Paul Pillar

Netanyahu's Anti-Iranian Rant

Paul Pillar

Benjamin Netanyahu's tiresome vilification of Iran has taken on the characteristics of a rote obsession that diverges farther and farther from truth, reality, and his own ostensible objective. It is as if—in pursuing his real objective of keeping Iran ostracized, preventing any U.S. agreements with it, and keeping the specter of an Iranian threat permanently overshadowing everything else he'd rather not talk about—he has been reduced to a ritual, repetitive chant of “Iran bad, very bad” and does not care whether or not reflection on what he is saying shows it to make any sense.

Outside of the anti-Americanism that is heard so widely and often, it is hard to think of any other leader or government so dedicated to heaping calumnies unceasingly on another nation, at least one not currently waging war on the heaper's country. Maybe some American Cold Warriors fixated on the Evil Empire came close. Attacks on Iran occupied most of the first half of Netanyahu's speech Tuesday to AIPAC. Haaretz accompanied a transcript of the speech with one of those graphics depicting the frequency with which particular words have been used. For the entire speech Iran was mentioned far more than any word other than Israel.

Maybe the relentlessness of this latest iteration of the chant reflects Netanyahu's frustration over his recent failure to get the U.S. Congress to sabotage the nuclear negotiations with Iran by slapping on new, deal-breaking sanctions. Perhaps he also felt a need to amp up the attacks to bring attention back to the Iranian specter from the crisis in Ukraine.

Falsehoods continue to flow out of Netanyahu's mouth on this subject. Maybe the technique of getting people to believe something if it is repeated often enough is working, as reflected by some of the same falsehoods coming out of the mouths of members of Congress. He referred, for example, to the need for pressure to get Iranians to “abandon their nuclear weapons program.” No: according to the U.S. intelligence community, Iran has not decided to build a nuclear weapon, and Israeli intelligence does not disagree.

Netanyahu said that “Iran openly calls for our [i.e., Israel's] destruction.” No: the former Iranian president who once made a metaphorical statement that got mis-translated into something along that line isn't even around any more. Actually, the current Iranian government says if the Palestinian problem is resolved then it would be possible for Iran to extend formal recognition to the state of Israel.

Netanyahu asserted that Iran “continues to build ICBMs.” No: there is no evidence that Iran is building ICBMs or even intermediate range ballistic missiles. Iran does have medium range ballistic missiles, but testing and development even of those has been quiescent lately.

In an opening sequence in the speech in which Netanyahu referred to medical and other humanitarian aid that Israel furnishes overseas, he said that Iran doesn't do any such thing because “the only thing that Iran sends abroad are rockets, terrorists and missiles to murder, maim and menace the innocent.” No: actually Iran does provide medical and similar humanitarian aid.

The prime minister's analytical assertions are similarly divorced from reality. In arguing for the deal-breaking, impossible-to-achieve objective of no Iranian enrichment of uranium, he said that “letting Iran enrich uranium would open up the floodgates” of “nuclear proliferation in the Middle East and around the world.” But Iran already has been enriching uranium for some time, and no floodgates have opened. Even if Iran, contrary to its current policy, were to build a nuclear weapon, they still would be unlikely to open.

Netanyahu seemed to dare us not to take him seriously when, in a jarringly discordant note alongside all of the alarmism about a supposedly deadly and dire threat, he tried to crack a joke to accompany his falsehood about ICBMs: “You remember that beer commercial, 'this Bud’s for you'? Well, when you see Iran building ICBMs, just remember, America, that Scud’s for you.” Hardy har har.

Glaringly absent from the tirade was any of the perspective of a person living in a glass house who should be careful about not throwing stones. For example, along with self-congratulation for medical aid Netanyahu said Israel has provided Palestinians from the Gaza Strip, there was no mention of the misery that Israel has inflicted on people living in the same territory through a suffocating blockade and military-inflicted destruction. And alongside all of the alarums about a possible Iranian nuclear weapon there was of course no mention of Israel having the only nuclear weapons in the Middle East, totally outside any international control regime and with their existence not even admitted.

Nor was there any real application of logic to implications for policy, given that the most important policy fixture at the moment is the nuclear negotiation. If Netanyahu's objective really were to assure prevention of an Iranian nuke—rather than assuring persistence of the issue of a possible Iranian nuke—the conclusion would be to support the negotiations rather than to try to sabotage them. Even if one believed all the calumnies, they are either irrelevant to the nuclear talks or all the more reason to hope they succeed.

Listening to a speech such as this, it is a wonder that many Israelis condone a leader who is offering his country unending conflict and confrontation. And it is a wonder that many Americans, including ones with admiration and fondness for Israel, are influenced by him. He is not acting in the best interests of the state they admire and love, let alone in the interests of the United States. The reciter of the primitive chants of hate against Iran has a narrower objective. As Henry Siegman observes, “To say that Netanyahu is not a visionary leader is an understatement. To be sure, he is a clever tactician who knows how to stay in office. That goal, which he believes is unbreakably linked to retaining his leadership of Israel’s political right wing, trumps every other domestic and international challenge that faces Israel.”

Image: Avi Ohayon, GPO. Flickr/Prime Minister of Israel.

TopicsCongressDomestic PoliticsSanctionsNuclear Proliferation RegionsIsraelIranPalestinian territories

Crimea, Credibility, and Intervention

Paul Pillar

The Crimean crisis has energized those who wallow in a conventional wisdom that, as Fareed Zakaria noted last week, had already become a familiar theme on the opinion pages. This is the theme that the United States is in retreat, that it is insufficiently assertive, and that this lack of assertiveness is having awful consequences around the world. The crisis is tailor-made to encourage such wallowing, involving as it does a use of armed forces by the successor to the old Cold War adversary. So no time has been wasted by those who complain that soft U.S. policies have brought things in Ukraine to this juncture and who cry for more U.S. assertiveness in response, including saber-rattling with U.S. armed forces.

The conventional wisdom prospers, despite empirically mistaken aspects of it that Zakaria points out, partly because of the difference between punditry and incumbency and the related difference between posturing and policy-making. Pundits can do grand hand-wringing about supposed decline without the hard labor of thinking through which specific alternative options really exist with regard to specific problems and what their specific results are likely to be. It prospers also because of conceptual sloppiness that, as Paul Saunders notes, tends to equate leadership with the use of military force.

Most fundamentally, this conventional wisdom is one manifestation of a longstanding American tendency to view international politics as a single global game that pits the United States against sundry bad guys. The bad guys have taken various identities—the Soviet Union and world communism for the most part during the Cold War, and more often Islamists of some stripe today—but the distinctions don't seem to matter all that much if it is all seen as one big contest in which setbacks for one side somewhere on the global playing field mean that side is losing overall.

One of the major flaws in this perspective is that much of import that happens in the world, including much that is violent or disturbing, is not the work of the United States and is not within the power of the United States to prevent. Another major flaw is that there is not nearly as much of a connection between what happens in a situation one place on the globe and how players assess credibility and motivations in a different situation someplace else. Governments simply do not gauge the credibility of other governments that way.

Much more important than any vague global reputation are the specific interests and options involved in whatever is the situation currently at hand. And so, regarding the Crimean situation, rather than calling for more saber-rattling as if it were some sort of general elixir that boosts U.S. influence worldwide, it is better to ask exactly how it would relate to any actual moves it would make sense—in our eyes, as well as Vladimir Putin's—to take. Is anyone seriously contemplating, in a sort of updated replay of 1853, the introduction of U.S. military forces in Crimea? If so, let us hope that sanity can be restored. If not, then how does any threatening gesture involving military force either help to deal with the problem in Ukraine or to enhance U.S. credibility anywhere else?

Also, rather than simply tallying every apparent advance by presumed foreign adversaries as if it were yardage gained in a football game, we need to ask what a particular move does to affect the adversary's interests and, even more importantly, our own. This means asking, for example, as Jacob Heilbrunn does, what Putin actually would or would not be gaining if he were to make more of a military move into Ukraine.

The global, indiscriminate hardline approach lends itself to exploitation for other purposes that also do not advance U.S. interests. The theme about American retreat is, of course, an old stand-by for politically attacking Barack Obama. An example of another kind of exploitation is Elliott Abrams arguing that the Crimean crisis is somehow a reason for passing the Kirk-Menendez bill to slap more sanctions on Iran. Never mind that his argument shows no cognizance of what is most needed at this juncture to keep the Iranians negotiating seriously. In fact, never mind the argument at all, because it is delivered not to improve the chance of reaching an acceptable agreement with Iran but instead to prevent any such agreement. Just savor the inventiveness necessary to contend that a proper response to a Russian military move in Crimea is to bash Iran with more sanctions. That makes about as much sense—unsurprisingly, given the neocon source—as saying that a proper response to a terrorist act by an Afghanistan-based group is to launch a war against Iraq.

Considering in tandem a Middle Eastern problem and a Russian military action in its own sphere of influence brings to mind one of the great historical instances of accidental simultaneity: in 1956, the Soviet quashing of the Hungarian revolt and the Israeli-Anglo-French invasion of Egypt. Zakaria mentions the latter of those two crises, in the course of admiring Dwight Eisenhower for wisely deflecting repeated calls, which sounded very similar to ones we hear today, for the United States to intervene hither and yon lest freedom retreat all over the world. Indiscriminately assuming a hardline posture is if anything even more unwise with the challenges of the moment than it would have been in the autumn of 1956. Russia has a more plausible claim to having a lasting and legitimate interest in Crimea than the Soviets ever did in Hungary. And an Iran that is on track to negotiate a more normal and nuclear-weapons-free relationship with the rest of the world is much different from an Egyptian strongman who made a nuisance of himself by nationalizing canals.

TopicsDomestic PoliticsHistoryPublic OpinionGreat PowersThe PresidencySanctions RegionsRussiaIranUnited StatesUkraine

The Sauna Files

Paul Pillar

A sometimes fascinating sideshow to political upheaval has been the sudden opening to public view of material evidence of how those who had been powerful and privileged, but are now fallen, had lived. There was, for example, the shoe collection of Imelda Marcos. Now there is the opulent estate of deposed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, with its classic car collection, golf course, private zoo, and all the rest. Much of our fascination is basically the same as the titillation afforded by glimpses into the lives of our own rich and famous, of whom any compromise of personal privacy is accomplished not by rebellious mobs crashing through gates but only by paparazzi with long-range lenses.

Potentially more substantive revelations, which sometimes accompany the exposure of lavish lifestyles and sometimes don't, come from gate-crashing political action that provides access to troves of documents. One of the best-known instances in modern times, which had nothing to do with lavish living, was the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979. Officials at the embassy did their best to destroy documents as their compound was about to be overrun but were only partly successful. Some documents were seized intact. Others had been put through a shredder but were compromised anyway when Iranians laboriously pieced together the strips of paper. The Iranians published many of both types.

Now a large number of documents that also escaped hurried attempts at destruction are coming into the public domain from Yanukovych's compound as well as the also opulent residence of deposed Ukrainian prosecutor general Viktor Pshonka. Most of the documents had been thrown into a boat harbor at Yanukovych's place, some bearing the char marks from an earlier attempt at burning. The oppositionists who control the compound and fished the documents out of the water are posting them online as they are drying out. The discipline and organization the occupiers are displaying leads one to expect processing and exploitation of the documents that will be as comprehensive and detailed as that of the Iranians who put together the strips of shredded paper. The Washington Post's William Booth, who describes himself as an experienced connoisseur of revolutionary sackings, says he has “never experienced a more orderly and polite mob” than the one that took over Yanukovych's compound, noting that he has “seen more unruly gangs at Epcot Center.”

We thus can anticipate a stream of interesting document-backed revelations. One of the intriguing topics comes up in papers that were found in a sauna at Pshonka's estate. They concern the Ukrainian regime's hiring of the big American law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom to prepare a report in 2012 on the government's prosecution of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. The publicly released report served the regime's purpose in exonerating the government from the charge that the prosecution was politically motivated. The report also was very critical of Tymoshenko's conduct in the case, although it found some things wrong in the government's procedures as well. It was not clear, however, whether whatever investigation went into the report was focused so narrowly on the case itself that it was not in a position to find any evidence of politicization in bringing the case in the first place. As Victoria Nuland, the State Department's spokesperson at the time, put it, "our concern is that Skadden Arps lawyers were obviously not going to find political motivation if they weren't looking for it."

One of the papers found in the sauna was a draft of the Skadden report with annotations suggesting that the Ukrainian officials were trying to push the law firm into making the report even more favorable to the government. Whether Skadden—which issued a statement this week saying it had taken on the project on condition that it would be “totally independent”—bowed to any such influence will require further study of the documents.

Maybe the documents about the Skadden report were merely thrown into the sauna during a hasty exodus. But the story becomes more appealing with the possibility that work on the documents was done there as well. What a delightful image: the prosecutor general, perhaps with a couple of his aides, all sitting naked and sweating while poring over the law firm's report to see how it could be made more favorable to them.

There are weightier and more pressing questions concerning the current crisis in Ukraine. But it will be interesting to see what else comes from these documents as the water and the sweat evaporate. We may get an added perspective on Tymoshenko's prosecution. We may also get food for thought and discussion regarding what happens when a foreign government pays a law firm to produce what is supposed to be an objective assessment of the government's own actions.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Bleiglass. CC BY-SA 3.0.

TopicsEthics RegionsUkraine

False Cheers for Democracy

Paul Pillar

A familiar conventional wisdom about how the last two U.S. administrations have approached democratization abroad has come up repeatedly in connection with crises in several foreign countries. George W. Bush is seen as the president who tried to promote democracy actively and proactively, even using military force in the effort, while Barack Obama is described as favoring a more diffident, lead-from-behind approach that defers to the initiative of the people to be democratized. There certainly have been significant differences in the approaches of the two presidents regarding political change abroad, and supporters of each approach voice well-rehearsed arguments in Peter Baker's review in the New York Times of current policy debate about the turmoil in Ukraine. Former Bush administration official Paula Dobriansky accuses the Obama administration of “disinterest in democracy promotion and an unwillingness to lead,” while deputy national security adviser Benjamin Rhodes says, “These democratic movements will be more sustainable if they are seen as not an extension of America or any other country, but coming from within these societies.”

Note that both Dobriansky and Rhodes refer specifically to democracy or democratic movements even though democracy is only one of several attributes that we might like to see in foreign political systems, and toward which we might want systems lacking those attributes to evolve. There also are, for example, several attributes that would come under the liberal part of liberal democracy and that involve civil liberties and limitations on what a government can do to its citizens. Those may be very important both to us and to the populations concerned, but they are something different from democracy, which has to do with the selection of rulers through some active and orderly expression of preference by the ruled. It often has been observed that for democracy to work well requires more than just the holding of elections. That is true, but holding fair elections and respecting their results, although not sufficient for successful democracy, is necessary for it and even a core part of the concept of democracy.

Here is where the invocation of democracy has been mistaken and misplaced. Some of the most enthusiastic proponents of active, U.S.-led promotion of democracy have more than once in recent months cheered what is one of the clearest possible negations of democracy: overthrow through nondemocratic means of a freely elected leader. This happened last July in Egypt when the Egyptian military removed from office Mohamed Morsi, who had been chosen president in a free and fair election. Now it has happened again with the ouster from the Ukrainian presidency of Viktor Yanukovych. There were good reasons to doubt the fairness of the election when Yanukovych first tried for the presidency in 2004 and the Orange Revolution ensued. But that was not the case with the election of 2010. Yanukovych's political opponent Yulia Tymoshenko alleged that this election result also was fraudulent, but the allegations did not stand up. All the pre-election polls and exit polls had Yanukovych winning, and in the official tally his winning margin was almost a million votes. International observers accepted the election result as fair and valid.

In each of these two cases the ouster of the leader followed a combination of unrest in the streets of the capital and more pointed action by security forces. In Egypt that action was a traditional military coup. In Ukraine—where the military conspicuously stayed out of the conflict—it was police striking deals with protest leaders under which the police would walk away from their posts.

There are many criteria by which we in the West can assess what is good and what is bad about the events in these countries and any others in which similar political change occurs. What happens to democracy is only one of those criteria. There are the various issues of human rights and governmental integrity, and in this respect an end to the more thuggish and corrupt aspects of Yanukovych's presidency may be a good thing. (Zbigniew Brzezinski describes Yanukovych as “a mendacious schemer, a coward and a thief.”) And for realist observers, the foreign policy orientation of a government may be at least as important as any of the internal considerations.

Each individual case is worthy of assessment in its own right. The two cases mentioned here are quite different in important respects. Some of the cheering over Morsi's ouster reflected an ignoble Islamophobia that is not a factor in Ukraine. The alternatives to the ousted leadership are also quite different; in Egypt it is a restored authoritarian military regime, while in Ukraine we can still hope it will be something not just different but more to the benefit of the Ukrainian people.

In any assessment, we should be clear and honest about our concepts and terms. We should not apply the label of democracy where it does not belong. We should not automatically apply it to phenomena that involve in some messy way “people power”—while bearing in mind that people in the streets of a capital are not necessarily speaking and acting for most of their countrymen, or for people in the streets of, say, Kharkiv or Donetsk. Misuse of the term democracy exacerbates confusion in our own thinking about the criteria we are applying to assessments of foreign situations and the reasons we do, or should, favor or oppose a particular development. It also cheapens the concept of democracy itself and encourages cynicism about it.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Carlos Latuff. Public domain.

TopicsDemocracyElectionsHuman RightsThe Presidency RegionsEgyptUkraine

Chinese Touchiness

Paul Pillar

The White House played things about right in the face of the expected and usual snit by China regarding a meeting with the Dalai Lama: to proceed with the meeting—although not in the Oval Office—and to disregard Beijing's complaining. The complaint has no merit, no matter how much China whinges about interference in internal affairs. The Dalai Lama renounced a political role for himself a few years ago, he travels and speaks now as only a spiritual leader, and neither he nor President Obama favors anything like a secession of Tibet. If the conversation between the two leaders stirred up Chinese complaints, so much the better for getting increased attention to the cause of religious and cultural freedom.

So much the better also for distinguishing between what should and should not be respected regarding the sensitivities of foreign governments. There is a tendency, in assessing a relationship such as the one between the United States and China, to speak in terms of whether the overall relationship is, or should be, warm, cool, or whatever, while delving less into the merits of individual issues that affect the temperature. More attention ought to be paid to whether particular positions are or are not reasonable, even if it is just a matter of the other government griping about this or griping about that.

Part of a successful U.S. relationship with China certainly involves respect for China as a great power. But that does not mean respect for either behavior or statements that are petulant and unreasonable. The world has been watching China grow up slowly to true great power stature, on matters ranging from managing its currency in a way that would make it a feasible international reserve currency to shouldering responsibilities in multilateral peacekeeping operations. In some areas China still has growing up to do. It should not expect to be able to cavil like an adolescent if it wants to be respected as a grown-up great power.

Sometimes there seems to be no limit to how thin the Chinese skin can get about some things. The other day the official news agency Xinhua had a commentary complaining about a remark that House foreign affairs committee chairman Ed Royce had made about the Japanese prime minister's visit to the Yasukuni shrine. Royce criticized the visit, which should have pleased the Chinese. But he further explained that part of the problem with the visit was that it needlessly complicated relations among Japan, South Korea, and the United States as they try to coordinate policy toward China; Xinhua found this observation “really incredible.”

Perhaps we can find in recent Chinese handling of relations with Taiwan some hope for realistic behavior even where touchiness has long prevailed. Taiwan is another issue on which China has for many years made an unreasonable demand of other governments: that they cannot have normal relations with the government of a territory that is independent in every practical respect, that the People's Republic of China has never owned, and that for more than a century no Chinese government has ruled except for four years after the Japanese surrender at the end of World War II. Earlier this month, however, for the first time ever senior officials of China and Taiwan met in their governmental capacities to discuss trans-strait relations. A grown-up thing for both governments to do.

TopicsHuman RightsGreat PowersReligion RegionsChinaTaiwan

Prime Minister, You're No Winston Churchill

Paul Pillar

Since the wise setting aside of a negotiation-undermining bill that would have imposed still more sanctions on Iran, some members of Congress have been feeling itchy as a result of not getting their regular fix of votes that they can portray as support for Israel. Their unease is perhaps a testimony to the continued strength of the lobby that pushes for such votes, despite its recent setbacks on the sanctions bill and a couple of other issues. So some members of the House of Representatives have sent a letter to their chamber's leadership asking that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu be invited to address a joint session of Congress when he is in Washington next month to speak to AIPAC's annual mass meeting. “Doing so,” they say in the letter, “would send a clear message of U.S. support to Israel.”

Actually, the support involved would not be to Israel but instead to a particular Israeli government. In any event, one noteworthy attribute of the letter is the partisan make-up of the signatories: 79 Republicans and 17 Democrats. It is another indication of the increasing association of the lobby with only one side of the aisle, which cannot be very reassuring to the lobby. Possibly once the composition of the signatory list started to become clear some Republicans refrained from signing on to avoid making the partisan split appear even more lopsided.

If Netanyahu were invited to address Congress next month it would be an extraordinary instance of honoring someone who has repeatedly been poking a stick in the eye of the country bestowing the honor. Among other things, he has been doing everything he can to sabotage the current negotiations with Iran, which is one of the most important foreign policy initiatives the United States and its five foreign partners currently have going. He also has been pursuing policies—including continued colonization of occupied territory and the adding of new demands—likely to ensure failure of another set of negotiations important to the United States, the one involving the Palestinians.

Even if members of Congress were to ignore these factors, one might expect them to be mindful of not cheapening the currency when it comes to one of the few symbolically important ways that Congress can make a foreign policy statement. Ever since the Marquis de Lafayette became in 1824 the first foreigner to address Congress, the privilege has not been profligately bestowed. President Park Geun-hye of South Korea was the only foreign dignitary invited to do so last year. None were invited in 2012.

Now get this: Netanyahu already has addressed Congress twice: in 2011 and during his earlier stint as prime minister in 1996. Only one person has been given the honor of doing so three times: Winston Churchill—twice during World War II and again in 1952. People want to put the stick-poker on the same level as Churchill?

The preferences of the foreign government Netanyahu heads will get more than enough attention in Washington when he rallies his loyal troops at AIPAC.

TopicsCongressNuclear ProliferationPost-Conflict RegionsIsraelIranUnited StatesPalestinian territories

The Iran Negotiations Begin

Paul Pillar

As negotiations begin this week to reach a final agreement on restricting the Iranian nuclear program, some of the prognoses being offered sound like the deliberate lowering of expectations one commonly hears before U.S. presidential primary elections. President Obama already offered odds of 50-50 for success in the talks. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, pre-empted all potential competition in a game of lowering expectations by stating on Monday, “the nuclear negotiations will lead nowhere.” Can't get much lower than that.

Given that vigorous opposition to reaching any agreement with Iran persists on the U.S. side (or more accurately, the Israeli side), even though that opposition suffered a temporary defeat with the sidelining of the Kirk-Menendez sanctions bill, expect to hear in the weeks ahead much commentary about any sour notes that are struck in the negotiations or in anything that takes place alongside the negotiations. The negative commentary will be coming not from people who, like the ayatollah, are trying to shield themselves from political ramifications of failure that may stem from reasons outside their control. Rather, it will come from people who want the negotiations to fail and will enthusiastically highlight anything that could be used as an argument to abandon the talks.

For anyone who is open to an agreement with Iran, genuinely wants to see negotiated restrictions that will preclude an Iranian nuclear weapon, and may be discouraged if it appears the talks are dragging out without progress, the first word of advice is: relax. The basis for relaxation are the terms of the Joint Plan of Action—the preliminary agreement reached last November. Those terms are so favorable to the P5+1 (the United States and its negotiating partners) that if they were simply to be extended indefinitely the P5+1 would be getting the essentials of what it wants, and what it needs to be assured that the Iranian program stays peaceful. That includes no increase in the stockpile of uranium enriched up to five percent, no stockpile at all of 20 percent enriched uranium, no further development of the nuclear reactor at Arak that would bring it closer to coming on line, and continuous enhanced international monitoring of the entire Iranian nuclear program. The Joint Plan of Action provides for renewing its terms through mutual agreement after the initial six-month period. Renewal, even repeated renewal if necessary, should not be a source of anxiety for the United States.

Iran has much more reason to be disconcerted by any dragging out of the negotiations. It did not get in the preliminary agreement most of what it needs and wants, and a panoply of sanctions still takes a bite out of the Iranian economy each day. Iran has strong incentive to see the whole negotiating process through to a successful conclusion, and Tehran continues to give repeated signs of wanting to keep the process on track with that objective. Along with his other comment, Khamenei also stated this week that “Iran will not breach what it has started.”

Perhaps one of the more recent indications of Iran not wanting to mess up the negotiations is the reported pushing out of Iran in recent weeks of some al-Qaeda types. Some al-Qaeda members have been known for some time to be in Iran, in a status that has been murky but probably for the most part has been a sort of house arrest. With Iran and al-Qaeda being on opposing ends of most dimensions, the retention of these members is best explained as a sort of bargaining chip to be held against the United States, and as a counterpart to the role that the Marxist-Islamist-terrorist group the MEK has played in the United States. Perplexity has been expressed about the reasons for the movement of the al-Qaeda members out of Iran at this time, but a very reasonable explanation is that it is an effort by Tehran to remove one possible complication to the nuclear negotiations.

We should be relaxed, but not too relaxed. Despite the advantages the Joint Plan of Action has given our side, one reason not to let the negotiations drag out too long is the risk that Iran will get so discouraged by what it sees as U.S. unwillingness to reach an agreement that, prodded by its own hardliners, it finally gives up on the process. The ayatollah's grim prognosis was not just said for effect but reflected genuine pessimism about whether the United States wants an agreement. Unfortunately we have given him plenty of reason to be pessimistic.

TopicsSanctionsNuclear ProliferationTerrorism RegionsIran

Confusion on Counterterrorism

Paul Pillar

If the American people's representatives in the U.S. Congress are looking for more productive ways to spend their time, one subject on which they could do useful work is reform of the legal basis for the use of force in the name of counterterrorism. The conceptual and legal foundation for lethal U.S. counterterrorist operations has had serious problems for some time. The problems extend at least through the past two presidential administrations, but in some respects are even older. Fuzziness remains to this day about exactly to what extent the Clinton administration authorized the use of lethal force in any encounter with Osama bin Laden. In brief, what is still lacking is a consistent and logical set of rules about how and when lethal force can be used against suspected terrorists—rules that set clear limits while also matching up any permitted use of force with those cases where such use would be necessary and effective.

Two recent developments highlight the problems involved. One concerns a falling out between the core Al Qaeda organization and ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Al Shams (sometimes rendered as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), an extremist group active in the Syrian civil war. This split has led U.S. officials to discuss whether action against ISIS could be taken under the authorization for the use of military force that Congress enacted shortly after 9/11 and that supposedly is limited to Al Qaeda and its affiliates. But whatever threat ISIS poses, including any threat to U.S. interests, has little or nothing to do with the state of its relationship with Ayman al-Zawahiri's Al Qaeda. The other development is the reported consideration being given to the use of force against another U.S. citizen believed to be participating in terrorist activity overseas. Where distinctions are to be made between citizens and non-citizens in such matters is still not firmly resolved—but there ought to be some such distinctions, consistent with citizens having rights in other circumstances that non-citizens do not share. This issue has gotten further complicated by becoming entangled with a question of which agency of government should be firing missiles from unmanned aircraft. There seems to be a preference for having armed forces pull the trigger if U.S. citizens are involved, but the military also is limited to certain geographic areas when it involved in active warfare.

There are no school solutions to these questions. There are good reasons, for example, both to turn all drone operations over to the military and to limit geographically where the U.S. military is permitted to operate, even though these two objectives may conflict in individual cases. The difficulties in defining the targets for a new authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) reflect the inherently diffuse and ill-defined organizational structure of even just the radical Sunni portion of international terrorism today.

President Obama made a praiseworthy effort in a speech last spring to lend insight and clarity to the U.S. posture on counterterrorism. Among other things, he said he wanted to work with Congress to “refine and ultimately repeal” the current AUMF stemming from the days immediately after 9/11. It is proper for the administration to look to Congress to take center stage in these efforts. There are fundamental questions at stake about the priority to be given to counterterrorism vs. other objectives, about the criteria for the taking of a human life, and about the meaning and implications of U.S. citizenship.

A Congressional lead also would have the advantage of imparting a broader perspective to the overall reliance on drones to kill people, and of separating the construction of policy principles from the execution of the policy. There are too many signs that the drone program has acquired a life of its own, acquiesced in by officials who believe they have no other way to demonstrate immediate action on behalf of counterterrorism, regardless of what may ultimately be greater negative, albeit not immediate, effects.

Crafting new policy on this subject will not be easy. Some of what has already been done and said in the United States in previous years has made it all the harder. Probably the biggest mistake in the past was insistence on using the war metaphor to describe counterterrorism. This led to the mistaken assumption that the target is a single coherent entity. It also encouraged the excessive militarization of counterterrorism, which today makes drone strikes sometimes seem like the only game in town.

TopicsCongressThe PresidencyTerrorism RegionsUnited States

Unsolvable Syria

Paul Pillar

It is easy to confuse possibility with responsibility, and policy with inescapable reality. Especially when headline-writers attempt to achieve compression—which, speaking of inescapable reality, is part of their job. An article by the Washington Post's Anne Gearan about Syria, which is mainly about the efforts of U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and humanitarian aid developments within Syria, leads with some remarks by President Obama at a joint press conference with visiting French President Hollande. Mr. Obama “acknowledged,” according to Gearan's account, that “diplomacy, the main pillar of its Syria policy, is failing...” The page one headline tracks the language in that lead sentence. A headline in bigger type after the jump sounds even more judgmental about U.S. policy: “Obama admits diplomatic failures”.

Obama made his remarks in answering a question from Mark Landler of the New York Times. It is hard to find in the transcript where the president “admits” much of anything, and specifically hard to find an admission that his own diplomacy is a “failure.” He observes, along with just about everyone else, that the situation on the ground in Syria if really bad, is “heartbreaking” to see, and is a source of “enormous frustration”. He states that any solution in Syria will have to involve a political formula in which no one sect or faction dominants others, that some modest progress has been made in getting adversaries to talk to each other, but that otherwise Brahimi's political process has a long way to go. The president noted that Russia has been a holdout regarding action in the U.N. Security Council to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid. On chemical weapons—another subject of Landler's question—the president notes that some deadlines have been missed but that substantial progress has been made toward the agreed goal of destroying Syria's stock of chemical weapons. On the larger topic of dealing with the civil war, Mr. Obama surmises that a premise of the reporter's question is that there may be “additional direct action or military action that can be taken that would resolve the problem in Syria,” but the president concludes that there is not “a military solution, per se, to the problem.” All of that is true.

Possibly the treatment of the story, including the choice of leads and headlines, is a way for the Post to stick it to the president and to chalk up a U.S. policy failure. Possibly sentiment on the Post's editorial page, with its incessant drumbeat to do something more about Syria (although it is often not clear exactly what) is bleeding over into the news pages. A more likely explanation, however, is that this treatment illustrates a more general, and unfortunate, phenomenon of assessing U.S. policy according to how much the United States does to resolve any or every problem in the world that is serious enough to attract our attention. The unstated assumptions are that the United States can solve any such problem, and that it should solve such problems.

But even many problems salient enough to grab our attention—and even some that are undeniably important and might even touch U.S. interests in identifiable ways—are not amenable to solution by the United States, at least not without incurring other debilitating costs. This is true of some situations that are heartbreaking and frustrating. It is probably true of the Syrian civil war (which may cease, as the Lebanese civil war did, when the participants have sufficiently exhausted themselves and the conditions are thus ripe for international mediation to bring more results). It is a mistake to assess the success or failure of U.S. foreign policy based on an image of the United States as an omnipotent global savior or policeman.

We ought to bear this principle in mind in contemplating policy about problems anywhere on the globe. It certainly should be borne in mind with the Middle East, where there is a still fairly recent history of forceful U.S. action doing more harm than good, and a more distant history of the actions of outside powers in general also doing harm.

TopicsUNFailed StatesMediaThe PresidencyWMD RegionsUnited StatesSyria

Good Relationships Aren't Always Good

Paul Pillar

An op ed in the Washington Post carrying the joint byline of Barack Obama and François Hollande—on the occasion of the latter's visit to Washington—is one of the more conspicuous demonstrations of kumbaya within the North Atlantic alliance. For the two governments to produce such a statement reflects the extent to which harmonious relations between states generally considered to be friends or allies are, within the political discourse of each country, almost always considered to be a good thing. Demonstrating the ability to play well with others, as one might read on an elementary school report card, can help to offset poorer grades that critics might assign on other topics. Obama benefits from demonstrating close relations with a government that has taken a more forceful line toward some issues, such as the civil war in Syria, on which some of Obama's domestic critics wish he would be more forceful. Making nice with the U.S. president distracts from several of Hollande's problems, including his convoluted private liaisons that have gotten the attention even of the French public, which usually is nonchalant about its leaders' sex lives, and that have complicated the work of the White House social staff arranging this week's state dinner.

Expect a similar gauge of success and failure to be applied when President Obama visits Saudi Arabia next month. Most commentary will rate the visit successful to the extent that good vibrations and commonality of views emanate from the meeting, and rate it a failure to the extent that differences between U.S. and Saudi policies remain more conspicuous.

Overtly harmonious relations with self-styled allies can indeed be associated with good things happening for U.S. interests. At a minimum, such a relationship indicates that the managers of our foreign policy are at least performing the basic function of serious engagement with other important countries. That is not to be taken for granted. The Obama-Hollande op ed makes a mild reference to how it was not happening in the recent past (“A decade ago, few would have imagined our two countries working so closely together...”), when Old Europe was being cavalierly dismissed. Good relations also tend to be associated with positive incentives for desirable behavior, which have some significant advantages over negative incentives for not just the country whose behavior is in question but also for the country holding out the incentives. This too often gets overlooked when the first reaction of many people to an overseas problem is to ask what new sanction we can apply or whom we can threaten with military attack.

Realists always keep in mind, however, that what matters is not the singing of kumbaya but getting desirable behavior out of others. The others in question may not be people on the other side of a state dinner table or even a negotiating table. And the relationships that matter in eliciting desired behavior are not always ones with traditional friends and allies. On Syria, for example, although the Obama-Hollande piece tries to disguise earlier differences by saying “our credible threat of force paved the way for the plan to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons,” it was the United States dealing with Russia that mattered most in coming up with that plan and putting it into operation. As another example, if one were to ask what engagement today, by either the United States or France, is most likely to secure important desired behavior on a national security matter, the answer might be the nuclear negotiations with Iran—even though nothing approaching close friendship with Iran is in the foreseeable future even if those negotiations succeed.

When there does appear to be a close and harmonious relationship between the United States and another government, this could mean any of several things, some of which are good for U.S. interests and some of which are not. There might be a natural convergence of interests that doesn't require any incentives or diplomatic stroking; when that is the case we should smile and urge our policy-makers and diplomats to direct their time and energies to other, more problematic matters. Another possibility is that the other country is falling in line behind U.S. preferences. That usually is good for the United States, although not when the preferences may themselves not be in U.S. interests—as was true a decade ago with the Iraq War, when the U.S. administration would have been better off listening to the resistant French and Germans than merely accepting the affections of the poodle Blair. Yet another possibility is that the United States is acquiescing in the preferences of the other government, even when those preferences are not in U.S. interests, for the sake of maintaining harmony in the relationship. And that is the worst outcome of all for the United States.

We should keep that in mind when the president visits Saudi Arabia. It is one of several countries in the Middle East—Egypt and Israel immediately come to mind as others—that usually are regarded as friends or allies of the United States but where the relationship would sound harmonious only if the United States caves in to certain tendencies of the other government that are damaging to U.S. interests, and even ultimately damaging to the other country itself. The United States has no interest in taking sides, along with Saudi Arabia, in religiously defined conflicts between Sunni and Shia. Nor are U.S. interests served by going along with authoritarian crackdowns and consolidation of power by the military regime in Egypt. And U.S. interests certainly are not served by acquiescing in the Israeli government's indefinite subjugation of Palestinians, trigger-happy and disruptive uses of military force, and attempts to sabotage negotiations with Iran.

In each of these cases, some bad vibrations coming out of bilateral meetings could be a good sign. They might indicate steadfast upholding of what really is in U.S. interests, however much this may displease the rulers on the other side of the table. It might indicate appropriate awareness by U.S. policy-makers of who is dependent on whom—a particular consideration regarding the enormous unused leverage over Israel, based on huge material and diplomatic support. It probably would indicate awareness as well of how the nature of U.S. relations with each of these states affects the motivations and hatreds of others, who perceive the United States to be in bed with regimes that are authoritarian, have a narrow sectarian allegiance, or deny the rights of conquered people.

TopicsDomestic PoliticsGreat PowersThe Presidency RegionsIsraelRussiaEgyptIranFranceUnited StatesPalestinian territoriesSaudi Arabia

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