Paul Pillar

The Worth of a Leader

Paul Pillar

With a change of leadership at the Department of Veterans Affairs, we will have a test of how much difference a top leader makes in how well a large organization functions. Will Robert McDonald get the department to have better reviews than it did under Eric Shinseki? Maybe, but my guess is that if this happens, it will have more to do with the natural ebb and flow of recriminations in Washington than with anything having to do with the leadership skills or acumen of the person at the top. There is ample reason to believe that the principal fundamental cause of problems in the department is under-funding related to insufficient recognition of the total, long-term costs of overseas wars. Those costs include, thanks partly to modern body armor, the long-term care of warriors who in earlier wars would have been killed but in recent ones have survived and are maimed. Shinseki's departure, moreover, bore all the markings of the Washington habit of head-rolling as a supposed solution to stubborn problems, when it really is more a sort of political catharsis.

McDonald's appointment provides an opportunity for a related test. Any mention of the worth of a leader raises the question of the sky-high compensation that has become the norm among corporate CEOs, and of whether most of them could possibly be worth that much to an organization. McDonald's annual compensation as CEO of Procter & Gamble was about $16 million. The salary of a cabinet secretary is about $200,000. If there were a correspondence between compensation and worth, then we taxpayers ought to be gleeful about the steal of a deal we are getting. We're hiring a leader who is 80 times as good as those who have never risen to fill anything more than the sort of U.S. cabinet position that McDonald is about to fill. Talk about someone being overqualified...

Before we get too excited about this deal, we might note the questions that have been raised about McDonald's performance at Procter & Gamble. It's not a good sign when the chief he replaced has been brought back to replace him. We might also note, if the size of an organization has anything to do with value of experience, that the Department of Veterans Affairs with its 300,000 employees is over twice as large as P&G with its 120,000.

Maybe taxpayers should be grateful to Mr. McDonald for taking a job that entails a 98.75 percent pay cut from his last position. That's almost like doing the job pro bono. But I don't think we're really getting a $16 million dollar man to do a $200,000 job. The numbers reflect the absurdly different cultures involved in self-referential corporate boardrooms, on one hand, and political attitudes toward public service, on the other.

There's still that matter of underfunding the care of wounded warriors. There is a lot to be said for the idea of requiring that funding be provided for the future medical care of veterans as part of any decision to go to war. That not only might help the maimed veterans we already have but will encourage long, hard thinking before creating more of them.

Image: Flickr/VA. 

Topicsveterans war RegionsUnited States

Aid to Syrian Rebels: How Does It End?

Paul Pillar

The Obama administration's proposal to spend $500 million on training and equipping “appropriately vetted elements of the moderate Syrian armed opposition” leaves unanswered some of the same questions that always have surrounded proposals to give lethal aid to Syrian rebels. Some of those questions involve the challenges in determining who qualifies as a “moderate.” “Vetting” sounds so much easier to do than it actually is to do. It is very difficult to do with anything that is even half as jumbled, confused, and extremist-ridden as is the current armed opposition to the Syrian regime. It is interesting how many of those in Washington who are quick to lambaste the national security bureaucracy for supposedly being unable to perceive and predict accurately who is doing what in the Middle East seem to have ample confidence in the ability of that same bureaucracy to “vet” Syrian rebels.

“Moderate” presumably refers to long-term political objectives rather than to current methods, given that anyone who is engaging in armed rebellion is by definition using non-moderate methods. The principal difficulty in identifying those political objectives stems not from faulty information or analysis today but rather from the impossibility of predicting the directions that groups or leaders, facing changed circumstances, will take in the future. History is replete with examples of leaders whose trajectories once in power could not have been extrapolated from what they did or said while they were still rebels.

Another complication is that fighters and the arms they carry have a way of moving from group to group. There already has been some of this movement in the Syrian civil war.

One hears the argument that the presence of many nasty and immoderate people in the Syrian opposition is all the more reason to aid moderate groups, so that fighters will gravitate toward the moderate groups rather than the extreme ones. But if allegiance and political inclination can be transferred or bought this easily, this calls into question the validity of any “vetting.”

The most fundamental question about any aid to Syrian rebels is exactly how this type of support advances whatever is our own political objective for Syria, or at least makes more likely an outcome of the war that is more rather than less consistent with U.S. interests. The White House statement about the aid proposal says the assistance is intended to “help defend the Syrian people, stabilize areas under opposition control, facilitate the provision of essential services, counter terrorist threats, and promote conditions for a negotiated settlement.” That sounds reasonable enough, although the nature of the objective concerning a negotiated settlement is unclear given that we never appear to have rescinded explicitly the previously stated objective that Assad must go.

Perhaps some aid to the rebellion would shift the momentum on the battlefield enough for some figures in the regime's camp to support a negotiated settlement more than they do now. If that is to happen, however, rather than aid to rebels being just one step in a new spiral of escalation, a more complete pro-negotiation strategy will have to become apparent, with everything that entails particularly for the roles of Russia and Iran.

We also should be wary of a dynamic we observed with some of our client groups in Afghanistan. When a group realizes that it is being aided only because of its role in an ongoing war, it has an incentive to keep the war ongoing. And that means it is more likely to oppose negotiations, at least under any terms that are reasonable and feasible, than to support them.

Meanwhile, we have the irony of the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad reportedly conducting air strikes against positions of the hated ISIS group in Iraq. The Iraqi prime minister says he didn't ask for the strikes but welcomes them. Some of the same Washington hawks who have been most gung-ho about toppling Assad have also been gung-ho about doing what Assad's own forces are doing in Western Iraq. You can't tell the players in the Middle East without a scorecard. Or rather, the line-ups are so confused even with a scorecard that we need to think again about trying to play whatever is the game that's going on.

It is unclear how much of what the Obama administration has been doing lately in Iraq and Syria, including this proposal to give lethal aid to Syrian rebels, it would have done without the political pressure from critics to “do something” in those countries. Both the administration and its critics need to keep end games and broad strategy in mind and continually to ask themselves—as well as making more clear for the rest of us—how any move today will make more probable a desired end state in either country.       

Image: Wikipedia. 

TopicsSyria Iraq RegionsMiddle East

The Bias for Action in U.S. Foreign Policy

Paul Pillar

A “bias for action” has long been a buzz phrase in the business world. Tom Peters and Robert Waterman in their best-selling book In Search of Excellence put the phrase at the top of their list of attributes of what they considered to be outstanding firms. For an individual hoping to make it big in business, it's not a bad phrase to keep in mind. Ambitious executives do not make names for themselves by saying they will take whatever organization they are responsible for and try not to screw it up. They make names by shaking things up. Moreover, the businesses with the most dramatic and admired garage-startup-to-behemoth histories necessarily had a bias for action.

Even in business, however, the behavior implied by the phrase has limitations. What is good for the rising career of an individual executive is not necessarily good for the firm. And for every Apple or Amazon we have heard about, there are many more companies we have not heard about in which the leader's bias for action led to unprofitable business lines, financial overextension, or other failures that caused the firm to crash and burn.

Applied to foreign policy, the soundness of behavior implied by a bias for action is even more questionable. Perhaps it is most valid when trying to build an empire. Otto von Bismarck, for example, had a bias for action when using wars against other European states as a means for putting together the German Empire. But for most states at most times, that is not the case. It is not the case for the United States today. The United States has a responsibility, to itself as well as to world order, less to build a bigger empire than to avoid screwing things up. And when the United States screws up, things can get very bad, not only because as the world's only superpower it is more powerful than anyone else but also because with global involvement it has a lot of vulnerabilities that other states do not have. Crashing and burning is not an option.

Even without the influence of business gurus such as Peters and Waterman, a bias for action is nonetheless at least as apparent in U.S. foreign policy as in commerce. One reason is the political pressure on leaders to be seen to be “doing something” about overseas problems. The partisan incentive to criticize opponents for doing nothing intensifies this pressure. In the United States the tendency is further exacerbated by a broader inclination to believe the United States ought to be able to solve any problem overseas.

We need to remember that a bias for action is exactly that: a bias. That means it is antithetical to an objective, unbiased assessment of what would be best for the United States to do or not to do. And that is not good. A bias for action has some of the qualities of the “ready, fire, aim” method of approaching a problem.

We can see some of these tendencies in the development of recent policy toward the turmoil in Iraq. The Obama administration's dispatch of a few hundred U.S. military personnel, although they will be serving legitimate purposes, is probably best understood as a response to the pressure to do something. It probably was the minimum military measure the administration could get away with without incurring intense accusations of doing nothing.

I was asked the other day to define U.S. objectives regarding the situation in Iraq. There are two ways to answer a question like that. One is the conventional way, which is the way any president or senior official would be expected to answer it. That way would mention things such as seeking regional stability and quashing terrorist threats against Americans.

The other way is to ask ourselves what are the most significant respects in which U.S. interests have been affected, for better or for worse, by developments in the Middle East over the past decade or so. Then our objective should be to repeat or build on what has affected our interests for the better, and to avoid repetition of the sorts of things that have affected them for the worse. By far the most consequential development for U.S. interests in the region was the Iraq War—and its effects on U.S. interests were overwhelmingly negative, with the thousands of Americans killed, the tens of thousands injured, the trillions of dollars in economic costs, and the stimulation of sectarian warfare and terrorism that we face today. The number one objective for dealing with a situation like the one in Iraq is to avoid doing anything that could lead to a mistake similar to launching the Iraq War.

No president, of course, could get away with defining U.S. objectives that way. It would sound too passive, and it would not embody a bias for action. It would not pass muster with Peters and Waterman, and it certainly would not pass muster with political critics. That's too bad, because it is a very legitimate way to define a prime objective. It takes account of the most important ways in which U.S. interests have been affected, and it takes account of how in any unbiased analysis of how to pursue and protect those interests there is no reason either action or inaction should be favored.                 

Image: Wikicommons. 

TopicsUnited States Iraq RegionsMiddle East

Advancing U.S. Interests Through Cooperation With Iran

Paul Pillar

Alarm about the advance in Iraq by the group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has led even as inveterate a hawk as Lindsey Graham to see some advantage in cooperating with Iran. The United States and Iran may indeed seem like the ultimate in strange bedfellows, but that is only because of rigid thinking that divides the world into allies and adversaries and rejects having anything to do with the adversaries. If those who subscribe to this Manichaean view would let go of it, they would see that the United States and Iran have numerous parallel interests, and America’s opportunities to advance its own interests through cooperation with Tehran go well beyond the current crisis in Iraq.

In Iraq itself, the convergence of American and Iranian interests goes beyond just stopping ISIS. Iranian objectives in Iraq are defined by the experience of Saddam Hussein launching the Iran-Iraq War, an eight-year-long conflict in which hundreds of thousands of Iranians died. Iran never wants to see an aggressive Iraq again, and neither should we. While Tehran might prefer an Iraq too weak to start another war, it does not want unending instability in its neighbor to the west. And while the Iranians are glad that their Shiite co-religionists are no longer subject to oppressive Sunni rule, they are smart enough to realize that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's narrow and increasingly authoritarian manner of governing is a recipe for the sort of Sunni extremism and unrest we see today. The best way for the United States and Iran to advance their shared interests in Iraq is to coordinate their messages to Maliki about political change being necessary to achieve anything approaching stability. There is no evidence, and no plausibility, behind the belief in parts of Washington that Iran wants to help al-Maliki turn this crisis into an all-out Sunni-Shiite war.

In Iran's neighbor to the east, the United States already has experience in cooperating with Iran to bring about political change. Following the ouster of the Taliban from power in late 2001, U.S. and Iranian diplomats worked effectively together to forge a new political order in Afghanistan that would be presided over by Hamid Karzai. This experience could have led to expanded cooperation in other areas—as the Iranian government of the reformist president Mohammad Khatami surely hoped and probably expected. But then the administration of George W. Bush slammed a door in Iran's face by declaring it to be part of an Axis of Evil.

The basis for fruitful U.S.-Iranian cooperation on Afghanistan continues today, as Karzai gives way to a successor and the U.S. troop presence winds down. Both the United States and Iran want a stable Afghanistan. Both want a broadly based system of governance that is not controlled only by Sunni Pashtuns and in which all ethnic and sectarian groups have a role. Iran also has a strong interest in getting the Afghan narcotics trade under control, given a major addiction problem among its own citizens.

To the south of Iran, security in the Persian Gulf is a subject in which Iran and the United States, in cooperation with the neighboring Arab countries, are the most important players. They are the two countries that most need to work together to ensure that incidents at sea and other possible misunderstandings do not escalate out of control. Both countries have an interest in not letting warfare endanger the oil trade.

Even where parallel interests are less apparent, such as with the civil war in Syria, interaction between Iran and the United States is not a zero-sum game. The relationship between Iran and the Assad regime has always been a marriage of convenience and not of love. The Iranians probably are open to political changes that would have a chance of concluding the war—indefinite continuation of which is not in the interest of either Iran or the United States.

The United States and Iran have wisely concentrated over the past year on negotiating an agreement on Iran's nuclear program, believing that premature broadening of the bilateral agenda would make conclusion of a nuclear deal even more complicated than it already is. Cooperation on other matters would have to wait. The security crisis in Iraq has compressed that timetable. Completing a nuclear agreement—and conscientiously implementing it, including the rolling back of U.S. sanctions on Iran—is more than ever important not only in its own right, but in opening the way for other fruitful U.S.-Iranian cooperation. A nuclear deal would impart momentum and confidence necessary to overcome many years of estrangement.

Even with a nuclear deal, Iran and the United States will regard each other more as rivals than as friends or allies. There still will be divergent interests along with parallel ones—as there are in any bilateral relationship, whether with an ally or an adversary. To cooperate constructively based on the parallel ones is not a gift to Iran; it is an unshackling of U.S. diplomacy that will facilitate the advance of America's own interests.

 

 

 

TopicsIran RegionsMiddle East

Fear of a Decrease in Fear of Iran

Paul Pillar

Many participants in debate on U.S. policy in the Middle East have a lot invested in maintaining the idea of the Islamic Republic of Iran as a bogeyman forever to be feared, despised, sanctioned, and shunned, and never to be cooperated with on anything. The lodestar for this school of advocacy is the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu, who proclaims to us nearly every day that Iran is the “real problem” underlying just about everything wrong in the region, and who adamantly opposes anyone reaching any agreement with Tehran on anything. Netanyahu does not want a significant regional competitor that would no longer be an ostracized pariah and that will freely speak its mind in a way that, say, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, with the other equities they have in Washington, cannot. He does not want the United States to come to realize that it need not be stuck rigidly to the side of—and always defer to the preferences of—“traditional allies” such as Israel and that it can sometimes advance U.S. interests by doing business with those who have worn the label of adversary. And of course the more that people focus on the “real problem” of Iran, the less attention will be devoted to topics Netanyahu would rather not talk about, such as the occupation of Palestinian territory.

For those in Washington who wave the anti-Iranian banner most fervently, the waving is not only a following of Netanyahu's lead but also a filling of the neoconservative need for bogeymen as justification and focus for militant, interventionist policies in the region. The neocons do not have Saddam Hussein to kick around any more, and they unsurprisingly would prefer not to dwell upon what transpired when they kicked him out. So it's natural to target the next nearest member of the Axis of Evil—and even when the neocons were still kicking Saddam, they were already telling Iran to “take a number.” The anti-Iranian banner-waving of neocons, despite the abysmal policy failure of the Iraq War that should have closed ears to what they are saying today—finds resonance among a general American public that historically has had a need for foreign monsters to destroy as one way to define America's mission and purpose.

The prospective reaching of a negotiated agreement to limit Iran's nuclear program has been a major concern and preoccupation of those who want to keep Iran a hated and feared pariah forever. An agreement would represent a major departure in U.S. relations with Iran. So the anti-Iran banner-wavers have been making a concerted effort for several months to undermine the negotiations and torpedo any agreement that is reached. Not reaching an agreement has become such a major goal that the banner-wavers have no compunction about taking the fundamentally illogical stance of exclaiming about the dangers of an Iranian nuclear weapon while opposing an agreement that would place substantially more restrictions on the Iranian program, and make an Iranian weapon less likely, than without an agreement.

At least the anti-agreement forces have had a game plan, involving such things as hyping “breakout” fears and pushing Congressional action that is disguised as support for the negotiations when it actually would undermine them. Now suddenly along comes a security crisis in Iraq, in which parallel U.S. and Iranian interests and the opportunity for some beneficial U.S.-Iranian dialogue are clear. Oh, no, think the banner-wavers, we didn't plan on this. One detects a tone of panic in their jumping into print with emergency sermons reminding us that Iranians are evil and we must never, ever be tempted into cooperating with them.

One of the more strident of these sermons comes from Michael Doran and Max Boot. The panicky nature of their piece is reflected in the fact that the first thing they do is to reach for the old, familiar Hitler analogy. The idea that the United States and Iran share any common interests is, they tell us, just like Neville Chamberlain working with Adolf Hitler.

The next thing they do is to match the most imaginative conspiracy theorists in the Middle East by suggesting that the government of Iran really is supporting and promoting the Sunni radicals of ISIS—yes, the same ISIS whose main calling card has been the beheading and massacre of the Iranians' fellow Shiites. The logic behind this conspiracy theory, explain Doran and Boot, is that a threat from ISIS makes Prime Minister Maliki and Iraqi Shiites “ever more dependent on Iranian protection.”

Then Doran and Boot go way into straw-man territory, saying the United States would be making a “historic error” if it assisted “an Iranian-orchestrated ethnic-cleansing campaign” carried out by ruthless Revolutionary Guards. Of course, the Obama administration isn't talking about doing anything of the sort. We weren't flies on the wall when Deputy Secretary of State William Burns talked earlier this week with the Iranian foreign minister about Iraq, but it is a safe bet that a theme of U.S. remarks was the need for greater cross-community inclusiveness in Iraq and the need not to stoke the fire of the sectarian civil war.

Besides dealing with straw men, Doran and Boot here exhibit another habit of the banner-wavers—which comes up a lot in discussion of the nuclear issue—which is to assume that Iran will do the worst, most destructive thing it is capable of doing regardless of whether doing so would be in Iran's own interests. What advantage could Tehran possibly see in propping up an increasingly beleaguered and unpopular Nouri al-Maliki with rampaging Revolutionary Guards? What Iranian interest would that serve?

This gets to one of the things that Doran and Boot do not address, which is what fundamental Iranian interests are in Iraq, including everything those interests involve in terms of stability and material costs to Iran. Even if Iran had so much influence with Maliki that he could be said to be in Tehran's pocket, what would Iran do with such influence? Here is displayed another habit of the banner-wavers, which is just to assume that any Iranian influence is bad, without stopping to examine the Iranian interests being served and whether they are consistent with, in conflict with, or irrelevant to U.S. interests.

The other major thing that Doran and Boot do not do is to mention what militant U.S. policies have had to do with Iranian behavior they don't like. In the course of loosely slinging as much mud on the Iranians as they can, they state that Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps “has been responsible for attacks against U.S. targets stretching back more than 30 years.” They do not offer any specifics. The only ones that come to mind involve a U.S. military intervention in Lebanon, U.S. support for Saddam Hussein's Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War, a U.S. troop presence in eastern Saudi Arabia, and the eight-year-long U.S. military occupation in Iraq.

Doran and Boot write that instead of having anything to do with the Iranians, we should develop a coalition of those “traditional allies” to prosecute a conflict on the “vast battlefield” that embraces Iraq and Syria. This sounds just like the talk of a coalition of “moderates” we heard during the George W. Bush administration. As then, the talk is apparently oblivious to ethnic, sectarian, and geographic realities. Doran and Boot suggest that clever covert work against “Iranian networks” would be enough to “pull the Iraqi government out of Iran's orbit.”

This sort of thinking represents not only a missed opportunity to make U.S. diplomacy more effective but also a recipe for further inflaming that vast battlefield.

TopicsIran Iraq RegionsMiddle East

Focusing on Little Bad Guys and Missing Big Pictures

Paul Pillar

It always has been difficult to discern any logic behind the endless recriminations about the fatal incident in Benghazi, Libya in September 2012 in which four Americans were killed—or rather about how the Obama administration is said to have described the incident at the time. A notion somehow appears to be involved that the president supposedly had been saying that international terrorism had been licked and didn't want to admit that the incident in Libya demonstrated that this was not so. But Mr. Obama never had said that terrorism was licked. In fact, he had been saying a lot about it being a threat and had been shooting missiles from drones at a rate that did not suggest otherwise. And losing four Americans at an overseas mission is a bad thing to happen on any president's watch regardless of whether the label of terrorism is applied or not.

Now the FBI, assisted by U.S. military commandos, has apprehended Ahmed Abu Khattala, who is accused of leading the fatal attack on the facility in Benghazi. So both the purveyors and the targets of the recriminations have occasion to make rhetorical adjustments. Supporters of the administration can say, “All right, if you want to focus on terrorists responsible for the incident you've been making such a big deal about, we got the main culprit.” Opponents of the administration can say that it should not have taken two years to get him. Mostly the opponents are falling into old habits in searching for ways to criticize Obama, by saying Abu Khattala should be taken to Guantanamo and kept out of the civilian criminal court system. That familiar posture, based on a chest-thumping desire to proclaim that we are at “war,” ignores how much Guantanamo has become a liability rather than an asset and how much more successful the regular criminal courts have been in meting out punishment to terrorists than have been the military tribunals, where the only two convictions of Guantanamo detainees who have been tried have been vacated on appeal.

Nabbing Abu Khattala and trying him for whatever role he had in the incident two years ago is the right thing to do. But the more we devote attention—regardless of one's political posture or opinions of administration policy—to a character such as him, the more we perpetuate a misdirection of attention that afflicts much American policy debate about problems in the Middle East. David Kirkpatrick's profile of Abu Khattala in the New York Times describes him as a “local, small-time Islamist militant” who stood out as being “erratic” as well as extremist. He had no known connections to international terrorist groups, according to officials who have been briefed on the relevant investigations. Oh, and as the attack in Benghazi was taking place, Abu Khattala was telling others that the assault was retaliation for the inflammatory video that administration opponents back here in the United States have strenuously argued had nothing to do with the incident. In short, the Benghazi episode is hardly a milestone in international terrorism. The apprehension of this local thug, although it serves justice, also will have little to do with the prospects for international terrorism.

The general tendency that this case illustrates, beyond the partisan motivations that have sustained the ridiculously prolonged preoccupation with this one incident, is a fixation on the malevolent intentions, real or sometimes imagined, of individual evil-doers who play leading roles in either groups or states. This fixation is at the expense of attention to broader patterns of public sentiment or political culture (and yes, sometimes even reactions to scurrilous videos) that have much more to do with where security problems will arise and where U.S. interests will be threatened.

We saw this tendency in George W. Bush's day, when threats to the United States were neatly packaged as “the terrorists”—so neat that a chimerical alliance between a regime and a terrorist group became a principal rationale for toppling a leader without paying attention to the broad forces this would unleash and the extremism this would stimulate, all of which is reflected in the violent mess that is Iraq today. We saw it more recently in the bipartisan support for military intervention in Libya, with again a focus on toppling a disliked leader and again inattention to the forces and culture that would be left in his place and that led to what happened at Benghazi two years ago.

We saw the tendency in a somewhat different way with the exuberance accompanying the killing of Osama bin Laden three years ago. Bin Laden obviously was a far more consequential figure than dozens of Abu Khattalas, but by the last part of his life in hiding he was doing little directing of operations. The exuberance exceeded the impact his death had on the course of international terrorism. President Obama never claimed that the raid at Abbottabad was a death knell of international terrorism, but Republicans' fears that it would be seen that way—what might be called Abbottabad envy—were a major motivation for hyping the Benghazi incident the way they have.

We have seen the tendency in excessive reliance on the use of armed drones, to the point that their counterproductive effect on counterterrorism through collateral casualties and associated anger may outweigh the benefit of eradicating the individual bad guys who are the targets. And we see it today in how alarm over ISIS focuses narrowly on the evil intentions of this one group while paying less heed to the broader conflicts and objectives that have more to do with the chaos that worries us—a focus that has led otherwise respectable people to flirt with craziness by calling for the United States to go to war simultaneously in both Syria and Iraq.

Image: U.S. Army Flickr. 

TopicsIraq Syria RegionsMiddle East

ISIS Challenge in Iraq: Let the Neighbors Lead

Paul Pillar

If any governments, besides the one in Baghdad, ought to be especially concerned about the recent advances in western Iraq by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), it would be ones in the immediate Middle Eastern neighborhood at least as much as the United States. To the extent any action by outsiders can make a difference in what is happening in Iraq, it ought to be those neighboring states that undertake it. We in the United States have a hard time realizing that, however, for two reasons.

One is the habitual American tendency to equate problems anywhere in the world with problems that are assumed to be within the capacity of the United States to solve and thus are problems that the United States ought to solve. This tendency is, in other words, the inclination to think of the United States as the world's policeman—although put in that clichéd form, everyone would deny that this is what they want.

The other reason is the even stronger tendency to think of other players in world affairs in terms of rigid rosters of allies and adversaries. We condone what those on the first list do and condemn the actions of those on the second list, while failing to realize that each other country in the world, regardless of the labels we may habitually apply to it, has some interests it shares with us and others that conflict with our interests.

The ISIS story is leading Arabs in the Persian Gulf states, and especially in Saudi Arabia, to do some hand-wringing and forcing them to do some policy reappraisal. The Saudis, like Americans, have a habit of rigidly dividing their world into friends and foes, with all the automatic condoning or condemning involved, except that in the Saudis' case the division is defined in sectarian terms. In the Saudi view it's Sunni good, Shia bad. But ISIS is a Sunni group that is so nasty and vile that Saudis in and out of government surely realize it is bad news not just for Shia but for themselves as well. The Saudis could usefully try to exercise some direct influence, including with positive incentives, on the Maliki government, with the objective of enhancing the status and political role of Iraqi Sunnis and thereby undermining the main appeal of ISIS. But first the Saudis have to get over their disdain for dealing with Maliki at all.

The neighboring state that has perhaps the biggest concern about the ISIS story, however, is Iran. The ISIS surge is one of the most salient and clearest examples in which U.S. and Iranian interests are congruent. Both Washington and Tehran want ISIS to be stopped. Iranian public statements have been clear about this objective, although reports vary as to exactly what Iran has done so far regarding assistance or intervention in Iraq.

There is right now an excellent opportunity for useful coordination between Washington and Tehran regarding messages to be sent to, and pressure to be exerted on, Prime Minister Maliki. If both the United States and Iran—the two foreign states on which Maliki's future most depends—tell him the same thing about the need to move beyond his destructively narrow ways of governing, such pressure might begin to have a beneficial effect. Although the Iranians have been happy to see the Shia majority in Iraq finally get out from under Sunni political domination, they also are smart enough to realize that Maliki's performance is more a prescription for unending instability and Sunni radicalism, which neither the Iranians nor we want.

The United States and Iran have wisely been concentrating over the past year on the nuclear issue, so as not to complicate the negotiations with a premature broadening of the bilateral agenda. The ISIS offensive may be a reason to move up the broadening a bit.

If Iran starts taking, or is already taking, more forceful measures such as insertion of Revolutionary Guards into the fight, this probably will stimulate some of the usual alarms among commentators in the United States who are always alarmed about the idea of Iran doing just about anything in the region. The alarms will be misplaced. The immediate goal would be defeat of ISIS, a goal that we share. More broadly what the Iranians want most in Iraq is to prevent a return to the sort of aggressive Iraqi behavior that in the 1980s, with Saddam Hussein's launching of the Iran-Iraq War, brought immense suffering to Iran. Preventing such Iraqi behavior is certainly consistent with U.S. interests, too.

It has often and correctly been observed that by waging a very costly war that ousted Saddam Hussein, the United States did a big favor to Iran—which had far more reason than the United States did to regard Saddam as a menace. Wouldn't it be only fair for Iran now to do most of the heavy lifting in dealing with the current situation?

And if in so doing, the Iranians incurred substantial costs, got overextended, and started experiencing back home their own version of Iraq War syndrome, we wouldn't be unhappy about that either, would we?

Image Credit: White House Flickr.           

TopicsIraq Iran RegionsMiddle East

Panic over the ISIS Offensive in Iraq: "Everyone should take a deep breath."

Paul Pillar

The recent offensive action in Iraq by the group that currently calls itself the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, has generated a surplus of alarm and excitement among the policy cognoscenti in the United States. The capture by the group, at least for the time being, of the city of Mosul is described as a “game-changer.” Commentators cry out for mobilization to wage War on Terror II, seen as an urgent global struggle against bad guys from Mosul to Karachi and beyond. Such reactions stem partly from our spatial sense kicking in whenever events can be represented as lost territory or lost cities. Now ISIS is described as being on the march to Baghdad, just as a couple of years ago the Pakistani Taliban was described as being on the march to Islamabad.

Everyone should take a deep breath.

What makes both ISIS and its recent advances bad news can be recapitulated easily. This is a really vicious group that has done a lot of awful things to people under its control. Almost everything it stands for or represents is repugnant to our own values and interests. It has strengthened itself through its recent gains with capture of equipment and, as is usually the case amid conspicuous success on the ground, with increased recruitment appeal. Having said all that, several other observations are important to keep in mind in considering what U.S. policy ought to be.

We should be cautious about evaluating the significance of the latest events and labeling them as turning points or game-changers. There is a natural tendency to overstate the significance of the most recent happenings and to overlook longer-term developments of which they are a part. The longer-term developments of which the rise of ISIS is a part had their biggest game-changing moment about eleven years ago.

For ISIS to have control over more rather than less territory in western Iraq or eastern Syria is not what matters regarding any threat it may pose to U.S. interests. Having part of Nineveh Province in addition to part of Anbar does not increase the chance that U.S. citizens will die at the hands of ISIS, however much unpleasantness this entails for the citizens of Nineveh. To believe otherwise is to subscribe to the fallacy that real estate is what defines terrorist threats.

If ISIS were to turn its guns and its bombs directly against the United States, this would most likely be in response to the United States turning its guns directly against ISIS. Even among violent Sunni extremists, only a fraction ever subscribed to Osama bin Laden's strategy of hitting the far enemy as a strategy for toppling the near enemy. And even bin Laden was stirred into action only when the far enemy took up residence with the near enemy in the form of U.S. troops in his homeland of Saudi Arabia. Foreign military activity or occupation continue to be the prime motivators for terrorism against foreigners.

The current rise of ISIS has been made possible by the exclusionary practices and increasingly authoritarian tendencies of the Maliki government in Baghdad. Maliki's regime is a narrowly based Shiite regime, and most Sunni Arabs do not see a future for themselves in an Iraq led by Maliki. In such a situation, the extremist message has appeal. The political situation in Iraq is in this respect an unsurprising consequence of the political culture that was left when the Baathist regime was deposed. The one reasonable thing Washington can do with any hope of ameliorating the situation is to condition aid to the regime on substantially broadening political involvement and on decentralizing power to such an extent that (building on the autonomy that the Kurdish north has enjoyed for over two decades) Iraq would barely be a unitary state.

Any outside use of military power would at best furnish a temporary respite from the processes that we see playing out. We know that because we have been through all this before. The “surge” of several years ago was supposed to provide space and time for Iraqi political interests to work out their differences. 30,000 additional U.S. troops failed to lead to any working out of those differences, and the outcome is the mess we see today.

It is fantasy to think that any of this would have been any different by extending the unwelcome U.S. military presence any longer. Either fantasy, or just the usual playing of politics and bashing of the incumbent administration. It is not credible to contend that what was not achieved in eight and a half years could have been achieved in another two and a half years (or that there ever would arrive a time when the war would end and not be a failure). For those who supported the Iraq War to contend this is, as Joseph Cirincione puts it, like driving a car into a crowd of pedestrians and then blaming the emergency medical technicians for not saving the lives of the injured.

Although the practices of the Maliki regime are sustaining the appeal of radical messages, that appeal is shallow. ISIS does not offer anything that could be the basis of long-term support and legitimacy. We have experience to go on here, too. Even the temporary reduction in violence in an earlier phase of the Iraqi civil war was due not so much to the surge as to Sunni Arab disgust and abhorrence over the practices of radicals in Anbar who evolved into the present ISIS. If Iraqi Sunnis are given alternatives to an arrangement in which they are lorded over by a narrow, authoritarian Shiite regime, we will see a similar response.

Two final observations are directed especially at those who supported the game-changer of eleven years ago: the launching of the Iraq War. One is that all of the immense costs of that ill-fated expedition—the thousands of lost American lives, the greater numbers of broken bodies, the trillions in long-term monetary costs, and all the rest—are sunk costs. There is no way to get them back. There is thus no basis for investing still more in Iraq in a feckless effort somehow to gain redemption for one of the biggest and costliest mistakes in American history. Launching the Iraq War was a blunder; accept that and get over it. The psychological urge is strong to double down on losses with the idea that those who died shall not have died in vain. But psychological urges do not make good policy.

The last observation is that ISIS is a direct result of the U.S. launching of the Iraq War. Before the American invasion, nothing like it existed—not in Iraq anyway, but only in the fevered minds of war-makers eager to find themes to use as selling points to get public support for the war. If we feel fright and revulsion over this group, let that be a reminder of how mistaken was the decision to launch the war, and how mistaken is the broader exceptionalism-based belief, as Robert Merry discusses, in the magic of military intervention.

Image: Wikicommons

TopicsIraq RegionsMiddle East

Failing to Check Facts That Matter About Policy Toward Iran

Paul Pillar

Glenn Kessler's “Fact Checker” feature in the Washington Post performs a mostly useful service. With as many falsehoods as are customarily flying around in American political discourse, goodness knows we need as much journalistic calling to account of such dishonesty as we can get. Kessler's performance of this function often is deficient, however, in two respects. One is the arbitrary and unrepresentative way in which he seems to select statements to pounce upon; flagrant, serial misrepresentation doesn't get featured any more than statements that can be considered untrue only as a matter of nitpicking. The other is that he sometimes goes beyond the checking of facts and renders evaluations that are more a matter of policy or political judgment.

Earlier this week Kessler took President Obama and his speech-writers to task for a line in the president's West Point speech last month that referred to how against the background of an advancing Iranian nuclear program, the administration had since its beginning implemented a program of sanctions while “extending the hand of diplomacy” to the Iranians. Kessler thinks this was an unfair statement because starting in 2006 the George W. Bush administration was pushing anti-Iran sanctions at the United Nations Security Council while signing on with the Europeans to the concept of eventually negotiating a resolution of the Iranian nuclear question. Kessler gives the statement “Three Pinocchios,” which certainly is unwarranted in at least two respects. One is that the statement in the president's speech was not untrue; Kessler just doesn't think it was sufficiently fair politically to his predecessor. The other is that if Kessler is going to venture beyond fact-checking into judgments about policies toward Iran, he has missed completely the most important dimensions of what has transpired over the last several years.

Even after the Bush administration made its “major shift” (Kessler's words) in 2006, it continued to eschew direct dealings with Iran as if Iranian diplomats had cooties. That is a far cry from the engagement that the Obama administration has practiced, which included the direct involvement of the secretary of state in negotiation of the preliminary nuclear agreement last fall, and this week has had Deputy Secretary of State William Burns leading a U.S. team negotiating with the Iranians in Geneva. Observers of the nuclear negotiations nearly all agree that the most critical deal-making has to occur bilaterally between the United States and Iran.

Kessler erroneously assumes that working toward a nuclear agreement has been a constant progression in which events and policies of a few years ago built a foundation for the diplomacy of today. It has not been that. The story has instead been more one of opportunities either seized or missed, and of some events and decisions having hampered rather than helped today's diplomacy.

An early missed opportunity came in late 2001 and early 2002, when effective cooperation between U.S. and Iranian diplomats regarding Afghanistan could have grown into something bigger—until the Bush administration slammed a door in the Iranians' face by declaring the Axis of Evil. Another opportunity came in 2003, when Iran offered a bargain that would not only have addressed the nuclear issue (at a time when Iran had fewer than 200 uranium centrifuges, compared with 19,000 now) but also other concerns such as Iran's relationship with Hezbollah and posture toward Israel. But the Bush administration, around the time it was declaring mission accomplished in Iraq, wanted no dealings with Iran at all. Yet another missed opportunity was in 2005, when Hassan Rouhani, then Iran's nuclear negotiator, offered to the Europeans to freeze Iran's centrifuges at their level then of 3,000. The Bush administration, which refused even to sit at the multilateral negotiating table, made it known it would accept nothing other than zero.

Kessler makes no mention of the entire Iranian side of the political equation and how that has affected the coming and going of opportunities for the United States. The reformist Mohammad Khatami was president of Iran during the missed opportunities of the first five years of the Bush administration. Then came eight years of the love-to-hate President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. When Rouhani was elected president in a surprising first-round victory and succeeded Ahmadinejad last September, Obama's seizing of this new opportunity made it possible to meet Rouhani's goal of negotiating a preliminary nuclear agreement in his first 100 days in office.

Incredibly, Kessler describes U.S. policy toward Iran as “a model of bipartisan cooperation.” Paul Glastris at the Washington Monthly shows how ridiculous that characterization is. Much Republican opposition to the administration's Iran policy has come to resemble, as with the obsessive opposition to Obamacare, an effort to undermine whatever would be a significant achievement for the president. The resulting partisan pattern has been reflected, for example, in support for a deal-busting sanctions bill, S. 1881, that would violate the preliminary nuclear agreement and was beaten back, at least for the time being, with the help of an explicit presidential veto threat. All but two Senate Republicans (Rand Paul and Jeff Flake) became co-sponsors of the bill; only 17 of the 60 co-sponsors are Democrats.

The biggest problem with Kessler's treatment of this issue, however, is not unfairness in assessing the last two administrations or the positions of Republicans and Democrats. The main problem is perpetuation of some myths and analytical shortcomings that impair understanding of what it takes to reach a satisfactory agreement with Iran today. One myth is that what is needed to squeeze an acceptable deal out of the Iranians is more and more pressure, especially through economic sanctions. As Trita Parsi points out, the history of the pre-sanctions missed opportunities, to have gotten a deal that would have restricted the Iranian program even more than any feasible deal today, demonstrates that this proposition is false. A major analytical shortcoming is to ignore, as Kessler does, Iranian politics. We would be making a big mistake to miss the newest opportunity that Rouhani has presented to us, to disregard the limitations he faces in terms of what would be an acceptable deal for Iran, and to ignore how much completion of an agreement would encourage still more favorable political trends in Tehran.                                        

TopicsIran RegionsMiddle East

How Not to Make Comparisons Between Iran and China

Paul Pillar

One of the most famous zingers in American political history is Lloyd Bentsen's “you're no Jack Kennedy” line in his 1988 vice presidential candidates' debate with Dan Quayle. Quayle's preceding remark in the debate actually had not made any overall claim to comparability with Kennedy. Instead he was responding to a question about his relative youth and perceived inexperience, and about his ability to take over the presidency if necessary, by observing that his length of service in Congress was already comparable to that of Kennedy when the Massachusetts senator had been elected president. But nobody remembers that context—only Bentsen's immortal jibe.

A somewhat similar forced effort to be more comparative than a comparison being criticized comes from Ali Alfoneh of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, which these days endeavors not so much to defend democracies as to frustrate diplomacy of the most important democracy. His target is a recent piece of mine that, according to Alfoneh, makes an incorrect analogy between China and Iran and thus between Richard Nixon's opening to China and any thawing of U.S.-Iranian relations in connection with the nuclear deal currently under negotiation. I was in turn criticizing an op ed by Eric Edelman, Dennis Ross, and Ray Takeyh that argued for involving Congress earlier and more heavily in the nuclear negotiations. Edelman, et al. were the ones who mentioned Nixon's China policy, while contending that U.S.-Soviet strategic arms negotiations, in which there was significant Congressional involvement, was the most instructive precedent for how the Iran talks ought to be handled. I suggested instead that the China opening, which was prepared in great secrecy and did not involve Congress at all, was a more apt comparison for any rapprochement with a previously distrusted and ostracized regime, which is what Nixon's diplomacy in the 1970s was about.

Alfoneh says nothing about secrecy or Congressional involvement, and gives no clue that this was the subject of my essay. Instead he presents a catalog of various ways in which China differs from Iran, and Mao Zedong differed from Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. He could have mentioned many more differences. Chinese leaders, for example, speak Mandarin, while Iran's leaders speak Persian. Khamenei is a slender man, whereas Mao was rather corpulent. And so on. But Alfoneh does not explain how any of the differences, including the ones he mentions, have any significance for whether striking a nuclear deal is wise, or whether a larger rapprochement stemming from a deal with Iran would be wise, let alone implications for Congressional involvement or other aspects of how the Obama administration is handling Iran diplomacy.

One can read between the lines about what is going on here. The folks at FDD do not want any agreements with Iran, they want Iran to continue to be ostracized, and they are trying to torpedo the nuclear negotiations. The China opening is today widely and rightly seen as a significant and positive achievement by Nixon. So FDD endeavors to beat back any tendency to think of agreements or rapprochement with Iran in the same light as the China opening.

Okay, if they want to do full-blown comparisons between Iran and China, let's do that. But our friends at FDD ought to be careful what they wish for. There are, for one thing, Alfoneh's factual errors—such as saying Henry Kissinger was secretary of state at the time of the China opening, when in fact he was not. The man who was—William Rogers—was cut out of preparations for the initiative just as much as Congress was.

Then there is this interesting paragraph from Alfoneh:

It's also worth noting that the U.S.-China rapprochement came at a time when the Communist regime already possessed the nuclear bomb, and its military ambitions would not clash with American policies for nonproliferation. In the case of Iran, the Islamic Republic's nuclear ambitions are likely to remain a constant source of tension between the two states.”

So an improved relationship with Iran would be less of a problem—and more similar to the favorable U.S.-China rapprochement—if Iran did have nuclear weapons than if it did not? Are we to conclude that we thus should condone the Iranians building such weapons or even encourage them to do so, and then we could talk about a better relationship afterward? (Of course, removing the issue as a source of tension by keeping the Iranian nuclear program peaceful is part of the purpose of the current talks.)

Alfoneh tells us, as another item in his catalog of differences, that Khamenei is less powerful than Mao was. Interestingly, this seems to go against the thrust of what FDD's fellow opponents of an agreement habitually assert about internal Iranian politics, which is that we are foolish to be negotiating with President Hassan Rouhani because it is the supreme leader who really calls the shots. Alfoneh's picture of Iranian politics with contending factions and with a supreme leader who is far from an absolute dictator is a much more accurate description—and is all the more reason to be sensitive to how the nuclear negotiations will affect those politics. Successful conclusion of a deal will significantly help Rouhani's side of that political contest, and will tend to push the supreme leader and the rest of the regime more in Rouhani's—and our preferred—direction.

Alfoneh also wants us to know that Khamenei sees the United States as the biggest threat to Iran (supposedly another difference with Mao's China, which he says saw the USSR as a bigger threat). That statement about Khamenei's perceptions is undoubtedly true, and would make Iranian acceptance of a better relationship with the United States all the more of a strategic change for both countries (although Alfoneh wants us to believe that for Iran it would be only “tactical.”) Most conspicuously missing from Alfoneh's treatment is any explanation of why Khamenei and other Iranian leaders see the United States as a threat. It is not because hatred or suspicion of the United States is embedded in Iranian DNA. It is because the United States has given Iran ample reason to see it as a threat. Siding with the aggressor Iraq in an extremely bloody war, imposing years of debilitating economic sanctions, making repeated threats of military attack, making shows of force in Iran's immediate neighborhood, talking frequently about regime change, and tacitly condoning an anti-Iranian assassination campaign have a way of doing that.

In his piece Alfoneh says I have something to learn from National Interest editor Jacob Heilbrunn, who, citing the late British historian A.J.P. Taylor, warned against erroneous historical analogies. I can't claim to have known A.J.P. Taylor personally (although when I was at Oxford a friend of mine was writing his dissertation under Taylor's supervision). I do know Jacob Heilbrunn. Jacob Heilbrunn is a friend of mine. Mr. Alfoneh, you're no Jacob Heilbrunn.                 

TopicsSecurity RegionsUnited States

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