Paul Pillar

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

Regime Change, Humanitarianism and Syria

Paul Pillar

The West and especially the United States are still paying a price for the messy habit of conflating regime change with other objectives, even the laudable objective of saving lives. Last October, Russia and China vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution on Syria. The Russians in particular made it clear they were determined not to fall again for what they regarded as a bait and switch on Libya, in which a NATO military intervention that received multilateral support on humanitarian grounds quickly morphed into support for toppling the Libyan regime. Last Saturday saw a replay at the Security Council: another resolution on Syria, and another double veto by Russia and China. It's not as if the Russians and Chinese are throwing vetoes around with abandon these days. The vetoes on the Syria resolutions are four of only five vetoes that have been cast at the council in the last couple of years (the United States used the other one a year ago against a resolution criticizing continued Israeli construction of settlements in occupied territories). Despite efforts to word the most recent resolution on Syria in a way that would assuage Russian and Chinese concerns, all the talk about seeing the backside of Bashar al-Assad, in addition to the experience with Libya, makes it easy to see why Moscow and Beijing were still not buying.

The crisis in Syria is certainly a difficult case, and I do not pretend to have an attractive alternative strategy for dealing with it. But any policy ought at a minimum to satisfy a couple of criteria that too often have been overlooked. One is to consider carefully the broader, indirect follow-on effects of any action being proposed, whether military or diplomatic. Another is to be clear about the objectives we intend to achieve. Clarity is required not just to avoid annoying the Russians but also to have a good sense of whether our objectives are likely to be achievable and do not contradict each other. This is especially important when the mix includes regime change, which is the strongest possible deal-killer for whatever regime is to be changed.

Maybe there is something about humanitarian motivations tugging at heartstrings that muddies thinking, but we have been seeing a lot of it lately on Syria. Robert Pape of the University of Chicago has contributed far-reaching analysis on topics such as the war in Afghanistan and the effects of foreign military occupation on terrorist motivations, but he takes a much narrower perspective in an op-ed in the New York Times. The situation in Syria leads Pape to mull over whether there ought to be a humanitarian standard for outside military intervention short of stopping an ongoing genocide. He decides that military intervention in Syria is not warranted for now, but he bases that judgment only on slender operational grounds. He refers to several earlier military interventions made ostensibly in the name of humanitarianism, including NATO's effort in Libya, as successes. Such a judgment about Libya is questionable and not only because it is doubtful that the widely assumed mass slaughter of innocents by the regime would ever have occurred in the absence of intervention. The continuing messiness in Libya has included atrocities on the anti-Qaddafi side. Most important, the Western intervention to topple a ruler with whom a deal had been reached that got him out of international terrorism and ended his programs to produce weapons of mass destruction has sent the worst possible message to other regimes with which the West has had similar concerns. We are seeing some of the negative consequences now with Iran and North Korea. As for effects on Syria, the handling of Qaddafi not only encouraged the lack of cooperation from Russia and China but also set an unattractive example for Assad and his supporters.

I agree with Pape that intervention in Syria would be unwise, but not just for now and not only because the struggle there has so far not shaped up in a way that has yielded, as he puts it, “a viable, low-casualty military solution.” Sectarian divisions in Syria would make the aftermath of even a low-cost regime-toppling intervention messier than Libya. The whole Alawite power structure, not just Assad and his family, would see themselves fighting not only for power but for their lives. Stirring this sectarian pot would, as happened with the Iraq War, set in motion more disturbances elsewhere in the region.

The United States should refrain from any such pot stirring and concentrate on areas in the region where its own current policies already are tipping the scales and associating the United States with local clients. Major aid recipients are a good place to look, and there are an obvious couple of such places where the aid raises questions of abetting behavior that is damaging, for human rights or other reasons. One place to start is the $1.3 billion in annual aid to a military-controlled Egypt that has recently subjected American officials of prodemocracy organizations to criminal investigation and barred them from leaving the country.

Image: www.kremlin.ru

TopicsAutocracyNATOUNHuman RightsForeign AidHumanitarian InterventionRogue StatesTerrorismTortureWMD RegionsChinaIsraelRussiaEgyptIranIraqLibyaNorth KoreaSyria

The Right Direction on Afghanistan

Paul Pillar

Although Christopher Preble is right that Secretary of Defense Panetta’s statement about NATO forces transitioning out of a combat role in 2013 is long overdue and leaves important unanswered questions about U.S. troops in Afghanistan during the next three years, this transition is definitely a step in the right direction. Some of the questions that still need to be asked involve why any further costs and casualties should be incurred to obtain some result that is ill-defined and may not be achievable anyway. But as each week on the calendar goes by, the difference between the most prudent possible withdrawal from this expedition and what the Obama administration seems to have in mind gets less and less.

The war in Afghanistan has long been an endeavor that, having missed the obvious off-ramp following the ousting of the Taliban from power and the rousting of al-Qaeda from its Afghan haven in the early weeks of the war, continues because we couldn’t seem to find any other off-ramp. We stay in it because we’re in it. Preble references one of his own pieces from three years ago in which he appropriately asked, has the war “become an interest in itself? (That is, we must win the war because it is the war we are in.)” For an almost caricatured illustration of how this indeed is how the war has come to be seen, see the response by Kori Schake to this week’s announcement by Panetta:

The White House appears set to use progress against al-Qa’ida as justification for accelerating an end to the war in Afghanistan. Since the president has concluded that we aren't fighting the Taliban, just al-Qa’ida, no need to stick around Afghanistan until the government of that country can provide security and prevent recidivism to Taliban control. The president will declare victory for having taken from al-Qa’ida the ability to organize large scale attacks, and piously intone that nation building in Afghanistan is Afghanistan's responsibility. This policy will not win the war in Afghanistan.

Yes, nation building in Afghanistan is Afghanistan’s responsibility. And yes, the war has been about fighting al-Qaeda. Maybe memories have dulled over ten years, but that’s how this expedition began.  Had something to do with a terrorist attack in the late summer of 2001.

Here’s Schake’s definition of a win in Afghanistan: “It is the enemy ceasing to contest our objectives that constitutes winning.” That’s pretty much in the same spirit as saying we must win the war because it is the war we are in. It leaves unclear not only what our objectives are but, at least as important, whether they should be our objectives in terms of U.S. interests that are or are not at stake.

This being a political silly season, there is of course other sniping at the administration’s announcement. If Barack Obama does something, then by definition it must be wrong in Republican eyes. Presumed Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, trotting out one of his favorite terms to apply to the president, says it is “naïveté” to announce in advance any drawdown of troops. This is an odd stance given that Romney himself has endorsed a withdrawal of nearly all U.S. and NATO troops by 2014. As Jay Bookman observes, the only way to interpret Romney’s comment is as “meaningless noise on the campaign trail” from someone who is trying “to pump himself up as a strong-willed military leader.” When asked earlier how he would end the war in Afghanistan without negotiations with the Taliban, which he has rejected, Romney said, “by beating them.” No further word from the former Massachusetts governor on just how he would do that.

The concept of beating the Taliban is put in perspective by findings that came out this week in an internal NATO report based on interrogations of thousands of captured Afghan fighters. The report indicated that the Taliban does not feel as if it is being beaten. Moreover, it is getting help from those whose cooperation NATO would need to prevail: elements of the Afghan army and the Pakistani intelligence service. The report also indicated that neither aggressive raids nor the surge of U.S. troops spurred the Taliban into talks.

Perhaps the most significant finding from the interrogations was that the Taliban rejects dealing with al-Qaeda. The specific reasons cited were that such dealings would invite Western forces to target the Taliban and that al-Qaeda no longer has much to offer these days. The Taliban is an insular group that has never shared al-Qaeda's goals despite a previous alliance of convenience. Short of any international terrorist connection, the United States has no significant interest in the internal organization of Afghanistan and no reason to continue fighting a war over it.

TopicsCounterinsurgencyDomestic PoliticsNATOPost-Conflict RegionsAfghanistanPakistan

The Preconditions Game and Talks with Iran

Paul Pillar

Many international negotiations start with diplomatic dances that involve—ostensibly and/or really—preconditions to the negotiations themselves. Preconditions, or complaints about them, can be used for various purposes. A party that does not really want to negotiate can impose arbitrary conditions that it does not expect the other side to accept. Complaining about preconditions is a way of arguing that the other side doesn't really want to negotiate. Preconditions also might be manipulated to placate domestic constituencies or to try to gain an early advantage in the substance of the negotiations.

What functions as a precondition is not to be equated with what is explicitly labeled as a precondition. And attempts to manipulate the terms of a future agreement should be distinguished from what is necessary to negotiate any agreement at all. Israel, for example, portrays itself as wanting to negotiate without preconditions with the Palestinian Authority and complains about the PA imposing a precondition about ceasing the expansion of settlements in occupied and disputed territory. But the PA understandably sees the continued unilateral colonization of disputed territory through settlements as directly contrary to the whole concept of bilaterally negotiating the future of the disputed territory. Israel's no-conditions posture quickly melts away when the subject is negotiation with Hamas, even though the prior declarations about Israel that are being demanded of Hamas (besides the fact that Israel itself has never made any similar declarations about Hamas) are not needed for those two parties to negotiate agreements on issues that divide them—as demonstrated by the complicated agreements they have already reached on exchanging prisoners.

In the standoff between Iran and the West over the Iranian nuclear program, Iran has been seen in the West as more of an imposer of preconditions because of its insistence on recognition of its right to enrich uranium. But look more closely at the meager stabs at what passes for Western-Iranian diplomacy, and it is apparent that the West is playing this game just as much. Peter Jenkins, a former British permanent representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency, has an informative piece at Lobelog.com that explains how the P5+1 (or EU3+3, as the Europeans like to say) is in effect imposing a deal-precluding condition. Jenkins, in addressing why coercion through sanctions ever should have become necessary to get Iran to the negotiating table, quotes a key passage of the letter that EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton sent to Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili in October and was made public several days ago:

We remain committed to the practical and specific suggestions which we have put forward in the past. These confidence-building steps should form first elements of a phased approach which would eventually lead to a full settlement between us, involving the full implementation by Iran of UNSC and IAEA Board of Governors’ resolutions.

Jenkins aptly explains the effect of this Western posture:

Dr. Jalili and his advisers could be forgiven for interpreting these sentences to mean that there is no point in turning up for talks unless they are committed to satisfying UN and IAEA demands in full. It looks as though the real goal of sanctions is not to get Iran back to the negotiating table, but to get Iran to give way on the demands that it has spent the last six years declining to concede.

In other words, the West is imposing crippling preconditions, which have centered on suspension of all of Iran's uranium enrichment. The rest of Jenkins's piece is also worth reading, partly for explaining why the no-enrichment demand no longer is useful in supporting nonproliferation objectives.

The Western powers would be well-advised to drop anything that functions as a precondition to negotiations, whether it is labeled as such or not, and to start talking substance in detail with the Iranians. Of course, some argue this would risk letting the Iranians string out negotiations while those centrifuges keep spinning (rather like the Palestinians' concern about the Israelis stringing out negotiations while those settlements keep getting constructed). But the risks, as well as the preconditions game, run in both directions. Amid escalating sanctions and all the talk in the West about regime change, the Iranians have at least as much reason to be worried about the West stringing out negotiations while sanctions cause more damage and Iran grows weaker.

What is needed now are not precondition games but serious, broadly scoped negotiations. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta offered advice about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that certainly applies there but also to the differences between Iran and the West: “Just get to the damn table.”

Image: IleMaurice

TopicsEuropean UnionUNNuclear Proliferation RegionsIsraelIranPalestinian territories

International and Interplanetary Relations

Paul Pillar

A feature article in Monday's New York Times reports that an effort at a radio astronomy observatory in California to search for extraterrestrial intelligent life has recently resumed operations after a gap caused by a funding shortfall. The article cites the conclusions of some scientists involved in the search that, based on the discoveries of planets orbiting stars other than our sun, there are likely to be many civilizations, maybe thousands, in our galaxy. The idea of finding and contacting intelligent beings outside our world has always had fascination on several dimensions, from the astronomical and biochemical to the philosophical and poetical. As a political scientist, I think about questions involving the interaction of polities. What political issues may arise if the international system that we have always regarded as embracing everything and everybody is suddenly only a subset, confronting entities outside that system?

For example, who in such a situation should speak for the Earth? The scientists doing the searching probably would have the first opportunity to speak, but why should they be allowed to take the lead in any subsequent dialogue? That would be sort of like letting technicians who manage a diplomatic cable system determine the substance of what the United States says to foreign states. Should the political authority in whatever state hosts the contact effort (right now that would be the United States) have the right to determine what is said to the beings in another world? If not, who would have that right? If we receive a message equivalent to “take me to your leader,” what should be the response? Should the extraterrestrials be patched in to a meeting of the United Nations Security Council? Or how about a G-20 summit?

Perhaps we can draw lessons from instances in our own world's history of systems that were formerly thought of as the whole shebang but then, with more interaction with those outside the system, collectively became an entity participating in a larger shebang. Most Europeans long thought of power politics as chiefly involving interaction with other Europeans, but now the European Union is an entity playing in a larger system. Possibly even more instructive would be historical episodes in which interaction began with an outsider so unknown and foreign to previous experience that he may as well have come from outer space. The improbable conquest of Mexico by Hernan Cortes depended on divisions among the tribes in that land and a belief among Aztecs that he represented a long-anticipated deity. We on earth are divided today and vulnerable because of that. What could keep us from suffering the same fate as Native Americans in Mexico?

Of course, any dialogue with an extraterrestrial civilization currently seems so remote that the whole subject perhaps can be safely left to the astronomers for now. Those astronomers are still just looking for some indication of a narrow-band signal, as the first step in searching for a signal with artificially made and intelligible content. But it may be a useful thought experiment to consider how we would respond to some of these questions. Thinking about how we would represent the interests of the Earth and its inhabitants as a whole might help in finding reasonable solutions to some of our earthbound problems, even if an extraterrestrial is not listening in.

Image: Kathleen Franklin

TopicsEuropean UnionGlobal CommonsHistorySpace RegionsUnited StatesMexico

Foolish Suspicion of Political Islam

Paul Pillar

As Arab countries and especially Egypt continue to struggle their way into a new and hopefully more democratic political order, a persistent theme in commentary in the United States about this story has been suspicion of any political actor identified with political Islam. Some such actors warrant such suspicion. There is, for example, Abdel Hakim Belhadj, head of the Tripoli military council in Libya. Belhadj is also a founding member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which the United States still officially lists as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. Belhadj stresses his focus on overthrowing Muammar Qaddafi's regime, but his career as an international jihadist has involved violent activities elsewhere, especially South Asia. Someone like Belhadj deserves suspicion—not because he is Islamist but because of his history.

Now consider the history of the political Islamist actor that probably is receiving more attention than any other these days: the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. That history is one of decades of remarkable forbearance and endurance in the face of different degrees of repression by different Egyptian regimes. The Brotherhood has a long record of commitment to nonviolence—a record that has made it the target of vehement denunciation by the likes of al-Qaeda. What is there about the Brotherhood, beyond its Islamist coloration, that should make it any more the object of suspicion than other parties, movements and groups vying for influence in a new Egypt? How else should it have behaved to make us less suspicious?

Ask also why parties such as the Brotherhood (or more properly, the Freedom and Justice Party, which is the Brotherhood's political arm) that have an Islamic identity should be viewed differently from parties with some other religious identity. Christian democratic parties have been an accepted part of the political mainstream in many European countries. How are Christian democratic parties different from Muslim democratic ones? It is easy to think of religiously identified political parties that have caused problems—for stability, for sound policy and for democracy itself—but they are not just Islamist ones. In important respects, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party in India, for example, has not been good news for peaceful communal relations in that country, just as some religiously identified Jewish parties in Israel have not been good news for any hope of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

David Pollock of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy had an opinion piece in the Washington Post on Friday that exemplifies the automatic suspicion that gets directed at a group such as Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, which is the subject of his article. Pollock wants to warn us about falling for what he describes as “new signs of moderation” by the Brotherhood, which is a misleading formulation by Pollock given that what is new is not the direction of the Brotherhood but instead the political environment in which it is now operating. The main substance of the piece involves comparing what the Brotherhood says on Arabic and English language versions of its websites. Some subjects that get significant attention on one version do not on the other. There are not inconsistencies, just differences in attention and emphasis. Pollock concedes that “some might note that all political parties, to at least an extent, engage in mixed messaging.” Well, that's for sure. In fact, the Brotherhood's mixed messaging that he describes seems pretty mild compared to, say, Republican candidates' English and Spanish language advertising in Florida.

Pollock takes other whacks at the Brotherhood for things that really reflect larger political realities in present-day Egypt. He mentions the organization's position on the issue of “supraconstitutional” guarantees of individual freedoms, which is really part of the overall balance that all Egyptian political players need to struggle with in trying to combine the liberal and democratic parts of liberal democracy. In fact, the Brotherhood's position could be said to be the most uncompromising prodemocracy position. Pollock also portrays an escalating set of Brotherhood ambitions about what offices it hopes to occupy as if this were some kind of hidden plan, whereas it is best described as a logical response to the organization's popularity and conformity with the beliefs of other Egyptians. That conformity is what is involved in Pollock's inaccurate reference to “the Brotherhood's hostility toward U.S. policies and interests.” He cites as support for that phrase a section in the Freedom and Justice Party's platform that rejects the Mubarak regime's approach of “supporting occupiers and colonizers, through its presence in the so-called axis of moderation, which is sponsored by the United States.” This doesn't reflect any peculiar position on the part of the Brotherhood. It reflects views held by most of the Egyptian people, who still give the United States favorable ratings of only about 20 percent. The problem is not that an Egyptian party reflects those views; the problem is with the occupiers and colonizers, and with the groundless idea that support for occupation and colonization could be the basis for some kind of moderate axis in the Middle East.

Arguments such as Pollock's partly reflect attitudes of the Israeli government, which (contrary to Israel's own long-term interests) fears Arab democracy, especially in Egypt, more than it welcomes it. More democracy means more outspoken opposition to Israeli policies, more attention to the absence of popular sovereignty for Palestinians and less claim by Israel to getting extraordinary treatment by the United States because it is the “only democracy” in the region. Beyond this influence, it is hard to imagine such arguments based on anything other than Islamophobia. As a test of that proposition, consider what the arguments would sound like if the organization in question (i.e., the Brotherhood) were associated with any religion other than Islam.

These attitudes and arguments matter as an encouragement to possible U.S. policies that would be damaging to U.S. interests. Ostracism or rejection of movements that have remained peaceful, have played by democratic rules when they have had the opportunity to play by them and have garnered substantial popular support would be a mistake, especially insofar as the rejection was for no other reason than the Islamist coloration of the groups. It would be a mistake partly because it would be antidemocratic. It would be an encouragement to abandon democratic methods. It would hinder important U.S. relationships with important countries such as Egypt. And it would put the United States on the wrong side of what is going on in the Middle East.

Image: Maggie Osama

TopicsDemocracyPublic OpinionReligion RegionsIsraelEgypt

Jeffersonian Exceptionalism

Paul Pillar

The American exceptionalism that has become an unchallengeable part of political discourse in the United States has taken on substantive trappings that are not at all intrinsic to the concept that America is indeed an exceptional place. Those trappings include a sense that some principles and rules of international relations somehow do not apply to the United States. They often include an attitude that the United States can do right but no wrong. There is often a disdain for any need to understand, much less to accommodate, the interests, perceptions, and feelings of non-Americans. There is a tendency to see the United States as an indispensable player in sundry matters around the globe. And there usually is the belief that because American values and institutions are superior to anyone else's, they are readily applicable to non-Americans, who will readily accept and understand them.

The politically unchallengeable aspect of exceptionalism makes it a tool to use (more often by the Right than by the Left) against anyone arguing for careful foreign policies that pay due regard to conflicting interests and to limitations that apply even to the United States. Use of the tool puts the opponent on the defensive. It would be political poison to be suspected of not believing fully that the United States is exceptional.

The trappings ought to be stripped away from the core concept of America indeed being a special place. Robert Merry has discussed the importance of distinguishing exceptionalism from the idea that American values are univerally applicable. I have described how some of the attitudes and beliefs that accompany the version of exceptionalism commonly expressed today have underlain trouble that the United States has gotten itself into overseas.

Fortunately there is a version of exceptionalism that has long standing in American political thought, that views American values and institutions as just as special as anyone else views them, and is not burdened with the unhelpful latter-day trappings. This version is at the center of the American political tradition that Walter Russell Mead, in his splendid book Special Providence, labels as Jeffersonian. Jeffersonians, writes Mead, “believe that the specific cultural, social, and political heritage of the United States is a special treasure to be conserved, defended, and passed on to future generations.” Foreign policy has much to do with that conservation and defense: “To capitalize on that rare and precious opportunity to build a free country was the highest aim of Jeffersonian domestic policy; to preserve that sanctuary and that revolution has been and remains the highest aim of Jeffersonian statecraft in international relations.” As for universality, Jeffersonians believe that the United States could better serve the cause of democracy beyond its borders “by setting an example rather than imposing a model.”

The Jeffersonian importance on taking extra care to preserve the special phenomenon of American liberal democracy leads to appropriate caution in determining what the United States should and should not try to accomplish abroad. There are two basic dangers in foreign policy as Jeffersonians see it. One of them, in Mead's words, consists of “those things that foreign countries may do to us that threaten our liberties directly.” From much discourse today one might conclude this is the only type of danger. But “there are also, perhaps more dangerous, the things we may do to ourselves as we seek to defend ourselves against others, or even as we seek to advance our values abroad.” There is much recent history that could illustrate that second danger, from warrantless wiretaps to Abu Ghraib. And besides the damage we can do to ourselves, there is also the problem of picking fights and postulating threats in a way that needlessly encourages others to damage us. “Define your interests as narrowly as possible,” advise the Jeffersonians, "and you will have the fewest possible grounds for quarrels with others." 

Advocates of prudent foreign policies that reflect such advice need yield no ground to self-declared tub-thumping exceptionalists of today. They just have to dig down deeper into American political traditions and remind people of what has long been at the core of what makes the United States genuinely special.

TopicsDemocracyDomestic PoliticsHistoryPolitical Theory RegionsUnited States

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 (“...is 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

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