Paul Pillar

Buses, Twisted Arms and Israel

Paul Pillar

Former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy has an interesting op ed which is a response to accusations that Barack Obama has thrown Israel under that proverbial bus under which one's political opponents are continually throwing people and things. The main respect in which the accusations are nonsense, of course, is that during President Obama's tenure the United States has continued to lavish voluminous unconditional aid and protective UN vetoes on Israel and has backed off from even the most tentative effort to exert leverage on it. Halevy's point is that to the extent there has been any American arm-twisting of Israeli leaders, it has mostly occurred during Republican presidencies.

Halevy mentions the clearest specific attempt to use aid as leverage: when the George H.W. Bush administration withheld some loan guarantees to Israel on the eve of the 1991 Madrid conference. He notes how Dwight Eisenhower leaned on Israel and its British and French collaborators to withdraw from Suez in 1956. He recalls how neocons in the George W. Bush administration pressed Israel to allow a free and open Palestinian election in 2006—although the administration lost interest in this bit of democratization of the Middle East when Hamas won the election.

The episode Halevy recounts that is least well known occurred just before the same administration began its war in Iraq in 2003. As Halevy tells it, in order to retain Tony Blair's support for the war in the face of resistance from members of his own Labour Party who demanded in return some Israeli concessions toward the Palestinians, Bush had to declare that the multilateral diplomatic plan known as the “roadmap,” which included an implied end to Israel's sovereignty over all of Jerusalem, represented U.S. policy. The Israeli government of Ariel Sharon strongly opposed the roadmap, but the Bush administration, anxious not to lose the participation of Britain in the war, made clear to the Israelis that it wanted no opposition or complaint from them. Sharon reluctantly went along and got his cabinet to do so too—although one member of it, Benjamin Netanyahu, abstained when the issue came to a vote.

The principal lesson to draw from Halevy's extracts from Middle Eastern history is not just his own point about whether Republicans or Democrats have been more willing to exert leverage on Israel. It is the more basic point that such leverage indeed can be exerted and has been exerted in the past—and has worked.

And yet most of what is said and written in the United States today on anything having to do with Israel pretends there is no such option. Examples abound, having to do with occupation of Palestinian territory, animosity toward Iran, and other topics. In another op ed on Wednesday, on Iran, in which a couple of neocons lay out a schedule over the next few months for diplomacy to be made to fail and for the U.S. war against Iran that they evidently are hankering for to be launched, the authors refer in passing to “those who take the Israeli threat of a pre-emptive strike seriously and believe it would be a mistake.” But even though it would indeed be a big mistake, and even though whatever crisis we supposedly have about Iran's nuclear program is being driven by the threat of Israel starting a new Middle Eastern war, the authors say absolutely nothing, despite all the unused means of U.S. leverage, about addressing that problem.

Neocons in 2003 considered British support for their Iraq War project so important that they were willing to twist Israeli arms to get an Israeli concession, and they succeeded. Isn't avoiding another badly mistaken war worth twisting arms again? Netanyahu didn't yield on that previous occasion, but on the issue of war with Iran he probably is even more of an outlier among Israelis than he was regarding the roadmap. It also certainly is worth exerting some of that unused leverage to salvage whatever chance remains for a stable and long-term solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

President Obama can indeed be criticized for his approach so far toward Israel, but it is by no means the criticism to which Halevy is responding. The failure is not in pressing Israel but instead in not pressing it sufficiently for its own good. If we must use that clichéd bus metaphor, the problem is not in throwing Israel under a bus but instead in not rescuing Israel from a path it is taking on its own and that will cause it to get hit by the bus.

TopicsDomestic PoliticsForeign AidThe PresidencyNuclear Proliferation RegionsIsraelIranUnited States

Considerations for the Foreign-Policy-Minded Voter

Paul Pillar

After a debate that did not do a lot, to put it charitably, to clarify and illuminate differences between the candidates on issues of foreign and security policy, how should a citizen who would like foreign policy to be an important factor in electoral choices think about the choice to be made next month? Here are some considerations that such a citizen (whose recognition of the importance of foreign policy ought to be applauded) should bear in mind and that do not require explicit reference to either of this year's candidates or to specific statements they have made in the campaign.

Limits of the possible. The big, messy, violent and troublesome world outside our borders will be big, messy, violent and troublesome in most of the same respects no matter what the United States does. Even the superpower cannot solve all the problems out there, much less remake the rest of the world in its image. Unfortunately much of what has been said about foreign affairs in this campaign has failed to recognize that principle. That part of the campaign has mirrored the domestic part by sounding as if the question at hand were simply whether we like or dislike what has been going on lately rather than who has the best response to problems that exist and the best understanding of what can or cannot be done about them. We also hear many references to “strategy” but without any specifics about the content of a strategy and without recognition that the first step in formulating a sound strategy is to recognize the limits to what is possible—what we can and cannot do given our available powers and resources. We need to ask in the face of unpleasant happenings, even before asking what we should do about them, whether there is anything we can do about them.

First do no harm. The Hippocratic principle ought to apply to the nation's choice of its leadership. Think about ways in which we would want to revise U.S. foreign policy of the past if somehow we could do that. Probably most of the revisions, and surely most of the really consequential ones, would involve not doing something that turned out to be harmful to the nation's interests, rather than failing to do something one might hope would have been beneficial. In this respect what may be sound advice for living an individual life is not good advice for leading a nation. Maybe it is true that in old age one will regret not trying something more than one will regret trying and failing. For a nation, where the consequences of failure are far greater and long lasting, the regrets will be more about the failures. In choosing leaders we should pay at least as much attention to avoiding those who pose a bigger risk of failure as we do to picking ones who hold out a promise of greater success.

The appointees. A peculiarity of the U.S. political system, as compared to most other advanced democracies, is the installation of huge numbers of political appointees with each change of presidential administration. This political stratum, belonging neither to the ranks of elected politicians nor to the professional bureaucracy, tends to have major influence over foreign policies even more so than domestic ones. So we should realize we are choosing not just a president but a corps of appointees, most of whom have their own strong ideas about the direction policy ought to go. We cannot determine in advance exactly who will wind up in what positions, but we can get a good idea of the possibilities by looking at who has become associated with the campaigns. The more that the candidate at the head of the campaign lacks his own strong and original ideas about foreign policy, as a matter of lack of experience in this area or overall changeability, the more important it is to consider the possible appointees.

Outside influences. Something similar could be said about likely influences on the next president that do not themselves become appointed officials. The influences in question here are ones that could affect foreign policy, but the influences could be found either inside or outside the United States. The latter would include any foreign countries or governments to which the candidate has developed a particular affinity. As with potential appointees, we can get a fairly good idea of the influences on a future president in office from where he has been receiving support and advice before entering office.

First term vs. second term. This is unavoidably a major consideration whenever an incumbent president is running for reelection. It embraces two subissues. One is a matter of risk propensity and in that regard is related to the earlier point about risk of failures. An incumbent's record, and whatever is good or bad about it, will always give us a better idea of what we can expect from the same person in the next four years than the idea we would have with someone who has never held the office.

A caveat to the preceding point is that a president in a second term has different political equities or vulnerabilities than he had in a first term. That gets to the second subissue. It concerns the difference between the sorts of policies produced by a president who will never be running for office again and the sort produced by a president who, given the competitive partisanship that has become a permanent feature of American politics, will be campaigning for reelection from the day he takes the oath of office. Domestic political considerations will naturally bear more heavily on the policies of a first-term president. The foreign-policy-concerned citizen needs to ask whether this influence will on balance tend to produce better or worse policy on matters of importance to him.

On that last point, there is something to be said for the Mexican-style system of electing presidents to a single nonrenewable six-year term. But that's not the system we have.

Image: Malwack

TopicsElectionsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States

A Bicentennial and Centennial Reflection

Paul Pillar

As this year's presidential campaign turns to debates about certain foreign conflicts and controversies with the potential for sucking the United States into war, here is an anniversary-based fact that does not seem to have received notice—certainly nothing like the Cuban missile crisis did this month upon its semicentennial.

The presidents of the United States who were elected 200 and 100 years ago both led the nation into war. Both did so despite earlier indications of personal hesitation and reservation in doing so.

The United States entered war with Britain during the final year of James Madison's first term. The impetus for war came principally from Congressional war hawks from the West and South such as Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun. When Madison sent to Congress in June 1812 what became known as his war message, it did not explicitly ask for a declaration of war. Instead it only listed the maritime and other grievances that the nation had against the British. Congress did declare a war—"Mr. Madison's war”—in which Madison would become the only U.S. president to be chased out of the White House by foreign troops.

A century later, as the European powers sank into the carnage of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson said to his aide Colonel House, “Madison and I are the only Princeton men that have become presidents. The circumstances of 1812 and now run parallel. I sincerely hope they will not go further.” Wilson was elected to a second term in 1916 aided by the slogan, “He kept us out of war.” But only a few months later he asked for and received a Congressional declaration of war. The United States was on the winning side of that war, but mismanagement of the aftermath set the stage for another ghastly European war two decades later.

Notwithstanding the many differences, there are some parallels between the circumstances of a century and two centuries ago and those of today. Let us sincerely hope the parallels will not go further.

TopicsHistoryGreat PowersThe Presidency RegionsUnited StatesUnited Kingdom

Secret, Deniable and Useful

Paul Pillar

Helene Cooper and Mark Landler of the New York Times caused a stir over the weekend with a report that the United States and Iran had agreed “in principle” to bilateral negotiations regarding Iran's nuclear program. Negotiations with Iran on that issue have hitherto involved a larger format, with one side, known usually as the P5+1, including the other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany. Doubts were cast on the Times report by official denials from both the U.S. and Iranian governments, and what is publicly known about just what the two sides may have agreed to is at this time still unclear. Possibly adding to the confusion is an Iranian disinclination to negotiate further even with the P5+1 before the U.S. election identifies who will be leading U.S. policy beginning in January. Further questions have been raised as to why, if there is indeed a factual basis to the Times report, word of such an Iranian-U.S. understanding would leak out now. Speculation has ranged from the leak being an effort to torpedo bilateral negotiations to the news story instead being part of an effort by the U.S. administration to start preparing public opinion for an agreement reached through such talks.

I have absolutely no inside track on what exactly is the true version of this particular story, but I offer this observation: among the most useful negotiations to take place right now would be U.S.-Iranian talks that are held in strict secrecy and that both governments would deny taking place.

The bilateral format—as a supplement to, not a replacement for, the negotiations involving the P5+1—would be useful because the United States is the most important player in the process, because achieving the flexibility necessary to reach an agreement would be aided by not having to reach a multilateral consensus on each concession and because secrecy could be better preserved with a smaller forum.

Secrecy would be useful because both sides are boxed in by their own hard-line statements and by pressure from those wanting to make the lines even harder. For the Iranian leadership, doing any direct business with the Great Satan is a matter of considerable delicacy and risk. For the U.S. leadership, doing anything that anyone could describe as being nice and reasonable toward Iran is also fraught with political risk. Former Israeli intelligence chief Efraim Halevy perceptively noted that the Iranians “would like to get out of their conundrum” given how much sanctions are hurting, but that “both Israel and the US governments have tied our own hands. In the end, you create an inherent disadvantage for yourself.”

The current government of Israel, which is the prime mover in agitating on the Iranian nuclear issue and which disdains the whole idea of negotiating with Iran, is the principal force creating political risk for any U.S. administration that talks with Iran. The Israeli ambassador to the United States said on Saturday, “We do not think Iran should be rewarded with direct talks,” thereby invoking the old fallacy that negotiations are some sort of reward for one side rather than what they really are, which is a tool for both sides. The Israeli government, as a principal potential saboteur of progress toward an agreement, ought to be excluded through secrecy from any opportunity to commit such sabotage.

The other—not unrelated—source of political risk and possible sabotage for the U.S. side is the domestic political opposition to the current administration. An anonymous “GOP strategist” said Saturday that for the United States to accept any Iranian offer of direct talks “would be a dream come true for the Iranian leadership to hold power, and maybe even get concessions on their nuclear program,” thereby invoking the old fallacy (which Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and the subsequent history of the USSR should have put to rest) that negotiating and reaching agreements with an adversary somehow contributes to the adversary's domestic strength and longevity. Note also the use of “concessions” as a dirty word, a usage that implicitly rules out any agreement because concessions by both sides will be necessary to reach one.

There is ample historical demonstration of how secret bilateral negotiations—because they are more conducive to achieving the necessary negotiating flexibility and because they cut out the naysayers and saboteurs—can achieve positive results when other mechanisms cannot. Some of that history has been in the not-very-distant past of the United States. The secret negotiations between Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho (who shared a Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts) that finally got the United States out of the Vietnam quagmire are a prime example. Nixon's and Kissinger's secret diplomacy with China also comes to mind.

We should hope that right now there are talks going on between Iran and the United States that are so secret they do not even generate leaks to the skillful journalists of the New York Times. There may not be, but we can hope.


TopicsDomestic PoliticsUNSanctionsNuclear Proliferation RegionsIsraelIranUnited States

Don't Neglect an Israeli-Palestinian Peace

Paul Pillar

Leon Hadar in these spaces has commended as a “sensible stance” toward the Israeli-Palestinian a policy, enunciated by a prominent American politician, that “we sort of live with it, and we kick the ball down the field and hope that ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve it.” Hadar criticizes “some self-proclaimed foreign-policy realists,” implying that their belief that “Washington can and ought to help make peace between Israelis and Palestinians” somehow contradicts realist criticisms of neocon ambitions to remake the Middle East in the American image. Insofar as Hadar is making a general point that there are difficult and often violent problems out there that the United States simply cannot be expected to solve, he's right about that. (For a nice statement on this theme that goes far beyond the Arab-Israeli conflict, see Daniel Byman's recent treatment.) And Hadar is certainly correct that there are other regional and global players that need to play a role in resolving this conflict.

But Hadar seems oblivious to the enormous resonance that this conflict has like no other—with its continued festering harming U.S. interests—and to the leverage that could be, but has not been, applied to resolving it.

He also seems oblivious to what actual U.S. policies and efforts have, and have not, been in recent years. When he refers to “America's preoccupation with the conflict”—taking him to mean preoccupation with resolving the conflict—one wonders what he is looking at. The last preoccupation at the presidential level was that of Bill Clinton at Camp David in 2000. Clinton's successor George W. Bush promptly made it known after entering office that he didn't want to be bothered by the Arab-Israeli issue. It was only near the end of his administration that he decided he ought to go through the motions of hosting a single conference on the subject. Barack Obama made a brief stab at addressing the main impediment to a negotiated settlement—the continued Israeli colonization of occupied territory—but promptly retreated when the Israeli government and its American supporters pushed back hard. Since then he hasn't run with the issue, much less be preoccupied with it, any more than Bush.

Hadar lectures us on how two parties will settle a conflict only if doing so is in their “core national interests” and cannot otherwise be forced to settle by some third party. Of course they can't, unless the third party exercises imperial domination—which is the sort of thing neocons would warm to in other contexts but is certainly not what any “self-proclaimed foreign-policy realists” would advocate. But this observation is not the same as saying other types of third-party participation are useless. If it were, we should find a way to revoke posthumously Teddy Roosevelt's Nobel Peace Prize for mediating an end to the Russo-Japanese War. Nations locked in conflict with other nations often find themselves unable, for a variety of reasons, to embark on a course more conducive to their interests. With some of those reasons, the active participation of a third party can be instrumental.

There is a tautological quality to Hadar's treatment of this subject. When a mediation effort succeeds, such as with Carter at Camp David in 1978, then he says this must have been what the parties saw as in their core national interests, but when it fails, as with Clinton in 2000, this means they did not see it in their interests. This treatment leads to the glaringly incorrect comment that the parties reached agreement in 1978 “not as a response to American diplomatic pressure.” If nearly a fortnight of personal arm-twisting by the president of the United States and his senior foreign-policy aides and billions in assistance in buying off the parties' remaining hesitations does not qualify as relevant American diplomatic pressure, it is hard to imagine what would.

The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians strikes chords of anger and resentment and shapes attitudes toward the United States, more broadly and strongly than probably any other conflict around the globe. The chords are heard throughout the Arab world and to a large degree across parts of the larger Muslim world. That is why it is a mistake simply to lump this conflict, as Hadar does, together with other long-running disputes such as the one between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. That is also why it is a mistake to disregard the extent to which this particular conflict shapes the willingness of so many people either to cooperate with the United States or to strike out against it.

The extraordinary resonance of this issue underlies this accurate observation by Hadar:

Meanwhile, America's repeated failures as an “honest broker”—a designation that quite frequently runs contrary to its commitment to be a “reliable ally” of Israel—ends up producing an anti-American backlash in the Arab and Muslim worlds, which creates even more pressure on Washington to “do something.”

Correct, but clearly the problem is not with trying to be a broker but instead with failing to be an honest one. And that leads to the elephant in the room that Hadar does not mention at all: the extraordinary relationship between the United States and Israel, with the former bestowing on behalf of the latter many billions of unconditional aid and lonely vetoes at the United Nations and with advocates of the Israeli government having remarkable influence over U.S. policy in the Middle East. Given the shape of this relationship, the United States is in neck-deep in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict whether or not we like to think it is. The extraordinary relationship with Israel ensures there will be high expectations about what the United States should do about the conflict, no matter what American leaders may or may not say about their intentions for doing something about it.

There is indeed an American preoccupation with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; it's just not a preoccupation with resolving the conflict. The dominant pattern affecting U.S. policy on this subject is not pressure from those self-proclaimed realists or anyone else to help resolve the conflict but instead pressure from supporters of the current Israeli government not to do things that would move toward a resolution—or even to keep open the possibility of a resolution, especially by freezing the Israeli colonization project. And this gets to all that potential but still unused U.S. leverage, embodied in all that aid and all those UN vetoes.

A benign-neglect policy toward this issue would not, as Hadar contends, “help send a clear message to the Israelis that the window of opportunity for American engagement in a Middle East peace process is gradually closing.” Instead it would send a message to the current Israeli leadership that it has a green light to continue consolidating its apartheid rule over all the territory it controls. It would send a message to the Israeli public that the United States is content to work with an Israeli leadership that follows that sort of policy and that they don't need to think about replacing that leadership. And it would send a message to the vast numbers of people who empathize with or feel kinship with the Palestinians that the United States doesn't really care if the Palestinians ever achieve justice and political rights.

TopicsDomestic PoliticsHuman RightsPost-Conflict RegionsIsraelUnited StatesPalestinian territories

Inequality Amid a More Equal World

Paul Pillar

You know we have a serious problem with inequality when that paragon of right-of-center political economy, The Economist, puts as much emphasis on it as it does in its current issue. A major “Special Report on the World Economy” is all about the causes and ramifications of what the the magazine calls “a dramatic concentration of incomes over the past 30 years.” It is a concentration that has occurred in many parts of the world but by no means uniformly. The pattern of inequality is especially glaring in the United States, in terms of both absolute inequality and recent trends.

The magazine's report lays out some of the relevant statistics about the United States that ought to be familiar by now but nonetheless still shock. The share of national income going to the wealthiest one percent of Americans has doubled since 1980, from 10 percent to 20 percent. The share going to the highest one hundredth of one percent—a mere 16,000 families—has quadrupled during the same time from just over one percent to, astoundingly, nearly five percent.

Some of the growing inequality is connected with processes that are on balance economically good—in particular, globalization, which has changed the demand for different sorts of skills. But much of it is associated with processes that are economically bad. One of those processes is the upward redistributive effect of government policy. The Economist notes that when taxes and entitlements in the United States are all taken into account, “the government lavishes more dollars overall on the top fifth of the income distribution than the bottom fifth.”

That last pattern should not be surprising in view of the crony capitalism in which “America's growing inequality has political roots.” The finance industry has more lobbyists in Washington than almost anyone else: about four for each member of Congress. Accordingly, financiers have been allowed “to tilt rules in their favor” and have been “among the biggest winners from changes to America's tax code.”

It is conventional wisdom that there is a tension between efforts to alleviate inequality and efforts to expand the national economic pie. There is some truth in the conventional wisdom: the hope of moving ahead of the crowd in wealth and material well-being can be a powerful incentive to apply more work or more ingenuity to a productive endeavor. But that incentive would be gone only in an entirely flat society, and does not explain or justify the glaring and growing inequality that is today's reality. The Economist's report explains the several respects in which that inequality undermines, rather than promotes, economic growth and prosperity.

There is, first of all, the crony capitalism, which is less about fostering the free markets that are essential for competition and growth than about preserving the privileged positions of those who have already made it.

Then there is the huge waste of human capital entailed in inequality of opportunity. That type of inequality correlates with overall economic inequality. Again, the United States displays some of the worst of it. Its social mobility—i.e., how much any one individual's income is unchained from a tight correlation with the income of the same individual's parents—is lower than in most other advanced Western countries. The Economist sums up the implications for growth and prosperity this way:

High and growing levels of income inequality can translate into growing inequality of opportunity for the next generation and hence declining social mobility...Bigger gaps in opportunity, in turn, mean fewer people with skills and hence slower growth in the future.

Finally, but not least important, much of skewed income at the upper levels has come from rents rather than productivity, as illustrated by how much of the very rich have, The Economist notes, “made their money in Wall Street rather than Main Street.” “Rents” is the technical and somewhat polite economic term that refers to extracting a profit from merely owning or controlling something, or being in an advantageous position, rather than actually producing something. A blunter and more descriptive term is “parasitic.” Economies grow and prosper from productivity; they do not from rents.

All of this should be disturbing even if we looked no further than our nation's borders. It is more disturbing still when considering another pattern that the magazine's report notes in passing: that while inequality within countries and especially in the United States has greatly increased in recent years, inequality between nations has decreased as poorer countries catch up with richer ones. America's growth-inhibiting inequality is making it less able to compete, and less able to serve as an exemplar for others, in the global arena.

Ideologically driven myopia, which mistakenly cherishes anything in the private sector status quo, even when it is destructive of free markets and vigorous competition, and disdains anything government does, even when it is necessary for economic growth and the fullest use of human capital, is needlessly weakening the relative as well as absolute position of the United States.

Another example of this myopia is the disgraceful state into which the nation's physical infrastructure has been allowed to fall (as Arnaud de Borchgrave has recently observed). Repair of that infrastructure is essential for economic growth, but repair of much of it requires action and expenditure by government.

TopicsIdeologyGreat PowersPolitical Economy RegionsUnited States

Replaying Afghanistan in Syria

Paul Pillar

Afghan mujahideen, 1985.Reports that most arms being sent to Syria in the name of toppling Bashar Assad's regime are winding up in the hands of “hard-line Islamic jihadists” recall a similar earlier experience in Afghanistan. The United States, Saudi Arabia and other outsiders wished to use material support to Afghan rebels to help defeat the Soviets and to topple the Soviet-installed Najibullah regime in Kabul. Working through Pakistan as a conduit and middleman, the outside patrons had to bestow their largesse on several different Afghan militias, which collectively constituted the armed resistance in Afghanistan. About half of the militias could be called hard-line Islamic jihadists. These also were the most effective fighters against the Soviets. If one wanted to use assistance in the form of arms shipments to defeat the Soviets and to do so sooner rather than later, these were the principal groups one needed to aid.

When Najibullah finally fell in 1992 (three years after the Soviet Union withdrew its own troops from Afghanistan), there was hardly a pause before the militias that had been allies in the war began fighting among themselves. The Afghan civil war simply moved into a new phase. In addition to the resulting chaos setting the stage for the Taliban sweeping to power over most of Afghanistan a couple of years later, we are seeing today other legacies of this pattern of outside assistance more than twenty years ago. One of the most potent of the hard-line Islamist elements that was in the middle of the fight against the Soviets was the militia led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who would come to be seen as an enemy of the United States alongside the Taliban itself and the Haqqani group.

In Syria today as in Afghanistan three decades ago, it is illusory to think that the United States or anyone else on the outside of the fight can fine-tune where the arms go so that we deal only with groups to our liking while still getting a return on our investment in terms of hastening the fall of the regime that the fight is directed against. The opposition in Syria is if anything even more disorganized and disaggregated than was the opposition in Afghanistan.

It is not feasible to expect aid to hasten the defeat of Assad if the aid is limited to groups “who share our values,” as Mitt Romney has put it. Resistance groups in Syria are operating in an environment in which they would hardly have an opportunity to demonstrate adherence to any such values. And even if the leaders of some groups seem to express allegiance to particular values, we can have no confidence that the same concepts or terms mean the same thing to them as they do to us. Many people in that part of the world, for example, believe that democracy means nothing more than majority rule, with “majority” defined in terms of something like a religious sect.

There is no opportunity for the United States to do anything approaching precise management of a flow of arms. It is not as if the Defense Logistics Agency is on scene to parcel out the materiel. Other outside actors are needed to facilitate the flow. With the war in Afghanistan the key outside actor in that regard was Pakistan. In Syria today the Saudis and Qataris seem to be particularly important. They are likely to be less disturbed than we are by anything that smacks of hard-line Islamic jihadism.

We should not be surprised if in Syria, as in Afghanstan, the more extreme groups also tend to be the more effective ones in carrying the fight. What is going on in Syria is not some peaceful process of political change in which our “values” would mean much. It is instead a brutal civil war. Brutally extreme groups tend to be in their element in brutally extreme conflicts.

In light of all of the foregoing, we also should not be surprised that despite incessant hand-wringing about what is going on in Syria and expressed wishes that somehow this conflict could be pushed speedily to a successful conclusion, no one has offered any good ideas for how to do that.

Image: Erwin Franzen

TopicsCounterinsurgencyDemocracyForeign AidHistoryHumanitarian InterventionPost-Conflict RegionsAfghanistanRussiaUnited StatesSyriaPakistanQatarSaudi Arabia

Congratulations, Europe

Paul Pillar

The awarding of this year's Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union is an appropriate recognition of one of the most significant departures in modern history to advance the cause of peace. Awarding the prize to the EU is best seen as a big-picture, long-term sort of recognition. It is consistent in that regard with the award of many Nobels in the scientific categories, which often recognize work that was done decades earlier but had significance that would be proven only later.

The committee that decides on the peace prize has shown a tendency in recent years to use the prize to make statements about issues of current concern. Maybe there was some of that thinking as well in its decision this year, with the prize intended to compensate for what even committed Europeanists would have to admit has not been one of the EU's happier periods. But that need not detract from the larger significance of what is being recognized.

Some of the initial responses within Europe to the Nobel committee's decision have been colored by whatever gripes about Brussels people happen to have at the moment. These responses are of a piece with what has been an unfortunate tendency lately to think of European integration only in terms of the fiscal and economic crisis in the euro zone. The common-currency project is not to be equated with the European Union. And although the next steps in that project are uncertain, it should be remembered that the disharmony entailed in a monetary union that precedes a fiscal union is the sort of creative tension that European founding fathers had in mind in using economics to propel political integration.

What is even more worth remembering—and the Nobel prize serves as a useful reminder—is the central idea, founding concept and biggest historic contribution of the whole experiment in European integration: the overcoming of divisions that have, at enormous cost, repeatedly torn the Continent apart. That tearing took the form of round after round of warfare through centuries. This long, violent history has involved absolute monarchies, modern dictatorships and democracies alike, culminating in the multilateral bloodlettings of the first half of the twentieth century. The harmful impact extending beyond Europe is captured by our reference to these last conflicts as “world wars.” The European integration project managed to move a substantial portion of the Continent, within just a few years, from the biggest and in some respects most savage of the bloodlettings to a different set of identities that have made unthinkable any new war between some of the nations that had been principal protagonists in the old ones. We should not forget how huge and wonderful a development in human history this has been.

May the European Union not only enjoy an enduring peace in its own lands but also serve as an inspiration in overcoming the destructive consequences of competing nationalisms elsewhere. Congratulations on the Nobel prize, EU; you've earned it.

Image: Sébastien PODVIN avril 2005

TopicsEuropean UnionCurrencyHistoryPost-Conflict RegionsEurope

Iraq Comes Full Circle

Paul Pillar

Russian machine guns captured during Operation Iraqi Freedom.Back in the 1950s and 1960s, sales of munitions were a major instrument that the Soviet Union used, most conspicuously in the Middle East, to cultivate influence and close ties with other regimes. Such sales also had obvious benefits for the Soviet arms industry. In addition to such clients as Egypt and Syria, Iraq became a major customer after a military coup in 1958 led by General Abdel Karim Kassem ended the Iraqi monarchy. Kassem lifted a ban on the Iraqi Communist Party, severed Iraq's security ties with the West (which had included membership in the Baghdad Pact), and turned to the USSR as his principal security patron and arms supplier. Kassem lost his power and his life when a Baathist coup overthrew him in 1963. The United States had good information about the coup plot and evidently smiled on it, out of concern over growing communist influence under Kassem. Several years of instability and short-lived regimes in Iraq followed until the Baath Party regained control and Saddam Hussein emerged from it to establish his dictatorship. The Soviets sold plenty more arms to Iraq under the Baathists, regardless of what U.S. officials may have hoped for in 1958.

Moscow's arms market in Iraq was disrupted when the U.S. invasion overthrew Saddam. But now the current Iraqi government of Nuri al-Maliki has concluded a contract to buy Russian arms worth more than $4.2 billion, according to a joint statement issued after negotiations between Maliki and Russian prime minister Dmitri Medvedev. The deal features attack helicopters and surface-to-air missile systems. Further discussions under way between Russia and Iraq aim at additional arms sales that would include MiG-29 fighters, more helicopters and other heavy weaponry. The Russians of today, like the Soviets of yesteryear, do not seem to have any of the compunctions, which sometimes figure into American deliberations about arms exports, including to Iraq, about the recipient's human-rights record or other political conditions in the recipient country. It is not out of the question for Russia to replace the United States in the foreseeable future as Iraq's largest arms supplier.

We can draw several implications from this news. One is that it fills in further the picture of what legacy was left in Iraq by the U.S. war that ousted Saddam. The regime that emerged from the rubble is not only increasingly authoritarian and narrowly sectarian and not only chummy with Iran; it also is becoming a client of Moscow. A trifecta of failure.

A second lesson concerns the notion that committing military support to a new regime in the making is essential for having a good relationship with it and to be considered a friend rather than a adversary once such a regime comes to power. This idea is being heard increasingly as an argument for doing more to assist rebels in Syria. We need to get in on the ground floor with the new bunch and accept risks and commit major resources, it is said, in order to be held in favor by whatever regime emerges from that rubble. But the United States got in on the ground floor more than once in Iraq—with the Baathists in 1958 and with the successors to Saddam after he was overthrown. In the latter case it did so with the expenditure of enormous resources. And look how much friendship and influence it bought.

Finally, the fact that Iraq's latest turn is reminiscent of what happened in the late 1950s suggests that the arrow of time in the Middle East does not point as much in one direction as many like to think it does. The progression of events there, even with pushes or leadership by the United States, does not necessarily run in the direction of more political freedom, more free enterprise, or whatever. Maybe in thinking about this we can get help not from the monotheistic religions of the Middle East but instead from religions of South Asia—the ones that envision a wheel of life on which we keep going round and round. Buddhists would say it is possible in a sense to get off the wheel, but only through self-enlightenment and not through a push from someone else. This is what Thomas Friedman seems to be saying in his column on Wednesday when he writes, “the Middle East only puts a smile on your face when change starts with them [i.e., Middle Easterners], not us.”

Think about that the next time someone talks about how the Middle East would be more to our liking if the United States would only be more assertive there.

TopicsHuman RightsForeign AidReligionPost-Conflict RegionsRussiaIranIraqUnited StatesSyria

The Still-Missing Opposition Foreign Policy

Paul Pillar

Many realities of foreign policy do not lend themselves to clear, coherent positions in an election campaign. The reasons for this go beyond the fact that in most election years far more votes are to be won or lost on domestic issues than foreign ones, even during better economic times than we have now. One of the reasons is the reactive nature of much of foreign policy, in which presidents are forced to spend more of their attention dealing with problems the world throws at them than on imposing their own program on the world, however much they may have hoped to do such imposing when coming into office. Even when a foreign-policy issue does figure significantly in an election campaign (Wilson kept us out of war in Europe; Eisenhower will get us out of war in Korea), it is usually a matter of dealing with a problem the world threw at the United States, such as a war someone else started.

It is often said that presidents have more autonomy in foreign than in domestic affairs, and that is true in the sense of having fewer energized domestic political forces to contend with. But having to deal with the problems of a big, unruly world that is even more outside the ability of a U.S. president to shape than are affairs inside U.S. borders means that despite that relative autonomy, there are no greater opportunities to impose an agenda or program in foreign affairs than in domestic ones. The exceptional major cases of imposing such an agenda, either a successful one (Nixon's triangular great-power diplomacy) or an unsuccessful one (the Iraq War) still did not figure into getting the relevant presidents elected. The possibility of launching a war in Iraq had no role in the 2000 campaign; the nuances of the diplomatic strategy Nixon brought into office were too sophisticated to influence many voters in 1968.

Appeals to candidates to sound more strategic and to lay out a foreign-policy strategy are common. But even for the foreign-policy intelligentsia, it may be difficult to distinguish in practice between policy that would be the product of sound strategy and policy that would be the result of what is simply good, skillful, pragmatic handling of the succession of unavoidable problems the world throws at us. And when what purports to be strategy gets formulated in the lexicon of political campaigns, the line between strategy and sloganeering can get very thin. Most of the tradeoffs and complexities that need to be addressed by a good foreign policy are beyond the comprehension or at least the cognizance of the great majority of voters. There are tradeoffs and complexities in domestic policy too, of course, but more of them are ones (e.g., more spending on Medicare means more strain on the federal finances) that much of the electorate can relate to.

We see some of these realities playing out in the fight for Mitt Romney's foreign-policy ear, with some of the most ardent fighters being on the largely neocon Right. Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute, in a piece titled “Romney's Missing Foreign Policy,” lays into the Republican nominee pretty strongly with the “we need a strategy” theme. Pletka says, “Mr. Romney needs to persuade people that he’s not simply a George W. Bush retread, eager to go to war in Syria and Iran and answer all the mail with an F-16.” She correctly notes, “Criticisms of Mr. Obama’s national security policies have degenerated into a set of clichés about apologies, Israel, Iran and military spending.” What Romney must do, shes says is to “put flesh on the bones of his calls for a renewed American greatness.”

Setting aside whether Pletka's own recommendations ever really get beyond sloganeering and offer any meat, the speech that Romney delivered on Columbus Day at the Virginia Military Institute should have left any meat eaters hungry. Romney talks about strategy, too, and perhaps the most laudable line in the speech is that the use of drones is “no substitute for a national security strategy in the Middle East.” Quite so. But the most one can extract from the speech about Romney's own strategy is that if one proclaims often enough and loudly enough that America is great, that it is exceptional, that it is a leader and that others in the world want our leadership, somehow those bedeviling problems in the Middle East and elsewhere will get solved.

Much of what the candidate said runs up against that reality of how a U.S. president, even if he enjoys autonomy from domestic political constraints, cannot snap his fingers and thereby make things happen overseas. A major element of Romney's “strategy” seems to be the belief that simply by expressing a desire or objective firmly enough, it will be attained—never mind whatever obstacles have kept it from being attained and what U.S. interests may be at stake with those obstacles. This was the case with what he said, for example, about free-trade agreements and also with his criticism of the president for an “abrupt withdrawal” of U.S. troops from Iraq without mentioning that the hang-up in extending the withdrawal deadline that the Bush administration negotiated (even if such an extension would have done anyone any good) concerned the need to guarantee immunity for U.S. personnel from prosecution in Iraqi courts. One can be confident that if the Obama administration had extended the troop presence without such a guarantee and even a single U.S. soldier had wound up in an Iraqi court, this would have been a major point of attack in Romney's speech.

The most prominent feature of the speech is that on most issues—including Afghanistan, Syria and sanctions on Iran—Romney's words were mostly a description of current policy. There is nothing wrong with that. It is a tacit recognition of the reality about the United States having only a limited range of action without endangering its own interests. To the extent one tries to extrapolate any differences from current policy, such as inferring the consequences of maintaining no “daylight” between the United States and the prime minister of Israel, as Romney says he intends to do, then the consequences really would endanger U.S. interests. To the extent Romney's refraining from spelling out the implied policies suggests not duplicity but instead the prospect that if elected he would not actually adopt such policies, then good for him. Let Danielle Pletka and other meat-eating critics remain unsatisfied.

To be sure, there is plenty in this speech that the candidate should not be allowed to get away with. Perhaps most fundamental is the whole notion that upheaval and instability in the Middle East is the fault of the president of the United States. The assertion that “the risk of conflict in the region is higher now than when the president took office” is a strange campaign point, given that President Obama ended U.S. involvement in the one war in the Middle East in which it was still fighting and given that the person most likely to start a new war in the region damaging to U.S. interests is Romney's friend and backer, the “no-daylight” Israeli prime minister. The candidate's reference to “President Obama’s deep and arbitrary cuts to our national defense” ignores the fact that the only such deep and arbitrary cuts in store are those in the sequestration agreement, which was part of a bipartisan way of trying to overcome the impasse created when Congressional members of Romney's party attempted extortion by threatening to make the nation default on its debt. And Governor Romney really needs to get past trying to exploit the deaths of U.S. officials in Libya in suggesting that the natural development of the analysis and investigation of the incident was instead some kind of withholding of an honest explanation by the Obama administration. This exploitation is especially rich given that Romney's own initial statement on the subject was a falsehood that described as the administration's “initial response” to the lethal incident an embassy statement that was released before the incident had even occurred.

But as for the lack of a meat-on-the-bones strategy that distinguishes Mr. Romney from his opponent, let us go easy on Romney. That lack is not a failing of the candidate so much as it reflects an immutable reality of foreign policy.

This election will make a difference in foreign policy but not primarily in ways that are clearly discernible in this speech. We ought to pay more attention to those who will have Romney's ear not just now but if he were the president. Conspicuous among them are the neocons who never seem to go away.

TopicsDomestic PoliticsElectionsDefenseIdeologyThe PresidencyTradePost-Conflict RegionsUnited StatesMiddle East