Paul Pillar

Politics and the Afghan End Game

Paul Pillar

Air Force One has flown halfway around the globe amid multiple reminders of how heavily American politics and misconceptions about the limits of American power continue to weigh on the conflict in Afghanistan. The U.S. military expedition there, now in its eleventh year, should have been concluded long ago. The most important accomplishments came in the first few months following the justified intervention after the 9/11 terrorist attack. Then the mission quietly transformed into an effort to transform Afghanistan into something it politically never has been and probably never will be. As the war continued and we have increasingly worn out our welcome, we have been creating our own enemies. Mostly those enemies are called Taliban, a large proportion of whom are not warriors for extreme interpretations of sharia but instead merely Afghans who are unhappy about a number of things but mostly about foreign occupation. Increasingly and even more disturbingly, we have been making enemies among members of the forces to whom we will supposedly be entrusting the security of Afghanistan. These are the sources of the “green on blue” attacks—which evidently are even more numerous than we had been led to believe.

There have now been two U.S. presidential elections that have shaped policies and pronouncements about Afghanistan (the Bush administration's preoccupation with its Iraq project meant it wasn't paying much attention to Afghanistan in 2004). In 2008, Barack Obama's stance on Afghanistan was partly a politically necessary balance to his laudable opposition to the Iraq War. In 2012 he cannot afford to appear blatantly inconsistent with his previous positions.

Meanwhile, the position on Afghanistan of Mr. Obama's Republican opponent has been confused. Mitt Romney sometimes has talked about following the judgment of “the generals”—completely missing the main issue, which is not how to perform a military mission but rather whether the national interest would be served by performing that mission, with all of its associated costs—and sometimes has talked about bringing U.S. troops home as soon as possible. But in his effort to find ways to jab at President Obama, he also has criticized the president for publicly announcing a timetable for withdrawal, raising the question of whether he has in mind a timetable to be kept secret. The president, for his part, has been leaving things somewhat vague—including in his speech at the Bagram air base, stating only that by the end of 2014 Afghans would be “fully responsible for the security of their country.”

President Obama's trip to Afghanistan this week has some legitimate purposes, especially to thank the U.S. troops who are still there. But the timing of the trip seems to be related to the highly hyped anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden. The White House's repeated reference to the raid lends credence to the Republicans' charge that the Obama camp is milking this one event for more political points than it really deserves. Mr. Obama does deserve credit for the decision he took a year ago, but this is a weak basis for drawing contrasts with Romney. No one knows how a President Romney would have acted if faced with the same situation.

Romney's comeback that “even Jimmy Carter” would have made the same decision doesn't answer the question, although it does evoke thoughts of a similar decision Carter did make to undertake a risky military raid in southwest Asia. That earlier event even involved crashed helicopters. The crash at Desert One in 1980 was severe enough to make the attempt to rescue American hostages from Iran a failure. The one at Abbottabad last year was within the capability of the SEALs to recover from it. Carter is viewed as he is today, and Obama is given the credit that he is given today, partly because of the vagaries of flying helicopters.

None of this has much to do with who is most fit to be president. The nation will be better off when it is finished both with the war in Afghanistan and with this presidential campaign.

TopicsCounterinsurgencyDomestic PoliticsElectionsThe Presidency RegionsAfghanistanUnited States

The Debasement of U.S. Support

Paul Pillar

There was a disturbing scene in New York on Sunday, with former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert speaking at a conference sponsored by the Jerusalem Post. When Olmert called for more respect for, and less confrontation with, the president of the United States, he was met with boos along with shouts of “Naive!” and “Neville Chamberlain!” Revulsion is the appropriate response to that scene, in two respects. One, for what it says about those doing the shouting and booing, regardless of their citizenship or their loyalties. Two, for how degenerate it shows the U.S.-Israeli relationship has become.

In the non-booable circumstances of an interview following his speech at the conference, Olmert made another noteworthy point. In saying that “America is not a client state of Israel,” Olmert asked:

Why should we want America to be put in a situation where whatever they do will be interpreted as if they obeyed orders from Jerusalem?

Good question. One that should have been asked long ago, given that the United States already finds itself in that situation on many matters involving Israel. Any time the United States is perceived to be in effect obeying someone else's orders—let alone orders from the government of a much smaller state on which the United States has showered largesse for many years—the words of the United States become less credible and its actions less respected. Anyone who has the interests and influence of the United States at heart ought to be concerned about that.

Then there is the rest of Olmert's point, which is that Israelis ought to be concerned about that as well. A less credible and less respected America is less able to do things in Israel's region that are in Israel's interests. For Israelis who want to achieve peace with their neighbors, a United States that is Israel's lawyer is less useful than a United States that has the respect of an honest broker.

Even for Israelis interested not in peace but only in minimizing short-term pressure and embarrassment, an America seen as acting as if it were obeying orders from Jerusalem is less useful than one that is not. Think of those United Nations Security Council resolutions on which Washington has cast lonely vetoes on Israel's behalf. Whatever significance most of those resolutions have is moral, perceptual and political. Whatever moral opprobrium involved will be present whether or not the United States casts a veto, because everyone realizes that veto is not an honest and independent judgment on the merits of whatever issue is on the table. Exercising the political muscle required to get that veto only underscores Israeli isolation from the mainstream of world opinion.

This whole unfortunate process is somewhat in the nature of killing a golden-egg-laying goose, except that it involves not sudden death but instead a long-term weakening of the goose.

TopicsDomestic PoliticsUNThe Presidency RegionsIsraelUnited States

Speaking Truth to Power in Israel

Paul Pillar

Emanating out of Israel over the past several months has been a remarkable series of dissents from senior and respected members of the Israeli national-security establishment against positions taken by the current government of Benjamin Netanyahu. The dissenters are individuals whose dedication to the security of Israel is, given their careers, beyond question. They also are men whose experience and expertise make them worth listening to. Some have commented on the long-term peril to Israel of letting the conflict with the Palestinians fester while indefinitely occupying all of the West Bank. More recently, they have addressed the subject the Netanyahu government has put at the top of its public agenda, which is Iran and its nuclear program.

Most of the observations have come from former senior officials, who naturally are freer to speak openly and honestly than when they were in government. But some similar dissents have even emerged, albeit in far more nuanced and fragmented form, from currently serving officials. The current head of Mossad, Tamir Pardo, has questioned the notion that an Iranian nuclear weapon would pose an existential threat to Israel. Last week Lieutenant General Benny Gantz, the chief of General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces, said in an interview that Iranian leaders were rational people who he expects will see the advantage for Iran of agreeing not to build a nuclear weapon. Advocates for the Israeli government quickly tried to spin the general's comments as not contradicting the government's positions. But in fact, the remarks diverged sharply from the efforts of Netanyahu and his ministers not only to question the rationality of Iranian leaders but also to bad-mouth the ongoing negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 as a damaging waste of time.

Then on Friday came a scathing critique of Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak from Yuval Diskin, the immediate past head of the internal-security service Shin Bet. Diskin said the pair act out of messianic sentiments but, noting that “I have seen them up close,” they are in fact not messiahs. Diskin stated that Netanyahu and Barak have been “creating a false impression about the Iranian issue” and “appealing to the stupid public” by suggesting that resort to military force would eliminate the possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon rather than, as is more likely, motivating Tehran to take the decision it has not yet taken to build a bomb.

Americans listening to these exchanges in Israel should draw several conclusions. First, we are seeing one of Israel's most admirable characteristics, which is free and vigorous debate among Israeli citizens enjoying liberal democracy. Whatever are the faults in that democracy—especially the part with a lot of people living under occupation and not enjoying political rights—there is still a part where such rights prevail. In fact, Israel, with its vigorous debates on such matters, goes one better than the United States, where discussion of issues involving Israel is contorted and constrained by what is at best political correctness and at worst a code of omerta. Debates in the United States about Israel would be more informative if they were more like debates within Israel.

Second, we should listen to the substance of what the experienced Israeli national-security professionals are saying. Diskin, for example, really did have a lot of experience observing Netanyahu in action. And Netanyahu really is exhibiting a combination of misplaced messianism and misleading the public.

Third, the Israeli debates are a reminder that the policies of the Israeli government of the day are not to be equated with the interests of Israel. Any government gets to define national interests, and the best way of pursuing them, as long as it is in power. But that definition is only an act of temporary control. Even in a democracy, the definition may be a narrow and warped version of a larger sense of the national interest. In the previous U.S. administration (which, of course, was ushered into office by hanging chad and a court decision), neoconservatives seized control of national-security policy—enough to start a major offensive war—but the resulting policy did not advance the national interest and did not even emerge from a majority sense of the national interest. Netanyahu's government is the product of coalition building under the Israeli electoral system amid ethnic and religious complexities and the weakness of parties of the Left and Center.

Finally, and related to the third point, Americans who consider themselves supporters of Israel ought to think carefully and hard about exactly what they are supporting. Falling in line with what Prime Minister Netanyahu is saying is most definitely not equivalent to supporting Israel. If it were, it would be as if—Republicans in particular ought to get this comparison—foreign endorsement of policies and pronouncements of Barack Obama were being used as the measure of friendship toward the United States. Passionate attachment to any foreign country has a bad enough effect on the security and interests of the United States. The effect is even worse when the attachment is to a particular foreign leadership that isn't even acting in the best interests of its own country.

TopicsDemocracyDomestic PoliticsNuclear Proliferation RegionsIsraelIranUnited StatesPalestinian territories

The Bin Laden Anniversary

Paul Pillar

Anniversaries tend to be used to sell things, and not just greeting cards. Many authors of books or prospective books, for instance, evidently have contemplated calendars carefully enough to have their works released near the tenth, hundredth or Xth anniversary of an event relevant to their subject matter. Now, we are about to mark the first anniversary of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, which will be the occasion for selling both commentary and political points. Democrats will repeatedly note that Bin Laden was eliminated on President Obama's watch, and Republicans will repeatedly argue that the president is trying to milk that one event to divert attention from what they contend are weaknesses elsewhere on his record.

Terrorism-related anniversaries are usually thought to have more substantive significance than this, in the sense that they are occasions that terrorists may attempt to mark with more terrorism. We thus hear that in anticipation of next month's anniversary, the U.S. government is bracing for possible attacks to avenge Bin Laden's death. Such attacks cannot be ruled out, and there no doubt are groups that would like to get the added attention and perhaps satisfaction from staging them. But anniversaries tend to have much less influence on terrorists' planning than do operational opportunities, and the added governmental and public awareness on anniversaries may actually make them among the less opportune times to attempt an attack. Excessive public focus on terrorist anniversaries is one more manifestation of a general tendency to overinterpret terrorists' targets and tactics as well as their timing, all of which are more the product of tactical opportunities than of strategic grand designs.

The dwelling, even in death, on this one man, Bin Laden, reflects another distortion in common understanding about contemporary terrorism. We Americans like to perceive our enemies as named, discrete individuals or entities—not diffuse phenomena, even though a diffuse phenomenon is the shape that current terrorist threats, and even just radical Sunni terrorist threats, take. The habitually loose and broad use of the name “al-Qaeda” tends to reify something that does not exist: viz., a single radical Sunni terrorist organization with a global span of operations.

As early as the late 1990s, well before 9/11, the counterterrorist focus on Bin Laden personally had become strong and sharp. Also that early, some U.S. officials came to realize that the heavy attention to this one man tended to serve some of his own purposes by elevating his stature. But we were never able to get away from that sort of attention, and we are still serving some of bin Laden's purposes by continuing to dwell on him.

TopicsDomestic PoliticsPublic OpinionTerrorism RegionsUnited States

Accountability is Complicated

Paul Pillar

We've lately had a spate of newsworthy despicable behavior by people in official positions, leading to calls for accountability which in turn raise some issues I discussed last year about the nature and meaning of accountability. There is the latest behavioral obscenity by young troops in Afghanistan, who posed for pictures with parts of an enemy's dismembered body. There is the caper with the prostitutes of Cartagena, involving members of the Secret Service and the military. Then of course there is the over-the-top outrage of some people in the General Services Administration deciding to have an expensive frolic in Las Vegas at the taxpayers' expense. (Much of the thirst for accountability for that last incident was quenched when the head of GSA fired a couple of her senior subordinates and then resigned.)

My National Interest colleague Jacob Heilbrunn has laid into the Secret Service for the Colombian prostitution scandal, saying that “heads need to roll.” Andrew Bacevich has taken a similar tack with the military for a variety of failures and contretemps such as the body-parts incident in Afghanistan, arguing that commanders should be held strictly accountable for everything that happens in their commands. Sounds simple, doesn't it? When bad things happen, isn't punishing someone a way to keep similar bad things from happening again?

But accountability isn't that simple; it's complicated. And whether punishments improve the future performance of government institutions gets even more complicated, in ways that I explored in my earlier offering on the subject. When bad things happen in governmental organizations, sometimes this is because someone screwed up, but sometimes not. And even when there clearly has been not only a screw-up but outright misbehavior, as there was in all the aforementioned cases, how far should accountability extend? Bacevich concedes that “we should not overstate the reach of command authority,” which is a mild way of stating the fact that most lower-level behavior is out of sight and effectively out of the control of even the most diligent and hands-on senior leader. So what good does it do, in terms of improving future performance, to punish that leader? Moreover, if merely being somewhere under someone's command is sufficient reason to hold that someone accountable in terms of punishment, then how far up do we go? If we don't draw a line, that would mean every piece of misbehavior in the executive branch of the federal government could lead to impeachment of the president. If we do draw a line, what is the rationale for drawing it at one particular level rather than a level or two higher up or lower down?

Amid these uncertainties, applying the principle that anyone with command authority should be held accountable regardless of whether that person had direct knowledge or control of the objectionable situation encourages a kind of game among senior leaders, the object of which is to jump into head-rolling action quickly enough so that one fires people below before one can be fired by anyone above. That draws the line for accountability just below the level of the game player. Former secretary of defense Robert Gates, to whom Bacevich refers approvingly, was a master at playing that game. It enabled him, whenever something within his span of authority went wrong and happened to cause a public flap, to be perceived publicly as part of the solution rather than as part of the problem. It warded off any suggestions that if the hold-authority-accountable principle were to be applied consistently, Gates himself should be held accountable for malfeasance in the department he headed.

The Washington Post has run a profile on Paula Reid, the Secret Service's boss for the South American region and as such in the thick of activity involving the Cartagena scandal. Blanket application of the hold-authority-accountable principle would seem to suggest that her head should be one of those to roll. But the Post's profile is very favorable, depicting an officer who not only had a strong record of performance prior to this year but also responded vigorously to what her underlings in Colombia had done. So does that mean accountability should stop at a lower level? And if the Post's description is to be believed, what does that mean for how we should judge the performance of more senior levels? If the director of the Secret Service placed such a capable officer in this important position before the Cartagena incident, what more could he have been expected to do—without circumventing and undermining his own senior subordinates—to see to it that operations in Colombia were conducted properly?

The director, Mark Sullivan, over the past few days “has gone out of his way to make himself accessible to members of Congress,” according to the New York Times. The chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Peter King, said, “He woke me up at 5:15 in the morning this week. . . . I felt like telling him, ‘Mark, let me sleep.’ ” This hyperactivity in front of Sullivan's overseers might be a mark of a very diligent and capable director, or it may have less to do with running the Secret Service well than with the public-relations game of being perceived as part of the solution rather than part of the problem. I do not know which it is. Mr. King's committee, through careful investigation backed by subpoena power, might be able to get some idea which it is.

Image: Medill DC

TopicsCongressDomestic PoliticsPublic OpinionThe Presidency RegionsUnited States

Buying Our Way Out of Conscription

Paul Pillar

Roosevelt signs the Selective Service Training and Service ActIn a Washington Post compendium in which ten writers were each invited to name something “we'd be better off without,” Thomas Ricks—one of the more perceptive observers of civil-military relations and the impact of war on American society—nominates “the all-volunteer military.” Ricks says the all-volunteer force has made it too easy for the United States to go to war and to give insufficient attention to the consequences. “One percent of the nation has carried almost all the burden of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he says, “while the rest of us essentially went shopping.”

Ricks's basic point about how the absence of a draft reduces the public pain of wars, and thus increases the likelihood or duration of them, is valid. I have told my students who listen politely to panel discussions and other exchanges on campus about the nation's ongoing wars that if we had conscription, many of them would instead be armed with signs and bullhorns, demonstrating outside. In other words, it would be more like the college campuses I remember from the 1960s, as the Vietnam War was escalating and draftees were being sent to fight there. Besides concentrating public attention on the consequences of wars, mandatory national service might have other societal benefits. Many other questions would have to be carefully considered before conscription were reintroduced, not least of all exactly how a draft would be structured and administered to make it fair. But the issue should not be considered dead.

Thinking more broadly than just the United States and its recent wars, however, one has to ask: Shouldn't forced enrollment of citizens in a military force make a government more, not less, able to wage war? Doesn't such compulsion mean having more, rather than fewer, troops to fight the wars? Isn't modern conscription in this respect a successor to feudal arrangements in which monarchs leaned on their vassals, who in turn compelled the serfs, to man their armies?

It is, but the United States of today does not fit that pattern for both political and economic reasons. The political reason is that the United States is a liberal democracy in which the aforementioned dynamic of protesting when the consequences of war hurt directly, and of having reason to believe such protest will make a political difference, comes into play. Just as important is the economic reason, which has to do with both the wealth and the inequality of American society.

The wealth enables us to compensate sufficiently those who serve in the armed forces to help induce enough such people to join or stay in the force. The personal motivations involved are not solely a matter of selfless patriotism, although there is much of that among those who choose to serve. Former secretary of defense Robert Gates may have complained that the cost of health care for the military is “eating the Department of Defense alive,” but good health-care coverage is part of the package of compensation that influences the decisions of many of those who serve in the military. Part of the defense budget represents the fiscal burden we bear to avoid having our sons drafted.

The inequality—not just of current economic status but also of opportunity—helps to assure there will be enough people sufficiently attracted by the material benefits of military service to influence their career decisions. A more egalitarian society, with more opportunities open to all in civilian life, would have a harder time getting enough people interested in donning the uniform and fighting that country's wars.

Conscription is a direct affront to free-market principles, given that it involves compelling people to act differently from how they would have acted in response to the incentives provided by the market. But on some subjects markets, left on their own, do not work well. Providing military manpower may be one of those subjects.

TopicsDefensePolitical EconomyState of the Military RegionsUnited States

Wiping Out

Paul Pillar

The predations of unattractive foreign rulers have long been a favorite subject of hyperbole. More recently a particular variation of that form of exaggeration has been in vogue: the assertion that a particular ruler intends “to wipe” somebody “off the map,” or sometimes “off the face of the Earth.” French President Nicolas Sarkozy indulged in such phraseology last week when he hosted a meeting of the “Friends of Syria” coalition and urged more support for the Syrian opposition. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, said Sarkozy, “wants to wipe Homs from the map like Qaddafi wanted to wipe Benghazi from the map.” Sarkozy is in the midst of a tough re-election fight, and hyperbole about a topic on which he has asserted a leading role is perhaps not surprising. One can debate to what length massacre-wise Bashar al-Assad would be willing to go, and whether his ruthlessness would match the level of his father Hafez when in 1982 forces under the father's regime flattened most of the town of Hama, a center of anti-regime resistance. In any event, Sarkozy's statement did not appear to be based on any statement of intent from the current Syrian regime; it was at best an inference and projection based partly on tactics Syrian government forces already have employed.

The most questionable aspect of Sarkozy's comment was the part about Libya. The now-widespread notion that Qaddafi wanted to wipe Benghazi off the map, with associated comments about would-be bloodbaths and massacres, appears to have originated with a comment from the late Libyan dictator in which he really said something different. What he did say was that “we will have no mercy on them,” with the rest of his comments making it clear he was referring to armed rebels and not to the general population of Benghazi. Qaddafi went on to say that anyone who “stays at home without any weapons, whatever he did previously, he will be pardoned, protected.” But the idea of averting a massacre had powerful appeal as the selling point for an armed intervention, for which Sarkozy and the British government of David Cameron were the prime promoters, that quickly revealed itself actually to be a regime-change operation. The notion about Qaddafi's supposed map-wiping intentions was picked up by others, including the Obama administration, and now has become one of those myths that, simply because it has been repeated so often by so many, is widely accepted as true.

Something similar has occurred with the idea that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has threatened to “wipe Israel off the map.” The origin of this notion was a speech Ahmadinejad gave at a “World Without Zionism” conference in 2005. As the Israeli minister of intelligence and atomic energy, Dan Meridor, recently acknowledged, Ahmadinejad did not say anything about map-wiping. He instead said something—in which the exact translation from Persian to English is uncertain—about how “the regime that is occupying Jerusalem must be eliminated from the pages of history.” In the same speech Ahmadinejad went on to explain that even though the end of Israeli rule over Jerusalem may seem hard to imagine, the end of the shah's rule in Iran and the collapse of the Soviet Union show that changes that big are possible.

In this case, the myth about map-wiping has served different purposes for different parties, with the exaggerations on each side playing off one another. Hooman Majd, an Iranian-American writer who once served as interpreter for a speech by Ahmadinejad at the United Nations, suggests that Ahmadinejad has never tried to correct the mistake about his 2005 speech because he sees political advantage in being an outspoken adversary of Israel and would not want to be seen as backing away from a bellicose statement about the Jewish state. Leaders of the current Israeli government have repeated the wiping-out theme with gusto as part of their campaign to portray Iran as a dire threat. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, for example, earlier this year described Iran as “a nation whose leaders have set themselves a strategic goal of wiping Israel off the map.” Anti-Iran hawks in the United States have followed suit amid debate about the Iranian nuclear program. Former presidential hopeful Michelle Bachmann went ever farther with the false assertion that Ahmadinejad “has said that if he has a nuclear weapon he will use it to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth.”

Even if Ahmadinejad ever said such things, to infer Iranian intentions or future actions from such rhetoric would be a serious mistake. One, because Ahmadinejad is not the principal decision-maker on how Iran uses armed force. Two, because rhetorical bombast is quite different from policy.

Ahmadinejad's confident comments in his 2005 speech are most reminiscent of Nikita Khrushchev's pronouncement to the capitalist West in 1956 that “we will bury you.” Fortunately, Western statesmen of the time properly interpreted Khrushchev's comment as a boast about history being on the communists' side, not as a statement of his government's intention to do something horrible to the West.

Any exaggerated portrayal of a foreign problem is an impediment to well-reasoned construction of policy for dealing with the problem. The appeal of the map-wiping or Earth-face-wiping imagery seems to make such exaggeration all the more likely to catch on and harder to correct. We ought to wipe such terms out of our vocabulary except in the extremely rare instances in which intentions of outright extermination really are involved.

Image: AZRainman

TopicsAutocracyDomestic PoliticsPublic OpinionHumanitarian InterventionNuclear Proliferation RegionsIsraelRussiaIranFranceLibyaUnited StatesUnited Kingdom

The Normalization of Hamas

Paul Pillar

Karin Brulliard's report in the Washington Post about how Hamas has been faring lately among its subjects in the Gaza Strip lends support to Rafael Frankel's recommendation in these spaces to take a fresh look at reaching an extended cease-fire with the group. The report supports the idea by showing just how ordinary a ruling party Hamas has become. It still has significant popular support, but its position as a de facto government has made it the target of grumbling by Gazans. The grumbling is about such mundane things as shortages of electricity and the unavailability of promised housing stipends, as well as Hamas officials being perceived to be enjoying positions of privilege unavailable to the general population. It is not about violence or too much stridency in standing up to Israel, and it is not about Islamization of society, which for the most part the Gazan population has successfully resisted.

The Israeli posture and, in lockstep with it, the American posture toward Hamas are stuck in an unhelpful time warp. It is a posture that simply applies the label “terrorist” to the group and assumes that an unchanging refusal to have anything to do with it is the only appropriate implication. A label is no substitute for a policy or for a strategy. And in this case, it is no substitute for understanding the current character and objectives of Hamas, which are not captured by the label.

Some Israeli officials probably view any damage to Hamas's standing among Palestinians as a salutary effect of Israel's long effort to strangle the group. That would be a misreading. As the Post article indicates, Hamas still profits from controlling trade through the smuggling tunnels that were built in response to the Israeli blockade.

The sources of popular unhappiness with Hamas contain the seeds of possible political failure of the group. And that gets to an important principle in dealing with groups one doesn't like: let them fail on their own. An imposed failure usually redounds to the disadvantage of the imposer.

Image: Hoheit

TopicsDomestic PoliticsPost-Conflict RegionsIsraelPalestinian territories

The Inheritance of Power

Paul Pillar

The family of Hafez al-Assad, including young Bashar (bottom left).Although hereditary monarchies with anything more than largely ceremonial roles have dwindled to a only few states, the bequeathing of political power from parent to son or daughter is a remarkably ubiquitous phenomenon. Think about some of the political leaders around the globe we've been hearing most about lately. The big political story out of China concerns recently purged Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai, who is a “princeling,” or son of one of the regime's revolutionary founding fathers. Bo's political career seems to be over, but other princelings remain a prominent part of the Chinese political picture today. Next door in North Korea, we are getting used to a third generation of the Kim dictatorship. Kim Jung-Un has just led celebrations of the one hundredth birthday of his grandfather and regime founder Kim Il-Sung, a physical resemblance to whom apparently is one of Kim Jung-Un's political assets.

Among the “republics” of the Middle East, a current focus is on Syria's Bashar al-Assad, who inherited his regime from his father Hafez. In Egypt, if the demonstrators of Tahrir Square had not gotten to Hosni Mubarak first, he might well have bequeathed the presidency to his son Gamal. Elsewhere in the Middle East are most of the few remaining states that are hereditary monarchies in name as well as in fact.

Bequests of political power are certainly not limited to autocracies. In the world's largest democracy, India, the next prospective leader being groomed is Rahul Gandhi, the great-grandson of Indian founding father Jawaharlal Nehru, the grandson of one other Indian prime minister (Indira Gandhi) and the son of yet another (Rajiv Gandhi). Earlier this month, Rahul lunched with a counterpart leader-being-groomed from Pakistan: 23-year-old Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who is the son of both Pakistan's current president and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, the grandson of another prime minister, and is himself already chairman of the Pakistan People's Party. On the other side of South Asia in Bangladesh, the prime minister is Sheikh Hasina, who is a daughter of the country's founding father and first prime minister.

The United States is no stranger to such family political legacies. The presumptive presidential nominee of one of the two political parties is the son of a prominent governor and national figure in the Republican Party. The immediate past president was son of a previous president (one of three father-son, or grandfather-son, pairs in the history of the U.S. presidency). In the Democratic Party there have been similar family ties, with the Kennedys probably the best known.

Four possible explanations, or combinations of them, can account for the frequency of political power being inherited by the children of political leaders. One can think of them as affecting different stages in the progeny's personal history, from conception to the progeny's own political career. The first explanation is genetic. It may be a factor, although probably a limited one, given the normal genetic variation even among blood relatives and the uncertainty of linking any gene with political success.

A second explanation involves nurturing during childhood. The children of political leaders grow up in an environment in which political sensibility and associated ambition are more likely to be imparted over the dinner table than they are over other families' dinner tables.

A third explanation involves the opportunities—in education, in business or in politics itself—that open more readily to the offspring of the powerful and famous (and the rich) than they do to others. The biographies of many political scions indicate this is a strong and probably the strongest explanation. Bo Xilai's 24-year-old son Bo Guagua may have now seen his own political prospects sink with those of his father, but his family relationship certainly seems to have opened opportunities for him. Neil Heywood, the deceased Briton who had close ties to Bo Xilai's wife and whose mysterious death is involved in the current controversies about the family, reportedly told others that he had used his influence to get Bo Guagua admitted to the exclusive Harrow School in Britain (where Heywood was an alumnus). The young Bo is now a student at the Kennedy School at Harvard, where officials decline to say whether his family connections played a role in his admission, issuing only the usual boilerplate about a “holistic” approach that takes leadership potential into account. To the extent this third explanation is in play, that is unfortunate from the standpoint of having the most able political leaders rise to positions of power. The differential opportunities are a matter of privilege, not of merit.

The fourth explanation comes into play once the son or daughter is actually vying for political power and wins votes or deference merely because of the name or known family connection. This explanation clearly has a lot of validity as well. We see the phenomenon at work in, among other things, the role that name recognition plays in American elections. And like the third explanation, this is not a good thing if we want the most able leaders to assume power. It represents a further step away from a political meritocracy. To some extent voting for a name may be a low-cost way to make a political choice, but it also is an unreliable way to make it. Those who, for example, voted for George W. Bush on the basis of what they thought of George H. W. Bush's presidency were in for a surprise.

Given how prevalent the inheritance of political power is, across different types of political systems worldwide, this pattern does not seem to be one that would be subject to correction through political or constitutional engineering. And that's too bad.

TopicsDomestic PoliticsPolitical Theory RegionsChinaBangladeshEgyptIndiaUnited StatesNorth KoreaSyriaPakistan

Radical Republicans, Then and Now

Paul Pillar

President Obama's ripping into Republicans earlier this month for trying to impose a “radical” program on the country drew criticism as being strident and intensely partisan. Whatever one thinks of the president's tone, however, there is no denying that the Republican Party, especially over the past couple of decades, has moved toward the Far Right. We see this in the serial political deaths, disillusionment or marginalization of that endangered species known as the moderate Republican. The next specimen in danger of being shoved aside is Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, facing a challenger in the Republican primary with Tea Party support. The departure of Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, would be a significant loss to well-reasoned Congressional consideration of foreign policy.

The New York Times highlights for us a different sort of challenge, but with the same underlying cause, facing presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. As Romney shakes his Etch A Sketch and draws up positions for the general-election campaign, Republicans in the House of Representatives are putting him on notice that they would be uncomfortable with any of that moving-to-the-center stuff. And the House Republicans are making it clear they will assert themselves. “We're not a cheerleading squad,” says Representative Jeff Landry of Louisiana. “We're the conductor. We're supposed to drive the train.”

There once were Republicans who welcomed the label "Radical" and applied it to themselves. They first distinguished themselves as being the most ardently antislavery faction of the party. During the Civil War, they became dissatisfied with a president of their own party—Abraham Lincoln—for moving too slowly toward abolition of slavery. The Radicals' center of power was the House of Representatives, where they were led by Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania.

The Radicals' real heyday came after the war—especially after the election of 1866, when Radical-dominated Republicans achieved veto-proof majorities in both houses of Congress. Whereas overrides of presidential vetoes previously had been very rare, now Republicans repeatedly overrode vetoes by President Andrew Johnson of legislation governing Reconstruction of the South. It was the Radical Republicans who thus set the policy on Reconstruction.

That policy treated the South like a defeated foreign power. It featured extended military occupation by federal troops and the banning from political life of those who had participated in the Confederacy. Civilian government in Southern states fell into the hands of Northern carpetbaggers and Southern scalawags. The system started breaking down amid economically related Republican setbacks in the mid-1870s and ended after the presidential election of 1876. Democrat Samuel Tilden won the nationwide popular vote, but the electoral vote was left hanging by confusion of the outcome in Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina. Under the Compromise of 1877, the electoral votes and the presidency were given to Republican Rutherford Hayes, in return for the withdrawal of the last of the occupying federal troops and certain other concessions to the South, marking the end of Reconstruction.

The Radicals' approach to Reconstruction had logic. However contrary secession had been to the U.S. Constitution, it had nonetheless occurred. The defeat of the Confederacy provided an opportunity to try to root out whatever had underlain both secession and slavery. But Reconstruction was a failure. The Compromise of 1877 was quickly followed by the enactment of Jim Crow laws throughout the South. A system of segregation and subjugation of blacks was established, most of which would not be dismantled until the 1960s.

The failure is related to some parallels between the Radical Republicans of the nineteenth century and those of today, and not just in having their power centered in the House of Representatives. Both have exhibited self-righteousness and an unyielding commitment to what they regard as just causes. Some of the causes, such as the abolition of slavery, are indeed just. But the self-righteousness has led in each case to destructive inflexibility. This has partly taken the form of clashes—emotional, hateful clashes—with a president. (The Radical Republicans of the 1860s tried to tie Johnson's hands with legislation inhibiting his ability to remove his own cabinet members; when he acted contrary to the legislation, the House impeached him.)

Over the longer term, the destructiveness has extended to the Radicals' own presumed goals. The segregated South that emerged from Reconstruction was certainly not what the nineteenth-century Radical Republicans were aiming for. A narrow, short-term attitude that emphasized a punitive treatment of white Southerners (especially white Southern Democrats) overlooked the reactions that such treatment encouraged. Given that Reconstruction treated the defeated Confederacy as if it were a foreign country, it is not surprising that some of the parallels with the present involve foreign policy. In particular, the myopia that corresponds to the attitudes that underlay policy on Reconstruction is an inability or unwillingness to understand how some assertions of American power encourage reactions that over the longer term are harmful to U.S. interests.

TopicsCongressDomestic PoliticsHistoryPost-Conflict RegionsUnited States