Paul Pillar

Two Separate and Different Wars

Paul Pillar

Thomas Ricks offered an observation this week about the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, stating that he expects the former to be a greater long-term mess than the latter. I expect he’s correct, but his comparison led me to think about how much these two wars get linked together and discussed as a tandem in American debate and discourse. Much of this linkage, unlike Ricks’s comparison, has not been helpful in thinking about these two wars and the lessons that ought to be drawn from them.

The unhelpful linkage began in a tendentious and propagandistic way when the Bush administration put both of them under the label of “War on Terror.” It did so as a way of promoting the war in Iraq. It did so even though Iraq had nothing to do with the 9/11 terrorist attack, whereas military intervention in Afghanistan in late 2001 was a direct and understandable response to 9/11, aimed at the group that perpetrated the attack and at the regime that at the time was hosting the group. Unfortunately, much of the news media and those engaging in policy debate came to use the “War on Terror” terminology in terms similar to those in which the Bush administration used it.

The two wars do genuinely share other attributes. They both became major drains on U.S. resources. They both involve the use of force to try to shape events in divided societies plagued by complex conflicts. Even the roles that the two wars play in current American politics have similarities. Opponents of President Obama criticize him in each instance for not prosecuting a big enough military campaign for long enough. But the parallels quickly break down. Mr. Obama himself was opposed to the Iraq War from the beginning but has presided over an extension of, and even a surge in, the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan. Indeed, his view of Afghanistan as a good war in contrast to the bad war in Iraq probably has been a major influence on his policies.

Iraq and Afghanistan get bracketed as twin test cases in discussions of counterinsurgency, or COIN. As has been true for decades—since U.S. military officers as well as the American public turned away from the bad experience of the Vietnam War—COIN has had ups and downs in interest and acceptance that actually have had less to do with COIN itself than with the particular tasks to which the United States has tried to apply it. It is worth noting that the U.S. military expeditions in neither Iraq nor Afghanistan started out as counterinsurgency missions.

The major lessons that should be drawn from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan do not concern COIN, and the lessons are very different between the two wars. Reflection about the Iraq War should center on how a project that was the dream of a small number of willful people could become public policy with astonishingly little regard for the consequences. The most important specific lesson is never again to let anything as substantial as an offensive war occur without any policy process to examine whether it is a good idea. On Afghanistan, reflection should concern the inability to find an off-ramp after a justified and quickly successful intervention, thereby turning the expedition into a costly, long-term nation-building enterprise. The exit process needs to be shaped in a way that the expedition is not just what Stephen Walt calls “drive-by interventionism.” Probably more doctrine of some sort needs to be developed on this subject. COIN doctrine doesn't do it, nor does theory on the ending of wars, nor does literature on the rationales and criteria for intervention.

I hope whenever the efforts and sacrifices of those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan are memorialized, we will see two separate memorials for two separate wars.  Each is deserving of one. 

Image: broken thoughts

TopicsCounterinsurgencyDefensePublic OpinionMilitary StrategyRogue States RegionsAfghanistanIraq

The Toxic Mix of Religion and Government

Paul Pillar

Our mostly deist founding fathers had a really sound concept in keeping church and state separate, as expressed in the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. They had in mind, of course, a background not yet very distant in their own past, involving a colonial power with an established church and colonies that had been populated in part by religious dissidents seeking to escape persecution. But their concept has just as much value today. Whenever some issue comes up that entails commingling of government and religion, careful examination almost always would lead to the conclusion that the best way to have avoided a mess would have been to follow the founders’ principle of keeping these two things separate. The brouhaha over contraception and health insurance—for a good perspective on this flap, see the commentary on it by Garry Wills—is only the most recent illustration. It demonstrated the downsides of sectarian religious interests trying to shape a government program according to their doctrinal preferences, including the downside of some politicians picking up the sectarian cause because they see a wedge issue that might help them.

The opinion pages in Tuesday’s newspapers have some useful insights on this subject. An op-ed by Samuel Rascoff, a law professor with practical experience in the New York Police Department, criticizes well-intentioned attempts by governmental authorities to discourage radical interpretations of religious doctrine. (His opening vignette involves White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan lecturing to a Muslim student group about what jihad does and does not mean.) Such attempts entail both a strategic and a legal problem. The strategic problem is that government is not a credible authority for religious interpretation. “Young Muslim men in the thrall of radical teachings,” says Rascoff, “will not embrace a more pacific theology because the F.B.I. tells them to, any more than Catholic bishops would have yielded to Mr. Obama’s plan to mandate coverage of contraceptives at Catholic hospitals if he had invoked canon law to defend his position.” The legal problem is that “a government official who sets out to determine what a contested concept within Islam means, or which imams have the right to speak for a particular community, would be in danger of transgressing one of the cardinal tenets of the Establishment Clause: the secular state shall not become an arbiter of religious content.” Rascoff has no problem with attempts to influence religious thinking in nonradical directions, but government will have to take a back seat to private efforts in doing so.

Rascoff notes that if voicing this sort of concern sounds unusual, it is because most cases involving the Establishment Clause that have made it to the Supreme Court in recent decades have concerned not encroachments by government on religion but instead encroachments by religion on government. We still see plenty of this sort of issue today, with many of the latest examples provided by the current non-Romney Republican front-runner, Rick Santorum. Last weekend Santorum voiced one of the odder accusations against President Obama: that the president is motivated by “some phony theology, not a theology based on the Bible.” As columnist Eugene Robinson aptly puts it, the position for which Santorum seems to be campaigning is theologian in chief.

If we're going to ignore any distinction between the political and the religious, maybe newly red-hatted Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York ought to change hats (and sweater vests and vestments) with Santorum. Cardinal Dolan seems to have plenty of political skill, including a common touch. I'll bet if he threw his biretta into the ring right now, he would do pretty well in the Michigan primary. And Santorum sounds like he is running for pope rather than for president.

Another Washington Post columnist, Richard Cohen, adds a final perspective on all this. His column is about Saudi Arabia and especially about Hamza Kashgari, a young Saudi writer who faces a possible death sentence for an irreverent tweet about an imaginary conversation with the prophet Muhammad. Cohen's piece reminds us that whatever is admirable about a state that is modernizing itself as much as Saudi Arabia is in important respects is overwhelmed by frightening medievalism when intolerant religiosity is merged with political power. The United States isn't yet close to Saudi Arabia in that respect, but we ought to be concerned about any steps that bring it closer.

TopicsDomestic PoliticsElectionsHuman RightsThe PresidencyReligion RegionsUnited StatesSaudi Arabia

A Dangerous Declaration

Paul Pillar

Delineating the nation's interests starts with the basics: the security and well-being of our citizens in our own homeland. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—those sorts of things. There is no controversy about this, and the nation would and should spare no costs or risks to uphold these core interests. National interests go far beyond the core to include as well many other things overseas. But few of those other things are so vital that they would be worth incurring every conceivable cost or risk to bring them about. Some things that are not in U.S. interests the United States may need to live with, because there is no way to avoid them short of measures that would damage U.S. interests even more.

Congress, as representative of the American people, has a proper and important role in declaring what is or is not in the interests of the United States. But if such declarations are not to be a useless and potentially endless laundry list of nice-to-haves, members of Congress need to do a couple of other things. They need to explain why something is in U.S. interests, preferably by relating it to the core life-and-liberty stuff. And they need to stipulate to what lengths, and at what costs and risks, the United States should go to pursue the objective in question.

A sense-of-the Senate resolution on Iran that Senators Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman, along with numerous cosponsors, introduced last week does neither of those things. The key operative language in the resolution “affirms that it is a vital national interest of the United States to prevent the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability” and “rejects any United States policy that would rely on efforts to contain a nuclear weapons-capable Iran,” further calling on the president to “oppose any policy that would rely on containment as an option in response to the Iranian nuclear threat.” The resolution's preambulary language, with nineteen “whereas” clauses, runs through a familiar litany of things people don't like about Iran, from the Iranian president's anti-Israeli rhetoric to weird alleged plots to assassinate ambassadors in Washington. But nothing in the resolution identifies how or why containment of a nuclear-weapons-capable Iran would be different from the status quo in any way that would damage a “vital national interest” of the United States.

It would be easy to imagine a similar resolution about the Soviet Union when it was about to get its first nuclear weapon in the late 1940s. There certainly would be plenty of good material for the preambulary clauses. “Whereas the USSR is ruled by a bloodthirsty dictator who has killed millions and enslaved many more, has used force to subjugate half of Europe,” etc. the Senate “opposes any policy that would rely on containment as an option in response to the Soviet nuclear threat.” George Kennan, rest in peace.

The new resolution—despite ostensibly aiming for an agreement with Iran—would damage the prospects for negotiating any such agreement. The resolution calls for terms that are understandably nonstarters for Iran. In referring to “the full and sustained suspension of all uranium enrichment-related and reprocessing activities,” the resolution appears to rule out an Iranian enrichment program under international supervision and inspection, which almost certainly would have to be part of any formula that could gain the agreement of both Iran and the Western powers. Incredibly, the resolution also calls for “the verified end of Iran's ballistic missile programs.” This goes beyond any United Nations resolutions on Iran, which talk about nuclear capability of missiles, and even beyond anything ever demanded of Saddam Hussein's Iraq, for which range limits were imposed. It would be understandable if Tehran reads such language as further evidence that the United States is interested not in any negotiated agreement but instead only in regime change. By declaring “nuclear weapons capability” rather than acquisition of a nuclear weapon to be unacceptable, the resolution also blurs red lines in a way that may flash green lights to Israel to launch a military attack on Iran.

This resolution also walks the United States farther down a path to launching its own war against Iran. This stems partly from the resolution's very silence on how far the United States should go to try to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon, implying that anything goes. It also stems from the usual way in which declarations of national interests or objectives are subsequently exploited. Such declarations are habitually invoked by those pushing for action, obliterating any distinction between core, defend-at-all-costs interests and other objectives. The exploiters say, “If we agree that this is in our national interest, then why aren't we doing whatever it takes to attain it?”

We have seen this pattern repeatedly. The Iran resolution itself throws back at President Obama his own language about the consequences of a nuclear-armed Iran being “unacceptable.” The Washington Post's editorial page, in its constant agitation for more action to overthrow the Assad regime in Syria, does the same with Mr. Obama's call for that regime to end. Something similar also happened in the run-up to the Iraq War. The Iraq Liberation Act, which President Clinton reluctantly signed in 1998, stated that it was the policy of the United States to support “regime change” in Iraq. This legislation did not call for a war—only for increased support to Iraqi opposition groups. But President George W. Bush repeatedly referred to the legislation, and to his Democratic predecessor's signature of it, in his later campaigning for a war. The Congressional resolution in 2002 that authorized a war also referred back to the 1998 measure as a basis for doing so.

The prospect is at least as great for the same sort of thing to happen with Iran. The shape of public debate on the issue, with much talk about maybe having “no choice” but to use military force if diplomacy and sanctions fail, has already set the stage for this. A resolution declaring a nuclear-free Iran to be a national interest—and a “vital” one, no less—will be repeatedly invoked, as if this were on the same level as Americans' life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. What will not be mentioned is that the difference between a nuclear-free Iran and a contained, nuclear-weapons-capable Iran is nowhere near that level.

After the sorry performance of Congress in the months before the Iraq War (Thomas Ricks wrote in his book on the war that “the failures in Congress were at once perhaps the most important and the least noticed”), one might hope that members would be more careful about flinging around resolutions with the damaging potential of the one introduced last week. Maybe some members figure what the heck, it's just a sense-of-the-Senate resolution with no legal effect, it doesn't say anything about authorizing a war, and doesn't everyone agree that not having nuclear weapons in Iranian hands would be in U.S. interests? Well, yes—I haven't met anyone who is arguing that an Iranian nuke would, on balance, be in U.S. interests. And maybe, as die-hard defenders of the Iraq War like to say, the world is better off without Saddam Hussein than with him. But such observations are cop-outs from rigorous thinking about all the U.S. interests at stake and the tradeoffs that entail them.

Perhaps members see this resolution as a cheap way to stay in the good graces of AIPAC, which is promoting the measure. But surely most members are smart enough to understand the political dynamics and likely exploitation of the issue as I have just described. Any who do understand this ought to be ashamed of themselves for facilitating a process that increases the danger of a war that would inflict major damage on some really important U.S. interests.

Image: Truthout.org

TopicsCongressDomestic PoliticsK StreetThe PresidencySanctionsNuclear ProliferationRogue States RegionsIsraelIranIraqUnited StatesSyria

Talks and Triumphalism

Paul Pillar

The latest words on Iran and its nuclear program would lead one to believe that the Islamic Republic is on the ropes and flailing away to keep from being knocked out. The New York Times front-paged a story about Iran “frantically” responding to the pressure of sanctions. The State Department's spokeswoman dismissed as “hype” and nothing new Iran's latest announced advances in their program. At the same time, the European Union has confirmed receipt of an offer from Iran of renewed talks with the West.

The on-the-ropes image is no more useful or accurate than the opposite image of Iran as a determined juggernaut forging ahead toward a bomb unless forcefully stopped. If sanctions-related pressure has helped nudge Iran toward the negotiating table, good. If Iran's progress in its nuclear program isn't really anything to crow about, fine. But publicly dwelling on such dynamics or making them the foundation for a Western negotiating strategy will only increase the chance that negotiations will fail. The “cry-uncle” objective of pressuring Iran has never been realistic, as we should realize if we think about our own likely reaction if the roles were reversed.

This is all about the basic negotiating principle that it takes two to make an agreement. For an agreement to be made requires that both sides see it in some sense as a win. This means recognizing that the relationship is not zero-sum. The Iranian-U.S. relationship is indeed not zero-sum; there are feasible agreements that would be better for both sides than the absence of an agreement.

The triumphalist urge—encouraged by political discourse in which Iran is viewed as a beast to be bested—is one but only one of the impediments to success in any new round of talks between Iran and the P5+1. Another impediment is Western impatience, amid talk about windows of vulnerability and the like. Another is an inability or unwillingness to distinguish Iranian bargaining positions from Iranian bottom lines. Iranians are consummate bazaaris, and reaching a bargain with them will take time. Yet another impediment is the ever-intensifying atmosphere of hostility and the prominent part that regime change plays in Western discourse about Iran.

A further problem is the narrowness of the Western agenda. The fixation on Iran's nuclear program makes it easy to overlook how much a negotiation centered on that program represents a concession by Iran. The role-reversed equivalent would be if the only thing Iran wanted to negotiate about was the Western nuclear-weapons states' disarmament obligations under Article VI of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Successful talks with Iran must address not only the West's nuclear bugbear but also issues of concern to Tehran.

Then there is the eagerness of some elements in the United States to check off the negotiations box to be able to say that negotiations have “failed” and that recourse to force is necessary. Expect multiple declarations of failure before any new talks have ever had a chance to succeed.

Image: www.kremlin.ru

TopicsSanctionsNuclear ProliferationRogue States RegionsIranUnited States

No Good Option on Syria

Paul Pillar

The growing civil war in Syria is a prototypical case of a problem with no good solution. An authoritarian regime appears to have passed the point of being able to reestablish either authority within Syria or legitimacy within the community of nations but retains enough determination and firepower to avoid being toppled any time soon. Opposition elements demonstrate their own form of determination but are not demonstrating unity, effective organization or clear purpose beyond wanting to get rid of the regime of Bashar al-Assad. It is much easier to point out the downsides of any proposed response to this situation than to come up with a response that is at all attractive. It is still necessary to consider carefully all the doubts and downsides, not just to shoot down other people's ideas but to know what we are getting into even if we wind up only with the least bad of several decidedly bad options.

Marc Lynch has usefully raised several important questions about one of the more forward-leaning of the options that are within the realm of political feasibility, which is to provide arms to the armed resistance that calls itself the Free Syrian Army. The first question is who exactly would get the arms. Lynch notes that the FSA “remains something of a fiction, a convenient mailbox for a diverse, unorganized collection of local fighting groups.” Other questions include: How would provision of arms affect the Syrian opposition, including its degree of unity and its aims? Exactly what would arms aid be intended to achieve? If it is intended to defeat the regime rather than just to keep the opposition fighters going, how much aid would be needed to do that? How would the regime respond to such external aid? And if the regime falls, what would happen then to the armed opposition groups?

The answers to all of these questions are currently unclear. Similarly probing questions can be asked about other possible options, and the lack of current clarity is not necessarily a reason to discard either the possibility of arming the FSA or any other possible course of action. But more attention should be devoted to trying to answer the questions before making any major new departures on Syria. Besides addressing the questions, several tendencies need to be resisted in formulating policy on the Syria problem.

One such tendency is the emotional urge to “do something” in the face of obvious human suffering and bloodshed. This tendency needs to be resisted because some possible measures that may help to satisfy this urge might only lead to different scenarios in which the humanitarian situation would be even worse (not to mention possibly being detrimental to other policy objectives). This is another application of the general rule that emotion usually does not produce sound foreign policy.

We should not equate getting rid of Assad with bringing about a better Syria. Some of the alternatives might be worse. And even if there is no possibility of the current regime reestablishing authority and legitimacy, how Assad goes will have a lot to do with what comes after.

We also should not equate more forceful options in opposing the regime with greater likelihood of the regime falling sooner rather than later. Consider how different possible endgames look to Assad and to others who are irretrievably associated with his regime. He knows what happened to Muammar Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein. If he has to lose power, a negotiated exit may appear less unpleasant than a fight to the death.

Every option has risks and uncertainties, of course, including the option of doing absolutely nothing. But if there is to be any bias, it should be in the direction of taking fewer rather than more new departures. New departures entail more risks and uncertainties because they stir the pot in ways that bring about new and unforeseeable situations. Those who stir the pot generally also assume new responsibilities. The Hippocratic principle of first doing no harm applies to statesmanship as well as to medicine.

TopicsAutocracyHuman RightsForeign AidFailed StatesHumanitarian InterventionRogue States RegionsSyria

Running Against Washington

Paul Pillar

Denigrating or opposing the federal government has long been a theme of many American political campaigns, even for candidates who would like to head that government. This year the theme seems to be getting voiced in an especially full-throated manner. The fact that we have been watching a primary contest among candidates hoping to unseat an incumbent president obviously has a lot to do with that. The influence of the Tea Party movement on the Republican Party is also a major contributing factor. Whatever the combination of causes, even candidates who have been deeply embedded in, and politically or financially enriched by, the Washington establishment—Messrs. Gingrich and Santorum come to mind—talk as if they have never had any thing to do with that establishment. The presidential candidate who can most plausibly claim not to be a creature of Washington, Mitt Romney, makes much of that concept as one of the things that sets him apart from others still in the race.

I see no particular pattern among the forty-three men who have held the presidency that correlates being or not being a Washington insider with being a good or a bad president. In any event, many presidents have had mixed resumés that would make it difficult to categorize them as either insiders or outsiders. But some other observations come to mind while listening to this year's anti-Washington rhetoric.

Past or present occupancy of an office in the federal government should not be considered the defining characteristic in determining what sort of relationship someone has had with that government or with the Washington establishment. Two articles about Romney in Monday's newspapers underscore that observation. One describes the very large role that well-established Washington lobbyists play in Romney's campaign and as advisers to the candidate. The other article concerns Romney's performance in heading the Salt Lake City Olympic organizing committee in 2002. The picture the article conveys is mixed, with some testifying to Romney's solid and energetic leadership and others saying that his main contribution was in restoring respectability to a committee that had a public relations problem but was not on the verge of collapse. What caught my eye in this account was that one of Romney's biggest accomplishments as head of the committee was in successfully lobbying the federal government (against the opposition of Senator John McCain and other Republican leaders) for what became the biggest federal funding for any Olympic games in U.S. history, either winter or summer. The federal subsidy for the Salt Lake City games tripled on Romney's watch from $200 million to $600 million. The turnaround expert from the private sector turned around this enterprise with big help from what usually would be called a federal bailout.

Another observation is that making the federal government work well involves some realities of governing that would be hard to learn anywhere else. This is partly, but not entirely, a matter of government being fundamentally different from corporations. Donald Rumsfeld has spoken of how much more readily he could make things happen as chief executive of the pharmaceutical firm G.D. Searle than he could as a cabinet secretary, where leadership is necessarily much more a matter of compromise and dealing with competing interests. Even the more hierarchical parts of the federal government itself do not prepare one fully for leadership in the presidency. Harry Truman said of his successor Dwight Eisenhower, “He will sit here and he’ll say, Do this! Do that! And nothing will happen. Poor Ike—it won’t be a bit like the army.”

The management of the nation's affairs in foreign relations, where the handling of competing interests becomes even more complex, is even more a matter of on-the-job training than with domestic affairs.  The large majority of things each presidential administration does in foreign policy, especially after the first few months in office, are reactions to problems and threats rather than anything that could have been foreseen during the presidential campaign.  

Vaunting detachment from Washington has other downsides. Some longtime observers and former members of Congress have observed that one reason for the bitter partisanship and acrimony that has become routine on Capitol Hill is that fewer members today feel part of a Washington community. There is less socializing with those on the other side of the aisle, and thus less of the comity that this encourages, than used to be the case. More members today have a sense of community only with home constituencies, to which they repair between sallies to do battle in (or against) Washington.

Then there is the problem that being against something doesn't necessarily provide a clear idea of what one is for.

There certainly is something to be said for fresh ideas and fresh approaches, but that is not the same as railing at the federal government. Running against Washington is another pattern in American politics that is a net minus, rather than a plus, in choosing good presidents and good policies.

TopicsCongressDomestic PoliticsElectionsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States

Nixon's Great Departure

Paul Pillar

David Ignatius has a column noting that this month marks the fortieth anniversary of one of the landmark events in the history of U.S. foreign policy: President Richard Nixon's trip to China. Observing the anniversary is appropriate. Nixon's opening to China was one of the truly great foreign policy initiatives by a U.S. president. Regardless of what else it is appropriate to think about Nixon, he deserves much credit for this achievement.

I differ with Ignatius, however, in his couching of the China initiative as a demonstration of the virtues that come from a political leader demonstrating inconsistencies over time. Ignatius even seems to draw a comparison between Nixon's move of four decades ago and the flip-flopping of presidential candidates today. In fact, there is no comparison at all. Sure, Nixon had an earlier reputation as a fervent anti-communist, going back to his days on the House Committee on Un-American Activities. And “Nixon to China” has joined the political lexicon as a phrase applicable to any move by a leader whose previous reputation pointing in a different direction gives him political cover to make the move. But what led to Nixon's China opening was less a change in Nixon's own outlook than in geopolitical circumstances that he was striving to exploit. The careful thought that Nixon put into his China gambit was the antithesis of the flip-flopping and pandering that we hear on the campaign trail today.

Nixon's initiative had its roots in his cogitation while out of power about great power politics and how it could be reshaped to America's advantage. When he entered the White House in 1969 it was with one of the most fully formed strategic outlooks about foreign affairs of any incoming U.S. president. A fundamental aspect of the China initiative that Ignatius does not mention is that it was one leg of triangular diplomacy in which Nixon intended to use the relationship with Beijing to gain leverage in his dealings with the Soviet Union. On the China part of his strategy, Nixon was even ahead of his geostrategic partner Henry Kissinger.

Nixon personally planned the negotiating approach toward China, inventorying on his yellow legal pad the objectives of each state and where they might find common ground. It was a thorough thought process that—especially in taking account of the perspectives and interests of the other side—is sorely missing from much of what passes for public debate about foreign policy today. Nixon and Kissinger's super-close-hold manner of handling the initiative, in which even Secretary of State William Rogers was kept in the dark, had its disadvantages. Some signals from the Chinese were missed, and there were some avoidable stumbles in the drafting of what became known as the Shanghai Communiqué. But to the extent the result was a positive accomplishment, which it was, the credit was all Nixon's.

This history differs starkly from the foreign policy rhetoric of today's campaigns because it had a firm strategic foundation and was not flip-flopping, and also because it certainly was not pandering to popular public images of a foreign power. And that gets to one of the ingredients of a great foreign policy decision: not that it represents a departure from what the statesman who makes it said in the past, but that it is a departure from what may be well-entrenched popular perceptions—of foreign powers, of perceived good guys and bad guys in world politics, and of what is and is not possible in shaping relations with each. That is apt to require some political courage, which is another ingredient that is often lacking today.

TopicsDomestic PoliticsHistoryPublic OpinionGreat PowersThe Presidency RegionsChinaRussiaUnited States

Deeper into Terrorism

Paul Pillar

LM/The National InterestAlthough the assassinations of Iranian scientists have until now been followed by no indication of responsibility other than smug comments of satisfaction from officials of the most likely foreign state perpetrator, now NBC offers something more specific. According to a report by Richard Engel and Robert Windrem, the assassinations have been the joint work of Israel and the Iranian cult-cum-terrorist group Mujahedin-e Khalq. According to the report, the partnership has involved Israel providing financing, training and arms to the MEK to accomplish the hits, as well as to commit other acts of violent sabotage inside Iran. The story tracks with accusations from officials of the Iranian government, who say they base most of what they know on interrogations and captured materials from a failed assassination attempt in 2010. Such accusations by themselves would be easy to dismiss, of course, as more of the regime’s propaganda. But the NBC story cites two senior U.S. officials, speaking anonymously, as confirming the story. A third official said “it hasn’t been clearly confirmed yet,” although like the others he denied any U.S. involvement. The Israeli foreign ministry declined comment; the MEK denied the story.

With or without confirmation of details of this story, the assassinations are terrorism. (The official U.S. government definition of terrorism for reporting and statistic-keeping purposes is “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.”) The extra twist in this new report is the use by Israel—already widely believed to have been responsible for the murders—of the MEK, a group with a long track record of terrorism that has included American victims. Other parts of that record, including the MEK having been an arm of Saddam Hussein's security forces, have meant the group has almost no popular support within Iran. Anyone in Israel, the United States, or anywhere else hoping for a salubrious regime change in Iran would be foolish to have anything to do with the MEK.

Even more important than what is foolish is what is immoral. Terrorism denies the high ground to anyone who uses it, including the use of it in disagreements with Iran. It also hastens the slide through mutually reinforcing hostility into what may be a far more destructive form of violence (i.e., a war). Although the United States has not been involved in the assassinations, the nature of its relationship with Israel, both real and perceived (President Obama commented the other day about staying in “lockstep” with Israel on Iran), means that Israel's actions suck the United States farther down the slide.

Amid all the reasons for dismay and outrage over this, there is also an irony. One of the oft-repeated rationales for the conventional wisdom that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be unacceptable is that it would somehow turn Iran into a regional marauder that would recklessly throw its weight around the Middle East in damaging ways. Well, there is an example of a Middle Eastern state that behaves in such a way, but it isn't Iran. This state invades neighboring countries, ruthlessly inflicting destruction on civilian populations, and seizes and colonizes territory through military force. It also uses terrorist group proxies as well as its own agents to conduct assassinations in other countries in the region.

Besides terrorism, there also is, as with any prototypical rogue state, a nuclear weapons angle. This state, unlike Iran, has never signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty or admitted an international inspector to any of its nuclear facilities. Even though it has had a sizable arsenal of nuclear weapons for decades, it has kept its nuclear weapons program completely out of reach of any international scrutiny or arms control regime and does not even acknowledge the program's existence. It also is so intent on maintaining its regional nuclear weapons monopoly that it is using terrorism to strike at the nuclear program of a country that doesn't even have one nuclear weapon and probably hasn't made a decision to make one.

One could almost argue that this record of behavior supports that conventional wisdom about what an Iranian nuke would do to Iran's behavior.  But actually it doesn't.  The behavior of the state in question is made possible not by nuclear weapons but instead by its conventional military superiority over its neighbors and by the cover provided by a subservient, protective great power whose policies it is able to manipulate. 

The United States needs to distance itself as much as possible from this ugliness, for the sake of adhering to its own principles as well as trying to avoid sliding any further toward catastrophe. It was good that Secretary of State Clinton quickly disavowed the most recent assassination, but distancing requires something more. Forget the lockstep business. Israel is out of step with American policy because it evidently is out of step with American values and American interests. Washington needs to proclaim loudly and repeatedly that the sort of terrorism that the NBC report describes is the antithesis of how differences with Iran ought to be settled, and that those differences need to be settled through diplomacy. Then negotiate like we really mean it. Two distinguished retired U.S. diplomats, William Luers and Thomas Pickering, have recently provided some excellent instruction on how to do that.

TopicsNuclear ProliferationRogue StatesTerrorism RegionsIsraelIranUnited States

Afghanistan and the Guantanamo Roach Motel

Paul Pillar

One of the latest efforts by members of Congress (especially, but not exclusively, Republicans) to impede the executive branch's conduct of foreign policy concerns the possible transfer of several Afghan Taliban out of the detention facility at Guantanamo as part of the process of negotiating an agreement with the Taliban. Specifically, the move would entail transferring five senior Taliban from Guantanamo to Qatar as a good-faith gesture. One anonymous Republican member of Congress forecast strong opposition if the Obama administration attempted this transfer, saying, "If they do that, then all hell breaks loose. There's just no way."

Opposition to this move probably reflects a combination of several misconceived and unhelpful beliefs:

That negotiating is mutually exclusive with fighting. A substantial modern history of warfare, including the U.S. wars in Korea and Vietnam, demonstrates that not only are they not mutually exclusive, but negotiating while fighting may be the only way out of a war with even a hope of a satisfactory outcome. This belief is related to a more general one...

That diplomacy is a reward that should not be bestowed on enemies. This attitude merely handicaps ourselves by removing one of our tools of statecraft. The late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin said it best: you negotiate peace with your enemies, not with your friends.

That we need not and should not make concessions to an adversary to achieve peace. Negotiations that are conceived as all taking and no giving seldom work. The transfer of the five Taliban hardly even merits being considered a concession. It would be only an act of good faith to help make a negotiating process possible.

That the Afghan Taliban are international terrorists. The Taliban are an insular group concerned with the internal political and social structure of Afghanistan with no affinity to the transnational terrorist ideology of al-Qaeda. The prime objective of negotiations with the Taliban should be to eliminate any possibility of future alliances of convenience between the Taliban and the likes of al-Qaeda. The Taliban have given plenty of indication that such an outcome is achievable.

That something better than a very messy compromise is achievable in Afghanistan. This is related to the belief that prolonging U.S. involvement in the combat in Afghanistan can somehow achieve what a decade of such involvement to date has not achieved. A spokesman for House Armed Services Committee chairman Buck McKeon reacted to the possible Taliban detainee transfer by saying, "It would seem that the Taliban are free to wait the president out and recoup their senior leaders without obtaining any real guarantee for a peaceful, stable or free Afghanistan.” Eschewing negotiations and prolonging the war would guarantee a peaceful, stable or free Afghanistan? This war certainly has given no reason to believe it would.

That Guantanamo ought to be a roach motel where detainees check in but never check out. If the prospect of a settlement to end the war in Afghanistan is not worth letting five detainees out of Gitmo, then what ever would be worth it?

Image: isafmedia

TopicsCounterinsurgencyCongress RegionsAfghanistanUnited States

What Is Our Number One Priority?

Paul Pillar

In an interview broadcast during NBC's Super Bowl pregame show on Sunday, President Obama made a couple of statements that were disturbing, even if politically unsurprising. In a portion of the interview about the danger of Israel touching off a war with Iran, the president said, “My number one priority continues to be the security of the United States, but also the security of Israel.” Wait a minute—shouldn't the security of the United States be the number one priority of the president of the United States? Rather than merely sharing the top spot on the priority list with some foreign country's security? This comment was part of an unscripted interview, and perhaps the language of a prepared speech would have come out differently. But the president said what he said.

Elsewhere in the same interview, Mr. Obama said that in dealing with Israel regarding the issue of Iran, “We are going to make sure that we work in lockstep.” If working in lockstep means that Israel defers to U.S. interests and preferences, that would be fine for the United States. But of course the deference nearly always works the other way around. For a glaring recent example involving President Obama, recall how he caved to Benjamin Netanyahu regarding the continued Israeli construction of settlements in occupied territories. So this statement is disturbing as well.

Any national political leader in the United States should be expected to give clear, consistent, overwhelming priority to U.S. interests—never equating, much less subordinating, them to the interests of any foreign state. Relationships with foreign governments can be useful in advancing U.S. interests, but they are always means, not ends. I have discussed this principle before. Suffice it to note that the policies of the current government of the foreign state in question are not only not to be equated with U.S. interests but are seriously damaging those interests, whether through risking war with Iran, undermining efforts short of war to resolve differences with Iran, or associating the United States with a highly salient and unjust occupation. Even with an alternative government that was less destructive (to Israel's own interests, let alone to those of the United States), the interests of the United States should not be equated with the interests of this foreign state any more than to those of Denmark, Thailand, Argentina or any other foreign country, no matter what fondness individual citizens may feel toward those or other places.

The president's statements before the Super Bowl are mild compared to the efforts of most of his Republican opponents to outdo each other in subordinating themselves to the wishes of the Israeli government. One of the best indications of what is shaping the environment in which these candidates operate comes from the lips of Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino magnate who is Newt Gingrich's biggest bankroller and is likely to open his wallet to Mitt Romney's campaign once Romney nails down the nomination. Speaking to an Israeli group in 2010, Adelson said that when he did military service as a young man it was "unfortunately" in a U.S. uniform rather than an Israeli one. He said he hoped his son would become a sniper for the Israel Defense Forces. Adelson concluded, “All we [meaning Adelson and his Israeli wife, who did serve in the IDF] care about is being good Zionists, being good citizens of Israel, because even though I am not Israeli born, Israel is in my heart.”

Speaking as someone who feels fortunate and proud to have worn a U.S. uniform when performing military service, I find it deeply distressing that such sentiments are playing such a large role in determining U.S. policies and perhaps the U.S. presidency. 

TopicsDomestic PoliticsForeign AidThe Presidency RegionsIsraelIranUnited States

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