Paul Pillar

War Powers Reconsidered

Paul Pillar

Jim Webb, the one-term (by choice) senior U.S. senator for Virginia, has been able to observe from several vantage points the multiple issues involved in going to war. He is a Marine veteran of the Vietnam War, father of a Marine who served in the Iraq War, observer as an embedded journalist of the Afghanistan War, a former assistant secretary of defense and secretary of the navy, and currently a member of the Senate committees on armed services and foreign relations. This week he spoke on the floor of the Senate about the executive branch's appropriation for itself of decisions to go to war, notwithstanding the U.S. Constitution's assignment to Congress of the power to declare war. “What has happened,” asked Webb,

to reduce the role of the Congress from the body which once clearly decided whether or not the nation would go to war, to the point that we are viewed as little more than a rather mindless conduit that collects taxpayer dollars and dispenses them to the President for whatever military functions he decides to undertake?

Webb acknowledged that the military's role in national security since World War II has been more continuous, with more need to operate on short notice, than warfare as the Founding Fathers knew it. But “the fact that some military situations have required our Presidents to act immediately before then reporting to the Congress,” Webb said,

does not in and of itself give the President a blanket authority to use military force whenever and wherever he decides to, even where Americans are not personally at risk and even where the vital interests of our country have not been debated and clearly defined. This is the ridiculous extreme that we have now reached.

Webb has been particularly disturbed by last year's military intervention in Libya, a supposedly humanitarian operation that quickly became a regime-change operation. The Obama administration, through some legal casuistry, contended that the operation did not come under the War Powers Resolution because U.S. forces played only a supporting role to NATO allies.

The War Powers Resolution has had its own problems ever since Congress passed it by overriding Richard Nixon's veto in 1973. Every president since Nixon has considered it unconstitutional. The issue Webb is raising, however, goes well beyond legal issues involving that piece of legislation. The issue concerns what criteria go into a decision to use military force and who should weigh those criteria. An ostensibly humanitarian operation such as the one in Libya, which is very much a war of choice, ought to have an especially broad weighing. It is not a matter of immediate protection of a U.S. interest but instead of deciding how much humanitarian succor is worth how much of the cost and risk involved in any U.S. military expedition overseas. There is no reason that sort of decision should be made solely by the executive. There is every reason the decision should involve the people's representatives in Congress. Or as Webb put it:

I can't personally and conclusively define the boundaries of what is being called a "humanitarian intervention." Most importantly, neither can anybody else. . . . Some of these endeavors may be justified, some may not. But the most important point to be made is that in our system, no one person should have the power to inject the United States military, and the prestige of our nation, into such circumstances.

The recently announced creation of an “Atrocities Prevention Board” headed by White House staffer and self-described “genocide chick” Samantha Power makes these issues all the more acute. The operation led by Power will by its very nature have a pro-intervention bias. The check and balance provided by the legislative branch will be needed more than ever.

Senator Webb intends to introduce legislation that will try to close the humanitarian loophole by requiring, in any situation in which U.S. interests are not directly threatened, that Congressional approval be obtained before the introduction of American military force, with a further requirement for Congress to debate and vote on the matter promptly. Careful draftsmanship will be needed to deal with questions of the exact scope of any such legislation. But Webb's proposal deserves serious attention.

TopicsCongressThe PresidencyHumanitarian Intervention RegionsLibyaUnited States

Hard Times for Loyal Opposition

Paul Pillar

Notwithstanding the attention we understandably give to whoever is in power or on the way to attaining it, the health of a democracy depends just as much on a strong and credible loyal opposition. A loyal opposition should demonstrate in the fullest sense the meaning of both the words in that term. It is an opposition in that it feels entirely free to speak, vigorously and openly, against the policy of the day. It is loyal not just in the sense that members of the opposition are patriots but also in the sense that they recognize members of the government are as well. It is an arrangement in which everyone understands that sharp and even intensely expressed differences can exist within a political framework to which everyone is loyal.

The advantages of such a political structure parallel the economic advantages of a free market. Spirited competition in which competitors accept each other as legitimate assures that consumers (i.e., voters) will have a credible choice. That in turn strengthens the incentive of rulers to govern in the interest of the ruled. Even without an actual change in power, the possibility of one keeps those in power on their toes.

From this perspective, some of the most conspicuous political events since the beginning of this week are not good news.

There are the elections in France and Greece, which, even if they help to push European economic policy in a direction in which it most needs to go at the moment, have certainly not helped the clarity and strength of political competition in those countries. After Nicolas Sarkozy's loss the French Center-Right will struggle to muster the electoral strength to challenge the socialists without buying into positions of Marine Le Pen's Far-Right National Front. In Greece, the political map is a mess after fringe parties on both the Right and the Left inflicted severe losses on the two mainstream parties that for years had alternated between government and opposition.

Then in Israel is the surprising move by Shaul Mofaz to bring his centrist Kadima Party into Benjamin Netanyahu's ruling coalition. There are many possible implications one could draw from this; David Makovsky's take is as well-informed as anyone's. A possible positive implication is that Mofaz may have some moderating influence on the government and lessen Netanyahu's reliance on the most hard-line members of his current coalition. But the dominant effect will likely be to strengthen Netanyahu's political position and leave him freer to do what he wants to do without worrying much about challenges from the opposition. Government parties now control 94 of the 120 seats in the Knesset. The official leader of the opposition is no longer Mofaz but instead the leader of the Labor Party, which has been in steady decline over the past few decades. More than ever, Netanyahu is now seen by many Israelis as the only plausible national leader. Kadima was facing its own loss of seats if an election were held this year, but Mofaz probably had been the most credible alternative to the incumbent prime minister.

Back home in Indiana, Richard Lugar's long and distinguished career in the U.S. Senate is being brought to an end by a primary-election defeat at the hands of a Tea Party-backed candidate. This result means the loss of a senator who, when not in the majority, embodied the characteristics described above of a loyal opposition. His departure is another step toward dominance in the Republican Party of views that do not display those characteristics—i.e., views that question whether Barack Obama and the “Democrat Party” are even legitimate competitors. The presumptive Republican presidential nominee has been slow to distance himself from those views, such as on Monday when he failed to challenge a woman speaking at one of his campaign rallies in Ohio who said President Obama “should be tried for treason.”

If there has been even a slightly bright spot on this subject this week, it was in Russia, where Dmitri Medvedev received the necessary parliamentary vote to become prime minister and complete his job switch with Vladimir Putin. Some minority members whose parties had done well in an election in December decided to act more like a loyal opposition by respectfully voting against Medvedev. “We want to consolidate Russian society, but only on the basis of our own social democratic platform,” said a member of the Just Russia party. “That is why our faction today has decided in the selection of the prime minister to vote against the leader of the party that we consider our political and ideological opponent.”

You know you are stretching when you have to look to the Duma for optimistic signs of vibrant democracy. It remains to be seen just how vibrant democracy there will be. A scowling Putin, not hiding his displeasure over how many votes were cast against his protégé and no doubt having different ideas about what loyal opposition means, said ominously, “I am sure that the work of the government and the parliament will be constructive despite the well-known opposition of some deputies in this hall.”


TopicsDomestic PoliticsElections RegionsIsraelRussiaFranceGreeceUnited States

The Overblown Chen Case

Paul Pillar

Much commentary has been offered about Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng and how U.S. officials have handled his case. It was inevitable that the Chen affair would become fodder in the U.S. election campaign. But many commentators beyond those motivated primarily by partisanship have devoted attention to this affair as if it were some kind of test or touchstone for the policies and strategies of the Obama administration. Additional perspective is in order, for which I offer the following observations.

First, the United States does not own the issue of human rights in China. Yet many of the comments about Chen's status and similar cases sound as if it does. It is almost as if the United States had the special responsibility of a former colonial master, which of course it does not. To regard human rights as an important value and to incorporate it into U.S. foreign policy is one thing; to bear the burden of owning the issue as it relates to China or any other foreign country is something quite different. Denial of human rights, insofar as it is a concern for those outside China, is a concern for the entire world community. It is no more logical for the United States to bear a special burden stemming from that concern than it would be for, say, Japan to bear it. It may seem that the United States bears a special burden because dissidents have a habit of showing up at the doorsteps of U.S. embassies. (Walter Pincus recalls in Tuesday's Washington Post the details of a similar incident with another Chinese dissident in 1989.) Americans should feel flattered that their embassies are picked out over other embassies, but they should feel no need to respond by taking up sole ownership of the case at hand out of some sense of human-rights noblesse oblige.

A second point concerns the role of Chen himself. He certainly offers much to admire, including his open advocacy of honorable causes even when doing so guaranteed he would run afoul of Chinese authorities. His physical image, with his visual disability and then a fracture in a foot sustained while he was fleeing house arrest at night, add further elements of sympathy and even mystique. There is no denying, however, that much of what made this case a frustrating no-win situation for U.S. officials stemmed from Chen himself and the choices he made. Beyond his showing up at the U.S. embassy, this particularly involved his change of mind regarding whether or not he wanted to leave China. This is someone who is asking favors from the United States, but he has done the United States no favors. The affair would have been much simpler if he had asked for asylum as soon as he first met with U.S. officials. Given that the whole story would have been significantly different if this one dissident had made different personal choices, how can we say that the story says much about the U.S. administration?

Third, how U.S. officials handle any matters such as this—and despite the publicity in this instance, it is basically a difficult consular case—rarely says anything larger about the direction and policy of an American administration. The officials involved are endeavoring to manage a situation that has been thrown in their laps without advance notice or preparation. Every case is different, and the handling of any one case is not an application of strategic tenets in Washington. A single case of this nature does not provide any larger lessons about how foreign policy is being run unless it is representative of a dysfunctional pattern such as subjugating competence to political loyalty in the appointment of officials or misinterpreting a situation by viewing it through ideological lenses—but no such pattern seems to apply to the current situation.

The Chen case says much more about China and its leadership than about the United States or its leaders. It is, after all, their country, their citizen and their suppression of civil rights that are involved. If the Chen affair presents a test, it is a test of the Chinese regime's ability to satisfy a growing popular demand for the rule of law notwithstanding the threat that consistent application of the law would pose to the regime's continued rule.

TopicsAutocracyDomestic PoliticsHuman Rights RegionsChinaUnited States

Good Policy and Bad Politics

Paul Pillar

The commonly accepted story line about the French and Greek elections on Sunday is that the outcome is a rejection by voters of the austerity that Merkozy-dominated European decision makers have been imposing on the euro zone. The result, as some critics might put it more bluntly and negatively, is a defeat of disciplined economic policy by short-sighted populist sentiment. In general, displacement of disciplined decision making by raw popular anger is not good. But from the standpoint of Europe's economic health and its effect on the health of the global economy, backing away from austerity is the main thing needed right now. To understand why, read any of Paul Krugman's frequent forays into the subject. The idea that austerity breeds confidence, which in turn breeds private-sector initiative and prosperity, simply hasn't proven valid where it has been tried. Stimulation of demand is needed to keep Europe from dropping into a deep double-dip recession.

The election results do give reason for concern. Parts of François Hollande's platform look ill-conceived. The beneficiaries of Greek voters' rejection of the mainstream parties that had signed on to austerity are the Far-Left and Far-Right fringes; in this respect, the Greek result is a disturbing move toward extremism. On the basic dimension of austerity vs. stimulation, however, voters have moved the European economic debate in the correct direction, even if most of them did so for the wrong reasons.

A general lesson to extract from this is that just because a political leader's position may conform with some of the ignoble desires of the populace does not ipso facto mean it is bad policy. What constitutes good or bad policy is often a matter of debate even among people of goodwill—as it is regarding economic policy today in Europe, although I am more persuaded by those arguing for the need to stimulate demand than by the pro-austerity camp. Moreover, it is rare that one side has a monopoly on positions that could be seen as a pandering to short-sighted popular desires. German positions are rooted in immediate German self-interests that, as Andrew Moravcsik explains in the current Foreign Affairs, are no better for the economic health of the Continent than is the southern European profligacy that German banks and investors have helped finance. Germany has benefited from imbalances that make it, in Moravcsik's term, the “China of Europe,” even though its membership in the euro zone insulates it from the sort of criticism that is regularly directed against China about currency-exchange rates and trade surpluses.

Similar principles apply to debate about economic policy in the United States. Over the weekend, I attended an event at the University of Chicago at which the thinking of the Chicago school of economics pervaded discussions. It was the sort of environment in which people conversed about whether Barack Obama's economic policies mean he doesn't understand how economies work or—probably the dominant view—that he understands but has subordinated his understanding to a populist political agenda. The main problem I had with what I was hearing is that—although I am as much a believer as anyone else in the effectiveness of free markets—some of the economic structures and practices I heard being defended (such as those involving corporate governance) differ substantially from a free market and differ for reasons that have nothing to do with governmental interference. More to the present point, that a position of Obama might appeal to some of the baser emotions of the voting public does not keep if from being good economic policy—as measured by standards, such as macroeconomic growth, that would be as important to adherents of the Chicago school as to anyone else. And also as in Europe, a populist tendency to sway in whatever direction the voters want to go is no more characteristic of Obama than it is of his opponent.

Pandering to the crowd is indeed a common and unworthy political pattern, and it often does encourage lousy policy. But the pandering and the policy making are distinct dimensions. Determining the extent to which the two intersect in any one case requires closer examination of the policy in question.

Image: Francois Hollande

TopicsEuropean UnionCurrencyDomestic PoliticsIdeologyPolitical EconomyTrade RegionsFranceGreeceGermanyUnited StatesEurope

Opinions in Uniform

Paul Pillar

General Douglas MacArthurOver at Foreign Policy, our friends Stephen Walt and Daniel Drezner have been expressing unease over the conspicuous role active or retired military officers seem to be playing in debates on foreign and security policy. Drezner has noted the “strangeness” of how in Israel it is “ex-military/intel guys” who have been leading the challenge to the Netanyahu government's policies on matters such as Iran, although he also seems concerned about making sure U.S. officers stay in a seen-but-not-heard role. Walt notices what a prominent part military officers have been playing in some Council on Foreign Relations events and laments, in light of how much the Pentagon already spends on public relations, that the council is giving the military “another platform from which to purvey its views.” I am less concerned about any of this as far as the United States is concerned, partly for reasons that Walt himself touches on.

Of course members of the military, while still in active service, should not openly contravene the policies and judgments of the government of the day. That restriction applies not just to the military but to anyone, military or civilian, who is serving in the executive branch of the government. As far as the military specifically is concerned, the United States, for reasons related to the nation's history and political culture, has had less of a “man on horseback” problem than many other democracies. Douglas MacArthur was a rare megalomaniacal exception, but even a then-unpopular President Truman was able to dispose of the problem of insubordination that MacArthur came to represent.

When we start hearing from U.S. military officers in ways that seem to go beyond their proper role, this almost always reflects deficiencies in the civilian leadership's decision-making process. If costs, risks and the unlikelihood of success have been insufficiently considered, we hope and expect (at least in hindsight) military officers to speak up about it. By far the most egregious example in recent U.S. history of a deficient decision-making process was the launching of the Iraq War, in which there was no policy process at all that led to the decision to go to war. There was no known decision point and thus no way for the military or anyone else to distinguish between the period before a decision, when the military and everyone else inside government should be giving the decision maker their most honest and unvarnished advice, and the period after the decision, when the proper response is to salute and execute that decision as vigorously and skillfully as possible.

A stark contrast was provided by the Obama administration's long and thorough deliberations preceding key decisions about the war in Afghanistan. The Department of Defense (not just the uniformed military) can be justly accused of using the familiar bureaucratic ploy of shaping the options in a way that limits or favors certain options. But when President Obama was dissatisfied, he ended up crafting his own option. He did not get rolled by the military.

In the United States we also have another dimension in civil-military relations: being answerable to that coequal policy-making body, the Congress. If a military officer is asked a question by a member of Congress, even in an open hearing, he should give an answer that is honest and reflects his best professional judgment. General Eric Shinseki, then the army chief of staff, did so when asked before the Iraq War about how many troops the job would take. He paid a price when as a result of his honesty his political masters in the Bush administration shunned and repudiated him. The nation would have been better off if it had paid more attention at the time to what Shinseki said. It also would have been better off if it had paid more attention in the mid-1960s to the rather prescient judgments of the chief of staff of the army and commandant of the Marine Corps about the size of force and length of time the Vietnam War would entail.

Drezner says that recently retired military officers are in a “slightly different category” from those still on active duty. “Slightly”? They are in a completely different category. There is none of the same restriction about contradicting or being insubordinate to the boss in government. We are talking about private citizens expressing views about public affairs. We should not make the mistake of assuming that because such a citizen once was in the military, the views being expressed are somehow views “of the military,” much less militaristic. Walt correctly notes that it was Dwight Eisenhower who warned us about a military-industrial complex and that on Iran our military leaders “seem a lot more sensible than the more hawkish civilians.” Those examples reflect a larger pattern. Research has demonstrated that U.S. military veterans as well as serving officers are more reluctant to resort to force than are their civilian countrymen who have never served in the military. I certainly share Walt's concern about the tendency to think narrowly of the pursuit of U.S. interests abroad in terms of the use of military force. But that unfortunate tendency is not coming disproportionately from the views of those who have worn the uniform.

TopicsDefensePublic OpinionMilitary Strategy RegionsIsraelIranUnited States

Politics and the Afghan End Game

Paul Pillar

Air Force One has flown halfway around the globe amid multiple reminders of how heavily American politics and misconceptions about the limits of American power continue to weigh on the conflict in Afghanistan. The U.S. military expedition there, now in its eleventh year, should have been concluded long ago. The most important accomplishments came in the first few months following the justified intervention after the 9/11 terrorist attack. Then the mission quietly transformed into an effort to transform Afghanistan into something it politically never has been and probably never will be. As the war continued and we have increasingly worn out our welcome, we have been creating our own enemies. Mostly those enemies are called Taliban, a large proportion of whom are not warriors for extreme interpretations of sharia but instead merely Afghans who are unhappy about a number of things but mostly about foreign occupation. Increasingly and even more disturbingly, we have been making enemies among members of the forces to whom we will supposedly be entrusting the security of Afghanistan. These are the sources of the “green on blue” attacks—which evidently are even more numerous than we had been led to believe.

There have now been two U.S. presidential elections that have shaped policies and pronouncements about Afghanistan (the Bush administration's preoccupation with its Iraq project meant it wasn't paying much attention to Afghanistan in 2004). In 2008, Barack Obama's stance on Afghanistan was partly a politically necessary balance to his laudable opposition to the Iraq War. In 2012 he cannot afford to appear blatantly inconsistent with his previous positions.

Meanwhile, the position on Afghanistan of Mr. Obama's Republican opponent has been confused. Mitt Romney sometimes has talked about following the judgment of “the generals”—completely missing the main issue, which is not how to perform a military mission but rather whether the national interest would be served by performing that mission, with all of its associated costs—and sometimes has talked about bringing U.S. troops home as soon as possible. But in his effort to find ways to jab at President Obama, he also has criticized the president for publicly announcing a timetable for withdrawal, raising the question of whether he has in mind a timetable to be kept secret. The president, for his part, has been leaving things somewhat vague—including in his speech at the Bagram air base, stating only that by the end of 2014 Afghans would be “fully responsible for the security of their country.”

President Obama's trip to Afghanistan this week has some legitimate purposes, especially to thank the U.S. troops who are still there. But the timing of the trip seems to be related to the highly hyped anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden. The White House's repeated reference to the raid lends credence to the Republicans' charge that the Obama camp is milking this one event for more political points than it really deserves. Mr. Obama does deserve credit for the decision he took a year ago, but this is a weak basis for drawing contrasts with Romney. No one knows how a President Romney would have acted if faced with the same situation.

Romney's comeback that “even Jimmy Carter” would have made the same decision doesn't answer the question, although it does evoke thoughts of a similar decision Carter did make to undertake a risky military raid in southwest Asia. That earlier event even involved crashed helicopters. The crash at Desert One in 1980 was severe enough to make the attempt to rescue American hostages from Iran a failure. The one at Abbottabad last year was within the capability of the SEALs to recover from it. Carter is viewed as he is today, and Obama is given the credit that he is given today, partly because of the vagaries of flying helicopters.

None of this has much to do with who is most fit to be president. The nation will be better off when it is finished both with the war in Afghanistan and with this presidential campaign.

TopicsCounterinsurgencyDomestic PoliticsElectionsThe Presidency RegionsAfghanistanUnited States

The Debasement of U.S. Support

Paul Pillar

There was a disturbing scene in New York on Sunday, with former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert speaking at a conference sponsored by the Jerusalem Post. When Olmert called for more respect for, and less confrontation with, the president of the United States, he was met with boos along with shouts of “Naive!” and “Neville Chamberlain!” Revulsion is the appropriate response to that scene, in two respects. One, for what it says about those doing the shouting and booing, regardless of their citizenship or their loyalties. Two, for how degenerate it shows the U.S.-Israeli relationship has become.

In the non-booable circumstances of an interview following his speech at the conference, Olmert made another noteworthy point. In saying that “America is not a client state of Israel,” Olmert asked:

Why should we want America to be put in a situation where whatever they do will be interpreted as if they obeyed orders from Jerusalem?

Good question. One that should have been asked long ago, given that the United States already finds itself in that situation on many matters involving Israel. Any time the United States is perceived to be in effect obeying someone else's orders—let alone orders from the government of a much smaller state on which the United States has showered largesse for many years—the words of the United States become less credible and its actions less respected. Anyone who has the interests and influence of the United States at heart ought to be concerned about that.

Then there is the rest of Olmert's point, which is that Israelis ought to be concerned about that as well. A less credible and less respected America is less able to do things in Israel's region that are in Israel's interests. For Israelis who want to achieve peace with their neighbors, a United States that is Israel's lawyer is less useful than a United States that has the respect of an honest broker.

Even for Israelis interested not in peace but only in minimizing short-term pressure and embarrassment, an America seen as acting as if it were obeying orders from Jerusalem is less useful than one that is not. Think of those United Nations Security Council resolutions on which Washington has cast lonely vetoes on Israel's behalf. Whatever significance most of those resolutions have is moral, perceptual and political. Whatever moral opprobrium involved will be present whether or not the United States casts a veto, because everyone realizes that veto is not an honest and independent judgment on the merits of whatever issue is on the table. Exercising the political muscle required to get that veto only underscores Israeli isolation from the mainstream of world opinion.

This whole unfortunate process is somewhat in the nature of killing a golden-egg-laying goose, except that it involves not sudden death but instead a long-term weakening of the goose.

TopicsDomestic PoliticsUNThe Presidency RegionsIsraelUnited States

Speaking Truth to Power in Israel

Paul Pillar

Emanating out of Israel over the past several months has been a remarkable series of dissents from senior and respected members of the Israeli national-security establishment against positions taken by the current government of Benjamin Netanyahu. The dissenters are individuals whose dedication to the security of Israel is, given their careers, beyond question. They also are men whose experience and expertise make them worth listening to. Some have commented on the long-term peril to Israel of letting the conflict with the Palestinians fester while indefinitely occupying all of the West Bank. More recently, they have addressed the subject the Netanyahu government has put at the top of its public agenda, which is Iran and its nuclear program.

Most of the observations have come from former senior officials, who naturally are freer to speak openly and honestly than when they were in government. But some similar dissents have even emerged, albeit in far more nuanced and fragmented form, from currently serving officials. The current head of Mossad, Tamir Pardo, has questioned the notion that an Iranian nuclear weapon would pose an existential threat to Israel. Last week Lieutenant General Benny Gantz, the chief of General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces, said in an interview that Iranian leaders were rational people who he expects will see the advantage for Iran of agreeing not to build a nuclear weapon. Advocates for the Israeli government quickly tried to spin the general's comments as not contradicting the government's positions. But in fact, the remarks diverged sharply from the efforts of Netanyahu and his ministers not only to question the rationality of Iranian leaders but also to bad-mouth the ongoing negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 as a damaging waste of time.

Then on Friday came a scathing critique of Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak from Yuval Diskin, the immediate past head of the internal-security service Shin Bet. Diskin said the pair act out of messianic sentiments but, noting that “I have seen them up close,” they are in fact not messiahs. Diskin stated that Netanyahu and Barak have been “creating a false impression about the Iranian issue” and “appealing to the stupid public” by suggesting that resort to military force would eliminate the possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon rather than, as is more likely, motivating Tehran to take the decision it has not yet taken to build a bomb.

Americans listening to these exchanges in Israel should draw several conclusions. First, we are seeing one of Israel's most admirable characteristics, which is free and vigorous debate among Israeli citizens enjoying liberal democracy. Whatever are the faults in that democracy—especially the part with a lot of people living under occupation and not enjoying political rights—there is still a part where such rights prevail. In fact, Israel, with its vigorous debates on such matters, goes one better than the United States, where discussion of issues involving Israel is contorted and constrained by what is at best political correctness and at worst a code of omerta. Debates in the United States about Israel would be more informative if they were more like debates within Israel.

Second, we should listen to the substance of what the experienced Israeli national-security professionals are saying. Diskin, for example, really did have a lot of experience observing Netanyahu in action. And Netanyahu really is exhibiting a combination of misplaced messianism and misleading the public.

Third, the Israeli debates are a reminder that the policies of the Israeli government of the day are not to be equated with the interests of Israel. Any government gets to define national interests, and the best way of pursuing them, as long as it is in power. But that definition is only an act of temporary control. Even in a democracy, the definition may be a narrow and warped version of a larger sense of the national interest. In the previous U.S. administration (which, of course, was ushered into office by hanging chad and a court decision), neoconservatives seized control of national-security policy—enough to start a major offensive war—but the resulting policy did not advance the national interest and did not even emerge from a majority sense of the national interest. Netanyahu's government is the product of coalition building under the Israeli electoral system amid ethnic and religious complexities and the weakness of parties of the Left and Center.

Finally, and related to the third point, Americans who consider themselves supporters of Israel ought to think carefully and hard about exactly what they are supporting. Falling in line with what Prime Minister Netanyahu is saying is most definitely not equivalent to supporting Israel. If it were, it would be as if—Republicans in particular ought to get this comparison—foreign endorsement of policies and pronouncements of Barack Obama were being used as the measure of friendship toward the United States. Passionate attachment to any foreign country has a bad enough effect on the security and interests of the United States. The effect is even worse when the attachment is to a particular foreign leadership that isn't even acting in the best interests of its own country.

TopicsDemocracyDomestic PoliticsNuclear Proliferation RegionsIsraelIranUnited StatesPalestinian territories

The Bin Laden Anniversary

Paul Pillar

Anniversaries tend to be used to sell things, and not just greeting cards. Many authors of books or prospective books, for instance, evidently have contemplated calendars carefully enough to have their works released near the tenth, hundredth or Xth anniversary of an event relevant to their subject matter. Now, we are about to mark the first anniversary of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, which will be the occasion for selling both commentary and political points. Democrats will repeatedly note that Bin Laden was eliminated on President Obama's watch, and Republicans will repeatedly argue that the president is trying to milk that one event to divert attention from what they contend are weaknesses elsewhere on his record.

Terrorism-related anniversaries are usually thought to have more substantive significance than this, in the sense that they are occasions that terrorists may attempt to mark with more terrorism. We thus hear that in anticipation of next month's anniversary, the U.S. government is bracing for possible attacks to avenge Bin Laden's death. Such attacks cannot be ruled out, and there no doubt are groups that would like to get the added attention and perhaps satisfaction from staging them. But anniversaries tend to have much less influence on terrorists' planning than do operational opportunities, and the added governmental and public awareness on anniversaries may actually make them among the less opportune times to attempt an attack. Excessive public focus on terrorist anniversaries is one more manifestation of a general tendency to overinterpret terrorists' targets and tactics as well as their timing, all of which are more the product of tactical opportunities than of strategic grand designs.

The dwelling, even in death, on this one man, Bin Laden, reflects another distortion in common understanding about contemporary terrorism. We Americans like to perceive our enemies as named, discrete individuals or entities—not diffuse phenomena, even though a diffuse phenomenon is the shape that current terrorist threats, and even just radical Sunni terrorist threats, take. The habitually loose and broad use of the name “al-Qaeda” tends to reify something that does not exist: viz., a single radical Sunni terrorist organization with a global span of operations.

As early as the late 1990s, well before 9/11, the counterterrorist focus on Bin Laden personally had become strong and sharp. Also that early, some U.S. officials came to realize that the heavy attention to this one man tended to serve some of his own purposes by elevating his stature. But we were never able to get away from that sort of attention, and we are still serving some of bin Laden's purposes by continuing to dwell on him.

TopicsDomestic PoliticsPublic OpinionTerrorism RegionsUnited States

Accountability is Complicated

Paul Pillar

We've lately had a spate of newsworthy despicable behavior by people in official positions, leading to calls for accountability which in turn raise some issues I discussed last year about the nature and meaning of accountability. There is the latest behavioral obscenity by young troops in Afghanistan, who posed for pictures with parts of an enemy's dismembered body. There is the caper with the prostitutes of Cartagena, involving members of the Secret Service and the military. Then of course there is the over-the-top outrage of some people in the General Services Administration deciding to have an expensive frolic in Las Vegas at the taxpayers' expense. (Much of the thirst for accountability for that last incident was quenched when the head of GSA fired a couple of her senior subordinates and then resigned.)

My National Interest colleague Jacob Heilbrunn has laid into the Secret Service for the Colombian prostitution scandal, saying that “heads need to roll.” Andrew Bacevich has taken a similar tack with the military for a variety of failures and contretemps such as the body-parts incident in Afghanistan, arguing that commanders should be held strictly accountable for everything that happens in their commands. Sounds simple, doesn't it? When bad things happen, isn't punishing someone a way to keep similar bad things from happening again?

But accountability isn't that simple; it's complicated. And whether punishments improve the future performance of government institutions gets even more complicated, in ways that I explored in my earlier offering on the subject. When bad things happen in governmental organizations, sometimes this is because someone screwed up, but sometimes not. And even when there clearly has been not only a screw-up but outright misbehavior, as there was in all the aforementioned cases, how far should accountability extend? Bacevich concedes that “we should not overstate the reach of command authority,” which is a mild way of stating the fact that most lower-level behavior is out of sight and effectively out of the control of even the most diligent and hands-on senior leader. So what good does it do, in terms of improving future performance, to punish that leader? Moreover, if merely being somewhere under someone's command is sufficient reason to hold that someone accountable in terms of punishment, then how far up do we go? If we don't draw a line, that would mean every piece of misbehavior in the executive branch of the federal government could lead to impeachment of the president. If we do draw a line, what is the rationale for drawing it at one particular level rather than a level or two higher up or lower down?

Amid these uncertainties, applying the principle that anyone with command authority should be held accountable regardless of whether that person had direct knowledge or control of the objectionable situation encourages a kind of game among senior leaders, the object of which is to jump into head-rolling action quickly enough so that one fires people below before one can be fired by anyone above. That draws the line for accountability just below the level of the game player. Former secretary of defense Robert Gates, to whom Bacevich refers approvingly, was a master at playing that game. It enabled him, whenever something within his span of authority went wrong and happened to cause a public flap, to be perceived publicly as part of the solution rather than as part of the problem. It warded off any suggestions that if the hold-authority-accountable principle were to be applied consistently, Gates himself should be held accountable for malfeasance in the department he headed.

The Washington Post has run a profile on Paula Reid, the Secret Service's boss for the South American region and as such in the thick of activity involving the Cartagena scandal. Blanket application of the hold-authority-accountable principle would seem to suggest that her head should be one of those to roll. But the Post's profile is very favorable, depicting an officer who not only had a strong record of performance prior to this year but also responded vigorously to what her underlings in Colombia had done. So does that mean accountability should stop at a lower level? And if the Post's description is to be believed, what does that mean for how we should judge the performance of more senior levels? If the director of the Secret Service placed such a capable officer in this important position before the Cartagena incident, what more could he have been expected to do—without circumventing and undermining his own senior subordinates—to see to it that operations in Colombia were conducted properly?

The director, Mark Sullivan, over the past few days “has gone out of his way to make himself accessible to members of Congress,” according to the New York Times. The chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Peter King, said, “He woke me up at 5:15 in the morning this week. . . . I felt like telling him, ‘Mark, let me sleep.’ ” This hyperactivity in front of Sullivan's overseers might be a mark of a very diligent and capable director, or it may have less to do with running the Secret Service well than with the public-relations game of being perceived as part of the solution rather than part of the problem. I do not know which it is. Mr. King's committee, through careful investigation backed by subpoena power, might be able to get some idea which it is.

Image: Medill DC

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