Paul Pillar

Liberating Foreign Policy in the Second Term

Paul Pillar

After a campaign and election in which, at least as much as in most other election years, foreign policy took a back seat to domestic concerns, we—and the newly re-elected president—should take stock of the foreign policy significance of the electoral decision the American people just made.

Possibly the most significant implication is that the nation has dodged a bullet in the form of what would have been, given a different election outcome, a likely return of neoconservatives to positions of power and influence. Perhaps a President-elect Romney would have surprised us with his appointments, but the ideological pattern in his party and the identities of his advisers suggest otherwise. They suggest that future historians would be scratching their heads to explain how, so soon after the Iraq War, promoters of that enormously costly blunder would be back in position to inflict still more damage.

Lowering the risk of ideologically-driven disasters should be only part of the stock-taking. There are broader implications, having mostly to do with the incumbent president entering his second and final term. Although Barack Obama is still young enough for us to expect vigorous leadership from him right up until January 2017, he will never be running for office again. That should lift much of the weight of the political millstone that drags down policy-making on foreign as well as domestic affairs. It does not remove the millstone completely; domestic political opposition, sometimes of a puerile sort, is a factor even for second-term presidents as they try to strike deals and build coalitions. But a second term opens up distance from the kind of reductionism in the discussion of foreign policy that is part of any effort to win election or re-election.

The extra intrusion of domestic politics whenever hoped-for re-election is a factor impairs the making of sound foreign policy in at least three respects. First, it amplifies the influence of small but nonetheless assertive interests that are different from the U.S. national interest. Second, it requires an oversimplification or dumbing down of policy questions and thus leaves little room for care and precision in crafting strategies well-suited for a complicated world. Third, it encourages politicians to adhere to low-risk positions unlikely to generate political vulnerabilities before the next election. Such low-risk positions tend to lead to policies that are uncreative and offer little potential for positive breakthroughs.

What are some of the themes and directions that our second-term president should adopt to take advantage of having been relieved from the burdens of his last round of electoral politics? One is suggested by an unfortunate tendency that the just-completed campaign season exhibited regarding foreign as well as domestic policy: the tendency to treat a vote for or against the incumbent president as if it were just an expression of approval or disapproval of whatever is going well or going poorly in the country or in the world. Such an attitude mistakenly disregards the causes of the good news or bad news, disregards whether the alternative candidate would have done anything different or better, and disregards whether whatever we are happy or dissatisfied with is something any U.S. president can do much about. The countervailing theme that the re-elected president ought to start emphasizing is that there are many unpleasant things going on in the world that neither he nor the United States as a whole can reshape to our satisfaction, that it is not the responsibility of the United States to correct all such situations around the world, and that attempts to assume such responsibility will often result in costly frustration and failure. Making such observations while seeking re-election invites charges of wimpiness or of trying to avoid responsibility. But the observations are true.

A related theme is that the United States needs to pay more attention to the damage it inflicts, the anger it incurs and the resistance it engenders through many of its own actions—even well-intentioned ones—around the world and to how the effects redound negatively to U.S. national interests. This refers especially to the use of force in other countries. Voicing any such theme amid an election campaign is political poison; it invites attacks from opponents for straying from the exceptionalist orthodoxy that America is never anything other than good and great. Now that Mr. Obama is no longer running against an opponent who conjures up mythical “apology tours,” he should not have to worry as much about such attacks. In fact, the president can educate the public about the realities behind this theme without compromising at all the concept of America's greatness, which involves stature and influence that does not require using a hammer to pound at every gnat that flies by.

As for more specific issues, recall how the presidential candidates responded when they were asked in the last debate to name the biggest foreign or security threat facing the United States (always a flawed question, in its requirement to single out one topic to the exclusion of others). President Obama replied, “terrorism.” A safe answer, but now the president should foster a public discussion about the actual extent of terrorist threats to U.S. interests and about the costs and consequences of measures and policies aimed at countering those threats. The discussion should include material costs amid larger budgetary stringency, and it should include the broader consequences of killing individual suspected terrorists.

Governor Romney's reply to the same question was “Iran.” The substantively appropriate response by his opponent would have been to ask how a second-rate power thousands of miles away could be considered the greatest threat facing the world's sole superpower. But any such questioning would have been politically risky, and so neither candidate rose above the demonization and alarmism in which public discussion in the United States about Iran has been mired. With the election over (and especially before Iran gets preoccupied with its own presidential election in the spring), the administration needs to get away from the demonization and alarmism. Unfortunately, as Jacob Heilbrunn points out, Mr. Obama has boxed himself in somewhat with his categorical statements, matching those of Romney, that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be unacceptable. The good news is that there is definitely an opportunity for negotiating an agreement with Tehran that keeps Iran short of even deciding to build a nuclear weapon. The administration needs to seize that opportunity, with all of the flexibility in negotiations that seizing it requires. The biggest impediment to doing so is likely to be resistance in Congress over the relaxing of sanctions.

The agitation over Iran has primarily been a project of the Israeli government, and this involves an area where the outcome of the election potentially makes a major difference. If Romney had won we would have a president who would outsource a major chunk of U.S. foreign policy to Benjamin Netanyahu, has already written off giving any attention to the defining conflict in the Middle East, and in hoping for re-election would have to keep thinking about what Sheldon Adelson will say the next time he sees him. Mr. Obama has an opportunity to set another course, one far more attuned to the interests of the United States than to those of a foreign government. The opportunity stems not only from his status as a second-termer but also from encouraging signs in recent years (including the voice vote on Jerusalem at this year's Democratic Party convention) that increasing numbers of people are coming to see the political force that has enforced unquestioning support for the policies of the Israeli government as being something of a naked emperor.

President Obama can claim a mandate of sorts for setting a new course in this regard. In addition to winning the votes of a large majority of American Jews, election-night polling showed that four-fifths of that segment of the electorate believe that a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be negotiated, that the United States should take an active role accomplishing this, and that resolution of that conflict is an important U.S. national-security interest.

The lobby that has impeded progress on this subject is, though weakened, still very much around. Opposing it will generate a lot of political ugliness. But the ugliness is not a good excuse for drifting along the old course. What comes closer to a legitimate excuse is the amount of presidential attention required amid fiscal cliffs and all the other demands on that attention.

TopicsDomestic PoliticsElectionsThe PresidencySanctionsNuclear ProliferationPost-Conflict RegionsIsraelIranUnited StatesPalestinian territories

Demands and Negotiating Positions

Paul Pillar

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas received attention the other day with a remark about the possible return of Palestinian Arabs to Israel. He was asked in an interview whether he wanted to return to the town in the Galilee region where he grew up and from which he had been driven as a 13-year-old during the war in 1948 that accompanied the establishment of Israel. Abbas replied that he would like to visit the town but not live there. Although he described himself as a refugee, he referred to the boundary that lasted until a later Arab-Israeli war in 1967 and said that Palestine is on one side of that border and Israel is on the other.

The comment, despite being an apparently unscripted answer to an interview question, was seized on in various quarters as a significant concession on the longstanding issue of “right of return.” Some Israelis hopeful of meaningful peace negotiations, including President Shimon Peres, lauded Abbas's remark. Abbas's Palestinian rivals in Hamas denounced his comment, saying he had no right to make such a “concession” on behalf of the Palestinian people. Both sorts of reactions vastly overstated the significance of the remark.

Abbas hasn't really made any formal concessions on this issue. The official Palestinian position is still that there is a right of return, but when commenting at other times about the right of return Abbas has shown himself to be realistic. He has observed that if all the Palestinian refugees and their descendants, now numbering several million, were to return to Israel that would effectively destroy Israel, and he has no desire to do that, wanting instead to live alongside Israel. He has also appropriately questioned how many Palestinians would want to go back to live in their old home towns. Many say they would in principle, but if the reality would be to live as a minority in the Jewish state, most would have preferences similar to Abbas's own.

What the reactions to Abbas's comment illustrate, besides an overplaying of the comment itself, is a common tendency to confuse a position maintained for bargaining purposes with some kind of intractable bottom line demand. Some elements may have an interest in promoting such confusion—such as in this case Hamas, which tried to use the issue as a stick with which to beat Abbas. Partly because of such promotion, others may genuinely but mistakenly believe that a negotiating position is a rigid demand.

In any conflict with multiple major issues in dispute—and that is certainly true of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians—it behooves each side not to make concessions even on issues on which it is willing to concede until and unless it gets something in return on other issues. Everyone concerned has long realized that a reasonable resolution of the issue of right of return would be some formula that lets Palestinians claim the right has been recognized but that involves only a symbolically small number—no more than a few thousand—actually moving to Israel, perhaps with monetary compensation provided to the rest. Palestinian leaders, however, would be foolish to offer such a formula without getting anything on other issues of concern to them, including borders and the status of Jerusalem.

Similar situations arise all the time, including on other matters of concern to Israel. Why should Hamas, for example, make unilateral concessions involving something such as recognition of Israel if it does not get in return something as basic as recognition of Hamas? On that all-preoccupying matter involving Iran's nuclear program, the Iranians have given ample indication of flexibility on restricting their enrichment of uranium and on much else. But they would be foolish to make unilateral concessions with no prospect of getting anything in return on matters of importance to them.

When someone seems to be adhering to a position that ought not to be a vital interest to them, we should not make the mistake of interpreting this as a mark of obduracy and unreasonableness. More likely it means they are willing to bargain.

TopicsPost-Conflict RegionsIsraelIranPalestinian territories

National Security Begins at Home

Paul Pillar

In the summer of 1919 the U.S. Army Motor Transport Corps sent a convoy of 81 vehicles across the United States, from Washington, D.C. to Oakland, California (and then by ferry to San Francisco). The operation was intended partly to determine what was and was not possible at the time regarding long-distance movement within the country. Almost all of the roads the convoy used beyond Illinois were unpaved. The convoy logged 230 incidents that required it to stop because of accidents, breakdowns, extrication from mud, and repair of wooden bridges that it broke. The average speed was six miles per hour, and the trip took two months.

Participating as an observer for the War Department was a brevet lieutenant colonel named Dwight D. Eisenhower. The experience impressed on Eisenhower the importance of a well-developed highway system for military movements as well as civilian commerce. He was later able to observe, as the victorious allied commander in the defeat of Germany in World War II, what an important part the Autobahn system played in the defense and vitality of Germany.

As president, Eisenhower pushed for the development of a network of high-speed, limited-access highways in the United States. The federal government had already played a major role in development of the nationwide system of roads as it had developed up to the 1950s, through legislation including the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916 and the Federal Highway Act of 1921. Eisenhower signed in 1956 a new Federal Aid Highway Act, which provided for the federal government to fund 90 percent of the construction of a new network of expressways. That network is now officially known as the Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways.

Military convoys constitute only a tiny fraction of the traffic on today's interstates (although the ability of the military to transport personnel and materiel quickly from one part of the country to another surely is still important to national defense). A modern and robust domestic infrastructure has a further link to national security, however, that is even more important: the strength and efficiency of the U.S. economy is the ultimate foundation for being able to provide for the security and defense of the nation. American politicians play lip service to this link from time to time, usually to add rhetorical support to some other point they wish to make about economic issues. But the essence of that link has not been sufficiently internalized and appreciated to the point of being fully reflected in budgets and policies.

Some appreciation for the impact of the interstate highway system—which is just one example of the subject at hand—can be gained from reflecting on the fact that almost 70 percent of the tonnage of freight shipped in the United States, and about three-quarters of the value of that freight, travels by road. Even small inefficiencies in road transport thus can have a large negative, nationwide impact on costs and productivity. Congestion delays cost a lot of money. Understanding the difference does not require going back to that 1919 Army convoy that struggled with muddy roads and rickety bridges. People of my age, old enough to remember what long-distance road travel was like in the pre-interstate-highway days of the 1950s, can understand.

An explicit connection with national defense was made with some other programs during Eisenhower's presidency that did not directly concern the Pentagon's budget. A major piece of legislation in 1958 that provided federal aid to all levels of education was called the National Defense Education Act. Enacted amid alarm over the USSR's launch of the first Sputnik the previous year, a major rationale for the program was to produce more mathematicians, scientists and engineers who would work on overtaking the Soviets in military-related areas where they appeared to have gotten ahead. But even if the act had not yielded a single additional American rocket designer, the boost given to better utilization of the nation's human capital through better educational opportunities helped to strengthen the U.S. economy of the future and as such was again in the interest of national security.

The damage from Superstorm Sandy is great enough that we are seeing now a bit of post-Sputnik-like concern about the need for additional investment in domestic infrastructure to protect the citizenry from future harm. The threat in this case is not from some terrorist group or rogue state but instead from natural disasters, exacerbated by change in the earth's climate. Just as there are multiple ways, not mutually exclusive, for dealing with a threat from something like terrorism (mitigate underlying risk factors, erect defenses, etc.), so too are there multiple appropriate responses to the type of threat represented by major storms. The underlying problem of human-induced climate change unfortunately—as reflected in this year's political campaigns—has received pitifully insufficient attention. Even if it had received more, the climatic changes already in train make defenses against future disasters important. And so, appropriately, ideas are being advanced for public works projects, for example, to help protect New York City from storm surges the next time anything like Sandy hits.

Such measures are expensive, and cost immediately becomes a deterrent. But here are two considerations in thinking about this problem. First, we are talking about national security, in the most literal and central sense. What can be more of the essence of national security than the protection of the citizenry, in the places where they live and work, from physical harm and severe disruption of their daily lives? And what should receive higher priority in public policy than national security, properly defined?

A second consideration whenever cost comes up is to do some comparisons. One proposal, for example, to construct a storm surge barrier across the Verrazano Narrows at the entrance to New York harbor would cost several billion dollars. But as proponents of the idea note, it would be substantially less than the cost of a single aircraft carrier.

Or compare the cost of such projects to the costs of damage from Sandy. It is still far too early, of course, to expect an accurate figure for that, but people whose business is to make such estimates are talking in the range of $45-60 billion. The New York City comptroller estimates that his city has been losing $200 million in halted economic activity alone each day since the storm.

A rational cost-benefit analysis ought to make more attention to this side of national security a no-brainer. It isn't, largely for two reasons, both of which have become more entrenched since Eisenhower's time. One is ideological antipathy to the idea that there are important things to do collectively that do not have to do with the military or with U.S. activities overseas but that are necessary to strengthen and secure the American economy and society, and that government, including the federal government, is essential for doing some of those things.

The other impediment is a diffusion of the concept of national security. We have lost sight of the core sense of securing the daily lives of Americans at home. We have substituted a notion of national security that has been broadened without apparent limit to embrace threats that in fact barely threaten ourselves, foreign conflicts in which the United States has no real stake, and nation-building in other people's nations rather than our own. This notion is a warping of the meaning of national security and is a huge distraction from much else that ought to concern us. It also is very, very costly.

TopicsDomestic PoliticsEconomic DevelopmentDefenseIdeologyGrand Strategy RegionsUnited States

The Seventy-Year Itch

Paul Pillar

Amid uncertainties over whether China's combination of authoritarian one-party rule and a rapidly evolving economy can persist, an academic at the Beijing Institute of Technology notes that many Chinese intellectuals wonder whether 70 years is about as long as any single party can remain in power. The wondering comes from looking at the examples of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party. Uninterrupted rule by the Chinese Communist Party will hit the 70-year mark in 2019.

There certainly is an unresolved tension between China's authoritarian politics and the vibrant entrepreneurial economics that Deng Xiaoping launched more than three decades ago. The tension mainly has to do with free market economics creating independent centers of power, and power inevitably having political implications. Maybe 70 years really is about as long as anyone can finesse a way through such contradictions.

Longevity per se is probably not the critical factor in bringing one-party rule to an end. It is longevity combined with an inability by the ruling party to overcome its founding myths and to stand convincingly for something that entails a bright and successful future and that has positive resonance with the alternative power centers and the general population.

The Chinese and Soviet Communist Parties and the Mexican PRI are revolutionary parties. A fundamental problem with a revolutionary party as a ruling party is that is that its raison d'etre is stuck in the past. The party exists because it was formed to overthrow something in the past, or in the case of the PRI to consolidate the results of a past revolution. Such a party finds it hard to change its identity, in its thinking about itself and the image it has among the public, to something much different that has to do with the future. In effect its new raison d'etre, if any, is just to perpetuate its own power.

For a demonstration of how a different kind of ruling party will not necessarily run up against a time limit, look at Singapore. Despite the difference in size, the ethnic Chinese character of Singapore may make it an apt comparison with China. Singapore is in effect a one-party state; the People's Action Party has governed Singapore without interruption since independence in 1965, and for several years before that when Singapore had self-government under British sovereignty. The PAP holds all but a handful of seats in the national legislature.

The PAP is not a revolutionary party. It convincingly stands for what makes Singapore the modern success story that it is: a stunningly successful entrepot that is far cleaner—both physically and in terms of avoiding corruption—than China and also gets high marks for commitment to the rule of law. What underlies the success and what the PAP stands for is a rational, pragmatic, legal approach to public affairs. Involved in that is a strong commitment to meritocracy. Recognition of the importance of government and of excellence in government for economic success is reflected in the compensation for ministers and senior bureaucrats being among the highest in the world.

The PAP still has several more years of rule before its 70-year mark. But it is a good bet that as it approaches that mark it will not—even if Singapore does not become appreciably more democratic than it is now—elicit the kinds of doubts that are being voiced now about the rule of the Chinese Communist Party. Those doubts are expressed as China is about to transfer power to a new party chief who, whatever his talents, is a revolutionary princeling who represents ties with the past at least as much as the future.

TopicsAutocracyDemocracyEconomic DevelopmentPolitical Economy RegionsChinaRussiaMexicoSingapore

Ideology and Tribalism

Paul Pillar

Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker offers an explanation for why so much of the United States has become divided fairly clearly and consistently into red and blue states—into regions that lean decidedly toward Republicans or toward Democrats. Borrowing ideas from other scholars, including historian David Fischer and psychologist Richard Nisbett, he suggests it is largely a legacy of the patterns of settlement in colonial America. The North was settled mostly by English farmers; the inland South mostly by Scots and Irish herders. Anthropologists tell us that herders, whose wealth is mobile and can easily be stolen, develop a “culture of honor” with an emphasis on using self-reliance and one's own guns, rather than depending on government, to avoid being victimized by rustlers. And from that one can implicitly draw various positions that are associated with the present-day political Right. Farmers do not have the same set of vulnerabilities and thus developed a different culture. As time passed and each culture moved with the frontier westward, the political traditions persisted.

It is an intriguing hypothesis and probably has some validity. There are many other aspects of current American attitudes that are strongly rooted in American history, even going back to colonial times. But before getting to the regional question, Pinker addresses why the views on disparate political issues tend to correlate at all into a Republican clump and a Democratic clump. Why, for example, does knowing someone's view on gay marriage help us to predict the same person's view on military spending? Pinker adduces an explanation—which he appears to accept as valid, even if it does not explain as much as the anthropological hypothesis about settlement patterns—that is based on contending views about human nature. The Right, according to this explanation, has a “Tragic Vision” of people being “permanently limited in morality, knowledge and reason.” This leads to views ranging from the need for guns and a large military for protection against unreasonable people, to respect for customs of religion, sexuality and the like to avoid a slide into barbarism. The Left is said instead to have a “Utopian Vision” that considers human nature to be malleable and “articulates rational plans for a better society and seeks to implement them through public institutions.”

This explanation is not persuasive, partly because it is blatantly inconsistent with some actual political positions associated with the Right or Left. Consider foreign policy, where one of the biggest and clearest examples of a utopian vision is found in the neoconservative belief in being able to remake foreign societies in America's image. The neoconservatives' biggest project, the Iraq War, was about implementing an ostensibly rational plan for making a better society in the Middle East, administered from above by the Coalition Provisional Authority and based on a belief that malleable Middle Easterners could be made into reasonable practitioners of liberal democracy.

Explanations for political beliefs that are based on something like a supposedly coherent view of human nature give far too much credit to present-day American ideologies for being logically consistent. There isn't really any good, logical reason particular views on gay marriage ought to accompany particular views on military spending; it takes intellectual gymnastics to try to tie the two together.

Such explanations nonetheless continue to be offered, largely for two reasons. One is that the explanations themselves may be part of a political agenda or political slant. Pinker acknowledges “conservative thinkers” to be the source of the concept about Tragic Visions and Utopian Visions. That is not surprising. Utopianism is something one is much more likely to attribute to an opponent than to claim for oneself.

The other reason is the tendency of intellectuals to over-intellectualize—to come up with a nifty logical construct and then to assume this reflects the thinking of others. Another example of this is the lead article in the current International Security, which offers an explanation for the different policies of presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy toward the defense of Western Europe, with the former preferring to rely on self-defense by the Europeans and the latter favoring more of a forward commitment by the United States. The article, by Brendan Green, is based on solid scholarship and explores in admirable detail the perspectives of the two presidents to the challenge of deterring aggression by the Soviet Union. But the author then invokes Isaiah Berlin and his two concepts of liberty and tries to explain strategies for European defense in terms of “negative liberals” and “positive liberals.” That's a stretch.

When looking not at presidential policies but instead at voters' preferences, explanations of this type are not just a stretch; they are simply incorrect. Voters going to the polls next week will not have made their choice after brushing up on their Isaiah Berlin and contemplating the different varieties of liberty. Nor will they have contemplated human nature and deduced, based on that contemplation and on ideas about tragedy and utopia, the best ways of dealing with the human condition.

To the extent that the views of most voters on different issues do tend to be grouped into recognizable clumps, this is not because they are all going through the same coherent thought process—or any coherent thought process. It is because they are taking cues from groups with which they identify. The groups might be organized interest groups or identifiable segments of society or the economy. They might be friends and neighbors—and if so, this would accentuate the regional patterns that Pinker addressed. Most of all, the cues come from political parties. Most voters identify with Republicans or with Democrats, and because of this they tend to adopt most of the views that go with their preferred party. A person's views on some issues might underlie the party identification in the first place, but once identified, the rest of the views in the clump associated with the selected party are usually taken on as well.

Anthropologists could help in understanding this phenomenon. It is essentially a form of tribalism. People identify with either the Republican tribe or the Democratic tribe and shape their views on matters of public policy accordingly.

One indication of how much political views and alignments are at least as much a matter of group affinity as an intellectually cogent approach to formulating an ideology is the role of a very anti-intellectual factor: racial affinity and racial preference. Voters' preferences this year are at least as much divided along racial lines as in any other recent election. This no doubt reflects not only the less malign forms of racial affinity but also differential patterns of racial prejudice between followers of the two political parties.

All of this is yet another regrettable consequence of the evolution of American party politics in the direction of a sharper, harsher party division with little room for intraparty free thinking. The demise of moderate Republicans is the principal manifestation of this evolution. The message implied by much of the party politics of today is that all the right answers exist on one side of the divide or the other. This has made the American electorate more mentally lazy than ever. Its part in the political game is simply to pick a tribe and fall in line.

Image: boris.rasin

TopicsDomestic PoliticsHistoryIdeologyPublic OpinionPolitical TheoryPsychology RegionsUnited States

Poorly Learned Lessons About Terrorism

Paul Pillar

Feature articles over the last couple of days in the Washington Post and New York Times demonstrate how counterterrorism as practiced by the United States is subject to contradictory forces and trends. A series in the Post describes how the centerpiece of U.S. counterterrorism has become an increasingly institutionalized killing machine that appears destined to operate indefinitely against a continually replenished list of targets. A piece in the Times describes a backlash over the monetary expense and compromises to privacy and civil liberties, a backlash that seems strong enough to force changes in counterterrorist programs. The different directions implied by this reporting reflect how the nation has failed to assimilate some basic principles about terrorism and measures to counter it.

One of those principles is that terrorism is not something with a beginning and an end. It is instead a tactic that has persisted throughout history. And yet the notion of a beginning and an end persists in thinking in this country about terrorism. The counterterrorism machine has gotten cranked up to run in ways that would not be acceptable to most Americans if it were to run forever, and yet there is no evident point at which, once turned on, it should be turned off. It was inevitable that a backlash would set in.

Related to this point is the prevalent, and equally mistaken, notion that fighting terrorism involves wiping out or incapacitating some identifiable set of people: “the terrorists.” That is the idea behind the hit lists and target matrices. The Post's series depicts a U.S. counterterrorist effort that has become increasingly and narrowly focused on eliminating the people in the matrices rather than on what leads people to become terrorists and to get into the matrices in the first place. The United States, through its policies and actions, does a lot to affect which people, and how many people, become terrorists. Those actions include the drone strikes, with their collateral damage and power to enrage, that have become the preeminent means of elimination.

Another concept that is only slowly and belatedly being appreciated is that counterterrorism involves inherent trade-offs, between security and such things as civil liberties, personal privacy, and alternative use of public resources. The common absolutist attitude toward preventing terrorism, which was especially stark in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, has led most public discussion of the topic to be phrased in terms of what measures are necessary to do the job. But there is no “necessary” level. It is instead a matter of how much security to buy at what price. The answer to that can vary, and vary over time as the same population changes its attitudes. This is a lesson that is only being learned over time and as backlashes have set in.

Most of the important lessons about this subject still have not been assimilated by most of the American public. Over the next few years public support for counterterrorism probably will ebb and flow as it always has: sharply up after a terrorist incident, gradually down as the costs and downsides become more apparent with any incident-free passages of time. Such fluctuation will have little or no correlation with the pattern of actual terrorist threats or with a rational approach to countering the threats.

TopicsPublic OpinionTerrorism RegionsUnited States

Buses, Twisted Arms and Israel

Paul Pillar

Former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy has an interesting op ed which is a response to accusations that Barack Obama has thrown Israel under that proverbial bus under which one's political opponents are continually throwing people and things. The main respect in which the accusations are nonsense, of course, is that during President Obama's tenure the United States has continued to lavish voluminous unconditional aid and protective UN vetoes on Israel and has backed off from even the most tentative effort to exert leverage on it. Halevy's point is that to the extent there has been any American arm-twisting of Israeli leaders, it has mostly occurred during Republican presidencies.

Halevy mentions the clearest specific attempt to use aid as leverage: when the George H.W. Bush administration withheld some loan guarantees to Israel on the eve of the 1991 Madrid conference. He notes how Dwight Eisenhower leaned on Israel and its British and French collaborators to withdraw from Suez in 1956. He recalls how neocons in the George W. Bush administration pressed Israel to allow a free and open Palestinian election in 2006—although the administration lost interest in this bit of democratization of the Middle East when Hamas won the election.

The episode Halevy recounts that is least well known occurred just before the same administration began its war in Iraq in 2003. As Halevy tells it, in order to retain Tony Blair's support for the war in the face of resistance from members of his own Labour Party who demanded in return some Israeli concessions toward the Palestinians, Bush had to declare that the multilateral diplomatic plan known as the “roadmap,” which included an implied end to Israel's sovereignty over all of Jerusalem, represented U.S. policy. The Israeli government of Ariel Sharon strongly opposed the roadmap, but the Bush administration, anxious not to lose the participation of Britain in the war, made clear to the Israelis that it wanted no opposition or complaint from them. Sharon reluctantly went along and got his cabinet to do so too—although one member of it, Benjamin Netanyahu, abstained when the issue came to a vote.

The principal lesson to draw from Halevy's extracts from Middle Eastern history is not just his own point about whether Republicans or Democrats have been more willing to exert leverage on Israel. It is the more basic point that such leverage indeed can be exerted and has been exerted in the past—and has worked.

And yet most of what is said and written in the United States today on anything having to do with Israel pretends there is no such option. Examples abound, having to do with occupation of Palestinian territory, animosity toward Iran, and other topics. In another op ed on Wednesday, on Iran, in which a couple of neocons lay out a schedule over the next few months for diplomacy to be made to fail and for the U.S. war against Iran that they evidently are hankering for to be launched, the authors refer in passing to “those who take the Israeli threat of a pre-emptive strike seriously and believe it would be a mistake.” But even though it would indeed be a big mistake, and even though whatever crisis we supposedly have about Iran's nuclear program is being driven by the threat of Israel starting a new Middle Eastern war, the authors say absolutely nothing, despite all the unused means of U.S. leverage, about addressing that problem.

Neocons in 2003 considered British support for their Iraq War project so important that they were willing to twist Israeli arms to get an Israeli concession, and they succeeded. Isn't avoiding another badly mistaken war worth twisting arms again? Netanyahu didn't yield on that previous occasion, but on the issue of war with Iran he probably is even more of an outlier among Israelis than he was regarding the roadmap. It also certainly is worth exerting some of that unused leverage to salvage whatever chance remains for a stable and long-term solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

President Obama can indeed be criticized for his approach so far toward Israel, but it is by no means the criticism to which Halevy is responding. The failure is not in pressing Israel but instead in not pressing it sufficiently for its own good. If we must use that clichéd bus metaphor, the problem is not in throwing Israel under a bus but instead in not rescuing Israel from a path it is taking on its own and that will cause it to get hit by the bus.

TopicsDomestic PoliticsForeign AidThe PresidencyNuclear Proliferation RegionsIsraelIranUnited States

Considerations for the Foreign-Policy-Minded Voter

Paul Pillar

After a debate that did not do a lot, to put it charitably, to clarify and illuminate differences between the candidates on issues of foreign and security policy, how should a citizen who would like foreign policy to be an important factor in electoral choices think about the choice to be made next month? Here are some considerations that such a citizen (whose recognition of the importance of foreign policy ought to be applauded) should bear in mind and that do not require explicit reference to either of this year's candidates or to specific statements they have made in the campaign.

Limits of the possible. The big, messy, violent and troublesome world outside our borders will be big, messy, violent and troublesome in most of the same respects no matter what the United States does. Even the superpower cannot solve all the problems out there, much less remake the rest of the world in its image. Unfortunately much of what has been said about foreign affairs in this campaign has failed to recognize that principle. That part of the campaign has mirrored the domestic part by sounding as if the question at hand were simply whether we like or dislike what has been going on lately rather than who has the best response to problems that exist and the best understanding of what can or cannot be done about them. We also hear many references to “strategy” but without any specifics about the content of a strategy and without recognition that the first step in formulating a sound strategy is to recognize the limits to what is possible—what we can and cannot do given our available powers and resources. We need to ask in the face of unpleasant happenings, even before asking what we should do about them, whether there is anything we can do about them.

First do no harm. The Hippocratic principle ought to apply to the nation's choice of its leadership. Think about ways in which we would want to revise U.S. foreign policy of the past if somehow we could do that. Probably most of the revisions, and surely most of the really consequential ones, would involve not doing something that turned out to be harmful to the nation's interests, rather than failing to do something one might hope would have been beneficial. In this respect what may be sound advice for living an individual life is not good advice for leading a nation. Maybe it is true that in old age one will regret not trying something more than one will regret trying and failing. For a nation, where the consequences of failure are far greater and long lasting, the regrets will be more about the failures. In choosing leaders we should pay at least as much attention to avoiding those who pose a bigger risk of failure as we do to picking ones who hold out a promise of greater success.

The appointees. A peculiarity of the U.S. political system, as compared to most other advanced democracies, is the installation of huge numbers of political appointees with each change of presidential administration. This political stratum, belonging neither to the ranks of elected politicians nor to the professional bureaucracy, tends to have major influence over foreign policies even more so than domestic ones. So we should realize we are choosing not just a president but a corps of appointees, most of whom have their own strong ideas about the direction policy ought to go. We cannot determine in advance exactly who will wind up in what positions, but we can get a good idea of the possibilities by looking at who has become associated with the campaigns. The more that the candidate at the head of the campaign lacks his own strong and original ideas about foreign policy, as a matter of lack of experience in this area or overall changeability, the more important it is to consider the possible appointees.

Outside influences. Something similar could be said about likely influences on the next president that do not themselves become appointed officials. The influences in question here are ones that could affect foreign policy, but the influences could be found either inside or outside the United States. The latter would include any foreign countries or governments to which the candidate has developed a particular affinity. As with potential appointees, we can get a fairly good idea of the influences on a future president in office from where he has been receiving support and advice before entering office.

First term vs. second term. This is unavoidably a major consideration whenever an incumbent president is running for reelection. It embraces two subissues. One is a matter of risk propensity and in that regard is related to the earlier point about risk of failures. An incumbent's record, and whatever is good or bad about it, will always give us a better idea of what we can expect from the same person in the next four years than the idea we would have with someone who has never held the office.

A caveat to the preceding point is that a president in a second term has different political equities or vulnerabilities than he had in a first term. That gets to the second subissue. It concerns the difference between the sorts of policies produced by a president who will never be running for office again and the sort produced by a president who, given the competitive partisanship that has become a permanent feature of American politics, will be campaigning for reelection from the day he takes the oath of office. Domestic political considerations will naturally bear more heavily on the policies of a first-term president. The foreign-policy-concerned citizen needs to ask whether this influence will on balance tend to produce better or worse policy on matters of importance to him.

On that last point, there is something to be said for the Mexican-style system of electing presidents to a single nonrenewable six-year term. But that's not the system we have.

Image: Malwack

TopicsElectionsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States

A Bicentennial and Centennial Reflection

Paul Pillar

As this year's presidential campaign turns to debates about certain foreign conflicts and controversies with the potential for sucking the United States into war, here is an anniversary-based fact that does not seem to have received notice—certainly nothing like the Cuban missile crisis did this month upon its semicentennial.

The presidents of the United States who were elected 200 and 100 years ago both led the nation into war. Both did so despite earlier indications of personal hesitation and reservation in doing so.

The United States entered war with Britain during the final year of James Madison's first term. The impetus for war came principally from Congressional war hawks from the West and South such as Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun. When Madison sent to Congress in June 1812 what became known as his war message, it did not explicitly ask for a declaration of war. Instead it only listed the maritime and other grievances that the nation had against the British. Congress did declare a war—"Mr. Madison's war”—in which Madison would become the only U.S. president to be chased out of the White House by foreign troops.

A century later, as the European powers sank into the carnage of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson said to his aide Colonel House, “Madison and I are the only Princeton men that have become presidents. The circumstances of 1812 and now run parallel. I sincerely hope they will not go further.” Wilson was elected to a second term in 1916 aided by the slogan, “He kept us out of war.” But only a few months later he asked for and received a Congressional declaration of war. The United States was on the winning side of that war, but mismanagement of the aftermath set the stage for another ghastly European war two decades later.

Notwithstanding the many differences, there are some parallels between the circumstances of a century and two centuries ago and those of today. Let us sincerely hope the parallels will not go further.

TopicsHistoryGreat PowersThe Presidency RegionsUnited StatesUnited Kingdom

Secret, Deniable and Useful

Paul Pillar

Helene Cooper and Mark Landler of the New York Times caused a stir over the weekend with a report that the United States and Iran had agreed “in principle” to bilateral negotiations regarding Iran's nuclear program. Negotiations with Iran on that issue have hitherto involved a larger format, with one side, known usually as the P5+1, including the other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany. Doubts were cast on the Times report by official denials from both the U.S. and Iranian governments, and what is publicly known about just what the two sides may have agreed to is at this time still unclear. Possibly adding to the confusion is an Iranian disinclination to negotiate further even with the P5+1 before the U.S. election identifies who will be leading U.S. policy beginning in January. Further questions have been raised as to why, if there is indeed a factual basis to the Times report, word of such an Iranian-U.S. understanding would leak out now. Speculation has ranged from the leak being an effort to torpedo bilateral negotiations to the news story instead being part of an effort by the U.S. administration to start preparing public opinion for an agreement reached through such talks.

I have absolutely no inside track on what exactly is the true version of this particular story, but I offer this observation: among the most useful negotiations to take place right now would be U.S.-Iranian talks that are held in strict secrecy and that both governments would deny taking place.

The bilateral format—as a supplement to, not a replacement for, the negotiations involving the P5+1—would be useful because the United States is the most important player in the process, because achieving the flexibility necessary to reach an agreement would be aided by not having to reach a multilateral consensus on each concession and because secrecy could be better preserved with a smaller forum.

Secrecy would be useful because both sides are boxed in by their own hard-line statements and by pressure from those wanting to make the lines even harder. For the Iranian leadership, doing any direct business with the Great Satan is a matter of considerable delicacy and risk. For the U.S. leadership, doing anything that anyone could describe as being nice and reasonable toward Iran is also fraught with political risk. Former Israeli intelligence chief Efraim Halevy perceptively noted that the Iranians “would like to get out of their conundrum” given how much sanctions are hurting, but that “both Israel and the US governments have tied our own hands. In the end, you create an inherent disadvantage for yourself.”

The current government of Israel, which is the prime mover in agitating on the Iranian nuclear issue and which disdains the whole idea of negotiating with Iran, is the principal force creating political risk for any U.S. administration that talks with Iran. The Israeli ambassador to the United States said on Saturday, “We do not think Iran should be rewarded with direct talks,” thereby invoking the old fallacy that negotiations are some sort of reward for one side rather than what they really are, which is a tool for both sides. The Israeli government, as a principal potential saboteur of progress toward an agreement, ought to be excluded through secrecy from any opportunity to commit such sabotage.

The other—not unrelated—source of political risk and possible sabotage for the U.S. side is the domestic political opposition to the current administration. An anonymous “GOP strategist” said Saturday that for the United States to accept any Iranian offer of direct talks “would be a dream come true for the Iranian leadership to hold power, and maybe even get concessions on their nuclear program,” thereby invoking the old fallacy (which Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and the subsequent history of the USSR should have put to rest) that negotiating and reaching agreements with an adversary somehow contributes to the adversary's domestic strength and longevity. Note also the use of “concessions” as a dirty word, a usage that implicitly rules out any agreement because concessions by both sides will be necessary to reach one.

There is ample historical demonstration of how secret bilateral negotiations—because they are more conducive to achieving the necessary negotiating flexibility and because they cut out the naysayers and saboteurs—can achieve positive results when other mechanisms cannot. Some of that history has been in the not-very-distant past of the United States. The secret negotiations between Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho (who shared a Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts) that finally got the United States out of the Vietnam quagmire are a prime example. Nixon's and Kissinger's secret diplomacy with China also comes to mind.

We should hope that right now there are talks going on between Iran and the United States that are so secret they do not even generate leaks to the skillful journalists of the New York Times. There may not be, but we can hope.


TopicsDomestic PoliticsUNSanctionsNuclear Proliferation RegionsIsraelIranUnited States