Paul Pillar

Facts, Opinions and Hot Air

Paul Pillar

The National Climate Assessment released this week is a thorough and authoritative report that also really shouldn’t be necessary in telling us what we need to know about the underlying problem.  The problem is that human activity is changing the global climate in major and mostly undesirable ways.  The evidence has long been very apparent, and the evidence is overwhelming.  It includes mountains of data and it includes principles of physics and chemistry.  What this latest report does is to relate real, not just projected, climate change to present conditions in the United States, not just to consequences that are more distant in either time or place.

 

Unfortunately denial is still commonplace, and denial reflects some unfortunate tendencies that discourse in the United States not only on this issue but also other issues often exhibits.  There is a tendency not to recognize genuine questions and the difficult decisions that must be made about them, but instead to wish all this away by denying the facts.  There is a further tendency for factual beliefs to stem from policy preferences rather than the other way around.  The policy preferences involved may relate to constellations of issues that go well beyond the issue at hand.  Thus there appear to be Republican facts and Democratic facts, or conservative facts and liberal facts—even on matters of chemistry and physics, and not just on the social phenomena that would be more closely related to political ideologies.

 

A related tendency is to discount or discredit facts communicated to us by those whose ideologies or political affiliations we do not like.  Al Gore has been the most prominent American politician sounding alarms about climate change, and so those who never liked Al Gore’s politics are predisposed to disparage any similar messages on the subject.  Because there is an issue today of whether to build the Keystone XL pipeline, with American politicians carefully calculating how the interests at stake translate into political support or opposition for themselves, we hear this week members of Congress denigrating the just-released report as supposedly just a tactical ploy timed to affect debate on the pipeline issue.

 

Perhaps none of this should be surprising in a polity in which, in the not distant past, people close to the policy process claimed that they could create their own reality.  As a saying of longer vintage reminds us, however, one is entitled to one’s own opinions but not one’s own facts.  Neither can one make reality go away through force of political will.

 

For those of us who are not natural scientists but instead dwell in matters of national security and foreign policy, one thought is that there is no more basic aspect of national security than the habitability of the physical environment in which a nation’s citizens live.  Another thought is that avoiding further environmental deterioration involves complex problems of international relations.  The climate change experienced in the United States and documented in this week’s report reflects not only activity in the United States but also the burning of forests in Indonesia and the spewing of carbon by coal-fired power plants in China.  If effective international measures on this subject are ever to be taken, a necessary first step is to discard the denial and to recognize explicitly the facts and the painful economic and other trade-offs involved.

 

The most recent episode of the television series Cosmos hosted by Neil De Grasse Tyson described some really awful previous periods in Earth’s climatological history, triggered by bombardment from space or by volcanism in Siberia igniting vast amounts of coal.  The good news is that since the end of the last Ice Age and for the next several tens of thousands of years mankind is likely to have a very hospitable planet on which to live—if, that is, mankind does not mess it up through its own activity.  As Tyson put it, the dinosaurs had no way of knowing about the asteroid that did them in; what’s our excuse?                      

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Gerdsch. CC BY-SA 3.0.

TopicsScience RegionsUnited States

The President Strikes a Nerve

Paul Pillar

President Obama has gotten much attention from a single extended response he gave to a question about his foreign policy from Ed Henry of Fox News in a press conference last week in Manila. The apparently strongly felt need, on the part of some of the president's hardline critics, to strike back at his remarks and to try to discredit them indicates that he spoke some embarrassing truths. Garden-variety disagreement with the substance of the president's policies and what he has said to support them would never have stimulated this kind of response.

The president made several perceptive observations about the less productive aspects of current discourse in Washington about Ukraine, Syria, and other difficult issues, but if there was a single “ouch” line that made the critics most uncomfortable it may have been Mr. Obama's comment that “for some reason many who were proponents of what I consider to be a disastrous decision to go into Iraq haven't really learned the lesson of the last decade, and they keep on just playing the same note over and over again.” It must be painful for Mr. Obama's opponents to be reminded how right he was about this issue while so many others—Democrats as well as Republicans—were wrong.

Some of the rest of us who have commented repeatedly on the lessons of that war could be accused (although the president, who is not a serial gloater on the subject, cannot) of playing our own note over and over again. It ought to be played—because the Iraq War was the biggest and costliest U.S. endeavor ever in the Middle East, because we continue to suffer from the domestic as well as the regional consequences of that misadventure, because what was bad about that war has parallels in what could easily happen with some current issues if they are not properly handled, and because it is astounding that the biggest promoters of the Iraq War somehow still seem to have an audience even though they have been proven to be guilty of gross malpractice as policy analysts.

If there is any ground for criticizing what the president said at the press conference in Manila, it is that he seemed implicitly to accept some of the simplistic frames of reference that characterize not only what his critics are saying but more general discussion in the United States of foreign policy. There is the tendency in that discussion, for example, to register anything good or bad happening in the world as a success or failure of the incumbent U.S. president. Thus Mr. Obama pointed to how security relations between the United States and the Philippines are far better today than they were a decade ago, without mentioning that some of the reasons for that really don't have much to do with his own foreign policy. There also is the tendency, amid the slapping on of sanctions against adversaries hither and yon, to treat someone else's pain or isolation as if it were an end in itself. Thus Mr. Obama stated that “Russia has never been more isolated,” without quickly pointing out that any isolation of Russia is only a means to try to induce certain changes in Russian behavior. But the president was, after all, only giving an impromptu response to criticism, and he did not make any specific claims about the meaning and significance of Filipino cooperation or Russian isolation.

If subsequent commentary by the critics were to be believed, the main takeaway from the president's remarks was that he was accusing his political opponents of being warmongers. But the president explicitly acknowledged, in referring to debates over Syria and Ukraine, that the opponents he has in mind have disavowed wanting to send U.S. troops into such conflicts. Mr. Obama's main point was instead that after making such disavowals, the critics either (1) fail to spell out what other action they have in mind, beyond what the administration already is doing; or (2) to the extent they do mention an alternative, fail to assess carefully the likely consequences both good and bad, and instead just make unsupported assertions that acting more boldly or aggressively will somehow help to solve the problem at hand.

The president's point is valid. In fact, it applies as well to a lot of criticism of the foreign policies of other U.S. presidents. It is a reflection of the luxury of non-incumbency. Only incumbent policy-makers have to come up with a course of action that, despite all the downsides, is most likely to help solve problems. Non-incumbent critics can sit back and carp about problems that are still unsolved, whether or not solution is really within the capability of the United States.

Charles Krauthammer is one of those critics whose nerve evidently has been struck by the president's comments. His reaction gives evidence of having been thrown into a spasm upon first hearing the comments and never going back to reread the transcript. He begins, for example, with the assertion that Mr. Obama “began with a complaint about negative coverage on Fox News.” Actually, in response to Henry's statement that “there have been a lot of unflattering portraits of your foreign policy right now,” the president simply observed that “there are actually some complimentary pieces as well about my foreign policy, but I'm not sure you ran them,” which falls short of a “complaint” about Fox's coverage, however much such a complaint would be warranted.

Krauthammer goes on at length on the theme of people being falsely accused of warmongering. He issues a challenge to name any U.S. political leader “who has called for sending troops into Ukraine,” disregarding that the president was not accusing anybody of doing that and instead specifically said his critics were not calling for that.

Trying to turn tables, Krauthammer writes, “wasn't it you, Mr. President, who decided to attack Libya...? Yes, it was, and there is significant valid criticism yet to be written about that decision. But it would not be Krauthammer who would be positioned to write it; he applauded the military intervention in the Libyan civil war and only wished at the time that the intervention had come sooner. He does not mention that fact, nor does he say anything about what lessons the continuing mess in Libya may hold for possible intervention in other Middle Eastern civil wars.

Another topic on which the Obama administration can be validly criticized was the drawing of a “red line” about chemical weapons use in Syria. But what needs to be criticized was the drawing of the line in the first place, not that the administration “retreated abjectly,” as Krauthammer puts it, because the administration never did that. Instead, the administration with help from the Russians made lemonade out of the lemon of a red line and won an agreement that already has resulted in the destruction of Syria's capability to manufacture prohibited chemical weapons and removed from Syria for destruction nearly all of the regime's stockpile of the weapons. This is a far greater blow in favor of the cause of nonproliferation and non-use of chemical weapons than anyone hoped for before the Syria war even began. And as Robert Golan-Vilella reminds us, it is hard to see how any cruise missile strikes on Syria merely to show that we are willing to use military force would have done an iota of good in the Syrian situation.

On Ukraine, Krauthammer does identify one specific policy alternative to what the administration has done so far—providing lethal aid to the Ukrainian military—and argues that this would get Putin to shape up. “The possibility of a bloody and prolonged Ukrainian resistance to infiltration or invasion would surely alter Putin's calculus...” he says. Surely it would, but there would likely be bloody and prolonged Ukrainian resistance with or without U.S. lethal aid. One question is whether such aid would change the prospective length and bloodiness of the resistance enough to make a critical difference in Putin's calculations. Another question is how much weight such an effect would have relative to any provocative effects of the United States, the leader of NATO, initiating such a military relationship with Ukraine. Krauthammer does not bother to address either question.

Just below Krauthammer's column on the same Washington Post opinion page is a piece by House Armed Services Committee chairman Buck McKeon, which is another “what, me a warmonger?” reaction to the president's comments in Manila. Besides the forced indignation over presidential accusations that were never made, this item is characterized mainly by unsupported assertions, without even an attempt to get at the multiple underlying questions that would have to be analyzed, that military saber-rattling always means less chance of war breaking out and more chance of reducing the intensity of wars already underway. On Syria, for example, McKeon says that “arming moderate rebel factions and restoring the U.S. military posture in the Mediterranean” could have prevented use of chemical weapons “or even shortened the conflict.” How? The divisions among opposition groups, the domination of the more extreme ones, and the fight-to-the-death determination of the regime's supporters make very unlikely that a further (beyond what Gulf Arabs were doing anyway) arming of the hard-to-identify “moderates” would have had such desired effects. And just what sort of threat would be implied by any further U.S. military deployments in the Mediterranean? You do seem to believe, Mr. Chairman, that we need to be willing to carry out threats that we make.

The most preposterous statement in the same piece is, “Increasing violence in Iraq, provocations by North Korea and an ongoing Iranian nuclear program stem from similar paralysis in the Oval Office.” The comment about Iraq seems to wipe eight years from recent history, including the mistaken launching of the war in the first place, rampant insurgency during the time of the previous administration, and a “surge” of U.S. forces that could only temporarily help to tamp the insurgency down. In North Korea, three generations of the Kim regime have made provocation a central aspect of grand strategy, with provocation being the most prominent feature of North Korean behavior for decades. And as for the Iranian nuclear program, which also has been ongoing for decades, the preliminary agreement negotiated last fall already has achieved severe limitations to the program that years of sanctions and bluster alone could not.

A hazard of the kind of flak represented by these misplaced criticisms is that they nourish a political climate that tends to push the administration toward mistaken paths, notwithstanding the kind of verbal pushback that Mr. Obama exhibited in Manila. The intervention in Libya and the “red line” in Syria may represent such mistakes—although, to be sure, there also were forces within the administration pushing in the same direction. Christopher Fettweis has aptly summarized the challenge:

We know...that a set of deeply pathological beliefs exists within the so-called "marketplace of ideas," or arena of debate over U.S. foreign policy. As a result, we also know that the Obama administration will continue to be bombarded by a variety of misapplied analogies and faulty reasoning, generated largely by people who ought to know better, and that the president will have to tune out a great deal of noise and filth, to paraphrase Kennan, if he is going to chart a wise path forward.

TopicsForeign Aid RegionsUnited States

Intolerance in Sisi's Egypt

Paul Pillar

There is ample reason to be disturbed, as are Senator Patrick Leahy and some others, about any resumption of military aid to Egypt at this time. Adherence to U.S. law regarding what is supposed to happen to such aid after a military coup is part of the reason. The mass death sentences that have been pronounced lately in Egypt have captured attention but are not even among the leading reasons for tailoring policy toward the regime of Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, because there always has been some uncertainty about how the Egyptian judiciary relates to whoever is in power in Cairo. Rather, what is disturbing is an entire campaign of other forms of harsh repression that clearly does have the top leadership's approval.

Sisi has considerable popularity right now and will almost certainly be elected in the coming Egyptian presidential election with little or no rigging being necessary. He is popular because he has charisma and political skill and because he projects the image of a strong leader who can impose some order on an Egypt that has been quite disorderly for more than three years. But his election can hardly be said to be the result of a fair democratic procedure when what would have been the strongest opposition has been banned and repressed.

An interesting additional dimension of life in Egypt today was recently reported by David Kirkpatrick of the New York Times: that an officially enforced religious intolerance prevails. Coptic Christians who thought they would enjoy more religious freedom when the military coup deposed the president from the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Morsi, have yet to see improvement on that score. They as well as Shiites and atheists are getting jailed on charges of contempt of religion.

Much of this has to do with the culture of Sunni-majority Egypt rather than with any one leader. But Sisi has set an unhelpful tone. He recently was observed on state television listening attentively to an imam who is an ally of his and was spewing inflammatory rhetoric that seemed to justify killing political opponents in the name of religion.

Not a lot is known about Sisi's private life and inclinations, but he has had a reputation for being a religious man. Morsi was the one who appointed him defense minister and head of the military. At the time this was seen as a sign of accommodation between the military and the Brotherhood. An important point to bear in mind in making sense of subsequent events is that, just as in Saudi Arabia, strong opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood need not have anything to do with opposition to injecting heavy doses of Islam into public policy. Indeed, as with the Saudi royal family, those who rely on religion in their own way to enhance their legitimacy are all the more likely to see the Brotherhood as a threat.

The situation in Egypt starts to bring to mind Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, the military officer who ruled Pakistan for a decade, executed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and introduced the most sweeping Islamization of that country's history. Sisi probably will not push sharia to the same extent, but we don't know.

Besides thinking about the challenges of making policy toward Egypt today, we ought to consider how we think about Islamists who are gaining, or on the brink of gaining, political power. The traditional fear has been that of “one man, one vote, one time.” It has never been apparent why this fear should be attached to Islamists in particular. It in fact is easier to think of political leaders of other stripes who have treated their particular ideologies or objectives as more important than observing democratic principles. As for Sisi, he seems on his way to following in the footsteps of his Egyptian military predecessors who left power only through natural death, assassination, or deposition by other generals. And with him Egypt might still get Islamism.

TopicsForeign Aid RegionsEgypt

Hamas and the Tyranny of Labels

Paul Pillar

There is little reason for anyone to get very exercised, either with enthusiasm or with dismay, over the latest announced reconciliation between Hamas and the Fatah-dominated Palestine Liberation Organization. After all, such unity agreements between these two entities have been announced in the past and never went very far. Maybe something more will come from this one, but that prior record should put the possibilities into perspective. Palestinians have politics just like other people do, including chronic differences of view and the occasional gesture that makes it look like all of those differences have been overcome even if they haven't.

But we should be dismayed, though not surprised, by how the Israeli government, with the United States falling in line behind it, has reacted to this announcement, just as those governments have reacted to previous announced agreements between Hamas and the PLO. That reaction essentially consists of invoking a label or slogan as if it were an acceptable substitute for policy. Hamas is said to be a “terrorist” organization and as such not an acceptable interlocutor for negotiations. (In fact, Israel has engaged in extensive and detailed negotiations with Hamas over exchanges of prisoners.) Terrorism is a tactic, one whose use comes and goes, not a fixed category of people or of groups. If previous use of that tactic were to be a negotiating disqualifier forever, a lot of useful business would not get done, including on the very conflict at hand. We went through all this with the PLO; there was a time when Israel was vehemently opposed to anyone even talking to the PLO, much less negotiating with it, and went as far as assassinating the organization's representatives to try to keep the United States from talking to it. The birth of the state of Israel also included much terrorism, perpetrated by men who went on to become top leaders of Israel.

The Israeli prime minister says Hamas is “dedicated to the destruction of Israel.” Actually, Hamas leaders have repeatedly made clear a much different posture, one that involves indefinite peaceful coexistence with Israel even if they officially term it only a hudna or truce. It would be more accurate to say that Israel is dedicated to the destruction of Hamas, an objective that Israel has demonstrated with not just its words but its deeds, including prolonged collective punishment of the population of the Gaza Strip in an effort to strangle the group. Such efforts have included large-scale violence that—although carried out overtly by military forces and thus not termed terrorism—has been every bit as lethal to innocent civilians. In such circumstances, why should Hamas be expected to be the first to go beyond the vocabulary of hudna and mouth some alternative words about the status of its adversary?

The Israeli and U.S. reactions do not seem to take account of the fact that the terms of the announced Hamas-PLO reconciliation are undetermined and still under negotiation. The agreement can involve Hamas moving much more toward the posture of Abbas and the PLO than the other way around. Palestinian Authority representatives already have indicated that there will not be a change in its fundamental stance of recognizing Israel and seeking to resolve the conflict with it peacefully through negotiations. Hamas representatives have pointed out that support for a governing coalition with an established set of policies does not require each party that is part of that government to express identical policies on its own behalf. In fact, that is true of coalition governments everywhere. The coalition government in Britain does things that you won't find in the Liberal Democrats' platform.

Members of the current Israeli government certainly should understand this principle. Members of that government who are even more extreme than Benjamin Netanyahu have called for Israel to annex immediately all or most of the West Bank, which would be flagrantly inconsistent with the whole concept of negotiating an agreement with the Palestinians. Does that mean the Palestinians should no longer negotiate with the Israeli government?

There is good circumstantial evidence to suggest that it will indeed be Hamas that will be making more of the concessions in any bridging of gaps between it and the PLO. Although the unity announcement reflects weakness of both of the Palestinian parties, Hamas is currently the weaker of the two, in the wake of the Egyptian military's coup and campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt's resumption of participation in the strangulation of Gaza.

The Israeli and U.S. posture toward Hamas is fundamentally self-contradictory. It involves saying that a certain form of behavior is unacceptable and then making impossible the use of alternative behavior. It involves saying that we don't like a group because it has used violence instead of peaceful negotiations, and then refusing to negotiate with it. The same self-contradictory posture was exhibited in 2006, when Hamas did the most that any party could do to be accepted as a legitimate, peacefully installed representative of its people—it contested and won a free and fair election—but then Israel and the United States refused to recognize the election result. That not only contradicted the rationale for not talking to Hamas but also contradicted a supposed commitment to democracy.

Greater unity and cooperation between Fatah and Hamas is fundamentally a good thing for whatever possibility remains of a negotiated two-state solution, because a single Palestinian negotiating team that can plausibly and legitimately speak for the Palestinian people as a whole is necessary for reaching such an agreement. The reality of the Gaza Strip cannot be wished away. In the meantime, however, this latest announcement has become yet another excuse for Netanyahu not to negotiate seriously or not to negotiate at all.

TopicsPost-Conflict RegionsUnited States

The Need for Iranian Oil and Gas

Paul Pillar

Deliberations about imposing costs on Russia for undesirable behavior in Ukraine quickly run into several snags, among which is that any sanctions that would significantly hurt Russia would also hurt countries that impose them. Potential sanctions that immediately come to mind involve energy, given that exports of oil and gas provide Russia with nearly two-thirds of its export earnings and about one-half of its government revenues. But interference with those exports would also interfere with the energy supply of countries of the European Union, which get about one-third of their oil and gas from Russia. The United States, no matter how much shale it fracks, could do little to help, such as through exporting liquid natural gas (LNG).

A big elephant in the room in any discussion of oil and gas supplies is Iran. It has the world's fourth largest oil reserves and is second only to Russia in reserves of natural gas. But of course we have been sanctioning the heck out of Iran, and the world does not have full and ready access to Iranian oil and gas, which the Iranian government would be happy to pump and sell lots more of. Admittedly, substitutions for European energy supplies cannot always be made quickly and easily, because of how distribution networks are laid out (in the case of gas) and refineries are set up (in the case of oil). Nonetheless, unshackling Iranian hydrocarbons would be one of the best medium-term solutions to any European energy pinch, whatever its cause. An existing pipeline to carry Iranian gas to Turkey could be the first stage in further distribution of that gas elsewhere in Europe. Such arrangements, in addition to any exports of LNG from Iran, would increase options and lower risk for the West in any sanctioning, or threat of sanctions, against Russia. Increased Iranian export of oil, which is a more globally fungible product with worldwide prices, would reduce Russia's revenue because of downward pressure on the price of its oil, even without any sanctions.

The sanctions campaign against Iran, which has gone on so long with such automaticity that means have become confused with ends, has been carried out with little regard for the damage the sanctions inflict on our own interests. Now with the standoff against Russia over Ukraine, another form of such damage should be noted: the sanctions against Iran reduce our leverage against Vladimir Putin.

At the convergence of issues involving Russia and Iran, there has been misplaced fear about how any Russian weakening or evasion of anti-Iranian sanctions would supposedly weaken the West's position in bargaining over Iran's nuclear program. We ought to be worried instead about the opposite: that Russia might, in the interest of preserving its own export earnings and leverage in the energy sector, be tempted to screw up the negotiations so that sanctions stay in place and Iran is kept out of full participation in the oil and gas markets. Fortunately, so far Russia has not succumbed to any such temptation, evidently continuing to see that conclusion of a nuclear agreement with Iran would be in its own larger interests as well as everyone else's.

The United States and its western partners already had good and strong reasons to see the negotiations through to a successful conclusion, especially because a negotiated agreement with Iran provides the best assurance that its nuclear program will stay peaceful. Now the impasse with Russia over Ukraine has provided an additional reason.

It is hard to try to wage economic warfare against two different adversaries at once. The United States should have learned that lesson when Thomas Jefferson imposed an embargo in 1807 on both Britain and France, thinking that this would get the two warring European powers to leave the United States alone. The embargo was a miserable failure, causing significant damage to the U.S. economy while having little desired effect on British and French behavior. Some things never change, even after growing to a superpower and becoming allies of the Europeans.

TopicsSanctions RegionsUnited States

Twists of History and Interests in Ukraine

Paul Pillar

Imagine that the collapse of Soviet communism more than two decades ago had taken a different form than it did. It might have done so, if the dramatic and fast-moving events of 1991and key people who participated in them had taken a few different turns. Today we associate the collapse with the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. and its replacement by fifteen independent republics. But the break-up of that union did not need to be part of the failure and demise of the Leninist method of organizing politics, economics, and society that we came to know as Soviet communism.

It is true that separatist sentiment had become by early 1991 a significant part of the growing political crisis in the Soviet Union, with the Baltic republics and Georgia making declarations of independence. Even then, however, the break-up of the union was by no means certain. The center was using military force to try to bring the Lithuanians back in line and Mikhail Gorbachev was supporting the adoption of a new charter, to replace one from 1922, aimed at mollifying sentiment in the non-Russian republics while preserving some sort of union.

The career track of Boris Yeltsin had as much as anything else to do with the political shape events in the Soviet Union would take later in 1991. Yeltsin had risen to senior posts in the union power structure before having a falling out with Gorbachev and others in the Soviet regime. He happened to make his political comeback in the government of the Russian republic, and was elected president of that republic in mid-1991. Thus Yeltsin was in that position when he climbed atop a tank to face down the Soviet hardliners who attempted a coup in August while Gorbachev was vacationing at his dacha in Crimea. This meant that once the coup was defeated and Gorbachev's power waned as Yeltsin's waxed, power went from the union government to the Russian republic. Yeltsin scooped up union ministries and made them Russian ones, and when Gorbachev resigned as the last Soviet president later in the year there was barely a shell of a union government left.

It is plausible to imagine a different scenario in which the government structures that emerged from the wreckage of the U.S.S.R. would have looked substantially different. Suppose Yeltsin had taken his defiant, tank-climbing action not as president of the Russian republic but as a reformist party chief of the Moscow region—a job he had once held, along with sitting on the politburo of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Perhaps this would have meant significant power remaining at the level of a reconstituted union.

Such speculation does not say anything about the relative likelihood of the scenario being posited, although the scenario can be the basis for a useful thought experiment if it is at least plausible. Nationalist sentiment in the constituent republics would always have been a significant factor to be reckoned with. Probably what is most implausible about any continued post-Soviet union would be inclusion of the Baltic republics. They alone among the republics of the U.S.S.R. had a history as independent states as recently as 1940. The United States and the West never recognized their annexation by Moscow, and the Baltics' westward orientation has always been strong.

The relevant thought experiment worth doing is to ask: if some sort of union (even without the Baltic states) had endured, how would we in the United States have assessed the events back in the 1990s, and how would we see our interests in that part of the world today? There still would have been sufficient basis on which to say that the Cold War was over and that our side had “won” it. Moscow had already lost its Eastern European empire, and the Warsaw Pact was gone. Although there would not have been as distinctive a dissolution of the U.S.S.R. as in fact happened with the creation of 14 independent states plus the successor state of Russia, the collapse of Soviet communism and the Leninist system would still have been readily apparent. The collapse would have been memorialized in a new name for the union, because it no longer would be calling itself “Soviet” or “socialist”; the name picked for the new union charter that was being negotiated in Gorbachev's time was “Union of Sovereign States”. Creation of a bunch of new, completely independent, Eurasian nation-states was not intrinsic to winning the Cold War, any more than were the later divorce of Czechs and Slovaks or the break-up of Yugoslavia.

George Kennan in his “X” article, the playbook for containment of the U.S.S.R., did not address the issue of nationalities or dissolution of the union. The article uses “Soviet” and “Russian” almost interchangeably. He left open a variety of possible successful outcomes of Cold War containment, stating that the self-destructive forces he perceived in the Soviet Union “must eventually find their outlet in either the breakup or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power.”

Other considerations also should be kept in mind when answering the thought experiment's question. One is that the political histories of several of the non-Russian former Soviet republics can hardly be said to constitute victories for Western-style freedom and democracy. Thus neither, in this particular respect, was the break-up of the Soviet Union. A current reminder that is geographically close to the West is the strident authoritarianism of Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus. In several of the republics, independence meant that regional Communist Party bosses clung to power as presidents. Two of those bosses, Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan and Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, are still in power today. Another one of them, the late Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan, created a cult of personality that rivaled those of Stalin and the Kim family of North Korea. Even some of these strongmen, including Lukashenko and Niyazov, opposed the break-up of the U.S.S.R. at the time.

All of this is relevant to how the United States should perceive its interests today regarding the crisis in Ukraine. If there now existed a Union of Sovereign States, Russians in Moscow would lead it and Ukraine would be a part of it. We in the United States would still be proud winners of the Cold War, happy to see Marxism-Leninism having been discredited and communists in that part of the world reduced to a political opposition. Living with that arrangement would not be a major issue for the vast majority of U.S. and Western observers.

Of course, actual events, rather than hypothetical alternative histories, affect interests and how they ought to be conceived as well as how they actually are conceived. In the Ukrainian situation, the interests chiefly involved concern upholding international norms, especially the norms of non-aggression and respect for state sovereignty. The events of 1991 did not change facts of geography and demography that, whether we like to think this way or not, mean Russia has substantially greater strategic interest in the distribution of power in and around Ukraine than the United States does.

We do not like to think that way, partly because the events of 1991 gave us a bonus to our Cold War victory in the form of the outright dissolution of the U.S.S.R. and a sudden, drastic contraction of Russian influence. Anything that is perceived as a loss for our side (as any reassertion of Russian influence in this area would be), whether what is lost started out as a bonus or not, is harder to take than not having won it in the first place. This is a good illustration of prospect theory, but it is not a good basis for defining national interests and making policy.

The best, and probably only feasible, resolution of the crisis over Ukraine remains a Finlandized Ukraine for which joining any military alliance is firmly ruled out and significant power has been devolved from the central government to the regions. Keeping in mind how the history of the U.S.S.R. could have taken another track will help to remind us of how good an arrangement that would be for our side, as well as for Ukrainians. It also will help us to achieve greater clarity—which is sorely lacking in much of the American debate over Ukraine—in defining our interests and objectives as we decide on the next moves in jousting with one of Boris Yeltsin's other major legacies: his hand-picked successor as president of Russia.

TopicsGreat Powers RegionsRussia

The Prize for Fencing Stolen Goods

Paul Pillar

Prize-awarding committees sometimes use their decisions to make some sort of political or policy statement. The committee that bestows the Nobel Peace Prize seems to have done so with increasing frequency in recent years, giving the prize to recipients who represent current aspirations more than past accomplishments. One risk of this practice, beyond any controversial or questionable aspects of the particular statement being made, is that it debases the award itself by moving it farther from any connection with actual accomplishment. Those who award Pulitzer prizes have now done so by giving this year's prize in the public service category to the Washington Post and Guardian US for publishing purloined secrets about the National Security Agency. And the Pulitzer people have done so for motives less noble than those of the Nobel people.

The articles for which this prize was awarded were vehicles for making public the national security secrets that were stolen wholesale by a turncoat contractor who is now a guest of the Russians. Publication of the articles, in short, facilitated an act of treason. The NSA activities that were the initial focus of the publications were duly subject to well-established procedures of Congressional oversight. If members on the oversight committees who believed these operations were part of an appropriate balancing of security and privacy outnumbered members who had a different view, well, that's part of how representative democracy works. If disclosures of this type grabbed the public's attention after the public's preferences regarding national security had changed gradually but significantly in the years since 9/11, that's part of how the chronic attention deficit disorder in American politics tends to work. There is nothing unlawful or scandalous about this. What is scandalous is that the prize-winning publications have continued to print disclosure after disclosure that has nothing whatever to do with the privacy of the American public but instead only reveals to the world, including U.S. adversaries, details about legitimate foreign intelligence collection operations of NSA. There is no way this can plausibly be described as “public service.”

Set aside for the moment the substantive merits or demerits of what has been disclosed. Consider, as one might expect the Pulitzer committee to do, the quality and significance of the journalism. The publications that received the prize were not the ones that published these articles because their journalists were more skillful or harder working than those at other newspapers. They became the outlets because the secret-stealer and his immediate confederates chose them as newspapers with high reputations and wide readership. The material was dumped in their laps. Why should anyone receive a prize for that? This is the antithesis of enterprising, shoe-leather investigative journalism that ought to be recognized and rewarded. (The principal Washington Post journalist involved, Barton Gellman, has demonstrated his impressive skills as an investigative reporter on other subjects, but not on this one.)

The journalists and newspapers involved had to do some processing of the stolen material, of course. Here what stands out is the very bad editorial judgment displayed in publishing a stream of disclosures that is unconnected to the issue of the privacy of the American public and that serves no worthwhile public purpose.

The only apparent purpose served is to sell newspapers (and win Pulitzers) with material that is interesting and titillating. This episode is one more piece of evidence that the media in general—including apparently the prize-bestowing segment of the journalism profession—have such a strong and self-interested appetite for leaks that it is almost impossible to find objective reporting on the subject. Perhaps the “public service” Pulitzer category ought to be renamed “media service”.

Every past and present recipient of a Pulitzer holds an award that is a bit less valuable and distinctive today because of the debasement that has just occurred.

TopicsIntelligence RegionsUnited States

The Aboutalebi Affair in Context

Paul Pillar

The Obama administration has to perform a balancing act in handling the Iran account. One one hand it has the task, along with its diplomatic partners, of completing negotiations with Iran of an agreement to place unprecedented limits on the Iranian nuclear program to assure that it remains peaceful. Although the negotiators still have to iron out many details, this is actually the more straightforward part of the act. The negotiations are on track, Iran is abiding by the terms of a preliminary agreement, and there is clear shape to a prospective agreement that would support nonproliferation goals as well as drawing down sanctions that have been damaging to the United States as well as to Iran.

The other part of the balancing act, which is the more troublesome part, is to deal with forces that are opposed to any agreement with Iran and are endeavoring to undermine the negotiation of one. These forces include most conspicuously the current government of Israel and its American supporters, who want to keep any Iranian competitor for influence permanently estranged and to keep the specter of an Iranian security threat around forever as a focus of attention. They include American neoconservatives, who when they were giving us the Iraq War assigned Iran to the Axis of Evil and told the Iranians to “take a number.” They include political opponents of Barack Obama who reflexively oppose anything he favors and see a political incentive to sabotage what would be one of his most significant foreign policy achievements. These elements overlap a lot and collectively do not constitute as large an opposition as this fractionated description might suggest. But anything they do under the label of opposing Iran is supported by the perceptual habits of a larger American public that has become accustomed to seeing Iran as nothing but an adversary to be confronted and opposed.

The administration has to manage these destructive forces, in a combination of parrying and propitiating, so as not to allow them to ruin the negotiations. This partly involves doing and saying certain things to display strength and resolution toward Iran, to refute accusations that the administration's posture is one of weakness and to demonstrate that the agreement that emerges from the negotiations will be the best that could be obtained. It also involves allowing people from time to time to let off some anti-Iranian steam. This applies not so much to those who are determined to sabotage a negotiated agreement anyway but rather to members of Congress who feel a need, given the political climate in which they have to operate, periodically to make confrontational gestures against Iran.

Thus the administration is prudent not to go to the mat over some gestures that, although they may be more directly unhelpful than helpful to the negotiations and may be promoted by those whose motives are ignoble, take steam and energy away from other possible measures that would be even more destructive. We have seen this recently with some Congressional letters that were a substitute for what would have been much more damaging sanctions legislation. We may be seeing it again with the denial of a visa to Iran's newly designated ambassador to the United Nations, Hamid Aboutalebi, following Senate passage of legislation that would have had the same effect.

On the merits of the visa issue itself, the United States is acting wrongly. Denying the visa is a clear abrogation of the responsibilities of the United States as the host nation for the United Nations headquarters. No international organization could operate properly if the host nation were to behave in such a way for whatever rationale. It is not true, as has been widely asserted, that there is a “security exception” permitting such a denial. The U.S. law implementing the U.N. headquarters agreement speaks of security considerations as a possible reason for limiting travel of duly designated national representatives to the U.N. headquarters district, not for denying access to the district itself. For the law to read otherwise would have made a mockery of the headquarters agreement that placed the United Nations at Turtle Bay in the first place. In any case, it is hardly plausible that Aboutalebi, who is now a senior diplomat who has served as ambassador to Australia, Belgium, Italy, and the European Union, poses a security threat today.

If one looks beyond international legal obligations, there is room for arguing back and forth about denying a visa to Aboutalebi. If one were to take a stand in favor of reasonableness in policy toward Iran, this might not be the best place to take it. Although Aboutalebi has served as ambassador to other Western countries, it was the United States that was the victim of the hostage-taking in Tehran in 1979. That was an inexcusable terrorist act. All those who participated in it share responsibility for it. That a particular individual played a lesser role than some others does not absolve the individual of all responsibility. Nor does the notion of youthful indiscretion hold water, as a matter either of personal integrity or of affecting the incentives of youthful would-be perpetrators of similar acts in the future.

Of course, the United States has hardly applied any such standard consistently in deciding whom to do business with. Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir come immediately to mind (appropriately so, as former heads of Likud governments in Israel, given the origin of much of the current opposition to diplomacy with Iran) as two who were welcomed to the White House as foreign leaders despite having been up to their eyeballs in terrorism. In their cases, it wasn't just providing interpretation services to kidnappers but instead being leaders of terrorist gangs that killed many innocent British and others in the 1940s. U.S. inconsistency, however, does not necessarily excuse whatever is the most recent episode of inconsistent policy.

How exactly the Aboutalebi matter will affect the political and diplomatic dynamics between Tehran and Washington remains to be seen. Iranian president Rouhani has his own destructive hardliners to deal with, and this newest demonstration of U.S. unwillingness to deal normally with the Iranian government complicates his task in the first instance. But perhaps his government can partly turn the situation around, as it shows signs of doing already, by using it as an occasion to demonstrate its own ability to take a hard-nosed stance against the United States. We should hope that the U.S. and Iranian governments are finding a way to communicate and commiserate privately about how they both have to play this kind of game from time to time if they are ever to get to a more normal relationship.

The fundamental underlying observation to make in evaluating this affair is that the Obama administration's most difficult Iran-related task right now is not finding the right formulations in writing an agreement with the Iranians. It is heading off the attempts to sabotage an agreement. Looked at this way, the otherwise unsupportable denial of a visa might be a prudent way of reducing the chance of something even more damaging—and of increasing the chance of moving Iran in a direction that achieves the nuclear nonproliferation goal while making inconceivable anything like a replay of the 1979 hostage-taking. Maybe for that reason it makes some sense for the administration to go along in this instance with the anti-Iranian huffing and puffing of the likes of Ted Cruz and Charles Schumer.

TopicsSecurity RegionsIran

The Folly of the Pollard Ploy

Paul Pillar

Although it looked for a time, after the latest breakdown of the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process,” that the notion of trying to buy some cooperation from Benjamin Netanyahu by freeing the spy Jonathan Pollard had expired along with talks, it appears that a stake still has not been driven through this really bad idea. It should be. Pollard's record has not changed. He was responsible for one of the most voluminous thefts of U.S. secrets ever. He is nobody's patriot, having been paid handsomely for his betrayal and having tried to peddle his pilfered secrets to other governments in addition to Israel's.

And please, let us not hear any more the gratingly oxymoronic comment that leniency should be shown to Pollard because he was “spying for an ally.” Label Israel however you want—and there are good reasons, including ones involving misuse of U.S. secrets, to question the label “ally”—but espionage is a hostile act. Insofar as anyone acts this way, they are not acting as an ally.

To release Pollard short of his duly pronounced sentence would be another blow against public understanding of the reality that it is impossible to have any effective program of national security without secrets. That understanding already has been weakened lately with the badly inappropriate lionization of another wholesale stealer of U.S. secrets, most of whose disclosures have had nothing whatever to do with the privacy rights of American citizens on whose behalf he claimed to be acting.

The sort of trade involving Pollard that has most recently been contemplated would hardly buy anything anyway. At most it would keep going for a short additional time talks that were going nowhere. To make them go somewhere would require a fundamental decision by the Israeli government to trade conquered land for peace, and releasing Pollard would not bring about such a decision.

Think about what such a trade would say about the issues under negotiation and especially about the Israeli position on such issues. It would show that whatever the Israeli government was holding out on before and that became part of the trade was not really a matter of principle or of Israeli security as had been claimed. It would reveal the whole business to be tawdry bargaining, of the sort that strings along a process enabling the Israeli government to appear to be working toward a two-state solution without really doing so, rather than a genuine and focused pursuit of peace in partnership with the Palestinians. And it would enable Netanyahu to reap whatever short-term domestic benefit comes from winning release of the spy.

Maybe Netanyahu has no shame in being part of such dealings, but it would be demeaning to the United States. It would show the Obama administration to be so desperate for what it would bill as a diplomatic success—or rather, just the absence of failure—that it was willing to play Netanyahu's cheap game. It would give political benefit to a government that has caused much trouble to U.S. interests. And it would not divert Israel from a course that is over the long term destructive to Israel's own interests.

The one good thing about Pollard being eligible for parole next year is that, if he is in fact paroled, the sordid idea of releasing him early in a deal with Israel will finally be gone once and for all.

TopicsIntelligencePost-Conflict RegionsIsraelUnited StatesPalestinian territories

A Peril to the Iran Nuclear Deal

Paul Pillar

There exists, right now, a problem with one side's obligations not being fulfilled as provided for under the preliminary agreement, known as the Joint Plan of Action, that Iran reached with the United States and its negotiating partners (the P5+1) last November. This lack of fulfillment endangers the process of negotiating a final agreement. It is an understandable source of consternation to the other side, which will increasingly doubt the first side's ability and willingness to make good on its commitments, including in any final deal. Hardliners on the second side will pounce on any non-fulfillment of the terms of the JPA as a reason to scuttle the whole process.

So is Iran not living up to its commitments under the JPA? Well, we do have hardliners on our own side eager to pounce. In fact, they are so eager that they are trying to pounce even though there isn't anything to pounce on. Senators Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL), who led the recent unsuccessful effort in Congress to impose additional deal-busting sanctions after conclusion of the JPA, have sent a letter to President Obama that bemoans indications of some increased Iranian oil sales and says “If Iran moves forward with this effort to evade U.S. sanctions and violate the terms of oil sanctions relief provided for in the JPA” the United States should in effect renounce its obligation under the JPA to—this is the wording of the JPA—“pause efforts to further reduce Iran's crude oil sales.”

The senators make it sound as if Iran has some obligation under the agreement to knuckle under to sanctions, don't they? Otherwise how could Iran “violate” what they are talking about? But Iran has no such obligation. All the obligations in the preliminary agreement concerning sanctions are obligations of the P5+1 (including that very mild “pause efforts” clause, which does not entail rolling back the existing oil sanctions). All of Iran's obligations involve restrictions on its nuclear program. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran so far is in compliance with those obligations.

No, the current problem in implementing the agreement involves another part of the P5+1's side of the deal, not Iran's side. Specifically, it involves the unfreezing in installments of a small portion ($4.2 billion out of an estimated $100 billion) of the Iranian money that already was earned from prior oil sales and is sitting in non-Iranian banks. Iran has been unable to withdraw much of the money that it was supposed to have gained access to by now. It appears the problem is not direct violation of the agreement by the U.S. Treasury or any of the other governments involved. Instead, the banks that are to handle the funds are so deathly afraid of running afoul, however inadvertently, of any continuing sanctions that Treasury is enforcing that they have not made the money move. The fear is understandable, given how huge and complex the sanctions regime has become and also how huge have been fines that Treasury has levied on transgressors. The marvelous sanctions machine is so powerful that it continues to exude power and have effects even after a switch has been turned off. Treasury needs to do more than just saying “go,” and more than it has done so far to put banks into their comfort zone, for the JPA to be implemented the way it was supposed to be.

Iranian President Rouhani had a big enough challenge domestically as it was to sell a preliminary agreement that gave the P5+1 most of what it wanted in restricting the nuclear program while getting only modest sanctions relief in return. His selling task is made all the harder when even that modest relief is not properly implemented. And there certainly are hardliners on his side ready to pounce on any such developments.

This issue is a reminder of how an Iranian belief that the West and especially the United States will come through with positive action if Iran makes desired concessions is just as important as (and given how the issue has evolved, has become even more important than) an Iranian belief that it will be hit with still more negative consequences if it does not concede.

The current problem also underscores how much work—political, not just administrative—on the U.S. side remains to be done to prepare for the undoing of sanctions that will be part of any final agreement, and that necessarily will be substantially greater than the minor sanctions relief in the JPA. Members of Congress are still talking about piling on more sanctions when they ought to be discussing how to take sanctions off the pile. We have already seen how hard it is to redirect the sanctions machine. Aircraft carriers do not turn around on a dime, and neither do sanctions, especially ones as complicated and extensive as the ones on the Iranian pile. Even if the more optimistic projections of when a deal will be struck in Vienna do not prove true, it is not too soon for Congress and the administration to be working diligently on this and for it to be a subject of public discussion.

TopicsCongressSanctionsNuclear Proliferation RegionsIranUnited States

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