Paul Pillar

The Cleaving of Palestine

Paul Pillar

Those wanting to keep discussion about the Palestinian territories off the front pages have mostly been successful during the two years since a lethal encounter at sea between Israeli forces and a Turkish-based flotilla attempting to break the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. Just enough international outrage followed that incident to lead Israel to relax somewhat its strangulation of the strip. This was especially true regarding the import of items into Gaza, which previously had been severely restricted—in the name of “security,” although the blockade included a host of consumer items with no conceivable security implications. Despite that relaxation, as reporting by Donald Macintyre describes, Israel is still stifling the Gazan economy. This is particularly the case with exports, which are at less than two percent the level of more than five years ago. The Israelis are permitting only extremely limited exports, mostly of produce, to a few European and Middle Eastern markets. They have cut off would-be Gazan exporters from what had been by far their biggest markets, in Israel and the West Bank. This completely reverses what had once been an Israeli policy of encouraging economic integrating across Israel and the occupied territories.

To the extent that the strangulation of the Gaza Strip has been a form of collective punishment intended to undermine the rule there of Hamas, it has manifestly failed. Hamas is as firmly entrenched there as at any time since it won a free all-Palestinian election in 2006. Moreover, some of the very restrictions that Israel continues to impose have probably strengthened rather than weakened Hamas. Many goods and materials that Israel bans as imports into Gaza simply come in through tunnels from Egypt, enriching tunnel operators with ties to Hamas. The severe restrictions Israel places on foreign travel by Gazans also probably do Hamas a favor by limiting the sorts of foreign ideas and contacts that might ultimately weaken support for the group.

The Israeli postures toward the remaining parts of the blockade and toward Hamas itself are clearly not all about security. Israeli military officers admit privately that as far as rocket firings into Israel are concerned, Hamas has in recent times primarily been a force curtailing the firings (by smaller militant groups). As for the severe restrictions on exports, Macintyre relates the story of one of the lucky few Gazan producers who with much difficulty has gotten permission to sell some of his goods (in his case tomatoes) outside the strip. He trucks the tomatoes in question through Israel and the West Bank and across the Allenby Bridge into Jordan, from which they are shipped to Saudi Arabia. To do this he has to meet all of the stringent security checks and requirements imposed by the Israeli military. Obviously there would be no more of a hazard to Israeli citizens if the tomatoes were eaten by consumers in Israel or the West Bank than if they are consumed in Saudi Arabia. Something else is going on here.

For Israeli leaders seeking to put off indefinitely a Palestinian state and the associated yielding of land in the West Bank, having Hamas to fulminate about serves a useful purpose. The terrorist card can always be played as a rationale for political and diplomatic inflexibility. By issuing threats against the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority whenever it makes any move toward reconciliation with Hamas, Israel helps to sustain a fissure in Palestinian leadership that in turn is a basis for justifying still more inflexibility on grounds that Israel doesn't have a Palestinian interlocutor who can speak for all Palestinians. So from the standpoint of such Israeli leaders, policies toward the Gaza Strip that may actually help Hamas are not necessarily a bad thing.

The chief consequence of the remaining export restrictions is to add to the political division an ever-deepening economic and social division between Palestinians. Preventing the selling of Gazan goods in the West Bank is part of a huge wedge that Israel is driving between the two parts of the Palestinian territories. The longer that businesses struggling to survive are separated from their traditional markets, the less likely that old patterns of commerce will ever be reestablished. With Gazan professionals prevented even from attending meetings in the West Bank, Gazan students barred from attending universities there and travel of any sort between the two Palestinian territories extremely restricted, Palestinian nationhood is being sliced apart.

All of this is at odds, of course, with a future that would involve the establishment of a Palestinian nation-state. The cleaving of Palestine, like the construction and expansion of Israeli settlements in occupied territory, is another way of establishing facts on the ground that make a viable Palestinian state less feasible and the negotiated establishment of one more difficult.

The current Israeli treatment of the Gaza Strip is more consistent with a future that is a modified version of the status quo, the modification having to do with events in Egypt. Despite additional Israeli fulminations about Islamist ascendancy in post-Mubarak Egypt, a dominant role for the Muslim Brotherhood—which will be all the more apparent if Mohamed Morsi wins the Egyptian presidential election—presents further possibilities for any Israeli vision involving an indefinitely fractured Palestinian nation. A Gaza Strip controlled by Hamas—which began as a Palestinian offshoot of the Brotherhood—will naturally gravitate toward a Brotherhood-dominated Egypt as long as it is denied other directions in which to gravitate. And that means even more separation from Palestinian brethren in the West Bank.

For Israeli leaders who do not want to give up land for a Palestinian state, this alternative of a riven Palestine may appear to be a way to square the often-noted demographic circle in which faster-reproducing Palestinian Arabs are on the verge of outnumbering Israeli Jews. That demographic prognosis pertains to all of mandatory Palestine between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. But the Gaza Strip is a a 139-square-mile patch of misery that Israelis have been less interested in than the rest, apart from the few Israeli settlers whom Ariel Sharon was able to remove when he evacuated the strip several years ago. Most Israelis probably would be happy for Gaza to be Egypt's problem, as it was before 1967. Strip away the strip from mandatory Palestine, and you also strip away 1.7 million Arabs, allowing Jewish Israelis to retain their majority in the rest for a much longer time. This does not imply that a fully binational state is in the future of the Jews and Arabs concerned. But for some Israeli leaders it may make indefinite perpetuation of the current apartheid arrangement appear more feasible.

Image: cromacon

TopicsCivil SocietyEconomic DevelopmentHuman RightsTradePost-ConflictTerrorism RegionsIsraelEgyptPalestinian territories

Conservative Foreign Policy, Then and Now

Paul Pillar

Anthropologists have only partially constructed the evolutionary paths of modern mankind and of human species that have died out. There is not necessarily direct progression from known species of one era to those of a later one. The same is true of the varieties of homo politicus americanus, even though the fossil record is more complete because it is more recent. Contributing to confusion is the application of similar labels to very different sub-species at different times. Such thoughts arise in reading Jacob Heilbrunn's insightful commentary on the revisiting of the Richard Nixon story by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. As Heilbrunn correctly points out, it was the Right and not just the Left that distrusted Nixon, with backward-looking liberals having perhaps more reason than conservatives to remember favorably many of Nixon's policies. But the meaning of Right and Left in the United States has changed significantly since Nixon's time.

The lineage of the conservative opposition to Nixon included Senator Everett Dirksen, who when nominating the conservative Robert Taft at the 1952 Republican convention pointed down at Thomas Dewey and said, “Don't take us down the path to defeat again.” It included Barry Goldwater telling conservatives at another Republican convention eight years later—conservatives who were not happy about Nixon getting the presidential nomination—to “grow up” if they wanted to take control of the party. It included Goldwater's winning of the nomination four years after that, Ronald Reagan's primary challenge in 1976 to Nixon's successor Gerald Ford, and Reagan's eventual electoral triumph in 1980.

But any ancestral lines from Reagan to the Right of today are at best tenuous and muddled. On many domestic and fiscal policies, it is hard to see any lines at all. According to former Reagan adviser Bruce Bartlett, Reagan's tax increases, which he endorsed in return for spending cuts, totaled the equivalent of $367 billion in current dollars. This past weekend Jeb Bush commented that both his father—Reagan's vice-president and successor—and Reagan himself would have had a hard time winning a nomination from today's Republican Party.

On foreign policy, it is misleading to describe Reagan's approach, as Heilbrunn does, as having “essentially repudiated the Nixon-Kissinger approach to foreign affairs by substituting a combination of the old rollback doctrine and neoconservative anticommunism.” Reagan's underlying assumptions about the USSR had something in common with those of George Kennan, in that they both foresaw the crumbling of the Soviet system from within due to that system's inherent weaknesses. Reagan did give the process a nudge by declaring an arms race, knowing the United States could always outspend the Soviets. There also were proxy wars, but they were much less a factor in the eventual crumbling. Stoking the Afghan insurgency may have been partially an exception, but that started as a project of Zbigniew Brzezinski and Jimmy Carter, whom no one can accuse of being neoconservatives. There was nothing in Reagan's policies anything like the neoconservative trademark—seen most clearly with the Iraq War—of trying to use U.S. military force to inject American values directly into benighted foreign lands ruled by loathed regimes.

Like Nixon and Kissinger, Reagan engaged with the chief foreign adversary of the day. And as with Barack Obama, a long-term (beyond any one presidency) objective of that engagement was the eventual abolition of nuclear weapons. Some of the senior figures in Reagan's administration—though not Secretary of State George Shultz—did not seem to believe Reagan really envisioned a nuclear-weapons-free world, and in any case did not accept that objective themselves. Cold Warriors such as Caspar Weinberger and William Casey seemed content, or even anxious, to wage that war forever.

In the two decades since the presidencies of Reagan and the elder Bush, a different subspecies, now bearing the label “conservative,” has evolved and has come to dominate a major portion of the American political environment. It is markedly different from previously dominant creatures who carried the same label as recently as twenty-five years ago, although one can find bits of genetic material from the likes of Weinberger or Casey.  The curious disjunction between the elder George Bush and the younger George Bush epitomizes the remarkable transition involved. Political anthropologists still have a lot of work to do in helping us to understand the evolution of this newer breed. Some attributes of the breed, such as a close link to revealed religion and a fixation on matters of the pelvis, may be rooted in larger societal trends or be reactions to those trends.

This political evolution can be considered part of an overall rightward lurch in American politics, but some of the most important characteristics involved cannot best be described in right-vs.-left terms. There are, for example, certain uses of the imperial presidency, with regard to which, as Heilbrunn aptly puts it, “next to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, Nixon was a piker.” Perhaps the most salient set of characteristics comprises a self-righteousness, an associated denial of legitimacy to political opponents, and a further associated resistance to compromise. These were the characteristics to which Jeb Bush was referring when he observed that Reagan, “based on his record of finding would my dad” would have had difficulty winning acceptance amid “an orthodoxy that doesn't allow for disagreement, doesn't allow for finding some common ground.” Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, in their recent work on dysfunction in the American political system, put it succinctly and bluntly:

The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.

The contrast between old and new is just as stark between some present-day Congressional leadership and Everett Dirksen, who as Republican leader in the Senate—although he was a strong conservative on fiscal matters—worked closely and effectively with his Democratic counterparts and also was a key source of support for major aspects of Lyndon Johnson's foreign policy.

The attributes of the new breed of conservatism have major implications for the foreign policy postures of today, including the positions of this year's presumptive Republican presidential nominee. The self-righteousness and resistance to compromise show through. Those positions include unbridled confidence in the all-purpose efficacy of U.S. military power, spending to expand that power substantially without regard to either specific uses of that power or fiscal implications, acceptance of permanent conflict with adversaries (including even the legacy Cold War adversary, Russia), rejection of engagement with adversaries, and contracting out a major portion of U.S. foreign policy to the government of Israel. (“The actions that I will take will be actions recommended and supported by Israeli leaders.”) This is very different not only from what Richard Nixon did but also from what conservatives who opposed Nixon favored.

TopicsCongressDomestic PoliticsDefenseHistoryIdeologyThe PresidencyPolitical EconomyReligionState of the Military RegionsIsraelRussiaUnited States

Leaky Thinking About Secrecy

Paul Pillar

The leadership of the House and Senate intelligence committees issued a joint statement Wednesday that expressed concern over recent leaks of information about sensitive activities overseas, called on the executive branch to do more to detect and deter leaks, and declared an intention to consider new legislation that somehow would help to combat leaking. The committees summoned Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and FBI director Robert Mueller to discuss the matter on Thursday, and there is talk about the possible need for a special counsel. I wish the committees well. If anyone has any good ideas for new procedures or penalties to ameliorate the problem, bravo. But as the committee leaders put it with understatement, “the problem of leaks of classified information is not new.” The sad fact is that most leaks are inherently difficult to investigate and police. Meanwhile, the revelations and accusations that stimulated this statement involve some misconceptions about government secrecy and some unhelpful conflation of different issues.

Even though Democratic and Republican leaders agreed on the committee statement, the issue of recent revelations about national-security matters has been, like just about everything else in Washington, politicized. With a Democratic administration in office, it has been the Republicans' turn to accuse the administration of disclosing national-security accomplishments as a way of burnishing President Obama's public image in an election year—which the president forcefully denied in comments to reporters on Friday. The previous Republican administration was no stranger to politically motivated disclosure, the most notorious example of which involved revelations about the identity and status of a covert CIA officer as part of an effort to discredit the message from her retired ambassador husband, who had written publicly about the phoniness of one aspect of the Bush administration's public brief about Iraq.

In one of the recent cases, the Obama administration held a conference call with outside commentators about a foiled terrorist plot but failed to inform the intelligence committees about the plot until after it was reported in the media. This was an embarrassing misstep that no doubt accounts for the Democratic as well as Republican leaders signing on to the sort of statement the intelligence committees released.

Public revelations reflect a highly selective slice of national-security matters, but the selection is often not a matter of puffery about an administration's accomplishments or other high-level manipulation. Failures are more likely than successes to become publicly known, given the inherently more visible public footprint of many failures. And many more revelations reflect the personal agenda (or neuroses, or resentments) of an individual leaker.

The fact that leaks reflect the individual agendas of misfits or anyone else with the moxie to violate the rules is one reason that leaks are bad. They have nothing to do with public accountability, or at least any form of accountability that is sufficiently orderly and dedicated to the nation's interest to be worthy of that term. Meanwhile, there is all the other damage that is caused to work performed on behalf of national security, from impeding the conduct of diplomacy to blowing sensitive military or intelligence operations. And yet, leakers sometimes get viewed as laudable whistle-blowers. Maybe the traditional American aversion to secrecy among their rulers has something to do with it.

The interests of the press, for which leaks are lifeblood, have a lot to do with it. The press's dependence on leaks naturally affects the way the press treats leaks as a subject of its reporting. A front-page piece by Scott Shane of the New York Times about secrecy brands as “inconsistency” and “contradictory behavior” the aggressive prosecution of leakers by the administration led by Mr. Obama, who while a candidate denounced his predecessor's secret prisons and coercive interrogation techniques. There is nothing contradictory or inconsistent about it. The use of torture should not have been a private prerogative of the executive branch, but the proper and most reliable check against this is oversight by the people's representatives in Congress, not the random initiative of some disgruntled rule-breaker. A problem was that the briefings on this subject by the Bush administration were so constricted that proper oversight was impeded.

There are serious issues of public accountability and policy direction that involve the matters that have been the focus of recent revelations. One involves targeted killings through the use of unmanned aerial vehicles. Although many details of such operations are appropriately kept secret—and random revelations of the details are not helpful—the public and the Congress still know too little about the criteria applied to such operations and the calculations about how they do or do not serve the variety of national interests at stake. Attention is needed not to juicy details but to higher-order policy (and legal and moral) considerations.

Then there is the waging of cyberwar. Leaks of the sort that underlie David Sanger's remarkable reporting on this subject are also damaging, and to the extent the intelligence committee leaders' statement is a response to these particular leaks, it is an appropriate response. But cyberwar is war. That is how the United States treats it with respect to how responsibilities for it are organized in the Department of Defense. And war, of all things, should not be initiated and conducted as a private prerogative of the executive branch. To do so is a serious offense to our constitutional order.

The executive and legislative branches have a lot of work to do about these matters. Leakers have nothing to contribute to that work except more damage and confusion.

TopicsCongressDomestic PoliticsCyberwarMediaThe PresidencyTerrorism RegionsUnited States

The Selective Approach to Deterring Iran

Paul Pillar

Michael Eisenstadt and Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy have just published a monograph that addresses Iranian reactions to a possible Israeli military attack (or “preventive strike” as the subtitle misleadingly puts it) on Iran. They also comment on Iranian reactions to a U.S. strike. The piece contains some sharp analysis. It considers a wide range of possible Iranian responses. It notes many of the calculations that would probably enter into Iranian thinking about responding and that some of those calculations involve conflicting Iranian incentives and interests.

One impression one takes away from this paper—despite WINEP's soft-pedaling the message as showing that an Israeli military attack “would not be the apocalyptic event that some foresee”—is that the consequences would be very bad indeed. There is plenty of room for nasty stuff short of apocalypse, including ballistic-missile barrages, worldwide terrorist campaigns, naval disruptions in the Persian Gulf and other highly damaging things. This raises the question, which the paper does not address, of what could possibly be accomplished by precipitating such a mess. What is the horrible alternative whose avoidance would ever justify such actions (and would such action ever avoid it)?

That leads to a second overall impression, which is that Eisenstadt and Knights are very selective in what they do address. Start with what they say about the consequences of an Israeli or U.S. military strike. The authors focus on consequences that would be the direct result of actions by the Iranian regime. That certainly is a major part of the picture, and that alone would be bad enough. But it is only a part, and the authors blithely and quickly skate over all the other parts. There is, for example, the effect on the political equation inside Iran and the standing of the regime. Eisenstadt and Knights admit only the possibility of a “short-term nationalist backlash” and immediately suggest optimistically that Iranians “could” blame the regime for mishandling the nuclear issue. This dismissal flies in the face of much historical experience of both Iran and other nations that have been the targets of armed attack. Their suggestion is somewhat like saying that Americans could have blamed the Roosevelt administration for mishandling the Japanese oil-embargo issue in 1941. The dismissal also flies in the face of observations from Iranian oppositionists that an armed attack would be a political gift to regime hard-liners.

Then there are all the broader political consequences. Eisenstadt and Knights dismiss these by brushing aside a straw-man prediction that “Arabs would rise up in protest and shake the established order.” The principal concern for U.S. interests is not that but rather how hatred for the United States throughout much of the Muslim world would be stoked by another instance in which the United States or its close confederate Israel was seen as using military might to kill more Muslims. The authors say nothing about either that or the prospect of an attack helping to poison U.S. relations with generations of Iranians. Then there are the economic effects, which Eisenstadt and Knights only hint at with a reference to Iranian actions in the Persian Gulf aimed at keeping “insurance rates and oil prices up.” They do not explore the vast economic damage that underlies those few words.

Another omission is any reference to the fact that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon and—according to the judgment of the U.S. intelligence community—has not so far decided to make one. All the damaging consequences, far from being “preventive,” would instead be very likely to stimulate the very step—Iran constructing a nuclear weapon—that supposedly we want to prevent. Eisenstadt and Knights implicitly admit this by discussing a “clandestine crash weapons program” as a possible Iranian response. In one of their more inventive argumentative twists, they try to turn this into a reason that Iran might moderate its other responses. Their idea is that Iran would calculate that it would have a harder time obtaining the “special materials and equipment” for its nuclear program if it retaliated in ways that “further alienated its few remaining friends.” Even if it were plausible that an Iran that had just suffered an armed attack would be fine-tuning friendships in that particular way, the obvious question is: What about all those international sanctions already aimed at crippling Iran's nuclear program? And why would an armed attack be needed, or even helpful, in getting those sanctions to work?

A fundamental topic that Eisenstadt and Knights do not address, beyond a curt dismissal in a footnote, is what difference an Iranian nuclear weapon would make—to Iranian behavior, to peace and stability in the Middle East, or to anything else. As I and some others have observed, what has passed for an argument that an Iranian nuke would be a horrible eventuality (something that most often is just taken for granted) consists chiefly of litanies of things that a nuclear-armed Iran “could” do—in other words, worst-case speculation. This contrasts with the tendency of some of the same purveyors of such speculation to present best-case pictures of the consequences of going to war against Iran. Eisenstadt and Knights try to turn the tables on such observations by titling their paper “Beyond Worst-Case Analysis” and asserting at the outset that “many independent analysts offer what can only be described as worst-case assessments” of the consequences of an attack and that “these analysts almost invariably offer best-case assessments for a policy of deterrence and containment,” with a footnote citation to works by Bruce Riedel and myself. Readers can judge for themselves, but in the article of mine they reference I explicitly distinguished between the worst possible consequences of going to war and the most likely consequences. I wrote that “no one knows what the full ramifications of such a war with Iran would be,” paralleling Eisenstadt and Knights's apt comment that “prudence dictates modesty when attempting to predict the behavior of states embroiled in armed conflict, where uncertainty and the law of unintended consequences rule.” What I had to say about likely Iranian responses was quite consistent with much of what Eisenstadt and Knight present, although I discussed further the broader political and economic repercussions that they gloss over.

What I wrote in the same cited article about the consequences, or nonconsequences, of an Iranian nuke eschewed the “could” mode of discourse that worst-casers and best-casers are so fond of using and instead examined the strategic realities and calculations that Tehran would actually face. The analysis in this respect was similar to the better and more careful aspects of Eisenstadt and Knights's presentation about the choices that Tehran would face in a post-attack environment. The authors would need to engage that analysis before being justified in dismissing it, but they never do.

A major aspect of why an Iranian nuke would not be a destabilizing game-changer—or to borrow WINEP's phrase, “would not be the apocalyptic event that some foresee”—is deterrence. In this regard, it is interesting to note how much reliance Eisenstadt and Knights place on deterrence in their arguments about why Tehran's responses to an armed attack would be moderated. Indeed, they list “deterring Iranian retaliation against U.S. interests” after an attack on Iran as their number-one policy priority. In doing so, they contribute to the glaringly inconsistent treatment of deterrence in discourse about Iran. Deterrence of Iran with a nuclear weapon frequently gets described as far too thin a reed to lean on when facing ideologically crazed mullahs, but after the Iranians become targets of armed attack, they somehow become such calm and cautious decision makers that deterrence can be relied on greatly. Vast historical experience indicates that to the extent that decision making behavior may be this inconsistent, the inconsistency would be in the opposite direction; being on the receiving end of an armed attack is the very circumstance most likely to lead calmness and restraint to evaporate.

Scholars and commentators are entitled to select their topics and define the scope of those topics as they wish. I have had the frustration, in writing on other subjects, of facing criticism along the lines of “but you didn't talk about such-and-such,” when the only appropriate response was, “that's not the topic I was addressing.” I try to select and define topics, however, in a way that fills gaps and helps to correct imbalances and distortions in existing discourse. Eisenstadt and Knights have some useful things to say about the Iranians' options and likely thinking if they ever get attacked by Israel or the United States. More attention to the consequences of such an attack is certainly needed. But in their selection of what to emphasize and what to dismiss or ignore, they have exacerbated rather than lessened the distortions in current discourse about Iran.

Image: marsmet544

TopicsIdeologySanctionsNuclear Proliferation RegionsIsraelIranUnited States

Doing Something About Syria

Paul Pillar

International anguish over bloodletting in Syria has come close to the point at which urges to “do something” about the situation there (something more forceful, that is, than supporting Kofi Annan's diplomacy) may outweigh any sober consideration of whether there is something useful to do. The grisly events at Houla have provided the most recent boost to the urges. Leaders in Europe, and not just politicians and pundits in the United States, have lately been talking increasingly about external intervention.

Having political support to do something, or anything, forceful or risky in Syria does not mean that there is indeed something to be done that would have a good chance of either stemming the bloodshed or ushering in a more agreeable regime in Damascus. There still are no good options on Syria. The same sorts of questions that could be asked months ago remain important and unanswered today. The fact that the Free Syrian Army is not really an army but an unorganized collection of local fighting groups poses a host of uncertainties about the consequences of facilitating the shipment of arms to those groups. Additional questions concern the likely calculations and responses of the Assad regime and those most dependent on its continuation if they see no alternative but a fight to the death. Still more questions concern the nature of any successor to that regime. As unsatisfying as it may sound, White House spokesman Jay Carney's observation that “militarization of the situation in Syria at this point . . . would lead to greater chaos, greater carnage” is probably the best starting point for formulating policy toward that situation.

A recent urging, with a twist, for a substantial arming of Syrian oppositionists comes from Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute—the twist being that Pletka argues that such a move would not only be good policy but also “good politics for Obama the candidate.” One is entitled to ask whether this is intended as some kind of setup, laying the groundwork for later accusations that a more forceful turn in Obama's policies was only a desperation move in the midst of a reelection campaign. Setting aside such suspicions, Pletka probably is correct that more forceful actions on Syria, by responding to the strengthening urges to do something, would be politically popular at least in the short term, before we saw additional chaos and carnage in Syria. But short-term political advantage would of course be an entirely unjustifiable reason to make such a move.

Pletka's elaboration of her argument about political advantage reveals how weak the part of her contention is that injecting more arms into Syria would make strategic sense. She says the move ought to appeal to Obama as an “un-Bush” way of “allowing others to fight a war that America wishes won”—presumably a contrast with the Bush way of committing a large American force to fight a long and costly war, as in Iraq. But the rest of her argument is a continuation of the same patterns of neoconservative thinking that led to Bush's war. There is the same wishful thinking substituting for careful analysis about consequences, such as in talk about how shipments of arms “may finally give the edge to the opposition” and “coax more significant defections” from the regime's forces. There is the same assumption that the United States can stage-manage political change in the Middle East, as in references to how the administration “could work more closely with the Syrian political opposition to develop a blueprint for a transition.” There is the same assumption that the direction of U.S.-fomented political change always will be monotonically in a direction consistent with American values, as in talk about “the prospect of a U.S.-assisted democratic transition” and about how an arms-injection scheme would somehow “ensure” that moderate forces would take the helm in Syria. After seeing how false such assumptions turned out to be even with the commitment of large American army, it is a wonder to see them applied to the kind of “un-Bush” intervention being recommended.

Bloody situations such as Syria give rise to humanitarian impulses that tend to be contrasted with cold realpolitik. (Pletka gives a nod to this kind of thinking by asserting that Syria presents a “rare confluence of strategic and moral imperatives.”) We would do well to heed a recent statement about Syria by someone often seen (unfairly) as the dark prince of heartless realpolitik, Henry Kissinger:

Military intervention, humanitarian or strategic, has two prerequisites: First, a consensus on governance after the overthrow of the status quo is critical. If the objective is confined to deposing a specific ruler, a new civil war could follow in the resulting vacuum, as armed groups contest the succession, and outside countries choose different sides. Second, the political objective must be explicit and achievable in a domestically sustainable time period. I doubt that the Syrian issue meets these tests.

Particularly against the backdrop of some situations, such as Syria or Libya, that have arisen in the Middle East, some people divide policy analysts into those who are willing to do tough things to stand up to despicable, bloody-handed regimes and those who are not willing to do such things. A more illuminating and accurate division is between those who carefully think through consequences before acting on urges and those who do not carefully think through the consequences. The nation's interests, on Syria or on anything else, are better served by the careful-thinking approach.

Image: vpickering

TopicsDomestic PoliticsHumanitarian InterventionRogue States RegionsSyria

Ends and Means in Counterinsurgency

Paul Pillar

As the nation licks its wounds from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, an old and unfortunate confusion continues between military strategy and doctrine, on one hand, and questions of how applications of military force do or do not advance national interests, on the other hand. The latter questions are often put under the label of “grand strategy.” The current version of the confusion concerns counterinsurgency or COIN. There are a couple of reasons that COIN seems especially susceptible to this sort of thing.

One reason concerns how counterinsurgency doctrine has developed in recent years, who has developed it, and what role the developers have played in the recent wars. David Petraeus, who oversaw the writing of the army's current counterinsurgency manual and later was the top commander in Iraq and Afghanistan, has clearly been the central figure in all this. Participants in intraservice debate seem to divide into those who have been associated with Petraeus and those who have not, which in turn tends to be seen as a pro-COIN and anti-COIN division. This is the sort of situation in which intraservice politics, with all the personal resentments and ambitions involved, muddy the substance of any doctrinal debate.

The other reason is that politics plays into COIN at two different levels. One level involves the political objectives on behalf of which COIN might be used. The other level involves the application on the ground of counterinsurgency doctrine, in which the politics (and economics) of the host country's civilian population are as central to counterinsurgency as are lethal military operations. These are two very different respects in which politics are involved, but because it is politics in each case, there is the potential for confusion.

Colonel Gian Gentile of the U.S. Military Academy, with whom I expressed differences the other day about academic freedom and the ground rules under which retired general Stanley McChrystal is teaching at Yale, is reported to be one of the principal participants in a debate within the West Point over counterinsurgency—a debate that, by the way, is a good illustration of academic freedom at work. From an account of that debate by Elisabeth Bumiller in the New York Times, Colonel Gentile, who is cited as representative of the camp critical of COIN, seems to have a quite clear and reasonable conception of the relationship of policy and military strategy. “War ultimately is a political act,” he says, “and I take comfort and pride that we as a military organization...did our duty,” even if in his view the use of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan was a mistake. Another colonel at the academy, identified as representing a pro-COIN school of thought, is reported to argue that “warfare cannot be divorced from its political, economic and psychological dimensions.” Of course it can't, and at the level of on-the-ground implementation, that's what counterinsurgency is all about. But that is an entirely different question from the politically determined purpose that a nation such as the United States has tried to achieve through counterinsurgency, and whether COIN has indeed achieved that purpose. If the debate is framed in the way the Times article describes, then it is indeed confused.

One effect of such confusion is for military officers to needlessly assume responsibility for mistakes that were not theirs to make. Many politicians are only too happy to shift responsibility in this way. This attitude leads to talk about “listening to the generals.” When we would be listening to the generals on questions that the political authority must make, such talk is a cowardly cop-out.

The most trenchant summation of this set of issues in Bumiller's piece comes from retired army officer and former COIN practitioner John Nagl. He says “Yes” when asked if counterinsurgency works, but continues, “Is it worth what you paid for it? That's an entirely different question.” The key issue in decisions about how much of a COIN capability the United States should maintain is not whether the COIN doctrine is sound but instead how many occasions there will be in which even successful counterinsurgency would advance U.S. interests, bearing in mind the costs and trade-offs involved in each case.

TopicsCounterinsurgencyGrand StrategyMilitary Strategy RegionsAfghanistanIraqUnited States

The Hands-On Approach to Lethal Force

Paul Pillar

An illuminating feature article by Jo Becker and Scott Shane of the New York Times about the use of lethal missile strikes from unmanned aerial vehicles evokes memories of Lyndon Johnson personally approving the individual targets for bombing sorties against North Vietnam. President Obama, according to the article, signs off on each strike in Yemen and Somalia and on the “more complex and risky strikes” in Pakistan, or about a third of the missile strikes overall. Former navy admiral and director of national intelligence Dennis Blair mentioned an additional memory by critically comparing reliance on the drone strikes to the use of body counts in Vietnam.

Despite such echoes from a painful past war, and despite the legitimate concerns about use of the drones that Becker and Shane explore, their account is in another respect reassuring. It gives us the most extensive public picture so far of the process and criteria that go into each decision to kill someone by remote control from high altitude—and sometimes to kill others who are not the target but happen to be nearby. We still aren't getting to see the secret Justice Department memorandum that makes a legal case for using this method to kill U.S. citizens, as was done with the strike in Yemen last year that took out Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan. But we do read of White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan talking about how before each decision to fire a missile the president insists that his subordinates “go through a rigorous checklist: the infeasibility of capture, the certainty of the intelligence base, the imminence of the threat, all of these things.” Then there is the reassurance of knowing that the chief executive is directly involving himself in weighing the considerations that need to be weighed before the trigger is pulled. That is probably the best safeguard against overlooking the broader strategic factors that need to be taken into account at least as much as the narrow tactical one of taking a bad guy out of commission.

Some possible drawbacks of this presidential involvement come to mind. An obvious one is that the process is a drain on presidential time and attention. Another possible drawback, which parallels Blair's criticism about heavy reliance on the drones, is that by getting down in the weeds of individual target decisions, the president himself becomes more tactical and less strategic. This carries the associated risk of the drone strikes being increasingly equated with counterterrorism, the killing of men in Asian and African hinterlands being equated with keeping Americans safe from terrorism and our thinking starting to resemble the body-count mentality of the Vietnam War. On balance, however, an appropriately broad rather than narrow approach is more likely to be applied when this president—the former law-school professor who has evinced good awareness of the political and diplomatic repercussions overseas of the application of U.S. military force—makes the task one of detailed and careful analysis by himself.

The antithesis to this approach toward the use of lethal capabilities is provided by Mr. Obama's Republican challenger, and in ways that go beyond the obvious differences in what an incumbent president and a nonincumbent candidate can demonstrate. Mitt Romney has accused President Obama of not spending enough on the military. As Christopher Preble has noted in these spaces, Romney's “Fire. Ready. Aim” approach of pledging to devote at least 4 percent of the nation's GDP to the base defense budget would bring that spending to levels not seen since World War II and represent something like an additional $2.5 trillion in expenditures. But as inchoate as the financing is how all this military capability would be applied. Romney returned to his keep-the-military-strong theme in a speech on Memorial Day, in which he still did not address the matter of application.

In his speech, Romney mentioned countries that in his view make the world an unsafe place: bête-noir-du-jour Iran, of course, as well as Russia and China. He spoke of deterrence through strength but not of exactly what it is the United States would be deterring. Even more to the point, he has not explained how—bearing in mind that the United States currently spends far more on its military than any conceivable combination of foes put together—the difference between spending levels he favors and levels favored by Obama or anyone else would make any difference in being able or unable to deter a threat or do whatever else the United States would need to do with military force. This is not only not down in the weeds; it is not even hitting the treetops.

One of the legitimate concerns about the drone strikes is that they are coming to exhibit the “if I have a hammer then everything looks like a nail” syndrome. The same danger—as was exhibited in such a costly and tragic way by the Iraq War—is true on a larger scale of the overall military capability of the United States. Avoiding that danger, at the level of either a single weapon system or the nation's entire armed force, requires careful and detailed deliberation—including at the presidential level—of costs and risks as well as needs and benefits.

Postscript: The lead story on the front page of Wednesday's Washington Post is headlined: "Drone Strikes spur backlash in Yemen; Outrage over civilian casualties; Escalated U.S. campaign fuels support for al-Qaeda."  If the president of the United States were not already personally weighing the pros and cons of each prospective drone strike in Yemen, the reactions described in this article are a good reason to expect him to do so.  These reactions also are a reason the overall gain or loss to U.S. interests of the drone-based killing program would be a legitimate topic for discussion in the presidential campaign—if any candidate wanted to make it an issue.

Image: An Honorable German

TopicsDomestic PoliticsDefenseState of the MilitaryTerrorism RegionsChinaRussiaIranIraqUnited States

Predictable Responses to the Baghdad Talks

Paul Pillar

Responses to the negotiations last week between Iran and the P5+1 are falling into familiar patterns. The outcome of this round of talks could be discerned from what each side brought to the table on the first day. Iran had made it clear it was willing to make the key concession of ending enrichment of uranium to the worrisome 20-percent level but that it would expect something significant in return, with the obvious something being some relief from the ever-more-onerous sanctions that have been imposed on the country. Except for an offer of spare airplane parts, the P5+1 did not budge on sanctions. Although the entire record of what transpired over the conference table is not public, it appears the P5+1 have never indicated what Iran would have to do to gain any significant relief from sanctions. This silence, on top of the overall inflexibility of what they are hearing from their interlocutors, gives the Iranians ample reason to question the good faith of the other side and—especially amid all the talk about regime change and going to war—to wonder if, no matter what they do, all they can expect to face is pressure and more pressure.

The spinning that was well in evidence before the Baghdad talks continues, along with warped views of international negotiation that, whether or not they are part of intentional spinning, are badly mistaken. A good example is an editorial this weekend in the Washington Post. Titled in the print edition “Iran's Intransigence,” the editorial astoundingly asserts that “Tehran sought something for nothing,” completely ignoring the aforementioned facts about enrichment levels and sanctions. A further assertion is that the talks “failed to show that the regime of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has made a strategic decision to strike a bargain,” ignoring ample evidence to the contrary, from Khamenei's pronouncements about immorality of nuclear weapons to the Iranian negotiators' proposals to engage on a variety of matters of common concern in addition to the nuclear issue.

The editorial strikes the familiar theme about Iran not having a “right” under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to process uranium, as if not being an explicitly enumerated right is equivalent to being prohibited. Enrichment of uranium is not prohibited under the NPT, of course, and in more than a dozen other countries it is a major part of nuclear programs, including peaceful nuclear programs that are indeed a right under the treaty. (This is not to mention the production of plutonium by some of these same countries as well as others, including Israel.) There also is the familiar reference to United Nations Security Council resolutions on Iran's nuclear program. I wonder if the Iranian negotiators, while looking across the table at the P5 portion of the P5+1, mentioned how peculiar it is to use as a supposed legal reference actions that the P5 themselves took and that amount to a bill of attainder against Iran.

The editorial also includes the familiar theme that still more sanctions are needed to exert still more pressure on Iran, embodying the fallacy that if some pressure has helped elicit some concessions then more pressure will elicit more concessions, despite a paucity of concessions from the pressuring side. This line of thought is taken further in the all-too-familiar direction of calling something a negotiation but really treating it as coercion into submission. The editorial writers say acceptance of any Iranian enrichment at all should come “only at the end of a negotiating process”—i.e. after the other side has conceded everything we want. Even then, we should only “consider” accepting enrichment, and even then such a concession would be—in an indication of who is being allowed to set the limits in this whole endeavor—“probably unacceptable to Israel.”

Missing from all of this is one of the essential ingredients of successful negotiation, which is a full appreciation for the other side's perspective. One can find some of that elsewhere in the Post this past weekend, in David Ignatius's column—which in turn reflects some observations of Seyed Hossein Mousavian, the former Iranian negotiator who is now a visiting scholar at Princeton. “It's useful to view recent negotiating history through Iranian eyes,” says Ignatius:

Here’s what this optic reveals: In 2005 Khamenei removed his ban on negotiations with America; in 2009 Iran offered to export to the United States its uranium enriched to 20 percent, and it renewed this offer with greater specificity in 2010 and 2011; Iran accepted a Russian proposal last July to suspend further enrichment capacity and accept the International Atomic Energy Agency’s “additional protocol” for intrusive inspection. The Iranians think that they got nothing but more sanctions for these moves.

Ignatius correctly observes, “Successful diplomatic negotiations are always a process in which each side can claim some success, rather than one of demand and capitulation.” The apparent deafness to this on the P5+1 side has yielded an unsurprising result: “The more the West has tried to squeeze Iran, the more the Iranians have done precisely the things that infuriate the West.”

What can Iran do in the face of Western intransigence? Well, it can continue enriching uranium to 20 percent, as Iranian nuclear-program chief Fereydoon Abbasi stated on Sunday. And as we all know, Iran is capable of playing nastier versions of hardball. It plays the nasty version when others play it against Iran. Pertinent to this, the New York Times article about Abbasi's statement notes that Abbasi is “a former nuclear scientist who survived an assassination attempt two years ago that is believed to have been mounted by Israel.”

Now comes word of an alleged plot with Iranian connections to kill Americans, Israelis and Saudis in Azerbaijan. The lines of responsibility, including any possible connection to the Iranian regime, are very hazy, and we should be cautious in making anything of this. But if the Iranian regime was involved, the motives should not be difficult to figure out. The alleged Azerbaijani leader of the plot told investigators “that the planned attacks were intended as revenge for the deaths of the Iranian nuclear scientists, attacks that Iran has publicly linked to Israel and the United States.” Activity associated with the plot took place last year and evidently stopped this year as the nuclear negotiations neared. A Western diplomat commented, “What happens if the talks fail—that's anyone's guess.”

The behavior involved is not only infuriating to the West; some of it is deplorable. But as long as the West and Israel continue their current postures on the Iranian nuclear issue on which they have fixated, the behavior is also predictable.


TopicsUNInternational LawSanctionsNuclear Proliferation RegionsIsraelIranUnited States

General McChrystal and Academic Freedom

Paul Pillar

An opinion piece at The Atlantic by Gian Gentile, identified as a U.S. Army colonel who teaches history at West Point, offers one of the strangest interpretations of academic freedom I have seen. The subject is the teaching of a course at Yale by Stanley McChrystal, the retired U.S. Army general and former commander of forces in Afghanistan. Referencing a recent article in the New York Times about McChrystal's teaching gig at Yale, Colonel Gentile castigates what he describes as “Yale's extraordinary act” of imposing “special conditions” on students by treating McChrystal's classes as off the record. The colonel goes on to talk about accountability and to note proudly that cadets are free to take anything he says in his classes at West Point and to tell it to the world.

It is not entirely clear what the colonel fears is being said by the retired general in that closed classroom at Yale, but he seems to have a thing about counterinsurgency. He wonders whether portions of the Yale faculty have been “seduced by the 'better war' myth” and suggests that students who have “little personal knowledge of the true nature of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan” are getting hoodwinked. (By the way, Gentile does not note the Times article mentioning McChrystal's tendency to “wander into anecdotes about sensitive operations in Iraq and Afghanistan” as a reason for students being instructed not to repeat his remarks outside the classroom.)

“Extraordinary act”? “Special conditions”? These phrases caught my eye, given that I have kept off the record everything that is said in the university classes I have taught. I consider this important in facilitating the freest, most uninhibited discussion by students and instructor alike.

Incredibly, Gentile says that Yale's ground rules for McChrystal's classes “bend the dictates of academic freedom.” Quite the opposite. The Encyclopedia Britannica defines academic freedom as “the freedom of teachers and students to teach, study, and pursue knowledge and research without unreasonable interference or restriction from law, institutional regulations, or public pressure.” Keeping personal attribution of remarks from leaving the classroom is one of the best ways to safeguard that freedom—especially the part about freedom from public pressure. Public attribution opens one up to that type of pressure.

Accountability certainly is important, and the statement on academic freedom by the American Association of University Professors speaks about the responsibilities and “special obligations” of professors. Most universities achieve accountability in the quality and integrity of teaching through such means as student-written evaluations and in-class monitoring by university officials. Public attribution of in-class remarks is less likely to achieve accountability than to provide fodder for those with political agendas. The worst examples have been things like the McCarthy-like Campus Watch, which compiled “dossiers” on college professors deemed by the Campus Watch people to be too critical of Israel.

Personal experience has probably made me more attuned than Colonel Gentile to some of these dangers. Some ten years ago, while still a serving government official, I gave a guest lecture to a class at a different university from the one at which I would later teach. In illustrating a point in response to a question from a student, I made a brief and mildly critical reference to a single formulation in a presidential speech. A few days later, a garbled and inflated version of my comment appeared in a now-defunct right-wing publication under the headline “Senior Intelligence Official Blasts President's Speech.” The story was embellished further in subsequent retellings by others with a political agenda, especially editorial writers at the Wall Street Journal. By a couple of years later, in the midst of the 2004 presidential election campaign, the version being told was that I had given a “public speech” attacking the president's policies. And all this nonsense started with an attribution leaving the confines of a classroom.

Not just on university campuses—and not just with retired military officers teaching on campuses—the biggest threat to free and unbiased thought and discourse is not some bit of doctrine an instructor sneaks into a lecture in a closed classroom. A much bigger threat is the twisting and manipulation of what others have said, to advance a political cause and to intimidate or silence those who do not agree with the cause.

Image: Bluedogtn

TopicsCounterinsurgencyDomestic PoliticsMedia RegionsAfghanistanIraqUnited States

The Baghdad Talks and the Politics of Inflexibility

Paul Pillar

In looking at the state of play after a day of talks in Baghdad between Iran and the P5+1, one has to ask how much of what is impeding progress is the work of those having a stake in the negotiations failing and how much results from misunderstanding how international negotiations work. The public picture of what transpired across the table on Wednesday is incomplete, but evidently the principal sticking point is Western refusal so far to consider any relaxation of any of the sanctions already imposed on Iran. This refusal is being maintained despite Iran having made it clear it is willing to give up enrichment of uranium to the 20 percent level, a move that would get to the heart of what ostensibly is the main Western concern about how close Iran is to a nuclear-weapons capability. In return for this concession, the negotiators, led by the European Union's Lady Ashton, reportedly are dangling such tidbits as spare airplane parts and fuel rods for the Iranian reactor that produces medical isotopes. While those are not quite trivial throwaways, they pale in comparison with the sanctions, the lifting of which is the main reason Iran has to negotiate. And it is not as if incremental easing of the mountain of sanctions that have been piled up over the years would leave the P5+1 with no remaining pressure points as leverage over Iran. Far from it.

Maybe the P5+1 have something more in their pockets to reveal as talks continue. We should hope so. But as Iran has been brought to one side of table and shown increasing flexibility in recent weeks, the direction of those represented on the other side of the table—and in particular in the U.S. Congress—has been to pile on still more sanctions.

Do some of the people involved really believe that this is the way negotiations work? That rather than being give and take, it is all take and no give? That the way to induce the other side to make more concessions is to punish it when it shows flexibility?

I would not rule out that some really do have such a deeply flawed understanding of negotiations. Perhaps we are partly seeing a crude “more is better” perspective, in which it is believed that if sanctions elicited some concessions, then more sanctions are what is needed to elicit more concessions. And we have to look no farther than the House Republicans' approach to budget issues to see an all-take-and-no-give school of negotiation in action.

On balance, however, I believe what we are seeing reflected at the conference table in Baghdad is a matter less of ignorance about negotiations than of political submission by those who know quite well what they are doing. This includes, but is not limited to, those who want the talks to fail. The whole Iranian nuclear issue has attained the preoccupying status it has, after all, because of domestic U.S. politics and the role in those politics of a foreign government that has posited Iran's nuclear program as the defining threat of our time. Most American politicians have come to see as politically beneficial a line according to which pressure is the only proper posture toward Iran. Most American politicians see as politically dangerous support for any measure that could be described as making nice to Iran, regardless of how much such a measure might be necessary to achieve some other goal we supposedly are pursuing, such as avoidance of an Iranian nuclear weapon.

Possibly the non-U.S. components of the P5+1 will be able to show more flexibility than the United States, but the United States is the most important player on its side of the table, despite the E.U. chairmanship. Maybe we can hope for something more on a second day of talks. Maybe we have a better hope for something more in a second presidential term.


TopicsEuropean UnionDomestic PoliticsSanctionsNuclear Proliferation RegionsIsraelIranUnited States