Paul Pillar

The Sheldon Primary

Paul Pillar

From the 1890s until finally outlawed by the Supreme Court some fifty years later, one device used in the segregated South to maintain the white power structure and to prevent blacks from any effective political role was called the white primary. This was a sort of preliminary election, open only to white Democrats, that ostensibly was a nonofficial event not run by the state and thus did not adhere to laws and constitutional principles providing for equal treatment and universal voting rights. There would be a later official election in which blacks could vote, but it usually was meaningless because electoral contests had in effect already been decided in the white primary.

Now we have a procedure reminiscent of the white primary that is being called the “Sheldon primary,” as in political bankroller Sheldon Adelson. Republican presidential hopefuls are kneeling at the feet of the casino magnate in the hope of receiving his blessing, and thus his money, as the party's nominee for 2016. It seems that Adelson, who together with his wife dropped $93 million on political campaigns in 2012, has concluded that he erred in that year in backing for too long candidates whose ideology appealed most to him but ultimately proved unelectable. This time he wants to anoint early on someone he can stick with right through the general election. He doesn't want to see messy primary contests that would weaken the eventual nominee. If things work the way Adelson wants—and that he is willing and able to pay to make them work that way—caucuses in Iowa or the primary in New Hampshire will matter less than the Sheldon primary. Last time he let us have a good hard look at the likes of Newt Gingrich while votes in Republican primaries still meant something. Next time he doesn't want primary voters to have that much of a choice.

For this man who will likely have such enormous influence on who will be the Republican presidential nominee, the Republican party isn't even his first love among political parties. That would be the Likud party. Adelson's money also plays a very big role in Israeli politics, much of it in subsidizing a free-distribution newspaper, Israel HaYom, which has the largest circulation of any daily newspaper in Israel and functions as a cheerleader for Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud.

Nor is the United States Adelson's first love among countries. He has said that when he performed military service as a young man it “unfortunately” was in a U.S. uniform rather than an Israeli one. He has expressed the wish that his son become a sniper in the Israeli Defense Forces.

Back in the United States, Adelson does have some unsurprising plutocratic impulses, but with a blatantly narrow focus. Perhaps when the objective is to advance the interests not only of the one percent, but of whatever small fraction of one percent that an estimated net worth of $38 billion makes a person a part of, narrowness is inevitable. Adelson's biggest push for, and most lavish financing of, a domestic U.S. issue is his attempt to get online gambling outlawed. The ostensible purpose is to protect the morals of our youth, but of course it also would protect the market share of his casinos.

Adelson's most distinctive foreign policy pronouncement is that a nuclear weapon should be dropped on Iran.

The Sheldon primary is the sort of thing we get when the Supreme Court, an earlier incarnation of which eliminated the white primary, shreds efforts to limit the role of money in U.S. elections. Even if that mistake cannot be corrected, voters—including those Republican primary voters in New Hampshire and elsewhere—ought at least to be fully aware of what type of man is trying to use his wealth to make their choice for them.

TopicsDomestic PoliticsElections RegionsIsraelUnited States

Russia, Sanctions, and Politics in Iran

Paul Pillar

The crisis over Crimea has naturally raised questions about possible effects of this disturbance on other issues and specifically ones that depend on U.S.-Russian cooperation. This includes the negotiations on Iran's nuclear program. Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov raised eyebrows with a comment this week about how dealings with Iran may be an area where his government would look for possible options in responding to Western sanctions against Russia.

So far there is no indication of a change in Russian policies regarding Iran. This is not surprising. Russia is geographically closer to Iran than are any of its negotiating partners in the Vienna talks, and if there were to be any threat from an Iranian nuclear weapon—prevention of which is a main purpose of the negotiations—Russia would be at least as vulnerable as any of the others. Putin's government also can openly accept that it would be in Russia's interests as well as Iran's for the two countries to have a full and normal relationship. Putin can do so because unlike in the United States, whose interests also would be well served by a full and normal relationship of its own with Iran, he does not have strong domestic political elements dedicated to keeping relations with Iran perpetually bad.

Moscow does have, however, an option for using the Iran issue to show displeasure with the West without harming (and maybe even helping) the prospects for reaching an agreement with Iran. That option would be to reach new trade deals, either civilian or military, with Tehran. Besides being in Russia's economic interests, such transactions would be well-suited symbolically as an anti-sanctions gesture in the face of sanctions against Russia itself.

If Russia were to move in this direction, there of course would be in the United States moans of disapproval and dismay about how the anti-Iran sanctions regime was in danger of falling apart. Such dismay would come partly from those who honestly but mistakenly believe that getting the desired concessions out of Tehran is all a matter of pressuring Iran, and that more pressure through economic sanctions is always good and less pressure is always bad. The mistaken belief comes from apparent ignorance of a historical record that does not really support the catechism that “sanctions brought Iran to the table.” It also comes from failure to understand that the other side's confidence that pressure will stop if desired concessions are made is just as important as the belief that pressure won't stop if the concessions aren't made.

Expressions of disapproval and dismay also would come from those who oppose any agreement with Iran and precisely for that reason have been pushing for piling on still more sanctions at inopportune times. Expressions from that quarter, such as from Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, have already begun over the mere possibility of what the Russians might do.

Those who want, for whatever reason, to keep harsh sanctions against Iran in place for now can relax. The big, debilitating sanctions involving banking and oil are still in place, and U.S. actions have far more to do with keeping them in place than anything Russia can do unilaterally. The Treasury Department is very good at the sanctions enforcement business. It is so scarily good that even relaxations of the sanctions regime on the periphery have little practical effect because anybody who might want to take advantage of such relaxation usually has no way of moving the necessary money around if they cannot persuade any banks, fearful of being penalized by Treasury, to handle the transactions. This is probably true, for example, of a recently issued general license to permit academic exchanges between Iran and the United States.

Actually, some opening up of commerce with Iran, whether at the initiative of the Russians or of someone else, would probably help the negotiations at this point. What is most needed now to sustain Iranian cooperation and seriousness is not still more sanctions; if that were true we would have seen results long ago. What is needed more is to persuade Iranians who matter—and that includes more than those at the negotiating table—that all those sanctions really were for the declared purpose of eliciting Iranian agreement to arrangements that preclude an Iranian nuclear weapon. That is needed because the Iranians have been given much reason to be skeptical about whether that is the true purpose of the sanctions. And it is needed because, after the Iranians made major concessions in the preliminary agreement reached last November in return for only meager sanctions relief, they are still waiting for proof that their cooperation is buying the economic relief they seek.

Any failure to understand all this is a failure to understand that there are real politics in Tehran, which means factions with different views and objectives contending for power and seeing their influence rise and fall with policy successes and failures. The administration of President Hassan Rouhani has much at stake with the economic consequences of the nuclear issue. He was elected last year by people who placed in him high hopes for economic improvement. He has managed so far to clean up somewhat the problems left by his predecessor, which are due partly to economic mismanagement as well as to the sanctions. But Rouhani needs to show a lot more improvement, and fairly soon, or else he will be a lame duck for the rest of his term. He and his foreign minister, Javad Zarif, are as good as it's going to get as far as Iranian interlocutors for the West are concerned. If they come to be seen as failures the alternatives will be worse.

Supreme leader Ali Khamenei has a different perspective and different position but has to deal at one remove with some of the same realities. His views toward the West are far more unreconstructed than Rouhani's and in some respects even despicable. His very pessimistic pronouncements about the negotiations are partly an effort to separate himself from possible failure but also partly a genuinely strong suspicion about Western and especially U.S. motives. Khamenei is not a dictator, however, and that is part of what it means to have real politics in Tehran. He cannot ignore the economic problems and the views about them that put Rouhani into office. He can talk about self-reliance and say sanctions be damned, but he surely knows that such lectures are an insufficient palliative.

If the negotiations were to fail—tragically, given what has been achieved so far—it would not be because of anything the Russians, annoyed about reactions to Crimea, might do, and it won't be because of a weakening of sanctions. It would be because of the efforts of hardliners elsewhere, including in the United States as well as Iran, to kill the prospects for an agreement, with the hardliners in each place playing off each other.

More specifically, it might be that given the influence of the hardliners, the U.S. position in particular would remain too inflexible to make it possible for the Iranians to make further concessions. One Western official summed up well what is most needed now in the negotiations:

The greater power has to bend. We must take steps that are large enough to convince both skeptics and pro-engagement camps in Tehran that we're serious. It's alarming that this seems out of our ability today.

TopicsBankingDomestic PoliticsSanctionsNuclear ProliferationTrade RegionsRussiaIranUnited States

Putin's Instructive Speech

Paul Pillar

Vladimir Putin's speech about Russia's annexation of Crimea was a rhetorical tour de force and an apt accompaniment to his regime's tactical skill in pulling off the annexation, however many strategic regrets there may later be. There was, to be sure, much that was identifiably phony or facetious in what he said, such as the assertion that Crimean Tatars “lean towards Russia.” The attempted separation from Soviet history, by a leader who has deemed the dissolution of the USSR to be history's greatest calamity, was also rather rich. This involved not only blaming Khrushchev for his transfer of Crimea but also invoking divinity while blaming old Bolsheviks—“may God judge them”—for messily drawing the other boundaries between Ukraine and Russia. But the speech contained other observations that it behooves us to contemplate.

The rhetoric, like all good rhetoric, had punch because of a correspondence with reality. While attention in the weeks ahead will inevitably be focused on what kind of punishment can be inflicted in response to Putin's fait accompli, and more appropriately on how to keep this crisis from damaging other initiatives in which Russia necessarily has a role, there are longer-term lessons to be learned in two respects.

One concerns how Ukraine came to be a point of confrontation between Russia and Western powers in the first place. We heard from the Russian president a good expression of Russian perceptions and sentiment, rooted in nationalism and a sense of national security, in response to what appeared to be a Western attempt to extend a presence and power into Russia's immediate neighborhood with insufficient thought given to what the responses would be. However rightly prime blame for the immediate crisis might be attributed to Putin himself, what he said about this background is a valid part of the story.

The West and especially the United States, observed Putin, “must have really lacked political instinct and common sense not to foresee all the consequences of their actions.” Sounds like the kind of criticism Barack Obama's domestic opponents have been directing against him, except that the principal chapter in the story to which Putin was referring involved a previous administration's support for bringing Ukraine and Georgia into NATO. Putin was very believable when he said, “NATO remains a military alliance, and we are against having a military alliance making itself at home right in our backyard or in our historic territory. I simply cannot imagine that we would travel to Sevastopol to visit NATO sailors.”

A larger set of long-term lessons goes beyond the crisis over Ukraine. It involves patterns of behavior by the West and specifically the United States that have cropped up repeatedly in other confrontations and crises. One of those patterns is apparent unawareness of how our own actions rile the nationalism of other people. Russians are by no means the only ones to get their nationalist dander up, and Putin is certainly not the only leader to exploit the phenomenon.

A second pattern, which Putin's speech milked for all it was worth, is inconsistency in the application of principles such as self-determination and democracy. However much one might argue over how a case such as Kosovo might be different from Crimea—and the differences do not necessarily support any attempt to make the West's actions in the first seem more justifiable than Russia's in the second—the inconsistency in Western policy has been glaring. Brushing aside principles for the sake of expediency in pursuing an immediate objective can be foolish if we disregard the longer-term damage to our credibility when we try to invoke such principles somewhere else. Those who like to invoke the concept of credibility and how it can act at long range ought to take notice.

The third pattern, related to the second, applies particularly to the United States, and it is largely a matter of acting as if we did not have to follow rules that apply to everyone else. The passage in Putin's speech that may have been most instructive, though most painful, for Americans to hear was this:

Our western partners, led by the United States of America, prefer not to be guided by international law in their practical policies, but by the rule of the gun. They have come to believe in their exclusivity and exceptionalism, that they can decide the destinies of the world, that only they can ever be right. They act as they please: here and there, they use force against sovereign states, building coalitions based on the principle “If you are not with us, you are against us.” To make this aggression look legitimate, they force the necessary resolutions from international organizations, and if for some reason this does not work, they simply ignore the UN Security Council and the UN overall.

This is the ugly, outward-facing side of American exceptionalism. Americans should not need Vladimir Putin to tell us how it looks, but now that he has, we may as well try to learn something about what he is addressing.

TopicsNATOInternational LawGreat Powers RegionsRussiaUnited StatesUkraine

Ukraine and the Zero-Sum Impulse

Paul Pillar

It is perhaps unsurprising, but nevertheless unhelpful, for so much of the discussion in the United States about policy toward Ukraine to be fueled by Cold War-type juices that the crisis has gotten flowing. Current-day Russia gets equated with the earlier USSR, within a frame of mind that equates any Russian advance with a setback for U.S. interests. Even the Cold War itself was never that zero-sum, and a failure to realize that fact got the United States into some significant mistakes, the Vietnam War being the costliest one. But at least in the Cold War there was a global competition of ideologies, in which the United States and the Soviet Union were the two lodestars. No such competition is involved in the standoff in Crimea. The balance of forces in the northern Black Sea region is of major importance to Russia; it is not of such importance to the United States.

Some of the most outspoken and unadulterated expressions of the frame of mind involved come from Senator John McCain. He declares that for Vladimir Putin, “all rivalries are zero-sum.” The senator warns us that even if President Obama says we are not in competition with Russia, “Mr. Putin believes Russia is in competition with us, and pretending otherwise is an unrealistic basis for a great nation's foreign policy.” Of course Russia is in competition with the United States in various respects, just as every other nation in the world, including ones generally termed “allies,” are in competition with the United States on something or other. But clearly McCain is making a much more extensive assertion than that, one that sees an all-encompassing zero-sum competition. Even if Putin did think in such terms, why should the United States let itself get sucked into a similar brand of mistaken thinking? That sounds like letting our competitor set the rules of the game.

This situation most resembles accepting a playground dare: buying into some win-or-lose proposition just because a tough kid we don't especially like challenges us to do so. And don't worry, Senator McCain assures us, about possibly losing, because—check your lexicon of foreign policy clichés—the “tide of history” is on the side of Ukraine and “the political values of the West.”

In fact, Putin surely is smart enough to realize that not all rivalries are zero-sum. Moreover, he probably realizes what he would be losing if he swallows Crimea. The losses would include not only economic countermeasures by the West but also a major blow to any hope of moving the rest of Ukraine, shorn of one of its more pro-Russian pieces, closer into the Russian orbit. A tough-thinking Vladimir Putin has good reasons to be thinking about possible ways out of this crisis that are not all unilateral, not all military, and certainly not all zero-sum.

While he is doing such thinking, he also sees how domestic Russian politics have been working to his benefit in a traditional rally-round-the-flag way in response to this crisis and to how the Russian regime and media have been spinning it. The tough Putin we see is surely responding more to this political dynamic than acting out delusions about zero-sum competition with the West. The West does have an interest in this dynamic, but it is not the one Senator McCain is talking about. We have an interest in not encouraging and empowering the sort of elements within Russia that would welcome a new Cold War. Unfortunately a zero-sum, Cold War-like reaction from our side may already be tending to do that. The Center for the National Interest's Dimitri Simes observes about what is going on in Russia, “Hard-line people, more nationalist people, they are being energized, they think this may be their moment,” and besides the hardliners from whom we are already hearing “there is a lot behind them that is potentially more serious and more ominous.”

There is much sound policy advice about the Ukraine crisis available on the U.S. side that is not at all stuck in Cold War thinking, such as from John Mearsheimer or Graham Allison. Mearsheimer stresses the importance of thinking in geopolitical terms, understanding the concept of spheres of interest, and realizing that Russia has much more at stake in and around Ukraine than the United States does. Such thinking is what leads two of America's foremost elder strategists steeped in the continental realist tradition, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Henry Kissinger, both to invoke explicitly Finland as a model for how Ukraine could exist peacefully and prosperously with both Russia and the European Union. That concept is in sharp contrast to how “Finlandization” was used as a dirty word at times during the Cold War and again has been invoked as a pejorative in the current crisis.

The zero-sum mentality frequently accompanies the notion of supposed American weakness as the cause of ills throughout the world, and McCain joins in that theme with gusto. He blames the current U.S. administration and “a growing disregard for America's credibility” for having “emboldened” not only Vladimir Putin but a wide variety of “other aggressive actors.” Looking backward, that notion is invalid as gauged by the historical record. Looking forward, the notion is poor policy guidance both for that reason and because if one were to start drawing lines in sand to try to demonstrate credibility, the Ukraine crisis would be a poor place to do it. Mearsheimer persuasively emphasizes how much the current crisis grew out of earlier Western and especially U.S. moves to bring Ukraine and Georgia into NATO. The fact that a central part of the crisis has been the overthrow of a fairly elected, even if corrupt, leader also ill serves the cause of democracy and other “political values of the West.”

In years following the Cold War one has heard much lecturing in Washington about the need to get past a “Cold War mindset.” Such a mindset, unfortunately, is alive and well today, although not primarily in the government bureaucracies that were the principal targets of the lectures. Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama have many challenges if they are, along with leaders of the European Union and Ukraine, to resolve the current crisis successfully. One of those challenges is to cope with domestic elements in both countries that pine for the Cold War and that end every addition problem with the number zero.

TopicsEuropean UnionDemocracyNATOIdeologyGrand StrategyPublic OpinionGreat PowersSanctions RegionsRussiaUnited StatesUkraine

Speculative Mischief and Flight 370

Paul Pillar

The longer the mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 continues, the more opportunity there will be for stories about what happened to the plane to take root and to endure well after an investigation has debunked them. The start of such a story does not require much beyond someone's sheer speculation—perhaps some scrap, some grain of truth, out of which an entire scenario gets spun. And then the story becomes another example of the urban legend phenomenon: of how nothing much more than the longevity and ubiquity of a belief leads many people to accept it as true.

Beliefs about happenings with uncertain explanations can have consequences for public policy. This is not necessarily wrong when investigations have yet to reach a conclusion and the belief in question might still turn out to be true. For some time after TWA Flight 800 exploded off Long Island in 1996, the possibility that the plane was intentionally downed contributed to an increase in resources the United States allocated to counterterrorism. The response reflected the occurrence in rapid succession of the plane crash and two actual terrorist attacks in 1996: a pipe bomb at the Atlanta Olympics and the truck bombing of a U.S. military barracks at Khobar Towers, Saudi Arabia.

What is certainly not warranted is to continue to run with a particular belief after a completed investigation has dismissed it. Eighteen years after the crash of TWA 800, it still provides fodder for those who refuse to accept the investigative finding that an accidental explosion in a fuel tank brought the plane down.

This kind of thing is mostly the work of the usual corps of private sector conspiracy theorists, What is even more inexcusable is when anyone with a policy agenda does something similar. Richard Cheney continued to refer to a meeting that 9/11 chief hijacker Mohamed Atta supposedly had with an Iraqi official in Prague, after U.S. agencies had exhaustively investigated the possibility and determined that no such meeting had taken place.

Perhaps a policy agenda has helped to generate a story that appeared during the past week at Al-Jazeera alleging that the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988 was the doing of Iran, working through the group known as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine—General Command. The idea that the PFLP-GC had planted the bomb was actually an early investigative hypothesis, although the state sponsor mentioned most often was Syria, which provided a haven to the group. The hypothesis proved to be a dead end. A very long and laborious investigation, which painstakingly pieced together the forensic evidence, determined conclusively that the bombing was instead the work of Libya.

There are multiple reasons to hope that there soon will be a breakthrough in the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and that investigators can rapidly get to the truth of what happened to the plane. One of the reasons is to prevent the build-up of momentum of untruthful stories about what happened to it.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Laurent ERRERA. CC BY-SA 2.0.

TopicsPublic OpinionTerrorism RegionsIranLibyaUnited StatesSyriaMalaysia

What the Saudis Fear

Paul Pillar

As the government of Saudi Arabia does strange things and pitches fits, such as at the beginning of this year declining to take up one of the usually-coveted rotational seats on the United Nations Security Council, we tend to view Saudi motivations and concerns through a lens that distorts confrontations in the Middle East into our own preferred way of looking at such conflicts. Thus we often view the Saudis as prominent members of a “moderate” bloc of regional states that are principally in confrontation with a different bloc led by Iran. This view was augmented by misinterpretation of a leaked diplomatic cable that was taken to mean that the Saudi leadership would welcome a U.S. military attack on Iran. Actually, the Saudis would view any such warfare in their neighborhood as a calamity. Riyadh certainly does have concerns about Iran, but its usual way of dealing with those concerns has been through rapprochement with Tehran. The Saudis are once again taking steps to improve relations with the cross-Gulf neighbor.

American perceptions of Saudi apoplexy about the Syrian civil war also tend to to be viewed in the context of debate and discussion among Americans—in this case, in terms of charges that American unwillingness or inability to do anything significant about the civil war is a manifestation of U.S. “retreat” from the world. But the apoplexy isn't about American retreat, either real or imagined. Rather, the Saudi concern is different and it is simple; it is about sectarian conflict. It is seeing fellow Sunnis fight against Alawites and Shia, and it believes it has a strong stake in the Sunnis winning.

This stake in another country's sectarian conflict is related to the peculiar nature of the al-Saud family's claim to legitimacy and to political power. It is a claim based on religion, and not at all on popular sovereignty. It is not for nothing that the Saudi king calls himself the custodian of the two holy mosques. Protection of Sunni brethren is part of upholding the claim to legitimacy.

Another piece of odd Saudi behavior—a vendetta against the Muslim Brotherhood—also is rooted in matters of political legitimacy and religion. Saudi Arabia, along with its allies Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, recently withdrew its ambassador from fellow Gulf Cooperation Council member Qatar. The Qataris have been a thorn in the Saudis' side for several reasons, but the biggest immediate one has been Qatari support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The Saudis have strongly supported the Egyptian military's coup that deposed the Muslim Brotherhood president of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi. Now the Saudis have formally designated the Brotherhood as a terrorist group—a designation that has no basis in the behavior of the Brotherhood, which foreswore violence many years ago and is the only organization on the Saudis' terrorist list that is not an armed group.

The Muslim Brotherhood evokes especially strong fear among Saudi royals not because of any moves it is making to undermine the Saudi regime directly but instead because it embodies a combination of religious commitment to Islam (on the Sunni side) and pursuit of political power through democratic means. This combination presents the greatest possible challenge to the legitimacy of the ruling Saudi family.

U.S. interests do not converge at all with the fears that are driving the Saudis. The United States has no stake in sectarian contests between Sunni and Shia, and it can only hurt itself by appearing to take sides. As for the Saudi confrontation with the Muslim Brotherhood, the American proclivity for viewing Islamists dimly, combined with the image of Saudi Arabia being among the “moderates,” has led Americans to overlook who in this confrontation is Islamist and democratic and who is Islamist and authoritarian.

The United States has valid realist reasons to be heavily engaged with Saudi Arabia. But it has nothing in common with the chief fears that are motivating Saudi Arabia's rulers.

Image: Flickr/Al Jazeera English. CC BY-SA 2.0.

TopicsAutocracyDemocracyUNReligionTerrorism RegionsEgyptIranQatarSaudi Arabia

Rice and the Toughness Fallacy

Paul Pillar

The rhetorical drumbeat from rightward portions of the commentariat, to the effect that Russia's moves in Ukraine should be attributed to a supposed pusillanimous “retreat” of American power and to adversaries responding by becoming more aggressive, shows no signs of abating. It continues even though, as Robert Golan-Vilella nicely explains and I have noted, the historical evidence simply does not show that the world works that way and that other governments make foreign policy decisions that way. The impetus for the drumbeat includes broader habits of exceptionalist thinking about American power and the more specific political objective of disparaging Barack Obama by blaming him for just about everything going wrong in the world. The theme regarding the latter objective is that Obama is weak and unassertive—this notion being basically a continuation of the mythical “apology tour” that Mitt Romney used to talk about.

An opinion piece by Condoleezza Rice illustrates another, complementary motivation, which is to try to paint over the failures of past policies that have laid claim to being strong and assertive. Rice's message is a simple one that more military spending, more obduracy, more militancy, and more deployments of armed forces are a good thing, and always will make others cower in the face of U.S. power. There is nary a bit of analysis, even of the limited sort that would fit in the confines of an op ed, as to exactly how any specific policy implied by what she is saying would be, with respect to any of the topics that she quickly mentions, better than the alternatives.

Rice even still seems to be in regime change mode. She says, “ We should reach out to Russian youth, especially students and young professionals...Democratic forces in Russia need to hear American support for their ambitions. They, not Putin, are Russia’s future.” So what conclusion is Putin supposed to draw, and how exactly is that supposed to influence his behavior or the behavior of any adversary anywhere else? Is he going to pull back from Crimea because our “reaching out” would cause his regime to totter? Hardly.

Give Rice credit for having the audacity to try to go on the argumentative offensive on some of the very topics on which she ought to be most defensive. One is the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008. The invasion—which was, as with Crimea, a Russian use of military force in a former Soviet republic—is Exhibit A for the proposition that the ostensibly tough policies that Rice favors do not dissuade people like Putin from doing things like that. The invasion occurred in the last year of the George W. Bush administration, after nearly eight years of such policies. Yet Rice would have us believe that by sending U.S. warships to the Black Sea and airlifting Georgian troops back home from Iraq, a Russian goal of toppling the Georgian government was foiled (“an admission made to me by the Russian foreign minister”). She blames the Russian military occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia on lily-livered Europeans unwilling to take tougher anti-Russian actions—later exacerbated, of course, by Obama's policies. She makes no mention of just what threat of military action was being communicated by U.S. moves, whether any such threat was credible given the consequences if it were executed, and what those consequences would be (a U.S.-Russian land war in the Caucasus?)

Rice says “signs that we are desperate for a nuclear agreement with Iran cannot be separated from Putin’s recent actions.” That's an odd formulation to begin with, given that Russia is part of the diplomatic coalition, as a partner of the United States, that is negotiating the agreement—so Russia must be just as “desperate.” And if one looks at the negotiations as not just an exercise in demonstrating toughness or weakness but instead in terms of their actual objective of placing strict and verifiable limits on Iran's nuclear program, Rice again is quietly whitewashing recent history. The Bush administration, uninterested in doing any business with Iran, blew an opportunity to limit that program when there were only a fraction of the Iranian centrifuges spinning that there are now. The preliminary agreement reached last November is the farthest-reaching restriction on the Iranian program ever achieved, with only minimal sanctions relief in return. If that's desperation, we need more of it.

In trying to connect assorted messiness in the Middle East to Obama's “retreat,” Rice refers to a “vacuum being filled by extremists such as al-Qaeda reborn in Iraq and Syria.” Al-Qaeda in Iraq was born, nor reborn, as a direct consequence of the Bush administration's war in Iraq. It didn't exist there before, and since the U.S. invasion it never went away. Now, in the form of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Shams (ISIS), it has become as well the most extreme participant in the violence in Syria.

If one were to try to make an argument about connections between the crisis in Ukraine and reputations nurtured by previous U.S. policies, a more plausible argument—more plausible than the one about lack of toughness encouraging tough guys to make trouble—involves the Iraq War. That act of U.S. aggression is recent enough that it still is a prominent detriment to U.S. credibility whenever the United States tries to complain about someone else's use of military force against another sovereign state, including Putin's use of force in Crimea. This damage is, along with ISIS and heightened sectarian conflict in the Middle East, part of the mess from his predecessor that Obama is having to deal with today.

As national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice had one of the most egregious failures that anyone holding that position could have: the absence of any policy process leading to a foreign policy decision as major as launching an offensive war. No meeting or option paper ever considered whether launching the war was a good idea. Had there been a policy process, maybe the likelihood of some of the resulting mess would have been considered. That horrendous failure cannot be undone, but we can at least resist Rice's later revision of history.

TopicsGrand StrategyGreat Powers RegionsRussiaIranGeorgiaUnited StatesUkraine

More Sanctioning Madness

Paul Pillar

Seventeen years ago Richard Haass, now president of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote an article titled “Sanctioning Madness”. The crux of his argument was:

With a few exceptions, the growing use of economic sanctions to promote foreign policy objectives is deplorable. This is not simply because sanctions are expensive, although they are. Nor is it strictly a matter of whether sanctions "work"; the answer to that question invariably depends on how demanding a task is set for a particular sanction. Rather, the problem with economic sanctions is that they frequently contribute little to American foreign policy goals while being costly and even counterproductive.

Haass was not saying to give up sanctions entirely. But they should not be the go-to tool, reached for habitually and unthinkingly, to address any foreign policy problem under the sun.

The American sanctions habit has not lessened at all during the intervening years, especially on Capitol Hill. Now Congress is getting out its sanctions pen yet again to see what it can do to Russia in response to the Crimean crisis. This may be an even clearer indication of the sanctions addiction than the recent unsuccessful effort to impose more sanctions on Iran, given that the latter move was more of a calculated attempt to sabotage an ongoing negotiation.

The multiple drawbacks and limitations of economic sanctions are too infrequently considered before sanctions are enacted. These include issues of who exactly in the target country will be hurt, and who might actually benefit. They also include consideration of counterproductive political reactions, including resistance to be seen buckling under pressure.

The costs, including economic costs, to ourselves of sanctions we impose are insufficiently acknowledged. In some situations trade patterns are such that the costs to ourselves may be minimal, but in those circumstances, and for that very reason, the desired impact on the target country is likely to be minimal as well. This may be the case with Russia today, with which the European Union has much more trade than the United States. Unilateral U.S. sanctions are thus likely to be ineffective with regard to Russia, while being needlessly disruptive to cooperation and common purpose with regard to the Europeans. Of course, any policy conducted with an attitude of “---- the E.U.”is not likely to be swayed by that concept.

The most important shortcoming to how sanctions tend to be used is a failure to link them carefully to the behavior we would like to see on the part of the target government. This means being very clear about exactly what it is to which we want the other side to say yes. It also means being clear in our own minds how the sanctions fit into an overall set of incentives and disincentives that will make saying yes seem more attractive than the alternative.

Ask someone pushing for sanctions against Russia today what they are intended to accomplish, and the answer is likely to be an end to Russian military occupation of Crimea. But that concept needs clarification, given that a reversal of moves made over the past week would still leave a Russian military presence on the peninsula by virtue of previous treaties and base leases. Needed also is a more complete package of understandings with the Ukrainians on matters of interest and concern to Russia, ranging from Ukraine not joining NATO to the status of the Russian language within Ukraine. It is unlikely that Russian military withdrawals will take place in the absence of some such understandings. It is thus unlikely U.S. sanctions would do any good unless carefully integrated into such a larger package.

The sanctions habit has persisted because imposing sanctions is a primitive, easy way to “do something” about difficult problems on which there is an urge to do something. It is a gesture. Congress needs to decide whether gestures are more important than making progress in getting out of the current crisis.

Image: Flickr/Kevin Dooley. CC BY 2.0.

TopicsSanctions RegionsRussiaUnited StatesUkraine

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

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