Paul Pillar

Worst-Casing and Best-Casing Iran

Paul Pillar

The latest blurt in the campaign to launch a war with Iran can be found in the respected pages of that venerable organ of the foreign-policy establishment, Foreign Affairs. The article, by Matthew Kroenig, is so far removed from anything resembling careful analysis that one would hardly know where to start in inventorying its flaws. It has falsehoods: e.g. that “according to the IAEA, Iran already appears fully committed to developing a nuclear weapons program.” (Actually, what the IAEA reported was instead that “Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.”) It has fantasy scenarios to scare you, such as the hoary old specter of a regime giving nuclear technology to terrorists (notwithstanding that there is no evidence of such a thing happening in the more than six decades of the nuclear age, and no reason given by Kroenig or anyone else why Iran would ever have an incentive to do so). It has scattershot assertions that are sprayed at the reader with no apparent effort to paint a coherent picture, let alone an accurate one. For example, Kroenig addresses the effect that a U.S. attack would have on Iranian politics by first saying that hard-liners are so firmly in control that politics couldn't get any worse in Tehran anyway, then saying that a Rafsanjani or a Mousavi would continue the nuclear program (probably true of a peaceful program, but Kroenig is implying weapons), then saying an attack “might actually create more openings for dissidents,” then saying that even if an attack strengthened hard-liners this wouldn't really matter anyway—all within five sentences and with no reference to Iranian oppositionists' own belief that a U.S. attack would be one of the worst things that could happen to them.

You can save time in trying to make sense of this article by reading Stephen Walt's superb commentary on it. Walt captures succinctly the overall approach that characterizes not only Kroenig's piece but also the larger pro-war campaign of which it is typical. When addressing the consequences of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon, the war proponents worst-case everything—the discussion is all about the most frightening, most aggressive things that Iran could conceivably do and the most deleterious repercussions one could imagine. But when addressing the consequences of an attack on Iran, everything is best-cased. Nothing but the rosiest assumptions are made about Iranian reactions and other effects of launching a war.

This is not only a highly inconsistent mode of argumentation; it also presents a highly inconsistent picture of Iran. The same regime that if not attacked can be expected to do all sorts of highly aggressive things, according to Kroenig, turns into a calm paragon of caution, respectful of U.S.-declared “redlines,” once the United States starts waging war on it. The one further observation to add is that insofar as Iranian behavior over time might exhibit any such inconsistencies, it would be in the opposite direction from what Kroenig describes. Ample history demonstrates that having one's homeland become the target of an armed attack is the event most likely to lead even the most inward-looking and peace-loving nation to strike back forcefully. It is what happened to Americans with the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Kroenig's article, like other war-promoting pieces, never provides any analysis to support the oft-repeated notion, which Kroenig himself repeats, that possession of nuclear weapons would somehow lead to Iran behaving more aggressively in its region even if it never actually fired the weapons. Walt notes that nuclear weapons simply don't work that way. I have examined this particular question with regard to Iran. Rather than analysis, the notion of greater Iranian aggressiveness is supported by nothing more than a vague sense that somehow those nukes ought to make such a difference. Kroenig imparts a patina of Cold War respectability to some of his assertions by stating that Iran and Israel lack many of the “safeguards” that kept the United States and the USSR out of a nuclear exchange. But actually his piece ignores the rich and extensive body of strategy and doctrine developed during the Cold War that explains things like escalation dominance and that underlies Walt's correct observation about what nuclear weapons can and cannot do. Herman Kahn, the Cold War's foremost guru of escalation, would be rolling over in his sizable grave if he could see what passes for analysis in Kroenig's piece.

Walt concludes his commentary with an observation about how, in the face of all the anti-Iranian saber rattling in the United States, an Iranian could make a case to take violent pre-emptive action against Americans that would be at least as strong as Kroenig's case to take violent action in the other direction. Related to that is a further disturbing thought, or rather a question: how did mainstream discourse within the American foreign-policy establishment come to include proposals to launch a war of aggression? That is markedly contrary to what had been American tradition. Perhaps we are seeing yet another untoward effect of the Bush administration's tradition-breaking war of aggression against Iraq. Although that experience should have taught us not to listen to people who propose such wars, maybe it has instead inured Americans to such ideas. An armed attack against Iran of the sort that Kroenig is agitating for would be illegal and unprovoked. And to attack someone else's nuclear program because it supposedly would, in Kroenig's words, “limit U.S. freedom of action in the Middle East”—and, of course, would end Israel's nuclear weapons monopoly in the region—would be no more justified than Japan attacking a fleet that it saw as limiting its freedom of action in the Pacific.

TopicsDefenseHistoryInternational LawNuclear ProliferationRogue States RegionsIsraelIranJapanIraqUnited States

The Heavy Hand of Political Culture in Iraq

Paul Pillar

Just as the last U.S. troops in Iraq have rolled across the border into Kuwait, politics in Baghdad have been getting even uglier than usual. The sectarian divide between Sunni and Shia has manifested itself most recently in Prime Minister Maliki's Shia-dominated government charging a Sunni vice president with operating a death squad—charges the vice president says are trumped up. It's almost like some of the nastiness we have become accustomed to seeing between the Republican sect and the Democratic sect in the U.S. Congress.

Expect those who say that some U.S. forces should have been left longer in Iraq (notwithstanding the U.S.-Iraqi withdrawal agreement negotiated under the George W. Bush administration) to bring up periodically the political dysfunction in Baghdad and lament that this is what happens because their advice was not followed and we did not see through to completion the job of building a democracy in Iraq. In fact, U.S. troops would not ameliorate the political problems we are seeing today in Iraq. The political problems persisted even when the United States had far more troops in Iraq. The troop “surge” is usually seen as a success, but it failed in the political objective it was supposed to accomplish: sufficient reconciliation among the contending Iraqi factions to facilitate the building of a stable new political order in Iraq.

This history was predictable, before the war started, to anyone who had looked carefully at Iraq's earlier modern history and the political culture based on it. In fact, it was pretty much predicted, both inside and outside government, but the makers of the war had a rosier view of how easy it would be to erect a new political order in Iraq. President Bush accused those who were skeptical about a stable democracy breaking out in Iraq of being prejudiced against a people who yearned for democracy and were just as capable of making it work as anyone else. Well, they are capable of doing that, but only in a time frame that is far greater than what the war makers had in mind. Reflecting on the long political history of Western countries where representative democracy finally emerged should have given some appreciation of what that time frame would be.

The United States should look on the political turmoil in Iraq as it looks on turmoil in other Middle Eastern countries. It certainly should express its values clearly and wish well to whoever is trying to move closer to something resembling a liberal democracy. It should look out for its own interests, realizing that Iraq is not going to be very close to a stable liberal democracy any time soon and that to protect U.S. interests it will have to deal with Iraqi governments that do some distasteful things. What the United States should not do is to delude itself into thinking that it holds some key to making Iraqi politics into something that it isn't.

TopicsDemocracyDomestic PoliticsHistoryPost-Conflict RegionsIraq

Havel, Kim, and the Uncertain Road to Political Stability

Paul Pillar

It is difficult to imagine two more different political leaders to die within a day of each other than Vaclav Havel and Kim Jong-il. One was a symbol of the triumph of freedom over dictatorship through velvet revolution. The other led one of the most extreme examples of a cult of personality sitting on top of mass suffering and trying to maintain its grip on power and relevance through spasms of international misbehavior.

I once met Havel, at the castle in Prague during his first year as president of Czechoslovakia. I was part of an official U.S. delegation that also made other stops in Eastern Europe. Czechoslovakia presented a distinctly different impression from the other two newly de-communized countries we visited, Poland and Hungary. In the latter two, the people who were making the governments run, including senior professionals in the security services who not long before had been serving communist regimes, had accomplished a seamless transition to being directed by a new set of political masters at the top. The formal dinners and other events of the trip were carried off smoothly as if our hosts had been dealing on a friendly basis with Western officials for many years. In Prague, the impression instead was of a bunch of hippies who were still trying to figure out what that governing business was all about. It was another friendly atmosphere for us, but a rather disorganized one. Havel, who always was more comfortable with countercultures than with castles, set the tone. He was the sort of president who would appoint Frank Zappa as a special emissary to Western countries.

Those different impressions from 1990 would not have made for good predictions about later political evolution of the countries concerned. The Czechs got their act together and even managed a fairly amicable divorce with the Slovaks just a couple of years later. Havel continued as president for another decade and, although his popularity waned somewhat, he was legitimately seen as a founding father of what is now a stable democracy at the center of Europe. Poland, especially under its current leadership, is one of the most solid and important members of the European Union. It is Hungary—which seemed to be coming out of the same mold as Poland two decades ago—that is now raising concerns about a drift to authoritarianism under the Fidesz party government.

No one has yet come up with a social scientific formula that relates in a reliable way different strategies of governing—along dimensions of looseness vs. control, or reform vs. firm resistance to change—to subsequent stability or instability. It is this type of uncertainty that many rulers in the Middle East have been confronting over the past year. What runs the greater risk of everything falling apart: concessions and some acquiescence to popular demands, on one hand, or firm and consistent resistance to demands, on the other? If Vaclav Havel represents the loose end and Kim Jong-il the tight end of one of those dimensions of governing, it is unclear in any particular case where along that dimension the greatest dangers of damaging instability may lie.

The North Korean case now involves a wretched regime with an heir apparent who is an unknown twenty-something, with probably slipping control over a desperately poor country. The wretched regime cannot last, and we can look forward to the world being better when it is no longer around. But we all share a stake in just how the regime goes. It would be nice to know of a North Korean governing strategy that would increase the odds of a soft landing and decrease the chance of a sudden and destructive implosion that could lead to something as dangerous as a U.S.-Chinese military confrontation. But even if we had the ear of Kim Jong-un or the North Korea military to suggest such a strategy, it is would be hard to decide what we ought to say.

TopicsAutocracyDemocracyFailed StatesRogue States RegionsChinaCzech RepublicNorth KoreaPolandSlovakiaMiddle East

Allies and Interests

Paul Pillar

The Republican presidential candidates who are determined not to be out-Israeled by their opponents are misguided in two basic respects about how they are trying to show their support for Israel. (And this is apart from whatever disgust anyone is entitled to feel in observing such blatant fawning over any foreign government.) One respect is that what the candidates are supporting is not really Israel but rather the policies and views of a particular segment of the Israeli political spectrum: the segment on the right that happens to dominate the current Israeli government. Republicans, of all people, ought to understand the difference. To equate being pro-Israel with support for policies of the Netanyahu government is equivalent to saying that being pro-American requires support for policies of the Obama administration. An op-ed in Sunday's Washington Post by J Street's Jeremy Ben-Ami does a good job of exploring the differences involved. Ben-Ami explains how self-declared friends of Israel are doing it no favors by supporting policies that condemn Israel to perpetual conflict and hostility and to a status in which it cannot be both Jewish and democratic.

This observation ought to be the principal basis for discussing political and security issues involving Israel and its neighbors. It is an observation to which the most genuine friends of Israel can relate as much as anyone else can.

There is also a second respect in which the candidates' fawning is misguided. I would like to think that anyone running for the highest office in the United States would have the interests of the United States at heart ahead of anything else—and certainly ahead of the interests of any foreign state. U.S. interests never will be identical with the interests of any foreign state, no matter how close an ally that state might be considered to be and no matter how properly the interests of that other state are conceived. Tom Friedman alluded to this fact in connection with U.S.-Israeli relations in a column the other day. This allusion was not the line in the column that got the most attention. That distinction went instead to Friedman's statement that the standing ovation Netanyahu got in Congress earlier this year “was not for his politics. That ovation was bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.” The lobby reacted in the vehement way it usually reacts when anyone draws attention to its work: to deny that the lobby exists and to accuse anyone who says otherwise of being prejudiced.

As for the non-congruence of allies' interests, Friedman made this comment about one of Mitt Romney's stand-by-Israel-no-matter-what statements: “That’s right. America’s role is to just applaud whatever Israel does, serve as its A.T.M. and shut up. We have no interests of our own. And this guy’s running for president?” The fawning, in other words, fails to recognize that U.S. interests differ from Israeli interests—and that is true no matter which Israeli politicians get to define Israel's interests.

This fact is true not just of Israel but of any foreign state. Take, for example, Canada. It would be hard to make a case that the United States has any closer ally or one whose values and culture are any more similar to those of the United States. But the two countries do have some significant differences of interests, whether it involves exports of softwood lumber or sovereignty over Arctic sea lanes. 

The nineteenth-century British statesman Lord Palmerston famously said that Britain had no permanent allies (or enemies), only permanent interests. The same is true of the United States. Too many American politicians, who not only grovel to try to collect votes from constituencies they associate with certain foreign governments but also like to simplistically divide the world into good guys and bad guys, seem to forget that.

TopicsCongressDomestic PoliticsThe PresidencyPost-Conflict RegionsIsraelCanadaUnited States

Never Forget the Iraq War

Paul Pillar

Events this week in both the United States and Iraq have been marking the impending end—with the withdrawal by the end of this month of the last U.S. combat troops from Iraq—of a miserable chapter in American history, one that did not have to happen and should not have happened. President Obama has struck the appropriate notes for a commander in chief, giving primary attention to recognizing the sacrifices of those Americans—more than 1.5 million of them, as the president observed—who have served in Iraq during these past nine years. Having been clearly opposed to launching this misadventure, Mr. Obama had every right to say “I told you so” but refrained from any remark that came close to that. Besides recognizing the contributions and sacrifices of U.S. troops, he has, including in his appearances with Iraqi prime minister Maliki, looked to future issues of U.S.-Iraqi relations rather than dwelling on mistakes of the past.

The rest of us, unencumbered by a commander in chief's responsibility to maintain the respectful and reassuring tone that the president maintained, should do plenty of dwelling. We should think and talk, long and hard, about how and why the United States could ever have committed such a huge mistake. We need to do so to reduce the chance of comparable disasters in the future.

The Iraq War has not been the costliest war the United States has ever fought, but when taking into account the how and why of getting into it in the first place, the Iraq War ranks as one of the greatest blunders in American history and one of the biggest travesties in the relations of the United States with the rest of the world. The war was the project of a small, mostly neoconservative cabal that wanted to use Iraq as an experiment to inject democracy and free enterprise into the Middle East through the barrel of a gun. The cabal got much of the rest of the country to go along with their scheme by exploiting national anger and anguish over the 9/11 terrorist attack and by conjuring up scary tales of dictators giving weapons of mass destruction to terrorists.

A ledger on the war assembled by the Center for American Progress summarizes some of the huge costs. There are, first and foremost of course, the nearly 4,500 members of the U.S. military who have made the ultimate sacrifice. That's about one and a half times the death toll of 9/11, the terrorist event that the promoters of the war repeatedly linked with Iraq in order to sell their project. Over 32,000 Americans were wounded—many of them grievously maimed from combat that in earlier wars, when today's body armor was not used, would have killed them. Among Iraqis—the people whom we were supposedly rescuing from a savage dictator—over 100,000 civilians have been killed, and more than 2.8 million have been driven from their homes as either refugees or internally displaced persons. And the bloodshed and civil strife in Iraq are far from over.

The direct monetary cost to the United States of Operation Iraqi Freedom has been over $800 billion. Projections cited in the CAP report of the total cost of health care and disability benefits for veterans of the Iraq War range from $422 billion to $717 billion. Add that to the direct cost of military operations and, by way of comparison, we are in the same range as the $1.4 trillion that the Congressional supercommittee was supposed to find in deficit reductions over ten years. There are in addition many other follow-on costs, from replacement of military equipment to indirect economic effects, that have led some economists to estimate the total cost of this war to be more like $3 trillion.

The political, diplomatic and strategic costs are not quantifiable but vast. The United States severely damaged its image and standing in the rest of the world, especially in predominantly Muslim countries, with everything such damage implies in terms of getting or not getting cooperation in pursuit of U.S. interests. The war has boosted extremist sentiment and ideology, hatred of the United States, and international terrorism that is fueled by both. It has increased the regional influence of Iran. Far from leading to a spread of democracy several years ago, it soured many Middle Easterners on the idea of transitioning to democracy. And the war has been a huge preoccupation and diversion, using up time, attention and diplomatic chits that otherwise could have been applied to other U.S. interests.

Learning from this blunder does not simply mean not using force overseas rather than using it. There may be an Iraq syndrome that echoes the Vietnam syndrome of an earlier generation, but just accepting that would be a crude response and not necessarily the best lesson. We need to reflect on the specific attributes of this experience—involving the decision to go to war at least as much as the war itself—that made it so pathological.

One of those attributes is that the United States launched a war of aggression. That is a major break with American tradition. The Iraq War was the first major offensive war that the United States waged in more than a century—since the war against Spain in 1898. All the other major wars that the United States had been involved in since then were responses to someone else's aggression. America lost some part of its principles and its character when its forces started rolling across the border into Iraq. It will take a long time to make sure we have those principles back.

Future historians will regard as one of the most extraordinary aspects of this war that there was no policy process to examine whether it was a good idea. There were no meetings in the White House with that question on the agenda, no policy-options paper—nothing. When asked a couple of years ago to contribute to a volume on lessons to be drawn from the Iraq War, I identified as the number one lesson the need to have a policy process before undertaking major policy initiatives, and certainly before something as major as starting a new war.

Closely related to the previous pathology was the grossly inadequate attention to what would happen once Saddam Hussein was toppled. It was an inadequacy exhibited not only by policy makers but also by the larger public discourse about Iraq. Americans, mesmerized by the war makers' chant about dire things that would happen if the Iraqi dictator were not removed, scarcely thought about what would happen once he was removed. An important lesson is that costly unintended consequences almost always result from a major undertaking such as a foreign war.

And related to that was the larger pattern of how many Americans allowed themselves to be duped by the war makers. That's right: allowed themselves to be duped. There have been many complaints by people who supported the war about how they were misled, and indeed Americans were misled. But they were able to be misled because they got themselves swept up in a political mood that was stoked and exploited by the administration. Even a halfway careful examination of the prowar sales campaign could have seen through it, including such things as a phantasmagorical alliance between the Iraqi regime and al-Qaeda.

Finally there are the prime promoters of the war. The lesson to be drawn about them is how atrocious the war showed their judgment to be. They ought to be so discredited by now that no one listens to them any more. But here's the scary part: people do still listen to them. As Christopher Preble observes, “Most of the president’s Republican challengers are reluctant to cross the neoconservative cheerleaders for the war who, inexplicably, still have great sway over aspiring chief executives.” Many of those cheerleaders are still prominent members of the policy-influencing Washington elite and still writing and talking about the very sorts of things on which they showed such terrible judgment in the case of Iraq. Some of them are even cheering for yet another war, against another Middle Eastern country with a four-letter name starting with I, and with their cheering featuring familiar old themes about weapons of mass destruction, links with terrorism and the like. Those people ought to be reminded at every turn about the Iraq War and their role in promoting it, and asked repeatedly why anyone should believe a word of what they are saying now.

Image: Joe Mabel

TopicsCounterinsurgencyDomestic PoliticsIdeologyPolitical EconomyPost-ConflictRogue StatesTerrorismWMD RegionsIranIraqUnited States

The National Defense Authorization Gesture

Paul Pillar

The defense-authorization bill that the House of Representatives passed on Wednesday (and the Senate is expected to vote on this week as well) has been extensively and justly criticized and is a good example of the abusive manipulation of this type of legislation. A defense-authorization act is supposed to set the limits for appropriations for national defense and update the rules and standards by which the Department of Defense is to operate. This bill has become a Christmas tree of topics on which members of Congress want to make gestures. There is, for example, gay marriage. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA) says it would have been a show-stopper for him if the bill didn't include a ban on military chaplains performing such marriages. Then of course there is Iran, with sanctions aimed at Iran's central bank that the White House has warned might only benefit Tehran by driving up oil prices. But as with most other similar measures on Iran, what seems to matter to members of Congress is not what the practical result would be but instead that they have another opportunity to express toughness on Iran.

The biggest area of discussion and controversy was the portion of the bill that expands Congressional micromanagement of the handling of terrorist suspects by mandating military custody of some of them. Some of the many problems with this are summarized in a Washington Post editorial, which suggests that a veto might be in order. It appears that bargaining between the White House and Congressional leaders while the bill was in conference committee earlier this week has resulted in enough modifications to avert a veto. But the modifications have only confused lines of responsibility further, with the bill saying the military should be involved in custody of suspects but that the role of civilian law-enforcement agencies is not diminished. Pity the poor officers, civilian and military alike, who will have to figure out what complying with this law means in practice while they are having to deal with potentially dangerous people.

A basic question is why any of this was necessary in the first place. What purpose is served by legally mandating anything about military custody? It appears to be a solution in search of a problem. Actually, it is just another gesture—another opportunity to look tough on terrorism by showing that we consider it to be war. None of that sissy civilian-criminal justice stuff for our representatives in Congress.

This year's defense-authorization bill isn't the first one to go in some of these unhelpful directions. Some of the prisoners at Guantanamo who had been cleared for release are still sitting there because of a provision in last year's defense-authorization act requiring the secretary of defense to “ensure” that any prisoner released “cannot engage or re-engage in any terrorist activity.” As the Defense Department's general counsel has noted, that provision is “near impossible to satisfy.” If Congress is applying this approach to terrorism, why not to other types of crime as well? Perhaps the attorney general or someone else should be required to “ensure” that no released prisoner ever commit another crime. Think about it—there would be no more recidivism, and career criminals would be a thing of the past.

Amid all the problems of confused responsibilities and getting in the way of the FBI doing its job, there is one other problem with the terrorism-suspect provisions of the current bill that has not received attention. It is only terrorists suspected of being affiliated with al-Qaeda to which the law's provisions would apply. An al-Qaeda/non-al-Qaeda distinction has become a highly defective way of classifying terrorists, let alone being the basis for a legal distinction. The name al-Qaeda has come to be used in such a loose and variable way that it can mean anything from a small group commanded by Ayman al-Zahahiri to any violent Sunni extremist with an anti-U.S. bent. There are many degrees of affinity to the name, ideology and cause of al-Qaeda, and many of those expressing or feeling some degree of affinity are in no way subject to the direction or discipline of a group with that name. Even if the legal confusion could be overcome, there is no substantive justification for mandating one form of custody for terrorists with just enough affinity to be given the al-Qaeda label and not for others who may be just as dangerous and hostile toward the United States but do not have that label.

This bill, even if it does not get vetoed, is a mess.

TopicsCongressDomestic PoliticsDefenseTerrorism RegionsIranUnited States

Israel's Other Demographic Time Bomb

Paul Pillar

Demographic trends that argue against indefinite continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian impasse are fairly well known. There are about 5.8 million Jewish Israelis. Arabs in Israel number 1.4 million, which when added to the 4.1 Arabs in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza give a total of 5.5 million Arabs. The gap between numbers of Jews and Arabs is shrinking because of a higher Arab birth rate. The gap is further shrinking because in recent years immigration to Israel has slowed while emigration has accelerated. In as little as three or four years from now, Arabs will likely outnumber Jews in mandatory Palestine as a whole—i.e., in all of the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. The Arab majority will thereafter continue to increase. These demographic realities constitute the main reason Israel will be unable to be democratic, controlled by Jews, and embracing all of Palestine. It can be any two of those things, but not all three.

Less well known are some demographic trends within different segments of Israel's Jewish population. A recent report compiled by Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics makes some projections looking out nearly fifty years, to 2059. The report separates out for the first time in any such official public reckoning the growth of the ultra-Orthodox population, which has a significantly higher birth rate than other Israeli Jews. The ultra-Orthodox currently make up about ten percent of Israeli society but by 2059 are projected to constitute over thirty percent.

The disproportionate growth of the Haredim, as the ultra-Orthodox are also called, has severe implications for Israeli society and the Israeli economy. About 60 percent of ultra-Orthodox men do not work for a living. They spend their time in religious study at yeshivas while they and their fast-growing families subsist on government stipends. This already constitutes a major burden on the remainder of Israelis and is a contributor to the economic discomfort that stimulated widespread demonstrations earlier this year. If the projected increase in the ultra-Orthodox proportion of the population involves a proportionate increase in those not contributing to the economy, it is hard to see how the even larger burden on everyone else could be sustained. The ultra-Orthodox also are not subject to the same military service requirements as other Israeli Jews, constituting another area where the burden is all the greater on the others. Then there is the effect on social mores and freedoms. The growing influence of the ultra-Orthodox has already raised issues regarding the status and liberties of Israeli women. A further expansion of that influence will make Israel an ever more illiberal place.

Clearly these trends present Israel with a very serious challenge to its vitality and even to its survival as a society recognizable and acceptable to most of its current citizens. A major question is whether the privileges and influence of the Haredim can be curbed before they become so large a proportion of the population that curbing is no longer politically thinkable. There has been some official recognition of the danger, as reflected in efforts to get more of the ultra-Orthodox into the work force, including the performance by some of auxiliary duties in support of the military. But privileges that go so far and are so firmly entrenched will naturally be stoutly defended. When an ultra-Orthodox rabbi suggested last year that full-time, government-financed religious study should be reserved only for exceptionally promising scholars who are groomed to be rabbis or religious judges and that other ultra-Orthodox men should “go out and earn a living,” he was so vehemently denounced by his own political party, the ultra-Orthodox Shas, that he had to be assigned a bodyguard.

Another factor is the effort, described in these spaces by Benny Morris, by the broader political Right in Israel to solidify and institutionalize its power at the expense of the Left. Given the normal alignments in Israeli politics, this development will make even more difficult any curbing of the influence of the ultra-Orthodox.

Israel has achieved a commanding position in confronting any perceived dangers from outside its borders, including overwhelming conventional military superiority over its neighbors and an arsenal of nuclear weapons that is vastly greater than any other state in the region could dream of acquiring. Its greatest dangers come from within.

TopicsCivil SocietyDemographyHuman RightsImmigrationPolitical Economy RegionsIsraelPalestinian territories

Prosperity and Protest in Russia and Beyond

Paul Pillar

It will be fascinating to watch whatever comes out of the remarkable post-election protests in Russia. There are immediate questions of U.S. policy toward Russia, of course, of the sort that Paul Saunders discusses elsewhere in these spaces. But the protests also raise a larger question, with implications beyond Russia, of the relationship between economic and political development. The core issue is whether centers of economic power can persist for long without a distribution of political power that reflects it. Does the creation or enhancement of economic strength lead inevitably to ultimately irresistible demands for political change?

Vladimir Putin evidently has seen what he regards as a political danger along these lines, to which he has responded with the persecution and imprisonment of the most prominent and politically daring of the nouveau super-rich, Mikhail Khodorkovsky. We will now see what happens with the just-declared presidential candidacy of another oligarch (and owner, among other things, of the New Jersey Nets), Mikhail Prokhorov. But the recent protests are not the work of the oligarchs. Nor are they primarily the doing of the economically disadvantaged or of the sorts of intelligentsia who led protests when the Soviet Union collapsed two decades ago. As the New York Times describes it, the vanguard of the most recent protests is an urban middle class that economically has done fairly well under Putin. Their current unhappiness lends strong support to the idea that economic betterment does stimulate demands for political rights to catch up.

Some of the most interested outside observers of what is going on in Russia are leaders in China. Their country is one of the leading examples, and certainly the most important one, of a disconnect between sweeping, even explosive, economic change on one hand and static, authoritarian politics on the other. And so far the disconnect shows no sign of ending. The current issue of The Economist has a piece about how Bill Clinton's prediction a decade ago that China's joining the World Trade Organization would likely have “a profound impact on human rights and political liberty” has not yet come true. The Chinese Communist Party has so far kept that from happening by adapting its instruments of political control to a free-market economy. It has worked to ensure, for example, that party cells are established in private firms.

One can think of reasons specific to each country as to why China has been better able than Russia to dampen any political reverberations from an economic wave. The Chinese Communist Party's control is institutionalized in ways more directly related to the country's founding myth than is true of Putinism in Russia. But the political-economic story is far from over in either country. The disconnect between economics and politics will have unsettling effects in both nations, even if it takes longer to show up in one of them.

Image: Leonid Faerberg

TopicsAutocracyDemocracyDomestic PoliticsEconomic DevelopmentWTOPolitical TheoryPolitical Economy RegionsChinaRussia

Another Phony Terrorist Alliance

Paul Pillar

It sure is hard to get away from the incessant ringing of alarm bells about the Iranian nuclear program, which receives attention as if it were the greatest threat to civilization as we know it. That certainly is true for any reader of my hometown newspaper, the Washington Post. This week's Sunday Opinion page is dominated by the subject, with a graphic at the top showing a stylized rocket with a radiation symbol taking off from Iranian territory. The page includes a piece by former Bush administration official Michael Makovsky and his associate Blaise Misztal that criticizes the Obama administration for not hewing rigorously to the line that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be the worst possible thing that could happen to the world and must be stopped at all costs. The article is remarkable for the circularity of its reasoning in trying to ascribe dangers to that eventuality. For example, Makovsky and Misztal say that U.S. credibility would be “drained if, after numerous warnings to the contrary, we permit Tehran to cross the nuclear threshold”—which would not be a problem if, per the very aspect of the Obama administration public posture that they are criticizing, the United States does not keep trumpeting how “unacceptable” an Iranian nuke would be. They also say Iran and Israel “would have incentives to initiate a nuclear first strike.” A first strike by Iran would be insane and suicidal and therefore not involve any incentive to do it. A first strike by Israel would be a problem with Israel, not a problem with Iran, and in any event an Israeli first strike even with conventional means is the very sort of danger that the constant drum-beating about the Iranian nuclear program only encourages. Some of the other consequences Makovsky and Misztal mention, such as driving up oil prices, would be far less likely a result of an Iranian nuclear weapon than of any use of military force to try to prevent one.

In the next column over is an op-ed by Ray Takeyh, under the title “Why Tehran seeks the bomb,” that speaks of a purported hope by Iranian leaders that a nuclear-weapons capability would insulate their regime against foreign efforts to undermine it, out of fear over what would happen to the nuclear weapons amid political instability. Takeyh does not make clear whether he believes this hope is well grounded, but he seems to believe it is. Some relevant history might suggest otherwise; this idea wasn't much of a factor in foreign perceptions of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the apartheid regime of South Africa or General Musharraf's rule in Pakistan.

With all the attention in the paper to the Iranian nuclear program, it should not be surprising that the weekly contribution at the bottom of the same page by the Post's ombudsman, Patrick Pexton, is about this subject as well. Specifically, it concerns some sloppy or tendentious writing of headlines, such as “Iran's quest to possess nuclear weapons.” Pexton correctly judges that this headline was misleading and did not belong atop a news story, given that Iran does not yet appear to have decided to build nuclear weapons.

By the way—and another reason Sunday breakfast had a robust Iranian (or anti-Iranian regime) flavor while having the newspaper open to this place—the facing page consists of a full-page advertisement placed by a front group for the Mujahedin-e Khalq, the Iranian terrorist organization whose apologists overlap with those beating the drums about the Iranian nuclear program. Presumably carrying the ad was a decision of the Post's business office, taken in pursuit of much-needed advertising revenue, and not of the news or editorial staffs.

Go back to the opinion pages of the Post just a couple of days earlier, and one gets more of the same. The lead editorial, criticizing administration officials such as Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta for spelling out the reasons a military attack on Iran would be a very bad idea, is mostly a replay of a piece written a few days earlier by Michael Singh of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, about which I had some observations at the time.  Then on the op-ed page is an item with the title “Iran's deadly ambitions” by former Bush-administration speechwriter Marc Thiessen. Thiessen portrays what is, if he were to be believed, a full-blown cooperative relationship between Iran and al-Qaeda, dedicated to using terrorism to kill Americans.

Ah, that brings back memories—some recent and highly instructive ones. A major part of the Bush administration's tremendous effort to sell the idea of launching an offensive war against Iraq was to promote the notion that Saddam Hussein's regime was acting in cahoots with the terrorist group that did 9/11. As preposterous as such a cooperative relationship would have been, it was a key part of the sales job because the American public's outrage over 9/11 provided the political fuel for making even something as extreme as a major war of aggression thinkable. So the administration, and the neocon promoters of the war outside it, took even the most casual contacts and squishiest reporting and spun out of them a tale of what the president came to describe as an “alliance” between Saddam's regime and al-Qaeda. It was a fantasy. Now Thiessen is doing the same thing with Iran.

A major prop for Thiessen's story is a formal designation of several al-Qaeda members by the Treasury Department in July, accompanied by a Treasury undersecretary's reference to a “secret deal” between Iran and al-Qaeda—apparently another of the Obama administration's attempts to sound conspicuously tough on Iran, no matter how much the tough words may be exploited by those who want to take confrontation with Iran to a far more destructive level than the administration itself wants to. Because nothing new about this story seems to have surfaced in the intervening five months, allow me to replay what I observed about it at the time:

It has been known for some time that al-Qaeda members have been inside Iran. It has been less clear just what the terms of their residence there have been. Most indications suggest that it has been something between imprisonment and house arrest. At least some of the al-Qaeda people in Iran have been able to conduct business of the group from there, but it is unclear again how much of this business is condoned or even known by the Iranian regime. Probably the most that can be said is that the regime, or elements within it, have reasons to have some dealings with the al-Qaeda members, notwithstanding the sharp differences in their objectives. Tehran wants to cement and sustain the rule of the Shia Islamic Republic; al-Qaeda wants to overthrow the established order in the Middle East and establish a Sunni Caliphate.

Despite the provocative phrase “secret deal,” Treasury's announcement says nothing else about any such agreement. The only dealings it describes all seem to have to do with the imprisonment of al-Qaeda members. Only one of the six designated individuals, named Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil, is described as “Iran-based”; the other five all live and operate somewhere else and are included in the announcement because they are part of the same network as Khalil. The one bit of business Khalil is said to have with Tehran is that he “works with the Iranian government to arrange releases of al-Qa'ida personnel from Iranian prisons.” One of the other five is said to have “petitioned Iranian officials on al-Qa'ida's behalf to release operatives detained in Iran”—with no indication whether he succeeded. Any connection between the Iranian regime and the group's other activities involving movement of money and operatives is all a matter of innuendo, at least as far as Treasury's announcement is concerned.

In his version of the story, Thiessen tries to connect the idea of dealings with Iran with another al-Qaeda member, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman (since deceased), whom he describes as having been al-Qaeda's operational commander. And so from a report about some other al-Qaeda members asking the Iranians to please let some of their guys out of prison, Thiessen makes the huge leap to saying that “Iran was working directly with al-Qa'ida's operational commander.” There is not a shred of evidence to support that statement. Thiessen goes on to raise the incredible specter of Iran giving al-Qaeda a nuclear weapon.

As the old saying goes: fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. The American public was so fooled by the phony conjured-up alliance that was part of Iraq War sales campaign that at one point a solid majority of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein not only was in league with al-Qaeda but was personally involved in the 9/11 attack. It would be shameful if the public, and the press and punditry that shape public views, were to be fooled again. 

TopicsPublic OpinionNuclear ProliferationRogue StatesTerrorism RegionsIranIraqUnited States

Feeble Pushback from the Prowar Crowd

Paul Pillar

Those agitating for a war with Iran got a jolt of reality last week in the form of remarks by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who reminded his listeners at a Saban Center forum why a military attack on Iran in the name of setting back its nuclear program is an atrocious idea. The agitators naturally see the need to push back against the defense secretary, no matter how vacuous the pushback is when examined at all closely. Michael Singh of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, in trying to take on Secretary Panetta, exhibits some of the usual characteristics of the prowar agitation, especially the tactic of making the rosiest possible assumptions about the aftermath and consequences of an attack.

Singh allows that the secretary of defense may know of what he speaks when Mr. Panetta noted that an attack would set the Iranian program back only a year or two because some of the nuclear targets are very difficult to reach. But Singh doesn't want to concede the point, saying that recent explosions such as at a missile facility “suggest they are vulnerable” (what does that have to do with the problem Panetta mentioned of not being able to reach—or even to locate—some of the nuclear facilities?) and adding an observation about centrifuges having specialized components, which does nothing to refute the observation that the most that could be expected from an attack is a short delay of the Iranian program.

To Secretary Panetta's reminder that an attack would increase support for the Iranian regime both inside Iran and elsewhere in the region, Singh asserts “it is far more likely” that Arabs “would at least privately cheer a successful attack”—ignoring repeated indications that the prevailing Arab view is instead one of concern about what Iran is doing but opposition to anyone starting a war against it. Singh cites a poll to try to support his point, but the latest poll I am aware of—which I discussed here recently—showed that 64 percent of those polled in five Arab countries believe that Iran has a right to its nuclear program and that the international community should not pressure Iran to give it up, let alone go to war over it. As for sentiment inside Iran, Singh says “far from bolstering the regime an attack may undermine it,” ignoring the strong view of Iranian opposition leaders that an armed attack is the worst thing that could happen to their movement and the best thing that could happen to hard-liners in the regime. In what is perhaps the biggest stretch in his piece, Singh mentions as supposed support for his view a reference in a speech by Supreme Leader Khamenei to how previous Iranian regimes had shown vulnerability in the face of foreign powers—which sounds much more like an expression of defiance and determination not to make the same mistake.

Then there is all the economic and political damage that, as Secretary Panetta also reminded his audience, would result from the Iranian response to an attack, the subsequent escalation and the resulting larger war. Singh tries to turn tables on the secretary by criticizing him for making it sound like we would not strike back hard to their striking back—as if our tough talk would be enough to diminish the Iranian response to an armed attack on their territory. To have some sense of how little sense this makes, ask yourself if someone else's tough talk would diminish our response to an armed attack on our territory. One might add that it would not be necessary for Secretary Panetta to say any of this if it were not for people like Singh agitating for a disastrous war in the first place.

The end of Singh's piece exhibits another common attribute of the agitation, which is to promote the notion of having to be resigned to the inevitability of a military attack. “The timing may not be up to us,” says Singh. But of course not only the timing, but also whether to launch a war at all, would be very much up to us (or to the Israelis, if they are the ones who start such a war). The idea that “we would have no choice” to launching a war or “there would be no other option” is probably the single most persistent theme in the prowar campaign. The strategy is clear and simple. It really doesn't matter to the prowar crowd how feeble their arguments are (one can easily picture Singh wincing at some of his own) as long as the idea of a war with Iran is kept prominently in play. Keep it in play long enough (maybe until after a new president takes office) while continually repeating the further theme that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be absolutely unacceptable, and eventually there would be a time to declare that we have “no other option” but to launch a crazy war, even when a case had never really been made for one.

TopicsDefenseNuclear ProliferationRogue States RegionsIsraelIranUnited States

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