Paul Pillar

Felling ISIS and Facing Reality About Terrorism

The so-called Islamic State or ISIS is on the decline, and its “caliphate” on the ground in Iraq and Syria is shrinking to extinction. In Syria, the group has lost about a quarter of the territory it used to control, including its access to the Turkish border, and recapture of its de facto capital in Raqqa is coming into sight. In Iraq, ISIS has lost half the territory it once had, and a coalition of forces is knocking on the door of the group’s biggest prize, the city of Mosul.

The Importance of Apolitical Security and Law Enforcement Services

Many of the essential underpinnings of the liberal democracies that Americans enjoy go underappreciated by Americans themselves.  Among the most essential of these are law enforcement and security services that are genuinely apolitical.  They perform necessary functions in service of the entire nation’s interest in safety and order, without being used to promote the narrower interests of parties, movements, or leaders.  They constitute one of the biggest differences between the American political system—to the extent to which it is functioning properly—and politics in many more authoritaria

Military Force and the Fallacy of the Middle Way

There is a time-honored technique, familiar to veterans of policymaking in the U.S. Government, for ostensibly giving the boss a choice of options but in effect pre-cooking the decision.  That is to present three options, which can be aligned along a continuum of cost or risk or whatever, and to list as the middle option the one that the option-preparers want to have chosen.  Often this option is indeed chosen; as presented, it appears to be the most balanced and reasonable one, avoiding excesses of the alternatives on either side.

The Election That Killed Foreign Policy

The current election campaign has done more to set back U.S. foreign relations, and the cause of good foreign policy, than has any other American presidential election within memory.  One reason is the overall sordid image of American democracy in action that is being projected to people around the world, and to governments with an interest in exploiting that image.  The ugly picture includes the amount of attention given—unsurprisingly and necessarily so, given the character, comments, and conduct of Donald Trump—to such things as allegations of a candidate sexually assaulting women.

What Wins Respect for the United States

Much gets said and written, mostly as rhetoric intended to criticize the Obama administration, about the standing of the United States in the world supposedly having declined.  To the extent such rhetoric gets linked to specific policy prescription, it most often amounts to an assertion that respect for the United States derives from throwing its weight around and particularly doing so with military power.  But one doesn’t have to look hard for reminders that this is not really the way the world works.

The Denigration of Bureaucracy

A worthwhile take on the U.S. government bureaucracy is offered in an op ed by Paul Verkuil, former president of William and Mary and chair of the Administrative Conference of the United States. Verkuil's piece begins by referring to some of what Donald Trump has said about reducing the federal bureaucracy, but more broadly it is a response to the very widely held attitude that with regard to that work force, less is better.

Relations with Saudi Arabia are Risky as Well as Confused

Mainly because of domestic American politics and the workings of the U.S. Congress, everyone has a right to be confused about U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia, including the Saudis themselves. The first Congressional override of any veto by President Barack Obama has come on the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA); Saudi Arabia is the obvious, if unstated, target of this legislation, which permits private lawsuits against foreign governments on grounds of alleged involvement in acts of terrorism.