Paul Pillar

Shoulda Coulda Woulda on North Korea

Paul Pillar

Debate over foreign policy is usually far removed from the scientific method, but that doesn't stop many who engage in the debate from drawing strong inferences based on limited data. If the latest policy approach to a problem doesn't bring quick and desirable results, then the conclusion is drawn that the approach is unwise or at least defective. Such conclusions are often employed tendentiously, of course, for the sake of attacking someone else's policies or someone else's administration. But the conclusions, however unjustified they may be, have a couple of more basic sources.

One is a short collective memory, coupled with the tendency to ascribe to incumbents responsibility for whatever problems are preoccupying us at the moment. We see this reflected in the tendency to treat a presidential election as a referendum on how things have been going for the nation lately (more with respect to domestic policy than foreign affairs). It is reflected in the inclination to throw the current bums out, even if the previous bums might not have done any better. This is a general pattern, going well beyond the United States and involving different methods for changing governments. It is exhibited, for example, in Pakistan, where a pattern of alternating every few years between military and civilian rule continues as Pakistanis periodically get fed up with whoever has been ruling them most recently.

The other source is more peculiarly American: a belief that the right policies ought to be able to solve even the most difficult problems. Americans have a hard time believing, given how successful their nation has been at so many things, that some problems are intractable even for a superpower.

North Korea, and particularly its weapons programs, is an excellent example of an intractable problem. Several aspects of the "hermit kingdom" make it so. At the core of the policy dilemma that North Korea presents to outside powers is its proclivity, which it has honed into an art form, of misbehaving as a way of getting attention and rewards. The trick for outsiders, which is difficult to perform, is to find ways to induce better behavior in the future without rewarding misbehavior of the recent past. The United States does not have the keys to this particular kingdom. If any outside power has the keys, it is China, but Beijing's interests in North Korea only partially parallel those of Washington.

North Korea is about to conduct a rocket launch that it describes as intended only to launch a satellite but that many outside observers say is a disguised test of a long-range ballistic missile with a military mission. There is also talk, especially from the South Koreans, of the North possibly being on the verge of a third underground test of a nuclear weapon. So not surprisingly, and consistent with the usual tendency of inferring that a policy is unwise if it does not bring quick positive results, critics of the Obama administration charge that its most recent tack on Korea was a mistake. That tack was an agreement reached with Pyongyang two months ago that offered food aid in return for a ban on further tests of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

The criticism misses several things. Hardly anything was given up in the deal reached in February. The food aid would consist of nutritional supplements that would be difficult for the regime to divert from the civilian population to the military and that meets a legitimate humanitarian need entirely apart from the weapons issues. Not to have taken this initiative would have missed an opportunity to test North Korean intentions following the leadership succession from Kim Jong-il to Kim Jong-un. A policy of not engaging Pyongyang was tried for several years under the previous administration, without success in preventing North Korea's first nuclear tests. Most important, there is no reason to believe that not concluding the agreement would have brought about any better results today. An anonymous senior administration official understandably complained, “There's a lot of 'shoulda, coulda, woulda' now from outsiders.”

Those who have more of a right to criticize are ones who are proposing something that has not been tried before and offer analysis on why the alternative they are proposing has a better chance of getting favorable results. Ted Galen Carpenter did so recently in these spaces in arguing for normal relationships with North Korea and Iran.

Image: zennie62

TopicsNuclear ProliferationRogue States RegionsChinaUnited StatesNorth KoreaPakistan

Pluralism in Egypt

Paul Pillar

The Egyptian presidential-election campaign is getting more interesting all the time. It certainly offers more variety than the presidential-election campaign in the United States, which consists of an incumbent and a bunch of other guys who all say that Barack Obama is the worst thing ever to infect the American body politic and that it will take a severely conservative candidate to root him out of office. In Egypt, a more diverse spectrum of candidates are vying for the top job. And they are vying for it despite not knowing what powers a yet-to-be-written constitution will confer on the new president.

The Egyptian race discombobulates commentators who customarily deal in simplistic portrayals of good guys versus bad guys and make arguments for supporting the good guys. What is one to make, for example, of the latest entrant into the race: Omar Suleiman, who was Hosni Mubarak's longtime intelligence chief and briefly his vice president? One might say he represents an old order dragging down the new, but he also was a trusted interlocutor of the United States who was closely associated with still-valued things such as maintaining the peace with Israel. He is just the sort of multifaceted candidate who confuses pundits to whom both the “freedom agenda” and Israel are important.

Then there is Hazem Abu Ismail, the white-bearded candidate who represents the Salafists, the harder-core portion of the much-feared Islamists. Currently his main problem is the recent revelation that his late mother had acquired U.S. citizenship. That reminds me of a comment recorded by NPR from a Republican voter who said that Obama should be disqualified from the presidency because “in the Constitution it states that you have to have two parents that were born in the United States.” The U.S. Constitution doesn't say that, of course, but the current Egyptian electoral rules do say that a presidential candidate and both his parents can have no citizenship other than Egyptian. So Abu Ismail appears to be headed for disqualification. Should we regret that or welcome it? For an Egyptian president to have an American mother seems like a plus for the United States.

Staying with the Salafists but going beyond the presidential candidates, there are other interesting details about personal inclinations. My favorite concerns the member of parliament for the Salafist Nour Party who, with his face in bandages, claimed that he been the victim of an assault. It later came to light that he instead had undergone plastic surgery on his nose. Plastic surgery is a no-no for ultra-conservative Salafists. The member resigned his seat.

Then consider presidential candidates who have been associated with the Muslim Brotherhood—i.e., the part of the Islamist spectrum that is more moderate than the part with the leaders who have American moms or get nose jobs. There are more than one such candidates, but the officially endorsed candidate of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party is Khairat al-Shater, who, besides being the Brotherhood's deputy leader, is also a multimillionaire businessman. Whatever he may represent regarding a goal of instituting a more Islamic social order in Egypt, he has made a lot of money in a largely secular economy.

The overall picture is one of political leaders with cross-cutting interests. Political scientists have a word for this; it is called pluralism. It is a pattern that helps make any democracy, including a newly emerging one, healthier and more stable than it otherwise would be. It means that destabilizing divisions are tamped because compromises are made within the minds and hearts of individual leaders (and many individual voters). It means that simplistic assertions about who are good guys and who are not, and whom we on the outside ought or ought not to favor, are misdirected. It means we should not get especially alarmed about any one possible outcome of the Egyptian election.  And it is one of the reasons that attempts at blanket criticism of Obama for how he has reacted to events in Egypt, or in some other locales of Arab Spring turmoil, tend to dissolve into the kind of self-contradiction that includes criticism both for supporting Mubarak and for not supporting him.

TopicsDemocracyDomestic PoliticsElectionsThe PresidencyPolitical Economy RegionsEgyptUnited States

Hostages in Iran

Paul Pillar

We ought to hope that the description in a New York Times report of the U.S. position going into negotiations with Iran about nuclear activities does not fairly represent what U.S. and other Western negotiators will bring to the table. Perhaps we can take heart in the absence of a good reason to expect that leaks to journalists of negotiating positions will be complete and entirely accurate. Leaks, after all, are designed for various audiences, and not necessarily the one that will be faced across the conference table. Nonetheless, it is disturbing to read of an approach that probably would diminish rather than enhance the prospects for movement toward an agreement that satisfies Western interests. The lede of the Times story is that the Obama administration and its European partners will open the talks by “demanding the immediate closing and ultimate dismantling” of Iran's uranium-enrichment facility at Fordo. This is the newer of two such Iranian facilities and the one that—because it was constructed, no doubt at substantially higher cost, inside a mountain—is relatively less vulnerable to armed attack. This demand echoes Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak's recent singling out, amid more talk by Barak in the same interview about possibly resorting to military force, of closure of Fordo as a key Israeli objective.

The Western message to Tehran seems pretty clear: we might be willing to tolerate some sort of Iranian nuclear program, but only one consisting of facilities that would suffer significant damage if we, or the Israelis, later decide to bomb it. In other words, we insist on holding Iranian nuclear facilities hostage to armed attack. Not the sort of formula that inspires trust among Iranian leaders and gives them much incentive to move toward an agreement.

Two major pieces of context should be remembered in thinking about negotiating positions on the Iranian nuclear issue and how Tehran is likely to approach the negotiations. One is that Iran—unlike nuclear-weapons states to its west and east, including one very hostile to Iran—is a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and subjects its nuclear facilities to international inspections. These are parts of the global nonproliferation regime, which also embodies a right to peaceful nuclear programs. Demands being levied on Iran but not on others thus constitute a glaring double standard. Repeated references to the need for Iran to “live up to its international obligations,” as mentioned by the National Security Council spokesman on Friday, refer not to any universal obligation but instead to Iran-specific United Nations Security Council resolutions that were pushed by the United States and that embody the double standard.

The other contextual factor is that getting any international agreement requires each side to have confidence that the other side is serious about reaching a settlement and that, if an agreement is reached, the pain and costs of not having an agreement will end. Amid the overwhelming and unrelenting emphasis on inflicting ever-greater pain on Iran through draconian sanctions, not to mention all the saber rattling about possible use of military force, there is no shortage of incentives on the negative side of the ledger for Tehran to want an agreement. The doubts concern the ledger's other side, which has to do with how Tehran perceives the West's intentions and seriousness about an agreement as well as what an agreement would or would not mean for Iran.

The Iranians have good reason for doubts. There is ample reason for them to believe—a belief reinforced by the experience of Qaddafi in Libya—that ultimately the main Western interest is in regime change. In the near term, they also have reason to wonder whether, if they start making significant concessions, they will see any significant lessening of the sanctions. (There is no mention of that in the Times story.) And although the Obama administration does want a deal, demands that can easily be interpreted either as deal breakers or as having been selected with a military attack in mind tend to raise questions about that, too. Relieving such doubts ought to be a major objective of the United States and its P5+1 partners in planning their approach toward the talks.

The Obama administration has placed high stakes on negotiations with Iran. In dealing with the immediate problem of an Israeli government with an itchy trigger finger, the administration has signed on to the Israeli position of an Iranian nuclear weapon being unacceptable. The United States ought to place heavy emphasis on negotiations with Iran in any case. There is still ample unexplored negotiating space for reaching an agreement with Tehran. But given the stakes, the administration cannot afford to risk messing up the process by focusing on demands that seem to have more to do with simplifying the task of Israeli military targeteers than they do with anything else.


TopicsSanctionsNuclear Proliferation RegionsIsraelIranLibyaUnited States

How Commitments Work

Paul Pillar

A recurring theme in foreign-policy debates is the damage to national credibility that supposedly would result if a state backs away from anything that could be seen as a commitment. Commitments in this context need not be anything as formal as a treaty of alliance. They could be seen to be established by a leader's rhetoric or to be implied by an ongoing endeavor such as a military expedition. An argument frequently heard, as it was during the Vietnam War and now during the war in Afghanistan, is that backing away would so damage U.S. credibility in the eyes of other nations or other actors abroad that the United States would no longer be believed when it expresses some other commitment. And because of that, goes the argument, the ability of the United States to protect its most important interests would be diminished.

The trouble with such an argument is that it simply does not reflect how states tend to assess the credibility of other states. Such assessments are based on how important a particular interest is believed to be to the other state, much more so than how the other state behaved in the past when dealing with some lesser interest. That is how we in the United States routinely estimate the behavior of other nations. The fact that the other guy once backed away from an interest that was not vital to him does not lead us to think that he will not defend to the death an interest that is.

Commitments do matter, however, in a way that our very preoccupation with them suggests. They matter because of their role in our own internal debates. Because we believe that backing away from a perceived commitment would be damaging, anyone seen to be doing so is vulnerable to a charge of harming the nation's interests. This points to a tactic for getting support for a measure that might not otherwise get it. First, elicit an expressed commitment to achieve some objective. Then, later, argue that one's preferred measure is the only way to achieve the objective and to uphold the commitment. Further argue that failure to take the measure and thus failure to uphold the commitment would severely damage the nation's credibility.

Something like this has been happening with the issue of Iran's nuclear program. When commenting a few weeks ago on a draft Senate resolution that would declare the advent of an Iranian nuke to be unacceptable and to reject any policy involving containment of a nuclear-armed Iran, I noted that this is just the sort of declaration that sets the stage for its proponents later to demand the United States take whatever steps are needed to fulfill the commitment of preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon, even if this means starting a war. This process already has begun. The resolution has not yet been adopted, but President Obama's statement that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be unacceptable—part of the high price he paid to buy time before Israel starts a war with Iran—is enough for the tactic to be employed. In a group discussion about Iran I attended this week, someone asked rhetorically how, if the United States allows Iran to build a nuclear weapon, anyone in the region will believe anything that the United States says in the future. The implication was that the United States needs to spare no risk or cost to prevent the given eventuality, not because the eventuality is unacceptable but instead because we have declared it to be unacceptable. It seems to go unnoticed that if this is a problem, the problem lies in having made any such declaration in the first place.

Now consider a different sort of commitment expressed by the leader on the other end of this issue: Iranian supreme leader Khamenei. He has said that possessing nuclear weapons is a sin. This posture has evoked comment in the United States, mostly in the direction of downplaying the significance of this religiously based posture and emphasizing that pragmatic considerations leading Iran to view possession of a nuclear weapon as advantageous would trump any fatwas about the weapons being sinful and that the supreme leader can always revise his ostensibly religious pronouncements to fit circumstances. It is interesting to note that some of the same people who say pragmatism would overcome this particular religiously based posture also contend that religiously based fervor or fanaticism would trump pragmatism when it comes to how Iran would behave if it did get the bomb.

Pragmatic considerations will indeed carry more weight than religious views about sin in governing Iranian decisions about whether to build a bomb. But Khamenei's publicly declared posture about the sinfulness of nuclear weapons is nonetheless significant in the same way that publicly expressed commitments by our own leaders are significant: in affecting what policies can be sold to internal and domestic audiences. If the supreme leader determines that it is in his regime's interests to strike a deal with the West that would clearly rule out an Iranian nuke, his statements have made it more feasible for him to win internal backing for such a deal—by underscoring publicly that Iran never wanted nuclear weapons anyway and is morally right not to want them. Leaving himself this kind of out is a reason for optimism in what the coming negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 can achieve, notwithstanding all the other hurdles and roadblocks that the negotiations will have to overcome.

Obama Image: SyalAntilles

Khamenei Image:

TopicsDomestic PoliticsReligionNuclear Proliferation RegionsIranUnited States

The Accidental Coup

Paul Pillar

A reminder of how human history, including the portion of it involving political and public affairs, sometimes hinges on otherwise minor twists and turns is the coup d'etat two weeks ago in Mali, which has since become the target of regional isolation and ostracism. A group of junior army officers led by a captain named Amadou Sanogo deposed the government of Amadou Toumani Touré and declared itself to be a National Committee for the Return of Democracy and the Restoration of the State. Sanogo, who says he will be happy to go back to the barracks soon and be a company or battalion commander, promises early elections.

Most coups, and certainly most that succeed, are the result of plans carefully constructed by determined plotters. That evidently was not the case with last month's coup in Mali. The event began with discontent in the ranks of the Malian military over the government's handling of a rebellion by Tuaregs in the north of the country. The rebellion has surged in recent months—leading the other day to a Tuareg capture of Timbuktu—probably facilitated by an influx of arms from Libya following the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi. When the Malian defense minister visited a military camp a few miles outside the capital of Bamako and failed to respond adequately to grievances about the response to the rebellion, soldiers started firing in the air and stoning the minister's car. As things got out of hand in the enlisted ranks, most officers at the camp fled. An exception was Sanogo, who soon found himself at the head of a revolt that made its way to the state broadcasting station and the presidential palace. A spontaneous protest had transformed into a mutiny and then into a coup.

There probably are more turns of history than we realize that hinge on such spur-of-the-moment responses to unsettled circumstances. These and other accidents of the moment can, in the right circumstances, make the difference in something as significant as a government falling or not falling.

Besides reminding us of this reason for the unpredictability of history, the incident also is a reminder of how readily loyalties can shift. It would be easy to dismiss a coup in Mali as merely business as usual in the less developed world. But the lines between that world and our own are not always clear and thick as far as this subject is concerned. Mali had been scheduled to have an election later this month, and many were anticipating a peaceful transfer of power from Touré to someone else. And how should we regard such questions as they apply, say, to Turkey? The accepted wisdom about Turkey seems to be that military coups there are finally a thing of the past. But the past in question is not very distant, and the arrow of time does not always run in one direction as far as the coup-making propensity of militaries is concerned.

We might also note that it was fifty-one years ago this month, in the next country to the north of Mali—i.e., Algeria—that four French generals staged a putsch that they intended would lead to a takeover of the government of France. It took Charles de Gaulle, donning his World War II uniform and appealing once again to the patriotism of his countrymen, to defeat the coup attempt.

Image: State television of Mali

TopicsHistoryState of the Military RegionsAlgeriaFranceLibyaTurkeyMali

Nuclear Nonproliferation in the Middle East

Paul Pillar

There are two main pieces of conventional wisdom, widely held but almost never examined, about the regional effects of an Iranian nuclear weapon. One is that possession of a nuke would make Iran significantly more aggressive and troublesome in the Middle East, a notion that does not stand up to scrutiny of Iran's calculations and motivations or those of its neighbors. The other is that the advent of an Iranian weapon would trigger a wave of further nuclear proliferation in the region. Steven Cook has provided a good corrective to this second bit conventional wisdom. Cook examines the capabilities and likely intentions of the most probable proliferators—Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia—and finds none of them are plausible candidates to be the next proud owner of a nuclear weapon, regardless of any concerns about Iran. None of them has the technology and infrastructure to make a nuclear-weapons program feasible in the foreseeable future, and each would have to worry about reactions of the international community and especially of the United States.

The idea of a near-certain spread of nuclear weapons has partly been talked up by those having other reasons to agitate about the dangers of an Iranian nuke. But the notion also is grounded in a habitual American way of looking at foreign threats (and foreign opportunities), which is to apply spatial imagery and assume the geographic spread of a phenomenon from one neighboring country to another. This outlook was a basis for different domino theories, including the one that according to neoconservatives would see democracy spread from a Saddam-less Iraq to other Arab states. Another famous domino theory underlaid U.S. military intervention in Vietnam in the 1960s: the idea that the fall of South Vietnam to communism would lead a succession of Asian neighbors to fall as well. That earlier domino theory was consistent with an alternative Cold War visual imagery of red paint oozing over the globe—which also happened to look like the well-known logo of a major paint company. The idea of a rapid proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East is just the latest manifestation of the Sherwin-Williams theory of international relations.

If the leaders of would-be proliferator states were to carefully consider what nuclear weapons could and could not do for them, they would have other reasons, in addition to those Cook discusses, for not attempting to acquire such weapons even if a beleaguered Iran decided to do so. There simply are not a lot of useful things you can do with nukes. As Zeev Maoz argued in an article several years ago, nuclear weapons may not even have enhanced the security of the sole Middle Eastern state—Israel—that has had the weapons and had them for decades. If we can get away from narrow, scared-chicken fixation on the supposed threat from any one possible bit of nuclear proliferation and instead let more sober calculations prevail, the long-discussed concept of a Middle East nuclear-weapons-free zone would become feasible.

TopicsArms ControlNuclear Proliferation RegionsIsraelEgyptIranUnited StatesTurkeySaudi Arabia

The Arab Spring in American Thought and Strategy

Paul Pillar

American interpretations of, and responses to, the region-wide but nation-specific uprisings known as the Arab Spring have suffered from multiple handicaps. Some of the chief handicaps have involved the felt need to exorcise old demons or to reinterpret old failures. The not-so-distant history of genocides (most notably and terribly in Rwanda) that in retrospect appear preventable, and the increasing acceptance in the West in recent years of the doctrine of “responsibility to protect,” have led many to view some of the conflicts in Arab states as primarily an issue of humanitarian intervention. A personification of this outlook is Samantha Power, the self-described “genocide chick” who wrote a finger-pointing account of the Western response to the Rwandan episode and later was able to push her concerns from inside the Obama administration. This outlook shaped the rationale for NATO's military intervention in Libya, despite the weakness of the argument that without the intervention there would have been a Rwanda-in-Cyrenaica bloodbath at the hands of the Qaddafi regime.

Then there is the “freedom agenda” of neoconservatives still smarting from the fact that what was by far their biggest initiative ever—a military intervention in an Arab country—did not work out the way they had planned or promised. Some neocons have tried to portray the Arab Spring as having somehow been stimulated by their Iraq project, even though this notion is supported by neither the timing nor the all-too-evident negative regional reactions to the “birth pangs of democracy” in an increasingly authoritarian Iraq. Other neocons have not tried to make this connection but nonetheless have tried to latch on to the uprisings as a sort of vindication of the freedom agenda, while disregarding the major distinction between the self-empowerment that was the dominant theme in Cairo's Tahrir Square a year ago and any attempt to inject democracy through the barrels of Western guns. Some are talking about military intervention yet again, especially in Syria, in a kind of intellectual doubling down, apparently in the hope of somehow offsetting or forgetting about the losses from the Iraq War.

Besides the old demons and failures, there have been other impediments to clear thinking about the upheaval in the Middle East. One is prevailing suspicion of any political Islamist, a suspicion that ignores the major differences among those who couch their objectives in Islamic terms and also overlooks how much political Islam provides a mainstream vocabulary in the Middle East today. Another impediment is the current hysteria over Iran, which has become so strong that it is coloring much else that is said and written about the Middle East. And of course there are all the politicizing influences of a presidential-election year in the United States.

In an op-ed this Sunday, Henry Kissinger offers a useful perspective on the strategically deficient American response to the Arab Spring. Some of his comments deserve challenge, and he brings some baggage and perhaps some thin skin of his own to the topic. He protests too much when he describes an evolving U.S. consensus in favor of aligning with Middle Eastern revolutionary movements as “a kind of compensation for Cold War policies—invariably described as 'misguided'—in which [the United States] cooperated with non-democratic governments in the region for security objectives.” This kind of “compensation” has not been any more in evidence in discourse on the subject than the other kinds I just mentioned. Kissinger also signs on to the fixation on Iran by unconvincingly stating that Iran is the “principal challenge” to core security objectives of achieving a durable Arab-Israeli peace, ensuring the free flow of oil and avoiding a regional hegemon. (Possible responses to the fixation, rather than Iran itself, may endanger the first two objectives and disprove that Iran is the main problem with the third.)

Nonetheless, Kissinger raises more fundamental questions about what he sees as a “redefinition of heretofore prevalent principles of foreign policy.” He asks, “Will democratic reconstruction replace national interest as the lodestar of Middle East policy? Is democratic reconstruction what the Arab Spring in fact represents?” Kissinger is blurring together the concepts of humanitarianism and democracy as drivers of intervention, but that is fair because the prevailing outlook he is criticizing badly blurs them together as well.

Kissinger correctly notes some of the more precise questions that need to be asked but have barely been addressed:

U.S. public opinion has already recoiled from the scope of the efforts required to transform Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Do we believe that a less explicitly strategic involvement disclaiming a U.S. national interest will make nation building less complex? Do we have a preference as to which groups come to power? Or are we agnostic so long as the mechanisms are electoral? If the latter, how do we avoid fostering a new absolutism legitimized by managed plebiscites and sect-based permanent majorities? What outcomes are compatible with America’s core strategic interests in the region? Will it be possible to combine strategic withdrawal from key countries and reduced military expenditures with doctrines of universal humanitarian intervention? Discussion of these issues has been largely absent from the debate over U.S. foreign policy regarding the Arab Spring.

Reasonable people can disagree about the appropriate answers to many of these questions. The single aspect that any good strategy for the region must have, however—and is a requirement even to be called a strategy—is a long-term perspective that looks beyond the ostensibly pressing situations of the moment. The dominant perspective so far toward the Middle Eastern uprisings has too often been to strive for an immediate warm feeling in one's tummy by helping to overthrow a despised dictator or by convincing ourselves that we are saving lives. The prospect of subsequent messiness has not intruded much into that thought process. Steve Hendrix has a report in Sunday's Washington Post about how messy the post-overthrow situation is in Libya, where people can't even agree on where to dump garbage. Kissinger puts it nicely: “We must take care lest, in an era of shortened attention spans, revolutions turn, for the outside world, into a transitory Internet experience—watched intently for a few key moments, then tuned out once the main event is deemed over.”

TopicsDemocracyHumanitarian InterventionPost-Conflict RegionsIsraelIranIraqLibyaUnited StatesSyria

The Increasingly Transparent U.S.-Israeli Conflict of Interest

Paul Pillar

We have a comparative lull at the moment in what has been saturation attention to Iran and its nuclear program. The lull comes after the concentrated warmongering rhetoric associated with the recent visit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the AIPAC conference in Washington, and before the opening in mid-April of the only channel offering a way out of the impasse associated with the Iranian nuclear issue: direct negotiations between Iran and the powers known as the P5+1. It is a good time to reflect on how much the handling of this issue underscores the gulf between Israeli policies and U.S. interests. The gulf exists for two reasons. One is that the Netanyahu government's policies reflect only a Rightist slice of the Israeli political spectrum, with which many Israelis disagree and which is contrary to broader and longer-term interests of Israel itself. The other reason is that even broadly defined Israeli interests will never be congruent with U.S. interests. This should hardly be surprising. There is no reason to expect the interests of the world superpower to align with those of any of the parties to a regional dispute involving old ethnically or religiously based claims to land.

An article this week by Ethan Bronner in the New York Times addresses one of the drivers behind the Israeli policy: a historically based obsession of Mr. Netanyahu, for whom an Iranian nuclear weapon would be, as Bronner puts it, “the 21st-century equivalent of the Nazi war machine and the Spanish Inquisition.” The extent to which the issue is a personal compulsion of Netanyahu is reflected in estimates that even within his own cabinet (and even with the support of Defense Minister Ehud Barak), a vote in favor of war with Iran might be as close as eight to six. A former Likud activist who has become a critic of Netanyahu explains, “Bibi is a messianist. He believes with all his soul and every last molecule of his being that he—I don't quite know how to express it—is King David.” It is not in a superpower's interest to get sucked into projects of someone with a King David complex.

Given—as several Israelis who have been senior figures in the country's security establishment have noted—that an Iranian nuclear weapon would not pose an existential threat to Israel, one has to look to other reasons for the Israeli agitation about the Iranian nuclear program. Besides Netanyahu's personal obsession, there are the broader Israeli fears and emotions, the desire to maintain a regional nuclear-weapons monopoly and the distraction that the Iran issue provides from outside attention to the Palestinians' lack of popular sovereignty. Columnist Richard Cohen, in a piece last week that is clearly sympathetic to Israel, mentions one more reason: a desire to stem a brain drain to the United States of Israelis who would rather live in a more secure place. Clearly there is no congruence with U.S. interests here. In fact, taking in the talent that is found among the Israeli émigrés is a net plus for the United States and the U.S. economy.

The Iranian nuclear issue only reconfirms the noncongruence of U.S. and Israeli interests that should have been apparent from other issues. Most of those issues revolve around the continued Israeli occupation and colonization of disputed land inhabited by Palestinians. The United States has no positive interest in Israel clinging to that land—only the negative interest involving the opprobrium and anger directed at it for being so closely associated with Israeli policies and actions. Another reminder of the lonely position in which the United States finds itself almost every time it automatically condones Israeli behavior came last week, when the United Nations Human Rights Council voted for an inquiry into how Israeli settlements in the occupied territories affect the rights of Palestinians. Initiation of the inquiry was approved with thirty-six votes in favor, ten abstentions and a single no vote by the United States.

If the United States escapes a war with Iran by achieving success in negotiations (which Netanyahu and his government have in effect denounced and have helped to subvert by waging a covert war against Iran), Americans ought to reflect on how close they came to disaster by following the man who thinks he is King David. If it does not escape a war, it will be hard to find any silver lining in the consequences. But perhaps one would be that Americans would then be more likely to understand how contrary to their own interests it has been to follow the preferences of the Israeli government. Perhaps that could be a first step toward a more normal—and more beneficial for the United States—U.S. relationship with Israel.

TopicsDomestic PoliticsUNImmigrationPolitical EconomyNuclear ProliferationPost-Conflict RegionsIsraelIranUnited StatesPalestinian territories

Flawed Accountability in American Democracy

Paul Pillar

We constantly find new material to illustrate Winston Churchill’s observation that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried. Traditional democratic theory offers several reasons why democracy is better than the other forms, including the positive effects that broad political participation may have on popular attitudes and outlooks. I have always thought the most important aspect of the superiority of democracy is instead simpler and more direct: that the power to vote rulers out of office is the best safeguard against rulers acting continually and blatantly against the interests of the ruled—as happens in countless autocracies around the world.

In practice, holding rulers accountable to the ruled doesn't always work smoothly even in a democracy. Some of the issues involved are related to what Robert Merry addresses in his insightful commentary on an earlier piece of mine that expressed concern about what kind of foreign policy a finger-in-the-political-wind Mitt Romney would follow. Merry notes that with regard to that most important of presidential decisions—going to war—the dominant pattern in American history has been one of popular deference to presidential leadership, with the electorate withdrawing that deference only after a war goes sour. Given current signs of lowered American patience for more war, Merry concludes that if Romney leads the nation into some misguided military adventure, it would be because of his own impulses more than any popular sentiment.

Several questions can be raised about this, one of which concerns the effects of popular sentiment on decisions other than going to war. Sometimes playing to the electorate implies inaction when action would be more in the nation's interests. This might be true, for example, of whether to undertake a concerted effort (to the annoyance of the Israeli government) to promote a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, or to undertake a comprehensive U.S. rapprochement with Iran. Moreover, if a president doesn't have any particular impulses of his own in foreign policy, even a slight puff of the political wind may be enough to set him off in whatever direction has a plurality of popularity at the moment. Notwithstanding the currently growing American aversion to another war and especially a prolonged war, popular sentiment might tend to favor something described as a one-time strike, even if it in fact carried the danger of leading to a longer war. Finally, even if a president factors into his thinking the possibility of the public eventually turning against him if one of his initiatives goes awry, that negative turn may come too late to be very important to him—just as most of the battering that George W. Bush's popularity took as a result of the Iraq War going sour did not come until after he had been elected to a second term.

Let us focus for a moment on democratic accountability, in the form of the aforementioned issue of voters punishing an incumbent for policies gone bad. The American pattern that Merry correctly describes, of the public turning against wars only after they have become long and costly, points to one of the deficiencies in accountability in the United States. Accountability is not achieved until after much damage as already been done, and maybe even after a president who was responsible for the damage has been reelected.

Another deficiency, which appears at least as much in domestic as in foreign policy, concerns the electorate's frequent inability to determine which incumbent or former incumbent is most responsible for something. We see this today in how the state of the economy is playing in the current election campaign. President Obama inherited from his Republican predecessor—in addition to a couple of already-long wars—the deepest recession since the Great Depression. But regardless of how much the White House or Democrats offer charts showing how many jobs were lost under the Republican president and how many have been regained since their man came into office, voters tend to make their current feelings about current economic problems a referendum on whoever is the current president. An irony—an undemocratic one—is that Republicans are profiting politically from the severity of a Republican president's recession. If the recession had not been as severe, and the lingering effects on employment not as long-lasting as the ones we are seeing today, the Democratic president the Republicans are trying to unseat would be losing fewer votes over the economy and the Republicans would be less likely to regain the presidency.

Even worse is when incumbent politicians (other than the president) have a positive political interest in their constituents being bad off economically. The higher that unemployment remains, the lower is Barack Obama's chance for reelection. That means that Republican members of Congress have a political interest in defeating or delaying legislation that would create jobs. They may have an ideological impulse to do so anyway, but their political interest in doing so—bearing in mind that their leaders have declared the defeat of Obama to be their number-one priority—certainly subverts democratic accountability.

This last factor may point to a respect in which the American type of presidential government, in which different parties may control the executive and legislative branches, is inferior to British-style cabinet government, in which policy is set by what amounts to a temporary party dictatorship and it is very clear which party is responsible for the policies and their consequences. But the same perverse incentives about making the electorate worse off may apply even if the party opposed to the president does not control a house of Congress. Even if Republicans did not have a majority in the House of Representatives, they could still push up the price of gasoline by talking about a possible war in the Persian Gulf region. Voters tend to blame the president for higher gas prices, and thus higher prices hurt Obama's reelection chances, even though the president's policies are not actually causes of the price rise.

There is no way around these deficiencies short of somehow making the American public more knowledgeable about actual responsibility for policies, or somehow reducing partisanship that is so intense that defeating the other party's president takes precedence over the good of the nation as a whole.

Image: DonkeyHotey

TopicsCongressDemocracyDomestic PoliticsElectionsEnergyIdeologyPublic OpinionThe PresidencyPolitical TheoryPolitical EconomyState of the Military RegionsIsraelIranUnited StatesPalestinian territories

Opportunity in Egypt

Paul Pillar

The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has undertaken an important initiative that is good not just for Egypt but also for Israel, the Palestinians, the United States and anyone else genuinely interested in Middle Eastern peace. It will be good for those interests, that is, if not subverted by reflexive rejection of doing business with Islamists or by a lack of genuine interest in a Palestinian-Israeli peace. As described in a report by David Kirkpatrick in the New York Times, the Brotherhood is trying to work with both Hamas and Fatah to encourage reconciliation between the two parties, with the intention of having a single Palestinian interlocutor capable of representing all Palestinians while negotiating a peace settlement with Israel. In making this initiative, the Egyptian Brotherhood has necessarily moved away from previous exclusive backing of Hamas—which began as a Palestinian offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood—and more specifically from any approval of armed struggle against Israel and instead has opened up new channels to Fatah. Brotherhood leaders explain that a unified Palestinian leadership with the earnest backing of an Egyptian government offers the strongest possibility for meaningful peace talks with Israel.

The Brotherhood already claims some positive results, although how much is due to the Egyptian efforts and how much reflects moves Hamas was making on its own is unclear. After a senior Brotherhood leader urged Hamas to be more flexible in its talks with Fatah, Hamas agreed to having Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas head a provisional Palestinian unity government. To the extent the Egyptian influence is being felt, it helps to cement the positive effect that the exodus from Syria has had on the thinking and direction of Hamas's external political leadership.

Several important developments are being demonstrated here. One is the Egyptian Brotherhood's effort to act constructively and responsibly as it makes the transition from opposition movement to the largest element in a new Egyptian government. Brotherhood leaders describe what they are doing in exactly those terms. One member who is now chairman of the Arab affairs committee in the upper house of the Egyptian parliament says, “Any movement of the size of the Muslim Brotherhood, when it is in the opposition it is one thing and then when it comes to power it is something completely different.”

Also being demonstrated is the Brotherhood's commitment to maintaining Egypt's own peace with Israel. Brotherhood leaders see this commitment as linked to Palestinian peace with Israel, just as Anwar Sadat once did. They say that peaceful coexistence between Israel and a Brotherhood-led Egypt can serve as a model for Hamas, provided Israel is willing to accept a fully independent Palestinian state. And indeed it can.

The current inclinations of Hamas itself are also being displayed. Cooperation with this initiative by Hamas's Egyptian brethren complements and confirms the Palestinian group's recent statements indicating its acceptance of coexistence with Israel on the basis of the 1967 borders.

It is hard to find anything not to like in any of this. The United States should find ways to applaud and encourage the course the Egyptian Brotherhood has set.

The biggest problem involves Israeli hang-ups. There is the overall Israeli dyspepsia over anything having to do with Islamists, which is why the Brotherhood's political success has made Israel uncomfortable. More specifically is the Israeli refusal to have anything to do with Hamas (except prisoner exchanges) or even with a Palestinian government or authority including Hamas, no matter how much of the Palestinian political spectrum Hamas represents or what the group is saying or doing now. On top of that are reasons to doubt whether the current Israeli government even wants to negotiate a two-state solution creating a truly independent Palestinian state, no matter who the Palestinian interlocutors are.

If Israeli inflexibility on these matters continues, the United States should make use of the Egyptian initiative to separate itself from that inflexibility. Political realities, especially during an election year, set well-known limits, but ways can certainly be found to applaud and encourage publicly what the Brotherhood is doing without appearing to interfere in Egyptian politics and maybe even without, for now at least, mentioning Hamas.

In private discussion with the Israelis, the United States should point out that if Israel is genuinely interested in a peace settlement with the Palestinians, what the Egyptian Brotherhood is doing is as good as it gets, especially coming from the biggest political actor in the biggest Arab state. If the Israelis are not genuinely interested in a settlement, a negative posture toward the Egyptian initiative will serve only to underscore to the world Israel's responsibility for the impasse. And if Mr. Netanyahu raises issues of Hamas's past involvement in terrorism, he should be reminded that if the United States applied a once-a-terrorist-always-a-terrorist standard, it never would have had any dealings with some who have occupied the positions he does now of Israeli prime minister and leader of Likud.

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