Paul Pillar

Foolish Suspicion of Political Islam

Paul Pillar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image: Maggie Osama

TopicsDemocracyPublic OpinionReligion RegionsIsraelEgypt

Jeffersonian Exceptionalism

Paul Pillar

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

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

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

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

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

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

TopicsDemocracyDomestic PoliticsHistoryPolitical Theory RegionsUnited States

God Speaks to the Republican National Committee

Paul Pillar

At its winter meeting in New Orleans two weeks ago, the Republican National Committee unanimously adopted a resolution that is extraordinary for its content and, given that content, for not having received attention from mainstream media. It was discovered by Mitchell Plitnick of The Third Way, who evidently was so taken aback by the resolution that he sought confirmation from its sponsor that the RNC had in fact formally adopted it. Yes it did, said the sponsor, a committeewoman from South Carolina named Cindy Costa. The measure is titled “An RNC Resolution to Commend the Nation of Israel for its Relations with the United States of America.” I won't take the space to reproduce the full text, which you can get at Plitnick's site, but here are the first few preambular clauses:

Whereas, Israel has been granted her lands under and through the oldest recorded deed as reported in the Old Testament, a tome of scripture held sacred and reverenced by Jew and Christian, alike, as the acts and words of God; and

Whereas, as the Grantor of said lands, God stated to the Jewish people in the Old Testament; in Leviticus, Chapter 20, Verse 24:  “Ye shall inherit their land, and I will give it unto you to possess it, a land that floweth with milk and honey”; and

Whereas, God has never rescinded his grant of said lands; and

Whereas, along with the grant of said lands to the Jewish people, God provided for the non-Jewish residents of the land in commanding that governance must be in one law for all without drawing distinction between Jewish and non-Jewish citizens, as contained in Leviticus 24:22, and...

Well, you get the flavor—certainly regarding where the resolution fits on the religious-vs.-secular dimension of discourse. The resolution goes on to state that

Whereas, the roots of Israel and the roots of the United States of America are so intertwined that it is difficult to separate one from the other under the word and protection of almighty God;

and whereas there are other respects in which according to the resolution Israel and the United States are two peas in a pod, the main operative clause of the resolution resolves

that the members of this body support Israel in their natural and God-given right of self-governance and self-defense upon their own lands, recognizing that Israel is neither an attacking force nor an occupier of the lands of others; and that peace can be afforded the region only through a united Israel governed under one law for all people.

Although Plitnick probably is right that the RNC didn't really understand the implications of what it was adopting (which was very similar to a resolution that the South Carolina Republican Party passed last year), it is hard to read this as anything other than endorsement of an Israeli annexation of the entire West Bank and rejection of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That is how most of those who have commented on this resolution in the blogosphere read it, including those who were flummoxed or outraged by it and those in the rapture crowd, who were delighted by it.

If this resolution is taken at all seriously, there is of course plenty to be outraged about. For starters, there is the throwing of the separation of church and state, as embodied in the establishment clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution, down the toilet. That would certainly be the case if the final clause of the resolution, which calls on state legislatures and the U.S. Congress to adopt similar resolutions, were ever acted upon. There also is the revising of reality by resolution (“...is neither an attacking force nor an occupier of the lands of others...”) and the pretending that there isn't some other populace that lives on the lands in question. And of course there is the complete subjugation of any U.S. interests to the interests of Israel—and more specifically to the most hard-line, nationalist, religiously based interpretation of those interests.

Let me ask instead, though, why most news media did not pick up on this remarkable action by the RNC. Perhaps it was not taken seriously because the committee is accustomed to humoring individual members and their pet causes by passing lots of ridiculous resolutions. I don't know; I haven't researched the RNC's record in that regard. And for all I know, the Democratic National Committee may indulge in its own form of inanity when it passes resolutions. But surely the fact that the national governing body of one of the two major U.S. political parties would make such a statement warrants attention.

I suggest the moderators of the next GOP candidates' debate raise this topic. After asking the candidates whether they renounce this resolution by the RNC, several follow-on questions come to mind for anyone who says no, such as: Do you still believe in the separation of church and state? Do you believe that texts of a revealed religion should guide U.S. foreign policy? Do you reject national self-determination for the Palestinian people? What do you believe will be the consequences for U.S. interests of such rejection? Surely such questions deserve as much attention as Mitt Romney's taxes. Or Newt Gingrich's serial adultery. (I wonder what God has said to the RNC about that.)

Image: U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv

TopicsDomestic PoliticsReligionPost-Conflict RegionsIsraelUnited StatesPalestinian territories

Devotion to Duty

Paul Pillar

Successful implementation of public policy and—even more important—maintaining the principles of democratic government depend on the professionalism of public servants who have a clear sense of their proper role. This means the dutiful execution even of lawfully determined policies with which an official may not agree. It means staying in one's proper lane notwithstanding any urges to stray from it. If public servants did not do these things, the result would be chaos in public administration and a breakdown of democratic accountability.

None of this should be taken for granted. In the United States, the lines between the prerogative to make policy and the duty to execute it are not as clear and widely understood as in some of its sister democracies. This is largely because of an unusually large stratum of political appointees, who are not wholly part of either the policy-making or policy-executing portions of government. External pressures from those wanting policy executors to nudge the policy one way or another do not help. Nor do tendentious interpretations by outside commentators of the conduct of officials who are only trying to do their jobs. Staying in one's lane is sometimes difficult.

It is therefore reassuring to see conspicuous examples of senior officials doing just that despite pressures to do otherwise, especially when it involves someone of such fame and stature that many would expect him to do otherwise. The Washington Post has an account of how David Petraeus, while still military commander in Afghanistan, responded to President Obama's decision to schedule a faster withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan than Petraeus favored. In a nutshell, Petraeus responded exactly as a dedicated professional should have responded. Before the decision, he gave his best military advice about what would be needed to accomplish his mission, and after the decision he focused on implementing it. In response to suggestions that he resign, he said, “the troops can't quit.” Petraeus correctly believed that “military leaders should provide advice that is informed by important nonmilitary and military factors beyond their strict purview, but is driven by the situation on the ground and military considerations.” He also understood that the political leadership making the decision must take broader considerations into account. His message to his staff hit exactly the right note: “All of us will support the decision and strive to execute it effectively. That is our responsibility as military leaders.”

President Obama also had the right concept of lanes and responsibilities in systematically seeking input from all his military and civilian advisers before making the decision himself. The concept was clear as well in the president acknowledging that Petraeus should be honest in responding to Congressional questions about his own preference regarding the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.

In taking off his uniform and becoming director of the CIA, Petraeus continued to evince a clear comprehension of the different roles and responsibilities that go with different jobs. He understands the distinction between intelligence and policy and the one between personal views and institutional positions.

David Petraeus deserves the nation's respect and gratitude for his skill and accomplishments, and for taking on some extremely difficult jobs. He also deserves it for setting such an outstanding example of what it means to dedicate oneself wholly to performing the precise duties of whatever job one occupies.

Image: isafmedia

TopicsCounterinsurgencyDemocracyIntelligence RegionsAfghanistanUnited States

The Campaign Damage Continues

Paul Pillar

Newt Gingrich's victory in South Carolina likely means that the race for the Republican presidential nomination will continue longer than it otherwise would have. People with different interests will react differently to that prospect. Democrats who believe that a longer season of Republicans cutting each other up helps President Obama's reelection campaign will be happy. Republicans who believe the same thing will be unhappy (unless perhaps they are pulling for Gingrich or someone else other than Mitt Romney). Other Republicans will be comforted by the concept of a bruising battle for the nomination toughening their eventual nominee. Political junkies who enjoy watching the campaign fireworks will be pleased. Those disgusted by the content of the campaign will be turned off.

My own principal thought about a longer primary campaign involves a concern I wrote about last September, which is how foreign governments and other foreigners interpret and react to the candidates' rhetoric. With particular reference to what Romney and the others had been saying about China and Iran, the damage involved comes from candidates' tough talk exacerbating cycles of hostility and distrust between the United States and certain foreign countries. The foreigners do not tend to brush off the bellicosity as merely bits of meat thrown to the party base in whatever state is holding a primary that week. They read it as indicative of entrenched and widely held American attitudes. Since September, the tough talk about Iran in particular has become more extreme, and this has added to the dangerous escalation of tension between Washington and Tehran.

Walter Pincus had a piece in the Washington Post last week that addresses another kind of damage. His main subject was Afghanistan and how several of Romney's statements on that subject have played fast and loose with the facts. Pincus ends by explaining why he takes Romney's campaign remarks seriously:

Because I believe when he became president, Obama felt bound by his often-repeated statements as a candidate that Iraq was the “wrong war” and that the United States should shift to the “right war” in Afghanistan. Those campaign remarks, made to prove he was tough, led him in early 2009 to overstate that we had not only to defeat the Taliban, but also nation-build a democratic Afghanistan. Fortunately, today, our goal is less expansive and a bit more realistic.

I would add to Pincus's point that the danger is not just that a new president would feel obliged to abide by his campaign rhetoric. (Romney, experienced flip-flopper that he is, might actually be less guided than others would be by any such sense of consistency.) The problem is also that repeated invocation of a supposed national interest or goal comes to be seen by others as some sort of commitment, accompanied by the belief that backing away from the commitment would involve a loss of prestige or credibility.

Much of the extreme stuff and especially the bellicosity about Iran will continue into the general-election campaign. But bearing in mind the damage being done, I would be happy to see our long national nightmare known as the primary election campaign over sooner rather than later.

Image: Gage Skidmore

TopicsCounterinsurgencyDemocracyDomestic PoliticsElectionsThe PresidencyNuclear Proliferation RegionsChinaAfghanistanIranUnited States

Hungary and the Reversibility of Liberal Democracy

Paul Pillar

The Hungarian parliament building, a grand neo-Gothic landmark along the Danube, is an enduring stone monument to representative government. Plans for such a structure were made in the years following the conversion of the Austrian Empire into the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary. Construction began in the 1880s and was completed shortly after the turn of the twentieth century. It is the largest building in Hungary and the third-largest parliament building in the world.

The building symbolizes a Hungarian commitment to representative democracy, notwithstanding Hungary's straying from democracy more than once. The straying in the past has resulted mostly from external pressures. Hungary's falling in with the Axis powers in the 1930s was partly due to the Great Depression and an economic lifeline from Germany that helped to bring the country out of the Depression. It also had to do with a Germany-like resentment over post-World War I settlement terms. The Treaty of Trianon stripped Hungary of nearly two-thirds of the territory that had belonged to the kingdom of Hungary as part of the dual monarchy. Later came communist rule, but that of course was imposed by Soviet power, and forcefully reimposed in 1956 after a brief assertion by the Hungarians of freedom. When communist rule finally ended in 1989, a new republic of Hungary was proclaimed from a balcony of the parliament building. Shortly afterward, the red star that the communists had placed on the spire of the building was removed.

Now Hungary is showing worrying signs of straying again from democracy, and this time the wandering cannot be attributed to external forces. The Fidesz Party of Prime Minister Viktor Orban has used the power of a supermajority to ram through a new constitution and to take other measures that appear to challenge the independence of the judiciary, the central bank and the media. Orban's government is having to answer to the European Union for some of the steps that seem to violate the Union's pluralistic standards. The EU's inquiries have led Orban to back off slightly from his changes, but his record suggests that he will not fundamentally alter his course.

This affair shows how even a country where liberal democratic principles seem to have been firmly established (and in this case a country that until now has been a member in good standing of the club of advanced democracies known as the European Union) may back away from consistent application of those principles. Democratization and liberalization are not necessarily one-way processes. To realize this goes against the tendency to think of them as a one-way process. Perhaps some of this tendency comes from interpretations of Francis Fukuyama's end-of-history idea. Perhaps we should remember the ideas of an earlier big-think political philosopher, Plato, about how different forms of government degenerate into other forms. Democracy, as Plato saw it, was not the end state of this process. It was the penultimate state, degenerating into tyranny. Plato's progression of political forms has not matched subsequent history very well, but it provides some food for thought about different possible types of political transformation.

We see the common one-way view of political change in much current political thought and interpretations of current events. The Arab Spring, for example, is usually regarded as a push in the direction of greater democracy as long as the process doesn't get hijacked by those nasty Islamists. Apostles of regime change presume that destabilizing any undemocratic regime will result in a new political system that is freer and more democratic, even though that is not necessarily the case. And there is smugness about the endurance of democratic values in our own political system.

What is going on in Hungary suggests that we should not be so smug. Some of what is involved in Hungary's creeping authoritarianism has echoes in American politics. There is the use of brute legislative force or outright coercion to get one's way, even if this in effect means a compromise of democratic values. And there is a hubristic belief that it is so important for one's own party or movement to be in power that this takes precedence over all other interpretations of the national interest. Viktor Orban has a soulmate of sorts in Mitch McConnell when the latter says his top priority is to defeat the president of the opposing party.

Image: Vincenzo Grande

TopicsAutocracyEuropean UnionDemocracyDomestic PoliticsHistoryPhilosophyPolitical Theory RegionsUnited StatesHungary

Shooting First and Asking Questions Later

Paul Pillar

Leslie Gelb has a piece worth reading at The Daily Beast about Americans' propensity to save their tough questions about American overseas military adventures until after such expeditions are undertaken and go sour, rather than asking the questions before the expeditions begin. “We’re doing this terrible thing all over again,” says Gelb. “As before, we’re letting a bunch of ignorant, sloppy-thinking politicians and politicized foreign-policy experts . . . quick-march us off to war.” Gelb's current concern is the push to go to war against Iran, but he is describing a pattern that has been all too familiar in the past. Gelb is well qualified to make such observations, based on his experience in directing the writing of the Pentagon Papers as well as his later work as a journalist, State Department official and president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

The internal deliberations, described in the Pentagon Papers, on intervening in Vietnam in the mid-1960s were actually quite thorough in most respects, although they were trumped by images of falling dominoes and a fatalistic belief that even a losing war effort had to be waged to keep U.S. credibility intact. Deliberations outside the government were nothing close to thorough. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which became the Congressional authorization for the war, was passed speedily after only brief hearings.

Nearly four decades later, external deliberations on launching a war against Iraq were even more cursory. This time, a Congressional authorizing resolution was passed with no hearings. As for deliberations inside the Bush administration, there weren't any. Unlike with the Vietnam War, there was an astounding absence of any policy process for determining whether the war was a good idea. Many of the questions that have since been asked in public hand-wringing over the Iraq War about who said what at the time are almost irrelevant, because hardly anyone was paying attention to things that were said that turned out to be important.

Gelb lays out some questions that ought to be asked about any military action against Iran. I've raised such questions as well. In fact, I raised a large number of them almost five years ago in an op-ed in the Washington Post titled “What to Ask Before the Next War.” A couple of my questions are now outdated. With the completed withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, for example, we fortunately no longer have to wonder what Iran would do to those troops in retaliation. And in asking what a war against Iran would do to the price of oil, the possible figure I posited of $150 per barrel surely understates where the price would go in response to hostilities today. (When I was writing in February 2007 oil was selling for around $60 per barrel; this week Brent Crude was going for about $111.) But most of the questions are just as relevant as they were in 2007. If I was raising such questions five years ago, that means we should have had plenty of time to study them, especially for something as drastic as launching another offensive war. I invite you to look at the questions and ask whether public debate has adequately considered them, let alone provided answers adequate to justify another such adventure.

Image: iStockPhoto

TopicsCounterinsurgencyCongressPublic OpinionNuclear ProliferationRogue States RegionsIranIraqUnited StatesVietnam

China in the Persian Gulf

Paul Pillar

Be careful what you wish for regarding how other powers react to the latest effort to ratchet up pressure on Iran. Especially when the other power is as potent a competitor as China. China depends on Iran for 11 percent of its imported oil. The idea of joining in a de facto embargo of Iranian oil through ostracism of the Iranian central bank thus naturally discomfits the Chinese. It is still unclear exactly how Beijing will play this one, as it considers how the issue affects both its relations with the United States and the state of its energy-thirsty economy. An obvious response is to work ever harder to shore up China's relations with the other Persian Gulf oil producers. That is largely what Chinese premier Wen Jiabao's current trip to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates is about.

Chinese diplomacy is not necessarily always opposed to U.S. interests, but the overall pattern as China has endeavored to secure sources of energy for itself has not been encouraging. Getting oil has taken precedence over issues important to the international community. China's major investment in the Sudanese oil industry (from which China gets another 5 percent of its imported oil) has gotten in the way of any Chinese help on the Darfur problem. (More recently, however, with the secession of South Sudan, China's interest in keeping the oil flowing may give it an incentive to be helpful. It dispatched a mediator last month to help resolve a dispute between Sudan and South Sudan over arrangements for exporting the South's oil through the North.)

In the Middle East, another Chinese interest—at least as strong as the one in oil—gives Beijing a new reason to be unhelpful. That is the interest in not having the Arab Spring put any democratic, revolutionary ideas into Chinese heads. Beijing's nervousness about this has gone to such extremes as making jasmine a sort of contraband, out of fear that the flower that became a symbol for revolution in Tunisia might come to play a similar role in China. To the extent that activist Chinese diplomacy gives China greater influence on Middle Eastern regimes, any Chinese advice given on how to handle popular discontent is bound to be bad advice from a Western point of view. It would be advice on how to crack down and maintain a dictatorship rather than on how to smooth the way toward a more democratic state.

Premier Wen's delegation signed a slew of agreements with Saudi Arabia, the first stop on his trip. One of them concerned Chinese help in developing nuclear energy in Saudi Arabia. That makes economic sense for the Saudis, conserving more of their oil for export and sale rather than domestic consumption. But it is an interesting development in light of the assertion one sometimes hears that the oil-rich country on the other side of the Persian Gulf can't really be interested in a nuclear program primarily for energy generation.

We should not rule out the possibility of Riyadh and Beijing springing strategic surprises on us. They have done it before, with the sale of Chinese CSS-2 intermediate-range ballistic missiles to Saudi Arabia in the late 1980s. Although there is no indication that the missiles have ever been armed with nuclear warheads, their inaccuracy gives them questionable strategic value when equipped only with conventional warheads.

In brief, the latest effort to pressure a Middle Eastern state that will never come anywhere close to challenging U.S. power is stimulating the one state that credibly poses such a challenge to become more active in the region in a way that will tend to lessen the relative influence of the United States and work against U.S. interests. It is another example of how the pressure is being exerted as if it were an end in itself, with little thought to the likely consequences.

TopicsAutocracyDemocracyEnergyGreat PowersSanctionsNuclear ProliferationTrade RegionsChinaIranSudanQatarTunisiaSaudi ArabiaUnited Arab Emirates

Romney, Corporations, and Government

Paul Pillar

The criticisms by Mitt Romney’s Republican opponents of his record as a private-equity artist may be motivated by desperation in trying to deny him a nomination that seems almost in his grasp, but that record is certainly fair game. Romney, after all, has repeatedly touted his business experience as supposedly a major qualification for the presidency. Since Newt Gingrich and the others have made this an issue in the primary campaign, they have tended to focus on whether companies under the control of Bain Capital slashed more jobs than they created. That focus is understandable in an election campaign in which unemployment is a major issue. But the lessons for how we view either the private-equity business or Mitt Romney’s ability to function as president go well beyond a balance sheet about jobs.

To the extent the claims and barbs of this election campaign cast light on what private-equity artists do, and on the larger effect on the economy and society of what they do, that is a good thing. Although to some extent what they do is part of the allocation of capital that is necessary for successful capitalism, to a larger extent what they do is exploitative and parasitic. It is essentially a process in which the financial clout that enables a private-equity firm to take complete control of a company is used in an exploitative mode, taking advantage of the heads-I-win-tails-you-lose relationship between the private-equity firm and the owned company. The nature of the result is reflected in companies that have received the private-equity treatment having a bankruptcy rate that is twice that of publicly owned firms that have not had that experience. Anything with a result like that is unlikely to be on balance good for the larger economy. If campaign-generated light shining on the private-equity business stimulates more debate about possibly needed regulation of the business or about how private-equity profits ought to be taxed, so much the better.

These considerations may be enough to draw some legitimate conclusions about what makes Mitt Romney tick, what motivates him and what he values most. But the relevance of his experience at Bain Capital for how he would function as president requires analysis that goes farther than that. I took a stab at such an analysis several weeks ago. I pointed out that an important distinction needs to be drawn between an executive who feels a stake in the long-term growth and health of a company and, in contrast, the private equity artist for whom a company is merely a temporary means from which to extract maximum profit and then be discarded—never mind the health or solvency of what is discarded. For a President Mitt Romney, the federal government would be one more company over which he had temporary control, to be discarded after four or eight years after extracting whatever would be for him the functional equivalent of profit.

Daniel Drezner offers this week some observations that echo mine, summarized in his headline statement that “governments are not corporations.” Not having monetary profit as a single measure of success is one obvious difference. Another major difference, most relevant to the contrast with the private-equity business, is that government does not have the freedom to get into lines of business that do well and to get out, or stay out, of ones that don’t. Government is expected to do certain things, no matter how difficult or “unprofitable” they may be. In fact, government does some of these things largely because the private sector does not see any profit in them or sees the risk of failure as too high. NASA, for example, does things for which the current state of the technology makes them too unprofitable or risky to be attractive to private enterprise. Once the government space program has blazed a technological trail, private enterprise may follow later. The suborbital trips that the nascent space tourism business is getting into now involve what government accomplished over half a century ago with the X-15 rocket plane. The space program may still present some getting-in-or-getting-out sorts of choices, but there are countless other functions of government that do not, because of political pressures or simply a firm expectation of what services government ought to provide. These range from the policing of crime to the provision of old-age assistance through Social Security to the management of difficult but unavoidable relationships with foreign states.

Mitt Romney took flak for equating corporations with people. A bigger worry in wondering how he would function as president is the notion of equating corporations with government.

TopicsDemocracyDomestic PoliticsElectionsInnovationPolitical Economy RegionsUnited States

Assassination in Iran

Paul Pillar

The killing of an individual foreigner overseas, if carried out for a political or policy purpose by either a nonstate actor or clandestine agents of a state, is an act of international terrorism. At least that is how U.S. law defines it, for purposes such as the State Department's annual reports on terrorism. This form of terrorism is part of what put Iran on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Through the 1980s and into the 1990s, the Iranian regime perpetrated numerous assassinations of exiled Iranian political dissidents, in Europe as well as in other countries of southwest Asia. The Iranians effectively ended this assassination campaign about a decade and a half ago, largely to improve relations with the European countries on whose soil many of the assassinations occurred and perhaps also because by then Iran had bumped off nearly all of the people on its hit list. We should assume, however, that Iran retains the capability to assassinate far-flung targets again, and that it would consider doing so if searching for ways to strike back at adversaries that are striking it.

Iran itself has been a victim of this form of terrorist violence. This has included some instances, such as the killing of Iranian diplomats in Afghanistan, in which Iranian interests have paralleled those of the United States. It has included during the past two years the killing in Iran of several nuclear scientists, the most recent of whom died this week from an explosive placed on his vehicle. Actions are more important than nomenclature, so if you prefer not to apply the T-word to these killings then just imagine what the reaction would be if something similar were occurring in the United States. Imagine the response if even just one scientist (let alone four or five) who was employed, say, at one of the U.S. national laboratories had been been similarly assassinated and a foreign hand was suspected. There would be screams of “act of war” and the U.S. president would be hard-pressed to hold back impulses to strike back forcefully. Now put yourselves in the Iranians' place. Not only do they face the serial assassination of their scientists, but they face it amid an environment filled with numerous other indications of foreign hostility, including the economic warfare, the saber rattling and the contest among American politicians to see who can shoot the most rhetorical venom at Iran. From this perspective, aptly described by Vali Nasr, it should hardly be surprising if Iran strikes back while it sees more reason than ever before to develop a nuclear weapon in the hope of deterring U.S.-led aggressiveness.

I don't know, of course, who is responsible for the assassinations of the scientists. I do not believe my own country is, and Secretary of State Clinton has explicitly denied “any United States involvement in any kind of act of violence inside Iran.” Although over the last thirty years the United States has edged away from the strict prohibition on assassination embodied in Executive Order 12333, we Americans are still morally (and esthetically) squeamish enough about such things that the kind of hit job that took place this week on a north Tehran street doesn't seem to be our thing. We assassinate people, but in addition to euphemizing the act by calling it “targeted killing,” we limit the targets to people we are convinced are themselves terrorists, not scientists or something else. We also use means that we can think of as “war,” preferably means that can be employed from several thousand feet in the air so we don't get too close to the bloody reality. The one time we did get close to it, last May, we still used military means, and that was to eliminate the most notorious terrorist in the world.

My hunch about responsibility for the killing of the Iranian scientists is similar to that of Trita Parsi, who says the assassination “was likely conducted by a regional actor who prefers a military confrontation with Iran over a compromise that would permit Iran to retain nuclear enrichment capabilities, even if it doesn’t build a bomb.” The trouble for the United States is that because it so obsequiously does the bidding of the regional actor in question, it is seen as responsible for anything that actor does and can be expected to share in any resulting opprobrium or retaliation for what that actor does. This gets back to Iran's continued presumed capacity for making assassinations a tit-for-tat business. Do not be surprised if it endeavors to do exactly that, although Tehran will pick its targets, timing and methods carefully to achieve a degree of deniability. The last confirmed official Iranian involvement in committing a terrorist act that killed Americans—the bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996—left tracks well enough covered that it took years of investigation to determine the Iranian role. Possibly the caper last year involving the DEA informant and the used-car salesman from Texas was intended as a reprisal for earlier assassinations of Iranian scientists, but the public story of that supposed plot is still so murky that any Iranian role can hardly be considered “confirmed.”

A further tragedy in all of this is that it is a stretch, to put it mildly, to think that murdering some scientists would delay the oh-so-feared Iranian nuclear weapon, as if the only plans and knowledge useful to the program resided in the heads of the murdered men. And this is entirely in addition to the moral dimension of what has taken place. What do we know about Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan that makes him any more worthy of being a victim of assassination than counterpart scientists in the United States or elsewhere would be?

The proper U.S. response to all this is to pursue—vigorously—negotiations with Iran, with the starting point being the most recent Iranian proposal for a new round of talks with the P5+1. That is the only way out of the larger spiral of mutually reinforcing hostility of which the assassinations are only a part. And if, as Parsi suggests, the most recent act of terrorism was intended at least partly to scuttle such talks, that is all the more reason to negotiate in earnest. To do otherwise would be, to use a hackneyed phrase, a victory for the terrorists.

TopicsDomestic PoliticsEthicsSanctionsNuclear ProliferationRogue StatesTerrorism RegionsIsraelIranUnited States

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