Paul Pillar

Israeli Nukes Meets Atomic Irony in the Middle East

Paul Pillar

The stated rationale for the United States casting on Tuesday one of the very lonely votes it sometimes casts at the United Nations General Assembly, on matters on which almost the entire world sees things differently, warrants some reflection. The resolution in question this time endorsed the creation of a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East and called on Israel to join the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, to renounce any possession of nuclear weapons, and to put its nuclear facilities under the safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency. A nuclear weapons-free Middle East and universal adherence to the nonproliferation treaty are supposedly U.S. policy objectives, and have been for many years. So why did the United States oppose the resolution? According to the U.S. representative's statement in earlier debate, the resolution "fails to meet the fundamental tests of fairness and balance. It confines itself to expressions of concern about the activities of a single country."

You know something doesn't wash when the contrary views are as overwhelmingly held as on this matter. The resolution passed on a vote of 161-5. Joining Israel and the United States as “no” votes were Canada (maybe the Harper government was thinking of the Keystone XL pipeline issue being in the balance?) and the Pacific powers of Micronesia and Palau. The latter two habitually cast their UN votes to stay in the good graces of the United States; they have been among the few abstainers on the even more lopsided votes in the General Assembly each year calling for an end to the U.S. embargo of Cuba.

An obvious problem with the United States complaining about a resolution on a topic such as this being an expression of concern about the activities of only a single country is that the United States has been in front in pushing for United Nations resolutions about the nuclear activities of a single country, only just not about the particular country involved this time. The inconsistency is glaring. Iran has been the single-country focus of several U.S.-backed resolutions on nuclear matters—resolutions in the Security Council that have been the basis for international sanctions against Iran.

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One could look, but would look in vain, for sound rationales for the inconsistency. If anything, the differences one would find should point U.S. policy in the opposite direction from the direction it has taken. It is Iran that has placed itself under the obligations of the nonproliferation treaty and subjects its nuclear activities to international inspection. Since the preliminary agreement to restrict Iran's nuclear program that was negotiated last year, those inspections are more frequent and intrusive than ever. Israel, by contrast, has kept its nuclear activities completely out of the reach of any international inspection or control regime. As for actual nuclear weapons, Iran does not have them, has declared its intention not to have them, and according to the U.S. intelligence community has not made any decision to make them. Neither Israel nor the United States says publicly that Israel has nuclear weapons, but just about everyone else in the world takes it as a given that it does, which would make it the only state in the Middle East that does.

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One might look, but still in vain, for justifying discrepancies that go beyond the respective nuclear programs of the countries in question but still involve questions of regional security and stability. What about, for example, menacing threats? Iran and Israel have each had plenty of unfriendly words about each other. Iran's words have included bloviation about wiping something from pages of history; Israel's have included more pointed threats of military attack. What about actual attacks? Israel has initiated multiple wars with its neighbors, as well as launching smaller armed attacks; The Islamic Republic of Iran has not started a war in its 35-year history. Terrorism? Well, there were those assassinations of Iranian scientists, with some later attacks against Israelis being an obvious (and not very successful) attempt by Iran at a tit-for-tat response against those responsible for murdering the scientists. And so forth.

Singling out one country in a multilateral context can indeed cause problems. The resolution the General Assembly passed this week need not involve a problem, however, since it was not calling for differential treatment of anyone—only for Israel to get with the same program as any state in the Middle East that does not have nukes and adheres to the international nuclear control regime.

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Iran, by contrast, is being treated much differently from anyone else. Tehran already has acquiesced to some of that differential treatment, but Iranians unsurprisingly wonder why Iran should be subjected to more such treatment, or indeed to any of it. They wonder, for example, why Iran should be subject to unique restrictions that several other non-nuclear-weapons states that also are parties to the nonproliferation treaty and enrich their own uranium are not. Such wonderment is almost certainly a factor in Iranian resistance to making the sorts of additional concessions that many in the United States are expecting or demanding that Iran make. The differential treatment should be kept in mind in any discussion in the United States about who has made bigger concessions than whom and about what would or would not constitute a fair and reasonable final agreement.

Then there is the irony—although Iranians might use a more bitter word than irony—of Israel leading the charge in constantly agitating about Iran's nuclear program (and by trying to torpedo an international agreement to restrict that program, making the issue fester and thus making it more possible for Israel's agitation to go on forever).              

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 

TopicsIran Israel RegionsMiddle East

The Sources of Public Disengagement From International Engagement

Paul Pillar

Kurt Campbell, who was assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs until last year, had an interesting op ed the other day that relates the growing inequality of income within the United States to a lowering of the international standing of the United States and of its ability to sustain international engagement abroad. Partly the connection involves a depletion of U.S. soft power. Much of that power has rested on the image of a durable American middle class, which has long been attractive to millions in stratified societies overseas but in more recent times has been tarnished as that middle class has suffered from stagnant or declining income while watching the one percent fly ever higher and farther away. Another part of the connection, writes Campbell, is that “as a growing segment of the population strains just to get by, it will increasingly view foreign policy...as a kind of luxury ripe for cuts and a reduction in ambition.”

For the American public, lack of active support for an active foreign policy is not only a matter of competition for scarce resources. It also involves a sense of empowerment, or a lack thereof. The public will care less and be less informed about foreign policy to the extent that it does not believe it has a say that really matters in determining that policy. A sense of empowerment can be very effective in getting people active and engaged. That is a large part of what was going on in Tahrir Square in Cairo over three years ago. Ordinary citizens not only protested but cleaned up the trash because for the first time—albeit only temporarily, as it turned out—they had reason to believe that what they were saying had a real effect on setting the direction of Egypt.

Michael J. Glennon, writing in The National Interest, does raise the problem of a missing sense of empowerment and correctly relates it to a broader detachment of most of the American public from foreign policy, as reflected among other things in the woeful public ignorance about foreign affairs. Glennon badly errs, however, in blaming the whole situation on a supposedly unaccountable national security state—which he calls the “Trumanite network,” named after the era when most of the apparatuses Glennon doesn't like assumed their present form. He distinguishes this from the “Madisonian” system that includes the familiar constitutional institutions of an elected legislature and chief executive. Glennon declares that the entire Madisonian system has lost so much power to the Trumanite network that he likens it to the monarch and House of Lords in Britain having lost power to the cabinet, prime minister, and House of Commons.

This description bears very little resemblance to what anyone who has worked at the interface of these parts of the U.S. political and policy-making system would recognize. Even those who have not worked there can reflect on where the impetus for the most important developments related to U.S. national security policy have come from. Presumably the Trumanite network wasn't much in favor, for example, of government shutdowns that have been the work of extortionists in the legislative part of the Madisonian system. Nor would the military and security agencies have favored sequestration budget cuts, which were legislative efforts to avoid more damage from the same extortionists. Or think about the single biggest U.S. foreign policy initiative of at least the last couple of decades: the Iraq War. It was the work of a willful group that had captured enough of the Madisonian system to embark on their project despite the better judgment of much of what is the Trumanite national security apparatus.

Part of the problem with Glennon's analysis is that he throws a big assortment of otherwise unrelated incidents and policies together, the only common thread of which is that they somehow each involve some part of the military, intelligence, or security bureaucracies (and that Glennon doesn't happen to like them). There is no sense of the very different issues involved in, say, a procedural altercation between an intelligence agency and an oversight committee in the course of performing oversight, and indefinite detention of militants that the military has scraped up on some distant battlefield. Nor is there much attention to the specific ways in which the Trumanites really are accountable to political people in the Madisonian system. One would never have guessed from the article, for example, that major changes occurred four decades ago that brought not only intelligence activities but the entire covert action arena under legislative oversight and political control that were previously deficient. Also missing is how much of what Glennon (and many others today) consider to be excessive or abusive was firmly rooted in earlier, mostly in the immediate post-9/11 period, attitudes and priorities broadly shared by the American people and their political leaders. The priorities did not originate with national security agencies and departments, which instead have tried to implement the missions they have been assigned by the people and political leaders. If you or Glennon or I disagree with the position that majorities on Congressional oversight committees have taken at times over the past few years on issues such as interrogation techniques or bulk collection of telephonic data, that's politics; it is not a usurpation of politics by the agencies being overseen.

At times Glennon describes the Trumanite network as so broad that one starts to lose any sense of where the lines that distinguish it from the Madisonian system lie. He pitches his argument initially as if it were about part of the federal bureaucracy but then criticizes postures that lie far beyond that bureaucracy. He quotes, for example, Madeleine Albright's question to Colin Powell about what the point is of having a superb military if we can't use it, and identifies the attitude expressed in the question with the Trumanites. But it was Powell, the career military officer, who presumably was the party in this conversation who was more on the Trumanite side of Glennon's Trumanite/Madisonian line. Glennon is critical—and has good reason to be critical—of people who “define security primarily in military terms and tend to consider military options before political, diplomatic or law-enforcement alternatives,” but that attitude is not centered in the national security bureaucracy. The attitude is promoted mainly by neoconservatives, with a major assist from liberal interventionists, who seek and often get support for their positions within the Madisonian system.

As far as military interventions are concerned, it certainly is true that the professional military tends to prefer more resources and bigger forces to accomplish decisively whatever mission is assigned to it—that's part of the Powell Doctrine. But it does not have the sort of preference Glennon asserts when it comes to getting assigned such a mission in the first place. That's another part of the Powell Doctrine: take military action only if it has clear support from the American people. And it's not just Powell. Military members and veterans of the military are less inclined to support U.S. military interventions than are civilians who never served in the military. Chicken hawks—and many people of similar ilk who not only favor starting wars but also insist that counterterrorism is a “war,” with all of the implications that are supposed to flow from that label regarding matters such as handling of detainees—are not part of any network centered in the national security bureaucracy.

What chicken hawks have been able to do brings us back to the issue of empowerment and how an unempowered public may tune out foreign policy. There is indeed a problem here, but it is not a problem because some shadowy deep state, an American version of an Algerian pouvoir or an Arab mukhabarat, has managed to make U.S. political institutions as feeble as a modern British monarch. It is a problem because such developments as extreme partisan tactics, perfected gerrymandering, and unrestricted campaign bankrolling have made those political institutions less responsive than they could or should be, on foreign as well as domestic policy.

Regarding that offensive war begun in Iraq, for example, consider the situation of an American voter in 2000 who didn't much care for Al Gore and the Democrats but also had no desire for the United States to get involved in anything like the Iraq War. That voter would have had no basis for predicting—even if he could have predicted something like the 9/11 terrorist attack—that a vote for George W. Bush would become a vote for such a war. The Madisonian system was captured not by a Trumanite network but by a neocon cabal. Tom Friedman, sitting in Washington shortly after the beginning of the war, observed without exaggeration, “I could give you the names of 25 people (all of whom are at this moment within a five-block radius of this office) who, if you had exiled them to a desert island a year and a half ago, the Iraq War would not have happened.”

There also is the matter, of course, of Gore having won the popular vote in 2000. Twelve years later, Democratic candidates for the House of Representatives won 1.37 million more votes than Republican candidates, but the Democrats won only 201 seats compared to the Republicans' 234. And every two years, voters in only a very small percentage of districts nationwide are given a genuinely competitive choice of candidates for what is supposed to be the people's House.

The Arab Spring erupted largely because many people in the countries concerned felt they had no stake in either an economic system that passed them by or a political system in which they effectively had little or no voice in the direction of their country. Many Americans are facing something similar with a pattern of economic growth that leaves them behind and an often dysfunctional political system that gives them little sense of having a role in setting policy. Americans are not likely to stage their own Tahrir Square. But it is unsurprising if they become increasingly disengaged from foreign policy and if, as Campbell anticipates, this becomes a source of weakness for the United States internationally.   

TopicsPublic Opinion RegionsUnited States

Perceptions of Russian Expansionism: Looking at Ukraine through Afghanistan

Paul Pillar

Much of the discourse over the past year about responding to Russian moves in Ukraine has been couched in terms of the need to stop aggressive expansionism in its tracks. Hillary Clinton has even invoked the old familiar analogy to Nazi expansionism in likening some of the Russian actions to what Germany was doing in the 1930s. With or without the Nazi analogy, a commonly expressed concept is that not acting firmly enough to stop Russian expansionism in Ukraine would invite still further expansion.

Underlying such arguments are certain assumptions about wider Russian intentions. If Vladimir Putin and anyone else advising him on policy toward Ukraine see their moves there as steps in a larger expansionist strategy, then the concept of stopping the expansion in its tracks is probably valid. But if Russian objectives are instead focused on narrower goals and especially concerns more specific to Ukraine, the concept can be more damaging than useful.

As long as historical comparisons are being invoked, one possibly instructive comparison is with an earlier episode involving application of military force by Russia or the Soviet Union along its periphery. This episode provides a closer correspondence than pre-war Nazi maneuvers, but it is still distant enough to provide some perspective and a sense of the consequences. It is the Soviet armed intervention in Afghanistan, which occurred 35 years ago as of this December.

Once Soviet forces entered Afghanistan, a key question for policy-makers in Jimmy Carter's administration was the Soviets' purpose in undertaking the operation. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance would later summarize in his memoirs two competing answers to that question. One view was that Moscow's motives were primarily local and, insofar as they extended beyond Afghanistan, focused on worries about possible unrest among Muslims in the Central Asian republics of the USSR. The other view was that the Soviets had concluded that the relationship with the United States had already deteriorated so much that they should seize the opportunity not only to quell their Afghan problem but to improve their larger strategic position in South and Southwest Asia, moving ever closer to those proverbial warm water ports that have traditionally been a goal of Russian strategists.

The different interpretations had significantly different policy interpretations. An appropriate response to the latter, more expansive, Soviet strategy would be to slow the Soviet advance by making Afghanistan even more unstable than it already was, particularly through assistance to the mujahideen insurgents. But if the first interpretation were correct, stoking the insurgency would only prolong the Red Army's stay, put more nails in the coffin of U.S.-Soviet détente, and perhaps lead the Soviets to make other moves that would start to turn a Soviet threat to Pakistan from a fear into a reality.

It was the expansionist interpretation of Soviet objectives that implicitly became the basis for the Carter administration's policies. It became so without any thorough analysis by the policy-makers of Moscow's motives. Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security adviser whose thinking became the chief basis for the Carter administration's policy toward the USSR, did not even think such analysis was necessary. He later wrote that “the issue was not what might have been Brezhnev's subjective motives in going into Afghanistan but the objective consequences of a Soviet military presence so much closer to the Persian Gulf.” Thus ensued a U.S. response that included a broad array of sanctions, withdrawal from the Olympic Games in Moscow in 1980, enunciation of the bellicose-sounding Carter Doctrine about willingness to use force in the Persian Gulf region, and most consequentially, increased material aid to the Afghan insurgents.

Despite the significant differences between that situation and what the West faces today in Ukraine, there are some applicable lessons. One is the importance of careful consideration of Russian objectives, rather than just making worst-case assumptions. Another lesson is the need for humility in realizing that our initial thoughts about those objectives may be wrong. The Carter administration's thoughts and assumptions about that may have been wrong. With the benefit of hindsight, a good case can be made today that the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan was not intended to score strategic gains by moving closer to oil and sea lanes but instead was about avoiding a substantial loss for the Soviets: the overthrow of an existing Communist government in a country bordering the USSR by an insurgency that could lead to trouble among Central Asian residents of the USSR itself.

Another lesson is to be wary of how domestic U.S. politics may push decision-makers in unhelpful directions. A major pusher of Carter's policies was his political need to get tough, or to be seen getting tough, with the Soviets. When Carter had said in a televised interview shortly after the Soviet intervention that the intervention had helped to educate him about Soviet goals, his political opponents jumped all over this comment as supposedly a sign of naȉveté. Carter's political weakness at the time also stemmed from the near-simultaneous crisis that had begun a few weeks earlier with the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. The constant hammering away by Barack Obama's political opponents of the theme that Mr. Obama supposedly has been too weak and insufficiently assertive against U.S. adversaries offers an obvious parallel regarding the potential for political considerations pushing policy into unhelpful directions.

Finally there is is the importance of taking fully into account all the consequences, including longer range and more indirect consequences, of how the United States responds to Russian moves. A full balance sheet on the results of U.S. aid to the Afghan insurgency would be complicated and subject to argument, but a major downside has been contribution to varieties of militant Islamism that for most of the past 35 years have been more of a worry for the United States, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, than anything the Russians have been doing. Some of the violent elements that are principal adversaries in Afghanistan today are descendants of elements that received U.S. aid in the 1980s. The Afghan insurgency against the Soviets also continues to be a major influence, as an inspiration and in other respects, helping to sustain transnational Islamist terrorism.

No one has a monopoly of wisdom on what exactly are Russian goals in and around Ukraine today. Maybe even Vladimir Putin does not fully know what those goals will be, and is in large part reacting to moves by Ukrainians and by the West. Applying the framework of what the Carter administration faced in Afghanistan, however, it is reasonable to characterize the objectives as more local than expansive in a larger geopolitical sense. The most explicitly expansionist thing Putin has done—the annexation of Crimea—can be seen as a one-off given the unusual historical, demographic, and emotional circumstances associated with the peninsula. Much of the rest of Russian policy has to do with the specter of NATO's expansion into Ukraine. Unfortunately Ukrainian President Poroshenko does not seem inclined to give that issue a rest.

Image: Creative Commons/Flickr.         

TopicsRussia Ukraine Afghanistan RegionsSouth Asia Eastern Europe

What Really Matters About Extension of the Iran Negotiations

Paul Pillar

The single most important fact about the extension of the nuclear negotiations with Iran is that the obligations established by the Joint Plan of Action negotiated a year ago will remain in effect as negotiations continue. This means that our side will continue to enjoy what these negotiations are supposed to be about: preclusion of any Iranian nuclear weapon, through the combination of tight restrictions on Iran's nuclear program and intrusive monitoring to ensure the program stays peaceful. Not only that, but also continuing will be the rollback of Iran's program that the JPOA achieved, such that Iran will remain farther away from any capability to build a bomb than it was a year ago, and even farther away from where it would have been if the negotiations had never begun or from where it would be if negotiations were to break down.

Our side—the United States and its partners in the P5+1—got by far the better side of the deal in the JPOA. We got the fundamental bomb-preventing restrictions (including most significantly a complete elimination of medium-level uranium enrichment) and enhanced inspections we sought, in return for only minor sanctions relief to Iran that leaves all the major banking and oil sanctions in place. If negotiations were to go on forever under these terms, we would have no cause to complain to the Iranians.

But the Iranians do not have comparable reason to be happy about this week's development. The arrangement announced in Vienna is bound to be a tough sell back in Tehran for President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif. The sanctions continue, and continue to hurt, even though the Iranian negotiators have conceded most of what they could concede regarding restrictions on the nuclear program. There will be a lot of talk in Tehran about how the West is stringing them along, probably with the intent of undermining the regime and not just determining its nuclear policies.

That the Iranian decision-makers have put themselves in this position is an indication of the seriousness with which they are committed to these negotiations. This week's extension is of little use to them except to keep alive the prospect that a final deal will be completed. Also indicating their seriousness is the diligence with which Iran has complied with its obligations under the JPOA. The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed today Iran's compliance with its final pre-November 24th obligation, which had to do with reducing its stock of low-enriched uranium in gaseous form.

Because the P5+1 got much the better side of the preliminary agreement, the P5+1 will have to make more of the remaining concessions to complete a final agreement. The main hazard to concluding a final deal is not an Iranian unwillingness to make concessions. The main hazard is a possible Iranian conclusion that it does not have an interlocutor on the U.S. side that is bargaining in good faith.

We push the Iranians closer to such a conclusion the more talk there is in Washington about imposing additional pressure and additional sanctions, as people such as Marco Rubio and AIPAC have offered in response to today's announcement about the extension of negotiations. We have sanctioned the dickens out of Iran for years and are continuing to do so, but the only time all this pressure got any results is when we started to negotiate in good faith. Surly sanctions talk on Capitol Hill only strengthens Iranian doubts about whether the U.S. administration will be able to deliver on its side of a final agreement, making it less, not more, likely the Iranians would offer still more concessions. Any actual sanctions legislation would blatantly violate the terms of the JPOA and give the Iranians good reason to walk away from the whole business, marking the end of any special restrictions on their nuclear program.

Indefinite continuation of the terms of the existing agreement would suit us well, but completion of a final agreement would be even better—and without one the Iranians eventually would have to walk away, because indefinite continuation certainly does not suit them. And besides, the sanctions hurt us economically too. To get a final agreement does not mean fixating on the details of plumbing in enrichment cascades, which do not affect our security anyway. It means realizing what kind of deal we got with the preliminary agreement, and negotiating in good faith to get the final agreement.

Image: State Department Flickr.                            

TopicsIran RegionsMiddle East

The Danger of Derailing the Iranian Nuclear Deal

Paul Pillar

Inflection points in the history of U.S. foreign relations sometimes are marked by new departures and new roads taken. But they might instead entail blown opportunities to take new and better roads, with significant damage resulting from the failure to take them. That failure involves opportunity costs at a minimum, and other costs as well. We may be getting close to the latter type of inflection point, with significant danger that opponents of any agreement to restrict Iran's nuclear program will succeed in wrecking the deal.

As of this writing the greatest chance of wrecking it appears to involve not what is going on at the negotiating tables in Europe but instead what the U.S. Congress may do back in Washington to sabotage the work of the diplomats. The energy for the Congressional wrecking ball comes, as it always has, from three sources.

One is a general need for a foreign enemy and a habit of viewing America's role as one of militant and uncompromising confrontation with that enemy. This habit and felt need have roots in some broader American attitudes, although they are manifested most starkly in neoconservatism. Iran has been filling this role of needed enemy for some time.

A second is the strong opposition of the right-wing Israel government—with everything that customarily implies regarding American politics—to anyone making any agreement with Iran. This opposition serves the Israeli government's purposes of fixing blame for regional problems firmly on someone else, of positing opposition to such an enemy as supposedly a basis for U.S.-Israeli strategic cooperation, and of diverting international attention from problems directly involving Israel itself.

The third driver, which has become especially relevant the more that the Iran negotiations have become a prominent effort in Barack Obama's foreign policy, is the determination of much of the Republican opposition to oppose anything that Mr. Obama favors and to deny him any achievements. The heightened acrimony over the issue of immigration has made this even more of a factor than before, if that is possible. Amid talk about government shutdowns and freezing of all appointment confirmations, trashing of a diplomatic agreement with Iran would be done while barely batting an eyelash.

If the deal-wreckers succeed, we will have a negative turning point in U.S. foreign relations because the opportunity for any kind of nuclear deal with Iran will be lost for an indefinite future. The conditions that made it possible for the two sides to get as close to agreement as they now would quickly unravel in multiple ways. The Iranian president would in effect become a lame duck, the influence of hardliners in Iran would rise, and credibility that had been built up during the negotiations would dissipate. The alternative to whatever deal emerges from the current negotiations would be no deal at all.

Having an agreement emerge during a lame duck Congress was supposed to be the most sabotage-resistant timing, and it probably is. But expectations now are that what will most likely be announced this month is not a complete agreement but rather some version of an extension of the previous interim deal and a partial agreement with additional details yet to be negotiated. This situation unfortunately will be an invitation to those wielding the wrecking ball to do serious damage after the new Congress convenes. They probably will take multiple whacks with the ball. There is, for example, a bill sponsored by the incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, that is designed to get a hasty vote of disapproval of the agreement before anyone would have much chance to study it. There also would be a push (most fervently from Senator Mark Kirk) to impose more sanctions, which would violate the interim agreements and provide cause for the Iranians to walk away from the table. The fact that keeping the terms of the current interim agreement in effect would achieve the presumed goal of freezing or rolling back the Iranian nuclear program would do little to slow down the deal-wreckers.

Blowing the opportunity for an agreement would be all the more a shame because, according to the preeminent criterion of preventing any Iranian nuclear weapon (not to mention other consequences of an agreement), the choice between a deal and no deal is almost a no-brainer. No deal would mean fewer restrictions on the Iranian program and lesser inspection and monitoring of it. Iran would have a much clearer path to a nuclear weapon, if it chose to take it, without an agreement than with one.

We are approaching a critical point in U.S. foreign relations. It is gut-check time especially for Democrats who have to decide whether they are going to take the responsible position for the sake of U.S. interests in the Middle East or instead be tempted into being part of a veto-proof Iran-bashing, “pro-Israel” majority. Perhaps taking the responsible route will be made a bit easier by seeing how the opposition to an agreement has become increasingly and blatantly partisan, as illustrated by a hard-line letter initiated this week by Kirk and Marco Rubio that got signatures from 43 Republican senators but not a single Democrat.         

 

TopicsIran RegionsMiddle East

The Damaging Myth About "Winning" the Iraq War

Paul Pillar

One of the most persistently voiced myths about U.S. foreign policy of the past several years—and because of that persistent voicing, one apparently already entrenched in the minds of many Americans—concerns the status as of about five years ago of the big experiment in regime change and nation-building known as the Iraq War. According to the myth, the war was all but won by then, with just a few more touches yet to be added to complete the forging of a stable Iraqi democracy, before the Obama administration snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by prematurely withdrawing the remaining U.S. troops that were need to finish the job. No matter how often the myth gets repeated, it is just as false now as the first part of the myth was five years ago.

It is easy to see the motivations for promoting the myth. Probably the leading motivation is to relieve the cognitive dissonance and the blow to personal reputations of those who promoted or strongly supported the war itself—the grandest neoconservative project ever and the biggest foreign policy endeavor of the George W. Bush administration—only to see it materialize as one of the biggest and costliest blunders in the history of U.S. foreign policy. Also rough on amour-propre, and in a way more worthy of understanding and even respect from the rest of us than is the case with the war-promoters, is how those in uniform who were given the task of carrying out the project have not been able to claim honestly that their efforts and sacrifices resulted in a victory. Yet another obvious motivation, which arises whenever Barack Obama's political opponents find a stick they can employ to beat him, is to use the troubles of Iraq today as one more such stick.

With regard particularly to that last motivation, it always has been puzzling how the part of the myth relating to Obama's policies gets propagated even though it was the Bush administration that established the schedule for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq by 2011. The Obama administration merely carried out the terms of the agreement that the Bush administration had negotiated with the Iraq government. In response to assertions that Mr. Obama “didn't try hard enough” to negotiate a new agreement with different terms, which implication are we supposed to draw: that Mr. Bush did not try hard enough in the first place, or that when Bush people and Obama people each try to do the same thing we should expect the Obama people to be better at it?

But the myth has more significant consequences than its effect on the partisan scorecard.

A reflection of the discrepancy between the myth and Iraqi reality arose in a public debate in which I participated a couple of months ago, the topic of which concerned the efficacy, or lack thereof, of additional applications of U.S. military force in the Middle East. One of my opponents on the pro-efficacy side (a prominent neocon pundit) asserted that Iraq was “at peace” in 2009. As one measure of what this supposedly peaceful state looked like, consider the statistics compiled by the Iraq Body Count project, which show 5,309 civilian deaths from the continued violence in Iraq in 2009. For comparison, that is more than total U.S. combat deaths for the entire war. It also includes only documented civilian deaths, which are basically collateral damage, and does not reflect either undocumented casualties or the full toll among government forces and militias who were the principal combatants.

The civil war unleashed by the U.S. invasion and ouster of the Iraqi regime has had an unbroken history, from then through today. Like most wars, its intensity has ebbed and flowed. The surge of U.S. troops in 2007 and 2008 was one factor, but only one, involved in one of the ebbs. And if there are more than 160,000 U.S. troops in a country, as there were in Iraq at the peak of the U.S. occupation, we certainly should expect some effect on the ebb and flow. Even with the temporary ebbing of the violence, the issues driving the civil war remained unsettled—fundamental issues involving distribution of political power in Iraq. The surge was intended to make it possible for Iraqis to resolve those issues, and in that respect the surge failed. There is an unbroken history from the conflict of interests that caused the civil war and its associated mélange of insurgencies to break out a decade ago, to the conflict of interests—which is mostly the same unresolved conflict of interests among sectarian and ethnic communities—that underlies the violence in Iraq today. There also is an unbroken history from the most violent and extreme of the groups in Iraq as of several years ago and the feared group ISIS—which is the same group with a new name and a new leader—that is such a preoccupation today.

There never has been a logic accompanying the myth. If eight and a half years of U.S troops in Iraq were not enough, then why should we expect a few more years (or would it turn out to be only a few?) of a troop presence to be sufficient? And if 160,000 troops were not enough, then why should we expect a smaller number (or would it re-escalate to a large number?) to be sufficient?

The myth seems to be predicated on some strange process of telepathic osmosis by which democratic thoughts in the minds of American troops in Iraq would somehow have gotten former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki to have turned away from his sectarian and authoritarian habits and nourished an inclusive, tolerant, multi-confessional democracy. What else exactly could U.S. troops in Iraq have done if they had lingered longer in Iraq to have made such a political difference? Threaten to overthrow Maliki, through a kind of U.S.-led military coup, if he didn't get with the program? If U.S. forces instead would have been helping to provide security against the extremist groups and Sunni insurgents whose support has been rooted all along in opposition to the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad, that would only have reduced rather than increased Maliki's incentive to reform and to be more inclusive.

If telepathic osmosis was not expected to work and whatever good U.S. troops would have done would be in spite of the unhelpful ways of Iraqi politicians such as Maliki, then the job would never be done, if the job is defined as making way for a stable Iraqi democracy standing on its own. Or at least it would not be done on any time scale less than generational—a time scale, measured in decades, long enough for a new political culture to evolve. Until then, U.S. troops would have been sitting forcefully and indefinitely on the ingredients of a volatile stew—a little like how Saddam Hussein sat on top of it in a much more brutal way, before the U.S. removed him and the stew boiled over.

No, we never won, or almost won, the Iraq War. One of the uniformed leaders who was given the task to try to do that, now retired three-star general Daniel Bolger, has painfully—but honestly, and not buying into myths that would be soothing for him and his colleagues—acknowledged this by writing:

“The surge in Iraq did not 'win' anything. It bought time. It allowed us to kill some more bad guys and feel better about ourselves. But in the end, shackled to a corrupt, sectarian government in Baghdad and hobbled by our fellow Americans' unwillingness to commit to a fight lasting decades, the surge just forestalled today's stalemate. Like a handful of aspirin gobbled by a fever patient, the surge cooled the symptoms. But the underlying disease didn't go away.”

The damage that the myth about Iraq inflicts is not limited to fostering public misunderstanding about an important episode in modern American history, although that is indeed harmful. It is not limited to fostering misunderstanding about who was right and who was wrong about that episode and thus who should and should not be listened to on similar matters, a misunderstanding that also is harmful. The damage extends to the encouragement of more general misconceptions about efficacy of the exertion of U.S. power overseas.

George Kennan made a somewhat similar observation about an earlier set of myths and recriminations concerning developments in another faraway country that has been a preoccupation of Americans. The belief that we “lost China,” wrote Kennan, “seriously distorted the understanding of a great many Americans about foreign policy, implying that our policy was always the decisive mover of events everywhere in the world; that in any country of the world, including China, we had it in our power to prevent the rise to positions of authority of people professing Marxist sympathies...”

The ideologies that Americans fear the most now are ones other than Marxism. And the myth involving Iraq is a more extensive one than the one involving China in that it posits the United States having “won” Iraq before “losing” it. But the damage Kennan identifies—the mistaken belief that if U.S. power and especially military power is applied with sufficient determination and persistence, the governments of other countries will be composed of people who are to our liking or at least act in accordance with our liking—is the same.                                                                                    

TopicsIraq RegionsMiddle East

A Home Run?: The Achievement in China on Climate Change

Paul Pillar

Yesterday's announcement of a U.S.-Chinese agreement on curbing greenhouse gases is very important, including in some ways that Michael Levi's expert analysis effectively captures. As Levi notes, this agreement was a marked departure for China not only in terms of the numerical goals set but also in the manner of setting them, in the form of an agreement negotiated with the United States. This goes against the prior Chinese habit of treating climate change, like Beijing treats many things, as a subject on which China must firmly assert its independence.

The agreement surprised many from the standpoint not only of Chinese policy-making habits but also of American politics. The dominant story line as President Obama left on his current trip was that, with his party having just gotten whupped in the mid-term election, he would struggle to assert U.S. power and influence. But instead his visit to China has been productive. Getting Beijing's signature on the environmental accord has been the biggest achievement, but other deliverables have included a substantial trade agreement and progress toward averting U.S.-Chinese incidents at sea. As Sarah Palin might remark if her political allegiances were different, “How's that weak-president-shuffling-off-to-Beijing thing workin' out for ya?”

Much more important than political story lines are the substance, symbolism, and momentum contained in the emissions accord itself. The sheer fact of the two biggest emitters of greenhouse gases jointly arriving at such an objective is itself significant. Any direct benefit involved will have a multiplier effect to the degree that it imparts momentum to efforts to negotiate broader multilateral commitments and action.

The effects also will be beneficial insofar as they affect debates in the United States, where pre-Enlightenment opposition to doing something about climate change is still all too deeply entrenched. The accord with China will at least help to refute the argument that it wouldn't make sense for the United States to get out in front on this issue when other emitters—and China is the biggest emitter of all—are not doing their part. Failed Hewlett-Packard executive and unsuccessful senatorial candidate Carly Fiorina made exactly this argument the other day in a pro-pollution op ed in which she blithely observed that “no form of energy is perfect” and that “action by a single state or nation will make little difference.”

The domestic political task of getting the United States to live up to negotiated goals and to doing its necessary share will still be formidable. The election result earlier this month made it even more formidable. Probably the person who personifies this unfortunate fact the most is Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, who has declared that “manmade global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.” In a fox-overseeing-the-henhouse situation, Inhofe will take over as chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Maybe, just maybe, the accord announced in Beijing will nudge the deniers and other opponents of action at least slightly away from their Dark Ages attitude toward science, from their narrow focus on denying not just scientifically derived knowledge but also anything that smells like an accomplishment for Barack Obama, and from a short-sighted focus on quarterly results of the coal industry on Kentucky or the oil industry in Oklahoma, and lead them to give some thought to doing the responsible thing to preserve a habitable environment.

Another of the standard knocks on President Obama is that he plays only small ball and hits only singles, and that he doesn't think strategically enough and go for home runs. There is nothing more strategic and big-picture than saving the planet. The agreement announced in Beijing cannot count for a home run because it is only the setting, and not yet the achieving, of a goal. But it is an important step toward getting around the bases.

Image: US State Department Flickr.                  

TopicsChina climate change RegionsUnited States

The Big Question: Who Wants to Defeat ISIS More--Iran or the U.S.?

Paul Pillar

The bursts of criticism—from those who inveterately oppose any dealing with Iran, and those who inveterately oppose anything Barack Obama is doing, which include some of the same people—of a letter Mr. Obama reportedly sent to the supreme leader of Iran can readily be dismissed for multiple reasons. There is, to begin with, the spectacle of critics getting up in arms about a letter the contents of which none of us outside the administration, including the critics, have seen. We only have a general sense, from the Wall Street Journal report that broke this story, of the message the letter conveyed.

There also is the old notion that merely communicating with another party, whether face-to-face or in writing, somehow shows weakness and/or is a reward to the other party. It is neither; communication is a tool for us to express and pursue our own preferences and objectives, and to explore ways to attain those objectives. As Farideh Farhi notes, most of the people who are objecting to letters being sent to the Iranian supreme leader previously objected in the same way to having any diplomacy with Iran at all—diplomacy that already has achieved major restraints on Iran's nuclear program that years of non-communication were unable to achieve.

Then there is the crude, unthinking primitiveness of slapping a label of enemy on someone and acting as if the mere label is sufficient reason not to do any business with, or even to communicate with, that someone, with no attention whatever being given to the best ways to pursue our own objectives. Thus we have John (“bomb, bomb, bomb Iran”) McCain saying that “they [Iran] are our enemy” and that any U.S. foreign policy that deals with Iran is “off the rails.” And we have Mitt Romney saying that sending the letter was “so far beyond the pale, I was stunned. I was speechless. The right kind of approach in dealing with Iran is that we consider them a pariah, their leaders are shunned...” The label-making approach to foreign policy, represented by these comments, helps to satisfy the urges of those who for their own reasons need an enemy and for whom Iran has long filled that role, but it certainly is not a good way to advance U.S. interests.

Before we move beyond this most recent bit of primitivism, however, there is a lesson here regarding linkage, leverage, and the deployment of U.S. resources on matters on which U.S. interests parallel those of other states. When last year the United States with its P5+1 partners began serious negotiations with Iran after Hassan Rouhani became the Iranian president, the two sides wisely agreed to focus narrowly on Iran's nuclear program and the nuclear-related sanctions. Each side has plenty of grievances with the opposite side on other matters, and if the agenda started expanding it would quickly continue to expand into an unmanageable smorgasbord of issues. But each side is, and should be, aware of how completion of a nuclear agreement would help to open the door to doing mutually beneficial business on other matters in the region on which U.S. and Iranian interests run parallel.

Awhile ago someone in Iranian officialdom commented publicly about how completion of a nuclear deal could lead to more effective Iranian and U.S. action against the newest Middle Eastern threat du jour, the group sometimes known as ISIS. The comment was a cue for opponents of the Obama administration in Washington to once again accuse the administration of being weak and allowing itself to be leveraged into making a bad deal. There is absolutely zero evidence in what is publicly known about the negotiations and U.S. negotiating behavior that this accusation is true. Besides, the Iranian comment was not even explicitly an attempt to exert leverage but rather a correct statement about some of the likely possibilities that completion of an agreement with open up.

Although we do not know the exact content, the sense that the Wall Street Journal report gives us about the recent letter to Ayatollah Khamenei is that it was an effort to persuade the ayatollah to endorse the additional Iranian concessions necessary to complete the agreement. As part of that effort at persuasion, the letter reportedly alluded not only to direct benefits to Iran that would be associated with a deal but also the prospect of more effective action against ISIS—in other words, the same sort of comment, conveyed in the reverse direction, as was heard from Tehran earlier. Domestic U.S. opponents who hopped on that earlier comment ought to be pleased that the Obama administration is turning the tables and that, if there is implicit leverage to be exercised, the United States is exercising it.

Which side succeeds in such maneuvers depends on who cares more about the issues at stake. The United States lost the Vietnam War because the Vietnamese adversary, riding nationalist sentiment in favor of uniting their country and freeing themselves from foreign domination, cared more about the outcome than the United States did.

To the extent we can make such comparisons (and admittedly we can make them only indirectly by inference, because direct inter-nation comparisons, like interpersonal comparisons, of utility are not really possible), it appears so far that Iran is the party that wants a nuclear deal more. The best indication of that is the Joint Plan of Action that was reached last year and in which Iran clearly made most of the concessions, freezing or rolling back the parts of its nuclear program that mattered most in return for relatively minor sanctions relief.

It also appears that Iran cares more about stopping and rolling back ISIS. The Iranians have been far more active on the ground, at higher cost and risk, in assisting the Iraqi government in combating ISIS than the United States has been so far. That is unsurprising and appropriate. The Iranians have better reason to be concerned about ISIS than we do. They live in the same neighborhood and have interests more directly threatened by ISIS than do we, who are more likely to be threatened only as a consequence of our own involvement against the group and the revenge that would flow from it.

The preceding set of facts makes for a state of affairs that ought to please us. Not only are we better positioned to play the game of implicit leverage; we can also see Iran do more of the heavy lifting against ISIS, both now and after a nuclear deal, but with even more opportunities for effective coordination of such anti-ISIS efforts in the wake of an agreement. Some Americans, however, are allowing their Iranophobic, label-directed approach to foreign policy to lead them to look this gift horse in the mouth.

We also lose some of our advantage each time we say or do something that makes it look like we care more about the fortunes of ISIS than the Iranians do. President Obama deserves criticism not for sending letters to the ayatollah and for mentioning ISIS in them but instead for saying things and moving troops in ways that foster the impression that ISIS is more important to us than to Iran. And American hawks deserve criticism the more they push Mr. Obama in this direction, which undercuts their own claim to be concerned about enhancing negotiating leverage against Iran. This is yet another example of a recurring tendency in American foreign policy, which is to insist on getting the United States so far in front in addressing problems that allies as well as adversaries become free riders rather than doing what ought to be their share of the pedaling.

Image: U.S. Air Force Flickr.            

TopicsIran Iraq terrorism RegionsMiddle East

It's Legacy Time, but History, like Life, Can be Unfair

Paul Pillar

Amid the usual post-election barrages of commentary about what messages the election result supposedly carries and how elected leaders ought to change their behavior in response, it is difficult to find any issue-specific messages about U.S. foreign policy in this week's result. As Michael Cohen points out, the available evidence from polls, including exit polls, is that foreign policy issues did not play a significant role in the outcome. It is true, as Gordon Adams observes, that a “witches' brew, fired up by Republican candidates,” of fears did play a role—fear of getting attacked by an ISIS terrorist, of catching Ebola, and of being swamped by immigrants flooding across the southern border. But as far as presidential policy is concerned these are not matters that were the making of the current president or are translatable into changes of course in his policies.

The one thing about Barack Obama that is different now that the election is over is, of course, that not only will he never be running for anything again but also no one else will be running for anything that will change the make-up of the U.S. Congress during his presidency. Some suggest that he still needs to be concerned about affecting the prospects for whoever will be his party's candidate for president in 2016, but that does not really need to be a constraint. Visible distance between Mr. Obama and the Democratic presidential candidate will not necessarily hurt the latter and might even help.

So now, more than ever, the president should think and act strictly and narrowly according to what is in his best judgment in the best interest of the nation while excluding from his calculations what is popular or politic. In practice this advice will frequently conflict with another common theme of post-election commentary, which is that the president needs to try more than ever to reach across the party divide to work with the opposition, now that the opposition has won big. The first type of advice should take precedence because we (and Mr. Obama) already have enough experience to know that the second type of advice will in the current circumstances yield few results. The Washington Post's Dana Milbank aptly summarized the political dynamics involved by observing that “Republicans didn't run on an agenda other than antipathy to all things Obama” and that “it was enough, electorally, for Republicans to say they were against whatever President Obama was for.” An optimistic view is that having majority status in both houses of Congress will impart a greater sense of ownership of policy and an associated sense of responsibility that has hitherto been lacking, but it is unrealistic to think that the target of the unrelenting antipathy that made for a winning electoral strategy is likely suddenly to be perceived instead as a partner in policymaking.

The senior senator from Kentucky, who is in line to become Senate majority leader, declared during Mr. Obama's first term that the number one goal of himself and his party colleagues in Congress was not to improve the state of the economy, to enhance the health and welfare of Americans, to strengthen the standing of the United States in the world, or to do anything else to further the national interest; according to the senator their number one goal was instead to deny President Obama a second term. They failed in that goal but instead did what was the nearest thing to it, which was, in Adams's words, to mount a campaign “to prevent the president from achieving any of his agenda—from health care to climate change to immigration.” Do not expect such habits to change now that a blocking minority in the Senate has become a majority.

In considering what a hypothetical president who is perfectly tuned to what is good for the national interest and not necessarily good politics ought to be concentrating on in foreign policy over the next two years, one should think first in terms of long-term trends and future challenges that are not fashionable fears of the moment such as ISIS, Ebola, or those scruffy immigrants. Climate change certainly deserves to be at or near the top of any such list, but also high on the list should be more of that pivoting to East Asia that so far has been more of a talked-about concept than a thorough addressing of America's future relations with China.

Middle Eastern problems will necessarily continue to limit the amount of pivoting, and within the Middle East the issues deserving priority include one to which Mr. Obama admirably has already devoted considerable political capital—conclusion of an agreement to limit Iran's nuclear program—and one to which he gave one shot and then pretty much gave up: the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These two issues could appropriately be treated as more linked than they usually are treated, given the motivations of the Israeli government in opposing any agreement with Iran and given how that government accounts for such a large part of the overall opposition to an agreement. Benjamin Netanyahu's government ought to be called explicitly to account for the phoniness of its opposition to an agreement, in a way that the United States has not explicitly done. In fact, just about anything having to do with Israel, given the extraordinary role Israel-related issues play in American politics, constitutes a prime area in which our hypothetical president would behave differently from real American politicians.

If Barack Obama is to become more like that hypothetical president who is selflessly guided by a dispassionate sense of the national interest rather than by politics, he will face a tough test in living up to a standard that he has talked about himself: not doing stupid stuff. The test is tough because not doing certain things detrimental to the national interest, as distinct from positively doing things that would further that interest, may run up not only against what is currently politically popular but also against the sorts of considerations that make for a favorably regarded legacy. History tends to treat presidents who accomplish positive and significant things more favorably than it treats presidents whose chief contributions to the republic were to resist pressures to do damaging things. Perhaps the closest thing to an exception was Dwight Eisenhower, who served the republic very well not only through his positive accomplishments but also by avoiding major mistakes even when friends and allies (e.g., Suez 1956) were doing stupid stuff.

If Mr. Obama is to become more like the hypothetical president, he should have begun showing signs of that after his own re-election in 2012. Some believe they see some such signs, but the signs are not clear. The president's policy toward ISIS, for example, looks to a large extent to be a bending to popular will and emotions. But he still has two more years to demonstrate otherwise.   

 

TopicsElections RegionsUnited States

Space, the Final Frontier Between the Public and Private Sectors

Paul Pillar

Private enterprise that is engaged in transportation to space and the upper atmosphere had two catastrophic failures within the last week: the explosion seconds after liftoff of an Antares rocket launched by Orbital Sciences Corporation under a NASA contract to ferry supplies to the international space station; and the crash, killing one of the test pilots, of a rocket plane that Virgin Galactic hopes to use to give passengers rides through the mesosphere. Accidents can happen to anyone, but the incidents point to some issues regarding the relative roles and performance of the public and private sectors and how those roles are commonly viewed. Two issues in particular.

One concerns how a well-founded appreciation for the working of free markets has too often been translated into a crude and unfounded, and ideologically driven, belief that the private sector is inherently better than the public sector over a very wide range of activities. Genuinely free markets are indeed wonderful mechanisms for using competition and pecuniary incentives to get the best possible product or service at the best possible price. But large parts of the private sector are far from operating as classic free markets. There are numerous possible reasons for this, involving departures from unfettered competition and small numbers of buyers or sellers.

Orbital Sciences contracting with NASA is not like General Motors trying to sell cars, in which success of the business depends on large numbers of potential customers deciding for themselves what they like or don't like about the products offered by GM and its competitors. Instead there is only one customer, NASA, that presumably is applying the same standard that it always applied under its previous model of managing space launch projects itself and using private industry only as suppliers for segments of the project. There is no more incentive to get things right, and to avoid incidents like last week's launch failure, whether the work is contracted out or not. Of course, Orbital Sciences would not want a string of failures that would lead NASA to redirect its business to SpaceX or someone else, but NASA would not want that either.

It is hard to see where private enterprise is offering any cost savings with an arrangement like this. For government to contract with a for-profit business means starting with the need to make up for additional overhead, including the business's profit. It also is hard to see where any extra innovation is being offered. Indeed, pecuniary motives may have been working against innovation. The main engine that Orbital Sciences was using in the booster that exploded is a modified version of a Russian engine that dates from the 1970s. An independent consultant remarked about the incident with the Antares, “Coming up with new engines is a very expensive proposition. That was probably one of the reasons the Russian engine was so attractive.”

The other issue concerns the standards that the public and the political class commonly apply to success and failure in the public and private sectors. Frequent failure and creative destruction—of failed products and sometimes of whole companies—are central to the working of free markets. It is thus appropriate that as long as no one else is getting hurt, we are nonchalant about such failures. (The awful situation of financial institutions that are “too big to fail” should be an exception precisely because a lot of other innocent people do get hurt by failure.) But a far more rigorous standard often gets applied to activities by government, even activities that are at least as inherently risky and subject to failure as what those in the private sector who introduced the Edsel or New Coke were doing. The zero-tolerance standard applied to stopping terrorist attacks is one example. NASA's exploration of space has been another, especially where human lives were involved. We are taking more notice of failures by private sector space enterprises than we otherwise would because private enterprise is getting into an activity that government had previously performed and to which the higher standards of success and failure had historically been applied.

The nature of a project and its relationship to any public purpose ought to be prime criteria in success and failure and who ought to do the project. Virgin Galactic's project is designed to provide brief thrill rides to people wealthy enough to want to spend a quarter of a million dollars per ticket for that sort of thrill. Obviously there is no role for government in anything like that. One can even question why the National Transportation Safety Board is using its resources to investigate last week's crash. Let the market handle it all. If would-be thrill riders have enough concern about safety to turn their backs on Virgin Galactic's project, or even on the entire space tourism business, so be it; there would be no harm to the public interest.

As for the many other endeavors—including some bold, risky endeavors—where the public interest is involved, let us remember that some of those are suitable for markets to play a role but others are not.

Image: Flickr/NASA.                                             

TopicsSpace RegionsUnited States

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