Paul Pillar

Zoning Out in the Middle East

Paul Pillar

This was supposed to be the month for an international conference to discuss a possible weapons of mass destruction-free zone in the Middle East. The concept of such a zone has been addressed in past review conferences of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty (NPT), sessions of the United Nations General Assembly, and meetings at the International Atomic Energy Agency. The official convenors of the conference would be the United States, United Kingdom and Russia, the depository states for the NPT. The gathering was to have been hosted by Finland, with preparatory work having already been done by Finnish diplomat Jaakko Laajava. But a couple of weeks ago the State Department announced that “the conference cannot be convened because of present conditions in the Middle East and the fact that states in the region have not reached agreement on acceptable conditions for a conference.” The principal objector was Israel, which—notwithstanding its vociferous agitation about what it contends is a drive by Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon—has always said that weapons-free zones in its region need to await a regional peace.

Postponing the conference was a missed opportunity. And this matter was not like, say, trying to get the Israelis to stop building settlements in occupied territory, which requires a positive Israeli action to accomplish anything. As one of the convening powers, the United States, along with its British and Russian partners, could have simply gone ahead and convened the conference as scheduled. Israel could decide whether or not it would attend. The conference would be better with Israeli attendance, but could still do some good even without it.

No one believes creation of a nuclear- or WMD-free zone in the region is feasible any time soon. No signs suggest Israel is about to part with its arsenal of nuclear weapons. But the postponed conference was only going to discuss such a zone, not create one. Such discussion can be part of a long-term process beneficial to security in the region.

Nuclear weapons-free zones are a proven and well-established concept. They exist, among other places, in Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia. The State Department announcement and the usual Israeli objections suggest that other types of conflict resolution must precede international agreements restricting categories of weapons. But beneficial spillover effects can work in the other direction as well—just as during the Cold War strategic arms limitation agreements between the United States and the Soviet Union not only achieved reductions in nuclear arsenals but also became a tool of, and an impetus for, a larger process of detente. Among the existing nuclear weapons-free zones, the one in Latin America is especially instructive in this regard. The treaty establishing it was negotiated before Argentina and Brazil had fully given up their nuclear weapons ambitions. The treaty established a framework for hastening that process and achieving broader reconciliation in South America.

Discussion of such a zone in the Middle East would help to move away from double standards and the hypocrisy that goes with it. The Iranians have a legitimate gripe in being subject to enormous pressures over the mere suspicion that they might someday use their current nuclear program to make a nuclear weapon, while their principal accuser and antagonist in the region has had a sizable nuclear weapons arsenal for decades. Any Israelis legitimately concerned about the direction Iran might take on nuclear matters ought to realize that ending the double standard would be the best possible way to take away whatever wind is in Iranian sails. In any event, it is in the interests of the United States not to be involved in such hypocrisy.

Discussion of such a zone would be a step toward a long-term security regime that would be in every regional state's interests, including Israel's. With its overwhelming conventional superiority over its neighbors, Israel would be no less secure in a region in which no one, including itself, has nuclear or other unconventional weapons. A thoughtful case can be made that Israel's nuclear arsenal has not bought it any additional security in the past either.

A related matter concerns Israel's refusal to acknowledge that arsenal, a refusal that precludes useful examination of Israel's security needs even in private conversations with its benefactor, the United States. Israel maintains the public position that it will “not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons in the Middle East”—an outright lie, unless “introduce” refers to some strange and meaningless formality. (“Region, I'd like you to meet my nuclear weapons.”) At least the Syrians, in responding to the recent outside concern about possible use of their chemical weapons, avoid a direct lie by using conditional phrasing and saying “if such weapons exist in Syria, we will not...” The leading historian of Israel's nuclear weapons program, Avner Cohen, argues it would be in Israel's interest to stop the silly opacity and acknowledge the existence of its arsenal.

Meanwhile, refusal to talk about any of these matters does not make the issue go away. A reminder of this came earlier this week when the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution calling on Israel to join the NPT without delay and to open its nuclear facilities to inspection by the IAEA. The vote—174 to 6, with 6 abstentions—was even more overwhelming than the vote on Palestinian statehood. This time the only "no" votes that Israel got besides itself and the United States were Canada and those Pacific powerhouses, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau.

TopicsArms ControlUNSanctionsNuclear ProliferationWMD RegionsArgentinaIsraelRussiaIranFinlandBrazilUnited StatesSyriaUnited KingdomMiddle East

The Meaning of Sovereignty

Paul Pillar

Former Senator Bob Dole, 89 years old, returned this week to the floor of the chamber where he was for many years one of the leading Republicans. He also, of course, had twice represented his party on a national ticket as the nominee for vice president and then for president. Infirm of late and just recently checked out of Walter Reed hospital, Dole was in a wheelchair pushed by his wife Elizabeth, also a former senator. He came back to the Senate to show his support for ratification of a multilateral treaty banning discrimination against people with disabilities. Dole demonstrated in his own career what a talented person with a disability can do. He lacked one of the common tools of a politician: a handshake with the right arm—an arm that in Dole's case had been rendered useless by a severe injury sustained in combat in World War II.

Senator John Kerry, as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, was the principal advocate of the treaty in the Senate debate. In his speech he appealed to his colleagues, “Don't let Senator Bob Dole down.” It wasn't enough. One of those who lobbied against ratification was another former senator, one whose career has been far less accomplished and distinguished than Dole's. Rick Santorum argued that somehow the treaty would not let American parents home-school their kids. The vote on ratification was 61 in favor and 38 against, falling short of the two-thirds needed for ratification.

The opposition to this treaty reflected a generic opposition on the right that extends as well to other broadly-adopted international conventions, to anything having to do with the United Nations, often to treaties in general, and even to most international cooperation in general. Those with this mindset often speak about not wanting to compromise U.S. “sovereignty.” Suspicions were voiced that the disabilities treaty would mean U.N. bureaucrats making decisions about the needs of American children. One could almost hear the black helicopters hovering overhead.

Some of the treaty's opponents also argued that because countries we don't like—and which we like to assume are insincere and hypocritical regarding their international obligations—such as Iran and Syria have signed the treaty, for the United States to adhere to the treaty might imply that we approve of how those countries treat their disabled citizens. That's a strange approach—one that would appear to give the disliked countries a veto over which international agreements the United States does and does not sign on to itself. Moreover, if we regard the United States as sincere in what it says and it what it signs up to internationally, then the message being sent by rejecting a treaty is that the United States rejects the principles embodied in the document.

Sovereignty does not mean handcuffing one's own diplomacy or eschewing international commitments. It instead means a nation acting freely and not being told by another country what to do. Signing and ratifying a treaty are themselves acts of sovereignty. And as John Ikenberry has argued, undertaking commitments through international institutions is one of the best ways through which even a superpower can extend and perpetuate its global influence.

Advocates of ratification patiently explained that the convention on disabilities merely applies to other nations what are already legal obligations in the United States under the Americans With Disabilities Act. Rejection therefore has little practical effect on the United States—unlike with, say, the Law of the Sea Convention, which 163 other states have already signed and ratified but the United States has not. The Senate, however, has missed a chance—which neoconservatives in particular ought to have welcomed—to say something positive about the rest of the world accepting values that Americans have already expressed in their own laws.

TopicsCongressUNHuman RightsInternational Law RegionsUnited States

Going Over the Politicians' Heads

Paul Pillar

President Obama is currently taking starkly different approaches in dealing with two of his chief nemeses: Congressional Republicans and the Israeli government. The former, of course, are his principal antagonists in the tussle over the budget. With the fiscal cliff nearing, and despite some signs of cracks in the no-tax-increase orthodoxy, Republicans entered the post-election budget game with their hard-line game face still very much on. The Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu, in the latest chapter in a long history of Israel slapping its superpower patron in the face, has announced planning for still more colonizing of West Bank territory. This recent move, in the immediate wake of the United States having joined Israel in a lonely small minority opposing United Nations endorsement of the Palestinian statehood that everyone claims to seek, involves land whose colonization through the construction of Israeli settlements would be one of the most blatant blows yet against a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, given that it would appear to render physically impossible a contiguous Palestinian state on the West Bank.

In the battle over the budget, Mr. Obama evidently has concluded that he must appeal directly to citizens in addition to dealing directly with the Republicans in Congress. He has been taking his message campaign-style to the country. But he is taking no such approach toward the frustrations originating with Netanyahu's government. Instead the administration is maintaining the familiar old minimal-daylight, “we have your back” posture toward Israel. The United States, in contrast to sharp protests from several European governments, responded to the latest Israeli announcement on settlements with its usual timid “this is not helpful” slap on the wrist.

Why the difference? The president has had during his first term sufficient bitter and frustrating experience with the opposition party in Congress, whose declared top priority was to try to prevent his re-election, to know that a different approach was necessary if he was to get any result other than more goalpost-moving additional demands. His appeal over the heads of members of Congress is a recognition that the opposition party understands only the language of political force. But Mr. Obama also has had enough bitter and frustrating experience with Netanyahu to warrant reaching similar conclusions regarding dealing with Israel. So first-term experience does not justify the difference in strategies.

There is the obvious distinction that in one case an appeal is being made to an electorate in the United States while in the other case a foreign public is involved. But Israeli interference in U.S. politics has already made that distinction very blurred. The politics of policy on Israel have to do with the feared or expected reactions of some parts of the American electorate (or American financial donors). Israel is in effect just as much a domestic issue as the budget.

In short, there is no good reason the administration should not take an approach toward the Israeli government that is similar to the one it is taking toward Congressional Republicans. A just-released poll of Israeli public opinion conducted by Shibley Telhami provides additional basis for going over the heads of Israeli political leaders. Despite all we have heard about how suspect Barack Obama is in Israel, his current poll numbers there are pretty good. Among all Israelis it is 60 percent favorable to 32 percent unfavorable. Excluding Arabs and counting just Jewish Israelis, the numbers are 62 percent favorable and 30 percent unfavorable.

On the core issue of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, much Israeli public sentiment is very much at odds with the posture of the current Israeli government. A slight majority of Israelis even say they would accept, at least as the basis for negotiation, the Arab League peace proposal of 2002 based on 1967 borders. On the other big issue on which Netanyahu has been causing so much trouble—Iran—there also is some good public sense in Israel to which to appeal. Only one-fifth of those polled would favor a military attack on Iran without U.S. support.

Going over the heads of Israeli political leaders can look more positive than confrontational. Natan Sachs argues that Obama should take a page from the book of Bill Clinton, who helped gain some influence with Israel by charming the Israeli public. A charm offensive would be harder for Obama to do than it was for Clinton, but he should try. In some respects he will have a willing audience.

TopicsCongressDemocracyDomestic PoliticsForeign AidPublic OpinionNuclear ProliferationPost-Conflict RegionsIsraelUnited States

Constitutional Confrontation in Egypt

Paul Pillar

The stage in Egypt seems set for yet another surge of political tension and high drama over the coming fortnight, as President Mohamed Morsi has designated December 15 as the date for a referendum on the just-written constitution. The outcome of the referendum will no doubt be widely seen as a test of strength between Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and its secular opponents, whether it ought to be seen that way or not. The document will be regarded as a Brotherhood product, given a boycott of the constitution-writing assembly by liberal secularists and Christians, and given also Morsi's claiming of special powers to prevent the judiciary from negating the work of the Brotherhood-dominated constituent assembly. The rush with which the drafting of the constitution was completed and with which it will now be put to a vote conveys to many Egyptians an impression of railroading something through. Morsi's recent Mubarak-like pronouncements about threats from “conspiracies” have added to the forbidding atmosphere.

The hastily written draft constitution has something for everyone to dislike, but democracy in Egypt will not live or die based on the result of the referendum. Nor will the balance of power between Islamists and secularists depend on it. Morsi's opponents might even be well advised to drop resistance to letting the new constitution come into effect. Doing so would in a sense be calling his bluff. The powers he claimed for himself at the expense of the judiciary would expire, and the president under the constitution will be a less powerful president than Morsi claims to be now. And as Morsi himself noted, the constitution can be amended.

Secularists might be comforted by noting that the Salafists are unhappy enough with the constitution that they have announced they will boycott the referendum. The Salafists complain that the document vests sovereignty in the people rather than in God.

Egypt needs some kind of constitutional structure if subsequent debates about the direction of the country are to be conducted within an orderly framework rather than being part of a game where all the rules are made up as the game proceeds. Any representative political system needs to start with someone making up rules and acting without having previously recognized authority, but it cannot stay that way indefinitely. Of course Morsi cannot point to any widely accepted authority to claim the power to issue the decree he did the other day, but the other actors in the Egyptian political game don't have much more of a legal basis for doing what they are doing either.

Any U.S. officials or other Americans who offer advice to the Egyptians during this politically interesting time might allude to the experience of the United States in establishing a constitutional order during its early days. The writers of the U.S. Constitution certainly exceeded their authority when instead of amending the Articles of Confederation they created an entirely new constitution and specified that it would come into effect with less than unanimous approval by the states. The participation in writing the constitution was incomplete. Rhode Island did not attend, the New Hampshire delegates arrived late, most of the New York delegates left early, and several who stayed for the whole meeting refused to sign the product. Significant opposition to the document persisted, and demands for amending it were strong enough for the first ten amendments to be a task of the very first Congress. The lesson is that the success of, and respect for, a constitution is a function of the political habits and attitudes toward it that develop over time. It does not depend on the legal basis on which it was initially written, and it does not depend on who was in power or who favored the constitution when it was first written.

TopicsDemocracyDomestic PoliticsHistoryPolitical Theory RegionsEgyptUnited States

The Most Important Question About Libya

Paul Pillar

The political inanity about what was said or not said in the first hours and days after the incident in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens continues, and it continues to move farther away from anything of importance to U.S. policy and U.S. interests. With the fixation on minutiae about the editing of some preliminary talking points, it moves farther away even from anything that makes sense in terms of competitive politics. Even if the Obama administration had wanted to manipulate a public version of the Libyan events to help re-elect the president, how would any manipulation on this matter have done that? When has the Obama administration ever contended that international terrorism is not a major security problem (bin Laden or no bin Laden)? Such a contention would only make it all the harder for the administration to justify and explain those drone strikes and how they have become increasingly frequent under Mr. Obama.

It appears that preemptive opposition to a possible nominee for secretary of state is now part of what is sustaining the momentum of what began as a tactic in an election campaign. Please let us focus instead on how in terms of attributes and experience this person would or would not be qualified to be secretary of state, rather than how she handled her talking points on talk shows one Sunday.

Perhaps something else that helps to make this supposed issue credible is an underlying assumption that the foreign intervention that helped to overthrow Muammar Qadhafi, and in which the United States participated, was a good thing and left something approaching a stable situation in Libya. If that assumption were true, then maybe it would make sense to dwell a bit, when violence nonetheless occurs, on the relative influence of things such as Islamophobic films and the machinations of extremist groups. But if instead what was left in Libya is a highly unstable and chronically violent situation in which the plans of terrorist groups, the uncontrolled activities of multiple militias, the inability of governing authorities to secure their own territory, and mass resentment against certain things associated with the United States all get mixed together in a constantly bubbling lethal brew, then any such dwelling is almost pointless. It is the latter situation that in fact describes much of Libya, including Benghazi, today. As Kareem Fahim reports in the New York Times, Ambassador Stevens was only one of about three dozen public servants who have been killed in Benghazi alone over the last year and a half. The government is weaker than the militias, and even militias that have been relied upon as ersatz public security forces are unwilling to go after the likes of Ansar al-Shariah, a group accused of involvement in the attack that killed Stevens.

I have discussed before how one of the largest entries on the balance sheet of the intervention to overthrow Qadhafi is the disincentive it created for other regimes who otherwise might have been willing to reach agreements on weapons programs, terrorism, or other important issues but now are less likely to make a deal because they have a vivid demonstration of U.S. untrustworthiness. Other parts of the balance sheet concern the instability of what was left behind in the country where the intervention occurred. Some in Washington who still believe the intervention in Libya was a good idea are hesitant to intervene in Syria because the United States avoided American casualties in Libya but maybe the same could not be said of an intervention in Syria. Immediate American casualties are certainly a good reason for hesitation, but not the only reason. Sometimes what appears to be the avoidance of casualties is only the delaying of casualties. Christopher Stevens and the other Americans who died with him represent that.

Instead of all the business about preparation of talking points and demeanor on talk shows, the most important question about events in Libya is: was the intervention there worthwhile, and what are the implications for dealing with problem countries elsewhere in the Middle East?

TopicsDomestic PoliticsElectionsFailed StatesNuclear ProliferationTerrorism RegionsLibyaUnited StatesSyria

Hamas and the Two-State Solution

Paul Pillar

Wikimedia Commons/Soman.What is one of the first things Hamas does when it is fresh off standing up against an Israeli assault and widely perceived to have gained ground politically at the expense of its intramural rival, Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority? It voices support for Abbas's effort to get his organization's status at the United Nations upgraded from observer to “non-member state.” Given the way Hamas is routinely suspected and reviled in some quarters, this move is sure to give rise to explanations that are convoluted and conspiratorial—that what Hamas is saying is a ruse, or is just a tactic for harassing Israel, or is a step toward shoving the Palestinian Authority aside while Abbas is down.

The explanation that is simple and straightforward, and ought to be obvious, is much more likely to be accurate: that Hamas supports the creation of a Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel, and that diplomacy is the preferred way to achieve that goal. That's all that anyone who endorses Abbas's initiative at the U.N. is signing up to. And it is what everyone with a hand in this long-running conflict—including Israel, the Palestinians, the Quartet and the Arab League—claims to support. The Hamas spokesman said that his organization supports any political gains that Abbas can make at the U.N. “without causing harm to the national Palestinian rights.”

Although some saw this position by Hamas as surprising, there is no reason for any surprise. Hamas has repeatedly made clear that it will support the establishment of a Palestinian state limited to the 22 percent of the mandate of Palestine that would be represented by the 1967 borders, provided that such a settlement is approved by a majority of Palestinians in a referendum. The land swaps that are generally recognized as being necessary to accommodate some of the facts that Israel has established on the ground since 1967 represent a small step from that formula, as long as the 1967 borders are taken as the starting point for any such trades.

And yet the government of Israel, and Americans who sing that government's tune, and much of the American media habitually describe Hamas and the objectives of Hamas as something much different. The usual formula is something like “Hamas is dedicated to the destruction of Israel.” Attempts to substantiate such a description often point to Hamas not having formally recognized Israel and its right to exist. Well, it hasn't, but neither has Israel recognized any right of Hamas to exist (even after Hamas won a free all-Palestinian election). Not only that, but Israel has done everything it can to try to squeeze Hamas out of existence, going to the extreme of collectively punishing the population of the Gaza Strip in an unsuccessful effort to do so. It is Israel that appears to be dedicated to the destruction of Hamas.  Why should Hamas be expected to bestow the first recognition, gratis, under such circumstances?

One also often hears that all Hamas is offering is a hudna or truce, rather than a commitment to a final settlement. That will be a distinction without a practical difference. The agreement that ended the Korean War 59 years ago is only a hudna, but that peace has held even though the regime north of the armistice line is far more erratic, illegitimate, and downright scary than Hamas. Besides, anyone can see—and Hamas's leaders are not dummies—that Israel, the strongest state in its region, is here to stay no matter what its borders. Even if the most extreme, negative assumptions about Hamas's intentions and objectives were true (and they very likely are not), being part of (or even being the ruling party in) a Palestinian state in that 22 percent would not bring it any closer to being able to destroy or even undermine Israel. Instead, it would have that much more to lose from the certain retaliation if it were to renege on an agreement that finally established the long-sought Palestinian state.

An upgraded status for Palestinians at the United Nations merely levels somewhat the diplomatic playing field for the bilateral negotiations that will still be needed to bring a real Palestinian state into existence, as well as reconfirming the objective that everybody involved says they share. It would thus be a positive step. Don't just listen to what Abbas or Hamas say on the subject. See what former Israeli diplomat Yossi Beilin, who helped to craft the Oslo accords, says about it. See also the statement on the subject by Gro Harlem Brundtland, who was the Norwegian prime minister at the time the accords were negotiated, and Jimmy Carter, who based on his past experience also knows a thing or two about Arab-Israeli negotiations.

Probably some in Israel and the United States will see Hamas's endorsement of Abbas's U.N. initiative as another reason to oppose the initiative. If the governments of Israel and the United States continue foolishly to oppose this move and to invest political capital in trying to defeat it, we will have come in a sense full circle. The organization that is continually accused of not wanting a peaceful diplomatic settlement will have signed on to a process aimed at moving toward such a settlement and giving it additional multilateral approval. It will be its chief accusers who fail to do so.

TopicsUNHuman RightsPost-Conflict RegionsIsraelUnited StatesPalestinian territories

Congo the Colossal Cripple

Paul Pillar

Flickr/Julien Harneis.There's been more fighting lately in the eastern portion of Congo. Again we are led to think about how a country that occupies such a large part of the map can get pushed around by a much smaller neighbor such as Rwanda. This time a rebel group known as M23 and suspected of being backed by both Rwanda and Uganda has scored advances against Congolese government forces and recently seized the provincial capital of Goma.

What ought to gain our attention about conflict in this painfully conflict-prone section of Africa, besides any complications regarding access to its mineral resources, is the repeated involvement of multiple nations and the sheer magnitude of some of the bloodshed and human suffering in the area. The five years of warfare, ending in 2003, that centered in this same portion of Congo involved the forces of eight countries and a couple of dozen armed groups and led to the deaths of more than five million people, many of them from disease or starvation connected directly to the fighting. That toll made it the deadliest war anywhere since World War II.

None of this means there is much of anything the United States can or should try to do about the situation in Congo. The complicated and confusing lines of conflict make this area one of the least promising venues for effective outside intervention. (A United Nations force is present; it has mostly been only a spectator as M23 has made its advances.) To the extent that bloody events in this part of Africa have had any influence on American policy thinking it has probably not been on balance good. The war of 1998-2003 came on the heels of a shorter war in Congo that in turn was triggered by developments that followed the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Subsequent hand-wringing over that latter event has served mainly to inject more emotion than reason into U.S. policy deliberations. An intervention in Libya based on a dubious rationale about preventing a presumed bloodbath was one result.

The situation in Congo, although it does not imply a particular policy response, may have more general implications about sovereignty, territory, and what makes for a viable nation-state. Maybe Congo is just too big. No one has ever really governed it all, although the autocratic kleptomaniac-strongman Joseph Mobutu came closest. The territory that is now Congo was first assembled as an ill-managed private possession of a nineteenth century Belgian monarch. The Belgian government later took over the mess and did some good things, but effective governance of a territory that is 75 times the size of Belgium itself was beyond its capacity. When Congo became independent in 1960 it was in turmoil from day one, with a president and prime minister trying to remove each other and the wealthiest province trying to secede. With more than half a century having gone by since independence, there probably is sufficient grounds for calling this experiment in nation-building a failure.

Africans have since independence generally refrained from challenging the often illogical boundaries that European colonialists had left them, lest this lead to unstoppable unraveling. The secession of the southern portion of Sudan is a recent and conspicuous exception. The jury is still very much out on how that story will turn out, and there is not an obvious line of division in Congo that is even as clear as the (nonetheless contested) line in Sudan. But if Congo were to break up that would not necessarily be cause for regret.

TopicsAutocracyUNFailed StatesPeacekeepingPost-Conflict RegionsBelgiumLibyaUnited StatesDemocratic Republic of CongoSudanRwandaUganda

Gaza, Iron Walls and Mowed Lawns

Paul Pillar

Flickr/folkehjelp.The recently suspended round of organized violence in the Gaza Strip has a depressing familiarity, being similar to other rounds between Israelis and Palestinians. The physical harm inflicted has been as usual enormously disproportionate, with the Palestinian-to-Israeli death ratio being 27-to-one (admittedly, that's down from about 100-to-one during Operation Cast Lead four years ago). There is the same callous disregard for civilian lives and livelihoods. The firing of notoriously inaccurate rockets into Israel is almost by definition an intention to harm civilians. The larger and much more accurate Israeli violence being perpetrated in the other direction is adorned with claims of wanting to minimize civilian casualties. The rubble to which civilian offices and private homes alike in the Gaza Strip have been reduced makes such claims a cruel joke. Much of the targeting of civilian structures came in a final spasm of Israeli operations in the last 24 hours before the cease-fire went into effect.

Also familiar is the U.S. posture toward all of this: acting as almost a cheering section for the Israeli operations, while offering little more than the barest acknowledgment of the suffering that Palestinians were enduring.

Finally, there is the same lack of any prospect that the latest round of violence makes still more rounds any less likely. To the contrary, this latest round makes the hatreds and antagonisms on both sides as intense as ever, setting the stage for still more Israeli-Palestinian fighting. There will be plenty of potential triggers for more large-scale violence to break out at any time. An incident Friday along the Gaza border, in which Israeli forces evidently shot to death a young Palestinian man, provided an early test of the new cease-fire. Additional tests will likely come from the actions of radical Palestinian groups Hamas is unable to control. No reasonable outside observer would say that this latest round of Arab-Israeli warfare has accomplished anything worthwhile.

It is customary after each such round to categorize the players as winners or losers, and some such scoring is fairly easy to do with this round. Egypt and its president, Mohamed Morsi, are winners for being able to get away from their own internal problems long enough to win compliments for mediating the cease-fire. Morsi, however, may be overplaying his hand by choosing this moment of international acclaim to make a controversial grab of more power for his own office.

At a political level Hamas may be on balance a winner. This is largely for the general reason that when the weak confronts the strong—in this case, Hamas's David against Israel's Goliath—anything that is not capitulation or collapse and that can be portrayed as standing one's ground tends to be seen as a win for the weak. It does not appear that the latest suffering of Gazans is being translated into a movement among them to blame Hamas. Hamas's political and diplomatic position has been bolstered by recognition and visits from a parade of foreign leaders before and during the fighting.

In an even narrower and very short-term political sense, one might say that Benjamin Netanyahu is a winner—if one accepts speculation that part of his reason for launching the war at this time was to shape the Israeli public mood in a direction favorable for him and his Likud party when Israeli voters go to the polls in January. But there is currently no strong prime ministerial alternative to Netanyahu anyway, and any election advantage he bought with the war is probably marginal.

The losers are much more numerous. Foremost among them are the residents of the Gaza Strip. They have suffered not only 162 dead and hundreds wounded at the hands of the Israeli military, but also the destruction of much infrastructure that had only recently been rebuilt with difficulty following the devastation of Cast Lead.

Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas is a loser, mostly for slipping further into perceived irrelevance. He has lost further ground to Hamas as an essential player in dealing with Israel. He was already vulnerable to such a result because of how his treatment by Israel has caused him to lose credibility among many Palestinians.

Israel and ordinary Israelis are losers. This was not so much because of any physical damage (and the impressively performing Iron Dome anti-rocket defense system has to be considered a winner), but rather because of Israel becoming ever more deeply entrenched as a target of international isolation and condemnation. The Gaza operation also has caused Israel to sink more deeply into a mire of moral coarseness.

For related reasons, the United States also is a loser. The automatic, unthinking condoning of Israeli actions and apparent insensitivity to Palestinian suffering has provided another occasion and another reason for a substantial slice of the world's population to resent, hate, and withhold cooperation from the United States.

We are all quite familiar with the political mechanisms in Washington that have long kept the United States from acting in its own best interests on matters involving Israel and its conflict with Arabs, and from using the leverage it could apply to this subject. For American political leaders the safest course is not to stray from what has become a firmly established, politically correct path. And perhaps we should not be surprised that even a newly re-elected Barack Obama is showing no early signs of straying from that path. Politically in Washington, everything is related to everything else, and one can always come up with excuses for not stirring up a political hornet's nest on any one issue because one has to focus on solving some other problem such as the budget and the deficit.

But excuses are not enough. And the most recent Gaza war is a salient enough event to be the sort of break point where one could start charting a different path. We need to find ways to make lemonade out of this latest lethal Middle Eastern lemon. What those concerned about the current course need to do is to point out how—given where U.S. interests as well as justice and logic lie—it should not be nearly as politically hazardous as the conventional wisdom supposes to diverge from that course.

An opportunity to start diverging will come very soon, if Abbas's Palestinian Authority moves ahead with its idea of seeking some kind of enhanced status in the United Nations system. The absurdity of denouncing as “unilateral” the reference of any matter to the most multilateral forum on earth ought to be self-evident. It also should be clear that any elevation of the Palestinian Authority's status in any U.N. bodies does absolutely nothing to preclude or impede the bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that are necessary to resolve the conflict at hand. If the United States has any hope of salvaging the P.A. as the “good” Palestinian organization—in the face of its loss of credibility as Israel continues to erect settlements in Abbas's face, and now with the latest demonstration of the P.A.'s irrelevance on Gaza—Abbas needs the tidbit of some symbolic status at the U.N. Perhaps the United States has stuck to the Israeli line too long and too openly on this issue to expect the administration to do an about-face in the next week. But at least it could quietly reduce its opposition to Abbas's move. So far it has been carrying the Israelis' water on the issue so vigorously that it has gotten other governments, notably the British, to do so as well. The British are opposing the P.A. initiative because the United States opposes it, and the United States opposes it because the Israeli government opposes it. The Israeli government opposes it because the issue provides another way of arguing that the absence of peace negotiations is the Palestinians' fault, and because Israel would experience still more multilateral condemnation and pressure if the P.A. had standing to bring issues related to its conflict with Israel before additional multilateral bodies.

The latest episode involving the Gaza Strip is also a good occasion and good reason for the United States to abandon its self-crippling refusal to have any dealings with Hamas. Sending Hillary Clinton to the region was a waste of jet fuel, because by refusing to communicate with one party to the conflict at hand, the United States could not do what Egypt was able to do. The U.S. position reflects another self-contradictory Israeli position. The Israelis have complained in the past about not having a united and viable negotiating partner on the Palestinian side, but they scream every time Abbas has moved to repair the split between Fatah and Hamas. In any event, Hamas is a Palestinian player that, as the events of the last week demonstrate, matters and is here to stay.

All of that is still more a matter of tactics than of strategy. For the United States to be strategic means, among other things, confronting directly a strain of thinking in Israel that Netanyahu represents but is by no means limited to him, and that one can hear in some of the discourse in Israel in response to the clash in Gaza. According to this thinking, Israel was not a loser at all because of international condemnation and isolation, because the condemnation and isolation are an unavoidable part of being Israel—a sort of cost of doing business. Israelis, by this view, have to live with the prospect of being in perpetuity a militarized state in conflict with its neighbors, periodically coming to blows with them. Israel, by this view, can sustain such an existence indefinitely because it is so much stronger than the neighbors, especially the hapless Palestinians.

Major aspects of this view reflect the thinking of the old-line, hard-line Zionist Ze'ev Jabotinsky, who is often considered the ideological father of Likud and whom Netanyahu's own father served as a private secretary. Jabotinsky essentially argued that Palestinian Arabs were predisposed to oppose the Zionist project altogether, and that the project could succeed only through implementation of an “iron wall” of force to keep the Arabs in check. The hard-liners of today actually go a step farther in reliance on force than did Jabotinsky, who said that eventually, once the Palestinian Arabs had been confronted long enough with sufficient force to lose hope, agreements could be reached with them. (He was not clear what shape any such agreements would take, and he had a territorially expansive view of what land the future Israel should embrace.) Today the prevailing metaphor in Israel is not so much a wall (notwithstanding the literal wall Israel has built in the West Bank) as it is lawns to be mowed. The periodic use of force, such as we just saw in Gaza, is likened to mowing the lawn. Sure, grass grows back, but Israel will just mow it again later. The process can continue forever—no agreements necessary.

This is not a view the United States can reason with. It is a view that represents fundamentally different values and priorities from those of the United States. The United States should present its policy, publicly as well as privately, toward this conflict in terms of a choice that parties to the conflict can make. To anyone who genuinely seeks to resolve the conflict through compromise and agreement, the United States should promise to be a very active partner. And then act on that promise.

To anyone who instead envisions, and behaves as if he envisions, unending conflict, the U.S. response will be to distance itself from such behavior. That will be the necessary response not only because of what unending conflict means for the parties to the conflict but also because of the harm it can mean to the United States, and specifically the harm that comes from being closely associated with a forceful, no-agreement, indefinite lawn-mowing approach. And then, just as important, act as necessary on that promise.

Washington can and should phrase such a policy in an entirely neutral, even-handed way. Netanyahu and his ilk have counterparts on the Palestinian side, although they are fewer because perpetuation of the status quo is so much more miserable for Palestinians than it is for Israelis. But Israeli citizens are smart enough to understand the message.

TopicsDomestic PoliticsUNHuman RightsForeign AidPost-Conflict RegionsIsraelEgyptUnited StatesPalestinian territories

Sequence Deficit Disorder

Paul Pillar

Flickr/Velo Steve.A recurring difficulty in public recriminations about past actions and debate about ongoing problems is the absence of a sense of sequence—of an accurate understanding of what happened when, and in particular of whether certain things happened before or after certain other things. Many much-discussed events enter the recriminations and debates as individual points of controversy, detached from any time line or comprehensive narrative. They become like flashbacks in a creatively edited movie, in which the audience has to stay well engaged to keep track of what happened when. The film editor does not want to make the audience's task too hard, lest his product sink into incoherence. Outside the movies and in the real world, there often are people with an ax to grind who try to get us to fit the flashbacks into a preferred story, which may be inaccurate. Even without ax-grinders, our minds try to fit the detached events into a story that is easily comprehensible, even though again it may be inaccurate.

Such insensitivity to sequence may be found, for example, in recriminations over the George W. Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq. The easily comprehensible story is that the decision was based on bum intelligence about unconventional weapons. But the intelligence estimate that became the subject of nearly all the after-the-fact criticism wasn't written—in fact, work on it hadn't even begun—until after the administration had not only made the decision to go to war but had already moved into high gear its campaign to sell the war to the public. (There still was a Congressional resolution to be voted on, but hardly any members of Congress bothered to look at the estimate.)

The political silliness over the lethal incident at Benghazi provides additional examples. The most glaring one came right at the outset, when Mitt Romney, seizing on the incident as a prop for his campaign, described as the Obama administration's first “response” to the incident a statement that the U.S. embassy actually had issued before the incident. Now we continue to hear endless professed outrage about what Susan Rice did or did not say, with her sayings thrown into public discussion alongside observations that have been made since then about what lay behind the attack on the U.S. facility. Lost again is any sense of sequence, and in this case any distinction between confusion and uncertainty in the early hours after the incident and understanding that has been acquired only later.

The Petraeus affair offers other recent examples, particularly in recriminations about how the FBI handled the case, how an able public servant has been lost because a private matter had become public, etc. Seemingly escaping notice is that the matter became public only when Petraeus himself announced his resignation and cited an extramarital affair as the reason. Neither the FBI nor anyone else had made anything public before that. If the whole business were to have ended differently, it would have had to have been in one of two ways. One would be that nobody says anything publicly (with or without an FBI investigation), in which case the security implications of potential for blackmail would be very much an issue. The other possibility is that Petraeus discloses the affair but says he is not resigning. We should give him enough credit for realizing that the image of an adulterer clinging to his job would have been inconsistent with both the values he propounded and his continued ability to lead his agency, and that the honorable thing for him to do was instead to resign.

Now there is the warfare in the Gaza Strip. I recalled the other day the sequence of events at the start of the current upsurge in violence. But the deficiency in temporal understanding is not just a matter of who started the newest round of fighting. Israeli demands that “the rockets must stop” before Israel ceases its lethal operations feed a general impression that the story is one of Hamas rockets first, and Israeli response afterward. This overlooks that most of the rockets fired from the Strip since Israel's Operation Cast Lead four years ago have come in these last few days—after, and in response to, Israel's newest operation. So we have not only a demand for a one-sided cease-fire but also a bizarre rationale in which the stated reason for the operation is to prevent the very response that the operation itself engenders.

Gregory Johnsen, who has done extensive field research in Yemen, raises what may be something similar in U.S. policy. Johnsen argues persuasively that lethal strikes from drone aircraft have enabled terrorist groups to win more recruits who are angered over the collateral damage from the strikes. He cites as evidence how the estimated strength of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has risen in correlation with the frequency of the drone strikes. Despite this indication of counterproductivity, do not be surprised to hear others argue that the increasing strength of Yemeni terrorist groups is all the more reason we need to pound them with Hellfire missiles.

There is no known cure for sequence deficit disorder. We can perhaps ameliorate some of the consequences by demanding that anyone who starts making assertions about Y being a consequence of X should make explicit reference to chronologies or time lines to support the assertion.

TopicsCongressDomestic PoliticsPublic OpinionPsychologyPost-ConflictWMD RegionsIsraelIraqUnited StatesPalestinian territoriesYemen

America's Flawed and Fragile Democracy

Paul Pillar

Before the 2012 election fades in our memories, displaced by sex scandals and other attention-getting news, Americans ought to reflect on what works well and—even more worthy of reflection—what works poorly in their representative democracy. I'm not talking about post-mortems concerning the specific electoral outcome and what led a particular party or candidate to win or lose. I instead am referring to serious deficiencies that ought to trouble any American, regardless of liking or disliking this month's election result, who values a healthy and fair political system that respects the will of the people.

Some of the most undemocratic aspects of what American electoral democracy has become were in display at least as much in this most recent electoral cycle as in any other. One concerns the role of money, in the wake of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision and the ineffectiveness of the Federal Election Commission reaching new depths. Much commentary since the election has noted how little return some of the biggest campaign bankrollers received on their investment. But any single election result does not negate the outsize role that money has assumed in American elections and how much that role runs contrary to the principle that in a democracy elected representatives are supposed to represent people rather than dollars. The Supreme Court's reapportionment decisions of the early 1960s established the principle that elected representatives represent people rather than acres or trees. Now dollars have been given back some of the role that was taken away from the acres and the trees.

Then there is the unconscionable inconvenience that many citizens have to endure to exercise their right to vote. Long voter lines even led to a line in Barack Obama's victory speech. In the decentralized American system of administering elections, the problem is largely due to assorted inefficiency, incompetence and misplaced resources at the state and county level. The added twist—an even more alarming one, with regard to subversion of democratic principles—this year was the concerted effort by adherents of one party to make voting more difficult, in the belief that those who would be dissuaded or prevented from voting would mostly be supporters of the other party. The net effect of court actions on this subject was to mitigate this problem by striking down some of the voter suppression efforts. But the efforts were still an outrage; voting is one of the most fundamental rights in a democracy. It also was an outrage that there were not more expressions of outrage—from Republicans, Democrats and independents alike—over the suppression efforts. Give credit for candor and honesty, however, to the Republican legislative leader in Pennsylvania who spoke openly about how the suppression effort in that state “would allow Governor Romney to win.”

Dissuading the other side's supporters from voting is not uncommon in political systems in less developed countries—systems that we usually are apt to disparage. Ultimately the difference between the suppression efforts in the United States and, say, what Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union does to its political opponents is more a matter of degree (especially degree of physical brutality) than of kind.

Another undemocratic contrivance—undemocratic because in a democracy voters are supposed to choose their representatives rather than representatives choosing their voters—is gerrymandering. It has become more of a science than an art in recent years thanks to more sophisticated and extensive polling data and computer software that can take advantage of the data. Both parties practice it when they have a chance. Democrats in Maryland perpetrated one of the most egregious recent examples. But because Republicans have majority control in more state governments than the Democrats do, the net effect nationally has been to help Republicans. Republicans retained a solid majority of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives this year even though Democratic House candidates won more total votes than Republicans. The natural concentration of Democratic strength in urban areas has something to do with this anomaly, but so does the gerrymandering.

Each of the aforementioned flaws has a self-perpetuating quality, and encourages perpetuation in power of whoever happens to be in power now. State legislators who have a majority set the voting rules and draw the legislative districts (for their own seats, not just for Congress) to increase the chance of their own party retaining control. The role of big money in the post-Citizens United era increases the chance of electing presidents who appoint the sort of Supreme Court justices who hand down decisions such as Citizens United. And so on. The self-perpetuation is not as strong and irretrievable as in a non-democratic system such as the one controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. But there are closer parallels with, for example, Iran, which has a freely elected president and parliament but in which self-perpetuation is facilitated by the role of the supreme leader and by interlocking relationships among bodies such as the Guardian Council and the judiciary.

Some of the most worrisome current threats to the health of American democracy come not from matters involving elections specifically but instead from the attitudes and habits of mind—i.e., the political culture—that are at least as important for the health of any democracy as elections. We saw one such threat when leaders of the party in control of one of the houses of Congress, when they had not won enough political power in the government overall to get their way on budgetary matters, tried to get their way anyhow by threatening to make the nation default on its debt. In other words, they abandoned democracy for extortion.

Another threat was succinctly expressed in a comment from the minority leader of the U.S. Senate that was as candid and as appalling as the comment from the legislative leader in Pennsylvania. He said that his party's top priority in Congress was for “President Obama to be a one-term president.” The comment was quite honest, as borne out by his party's behavior during the subsequent Congressional term. Making the toppling of a political opponent more important than anything else, including legislating in the national interest, is just the sort of dysfunctional political culture that tears democracies apart. There are parallels to this overseas, too. Bangladesh comes to mind as a good comparison.

For a democracy to work well and to stay healthy, the political players in it must have respect for the interests of the nation as a whole that overrides preference for any one electoral outcome or hatred for any one political leader. They also need to respect political outcomes that shape policy and not resort to non-democratic threats of harm to the national interest. What we have seen in recent years are disturbing lapses from both those requirements.

One conclusion is that there may not be as wide a gap as generally supposed between democracy in America and democracies elsewhere that Americans may be quick to disdain. A second conclusion is that bearing the first conclusion in mind adds useful perspective in evaluating and responding to political processes in other countries. The most important conclusion is that American democracy is more fragile, and its health more precarious, than most Americans like to think. Americans ought to be alert to what threatens their democracy from within and to punish—democratically of course, at the polls—those who would undermine it.

TopicsCongressDemocracyDomestic PoliticsElectionsThe Presidency RegionsBangladeshIranUnited StatesZimbabwe