Paul Pillar

Terrorism of a Bygone Era

Paul Pillar

Muammar Qaddafi and Hafez al-Assad, 1971The death of Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi in Libya means the departure of a living link to an era of terrorism that was much different from what we see today. The 1980s was the peak of modern state-fomented international terrorism. The decade began with American diplomats being held hostage in Tehran. The next few years saw lethal terrorism carried out directly by several states. Iran conducted a sustained campaign of assassination of exiled Iranian dissidents. Syria attempted to blow up Israeli airliners. North Korea blew up a South Korean airliner and conducted a bombing in Burma intended to kill the visiting South Korean president. The Libyan regime of Muammar Qaddafi was active in terrorism on multiple fronts, including the bombing of a night club in Berlin frequented by U.S. servicemen. And it was Qaddafi's regime that killed 270 people by bombing Pan Am flight 103 in 1988—a crime for which Megrahi was the only person ever convicted.

State-sponsored international terrorism declined precipitously over the subsequent two decades. Some of the reasons were specific to particular states that had been leading practitioners, such as the survival of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the subsequent realization of rulers in Tehran that constant assassinations and subversion in neighboring states were not critical to keeping their regime alive. Two other factors had more general application. One was the end of the Cold War and demise of the Soviet Union, which had been an important source of aid to a state such as Syria—aid substantially greater than what Russia provides today. The other, related, factor was globalization and the escalation of opportunity costs of being a pariah state. Those costs, political as well as economic, provided the motivation for Qaddafi to get out of international terrorism (as well as out of the making of unconventional weapons) later in the 1990s, making this one of the most successful uses of international sanctions. The explicit demand associated with the sanctions was for Libya to surrender the two main Pan Am 103 suspects, Megrahi and Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah (who was tried along with Megrahi in a Scottish court but acquitted), which it did in 1999. This quickly led to secret talks with the United States that culminated four years later in a formal agreement between Libya and both the United States and United Kingdom.

Megrahi was a low-ranking figure who did not initiate anything significant but whose case exemplified some larger patterns in international terrorism. Little fish who execute plans and expose themselves to leaving evidence and getting caught tend to get caught more often than the big fish who are the true initiators of a operation. Megrahi performed acts that involved the killing of many innocent victims; he was deserving of punishment for his role in terrorism. There always was a element of artificiality in his prosecution, however, in that he was an employee of a state and following orders from others. Megrahi's release and return to Libya also exhibited some of the trade-offs and tensions involved in counterterrorism. The justification for his release was humanitarianism in light of the metastatic prostate cancer that was said to be weeks away from killing him, although he would live for another three years. Accusations were made at the time—and denied by British officials—that a desire for oil deals with the Libyan government had something to do with letting him go.

The Pan Am 103 operation demonstrated some other realities about international terrorism. One is how much the success of a terrorist plot, and whether it is discovered either before or after it is executed, depends on small accidental details. The timer on the bomb that Megrahi planted in luggage was set to go off while the plane was over the Atlantic, with the intention that the physical evidence would be lost in the ocean. A late departure of the flight meant that the plane came down instead on land, providing the scraps that enabled a long and painstaking investigation to tie the bomb to Libya. If the departure had been even later and the bomb detonated while the plane was on the ground or well below cruising altitude, it probably would have killed no one—and there still would have been the evidence to implicate the Libyans.

Another lesson concerns what would stimulate even a government as warped as Qaddafi's regime to do something as horrible as taking down that airliner. The bombing of Pan Am 103 was very likely Qaddafi's response to the U.S. aerial assault on Libya in 1986.

TopicsGlobalizationSanctionsRogue StatesTerrorismWMD RegionsRussiaIranLibyaNorth KoreaSyriaUnited Kingdom

Spinning Up For Baghdad

Paul Pillar

We know a round of nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 is imminent when we hear an upsurge in not only straightforward analysis of the issues but also proactive efforts to spin whatever the talks may yield. Much of the straightforward analysis has a tone of optimism, against the background of a positive tone in the previous meeting between the parties last month in Istanbul. The spinning is coming from various quarters but most conspicuously from those having an interest in the failure of negotiations with Iran. The pro-failure interests include the government of Israel and those who follow its lead, for whom indefinite persistence of the idea that Iran and its nuclear program pose the greatest threat to peace and stability in the Middle East provides the ideal diversion of attention from other, genuinely destabilizing matters they would prefer the world to overlook.

Pro-failure interests also include those who would welcome—for whatever misguided reasons—a war with Iran and for whom negotiations are a box to check and to declare a failure before proceeding to war. The reasons anyone would want such a war can be hard to fathom, especially given that a likely result would be to stimulate an Iranian decision (not yet taken) to build the very nuclear weapon we supposedly are trying to avoid, and to do so with no IAEA inspectors anywhere in sight because Iran would very likely eject them in response to an attack. A major basis for the desire for war, just as before the Iraq War, seems to be the neoconservative idea that employing military force against a loathed regime in an important country in an undemocratic region would bring about something that can't be any worse than what we face now. Never mind any careful analysis of consequences, according to this approach; just groove on the rubble.

The leading spinning technique resembles the expectations game that is customarily played before presidential primary elections. By inflating prior expectations of what should be achieved, the actual achievement is made to look more like failure. In the case of the Iranian nuclear program, one form of inflated expectations involves the prospective terms of an agreement, such as calling for an end to all uranium enrichment by Iran, even though that would be a deal killer from Iran's perspective. Another form concerns timing, such as an insistence that a specific agreement emerge from the meeting this month in Baghdad, even though a full, workable agreement requires a careful negotiation process that has barely just begun.

Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy exhibits another variation. Before the Istanbul meeting, he was emphasizing reasons Supreme Leader Khamenei likely would reject a nuclear deal with the P5+1. The favorable vibes coming out of that meeting have caused Clawson to change his theme. Now he is saying what he contends is Tehran's “poor track record of honoring agreements” makes negotiations with the current regime a bad idea, even if they do lead to a deal, and that instead we should be trying to achieve a “democratic Iran.”

Unfortunately, the pro-failure forces not only can affect perceptions and expectations but also can increase the odds of failure. Anonymously supplied tidbits designed to encourage mistrust of Iran on the nuclear issue, such as a drawing that allegedly depicts a containment chamber for testing nuclear-weapons designs, have a way of surfacing as the next round of talks nears. Don't be surprised to see also more direct trust-destroying actions such as additional assassinations of Iranian scientists. Even some of the talk and commentary can damage the odds of success. The more talk the Iranians hear in the United States about regime change—which is the ultimate disincentive to reaching an agreement for the regime that is to be changed—the more wary the Iranians will be of the West's intention to honor its side of any agreement.

The naysayers are smart enough to realize this, and so they will keep saying nay.

Image: futureatlas

TopicsDemocracyElectionsNuclear ProliferationWeapons Inspections RegionsIsraelIranUnited States

Peaceful Protest and Palestinian Rights

Paul Pillar

The agreement that ended a hunger strike by as many as two thousand of the Palestinians held prisoner by Israel is modest, uncertain and shaky. Negotiated with the involvement of Egypt and the Palestinian Authority, the deal calls for Israel to ease the conditions of detention in several respects. About twenty prisoners will be taken out of solitary confinement. Family members from the Gaza Strip will be permitted prison visits, which have been denied them in recent years. Prisoners under “administrative detention”—incarceration in which neither they, their families, nor anyone else in the outside world are told anything about why they are imprisoned—are supposed to be detained beyond six months only if evidence about them is brought before a military court. The prisoners reportedly made some vaguely defined commitment about not engaging in any activity that would support terrorism. It is unclear whether a couple of the prisoners who have been engaging in hunger strikes longer than the rest will end their fasts.

Israel has not conceded much. It is not ending administrative detention—a legal netherworld in which those incarcerated are treated neither as criminal suspects nor as prisoners of war and which makes the U.S. concept of “illegal combatant” look like a paragon of due process. We don't know anything about the sorts of procedures that would lead a current detainee to be kept imprisoned beyond six months. In any case, there seems to be no impediment to Israel continuing to catch and release and catch again, resulting in serial detentions of the same individuals without anything ever being said about why they are imprisoned. It also is easy to envision the whole arrangement breaking down, with Israel declaring the deal to be void at the first sign of anything that can be labeled terrorist activity and can be connected in any way to anyone imprisoned.

Many Palestinians nevertheless see the deal as a success. Insofar as it is seen as such, it will sustain a belief that has gained increasing traction among Palestinians in recent years: that peaceful protest has potential to gain relief from the Palestinians' predicament. It is a belief that is based on appeal to the conscience of Israelis and of the world community. In appealing to the conscience of the world community, it dovetails with the Palestinian diplomatic strategy of framing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a multilateral issue worthy of attention in the most multilateral of forums, the United Nations.

Despite the meager nature of results thus far from actions such as the hunger strike, an intensified Palestinian commitment to peaceful protest is all to the good, for multiple reasons that ultimately redound to the benefit of both Palestinians and Israelis. It is good because the continued lack of resolution of the conflict between these two peoples is fundamentally a moral issue involving political rights, having to do with the principles that conflicting claims to land ought not to be resolved through the might-makes-right device of superior military force, that peoples with a national identity ought to enjoy self-determination rather than to endure subjugation and that all peoples are entitled to a secure life inside their own homelands. It is good also because peaceful protest represents a rejection of past Palestinian uses of violence, which were condemnable failures both in the direct harm and suffering they caused and in leading Israelis understandably to frame the conflict in terms of their own security. Peaceful protests that do no physical harm to Israel do not have those ill effects.

Peaceful tactics aimed clearly and specifically at relieving the plight of the Palestinians as a subjugated people also avoid contributing to the fallacious notion, which Israeli spokesmen and apologists habitually voice, that the problem is an effort to “delegitimize Israel” by those who somehow hope to destroy it. Anyone who has such views and intentions today is a fringe that is almost irrelevant to resolution of this conflict. Such views are not held by the Palestinian leadership, by the community of Arab states as expressed through the Arab League, or by the vast majority of people throughout the world who have ever had anything critical to say about Israeli policies. The central problem is not illegitimacy of a state or efforts to impute illegitimacy to a state but instead the illegitimacy of denying political rights through conquest and colonization.

Image: טל קינג

TopicsUNHuman RightsPost-Conflict RegionsIsraelPalestinian territories

Sergeant Bergdahl, War and Terrorism

Paul Pillar

The only current American prisoner of war, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, remains in captivity largely because of the mistaken equating of war fighting with counterterrorism. That false equation has contributed to the suffering of many other Americans in uniform and their loved ones. It lent believability to the Bush administration's rationale to launch the Iraq War, and it has underlain continuation of the Afghanistan War for a decade after Operation Enduring Freedom achieved its immediate counterterrorist objectives. The hardship of Sergeant Bergdahl and his family simply adds to that toll.

The exact circumstances of Bergdahl's capture in Paktika Province in Afghanistan in June 2009 are somewhat in doubt, but not in doubt is that he was a combat soldier in a military unit conducting counterinsurgency operations. His capture was not some block-the-street-with-a-car terrorist kidnapping in a city. His captors were insurgents against whom NATO is waging its counterinsurgency campaign.

Secret talks reportedly have pointed to a possible deal under which Bergdahl would be released in return for transferring five Taliban prisoners now at Guantanamo to the custody of the government of Qatar. Such a deal would have multiple advantages for the United States. It would free Bergdahl. It would help build mutual trust with the Taliban and thereby aid the negotiation of further agreements, which are essential if Afghanistan ever is to have even a modicum of stability. And it would mean five fewer Guantanamo prisoners the United States would have to find a way of disposing of. The talks have snagged over the conditions under which the Taliban prisoners would be held in Qatar. The Obama administration evidently is taking a hard line to ensure that the Taliban involved do not return to militant activity. It is almost certainly taking that hard line not because of whatever difference five guys from Guantanamo could make but instead because of the reception any such deal would get back in the United States.

That reception would be based on a loose and unbounded use of the term “terrorist.” It would be based on the notion that continued counterinsurgency in Afghanistan is somehow safeguarding Americans from terrorism, whereas it instead has become a nation-building effort. It would be based on the tendency to label the Afghan Taliban as terrorists, even though they are not an international terrorist group and instead are interested in the distribution of power in Afghanistan. Because of such confusion, the kind of deal that has been discussed mistakenly would be seen as violating the longstanding U.S. policy of not making concessions to terrorists. That policy has been observed fairly consistently (except in the Iran-Contra affair, which is remembered as ignominy). The policy has a sound basis in not encouraging more terrorist kidnappings. But the principle doesn't really apply to the military foe in Afghanistan—the Taliban—who do not have some wider terrorist agenda and have no interest in taking captives except insofar as it might help to get foreign forces out of Afghanistan.

With these conflations, Democrats and Republicans alike, anxious to maintain tough antiterrorist credentials, are poised to denounce any deal that contains even a whiff of unfettered freedom for prisoners now at Guantanamo. The U.S. election campaign only worsens the situation. Mitt Romney has opposed the proposed transfer, saying “we do not negotiate with terrorists.”

Amid the politicking and the conceptual and terminological confusion, Sergeant Bergdahl remains indefinitely in captivity.

A postscript for those who are guided by asking themselves, “What would the Israelis do?”: We should recall that last year the Israeli government released 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, many of whom the Israelis very much consider terrorists, in return for the release by Hamas of a single Israeli soldier, Sergeant Gilad Shalit.

Image: isafmedia

TopicsCounterinsurgencyDomestic PoliticsElectionsTerrorism RegionsIsraelAfghanistanUnited StatesPalestinian territoriesQatar

War Powers Reconsidered

Paul Pillar

Jim Webb, the one-term (by choice) senior U.S. senator for Virginia, has been able to observe from several vantage points the multiple issues involved in going to war. He is a Marine veteran of the Vietnam War, father of a Marine who served in the Iraq War, observer as an embedded journalist of the Afghanistan War, a former assistant secretary of defense and secretary of the navy, and currently a member of the Senate committees on armed services and foreign relations. This week he spoke on the floor of the Senate about the executive branch's appropriation for itself of decisions to go to war, notwithstanding the U.S. Constitution's assignment to Congress of the power to declare war. “What has happened,” asked Webb,

to reduce the role of the Congress from the body which once clearly decided whether or not the nation would go to war, to the point that we are viewed as little more than a rather mindless conduit that collects taxpayer dollars and dispenses them to the President for whatever military functions he decides to undertake?

Webb acknowledged that the military's role in national security since World War II has been more continuous, with more need to operate on short notice, than warfare as the Founding Fathers knew it. But “the fact that some military situations have required our Presidents to act immediately before then reporting to the Congress,” Webb said,

does not in and of itself give the President a blanket authority to use military force whenever and wherever he decides to, even where Americans are not personally at risk and even where the vital interests of our country have not been debated and clearly defined. This is the ridiculous extreme that we have now reached.

Webb has been particularly disturbed by last year's military intervention in Libya, a supposedly humanitarian operation that quickly became a regime-change operation. The Obama administration, through some legal casuistry, contended that the operation did not come under the War Powers Resolution because U.S. forces played only a supporting role to NATO allies.

The War Powers Resolution has had its own problems ever since Congress passed it by overriding Richard Nixon's veto in 1973. Every president since Nixon has considered it unconstitutional. The issue Webb is raising, however, goes well beyond legal issues involving that piece of legislation. The issue concerns what criteria go into a decision to use military force and who should weigh those criteria. An ostensibly humanitarian operation such as the one in Libya, which is very much a war of choice, ought to have an especially broad weighing. It is not a matter of immediate protection of a U.S. interest but instead of deciding how much humanitarian succor is worth how much of the cost and risk involved in any U.S. military expedition overseas. There is no reason that sort of decision should be made solely by the executive. There is every reason the decision should involve the people's representatives in Congress. Or as Webb put it:

I can't personally and conclusively define the boundaries of what is being called a "humanitarian intervention." Most importantly, neither can anybody else. . . . Some of these endeavors may be justified, some may not. But the most important point to be made is that in our system, no one person should have the power to inject the United States military, and the prestige of our nation, into such circumstances.

The recently announced creation of an “Atrocities Prevention Board” headed by White House staffer and self-described “genocide chick” Samantha Power makes these issues all the more acute. The operation led by Power will by its very nature have a pro-intervention bias. The check and balance provided by the legislative branch will be needed more than ever.

Senator Webb intends to introduce legislation that will try to close the humanitarian loophole by requiring, in any situation in which U.S. interests are not directly threatened, that Congressional approval be obtained before the introduction of American military force, with a further requirement for Congress to debate and vote on the matter promptly. Careful draftsmanship will be needed to deal with questions of the exact scope of any such legislation. But Webb's proposal deserves serious attention.

TopicsCongressThe PresidencyHumanitarian Intervention RegionsLibyaUnited States

Hard Times for Loyal Opposition

Paul Pillar

Notwithstanding the attention we understandably give to whoever is in power or on the way to attaining it, the health of a democracy depends just as much on a strong and credible loyal opposition. A loyal opposition should demonstrate in the fullest sense the meaning of both the words in that term. It is an opposition in that it feels entirely free to speak, vigorously and openly, against the policy of the day. It is loyal not just in the sense that members of the opposition are patriots but also in the sense that they recognize members of the government are as well. It is an arrangement in which everyone understands that sharp and even intensely expressed differences can exist within a political framework to which everyone is loyal.

The advantages of such a political structure parallel the economic advantages of a free market. Spirited competition in which competitors accept each other as legitimate assures that consumers (i.e., voters) will have a credible choice. That in turn strengthens the incentive of rulers to govern in the interest of the ruled. Even without an actual change in power, the possibility of one keeps those in power on their toes.

From this perspective, some of the most conspicuous political events since the beginning of this week are not good news.

There are the elections in France and Greece, which, even if they help to push European economic policy in a direction in which it most needs to go at the moment, have certainly not helped the clarity and strength of political competition in those countries. After Nicolas Sarkozy's loss the French Center-Right will struggle to muster the electoral strength to challenge the socialists without buying into positions of Marine Le Pen's Far-Right National Front. In Greece, the political map is a mess after fringe parties on both the Right and the Left inflicted severe losses on the two mainstream parties that for years had alternated between government and opposition.

Then in Israel is the surprising move by Shaul Mofaz to bring his centrist Kadima Party into Benjamin Netanyahu's ruling coalition. There are many possible implications one could draw from this; David Makovsky's take is as well-informed as anyone's. A possible positive implication is that Mofaz may have some moderating influence on the government and lessen Netanyahu's reliance on the most hard-line members of his current coalition. But the dominant effect will likely be to strengthen Netanyahu's political position and leave him freer to do what he wants to do without worrying much about challenges from the opposition. Government parties now control 94 of the 120 seats in the Knesset. The official leader of the opposition is no longer Mofaz but instead the leader of the Labor Party, which has been in steady decline over the past few decades. More than ever, Netanyahu is now seen by many Israelis as the only plausible national leader. Kadima was facing its own loss of seats if an election were held this year, but Mofaz probably had been the most credible alternative to the incumbent prime minister.

Back home in Indiana, Richard Lugar's long and distinguished career in the U.S. Senate is being brought to an end by a primary-election defeat at the hands of a Tea Party-backed candidate. This result means the loss of a senator who, when not in the majority, embodied the characteristics described above of a loyal opposition. His departure is another step toward dominance in the Republican Party of views that do not display those characteristics—i.e., views that question whether Barack Obama and the “Democrat Party” are even legitimate competitors. The presumptive Republican presidential nominee has been slow to distance himself from those views, such as on Monday when he failed to challenge a woman speaking at one of his campaign rallies in Ohio who said President Obama “should be tried for treason.”

If there has been even a slightly bright spot on this subject this week, it was in Russia, where Dmitri Medvedev received the necessary parliamentary vote to become prime minister and complete his job switch with Vladimir Putin. Some minority members whose parties had done well in an election in December decided to act more like a loyal opposition by respectfully voting against Medvedev. “We want to consolidate Russian society, but only on the basis of our own social democratic platform,” said a member of the Just Russia party. “That is why our faction today has decided in the selection of the prime minister to vote against the leader of the party that we consider our political and ideological opponent.”

You know you are stretching when you have to look to the Duma for optimistic signs of vibrant democracy. It remains to be seen just how vibrant democracy there will be. A scowling Putin, not hiding his displeasure over how many votes were cast against his protégé and no doubt having different ideas about what loyal opposition means, said ominously, “I am sure that the work of the government and the parliament will be constructive despite the well-known opposition of some deputies in this hall.”


TopicsDomestic PoliticsElections RegionsIsraelRussiaFranceGreeceUnited States

The Overblown Chen Case

Paul Pillar

Much commentary has been offered about Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng and how U.S. officials have handled his case. It was inevitable that the Chen affair would become fodder in the U.S. election campaign. But many commentators beyond those motivated primarily by partisanship have devoted attention to this affair as if it were some kind of test or touchstone for the policies and strategies of the Obama administration. Additional perspective is in order, for which I offer the following observations.

First, the United States does not own the issue of human rights in China. Yet many of the comments about Chen's status and similar cases sound as if it does. It is almost as if the United States had the special responsibility of a former colonial master, which of course it does not. To regard human rights as an important value and to incorporate it into U.S. foreign policy is one thing; to bear the burden of owning the issue as it relates to China or any other foreign country is something quite different. Denial of human rights, insofar as it is a concern for those outside China, is a concern for the entire world community. It is no more logical for the United States to bear a special burden stemming from that concern than it would be for, say, Japan to bear it. It may seem that the United States bears a special burden because dissidents have a habit of showing up at the doorsteps of U.S. embassies. (Walter Pincus recalls in Tuesday's Washington Post the details of a similar incident with another Chinese dissident in 1989.) Americans should feel flattered that their embassies are picked out over other embassies, but they should feel no need to respond by taking up sole ownership of the case at hand out of some sense of human-rights noblesse oblige.

A second point concerns the role of Chen himself. He certainly offers much to admire, including his open advocacy of honorable causes even when doing so guaranteed he would run afoul of Chinese authorities. His physical image, with his visual disability and then a fracture in a foot sustained while he was fleeing house arrest at night, add further elements of sympathy and even mystique. There is no denying, however, that much of what made this case a frustrating no-win situation for U.S. officials stemmed from Chen himself and the choices he made. Beyond his showing up at the U.S. embassy, this particularly involved his change of mind regarding whether or not he wanted to leave China. This is someone who is asking favors from the United States, but he has done the United States no favors. The affair would have been much simpler if he had asked for asylum as soon as he first met with U.S. officials. Given that the whole story would have been significantly different if this one dissident had made different personal choices, how can we say that the story says much about the U.S. administration?

Third, how U.S. officials handle any matters such as this—and despite the publicity in this instance, it is basically a difficult consular case—rarely says anything larger about the direction and policy of an American administration. The officials involved are endeavoring to manage a situation that has been thrown in their laps without advance notice or preparation. Every case is different, and the handling of any one case is not an application of strategic tenets in Washington. A single case of this nature does not provide any larger lessons about how foreign policy is being run unless it is representative of a dysfunctional pattern such as subjugating competence to political loyalty in the appointment of officials or misinterpreting a situation by viewing it through ideological lenses—but no such pattern seems to apply to the current situation.

The Chen case says much more about China and its leadership than about the United States or its leaders. It is, after all, their country, their citizen and their suppression of civil rights that are involved. If the Chen affair presents a test, it is a test of the Chinese regime's ability to satisfy a growing popular demand for the rule of law notwithstanding the threat that consistent application of the law would pose to the regime's continued rule.

TopicsAutocracyDomestic PoliticsHuman Rights RegionsChinaUnited States

Good Policy and Bad Politics

Paul Pillar

The commonly accepted story line about the French and Greek elections on Sunday is that the outcome is a rejection by voters of the austerity that Merkozy-dominated European decision makers have been imposing on the euro zone. The result, as some critics might put it more bluntly and negatively, is a defeat of disciplined economic policy by short-sighted populist sentiment. In general, displacement of disciplined decision making by raw popular anger is not good. But from the standpoint of Europe's economic health and its effect on the health of the global economy, backing away from austerity is the main thing needed right now. To understand why, read any of Paul Krugman's frequent forays into the subject. The idea that austerity breeds confidence, which in turn breeds private-sector initiative and prosperity, simply hasn't proven valid where it has been tried. Stimulation of demand is needed to keep Europe from dropping into a deep double-dip recession.

The election results do give reason for concern. Parts of François Hollande's platform look ill-conceived. The beneficiaries of Greek voters' rejection of the mainstream parties that had signed on to austerity are the Far-Left and Far-Right fringes; in this respect, the Greek result is a disturbing move toward extremism. On the basic dimension of austerity vs. stimulation, however, voters have moved the European economic debate in the correct direction, even if most of them did so for the wrong reasons.

A general lesson to extract from this is that just because a political leader's position may conform with some of the ignoble desires of the populace does not ipso facto mean it is bad policy. What constitutes good or bad policy is often a matter of debate even among people of goodwill—as it is regarding economic policy today in Europe, although I am more persuaded by those arguing for the need to stimulate demand than by the pro-austerity camp. Moreover, it is rare that one side has a monopoly on positions that could be seen as a pandering to short-sighted popular desires. German positions are rooted in immediate German self-interests that, as Andrew Moravcsik explains in the current Foreign Affairs, are no better for the economic health of the Continent than is the southern European profligacy that German banks and investors have helped finance. Germany has benefited from imbalances that make it, in Moravcsik's term, the “China of Europe,” even though its membership in the euro zone insulates it from the sort of criticism that is regularly directed against China about currency-exchange rates and trade surpluses.

Similar principles apply to debate about economic policy in the United States. Over the weekend, I attended an event at the University of Chicago at which the thinking of the Chicago school of economics pervaded discussions. It was the sort of environment in which people conversed about whether Barack Obama's economic policies mean he doesn't understand how economies work or—probably the dominant view—that he understands but has subordinated his understanding to a populist political agenda. The main problem I had with what I was hearing is that—although I am as much a believer as anyone else in the effectiveness of free markets—some of the economic structures and practices I heard being defended (such as those involving corporate governance) differ substantially from a free market and differ for reasons that have nothing to do with governmental interference. More to the present point, that a position of Obama might appeal to some of the baser emotions of the voting public does not keep if from being good economic policy—as measured by standards, such as macroeconomic growth, that would be as important to adherents of the Chicago school as to anyone else. And also as in Europe, a populist tendency to sway in whatever direction the voters want to go is no more characteristic of Obama than it is of his opponent.

Pandering to the crowd is indeed a common and unworthy political pattern, and it often does encourage lousy policy. But the pandering and the policy making are distinct dimensions. Determining the extent to which the two intersect in any one case requires closer examination of the policy in question.

Image: Francois Hollande

TopicsEuropean UnionCurrencyDomestic PoliticsIdeologyPolitical EconomyTrade RegionsFranceGreeceGermanyUnited StatesEurope

Opinions in Uniform

Paul Pillar

General Douglas MacArthurOver at Foreign Policy, our friends Stephen Walt and Daniel Drezner have been expressing unease over the conspicuous role active or retired military officers seem to be playing in debates on foreign and security policy. Drezner has noted the “strangeness” of how in Israel it is “ex-military/intel guys” who have been leading the challenge to the Netanyahu government's policies on matters such as Iran, although he also seems concerned about making sure U.S. officers stay in a seen-but-not-heard role. Walt notices what a prominent part military officers have been playing in some Council on Foreign Relations events and laments, in light of how much the Pentagon already spends on public relations, that the council is giving the military “another platform from which to purvey its views.” I am less concerned about any of this as far as the United States is concerned, partly for reasons that Walt himself touches on.

Of course members of the military, while still in active service, should not openly contravene the policies and judgments of the government of the day. That restriction applies not just to the military but to anyone, military or civilian, who is serving in the executive branch of the government. As far as the military specifically is concerned, the United States, for reasons related to the nation's history and political culture, has had less of a “man on horseback” problem than many other democracies. Douglas MacArthur was a rare megalomaniacal exception, but even a then-unpopular President Truman was able to dispose of the problem of insubordination that MacArthur came to represent.

When we start hearing from U.S. military officers in ways that seem to go beyond their proper role, this almost always reflects deficiencies in the civilian leadership's decision-making process. If costs, risks and the unlikelihood of success have been insufficiently considered, we hope and expect (at least in hindsight) military officers to speak up about it. By far the most egregious example in recent U.S. history of a deficient decision-making process was the launching of the Iraq War, in which there was no policy process at all that led to the decision to go to war. There was no known decision point and thus no way for the military or anyone else to distinguish between the period before a decision, when the military and everyone else inside government should be giving the decision maker their most honest and unvarnished advice, and the period after the decision, when the proper response is to salute and execute that decision as vigorously and skillfully as possible.

A stark contrast was provided by the Obama administration's long and thorough deliberations preceding key decisions about the war in Afghanistan. The Department of Defense (not just the uniformed military) can be justly accused of using the familiar bureaucratic ploy of shaping the options in a way that limits or favors certain options. But when President Obama was dissatisfied, he ended up crafting his own option. He did not get rolled by the military.

In the United States we also have another dimension in civil-military relations: being answerable to that coequal policy-making body, the Congress. If a military officer is asked a question by a member of Congress, even in an open hearing, he should give an answer that is honest and reflects his best professional judgment. General Eric Shinseki, then the army chief of staff, did so when asked before the Iraq War about how many troops the job would take. He paid a price when as a result of his honesty his political masters in the Bush administration shunned and repudiated him. The nation would have been better off if it had paid more attention at the time to what Shinseki said. It also would have been better off if it had paid more attention in the mid-1960s to the rather prescient judgments of the chief of staff of the army and commandant of the Marine Corps about the size of force and length of time the Vietnam War would entail.

Drezner says that recently retired military officers are in a “slightly different category” from those still on active duty. “Slightly”? They are in a completely different category. There is none of the same restriction about contradicting or being insubordinate to the boss in government. We are talking about private citizens expressing views about public affairs. We should not make the mistake of assuming that because such a citizen once was in the military, the views being expressed are somehow views “of the military,” much less militaristic. Walt correctly notes that it was Dwight Eisenhower who warned us about a military-industrial complex and that on Iran our military leaders “seem a lot more sensible than the more hawkish civilians.” Those examples reflect a larger pattern. Research has demonstrated that U.S. military veterans as well as serving officers are more reluctant to resort to force than are their civilian countrymen who have never served in the military. I certainly share Walt's concern about the tendency to think narrowly of the pursuit of U.S. interests abroad in terms of the use of military force. But that unfortunate tendency is not coming disproportionately from the views of those who have worn the uniform.

TopicsDefensePublic OpinionMilitary Strategy RegionsIsraelIranUnited States

Politics and the Afghan End Game

Paul Pillar

Air Force One has flown halfway around the globe amid multiple reminders of how heavily American politics and misconceptions about the limits of American power continue to weigh on the conflict in Afghanistan. The U.S. military expedition there, now in its eleventh year, should have been concluded long ago. The most important accomplishments came in the first few months following the justified intervention after the 9/11 terrorist attack. Then the mission quietly transformed into an effort to transform Afghanistan into something it politically never has been and probably never will be. As the war continued and we have increasingly worn out our welcome, we have been creating our own enemies. Mostly those enemies are called Taliban, a large proportion of whom are not warriors for extreme interpretations of sharia but instead merely Afghans who are unhappy about a number of things but mostly about foreign occupation. Increasingly and even more disturbingly, we have been making enemies among members of the forces to whom we will supposedly be entrusting the security of Afghanistan. These are the sources of the “green on blue” attacks—which evidently are even more numerous than we had been led to believe.

There have now been two U.S. presidential elections that have shaped policies and pronouncements about Afghanistan (the Bush administration's preoccupation with its Iraq project meant it wasn't paying much attention to Afghanistan in 2004). In 2008, Barack Obama's stance on Afghanistan was partly a politically necessary balance to his laudable opposition to the Iraq War. In 2012 he cannot afford to appear blatantly inconsistent with his previous positions.

Meanwhile, the position on Afghanistan of Mr. Obama's Republican opponent has been confused. Mitt Romney sometimes has talked about following the judgment of “the generals”—completely missing the main issue, which is not how to perform a military mission but rather whether the national interest would be served by performing that mission, with all of its associated costs—and sometimes has talked about bringing U.S. troops home as soon as possible. But in his effort to find ways to jab at President Obama, he also has criticized the president for publicly announcing a timetable for withdrawal, raising the question of whether he has in mind a timetable to be kept secret. The president, for his part, has been leaving things somewhat vague—including in his speech at the Bagram air base, stating only that by the end of 2014 Afghans would be “fully responsible for the security of their country.”

President Obama's trip to Afghanistan this week has some legitimate purposes, especially to thank the U.S. troops who are still there. But the timing of the trip seems to be related to the highly hyped anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden. The White House's repeated reference to the raid lends credence to the Republicans' charge that the Obama camp is milking this one event for more political points than it really deserves. Mr. Obama does deserve credit for the decision he took a year ago, but this is a weak basis for drawing contrasts with Romney. No one knows how a President Romney would have acted if faced with the same situation.

Romney's comeback that “even Jimmy Carter” would have made the same decision doesn't answer the question, although it does evoke thoughts of a similar decision Carter did make to undertake a risky military raid in southwest Asia. That earlier event even involved crashed helicopters. The crash at Desert One in 1980 was severe enough to make the attempt to rescue American hostages from Iran a failure. The one at Abbottabad last year was within the capability of the SEALs to recover from it. Carter is viewed as he is today, and Obama is given the credit that he is given today, partly because of the vagaries of flying helicopters.

None of this has much to do with who is most fit to be president. The nation will be better off when it is finished both with the war in Afghanistan and with this presidential campaign.

TopicsCounterinsurgencyDomestic PoliticsElectionsThe Presidency RegionsAfghanistanUnited States