Paul Pillar

God Speaks to the Republican National Committee

Paul Pillar

At its winter meeting in New Orleans two weeks ago, the Republican National Committee unanimously adopted a resolution that is extraordinary for its content and, given that content, for not having received attention from mainstream media. It was discovered by Mitchell Plitnick of The Third Way, who evidently was so taken aback by the resolution that he sought confirmation from its sponsor that the RNC had in fact formally adopted it. Yes it did, said the sponsor, a committeewoman from South Carolina named Cindy Costa. The measure is titled “An RNC Resolution to Commend the Nation of Israel for its Relations with the United States of America.” I won't take the space to reproduce the full text, which you can get at Plitnick's site, but here are the first few preambular clauses:

Whereas, Israel has been granted her lands under and through the oldest recorded deed as reported in the Old Testament, a tome of scripture held sacred and reverenced by Jew and Christian, alike, as the acts and words of God; and

Whereas, as the Grantor of said lands, God stated to the Jewish people in the Old Testament; in Leviticus, Chapter 20, Verse 24:  “Ye shall inherit their land, and I will give it unto you to possess it, a land that floweth with milk and honey”; and

Whereas, God has never rescinded his grant of said lands; and

Whereas, along with the grant of said lands to the Jewish people, God provided for the non-Jewish residents of the land in commanding that governance must be in one law for all without drawing distinction between Jewish and non-Jewish citizens, as contained in Leviticus 24:22, and...

Well, you get the flavor—certainly regarding where the resolution fits on the religious-vs.-secular dimension of discourse. The resolution goes on to state that

Whereas, the roots of Israel and the roots of the United States of America are so intertwined that it is difficult to separate one from the other under the word and protection of almighty God;

and whereas there are other respects in which according to the resolution Israel and the United States are two peas in a pod, the main operative clause of the resolution resolves

that the members of this body support Israel in their natural and God-given right of self-governance and self-defense upon their own lands, recognizing that Israel is neither an attacking force nor an occupier of the lands of others; and that peace can be afforded the region only through a united Israel governed under one law for all people.

Although Plitnick probably is right that the RNC didn't really understand the implications of what it was adopting (which was very similar to a resolution that the South Carolina Republican Party passed last year), it is hard to read this as anything other than endorsement of an Israeli annexation of the entire West Bank and rejection of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That is how most of those who have commented on this resolution in the blogosphere read it, including those who were flummoxed or outraged by it and those in the rapture crowd, who were delighted by it.

If this resolution is taken at all seriously, there is of course plenty to be outraged about. For starters, there is the throwing of the separation of church and state, as embodied in the establishment clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution, down the toilet. That would certainly be the case if the final clause of the resolution, which calls on state legislatures and the U.S. Congress to adopt similar resolutions, were ever acted upon. There also is the revising of reality by resolution (“ neither an attacking force nor an occupier of the lands of others...”) and the pretending that there isn't some other populace that lives on the lands in question. And of course there is the complete subjugation of any U.S. interests to the interests of Israel—and more specifically to the most hard-line, nationalist, religiously based interpretation of those interests.

Let me ask instead, though, why most news media did not pick up on this remarkable action by the RNC. Perhaps it was not taken seriously because the committee is accustomed to humoring individual members and their pet causes by passing lots of ridiculous resolutions. I don't know; I haven't researched the RNC's record in that regard. And for all I know, the Democratic National Committee may indulge in its own form of inanity when it passes resolutions. But surely the fact that the national governing body of one of the two major U.S. political parties would make such a statement warrants attention.

I suggest the moderators of the next GOP candidates' debate raise this topic. After asking the candidates whether they renounce this resolution by the RNC, several follow-on questions come to mind for anyone who says no, such as: Do you still believe in the separation of church and state? Do you believe that texts of a revealed religion should guide U.S. foreign policy? Do you reject national self-determination for the Palestinian people? What do you believe will be the consequences for U.S. interests of such rejection? Surely such questions deserve as much attention as Mitt Romney's taxes. Or Newt Gingrich's serial adultery. (I wonder what God has said to the RNC about that.)

Image: U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv

TopicsDomestic PoliticsReligionPost-Conflict RegionsIsraelUnited StatesPalestinian territories

Devotion to Duty

Paul Pillar

Successful implementation of public policy and—even more important—maintaining the principles of democratic government depend on the professionalism of public servants who have a clear sense of their proper role. This means the dutiful execution even of lawfully determined policies with which an official may not agree. It means staying in one's proper lane notwithstanding any urges to stray from it. If public servants did not do these things, the result would be chaos in public administration and a breakdown of democratic accountability.

None of this should be taken for granted. In the United States, the lines between the prerogative to make policy and the duty to execute it are not as clear and widely understood as in some of its sister democracies. This is largely because of an unusually large stratum of political appointees, who are not wholly part of either the policy-making or policy-executing portions of government. External pressures from those wanting policy executors to nudge the policy one way or another do not help. Nor do tendentious interpretations by outside commentators of the conduct of officials who are only trying to do their jobs. Staying in one's lane is sometimes difficult.

It is therefore reassuring to see conspicuous examples of senior officials doing just that despite pressures to do otherwise, especially when it involves someone of such fame and stature that many would expect him to do otherwise. The Washington Post has an account of how David Petraeus, while still military commander in Afghanistan, responded to President Obama's decision to schedule a faster withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan than Petraeus favored. In a nutshell, Petraeus responded exactly as a dedicated professional should have responded. Before the decision, he gave his best military advice about what would be needed to accomplish his mission, and after the decision he focused on implementing it. In response to suggestions that he resign, he said, “the troops can't quit.” Petraeus correctly believed that “military leaders should provide advice that is informed by important nonmilitary and military factors beyond their strict purview, but is driven by the situation on the ground and military considerations.” He also understood that the political leadership making the decision must take broader considerations into account. His message to his staff hit exactly the right note: “All of us will support the decision and strive to execute it effectively. That is our responsibility as military leaders.”

President Obama also had the right concept of lanes and responsibilities in systematically seeking input from all his military and civilian advisers before making the decision himself. The concept was clear as well in the president acknowledging that Petraeus should be honest in responding to Congressional questions about his own preference regarding the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.

In taking off his uniform and becoming director of the CIA, Petraeus continued to evince a clear comprehension of the different roles and responsibilities that go with different jobs. He understands the distinction between intelligence and policy and the one between personal views and institutional positions.

David Petraeus deserves the nation's respect and gratitude for his skill and accomplishments, and for taking on some extremely difficult jobs. He also deserves it for setting such an outstanding example of what it means to dedicate oneself wholly to performing the precise duties of whatever job one occupies.

Image: isafmedia

TopicsCounterinsurgencyDemocracyIntelligence RegionsAfghanistanUnited States

The Campaign Damage Continues

Paul Pillar

Newt Gingrich's victory in South Carolina likely means that the race for the Republican presidential nomination will continue longer than it otherwise would have. People with different interests will react differently to that prospect. Democrats who believe that a longer season of Republicans cutting each other up helps President Obama's reelection campaign will be happy. Republicans who believe the same thing will be unhappy (unless perhaps they are pulling for Gingrich or someone else other than Mitt Romney). Other Republicans will be comforted by the concept of a bruising battle for the nomination toughening their eventual nominee. Political junkies who enjoy watching the campaign fireworks will be pleased. Those disgusted by the content of the campaign will be turned off.

My own principal thought about a longer primary campaign involves a concern I wrote about last September, which is how foreign governments and other foreigners interpret and react to the candidates' rhetoric. With particular reference to what Romney and the others had been saying about China and Iran, the damage involved comes from candidates' tough talk exacerbating cycles of hostility and distrust between the United States and certain foreign countries. The foreigners do not tend to brush off the bellicosity as merely bits of meat thrown to the party base in whatever state is holding a primary that week. They read it as indicative of entrenched and widely held American attitudes. Since September, the tough talk about Iran in particular has become more extreme, and this has added to the dangerous escalation of tension between Washington and Tehran.

Walter Pincus had a piece in the Washington Post last week that addresses another kind of damage. His main subject was Afghanistan and how several of Romney's statements on that subject have played fast and loose with the facts. Pincus ends by explaining why he takes Romney's campaign remarks seriously:

Because I believe when he became president, Obama felt bound by his often-repeated statements as a candidate that Iraq was the “wrong war” and that the United States should shift to the “right war” in Afghanistan. Those campaign remarks, made to prove he was tough, led him in early 2009 to overstate that we had not only to defeat the Taliban, but also nation-build a democratic Afghanistan. Fortunately, today, our goal is less expansive and a bit more realistic.

I would add to Pincus's point that the danger is not just that a new president would feel obliged to abide by his campaign rhetoric. (Romney, experienced flip-flopper that he is, might actually be less guided than others would be by any such sense of consistency.) The problem is also that repeated invocation of a supposed national interest or goal comes to be seen by others as some sort of commitment, accompanied by the belief that backing away from the commitment would involve a loss of prestige or credibility.

Much of the extreme stuff and especially the bellicosity about Iran will continue into the general-election campaign. But bearing in mind the damage being done, I would be happy to see our long national nightmare known as the primary election campaign over sooner rather than later.

Image: Gage Skidmore

TopicsCounterinsurgencyDemocracyDomestic PoliticsElectionsThe PresidencyNuclear Proliferation RegionsChinaAfghanistanIranUnited States

Hungary and the Reversibility of Liberal Democracy

Paul Pillar

The Hungarian parliament building, a grand neo-Gothic landmark along the Danube, is an enduring stone monument to representative government. Plans for such a structure were made in the years following the conversion of the Austrian Empire into the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary. Construction began in the 1880s and was completed shortly after the turn of the twentieth century. It is the largest building in Hungary and the third-largest parliament building in the world.

The building symbolizes a Hungarian commitment to representative democracy, notwithstanding Hungary's straying from democracy more than once. The straying in the past has resulted mostly from external pressures. Hungary's falling in with the Axis powers in the 1930s was partly due to the Great Depression and an economic lifeline from Germany that helped to bring the country out of the Depression. It also had to do with a Germany-like resentment over post-World War I settlement terms. The Treaty of Trianon stripped Hungary of nearly two-thirds of the territory that had belonged to the kingdom of Hungary as part of the dual monarchy. Later came communist rule, but that of course was imposed by Soviet power, and forcefully reimposed in 1956 after a brief assertion by the Hungarians of freedom. When communist rule finally ended in 1989, a new republic of Hungary was proclaimed from a balcony of the parliament building. Shortly afterward, the red star that the communists had placed on the spire of the building was removed.

Now Hungary is showing worrying signs of straying again from democracy, and this time the wandering cannot be attributed to external forces. The Fidesz Party of Prime Minister Viktor Orban has used the power of a supermajority to ram through a new constitution and to take other measures that appear to challenge the independence of the judiciary, the central bank and the media. Orban's government is having to answer to the European Union for some of the steps that seem to violate the Union's pluralistic standards. The EU's inquiries have led Orban to back off slightly from his changes, but his record suggests that he will not fundamentally alter his course.

This affair shows how even a country where liberal democratic principles seem to have been firmly established (and in this case a country that until now has been a member in good standing of the club of advanced democracies known as the European Union) may back away from consistent application of those principles. Democratization and liberalization are not necessarily one-way processes. To realize this goes against the tendency to think of them as a one-way process. Perhaps some of this tendency comes from interpretations of Francis Fukuyama's end-of-history idea. Perhaps we should remember the ideas of an earlier big-think political philosopher, Plato, about how different forms of government degenerate into other forms. Democracy, as Plato saw it, was not the end state of this process. It was the penultimate state, degenerating into tyranny. Plato's progression of political forms has not matched subsequent history very well, but it provides some food for thought about different possible types of political transformation.

We see the common one-way view of political change in much current political thought and interpretations of current events. The Arab Spring, for example, is usually regarded as a push in the direction of greater democracy as long as the process doesn't get hijacked by those nasty Islamists. Apostles of regime change presume that destabilizing any undemocratic regime will result in a new political system that is freer and more democratic, even though that is not necessarily the case. And there is smugness about the endurance of democratic values in our own political system.

What is going on in Hungary suggests that we should not be so smug. Some of what is involved in Hungary's creeping authoritarianism has echoes in American politics. There is the use of brute legislative force or outright coercion to get one's way, even if this in effect means a compromise of democratic values. And there is a hubristic belief that it is so important for one's own party or movement to be in power that this takes precedence over all other interpretations of the national interest. Viktor Orban has a soulmate of sorts in Mitch McConnell when the latter says his top priority is to defeat the president of the opposing party.

Image: Vincenzo Grande

TopicsAutocracyEuropean UnionDemocracyDomestic PoliticsHistoryPhilosophyPolitical Theory RegionsUnited StatesHungary

Shooting First and Asking Questions Later

Paul Pillar

Leslie Gelb has a piece worth reading at The Daily Beast about Americans' propensity to save their tough questions about American overseas military adventures until after such expeditions are undertaken and go sour, rather than asking the questions before the expeditions begin. “We’re doing this terrible thing all over again,” says Gelb. “As before, we’re letting a bunch of ignorant, sloppy-thinking politicians and politicized foreign-policy experts . . . quick-march us off to war.” Gelb's current concern is the push to go to war against Iran, but he is describing a pattern that has been all too familiar in the past. Gelb is well qualified to make such observations, based on his experience in directing the writing of the Pentagon Papers as well as his later work as a journalist, State Department official and president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

The internal deliberations, described in the Pentagon Papers, on intervening in Vietnam in the mid-1960s were actually quite thorough in most respects, although they were trumped by images of falling dominoes and a fatalistic belief that even a losing war effort had to be waged to keep U.S. credibility intact. Deliberations outside the government were nothing close to thorough. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which became the Congressional authorization for the war, was passed speedily after only brief hearings.

Nearly four decades later, external deliberations on launching a war against Iraq were even more cursory. This time, a Congressional authorizing resolution was passed with no hearings. As for deliberations inside the Bush administration, there weren't any. Unlike with the Vietnam War, there was an astounding absence of any policy process for determining whether the war was a good idea. Many of the questions that have since been asked in public hand-wringing over the Iraq War about who said what at the time are almost irrelevant, because hardly anyone was paying attention to things that were said that turned out to be important.

Gelb lays out some questions that ought to be asked about any military action against Iran. I've raised such questions as well. In fact, I raised a large number of them almost five years ago in an op-ed in the Washington Post titled “What to Ask Before the Next War.” A couple of my questions are now outdated. With the completed withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, for example, we fortunately no longer have to wonder what Iran would do to those troops in retaliation. And in asking what a war against Iran would do to the price of oil, the possible figure I posited of $150 per barrel surely understates where the price would go in response to hostilities today. (When I was writing in February 2007 oil was selling for around $60 per barrel; this week Brent Crude was going for about $111.) But most of the questions are just as relevant as they were in 2007. If I was raising such questions five years ago, that means we should have had plenty of time to study them, especially for something as drastic as launching another offensive war. I invite you to look at the questions and ask whether public debate has adequately considered them, let alone provided answers adequate to justify another such adventure.

Image: iStockPhoto

TopicsCounterinsurgencyCongressPublic OpinionNuclear ProliferationRogue States RegionsIranIraqUnited StatesVietnam

China in the Persian Gulf

Paul Pillar

Be careful what you wish for regarding how other powers react to the latest effort to ratchet up pressure on Iran. Especially when the other power is as potent a competitor as China. China depends on Iran for 11 percent of its imported oil. The idea of joining in a de facto embargo of Iranian oil through ostracism of the Iranian central bank thus naturally discomfits the Chinese. It is still unclear exactly how Beijing will play this one, as it considers how the issue affects both its relations with the United States and the state of its energy-thirsty economy. An obvious response is to work ever harder to shore up China's relations with the other Persian Gulf oil producers. That is largely what Chinese premier Wen Jiabao's current trip to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates is about.

Chinese diplomacy is not necessarily always opposed to U.S. interests, but the overall pattern as China has endeavored to secure sources of energy for itself has not been encouraging. Getting oil has taken precedence over issues important to the international community. China's major investment in the Sudanese oil industry (from which China gets another 5 percent of its imported oil) has gotten in the way of any Chinese help on the Darfur problem. (More recently, however, with the secession of South Sudan, China's interest in keeping the oil flowing may give it an incentive to be helpful. It dispatched a mediator last month to help resolve a dispute between Sudan and South Sudan over arrangements for exporting the South's oil through the North.)

In the Middle East, another Chinese interest—at least as strong as the one in oil—gives Beijing a new reason to be unhelpful. That is the interest in not having the Arab Spring put any democratic, revolutionary ideas into Chinese heads. Beijing's nervousness about this has gone to such extremes as making jasmine a sort of contraband, out of fear that the flower that became a symbol for revolution in Tunisia might come to play a similar role in China. To the extent that activist Chinese diplomacy gives China greater influence on Middle Eastern regimes, any Chinese advice given on how to handle popular discontent is bound to be bad advice from a Western point of view. It would be advice on how to crack down and maintain a dictatorship rather than on how to smooth the way toward a more democratic state.

Premier Wen's delegation signed a slew of agreements with Saudi Arabia, the first stop on his trip. One of them concerned Chinese help in developing nuclear energy in Saudi Arabia. That makes economic sense for the Saudis, conserving more of their oil for export and sale rather than domestic consumption. But it is an interesting development in light of the assertion one sometimes hears that the oil-rich country on the other side of the Persian Gulf can't really be interested in a nuclear program primarily for energy generation.

We should not rule out the possibility of Riyadh and Beijing springing strategic surprises on us. They have done it before, with the sale of Chinese CSS-2 intermediate-range ballistic missiles to Saudi Arabia in the late 1980s. Although there is no indication that the missiles have ever been armed with nuclear warheads, their inaccuracy gives them questionable strategic value when equipped only with conventional warheads.

In brief, the latest effort to pressure a Middle Eastern state that will never come anywhere close to challenging U.S. power is stimulating the one state that credibly poses such a challenge to become more active in the region in a way that will tend to lessen the relative influence of the United States and work against U.S. interests. It is another example of how the pressure is being exerted as if it were an end in itself, with little thought to the likely consequences.

TopicsAutocracyDemocracyEnergyGreat PowersSanctionsNuclear ProliferationTrade RegionsChinaIranSudanQatarTunisiaSaudi ArabiaUnited Arab Emirates

Romney, Corporations, and Government

Paul Pillar

The criticisms by Mitt Romney’s Republican opponents of his record as a private-equity artist may be motivated by desperation in trying to deny him a nomination that seems almost in his grasp, but that record is certainly fair game. Romney, after all, has repeatedly touted his business experience as supposedly a major qualification for the presidency. Since Newt Gingrich and the others have made this an issue in the primary campaign, they have tended to focus on whether companies under the control of Bain Capital slashed more jobs than they created. That focus is understandable in an election campaign in which unemployment is a major issue. But the lessons for how we view either the private-equity business or Mitt Romney’s ability to function as president go well beyond a balance sheet about jobs.

To the extent the claims and barbs of this election campaign cast light on what private-equity artists do, and on the larger effect on the economy and society of what they do, that is a good thing. Although to some extent what they do is part of the allocation of capital that is necessary for successful capitalism, to a larger extent what they do is exploitative and parasitic. It is essentially a process in which the financial clout that enables a private-equity firm to take complete control of a company is used in an exploitative mode, taking advantage of the heads-I-win-tails-you-lose relationship between the private-equity firm and the owned company. The nature of the result is reflected in companies that have received the private-equity treatment having a bankruptcy rate that is twice that of publicly owned firms that have not had that experience. Anything with a result like that is unlikely to be on balance good for the larger economy. If campaign-generated light shining on the private-equity business stimulates more debate about possibly needed regulation of the business or about how private-equity profits ought to be taxed, so much the better.

These considerations may be enough to draw some legitimate conclusions about what makes Mitt Romney tick, what motivates him and what he values most. But the relevance of his experience at Bain Capital for how he would function as president requires analysis that goes farther than that. I took a stab at such an analysis several weeks ago. I pointed out that an important distinction needs to be drawn between an executive who feels a stake in the long-term growth and health of a company and, in contrast, the private equity artist for whom a company is merely a temporary means from which to extract maximum profit and then be discarded—never mind the health or solvency of what is discarded. For a President Mitt Romney, the federal government would be one more company over which he had temporary control, to be discarded after four or eight years after extracting whatever would be for him the functional equivalent of profit.

Daniel Drezner offers this week some observations that echo mine, summarized in his headline statement that “governments are not corporations.” Not having monetary profit as a single measure of success is one obvious difference. Another major difference, most relevant to the contrast with the private-equity business, is that government does not have the freedom to get into lines of business that do well and to get out, or stay out, of ones that don’t. Government is expected to do certain things, no matter how difficult or “unprofitable” they may be. In fact, government does some of these things largely because the private sector does not see any profit in them or sees the risk of failure as too high. NASA, for example, does things for which the current state of the technology makes them too unprofitable or risky to be attractive to private enterprise. Once the government space program has blazed a technological trail, private enterprise may follow later. The suborbital trips that the nascent space tourism business is getting into now involve what government accomplished over half a century ago with the X-15 rocket plane. The space program may still present some getting-in-or-getting-out sorts of choices, but there are countless other functions of government that do not, because of political pressures or simply a firm expectation of what services government ought to provide. These range from the policing of crime to the provision of old-age assistance through Social Security to the management of difficult but unavoidable relationships with foreign states.

Mitt Romney took flak for equating corporations with people. A bigger worry in wondering how he would function as president is the notion of equating corporations with government.

TopicsDemocracyDomestic PoliticsElectionsInnovationPolitical Economy RegionsUnited States

Assassination in Iran

Paul Pillar

The killing of an individual foreigner overseas, if carried out for a political or policy purpose by either a nonstate actor or clandestine agents of a state, is an act of international terrorism. At least that is how U.S. law defines it, for purposes such as the State Department's annual reports on terrorism. This form of terrorism is part of what put Iran on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Through the 1980s and into the 1990s, the Iranian regime perpetrated numerous assassinations of exiled Iranian political dissidents, in Europe as well as in other countries of southwest Asia. The Iranians effectively ended this assassination campaign about a decade and a half ago, largely to improve relations with the European countries on whose soil many of the assassinations occurred and perhaps also because by then Iran had bumped off nearly all of the people on its hit list. We should assume, however, that Iran retains the capability to assassinate far-flung targets again, and that it would consider doing so if searching for ways to strike back at adversaries that are striking it.

Iran itself has been a victim of this form of terrorist violence. This has included some instances, such as the killing of Iranian diplomats in Afghanistan, in which Iranian interests have paralleled those of the United States. It has included during the past two years the killing in Iran of several nuclear scientists, the most recent of whom died this week from an explosive placed on his vehicle. Actions are more important than nomenclature, so if you prefer not to apply the T-word to these killings then just imagine what the reaction would be if something similar were occurring in the United States. Imagine the response if even just one scientist (let alone four or five) who was employed, say, at one of the U.S. national laboratories had been been similarly assassinated and a foreign hand was suspected. There would be screams of “act of war” and the U.S. president would be hard-pressed to hold back impulses to strike back forcefully. Now put yourselves in the Iranians' place. Not only do they face the serial assassination of their scientists, but they face it amid an environment filled with numerous other indications of foreign hostility, including the economic warfare, the saber rattling and the contest among American politicians to see who can shoot the most rhetorical venom at Iran. From this perspective, aptly described by Vali Nasr, it should hardly be surprising if Iran strikes back while it sees more reason than ever before to develop a nuclear weapon in the hope of deterring U.S.-led aggressiveness.

I don't know, of course, who is responsible for the assassinations of the scientists. I do not believe my own country is, and Secretary of State Clinton has explicitly denied “any United States involvement in any kind of act of violence inside Iran.” Although over the last thirty years the United States has edged away from the strict prohibition on assassination embodied in Executive Order 12333, we Americans are still morally (and esthetically) squeamish enough about such things that the kind of hit job that took place this week on a north Tehran street doesn't seem to be our thing. We assassinate people, but in addition to euphemizing the act by calling it “targeted killing,” we limit the targets to people we are convinced are themselves terrorists, not scientists or something else. We also use means that we can think of as “war,” preferably means that can be employed from several thousand feet in the air so we don't get too close to the bloody reality. The one time we did get close to it, last May, we still used military means, and that was to eliminate the most notorious terrorist in the world.

My hunch about responsibility for the killing of the Iranian scientists is similar to that of Trita Parsi, who says the assassination “was likely conducted by a regional actor who prefers a military confrontation with Iran over a compromise that would permit Iran to retain nuclear enrichment capabilities, even if it doesn’t build a bomb.” The trouble for the United States is that because it so obsequiously does the bidding of the regional actor in question, it is seen as responsible for anything that actor does and can be expected to share in any resulting opprobrium or retaliation for what that actor does. This gets back to Iran's continued presumed capacity for making assassinations a tit-for-tat business. Do not be surprised if it endeavors to do exactly that, although Tehran will pick its targets, timing and methods carefully to achieve a degree of deniability. The last confirmed official Iranian involvement in committing a terrorist act that killed Americans—the bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996—left tracks well enough covered that it took years of investigation to determine the Iranian role. Possibly the caper last year involving the DEA informant and the used-car salesman from Texas was intended as a reprisal for earlier assassinations of Iranian scientists, but the public story of that supposed plot is still so murky that any Iranian role can hardly be considered “confirmed.”

A further tragedy in all of this is that it is a stretch, to put it mildly, to think that murdering some scientists would delay the oh-so-feared Iranian nuclear weapon, as if the only plans and knowledge useful to the program resided in the heads of the murdered men. And this is entirely in addition to the moral dimension of what has taken place. What do we know about Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan that makes him any more worthy of being a victim of assassination than counterpart scientists in the United States or elsewhere would be?

The proper U.S. response to all this is to pursue—vigorously—negotiations with Iran, with the starting point being the most recent Iranian proposal for a new round of talks with the P5+1. That is the only way out of the larger spiral of mutually reinforcing hostility of which the assassinations are only a part. And if, as Parsi suggests, the most recent act of terrorism was intended at least partly to scuttle such talks, that is all the more reason to negotiate in earnest. To do otherwise would be, to use a hackneyed phrase, a victory for the terrorists.

TopicsDomestic PoliticsEthicsSanctionsNuclear ProliferationRogue StatesTerrorism RegionsIsraelIranUnited States

The Campaign and Feckless Foreign Policy Debate

Paul Pillar

The current presidential-election campaign, as it has shaped up so far, has been almost worthless as a vehicle for informed debate about U.S. foreign policy. In fact, it has been worse than useless, in the sense of imparting misconceptions and puerile formulations rather than highlighting important choices. It is easy to forget, of course, the undesirable characteristics of earlier campaigns, and if the current one seems worse that may partly be because it happens to be the one that right now is unfolding its unattractive form before our eyes. But for anyone who cares both about sound foreign policy and vigorous democratic politics—and hopes that in the American context those two things can be compatible—there is ample reason for concern.

The single biggest foreign-policy dimension of the contest among Republican presidential candidates has been a striving to see who can sound most bellicose about Iran. Much of the other Republican criticism of the Obama administration's foreign and security policy, on matters such as defense spending or the Arab Spring, seems like a striving to stake out a different position from the administration for the sake of being different from the administration, with little or no explanation of why U.S. interests would be better served by the particular alternative course being offered. As some commentators have noted, the Republicans' posturing reflects their political difficulty in dealing with Mr. Obama's foreign-policy successes. These especially include fulfillment of his commitment to end the U.S. involvement in the war in Iraq (a step that, despite creative efforts on the right to make an issue of this, is further insulated from strong criticism because it involved implementation of a troop-withdrawal agreement reached by the Bush administration). The successes also include the elimination of Osama bin Laden, the arch protagonist of Bush's “war on terror.” The candidates have to say something about foreign policy without just complimenting the president, and the rabidly anti-Iran rhetoric is most of what is left.

Another common observation is that what we are seeing right now is a primary campaign, and of course much of what we hear consists of red meat being tossed to the “base” on the right. We should be reassured, we are told, that this will change in the general-election campaign and will not be the basis for policy if one of these candidates makes it to the White House. A pragmatic chameleon such as Mitt Romney is just saying what he is saying because he needs to get his party's nomination first. Perhaps so, but that leads to several other thoughts that are hardly reassuring. One, it means electing someone in spite of what he is saying rather than because of what he is saying. Two, it raises questions about what sort of person would say anything to get nominated and elected. Three, the campaign rhetoric in the meantime is damaging to U.S. public understanding of important issues. And four, the same rhetoric is listened to, and reacted to, by foreign governments and other audiences abroad in ways that may be harmful to U.S. interests. Bellicosity, for example, nearly always induces bellicosity in return.

We are witnessing in the foreign-policy facets of the campaign, of course, one more manifestation of the heightened partisanship, and the demagoguery that often accompanies it, that is on display nearly every day in Washington. Although the partisan divide is at least as sharp and filled with animosity as ever, however, the actual course of U.S. national-security policy through several Democratic and Republican administrations has stayed within a narrow band of assumptions and habits that were nurtured during the Cold War. Those assumptions and habits include a focus on a foreign bête noire, a tendency to equate U.S. national security with international security, a related belief that the United States needs to try to manage messy situations around the globe and a tendency to rely on military force as the prime tool of management. This constellation of outlooks is essentially what Andrew Bacevich has critically described as “Washington rules.” Richard Betts similarly criticizes, carefully and with insight in his latest book, the persistence of this Cold War-nurtured outlook on U.S. foreign and security policy.

There are important choices for the United States that an election campaign, in something closer to an ideal political world, could do a lot to illuminate. Those choices would mostly involve the sorts of challenges that Bacevich and Betts make against the consensus approach that both Democratic and Republican administrations have taken. Applied to some big current issues, such challenges would involve, for example, examining exactly why acquisition of a nuclear weapon by Iran would supposedly be as awful as the rhetoric is making it out to be. The challenges also would involve questioning why the shape of the future political and social order in a country such as Afghanistan does or does not matter highly to U.S. interests. And they would involve far more careful examination than we generally see in public debate of what the consequences of any particular use of military force would be.

We are hearing very little of anything like this in the current campaign. What we do hear is coming almost exclusively from Ron Paul. But Paul is part of a package that includes other positions that are understandably viewed as on the fringe. He is filling a role more of gadfly or devil's advocate than of a serious contender for the White House.

The unchallenged consensus is part of what underlies the demagoguery on Iran. Tehran is playing the role of bête noire that had been played by others in earlier times. There are other factors also at work in the demagoguery. One is the fear factor, with the fears involving Muslims and mushroom clouds. And a major factor is that in American politics the Iran issue is also an Israel issue. As such, the rhetoric on Iran is one more way for candidates to pander to segments of the electorate that they perceive as putting Israel first.

Some of this is sordid. None of it is illuminating or educational regarding foreign-policy choices that affect important U.S. interests.

TopicsDemocracyDomestic PoliticsElectionsDefenseIdeologyGrand StrategyThe PresidencyNuclear ProliferationRogue States RegionsIsraelAfghanistanIranUnited States

The Road to Nowhere in the Peace Process

Paul Pillar

Probably the country owes some gratitude to Dennis Ross for working so long on a “peace process” that has yet to yield a comprehensive peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. The experience must be frustrating for someone who has been involved in such endless diplomacy—assuming, that is, that his goal is indeed to obtain an agreement and not just to keep a lid on the situation while the Israeli occupation continues ad infinitum. But Ross's article in the Sunday Washington Post, under the title “How to break a Middle East stalemate,” illustrates the very sort of thinking that has sustained the stalemate.

Ross's recommendation is basically for the Israelis to make their occupation of the West Bank a little less pervasive and less heavy-handed and to give the Palestinians there somewhat more economic leeway than they have now. He suggests, for example, letting the Palestinians quarry rock in Area C, the 60 percent of the West Bank in which Palestinians do not have even nominal civil or security responsibilities and where their economic activity is, as Ross correctly describes it, “extremely limited.” He also suggests letting the Palestinians open a few more police stations in the jointly managed Area B and “gradually [ending]” Israeli incursions into the smallest portion of the West Bank, the Area A in which Palestinians ostensibly have some manner of control.

Such steps are fine as far as they go, and Ross is correct that Israel could take them without endangering its security. But the measures aren't going to break any stalemate. As the rest of Ross's article makes clear, what he is recommending is essentially an extension of the longstanding Israeli strategy of differential treatment of Palestinian territories in an effort to bolster support for the “good” Palestinians led by Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad and to reduce support for the “bad” Palestinians of Hamas. Making daily life a little more tolerable in the Fatah-controlled West Bank has been one half of that strategy; making life miserable in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip (through blockade and destructive invasion) has been the other half. Ross refers to the prospect of another round of all-Palestinian elections and the need as he sees it to tilt circumstances as much as possible in favor of the good Palestinians.

West Bank Palestinians no doubt would appreciate even the most modest lightening of the heavy hand of occupation, but they have experienced too much disappointing history to believe that what Ross is recommending is part of something that is, as he puts it, “producing a process that will, in time, end the occupation.” To the contrary, most Palestinians will correctly see it more as an alternative to ending the occupation by keeping the West Bank natives from getting too restless and making indefinite occupation manageable. The whole idea of giving Palestinians more autonomy was instituted with the creation of the Palestinian Authority in 1994. That was supposed to be a way station leading to Palestinian statehood in only a few years. Why should Palestinians, nearly two decades later and with an Israeli government that seems more determined than its predecessors to cling to the occupied territories, have any hope that a smidgeon more autonomy today will have any different result?

In the game being played, the West Bank Palestinians are supposed to earn statehood by showing that they can build and run effective institutions. But of course it is up to Israel to determine when they have shown enough, and somehow the required level of achievement never seems to be attained. Meanwhile the Israelis from time to time make it hard for even the good Palestinians, not just the bad ones over in Gaza, to govern. Periodically autonomy gets reduced and the heavy hand of occupation gets heavier. Palestinians know that even if Israel takes Ross's recommended steps Israel can quickly and easily reverse them—and probably will reverse them, most likely after some security-related incident.

Ross's piece seems oblivious to the power of nationalism and the yearning for statehood, which are hardly unique to the Palestinians. This is not the only important circumstance relevant to his subject to which he seems oblivious. In arguing for a stacking of the Palestinian election deck in favor of Fatah and against Hamas, he characterizes Hamas by simply saying that it “rejects nonviolence and peace with Israel”—saying nothing about the strong indications that there is far more willingness by Hamas to be part of a Palestinian state living side-by-side in peace with Israel. In any event, Ross implicitly rejects categorically any effort, which need not endanger Israel's security at all, to find out if there is such willingness.

Another big and relevant circumstance, of course, is the Arab Spring. Ross mentions it, but only as a kind of inconvenient stimulus for those inconvenient Palestinian elections that we need to make sure Hamas doesn't win. Never does he acknowledge that the vigorous striving for popular sovereignty by their Arab brethren will make the Palestinians even less likely to be satisfied with modest adjustments to continued occupation while they still lack their own state.

There also is a failure even to acknowledge current negotiating realities. Ross says that Mahmoud Abbas “imposes conditions on negotiations” that Benjamin Netanyahu sees as “harsh and unprecedented.” Ross does not use the word “settlements,” nor does he mention that the “conditions” involve cessation of the unilateral creation by one side of facts on the ground that, by their very nature, are antithetical to the whole concept of settling a dispute of territory through negotiation. That antithetical nature is reflected in the criticism of that unilateral activity by several administrations of which Ross was a part (although none of the administrations mustered the will or political strength to do anything effective to stop what they were criticizing).

That the author of such an article has played a central role in the making of policy by several U.S. administrations toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should leave us unsurprised that stalemate has persisted for so long. The stalemate will not be broken by opening a few Palestinian police stations or rock quarries. It will be broken only through an act of political courage by a U.S. president that fundamentally changes the U.S. approach toward this conflict and toward the U.S. relationship with the protagonists in the conflict.

The slim hope for that happening would require a president winning a second term and thus having four more years knowing he will never run for office again. The alternative election result in the United States certainly gives no hope for an end to the stalemate. Front-runner Mitt Romney, with his stand-with-Israel-no-matter-what approach, almost sounds like the moderate on this issue compared to his principal opponents, Newt (“We have invented the Palestinian people”) Gingrich and Rick (“All the people that live in the West Bank are Israelis”) Santorum.

TopicsDemocracyDomestic PoliticsPost-Conflict RegionsIsraelUnited StatesPalestinian territories