observing now, shows how false that picture is. The West got what it wanted most, which included ending medium-level enrichment, restricting work on the most suspect reactor, limiting stockpiles of low-enriched uranium, and unprecedented levels of international monitoring inspection. The Iranians have not yet gotten what they want most, which is relief from the debilitating financial and oil sanctions that are still firmly in place.

There is so much vagueness in Ross et al.'s call for a “revamped coercive strategy” that we are left to wonder exactly what they have in mind. Their call for Washington to “reengage in the myriad conflicts and civil wars plaguing the region,” given that they are looking for more involvement than is going on right now, does not sound encouraging. It does not sound like what is wanted by the American people, who are not anxious right now to get bogged down in myriad conflicts and other people's civil wars. And if the authors are worried about the extent of Iranian influence in Iraq, they need to explain how whatever they have in mind would reduce that influence, given that an eight-and-a-half year war with a peak of 170,000 U.S. troops left Iraq with more, not less, Iranian influence than before.

Ross, et al. conclude by stating, “The United States and Iran are destined to remain adversaries.” Oh, so it's not a matter of facts and analysis and experience, but instead of destiny. Or rather, we are supposed to consider Iran to be forever nothing but an adversary because people such as these authors tell us that's what we should believe. As long as enough people believe that, the United States and Iran really will be adversaries forever. Don't believe people who want to lead us down such a path.                                                                                     

TopicsIran Israel RegionsMiddle East

Why America Will Miss Saudi King Abdullah

Paul Pillar

A leader does not have to be a truly great person to play a historically significant role if placed in a situation that is sufficiently fragile and weird to force such importance on the individual in charge. King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, who died overnight at age 90, was in such a situation by being in charge in Saudi Arabia, a family-run kingdom that is both weird and fragile—an anachronism in the twenty-first century. Although the Saudi monarchy is still almost absolute, the individual king is not, since he has to contend with factionalism and ambitions within the royal family. But the family politics are just another of the complications that pose a challenge to the man at the top who has to hold the whole thing together, baling wire and all. Abdullah occupied that role for 20 years, the first ten as crown prince and de facto regent when the disabled King Fahd was still alive, and the last ten as king himself. During this time he personally affected many things of importance to the Middle East and to U.S. interests there.

The people of Saudi Arabia are probably better off for having had Abdullah as king than would have been their lot with most other rulers. He recognized the need for the country's society to modernize and moved in that direction about as much as he could within the severe limits posed by tradition, the religious establishment, and the necessity for consensus. This was particularly true regarding the role of women, however painfully slow progress in this area has been by the standards of those of us in the West who do not have to deal with those same limits. Probably the clearest manifestations of Abdullah's intentions in this regard are to be found at the mixed-gender university for science and technology that bears his name.

Abdullah governed in ways that were generally congenial to U.S. interests. This was in large part due not to any particular initiative or insight by the leader but rather because of natural convergence of some Saudi and U.S. interests. This has been true regarding oil prices insofar as a lower price is on balance good for the U.S. economy and Saudi Arabia, with its large oil reserves, does not want prices high enough to accelerate the move to alternative fuels. It was during Abdullah's rule that the kingdom stopped trying to export its extremist problem and instead began dealing with it seriously and directly, and that change clearly was in U.S. interests. The change, however, owed less to conspicuously inspired leadership than to the hard knocks of terrorist attacks within the kingdom.

The feature of Saudi foreign policy that probably did owe the most to initiative by Abdullah was his proposal for linking resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to full recognition of, and making of peace with, Israel by all the Arab states. He persuaded those other Arab states of the wisdom of this concept, and the concept is known today as the Arab League peace plan. It is still out there—and reaffirmed just the other day by the Arab League—ready to be taken up by anyone who genuinely wants peace between Israel and all its Arab neighbors.

Saudi Arabia has a system of political succession that by its very nature cannot continue indefinitely. The kingdom's founder, King Abdul Aziz, made it thus when he determined that he should be succeeded by his many sons, one after the other, rather than using the usual vertical monarchical succession based on primogeniture. The succession has not reached the end of that line of brothers and half-brothers yet, but with Abdullah's passing it is getting closer. The succession to the throne of 79-year-old Prince Salman is not reassuring; Salman already has shown signs of losing his faculties.

Abdullah did make a move a couple of years ago that lessens the political uncertainty; he effectively designated as next in the succession after Salman the 69-year-old Prince Muqrin, the youngest surviving son of Abdul Aziz. Muqrin,who now is the crown prince, seems to have a fair amount on the ball. If he becomes the principal decision-maker, with or without Salman alive, during the next few years that probably would be good for the kingdom.

Things in Saudi Arabia, still a strange place, could have been much worse than they have been under King Abdullah.                               

TopicsDomestic Politics RegionsSaudi Arabia

The Blue Patch of Ignorance

Paul Pillar

The graphic that was on the front page of the New York Times on Saturday is striking. It accompanied a story about how 2014 was Earth's hottest year on record. There is a bar chart showing how average global temperatures have been rising over the past century and markedly so since the 1970s, and how the ten warmest years have all occurred since 1997. But just as eye-catching is a world map that uses color to depict how temperatures in different areas of the globe in 2014 differed from the average for each area: red for hotter and blue for colder, with the intensity of the color indicating how much of a divergence there was from the average. As would be expected with the hottest year on record, most of the map is red. But given that temperatures do not vary uniformly around the world, there is some blue. And the one patch of blue that covers an area with any significant population happens to be over the central and eastern United States, with some adjacent parts of Canada. (Remember those wayward polar vortices last winter?) The only other blue areas that are over parts of continents are in eastern Antarctica, which is uninhabited, and a small piece of northern Namibia and southern Angola, in one of the more sparsely populated parts of Africa.

If weather were the product of some sort of intelligent design, this pattern might lead one to conclude that the designer wanted to tilt debate in the United States on climate change in favor of the climate-change-deniers. No matter how many reminders experts issue that short-term variations in weather are not to be equated with longer term climatological change, there is nothing like a good blast of cold air through Washington to cool receptivity to messages about the need to slow and arrest global warming. There still would be plenty of ostrich-in-the-sand denial on this issue regardless of the current weather, but in general the less that Americans are directly and immediately feeling ill effects of a problem, the less likely that U.S. policy will be shaped to deal with the problem.

This correlation is most obvious with the climate change issue itself, but is not limited to it. Terrorism, for example, is a phenomenon rooted in circumstances and policies that are spread across many countries but that usually leads Americans even to recognize that a problem exists only if they themselves are hit with some of the consequences. And even though terrorist attacks involve human volition, exactly where and how terrorist consequences emerge out of larger patterns of political and social dysfunction involves, like any one year's weather, essentially unpredictable variation. There is no overall intelligent design.

Grabbing the American public's attention requires not only an impact on Americans themselves but an impact that is, like a city full of hot uncomfortable air, obvious and impossible to miss. Consequences for Americans and U.S. interests can be substantial but still missed without that kind of immediacy and obviousness. This is true even when the consequences flow from actions taken by the United States itself. It is true, for example, of the economic harm to the United States of U.S.-imposed sanctions. It is true as well of many ways in which other countries and peoples impede the projection and exercise of American power overseas.

The blue patch hovering over most of the United States in that map in the Times thus can stand for more than just last year's respite for some of us from the heating up of the planet. It also can represent a more general pattern of ignorance of much of the red vastness beyond U.S. borders. It can be thought of as a blue haze that miraculously protects us from the immediacy of much of the world's problems but also obscures our understanding of them. The only difference from what the map depicts is that the phenomenon does not stop in the high plains but instead also includes the western United States.                                      

TopicsClimate Change RegionsUnited States

A Sanity Check from London on Iran

Paul Pillar

Those who want to maintain endless tension and animosity between the United States and Iran, and who thus have been endeavoring to kill any diplomatic agreement between the two countries, are racing ahead with their latest project and will be very busy during the week ahead. That project, the AIPAC-promoted Kirk-Menendez sanctions bill, will be the subject of a Senate banking committee hearing, with only anti-agreement witnesses so far announced, on Tuesday, to be followed by the committee's mark-up of the bill on Thursday.

Promoters of the bill are racing to beat two things. One, and worst from the promoters' point of view, would be completion of the international negotiations (which also are due to resume in plenary session this coming week) to limit Iran's nuclear program and announcement of an agreement. Even before any agreement is reached, those pushing the bill also have to worry about losing the support of those who may have originally believed the cover story that the legislation is intended to strengthen the hand of U.S. negotiators but who come to realize that the legislation is instead about spoiling the negotiations and killing a deal. Key among this group are Senate Democrats, including some who in the last Congress signed on as co-sponsors of an earlier version of the Kirk-Menendez bill.

Those in this group, and anyone else who might genuinely but mistakenly believe that passage of this bill would aid negotiations, would do well to pay close attention to the comments on this subject from British Prime Minister David Cameron, in a joint press conference with President Obama at the White House on Friday. “On Iran,” said Cameron, “we remain absolutely committed to ensuring that Iran cannot develop a nuclear weapon. The best way to achieve that now is to create the space for negotiations to succeed. We should not impose further sanctions now; that would be counterproductive and it could put at risk the valuable international unity that has been so crucial to our approach.”

The prime minister further commented on how those who had predicted that the sky would fall with the reaching 14 months ago of a preliminary agreement—which already has placed the most important restrictions on Iran's nuclear program to ensure that it stays peaceful—have been proven wrong. “To those who said,” stated Cameron, that “if you do an interim deal, if you even start discussing with the Iranians any of these things, the sanctions will fall apart, the pressure will dissipate, no one will be able to stick at it—that has demonstrably been shown not to be true.”

Some background to these remarks from the British leader are useful to keep in mind. The United Kingdom is a full participant in the nuclear negotiations with Iran, as part of the P5+1 (or EU3+3, as they prefer to say on the other side of the Atlantic). It is not an interloper in someone else's diplomatic business, and British diplomats and leaders have at least as much basis as anyone else for knowing what is working and what is not in the negotiations.

Britain also is a country that, like the United States, has historically had some really bad relations with Iran. In Britain's case this experience dates back to a British and Soviet invasion of Iran during World War II, beginning an occupation that extended until almost a year after the end of the war.

Today, the United Kingdom—unlike certain other countries that would like to influence the fate of the nuclear negotiations—has no significant interests in the Middle East that are discernibly at odds with those of the United States. And the comments on Friday came not from some soft post-conflict European liberal, but instead from the leader of the Conservative Party in the country that is still in many respects America's most important ally.

There are two major takeaways from Cameron's comments. One is to provide further confirmation that the myth that something like the sanctions bill before the Senate would facilitate negotiations and hasten an agreement is exactly that: a myth. When people actually doing the negotiating say something would weaken rather than strengthen their negotiating hand, that's a good indication that it indeed would not strengthen their hand.

Actually it should not even be necessary to get independent confirmation of this from someone like Cameron. Even if one were to assume the very worst about Barack Obama's objectives—such as that he were willing to give up the store solely to claim a foreign policy achievement or to burnish his legacy—there would be no conceivable reason for him to oppose any measure that really did strengthen his bargaining hand rather than weaken it.

The other takeaway to be had from the comments of an allied leader concerns the likely fallout if the deal-killers succeed in their effort through something like the sanctions bill. The most direct consequence would involve the responses of Iran. In the best, or least bad, case it would mean greater Iranian reluctance to make concessions because Iranian confidence in Washington's ability and willingness to live up to its end of a deal would be shaken even more than it already is. In a worse case it would mean an Iranian conclusion that the Congressional action is so counter to the spirit if not the letter of the interim agreement that the only alternative is to leave the negotiating table and go home.

But the further consequences concern the responses of the rest of the international community. Cameron indirectly reminded us of that by saying that he was commenting as “someone who played quite, I think, a strong role in getting Europe to sign up to the very tough sanctions, including oil sanctions, in the first place.” The interim agreement did not cause the beloved sanctions regime to unravel. But if the U.S. Congress wanders so far away from an international consensus and off into right field that it is seen as the main impediment to an agreement, unraveling is likely to begin.

Good, reliable allies have several uses, and not just in providing more warplanes to fight someplace. Helping to protect ourselves from our own solipsistic tendencies is another thing they can do for us.       

TopicsIran United Kingdom RegionsMiddle East