Paul Pillar

Spoilers in the Sinai

Paul Pillar

In many international conflicts some of the greatest potential for escalation and hindrance to de-escalation come not from the main parties to the conflict but from the fringe—from extremist groups that have no desire to be part of a plausible peaceful order and aim to spoil any progress toward establishing one. In Northern Ireland, for example, much of the slowness in moving toward a peace agreement even after the main IRA had decided to accept one was due to continued terrorist operations by die-hard groups that had splintered from the IRA. In South Asia, the pace of Indian-Pakistani detente has been set too often by terrorist groups rather than by the two governments. In the various dimensions of the conflict between Israelis and Arabs there also have been numerous instances of the extremist fringes of both sides exacerbating tension and impeding any lessening of it.

The attack Sunday in the northeast corner of the Sinai peninsula falls into the same mold. Armed gunmen overpowered an Egyptian border post and then used stolen Egyptian vehicles to race across the Israeli border before being stopped by Israeli airstrikes. The attack, by as yet unnamed militants in the Sinai, was against the interests of all of the major players in the area, and all of those players condemned it. Egypt had 16 of its soldiers killed as well as control of its sovereign territory challenged. Israel was the target of an armed assault across its border, even if a small one. For Hamas, the ruler of the Gaza Strip, the attack suspended a hoped-for expansion of its commerce with Egypt. One of the Egyptian responses to the incident was to close indefinitely the border crossing at Rafah, which has been almost the only point of significant relief from the Israeli blockade and isolation of Gaza.

One of the ways in which fringe-perpetrated incidents increase tensions among major players is by stimulating false accusations of responsibility. The incident in the Sinai is no exception. Statements from both the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas suggested that it was somehow an Israeli operation. Meanwhile, the Israeli ambassador in Washington, perhaps operating on general instructions to blame Iran for anything it can possibly be blamed for, declared on Twitter and his Facebook page that “Iranian-backed terrorists” were the perpetrators. There was no more evidence for this than for Israeli involvement, and Israel's defense minister, Ehud Barak, later said the attackers were part of "apparently some kind of global jihad, with unclear connections"—which is probably the most that can be said about them so far.

The main parties to a long-running conflict should respond to an incident like this by using it as an opportunity to act on their shared interests, not to make propaganda. Egypt, Hamas and Israel all share an interest in curbing the extremists who—based not just on this incident but several others—appear to have made increasing use of the Sinai as a base of operations, especially since the beginning of the distractions and disorder in Egypt associated with the overthrow of Mubarak. Egypt and Hamas should show no tolerance for ludicrous accusations against Israel, such as that it engineered an attack that ended up being aimed at its own territory. Israel needs to do some more fundamental rethinking, especially regarding what it wants from its peace treaty with Egypt. Linked to that agreement were severe restrictions on what military forces Egypt could deploy in the eastern Sinai. Such restrictions made sense in the 1970s; they make less sense now, given a military balance that renders preposterous the idea of Egypt wanting a new war with Israel, along with internal security in this part of Egyptian territory having become a more serious concern for both countries. Israel has granted piecemeal permission to Egypt to increase its Sinai deployments somewhat beyond the limits originally established when the treaty was signed. This amounts to micromanaging how another country arranges its own military forces on its own territory. Evidently the Israelis are worried that a more wholesale revision of the deployment restrictions might cause the peace treaty itself to unravel. That would not be a problem if the other part of the Camp David accords were observed.

Israelis also need to realize that, just as even the closest allies have some conflicts of interest, even the bitterest of enemies have some shared interests. No provision for security in this corner of the Middle East can ever be complete without including whoever governs the Gaza Strip. Security problems illustrated by Sunday's incident on the border are reminders of how the policy of trying to strangle Hamas rather than dealing with it does not serve anyone's interests, including Israel's.

TopicsPost-ConflictTerrorism RegionsIsraelEgyptPalestinian territories

Plans and Interventions

Paul Pillar

It ought to be reassuring to read reports that the Departments of State and Defense are planning for various messy contingencies associated with the civil war in Syria. In general it is better to plan than not to plan. An irony, however, immediately comes to mind. A large-scale U.S. military intervention that lasted nearly nine years in a neighboring country was undertaken with insufficient planning—or insufficient attention to what planning did take place—regarding what would follow the toppling of that country's ruling autocrat. Now, extensive planning is being done for Syria, where, notwithstanding the agitation of some for the United States to get more actively involved, no one expects anything close to the sort of involvement that the United States had in Iraq. Some of the planning for a post-Assad Syria that the State Department reportedly is doing now sounds remarkably like a set of studies about a post-Saddam Iraq that the department initiated before the Iraq War but that those most responsible for launching and managing that war pointedly disregarded—to the extent that Donald Rumsfeld barred the State Department officials supervising the studies from attending meetings at the Pentagon.

The differences in the two episodes reflect the different approaches of the men at the top. One occurred under a president with confidence and swagger who trusted his gut, assessed people by looking into their eyeballs, and responded to some problems and dangers by saying to bring 'em on. The other is occurring under a president who, in reviewing policy regarding yet another intervention—in Afghanistan—took so much time in mulling over the implications of available options that he opened himself to charges of dithering.

But maybe the different patterns regarding planning reflect more than just different operating styles at the top. Perhaps anything as bold and brazen as launching the Iraq War requires so much rose-colored optimism that careful planning for messy contingencies seems to those with the optimism to be something between an insult and a waste of time. Probably even more important to those who promoted the Iraq War was that any indication of planning for a mess would imply that there would be a mess, and that would have made more difficult the selling of the war to the public. Conversely, to the extent that Syria is accurately perceived as a no-win mess, this perception both limits any ideas about getting the United States more deeply involved and leads to a realization that planning is prudent even without deep involvement. So maybe there isn't that much irony involved after all.

Former ambassador James Dobbins said of the planning about Syria, “This is certainly a useful exercise, yet planning divorced from resources and power, as these efforts necessarily are, will have only limited impact on actual events.” This comment needs to be taken to heart. Although planning is generally better than an absence of planning, a potential hazard regarding the Syrian situation is that any attention to what the United States should do in response may inadvertently encourage the false notions that the United States has much ability to shape that situation and that by getting more deeply involved it can turn it into something other than a no-win proposition.

Image: vpickering

TopicsCounterinsurgencyHumanitarian InterventionPost-Conflict RegionsIraqUnited StatesSyria

The Plutocratic Tradition in America

Paul Pillar

I recently read a book by University of Maryland historian Terry Bouton, Taming Democracy, which is an account of the intense struggles over wealth and power that emerged in the earliest days of the United States. Bouton's detailed research was focused on Pennsylvania, but he describes patterns that also appeared elsewhere in the infant republic. The core of the story he tells is that the colonial coalition that made possible the political break with Britain fractured even while the Revolutionary War was still in progress, as wealthy interests in the colonies quickly had second thoughts about the democratic fervor that they had helped to set in motion and how it might jeopardize their ability to amass still more wealth. Those interests then devoted themselves to implementing public policies aimed at protecting and promoting the wealth of the moneyed class, and to structuring politics and government in a way that—per the title of Bouton's book—prevented the more numerous members of lower classes from overturning those policies.

The story demonstrates that strong class consciousness and class-specific drivers of policy have been a major part of American politics since independence. A key part of that class struggle all along has been a strong sense among a wealthy elite of separateness from the non-wealthy, and of having a right to push hard for public policies that favor their own class even if they are clearly detrimental to others.

A major figure in Bouton's account is the Philadelphia merchant and financier Robert Morris. Morris certainly has a good claim to being considered a founding father; he was one of only two persons (Roger Sherman of Connecticut was the other) to have signed the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, and U.S. Constitution. Morris also vigorously promoted policies that favored the financial interests of people like himself while adding to the economic difficulties of his less advantaged fellow Pennsylvanians. One of his major projects was the first privately owned bank in the United States, the Bank of North America. As Morris envisioned it, the bank would be the sole issuer of currency in the state, a function it would perform in the same extremely tight-money way that had gotten Pennsylvanians literally up in arms against the British, and that favored the interests of creditors over those of debtors. Morris and his fellow share-holders in the bank used their political clout to prevent competition from any additional new banks, public or private. The paper currency that the bank issued did not come close to meeting the broader public monetary needs in the first years of independence. It circulated mostly among merchants and government contractors, and the smallest denomination ($20) was too large for the average American of the day to acquire. Morris didn't care. He wrote to Alexander Hamilton, “If my notes circulate only among mercantile people, I do not regret it but rather wish that the circulation may for the present be confined to them and to the wealthier members of other professions.”

An even more blatant ploy of using government to favor his own class's interests at the expense of others concerned speculation in war debt. Amid poverty, scarcity of money, and uncertainty about government funding of debt, many holders of IOUs—who had furnished support to the war effort ranging from food to blacksmithing—sold them for cents on the dollar to speculators who hoped to redeem them eventually for much more than that. Morris not only participated in this game but openly promoted it. He told the Continental Congress in 1782 that speculators should be encouraged to buy up the IOUs “at a considerable discount” and then have the government bring the pieces of paper “back to existence” by paying them off at top dollar. This big transfer of wealth would provide the affluent with “those funds which are necessary to the full exercise of their skill and industry.” Bouton writes, “As Morris saw it, taking money from ordinary taxpayers to fund a huge windfall for war debt speculators was exactly the kind of thing that needed to be done to make America great.”

We have tended to whitewash such aspects of American history from our consciousness, for several reasons. One is the hagiography we customarily apply to the founding fathers. Another is that we lose sight of the connections between class consciousness of the past and that of today by euphemizing today's version and espousing more subtle notions of trickle-down economics than the crude version that Morris espoused. People of his economic stratum were known at the time as “gentlemen”; today they would more likely be called “job creators.” A further reason is Americans' belief in the national myth that America is less stratified into classes, and exhibits more mobility between classes, than do other countries and especially the old countries of Europe. That myth has become increasingly distant from fact in recent decades.

Morris demonstrated how there was more potential for downward mobility in his time than in ours. Leveraged commitments he made as a land speculator fell through when the Panic of 1797 and the drying up of foreign investors' money because of European wars caused land prices to collapse. Morris lost his fortune and spent three years in debtors' prison. His present-day counterparts who make similarly large losing bets are not thrown into debtors' prison, regardless of the broader consequences of their bets. Instead they are likely to live comfortably on previously stashed away bonuses, carried interest, and other winnings.

One of the most noticed of the economically driven domestic conflicts in the early days of the republic was the anti-tax resistance centered in western Pennsylvania in the early 1790s that became known as the Whiskey Rebellion. Hamilton may have regarded his levy on booze as a sin tax and thus as an acceptable way to fund the debt that the new federal government had assumed, but that is not how the tax-resisting common people in rural Pennsylvania saw it. For them whiskey was not just a drink but a form in which to economically market their grain and even a medium of exchange—a substitute for money in what were still extreme tight-money times. The structure of the tax also favored larger distillers in eastern cities over the smaller farmer-producers in the West. The Whiskey Rebellion tends to get treated in textbooks today as a landmark in establishing the authority of the fledgling federal government. But it was first and foremost class warfare—as was the forceful response to it, which was cheered on by well-to-do gentry anxious to quash what they regarded as a democratic threat to their class's economic position. Today “class warfare” gets hurled as an epithet against political opponents, but class warfare—waged by classes above as well as ones below—has a long history in America.

TopicsBankingCurrencyDemocracyDomestic PoliticsEconomic DevelopmentHistoryPolitical Economy RegionsUnited States

Pressure Madness Continues

Paul Pillar

Here we go with another round of Americans on different parts of the political spectrum trying to outdo each other in pushing for more pressure and punishment on Iran. As usual, all this pushing is almost totally devoid of any attention to exactly how the pressure and punishment are supposed to accomplish anything useful or to why they haven't accomplished more than they have so far. In coverage of the most recent legislative intensification of the pressure—on which the White House cooperated with Republicans and Democrats in Congress—one searches in vain for any sign of understanding of the basic principle that sanctions can only be one-half of any attempt to influence another government and that as long as Western negotiators fail to couple Iranian concessions with any significant relief from sanctions, the Iranians lack incentive to make concessions no matter how much pressure they feel. And don't even bother searching for signs of attention to why the contingency that supposedly is driving all this—a still nonexistent Iranian nuclear weapon—should be such an obsession, beyond repeated chants of the mantra that, to use the words of one presidential candidate, it would be “the greatest threat to the world.”

Pressure on Iran has long ago passed the point of becoming a seemingly mindless, endless exercise in pressure for pressure's sake. In the absence of any attention to the role of Western negotiating rigidity or flexibility, we have the spectacle of people calling for more of something that they themselves acknowledge isn't working. Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, for example, notes that the goal of the sanctions is to change the political calculus of Iran's leadership and then observes, “There's no evidence to date that the sanctions have achieved that objective.” A statement the White House released on Tuesday proudly enumerates at length all the ways the administration has inflicted pain on Iran but—apart from noting how a few of the more focused sanctions have directly impeded nuclear activities—says nothing about what any of this is accomplishing, or could hope to accomplish. There is not a word about the critical role of negotiating positions. It is as if the economic pain is a good in itself, which it isn't—for Iran, for the United States or for anyone else.

The sanctions story has been pushed so hard for so long that politicians are running out of creative ways to exert more pressure. One of the latest offerings is from Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who, evidently stimulated by reports of military cooperation between Israel and Azerbaijan, suggests stoking ethnic Azeri nationalism in northwest Iran as a way of frightening Iranian leaders with the threat of U.S. aid for “the legitimate aspirations of the Azeri people for independence.” The dumbness of this idea is explained by Farideh Farhi, who asks us to “imagine a member of a parliament from another country sending out a letter to their government asking for support to be given to Hawaiian nationalists or for the return of California to Mexico.” Another consideration is that most Azeri Iranians are far too integrated into the social and political fabric of Iran to think in separatist terms. The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is half Azeri, and opposition leader and former prime minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi is wholly so. Perhaps an even better analogy in the U.S. context would be someone promoting the separation from the union of Massachusetts in order to realize the legitimate aspirations of Irish Americans for independence.

When future historians try to make sense of the pressure madness, a nonexistent nuclear weapon is not likely to be much of the explanation, because that simply does not make sufficient sense of the phenomenon. The current role of Israel in American politics clearly provides much of the explanation (and for an especially crisp description of that role, see Thomas Friedman's latest column). Americans probably also are receptive to the Israeli message because the demonization of Iran helps to fulfill a historically conditioned need for foreign dragons to confront and to slay.

Image: AslanMedia

TopicsDomestic PoliticsSanctionsNuclear Proliferation RegionsIsraelIranUnited States

Raul's Proposal

Paul Pillar

Last week Cuban president Raul Castro used a Revolution Day ceremony as the occasion for making seemingly impromptu remarks in which he offered to talk out all of his country's differences with the United States. Everything would be on the table, said Castro, including issues of political and human rights in Cuba, as long as the discussions were “between equals” and Cuba was free to bring up any of its grievances against the United States. “If they want to talk, we will talk,” he said, adding that the same message had already been conveyed through diplomatic channels. A spokesman for the State Department rejected the proposal, saying essentially that Cuba would first have to implement democratic reforms and improve human rights before there would be engagement. The spokesman also mentioned the case of Alan Gross, an American imprisoned in Cuba on charges of illegally importing communication gear while on a U.S.-funded democracy-building program.

The internal politics of the United States, not those of Cuba, are what makes any change in the U.S. posture extremely unlikely in the near term—especially in an election year in which Florida is once again a swing state. But at least after the election is over, U.S. policy makers ought to look carefully at the multiple upsides and lack of any significant downside to taking up Raul on his offer. Engagement does not imply endorsement, the United States usefully engages with regimes whose records on democracy and human rights are at least as bad as Cuba's, and the Gross case is only one of the more recent developments in a piece of Cold War ostracism that has now lasted half a century. Even the internal political consideration has been diluted as the older Cuban exile generation, which has always been the most fervently opposed to any dealing with a regime led by a Castro, has been growing older and dying off.

Sometime this fall, the United Nations General Assembly will for the twenty-first consecutive year consider and pass overwhelmingly a resolution denouncing the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. Last year's resolution passed with 186 votes in favor, two opposed (the United States and Israel), and three abstentions (the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau). In some previous years the Marshall Islands and Palau had voted against, before shifting to abstentions. The only other countries that—going back to the 1990s—had ever voted against the resolution were Albania, Paraguay and Uzbekistan. The condemnation of nearly the entire world community is one of the obvious downsides of the persistent U.S. attempt to isolate Cuba. The hypocrisy and inconsistency that becomes apparent when one compares U.S. policy toward Cuba with U.S. policy toward many other deeply flawed regimes is part of what the world community notices. It also notices how this unsuccessful U.S. policy serves only to make Cubans poorer. The biggest monetary losses may actually be suffered by U.S business. What little relaxation of the trade embargo has occurred in recent years has been in response to pressure from U.S. business, especially agribusiness. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates that the embargo still costs the U.S. economy $1.2 billion annually; other estimates are significantly higher than that. In return for these costs, the trade embargo and the associated political ostracism have accomplished absolutely nothing in the way of political change inside Cuba. If half a century is not long enough to demonstrate the futility of the policy, how much longer will it take?

Getting beyond the Cold War is a theme often voiced in appeals to change or reform certain operations of the U.S. government. Policy on Cuba may be the hoariest Cold War relic still found in Washington.

Image: Roosewelt Pinheiro/ABr

TopicsDemocracyDomestic PoliticsUNHuman RightsSanctions RegionsCubaUnited States

Culture and a Few Other Things

Paul Pillar

I really thought I was finished commenting on Mitt Romney's visit to Israel and that he had no more news to make until he went to Poland to talk about standing up to the Russians. I also seldom feel much sympathy for those who claim to be offended by someone else's politically inspired remark. Remarks, however, that not only are offensive but also reveal a profound misunderstanding of an important situation or a destructive approach toward dealing with that situation—or both—should not be allowed to pass unnoticed. In an exclusive big-money fund-raiser in Jerusalem on Monday, Romney presented a discourse on why Israel is more prosperous than the Palestinian territories. He couched this subject as an intellectual debate between the scholars Jared Diamond, who explains differences in economic success in terms of geography and natural resources, and David Landes, who explains such differences in terms of culture. It's culture, said Romney. “I recognize the power,” he said, “of at least culture and a few other things.” The only “other thing” he mentioned was “the hand of providence,” which preceded a further discourse about Israel as a “promised land” in which Israelis, relying on “themselves and the arm of God,” recognize “the purpose in this place.” Conspicuously missing was any mention of the huge, elephant-in-the-room reason for the dismal state of the Palestinian economy: the systematic Israeli suppression of Palestinian economic activity. That suppression has included in the Gaza Strip a suffocating blockade and in the West Bank (the explicit subject of Romney's comparison) a less all-encompassing but still pervasive system of restricting transportation, separating people's homes from their livelihoods, denying access to natural markets, requiring and denying permission for the simplest transactions, and countless additional ways of turning into a struggle the daily task of earning a living. A recent World Bank report on the Palestinian economy stated, “The major constraints to private sector activity are the tight Israeli restrictions, and growth will not be sustainable until Palestinians have access to resources and are allowed to move freely.”

We should not be surprised anymore that Romney, in his effort to win whatever votes he thinks he can win by posing as the most most unquestioning and uncompromising lover of Israel in the presidential race, should offer such an absurdly biased and truncated picture of economic realities on the ground. On this trip he has spoken of his “passion” for Israel, thereby sticking a finger in the eye of George Washington, who in one of the sagest pieces of advice he offered in his farewell address warned that “a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils,” with some of the evils he enumerated being a remarkably prescient description of what we see today in U.S. relations and standing in the Middle East. As for not only Palestinian economic activity but also Palestinian political and civil rights and national aspirations, Romney has effectively photoshopped them out of the pictures he has provided, including in a major address and interview before his current trip. And although he said he wasn't going to try to make new foreign policy while on this trip, he did so by declaring Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel, even though the United States and nearly every other country in the world does not recognize it as such but instead considers it disputed territory.

Palestinian reaction to Romney's latest comment was understandable. Senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat said, “It is a racist statement and this man doesn’t realize that the Palestinian economy cannot reach its potential because there is an Israeli occupation. It seems to me this man lacks information, knowledge, vision and understanding of this region and its people.” But the significance of Romney's discourse goes beyond its offensiveness, racist or not, and its implications for any chance that as president he could be respected as an honest broker in dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It indicates a failure, deliberate or not, to recognize a significant moral, legal and humanitarian issue that festers almost within earshot of where he was speaking.

Romney's campaign claimed that negative reaction to his comments involved taking them out of context; the campaign noted that he made comparisons not only between Israel and the West Bank but also between the United States and Mexico and between Chile and Ecuador. That he did. It is interesting that the differences in economic status in those other comparisons are of a similar order of magnitude as the approximately 2:1 ratio that Romney asserted was the case with Israel and the West Bank. As some observers promptly noted, Romney was way off in his figures. The World Bank estimates that GDP per capita in the Palestinian territories is about $1,500, not the $10,000 that Romney gave, and the relative difference with Israel is not 2:1 but more than 10:1.

We are not dealing here with one more indiscretion that is counted as a candidate's gaffe, like that silly business about the Olympics in Britain. It is instead the indication of a fundamentally wrong-headed and destructive approach to a long-running conflict that is very bad for the Palestinians, bad for any hope for peace in the Middle East, for that reason also bad for Israel, and for all of those reasons and the consequences that flow from them, bad for the United States.

Image: Gage Skidmore

TopicsDomestic PoliticsEconomic DevelopmentElectionsHuman RightsWorld BankPost-Conflict RegionsIsraelUnited StatesPalestinian territories

What is the Freedom Agenda?

Paul Pillar

For the most part, Mitt Romney has lived up to his promise to stick to the tradition of not criticizing U.S. foreign policy explicitly while traveling overseas. His remarks in Israel on the Iranian nuclear issue were restrained and statesmanlike, at least in contrast to a comment by his adviser (and impresario for the Israel portion of his trip) Dan Senor, which sounded like an endorsement of the idea of Israel launching a war against Iran. Perhaps the overhyped kerfuffle in Britain over Romney's comments about the Olympics served as a useful reminder to the candidate of how his every word on this trip would be picked apart and how low would be the threshold for a comment to register on the press's gaffe-meter.

A way to get around the traditional moratorium on criticizing U.S. policy while abroad is to record such criticism earlier, for playback during the trip. Serving this purpose for Romney was an interview with Sheldon Adelson's pro-Likud Israel Hayom, which was published when Romney was already in Britain and on his way to Israel. Amid the expected answers to the softball questions are a number of points that cry out for follow-up questions that never got asked. There is, for example, Romney's expressed belief that “the elimination of Saddam Hussein's government was a positive step” in the “war on terror”—notwithstanding the fabricated nature of the supposed alliance between Saddam's regime and Al Qaeda that was a key part of the Bush administration's selling of the Iraq War and the fact that the war itself boosted international terrorism by introducing a previously nonexistent and still persistent al Qaeda problem in Iraq. Then on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict there is a denunciation of President Obama referring to the 1967 border, without noting that such references also have talked about land swaps and without Romney giving any hint of an alternative basis for settling, or the desirability of settling, that conflict.

But perhaps the most interesting question—because it raises quandaries about which even experts steeped in the subject disagree—concerns the management of political change as it relates to the upheavals in Arab countries during the past two years. What is the best way for an authoritarian regime to achieve a liberalizing and democratizing soft landing, without jolting a country into some undesirable postrevolutionary alternative that may be little better than what was there before? If we could whisper advice into the ears of Middle Eastern autocrats, what should that advice be? The lack of a school solution to such questions is why I used to pose them to students. When asked in the interview, “How do you view the Arab Spring and the way in which the U.S. responded to the uprisings in those Arab states?” Romney began his reply this way:

Clearly we're disappointed in seeing Tunisia and Morocco elect Islamist governments. We're very concerned in seeing the new leader in Egypt as an Islamist leader. It is our hope to move these nations toward a more modern view of the world and to not present a threat to their neighbors and to the other nations of the world.

Being Islamist thus gets equated with being not only nonmodern but also being a threat to neighbors and other nations. Here the appropriate follow-up questions would ask Romney about his view of the intersection of religion and politics. “What exactly makes an Islamist political leader a threat to other states? Do you believe it is appropriate for a state to define itself in terms of a particular religion? Is that true only for some religions and not for others? If you are concerned about an Islamist being president of Egypt, would you also be concerned about a Christianist being president of the United States—if Rick Santorum had beaten you in the primaries and then went on to win the general election?”

Romney continued his answer as follows:

The Arab Spring is not appropriately named. It has become a development of more concern and it occurred in part because of the reluctance on the part of various dictators to provide more freedom to their citizens. President [George W.] Bush urged [deposed Egyptian president] Hosni Mubarak to move toward a more democratic posture, but President Obama abandoned the freedom agenda and we are seeing today a whirlwind of tumult in the Middle East in part because these nations did not embrace the reforms that could have changed the course of their history, in a more peaceful manner.

So evidently there is something called the “freedom agenda” that somehow, if consistently implemented, would achieve that democratic soft landing—peacefully, without letting those worrisome Islamists into power. Wow—sounds like the long-sought school solution. But what does that “freedom agenda” consist of? “Urging” leaders to reform? Then why didn't it work for President Bush? The authoritarianism involved isn't a situation that arose just with the Arab Spring; Mubarak had been in power since 1981. It seems urging is about all it is. Here's how Romney began his reply to a subsequent question about Syria (before explicitly saying he did not favor military intervention there):

With regard to Syria, my view was that we should have spoken from the very beginning in a very clear manner that [Syrian president Bashar] Assad should leave the post of leader of his nation; that he should be replaced. We should have spoken to the Alawites to assure them that they would have a place in a future Syria.

Romney is smart enough and realistic enough to know that all that urging and reassuring, even if voiced in a very clear manner by the superpower, doesn't yield smooth democratic transitions. (“Let me be very clear. Hosni, we want you to reform. Bashar, we want you to resign.”) There is still no school solution, and there is no specific policy substance to the “freedom agenda.” What we are hearing instead is an effort to reconcile three different considerations for the Republican candidate: (1) adherence to the theme that Republicans are more steadfast champions of the spread of American liberal democratic values than are Democrats; (2) dyspepsia about the specific outcomes of democratic processes that have transpired so far as part of the Arab awakening (accentuated by unease among Romney's rightist Israeli hosts over the democratic processes themselves); and (3) an interest in bashing the Democratic incumbent wherever there appears to be something bashable, especially because either American values or dyspepsia are involved.

We can put our political sociology textbooks back on the shelf and chalk this all up to the election campaign, which fortunately will be over in another one hundred days.

TopicsAutocracyDemocracyDomestic PoliticsElectionsThe PresidencyReligionTerrorism RegionsIsraelEgyptIraqUnited StatesSyria

Buying Policy on Israel

Paul Pillar

In this first presidential election since the Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court took away Congress's legislative ability to reduce the corrupting influence of big money on the U.S. electoral process, there are worrisome manifestations of that influence every week. For example, Mitt Romney right now is doing some fund-raising in Britain among banking nabobs on the heels of the Libor-fixing scandal. A cochair of an event that is charging $25,000 to $75,000 a head to schmooze with the presumptive GOP nominee is the chief lobbyist of Barclays. He replaced in that role former Barclays chief executive Bob Diamond, who resigned (from his bank job and from his role in the Romney fund-raiser) because of his bank's central role in the scandal.

But if I had to identify one source of big money whose influence is most worrisome on issues I happen to think about a lot, it would be someone who will meet Romney at a later stop on his current overseas trip, in Israel. That source is casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. Two things about Adelson's role in this post-Citizens United world stand out. One is the sheer magnitude of the money involved. Adelson appears to be on track to be the single biggest individual donor in this U.S. election year—although we may never know that for sure, given the way the bundling of political money works and the refusal of the Romney campaign to identify the sources of its bundled money. Adelson's fortune is currently estimated at about $24 billion. He has taken in stride the fluctuation of his wealth by many billions as shares of the Las Vegas Sands Corporation tanked during the recession before recovering, and he has repeatedly commented about how wide he intends to open his wallet to the candidate of his choice. During the primary season, that candidate was Newt Gingrich. Adelson said he would have been willing to give as much as $100 million to Gingrich's campaign, before that campaign ended and Adelson turned his support to Romney.

The other distinguishing characteristic of Adelson is the strength of his affinity to a foreign government—not just to a foreign country but to the policies of the current government of that country. It is appropriate that Adelson will be one of the greeters when Romney arrives in Israel because, although Adelson is a U.S. citizen, his declared primary allegiance is to Israel. Adelson once commented that when he did military service as a young man it “unfortunately” was in a U.S. uniform rather than an Israeli one and that all he and his Israeli wife “care about is being good Zionists, being good citizens of Israel, because even though I am not Israeli born, Israel is in my heart.”

Adelson is using his fortune to push a political agenda in Israel as well as in the United States. One way he has done that is by establishing five years ago a free-distribution newspaper, Israel Hayom, which has become the highest-circulation daily in Israel. The paper follows a firmly rightist, pro-Netanyahu line. As a business the newspaper is a money loser, but Adelson cheerfully has indicated his willingness to continue losing money on the paper (not a significant loss, in comparison with his fortune) to get its message across.

Israel already has a government to Adelson's liking, and he is using his money to sustain public support for it. In the United States, it is a matter of still trying to buy a government to his liking. His current hoped-for vehicle for doing that—Mitt Romney—has to date left his foreign policy largely a blank beyond slogans and the most general of themes. This was fully in evidence in his pre-trip VFW speech, in which the paucity of specific alternatives to the Obama administration's policies was as evident as the rhetorical vehemence with which the Obama foreign policy in general was denounced. (Jacob Heilbrunn has furnished a good guide on how to interpret that speech.) It is possible, of course, that very specific foreign-policy ideas are firmly embedded in the candidate's head, being kept in occultation there until he is elected. It is at least as plausible that there is much opportunity for those who would enjoy influence with a President Romney, including those most helpful in electing him, would have considerable opportunity to influence the policies that eventually emerge. In Adelson's case, so much money is involved that it is hard to believe that money would not buy something on matters he feels most strongly about. When Gingrich was his man, it bought a candidate who dismissed the Palestinians as an “invented” people.

Adelson probably has strong feelings about some of the same fiscal and economic matters that some other very wealthy Americans have strong feelings about. He has griped, for example, about the whole idea of progressive income taxes. But given where he has put both his money and his mouth, matters relating to Israel are of prime importance to him. Romney and the Republicans have, of course, been trying to use sentiment toward Israel as one of the themes for bashing Obama. Here's what Romney said about Israel in the VFW speech:

President Obama is fond of lecturing Israel’s leaders. He was even caught by a microphone deriding them. He has undermined their position, which was tough enough as it was. And even at the United Nations, to the enthusiastic applause of Israel’s enemies, he spoke as if our closest ally in the Middle East was the problem. The people of Israel deserve better than what they have received from the leader of the free world. And the chorus of accusations, threats, and insults at the United Nations should never again include the voice of the President of the United States.

The efforts of politicians to win votes by exaggerating differences often makes it hard to recognize how elements of continuity and similarity may be much greater than the differences. The Obama administration's policies toward Israel mostly have followed in the familiar bipartisan American pattern of great deference to the wishes of the Israeli government of the day. The billions of aid and security support continue unquestioned, regardless of the difficulties that Israel causes for U.S. interests. The acceptance of, and much U.S. help for, overwhelming Israeli regional military superiority continues. The Obama administration pointed out the unacceptability of Israeli colonization of occupied territory but then promptly caved to Netanyahu on the issue. On Iran, Obama has adopted the Israeli position about the “unacceptability” of an Iranian nuclear weapon, while saying nothing about the Israeli nuclear arsenal. And at the United Nations, it is hard to figure out what those “accusations, threats, and insults” are that supposedly have been voiced by the president, but under Obama the United States has continued to cast lonely vetoes—against the will and moral sense of the overwhelming majority of the world community—on behalf of Israel on subjects such as Israeli settlements built in occupied territory.

A markedly different U.S. course certainly could be envisioned, but it would not be a course that Romney is recommending and definitely not one that Adelson would want. Any difference between Obama's policies on Israel and what Romney is suggesting or Adelson is seeking is the difference between usual obeisance to Israel and complete obeisance to it. A change in this other direction would mean not only furnishing Israel with vetoes of U.N. resolutions about settlements but also not even raising the subject with the Israelis. It would mean being more careful around open microphones in commenting about how much of a problem Netanyahu is. It would mean a bigger act of outsourcing than anything done by any company controlled by Bain Capital: the outsourcing of an important segment of U.S. foreign policy to a foreign government. That is contrary to U.S. interests, no matter which foreign country is involved.

What Adelson is doing also is ultimately contrary to the interests of Israel. Those on the Israeli Left obviously are most inclined to see his activity that way. The blatant nature of his fortune-fueled political activism has also caused some unease in Israel because of the danger of eliciting the most damaging forms of prejudice. Ira Sharkansky of Hebrew University observes:

It's hard to imagine a better advertisement for the Protocols of the Elders of Zion than Sheldon Adelson. A Jew who is enormously wealthy on the basis of gambling enterprises on the fringes of respectability, who does not shrink from publicity about using his wealth for Jewish causes, . . . Adelson fits in the long tradition of court Jews, using their wealth to gain access to whoever is ruling in order to benefit the Jewish community. Where Adelson differs from Jewish traditions is in making his wealth felt in front of the curtains rather than behind them.

To the extent that Sharkansky's concerns about the exacerbation of anti-Semitism materialize, that would be bad in general and bad for Israel. Even if they do not materialize, Sheldon Adelson is doing no favor to the country he says he loves by promoting policies that condemn it to perpetual conflict and isolation. Sometimes love is blind, even in a man smart enough to have made billions.

Image: DonkeyHotey

TopicsDomestic PoliticsElectionsUNForeign AidThe PresidencyPost-Conflict RegionsIsraelIranUnited StatesPalestinian territories

Franz Kafka Lives (at Guantanamo and Bagram)

Paul Pillar

Among the legal anomalies and affronts to justice involved in certain things the United States does in the name of counterterrorism is an incarceration netherworld that seems likely to persist as indefinitely as the detention of many of the people caught in it. We didn't seem to have this problem before 9/11. But the popular sense, after that one off-the-charts terrorist event, that America was “at war” led to the problem. The Bush administration obliged by declaring a “war on terror.” Applying the established law of war would not suffice, however; that would have meant giving suspected terrorists the rights of prisoners of war. The response was to handle anyone who came into U.S. hands with some suspicion of possibly having something to do with terrorism as if they were not subject to any system of law and the rights associated with it. People scoffed up in Afghanistan or elsewhere were declared to be “illegal combatants” if they were declared to be anything at all. Most were sent to a newly established detention facility at Guantanamo, the location of which was not chosen so the prisoners could enjoy the mild Caribbean climate. The location was chosen with the intention of keeping detentions there outside the purview of anyone's law, given Guantanamo's special status as a base under a long-term lease that is outside the United States but also not subject to the sovereign control of any foreign country.

The ploy has not worked completely, in that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Boumediene v. Bush in 2008 that Guantanamo detainees have a right to contest their detention in U.S. courts. But the specific practices at Guantanamo continue to reflect the legal vacuum in which the prisoners find themselves. One recent decision by the Obama administration about which the New York Times editorial page appropriately took exception severely limits the right of prisoners to consult their attorneys in confidence. As one of the lawyers involved pointed out, this vitiates the right of habeas corpus that the Supreme Court formally bestowed four years ago.

It is not just prisoners at Guantanamo who are affected. This month a district court heard for the second time a case involving prisoners being held at a detention facility in Bagram, Afghanistan. The same court had earlier interpreted the Boumediene decision as applying not only to Guantanamo prisoners but also ones held at Bagram who had been captured someplace other than Afghanistan. That decision was reversed on grounds that a war zone is a war zone—and thus outside the jurisdiction of a civilian court—even if the prisoners in question had been nabbed somewhere else, although the appellate court left a possible opening for rehearing, leading to the current proceedings.

The main trouble-maker in much of this is the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, to which the Supreme Court seems content to give very free rein on this subject. It was the D.C. circuit court that ruled that capturing someone outside a war zone and then moving him into a war zone effectively removes his habeas rights. In another peculiar decision that reversed a district court's order to release a Guantanamo prisoner, the majority on a D.C. circuit court panel effectively said that any documents the government presents in arguing for continued detention should be accepted at face value—even though many such documents reflect questionable and unverified assertions. Near the end of its just-concluded session, the Supreme Court let this appellate court ruling stand without comment, even though the appellate judges who made that ruling barely disguised their contempt for the Boumediene decision.

A problem all along with the “war” formulation as applied to suspected terrorism is not only the twists one has to go through to avoid granting prisoner-of-war status. Since there is no well-defined entity this “war” is being waged against, there is no definable end to the anomalies involved. This problem applies not only to authorizations to use military force but also to detentions.

With no end in sight to the fundamental legal peculiarity involved, at least some of the procedural unfairness should be peeled back, such as that involving the attorney-client privilege. The executive branch's attorneys should also stop challenging the right of prisoners to petition for habeas corpus and instead concentrate on the facts in each case that would warrant continued detention. Finally, the U.S. Supreme Court ought to show the D.C. circuit who is boss by agreeing in its next term to hear one of the detention cases on which a majority at the circuit court seems determined to place its insubordinate stamp.

TopicsHuman RightsTerrorism RegionsAfghanistanUnited States

Abdullah Convokes the Muslims

Paul Pillar

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has called for a summit meeting of Muslim leaders to be held next month in Mecca. Described as an “extraordinary” summit, the gathering will be only the fourth such event in the forty-three-year history of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. The Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, said the aim of the meeting will be to try to achieve greater unity “during this delicate time as the Muslim world faces dangers of fragmentation and sedition.”

There is no shortage of agenda items for the leaders who will meet in Mecca. There has been more than enough in just the Arab portion of the Muslim world lately to distress the aged Abdullah and other Saudis. Syria will be at the top of the list; the Saudi call for the summit meeting coincided with another call by the Saudi government—for donations to help their Syrian brethren. Then there is the strife in neighboring states such as Iraq, Yemen and Bahrain. The Saudis will work hard to bring others to their point of view as much as possible on these and other divisive matters, but they are unlikely to achieve anywhere close to the unity they would like.

The main thing for Westerners to note about this convocation is that its impetus is not about opportunities for the Muslim world to expand its scope or influence, or even about anything involving confrontation with non-Muslims. Instead, it is about divisions within the Muslim world—what is fragmenting it and what is even, depending on one's viewpoint, a matter of sedition. Those divisions include ones among those who might all bear the label “Islamist”. (This includes the government of Saudi Arabia, whose king is Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques and whose constitution is the Koran.) The reasons for calling the summit meeting are a reminder not only, as Ahmed Charai has pointed out, that it is mistaken to talk about a rising Islamist tide. It also is mistaken to lump widely varying Islamists together in the way that much commentary in the West routinely does.

Image: Pikutthong

TopicsReligion RegionsBahrainIraqSyriaSaudi ArabiaYemen