Paul Pillar

Palestine, the Extremist Cause

Paul Pillar

The documents that were seized from the late Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad and into which Washington Post columnist David Ignatius was given an exclusive glimpse included tidbits such as bin Laden talking about killing President Obama and General David Petraeus. But such tidbits were not the most interesting aspect of the documents. The papers evidently confirm that bin Laden in his latter days was not really commanding operations. The talk about killing the president was just talk and not a serious threat. More significant is what the documents say about bin Laden the propagandist—about how he saw different themes and issues working to his advantage or disadvantage.

Bin Laden saw as a disadvantage for him and his group the dropping of “war on terror” from the official U.S. lexicon. That phrase—never making sense in the first place, as a war on a tactic—had been subject to interpretations that left many Muslims confused about just who it was the United States was going after. To the extent Muslims believed the United States was going after them, that was good from bin Laden's viewpoint. Not good for him was the more recent and sharper U.S. posture that made it clear that al-Qaeda was the target of this war. Bothered by that, bin Laden mused about possibly changing the name of his group.

The one issue that bin Laden evidently stressed to his associates should be emphasized publicly above all others was Palestine. He criticized affiliates and followers for justifying their actions as responses to local matters rather than being performed on behalf of the preeminent cause for all Muslims, which was Palestine. In making such admonitions, bin Laden was recognizing the enormous salience the Palestinian issue continues to have for for Muslims generally. It has all the ingredients for a cause well suited for exploitation by extremists. At its core is the injustice of indefinite occupation by a conquering power of land that is home to Muslims. On top of that is a added religious dimension to the conflict and the perception of the occupying power as a kind of Western, Judeo-Christian imposition on the Middle East.

That bin Laden was issuing such instruction is a further indication of the power of Palestine as an extremist cause célèbre. Bin Laden's first wish probably would have been to overthrow the House of Saud in Arabia. His strategy of going after the far enemy in the form of the United States as a way of defeating the near enemies in Arab capitals was never more than a minority view in jihadist circles. In this respect he did not see eye-to-eye with his onetime mentor Abdullah Azzam, who believed the first priority of jihad ought to be the liberation of Muslim lands from non-Muslim occupiers. That is why Azzam was a leader in supporting the Afghan jihad against Soviet occupation, and why he—himself a Palestinian—believed liberation of Palestinian land from Israeli occupation needed to be given foremost priority. The Palestinian issue has the power it does not because individual terrorist leaders like bin Laden necessarily make it their first personal priority but instead because it has tremendous resonance among the Muslim populations to which they appeal. The reason that supporters and rank-and-file practitioners of anti-U.S. terrorism cite most frequently for their hatred of the United States is U.S. condoning of Israeli occupation of Palestinian-inhabited land and of other Israeli actions that involve the killing or subjugation of Muslims.

There are many good reasons not to let the Israeli-Palestinian issue fester. Its role as a readily exploitable extremist cause is one of them.

TopicsHuman RightsReligionPost-ConflictTerrorism RegionsIsraelAfghanistanUnited StatesPalestinian territories

Gaza Will Not Go Away

Paul Pillar

The 140-square-mile patch of misery known as the Gaza Strip suffers from two degrees of inattention. First, any hope of being lifted permanently out of the misery rests on Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy that is now moribund. Benjamin Netanyahu’s war-mongering on Iran has succeeded in pushing the unresolved plight of Palestinians almost entirely off the Israeli-American agenda. This was demonstrated earlier this month when a visit to Washington by Netanyahu and a major AIPAC conference were remarkable for how little either one explicitly addressed the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Second, to the extent that conflict gets any attention, the attention focuses more on the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), where continued Israeli colonization of conquered land is pushing a two-state solution ever closer to infeasibility. There once were a few thousand Israeli settlers in the Gaza Strip (in contrast to the half million in the West Bank), but as these numbers indicate, Israelis never coveted this piece of sand as much as they do lands to the east. Seven years ago, Ariel Sharon pulled Israelis out of the strip, successfully dealing with the few diehard settlers who resisted.

Since then, Israeli governments seem to have wished that the Gaza Strip could somehow just go away. That not being possible, they instead have dealt with it as if it were a den of unruly, infectious creatures that could be cordoned off, with an occasional overt use of force to swat the creatures down. The well-being of the people who really live in the strip, and the ways in which Israel's assault on that well-being redound to Israel’s own disadvantage, do not seem to have figured into Israeli government thinking.

Whether or not anyone gives due ethical regard to the welfare of Gazans, the short-sighted cordon-and-swat Israeli approach will continually make the Gaza Strip a locus of trouble and instability. The most recent reminder of that has occurred within the past week. The trouble began with the latest Israeli swat: the killing last Friday with an air-to-ground missile of Zuhair al-Qissi, the leader of a militant group called the Popular Resistance Committees. Palestine Islamic Jihad took the lead in retaliating by firing rockets back into Israel, which in turn led to more Israeli airstrikes in the Gaza Strip. By Tuesday, the Egyptians had brokered a truce, which was still shaky as of mid-week.

The latest round of fighting demonstrates anew how Israel’s iron-fisted approach of blockades, airstrikes and invasions never has and never will bring peace to Israel’s southwestern border. It is little more than three years since Operation Cast Lead, a full-scale Israeli invasion that killed around 1400 Palestinians, including hundreds of civilians, and inflicted such extensive physical damage to the Gaza Strip that, combined with the effects of the previous blockade, it caused a humanitarian crisis that in some ways continues today.

Neither Israeli nor Palestinian leaders seem anxious for a new war right now in Gaza. Some Israeli politicians have warned that such a war would risk undoing the success the war-mongering talk about Iran has had in diverting attention from the Palestinians’ plight and focusing it instead on the Iranian nuclear program. The successful operation of Israel's Iron Dome anti-rocket defensive system has relieved what might otherwise have been greater popular pressure on Israeli leaders to strike back faster and even more forcefully.

There nonetheless is talk in Israel about launching at some point another war against Gazans. Israel's finance minister, Yuval Steinitz, said “sooner or later, and I don't want to quote dates, we will have to do a 'root canal.'” The talk reflects another Israeli idée fixe, one that is just as short-sighted as the reliance on cordon-and-swat: an absolute refusal to have anything to do with Hamas except to try to crush it (and occasionally to exchange prisoners with it). This obsession continues no matter what Hamas does and no matter how substantial a portion of Palestinian opinion it may represent. Hamas has not been involved in the most recent round of rocket firing, and it was Hamas that sought Egyptian help to negotiate a cease-fire. Hamas's staying on the sidelines of this latest round follows months in which it has spoken more of moving away from violent resistance and has tried anew to reconcile with the Fatah of Mahmoud Abbas. Steinitz's comments nonetheless indicate that making things as difficult as possible for Hamas is at least as important to the Israeli government as stopping any rockets. Israel “cannot accept in the long run,” he said, a Hamas regime in Gaza.

The counterproductive (if one were interested in peace, that is) Israeli attitudes at play are vividly displayed in a paper published this week by Efraim Inbar and Max Singer of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, a version of which appeared as an op-ed in the Jerusalem Post. Their piece is titled “The Opportunity in Gaza”—it's interesting how a violent, destructive clash is viewed as a “opportunity.” They argue for a full-scale invasion of the Gaza Strip now—one even bigger and more damaging than Cast Lead, with the objective of destroying as much of Hamas as possible. They blatantly recommend exploiting the U.S. electoral calendar, arguing that “until November, the U.S. is likely to restrain rather than promote international action against Israel in response to an action in Gaza.” They say “deterrence created by Cast Lead” is “wearing thin,” and “military action now could restore deterrence.” Someone should point out to Inbar and Singer than when you repeatedly have to go to war that means deterrence is not working. But they don't seem to care, fully accepting the prospect that in the future “Israel will probably have to 'mow the grass' again.” There is not a single word in their paper about the lives and livelihoods of the residents of the Gaza Strip, or the effect what they are recommending would have on those lives.

May both Palestinians and Israelis be spared from such perverse thinking.

Image: Al Jazeera/Wikimedia Commons

TopicsElectionsHuman RightsEthicsPost-Conflict RegionsIsraelPalestinian territories

Americans Don't Want a War

Paul Pillar

It is common knowledge that the wording and framing of questions heavily influence the results of public-opinion polls. Some good recent examples concern American attitudes toward the Iranian nuclear issue. A new CBS/New York Times poll seems to show a majority of Americans favoring the use of military force against Iran, with 51 percent supporting and 36 percent opposing. But look at the question that was asked: “Would you support or oppose the United States taking military action against Iran in order to prevent it from developing a nuclear weapons program?” There is nothing about diplomacy or other means to avoid an Iranian nuclear weapon. The question carries the implicit assumption that the choice is binary, with the development of an Iranian nuke the certain alternative if military force is not employed. There is nothing to get the respondent thinking about the full consequences of a particular policy choice, including the choice of military action. (I expect the results would have been significantly different if the words “going to war” were substituted for “taking military action,” even though in this instance they are substantively equivalent.) Most important, the question incorrectly implies efficacy: that military action really would “prevent” a nuclear-weapons program, rather than at best delaying such a program and most likely leading the Iranians to take a decision they had not already taken to institute such a program.

Another poll, also just out and conducted by the Program on International Policy Attitudes and the University of Maryland, presents questions on the related subject of a possible Israeli military strike, and the results give a substantially different impression. When presented with a choice between an Israeli military strike against the Iranian nuclear program or the United States and other major powers pursuing negotiations, a large majority (69 percent to 24 percent) favor negotiations. When asked how the United States should react if Israel does strike, 25 percent say to give Israel whatever it requests, including military forces, 14 percent favor publicly supporting Israel but not providing military support and 49 percent favor staying neutral, with smaller numbers favoring public opposition to Israel. The reluctance to get involved militarily is all the more significant given that the respondents in this same poll express decidedly pessimistic—unrealistically so—views about the implications of the Iranian program and of an Iranian nuclear weapon. Fifty-eight percent believe (contrary to the publicly expressed U.S. intelligence judgment) that Iran has already decided to produce nuclear weapons and is actively working to do so. Forty-nine percent believe it is very likely and 40 percent somewhat likely that Iran actually will develop nuclear weapons. And 62 percent believe Iran would be likely to use nuclear weapons against Israel “because it is so hostile to Israel.”

The American public's aversion to a new war is not surprising given the experiences of the past decade. The aversion is also reflected in recent trends in American opinion regarding Afghanistan. The expressed aversion would undoubtedly be even clearer if Americans had a more accurate view of the nature of the Iranian nuclear program and a more realistic view of the consequences if Iran did get the bomb. (For an explanation of a more realistic view, I invite readers to see my recent article in the Washington Monthly addressing the subject.)

All of this has implications for war and peace as well as for election-year politics. If Americans could be swayed a bit less by mindless alarmism and a bit more by a sober consideration of what an Iranian nuclear weapon would mean, then their expressed aversion to a war might become so clear than even Republican presidential candidates would no longer see political advantage in saber rattling. And that would be good not only because the saber rattling benefits Iran and especially Iranian hard-liners but also because stopping it would at least marginally improve the quality of political debate in the United States.

Image: Shreyans Bhansali

TopicsDomestic PoliticsForeign AidPublic OpinionSanctionsNuclear ProliferationRogue States RegionsIsraelIranUnited States

When to Apologize

Paul Pillar

That national arbiter of moral behavior, Rick Santorum, said something Monday about the previous day's shooting spree in Afghanistan that stood out from some of his earlier statements. He said that the “proper authorities” should apologize for the incident. Just a couple of weeks ago Santorum castigated President Obama for apologizing for the last previous big problem in American relations with the Afghans; the burning of prison Korans. One is tempted just to discard all of this as campaign hooey, especially given that much of the other "apologizing" for which Santorum and Mitt Romney have criticized Obama is imaginary.  If Santorum is saying, however, the United States should apologize for one incident but not for the other, perhaps he is making some distinctions that warrant a more careful look.

From his comments this week, it appears that intent is an important distinction for Santorum. He said an apology for the shooting rampage is in order as long as it is determined that it was a “deliberate act” by the soldier—“that it's not a mistake, it wasn't something that was inadvertent.” A problem that immediately comes to mind with this criterion is that it does not correspond with the role of apologies in everyday life, the overwhelming majority of which are for inadvertent actions (or inaction owing to forgetfulness). I apologize if I accidentally bump into someone in a crowded hallway or spill a bit of my beverage on someone's clothing. If the bump or the spill were deliberate, then we have an entirely different situation and an apology is probably the least likely thing on my mind. Another problem with the intention test as applied to the incidents in Afghanistan is that the volition in question is that of the sergeant who went on the killing spree and the soldiers who torched the Korans. But they aren't the ones doing the apologizing. It's higher-ups—the “proper authorities”—who would apologize, and it is safe to say that those higher authorities did not intend for either incident to occur.

Santorum seemed to address the latter problem when he said about this week's killing rampage, “It’s something that the proper authorities should apologize for, for not doing their job in making sure that something like this wouldn’t happen.” But then why shouldn't the same standard be applied to the burning of the Korans? If anything, it probably would have been easier for the higher-ups involved in the Koran episode to prevent the incident, merely by issuing sufficiently clear and detailed instructions to subordinates, than it was for superior officers to prevent the sergeant from walking off his base at night and shooting people in nearby hamlets.

Another angle about senior-level responsibility came up in connection with the Koran-burning when Santorum stated that far from the United States owing anyone an apology, Afghan President Karzai should have apologized for the anti-American violence that ensued. But it is very unlikely Karzai could have prevented the violence—either the in-the-street variety or the individual murders of American advisers. (If he had enough power and control to prevent the violence, then his position is much stronger than we thought and there certainly is no excuse for continuing a counterinsurgency on his government's behalf.) If the reason for an apology from higher authorities is that they did not prevent an incident that was in their power to prevent, then why should we ask for an apology from Karzai?

The violent reaction to the Koran-burning perhaps involves another distinction that shaped Santorum's view on apologies even though he did not express his position in these terms. A lethal reaction, including cold-blooded murder, to the burning of a religious book—whether the burning was accidental or not—is inexcusable and vastly out of proportion to any purported offense. It is deplorable that anyone should consider ignition of a book to be a rationale to kill. If that's how Santorum views last month's situation, I agree with him. But evidently many Afghans—denizens of a land where long and costly jihads have been fought—see things differently from either Santorum or me.

That gets to another principle about when apologies are in order. The obligation to apologize stems from the effect on the offended party, as seen from the offended party's point of view. If I accidentally spill part of my beverage on your clothing, an apology, and perhaps an offer to pay a dry cleaning bill, is in order because of the effect on you, not because of any inherent badness in what I have done. The foreign policy equivalent of failing to recognize the principle involved is found all too often in policy preferences—which Santorum espouses as much as anyone—that are unilateral, exceptionalist, and based on an assertive form of nationalism that is insufficiently sensitive to the perceptions and preferences of foreign states and their populations. The need to maintain such sensitivity does not just have a moral base, and it definitely is not a matter of subjugating our values to anyone else's. It is instead a matter of realizing how much foreigners over whose interests and values we have ridden roughshod can react in ways that will harm our own interests. It is thus in our interest to maintain and implement policies that give due regard to foreign interests and values—and to apologize when we inadvertently fail to do so.

The only question remaining is whether when a politician such as Santorum favors policies that do ride roughshod over foreign interests and values, he is doing so because he honestly believes that such policies are in U.S. interests or he is espousing them only to pander to the cruder nationalist impulses of the American public. If the former, this is an indication of his unfitness to direct U.S. foreign policy. If the latter, then he is deliberately being disingenuous. And by Santorum's own standards for apologizing, he owes us an apology.

TopicsCounterinsurgencyDomestic PoliticsEthicsPublic OpinionReligion RegionsAfghanistanUnited States

Massacre in Panjwai

Paul Pillar

The latest untoward event in the U.S. military expedition in Afghanistan is horrifying any way you look at it. A U.S. Army staff sergeant walked off his base Sunday and, going door-to-door in nearby villages, shot to death at least 16 civilians, including nine children, subsequently setting some of the bodies afire. We Americans can be confident that whatever sort of derangement accounts for this act does not reflect official policy or orders, and that, as our leaders like to reassure others, the action is not representative of the large majority of American military personnel serving in Afghanistan. But what we can be confident of is not necessarily what matters most.

The history of the U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan and of similar expeditions elsewhere—including the Iraq War, punctuated by the abuses at Abu Ghraib—demonstrates two realities about such incidents. One is that in any wars as long and large as these two, such incidents are bound to happen. Their occurrence is a function of having many thousands of men and women in uniform sent to a foreign land to perform the mission, the inability to subject all of them to constant supervision, and the statistical likelihood of aberrant behavior stemming from the weaknesses of any assemblage of people that large as well as from the extra unusual stresses of warfare. Incidents will occur despite reasonable efforts of the command to exert discipline and to prevent them from occurring. The inevitability of their occurrence is part of why we have a military justice system.

The other reality is that many foreigners will interpret the incidents differently from the way we do. They will interpret them as more willful, and more representative of Americans or of what the United States is trying to do, than is the case. The United States suffers from its own power by being the target of assumptions that it always can do whatever it wants to do and can prevent whatever it does not want to happen. No amount of explanations, apologies, or reassurances from U.S. leaders will dispel such perceptions.

The latest incident is one of several that, along with the unpopularity of some of the NATO forces' tactics and the sheer length of those forces' presence in Afghanistan, has made the Western military presence progressively less welcome in that country. The negative Afghan sentiments involved have made it more difficult and dangerous for NATO personnel to do their jobs, as highlighted by the growing number of murders of those personnel by Afghans they are supposed to support and advise. It remains to be seen if reaction to Sunday's shooting spree will be anything like the Afghan response last month to the burning of Korans. If it turns out that the accidental burning of a religious book elicits more anger than the massacre of more than a dozen innocent villagers, it will be one more demonstration that we and the Afghans operate on different wavelengths.

The only appropriate policy response to these developments is to press ahead with military disengagement from Afghanistan. The Western mission already has become very hard to perform, and there are bound to be more incidents that will make it even harder. And yet, some of the same tired arguments for doing otherwise continued to be voiced. Senator John McCain talks of how “if Afghanistan dissolves into a situation where the Taliban were able to take over a chaotic situation, it could easily return to an al-Qaeda base for attacks on the United States of America.” This ignores how the Afghan Taliban, which is not an international terrorist group and cares only about the political and social order inside Afghanistan, has strong reasons not to make the country an al-Qaeda base and suffer again the same kind of fate it did in late 2001.

Then there is Senator Lindsey Graham stating “we can win this thing” and saying that leaving Afghanistan would signal to Iran that the United States was not committed to the region. The idea of hurting the credibility of commitments is an even hoarier notion, one that was very much in evidence in continuing to fight the Vietnam War. It is no more valid now than it was then, and is not the way we would assess the commitments of other states. As for what being in Afghanistan does to Iran, that's another lesson we should have learned from the Iraq War—which was one of the biggest boosts to Iranian influence in the region that Tehran has enjoyed.

TopicsCounterinsurgencyNATOHuman RightsPublic OpinionMilitary Strategy RegionsAfghanistanIranIraq

The Integrity of Policy Analysis

Paul Pillar

I have been following with a combination of puzzled fascination and profound concern the attempt by the brothers Charles and David Koch to seize control of the Cato Institute. Readers of the National Interest website know that Cato scholars are major contributors to these spaces, and that is one sense in which we readers have a stake in how this power play comes out. I do not pretend to understand Cato's unusual governing structure, which the Koch brothers are trying to manipulate and which includes a small number of nominally-valued “shares” alongside the normal sort of board of directors. But this is not just a non-profit version of inside baseball. A larger stake that the rest of us have in this involves nothing less than the integrity of policy debate and policy analysis in this country.

The Koch brothers evidently are attempting to latch Cato to a partisan (in this case, Republican) cause. That is fundamentally different from policy analysis being identified with a particular school of thought or even ideology. It is fair to say of a Cato product, “That's a libertarian viewpoint, of course.” But with or without that ideological label, the discussion is all about substance. Whether at the level of general ideology or specific policy issues, it is still about substance. And there is no reason to doubt that the arguments are genuine or to suspect that they are merely a cover for something else.

Once the purpose of argumentation becomes the advancement of a particular political party or candidate, that is no longer the case. What are ostensibly arguments about policy are only tools for accomplishing something else. Sometimes the policies being advocated correspond with the genuine positions of a political leader or candidate, but not necessarily. All of this makes policy debate less useful as a means either of public education or of arriving at sound policies. We see numerous examples of this unfortunate pattern in the current race for the Republican presidential nomination. The candidates' back-and-forth on Romneycare, for example, has been pretty useless as a way of understanding what works and what doesn't work in health care at either the state or the federal level. The arguments are just means for Romney's opponents to bash him for inconsistency or for his supporters to defend his record.

I have high regard for the quality of Cato's work, which has filled an important role of clear and disciplined analysis from a libertarian perspective. (Disclosure: I have collaborated in the past with Cato scholars.) Losing that would be something that Republicans as well as Democrats, non-libertarians as well as libertarians (and even anti-libertarians) ought to regret. It would be one more thing in Washington that would be surrendered to tribal partisanship.

TopicsHealthDomestic PoliticsIdeology RegionsUnited States

Secret Death Sentences

Paul Pillar

Attorney General Eric Holder's speech aimed at justifying the killing overseas of U.S. citizens believed to be involved in terrorism has received sharp criticism along with some compliments. Many of the criticisms appear justified.

We still have a problem with insufficient clarity and transparency in such operations. The attorney general's statement was a speech bereft of the citations and precedents one would find in a formal legal brief or opinion. We keep hearing about a classified memorandum that the executive branch considers as filling that role, but not even members of Congress have gotten to see it. Mr. Holder stressed in his speech that due process, as mentioned in the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution, is not to be equated with judicial process, and that is true. But we evidently just have to take it on faith from the executive branch that there is such a process underlying the killings that is sufficiently due and thorough to satisfy the constitutional requirement. We never get to see the process or have a chance to fully understand it.

One other problem nags me that I have not seen so far in the criticisms. This whole procedure is supposedly targeted at members of al-Qaeda (or as the attorney general occasionally puts it, “al-Qaeda and associated forces.” The idea seems to be that al-Qaeda is an identifiable, clearly definable hostile entity with which the United States is at war, and thus similar rules and procedures can apply to bumping off members of that group as would apply to killing members of the armed forces of a state at war with the United States. Holder even made reference to the targeted killing—although the term wasn't used back then—of Admiral Yamamoto during World War II in the Pacific. If a U.S citizen had joined the Japanese navy during World II that would have been a clearly defined act resulting in clearly defined membership, and using any means possible to kill such a traitor in the midst of a war would not have been a matter of much controversy.

But al-Qaeda is nothing like the Japanese navy. It is a diffuse, ill-defined movement surrounding a battered core group. It has become all the more diffuse and ill-defined in recent years. The term “al-Qaeda” gets applied variously to anything from what is left of the core group under the command of Ayman al-Zawahiri to any element with a penchant for violent transnational jihadist ideology. Some groups—some of those “associated forces”—have adopted the al-Qaeda brand name, but whether or not a group has adopted that name is not a good indicator of what it is all about and what sort of threat it poses to the United States.

Even if al-Qaeda were not such an ill-defined group, what constitutes being a member of al-Qaeda? Unlike someone joining a foreign state's military force, it does not necessarily mean donning a uniform and being issued an ID card. In many cases “joining” is little more than expressing agreement with certain objectives. Of course, the attorney general laid out other criteria, such as posing an imminent threat to U.S. interests, before someone would come under the procedures he was discussing. But in effect another criterion for determining whether someone comes under those procedures has to do with expressing support for certain goals and ideologies. And that comes perilously close to subjecting a citizen to long-distance administratively determined execution partly because he holds certain beliefs.

This problem is not solely a matter for the executive branch. Congress could and should do more to clarify lines, just as it ought to do more to clarify the still fuzzy law about indefinite detention of U.S. citizens suspected of terrorism. The counterterrorist tool in question should not necessarily be discarded, but given the importance of the other principles and values at stake, we deserve something more by way of clarification and justification than what the attorney general gave us.

TopicsCongressHuman RightsTerrorism RegionsUnited States

The Iran Crescendo and Its Sources

Paul Pillar

The celebration and display of political muscle known as the AIPAC policy conference is under way at the Washington Convention Center. This year's conference rides a crescendo of alarm and bellicosity about Iran's nuclear program. The connection between the lobbying power assembled in the convention hall and the wave of saber-rattling rhetoric about Iran is strong and profound. The AIPAC meeting merely underscores what has been obvious for some time: that the primary reason the Iranian nuclear program has become such a high-profile issue in the United States is that the government of Israel has chosen to make it so.

In the absence of the Israeli agitation, the nuclear activities of Iran—which does not have a nuclear weapon and probably has not to date made a decision to make one—would percolate along with many other national-security matters worth watching and addressing but not worth beating a war drum about. Certainly it would not rate more alarm than, say, the nuclear weapons owned by the desperadoes in Pyongyang known as the government of North Korea. If the saber rattling and even more destructive actions such as terrorist attacks were not interfering with the handling of relations with Iran, the next step in that relationship would be acceptance of Tehran's offer of negotiations and concentration on the kind of long, deep and broad diplomacy with Iran that has never been tried.

Nothing that Iran has been doing lately accounts for the Iranian nuclear issue having reached what appears to be almost a crisis point. In the long history of Iran's program, which has been the subject of repeated overestimates of progress, what is happening this year is not fundamentally different from what was happening in many previous years. Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak talks about a “zone of immunity,” but the zones of immunity or vulnerability that matter most to the Israeli government have to do with the U.S. electoral calendar. The greatest danger the United States (and any peace-loving person in the Middle East) currently faces is that Barak and Prime Minister Netanyahu will spring an October surprise (or a surprise in any month between now and the first Tuesday of November) in the form of an armed attack on Iran. A key consideration for them is the possibly different reactions of a U.S. president facing a fight for reelection (while also facing that political muscle represented at the convention center) and a newly reelected president who knows he never would be running for anything again. Because Netanyahu and his government probably prefer that President Obama not be reelected, any of the aftereffects of their surprise—such as a big spike in gasoline prices and maybe even a slide of the U .S. economy back into recession—that would hurt Mr. Obama's reelection chances would be a bonus for them. The welfare of American consumers and workers is not high on their list of decision-making criteria.

What is billed as an Iran problem is thus mainly an Israel problem. If the United States were to be sucked, or pushed, into a new war in the Middle East, the Israel dimension would be significantly greater than it was even with the Iraq War, despite the many disturbing similarities between the run-up to that conflict and the current situation regarding Iran. Shared perspectives of the Israeli Right and some American neocons did figure into promotion of the war against Iraq, but Israel was only a contributing factor to a desire for a war that was based on an ideology that had a life of its own. If there is a war with Iran, Israel will be not just a contributing factor but instead the prime mover.

President Obama's attempt to handle this problem was reflected in his speech on Sunday to the AIPAC conference. He and his speechwriters pushed back as much as it was politically safe to do. In addition to recounting the ample evidence that “when the chips are down, I have Israel's back” and recalling how his administration has mustered far more international pressure on Iran than his predecessor did, Mr. Obama spoke favorably and optimistically about diplomacy, rightly observed that there is “too much loose talk of war,” and talked about nuclear weapons as distinct from mere nuclear-weapons capability. But staying with what is politically safe still leaves an unsquared circle. The president said more than enough about the unacceptability of an Iranian nuclear weapon to set the stage for Netanyahu to demand later that the United States do whatever it takes to prevent such a weapon. In the nearer term, the president's comments about how “no Israeli government can tolerate a nuclear weapon in the hands of” Iran and reference to “Israel's sovereign right to make its own decisions about what is required to meet its security needs” sound almost like an invitation to Netanyahu to launch a war.

An episode of the past that comes to mind is how Germany in 1914 allowed itself to be sucked into a large war through unflinching support for its Austrian ally, which was determined to start what it thought would be a small war to show who was boss in the Balkans. Before I get in trouble with the analogy police: no, I am not predicting another World War I. And yes, there are innumerable differences between the European crisis of 1914 and what we face now. One of those differences is that Germany's leaders regarded support for Austria-Hungary as strategically essential because without that ally Germany would have been surrounded by adversaries and almost bereft of friends. By contrast, the automatic U.S. backing of Israeli behavior is rooted in emotions, tribal sentiments and domestic politics—not strategic considerations, which if heeded would imply a much different U.S. policy. But the analogy does provide something to think about regarding how unquestioning backing of a truculent lesser ally can lead to highly damaging consequences for a greater one.

Anyone who considers himself or herself a patriotic American as well as a friend of Israel should think about some other things as well when Netanyahu addresses the AIPAC conference on Monday. Despite the smoothness with which he operates in U.S. political circles, he does not have U.S. interests at heart. That observation by itself is unremarkable; we should not expect any leader of a foreign government to have U.S. interests at heart. But of course the U.S.-Israeli relationship has been not just another bilateral relationship. Despite the enormous, exceptional and automatic support that the United States bestows on Israel, Netanyahu has not hesitated to slam the door in the face of Israel's patron and protector. He has done it repeatedly regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—most notably concerning the continued Israeli colonization of captured and disputed land—and now he is doing it again regarding Iran. Notwithstanding the huge effort the Obama administration has put into constructing an unprecedented international-sanctions regime that supposedly is intended to get Tehran to change its nuclear policies, Netanyahu's government has been undermining any chance of negotiations that would be the forum for registering and confirming such a change. It has done so by stoking hostility and distrust through terrorist attacks inside Iran and by insisting on conditions (involving an end to uranium enrichment) that clearly are nonstarters for Iran. In remarks in Ottawa before coming to Washington, Netanyahu flatly denounced any negotiations with Iran as unwise.

Netanyahu and his government do not represent the views of Israelis in general. At least some of the objectives that drive that government's posture toward Iran, including maintaining Israel's regional nuclear-weapons monopoly and diverting attention from the situation on the West Bank, do not represent U.S. interests either. Then there is the emotional side of the Israeli attitude toward this issue, which does extend beyond the Israeli government to much of the population. Given history and the awful anti-Israeli rhetoric of Iranian leaders and especially Iran's president, this side is understandable. Netanyahu clearly feels this side, in ways that—as Jeffrey Goldberg has described—involve a legacy from Netanyahu's father. At a personal level, this is all not only understandable but maybe even laudatory. President Obama seemed to be saying so when he noted in his AIPAC speech “the profound historical obligation that weighs on the shoulders of” Netanyahu, Barak and other Israeli leaders. But actions that flow from viscera and emotions are not to be equated with what is in the interests of Israel. And they certainly are not in the interests of the United States.

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The Militarized American State of Mind

Paul Pillar

The extent to which the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Barack Obama has used military force has been the subject of much comment. The actions that elicit such comment are easy to see, from a surge of troops in Afghanistan to the extensive and widespread use of unmanned aerial vehicles to kill suspected terrorists. But the actions disguise the dominant inclinations of Obama. Unlike his predecessor, he has never wanted to be a “war president.” He has resisted the militarization of American policy. The best indication of this is his clear opposition to a provision in a defense-authorization act passed late last year mandating that foreigners suspected of being al-Qaeda members be put in military custody rather than being subjected to the civilian criminal justice system. The president sharply criticized the provision in a signing statement, indicating that he would interpret a waiver provision in the law to preserve maximum flexibility. This week he did exactly that, issuing a waiver and associated guidelines effectively to undo as much of the objectionable legislation as is in his power to undo.

Insofar as the administration has seemed to head for a military path, it has been responding to several unavoidable pressures and circumstances. One is the legacy of a couple of ongoing wars that it inherited. Another is the traditional Democratic concern about not appearing to be wimpy on matters of national security. The largest factor, however, is a pervasive contemporary American habit of thinking about almost anything involving a foreign challenge or security threat in warlike terms, which in turn leads to thinking about military means as the most appropriate tool for dealing with the problem.

In analyzing the considerable continuity between the latter part of the Bush administration and the Obama administration in counterterrorist policy and practices, Marc Lynch has noted how the “media and political class” have “deeply internalized Global War on Terror framing” even though the war-on-terror terminology is no longer in official vogue. That framing severely restricts what any administration can do, even if no one is trying to score a political point or gain an electoral advantage.

The legislation about mandatory military custody for certain terrorism suspects demonstrates how much we are dealing with an attitudinal habit rather than careful consideration about what makes for effective policy. Although supporters of the legislation may have thought of themselves as being tough guys on terrorism, the effect of the law was to reduce the tools and options available in dealing with suspected terrorists. President Obama is right to use waivers aggressively to resist this aimless bit of machismo.


TopicsCongressDomestic PoliticsDefenseTerrorism RegionsUnited States

Israeli Opinion and War With Iran

Paul Pillar

Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland, in cooperation with the Dahaf Institute of Israel, has just released the results of a poll taken within the past week of Israeli opinion toward Iran and American politics. Israeli attitudes toward the efficacy of a military strike against the Iranian nuclear program parallel the range of views one hears on that subject in the United States. If there is any surprise, it is that Israeli views are not any more hawkish than they are, notwithstanding the war rhetoric that the Netanyahu government has been disseminating for many months. (Anyone who doubts the ability of government drum beating to build public support for a war should recall the enormous effect on American public opinion of the George W. Bush administration’s drumbeat on Iraq.)

Only 22 percent of Israelis believe that a military strike by Israel would delay Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons by at least five years; another 22 percent estimate a delay of three to five years. Nine percent of Israelis believe the delay would be only one or two years. Thirty percent of the respondents believe a strike would either have no effect on the Iranian program or would accelerate it. Asked what the effect of an Israeli strike would be on the Iranian government, respondents were evenly split between those who believe a strike would weaken the Iranian regime and those who believe it would be strengthened.

On the key question of whether Israel should launch such a strike notwithstanding the fact that the United States and powers advise against it, only 19 percent of Israelis favor a strike even in the face of U.S. opposition. Thirty-four percent oppose a strike no matter what. A plurality—42 percent—would back a strike only if it had at least the support of the United States.

That last result should form the basis for President Obama’s main talking point when he meets with Prime Minister Netanyahu next week. The president should make it clear that if the Israeli government launches a war, it will not have U.S. support. This would mean that such an act of strategic foolhardiness would also be an act of political foolhardiness for Netanyahu, given that it would fly in the face of the views of the large majority of Israelis.

This advice admittedly runs against the customary way of looking at relations between Israel and the United States, in which we seem to have become resigned to the former country playing the politics of the latter country like a violin. But the superpower patron, not just the generously supported client, ought to be able to play too. In this regard, Telhami’s poll offers some additional support for President Obama. Asked whom they would like to win this year’s U.S. presidential election, Israelis split evenly in a race between Obama and Romney, and they clearly prefer Obama in match-ups against each of the other candidates still in the Republican primary race. (The strongest preference for Obama is over Rick Santorum, the candidate who has sounded most bellicose about Iran.) Whatever effect the Republican candidates’ striving to outdo the president as lovers of Israel may be having on the hard-core Republican base in the United States, it doesn’t seem to be winning over a lot of Israelis.

When President Obama addresses AIPAC next week, he should—and undoubtedly will—express continued strong U.S. support for the security of Israel. He also should—but probably will not—discuss the consequences of a possible military strike on Iran in terms that mirror Israeli views as measured in this week’s poll. He should talk about how the most that could be accomplished by a strike is a short-term delay in Iranian activities and that a strike would set the stage for unending military conflict with the Iranians. He should also talk about how the political effect in Iran would be at least as likely to strengthen the loathed regime in Tehran as to weaken it. Why should a U.S. president get in trouble with AIPAC by speaking in terms that reflect the views of the Israeli people? If he does get in trouble, it will only demonstrate anew how AIPAC does not represent the views—or the interests—of the Israeli people as a whole.

Of course, if the president were to speak in such terms he would be met with a chorus of denunciation by American critics who already have been arguing that the military option should be talked up, not down, and that saber rattling is the best way to get Iranian attention and Iranian concessions. But political and psychological imperatives mean that the response of Supreme Leader Khamenei or other Iranian leaders to saber rattling is more likely to be to dig in their heels and be more conscious than ever of the need not to show weakness. Amitai Etzioni’s recent contribution in these spaces is quite correct that negotiation represents the only way out of this dangerous impasse, and that the open promotion of regime change in Tehran only reduces the chance of negotiating anything with the Iranians. But he is wrong that threatening a war is the way to promote negotiations. The idea that the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 was some sort of enticement to negotiate is no more valid with Iran than it was—as some have argued—with Libya. (Qaddafi’s decisions to get out of terrorism, to end his weapons-development programs and to negotiate a new relationship with the United States came several years earlier.) The high point in Iranian cooperation with the United States came in late 2001 and early in 2002, before the Bush administration slammed the door in the Iranians’ face and declared the Axis of Evil. The 2003 invasion was a reminder of Washington’s dedication to regime change, not to negotiation.

Negotiation is indeed the way out of possible disaster, and the way to negotiation—even with the most difficult and obstreperous regimes—is through patient engagement. The most recent development in dealing with the North Korean nuclear program demonstrates that truth once again.

Image: Barack Obama

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