Paul Pillar

The Sony Pictures Hack and Old Confusion About Terrorism

Paul Pillar

The suspected hack by North Korea into the computer system of an American movie company has gotten a lot of people excited without a lot of thinking about the significance, or lack of it, of what has happened and without addressing some longstanding conceptual problems that have plagued discussions related to terrorism. The problems persist even if we simplify matters by accepting the widespread assumption that the North Korean regime did in fact perpetrate the hack—an assumption that, based on public knowledge to date, is not necessarily correct.

It appears that the net effect of the electronic intrusion has been to delay release of a movie—not usually the stuff of which national security crises are made, or should be made. Some of those who are agitated about the incident refer to subsequent bellicose-sounding statements from the North Korean regime that, while denying responsibility for the computer intrusion, refer angrily to the same movie. Some of what that regime is said to have said in the current instance regarding threats against the United States it did not really say. Besides, Pyongyang makes bellicose-sounding statements, including ones specifically directed at the United States, all the time.

Perhaps some of those alarmed about this latest incident believe that the successful hack demonstrates a capability as well as a willingness to inflict more substantial harm on Americans who go to see the movie that the North Korean regime does not want them to see. The imagined scenario might involve something like North Korean hackers taking over the electronics of movie theaters in the United States and somehow manipulating the climate control system to have debilitating or lethal consequences on people in the audience. As ridiculous as such a scenario is, it is not improbable that such images are affecting the thinking of some Americans worrying about what North Korea might do, because this kind of fancifulness has roots in a larger tradition of American thinking about terrorism.

There has been fascination, dating at least back to the 1990s, with possible unconventional methods of terrorist attack, which is to say use of chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear (CBRN) means or anything having to do with cyber capabilities. And such hypothetical means do indeed make for fascinating scenarios. The sheer sexiness of the subject fires the imagination. That fascination has led to grossly disproportionate attention in commentary and alarmism about terrorism using CBRN and cyber methods—disproportionate when compared to the ways terrorists actually have been harming people.

An example of this misplaced focus and how long it has been around was an article that President Obama's nominee for secretary of defense, Ashton Carter, wrote 16 years ago along with John Deutch, another former deputy secretary of defense, and Philip Zelikow, who supervised writing of the 9/11 commission report. The danger the authors wanted to warn us about was that “terrorists may gain access to weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear devices, germ dispensers, poison gas weapons, and even computer viruses.” All of their imaginative hypothetical examples involved the use of either CBRN or cyber techniques. They argued that the big divide between, on one hand, terrorism we really ought to worry about more and would be “catastrophic,” and on the other hand conventional terrorism which the authors assured us was already getting sufficient attention, was whether or not such unconventional techniques or weapons were used.

The 9/11 attacks, which had nothing whatever to do with either cyber methods or CBRN capabilities, demonstrated how mistaken that analysis was. Nothing terrorists have done in the years since then suggests that the analysis is any less misdirected. And yet, the fascination continues, as do mistaken attributions of newness to threats that fit the fascinating mold. Thus, for example, David Rothkopf tells us this week that “we are at a critical juncture in the dawning days of the cyber era,” that we need “to start writing a new playbook” on foreign policy because of cyber threats, and that in response to the Sony Pictures incident we ought to be talking about using not just cyberattacks but even military action against North Korea. Senator John McCain, not to be outdone by anyone when it comes to talking about getting involved in wars, said the presumed North Korean hack of Sony was “the manifestation of a new form of warfare.”

Another old terrorism-related issue that the Sony matter has raised concerns the official U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. President Obama says he will review whether there is reason to put North Korea back on the list. Such a review would be appropriate insofar as it actually focuses on terrorism. The state sponsor designation has been one of the most abused listings the U.S. government promulgates, with most of the listings and delistings, under several different administrations, having little or nothing to do with terrorism. Cuba's remaining on the list long after ceasing to be involved in anything that could be considered sponsorship of terrorism has been a glaring anomaly, although one that may be corrected in the course of implementing the president's initiative on Cuba. Iraq under Saddam Hussein was moved off and on the list for reasons other than any change in Iraq's terrorism-related behavior; it came off during the Reagan administration as part of the U.S. tilt toward Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, and it was put back on when Saddam invaded Kuwait. North Korea perpetrated very nasty terrorism back in the 1980s but remained on the list for many years after it had stopped doing anything of the sort. When the George W. Bush administration removed it from the list six years ago the real reason had to do not with terrorism but with circumstances associated with the nuclear weapons issue.

Although the fascination with hypothetical cyber shenanigans as a terrorist tool, and the entrenchment of the term cyberterrorism in the language, provide an impetus for labeling the presumed North Korean action against Sony Pictures as terrorism, there surely is a case to be made for maintaining a clear distinction—in terminology as well as in responses—between actions that delay a movie's release and ones that have the more material effects commonly associated with terrorism.

Another reason for pause in applying the label of terrorism to what has occurred, and no doubt a reason the Obama administration is pausing before applying it, is to think about what the United States, or countries the United States calls allies, have done or might do with their own cyber capabilities overseas. If one action is to be called terrorism, then so must the other.

This gets to an asymmetry that has kept us Americans from fully coming to terms with how we and others use state-sanctioned violence for political purposes. The most common conceptions of terrorism mostly correspond to the legal U.S. definition that is used for another one of those official lists (the one for foreign terrorist organizations). That definition refers to politically motivated violence conducted against noncombatants by either a nonstate organization or clandestine agents of a state. Most of the politically motivated violence that we, or our purported allies, practice (much of which affects noncombatants, sometimes in very bloody ways) is conducted openly as military operations. Others may not have that opportunity, either because of weakness in military capabilities or lack of recognition as a state, or both. So we get to apply the label of terrorism to the other guy's politically motivated violence but don't have to apply it to our own, or perhaps to that of a putative ally. A distinction is made in semantics, even if not in morality or material effects. But if we apply the label to any hostile cyber operations in a foreign country and have conducted any such operations ourselves, we lose that convenient terminological asymmetry.

Of course, one could follow McCain's approach of simply calling everything war, but that leads to two other observations. One is that if we have conducted hostile cyber operations not in response to anything that could be called either terrorism or war but instead in response to something else (such as, say, a nuclear program we don't happen to like), then we would have to say we started a war. (And is that any better than initiating other forms of politically motivated violence?) The other observation is that if we are in a state of war any time a hacker goes after a movie he doesn't happen to like and affects its box office receipts, we are in worse trouble than any of us thought.                

TopicsNorth Korea RegionsEast Asia

Obama's Interesting Fourth Quarter

Paul Pillar

“My presidency is entering the fourth quarter. Interesting stuff happens in the fourth quarter, and I'm looking forward to it.”

-- Barack Obama, December 19. 2014

One should be careful about drawing conclusions concerning the intentions and state of mind of a president based on when he takes certain major actions. The background to almost any presidential action involves a bureaucratic process within the U.S. government and, with foreign policies, negotiations or consultations with other governments. Sometimes a step is taken at a particular time because that's when the processes and the negotiations happened to be completed. Sometimes timing is largely a matter of making room on a crowded plate with other issues demanding high-level attention. Nonetheless, President Obama's actions over the past several weeks are consistent with the analysis that he has become a more politically liberated and thus more energized national leader since the mid-term elections, which were the last elections which will put anyone into national-level office while Mr. Obama remains president. If the president really has made such a transition, any American who would rather see broader pursuit of the national interest take precedence over a narrow focus on the next election ought to be pleased about that.

Mr. Obama is putting the lie to accusations that he is a timid and indecisive leader, and revealing such accusations to be merely a combination of general Obama-bashing and specific preferred policies of the accuser. Many of his opponents who call for more assertive U.S. policies overseas equate assertiveness with bombing somebody rather than, say, asserting the right for the United States to practice diplomacy with anyone it wants or getting in front of efforts to keep Earth habitable. Many who say that people and governments overseas yearn for more forceful U.S. action (whiny Gulf Arab monarchies with their sectarian objectives seem to be a favorite reference point in this regard) are merely pushing certain narrow agendas on salient topics such as the Syrian civil war, while refusing to recognize the far broader international approval that Mr. Obama's recent actions have received.

Even if the president does not have any more elections to worry about, domestic politics still will have a lot to do with what he can or cannot achieve. That there will be continued obstructionism in Congress is a safe bet, especially given that the results of those same mid-term elections did not give the obstructionists any new incentive to change their ways. One of Mr. Obama's responses to this reality is to make the fullest possible use of his executive authority where constructive legislative action is unlikely. Another thing the president has going for him is that once he takes specific action, this clarifies the choices between those actions and the alternatives in a way that drains credibility from opponents who try to argue that the president's actions are against the national interest—and also clarifies likely electoral costs for opponents who are focusing on the next election—even on subjects where obstructionists might fare better in a debate waged in more abstract terms. Timothy Egan has made a similar observation this way:

“Are Republicans really going to spend the first year of their new majority trying to undo everything the president has done—to roll back the clock? Will they defend isolation of Cuba against the wishes of most young Cuban-Americans? Will they restore a family-destroying deportation policy, when Obama’s de-emphasis on sending illegal immigrants home has already given him a 15-point boost among Latinos? Will they take away health insurance from millions who never had it before? Will they insist that nothing can be done on climate change, while an agreement is on the table for the world’s two biggest polluters, the United States and China, to do something significant?”

If Mr. Obama really is going to make things interesting as well as productive for U.S. interests in the first few months of his fourth quarter and not just in the closing weeks of the third, two decision points in particular will bear watching—in addition to watching whether the president keeps the heat on, so to speak, on the problem of climate change. Taking the correct course of action at each of these decision points would involve, like the opening to Cuba, a removal of outdated and damaging impediments to U.S. diplomacy and foreign policy.

One of the two decision points concerns whether the president will inject into the U.S. negotiating position the flexibility that will be needed to conclude an agreement to restrict Iran's nuclear program. Although these are multilateral negotiations, the most critical decisions will be made by the president of the United States and the supreme leader of Iran. Of course there will be vigorous efforts from the same quarters that have been trying all along to undermine the negotiations to destroy whatever agreement may be reached, specifically through Congressional action. There will be cries about giving up the store and making too many concessions. But that will happen no matter what the terms of the agreement. And once an agreement is in hand and the implications between upholding the agreement and discarding it become clearer than ever, the issue will become like the others on Egan's list, with no reasonable case to be made in favor of discarding the deal, and discarding along with it any special restraints on, and monitoring of, the Iranian program.

The other issue to watch is the unresolved conflict between Israelis and Palestinians—where Mr. Obama's actions so far have mostly been limited to giving John Kerry a pat on the back and wishing him luck. For American politicians this issue is the grandaddy of all contradictions between doing what is in U.S. interests and bending in another direction because of fear of what will happen at the next election. If Barack Obama really does feel liberated by not having to think about the next election, this issue presents the toughest test of that proposition. And if anyone doubts what this festering conflict does not only to Palestinians but to Israel, and why it cannot be allowed to fester indefinitely, a good corrective read is Roger Cohen's most recent column.

There may actually be several decision points that this subject will present to Mr. Obama over the next two years, but an immediate issue concerns a draft resolution introduced at the United Nations Security Council on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, calling for an end to the Israeli occupation and conclusion of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement by a date certain sometime in the next couple of years. The language of the resolution will undergo more discussion and change before it is put to a vote. But if it basically says that the 47-year occupation has to end and that there should be established within the next couple of years a Palestinian state with boundaries negotiated by Israel and the Palestinian Authority, such a resolution will be worth supporting. It certainly should not be vetoed.

No such resolution will, by itself, bring a Palestinian state an inch closer to realization on the ground. Nor will it provide shortcuts to the tough bargaining that still will be necessary between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators. But for the United States not to veto such a resolution, and even more if it actively supports it, will be a salient and significant development—a much-noticed departure from past unfortunate practice—that will at least bring resolution of the conflict closer.

This gets to the standards that President Obama ought to apply in assessing where his leadership can accomplish things and thus where he should make bold moves on any topic. Accomplishment in most cases will not mean wrapping up a problem in the next two years. In most cases it will mean imparting new momentum to a necessarily longer term process. This clearly is the case with the climate problem; the agreement with China on reduction of emissions is an accomplishment because it imparts momentum to a process that will require many years and broad multilateral participation. Even most of the benefit of the initiative on Cuba will not materialize during the rest of Mr. Obama's term. The old U.S. policy toward Cuba had over half a century to show that it does not work; the new one deserves more than two years to show that it does (especially if Congressional resistance undermines the new policy).

And as for the Palestinian problem, for the United States not to oppose a UN resolution that explicitly criticizes the Israeli occupation will spur processes that are necessary to resolve the problem, even if it is not resolved in the next two years. The change in the U.S. posture will send a strong message to the rest of the world, ranging from extremists who repeatedly cite the unresolved conflict and the U.S. role in it as a reason for their anti-U.S. violence, to Israeli voters who have to think long and hard about the path their country is on. The message is that the United States realizes—and is willing to act on that realization—that indefinite continuation of this conflict on terms set by the right-wing rulers of Israel is contrary to U.S. interests, as well as being contrary to the interests of Palestinians and of Israel itself.                           

TopicsIsrael Iran Palestinian Territories RegionsMiddle East United States

The Cuba Opening: A Welcome Blow Against the Posturing School of Foreign Policy

Paul Pillar

China wasn't available to open up to, because Richard Nixon already did that over four decades ago, in a process that was completed when full diplomatic relations were established with the People's Republic during Jimmy Carter's presidency. Neither was the old enemy Vietnam available, given that full and even cordial relations with Hanoi came about through diplomacy during the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. And Cuba pales in importance, of course, compared with China in particular. But President Obama's move toward a more normal relationship with Cuba is a significant blow in favor of good sense, reality as well as realism, and rational pursuit of U.S. interests.

Having a normal relationship with the Caribbean nation is significant and newsworthy, and this week's step is a major accomplishment for Mr. Obama, only because of the major tendency in American politics—readily evident in the Congress and responsible for much that has been misguided in U.S. foreign policy—that sees foreign policy not as the calculated pursuit of national interests but instead as a series of postures in which we pronounce on what we like and what we don't like. The postures do not have to be consistent in what standards are applied to different countries, and there need not be more than the slightest pretense that our posture will make what we don't like any better. Much of this tendency is a reflection of domestic politics and the influence of particularly vocal constituencies. But for the politicians who exhibit it, there often seems to be something more emotional and reflexive that takes hold of them, beyond a careful counting of votes.

Cuba has long been one of the prime targets for this kind of reflexive and unproductive animosity among American politicians. Iran has been another major target in recent years. And there are worthwhile comparisons to be made between such cases; just as ostracism and rejection of the normal give-and-take of diplomacy has been utterly unproductive in the case of Cuba, so too has been the case with Iran, with positive results having been obtained only when real diplomacy began under the current U.S. administration. There has been some similar atavistic animosity, harking back to the Cold War, in attitudes toward Russia since the Ukraine crisis heated up this year, but at least in that case—amid a more dynamic situation and a crisis in the oil-driven Russian economy—there is a genuine basis for talking about possible prospects for sanctions helping to achieve some worthwhile changes.

What most distinguishes the case of Cuba is the sheer length of time during which the futile posture of attempted isolation and embargo has been sustained. We long, long ago passed the point where we can say with finality and high confidence that the policy does not work. It is hard to come up with a better example of how the longevity of futility has made such a conclusive case that a course of action is an unmitigated failure. Even if there were no basis for expecting that a different course would yield improvement—in fact, there is considerable basis for expecting it would, along lines the president mentioned in his statement—it would make sense to try a different course even just on the off-chance it would get some results.

Against this background, some of the quick criticism of the president's action is astounding. The lead editorial in the Washington Post closes by saying that the action gives the Cuban regime—a regime that has lasted more than half a century and has demonstrated its ability to endure the end of the Cold War and loss of its Soviet patron, the debility and resignation of its founder, and many other challenges—a “new lease on life.” It is hard to believe that whoever on the Post's editorial staff wrote that sentence did so with a straight face.

Or take the statement of former Florida governor and current presidential hopeful Jeb Bush that Mr. Obama's actions “undermine America's credibility.” Credibility with respect to what, exactly? The president is making good on his earlier statements and campaign promises on the subject. The most serious lack of credibility involved is what has inhered in the inconsistencies involved in the policy of isolation and punishment.

This has been conspicuously true of keeping Cuba on the official U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism even though the Cuban regime hasn't come close to sponsoring international terrorism for many years. The people at the State Department who have the job of preparing the annual country reports on terrorism have to say something to try to justify the continued listing of Cuba, and so they mention—and they must also have trouble keeping a straight face as they write—that a few retirees from the Basque group ETA and the Colombian group known as the FARC have lived in Cuba. Half of the very short write-up on Cuba is about how the Cuban government has worked in cooperation with the government of Colombia to facilitate the latter government's peace negotiations with the FARC. That's not sponsoring terrorism; that's helping to reduce it. Given how much the United States government talks about states sponsoring terrorism, it is a credibility-destroying joke to have Cuba still on the U.S. list on the subject.

Most of the other instant critics have been just stumbling for words, bereft of any real arguments. As Robert Golan-Vilella points out, Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham were reduced to reciting anti-Obama buzzwords with no reference at all to Cuba. Senator Marco Rubio was reduced to emotional blithering.

Rubio and other habitual critics no doubt were thrown off-balance by the president acting decisively with real effect, carrying through on earlier statements and commitments—and in a direction welcomed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—which runs counter to the anti-Obama script that depicts the president as weak, indecisive, and reactive. That and the usual reflexive response of opposing anything that would count as an achievement for Mr. Obama underlay Rubio's threats to try to use any Congressional tools available to kill the move to full diplomatic relations.

If Congress in the next session does that, and if it sustains the embargo that gets condemned annually at the United Nations by votes of laughing-stock proportions, we ought to think about (although it probably is too much to expect those who sustain such policies to think about it) how the rest of the world is going to interpret that. A common pattern in much of the world with respect to many different issues is to like and admire America but to dislike U.S. policies. But now we would have a policy from the White House that has received universal praise from abroad for a long-overdue step, but which might get stymied by the U.S. Congress. Foreigners will be left to wonder what it is about the United States that lets some Little Havana small-mindedness take over U.S. foreign policy to the extent of persisting in a half-century of failure.                                   

TopicsCuba RegionsLatin America

Friends, Not Just Enemies, of an Iranian Nuclear Deal are Imperiling It

Paul Pillar

U.S. and Iranian negotiators are in Geneva resuming work on an agreement to limit Iran's nuclear program. Whether the negotiations succeed in producing a deal is still very much in doubt, but not because it is doubtful that there is a deal to be had. The outlines of an agreement that meets the needs and objectives of both sides have been clear for some time and are largely embodied in the preliminary agreement reached over a year ago. Iran's acceptance of restrictions and inspection arrangements that go beyond what has been placed on any other country has made possible what both sides say they seek, which is integration of Iran in the community of nations with high assurance that there will not be an Iranian nuclear weapon.

The main impediments to such an agreement continue to come from those who don't want a deal and don't want any integration of Iran in the community of nations regardless of any terms of an agreement relating to nuclear weapons. The saboteurs of a deal continue their sabotage efforts on multiple fronts, including accusing Iran of violations of the interim deal that it has in fact observed, and throwing up on the wall anything negative about Iran and seeing what will stick, no matter how far removed it is from the nuclear issues under negotiation.

The sabotage could either prevent implementation of an agreement or sow enough doubt about implementation to prevent a deal from being reached at all. Much of the hardline talk in Congress about imposing additional sanctions on Iran probably has already made the negotiations more difficult by increasing Iranian doubts about the willingness or political ability of the United States to fulfill its part of a deal. Meanwhile the dishonesty of those who claim that such talk is aimed at facilitating negotiations by inducing more Iranian concessions becomes ever more apparent, as with a recent comment by Senator-elect Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, who let it slip that the reason he wants more sanctions is that this would be a good way “to put an end to these negotiations.”

Besides the sabotage of those who don't want any agreement, however, another reason that conclusion of an agreement is uncertain is the belief among many who really do want an agreement that the United States does not need to make more concessions to get one. There is a view among many pro-agreement people on Capitol Hill that the United States has put a reasonable deal on the table and that it is up to Iran to make whatever additional concessions are needed to finalize the agreement. If that view prevails and characterizes the U.S. negotiating position, the talks probably will fail.

It is hard to determine to what extent this Congressional view also prevails in the Obama administration; it is still a favorable sign that both sides in this negotiation have kept as many things behind the closed doors of the negotiating room as they have. But in any event, the Congressional view just described will help to determine the political space, or lack of it, that the administration has for cutting a deal. The administration has to think about not just cutting a deal with the Iranians but about defending it at home, and defending it among many of its customary supporters as well as beating back the efforts of the die-hard saboteurs.

The we-don't-need-to-make-concessions mindset is partly a manifestation of the unfortunate American habit of viewing diplomacy not as give-and-take bargaining and a process of reconciling interests that are partly convergent and partly conflicting, but instead of the United States making demands and getting other countries to accept them. The habit is especially unfortunate in this instance given that Iran clearly made more of the concessions to get to the preliminary agreement a year ago.

The mindset in this instance also exemplifies how people can get so heavily committed to something that is at best a means to an end that they start treating it as an end even though it isn't. This has been true of a commitment to sanctions against Iran, which figures into one of the reported continued areas of disagreement at the negotiating table, involving a schedule for relief from sanctions. People across the political spectrum in the United States have gotten into the habit of talking about anti-Iranian sanctions as if the sanctions themselves are a positive good for the United States. They aren't. Economically they are a negative for the United States. The only good that comes from sanctions is if they induce the Iranians to agree to a deal that is in fact in U.S. interests. Once they have achieved that purpose, the sanctions are useless to us.

An even greater inhibiting aspect of the mindset is the fixation on “breakout” times. Longer times rather than shorter times are treated as if they are a positive good for U.S. interests, when they are not. The U.S. interest is in not having any Iranian nuclear weapon at all. The difference between one breakout time versus another matters only if the response to a hypothetical Iranian abandonment of an agreement could be mustered within one time frame but not another. But the difference between, say, six months and a year is meaningless when any conceivable response, including military attack as well as enactment of the most debilitating possible sanctions, could be accomplished within a couple of weeks. And that does not even get into the question of why Iran would ever have any incentive to throw away all the results of an agreement it has worked so hard to achieve, to try to get one weapon (or even a few) it would have no practical way to use anyway. The fixation on breakout is badly misplaced; it simply does not matter.

It would be bad enough if the saboteurs get their way and because of that we lose the restrictions and monitoring of an agreement that provides assurance that the Iranian program stays peaceful, and the breakdown of the diplomatic process leads to heightened tension and conflict in the Persian Gulf and maybe even war. It would be just as tragic if the diplomatic process fails because even those with honest and good intentions regarding an agreement stick to the notion that the United States does not have to show more flexibility to get an agreement. Such flexibility is needed to close the deal, and it can be exercised with no damage to true U.S. interests at all.                  

TopicsIran RegionsMiddle East

Climate Change and the Meaning of Leadership

Paul Pillar

Much gets said in foreign policy debates in Washington about world leadership, and how the United States should, is, or isn't exerting it. Most often one hears reference to the subject in criticisms of the current administration, to the effect that it is not exercising leadership that it should. The topic especially comes up in connection with the soup of messy issues in the Middle East, amid calls for more use of U.S. military force and allusions to “allies” being unhappy about the United States not doing more to advance causes of particular interest to them.

Consider the key elements of leadership. It has to involve some shared interest or objective, just as leadership exhibited by a key player on a football team is exerted on behalf of the team's shared interest in winning games. It also does not involve the leader doing everything, or even most things, himself. Instead it consists of the leader, by gaining respect through some combination of persuasion and setting a favorable example, getting others to do their necessary part as well.

Now consider the attitudes toward the United States exhibited at the current negotiations on climate change at Lima Peru, as reported by Coral Davenport in the New York Times. An important part of the context, one that has made a huge difference from how the United States was regarded in earlier multilateral negotiations on the climate problem, is that the United States has recently reached a path-breaking agreement with mega-polluter China on reducing emissions of greenhouse gases, and the Obama administration has not just talked the talk but also walked the walk with new regulations to curb emissions from coal-fired power plants. A result has been “cheers, applause, thanks and praise” for U.S. negotiators. “The U.S. is now credible on climate change,” says the French ambassador who is his country's lead diplomat on the subject. Says a leading United Nations official with responsibilities on the subject, “Countries got weary of negotiations with the U.S.; it got tough in negotiations, but it didn’t deliver. Now the U.S. has policies in place to deliver on its word.” Delegates praised the personal involvement in the current talks of Secretary of State John Kerry.

This is true leadership in action. There certainly is a shared interest. Keeping the planet habitable is an interest that is as widely shared, and as important, as one can get. The United States is leading both by setting an example in doing its necessary part and through active diplomacy aimed at persuading others to do their parts. That leadership has changed the political and diplomatic climate in a way that, as indicated by the atmosphere at the Lima conference, significantly enhances the chance of meaningful multilateral action to slow the deterioration of the earth's climate and atmosphere.

Back here in Washington, some of those who are quick to criticize the administration in the name of calling for more U.S. leadership are revealing how inconsistent they are by retreating into a small-minded focus on next year's financial returns for coal mines in Kentucky. If such people use their voting power in the next Congress to overturn what the administration has done regarding restrictions on emissions, they will have struck a blow against U.S. leadership.

And on some of those other issues in the messy Middle East, they are not actually talking about true leadership. They are more often referring to matters where there are not shared interests but instead where countries in the region are complaining about things on which their interests differ from those of the United States. Nor are the people in Washington who claim to be talking about the need for more U.S. leadership really talking for the most part about getting others to do their part through the United States using persuasion (which internationally means diplomacy) and setting a positive example. Instead they just want the United States to do something more, especially something more forceful, itself.           

TopicsClimate Change RegionsUnited States

The National Effort at Self-Exoneration on Torture

Paul Pillar

The nation's current attempt at catharsis through a gargantuan report prepared by the Democratic staff of a Senate committee exhibits some familiar patterns. Most of them involve treating a government agency as if it were Dorian Gray's portrait, which can take on all the hideous marks of our own transgressions while we present ourselves as pure and innocent. The saturation coverage of the report and most early comment about it have displayed several misconceptions and misdirections.

One misconception is that we, the public, and our representatives in Congress are learning something new from this report that better enables us to make policies and set national priorities—better than we already could have done, based on what we already knew about this whole unpleasant business. In fact, the main directions of the activity in question and even many of the relevant gory details have long been public knowledge. Many people seem to believe that wallowing in still more gory details is a form of expiation. The basis for that belief is hard to understand.

The report itself and almost all the coverage of it misses what is the main, big story—missed perhaps because we ourselves are characters in it. The story is that the American people, and thus our political leaders, have had a major change in fears, mood, and priorities from the early days after the 9/11 until the present. In the aftermath of 9/11 Americans were far more militant, more willing to take on costs and risks, and more willing to compromise long-held values in the name of counterterrorism. The interrogation techniques that are now the subject of controversy and abhorrence were condoned or even encouraged back then by our political leaders in both the executive and legislative branches. As time has gone by without another terrorist spectacular in the U.S. homeland, pendulums have swung back, moods have changed again, and old values have reasserted themselves. It is difficult for anyone, but perhaps most of all for elected politicians, to admit this kind of inconsistency. Thus we get the current effort to focus ignominy on a single agency, where people who were on the tail end of that entire political process happened to work, as a substitute for such admission.

This is by no means the first time that waves of fear in America have resulted in deviation from liberal values, with the deviation later becoming a source of shame and regret. There is a long history of this, going back at least to the Alien and Sedition Acts in the eighteenth century. Another example, now universally seen as a black mark on American history, was the internment during World War II of American citizens of Japanese ancestry.

Another misconception is that because a report comes from a Congressional committee or some ad hoc commission, it is the Voice of God and the ultimate source of truth on whatever subject it addresses rather than what it really is, which is one particular set of perspectives or opinions. Another official pronouncement is the CIA's report on the report, which for anyone who bothers to look at it comes across as a sober and balanced treatment of the subject that carefully differentiates between the valid observations in the Senate committee staff's report and the significant errors in it. The CIA's report was prepared under senior officers who had no stake in the interrogation program. It is by no means the reaction of someone in a defensive crouch. Unfortunately few people will look at that report and make any effort to learn from it. The Washington Post barely mentioned its existence, let alone any of the substance in it, in its saturation coverage of the Senate committee report.

Anyone who did bother to look and learn from the CIA report would realize how mistaken is another notion being widely voiced: that the abusive interrogation techniques were the result of an agency or elements within it “running amok.” The program in question was authorized by the topmost authorities in the executive branch, as those authorities have confirmed in their public statements or memoirs. Congressional overseers were informed, according to the instructions of those topmost authorities and according to standard practice with sensitive covert actions. Overseers had ample opportunities to object but did not.

A final misconception being displayed from people on various sides of this issue is that the question of whether any useful information was gained from application of the controversial techniques has to be treated in an all-or-nothing manner. People, including authors of the Senate committee report, wishing to make an anti-torture statement seem to believe that they have to argue that the techniques never gained any useful information. They don't have to argue that. In acting as if they do, they are exhibiting another American trait, which the political scientist Robert Jervis noted almost four decades ago, which is to resist recognizing that there are trade-offs among important values. The coercive interrogation techniques involve such a trade-off. One can accept that the techniques did yield some information that contributed to U.S. security and still oppose any use of such techniques because they are contrary to other important American values, as well as hurting the standing of the United States abroad and yielding bad information along with the good. This is the position expressed by former CIA director Leon Panetta.

Amid all that is misleading in the committee report itself and in reactions to it, some kudos are in order for other reactions. One compliment should go to the Obama White House, which provided in its statement on the subject a principled declaration that torture is wrong along with some recognition of the public emotions and moods that underlay what was done several years ago. A particularly graceful touch was a reference to how “the previous administration faced agonizing choices” in how to secure the United States amid the post-9/11 fears. This fair and correct way of framing the recent history was the opposite of what could have been a partisan “those guys did torture and we didn't” approach.

Also worthy of compliments in the same vein is Senator John McCain, who made an eloquent speech on the floor of the Senate opposing any use of torture. McCain often is as hard-minded a partisan warrior as anyone, but on this matter he spoke on the basis of principle.

Finally, kudos should go to the CIA for not going into a defensive crouch but instead recognizing deficiencies in performance where they did exist and, unlike the Senate committee report, coming up with specific recommendations for improvement. This response, too, represented important American values. As Director of National Intelligence James Clapper noted in his own statement, “I don’t believe that any other nation would go to the lengths the United States does to bare its soul, admit mistakes when they are made and learn from those mistakes.”

TopicsIntelligence RegionsUnited States

Israeli Nukes Meets Atomic Irony in the Middle East

Paul Pillar

The stated rationale for the United States casting on Tuesday one of the very lonely votes it sometimes casts at the United Nations General Assembly, on matters on which almost the entire world sees things differently, warrants some reflection. The resolution in question this time endorsed the creation of a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East and called on Israel to join the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, to renounce any possession of nuclear weapons, and to put its nuclear facilities under the safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency. A nuclear weapons-free Middle East and universal adherence to the nonproliferation treaty are supposedly U.S. policy objectives, and have been for many years. So why did the United States oppose the resolution? According to the U.S. representative's statement in earlier debate, the resolution "fails to meet the fundamental tests of fairness and balance. It confines itself to expressions of concern about the activities of a single country."

You know something doesn't wash when the contrary views are as overwhelmingly held as on this matter. The resolution passed on a vote of 161-5. Joining Israel and the United States as “no” votes were Canada (maybe the Harper government was thinking of the Keystone XL pipeline issue being in the balance?) and the Pacific powers of Micronesia and Palau. The latter two habitually cast their UN votes to stay in the good graces of the United States; they have been among the few abstainers on the even more lopsided votes in the General Assembly each year calling for an end to the U.S. embargo of Cuba.

An obvious problem with the United States complaining about a resolution on a topic such as this being an expression of concern about the activities of only a single country is that the United States has been in front in pushing for United Nations resolutions about the nuclear activities of a single country, only just not about the particular country involved this time. The inconsistency is glaring. Iran has been the single-country focus of several U.S.-backed resolutions on nuclear matters—resolutions in the Security Council that have been the basis for international sanctions against Iran.

(Recommended: What About Iran's Missiles?

One could look, but would look in vain, for sound rationales for the inconsistency. If anything, the differences one would find should point U.S. policy in the opposite direction from the direction it has taken. It is Iran that has placed itself under the obligations of the nonproliferation treaty and subjects its nuclear activities to international inspection. Since the preliminary agreement to restrict Iran's nuclear program that was negotiated last year, those inspections are more frequent and intrusive than ever. Israel, by contrast, has kept its nuclear activities completely out of the reach of any international inspection or control regime. As for actual nuclear weapons, Iran does not have them, has declared its intention not to have them, and according to the U.S. intelligence community has not made any decision to make them. Neither Israel nor the United States says publicly that Israel has nuclear weapons, but just about everyone else in the world takes it as a given that it does, which would make it the only state in the Middle East that does.

(Recommended: 5 Iranian Weapons of War Israel Should Fear

One might look, but still in vain, for justifying discrepancies that go beyond the respective nuclear programs of the countries in question but still involve questions of regional security and stability. What about, for example, menacing threats? Iran and Israel have each had plenty of unfriendly words about each other. Iran's words have included bloviation about wiping something from pages of history; Israel's have included more pointed threats of military attack. What about actual attacks? Israel has initiated multiple wars with its neighbors, as well as launching smaller armed attacks; The Islamic Republic of Iran has not started a war in its 35-year history. Terrorism? Well, there were those assassinations of Iranian scientists, with some later attacks against Israelis being an obvious (and not very successful) attempt by Iran at a tit-for-tat response against those responsible for murdering the scientists. And so forth.

Singling out one country in a multilateral context can indeed cause problems. The resolution the General Assembly passed this week need not involve a problem, however, since it was not calling for differential treatment of anyone—only for Israel to get with the same program as any state in the Middle East that does not have nukes and adheres to the international nuclear control regime.

(Recommended: Can China Rise Peacefully?)

Iran, by contrast, is being treated much differently from anyone else. Tehran already has acquiesced to some of that differential treatment, but Iranians unsurprisingly wonder why Iran should be subjected to more such treatment, or indeed to any of it. They wonder, for example, why Iran should be subject to unique restrictions that several other non-nuclear-weapons states that also are parties to the nonproliferation treaty and enrich their own uranium are not. Such wonderment is almost certainly a factor in Iranian resistance to making the sorts of additional concessions that many in the United States are expecting or demanding that Iran make. The differential treatment should be kept in mind in any discussion in the United States about who has made bigger concessions than whom and about what would or would not constitute a fair and reasonable final agreement.

Then there is the irony—although Iranians might use a more bitter word than irony—of Israel leading the charge in constantly agitating about Iran's nuclear program (and by trying to torpedo an international agreement to restrict that program, making the issue fester and thus making it more possible for Israel's agitation to go on forever).              

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 

TopicsIran Israel RegionsMiddle East

The Sources of Public Disengagement From International Engagement

Paul Pillar

Kurt Campbell, who was assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs until last year, had an interesting op ed the other day that relates the growing inequality of income within the United States to a lowering of the international standing of the United States and of its ability to sustain international engagement abroad. Partly the connection involves a depletion of U.S. soft power. Much of that power has rested on the image of a durable American middle class, which has long been attractive to millions in stratified societies overseas but in more recent times has been tarnished as that middle class has suffered from stagnant or declining income while watching the one percent fly ever higher and farther away. Another part of the connection, writes Campbell, is that “as a growing segment of the population strains just to get by, it will increasingly view foreign policy...as a kind of luxury ripe for cuts and a reduction in ambition.”

For the American public, lack of active support for an active foreign policy is not only a matter of competition for scarce resources. It also involves a sense of empowerment, or a lack thereof. The public will care less and be less informed about foreign policy to the extent that it does not believe it has a say that really matters in determining that policy. A sense of empowerment can be very effective in getting people active and engaged. That is a large part of what was going on in Tahrir Square in Cairo over three years ago. Ordinary citizens not only protested but cleaned up the trash because for the first time—albeit only temporarily, as it turned out—they had reason to believe that what they were saying had a real effect on setting the direction of Egypt.

Michael J. Glennon, writing in The National Interest, does raise the problem of a missing sense of empowerment and correctly relates it to a broader detachment of most of the American public from foreign policy, as reflected among other things in the woeful public ignorance about foreign affairs. Glennon badly errs, however, in blaming the whole situation on a supposedly unaccountable national security state—which he calls the “Trumanite network,” named after the era when most of the apparatuses Glennon doesn't like assumed their present form. He distinguishes this from the “Madisonian” system that includes the familiar constitutional institutions of an elected legislature and chief executive. Glennon declares that the entire Madisonian system has lost so much power to the Trumanite network that he likens it to the monarch and House of Lords in Britain having lost power to the cabinet, prime minister, and House of Commons.

This description bears very little resemblance to what anyone who has worked at the interface of these parts of the U.S. political and policy-making system would recognize. Even those who have not worked there can reflect on where the impetus for the most important developments related to U.S. national security policy have come from. Presumably the Trumanite network wasn't much in favor, for example, of government shutdowns that have been the work of extortionists in the legislative part of the Madisonian system. Nor would the military and security agencies have favored sequestration budget cuts, which were legislative efforts to avoid more damage from the same extortionists. Or think about the single biggest U.S. foreign policy initiative of at least the last couple of decades: the Iraq War. It was the work of a willful group that had captured enough of the Madisonian system to embark on their project despite the better judgment of much of what is the Trumanite national security apparatus.

Part of the problem with Glennon's analysis is that he throws a big assortment of otherwise unrelated incidents and policies together, the only common thread of which is that they somehow each involve some part of the military, intelligence, or security bureaucracies (and that Glennon doesn't happen to like them). There is no sense of the very different issues involved in, say, a procedural altercation between an intelligence agency and an oversight committee in the course of performing oversight, and indefinite detention of militants that the military has scraped up on some distant battlefield. Nor is there much attention to the specific ways in which the Trumanites really are accountable to political people in the Madisonian system. One would never have guessed from the article, for example, that major changes occurred four decades ago that brought not only intelligence activities but the entire covert action arena under legislative oversight and political control that were previously deficient. Also missing is how much of what Glennon (and many others today) consider to be excessive or abusive was firmly rooted in earlier, mostly in the immediate post-9/11 period, attitudes and priorities broadly shared by the American people and their political leaders. The priorities did not originate with national security agencies and departments, which instead have tried to implement the missions they have been assigned by the people and political leaders. If you or Glennon or I disagree with the position that majorities on Congressional oversight committees have taken at times over the past few years on issues such as interrogation techniques or bulk collection of telephonic data, that's politics; it is not a usurpation of politics by the agencies being overseen.

At times Glennon describes the Trumanite network as so broad that one starts to lose any sense of where the lines that distinguish it from the Madisonian system lie. He pitches his argument initially as if it were about part of the federal bureaucracy but then criticizes postures that lie far beyond that bureaucracy. He quotes, for example, Madeleine Albright's question to Colin Powell about what the point is of having a superb military if we can't use it, and identifies the attitude expressed in the question with the Trumanites. But it was Powell, the career military officer, who presumably was the party in this conversation who was more on the Trumanite side of Glennon's Trumanite/Madisonian line. Glennon is critical—and has good reason to be critical—of people who “define security primarily in military terms and tend to consider military options before political, diplomatic or law-enforcement alternatives,” but that attitude is not centered in the national security bureaucracy. The attitude is promoted mainly by neoconservatives, with a major assist from liberal interventionists, who seek and often get support for their positions within the Madisonian system.

As far as military interventions are concerned, it certainly is true that the professional military tends to prefer more resources and bigger forces to accomplish decisively whatever mission is assigned to it—that's part of the Powell Doctrine. But it does not have the sort of preference Glennon asserts when it comes to getting assigned such a mission in the first place. That's another part of the Powell Doctrine: take military action only if it has clear support from the American people. And it's not just Powell. Military members and veterans of the military are less inclined to support U.S. military interventions than are civilians who never served in the military. Chicken hawks—and many people of similar ilk who not only favor starting wars but also insist that counterterrorism is a “war,” with all of the implications that are supposed to flow from that label regarding matters such as handling of detainees—are not part of any network centered in the national security bureaucracy.

What chicken hawks have been able to do brings us back to the issue of empowerment and how an unempowered public may tune out foreign policy. There is indeed a problem here, but it is not a problem because some shadowy deep state, an American version of an Algerian pouvoir or an Arab mukhabarat, has managed to make U.S. political institutions as feeble as a modern British monarch. It is a problem because such developments as extreme partisan tactics, perfected gerrymandering, and unrestricted campaign bankrolling have made those political institutions less responsive than they could or should be, on foreign as well as domestic policy.

Regarding that offensive war begun in Iraq, for example, consider the situation of an American voter in 2000 who didn't much care for Al Gore and the Democrats but also had no desire for the United States to get involved in anything like the Iraq War. That voter would have had no basis for predicting—even if he could have predicted something like the 9/11 terrorist attack—that a vote for George W. Bush would become a vote for such a war. The Madisonian system was captured not by a Trumanite network but by a neocon cabal. Tom Friedman, sitting in Washington shortly after the beginning of the war, observed without exaggeration, “I could give you the names of 25 people (all of whom are at this moment within a five-block radius of this office) who, if you had exiled them to a desert island a year and a half ago, the Iraq War would not have happened.”

There also is the matter, of course, of Gore having won the popular vote in 2000. Twelve years later, Democratic candidates for the House of Representatives won 1.37 million more votes than Republican candidates, but the Democrats won only 201 seats compared to the Republicans' 234. And every two years, voters in only a very small percentage of districts nationwide are given a genuinely competitive choice of candidates for what is supposed to be the people's House.

The Arab Spring erupted largely because many people in the countries concerned felt they had no stake in either an economic system that passed them by or a political system in which they effectively had little or no voice in the direction of their country. Many Americans are facing something similar with a pattern of economic growth that leaves them behind and an often dysfunctional political system that gives them little sense of having a role in setting policy. Americans are not likely to stage their own Tahrir Square. But it is unsurprising if they become increasingly disengaged from foreign policy and if, as Campbell anticipates, this becomes a source of weakness for the United States internationally.   

TopicsPublic Opinion RegionsUnited States

Perceptions of Russian Expansionism: Looking at Ukraine through Afghanistan

Paul Pillar

Much of the discourse over the past year about responding to Russian moves in Ukraine has been couched in terms of the need to stop aggressive expansionism in its tracks. Hillary Clinton has even invoked the old familiar analogy to Nazi expansionism in likening some of the Russian actions to what Germany was doing in the 1930s. With or without the Nazi analogy, a commonly expressed concept is that not acting firmly enough to stop Russian expansionism in Ukraine would invite still further expansion.

Underlying such arguments are certain assumptions about wider Russian intentions. If Vladimir Putin and anyone else advising him on policy toward Ukraine see their moves there as steps in a larger expansionist strategy, then the concept of stopping the expansion in its tracks is probably valid. But if Russian objectives are instead focused on narrower goals and especially concerns more specific to Ukraine, the concept can be more damaging than useful.

As long as historical comparisons are being invoked, one possibly instructive comparison is with an earlier episode involving application of military force by Russia or the Soviet Union along its periphery. This episode provides a closer correspondence than pre-war Nazi maneuvers, but it is still distant enough to provide some perspective and a sense of the consequences. It is the Soviet armed intervention in Afghanistan, which occurred 35 years ago as of this December.

Once Soviet forces entered Afghanistan, a key question for policy-makers in Jimmy Carter's administration was the Soviets' purpose in undertaking the operation. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance would later summarize in his memoirs two competing answers to that question. One view was that Moscow's motives were primarily local and, insofar as they extended beyond Afghanistan, focused on worries about possible unrest among Muslims in the Central Asian republics of the USSR. The other view was that the Soviets had concluded that the relationship with the United States had already deteriorated so much that they should seize the opportunity not only to quell their Afghan problem but to improve their larger strategic position in South and Southwest Asia, moving ever closer to those proverbial warm water ports that have traditionally been a goal of Russian strategists.

The different interpretations had significantly different policy interpretations. An appropriate response to the latter, more expansive, Soviet strategy would be to slow the Soviet advance by making Afghanistan even more unstable than it already was, particularly through assistance to the mujahideen insurgents. But if the first interpretation were correct, stoking the insurgency would only prolong the Red Army's stay, put more nails in the coffin of U.S.-Soviet détente, and perhaps lead the Soviets to make other moves that would start to turn a Soviet threat to Pakistan from a fear into a reality.

It was the expansionist interpretation of Soviet objectives that implicitly became the basis for the Carter administration's policies. It became so without any thorough analysis by the policy-makers of Moscow's motives. Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security adviser whose thinking became the chief basis for the Carter administration's policy toward the USSR, did not even think such analysis was necessary. He later wrote that “the issue was not what might have been Brezhnev's subjective motives in going into Afghanistan but the objective consequences of a Soviet military presence so much closer to the Persian Gulf.” Thus ensued a U.S. response that included a broad array of sanctions, withdrawal from the Olympic Games in Moscow in 1980, enunciation of the bellicose-sounding Carter Doctrine about willingness to use force in the Persian Gulf region, and most consequentially, increased material aid to the Afghan insurgents.

Despite the significant differences between that situation and what the West faces today in Ukraine, there are some applicable lessons. One is the importance of careful consideration of Russian objectives, rather than just making worst-case assumptions. Another lesson is the need for humility in realizing that our initial thoughts about those objectives may be wrong. The Carter administration's thoughts and assumptions about that may have been wrong. With the benefit of hindsight, a good case can be made today that the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan was not intended to score strategic gains by moving closer to oil and sea lanes but instead was about avoiding a substantial loss for the Soviets: the overthrow of an existing Communist government in a country bordering the USSR by an insurgency that could lead to trouble among Central Asian residents of the USSR itself.

Another lesson is to be wary of how domestic U.S. politics may push decision-makers in unhelpful directions. A major pusher of Carter's policies was his political need to get tough, or to be seen getting tough, with the Soviets. When Carter had said in a televised interview shortly after the Soviet intervention that the intervention had helped to educate him about Soviet goals, his political opponents jumped all over this comment as supposedly a sign of naȉveté. Carter's political weakness at the time also stemmed from the near-simultaneous crisis that had begun a few weeks earlier with the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. The constant hammering away by Barack Obama's political opponents of the theme that Mr. Obama supposedly has been too weak and insufficiently assertive against U.S. adversaries offers an obvious parallel regarding the potential for political considerations pushing policy into unhelpful directions.

Finally there is is the importance of taking fully into account all the consequences, including longer range and more indirect consequences, of how the United States responds to Russian moves. A full balance sheet on the results of U.S. aid to the Afghan insurgency would be complicated and subject to argument, but a major downside has been contribution to varieties of militant Islamism that for most of the past 35 years have been more of a worry for the United States, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, than anything the Russians have been doing. Some of the violent elements that are principal adversaries in Afghanistan today are descendants of elements that received U.S. aid in the 1980s. The Afghan insurgency against the Soviets also continues to be a major influence, as an inspiration and in other respects, helping to sustain transnational Islamist terrorism.

No one has a monopoly of wisdom on what exactly are Russian goals in and around Ukraine today. Maybe even Vladimir Putin does not fully know what those goals will be, and is in large part reacting to moves by Ukrainians and by the West. Applying the framework of what the Carter administration faced in Afghanistan, however, it is reasonable to characterize the objectives as more local than expansive in a larger geopolitical sense. The most explicitly expansionist thing Putin has done—the annexation of Crimea—can be seen as a one-off given the unusual historical, demographic, and emotional circumstances associated with the peninsula. Much of the rest of Russian policy has to do with the specter of NATO's expansion into Ukraine. Unfortunately Ukrainian President Poroshenko does not seem inclined to give that issue a rest.

Image: Creative Commons/Flickr.         

TopicsRussia Ukraine Afghanistan RegionsSouth Asia Eastern Europe

What Really Matters About Extension of the Iran Negotiations

Paul Pillar

The single most important fact about the extension of the nuclear negotiations with Iran is that the obligations established by the Joint Plan of Action negotiated a year ago will remain in effect as negotiations continue. This means that our side will continue to enjoy what these negotiations are supposed to be about: preclusion of any Iranian nuclear weapon, through the combination of tight restrictions on Iran's nuclear program and intrusive monitoring to ensure the program stays peaceful. Not only that, but also continuing will be the rollback of Iran's program that the JPOA achieved, such that Iran will remain farther away from any capability to build a bomb than it was a year ago, and even farther away from where it would have been if the negotiations had never begun or from where it would be if negotiations were to break down.

Our side—the United States and its partners in the P5+1—got by far the better side of the deal in the JPOA. We got the fundamental bomb-preventing restrictions (including most significantly a complete elimination of medium-level uranium enrichment) and enhanced inspections we sought, in return for only minor sanctions relief to Iran that leaves all the major banking and oil sanctions in place. If negotiations were to go on forever under these terms, we would have no cause to complain to the Iranians.

But the Iranians do not have comparable reason to be happy about this week's development. The arrangement announced in Vienna is bound to be a tough sell back in Tehran for President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif. The sanctions continue, and continue to hurt, even though the Iranian negotiators have conceded most of what they could concede regarding restrictions on the nuclear program. There will be a lot of talk in Tehran about how the West is stringing them along, probably with the intent of undermining the regime and not just determining its nuclear policies.

That the Iranian decision-makers have put themselves in this position is an indication of the seriousness with which they are committed to these negotiations. This week's extension is of little use to them except to keep alive the prospect that a final deal will be completed. Also indicating their seriousness is the diligence with which Iran has complied with its obligations under the JPOA. The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed today Iran's compliance with its final pre-November 24th obligation, which had to do with reducing its stock of low-enriched uranium in gaseous form.

Because the P5+1 got much the better side of the preliminary agreement, the P5+1 will have to make more of the remaining concessions to complete a final agreement. The main hazard to concluding a final deal is not an Iranian unwillingness to make concessions. The main hazard is a possible Iranian conclusion that it does not have an interlocutor on the U.S. side that is bargaining in good faith.

We push the Iranians closer to such a conclusion the more talk there is in Washington about imposing additional pressure and additional sanctions, as people such as Marco Rubio and AIPAC have offered in response to today's announcement about the extension of negotiations. We have sanctioned the dickens out of Iran for years and are continuing to do so, but the only time all this pressure got any results is when we started to negotiate in good faith. Surly sanctions talk on Capitol Hill only strengthens Iranian doubts about whether the U.S. administration will be able to deliver on its side of a final agreement, making it less, not more, likely the Iranians would offer still more concessions. Any actual sanctions legislation would blatantly violate the terms of the JPOA and give the Iranians good reason to walk away from the whole business, marking the end of any special restrictions on their nuclear program.

Indefinite continuation of the terms of the existing agreement would suit us well, but completion of a final agreement would be even better—and without one the Iranians eventually would have to walk away, because indefinite continuation certainly does not suit them. And besides, the sanctions hurt us economically too. To get a final agreement does not mean fixating on the details of plumbing in enrichment cascades, which do not affect our security anyway. It means realizing what kind of deal we got with the preliminary agreement, and negotiating in good faith to get the final agreement.

Image: State Department Flickr.                            

TopicsIran RegionsMiddle East

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