Paul Pillar

The Highly Competent NSA

Paul Pillar

Two basic ways of berating something or somebody are to make charges of ineptitude or charges of ill intentions. With most subjects there is tension between those two modes of criticism. Ill intentions do not matter if there is insufficient ability to act on them. When a particular line of criticism becomes conventional wisdom this tension often is overlooked, as is true of many implications of conventional wisdom.

Conventional wisdom in criticism of U.S. intelligence agencies has focused most of the time on accusations of ineptitude. “Intelligence failure” customarily gets explained as a matter of organizational incompetence. This is a subtype of a larger leitmotif according to which government agencies overall are said to be less competent than enterprises in the private sector. This broader conventional wisdom overlooks many significant developments that government pioneered before the private sector commercially exploited them, from space travel to the Internet (which Al Gore did not invent, but a government entity—the Advanced Research Projects Agency in the Department of Defense—has the best claim to having done so). Nonetheless, the broader conventional wisdom seems to have become increasingly prevalent in recent years.

The controversy over collection activity by the National Security Agency, however, has lurched conventional wisdom about intelligence agencies into a different mode, one that had seldom prevailed except for a time in the 1970s. Little notice has been taken of the suddenness of the lurch, or of the irony involved in it, although it did come up in a recent report by NPR. The specific subject of the report was NSA's breaking through encryption used to protect private data and messaging, and an “arms race” between technology companies seeking better ways to encrypt material and NSA seeking to decrypt it. The chief information officer of NSA states that the agency's whole budget is less than what big tech companies spend on research. But other views nonetheless give NSA a better chance of winning the arms race. James Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says, “NSA has been in the business a long time. They've got 300 of the best mathematicians in the world. They've got the world's most powerful computer. Hmm, that's a hard hand to beat.” Lewis observes that previously “companies assumed that they were the ones who were the tech wizards and government was sort of bumbling,” but with recent revelations about NSA's work “that whole world view has been stood on its head.”

Breaking codes is, of course, central to the mission assigned to NSA. This is just one respect in which much of the controversy about the agency's activities arises because it is very good at doing what it is supposed to do. Think about that the next time there is a real or perceived intelligence failure and criticism lurches back to the more common mode of alleged ineptitude.

Think about it also as we await the president's response to his advisory panel's recommendations about electronic surveillance. Ill intentions are not really the issue here, since nothing in the torrent of leaks has revealed any agency malevolence; it is only the fear of some future ill intentions (although that fear would be better directed at data collection in the private sector). Whether real or feared, there is still a tension between this concern and our interest in an intelligence agency having the ability to do its job—the job here being not just the cracking of a code but the broader mission of providing accurate and timely intelligence on behalf of national security.

Image: Creative Commons/Flickr.

TopicsPublic OpinionIntelligence RegionsUnited States

The Iran Deal Meets Obamacare

Paul Pillar

The completion of technical talks to implement the Joint Plan of Action negotiated by Iran and the P5+1 (Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States) underscores the falsity of assertions that legislation imposing still more sanctions is somehow needed to keep the Iranians negotiating seriously. The technical talks actually were successfully completed more quickly than some Western officials had expected. Completion means all the T's have been crossed and I's have been dotted on the Joint Plan of Action, a preliminary agreement that freezes or reverses the components of Iran's nuclear program that otherwise would have been most worrisome concerning possible application toward the making of nuclear weapons. In return the P5+1 is providing only minimal relief from sanctions, with the main sanctions regarding banking and oil exports remaining in place.

With this development it should be all the more clear that the current bill introduced by Senators Mark Kirk and Robert Menendez—which, in providing for still more sanctions, also threatens war and imposes unmeetable demands for a final agreement with Iran—is all about torpedoing the negotiations, not facilitating them. The prime promoters of the bill are interests that want no agreement with Iran and instead want to maintain permanent hostility toward it and unending isolation of it. But as Kirk and Menendez have enlisted additional co-sponsors an additional dimension has emerged. Nearly all of the senators who have more recently signed on to the bill are Republicans. The current 59 co-sponsors include all but two (Rand Paul and Jeff Flake) of the Republicans in the Senate but only 16 of the 55 Democrats and independents.

Partisan division on legislation of any sort is not news, of course, but it does mark a departure in the campaign to sink negotiations with Iran. The most conspicuous and energetic element in this effort—AIPAC—generally tries to present itself as an equal opportunity lobby. Although it obviously welcomes each additional Republican co-sponsor, it probably is less than happy with the prominent partisan divide, because it will need to enlist additional Democrats to accomplish its objective of killing any deal with Iran.

The increased partisan coloration of this contest will mean more members casting votes for reasons that are even farther removed than they otherwise would have been from careful consideration of what is in U.S. interests. As on so many other issues, party solidarity and party competition may take preference over what is good for the republic. Many members will support something like the Kirk-Menendez bill as they see most of their colleagues on the same side of the aisle supporting it, while not bothering to notice how it nourishes the very hardline tendencies in Tehran that supposedly everyone would like to see diminished. Nor is much attention likely to be paid to the numerous specific faults in the bill that will mean undermining rather than furthering a negotiated agreement. Edward Levine, a respected longtime staff member with the Senate intelligence and foreign relations committees, has provided an analysis of some of these faults for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

Even worse, an agreement with Iran on its nuclear program may become the foreign policy equivalent of Obamacare: a measure that Republicans oppose in order to remove from the political scorecard what threatens to count as a major achievement for the Democratic president. If a final deal along the lines outlined by the Joint Plan of Action is achieved, it probably will indeed be perceived, once Mr. Obama reaches the end of his term, as one of the most significant foreign policy accomplishments of his presidency. To carry the comparison with Obamacare ever further, a destructive response can include not only opposition up front to try to prevent enactment in the first place but also, after enactment—or in this case, after the signing of a final agreement with Iran—continuing efforts to keep the law or the agreement from working. In the case of the Iranian nuclear program, some of this sort of after-the-fact sabotage is foreshadowed by provisions in the Kirk-Menendez bill that Levine examines.

One can hope that this unfortunate scenario will not come to pass because enough Republicans will not only do what is good for the republic but also see support for an agreement restricting Iran's nuclear program as good politics. There may be some basis for such hope. Start with an awareness that Barack Obama will never be running for anything again, and probably neither will John Kerry, and so whatever goes on their personal achievement lists should count for relatively little in future elections. Add the fact that Hillary Clinton is currently a private citizen and cannot claim credit for what is being achieve diplomatically right now. As commentators have increasingly suggested, it may be more possible than many have expected to defy AIPAC and to live politically to tell the tale. The principal objective of the diplomatic negotiations—prevention of an Iranian nuclear weapon—is one everyone can agree on. This might be one of the better issues, no matter how wide the partisan chasm remains on almost the whole domestic agenda, on which Republicans can demonstrate that they are not just the Party of No. There is plenty of credit to go around, with Republicans as well as Democrats in Congress being able to claim some of that credit based on all those previously enacted sanctions that “brought Iran to the table.” The president, in his statement Sunday on completion of the technical talks, invited that kind of credit-claiming. Members should take him up on his invitation.

Image: Creative Commons/Flickr: Glyn Lowe Photoworks.

TopicsCongressDomestic PoliticsSanctionsNuclear Proliferation RegionsIranUnited States

Gates, War, and Responsibility

Paul Pillar

Stop the presses: Robert Gates has a revealing memoir that provides penetrating new insights into how Washington works. Such as that election considerations influence how presidents, and presidential aspirants in senior positions, speak and behave. And that Congress is a dysfunctional place where members ask hostile and impertinent questions at hearings. And that different parts of the executive branch compete with each for influence. Oh, wait, we already knew all that. We also knew, and some of us have even written about, more specific things such as how Barack Obama's history of contrasting the “good war” in Afghanistan with the bad one in Iraq shunted him onto the politically attractive but strategically questionable track of ramping up to a short-lived “surge” in Afghanistan before quickly ramping down.

We also knew, or should have known, what is being revealed about Robert Gates, although the public imaging success that this master of reputation preservation has enjoyed through the years has made that sort of insight less obvious. Gates has throughout his career been especially adept at seeing that responsibility and accountability for what is unsuccessful, untoward, or unpopular stops at levels just below his own. This has included levels inhabited by members of the uniformed military on whose behalf he has presented himself as a defender. Now it appears that the sort of blame-shifting techniques that he has long employed downward he also—having walked out the door of public service—can use sideways and upwards as well.

The lead tidbit in Bob Woodward's front-page summary of Gates's memoir concerns President Obama's purported disbelief in the mission in Afghanistan. Such a disbelief is not uncommon, if by missions we mean declared, official missions. The real reasons, sometimes political but sometimes more strategic, that wars get fought may not be publicly and politically sellable, and purported missions that can be sold may not be achievable. The Vietnam War was purportedly fought to save South Vietnam from communist conquest, but from the beginning of that war policy-makers in the Johnson administration did not think achievement of that goal was likely. McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser, put the odds of winning the war as low as 25 percent. He told President Johnson in a memo in February 1965, however, that a major military effort was nonetheless worthwhile because it would “damp down the charge that we did not do all that we could have done, and this charge will be important in many countries, including our own.” It was the familiar theme about upholding U.S. credibility—a theme one hears today in discussions of the U.S. role in Afghanistan.

Disingenuous rationales for wars can have their own problems, but whether a leader believes in the officially declared mission is less important than whether the actual objectives of fighting a war are valid, achievable, and worth the cost. The Johnson administration policymakers made the wrong decision in 1965, leading to three years of escalation that not only demonstrated that the pessimism about winning the war was well-founded but also included most of what would be 58,000 American deaths in the war. The makers of surges in Iraq and Afghanistan probably made the wrong decisions. First, because the politically driven actual reasons for the surges were not valid actions on behalf of the national interest: George W. Bush wanted to salvage a temporary modicum of stability to have something to show for the blunder of launching the war, and Obama wnted to show he wasn't a wimp. And second, because neither surge has bought long-term political stability and accommodation in either Iraq or Afghanistan, with the current violence in Anbar being an especially salient demonstration of this in Iraq. But Obama, after the blip of the surge in Afghanistan, has made the right decision in resuming withdrawal.

The single most consequential war decision for Americans since those concerning Vietnam in the 1960s was the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In contrast to Obama—who opposed the Iraq War from the beginning—Gates was on the wrong side of that issue. He claims in the book that he does not know what he would have recommended to Bush at the time, but in his confirmation hearing to be defense secretary he stated that he supported the invasion. In the get-with-the-program hothouse that was the Bush administration during its march toward war—and considering how Gates responded to the similarly strong anti-Soviet imperative of the Reagan administration—it is highly unlikely that he would have expressed in office any more skepticism about launching the war than he did as a private citizen.

Books that paint a picture of a single righteously indignant official manning the barricade against politically crazy and dysfunctional Washington do not teach us much of anything about how Washington works or about making better decisions about war and peace in the future. Those seeking retrospective insight from a former secretary of defense would do better to consult the book Robert McNamara wrote about the Vietnam War. That book had nothing to do with personal reputation enhancement; the author fully accepted that he was a major part of the collective sinking into a tragic debacle. And because of that, his observations are honest and genuinely insightful, not only about the Vietnam War experience but about national security decisions yet to be made. 

TopicsCongressDefenseHistoryThe Presidency RegionsAfghanistanIraqUnited StatesVietnam

Threats to Israeli Security, Imagined and Real

Paul Pillar

Everyone should be able to agree that any settlement of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians needs to be consistent with genuine security for the people of Israel. The history of strife between Israel and multiple neighbors demands that. The longer history of the Jewish people, and of the persecution and hatred they have endured, demands it. It is understandable that Israel's security is a major topic to be considered in evaluating any agreement. We do not know all the details of the security plan developed by General John Allen, but it is appropriate that such a plan be part of U.S. efforts to facilitate Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

It thus should be all the more distressing that the subject of Israel's security gets so badly distorted and exploited in the misleading and manipulative ways that it does. The other day Yuval Steinitz, a right-wing minister in the Israeli government, rejected the portion of General Allen's plan dealing with the Jordan River valley and declared that Israel, for its security, must maintain a presence in the valley forever. We should not even need the expert judgment of a former head of Mossad, who directly contradicted Steinitz, to realize that Israel faces no security threats from across the Jordan River and that there is no need for an indefinite Israeli military presence there.

Who supposedly poses any such threat? Is King Abdullah of Jordan going to fire up his M60 tanks and try to recapture the West Bank (to which his father, King Hussein, renounced any Jordanian claim some two decades ago)? Will the Iraqi government take time out from fighting jihadis in Anbar province to send an expeditionary force across Jordan to try to conquer Israel? Or might the Iranians decide one day to send such a force across both Iraq and Jordan to try to do that? The absurdity of such scenarios underscores the groundless nature of Steinitz's assertion. And even if a phantasmagorical hostile army someday waded across the Jordan River, the imbalance of forces would be such that the Israel Defense Forces, even without a permanent presence in the valley, would crush the invaders before they had a chance to dry their feet. As Mitchell Plitnick suggests, assertions such as Steinitz's aren't really about Israel's security; they are part of the Israeli government's stretching out the unresolved conflict indefinitely so it will never have to give up the West Bank.

It also is distressing to hear American politicians abetting that sort of game. Senator Lindsey Graham actually made this comment last week: “Here’s the one thing that I think dominates the thinking in Israel: that once you withdraw, then the ability to go back is almost impossible. Look at Gaza. What’s the chance of going back into Gaza militarily?” Hello, senator—have you been following any of the news coming out of that part of the word over the last several years? Israel actually has lots of experience in doing the going-in-militarily-after-withdrawal thing. They have done it in Gaza as well as Lebanon. Five years ago they did it in an especially big way with Operation Cast Lead, a major invasion and demolition of the Gaza Strip. Now, that sort of operation is not generally recommended as a positive contribution to international security. The Palestinians wouldn't think so; they saw 1,400 of their citizens get killed by the Israelis in Cast Lead. But Israel certainly did not seem to have any hesitation about what they can and cannot do after a withdrawal from occupied territory.

Graham was not reported as mentioning any of the reasons that unhappy Gazans did things, such as firing rockets into Israel, that got the Israelis riled up. The reasons, besides denial of political self-determination, have to do with Israel's endeavor to turn the Gaza Strip into a blockaded open-air prison in which life is kept miserable and people are swimming in sewage. So we don't know if he envisioned the same sort of arrangement for the West Bank—which, like Steinitz's demand for permanent Israeli military occupation of the Jordan River valley, would be a deal-killing non-starter—or something more reasonable and feasible, which would make his Gaza point even weaker.

Even beyond such game-playing, too much that is said about Israel's security exhibits three major flaws. One is to be stuck in a sort of 1948 time warp, with no apparent cognizance of how much the correlation of forces has changed since then (and even in 1948, the Israelis prevailed). Today Israel is easily the most potent conventional military power in the region, as well as being, since the 1970s, the region's only nuclear power.

A second is the blatant, but usually unstated, asymmetry in which much is said about Israel's security but little or nothing about security for the Palestinians. It is a game of pursuing absolute security for one party even if it means absolute insecurity for everyone else. By any reasonable measure, such as who has been invading whom and who has suffered far more casualties than the other side, the Palestinians have more claim on the attention of the United States and the world regarding security concerns than do the Israelis.

The third flaw is the tendency to treat hostility toward Israel as an unchanging commodity, to be countered forcefully forever, while refusing to recognize the respects in which this hostility is a function of unresolved conflicts and Israeli policies. This is the part that ought to be most distressing to Israelis themselves, because it entails blindness to the real threat to their security and to what underlies it. That threat has been manifested in such things as rockets from Gaza and suicide bombers in Israeli streets. In the future it will be manifested not in the form of some new Arab legion mustering on the banks of the Jordan but instead in increasing international opprobrium and isolation and in a further distancing from liberal democratic values within Israeli itself. Anyone concerned about these things ought to support, not impede, what John Kerry is trying to do in resolving the festering Israeli-Palestinian issue.

Image: Creative Commons. 

TopicsPost-ConflictTerrorismSecurity RegionsIsraelPalestinian territories

Breaking Down the Freedom Agenda

Paul Pillar

The multifaceted push by the George W. Bush to inject more democracy into the Middle East—a set of policies sometimes grouped under the label of the “Freedom Agenda”—has generated much debate about its effectiveness that even several years of added perspective have not resolved. The advent of the Arab spring three years ago led defenders of Bush's policies to claim this phenomenon as a positive consequence of those policies, while critics could still point to some glaring negative consequences.

An impediment to temperate discussion of this issue is how the biggest initiative not just of the Freedom of Agenda but of Bush's entire presidency—the attempt, known as the Iraq War, to inject democracy into the Middle East through the barrel of a gun—was such a blunder and debacle that it overshadows what Bush got right about the political ordering of the region. What he got right was more the diagnosis than the cure. The Middle East was—and still is, the Arab spring notwithstanding—more of a democratic desert than most other regions. And the paucity of channels in the Middle East for peacefully pursuing political objectives and acting on grievances can affect the United States, especially by providing a more fertile breeding ground for violent extremism.

In the current issue of Political Science Quarterly Bruce Gilley has an interesting article that takes a balanced look at the results of the Freedom Agenda. Gilley notes that many of the claims both for and against the proposition that Bush's policies successfully had a democratizing effect are expressed in “partisan, confused, and often contradictory language.” One conclusion of his own more rigorous analysis is that the Bush policies could be said to have stimulated democratization in the Middle East in large part through Middle Easterners reacting negatively to the policies themselves. “The Freedom Agenda rhetoric,” Gilley writes, “tended to elicit anger, resentment, and distrust across the Middle East.” Arab public opinion polls in 2006 and 2008 showed only 25 percent of respondents believing that the United States was sincere about promoting democracy in the region, with 65 percent disbelieving that. The rejection by the United States of the results of a free Palestinian election, which Hamas won, no doubt had a lot to do with that polling result.

The Iraq War was a negative, not a positive, model for people in the region. In other polling of Arabs, also in 2006 and 2008, only two percent of respondents thought Iraq was better off as a result of the war while 81 percent believed it was worse off.

Gilley says that these negative reactions had two visible effects. One was “to undermine the legitimacy of domestic democracy activists, who were disparaged as agents of an imperialistic United States.” But the other effect—and this is one of the ways in which the Bush policies could be said to have stimulated democratization—was the unintended one of creating “new political space for socialist, Islamist, and government/military reform advocates who sought to counter the Bush rhetoric with a new democratic rhetoric of their own.” Gilley cites as an example the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood announcing its own reform initiative in 2004, with demands for democratic freedoms and an end to emergency law.

This reaction involved a fusion of pro-democracy sentiment with an anti-U.S. and anti-Western variety of nationalism. In more recent Arab spring days, this has been seen, for example, in Iraqi citizens deriding the Saudi regime as “slaves of America and Israel” for dispatching Saudi troops to suppress unrest in Bahrain.

This fusion brings us back to the hoary dichotomy of democratic values versus hard-nosed U.S. interests, but with a different twist. The dichotomy may be real not so much because of pro-U.S. sentiments of dictators, but instead because of anti-U.S. sentiments of democrats. And that leads to the question of whether the sort of democratization that the Freedom Agenda wrought is such a good thing for the United States after all. Democracy per se is important for U.S. interests, including for those reasons having to do with propensity toward violent extremism, but anything that makes people more anti-American is also important for those interests, and for many of the same reasons. Perhaps an appropriate summary of the Freedom Agenda's consequences is that the Bush administration delivered some of the goods as far as democratization is concerned, but in the process damaged the goods in a way that made them less useful to the United States.

Image: Wikicommons.

TopicsDemocracy RegionsUnited StatesMiddle East

Let's Be Honest on Iran

Paul Pillar

Here's a New Year's resolution that participants in policy debate in Washington, and especially those in Congress, should make: be honest about your position on Iran. Say what you really want, and make your best arguments on behalf of what you really want, and don't pretend to be working in favor of what you really are working against. The main vehicle for debate about Iran once Congress reconvenes is a bill introduced by Senators Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) that would threaten still more sanctions on Iran and purchasers of its oil, would impose unrealistic conditions to be met to avoid actually imposing the sanctions, and would explicitly give a green light to Israel to launch a war against Iran and to drag the United States into that war. As Colin Kahl has explained in detail, passage of this legislation would be very damaging to the process of negotiating a final agreement with Iran to keep its nuclear program peaceful.

The promoters of the legislation contend that its effect would be just the opposite, and would increase U.S. bargaining power and make it more likely Iran would make concessions we want. It is possible that some members of Congress who might be inclined to vote for this bill, and even some who have signed on as co-sponsors, actually believe that contention. They keep hearing, after all, the trope about how “sanctions brought Iran to the table” and that if some sanctions are a good thing than even more sanctions are an even better thing. But anyone who has thought seriously for more than a minute about this subject—as the chief promoters of the legislation surely have—realizes how fallacious that idea is. Whatever role sanctions may have had in getting Iran to the table, it is the prospect of getting sanctions removed, not having them forever increase, that will induce Iran, now that it is at the table, to complete an agreement placing severe restrictions on its nuclear program. It goes against all logic and psychology to think that right after Iran has made most of the concessions necessary to conclude the preliminary Joint Plan of Action, “rewarding” it with more pressure and more punishment would put Iranians in the mood to make still more concessions.

The people doing the negotiating for the United States oppose the legislation because of the damage it would do to the negotiations. Their view is highly significant, no matter how much one might agree or disagree with whatever specific terms the administration is trying to get. If the legislation really would strengthen the U.S. negotiating position, any U.S. negotiator would welcome it.

And if that weren't enough, counterparts to Kirk and Menendez in the Iranian legislature are providing further evidence of the destructive effect of what is transpiring on Capitol Hill, with the Iranian legislators' bill calling for Iran to start enriching uranium to a level well beyond what it has ever done before if the United States imposes any new sanctions. This is direct confirmation of how threats and hardline obstinacy, especially at this juncture, beget threats and hardline obstinacy from the other side. The Iranian bill also provides a real-life opportunity for some role reversal. Does this threat emanating from the majlis make U.S. policy-makers more inclined to take a softer line and make more concessions? Of course not.

Kirk and Menendez are not dummies. They surely realize all this. Their legislation serves the purpose of those who want the negotiations with Iran to fail, not to succeed. Chief among those with this purpose is, of course, the right-wing Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu, who has made it abundantly clear that he opposes any agreement of any sort with Iran and will continue to do whatever he can to portray Iran as Satan incarnate and to keep it permanently ostracized. The principal organization in Washington that serves the policy of Netanyahu's government—i.e., AIPAC—also has its own reason to hammer away forever at the Iranian bogeyman: it's “good for business,” as a former senior AIPAC executive explained. It is no accident that Mark Kirk is easily the biggest Congressional recipient of AIPAC funds, and Robert Menendez is also among the top half dozen recipients.

Honesty would mean dispensing with the phony issue of whether more sanctions now would help negotiate a better agreement—since they clearly would not—and instead posing the real issue: whether it is in the interests of the United States for the negotiations with Iran to succeed or to fail. That issue can be debated according to several criteria. One concerns the objective of preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon: is that objective more obtainable through a negotiated agreement that imposes major new restrictions and intensified international monitoring on Iran's nuclear program, or through continued confrontation that offers neither of those things? A second set of criteria concerns which path is more likely to avoid the danger of a new war—supplemented by discussion of the impact of a new war on U.S. interests. Another criterion concerns whether broader U.S. policy in the Middle East is better served by the United States having the flexibility to conduct its own diplomacy with anyone in the region on a case-by-case, issue-by-issue basis, or by being locked into hostility insisted on by third parties.

All of this should be debated from the standpoint of U.S. interests. Those with a special concern for Israel can also ask parallel questions, such as whether Israeli interests are better served by an unending relationship of hostility with another major state in the region, with threats and hatred being perpetually flung by each side at the other, or by following a different path.

Let such an honest debate begin. But an honest debate will barely get off the ground unless we discard the nonsense about how something like the Kirk-Menendez bill supposedly aids negotiations.

Image: Wikicommons. 

TopicsCongressSanctionsNuclear ProliferationWeapons Inspections RegionsIsraelIranUnited States

Benghazi and the Sources of Anti-American Violence

Paul Pillar

David Kirkpatrick's investigative piece in the New York Times about last year's lethal attack on a U.S. compound in Benghazi is well worth reading, though not because its conclusions ought to have been surprising to any disinterested observer of what was going on in Libya at the time. Once dust from the confusion in the very first hours after the incident settled, the conditions that gave rise to the incident were fairly clear. One was widespread popular outrage, exhibited not only in Libya but also beyond its borders, from a scurrilous video that many Muslims found insulting to the founder of their faith. Another was lawlessness that has prevailed in Libya ever since the overthrow of Muammar Gadhafi—and continues to prevail there—and that is characterized by a mélange of militias and other armed groups with a variety of interests and grievances, some of them antipathetic to the United States.

That this has not been broadly understood is due mainly to the unrelenting effort of some in the opposition party in the United States to exploit the death of four U.S. citizens in the incident to try to discredit the Obama administration and its secretary of state at the time (who is seen as a likely contender in the next presidential election). The line propounded in this effort is, first, that the incident can have only one of two possible explanations: either the attack was a completely spontaneous and unorganized popular response to the video, or it was a terrorist attack that had nothing to do with emotions surrounding the video and instead was a premeditated operation by a particular terrorist group, Al Qaeda. The propounded line further holds that the administration offered the first of these two explanations, that this explanation was a deliberate lie, and that the second explanation is the truth.

The Times investigation demolishes all that. As for the spontaneous aspects of the attack, Kirkpatrick reports:

Anger at the video motivated the initial attack. Dozens of people joined in, some of them provoked by the video and others responding to fast-spreading false rumors that guards inside the American compound had shot Libyan protesters. Looters and arsonists, without any sign of a plan, were the ones who ravaged the compound after the initial attack, according to more than a dozen Libyan witnesses as well as many American officials who have viewed the footage from security cameras.

As for a role by Al Qaeda, the Times investigators concluded that the group “was having its own problems penetrating the Libyan chaos.” The only ways in which Al Qaeda members seem to figure into the story are in expressing surprise about the attack and in having difficulty establishing any foothold in Libya. There is no evidence that what happened in Benghazi was an Al Qaeda operation.

The ceaseless efforts at political exploitation are only part of the reason that American misunderstanding about anti-American violence persists. The themes in the exploitation resonate with certain unfortunate tendencies in how Americans look at such violence and especially at terrorism. One such tendency involves the fallacy of monocausality: to talk in terms of the reason for terrorism or for a particular terrorist attack, and to think that if a purposeful group is involved than nothing else must be. But whatever enrages a larger population, whether it is a sacrilegious video or an offensive U.S. policy, establishes the climate in which a terrorist group can operate, motivates recruits to join it, and determines the sympathy or support it will have for its acts.

Another misleading tendency is loose, careless application of the label Al Qaeda to a broad and variegated swath of Sunni Islamist extremism that does not reflect any organizational reality. This tendency misleads Americans into believing that the danger of anti-American violence in general or terrorism in particular comes from the actual Al Qaeda, the group that did 9/11, when in fact more of it comes these days from other sources—including some of those armed groups in Libya.

The political exploitation of the Benghazi incident has already gone on so long and so hard that it has helped to cement some of these misconceptions into the American public's mind—even if the exploitation were to stop now, which it won't.

Image: Creative Commons/The White House.

TopicsDomestic PoliticsPublic OpinionTerrorism RegionsLibyaUnited States

Leaks and an Irresponsible Press

Paul Pillar

One end-of-year retrospective assessment that ought to appear in the press, but probably won't, concerns how the press itself has handled stories involving compromise of classified information. One reason we seldom see this particular type of self-evaluation by the media is the rarely acknowledged pro-leak bias on the part of the media. Leaks are red meat for the press. They provide material for the writing of nifty stories and the selling of newspapers.

The very media on which the public relies for information and analysis about the legitimate and important issue of balancing national security and civil liberties thus present a strongly biased treatment of this issue—and not just in pro-leak commentary on editorial pages. The bias has been readily apparent in coverage of the biggest story of 2013 about compromise of classified information: the wholesale disclosure of such information by the defector and former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The attention the press has paid to the damage caused by Snowden's actions has been tiny compared to the prominence it has given to the issues of privacy on behalf of which Snowden claimed to be acting.

Biased coverage is only part of the problem in how the press has behaved in this matter. Just as important has been the media's own role in facilitating the compromise of classified information. The press has eaten out of the hands of Snowden and his leak-dispensing collaborator, Glenn Greenwald. The press has willingly implemented the leakers' strategy of beginning with stories that could be said to be related to the privacy rights of American citizens, and as such helped to establish an image of Snowden as a “whistleblower,” before moving to many other disclosures that have little or nothing to do with such rights but rather just divulge many details about NSA's legitimate intelligence collection activities overseas. The press—and specifically the outlets that Snowden and Greenwald have favored as channels for fencing their stolen secrets, and thus are outlets that can claim scoops—have printed this stuff week after week. It makes for nifty stories and it sells newspapers, but little or no public purpose could plausibly be claimed to be served by most of this. With most of this stuff the effect is nearly all damage. The cumulative direct damage, both to U.S. intelligence collection and to U.S. foreign relations, has been severe.

The damage does not end there. Another dimension one seldom sees mentioned in press coverage, but that David V. Gioe lucidly explains in an article in the January-February 2014 issue of The National Interest, is how the leaking deters would-be foreign interlocutors with information to offer. These include people who would otherwise be valuable intelligence sources, as well as foreign officials who would otherwise have useful information to convey to U.S. diplomats. Both types are understandably dissuaded from talking to Americans when they are given reason to fear that either their contacts with the United States or the content of their conversations will be divulged publicly in leaks.

An irony about this concerns how often one hears reference to the “chilling effect” that some activity by NSA supposedly will have on discourse among Americans. A much more likely, and probably more damaging, chilling effect is the one that discourages foreigners from talking to Americans. Some such chilling effect has almost certainly already been felt as a result of Bradley Manning's wholesale disclosure of U.S. diplomatic cables and the multitude of press stories made out of them.

The damage does not end there, either. One also has to consider the effect the press's treatment of a leaker may have on other would-be future leakers who might consider causing still more damage with still more leaks. In other circumstances the press seems to be conscious of the danger of such demonstration effects. There has been considerable media introspection lately, for example, about whether the press should strive to limit the publicity given to suicidal gunmen who conduct shooting sprees in schools or other public places.

A vivid example of the apparent lack of consideration editors give to the same sort of demonstration effect involving damaging leakers is the front page of this past Tuesday's Washington Post. Pasted across the top in conspicuously large type is the headline, “Edward Snowden: 'I already won' ” Underneath the headline—and taking up most of the above-the-fold space on the front page—is a color picture of an apparently relaxed and smug Snowden, sitting cross-legged with his laptop in his lap and his arm casually atop the armrest of a sofa, and a gold-framed painting on the wall behind him. A high-priced publicist hired by Snowden and Greenwald could not have laid out the page any more to their liking. And it is hard to imagine a more glorifying encouragement to anyone else thinking of inflicting damage on the United States by stealing and revealing its secrets.

Even in some instances involving classified information, the press has shown its ability to act responsibly. A recent example concerns how journalists evidently sat for several years on the story of how Robert Levinson, the former FBI agent who disappeared in Iran, had a connection to a CIA officer running an unauthorized operation. They sat on the story for the very good reason of not further endangering Levinson. In this and similar instances, most journalists and their editors seem willing not to run with a secret-divulging story if there is a very specific and imminent harm to be avoided, such as a particular individual being in mortal danger. They seem less willing not to jump into print if the harm of publishing a story—although at least as great—is not as specific and imminent. Given this pattern, one suspects that the main concern of the journalists and editors is not so much to avoid harm to the national interest as it is to avoid being blamed for a specific and easily identifiable tragic result. And that attitude is irresponsible.

Image: Flickr/Thierry Ehrmann. CC BY 2.0.

TopicsMediaIntelligence RegionsUnited States

Ruffled Relations with Turkey

Paul Pillar

The several reasons that Turkey has long been important for U.S. foreign policy, with a significant role in multiple issues, are still valid. It is one of the stronger states in its neighborhood, which is a tough neighborhood. It is a member of the North Atlantic alliance that sits astride the juncture of Europe and the Middle East—bordering, among others, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. It is the historical heir to an empire that once encompassed most of its surrounding region. It is a majority Muslim country, with what is usually described as a “mildly” Islamist government, that has been looked to as a worthy model of moderation and stability for nations to its south that have been beset with a shortage of both moderation and stability.

It thus matters when relations between Turkey and the United States hit rough patches, as has been the case lately. Things have gotten uglier in the past week, with Prime Minister Recep Erdogan evidently choosing to make the United States a diversionary scapegoat for domestic political troubles having to do with corruption cases involving members of his administration. Erdogan voiced vague warnings about meddling in the matter by “foreign ambassadors,” pro-government newspapers made more specific accusations against the U.S. ambassador in particular, and there were demonstrations outside the U.S. embassy. Presumably a basis for thinking the government's domestic audience might find such accusations plausible—besides the United States being a universal scapegoat for many things it has nothing to do with—is the U.S. residence of Fethullah Gulen, the Islamic cleric who was allied with Erdogan in the past but broke with him years ago and whose followers among the police and prosecutors are now seen as behind the corruption investigations.

The United States ought to approach its relations with Ankara today first with an acknowledgment (which would apply as well to its relations with other powers in the region) that Turkey will be partners on some matters but will have divergent views on others. Where views diverge, sometimes this will be for understandable and excusable reasons and it would be appropriate to agree to disagree. Erdogan's gambit of trying to use the United States to explain away his government's corruption problems is not one of those times. The United States does not need to raise the public temperature of relationship over this episode, but it certainly is right to stand tall in non-public exchanges and to make it clear it finds the gambit inexcusable.

U.S.-Turkish differences over the war in Syria, in which Ankara favors more active backing of armed rebels, fit more in the agree-to-disagree category. As a next-door neighbor that has directly felt on its own territory some of the effects of the war, Turkey deserves to have some slack cut in any judgment about its (not altogether consistent) responses to the conflict. But this would not make it any less of a mistake, as events in Syria have made increasingly apparent, for the United States to get more directly involved.

With still other issues on which Ankara and Washington disagree, including ones mentioned in Tim Arango's review of the bidding in the New York Times, Washington needs to look more at its own posture to explain why there is a disagreement at all. One such issue involves U.S. angst over Turkey signing oil deals with the Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq (rather than going through the central government in Baghdad). The Turkish approach is a more realistic response to the two-decades-old reality of Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq than is adherence to a catechism of Iraqi unity. Turkey's current policy also represents a vast improvement over what was long its myopic and paranoic attitude toward Kurdish nationalism generally.

Another point of disagreement concerns Egypt, where Turkey strongly opposes the overthrow of the elected president, Mohamed Morsi. As the Egyptian military rulers demonstrate each week how far they are wrenching their country back from democracy and into arbitrary dictatorship (their most recent move being the bringing of implausibly imaginative criminal charges against Morsi), it is hard to see how Turkey is on the wrong side of this one. We have a tendency to see the posture of the Erdogan government as an Islamist thing; it is at least as much a democratic thing—and certainly is so in the eyes of the civilian government in Ankara, one of whose bigger accomplishments has been to tame the political impulses of the Turkish military, with its history of coups.

Then there is U.S. (and especially Congressional) pique over the suspected role of a state-owned Turkish bank in making purchases from Iran in defiance of U.S. sanctions. Chalk this up as one more instance of how the sanctions hurt U.S. interests by being a preoccupation and complication in U.S. diplomacy. To the extent this matter has become an additional irritant in the important relationship with Turkey, it has done more harm than any good that non-transactions by one Turkish bank possibly could do regarding the policies of an already heavily sanctioned Iran.

TopicsDemocracyReligionState of the Military RegionsEgyptIranUnited StatesSyriaTurkey

A Scholars' Boycott of Israel

Paul Pillar

As a matter of intent, justice, legality, and morality, the recent decision by the American Studies Association to boycott Israeli academic institutions is a righteous action. The problem that the association's decision (approved by two-thirds of its membership) addressed cannot be restated often enough, because although the nature of the problem should be obvious there are continuous efforts from other quarters to obscure it. The government of Israel, while paying lip service to the idea of a Palestinian state, occupies indefinitely, and continues to colonize, land that Israel conquered in a war it initiated 46 years ago and is home to Palestinian Arabs, and in so doing is depriving Palestinians not only of self-determination but of most of their political and civil rights as well as keeping them in economic subjugation.

The situation is commonly described, of course, as a bilateral conflict in which there are political and security concerns on both sides, which there are. But Palestinian leaders and the community of Arab states long ago accepted the idea of peace based on a Palestinian state limited to the 22 percent of the British mandate of Palestine left in Arab hands after earlier warfare in the 1940s. The shape of such a peace has long been clear. Israel is the occupier. It is easily the most powerful state in the region. It is in control. The Israeli government could make such a settlement a reality within weeks if it decided to. It instead prefers to cling to conquered land rather than to make peace, and to continue the colonization that threatens to put a peace out of reach.

That a gesture is righteous is not, however, sufficient grounds for judging that it is wise, or maybe even that it represents justice if one takes a broader view beyond the immediate conflict. The ASA's move, besides being subjected to the usual chorus of calumny whenever there is any criticism of Israeli policy, raises several legitimate issues.

One issue concerns the targeting of academic institutions, which is probably where some of the more enlightened and liberal thinking occurs inside Israel. That might seem an odd channel for going against the illiberal thinking that is the real target. One response to this concern is to note that the ASA is a body of academics, so naturally academic institutions are the entities its members would normally deal with. It would be a meaningless gesture for the ASA to announce a boycott of, say, the Israeli Defense Forces, with which it presumably has no relationship anyway. The ASA also supports its position by noting the denial of rights to Palestinian scholars as well as the multiple relationships that Israeli universities have, such as through training and technological development, with the Israeli military that administers the occupation.

Another legitimate question is whether a boycott, which inherently involves a cutting off of contact and communication, is an appropriate way to aim for an objective in which there would be a full peace with plenty of contact and communication among all concerned, including Israel. Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas appears to raise this concern when he says he favors limiting boycotts only to the products of Israeli settlements in occupied territory. “We don't ask anyone to boycott Israel itself,” says Abbas. “We have relations with Israel, we have mutual recognition of Israel.” Abbas, however, may be showing the side of the Palestinian Authority that constitutes a Potemkin village of self-determination under the shadow of what is still Israeli occupation. On this question he certainly is not speaking for Palestinian civil society, which strongly supports the broader boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel as a whole. In any case, the ASA's move does not affect the work of, or contacts with, individual Israeli scholars, and of course it does nothing to curtail governmental contacts.

A further question that can understandably be raised about the ASA's move is why it singles out Israel when the world is full of human rights violators. Saying, as one association member did, that one “has to start somewhere” does not quite cut it. The appropriate response starts with the fact that the members of this association are not just scholars of American studies; most of them are American scholars and American citizens. A huge piece of context for all of this is the critical role that the United States has played, through multiple administrations, in condoning the offensive Israeli behavior by providing diplomatic cover and many billions of no-strings-attached assistance. The United States is doing nothing of the sort for all those other human rights violators. Ideally what should be changed is the official policy; at a minimum, strings ought to be placed on assistance. But until that happens, U.S. citizens need to use what levers and gestures are available to them. Perhaps enough such gestures will start to change the political climate in the United States that supports the policies that condone the violations of human rights. Perhaps the gestures will chip away at the “standard trope of U.S. politics...that Israel is America's major ally in the Middle East,” as John Tirman of MIT puts it, when in fact “Israel's belligerent and persistent obstructionism is not the action of an ally.”

That gets to another response why Americans in particular are justified in making the kind of gesture the ASA made, which has to do with how Israel's occupation and its policies in the occupied territory significantly damage U.S. interests. Bruce Riedel powerfully and succinctly reviews why the unresolved Palestinian problem “is a national security threat to America. Indeed, American lives are being lost today because of the perpetuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” The reasons for this are, “First, this conflict creates anger, frustration and humiliation that fuel the enemies that are killing Americans today. Second, this conflict weakens our allies and friends, the moderates in the Islamic world, who are trying to fight our enemies.” On the first of those points, other academic research has repeatedly shown how the continued Israeli occupation, and the U.S. condoning of it, fuels extremist violence of the al-Qaeda ilk against U.S. interests. The occupation is a topic on which considerations of justice and a realist's considerations of U.S. interests converge.

The BDS movement, and thus contributions to it such as the ASA resolution, have a chance to do some good on this issue even though boycotts might have little effect on the policies of some of those other prominent human rights violators, such as the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe or the Karimov regime in Uzbekistan. If Israel, as its leaders and defenders are always quick to assert, shares with the United States important liberal democratic values—although the occupation represents the most glaring respect in which Israel does not share those values, or at least does not act on them—then those leaders and defenders ought to respect an expression of opposition that is peaceful and that is made through the free choices of consumers and scholars.

The example of overthrowing the South African version of apartheid continues to offer lessons in this regard. The Economist, in its obituary on Nelson Mandela, observed:

Mr. Mandela made political mistakes. The decision to abandon non-violence lost the ANC some support abroad, put no real military pressure on the government and, most seriously, diverted the movement’s energies from the task of organization at home, which was essential if strikes, boycotts and civil disobedience were to be effective.

The ASA's boycott is on balance the right thing to do, although it is not a slam dunk. Some who see the underlying issues rather clearly, such as Tom Friedman, nonetheless criticize the move. Everyone who expresses views on this or any other step relevant to the Israeli occupation should strive to get away from the all-too-prevalent, no-shades-of-gray tendency to lump every comment into a “pro-Israel” or “anti-Israel” camp. That tendency is damaging because it encourages scurrilous responses such as indiscriminate playing of the anti-Semitism card, and because such labels fail to distinguish between fundamental Israeli interests and the policies of the current Israeli government. Careful, detailed attention to what is effective as well as what is just is in order.

Image: Flickr/Takver. CC BY-SA 2.0.

TopicsCivil SocietyDomestic PoliticsHuman RightsEthicsPublic OpinionSanctions RegionsIsraelUnited StatesPalestinian territoriesSouth Africa