Paul Pillar

Morsi Tackles Syria

Paul Pillar

For a second-choice candidate (the Muslim Brotherhood's original candidate in Egypt's presidential election was disqualified), Mohamed Morsi has been active and assertive since taking office. Most noteworthy was his successful engineering of the retirement of Egypt's most senior military officers and his reclaiming of some powers that the unelected Supreme Council of the Armed Forces had earlier taken away from the elected presidency. Now Morsi is spreading his wings in foreign policy with an initiative that aims to work with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran to try to reduce the bloodshed in Syria.

This is just the sort of move that will generate significant heartburn among many in the United States (and even more in Israel). First, because Islamists, including anyone from the Muslim Brotherhood, get treated automatically with suspicion, and any assertiveness on their part is viewed with distrust. Second, because this particular initiative will be seen as undermining the isolation of Iran. And isolation of Iran has become even stronger dogma than suspicion of the Muslim Brotherhood. That isolation long ago achieved the status of being treated as if it were an end in itself, with nary a thought given to whether isolation of Iran contributes anything to resolution of problems with Iran, rather than prolonging or even exacerbating those problems.

Actually, Morsi's initiative ought to be smiled upon. Its objective of reducing the accelerating bloodshed in Syria is a laudatory goal and one expressed by most other governments. The governments he is engaging are appropriate ones to engage on this problem because of their regional prominence and ability to bring influence to bear on the subject. One can look on this project as a good example, from the U.S. point of view, of what Leslie Gelb was talking about when recommending that the United States not try to solve every world problem itself but instead recognize that other states have problem-solving responsibilities too. The Syrian civil war is a thankless tar baby of a problem, and we ought to be pleased when someone else is willing to have a go at trying to do something about it. Morsi's prospects of success have to be rated as low, but it is hard to see any significant downside of even a failed attempt on his part.

Those who reflexively worry about any improvement in Egyptian-Iranian relations should note that even if such improvement were somehow contrary to U.S. interests—it isn't, and it could even represent a useful channel for the United States—Morsi is not rushing to bring about such improvement. He is not scheduled to have any bilateral meetings with the Iranians when he briefly visits Tehran for the nonaligned summit meeting this week. There evidently is no move afoot to restore full diplomatic relations with Iran, even though most other Arab countries have such relations. Morsi is not talking about Syria to improve relations with Iran; his government is talking with the Iranians to try to do something about Syria.

There are many ways in which players in the Middle East, acting out of their own interests, can do things that also are consistent with U.S. interests—as long as we do not try to impede such actions because of a rigid and artificial conception of who are good guys and who are bad guys in the region.

TopicsHumanitarian InterventionRogue States RegionsEgyptIranSyria

Foreign Policy and the Perplexed Voter

Paul Pillar

The political parties' quadrennial conventions, now that nominations are no longer decided there, are often regarded as opportunities for a nominee to define himself to a national audience. The approach of the Republican convention has been the occasion for considerable commentary about the defining that Mitt Romney still has to do, including on foreign policy. The cover of this week's Economist asks, “So, Mitt, what do you really believe?” The generally right-of-center publication says it “finds much to like” in Romney but expresses some of its strongest doubts regarding what Romney has said so far on foreign policy, specifically mentioning China, immigration, and “his attempts to lure American Jews with near-racist talk about Arabs and belligerence against Iran.” Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, in commenting about the undefined aspects of Romney's foreign-policy posture, writes, “Other than his support for Israel and rhetorical shots at Russia and China, it’s a mystery what Romney thinks about major international issues and where he would take the country.”

In trying to identify the direction a President Romney would take the country's foreign relations, Ignatius cites the National Interest's own Robert Merry, who explains that the “default position” of the party that is about to nominate Romney is that of the neoconservatives. Ignatius also presents what he describes as a “contrary view” from an anonymous but prominent neocon who is sympathetic to Romney but disappointed that he “has done nothing to present a coherent foreign policy” and instead has conducted a campaign that on foreign matters has consisted of little more than “opposition research” and “drive-by shooting of Obama.” Actually these two views are not contradictory. The neocon presents a fair description of the foreign-policy side of Romney's campaign, while Merry is correct that in any intramural contest among Republicans over actual policy, there is no other current school of thought that seems able to overpower the neoconservatives.

What is a genuinely open-minded voter who regards foreign policy as important, and wants to cast his or her ballot partly on the basis of foreign policy and not just according to an opinion about abortion or Obamacare or some other domestic issue, to make of this campaign? I am not implying that such voters constitute a large part of the electorate, but any who do exist deserve to be commended for their attitude toward the election and deserve guidance in how to act on their good intentions.

One possible approach would be to accept the inability to make clear foreign-policy distinctions between candidates and just vote based on any preferences one has on domestic issues. Ignatius cites an anonymous “prominent Republican” who would seem to lend support to this approach by saying that once in office any president responds to the foreign realities he faces and that policy doesn't really vary much from one administration to another, regardless of what was said in campaigns. It is true that a large proportion of foreign policy is driven by those realities and that election campaigns artificially amplify apparent differences. But it is simply not true that the electorate's choice matters as little in foreign policy as the statement implies. A glaring case in point is what became by far the biggest part of the immediate past administration's foreign policy: the Iraq War. The war was a project of the neoconservatives and assertive nationalists who dominated that administration. The war had huge costs and consequences for U.S. interests. Such a war would not even have been raised as a possibility under a President Gore.

Choosing a president matters a lot for foreign policy, and a foreign-policy-minded voter can choose intelligently even if unable to predict specific policies that one or the other candidate would implement. The vagueness and omissions of campaign rhetoric are one reason for the unpredictability. Those foreign realities, some of which have a way of suddenly going bump in the night, are another reason. The Iraq War again illustrates the point. Voters could not have predicted in 2000 that one of the candidates would as president initiate such a war, mainly because they could not have predicted the event that made the war politically possible by causing a sea change in American public attitudes about national security: the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Anticipating the foreign policies of different candidates may not be a prediction of specific policies, but it can entail a plausible estimate of different relative likelihoods of different types of policies. Campaign rhetoric and the proclivities of prominent advisers provide some basis for making such an estimate (as could have been done to some extent with candidate George W. Bush and the neocons, some of whom already were openly advocating the use of force to overthrow the Iraqi regime even though their political opportunity to do so had not yet come). The default ideology of a candidate's political party, as described by Merry in the case of today's Republicans, provides still more of a basis. (James Kitfield's article on the influences bearing on Romney's foreign-policy views is an excellent tutorial on the subject.)

Sometimes a candidate has a real foreign-policy record to go on, although not as often in recent times as today. Four of the first six presidents of the United States had been secretaries of state; most of our recent presidents have come up career tracks much farther removed from foreign policy. But when an incumbent runs for reelection, as is the case this year, there is a very substantial record to go by. The voter/estimator can assess the wisdom or lack of wisdom displayed in that record, and if the alternative is, in Ignatius's word, a mystery, can factor in his or her risk propensity in deciding whether or not to take a chance on something different.

Second-term policies are, admittedly, not identical to first-term policies, partly because of what does and does not happen to go bump in the night. But when an incumbent is running against a nonincumbent, a more fundamental difference is involved. As I have suggested before, it is the difference between a president who will never be running for anything again, with all that implies in terms of being freed from political dependencies, and a president who will be running for reelection from his first day in office, with all that implies in terms of staying in the good graces of those who helped to elect him once and whom he will need to elect him again.

There is indeed much to perplex the voter who wants to think seriously about foreign policy, but there also is plenty of basis, notwithstanding the mysteries, for making a well-grounded choice.

Image: DonkeyHotey

TopicsDomestic PoliticsElectionsIdeologyGrand StrategyThe Presidency RegionsUnited States

What is a Strategy?

Paul Pillar

In almost any institutional setting—in government, business or elsewhere—it is considered good for a leader to have something that can explicitly be called a strategy and bad not to have such a thing. Woe to the senior executive who does not have a “strategic plan” in writing. (One of the pieces of ammunition used by the head of the University of Virginia Board of Visitors in attempting to oust the university's president, Teresa Sullivan, was that Sullivan had not produced a “strategic plan.”) It does not seem to matter if such a document—as is true of most such “strategic plans” that I encountered in government—is at best a re-expression of missions that are already well understood by the work force or priorities that already have been repeatedly communicated. The presumed goodness of distinctive or identifiable strategies often leads to accusations of “he doesn't have a strategy” when this really means “I don't like his policy on some things.”

So what exactly constitutes a strategy, and why—with particular reference to international relations and foreign policy—is acting in a way that can be pointed to as “having a strategy” supposedly superior to approaching foreign problems in some other way?

The question is raised by Leslie Gelb's article about President Obama's foreign policy. Gelb makes rather a big thing about the importance of having a strategy. In the first paragraph in which the subject comes up the words “strategy,” “strategies” or “strategic” are used eight times, and he hammers away at the theme later as well. Anyone of Leslie Gelb's acumen and experience can be expected to offer a wealth of insightful and valuable policy recommendations, and Gelb certainly does so in the article. But for all his emphasis on having a strategy, he never really defines what that means.

He does give us some clues. He criticizes Obama's approach toward Afghanistan as being “little more than a disjointed list of tactics.” It is unclear just what would make a set of tactics jointed rather than disjointed, but in any event Gelb's conception of strategy seems to place more emphasis on ultimate goals rather than immediate tactics.

He also tells us which of several recent presidents had a foreign-policy strategy in his view and which ones didn't. Harry Truman, Richard Nixon and George H. W. Bush had strategies, he says, and Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama did not. But in looking at what some of those presidents did and even at what Gelb specifically mentions they did, it is hard to distinguish something that stands out as a strategy from what is simply skillful responses to the particular opportunities and problems that happened to confront particular presidents at the times they were in office. Gelb defines the elder Bush's strategy as “end the Cold War without a hot war by helping Soviet leaders dismantle their empire.” Bush was indeed very successful in conducting his own country's part of the tumultuous events that happened on his watch, but the events didn't happen because of some strategy that Bush formulated, brought with him into office and applied. Robert Gates, in his account of this period (during most of which he was deputy national-security adviser), writes that the smartest thing Bush did as the Soviet empire was crumbling was simply to “play it cool.”

Having or not having a strategy hardly defines what made the elder Bush's foreign policy successful and the younger Bush's foreign policy a disaster. Indeed, the son may have had more of a strategy as Gelb seems to conceive of the term than the father did. The father acknowledged he had a problem with the “vision thing”; the son, who envisioned ending evil in the world, did not. Gelb says George W. Bush “seemed to believe that military assertiveness constituted a strategy.” Well, the younger Bush did believe that was at least a major part of his strategy, and it was a lousy strategy, but that is not the same as not having a strategy.

Truman was handed even more of a historic opportunity than the elder Bush was, and his response also was skillful. But the establishment of the post–World War II institutional order was a function more of that opportunity and the once-in-a-century need created by an extremely destructive global war than of some strategy hatched in the White House. Of the presidents Gelb mentions, Nixon was the one who most clearly brought with him into office a specific global strategy and who was more an initiator of revisions in the world order rather than a reactor to them. Even with Nixon, however, one could say there was something of an opportunity to which he was responding, which was the anomalous nature of Communist China's relationships with other powers and especially the United States.

Gelb gives us a further clue of what he means by a strategy by spelling out his own preferred strategy. It is based on the concepts of sharing responsibility with other powers for the handling of international problems such as Afghanistan, knowing both the capabilities and limitations of U.S. power, and appreciating the importance of U.S. economic strength for successful foreign policy. Those are all very sensible thoughts, and taking heed of them is more likely to produce good policy than bad policy. But in translating those principles into specific policies on many different individual issues, does that yield a pattern that is visibly more “strategic” than some other approach? How would we distinguish the result from one being guided by “common sense and flexibility,” which is what Gelb says Obama “appears to think” constitutes a strategy? Gelb's concept of mutual indispensability and responsibility, when applied not just to Afghanistan but to other problems as well, is likely to result in different types and degrees of U.S. involvement, and the resulting pattern probably will look basically the same as common sense and flexibility. And as for economic strength, given how prominent that is as a national objective in its own right, as reflected in the current political campaign, how would the incorporation of that factor more fully into a foreign-policy “strategy” look any different?

The title of Gelb's piece is “The Elusive Obama Doctrine.” Gelb himself did not necessarily come up with the title, but the implication is that “doctrine” is basically interchangeable with “strategy” as Gelb uses the latter term in the article. In any case, the way “doctrine” has generally been used and associated with past presidents does seem to be essentially the same as Gelb's concept of strategy that he says is essential for a president to have. In this regard, it is remarkable to recall one of the lessons that Gelb, in a book he wrote with Richard Betts more than three decades ago, drew from decision making on the Vietnam War (a subject that Gelb had studied in detail as leader of the team that wrote the Pentagon Papers):

If there is one lesson to emerge from the Vietnam War that might withstand the test of time, it is that America needs no new doctrines. New doctrines consecrate new truths, and new truths create new certainties, new compulsions—a new framework for necessity. Anything that becomes necessary to do in the first place becomes virtually impossible to undo thereafter. . . . Above all, presidents should eschew ambitious new conceptual and overall policy doctrines supported by new consensus. Doctrine and consensus are the midwives to necessity and the enemy of dissent and choice. They breed political paranoia and intellectual rigidity.

There are potential dangers and drawbacks both from inconsistency in a foreign policy and from too much effort to adhere conspicuously and faithfully to a guiding principle or objective, whether it is called a strategy or a doctrine or something else. In recent decades the United States has encountered at least as much trouble from the latter type of mistake as from the former. This is partly for the reasons Gelb mentioned in connection with the Vietnam War and partly because the world is a very complex place, for which one size, and one doctrine, does not fit all problems. Conducting U.S. foreign policy in a way that insulates a president from the familiar charge of not having a strategy does not necessarily mean producing a better foreign policy.

TopicsHistoryGrand Strategy RegionsUnited States

A Culture of Hatred in Israel

Paul Pillar

Two incidents last week underscored how broadly and deeply in Israeli society runs a streak of hatred against Palestinian Arabs. In one, seven Israeli teenagers, including two girls—one thirteen years old—were arrested for what witnesses described as an attempted lynching in West Jerusalem of several Palestinian youths, one of whom was beaten unconscious and is still hospitalized. In the same hospital lies one of the victims of the other incident: the Palestinian driver of a taxi that was firebombed near a West Bank settlement.

As with violent crimes elsewhere that involve hatred against particular ethnic, racial or religious groups—and for those eager to highlight commonalities between Israeli and American society, this unfortunately has to count as one of them, given the history of hate crimes in the United States—the specific manifestations of such hatred are varied. They range from full-blown terrorism to less violent actions. The unofficial resort by Israelis to force and violence against Palestinians has in recent years been most associated with West Bank settlers. (For an excellent analysis of this particular brand of Israeli terrorism, see the recent article on the subject by Daniel Byman and Natan Sachs.) As the assault in West Jerusalem demonstrated, however, the problem is not limited to settlers or to the occupied territories.

Also as with hate crimes elsewhere, there are multiple causes and explanations. Large-scale violence earlier this year against African migrants in Tel Aviv demonstrated that Palestinians or Arabs are not the only targets of Israeli hatred. That in turn suggests that one of the roots of what we are seeing is a generalized bigotry not unlike what we unfortunately have seen in the United States. But the very relevant and distinctively Israeli circumstance that has the most power to give rise to widely held hateful attitudes is the unresolved conflict with the Palestinians. As a conflict that dates back to before the founding of Israel and that has accounted for so much of the violence that has been inflicted both on and by Israelis, it could not help but have that power.

It is not just a few radical settlers or violent teenagers who have gotten into a habit of regarding all Palestinians as dangerous aliens, as the enemy or as terrorists. The rightist Israeli governments of recent years, by making it quite apparent that they see no place for free Palestinians in a peaceful picture with Israel, have reinforced a nationwide tendency to view Palestinians as something less than human beings with inalienable human rights. And that tendency leads to a legitimization of violence against them. In speaking critically about the effects of such legitimization, Professor Gavriel Salomon of Haifa University notes, “Suddenly it's not so terrible to burn Arabs inside a taxi.”

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has publicly condemned the latest violence, as he has earlier instances of it. But serious questions remain about the official posture toward the unofficial violence. Israeli policing of anti-Palestinian violence has been at best spotty. Former chief of staff of the Israeli Army Dan Halutz has stated that Israeli authorities have not done enough to crack down on the anti-Palestinian terrorists and vandals among West Bank settlers. “If we wanted,” said Halutz, “we could catch them and when we want to, we will.”

There also is incitement through inflammatory remarks by religious leaders associated with the Israeli government or governing parties. For example, the government-paid chief rabbi of settlements in Hebron and Kiryat Arba, in speaking at a conference last year, described Arabs as “wolves” and “savages.” The chief rabbi of Safed, also paid by the Israeli government, told reporters last year that “Arab culture is very cruel,” that “a Jew should chase away Arabs,” and that “expelling Arabs from Jewish neighborhoods is part of the strategy.” Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the Shas Party—which is part of Netanyahu's governing coalition—has said in sermons that Palestinians are “evil, bitter, enemies” whom God ought to “perish from this world,” that “it is forbidden to be merciful” to Arabs, that Arabs are “evil and damnable,” and that “you must send missiles to them and annihilate them.” One wonders what Israeli government officials think of such remarks when they or others attempt to call to account Arab leaders for anti-Israeli invective voiced by anyone in their constituencies.

Amid an atmosphere fed by such comments, one does not need to look, as some Israelis are in searching for explanations for the latest incidents involving perpetrators so young, at such things as deficient parenting. Nimrod Aloni of the Institute for Educational Thought in Tel Aviv notes that a teenager acting as a member of a lynch mob “cannot just be an expression of something he has heard at home.” Aloni continues, “This is directly tied to national fundamentalism that is the same as the rhetoric of neo-Nazis, Taliban and K.K.K. This comes from an entire culture that has been escalating toward an open and blunt language based on us being the chosen people who are allowed to do whatever we like.”

Although the nonresolution of the conflict between Israelis and Arabs is the biggest single contributor to hatred on both sides of that conflict, Israel also has a built-in vulnerability to exhibiting ethnic and religious intolerance, as a state that is defined in ethnic and religious terms. The line between zealous patriotism and ethnic or religious bias is in greater danger of becoming blurred. And so Rabbi Yosef of Shas can say, “The sole purpose of non-Jews is to serve Jews. . . . Goyim [non-Jews] were born only to serve us. Without that, they have no place in the world—only to serve the people of Israel.”

Nearly all of the rest of the world, including the assembled leaders of Arab states, has accepted Israel, and its status as the primary homeland of Jews, as legitimate. Hatred emanating from Israel will, of course, not be accepted as any more legitimate than hatred emanating from anyplace else. As with other conflicts, the bigots, haters and terrorists on both sides will, tragically, play off of each other.

Image: chrisjohnbeckett

TopicsImmigrationReligionTerrorism RegionsIsraelPalestinian territories

The Value of Obeying International Law

Paul Pillar

Former British diplomat Peter Jenkins (who had been Britain's ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency) notes a glaring but seldom remarked-upon aspect of the voluminous talk in Israel, the United States and other countries about a possible military attack aimed at Iran's nuclear program: such an attack would be a blatant, flagrant violation of international law. The charter of the United Nations is very clear in prohibiting the offensive use of military force, regardless of the nature of the underlying dispute. An armed attack conducted in the name of setting back a technical program that possibly could lead in the future to development of a weapon that other states, including the one doing the attacking, already have does not even come close to constituting self-defense as also mentioned in the U.N. charter. The international norm against offensive warfare, like certain other norms that also have become codified international law, reflects a broadly held moral standard. Not even the most inventive casuistry can justify, legally or morally, the launching of an offensive war to help maintain some other state's regional nuclear weapons monopoly.

But set aside for the moment any of those soft concerns about morality and obedience to the law for its own sake. Set aside as well all the other reasons that an armed attack on Iran would be folly. The flouting of the norm and the law about offensive war would have negative consequences that ought to get the attention of even the most amoral, hard-boiled cynic when it comes to things such as international law. Two sets of consequences in particular.

One is an accentuation of the opprobrium, condemnation and other directly negative reactions from the world community. The perpetrator would be seen not just as an arrogant bully but as an outlaw. This would apply to the United States whether it committed the act itself or was seen acquiescing in the deed being done by Israel. The specific repercussions would include countless bits of withheld cooperation and many intangible ways in which those who abhor the acts of an outlaw can make international life more difficult for him.

The other set of consequences involves weakening of the norm against offensive war and increasing the likelihood that others, including adversaries of the United States, would violate it. (Unfortunately the United States already delivered one of the bigger recent blows to the norm with its initiation of the Iraq War in 2003.) A world in which states are more likely to launch offensive wars would be more detrimental to U.S. interests than a world in which the rule against launching such wars is respected. A more war-prone world would entail more destruction, instability and undermining of an international order that for the most part works in favor of its most powerful member, the United States.

John Ikenberry has explained how submission to international rules, as embodied in international law and organizations, can be advantageous even for a state such as the United States that appears powerful enough to flout the rules and do as it likes. The advantages include greater efficiency (greater, that is, than repeated applications of brute force) in the operation of an international order that works in favor of the state in question, and perpetuation of that order even after that state's relative power might wane. Ikenberry's analysis is usually thought of as a liberal alternative to realist thinking, but the dependent variables he addresses—an individual great power's interests, the costs of advancing those interests, and how those interests can be upheld over time—are very much the sort of currency that realists understand. The advantages he describes of respecting international rules need to be taken into account before any exercise of power that would violate the rules.

TopicsUNEthicsInternational LawGreat PowersNuclear Proliferation RegionsIsraelIranUnited States

Why Green Attacks Blue

Paul Pillar

Surely one of the most disconcerting trends in the now nearly eleven-year-old U.S. military expedition in Afghanistan has been the increase in attacks on NATO and especially American military personnel by supposed allies among the Afghan government forces. In the first eight months of 2012, 39 NATO service members have been killed in such “green-on-blue” attacks, which is more than in all of 2011 and more than for the entire period of 2007 through 2010. The phenomenon has become such a concern for U.S. commanders that, in an approach that could be called Curtis Sliwa with firepower, they have instituted a “Guardian Angel” program in which one or two American soldiers have the job of keeping an eye on their Afghan allies in every joint mission or meeting, with instructions to shoot first if another such attack starts to unfold.

Post-attack investigations have determined that only a small proportion of the incidents have involved infiltration by the Taliban of government forces or installations. The large majority of the attacks have been the work of individuals driven by whatever combination of emotions and beliefs would bring them to commit such an act. A U.S. officer tried to make sense of the attacks by observing, “There are simply more opportunities now because we are partnering so heavily.” But that can hardly explain all or even most of the upsurge in the killings.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta telephoned President Hamid Karzai to discuss the problem, calling for more intensive counterintelligence work and more thorough vetting of recruits into the Afghan army. Better vetting may identify some would-be G.I.-killers, but probably not most of them. It is doubtful that many of the perpetrators had previous patterns of behavior that would enable them to be flagged. The lethal actions of many of them were probably at least as much impulsive as planned.

We are seeing an almost inevitable by-product of the long-term conduct of military operations on someone else's soil, especially when the someone else is of a markedly different culture. People do not like what comes to look like a foreign military occupation. They do not like the collateral damage and casualties that occur even when those conducting the military operations try to conduct them with care. Being the lead military force in a long-running conflict means one gets blamed for much of the misery associated with the conflict. What may have initially been a welcome gets worn out over time, and eleven years is a long time.

The costs of such sentiments manifest themselves not only as lethal attacks among ostensible allies on military bases, and such sentiments are not unique to the war in Afghanistan. Afghanistan may demonstrate how easily this kind of ill will, among those the United States is supposedly trying to help, can arise against U.S. military operations, given that Afghanistan was once an island of mostly positive feelings toward the United States in a sea of negative feelings throughout most of the Muslim world. The problem we are seeing with the green-on-blue attacks is a symptom of a deeper problem that is not likely to improve as the expedition in Afghanistan continues. It also flags a dimension that should be taken into account whenever the application of U.S. military force elsewhere is being considered.

TopicsCounterinsurgencyNATOHumanitarian Intervention RegionsAfghanistanUnited States

Shaul Mofaz Tells It Like It Is

Paul Pillar

An admirable characteristic of Israeli democracy has been the vigor and frankness with which those who are permitted to participate in it conduct political debate. There is a refreshing directness and openness that, on some of the very same topics, is usually missing from political discourse in the United States. The Israeli style of debate over policy is in full view every day in the opinion pages of Israeli publications, and there was an especially up-tempo version of it in a blast on Thursday from Kadima Party leader Shaul Mofaz against prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Mofaz may have been in an irritated mood partly because the occasion was a special session of the Knesset called to approve the selection of former internal-security-service chief Avi Dichter as minister for defense of the home front. In taking this job, Dichter left the Kadima Party, which he had represented in the Knesset. And this all not long after Mofaz himself had left a short-lived coalition with Netanyahu and returned to be leader of the opposition.

Mofaz had harsh things to say about the government's policies on homeland security, the subject of Dichter's new portfolio, but he linked this to the latest burst of saber rattling against Iran by Netanyahu and defense minister Ehud Barak. In referring to Netanyahu's “incessant prattle about a nuclear Iran,” Mofaz said:

You are headed for a rash confrontation at an unnecessary cost while abandoning the home front. Over the past few months, Israel has waged an extensive and relentless PR campaign with the sole objective of preparing the ground for a premature military adventure. This PR campaign has deeply penetrated the “zone of immunity” of our national security, threatens to weaken our deterrence, and our relations with our best friends. . . . [You are] making threats and sowing the seeds of fear and terror. Mr. prime minister, you are playing a dangerous and irresponsible game with the future of an entire nation...You're creating panic. You are trying to frighten us and terrify us. And in truth we are scared: scared by your lack of judgment, scared that you both lead and don’t lead, scared that you are executing a dangerous and irresponsible policy.

It would enormously improve U.S. debate on this same subject if American politicians could be this direct. But instead they operate in fear of being seen to stray at all from the established dogma that Iran with its nuclear program is The Greatest Threat in the World. The severe constraints on American debate on the subject contribute to ineffective policy, such as endlessly piling on sanctions without a diplomatic posture that would give the sanctions any chance to yield a favorable result. And the whole issue never gets put in proper perspective because no American politician is brave and honest enough to observe that if we have a crisis it is mostly because of Netanyahu's “incessant prattle about a nuclear Iran.”

As for the political game that prevents American debate on this subject from getting any better, Mofaz had some blunt and honest things to say about that too:

Mr. prime minister, you want a crude, rude, unprecedented, reckless, and risky intervention in the US elections. Tell us who you serve and for what? Why are you putting your hand deep into the ballot boxes of the American electorate?

Of course, this subject is even more strictly off limits for American politicians. Among the many ill effects of the topic's untouchable status is one we are seeing in the current presidential election campaign: one candidate appeals for votes (and maybe even more so, for dollars) by posing as the more unabashed lover of Israel even though on things that really contribute to Israel's security every recent U.S. presidential administration has continued unrelenting support no matter what Israel does. Isn't it ironic that Israeli politicians seem to be able to talk more freely and critically about subjects pertaining to Israel than American politicians are?

For the record, it should be noted that the Israeli ambassador to the United States stated earlier this year, in what has to be one of the most risible ambassadorial assertions we have heard lately, that “Israel does not interfere in internal political affairs of the United States.”

TopicsDomestic PoliticsElectionsSanctionsNuclear Proliferation RegionsIsraelIranUnited States

Culture and Constitutionalism in Egypt

Paul Pillar

Much we still do not know about the background to the ouster of senior figures in the Egyptian military. Specifically, it is unclear to what extent President Mohamed Morsi enjoyed the approval or even the active cooperation of elements within the military. We know there has been discontent within the military ranks about the performance of the top brass, entirely apart from any larger political issues about the distribution of power. The recent incident at a border post in the Sinai, in which Egyptian soldiers were killed and military leaders were widely criticized for letting security deteriorate in that corner of the country, was a ready-made occasion for shaking up the top ranks. Whatever cards Morsi had been dealt, he evidently played them skillfully in making the changes in the military leadership positions as well as reclaiming for his office some powers that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) had earlier claimed for itself. Beyond that, we are largely in the dark.

Even if we had a more complete picture of these events, it would be impossible to predict where this political drama leads or what the next chapter in Egypt's still-turbulent story will look like. The perceptions and emotions of the Egyptian public, not just the bilateral interchange between the president and the generals, will have a lot to do with this. In trying to interpret the drama and its larger significance, it does not help simply to mark a scorecard in which political Islamists including Morsi are regarded as the bad guys and to observe that in this instance the bad guys unfortunately seem to have scored some points. Nor is it helpful, starting with the same automatic aversion to anything Islamist, to try to analyze the political interplay in terms of formal but temporary constitutional powers by noting that Morsi had no constitutional authority to snatch certain powers back from the SCAF. Of course he didn't—and neither did the SCAF have any such authority to snatch them in the first place.

In Egypt today there is a bizarre coexistence between, on one hand, legal structures which sound familiar to us such as constitutions and courts, along with much discussion about legality or illegality within that framework, and on the other hand a dynamic of power and legitimacy that does not stay within that framework and plays out in large part outside it. We have seen something similar for years in Pakistan, where dark-suited lawyers have been prominent demonstrators in the streets and where the rulings of a constitutional court get lots of attention amid glaring extraconstitutional actions such as military coups. Marc Lynch has appropriately likened the political story that has been unfolding in Egypt over the past two years to Calvinball, a game played by a comic strip character who made up the rules as he went along.

Even constitutional structures that we are accustomed to thinking of as firmly standing on bedrock may ultimately depend on people having made up some rules as they went along. Consider, for example, the U.S. Constitution. We regard it as the foundation on which our political order rests, but what is the ultimate chain of authority on which the constitution itself rests? Following backwards the nearest thing we have to such a chain takes us to a concern in the first couple of years after the Revolutionary War among some Virginians, including most notably George Washington and James Madison, about the inability of existing political structures to foster commerce that affects more than one state. The Virginians reached some agreements with counterparts in Maryland regarding commerce in their part of the new nation, but they realized the geographic scope would need to be wider. So the Virginia General Assembly passed a resolution in 1786 proposing a meeting of commissioners from all of the states “to consider how far a uniform system in their commercial regulations may be necessary to their common interest and their permanent harmony.”

That led to the Annapolis Convention in September of the same year. Only five states—not even a majority—were represented at Annapolis. Despite (and in another sense, because of) that meager representation, the Annapolis commissioners did not make any substantive constitutional recommendations but called for another convention to meet the following May in Philadelphia and to consider not just the regulation of commerce but any “further provisions” needed “to render the constitution of the Federal Government adequate to the exigencies of the Union.” In trying to justify this expansion from their original mandate, the Annapolis conferees pointedly noted that New Jersey had instructed its representatives to consider not just commercial regulations but also “other important matters.” Even with that effort at a justification, the men at Annapolis knew they were stretching things in making their recommendation, as far as their formal authority was concerned. In their concluding report they wrote:

If in expressing this wish, or in intimating any other sentiment, your Commissioners should seem to exceed the strict bounds of their appointment, they entertain a full confidence that a conduct dictated by an anxiety for the welfare of the United States will not fail to receive an indulgent construction.

The tenuousness of the chain of authority leading to the U.S. Constitution did not end there. The Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia was supposed to propose revisions to the Articles of Confederation, which by their own terms could be amended only with the unanimous agreement of the states. The Virginia resolution and the report of the Annapolis Convention both explicitly mentioned unanimous approval as needed for any new arrangements. The writers of the new constitution nonetheless decided on their own that approval of only nine states would be necessary for their work to take effect.

The American constitutional experiment took root not because the new distribution of powers grew out of some previously established authorizing framework. It took root partly because of sheer necessity. It succeeded also because of a political culture bequeathed by the British whose rule had so recently been shaken off. The founding fathers were making up rules as they went along, but those rules and their implementation were based on something even more fundamental: habits of tolerance, accommodation and representation that were part of an Anglo-American culture that already was well established.

The makers of the new Egypt will necessarily be making up rules on the fly as well. What legitimacy the rule making will have will be based on whatever ad hoc legitimizing mechanisms become available, such as the presidential election that Morsi won. Whether Egypt achieves in the years ahead reasonable stability and something approaching democracy will not depend primarily on whether the president or the SCAF or anyone else has acted according to the letter of an interim constitution, which is Egypt's equivalent of the Articles of Confederation. Nor will it depend on whether a member of the Muslim Brotherhood holds high office. It will depend largely on whether Egyptians can forge from foreign examples, colonial residue and their own accelerated political development the sort of habits and attitudes that make stability and democracy possible.

TopicsDemocracyElectionsHistory RegionsEgyptUnited States

The Campaign Non-Debate on Foreign Policy

Paul Pillar

To the extent that choices of vice-presidential running mates make any difference at all, one effect of Mitt Romney's selection of Paul Ryan will be for foreign policy to recede even farther into the background in the presidential election campaign. As much commentary has already noted, with Ryan known chiefly for his austere budget plan, attention will intensify toward salient features of that plan, including proposals involving Medicare, discretionary spending and the definition of taxable income. Romney evidently is happy to be associated with those proposals, and Democrats certainly will be happy to sink their teeth more deeply into them. The more overriding attention these issues get, the less attention will be left over for everything else.

Possibly Democrats will question whether a forty-two-year-old who has spent most of his still-young adult life on Capitol Hill and has had no other involvement with foreign relations has sufficient experience to be entrusted with the duties of the presidency if he had to assume them and to respond to those proverbial 3:00 a.m. phone calls. This is unlikely to become a significant issue in the campaign. John McCain's choice of Sarah Palin four years ago shifted the frame of reference for judging vice-presidential candidates along these lines. Ryan seems to be a smart and shrewd man and a quick learner, and any efforts to portray him otherwise probably would not gain traction.

Romney appears to have concluded, not surprisingly, that foreign policy does not offer him many potentially winning issues. Reactions to his foreign tour, which—fairly or unfairly—were disproportionately negative, probably firmed up that conclusion. It may be no accident that reportedly his choice of Ryan also firmed up about the time he was finishing the foreign trip.

This year's campaign probably was never going to be one of the better ones anyway for useful foreign-policy debate. Where President Obama should be most subject to challenge, on matters ranging from the war in Afghanistan to pressure on Iran to the kinetic approach to counterterrorism, meaningful challenges would have to come from a direction other than the Republicans. Romney's pronouncements on foreign policy have consisted in large part of statements that are delivered forcefully as if they were criticisms but substantively resemble restatements of current policy. The press and the commentariat are left to try to discern whatever pieces of daylight they can between the two presidential candidates. Expectations of how Romney would handle a situation differently from Obama are more a matter of conjecture and inference, and of applying Kremlinology-type analysis to Romney's roster of advisers, than of any openly stated positions. Romney evidently does believe he can gain votes through obsequiousness to the government of Israel, but the practical difference between him and Obama there is so far little more than a difference between always deferring to Benjamin Netanyahu and almost always deferring to him.

Maybe a second-term Barack Obama would do some significant things differently in foreign affairs than a first-term Barack Obama—or a first-term Mitt Romney. As Obama remarked earlier this year to Dmitri Medvedev, this will be his last election, and afterward he will have “more flexibility.” But this, too, is a matter of conjecture and inference and not of anything the president has felt it politically safe to say now.

Foreign policy has generally, of course, played less of a role in presidential campaigns than domestic and especially economic issues. The partial exceptions have come mostly amid major and costly wars such as those in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq. In the remaining twelve weeks of this year's campaign there is still the possibility of some jolting event overseas that will force itself into the campaign. If so, the October 22 presidential candidates' debate that is reserved for foreign-policy issues could become interesting. But most likely this encounter, which will be the last of the candidates' debates and comes just fifteen days before the election, will determine few votes and not be remembered as a major event.

All of this is too bad, because there is no shortage of important foreign-policy issues that could use much more vigorous public debate than they have received. These include questions, such as Afghanistan and the U.S. military posture in the eastern Pacific, that are related to the overall role of the United States in the world. They also include matters, such as counterterrorist strategy and the economic war being waged against Iran, that involve assumptions that ought to be far more energetically questioned than they have been.

Image: Tony Alter

TopicsDomestic PoliticsElectionsDefenseGrand StrategyTerrorism RegionsUnited States

Why Empires Fail

Paul Pillar

A lot was said about empires in some comments by Charles Hill that Robert Merry recently critiqued in these spaces. If I understand the gist of Hill's message, it is that an activist United States has long been the world's guardian of the state system and of open expression and free trade and that if the United States does not continue to play that role,  the world will fracture into spheres of influence, which leads to empires, which is bad. Merry's comments about this are on the mark, with regard to how a role of active world guardianship has or has not played in American political traditions and how Hill seems to have difficulty keeping states and empires straight.

My main problem with Hill's ideas are that the value-laden assertiveness that he seems to be defending and that appears to be equivalent to modern neoconservatism involves acting like an empire rather than being an alternative to empires. Even the more gung-ho neoconservatives tend to eschew the term “empire” as applied to the United States, but observers from outside the United States do not hesitate to use the term that way. The British-born historian Niall Ferguson in an article in Foreign Affairs a few years ago, for example, argued that one of the reasons the twentieth century was exceptionally bloody was that empires were disintegrating. With fewer empires still around to disintegrate, this suggests the twenty-first century will have less bloodshed. But the one region where Ferguson says that favorable scenario does not apply is the Middle East, and one reason it does not apply is that there is still an empire there—the American one.

Insofar as the United States acts as an empire (as it especially has when under neoconservative influence), it behooves us to think about what makes for successful and unsuccessful empires. That question is analyzed in a book written by a German academic, Herfried Munkler, and translated into English a few years ago: Empires: The Logic of World Domination from Ancient Rome to the United States. The main characteristic Munkler identifies that distinguishes successful empires, such as those of the Romans and ancient Han Chinese, from ones that quickly broke apart, such as the Macedonian and Mongol empires, is that at some point the imperial rulers determined that further expansion of the empire was unnecessary and that barbarism beyond its borders could be ignored except in very limited instances where it posed some kind of security problem. There is an important distinction, says Munkler, between imperialism and sound imperial rule. The Romans had decided by the time their empire had reached its greatest territorial extent under Emperor Trajan that they could let barbarians be barbarians and concentrate their own attention not on the periphery of the empire but on the prosperity of its central zone, which embraced most of the then-civilized Western world. The ancient Chinese had even more of a geographical basis to call a halt to further imperialism once their empire came to embrace most of the then-civilized Eastern world as the Chinese knew it and to disregard most of whatever was going on beyond the periphery of the empire.

It is harder to use such an approach in a more modern, interconnected world. It is harder to put down an imperialist, civilizing, humanitarian, value-expanding mission by which an empire has defined itself, without being seen—by those within the empire as well as by others—as in decline. “The United States today,” says Munkler, “finds itself facing just such a dilemma”:

The peaceful safeguarding of resources would imply not taking on too many global commitments. In order to hold its subglobal world, an astute imperial policy should keep out of the problems of the global world and protect itself from them by drawing “imperial boundaries with the barbarians.” But it is scarcely an option in the age of democracy and media saturation: it would continually contradict the imperial mission of the United States, and without such a projection of moral purpose, the U.S. empire would lose much of its strength. To put it plainly, it may be that the American empire will founder not on external enemies but on the moral overload associated with its mission, because this makes it impossible to maintain the required indifference to the external world.

It seems the only way out of the dilemma is to avoid the moral overload by not trying to act like an empire in the first place.

Munkler has an interesting observation about empires that also are democracies and what this means for choice of methods. “The burdens of empire are long-lasting,” he says, “but democracies have little time and are always in a hurry.” He cites in particular the impact of a four-year election cycle. As for what this means in the methods used:

Probably, Washington's growing tendency in recent years to use the military for problem-solving also has something to do with the time pressure built into democratic mechanisms. Military solutions offer themselves with a suggestion of speed and finality, so that an “empire in a hurry” may grasp at them more often than would be sensible or advisable.

Being an empire these days is tough. The difficulties do not go away by pretending one is not trying to be an empire.

Image: Jimmy Walker

TopicsDemocracyGrand StrategyHumanitarian Intervention RegionsUnited States