Paul Pillar

The Selfish Society and National Power

Paul Pillar

Frank Bruni had a thoughtful column the other day about how rarely anyone, including our leaders, talks about sacrifice anymore. That means sacrifice in personal situations for the sake of a larger national good. Bruni mentions several factors as both manifestations and causes of the children of the Greatest Generation being so much more selfish than their parents. These include the diminishing proportion of the population that performs military service and “the rise of interest groups, identity politics and cause-specific lobbyists.”

The most conspicuous characteristic of the now-dominant pattern of selfishness—which extends to not only the children but also the grandchildren of the Greatest Generation—is an overriding priority given to the acquisition of personal wealth. It is the pursuit of wealth as a value for its own sake, or as a means to nothing other than high net worth and conspicuous consumption. It is especially, consistent with other ways in which American society has moved increasingly to winner-take-all rules, the aspiration to acquire great wealth.

The attitudes involved echo some patterns in earlier periods of the nation's history. Gilded ages come and go. Over the last half century, the principal trend has been a long one away from the sense of national obligation and sacrifice of which John Kennedy spoke to the selfish society that we see today. Bruni notes that Jimmy Carter, the only president since Kennedy who tried to interrupt this trend by telling us to don sweaters and turn down thermostats, was ridiculed for doing so. Even during his presidency Carter was able to observe, “Too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption.” This pattern is even more pronounced now than when Carter was in office.

This circumstance raises many issues of domestic equity, fairness and meeting the needs of large portions of the citizenry. But set those issues aside and consider just what this pattern means for the overall strength of the United States, bearing in mind how that strength affects how well the country can assert its interests in world affairs. We are all familiar with free-market concepts, dating back to Adam Smith, that explain how economic activity motivated at the individual level by personal aggrandizement can lead to a bigger and more prosperous economic whole. But among the portions of the economy that have grown most conspicuously in recent decades have been ones whose contribution to that bigger and more prosperous whole has been minimal or nonexistent. In short, they are parasitic.

This is true of large parts of that much-ballooned segment of the economy known as the financial sector. Parts of that sector provide the important function of efficient allocation of capital. But other parts do not, and some of the latter are among the most obvious models for aspiring titans of the latest gilded age. An op-ed by Roger Lowenstein discusses just one example: high-frequency trading, the computerized practice of split-second moving in and out of equities to take advantage of even tiny inefficiencies in the market. Some big fortunes have been made from this practice. And as one former trader testified to a Congressional committee, the practice has “no social benefit.” Instead, it is “a destructive force in the market,” as illustrated by the flash crash two years ago. It is easy to find other examples. They include the creation and peddling of some of the instruments that were most involved in the financial meltdown four years ago. And they include the manipulation of debt, fees and corporate control that are the techniques of private-equity artists.

All of this gets to what was perhaps most wrong about Mitt Romney's now-infamous statement about the 47 percent. It is not just that there is no segment of the U.S. population that fits the entire description he offered in terms of economic status, personal aspirations and political preference. It is not even only that there is far more dependence on government, in terms of dollar value, in the upper reaches of the other 53 percent, certainly when taking tax preferences into account. The biggest mistake is that being a parasite rather than a producer is not only, or even chiefly, a matter of receiving a check from the government.

Some of the financial methods that are destructive rather than productive can have a direct impact on matters that go beyond that nation's shores. The international contagion involved in the financial crisis demonstrates some of the ways. As for high-frequency trading, Paul Sullivan has an interesting analysis of how that side of financial markets threatens to amplify the negative repercussions of any political and security crisis in the Persian Gulf.

The largest impact, however, is on the overall health, growth and productivity of the national economy, which is ultimately the basis for the assertion of national power. The more the economy is skewed toward what is parasitic rather than productive, the less good that is for national power. The skewing involves an unfortunate allocation of the nation's resources, including its most precious resource: the talents of its people. Romney is a glaring but by no means unique example. What is the principal purpose to which his legal and business training at an outstanding university has been applied? Evidently, the devising of ownership and control arrangements that ensured the flow of fees and in-and-out profits to private-equity partners while the risks and burdens of (sometimes excessive) debt were placed on whatever company was actually providing a good or service. That, and the devising of incredibly complex international financial structures to add to the gains by shielding much of it from taxation. Think about how much more the economy or society as a whole would benefit if that kind of skill and creativity were instead applied to providing a needed good or service.

The unfortunate allocation continues. A disproportionate number of the best and brightest graduating from U.S. universities today head for the financial sector because that's where the money—potentially a lot of money—is, rather than building or designing a better mousetrap, much less embarking on a career of public service.

One way to make the selfish society less selfish is to cut the government-provided incentives that encourage its continuation. That involves addressing, for example, the provisions in the tax code that mean, as the New York Times puts it, “that elite investors like Mr. Romney are able to increase their fortunes in ways unavailable to most taxpayers.” Another important ingredient is political leadership that can get past the Jimmy Carter comparisons and instill once again more of a national sense of duty and commitment. Kennedy's “do for your country” message got lost when the best and brightest of his day took a detour into Vietnam. But the association with that expedition does not represent an inherent or necessary connection. There are many ways to sacrifice for the sake of the common good that ought to be noncontroversial.

TopicsGreat PowersThe PresidencyPolitical Economy RegionsUnited StatesVietnam

Second-Guessing About Benghazi

Paul Pillar

Barack Obama signs a condolence book in memory of Ambassador Christopher Stevens.The seemingly endless public rehashing of the attack in Benghazi that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans is not taking a form that serves any useful purpose. That would be true even without the political slant that was stemmed from efforts to turn some of the recriminations into a campaign issue. The loss of the four public servants was a tragedy. The rehashing does not alleviate that tragedy. Some relevant truths should be recalled:

Diplomacy is a dangerous line of work. The memorial wall at the State Department listing the many U.S. diplomats—going back more than two centuries—who have been killed in the line of duty is a reminder of that. There is an inherent tension for diplomats between doing their duties well, with everything that entails regarding contact and exposure in faraway places, and living securely.

Hindsight is cheap. After any incident such as this, one can uncover warnings that might have been applicable to the incident that occurred, measures that could have been taken that conceivably could have prevented the occurrence and various other "what ifs." What does not routinely get noted is that the same sorts of things could be unearthed about countless other facilities that do not get attacked and countless other lethal incidents that do not occur. What is unearthed is a product of the second-guesser's luxury of hindsight. One always can construct an after-the-fact case that any one such incident was preventable; this is not the same as saying that such incidents in the aggregate are preventable.

Resources are limited; threats are not. Even if U.S. diplomats consistently opted for living securely over doing their jobs well, total security cannot be bought. Second-guessing about how more security should have been provided at any one facility rather than any of dozens of others elsewhere (that did not happen to get attacked this time) is just another example of hindsight.

Information about lethal incidents is not total and immediate. The normal pattern after such events is for explanations to evolve as more and better information becomes available. We would and should criticize any investigators who settled on a particular explanation early amidst sketchy information and refused to amend that explanation even when more and better information came in. A demand for an explanation that is quick, definite and unchanging reflects a naive expectation—or in the present case, irresponsible politicking.

The public second-guessing does nothing to honor the service of those Americans who died. And it does nothing to prevent similar incidents. The secretary of state has, per standard procedures, appointed an accountability review board (led by a highly respected and experienced retired diplomat, Thomas Pickering) to assess what happened in Benghazi. Let the board do its job.

TopicsDomestic PoliticsTerrorism RegionsLibyaUnited States

Netanyahu Dumbs It Down

Paul Pillar

One naturally wonders what was going through the mind of the Israeli prime minister, or of his staff or speechwriters, when deciding to include in his address to the United Nations General Assembly such an obvious invitation for satire and ridicule. And on a deadly serious topic, which Mr. Netanyahu more than anyone has repeatedly proclaimed we ought to view in deadly serious terms. I am referring, of course, to the drawing of a cartoon bomb that he used as a prop and on which he drew a red line with a marker while talking about imposing red lines on Iran's nuclear program. A major topic of postspeech analysis has concerned which cartoons were possible sources of the bomb design. Was it something Wile E. Coyote had used against Road Runner, or did it—and more evidence leans in this direction—come from Boris and Natasha on the old Rocky and Bullwinkle show? There are many satiric directions one could go with Netanyahu's prop, and Photoshop-adept wags in Israel wasted no time in having fun with some of them.

Sometimes dumbing a topic down, even to the level of cartoons, has the advantage of getting a single point across clearly even at the expense of distorting or oversimplifying the rest of the topic. But if the point concerned where Netanyahu wanted to establish a red line for Iran's nuclear program, he failed to clarify this and instead only confused. The line he drew on his cartoon bomb indicated that what would be unacceptable would be any enrichment of uranium to the 90 percent (i.e., weapons-grade) level. If that is the line, there is no problem and no issue. Iran is doing no enrichment to that level and has given no indication of moving to that level. If it were to begin to make such a move, this would immediately be observed by the on-site inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency. In his remarks, however, Netanyahu said Iran should not be permitted to “complete” medium-level (20 percent) enrichment. That is not only at odds with his graphic but also intrinsically unclear. What does “complete” mean, especially given that—this is something the prime minister never mentioned—more than half of the 20 percent-enriched uranium Iran has produced is being made into fuel plates for nuclear reactors and as such is no longer available for possible further enrichment to weapons grade?

All of this is, however, beside the point. We collectively give Netanyahu far too much credit for believing what he is saying and for being focused on technical details that he claims to be focused on. His case for the Iranian nuclear program being some kind of grave, imminent threat does not stand up, and he is smart enough to realize it does not stand up. Thus he loses nothing through confusion, contradiction and silly graphics. The idea that Iran is only a few months away from having a nuclear weapon simply does not conform with the facts regarding the status of its enrichment program and everything else that would be required to build a usable weapon. It does not conform with the weight of the evidence that Tehran hasn't even decided to build a bomb. What Netanyahu claimed about red lines and a threat of military attack being able to deter Iran from continuing its current nuclear program contradicts, as Tony Karon points out, the assertions about the supposed inability to deter Iran if it had a nuclear weapon, which is the main basis for all the alarmism in the first place about a nuclear-armed Iran. This parallels the similar contradiction involved when those promoting the use of military force against Iran argue, as they often do, that Iran would be deterred from striking back forcefully. As for the supposed horrors that would ensue if Iran did acquire a nuclear weapon, what Netanyahu had to say about that in his U.N. speech—such as suggesting that continued Iranian enrichment of uranium would somehow mean Al Qaeda having a nuclear weapon—was just as cartoonish as what he said about red lines, even if he did not have a graphic to go with it.

The use of even a satire-inducing prop becomes a little less puzzling if we do not take what Netanyahu is saying at face value but instead realize what he is trying to do, which is not to establish some technical case about timelines of the Iranian nuclear program. He is, for one thing, succeeding in getting our attention. The above-the-fold portions of the front pages of Friday's New York Times and Washington Post were dominated by a picture of Netanyahu holding up his cartoon bomb drawing.

If the Israeli prime minister looks somewhat looney by using something that could have come out of Looney Tunes, that only adds to building the image of himself as someone who might actually be crazy enough to start a war with Iran. His principal audience in this regard is not in Iran but instead in the United States. The threat of dragging the United States into such a folly of a war serves in the first instance to increase the pressure for sanctions, subversion, and other dimensions of conflict with Iran short of overt military force. It also serves to box the U.S. president into a position in which if overt war comes, it is more likely to involve the United States and not just Israel.

Netanyahu's agitation and saber rattling, and the effects they have on U.S. policies, also help to subvert prospects for success in negotiations with Iran on the nuclear issue. They help, moreover, to prevent any broader U.S.-Iranian rapprochement, thus supporting the Israeli line that Israel is the only partner the United States can hope to have within a region full of threats and enemies.

All the agitation on Iran has diverted attention from topics that Netanyahu does not want to receive attention, which include above all the festering conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. A measure of how well this diversion of attention has succeeded is how little notice the Palestinian situation has received in reporting in the United States of the speeches at the General Assembly. That includes coverage of the speech by Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, who devoted much of his address to that topic and reminded his listeners that the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement was only one half of the Camp David accords, with promised progress on the Palestinian issue being the other.

Speaking of diversion of attention, note also how, in contrast to Netanyahu's cartoon-aided presentation, relatively little comment has been given to the speech at the same podium the previous day by Iranian president Mahmoud Admadinejad. Most comments just noted how rambling and ultimately boring Ahmadinejad's speech was. The only things he said about Israel were to complain (and what Iranian president couldn't or wouldn't complain about this?) about all the Israeli threats and hostility directed against Iran. There was no reference to map wiping or any of the other rhetoric that has repeatedly been seized upon by those talking up an Iranian nuclear threat. It is interesting how when such snippets of rhetoric appear they are vigorously extrapolated into conclusions about future Iranian policy, but when they do not appear the absence is simply ignored.

Image: World Economic Forum

TopicsDomestic PoliticsUNSanctionsNuclear ProliferationWeapons Inspections RegionsIsraelIranUnited StatesPalestinian territories

The Value of Free Speech

Paul Pillar

It was inevitable that President Obama would devote a significant part of his address to the United Nations General Assembly to the subject of freedom of expression. The repercussions of the anti-Islam video that sparked violence in several Muslim-majority countries are too recent and too substantial not to have done so. The president began and ended his speech referring to Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador who died in some of that violence. Mr. Obama had to explain why the United States could not have somehow just banned the offensive video. And of course he would have been criticized by his domestic political opponents if he had not delivered a vigorous defense of free speech.

What the president said on the topic in his U.N. speech was appropriate for the forum, the time and the circumstances. The address deserves the good reviews it received. The president noted that modern mass communications make obsolete many notions of controlling the flow of information. He argued that free speech is necessary for a democracy to function well. And he observed that efforts to restrict speech “can quickly become a tool to silence critics and oppress minorities.”

All quite valid, although this defense of free speech was still rather narrow. The president discussed the subject in large part in terms of religion. He said it is not repression but rather more speech that is needed to “rally against bigotry and blasphemy.” Use of that last term was unfortunate. Although bigotry and blasphemy are both negative concepts that imply contempt for someone else's community, and although sometimes both are exhibited by the same warped minds, they really are different things. Some of the most pronounced bigotry is exhibited by those who profess to be most outraged by blasphemy. The term “blasphemy” recalls the intolerance codified in blasphemy laws and the genuine outrage of how some of those laws are implemented.

It was probably an effective tactic to convey as one of the main messages of the address that those who are most offended by attacks on their own religion have some of the most to lose through repression of free expression. But the president's presentation overlooked the single most important reason to safeguard free speech: it is one of the best ways to get closer to the truth—and to what is effective and to what works. John Stuart Mill, in his essay On Liberty, identified this as the primary reason for safeguarding freedom of thought and discussion:

First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility.

Mill went on to explain further reasons for ensuring free expression and how the subject is not just a simple matter of something being true or false:

Secondly, though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.

Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds. And not only this, but, fourthly, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct.

An address by a head of government at the United Nations is not the same as a discourse by a political philosopher, and it probably would have been unwise to try to work this kind of reasoning into the president's speech this week. But we should keep in mind this most fundamental set of reasons not only for why freedom of speech is something we cherish but also why it should be cherished, even when it appears to collide with, say, someone's religious faith.

We should keep it in mind partly because the ills of restricted expression that Mill described sometimes infect our own public discourse, notwithstanding the constitutional guarantees of the First Amendment. This does not always take the form of false dogma imposing itself, although we see that in, for example, creationist attempts to affect school curricula. More often it involves the political correctness involved in automatic acceptance of a “general or prevailing opinion”—as it might relate to, for example, a foreign alliance or a perceived foreign threat—and quickness in shouting down those who challenge such an opinion. Americans also have their share of doctrine, such as the belief in free enterprise, that has a valid and proven basis but often is held more as if it were the product of a revealed religion, thereby losing a good sense of the “character and conduct” that ought to be applied to particular problems and circumstances.

In looking abroad—and especially at the Middle East, the part of the world that President Obama was most addressing in his U.N. speech—we should keep in mind the chief justifications for free expression in order to know what we are wishing on other people. Sure, an immediate wish is that societies not tear themselves apart over sectarian differences, as is going on now in Syria. But people who do not get beyond the immediate preoccupations and the concerns about who is blaspheming whom and who fail to graduate instead to a more prosperous, as well as more just and civil, way of life, will merely be clinging forever, as Mr. Obama might put it, to their guns and religion. A transition to a more prosperous way of life requires an active search for truth rather than merely believing what a local religious leader says to believe. It requires a vigorous interplay of ideas, with competing points of view freely expressed, to discover what works and what is effective.

We cannot force people in other countries to think this way, but we should keep all of this in mind whenever we have an opportunity to nudge their thinking in this direction—maybe even explaining this in a speech or two.

Image: roberthuffstutter

TopicsDemocracyDomestic PoliticsEconomic DevelopmentUNHuman RightsIdeologyThe PresidencyPolitical TheoryReligion RegionsUnited StatesMiddle East

Unavoidable Ugliness in Afghanistan

Paul Pillar

Perhaps it is not surprising how little mention the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan has received in this year's election campaign, as reflected in Mitt Romney not even noting it in his acceptance speech at the Republican convention. The challenger is not resting his campaign on foreign policy, and he evidently does not have in mind a policy on Afghanistan that would be an alternative to that of President Obama. Nonetheless, there still is a war going on there, in which Americans are still dying (about two thousand to date). Whoever is elected president will face the leadership task of getting the American people to come to terms with an ugly reality in Afghanistan.

A good aid in preparing for that task is a new paper by Gilles Dorronsoro of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Dorronsoro's bad news is encapsulated in his judgment, “The coalition can no longer defeat the Taliban, which will remain a political and military power in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future.” He believes the current Afghan regime “will most probably collapse in a few years,” with the Taliban poised to assume power over most if not all of Afghanistan. Many will no doubt take exception to Dorronsoro's pessimism, but the course of events in Afghanistan has mostly borne out comparably gloomy statements he has made in previous years about the situation there.

For the United States and NATO to try to stave off this scenario would entail an expansion and extension of the current military expedition way beyond what political leaders are suggesting and what the public would accept.

Part of the ugly reality is thus the prospect of the return to power in Afghanistan of a group whose policies and practices are not just foreign but abhorrent to Americans. But Americans need to be reminded of what the expedition in Afghanistan was supposed to be about to begin with, and that it still ought to be about: preventing the establishment of a base of operations for elements, such as major transnational terrorist groups, that would pose security threats to the United States. Doing so means dealing with the powers that be in that part of the world. One of those powers is likely to be the Afghan Taliban. As Dorronsoro puts it, the “United States will not be able to pursue its longer-term interests in and around Afghanistan if it is not willing to deal with the Taliban. . . . Only the Taliban can potentially control the Afghan border and expel transnational jihadists from Afghanistan. ”

Following this good advice will require getting away from the mistaken tendency to view the Afghan Taliban as if they were themselves a transnational terrorist group—which they are not, notwithstanding their previous alliance with Osama bin Laden. They are a radical fundamentalist group focused on political power and the social order in Afghanistan, which by itself does not constitute a threat to vital U.S. interests. Failure to realize that may have the counterproductive effect of turning the Taliban into something they are not now but we mistakenly think they are.

This election we have been having has been a diversion from confronting the realities in the country where we are currently waging a war. We might as well resume looking at that place and thinking about what we need to do to pursue our core objective and the basic reason we are there. It will not be pretty, and we need to get used to that.

Image: isafmedia

TopicsCounterinsurgencyNATOTerrorism RegionsAfghanistan

More Posturing on Iran

Paul Pillar

Two actions at the end of last week, involving two different branches of the U.S. government, continued a pattern of unthinking support for anything that gets perceived as opposition to the Islamic Republic of Iran.

One such action was passage by the U.S. Senate in the middle of the night of a resolution declaring that the United States and other countries have a “vital interest” in working “to prevent the Government of Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability.” The resolution “rejects any United States policy that would rely on efforts to contain a nuclear weapons-capable Iran.” Never mind that this resolution buys into Benjamin Netanyahu's “red line” game of talking about “nuclear weapons capability,” which by some measures Iran already has now, rather than possession of a nuclear weapon, which Tehran consistently disavows. The most disturbing thing about the resolution is its categorical rejection—in the wee hours of the morning, no less, as Congress was rushing into its pre-election recess—of an entire category of policy options with no consideration whatsoever of the alternatives or any weighing of advantages and disadvantages in comparison with the alternatives. All we get to accompany the rejection is a string of “whereas” clauses that repeat a familiar litany of things people don't like about Iran.

Evidently some members who might otherwise have had reservations about this resolution were reassured by a clause stating that “nothing in this resolution shall be construed as an authorization for the use of force or a declaration of war.” The resolution passed 90-1, with Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) casting the only vote against. But if the P5+1 (the countries of the UN Security Council plus Germany) continue refusing to offer any significant sanctions relief in return for major restrictions on Iran's nuclear activities and as a result the negotiations with Tehran go nowhere, we will inevitably hear voices loudly proclaiming that military force is the only way to abide by the policy objectives that this resolution declares.

Congressional statements such as this midnight resolution have a parallel from prior to the Iraq War: the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998. Although most of the members who voted for that legislation and the president (Bill Clinton) who signed it may have had no intention of facilitating a war, it became a benchmark that promoters of the war repeatedly referred to as a bipartisan statement that regime change in Iraq was the policy of the United States.

The other piece of anti-Iran posturing last week was the decision by the Obama administration to remove the Iranian cult-cum-terrorist group, the Mujahedin-e Khalq or MEK, from the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations. Adding groups to that list or removing groups from it is supposed to be a dull process of administrative and legal review, and usually it is. But the MEK's case became the subject of an lavishly funded public-relations campaign, unlike anything seen with any other group in the fifteen-year history of the list. Prominent figures, including well-known Democrats as well as Republicans, reportedly received five-figure fees to speak on behalf of delisting the group. Many members of Congress and others, even if they did not prostitute themselves through such arrangements, naively believed that anything or anyone opposed to the Iranian regime must be worth supporting.

No good will come out of this subversion of the terrorist-group list with regard to conditions in Iran, the behavior or standing of the Iranian regime, the values with which the United States is associated or anything else. The regime in Tehran will tacitly welcome this move (while publicly denouncing it) because it helps to discredit the political opposition in Iran—a fact not lost on members of the Green Movement, who want nothing to do with the MEK. The MEK certainly is not a credible vehicle for regime change in Iran because it has almost no public support there. Meanwhile, the Iranian regime will read the move as another indication that the United States intends only to use subversion and violence against it rather than reaching any deals with it.

Although the list of foreign terrorist organizations unfortunately has come to be regarded as a kind of general-purpose way of bestowing condemnation or acceptance on a group, we should remember that delisting changes nothing about the character of the MEK. It is still a cult. It still has near-zero popular support in Iran. It still has a despicably violent history. As for more recent chapters of that history, given how public the delisting issue became with the MEK, it probably would have been appropriate for the Department of State to address publicly the press reports, sourced to U.S. officials, that the MEK has collaborated with Israel on terrorist assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists. But that, of course, would have required the politically inconvenient act of publicly addressing Israeli terrorism.

Attention to the issue of moving MEK members from one camp in Iraq to another camp in Iraq, and about threats to the group from within Iraq, appears to have become in the end an excuse for caving in to the public-relations campaign. Whether the group resides at Camp Ashraf or Camp Liberty doesn't determine whether it meets the definition under U.S. law of a foreign terrorist organization. Whatever problem there may have been at Camp Ashraf, it was the MEK itself that was balking at a move, not any Iraqis that threatened the group. If there is an issue of human rights and refugees, it is mainly one of permitting rank-and-file members to escape the control of the cult's leaders.

The MEK story also has a parallel with the Iraq War. A role that the MEK has to some extent assumed for anti-Iran agitators in this country—and that the delisting will only encourage—recalls the prewar role played by Ahmed Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress (INC). Each case involved a group of exiles with a slick talent for manipulating public opinion in the United States but a paucity of support in their own countries. A possible difference is that the MEK's support in Iran is even less than that of the INC in Iraq, given the former's treasonous behavior (in Iranian eyes) during the Iran-Iraq War.

Both of last week's actions, which involve both political parties and both the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government, are discouraging not only for what they imply about discourse and policy on Iran but also for what they say more generally about U.S. policy making. The competitive politics of an election campaign have not helped and probably have hurt.

Competitive politics did not have to hurt, especially at a time the Romney campaign is groping for any stick it can use to beat the Obama administration. On the MEK matter, the administration could be legitimately criticized for pusillanimously giving in to a terrorist group's public-relations campaign. It could be charged with appearing to convey approval to a group whose behavior is repugnant to American values. It could be further charged with hurting the cause of democracy in Iran and providing propaganda points to the Iranian regime. But the campaign evidently is sticking with the usual simplistic approach that anyone who bashes that regime must be a friend of ours—and besides, some prominent Romney advisers are among those who have spoken publicly on the MEK's behalf.

TopicsCongressDomestic PoliticsNuclear ProliferationTerrorism RegionsIranUnited States

The Public Psychology of Disturbing Images

Paul Pillar

The angry outbursts in response to a video defaming the prophet Muhammad are a reminder of the power of images that are in some way disturbing or unsettling. Such power, however, is not limited only to what influences hotheads in Benghazi or Lahore. It can frequently be seen in our own society. It influences the course of debate on many public issues. By “images” I do not mean just videos, cartoons, or other graphic or electronic representations. I mean at least as much the ability to picture in a person's own mind some specific, vividly colored and unpleasant happening.

NPR broadcast on Thursday a segment that conveyed some of the relevant research by psychologists. The story focused on why we might in some situations apply a rational cost-benefit approach but in other circumstances that are only slightly different we make a more emotional, unthinking determination that a certain course of action is simply right or wrong. The difference, the psychologists tell us, is whether the words that describe a particular circumstance conjure up a vivid image in our minds. Our brains are wired to respond to pictures. With such a picture—especially an ugly and disturbing picture—we are more likely to respond simply and emotionally rather than thinking through costs and benefits.

An example given in the piece is a hypothetical opportunity to affect an accident involving a runaway trolley. Without intervention the trolley will run over five people on the track. You can prevent this from happening by throwing a switch that will divert the trolley onto a side track, where it will kill one other person instead. In a different scenario you can instead intervene by pushing off a footbridge and onto the main track a person who is sufficiently large and carrying a big enough backpack that when he gets hit the trolley will stop. The moral issue should be the same; in each scenario the choice involves taking an action that will knowingly kill one identifiable person to save five others. But the responses of people who are given these hypothetical choices are different; most people in the first situation would throw the switch, but most people in the second situation would not throw the man off the bridge. The second action induces a more vivid and disturbing mental picture than the first.

The NPR report mentions a type of comparison that brings us closer to real security issues. Think about a terrorist using an ax to slaughter people on a bus, and then think about a missile fired from an airborne drone. “If you learn about these events from television or from pictures in a newspaper,” asks one of the psychologists, “which one would you judge as more horrible? The person with the ax that killed maybe two people but the scene looks horrible and extremely violent, or the picture of the drone that killed 100 people but looks relatively clean and nice?” The good news is that the absence of an obviously disturbing image involving the action of the drone means we are likely to apply real thinking and a calculation of costs and benefits, rather than just emotion, in assessing it. The bad news is that we are inconsistent in the standards we apply to different actions, with those standards being determined more by the blatant bloodiness of any images that come to us or that our own minds draw than by the actual damage that each action inflicts.

These examples involve making moral assessments of different actions, but other research has produced a parallel finding regarding how people assess the likelihood of different events. A scenario that evokes vivid, specific and disturbing images is apt to be judged as more likely than an otherwise comparable scenario that does not call up colorful images. This is probably a major reason for the enormous attention that has been given to terrorism using chemical, biological, nuclear or other unconventional means. That attention has far outstripped what actual terrorists have done in this area. Years of imaginative scenario-spinning about unconventional terrorism have made the public's mental images of such threats all the more vivid. By association, the perceived likelihood of states giving unconventional weapons or material to terrorists, or doing other imaginable and vibrantly scary things with such stuff, tends to be vastly inflated, with that perception divorced from any careful calculation of real motivations and well-grounded assessments of probability.

These psychological tendencies help to explain a lot of the misdirection and faulty allocation of resources involving public policy on security matters. The tendencies are part of the reason we sometimes take on costs and risks that are well out of proportion to whatever threat we supposedly are countering.

To the extent these tendencies reflect hardwiring in human brains, there is not much we can do about this directly. Leaders can be made aware of the psychological tendencies, however, even if the public cannot. A further lesson is that winning some policy debates may require mustering not just more compelling arguments but also more vivid images.

TopicsPublic OpinionPsychologyTerrorismWMD RegionsUnited States

Points of Ignorance on the Middle East

Paul Pillar

What Mitt Romney said about the Middle East at that $50,000-a-plate fundraiser at the home of a fellow private-equity tycoon is not what is getting the most attention and what Democrats are most energetically spotlighting. That distinction, of course, goes to Romney's dismissal of 47 percent of the electorate as freeloading government dependents who have a victim complex and do not take personal responsibility for their own lives. And Romney's rejection of a negotiated two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which even his friend Bibi Netanyahu claims he supports, shouldn't be all that surprising given the indications of Netanyahu's actual aims and how Romney is outsourcing to him his policies on anything having to do with Israel. One might even gain comfort by noting that some serious and knowledgeable people who study this conflict have questioned whether a two-state solution is still possible. But then one is jolted back to a state of dismay by noting that Romney makes no mention whatsoever of the reason this question arises, which is the continued Israeli creation of facts on the ground by colonization of occupied territory.

Let us try to get away from the politics of the campaign and away from simply piling on and use this as a teachable moment about some important matters involving foreign policy and national security. The ignorance Romney displayed unfortunately seems to be shared by a good number of other people, and the more the results of such ignorance are voiced, the more that still more Americans are misinformed.

There is, first of all, an item that on the surface sounds relevant to that all-preoccupying nuclear program in Iran (Romney twice equated Iran with “crazy,” which has no basis in fact, but that is yet another item.) The candidate presented a scenario about the “crazed fanatics” in Iran giving “a little fissile material” to Hezbollah, which in turn brings it to Chicago and makes a threat about setting off a “dirty bomb.” Setting aside everything about unexplained intentions and motivations for any of this, there is the misconception that fissile material is needed for dirty bombs, known more precisely as radiological dispersal devices. It isn't, and radioactive isotopes of many other substances would be far better for that task. The enriched uranium Iran is working on, as well as natural uranium, would be a lousy ingredient for a dirty bomb. Someone who wanted to put a dirty bomb in Chicago would find better sources of material among medical isotopes in Chicago hospitals. But in the miasma of ignorance that is involved, “Iran,” “crazy,” “nuclear” and “threat” all just sort of get blended together haphazardly.

The central untruth that the candidate voiced on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was that “the Palestinians”—no distinctions whatsoever being made among them—are “not wanting to see peace” and are “committed to the destruction and elimination of Israel.” Today—which is not to be confused with the 1940s—that statement does not come anywhere close to being true for any Palestinians beyond a small radical fringe. It is not true for ordinary Palestinians, as repeatedly gauged in public-opinion polls. It is not true of the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority. It is not even true for Hamas, which has indicated its willingness to live alongside Israel. Any Palestinian with half a brain knows that “elimination of Israel” would be impossible even if that were wanted. And the incentives are all in the direction of wanting a peace agreement instead. As the veteran Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat put it, "No one stands to gain more from peace with Israel than Palestinians and no one stands to lose more in the absence of peace than Palestinians."

Romney also echoed a line, from Israelis resistant to yielding any of the West Bank, that somehow giving up this territory would entail a security threat to Israel. Romney's version had Iran bringing “missiles and armament” into the West Bank, as if the Kingdom of Jordan didn't exist and there were some kind of Israeli-Iranian battle front that suddenly would advance to Tulkarm. In fact, any careful analysis shows that the idea of such a threat is a myth. It does not accord with geography, with Israeli military superiority or with any incentives on the part of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, the leaders of which would know that any hint of moving in the direction of something like an Iranian arms depot would, given the understandable Israeli reaction, spell the end of their long-sought state. Israel faces more of a security threat from sitting on top of a dissatisfied population of Palestinians than from living beside a Palestinian state.

There is, finally, the candidate's apparent inability to see any downside, as a matter of either injustice or instability, of having this problem fester indefinitely. Because his comments were unrehearsed responses to a question, he perhaps can be forgiven for having a plan that consists of “we sort of live with it, and we kick the ball down the field and hope that ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve it.” But the problem isn't just lack of a plan. It is a profound misunderstanding of what Palestinians are subjected to under the thumb of Israel. We saw some of this in Romney's trip this summer to Israel, in which he attributed inferior Palestinian economic performance entirely to an inferior culture. We are reminded of how incorrect that is by the judgment this week by the International Monetary Fund's mission chief for the West Bank and Gaza that for economic recovery and development in the territories it is essential to ease the restrictions that Israel places on Palestinian trade and movement.

Confirmation of the ignorance regarding this last issue came in Romney's comment in Boca Raton that we can live with an unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict just as “we live with that in China and Taiwan.” In case he didn't notice: China doesn't occupy Taiwan. The Taiwanese have political liberties—and prosperity. The issue in the Palestinian territories is not whether the militarily dominant power in the region will invade and occupy a neighbor; it is instead whether the occupation that continues from such an invasion forty-five years ago will ever end.

One thing was at least internally consistent in the candidate's remarks: he may as well write off any intention of trying to bring about a negotiated settlement of this conflict, because he has destroyed whatever standing he may have otherwise had to be an honest broker.

TopicsIMFDomestic PoliticsEconomic DevelopmentPost-ConflictWMD RegionsIsraelIranUnited StatesPalestinian territories

Why are the Neocons Still Around?

Paul Pillar

Recent attempts by adversaries of President Obama to blame him for yet another undesirable circumstance—in this case, popular outrage in the Middle East over an anti-Islam video—remind us of one of the oddest aspects of discourse in the United States about foreign and security policy: that the same people who not too many years ago inflicted on us the Iraq War are still part of that discourse. They get air time and column space, and evidently at least somebody seems to be listening to them.

One mistake should not condemn someone to silence, but we are not talking about just any old mistake. The Iraq War was one of the biggest and costliest blunders in the history of U.S. foreign relations. The human and material costs, including an ultimate fiscal and economic toll in the multiple trillions in addition to the political and diplomatic damage, have been immense. Moreover, promotion of that war demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding of fault lines in the Middle East, political culture in the region, the nature of political change there, the roots of enmity and security threats toward the United States, and the limitations of U.S. power and especially military power. There is no reason anyone should pay one iota of attention to what the promoters of that war have to say today on anything related to those subjects. And yet those are the very sorts of subjects, often with particular reference to countries such as Iran, Syria and Libya, on which neocon promoters of the Iraq War expound today.

In some other political system, anyone who had been involved in an official capacity in promoting that war might, after resigning in disgrace, retire from public affairs to tend a garden, write fiction, or make money in private business. But somehow that has not happened with many of the people concerned in this instance.

Probably one reason it has not has to do with the evolution of the larger U.S. political system and especially of the Republican Party. The near-extinction of moderate Republicans has been reflected not only in positions on domestic policy but also in neoconservatism having become the dominant default ideology of Republican foreign policy. This sort of attachment to one of the two major political parties has sustained the neoconservatives, who based on their record are the ones who should have gone extinct.

The attachment to a major party has further effects. It means neoconservativism is viewed not as a fringe but as part of the mainstream. It means those (especially those with significant money) who favor Republican victories (for whatever reason, even if foreign policy has little to do with it) have reason to help sustain neoconservative voices. Moreover, in the dumbed-down, sound-bite world of partisan politics, some favorite neocon themes—assert American power, propagate American values, etc.—sound appealing.

The success the war-promoters had, with an energetic sales campaign amid a post-9/11 political milieu, in getting many Republicans and Democrats alike to go along with their project has lessened the inclination to call the neocons fully to account. Those who went along at the time do not want to be reminded of that. There has consequently been a blurring of the distinction between the promoters and mere followers. When Paul Wolfowitz was on Fox News the other day to join in criticizing the Obama administration for its “apologetic posture” toward the Muslim world, the host introduced him as “one of the people who believed that we needed to go to war with Iraq,” as if he had been just another Congressman who voted for the war resolution. He instead was perhaps the most fervid promoter of the war in the Bush administration, showing no compunction about whatever it took, including fabricating a supposed alliance between the Iraqi regime and al-Qaeda, to muster support for the neocons' long-sought invasion.

The way the war was manned, with the all-volunteer military, and financed (or rather, not financed) has obscured the costs and thereby further muted any demand to call the neocons to account. All the posturing these days about the deficit makes it easy to forget how much this completely unfunded and expensive war of choice contributed to ballooning of the deficit during the Bush administration. The political costs of the war within the Middle East, such as the exacerbation of sectarian tensions and expansion of Iranian influence, also are not the sorts of things that by their nature will hit the average American squarely in the eyes as what the neocons had wrought, even though they are very much that.

Then there are the conscious efforts to get Americans to forget about certain recent past experiences including the Iraq War. The war is one of two big things—the origin of the Great Recession being the other—that have led George W. Bush's own party to regard him during the current election campaign as He Who Must Not Be Named.

An appropriate response to any expounding by neoconservatives today about policy in the Middle East is to issue reminders, loudly and often, about their recent record there.

TopicsDomestic PoliticsIdeologyGrand Strategy RegionsIraqUnited States

Netanyahu's Arrogance

Paul Pillar

Maybe this time the Israeli prime minister has gone too far in his bullying and arrogance in dealing with the United States of America—so far as to undermine the habits and attitudes in the United States that have made such swagger possible in the first place. “This time” can refer to Benjamin Netanyahu's attention-getting outburst this week in which he criticized the Obama administration's posture regarding Iran's nuclear program, demanding that the United States impose a clear “red line” and declaring that those who do not impose such lines “don't have a moral right to place a red light before Israel.” The harshness of Netanyahu's blast took aback even some American politicians accustomed to falling in line in the customary way on matters related to Israel. Senator Barbara Boxer of California said in a letter to Netanyahu, as “one of Israel's staunchest supporters in Congress,” that she was “stunned” by Netanyahu's remarks. Boxer is a Democrat who no doubt was also trying to soften any political impact of this latest indication of ill will between the Israeli prime minister and the U.S. president. But her response was still one indication of how far Netanyahu had gone beyond the bounds of what supposedly is a relationship between friends and allies.

“This time” also could refer more generally to the whole warpath-blazing campaign of agitation about the Iranian nuclear program. That campaign clearly is mainly an Israeli thing, and especially a project of Netanyahu and his rightist government. Historians decades from now will be trying to explain how the superpower of the day allowed itself to get so preoccupied with a still-nonexistent weapon in the hands of a second-rate power that, even if the weapon came into existence, could not pose a threat to U.S. interests anywhere near what the preoccupation implies. Israel, with its longstanding and sizable nuclear arsenal of its own as well as its conventional regional military superiority, also does not face a threat that warrants all the agitation and warmongering. Maybe preventing the mere possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon would mean Israeli leaders would think only once and not twice before the next time they throw their weight and armed might around in Gaza or Lebanon or someplace else. And the drum-beating about Iran does divert attention away from that pesky matter involving political rights and self-determination for Palestinians.

Perhaps there is seeping into the consciousness of more and more informed Americans the realization that Netanyahu—with his drum-beating, his complete rejection (in defiance of the policies of the United States and other Western powers) of the very idea of negotiations with the Iranians, and his demand for red lines—is trying to lead America by the nose into a war that would be profoundly against U.S. interests. And it would be a war fought primarily to maintain Israel's regional nuclear weapons monopoly and—also not in U.S. interests—untrammeled ability to throw its weight around.

Even for those attuned less to specific calculations about U.S. interests and more to general concepts of right and wrong, Netanyahu has provided much to offend. A military attack launched to damage or destroy somebody else's nuclear program—launched, no less, by a state that long has had nuclear weapons completely outside any international monitoring or control regime—would be an act of aggression clearly in violation of international law. The infliction of casualties involved, inflicted to maintain the aggressor's nuclear weapons monopoly, would be an immoral act. And yet Netanyahu says those who may object to any of this “don't have a moral right” to do so. Incredible.

The prime minister's behavior can be interpreted in multiple ways. His latest tantrum may be part of his effort to sink the re-election chances of the incumbent U.S. president, in favor of an alternative who would be beholden to interests whose primary affinity is to the Israeli right, by accentuating Barack Obama's supposed inability to get along with Israel. This is probably at least part of the explanation for the behavior.

Some have questioned Netanyahu's stability and temperament, in ways that go beyond merely having a short temper. Some Israeli commentators have spoken most recently in terms of Netanyahu “going berserk” or being a “mythomaniac” guided by a sense of heroic mission. Given all we have heard, in connection with Iran's nuclear program, about the hazards of irrational or fanatic people with their fingers on the button, perhaps we should ask about Netanyahu: is this a man who can be trusted with nuclear weapons?

Even assuming rationality on the prime minister's part, there probably is an emotional element involved in his recent outburst in the sense of someone used to getting his way being flummoxed by even the slightest push-back. Netanyahu probably has been conditioned, through such experiences as speaking to Congress with a gallery stacked with AIPAC supporters, to believe that the bullying will always work. Even sensible and mild push-back, such as Secretary Clinton's statement that the United States is not going to set deadlines on the Iranian nuclear issue, then becomes disturbing to him. Netanyahu also may have been reacting to increased acceptance in mainstream discourse in the United States of the concept that an Iranian nuclear weapon would not be the calamity he insistently portrays it as and that trying to preclude one would certainly would not be worth starting a new war.

Going beyond the Iranian nuclear issue, perhaps we are seeing some fear that the whole political edifice that has enabled Netanyahu and other Israeli prime ministers to get their way in the United States is showing some cracks. It ought to crack. After all, the overall nature of the relationship, in which the superpower that lavishes billions of aid and dozens of United Nations vetoes on the smaller state gets pushed around by the latter, rather than the other way around, is crazy and illogical. Ultimately the power of the edifice depends on fear of confronting that power. Theoretically to break down that edifice it would take one courageous American political leader, in a bold FDR-like move, to point out that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

That is not about to happen, and the lobby in question will fight hard to make sure it does not happen. But over the last few years some cracks have become visible. Some people thought they saw a crack at the Democratic national convention when repeated voice votes were required to override the “noes” that opposed the platform plank about declaring Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel.

Maybe Netanyahu's arrogance, greater than the norm even for Israeli prime ministers dealing with the United States, may be a force that eventually reshapes the relationship. It can do so by making it painfully clear to Americans what they are dealing with. M. J. Rosenberg evidently is talking about this when he goes so far as to say that Netanyahu “poses an existential threat to the Jewish state.” He is referring to the damage being done to the relations with the superpower patron—that “all Netanyahu is accomplishing with his ugly saber-rattling is threatening the survival of the US-Israel relationship.” That may well be the effect of Netanyahu's behavior on the relationship, but perhaps we should not speak of this in terms of threats. Replacing the current pathological relationship with a more normal one certainly would be good for U.S. interests. Ultimately, however, it also would be good for the interests of Israel, which, in order to get off its current path of endless conflict and isolation, desperately needs the sort of tough love that it is not getting now. 

TopicsDomestic PoliticsNuclear Proliferation RegionsIsraelIranUnited States