Paul Pillar

Nationalist Aspirations and a Tale of Two Elections

Paul Pillar

Two national elections during the past two months embody two different approaches to handling nationalist aspirations of subject populations, with two very different results.

One of the biggest story lines of this week's election result in the United Kingdom was the success of the Scottish National Party, which greatly increased its representation at Westminster by winning 56 of the 59 parliamentary seats in Scotland. Had the Labour Party won a plurality, the SNP very likely would have been a critical part of Labour's support, whether inside or outside a governing coalition. As it is, the SNP will occupy a major share of the opposition benches, a position it will use to press issues of special interest to Scotland.

The SNP's electoral success this week represents a continuation of a peaceful process of expressing Scottish nationalism and using political power to press the nationalist cause. Another major event in that process came last September with a referendum on Scottish independence. Enough Scots decided they would be better off remaining in the union for the “no” side to win that vote. But the referendum was the product of a negotiated agreement with the government in London, and there is every reason to believe that the government would be honoring the result if the outcome of the referendum had been different.

In short, Scottish nationalism, as well as the principle of self-determination, has been treated with respect by the English who hold most of the political power in Britain, notwithstanding how much most English may believe that sundering the United Kingdom would be a big mistake for everyone, or how much they may be annoyed by Scottish demands. And it is no accident that today the English do not live in fear of some Scottish terrorist group wreaking violence in the name of Scottish independence.

The British have had substantial experience with nationalist violence in lands under their control. Irish nationalism was a prominent example, first about a century ago involving the entire island of Ireland, and later in the form of terrorism by the Provisional Irish Republican Army centered on Ulster. The first wave of violence ended with the negotiated establishment of an independent Irish Free State. The second wave ended with another negotiated accord, known as the Good Friday Agreement, that provided for power-sharing in Northern Ireland and is generally considered a success.

Between those two waves of Irish violence, Britain was beset by violence in Palestine, perpetrated most notably by Menachem Begin's Irgun and an offshoot group, the Stern Gang, both of which conducted terrorist attacks in the name of establishing a Jewish state. Another future Israeli prime minister and one of the leaders of the Stern Gang, Yitzhak Shamir, modeled his efforts on the Irish resistance and adopted the nom de guerre “Michael” after the Irish nationalist Michael Collins. Britain did not seek to cling to Palestine indefinitely and, especially after the exhaustion of World War II, was only too happy to dump the problem into the lap of the United Nations. But Britain was still the power that, as a legacy of a League of Nations mandate, controlled Palestine, and Begin's and Shamir's terrorists pressed their violent campaign against British targets notwithstanding Britain's fight against Nazi Germany. The Stern Gang was created by Irgun members who wanted to continue anti-British attacks even during the war, and Irgun itself resumed its attacks well before the end of the war.

There is a direct organizational line from Irgun to what became the Herut party and later evolved into Likud, the party that won the largest share of seats in the election two months ago in Israel—the only one of the two states, one Jewish and one Arab, provided for in the UN partition plan for Palestine that ever came into existence. This week the Likud leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, finished assembling a new government just before his deadline for doing so. The government is if anything even more hard-line right-wing than Netanyahu's previous government. That means continuation of the policy of rejecting Palestinian nationalism and trying to suppress it forcefully. And that means no prospect for ending the tragic story of Israeli-Palestinian violence and all the disruptive oscillations it spreads throughout the Middle East and beyond.

Likely to be particularly influential in keeping Israel on this violent course is the far-right Jewish Home party, which takes second place to no one in its determination to keep the occupied West Bank under Israeli control forever. Because Jewish Home was able to drive a hard bargain while Netanyahu was trying to stitch together enough of a coalition to get a bare majority in the Knesset, it got key ministries that will help it to prevent any deviation from its preferred policies regarding the territories. One of those ministries is agriculture, which controls funding for settlements and will be headed by one of the most fervent Israeli proponents of expanding settlements in the West Bank. Jewish Home also is furnishing the justice minister, a notorious figure whose hateful anti-Palestinian statements have bordered on calling for genocide.

This is a very different approach to handling the nationalist aspirations of a subject population than we have seen with the English and Scots, and the results have been very different. Close off peaceful channels for pursuing and realizing such aspirations, and violent channels are the only ones left.

The difference in the two cases is not due to something in the nature or habits of the subject population. Scots showed plenty of feistiness and antagonism in violent confrontations with the English dating back to the days of William Wallace (played on film by Mel Gibson) and Robert the Bruce. The difference has been in the policies of those with the power.

One can imagine an alternative history in which English rulers endeavored to the present day to subjugate the Scots, to deny them political rights, and to seize and settle on their land. Scottish terrorist groups would be an inevitable part of such a history. Also likely to be part of it would be a rebuilding and reinforcement of Hadrian's Wall in an effort to defend against such terrorism, and the persistence of a miserable and costly military occupation in Scotland. All of Great Britain would be a far less congenial and civilized place than the sceptred isle we know today.

Policy choices on such matters can be made, and the choices that are made have major consequences.         

TopicsIsrael United Kingdom Terrorism RegionsMiddle East

Uncle Sam the Hand Holder

Paul Pillar

Sometimes it seems that a major part of the U.S. role in the world is to assuage the anxieties, fears, and hurt feelings of other nations. Parents do this with children, and clinical psychologists do this with patients; should the world's superpower be expected to do this with foreign states? Evidently it is. This month, for example, there will be a summit meeting at Camp David with Gulf Arab states, and the purpose is summed up in the headline of a newspaper article about preparations for the meeting: the gathering is intended to “ease fears” of Arabs in connection with the agreement on limiting Iran's nuclear program. Such U.S. hand-holding with putative allies in the Middle East is not limited to matters related to the Iranian nuclear deal, and such salving of feelings is not limited to the Middle East.

The question arises: why should we care about someone else's apparent angst? And why should the United States devote any resources, including the scarce resource of its leaders' time and attention, to doing something about it?

There are a couple of legitimate reasons it might make sense for the United States to be responsive to such foreign anxiety. One is that—if the foreign emotions are being expressed in the context of interests shared with the United States—such expression might be a useful indicator that something about the course of U.S. policy warrants rethinking. Such rethinking is certainly better than the sort of dismissive unilateralism that has helped to get the United States in trouble in the past. But shared interest is not the context for much of the angst being expressed toward the United States, including the current feelings of the Gulf Arabs related to Iran. Those “fears”—as well as similar expressions from Israel—have to do mainly with intra-regional contests for influence, often with a sectarian or ethnic coloration, that do not involve interests the United States shares.

Another possible reason to be responsive is that unassuaged anxiety might lead the anxious foreign state to do something damaging to our own interests. A classic worry of this type is that an ally of ours might become so disaffected that it decides to become an ally of someone else instead. This type of worrying is not necessarily good for international peace and stability, as some pre-World War I history demonstrated. Anyway, that's not the kind of situation we have in the Middle East today. Those who say they are fearful of Iran are not going to become allies of Iran (although if they move toward tension-reducing rapprochement with Tehran, so much the better for peace and stability in the Persian Gulf region)

Or maybe a fear-ridden state might lash out, like a threatened animal, and do something more damaging and destructive than merely switching alliances. Amid those fears being voiced in the Middle East today, probably the most destructive such reaction one can think of would be Israel starting a war with Iran. But the prospective nuclear agreement that supposedly is the basis of the fears would make such an attack less, not more, likely, because the attack would be all the more blatantly a destructive and unnecessary action.

Expressions of fear and anxiety will continue, and so will the presumed need for the United States to respond to them, for two basic reasons. One is that ostensibly fearful states have every reason to milk those emotions for all the arms sales, security guarantees, economic aid, and superpower attention they can get. Why wouldn't they, regardless of how sincere or insincere the emotions may be? The other reason is that displeased allies constitute a convenient theme that domestic opponents can use to criticize foreign policy. Never mind that such criticism may be inconsistent, with some of the same folks wringing hands over professed nervousness among Gulf Arabs or Israel apparently not caring about what America's major European allies, who actually have been party to the negotiations on the Iranian nuclear agreement, feel about it. (Some of the same people dismissed the views of Old Europe at the time the Iraq War was launched.)

Foreign nations often have genuine and well-founded fears, and it behooves us to try hard to understand those fears. Such understanding does not come easily to Americans, whose situation of power and geographic separation is quite different from the more vulnerable circumstances that most nations have faced. But understanding of this type is much different from catering to whatever anxieties someone claims to have, and makes a claim on the United States to relieve.

Sometimes the best U.S. response would be a diplomatic version of, “Tough. Not our problem.”                                        

TopicsIran Persian Gulf RegionsMiddle East

Upside-Down Congressional Involvement in Foreign Affairs

Paul Pillar

The role that the U.S. Congress has assumed for itself as a player in foreign policy exhibits an odd and indefensible pattern these days. Senator Chris Murphy calls it a "double standard," although that might be too mild a term. On one hand there are vigorous efforts to insert Congress into the negotiation of an agreement on Iran's nuclear program. The efforts extend even to attempts to interfere in the details of what is being negotiated, as reflected in a string of amendments being considered in debate in the Senate this week on a bill laying out a procedure for Congress to pass a quick judgment on the agreement. On the other hand there is inaction, with little or no prospect of any action, on an authorization for the use of military force against the so-called Islamic State.

That combination is exactly the opposite of the roles Congress should play, taking into account first principles of when and why the people's representatives ought to weigh in on the conduct of the nation's foreign relations. Going to war is probably the most consequential thing the nation can do overseas. It entails substantial costs to the nation, and as recent experience should remind us, carries the risk of far greater costs, both human and material, than may have been anticipated at the outset. It is quite appropriate for such a departure not to be left solely in the hands of the executive.

The impending nuclear agreement with Iran entails none of those things. No Americans are being put in danger. There is no risk of being dragged into wider or longer commitments to pacify, occupy, or do something else to land overseas. There is no drain on American taxpayers; in fact, to the extent that completion of the agreement will lead to lessening of economic sanctions on Iran, it will entail lifting of what has also been an economic burden on the United States. As the subject of a complicated international negotiation that involves several other states and in which compromises on all sides are essential, for national legislatures to intervene in the details with specific requirements or demands is simply a recipe for failure of the negotiations. It is entirely appropriate for this agreement, like the great majority of international agreements that the United States makes, to be a matter of executive action until fulfillment of the terms of the agreement requires legislative action.

Several reasons account for the inappropriate reverse nature of where Congress is weighing in and where it isn't. Debate about the nuclear deal and about the bill bearing Senator Corker's name isn't really about Congressional prerogatives, especially given that the bill is not necessary for Congress to express itself however it wants about the substance of whatever agreement emerges from the negotiations. It instead has been about whether opponents of any agreement with Iran would be able to use a procedural mechanism for increasing their chances of killing the deal. This is reflected in the current grumbling by diehard opponents of an agreement who see that the current version of the Corker bill does not give them as much of a chance for doing that as they had hoped.

The inaction on an authorization for the use of military force has a couple of explanations. The more respectable one is the inherent difficulty of crafting suitable language when the intended purpose of the military action is not as simple and straightforward as, say, defeating another nation-state. Instead the purpose involves a terrorist phenomenon in which both the geographic and temporal extent of what needs to be done is uncertain. It is hard to come up with a legally precise formula that gives the executive the authority it needs to do something effective but also imposes meaningful limits, in terms of time and place, on the military operations. The draft resolution that the administration sent to Capitol Hill has some questionable language; fixes to it will be necessary but difficult. The difficulty is not a reason not to try.

Not trying gets to the second explanation for the inaction, which is political pusillanimity. Members of Congress realize that taking a stand on such things involves taking a risk, Some members feel burned either for opposing one Persian Gulf war that turned out to be a smashing victory, or for authorizing another Persian Gulf war that turned out to be a costly mess. It's easier for them just not to commit themselves and to stay quiet while the White House asserts executive authority and uses military force anyway. And that posture is a cop-out.

TopicsCongress Iran War RegionsUnited States

Overstretching the Specter of Iranian Imperialism

Paul Pillar

Opponents of the nuclear agreement (really, of any agreement) with Iran continue, in an effort to divert attention from the relative advantages of having versus not having negotiated restrictions on Iran's nuclear program, to present an image of Iran as a ruthless and relentless imperialist intent on gaining control of the entire Middle East. Iran is repeatedly portrayed as being “on the march” toward regional domination or as “gobbling up” other countries. It never gets explained how this picture, even if it were true, would constitute a reason not to complete a nuclear agreement to ensure that this supposedly relentless imperialist power never gets the most powerful weapon mankind has ever invented. But logic is not what is being exercised here; instead it is more of an emotion-based effort to foster distaste for doing any business with such an ogre-like regime.

An additional twist to this line of anti-agreement agitation is found in an opinion piece by Soner Cagaptay, James Jeffrey, and Mehdi Khalaji, all of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The WINEP authors state that Iran is “a revolutionary power with hegemonic aspirations” and liken it to “hegemonic powers in the past”: Russia, France, Germany, Japan, and Britain—powers that “pushed the world into war” in 1914 and 1939.

Let us recall what those hegemonic powers did. The Russians used their armies to build an empire that encompassed much of the Eurasian land mass and whose successor state still spans eleven time zones. Britain dominated the oceans with the Royal Navy and used its power to build an empire on which the sun never set. France also captured and colonized vast parts of Africa and Asia and, when it had an emperor with sufficient talent, overran most of Europe as well. Japan used military force to seize control of huge parts of the eastern hemisphere. And as for Germany, the WINEP authors themselves—as part of the near-obligatory reference to Nazis in any anti-agreement writing about Iran—remind us that “Nazi Germany sought to dominate Europe from the Atlantic Ocean to the Volga River, reducing other countries to vassal states and establishing complete military, economic and diplomatic control.” Actually, it didn't just seek to do that; Nazi Germany used its preeminent military power to accomplish that objective, at least for a while.

Iran represents nothing that is even remotely akin to any of this, as a matter of accomplishment, capability, or aspiration. Certainly the current Islamic Republic of Iran does not come close, and one would have to reach far back into Persian history to start to get a taste of imperialism even at the reduced scale of the Persians' immediate neighborhood. The twist of the WINEP piece is that the authors reach back in exactly that way. They tell us that “Iran's hegemonic aspirations actually date back to the Safavid Dynasty of the 16th century.” You know that there is a lot of argumentative stretching going on when references to Safavids in the 16th century are used as a basis for opposing an agreement with someone else about a nuclear program in the 21st century.

The Safavid Dynasty faded out before anyone could judge what would have been its willingness to behave as a respectable member of the modern state system. Those other hegemonic powers named in the piece evolved into respectable members of the current international order (although debate related to the Ukraine crisis continues about the attitudes of the Russian government). So the WINEP authors, in trying to argue that Iran never could become a respectable, well-behaving member of the same order, contend that what sets Iran apart is not only that it has hegemonic aspirations but that it is “a revolutionary power with hegemonic aspirations.” And, they say, “Revolutionary hegemonic powers combine the imperialist lust for 'lebensraum' seen in Wilhelmine Germany”—gotta get in those comparisons to the Nazis—“with a religious or millennial worldview that rejects the principles of the classic international order.”

How far divorced from reality this line of argument is emerges from the authors' reference to yet another power whose strengths and ambitions are way out of Iran's league: China, which the authors want us to see as hegemonic but not revolutionary like Iran. They write, “Even today, countries with hegemonic tendencies, like China, acknowledge the legitimacy of this international order.” That is a remarkable statement in view of how much China's international behavior can be explained, and has been explained by innumerable analysts, in terms of China's rejection of aspects of the international order that were established by the West without Chinese participation. A recent example of this aspect of Chinese policy involves the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and other Chinese-created mechanisms as alternatives to Western-dominated international financial institutions.

In contrast, a major feature of the supposedly “revolutionary” Iranian regime's foreign policy has been to try to integrate Iran into as much of the existing international order as possible, notwithstanding its Western origins. (Iran, unlike China, does not have anywhere near the strength to erect alternatives to Western institutions even if it wanted to.) This strand of Iranian policy is reflected not only in what Iranian leaders say but also in what they do, such as participation in this week's Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference. The nuclear agreement currently being negotiated with the P5+1 is itself one of the clearest manifestations of the Iranian policy of making significant concessions and sacrifices in the interest of becoming a more integrated member of the international community.

The depiction of current-day Iran as “revolutionary” in the sense of upsetting the international apple cart requires as much ignoring of recent history and actual patterns of Iranian behavior as does the likening of current Iran to 16th century Safavid imperialism. In the early years of the Islamic Republic there was indeed a belief among many in Tehran that their own revolution might not survive without like-minded revolutions elsewhere in the neighborhood. But with the Islamic Republic having now survived for more than three decades, that perspective is obsolete.

A good case in point is Bahrain, given its Shia majority population and historical Iranian claims. Despite the unrest there in recent years, it has been a long time since any reliable reports of Iranian activity there that could honestly be described as subversive or revolutionary. In stark contrast to whatever minimal Iranian involvement there is in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia rolled its armed forces across the causeway to forcibly put down Shia unrest and prop up the Sunni regime in Manama. A similar contrast prevails today in Yemen, where any Iranian aid to the Houthis, whose rebellion was not instigated by Iran (and during which the Iranians reportedly have counseled restraint to the Houthis) is dwarfed by the Saudi airstrikes that have killed hundreds of civilians. (Tell us again—which Persian Gulf country is the hegemonic power?)

Stories of Iran as a supposedly threatening regional hegemon are not only not a reason to oppose reaching agreements with Tehran; the stories aren't even true.                                                 

TopicsIran RegionsMiddle East

Nuked: Does 'Napoleonic War' Have a Future?

Paul Pillar

Across much of the globe, the First World War—“the war to end all wars”—still exercises a fierce hold on popular imagination. And many aspects of the war remain a subject of debate, more so than the Second World War, for example, where the revisionist agendas of Germany, Italy and Japan were more fully exposed. Some of the flavor of that debate runs through the tranche of historical studies produced over recent years as the war’s centenary approached, including Hew Strachan’s The First World War, Margaret MacMillan’s The Year that Ended Peace, Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, and Paul Ham’s 1914: The Year The World Ended. I’m not proposing to explore those debates here. Rather, I want to consider where the First World War stands in relation to the Napoleonic model of war, and what that means for us today.

Napoleon exploited the age of revolution to bring mass to the modern battlefield. But his mass was principally one of manpower. Using the levée en masse—conscription—and adroit generalship, Napoleon searched for decisive battles where the enemy army could be defeated at its strongest point, and the war won. That approach worked while the battlefield remained the center of gravity in strategic contests. But his opponents also deployed larger armies. And even the Grand Armée was no match for the territorial vastness of Russia.

Great social and economic changes unfolded in the century between the end of the Napoleonic wars and the onset of WWI. Industrialization magnified the firepower available on the battlefield. Rifles, machine guns and artillery pieces took the place of muskets and cannons. The battlefield became a much more dangerous place. Mass was still being brought to the battlefield, but now as machine and motor as well as manpower.

The expansion in both size and strength of national armies made the search for decisive battles much more challenging. And, as they had in the US Civil War, trenches, machine guns and barbed wire typically gave defensive positions pre-eminence on the battlefield, at least until 1918. The cult of the offensive still sat at the heart of European military thinking—but offensives required unprotected soldiers to cross-exposed ground in the teeth of such firepower.

Because national industrial capacity was itself now a key enabler, temporary victory upon the battlefield became harder to exploit. The true ‘battlefield’ now included the home front—national will, industrial capacity and an efficient logistics train to keep supplies moving to the line of actual engagement. Paralysis at the front line enhanced the importance of the home front. War became an exercise in national attrition, not decisive battles.

WWI didn’t represent the zenith of mass war. That was WWII, of course, which killed over 50 million people and ended with two nuclear detonations over cities. By then war was an exercise in mechanized maneuver, not trenches and stasis. And the concept of the battlefield had truly stretched to include whole nations. But WWI was bad enough: it killed over 16 million and wounded another 20 million. And its endgame—the Treaty of Versailles—indirectly set the stage for WWII.

Some say it was the cataclysm that made possible all the other cataclysms of the 20th century. Was there an upside? Yes. We can’t re-run history, of course, but I suspect losing the war would have been considerably worse than winning it. That’s what Hew Strachan calls “the biggest paradox” in our understanding of the war: “On the one hand it was an unnecessary war fought in a manner that defied common sense, but on the other it was the war that shaped the world in which we still live.”

Does Napoleonic war have a future? Perhaps. Many countries have moved on from the notion of the citizen soldier. Amongst advanced militaries—and societies—the preference is for precision-strike, not massed armies. One-child Western families shrink from the concept of mass casualties that sits alongside the idea of mass war. And nuclear weapons have put a cap on most escalation ladders precisely because they’re so destructive. It’s hard to ‘out-mass’ a nuclear-armed opponent—though the nuclear arms race during the Cold War shows two superpowers were certainly prepared to give it a try. Various modes of warfare still flourish below the nuclear threshold, of course. And some argue we’re approaching a “fourth generation” of warfare that will have its basis in ideas rather than technology.

Still, those factors don’t bear down equally on all players in the international system. And a waning of the Napoleonic paradigm, especially in the West, doesn’t mean that major war itself is obsolete. Indeed, military force remains an important variable in today’s international relations. Great powers still jostle for position, even nuclear-armed ones. War—at some level—between nuclear-armed powers is possible, even if it’s not likely. Occasions may yet arise when the pursuit of politics by other means require us to put Australian soldiers in harm’s way.

Lest we forget.

This piece first appeared in ASPI's The Strategist here


Obama's Realism

Paul Pillar

Edward Luce in the Financial Times has a take on Barack Obama's foreign policy that is accurate and should be evident to all. But given the state of foreign policy discourse within American politics, perhaps it is not surprising that it falls to a longtime foreign observer of American policy and politics to make this particular observation. Luce states that as Mr. Obama's presidency “matures,” he “is showing qualities one would normally associate with Henry Kissinger—the arch-realist of U.S. diplomacy.” Luce points to Obama's handling of relations with both Iran and Cuba as evidence that he “is grasping the essence of diplomacy—when adversaries come to terms, neither achieves everything they want,” and that he realizes that “the perfect should not be the enemy of the good.”

Luce focuses especially on the Middle East as a region where President Obama, without acknowledging it, “is taking a leaf from Mr. Kissinger's book” by both pursuing a deal with Iran's regime and simultaneously “stepping up support for its equally dubious counterparts in the Sunni world.” It is a balance-of-power approach, in which the essence of the Obama administration's policy in the region is: “Rather than trying to convert the Middle East to our values, it seeks to limit the region's ability to export its pathologies.”

That Mr. Obama's foreign policy is in its main respects a sober, prudent—and mostly unoriginal—exercise of realism should be obvious but gets obscured by, most of all, the different colors with which his political opponents assiduously endeavor to paint it. The president is consistently portrayed as naive, or weak, or insufficiently assertive in advancing American values. Or as the Speaker of the House said the other day about the nuclear negotiations with Iran (in comments in which Mr. Boehner made clear he wants to kill the deal outright, dropping the pretense that those on his side of the aisle want a “better deal”), “It just appears to me that the administration wants a deal at almost any cost.” The groundless nature of that statement should be apparent to anyone who has looked at all seriously at the history of the negotiations, at what has been agreed to so far, and at who has had to make what concessions to get to this point.

The obscuring of the nature of the current administration's foreign policy also has other roots, including ones that do not necessarily involve the president's opponents. There has been talk about an “Obama doctrine,” reflecting a perpetual yearning among the chattering class in this country to apply such labels and to characterize each presidential administration in unique terms that would warrant such a label. Apply the label if you want, but it implies more uniqueness than is really there.

It is more boring, but also more accurate in characterizing the current administration's policies, to describe it as guided mostly by realist principles that have been applied not just by Henry Kissinger but many others in the past. Among those principles are that U.S. policy should be focused consistently on the most effective ways of pursuing carefully defined U.S. national interests, that the world must be dealt with as it really is and not as we might wish it to be, that in pursuing its interests the United States must use all available tools and deal with all other countries, and that compromise is inevitable and perfection impossible. Unexciting stuff, but wise stuff.

The widespread failure to recognize, with regard to this stuff, both what the Obama administration has been doing and what any administration ought to be doing is a sad comment on the state of foreign policy discourse in the United States today (and Luce notes that the realist strand in Mr. Obama's policy “goes heavily against the grain of the debate in Washington”). This discourse takes place in an environment in which sound and unexciting realism cannot be accepted for what it is without being dressed up with a snazzier label, and in which policies based on such realism get denigrated as weak or unprincipled or something else.

The political environment in which the discourse takes place is one in which the foreign policy of one of the major parties, which now controls the Congress, has been captured by neoconservatism, with a libertarian minority and a realist remnant—reflecting a tradition once represented by Mr. Kissinger and his boss, President Richard Nixon—that is an even smaller minority. The other major party—as a political beast separate from the Obama administration—has been having a hard time finding its foreign policy bearings amid a nationwide rightward shift. The Democrats seem likely to put up a presidential candidate who is substantially more hawkish than the party's rank-and-file, and many members seem less inclined to assert proudly any realist tradition than merely to limit the ability of the other side of the political spectrum to export its pathologies.

The political power of American exceptionalism, of which neoconservatism is the most muscular manifestation, leaves little basis for expecting that any of this will change any time soon. Completion and implementation of a nuclear agreement with Iran would be a significant realist achievement very much in the tradition of—and Luce makes this comparison explicit—what Kissinger and Nixon did in their opening with China. But first the agreement must be completed and implemented, and anti-realist sentiment is keeping uncertain whether that will happen.                               

TopicsU.S. Foreign Policy RegionsMiddle East

Yemen and the American Impulse to Take Sides

Paul Pillar

A strong Manichean streak runs through American perceptions of the outside world.  That streak involves a habit of seeing all conflict and instability in binomial terms, a presumption that one of the perceived two sides is good and the other bad, and an urge to weigh in on the presumptively good side. The influence that these tendencies have had on U.S. policy has varied over time. The influence was readily apparent, for example, during the George W. Bush administration's days of “you're either with us or with the terrorists.” The Obama administration has tried to move in a less Manichean and more realist direction, especially in conducting diplomacy with Iran and in so doing opening a door to a more fruitful all-azimuths diplomacy in the Middle East generally. But the current administration still operates in a political environment in which the old perceptual habits set limits on what the administration can do, or perhaps push it into doing things it might not otherwise have done.

There have been ample demonstrations throughout the Middle East of how inaccurate and inapplicable the Manichean perspective is. There is Iraq, where the United States and the Iranian bête noire are on the same side in countering the so-called Islamic State or ISIS. There is the even more complicated deadly brawl in Syria, where the people who from the viewpoint of the West are the closest thing to good guys are opposing the same regime that also is opposed by ISIS and the local al-Qaeda affiliate.

At least as clear a lesson both in the fallacies of the Manichean perspective and the mistake of the United States taking sides in such conflicts is found in the current strife in Yemen. But the lesson does not seem to have been learned, as reflected in U.S. support for the Saudi military intervention in Yemen. Three major features of the conflict in Yemen are pertinent to that lesson.

One is that the conflict is at least as complicated and multidimensional as any others in the Middle East. It is impossible to draw a line that would put everyone worth supporting on one side and everyone worth opposing on the other, or even to come close to doing that. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula—often considered the most capable Al-Qaeda affiliate today—is completely at odds with, and a confirmed enemy of, the Houthi forces who are the principal target of the U.S.-backed Saudi intervention. One of the most significant allies of the Houthis is Ali Abdullah Saleh, who for three decades was America's guy as ruler of Yemen.

Second, this war is, as Adam Baron has put it, “by and large, an internal Yemeni political conflict” that “remains deeply rooted in local Yemeni issues.” This fact has been obscured by those who, intent on depicting Iran as a dangerous wide-ranging regional renegade, portray the Houthi rebellion as part of some Iranian expansionist plan. It is nothing of the sort. The Houthis have been driven for years by grievances involving the distribution of resources and power within Yemen, and their more recent gains have mostly reflected the sympathy for those grievances among other Yemeni elements who have been similarly displeased and disadvantaged by the most recent Yemeni regimes.

Third, the motivations of outside actors intervening in this conflict are not ones that the United States ought to associate itself with. One set of motivations is sectarian. There is no advantage at all, and lots of disadvantage, for the United States to be seen identifying with one side or another in sectarian disputes within the Muslim world. Another set of motivations, rooted in decades of Saudi-Yemeni strife dating back to when the expansion of the Saudi kingdom first led to seizure of traditionally Yemeni provinces and to lingering border disputes, involves a Saudi desire to exercise dominance over the Arabian Peninsula and in particular this part of it. Graham Fuller observes, “Riyadh has always loathed Yemeni feistiness, independence, its revolutionary politics, and even its experiments with democracy.” The Saudis publicly play up the Iranian angle, but what they really don't like about the Houthis is that they haven't been able to buy off the Houthis as effectively as they have many other Yemeni elements. The Saudi objective of maintaining this kind of overlordship over its neighbors is also not an interest that the United States shares.

And yet the urge to take sides and intervene persists, as reflected in recent remarks about the Yemeni case by John McCain. The urge pays insufficient heed either to what is in U.S. interests or to what is effective. McCain asserted that the Saudis did not seek advance coordination with the United States concerning their intervention “because they believe we are siding with Iran.” Actually, according to a senior officer at U.S. Central Command, “The reason the Saudis didn’t inform us of their plans is because they knew we would have told them exactly what we think — that it was a bad idea.”

We know that the Obama administration is feeling the need these days to appear supportive of the Gulf Arabs because of angst related to the impending nuclear agreement with Iran. And if catering to that angst is one of the prices that has to be paid to get the agreement and, through it, to get closer to liberating U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East from rigid side-taking in the future, then this policy may turn out to be on balance worthwhile. But the Yemeni conflict itself still ought to serve as a lesson in the multiple reasons the United States would be better off to resist its side-taking urge.            

TopicsYemen Saudi Arabia Iran RegionsMiddle East

America's Not-So-Ultimate Weapon: Economic Warfare

Paul Pillar

The roots and manifestations of American exceptionalist thinking go way back. One of those manifestations is the use of economic measures as a weapon intended to coerce or deny. The specific thinking involved is that such measures employed by the United States, and even the United States alone, should be enough to induce or force change in other countries. The thinking is solipsistic insofar as it centers narrowly on the idea of American will and the exercise of American power and, as too often has been the case, pays insufficient attention either to the other nation's motivations or to what damage or denial the United States is inflicting on itself.

More than two centuries ago the young American republic made one of its first big attempts at such economic warfare. The Embargo Act of 1807 shut down U.S. overseas trade in an attempt to get the warring European powers Britain and France to respect U.S. neutrality. President Thomas Jefferson's intentions were honorable in that he genuinely sought neutrality in the European war—unlike so many today who, if they see an armed conflict going on somewhere in the world, believe it necessary for the United States to take sides even if there are bad guys on more than one side. Jefferson also saw the embargo as an alternative to war rather than a prelude to it—unlike many today, who are both sanctions hawks and military hawks.

But the embargo was a miserable failure on all counts. Prosecuting war in Europe with all means available was much more important to Britain and France than was anything that the American republic could do to them. The economic damage to the United States was severe, especially in New England, which sank into depression. And the United States would eventually wind up going to war anyway, against Britain in 1812. Realizing the mistake, Jefferson signed a repeal of the embargo in the closing days of his presidency in 1809.

With the American economy and American power having expanded over the subsequent 200 years, the temptation to think in terms of American denial of trade being an all-powerful tool has become all the greater. But the thinking is still erroneous, as demonstrated by the miserable failure of the half-century-old embargo against Cuba. That embargo has caused no favorable change in Cuban policies or politics, and probably has only retarded what change would have been taking place for other reasons. Economically it has not caused another depression in New England, but the fact that it has been a negative for the U.S. economy is reflected in support by U.S. business interests, as represented by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for change in policy toward Cuba. President Obama deserves credit for bringing about as much change as it is in his power to effect, but the embargo itself will not come down until the U.S. Congress displays changed thinking too.

The president also deserves similar credit for a redirection of policy on Iran, but there also is a similar solipsistic, sanctions-happy attitude in Congress that applies to Iran. That attitude persists despite the substantial damage to the U .S. economy from those sanctions, the years of a sanctions-centered approach having failed to achieve any positive results until there was also engagement and negotiation, and the self-contradictory nature of the stated purposes for keeping those sanctions in place.

The obsessive persistence of this attitude (besides, to be sure, the malign influence of other factors, such as an oppose-anything-Obama-does mindset) is demonstrated by Republican presidential candidates, including the just-declared Marco Rubio, saying that they would, if elected president, re-impose whatever sanctions had been suspended or lifted in accordance with any agreement on the Iranian nuclear program. The biggest question about such a pledge is why, if Iran had by that time complied for three years with severe restrictions on its program, any U.S. president would want to demolish all those restrictions on the Iranian program (because that's what deal-killing sanctions would do) and allow the Iranians to expand their nuclear activities as fast as they wanted. The further question about the sanctions themselves is how they could be expected to have any effect at all when the United States would be clearly responsible for killing the deal and when the rest of the world, operating under a new United Nations resolution, would have moved on toward doing normal business with Iran. The rest of the world includes our closest European allies—as Britain and France, among others, would help to write another chapter in America's unflattering history of ill-advised economic warfare. The United States would be left as lonely and feckless as it has been with the embargo against Cuba.

If even Thomas Jefferson screwed up on this subject, perhaps it's too much to expect today's politicians to do much better, although they do have a lot more national experience to go on. And Jefferson realized his mistake and corrected it much more quickly than what we've seen happening in Congress on Cuba and Iran.

Oh, and there's that issue about the danger of war. Given the way the Iranian nuclear issue has been playing out, the risk of a war occurring in the wake of a destruction by the United States of the negotiated agreement on the subject is probably even greater than the risk that impressment of seamen and other maritime issues posed leading up to war in 1812.

Image: Flickr.                         

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle East Latin America

Bait-and-Switch Sanctioning of Iran

Paul Pillar

The idea of Iran as a regional marauder that is gobbling up other countries in the Middle East and against which pressure must therefore be unrelenting has become one of the favorite themes of those determined to kill the nuclear agreement with Tehran. As an argument for rejecting the nuclear deal, this approach has always suffered from major factual and logical flaws. Given the casual and automatic manner in which references to Iran supposedly sowing mayhem all over the region are routinely worked into almost any discussion of policy toward Iran, it perhaps is too much to expect many people to stop and study the flaws. Perhaps we should just remind people who make those casual references that if Iran really were bent on causing all that mayhem, that is all the more reason to support an agreement to assure that the marauder does not get a nuclear weapon.

But let's not abandon facts and logic just yet. The main fact on this subject is that Iran hasn't been doing anything close to the country-gobbling, capital-controlling, instability-creating stuff in the Middle East that it routinely gets accused of doing. Its regional activity is best characterized as the understandable and unsurprising reactions of a major regional state to an assortment of conflicts in its neighborhood that are not of its own making. As Jon Alterman has put it, “The reality is the Iranians don’t control any Arab capital, and they couldn’t if they tried. Iraqis have a strong sense of nationalism and self-interest, as do Syrians, Lebanese and Yemenis. If you were an Iranian trying to impose your will, you’d be tearing your hair out. There is no Iranian 'order' in the region.” Instead, there is a lot of disorder, and amid that disorder the Iranian goal, says Alterman, “is to survive in a hostile world.”

There is no fundamental difference between most of what Iran actually is doing in the region and what either the United States or its regional Sunni friends are doing in reacting to the same disorder. Yet when the latter step into something like the confusing sectarian/tribal/personal conflict in Yemen, as the Saudis have done with their U.S.-supported military intervention replete with airstrikes, it is looked on benignly, but when the Iranians provide lesser assistance to one of the players in the same conflict, this gets described as country-gobbling trouble-making. Such inconsistency is all the more glaring when Iran and the United States are weighing in on the same side, as they are in Iraq.

A particular variant of the Iran-as-marauder argument that has featured prominently in the most recent efforts to kill the nuclear agreement is the notion that granting Iran relief from some of the sanctions to which it currently is subjected would give Iran more resources for more trouble-making in the region, and this would mean Iran would in fact cause more trouble. This assumes that any extra funds in the Iranian bank account would go into whatever foreign activities the anti-agreement people want us to think of as trouble-making, rather than toward meeting the demands and high expectations of the Iranian public for domestic improvement. That assumption does not square with what Iranian leaders know their political future depends upon; they fully realize that the crowds that greeted Foreign Minister Zarif upon returning from the negotiations in Lausanne expect that improvement in their way of life at home; people in the crowds were not cheering Zarif because they believe there will be more money for foreign adventurism. The assumption also does not square, as Juan Cole points out, with the actual record of how the Iranians have apportioned their resources. And the assumption that Iranian regional activities will be a function of the balance in Iran's bank account is certainly inconsistent with the image of Iranian leaders as ideologically-driven hotheads who are out to inflame and destabilize whatever they can. In fact, the assumed connection between sanctions relief and greater regional activism makes the Iranians look much more like cool-headed green eyeshade types than are the Americans who promoted the biggest destabilizing, country-breaking, terrorism-stimulating event in the Middle East in recent times: a war that turned out to cost trillions.

Note a further inconsistency in what the deal-killers are saying. Many of the same people (the Israeli prime minister is a prominent but by no means the only example) who are saying that Iran should not be given sanctions relief lest the Iranians have more resources for regional trouble-making are also contending that continued pressure through sanctions is the way to get a “better deal” on the nuclear issue. Even if either of these contentions were valid (and neither one is), they could not possibly both be valid. The sanctions from which Iran will get relief were enacted for the clearly expressed purpose of inducing concessions from Iran on the nuclear issue. With the framework agreement that was announced last week, that purpose has been achieved. But opponents of the deal are suggesting that the United States should now say, “Well, that's not really what we had in mind for those sanctions. We're going to keep them in place indefinitely because we don't want to give you resources for doing other things.” How is that supposed to give the Iranians incentive to cooperate on anything, and specifically on nuclear matters? And for those who whine a lot about damage to U.S. credibility (many of those opposing the nuclear deal are among the principal habitual whiners), how will this switcharoo affect how other nations view U.S. credibility, and how much they will believe the United States the next time it tries to use a tool such as economic sanctions to persuade someone to change a policy?                 

TopicsIran RegionsMiddle East

The Importance of the Iran Agreement

Paul Pillar

A dominant reaction to the framework agreement on Iran's nuclear program, based especially on the State Department's fact sheet about the deal, is that it is remarkably detailed and thorough. The lead article in the New York Times described the agreement as “surprisingly specific and comprehensive.” Immediate reaction in much of the Israeli press was typified by the comment of widely read columnist Nahum Barnea, who wrote that “the details of the agreement that were reported yesterday are surprisingly good.” Irreconcilable opponents of doing any business with Iran were thrown off balance, reduced mostly to reciting old talking points that seemed all the more stale amid the news of the moment. Some notable people who were not among the irreconcilables but had expressed skepticism about a nuclear deal and could be expected to line up with the opponents have instead, seeing the terms, expressed at least mild support for the agreement. These people range from Bill O'Reilly of Fox News to King Salman of Saudi Arabia, not to mention the former head of Israeli military intelligence.

Over the next three months as the negotiators work on the still-challenging task of ironing out the remaining details, the opinion pages and airwaves will be filled as well with details, about types of centrifuges and inspection arrangements and much else. Some of that commentary will reflect genuine and legitimate concern that the final agreement be as carefully constructed and free of loopholes as possible. Probably more of the commentary will consist of the irreconcilable opponents raising as much doubt as possible about as many provisions as possible in the hope that the net effect will be to increase political support for killing the deal. All that the opponents will really be telling us is that this agreement, like any international agreement, is not perfect and does not meet the farthest-reaching goals of either party. They will continue their doubt-promoting campaign as they always have, without offering up any feasible alternative for similar detailed and skeptical scrutiny. Almost every detail the opponents address, about uranium enrichment and inspection access and much else, is a detail on which the agreement gives the United States more than it would get from the alternative, which is no agreement.

Amid all the wallowing in details, it behooves us to step back and to contemplate the big picture of what this agreement means and why it is important. The agreement, if completed, will be a major inflection point in U.S. foreign policy, particularly U.S. policy toward the Middle East. This moment is one of those times when it is especially useful for discourse and debate to be strategic and to address the overall direction of U.S. foreign policy rather than getting bogged down by a preoccupation with details.

The agreement has strategic importance for U.S. foreign policy in at least the following four respects.

First, it sets a direction for a major player in the Middle East—i.e., Iran, the second-most-populous nation in the region—that is consistent with U.S. interests and also in the interests of trying to make the Middle East a less tense and conflict-prone region than it already is. That direction is one in which nuclear weapons have no role in Iran's future and, inextricably linked to that restriction, Iran slowly and partially sheds the stigma of a pariah. The leadership of Iran, including the supreme leader, evidently have decided—and if they had not, it is inconceivable that they would have taken the negotiations as far as they have and made the concessions they have—that it is more in their interest and Iran's interest to move in this direction, even at the price of the restrictions they have accepted on Iran's nuclear program, than for Iran to be a bomb-building rogue. This decision gets to the all-important matter of Iranian intentions, which is so often ignored amid fanciful speculation about what Iran might conceivably do with its nuclear capabilities. The agreement, if completed and implemented, will confirm Iran's decision to move in the non-rogue direction and reinforce—because Iran would have that much more to lose if it departed from that trajectory—its decision. By contrast, defeat of the agreement and an indefinite prolongation of pariah status would instead give Iran more motivation to do the sorts of things pariah states do, including possibly trying to make a nuclear weapon.

The consequences of the Iranian leadership's direction-setting decision—if confirmed by a completed and implemented agreement—go well beyond the immediate matter of the nuclear program. The pragmatic inclinations represented especially by President Rouhani will be strengthened politically if his big bet on completing a nuclear deal succeeds, and will be weakened if he fails. The pragmatic inclinations will extend to many other aspects of Iranian foreign and security policy, on which Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif will be much better positioned to challenge Iranian hardliners than they have been as they have concentrated on getting the nuclear deal. A similar dynamic will extend to domestic policy, which is why those especially concerned with advancing human rights in Iran have welcomed the nuclear agreement. It is also why, bearing in mind the longer term effects of more pragmatic Iranian politics and more normal interaction with the West, longtime Iran watcher Gary Sick comments, “If you want regime change in Iran, meaning changing the way the regime operates, this kind of agreement is the best way to achieve that goal.”

Second, the agreement is a significant stroke in support of nuclear nonproliferation. Even though Tehran evidently stopped over a decade ago whatever work it may have been doing on developing a nuclear weapon, the agreement still is an important step on behalf of global nonproliferation given that Iran is a nuclear-capable state that probably has had active interest in a bomb and lives in a dangerous neighborhood of rivals to itself, including one state that nearly everyone believes already has nuclear weapons and whose leadership frequently talks about militarily attacking Iran. No state has ever willingly negotiated special restrictions on its own ongoing nuclear program as severe as the ones Iran has accepted. No state has ever previously negotiated inspection arrangements on its own facilities as intrusive and extensive as the ones that Iran has accepted. This agreement sets the bar high for any other future nonproliferation agreements or arrangements anywhere in the world.

We should consider in light of all this the often-voiced fears about a proliferation cascade in the Middle East and comments by people like the Saudis that “we want whatever the Iranians get.” Given the nature of what Iran has agreed to, the appropriate response to such demands is probably: you're welcome to it—although why any unsanctioned state would want to subject itself to such severe restrictions and intrusiveness is another question.

Third, this agreement partially releases U.S. foreign policy from restraints that have too long inhibited the ability of the United States to use all available tools, especially the diplomatic tool, to pursue its interests in the region. Abstaining from even talking to officials of one of the most important states in the region, as was the case with the United States and Iran until only a couple of years ago, is not an effective way to pursue one's national interests. The nuclear issue itself has already demonstrated the value of finally using the diplomatic tool—after years of failure of the approach of only pressuring and not talking. Cutting the cord that has kept one hand of the United States tied behind its back and following up the nuclear agreement by being able to conduct (even in the absence of full diplomatic relations) something more like normal business with Iran will be valuable to the United States in addressing such regional problems as the civil wars in Iraq and Syria and the violence of ISIS.

The nuclear deal has the beneficial quality of simultaneously supporting both the pursuit of U.S. regional objectives and the global nonproliferation objective. In this respect it is happily different from the nuclear cooperation agreement with India signed several years ago, in which U.S. policy debates tended to pit the nonproliferation community, which was wary of the signal that this agreement would send, against South Asia specialists who believed that this means of nurturing U.S.-Indian relations was worthwhile. The difference between that situation and the Iranian case, of course, is that the Indian agreement in effect accepted India's previous roguish behavior in developing nuclear weapons and operating outside the international nonproliferation apparatus, whereas Iran does not have nuclear weapons, is a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and is now committing itself more than ever to remaining a non-nuclear-weapons state.

Fourth—and by no means last in importance—this agreement is a step toward liberating U.S. foreign policy from three baleful influences that overlap considerably in terms of the people involved and the causes they espouse. One of those influences is a crude exceptionalism that believes the world is divided rigidly into allies and enemies, that the United States shares interests on everything with the former and nothing with the latter, that the only proper approach toward the latter is pressure and isolation, that what passes for diplomacy consists of the United States making demands and other nations being expected to accede to them, that throwing one's weight around is the way to get things done, and that because the United States has more weight and especially military weight than anyone else it ought to be able to get its way on just about anything. Another influence is partisanship that has become so intense and overriding that because the nuclear negotiations with Iran are an Obama project it is de rigeuer for any Republican seeking the presidency to oppose the agreement reflexively.

The last baleful influence is the extraordinary influence that the rightist government of Israel, along with the lobby in the United States that works on its behalf, has on U.S. Middle Eastern policy. The Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu has been the most unrelenting and implacable source of opposition to any agreement with Iran, for reasons largely other than preventing an Iranian nuke, and its supporters in the United States have been in step with its opposition. Peter Beinart was asking a pertinent question when he wondered how different debate in Washington (and Jerusalem) on the deal with Iran would be “if Sheldon Adelson had a different hobby.” The lobby's influence has manifested itself in especially blatant and ugly ways on the Iranian nuclear issue, including inviting a foreign leader to address the U.S. Congress for the express purpose of denouncing a major U.S. foreign policy effort, and a prominent Republican senator and former presidential nominee going so far as to urge the same foreign leader to treat the president of the United States with "contempt".

The influence of the lobby ultimately rests on fear—of losing access to contributions from Adelson and other billionaires favoring the Israeli Right, or of some other kind of political payback in the next election campaign. Taking a cue from what Franklin Roosevelt said about fear, we should realize that a demonstration of successfully flouting and overcoming the fear is one of the best ways to diminish the effect of the same fear in the future. Given the prominence of the Iranian nuclear issue and the intensity with which Netanyahu and the lobby have been trying to kill an agreement, implementing an agreement over that opposition would serve as such a demonstration. The demonstration, and any resulting dilution of the fear and lessening of the strength of the lobby, would pay dividends not just concerning relations with Iran but with regard to other U.S. interests to which Netanyahu's government is opposed. This may be one of the biggest lasting contributions to the U.S. national interest that Barack Obama will be making if he manages to carry through the nuclear agreement to completion. It is also another reason for Americans who have that national interest at heart to support the agreement.

But the deal is not yet done. The die-hard opponents will keep raising every objection they can about every detail they can. They may not know the difference between an IR-1 centrifuge and an IR-2 and don't really care, but we probably will hear about such things anyway. The detailed objections need to be answered, and the announced framework agreement provides a strong basis for answering them, but in doing so we should keep in mind the really big reasons this agreement should be completed and supported.                       

TopicsIran nuclear weapons RegionsMiddle East