Paul Pillar

Massacre in Panjwai

Paul Pillar

The latest untoward event in the U.S. military expedition in Afghanistan is horrifying any way you look at it. A U.S. Army staff sergeant walked off his base Sunday and, going door-to-door in nearby villages, shot to death at least 16 civilians, including nine children, subsequently setting some of the bodies afire. We Americans can be confident that whatever sort of derangement accounts for this act does not reflect official policy or orders, and that, as our leaders like to reassure others, the action is not representative of the large majority of American military personnel serving in Afghanistan. But what we can be confident of is not necessarily what matters most.

The history of the U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan and of similar expeditions elsewhere—including the Iraq War, punctuated by the abuses at Abu Ghraib—demonstrates two realities about such incidents. One is that in any wars as long and large as these two, such incidents are bound to happen. Their occurrence is a function of having many thousands of men and women in uniform sent to a foreign land to perform the mission, the inability to subject all of them to constant supervision, and the statistical likelihood of aberrant behavior stemming from the weaknesses of any assemblage of people that large as well as from the extra unusual stresses of warfare. Incidents will occur despite reasonable efforts of the command to exert discipline and to prevent them from occurring. The inevitability of their occurrence is part of why we have a military justice system.

The other reality is that many foreigners will interpret the incidents differently from the way we do. They will interpret them as more willful, and more representative of Americans or of what the United States is trying to do, than is the case. The United States suffers from its own power by being the target of assumptions that it always can do whatever it wants to do and can prevent whatever it does not want to happen. No amount of explanations, apologies, or reassurances from U.S. leaders will dispel such perceptions.

The latest incident is one of several that, along with the unpopularity of some of the NATO forces' tactics and the sheer length of those forces' presence in Afghanistan, has made the Western military presence progressively less welcome in that country. The negative Afghan sentiments involved have made it more difficult and dangerous for NATO personnel to do their jobs, as highlighted by the growing number of murders of those personnel by Afghans they are supposed to support and advise. It remains to be seen if reaction to Sunday's shooting spree will be anything like the Afghan response last month to the burning of Korans. If it turns out that the accidental burning of a religious book elicits more anger than the massacre of more than a dozen innocent villagers, it will be one more demonstration that we and the Afghans operate on different wavelengths.

The only appropriate policy response to these developments is to press ahead with military disengagement from Afghanistan. The Western mission already has become very hard to perform, and there are bound to be more incidents that will make it even harder. And yet, some of the same tired arguments for doing otherwise continued to be voiced. Senator John McCain talks of how “if Afghanistan dissolves into a situation where the Taliban were able to take over a chaotic situation, it could easily return to an al-Qaeda base for attacks on the United States of America.” This ignores how the Afghan Taliban, which is not an international terrorist group and cares only about the political and social order inside Afghanistan, has strong reasons not to make the country an al-Qaeda base and suffer again the same kind of fate it did in late 2001.

Then there is Senator Lindsey Graham stating “we can win this thing” and saying that leaving Afghanistan would signal to Iran that the United States was not committed to the region. The idea of hurting the credibility of commitments is an even hoarier notion, one that was very much in evidence in continuing to fight the Vietnam War. It is no more valid now than it was then, and is not the way we would assess the commitments of other states. As for what being in Afghanistan does to Iran, that's another lesson we should have learned from the Iraq War—which was one of the biggest boosts to Iranian influence in the region that Tehran has enjoyed.

TopicsCounterinsurgencyNATOHuman RightsPublic OpinionMilitary Strategy RegionsAfghanistanIranIraq

The Integrity of Policy Analysis

Paul Pillar

I have been following with a combination of puzzled fascination and profound concern the attempt by the brothers Charles and David Koch to seize control of the Cato Institute. Readers of the National Interest website know that Cato scholars are major contributors to these spaces, and that is one sense in which we readers have a stake in how this power play comes out. I do not pretend to understand Cato's unusual governing structure, which the Koch brothers are trying to manipulate and which includes a small number of nominally-valued “shares” alongside the normal sort of board of directors. But this is not just a non-profit version of inside baseball. A larger stake that the rest of us have in this involves nothing less than the integrity of policy debate and policy analysis in this country.

The Koch brothers evidently are attempting to latch Cato to a partisan (in this case, Republican) cause. That is fundamentally different from policy analysis being identified with a particular school of thought or even ideology. It is fair to say of a Cato product, “That's a libertarian viewpoint, of course.” But with or without that ideological label, the discussion is all about substance. Whether at the level of general ideology or specific policy issues, it is still about substance. And there is no reason to doubt that the arguments are genuine or to suspect that they are merely a cover for something else.

Once the purpose of argumentation becomes the advancement of a particular political party or candidate, that is no longer the case. What are ostensibly arguments about policy are only tools for accomplishing something else. Sometimes the policies being advocated correspond with the genuine positions of a political leader or candidate, but not necessarily. All of this makes policy debate less useful as a means either of public education or of arriving at sound policies. We see numerous examples of this unfortunate pattern in the current race for the Republican presidential nomination. The candidates' back-and-forth on Romneycare, for example, has been pretty useless as a way of understanding what works and what doesn't work in health care at either the state or the federal level. The arguments are just means for Romney's opponents to bash him for inconsistency or for his supporters to defend his record.

I have high regard for the quality of Cato's work, which has filled an important role of clear and disciplined analysis from a libertarian perspective. (Disclosure: I have collaborated in the past with Cato scholars.) Losing that would be something that Republicans as well as Democrats, non-libertarians as well as libertarians (and even anti-libertarians) ought to regret. It would be one more thing in Washington that would be surrendered to tribal partisanship.

TopicsHealthDomestic PoliticsIdeology RegionsUnited States

Secret Death Sentences

Paul Pillar

Attorney General Eric Holder's speech aimed at justifying the killing overseas of U.S. citizens believed to be involved in terrorism has received sharp criticism along with some compliments. Many of the criticisms appear justified.

We still have a problem with insufficient clarity and transparency in such operations. The attorney general's statement was a speech bereft of the citations and precedents one would find in a formal legal brief or opinion. We keep hearing about a classified memorandum that the executive branch considers as filling that role, but not even members of Congress have gotten to see it. Mr. Holder stressed in his speech that due process, as mentioned in the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution, is not to be equated with judicial process, and that is true. But we evidently just have to take it on faith from the executive branch that there is such a process underlying the killings that is sufficiently due and thorough to satisfy the constitutional requirement. We never get to see the process or have a chance to fully understand it.

One other problem nags me that I have not seen so far in the criticisms. This whole procedure is supposedly targeted at members of al-Qaeda (or as the attorney general occasionally puts it, “al-Qaeda and associated forces.” The idea seems to be that al-Qaeda is an identifiable, clearly definable hostile entity with which the United States is at war, and thus similar rules and procedures can apply to bumping off members of that group as would apply to killing members of the armed forces of a state at war with the United States. Holder even made reference to the targeted killing—although the term wasn't used back then—of Admiral Yamamoto during World War II in the Pacific. If a U.S citizen had joined the Japanese navy during World II that would have been a clearly defined act resulting in clearly defined membership, and using any means possible to kill such a traitor in the midst of a war would not have been a matter of much controversy.

But al-Qaeda is nothing like the Japanese navy. It is a diffuse, ill-defined movement surrounding a battered core group. It has become all the more diffuse and ill-defined in recent years. The term “al-Qaeda” gets applied variously to anything from what is left of the core group under the command of Ayman al-Zawahiri to any element with a penchant for violent transnational jihadist ideology. Some groups—some of those “associated forces”—have adopted the al-Qaeda brand name, but whether or not a group has adopted that name is not a good indicator of what it is all about and what sort of threat it poses to the United States.

Even if al-Qaeda were not such an ill-defined group, what constitutes being a member of al-Qaeda? Unlike someone joining a foreign state's military force, it does not necessarily mean donning a uniform and being issued an ID card. In many cases “joining” is little more than expressing agreement with certain objectives. Of course, the attorney general laid out other criteria, such as posing an imminent threat to U.S. interests, before someone would come under the procedures he was discussing. But in effect another criterion for determining whether someone comes under those procedures has to do with expressing support for certain goals and ideologies. And that comes perilously close to subjecting a citizen to long-distance administratively determined execution partly because he holds certain beliefs.

This problem is not solely a matter for the executive branch. Congress could and should do more to clarify lines, just as it ought to do more to clarify the still fuzzy law about indefinite detention of U.S. citizens suspected of terrorism. The counterterrorist tool in question should not necessarily be discarded, but given the importance of the other principles and values at stake, we deserve something more by way of clarification and justification than what the attorney general gave us.

TopicsCongressHuman RightsTerrorism RegionsUnited States

The Iran Crescendo and Its Sources

Paul Pillar

The celebration and display of political muscle known as the AIPAC policy conference is under way at the Washington Convention Center. This year's conference rides a crescendo of alarm and bellicosity about Iran's nuclear program. The connection between the lobbying power assembled in the convention hall and the wave of saber-rattling rhetoric about Iran is strong and profound. The AIPAC meeting merely underscores what has been obvious for some time: that the primary reason the Iranian nuclear program has become such a high-profile issue in the United States is that the government of Israel has chosen to make it so.

In the absence of the Israeli agitation, the nuclear activities of Iran—which does not have a nuclear weapon and probably has not to date made a decision to make one—would percolate along with many other national-security matters worth watching and addressing but not worth beating a war drum about. Certainly it would not rate more alarm than, say, the nuclear weapons owned by the desperadoes in Pyongyang known as the government of North Korea. If the saber rattling and even more destructive actions such as terrorist attacks were not interfering with the handling of relations with Iran, the next step in that relationship would be acceptance of Tehran's offer of negotiations and concentration on the kind of long, deep and broad diplomacy with Iran that has never been tried.

Nothing that Iran has been doing lately accounts for the Iranian nuclear issue having reached what appears to be almost a crisis point. In the long history of Iran's program, which has been the subject of repeated overestimates of progress, what is happening this year is not fundamentally different from what was happening in many previous years. Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak talks about a “zone of immunity,” but the zones of immunity or vulnerability that matter most to the Israeli government have to do with the U.S. electoral calendar. The greatest danger the United States (and any peace-loving person in the Middle East) currently faces is that Barak and Prime Minister Netanyahu will spring an October surprise (or a surprise in any month between now and the first Tuesday of November) in the form of an armed attack on Iran. A key consideration for them is the possibly different reactions of a U.S. president facing a fight for reelection (while also facing that political muscle represented at the convention center) and a newly reelected president who knows he never would be running for anything again. Because Netanyahu and his government probably prefer that President Obama not be reelected, any of the aftereffects of their surprise—such as a big spike in gasoline prices and maybe even a slide of the U .S. economy back into recession—that would hurt Mr. Obama's reelection chances would be a bonus for them. The welfare of American consumers and workers is not high on their list of decision-making criteria.

What is billed as an Iran problem is thus mainly an Israel problem. If the United States were to be sucked, or pushed, into a new war in the Middle East, the Israel dimension would be significantly greater than it was even with the Iraq War, despite the many disturbing similarities between the run-up to that conflict and the current situation regarding Iran. Shared perspectives of the Israeli Right and some American neocons did figure into promotion of the war against Iraq, but Israel was only a contributing factor to a desire for a war that was based on an ideology that had a life of its own. If there is a war with Iran, Israel will be not just a contributing factor but instead the prime mover.

President Obama's attempt to handle this problem was reflected in his speech on Sunday to the AIPAC conference. He and his speechwriters pushed back as much as it was politically safe to do. In addition to recounting the ample evidence that “when the chips are down, I have Israel's back” and recalling how his administration has mustered far more international pressure on Iran than his predecessor did, Mr. Obama spoke favorably and optimistically about diplomacy, rightly observed that there is “too much loose talk of war,” and talked about nuclear weapons as distinct from mere nuclear-weapons capability. But staying with what is politically safe still leaves an unsquared circle. The president said more than enough about the unacceptability of an Iranian nuclear weapon to set the stage for Netanyahu to demand later that the United States do whatever it takes to prevent such a weapon. In the nearer term, the president's comments about how “no Israeli government can tolerate a nuclear weapon in the hands of” Iran and reference to “Israel's sovereign right to make its own decisions about what is required to meet its security needs” sound almost like an invitation to Netanyahu to launch a war.

An episode of the past that comes to mind is how Germany in 1914 allowed itself to be sucked into a large war through unflinching support for its Austrian ally, which was determined to start what it thought would be a small war to show who was boss in the Balkans. Before I get in trouble with the analogy police: no, I am not predicting another World War I. And yes, there are innumerable differences between the European crisis of 1914 and what we face now. One of those differences is that Germany's leaders regarded support for Austria-Hungary as strategically essential because without that ally Germany would have been surrounded by adversaries and almost bereft of friends. By contrast, the automatic U.S. backing of Israeli behavior is rooted in emotions, tribal sentiments and domestic politics—not strategic considerations, which if heeded would imply a much different U.S. policy. But the analogy does provide something to think about regarding how unquestioning backing of a truculent lesser ally can lead to highly damaging consequences for a greater one.

Anyone who considers himself or herself a patriotic American as well as a friend of Israel should think about some other things as well when Netanyahu addresses the AIPAC conference on Monday. Despite the smoothness with which he operates in U.S. political circles, he does not have U.S. interests at heart. That observation by itself is unremarkable; we should not expect any leader of a foreign government to have U.S. interests at heart. But of course the U.S.-Israeli relationship has been not just another bilateral relationship. Despite the enormous, exceptional and automatic support that the United States bestows on Israel, Netanyahu has not hesitated to slam the door in the face of Israel's patron and protector. He has done it repeatedly regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—most notably concerning the continued Israeli colonization of captured and disputed land—and now he is doing it again regarding Iran. Notwithstanding the huge effort the Obama administration has put into constructing an unprecedented international-sanctions regime that supposedly is intended to get Tehran to change its nuclear policies, Netanyahu's government has been undermining any chance of negotiations that would be the forum for registering and confirming such a change. It has done so by stoking hostility and distrust through terrorist attacks inside Iran and by insisting on conditions (involving an end to uranium enrichment) that clearly are nonstarters for Iran. In remarks in Ottawa before coming to Washington, Netanyahu flatly denounced any negotiations with Iran as unwise.

Netanyahu and his government do not represent the views of Israelis in general. At least some of the objectives that drive that government's posture toward Iran, including maintaining Israel's regional nuclear-weapons monopoly and diverting attention from the situation on the West Bank, do not represent U.S. interests either. Then there is the emotional side of the Israeli attitude toward this issue, which does extend beyond the Israeli government to much of the population. Given history and the awful anti-Israeli rhetoric of Iranian leaders and especially Iran's president, this side is understandable. Netanyahu clearly feels this side, in ways that—as Jeffrey Goldberg has described—involve a legacy from Netanyahu's father. At a personal level, this is all not only understandable but maybe even laudatory. President Obama seemed to be saying so when he noted in his AIPAC speech “the profound historical obligation that weighs on the shoulders of” Netanyahu, Barak and other Israeli leaders. But actions that flow from viscera and emotions are not to be equated with what is in the interests of Israel. And they certainly are not in the interests of the United States.

TopicsDomestic PoliticsElectionsForeign AidK StreetIdeologyPublic OpinionPsychologySanctionsNuclear ProliferationTerrorism RegionsIsraelAustriaIranIraqGermanyUnited StatesPalestinian territoriesNorth Korea

The Militarized American State of Mind

Paul Pillar

The extent to which the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Barack Obama has used military force has been the subject of much comment. The actions that elicit such comment are easy to see, from a surge of troops in Afghanistan to the extensive and widespread use of unmanned aerial vehicles to kill suspected terrorists. But the actions disguise the dominant inclinations of Obama. Unlike his predecessor, he has never wanted to be a “war president.” He has resisted the militarization of American policy. The best indication of this is his clear opposition to a provision in a defense-authorization act passed late last year mandating that foreigners suspected of being al-Qaeda members be put in military custody rather than being subjected to the civilian criminal justice system. The president sharply criticized the provision in a signing statement, indicating that he would interpret a waiver provision in the law to preserve maximum flexibility. This week he did exactly that, issuing a waiver and associated guidelines effectively to undo as much of the objectionable legislation as is in his power to undo.

Insofar as the administration has seemed to head for a military path, it has been responding to several unavoidable pressures and circumstances. One is the legacy of a couple of ongoing wars that it inherited. Another is the traditional Democratic concern about not appearing to be wimpy on matters of national security. The largest factor, however, is a pervasive contemporary American habit of thinking about almost anything involving a foreign challenge or security threat in warlike terms, which in turn leads to thinking about military means as the most appropriate tool for dealing with the problem.

In analyzing the considerable continuity between the latter part of the Bush administration and the Obama administration in counterterrorist policy and practices, Marc Lynch has noted how the “media and political class” have “deeply internalized Global War on Terror framing” even though the war-on-terror terminology is no longer in official vogue. That framing severely restricts what any administration can do, even if no one is trying to score a political point or gain an electoral advantage.

The legislation about mandatory military custody for certain terrorism suspects demonstrates how much we are dealing with an attitudinal habit rather than careful consideration about what makes for effective policy. Although supporters of the legislation may have thought of themselves as being tough guys on terrorism, the effect of the law was to reduce the tools and options available in dealing with suspected terrorists. President Obama is right to use waivers aggressively to resist this aimless bit of machismo.


TopicsCongressDomestic PoliticsDefenseTerrorism RegionsUnited States

Israeli Opinion and War With Iran

Paul Pillar

Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland, in cooperation with the Dahaf Institute of Israel, has just released the results of a poll taken within the past week of Israeli opinion toward Iran and American politics. Israeli attitudes toward the efficacy of a military strike against the Iranian nuclear program parallel the range of views one hears on that subject in the United States. If there is any surprise, it is that Israeli views are not any more hawkish than they are, notwithstanding the war rhetoric that the Netanyahu government has been disseminating for many months. (Anyone who doubts the ability of government drum beating to build public support for a war should recall the enormous effect on American public opinion of the George W. Bush administration’s drumbeat on Iraq.)

Only 22 percent of Israelis believe that a military strike by Israel would delay Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons by at least five years; another 22 percent estimate a delay of three to five years. Nine percent of Israelis believe the delay would be only one or two years. Thirty percent of the respondents believe a strike would either have no effect on the Iranian program or would accelerate it. Asked what the effect of an Israeli strike would be on the Iranian government, respondents were evenly split between those who believe a strike would weaken the Iranian regime and those who believe it would be strengthened.

On the key question of whether Israel should launch such a strike notwithstanding the fact that the United States and powers advise against it, only 19 percent of Israelis favor a strike even in the face of U.S. opposition. Thirty-four percent oppose a strike no matter what. A plurality—42 percent—would back a strike only if it had at least the support of the United States.

That last result should form the basis for President Obama’s main talking point when he meets with Prime Minister Netanyahu next week. The president should make it clear that if the Israeli government launches a war, it will not have U.S. support. This would mean that such an act of strategic foolhardiness would also be an act of political foolhardiness for Netanyahu, given that it would fly in the face of the views of the large majority of Israelis.

This advice admittedly runs against the customary way of looking at relations between Israel and the United States, in which we seem to have become resigned to the former country playing the politics of the latter country like a violin. But the superpower patron, not just the generously supported client, ought to be able to play too. In this regard, Telhami’s poll offers some additional support for President Obama. Asked whom they would like to win this year’s U.S. presidential election, Israelis split evenly in a race between Obama and Romney, and they clearly prefer Obama in match-ups against each of the other candidates still in the Republican primary race. (The strongest preference for Obama is over Rick Santorum, the candidate who has sounded most bellicose about Iran.) Whatever effect the Republican candidates’ striving to outdo the president as lovers of Israel may be having on the hard-core Republican base in the United States, it doesn’t seem to be winning over a lot of Israelis.

When President Obama addresses AIPAC next week, he should—and undoubtedly will—express continued strong U.S. support for the security of Israel. He also should—but probably will not—discuss the consequences of a possible military strike on Iran in terms that mirror Israeli views as measured in this week’s poll. He should talk about how the most that could be accomplished by a strike is a short-term delay in Iranian activities and that a strike would set the stage for unending military conflict with the Iranians. He should also talk about how the political effect in Iran would be at least as likely to strengthen the loathed regime in Tehran as to weaken it. Why should a U.S. president get in trouble with AIPAC by speaking in terms that reflect the views of the Israeli people? If he does get in trouble, it will only demonstrate anew how AIPAC does not represent the views—or the interests—of the Israeli people as a whole.

Of course, if the president were to speak in such terms he would be met with a chorus of denunciation by American critics who already have been arguing that the military option should be talked up, not down, and that saber rattling is the best way to get Iranian attention and Iranian concessions. But political and psychological imperatives mean that the response of Supreme Leader Khamenei or other Iranian leaders to saber rattling is more likely to be to dig in their heels and be more conscious than ever of the need not to show weakness. Amitai Etzioni’s recent contribution in these spaces is quite correct that negotiation represents the only way out of this dangerous impasse, and that the open promotion of regime change in Tehran only reduces the chance of negotiating anything with the Iranians. But he is wrong that threatening a war is the way to promote negotiations. The idea that the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 was some sort of enticement to negotiate is no more valid with Iran than it was—as some have argued—with Libya. (Qaddafi’s decisions to get out of terrorism, to end his weapons-development programs and to negotiate a new relationship with the United States came several years earlier.) The high point in Iranian cooperation with the United States came in late 2001 and early in 2002, before the Bush administration slammed the door in the Iranians’ face and declared the Axis of Evil. The 2003 invasion was a reminder of Washington’s dedication to regime change, not to negotiation.

Negotiation is indeed the way out of possible disaster, and the way to negotiation—even with the most difficult and obstreperous regimes—is through patient engagement. The most recent development in dealing with the North Korean nuclear program demonstrates that truth once again.

Image: Barack Obama

TopicsDomestic PoliticsK StreetPublic OpinionThe PresidencyPsychologyNuclear ProliferationRogue StatesTerrorismWMD RegionsIsraelIranIraqLibyaUnited States

Why We Exaggerate Dangers

Paul Pillar

Well worth a read is an article by Micah Zenko and Michael Cohen in the latest Foreign Affairs about the pervasive overstatement of threats facing the United States today. The world is not nearly as dangerous now as politicians and intelligentsia alike habitually make it out to be. The overestimation of dangers, argue Zenko and Cohen, badly skews the direction and priorities of U.S. policies, such as with the overmilitarization of America's approach to the world.

Most of Zenko and Cohen's piece surveys how posited threats ranging from Islamist terrorism to the rise of China do not threaten U.S. interests nearly as much as commonly supposed. They also offer some explanations for the proclivity to exaggerate threats. An obvious one is political interest, with Republicans—especially out-of-power Republicans—playing up what they see as a traditional partisan advantage for their party and Democrats anxious to show that they are not wimps on national security. Another explanation is budgetary and financial self-interest, although this applies more to the private sector portions of the military-industrial complex than to government bureaucracies. The bureaucracies' role in the exaggeration process is less a matter of pecuniary interests than of engrained expectations. The biggest annual presentation that the director of national intelligence, for example, is required by law to make to Congress is supposed to be about worldwide threats. So naturally he describes a world that appears to consist mainly of threats.

Additional reasons, beyond the ones Zenko and Cohen offer, also account for the tendency to exaggerate dangers. One is the tendency to perceive as new problems things that really aren't new and we have been dealing with well for some time. A dominant theme in the two decades since the end of the Cold War has been the supposed plethora of “new” and more complex threats. But the theme reflects amnesia about the Cold War, regarding both the relative magnitude of threats then and now and the fact that many of the “new” complexities have been around for some time.

Another reason is a nationalism-based need for foreign enemies. We define who we are in large part by whom we are against, and by implication who we perceive to be against us. Grand strategists floundered in the first decade after the end of the Cold War because, whether we admit it or not, we really missed the good old Soviet menace as a kind of national-security lodestar. The neocons helped to get us out of that strategic anomie by talking up a war with Iraq several years before they got the political opportunity to put their talk into action.

Simple habit in talking about certain supposed dangers is another factor, along with the associated hazard of being seen as out of step with well-entrenched conventional wisdom about such dangers. This has been well in evidence for years with the specter of nuclear terrorism. In one of the candidates' debates in a previous presidential election, when both candidates were asked what they regarded as the biggest national-security concern, both said nuclear terrorism. If the same question is asked of the nominees this fall, they probably will give the same answer. The entrenched expectations mean a candidate would be taking a political risk by giving any other answer. And this is true even though there is ample reason, and ample experience during the nuclear age, to conclude that the risk of this particular danger materializing is miniscule.

This is related to yet another set of explanations, which concerns certain psychological patterns that behavioral economists could tell us about and that account for why a Dick Cheney could tell us to spare no effort to confront even a danger that had only a 1 percent chance of materializing. One such pattern is the tendency to overestimate the probability of unlikely events (especially contingencies that have a vivid or sexy scenario attached to them, such as ones involving unconventional weapons). Something that has even less than a 1 percent chance of occurring we are apt to see as having more than a 1 percent chance. A related common tendency is the overestimation of the probability of a contingency that requires all of several independent events to occur (e.g., if a country can make fissile material and develop delivery systems and have reason to use a nuclear weapon and cannot be deterred, etc.)

With multiple political, cultural and psychological factors at work, it would be hard to kick the habit of exaggerating threats. Awareness of the exaggeration is a first step toward at least minimizing the habit. Zenko and Cohen describe some of the damaging or at least wasteful policy consequences. They say, for example, that “American foreign policy needs fewer people who can jump out of airplanes and more who can convene roundtable discussions and lead negotiations.” The main lesson is that in thinking about different contingencies with different probabilities, we should orient foreign policy at least as much toward the 99 percent as toward the one percent. Sort of like what we need in domestic fiscal and economic policy.

Image: Jaybear

TopicsDomestic PoliticsDefensePublic OpinionPsychologyNuclear Proliferation RegionsRussiaIraqUnited States

Apologies and Misperceived Intentions

Paul Pillar

Republican presidential candidates finally have an actual apology from Barack Obama to talk about: the one concerning the accidental incineration by U.S. forces in Afghanistan of copies of the Koran. One still looks in vain for that worldwide apology tour by the president that Mitt Romney has talked so much about. Evidently Romney has been equating “apology” with any foreign policy that is not my-way-or-the-highway unilateralism. This weekend Romney offered one of the milder criticisms of the real apology about the Korans, noting that in light of the sacrifices the United States has made in Afghanistan, for many Americans the apology “sticks in their throat.” Newt Gingrich has been far more vituperative on the issue, calling the apology an “outrage” and saying that if Afghan president Hamid Karzai doesn't instead apologize for the subsequent deaths of U.S. soldiers “we should say goodbye and good luck.”

The candidates are reflecting repugnance that Americans understandably feel over highly disproportionate and even murderous responses to offenses that are of a far lower order. Even if the incineration were intentional, it was, after all, only books that were burned (ones on which Afghan prison inmates may have already inflicted their own form of desecration by using them to pass messages), which in no way justifies the taking of lives in response. Americans have seen similar ultra-umbrage from foreign Muslims in earlier incidents, in which the work of a Danish cartoonist or a British novelist has become the occasion for death sentences.

Respect for a foreigner's religiously based customs or feelings is one thing; acceptance of associated lethal actions is quite another. I expect the sentiments of most Americans on this subject are similar to those of General Sir Charles Napier, a British military commander in India in the mid-nineteenth century, in reacting to the practice of Sati, or burning a newly widowed woman on her husband's funerary pyre. When Hindu priests complained that the British banning of the practice was contrary to local custom, Napier reportedly replied:

This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gallows on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs.

The apology over the Koran-burning sticks a little in my throat, too, and I suspect it did in President Obama's. But statesmanship is not just a matter of acting on one's sentiments. It instead requires a dispassionate calculation of what is in nation's interests, even if doing what is in those interests may require acting contrary to the statesman's own disgust, impatience or outrage. A calculated apology is hardly something Obama invented. In this case, the clear purpose was to minimize the damaging responses to an incident when American lives are at stake. A statement that the United States intended no offense to someone else's holy book does absolutely nothing to harm the standing and prestige of the United States. Gingrich's reaction is understandable as emotion but weird as policy. If Karzai's government were sufficiently in control of matters in Afghanistan that it should have been able to contain better the popular outburst of the past few days, why are we still in Afghanistan to bolster that government?

More important than words of contrition are lessons we ought to draw from this incident. A broad lesson is the Rumsfeldian one that stuff happens. Stuff especially happens in long, messy wars and complicated internal conflicts. The outburst in Afghanistan is not just a response to the incineration of the Korans but also to a now lengthy record of other incidents and practices that have fueled antipathy of Afghans toward the NATO forces. Before the Koran incident there were the night raids and the collateral damage from many other operations. The trend of Western forces having in many respects worn out their welcome was already clear before last week's controversy.

A more specific lesson is that foreigners frequently attribute to the United States intentions that are more negative and nefarious than its actual ones. We Americans often honestly see ourselves as the aggrieved party because we know our intentions in doing some things that have caused controversy were honorable or even altruistic. But foreign populaces and governments often see things differently, and not just because those out to discredit the United States have promoted such a perception. The belief in negative intentions flows partly from having been conditioned to hold such a belief, just as the previous reasons for resentment over what Western forces have been doing in Afghanistan set the stage for the reaction to the incident involving the prison Korans. Beliefs about intentions also flow partly from the belief that a superpower has its act together, that it is capable of doing what it wants to do and that whatever it does is what it intended to do.

I was reminded of some of this last week by a conversation on the fringe of a panel discussion on Iran. My interlocutors were a retired U.S. diplomat who became a hostage in Iran when the U.S. embassy was overrun in 1979 and a well-educated Iranian American who has lived in the United States for many years but maintains a cultural affinity to Iran and a good sense of sentiment there. The Iranian American apologized to the diplomat for what happened to him more than three decades ago. Then he commented on a remark I had made on the panel, about how the shooting down of an Iranian airliner by a U.S. warship in 1988 was a tragic case of mistaken identity but that many Iranians still believe it was intentional. The Iranian American said he understands at an intellectual level that the United States did not mean to shoot down an airliner but that at some other level, one that is more emotional and rooted in his Iranian background, he still finds it hard to believe that the downing of Iran Air flight 655 was not intentional.

Another ingredient of good statesmanship by U.S. leaders is the taking into account of the tendency to misinterpret U.S. intentions unfavorably and the shaping of U.S. policy in awareness of that tendency.

Image: isafmedia

TopicsCounterinsurgencyDomestic PoliticsNATOPublic OpinionThe PresidencyReligion RegionsAfghanistanIranUnited States

Two Separate and Different Wars

Paul Pillar

Thomas Ricks offered an observation this week about the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, stating that he expects the former to be a greater long-term mess than the latter. I expect he’s correct, but his comparison led me to think about how much these two wars get linked together and discussed as a tandem in American debate and discourse. Much of this linkage, unlike Ricks’s comparison, has not been helpful in thinking about these two wars and the lessons that ought to be drawn from them.

The unhelpful linkage began in a tendentious and propagandistic way when the Bush administration put both of them under the label of “War on Terror.” It did so as a way of promoting the war in Iraq. It did so even though Iraq had nothing to do with the 9/11 terrorist attack, whereas military intervention in Afghanistan in late 2001 was a direct and understandable response to 9/11, aimed at the group that perpetrated the attack and at the regime that at the time was hosting the group. Unfortunately, much of the news media and those engaging in policy debate came to use the “War on Terror” terminology in terms similar to those in which the Bush administration used it.

The two wars do genuinely share other attributes. They both became major drains on U.S. resources. They both involve the use of force to try to shape events in divided societies plagued by complex conflicts. Even the roles that the two wars play in current American politics have similarities. Opponents of President Obama criticize him in each instance for not prosecuting a big enough military campaign for long enough. But the parallels quickly break down. Mr. Obama himself was opposed to the Iraq War from the beginning but has presided over an extension of, and even a surge in, the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan. Indeed, his view of Afghanistan as a good war in contrast to the bad war in Iraq probably has been a major influence on his policies.

Iraq and Afghanistan get bracketed as twin test cases in discussions of counterinsurgency, or COIN. As has been true for decades—since U.S. military officers as well as the American public turned away from the bad experience of the Vietnam War—COIN has had ups and downs in interest and acceptance that actually have had less to do with COIN itself than with the particular tasks to which the United States has tried to apply it. It is worth noting that the U.S. military expeditions in neither Iraq nor Afghanistan started out as counterinsurgency missions.

The major lessons that should be drawn from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan do not concern COIN, and the lessons are very different between the two wars. Reflection about the Iraq War should center on how a project that was the dream of a small number of willful people could become public policy with astonishingly little regard for the consequences. The most important specific lesson is never again to let anything as substantial as an offensive war occur without any policy process to examine whether it is a good idea. On Afghanistan, reflection should concern the inability to find an off-ramp after a justified and quickly successful intervention, thereby turning the expedition into a costly, long-term nation-building enterprise. The exit process needs to be shaped in a way that the expedition is not just what Stephen Walt calls “drive-by interventionism.” Probably more doctrine of some sort needs to be developed on this subject. COIN doctrine doesn't do it, nor does theory on the ending of wars, nor does literature on the rationales and criteria for intervention.

I hope whenever the efforts and sacrifices of those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan are memorialized, we will see two separate memorials for two separate wars.  Each is deserving of one. 

Image: broken thoughts

TopicsCounterinsurgencyDefensePublic OpinionMilitary StrategyRogue States RegionsAfghanistanIraq

The Toxic Mix of Religion and Government

Paul Pillar

Our mostly deist founding fathers had a really sound concept in keeping church and state separate, as expressed in the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. They had in mind, of course, a background not yet very distant in their own past, involving a colonial power with an established church and colonies that had been populated in part by religious dissidents seeking to escape persecution. But their concept has just as much value today. Whenever some issue comes up that entails commingling of government and religion, careful examination almost always would lead to the conclusion that the best way to have avoided a mess would have been to follow the founders’ principle of keeping these two things separate. The brouhaha over contraception and health insurance—for a good perspective on this flap, see the commentary on it by Garry Wills—is only the most recent illustration. It demonstrated the downsides of sectarian religious interests trying to shape a government program according to their doctrinal preferences, including the downside of some politicians picking up the sectarian cause because they see a wedge issue that might help them.

The opinion pages in Tuesday’s newspapers have some useful insights on this subject. An op-ed by Samuel Rascoff, a law professor with practical experience in the New York Police Department, criticizes well-intentioned attempts by governmental authorities to discourage radical interpretations of religious doctrine. (His opening vignette involves White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan lecturing to a Muslim student group about what jihad does and does not mean.) Such attempts entail both a strategic and a legal problem. The strategic problem is that government is not a credible authority for religious interpretation. “Young Muslim men in the thrall of radical teachings,” says Rascoff, “will not embrace a more pacific theology because the F.B.I. tells them to, any more than Catholic bishops would have yielded to Mr. Obama’s plan to mandate coverage of contraceptives at Catholic hospitals if he had invoked canon law to defend his position.” The legal problem is that “a government official who sets out to determine what a contested concept within Islam means, or which imams have the right to speak for a particular community, would be in danger of transgressing one of the cardinal tenets of the Establishment Clause: the secular state shall not become an arbiter of religious content.” Rascoff has no problem with attempts to influence religious thinking in nonradical directions, but government will have to take a back seat to private efforts in doing so.

Rascoff notes that if voicing this sort of concern sounds unusual, it is because most cases involving the Establishment Clause that have made it to the Supreme Court in recent decades have concerned not encroachments by government on religion but instead encroachments by religion on government. We still see plenty of this sort of issue today, with many of the latest examples provided by the current non-Romney Republican front-runner, Rick Santorum. Last weekend Santorum voiced one of the odder accusations against President Obama: that the president is motivated by “some phony theology, not a theology based on the Bible.” As columnist Eugene Robinson aptly puts it, the position for which Santorum seems to be campaigning is theologian in chief.

If we're going to ignore any distinction between the political and the religious, maybe newly red-hatted Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York ought to change hats (and sweater vests and vestments) with Santorum. Cardinal Dolan seems to have plenty of political skill, including a common touch. I'll bet if he threw his biretta into the ring right now, he would do pretty well in the Michigan primary. And Santorum sounds like he is running for pope rather than for president.

Another Washington Post columnist, Richard Cohen, adds a final perspective on all this. His column is about Saudi Arabia and especially about Hamza Kashgari, a young Saudi writer who faces a possible death sentence for an irreverent tweet about an imaginary conversation with the prophet Muhammad. Cohen's piece reminds us that whatever is admirable about a state that is modernizing itself as much as Saudi Arabia is in important respects is overwhelmed by frightening medievalism when intolerant religiosity is merged with political power. The United States isn't yet close to Saudi Arabia in that respect, but we ought to be concerned about any steps that bring it closer.

TopicsDomestic PoliticsElectionsHuman RightsThe PresidencyReligion RegionsUnited StatesSaudi Arabia