Paul Pillar

The Taliban Get an Address

Paul Pillar

It is easy to be skeptical about the latest news on the Afghan-negotiation front: a “preliminary agreement” for the Taliban to open an office in Qatar. This is, after all, merely a procedural step that will give the Taliban a fixed address and identifiable interlocutor for negotiating purposes. It says nothing about substantive issues involving the future political structure of Afghanistan. Nor does it point to any Taliban intentions or bottom lines. Some of what the Taliban said when making the announcement about the new office suggested their overriding interest is in getting NATO forces out of Afghanistan.

Modest though this step is, however, it is just the kind of basic procedural matter that has often been one of the biggest hurdles to overcome in peace negotiations. The recent experience in Afghanistan itself shows how big it can be. There was the episode more than a year ago of dealing with a supposed senior Taliban leader who instead turned out to be an imposter. Then last September there was the death of former president and head of the Afghan peace council Burhanuddin Rabbani, who met an ostensible Taliban peace negotiator who instead was a suicide bomber with an explosive hidden in his turban.

Such setbacks, or the dangers associated with them, are not unique to conflict in Afghanistan. When Charles de Gaulle was trying in 1960 to negotiate an end to the Algerian war that had been underway for six years, he granted an interview to three rebel chiefs who said they were interested in making a separate peace. In doing so, de Gaulle was assuming personal risk comparable to the risk that Rabbani unluckily took on last year. The Algerian rebels were not subjected to a body search because that would have destroyed the climate of trust and confidence that the meeting was intended to create (although a security man armed with a submachine gun was concealed behind a curtain in the presidential office). In negotiations to end the Vietnam War, it took a year just to agree on the shape of the conference table (although the negotiations that really mattered would be conducted secretly in parallel by Le Duc Tho and Henry Kissinger).

Several reasons make peace negotiations difficult to get under way. One is a fear of showing weakness. That not only makes belligerents reluctant to make the first move; it also encourages them to take an especially hard substantive line at the outset. Some of that may be reflected in the remarks this week by the Taliban spokesman, who seemed to be interested only in hastening a NATO withdrawal. Another reason is the distrust that accumulates during the war. Overcoming that distrust was what the risk-taking by de Gaulle and Rabbani was all about. Yet another hurdle in insurgencies is that it is impossible to separate questions of the status and legitimacy of interlocutors in a peace negotiation from substantive issues to be negotiated. The reason it took so long to agree on the shape of the furniture in the Vietnam talks was that the status of the Viet Cong and whether it had an existence separate from North Vietnam was an issue both of standing to negotiate and of how the war ought to be settled. Similarly, the status of the Taliban as negotiators cannot be separated from questions of what role they should be permitted to play in a new Afghan political order.

Negotiations on Afghanistan will be at least as difficult as those that settled some of those earlier conflicts. But negotiations are necessary and inevitable. No one is going to win this war. Imparting a modicum of stability to Afghanistan will require many bargains to be struck, many of which will involve the Taliban.

As preliminary talks turn into fuller negotiations, there will be other hurdles to overcome. One is suggested by some of the commentary about the opening of the office in Qatar—to the effect that this might help to minimize Pakistani influence. Trying to constrain Pakistan's role in this whole process would be a mistake. The Pakistanis are perfectly positioned to be spoilers. As Lyndon Johnson once remarked about retaining J. Edgar Hoover in his administration, it is better to have him inside the tent [urinating] out than to have him outside the tent doing the opposite. And once you involve the Pakistanis you necessarily have to involve the Indians and other regional players, whose involvement is necessary anyway regardless of how much more complicated this makes the whole process. 

TopicsCounterinsurgencyPost-Conflict RegionsAlgeriaAfghanistanFranceIndiaPakistanVietnam

The Visible and Invisible Effects of War

Paul Pillar

A story on NPR earlier this week brought back some personal memories from nearly four decades ago. The subject of the report—related to the seasonal topic of New Year's resolutions—was the science of overcoming addictions and other undesirable behaviors. The piece began by discussing illicit drug use among U.S. troops in the Vietnam War, which was recognized at the time as so serious a problem that it stimulated a larger antidrug effort, with President Nixon appointing a drug czar and declaring drug abuse to be “public enemy number one in the United States.” As an army lieutenant during the last year of the war, I helped to run a replacement depot outside Saigon through which nearly all the remaining U.S. troops departed Vietnam. One of the principal parts of the processing was a urinalysis to identify heroin users, who were separated from the other troops and sent to a detoxification center. The proportion of users was disturbingly high. Nixon's drug czar, interviewed on the NPR report, said about 40 percent of enlisted men had tried heroin, and of those about half became addicted.

The good news about the drug use among the Vietnam veterans was that after they had been detoxified and returned to the United States, only about five percent of those who were addicted in Vietnam became re-addicted. This was a far lower relapse rate than for people who had acquired their initial drug addictions within the United States. The principal explanation offered for this finding is that environment and circumstances are all-important. Habitual behaviors are associated for each person with a particular environment or circumstance. For the soldiers who used heroin, that environment was the war in Vietnam. Once out of that environment, they had a much better chance of kicking the habit for good. So according to the NPR story, if you want, say, to stop smoking, don't linger in that area in front of your office-building's entrance where you and others have been accustomed to having a cigarette.

Other afflictions that Vietnam veterans brought home with them were more persistent than the drug abuse. Besides physical wounds, many suffered from what we have come to know as post-traumatic stress disorder. Although similar conditions had certainly been noted with veterans of earlier wars (some who had been in World War II were said to suffer from “shell shock”), recognition of this syndrome as a major effect of the Vietnam War was slow in coming. PTSD was not even defined as a distinct disorder until the 1980s, and it wasn't until a decade after the war that Congress mandated a comprehensive study of this and other problems among the Vietnam veterans. The PTSD was persistent. A later survey conducted fourteen years later found that the proportion of veterans still suffering symptoms of PTSD had barely changed from the earlier study.

Recognition of lingering problems of veterans, including especially PTSD, fortunately has been earlier and more complete with our most recent wars than it was with the Vietnam War. But the problems are no less serious, and no less chronic and lingering, for being recognized. Problems both invisible, including the psychological demons, and visible, including lost limbs, are long lasting or permanent and will be part of the legacy of the wars for decades to come.

The medical care and other economic costs entailed by that legacy are large and important in their own right, of course. They also can serve as a metaphor for the broader political and other consequences of our most recent wars. Those consequences include the short-term and the long-term, the visible and the invisible, the expected and the unexpected. Unexpected consequences of foreign wars are almost always numerous and extensive. They can be either positive or negative, although most of the unexpected results tend to be negative; what is planned for tends to be more what is wished for than what is feared. Anything close to a full balance sheet on the wars will be a long time in coming. People still argue about the balance sheet for the Vietnam War.

TopicsHealthPost-ConflictState of the Military RegionsAfghanistanIraqUnited StatesVietnam

War and Semantics

Paul Pillar

Words can be misused in public and political debate in many tendentious ways that both offend semantic integrity and make discourse more misleading than enlightening. The current political campaign offers many examples, of course. One type of misuse is to ascribe such broad meaning to a term that important distinctions among different possible policies are effectively erased because the term as used comes to embrace them all. This has especially been the case with the term war.

The term had already been thoroughly abused in recent years in connection with counterterrorism and the so-called “war on terror.” The loose and slanted use of the term was, and still is, intended to obfuscate distinctions among the nature of the problem of terrorism, the importance of the problem and methods to deal with the problem. The chief underlying motivation for the obfuscation is to get people thinking in terms of military measures as the main way to combat terrorism. Rather than making an explicit policy argument about the pros and cons of using that policy tool compared with the use of other tools, proponents of the tool use twisted semantics instead. That is a poor way to arrive at policy on any topic. There have been other disadvantages of the “war on terror” terminology, including the misleading tendency to think of the problem as involving a single wartime foe and to think of counterterrorism as having a definite beginning and a definite end. As my former colleague Philip Mudd pointed out last week, the extension of the war metaphor to the handling of terrorist suspects (as reflected in legislation imposing restrictions on the executive branch regarding imprisonment and trials) has the further disadvantage of portraying terrorists exactly as they want to be portrayed—as warriors—rather than as thugs.

Recent expansive misuse of the term war by presidential candidates has been intended to convey the notion that resort to real war—that is, using military force to attack someone—would be no big deal because it isn't essentially different from other things that we could be doing or things that others are already doing now. Rick Santorum, in an exchange with Ron Paul about Iran in a debate last month, said that Iran “has been at war with us since 1979,” citing an Iranian connection with some of the improvised explosive devices used in Iraq. (Santorum followed this statement with some really ignorant remarks about how Iran is ruled by the “equivalent of al-Qa'ida,” that its “principal virtue” is martyrdom and that its “theology teaches” that its objective is to “create a calamity.”) By this use of the term war, Santorum is telling us that the extreme step of attacking Iran militarily would supposedly only be a continuation of something that has been going on for three decades anyway. Of course, in using the Iraqi IED allusion he never mentioned that it was the United States, not Iran, that invaded Iraq and started the war there. Nor did he point out that if someone else's use of a supplied munition constitutes the supplier being at war, then the United States has been at war with many other countries that Americans no doubt do not realize they have been at war with.

In a similar vein, Rick Perry said this in a written response to a question from the New York Times about executive power to use armed force:

There have been numerous examples where a President must direct our armed forces to engage even in the absence of an “imminent” threat. For example, during the Cuban Missile crisis, when there was no imminent threat of missile launch, President Kennedy preemptively acted with a blockade against Cuba (an act of war) on the basis of the Monroe Doctrine and his power to defend the nation as our Commander-in-Chief.

Setting aside the conceptual problem of how an act can be termed preemptive when there is no imminent threat, note how Perry's parenthetical labeling of the naval quarantine as an “act of war” erases the huge differences between policy options that the U.S. decision makers were weighing during those momentous thirteen days in 1962. Not a shot was fired as part of the quarantine; it was carefully designed so that none would be unless the Soviets tried to insert more missiles into Cuba. The principal alternative policy option under consideration would have indisputably been an act of war: a military strike against the Soviet installations already in Cuba. The Kennedy-administration decision makers opted against that alternative because of the risk of escalation to catastrophic levels. Candidates such as the two Ricks may not understand the difference between such policy options, but we should all be thankful that those who had war or peace in their hands during the missile crisis understood the difference.

TopicsDomestic PoliticsDefenseMilitary Strategy RegionsCubaIranIraqUnited States

Keeping Iran From Saying Yes

Paul Pillar

Imagine that you are a senior adviser to the Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and have decided that sanctions and other pressures on Iran have accomplished exactly what they ostensibly are designed to do (to the extent that any such presumed purpose of the pressure can be discerned from what is coming out of Washington): to change minds among policy makers in Tehran about Iran's nuclear activities. You, the adviser, have concluded that the pressures are sufficiently damaging to Iranian interests that Iran ought to make whatever policy changes are needed to get the pressure to stop. What, exactly, do you advise your boss to do?

As you contemplate that question, you realize there are several conditions that would have to be met in order for any advice you gave not to be rejected immediately and categorically, if not by the supreme leader himself then by others in the regime who have a say in shaping policy. Whatever step you recommend would have to be politically feasible, which also means being psychologically feasible for the leader, for other Iranian policy makers and for the Iranian public. There also would have to be some mechanism for reaching an understanding or agreement with the Americans, given that ending the U.S.-led pressure would be the whole purpose of changing policy. Closely related to that last requirement, you would also need to point to good reason to believe that if Tehran did change policy, the United States would indeed end the pressure.

After carefully reflecting on all this, you would have to decide that—as long as the policies and discourse you hear coming from the United States remain as they are—the requirements cannot be met. The United States has made it almost impossible for Iran to say yes to whatever it is the United States is supposedly demanding of Iran. You quietly drop the idea of recommending to the supreme leader any change of policy.

One can, to be sure, imagine an Iranian statement that would sufficiently get U.S. attention that it would affect U.S. policies. Ayatollah Khamenei could go on television and say, “The pressure is too great. We need to change our ways. The centrifuges have been turned off, and we have begun dismantling them. We will take whatever other steps are needed to make the pressure stop.” Anything even remotely resembling such a “cry uncle” speech is out of the question. Even in the extremely unlikely event that the supreme leader ever considered doing anything like that, imagine what the response would be from the Iranian equivalents of Republican presidential candidates. There would screams of “appeasement” and outcries against “apologizing” to the Americans that would be loud enough to shake the foundations of the regime—which is part of the reason no such speech will be made. Or if you can't imagine that, imagine how a similar issue would play here if it were the United States that was being pressured by a foreign power.

A peaceful Iranian nuclear program—as Tehran contends that its program is—has broad and strong support among Iranians. Any feasible change in Iranian policies that could be the basis of a new understanding with the United States and the West would include a continuing Iranian nuclear program, very likely including the enrichment of uranium by Iran. The substance of any such understanding would involve technical details about inspections and safeguards. Such details would need to be negotiated. Feasible arrangements that would provide the minimum assurances to both sides could be negotiated, but they are unexplored. They remain unexplored because the United States has abandoned negotiations and has made its policy toward Iran solely one of pressure and sanctions.

Conceivably Iran could do some things unilaterally that might be interpreted as the sort of policy changes that the pressure ostensibly is designed to achieve. But if the recent past is any guide, Iranian decision makers would have no basis for believing that any such changes would register with the United States and be sufficiently accepted and favorably interpreted to lead to any easing of sanctions. Even when the U.S. intelligence community assessed that Iranian work on the design of nuclear devices had ceased, this only served to touch off a firestorm of controversy and accusations about political agendas. The United States has given Iranians every reason to believe that it is committed to nothing other than pressure and more pressure, regardless of what modifications Iran may make in its programs. Any Iranian adviser who suggested otherwise would be shouted down by his colleagues in Tehran.

There is sadly no prospect for this dynamic to change any time soon, with a U.S. political environment in which, as Ted Galen Carpenter aptly describes, diplomacy with anyone we don't happen to like is disparaged as appeasement. The House of Representatives has even passed legislation (which awaits action in the Senate in the new year) that—in one of the most astoundingly self-crippling moves a house of Congress has ever made—would prohibit any official contact with Iranians in the absence of a cumbersome presidential waiver procedure.

We seem to have lost sight of what all those sanctions and pressure were supposed to achieve in the first place. They have come to be treated as if they were ends in themselves. That myopia, combined with reactive pigheadedness on the part of the Iranians, has produced a destructive spiral. As Trita Parsi observes:

Such is the logic of pressure politics - pressure begets pressure and along the way, both sides increasingly lose sight of their original endgames. As this conflict-dynamic takes over, the psychological cost of restraint rises, while further escalatory steps appear increasingly logical and justified. At some point - and we may already be there - the governments will no longer control the dynamics. Rather, the conflict dynamic will control the governments.

Some in this country—including some who have been most responsible for stoking the atmosphere just described—probably do not want sanctions to work. They instead see them as a necessary preliminary to the war that they really want. They may get their way, even without a deliberate decision in either Washington or Tehran to start a war. In response to the most recent escalation of sanctions, which threatens to have material effects on Iranian oil exports (if they don't just have the counterproductive effect of raising the price of oil and boosting Iranian revenues), we hear, unsurprisingly, threatening Iranian talk about closing the Strait of Hormuz to all exports. The situation is ripe for the kind of incident that can rapidly escalate out of control and become a highly destructive conflagration.

This is a tragedy in the making. It is being made largely because too many people in this country have lost sight both of U.S. interests and of the fundamental bargaining principle that if we want to solve a problem that involves someone else with whom we have differences, we should make it easier, not harder, for the other side to say yes.

TopicsCongressDomestic PoliticsSanctionsNuclear ProliferationRogue States RegionsIranUnited States

Saleh's Medical Treatment

Paul Pillar

The most delicate visa application the State Department has handled in quite some time comes from Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Yemeni president who is supposed to be on his way out of office but doesn't seem to be in the mood for retirement. Saleh has become a prime Arab Spring target as a longtime strongman whose departure many Yemenis now believe is worth fighting for in the streets. If Saleh comes to the United States, it would ostensibly be for medical treatment. He no doubt really does need additional medical treatment; he was seriously injured in an attack in June. Saleh himself, however, has most recently said he feels “fine” and that if he makes the trip it would be less for health care than “to get away from attention.” The difficulty of the issue is reflected in split editorial opinion. The New York Times says let him come here; the Washington Post says keep him out.

The wiser course is to keep him out. Saleh's case is a prime example of a situation in which the perceptions of U.S. motivations and interests will differ substantially from actual motivations and interests, and it is one in which the perceptions will matter more. If the United States admitted Saleh, it would be for the laudable reasons not just of tending to his wounds but of increasing the chance of a constructive political process taking hold in Yemen. With Saleh no longer in his home country as a target of wrath in the streets and as an on-scene manipulator, perhaps a modicum of stability would ensue. But that's not how most Yemenis and probably most Arabs would see the U.S. role. Saleh's presence in the United States would be perceived as confirmation that he is America's man and remained so no matter how much he had been rejected by his own countrymen. The United States would thus share in whatever opprobrium or hatred was directed at the former strongman. Any suspicion that Saleh was continuing to manipulate events in Yemen from afar would be accompanied by the belief that the United States was intentionally letting him do so. These perceptions would foster the image of the United States being on the wrong side of the popular tide that is the Arab Spring.

It would indeed be helpful to Yemeni politics for Saleh to leave the country, but that does not mean the destination has to be the United States. Nearby countries have even more of a stake in Yemen and possible spillover effects of instability there than the United States does. Saleh's medical records must still be in Saudi Arabia, where he initially went for treatment after his injuries. Pakistani president Asif Zardari recently took a politically convenient trip for medical care in Dubai. Let the peninsular Arabs be out in front on this one.

No one, the United States included, will be able to stage manage events in Yemen over the coming months. Any thoughts of trying to make a difference by controlling Saleh's actions or communications while in the United States should be dispelled. The basic U.S. goal should be to try to be avoid being muddied by what inevitably will be a very messy situation in Yemen.

TopicsAutocracyHealthDemocracyFailed States RegionsUnited StatesSaudi ArabiaUnited Arab EmiratesYemen

Military Advice and Policy Decisions

Paul Pillar

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, appropriately expressed umbrage the other day over a political refrain that is commonly heard, most recently and especially from Republican presidential candidates. That refrain—“listen to the generals”—is “offensive,” says Dempsey. “And here's why,” the general explained:

One of the things that makes us as a military profession in a democracy is civilian rule. Our civilian leaders are under no obligation to accept our advice; and that's what it is. Its advice. It's military judgments, it's alternatives, it's options. And at the end of the day, our system is built on the fact that it will be our civilian leaders who make that decision and I don't find that in any way to challenge my manhood, nor my position. In fact, if it were the opposite, I think we should all be concerned.

There are really two basic reasons why “listen to the generals” is not good policy advice. One is what Dempsey appears to be talking about, which is that the president—the civilian commander in chief—has the final responsibility for deciding on the use of military force. It is the president who ultimately gets credit for military deployments that work out well and takes the heat for ones that don't. The president must exercise his or her own judgment on such an important matter even if it means overruling advice from below, whether it is coming from military or civilian advisers.

The other reason is that major decisions involving military force ought to be based on several considerations in addition to questions that are matters of military judgment. Those other considerations include the availability of resources, the adequacy of public support, and other political and diplomatic consequences of a military operation. Military field commanders and service chiefs should not be expected to integrate all those other considerations. They should focus on their own missions and offer the best possible advice regarding what it takes to accomplish those missions. They need to realize, of course, that they usually are not going to get everything they want and that some of those other considerations may weigh at least as heavily as their particular missions, but it would be unreasonable to rely on the generals to do all the necessary weighing.

These considerations came into play in the last big policy review of U.S. policy toward Afghanistan, and they are highly likely to come into play again with future decisions on Afghanistan. The current U.S. military commander there, General John R. Allen, has been talking about possibly keeping American troops in Afghanistan past 2014. I expect this perspective may collide, come 2014, with some of those other considerations that are not primarily matters of military judgment. There is nothing wrong with such a collision. If General Allen understands his mission to be stabilization of Afghanistan and the continuation in power of the Afghan government of the day, he should provide his best advice as to what forces are needed to accomplish that mission. And if whoever is the U.S. president in 2014 determines that accomplishing that mission is not sufficiently critical to U.S. interests to warrant extending a U.S. military expedition that would have already gone on for thirteen years, he should overrule the general's advice.

Image: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

TopicsCounterinsurgencyDemocracyMilitary StrategyState of the Military RegionsAfghanistanUnited States

Hamas Presents an Opportunity

Paul Pillar

The regional tour of Ismail Haniyeh, who began his travel in Egypt, reflects the fact that Hamas is on the move in more ways than one. Haniyeh, prime minister of the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip, is making his first official visits anywhere outside the strip since the dust-up with Fatah in 2007 that resulted in Hamas taking control of Gaza a year after its victory in an all-Palestinian parliamentary election. As Bilal Saab highlighted in these spaces last week, the Hamas leadership appears to be making a more fundamental move, also indicated by other sources, away from violence as the primary means of pursuing the objective of Palestinian self-determination in the face of Israeli resistance. Senior Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal and Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas met in Cairo last week and put their reconciliation process back on track by agreeing to form a committee to prepare for a new round of Palestinian elections and to restructure the Palestinian Liberation Organization to permit the accession of Hamas to the PLO.

Political events in other Arab countries clearly have a lot to do with the political activity involving Hamas. The surge of Arab activism on behalf of popular sovereignty, a surge in which Islamists have played a leading role in the use of peaceful democratic methods in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia, gives Hamas additional reason to identify with and try to become a part of that peaceful political action. Haniyeh's trip, beginning with meetings with leaders of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, symbolizes that. Whatever the motivations, the activity involving Hamas presents a major opportunity to get rolling a diplomatic process that would be capable of leading to real agreements that would bring Palestinians and Israelis closer to real peace. The two major Palestinian parties are moving toward forming a single joint interlocutor for negotiations, and the party that had been associated in the public mind with violence is moving onto a nonviolent path. How will Israel respond to that opportunity? And—given that the early indications of that response are depressingly, familiarly negative—how will the United States respond?

Of course we will hear yet again a familiar litany of conditions involving Hamas having to utter certain words, especially an explicit recognition of Israel. The very reasonable response to that is to ask: why should Hamas do that first, given that Israel has never come close to recognizing Hamas—even after Hamas won a Palestinian election fair and square? In fact, Israel has gone to great lengths to try to strangle Hamas, even to the extreme of using measures that have caused death and suffering among many Palestinians in the Gaza Strip who do not even belong to Hamas. Why should peremptory recognition work only one way (especially when the violence has been two-way)? And this with an Israeli government that supposedly doesn't like conditions to negotiations—but that's only when the condition is not an utterance of recognition but instead the cessation of unilateral creation of facts on the ground that, as long as it goes on, leaves less and less to negotiate over. Mutual recognition can be embodied in whatever agreements are negotiated.

However distasteful Israelis or anyone else may find Islamist politics, Hamas cannot be wished—or strangled—away. Walling off the strip that it governs doesn't make it, or the constituency where it finds support, go away. The task concerning Hamas is to encourage it to go farther onto a peaceful path and discourage it from returning to violence. What Hamas is doing right now—especially in its dealings with Abbas, in laying the groundwork for more free elections and for participation in direct negotiations with Israel—is exactly the sort of behavior that ought to be encouraged. Unfortunately the response so far by the Netanyahu government is exactly the opposite: to discourage such peaceful behavior and to give the movement every reason to return to violence. The Israeli government says it will not negotiate with a delegation that includes Hamas representatives and, at least as far as East Jerusalem is concerned, will block the holding of any election that includes Hamas candidates. For anyone genuinely interested in Arab-Israeli peace, this posture is the acme of foolishness.

Of course, Netanyahu may not be genuinely interested in a negotiated peace, and the current posture toward Hamas may be just another in the series of roadblocks and rationales for putting off the day when his government has to sit down and talk about giving up the occupied land that some on the Israeli right want to cling to indefinitely. If so, then the posture is not foolish as far as the government's immediate objectives are concerned—just reprehensible. But it is still foolish as far as Israel's long-term interests are concerned.

As the United States confronts any Israeli foolishness, whether long-term or short-term, it needs to overcome not only the business about Hamas recognizing Israel but also understandable queasiness about dealing with a group that has the blood of innocents on its hands. Two observations are pertinent to this. One is that we have been through this all before, not only in other conflicts such as Northern Ireland but also in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself, with the acceptance of the PLO as a legitimate interlocutor at the start of the Oslo process. The other observation is that if one is to follow the “once a terrorist, always a terrorist” posture that is so often taken toward Hamas, then the United States ought not to have any dealings with Likud, some of whose earlier leaders—notably Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir—had also been heavily involved in the killing of innocents through terrorism.

TopicsDemocracyReligionPost-ConflictTerrorism RegionsIsraelEgyptUnited StatesPalestinian territories

Worst-Casing and Best-Casing Iran

Paul Pillar

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

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

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

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

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

TopicsDefenseHistoryInternational LawNuclear ProliferationRogue States RegionsIsraelIranJapanIraqUnited States

The Heavy Hand of Political Culture in Iraq

Paul Pillar

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

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

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

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

TopicsDemocracyDomestic PoliticsHistoryPost-Conflict RegionsIraq

Havel, Kim, and the Uncertain Road to Political Stability

Paul Pillar

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

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

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

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

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

TopicsAutocracyDemocracyFailed StatesRogue States RegionsChinaCzech RepublicNorth KoreaPolandSlovakiaMiddle East

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