Paul Pillar

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

TopicsCongressDomestic PoliticsPublic OpinionThe Presidency RegionsUnited States

Buying Our Way Out of Conscription

Paul Pillar

Roosevelt signs the Selective Service Training and Service ActIn a Washington Post compendium in which ten writers were each invited to name something “we'd be better off without,” Thomas Ricks—one of the more perceptive observers of civil-military relations and the impact of war on American society—nominates “the all-volunteer military.” Ricks says the all-volunteer force has made it too easy for the United States to go to war and to give insufficient attention to the consequences. “One percent of the nation has carried almost all the burden of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he says, “while the rest of us essentially went shopping.”

Ricks's basic point about how the absence of a draft reduces the public pain of wars, and thus increases the likelihood or duration of them, is valid. I have told my students who listen politely to panel discussions and other exchanges on campus about the nation's ongoing wars that if we had conscription, many of them would instead be armed with signs and bullhorns, demonstrating outside. In other words, it would be more like the college campuses I remember from the 1960s, as the Vietnam War was escalating and draftees were being sent to fight there. Besides concentrating public attention on the consequences of wars, mandatory national service might have other societal benefits. Many other questions would have to be carefully considered before conscription were reintroduced, not least of all exactly how a draft would be structured and administered to make it fair. But the issue should not be considered dead.

Thinking more broadly than just the United States and its recent wars, however, one has to ask: Shouldn't forced enrollment of citizens in a military force make a government more, not less, able to wage war? Doesn't such compulsion mean having more, rather than fewer, troops to fight the wars? Isn't modern conscription in this respect a successor to feudal arrangements in which monarchs leaned on their vassals, who in turn compelled the serfs, to man their armies?

It is, but the United States of today does not fit that pattern for both political and economic reasons. The political reason is that the United States is a liberal democracy in which the aforementioned dynamic of protesting when the consequences of war hurt directly, and of having reason to believe such protest will make a political difference, comes into play. Just as important is the economic reason, which has to do with both the wealth and the inequality of American society.

The wealth enables us to compensate sufficiently those who serve in the armed forces to help induce enough such people to join or stay in the force. The personal motivations involved are not solely a matter of selfless patriotism, although there is much of that among those who choose to serve. Former secretary of defense Robert Gates may have complained that the cost of health care for the military is “eating the Department of Defense alive,” but good health-care coverage is part of the package of compensation that influences the decisions of many of those who serve in the military. Part of the defense budget represents the fiscal burden we bear to avoid having our sons drafted.

The inequality—not just of current economic status but also of opportunity—helps to assure there will be enough people sufficiently attracted by the material benefits of military service to influence their career decisions. A more egalitarian society, with more opportunities open to all in civilian life, would have a harder time getting enough people interested in donning the uniform and fighting that country's wars.

Conscription is a direct affront to free-market principles, given that it involves compelling people to act differently from how they would have acted in response to the incentives provided by the market. But on some subjects markets, left on their own, do not work well. Providing military manpower may be one of those subjects.

TopicsDefensePolitical EconomyState of the Military RegionsUnited States

Wiping Out

Paul Pillar

The predations of unattractive foreign rulers have long been a favorite subject of hyperbole. More recently a particular variation of that form of exaggeration has been in vogue: the assertion that a particular ruler intends “to wipe” somebody “off the map,” or sometimes “off the face of the Earth.” French President Nicolas Sarkozy indulged in such phraseology last week when he hosted a meeting of the “Friends of Syria” coalition and urged more support for the Syrian opposition. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, said Sarkozy, “wants to wipe Homs from the map like Qaddafi wanted to wipe Benghazi from the map.” Sarkozy is in the midst of a tough re-election fight, and hyperbole about a topic on which he has asserted a leading role is perhaps not surprising. One can debate to what length massacre-wise Bashar al-Assad would be willing to go, and whether his ruthlessness would match the level of his father Hafez when in 1982 forces under the father's regime flattened most of the town of Hama, a center of anti-regime resistance. In any event, Sarkozy's statement did not appear to be based on any statement of intent from the current Syrian regime; it was at best an inference and projection based partly on tactics Syrian government forces already have employed.

The most questionable aspect of Sarkozy's comment was the part about Libya. The now-widespread notion that Qaddafi wanted to wipe Benghazi off the map, with associated comments about would-be bloodbaths and massacres, appears to have originated with a comment from the late Libyan dictator in which he really said something different. What he did say was that “we will have no mercy on them,” with the rest of his comments making it clear he was referring to armed rebels and not to the general population of Benghazi. Qaddafi went on to say that anyone who “stays at home without any weapons, whatever he did previously, he will be pardoned, protected.” But the idea of averting a massacre had powerful appeal as the selling point for an armed intervention, for which Sarkozy and the British government of David Cameron were the prime promoters, that quickly revealed itself actually to be a regime-change operation. The notion about Qaddafi's supposed map-wiping intentions was picked up by others, including the Obama administration, and now has become one of those myths that, simply because it has been repeated so often by so many, is widely accepted as true.

Something similar has occurred with the idea that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has threatened to “wipe Israel off the map.” The origin of this notion was a speech Ahmadinejad gave at a “World Without Zionism” conference in 2005. As the Israeli minister of intelligence and atomic energy, Dan Meridor, recently acknowledged, Ahmadinejad did not say anything about map-wiping. He instead said something—in which the exact translation from Persian to English is uncertain—about how “the regime that is occupying Jerusalem must be eliminated from the pages of history.” In the same speech Ahmadinejad went on to explain that even though the end of Israeli rule over Jerusalem may seem hard to imagine, the end of the shah's rule in Iran and the collapse of the Soviet Union show that changes that big are possible.

In this case, the myth about map-wiping has served different purposes for different parties, with the exaggerations on each side playing off one another. Hooman Majd, an Iranian-American writer who once served as interpreter for a speech by Ahmadinejad at the United Nations, suggests that Ahmadinejad has never tried to correct the mistake about his 2005 speech because he sees political advantage in being an outspoken adversary of Israel and would not want to be seen as backing away from a bellicose statement about the Jewish state. Leaders of the current Israeli government have repeated the wiping-out theme with gusto as part of their campaign to portray Iran as a dire threat. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, for example, earlier this year described Iran as “a nation whose leaders have set themselves a strategic goal of wiping Israel off the map.” Anti-Iran hawks in the United States have followed suit amid debate about the Iranian nuclear program. Former presidential hopeful Michelle Bachmann went ever farther with the false assertion that Ahmadinejad “has said that if he has a nuclear weapon he will use it to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth.”

Even if Ahmadinejad ever said such things, to infer Iranian intentions or future actions from such rhetoric would be a serious mistake. One, because Ahmadinejad is not the principal decision-maker on how Iran uses armed force. Two, because rhetorical bombast is quite different from policy.

Ahmadinejad's confident comments in his 2005 speech are most reminiscent of Nikita Khrushchev's pronouncement to the capitalist West in 1956 that “we will bury you.” Fortunately, Western statesmen of the time properly interpreted Khrushchev's comment as a boast about history being on the communists' side, not as a statement of his government's intention to do something horrible to the West.

Any exaggerated portrayal of a foreign problem is an impediment to well-reasoned construction of policy for dealing with the problem. The appeal of the map-wiping or Earth-face-wiping imagery seems to make such exaggeration all the more likely to catch on and harder to correct. We ought to wipe such terms out of our vocabulary except in the extremely rare instances in which intentions of outright extermination really are involved.

Image: AZRainman

TopicsAutocracyDomestic PoliticsPublic OpinionHumanitarian InterventionNuclear Proliferation RegionsIsraelRussiaIranFranceLibyaUnited StatesUnited Kingdom

The Normalization of Hamas

Paul Pillar

Karin Brulliard's report in the Washington Post about how Hamas has been faring lately among its subjects in the Gaza Strip lends support to Rafael Frankel's recommendation in these spaces to take a fresh look at reaching an extended cease-fire with the group. The report supports the idea by showing just how ordinary a ruling party Hamas has become. It still has significant popular support, but its position as a de facto government has made it the target of grumbling by Gazans. The grumbling is about such mundane things as shortages of electricity and the unavailability of promised housing stipends, as well as Hamas officials being perceived to be enjoying positions of privilege unavailable to the general population. It is not about violence or too much stridency in standing up to Israel, and it is not about Islamization of society, which for the most part the Gazan population has successfully resisted.

The Israeli posture and, in lockstep with it, the American posture toward Hamas are stuck in an unhelpful time warp. It is a posture that simply applies the label “terrorist” to the group and assumes that an unchanging refusal to have anything to do with it is the only appropriate implication. A label is no substitute for a policy or for a strategy. And in this case, it is no substitute for understanding the current character and objectives of Hamas, which are not captured by the label.

Some Israeli officials probably view any damage to Hamas's standing among Palestinians as a salutary effect of Israel's long effort to strangle the group. That would be a misreading. As the Post article indicates, Hamas still profits from controlling trade through the smuggling tunnels that were built in response to the Israeli blockade.

The sources of popular unhappiness with Hamas contain the seeds of possible political failure of the group. And that gets to an important principle in dealing with groups one doesn't like: let them fail on their own. An imposed failure usually redounds to the disadvantage of the imposer.

Image: Hoheit

TopicsDomestic PoliticsPost-Conflict RegionsIsraelPalestinian territories

The Inheritance of Power

Paul Pillar

The family of Hafez al-Assad, including young Bashar (bottom left).Although hereditary monarchies with anything more than largely ceremonial roles have dwindled to a only few states, the bequeathing of political power from parent to son or daughter is a remarkably ubiquitous phenomenon. Think about some of the political leaders around the globe we've been hearing most about lately. The big political story out of China concerns recently purged Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai, who is a “princeling,” or son of one of the regime's revolutionary founding fathers. Bo's political career seems to be over, but other princelings remain a prominent part of the Chinese political picture today. Next door in North Korea, we are getting used to a third generation of the Kim dictatorship. Kim Jung-Un has just led celebrations of the one hundredth birthday of his grandfather and regime founder Kim Il-Sung, a physical resemblance to whom apparently is one of Kim Jung-Un's political assets.

Among the “republics” of the Middle East, a current focus is on Syria's Bashar al-Assad, who inherited his regime from his father Hafez. In Egypt, if the demonstrators of Tahrir Square had not gotten to Hosni Mubarak first, he might well have bequeathed the presidency to his son Gamal. Elsewhere in the Middle East are most of the few remaining states that are hereditary monarchies in name as well as in fact.

Bequests of political power are certainly not limited to autocracies. In the world's largest democracy, India, the next prospective leader being groomed is Rahul Gandhi, the great-grandson of Indian founding father Jawaharlal Nehru, the grandson of one other Indian prime minister (Indira Gandhi) and the son of yet another (Rajiv Gandhi). Earlier this month, Rahul lunched with a counterpart leader-being-groomed from Pakistan: 23-year-old Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who is the son of both Pakistan's current president and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, the grandson of another prime minister, and is himself already chairman of the Pakistan People's Party. On the other side of South Asia in Bangladesh, the prime minister is Sheikh Hasina, who is a daughter of the country's founding father and first prime minister.

The United States is no stranger to such family political legacies. The presumptive presidential nominee of one of the two political parties is the son of a prominent governor and national figure in the Republican Party. The immediate past president was son of a previous president (one of three father-son, or grandfather-son, pairs in the history of the U.S. presidency). In the Democratic Party there have been similar family ties, with the Kennedys probably the best known.

Four possible explanations, or combinations of them, can account for the frequency of political power being inherited by the children of political leaders. One can think of them as affecting different stages in the progeny's personal history, from conception to the progeny's own political career. The first explanation is genetic. It may be a factor, although probably a limited one, given the normal genetic variation even among blood relatives and the uncertainty of linking any gene with political success.

A second explanation involves nurturing during childhood. The children of political leaders grow up in an environment in which political sensibility and associated ambition are more likely to be imparted over the dinner table than they are over other families' dinner tables.

A third explanation involves the opportunities—in education, in business or in politics itself—that open more readily to the offspring of the powerful and famous (and the rich) than they do to others. The biographies of many political scions indicate this is a strong and probably the strongest explanation. Bo Xilai's 24-year-old son Bo Guagua may have now seen his own political prospects sink with those of his father, but his family relationship certainly seems to have opened opportunities for him. Neil Heywood, the deceased Briton who had close ties to Bo Xilai's wife and whose mysterious death is involved in the current controversies about the family, reportedly told others that he had used his influence to get Bo Guagua admitted to the exclusive Harrow School in Britain (where Heywood was an alumnus). The young Bo is now a student at the Kennedy School at Harvard, where officials decline to say whether his family connections played a role in his admission, issuing only the usual boilerplate about a “holistic” approach that takes leadership potential into account. To the extent this third explanation is in play, that is unfortunate from the standpoint of having the most able political leaders rise to positions of power. The differential opportunities are a matter of privilege, not of merit.

The fourth explanation comes into play once the son or daughter is actually vying for political power and wins votes or deference merely because of the name or known family connection. This explanation clearly has a lot of validity as well. We see the phenomenon at work in, among other things, the role that name recognition plays in American elections. And like the third explanation, this is not a good thing if we want the most able leaders to assume power. It represents a further step away from a political meritocracy. To some extent voting for a name may be a low-cost way to make a political choice, but it also is an unreliable way to make it. Those who, for example, voted for George W. Bush on the basis of what they thought of George H. W. Bush's presidency were in for a surprise.

Given how prevalent the inheritance of political power is, across different types of political systems worldwide, this pattern does not seem to be one that would be subject to correction through political or constitutional engineering. And that's too bad.

TopicsDomestic PoliticsPolitical Theory RegionsChinaBangladeshEgyptIndiaUnited StatesNorth KoreaSyriaPakistan

Radical Republicans, Then and Now

Paul Pillar

President Obama's ripping into Republicans earlier this month for trying to impose a “radical” program on the country drew criticism as being strident and intensely partisan. Whatever one thinks of the president's tone, however, there is no denying that the Republican Party, especially over the past couple of decades, has moved toward the Far Right. We see this in the serial political deaths, disillusionment or marginalization of that endangered species known as the moderate Republican. The next specimen in danger of being shoved aside is Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, facing a challenger in the Republican primary with Tea Party support. The departure of Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, would be a significant loss to well-reasoned Congressional consideration of foreign policy.

The New York Times highlights for us a different sort of challenge, but with the same underlying cause, facing presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. As Romney shakes his Etch A Sketch and draws up positions for the general-election campaign, Republicans in the House of Representatives are putting him on notice that they would be uncomfortable with any of that moving-to-the-center stuff. And the House Republicans are making it clear they will assert themselves. “We're not a cheerleading squad,” says Representative Jeff Landry of Louisiana. “We're the conductor. We're supposed to drive the train.”

There once were Republicans who welcomed the label "Radical" and applied it to themselves. They first distinguished themselves as being the most ardently antislavery faction of the party. During the Civil War, they became dissatisfied with a president of their own party—Abraham Lincoln—for moving too slowly toward abolition of slavery. The Radicals' center of power was the House of Representatives, where they were led by Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania.

The Radicals' real heyday came after the war—especially after the election of 1866, when Radical-dominated Republicans achieved veto-proof majorities in both houses of Congress. Whereas overrides of presidential vetoes previously had been very rare, now Republicans repeatedly overrode vetoes by President Andrew Johnson of legislation governing Reconstruction of the South. It was the Radical Republicans who thus set the policy on Reconstruction.

That policy treated the South like a defeated foreign power. It featured extended military occupation by federal troops and the banning from political life of those who had participated in the Confederacy. Civilian government in Southern states fell into the hands of Northern carpetbaggers and Southern scalawags. The system started breaking down amid economically related Republican setbacks in the mid-1870s and ended after the presidential election of 1876. Democrat Samuel Tilden won the nationwide popular vote, but the electoral vote was left hanging by confusion of the outcome in Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina. Under the Compromise of 1877, the electoral votes and the presidency were given to Republican Rutherford Hayes, in return for the withdrawal of the last of the occupying federal troops and certain other concessions to the South, marking the end of Reconstruction.

The Radicals' approach to Reconstruction had logic. However contrary secession had been to the U.S. Constitution, it had nonetheless occurred. The defeat of the Confederacy provided an opportunity to try to root out whatever had underlain both secession and slavery. But Reconstruction was a failure. The Compromise of 1877 was quickly followed by the enactment of Jim Crow laws throughout the South. A system of segregation and subjugation of blacks was established, most of which would not be dismantled until the 1960s.

The failure is related to some parallels between the Radical Republicans of the nineteenth century and those of today, and not just in having their power centered in the House of Representatives. Both have exhibited self-righteousness and an unyielding commitment to what they regard as just causes. Some of the causes, such as the abolition of slavery, are indeed just. But the self-righteousness has led in each case to destructive inflexibility. This has partly taken the form of clashes—emotional, hateful clashes—with a president. (The Radical Republicans of the 1860s tried to tie Johnson's hands with legislation inhibiting his ability to remove his own cabinet members; when he acted contrary to the legislation, the House impeached him.)

Over the longer term, the destructiveness has extended to the Radicals' own presumed goals. The segregated South that emerged from Reconstruction was certainly not what the nineteenth-century Radical Republicans were aiming for. A narrow, short-term attitude that emphasized a punitive treatment of white Southerners (especially white Southern Democrats) overlooked the reactions that such treatment encouraged. Given that Reconstruction treated the defeated Confederacy as if it were a foreign country, it is not surprising that some of the parallels with the present involve foreign policy. In particular, the myopia that corresponds to the attitudes that underlay policy on Reconstruction is an inability or unwillingness to understand how some assertions of American power encourage reactions that over the longer term are harmful to U.S. interests.

TopicsCongressDomestic PoliticsHistoryPost-Conflict RegionsUnited States

The Long Road of Negotiations

Paul Pillar

In May 1968 in Paris, negotiations began to end the Vietnam War, which already had been raging for several years. A partial halt to the bombing of North Vietnam, a step that the administration of Lyndon Johnson had taken two months earlier, was the precipitating event leading to the initiation of talks. Once inside the same room, the negotiators were immediately seized with a procedural disagreement involving the status of the South Vietnamese government and the communist fighting force in the south, the Viet Cong or National Liberation Front. This disagreement had implications regarding the seating arrangements in the conference room. It was not until the following January that a compromise was reached. It had taken eight months for the negotiators to agree on the shape of the conference table. It would be four more years before the actual peace agreement was signed.

The Paris talks were aimed at ending an ongoing war, one waged at great cost to the United States and, even more so in terms of numbers of casualties, to the Vietnamese communists. Many other international negotiations, not involving an ongoing war, take even longer to yield meaningful results. The Vietnamese negotiations nonetheless have some parallels with the process of negotiating a resolution of the disagreement over Iran's nuclear program. Both involve highly salient issues of the day, not some long-running and little-noticed diplomatic talkfest. In both, some of the biggest U.S. problems have involved an unruly ally. (The obstinacy of the South Vietnamese government was a major reason it took so long to resolve the disagreement over seating arrangements.) And both negotiations were absolutely necessary to resolve the matters in dispute. Neither the United States nor North Vietnam had the ability to resolve their conflict militarily. And neither Iran nor the Western powers have any unilateral solutions to the issues that separate them. The difference is that the Vietnam negotiations were aimed at ending a misguided war, while the most important purpose of the talks with Iran is to prevent such a war from beginning.

Against the backdrop of past negotiations such as the Vietnam talks, the meeting held this weekend in Istanbul is properly seen as just the first step in a process that will require additional steps. (As for procedural issues, it is remarkable how readily Iran dropped its earlier balking over holding the talks in Turkey, especially given what the conflict in Syria has done to Turkish-Iranian relations.)  Much more negotiating time will be required to yield substantive results, especially of a more permanent and final nature, even if interim understandings—which also can be important—are reached in the meantime. Given the nature of the issues, sound and lasting agreements must get into painstakingly negotiated technical details such as monitoring arrangements to ensure that agreed limits to the enrichment of uranium are observed. Time also is required for the negotiating process itself to build trust, bearing in mind that Iran has at least as much reason to distrust the West as the other way around.

The predictable spinning of the Istanbul talks from those anxious to declare diplomatic failure and get on with the war they really seem to want is contrived, with their motivations fairly transparent. The concept of a limited window for diplomacy to yield results is fallacious when the subject is an Iranian nuclear program that dates back to the days of the shah and which has been the subject of repeated overestimates of how close Iran was to building a nuclear weapon. The notion of a window is an artificiality that has mostly to do with the saber rattling of the Israeli government and its attention to the U.S. electoral calendar. Expressed concern about Iran dragging out negotiations loses sight of how, amid ever more onerous sanctions on Iran, Tehran has more reason for concern about the West dragging out negotiations.

The negotiations that mattered most in hammering out a peace accord on Vietnam were not the ones that took place openly over that laboriously agreed-upon conference table but instead the secret talks beginning in August 1969 between Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho, for which they would later share a Nobel Peace Prize. We do not know if any secret talks are taking place between the United States and Iran. If there are, I hope they stay secret, so they can make progress without interference from troublesome allies, domestic naysayers in both countries and others with an interest in sabotaging them.

TopicsSanctionsNuclear Proliferation RegionsIsraelIranUnited StatesVietnam

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy on Iran

Paul Pillar

Much commentary about the impending talks with Iran on its nuclear program brings to mind Pogo Possum’s comment that we have met the enemy and he is us. Among the impediments to success on both sides of this negotiation, some of the most prominent ones are on our side. Remarkably, this has been noted by some who could never be accused of being soft on Iran. But the impediments are simply treated as a given, and as a reason to resign ourselves in advance to pessimism about negotiations. It is as if something were preventing us from changing what is actually in our power to change. And it is as if when we tie ourselves in political knots in ways that make it difficult, though not impossible, to change, this is somehow the Iranians’ fault. This self-crippling approach toward dealing with Iran starts with the de facto surrendering of U.S. freedom of action to the Israeli government, but it does not end there.

Consider a recent piece by Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, on what attraction a deal with the P5+1 would or would not have for the Iranian leadership. Clawson’s analysis is quite perceptive regarding the unattractiveness to the Iranians of the prospect that concession on their part would be met not by the lifting of any current sanctions but only by a suspension of movement toward still more sanctions. As Clawson correctly observes, “avoiding prospective sanctions is not a particularly tangible incentive for Iranian leaders—that is, they would have trouble justifying an agreement to their constituents by simply saying, ‘It's a bad deal, but if we did not take it, life would be even worse.’”

But Clawson says nothing about the obvious inference that more flexibility is needed on the P5+1 side, instead simply taking the inflexibility as a given. He notes, for example, that “Congress has been particularly reluctant to end sanctions it has enacted into law,” without also noting that it is in Congress’s power to change by law whatever Congress has enacted into law. “As for UN sanctions,” says Clawson, “the United States is reluctant to let Security Council resolutions expire because reintroducing them would be very difficult.” The United States, of course, just as it has pushed hard and successfully for the Security Council to impose harsh sanctions, can push just as hard for the expiration, lifting or reimposition of sanctions.

Clawson attempts to portray some of the lack of economic attractiveness for Iran of striking a deal with the West as being outside the influence of Western governments. But it isn’t. He says that “a number of major international companies that withdrew from Iran in recent years did so at least in part because of the poor business climate,” and that “Iran has a poor record of attracting international investment.” Well, imposing economic sanctions on a country has a way of doing that. And the sanctions, as well as more direct governmental discouragement of investment in Iran, have been around for a long time. Have we forgotten how the Clinton administration, while it was working hard to discourage European economic relations with Iran, killed a deal that Conoco had reached to develop offshore Iranian oil fields?

Taking U.S. inflexibility as a given is a backdrop to another prominent theme in pre-Istanbul commentary, much of which is clearly designed to lay the groundwork for making a later judgment that “diplomacy has failed.” The Washington Post's lead editorial on Thursday is an example. The editorial writers express a pro forma belief that “military action is neither necessary nor wise in the coming months,” thereby being able to portray any later endorsement of a war as a reluctantly arrived at last resort. They make no secret of where they are going, though, stating up front that the negotiations in Istanbul may be the “last chance for a peaceful settlement” in the “negative sense” that “hardly anyone thinks” that a deal will be struck. The pessimism is based on what has been reported of the Obama administration's position toward the talks, but even that position is not obdurate enough for the Post's editorialists. They express concern that any near-term deal that would trade restrictions on Iran's enrichment activity for a freezing of further sanctions and maybe some easing of existing ones—which in fact would be a decidedly beneficial stepping back from the brink of a senseless war—would “allow the regime breathing space,” and according to the Post, that would be bad. Following the Post's advice of no Western concessions at all short of complete stoppage of enrichment would be the perfect formula for making “failure” of diplomacy a self-fulfilling prophecy.

One should bear in mind, amid such advance spinning of the talks, three important points. One is that for diplomacy to succeed requires at least as much attention to inducing flexibility on the U.S. side as in inducing it on the Iranian side. Fareed Zakaria starts to get to this problem when he says, “The administration has handled its allies, Russia, China, the United Nations and even Tehran with skill. To succeed, however, it has to tackle its most formidable foe, with whom it has not had much negotiating success: Republicans.” The problem, however, goes beyond Republicans, who have tried to exploit politically an attitude of inflexibility that extends beyond their own ranks.

Second, policy makers can change policies, tactics and even attitudes, no matter how deeply engrained those attitudes seem to be. This is what political leadership is about. If policy makers want a politically attractive argument that can help to sell a deal with Tehran that involves easing of sanctions in return for restrictions on, but not ending of, enrichment, they can start by pointing out how much the sanctions have increased gasoline prices in the United States.

Third, the absence of a deal after Istanbul or later rounds of talks is likely to say no more about Iranian obduracy—although that will be the focus of countless commentaries—than about our own.

Image: futureatlas.com

TopicsDomestic PoliticsSanctionsNuclear ProliferationWeapons Inspections RegionsIranUnited States

Shoulda Coulda Woulda on North Korea

Paul Pillar

Debate over foreign policy is usually far removed from the scientific method, but that doesn't stop many who engage in the debate from drawing strong inferences based on limited data. If the latest policy approach to a problem doesn't bring quick and desirable results, then the conclusion is drawn that the approach is unwise or at least defective. Such conclusions are often employed tendentiously, of course, for the sake of attacking someone else's policies or someone else's administration. But the conclusions, however unjustified they may be, have a couple of more basic sources.

One is a short collective memory, coupled with the tendency to ascribe to incumbents responsibility for whatever problems are preoccupying us at the moment. We see this reflected in the tendency to treat a presidential election as a referendum on how things have been going for the nation lately (more with respect to domestic policy than foreign affairs). It is reflected in the inclination to throw the current bums out, even if the previous bums might not have done any better. This is a general pattern, going well beyond the United States and involving different methods for changing governments. It is exhibited, for example, in Pakistan, where a pattern of alternating every few years between military and civilian rule continues as Pakistanis periodically get fed up with whoever has been ruling them most recently.

The other source is more peculiarly American: a belief that the right policies ought to be able to solve even the most difficult problems. Americans have a hard time believing, given how successful their nation has been at so many things, that some problems are intractable even for a superpower.

North Korea, and particularly its weapons programs, is an excellent example of an intractable problem. Several aspects of the "hermit kingdom" make it so. At the core of the policy dilemma that North Korea presents to outside powers is its proclivity, which it has honed into an art form, of misbehaving as a way of getting attention and rewards. The trick for outsiders, which is difficult to perform, is to find ways to induce better behavior in the future without rewarding misbehavior of the recent past. The United States does not have the keys to this particular kingdom. If any outside power has the keys, it is China, but Beijing's interests in North Korea only partially parallel those of Washington.

North Korea is about to conduct a rocket launch that it describes as intended only to launch a satellite but that many outside observers say is a disguised test of a long-range ballistic missile with a military mission. There is also talk, especially from the South Koreans, of the North possibly being on the verge of a third underground test of a nuclear weapon. So not surprisingly, and consistent with the usual tendency of inferring that a policy is unwise if it does not bring quick positive results, critics of the Obama administration charge that its most recent tack on Korea was a mistake. That tack was an agreement reached with Pyongyang two months ago that offered food aid in return for a ban on further tests of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

The criticism misses several things. Hardly anything was given up in the deal reached in February. The food aid would consist of nutritional supplements that would be difficult for the regime to divert from the civilian population to the military and that meets a legitimate humanitarian need entirely apart from the weapons issues. Not to have taken this initiative would have missed an opportunity to test North Korean intentions following the leadership succession from Kim Jong-il to Kim Jong-un. A policy of not engaging Pyongyang was tried for several years under the previous administration, without success in preventing North Korea's first nuclear tests. Most important, there is no reason to believe that not concluding the agreement would have brought about any better results today. An anonymous senior administration official understandably complained, “There's a lot of 'shoulda, coulda, woulda' now from outsiders.”

Those who have more of a right to criticize are ones who are proposing something that has not been tried before and offer analysis on why the alternative they are proposing has a better chance of getting favorable results. Ted Galen Carpenter did so recently in these spaces in arguing for normal relationships with North Korea and Iran.

Image: zennie62

TopicsNuclear ProliferationRogue States RegionsChinaUnited StatesNorth KoreaPakistan

Pluralism in Egypt

Paul Pillar

The Egyptian presidential-election campaign is getting more interesting all the time. It certainly offers more variety than the presidential-election campaign in the United States, which consists of an incumbent and a bunch of other guys who all say that Barack Obama is the worst thing ever to infect the American body politic and that it will take a severely conservative candidate to root him out of office. In Egypt, a more diverse spectrum of candidates are vying for the top job. And they are vying for it despite not knowing what powers a yet-to-be-written constitution will confer on the new president.

The Egyptian race discombobulates commentators who customarily deal in simplistic portrayals of good guys versus bad guys and make arguments for supporting the good guys. What is one to make, for example, of the latest entrant into the race: Omar Suleiman, who was Hosni Mubarak's longtime intelligence chief and briefly his vice president? One might say he represents an old order dragging down the new, but he also was a trusted interlocutor of the United States who was closely associated with still-valued things such as maintaining the peace with Israel. He is just the sort of multifaceted candidate who confuses pundits to whom both the “freedom agenda” and Israel are important.

Then there is Hazem Abu Ismail, the white-bearded candidate who represents the Salafists, the harder-core portion of the much-feared Islamists. Currently his main problem is the recent revelation that his late mother had acquired U.S. citizenship. That reminds me of a comment recorded by NPR from a Republican voter who said that Obama should be disqualified from the presidency because “in the Constitution it states that you have to have two parents that were born in the United States.” The U.S. Constitution doesn't say that, of course, but the current Egyptian electoral rules do say that a presidential candidate and both his parents can have no citizenship other than Egyptian. So Abu Ismail appears to be headed for disqualification. Should we regret that or welcome it? For an Egyptian president to have an American mother seems like a plus for the United States.

Staying with the Salafists but going beyond the presidential candidates, there are other interesting details about personal inclinations. My favorite concerns the member of parliament for the Salafist Nour Party who, with his face in bandages, claimed that he been the victim of an assault. It later came to light that he instead had undergone plastic surgery on his nose. Plastic surgery is a no-no for ultra-conservative Salafists. The member resigned his seat.

Then consider presidential candidates who have been associated with the Muslim Brotherhood—i.e., the part of the Islamist spectrum that is more moderate than the part with the leaders who have American moms or get nose jobs. There are more than one such candidates, but the officially endorsed candidate of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party is Khairat al-Shater, who, besides being the Brotherhood's deputy leader, is also a multimillionaire businessman. Whatever he may represent regarding a goal of instituting a more Islamic social order in Egypt, he has made a lot of money in a largely secular economy.

The overall picture is one of political leaders with cross-cutting interests. Political scientists have a word for this; it is called pluralism. It is a pattern that helps make any democracy, including a newly emerging one, healthier and more stable than it otherwise would be. It means that destabilizing divisions are tamped because compromises are made within the minds and hearts of individual leaders (and many individual voters). It means that simplistic assertions about who are good guys and who are not, and whom we on the outside ought or ought not to favor, are misdirected. It means we should not get especially alarmed about any one possible outcome of the Egyptian election.  And it is one of the reasons that attempts at blanket criticism of Obama for how he has reacted to events in Egypt, or in some other locales of Arab Spring turmoil, tend to dissolve into the kind of self-contradiction that includes criticism both for supporting Mubarak and for not supporting him.

TopicsDemocracyDomestic PoliticsElectionsThe PresidencyPolitical Economy RegionsEgyptUnited States

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