Paul Pillar

Middle Eastern Turmoil and the Scaremongering on Iran

Paul Pillar

It has not been a smooth month for those who want to keep Iran in pariahdom forever and thus seek to kill any international agreement on Iran's nuclear program. The sanctions bill that is the deal-killers' principal vehicle at the moment and is in the Senate banking committee has not been attracting the hoped-for Democratic co-sponsors. The strong position taken on the issue by President Obama obviously is a major reason for this. And however unlikely this may seem with almost anything that happens these days in Congress, reason and good sense have probably had some effect—among those who realize that the bill adds no negotiating value whatever in threatening additional sanctions on an Iran that already knows full well such sanctions would follow any breakdown of negotiations. With the exception of Robert Menendez (who has alienated himself from the president by wanting not only Iran but also Cuba to be in pariahdom forever), the deal-killing campaign has increasingly taken on an all-Republican flavor. That makes all the more obvious how, in addition to the other motivations behind the campaign, it has become a partisan endeavor to deny Mr. Obama a foreign policy achievement.

There also has been the widespread and thoroughly justified criticism of Speaker of the House John Boehner's invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress on the subject—criticism that has been wider than Boehner probably expected. The inappropriateness of this invitation was apparent even to many people who may not fully appreciate how much Netanyahu has been trying to undermine U.S. foreign policy, and how he is much more of an adversary of the United States than an ally on this issue. His unwavering opposition to any agreement with Tehran, even an agreement that moves Iran farther away from having a nuclear weapon, is motivated by objectives the United States does not share and in some respects—such as the objective of limiting U.S. freedom of action regarding whom it cooperates with on Middle Eastern issues—is directly opposed to U.S. interests.

Many people also recognized the narrowness and cheapness of what Boehner did. He ignored the usual procedure, as former speaker Nancy Pelosi described it, of consulting with Congressional leaders of both parties before offering someone the high honor and exceptional privilege of addressing a joint session of the U.S. Congress. People recognize that it debases the currency of this privilege to extend it a third time to Netanyahu when the only person so far to have addressed Congress three times is Winston Churchill. (We Americans knew Winston Churchill well. Winston Churchill was a friend. Bibi, you're no Winston Churchill.)

People also recognize that it is an indignity for the People's House if a foreign leader is to use it as a prop to berate the host country's policies as well as to try to score points with his voters in his own country in an election just a couple of weeks after he is scheduled to speak. He would be using Congress as a prop just as he used as a prop a cartoon drawing of a bomb—which he doesn't use anymore because the preliminary agreement that Netanyahu has always denounced drained his cartoon bomb by ending Iran's medium-level enrichment of uranium.

Zbigniew Brzezinski summarized well the nature of Boehner's move: “Speaker Boehner has an odd definition of leadership: inviting a foreign leader to undermine our President's policy in front of Congress?”

The opponents of an agreement may be increasingly aware that their fiction about supposedly just wanting to strengthen the U.S. negotiating position is wearing thin. There have been compromises of this cover story that have become difficult to hide, such as the direct, willing, and repeated admission of the freshman senator from Arkansas that the purpose of new sanctions legislation would be to kill the negotiations, not to aid them.

Further wearing away of the fiction has come from Israel, where the director of Mossad, Tamir Pardo, told visiting U.S. officials that new sanctions legislation would serve as a grenade that would blow up the negotiations. Pardo later tried to spin the story backward by saying that yes, the negotiations would blow up but what he meant was that this would be a good thing because negotiations could reconvene later under more favorable circumstances. That was a nice try by the Mossad chief to minimize the apparent rift with his prime minister—and a politically prudent try, given how already well known it has been that heads and former heads of Israel's security services disagree with Netanyahu's declared positions on Iran—but there won't be any more favorable circumstances. The current political circumstances in Iran are as good as they're going to get for this sort of deal for the foreseeable future, and if the current negotiations are blown apart by a legislative act of bad faith they will not come back together for a long time.

Against the backdrop of these setbacks to the anti-agreement campaign, the campaigners have recently been relying more on a strategy that isn't really new but has a new twist. That strategy involves going beyond the nuclear question and repeatedly voicing alarm about other aspects of Iranian policy and behavior. The strategy tacitly recognizes that the campaigners do not have logic and reason on their side regarding the objective of preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon, because an agreement of the sort that is being negotiated clearly would be much better at achieving that objective than the alternative, which would be the absence of an agreement and the loss of all the special restrictions on, and monitoring of, the Iranian program that already have been won through negotiations.

The strategy of reminding people of everything Iran does that we don't like, or that the campaigners tell us we're not supposed to like, operates on two levels. To some extent the anti-agreement forces try to make an argument that letting Iran out of its international penalty box will enable an ill-intentioned state to do even more ill-intentioned things. But to a large extent the appeal is simply an emotional, non-intellectual one that relies on popular distaste for doing any business with people we don't like. It is the sort of appeal that tacitly rejects the principle that the need for diplomacy and doing business with other states is at least as great with one's adversaries as it is with one's allies.

The newest twist is to recite some of the most recent turmoil in the region, such as the governmental collapse in Yemen, to interpret that turmoil as the consequence of Iran's evil doings, and to suggest that regional messiness is all of a piece with the nuclear question. Thus Charles Krauthammer, in his column on Friday under the headline “Iran's emerging empire” sounds an alarm about how “Iran's march toward a nuclear bomb” has combined with “Iran's march toward conventional domination of the Arab world” to make for an Iranian-created threatening mess in the Middle East. Yemen, Syria, Iraq, along with terrified Gulf Arab states—the whole set of conflicts is all, according to Krauthammer, one big Iranian campaign to establish an empire throughout the region. And then in the last part of the piece he says that he does not like those nuclear negotiations at all, and that given all that Iranian empire-building we should not like the negotiations either.

Published on the same day as Krauthammer's column, a piece by Dennis Ross, Eric Edelman, and Ray Takeyh centers on the same notion that “Iran is on the march in the Middle East.” (Evidently the current talking points from the anti-agreement war room recommend generous use of the term march.) Ross et al. say that “the American alliance system stands bruised and battered” while “our friends” in the region see the Iranian advance as even more rapid than a march: they “perceive Iran and its resistance-front galloping across the region.” The piece maintains the fiction about supposedly wanting an agreement, while recommending aggressive measures that, like new sanctions legislation, would be designed to derail the negotiations and prevent an agreement. The measures include a “revamped coercive strategy” that is vague but seems to consist of intentionally butting heads with the Iranians in any civil war we can find, as well as a “political warfare campaign” against Tehran and, in the most direct sort of negotiation-derailer, willingness of U.S. diplomats “to walk away from the table and even suspend the talks.”

One of the problems in these two pieces is that what is depicted as a grand Iranian scheme for achieving regional hegemony is instead a matter of diverse conflicts with many different causes and instigators and in which any Iranian roles have been largely reactive. Krauthammer draws our attention, for example, to the presence of Hezbollah fighters and an Iranian officer who were near the armistice line in the Golan Heights and were killed the other day by an Israeli airstrike, and mentions dark possibilities about Iran wanting to open a new front against Israel. In fact, the target of Hezbollah and its Iranian ally in that area was much more likely the Al Qaeda-asssociated Al Nusra Front, which had expanded its operations in that area within the past few months. The most noteworthy thing about the incident was the Israeli airstrike itself, which appeared aimed at eliciting a Hezbollah response and benefiting Netanyahu's party in the coming election, although Hezbollah did not take the bait.

Even if one assumes the worst about Iranian intentions, a more fundamental deficiency of these two articles and similar anti-Iranian broadsides is that they lose all sight of the key question in evaluating the current nuclear negotiations and any final agreement that emerges from them: will Iranian policies and behavior be better for our interests with such an agreement or without it? (Of course, insofar as such broadsides are an emotions-based appeal for us not to want to have anything to do with Iranians, losing sight of this question is the whole idea.) The policy question involved is not to be equated with a popularity contest in which Iran is a contestant. There will be plenty of things for us to dislike about Iranian policies, both foreign and domestic, with or without a nuclear agreement. An agreement will very much make a difference with regard to one set of Iranian policies important to us; it will help to keep the Iranian nuclear program peaceful. Any follow-on effects on other matters require further analysis. Krauthammer and Ross et al. don't address this at all and give us no reason to believe that any of the Iranian behaviors they consider so nasty would be any better without an agreement than with one. Making Iran a permanent pariah does nothing to improve those behaviors, and instead is more likely, out of an absence of alternative channels for Iran to pursue its interests, to make them even worse. By contrast, the opening of greater communication and patterns of cooperation that a nuclear agreement would encourage presents better opportunities for getting Iran to act constructively on some of the very conflicts and problems that these two pieces highlight.

That leads to another fundamental deficiency of the broadsides, which is that they make no effort to sort out what is good, bad, or neutral for U.S. interests in what the Iranians do. Instead there is just the blanket—and because of that, erroneous—assumption that any Iranian action, participation, or influence on anything anywhere in the region is ipso facto bad. This approach is remarkable in light of how much U.S. and Iranian interests run parallel on some of the most salient conflicts involved. This is most obvious with regard to ISIS and efforts to check its expansion. Ross et al. try to disguise this fact with a reference regarding Iraq to what “appears to be Iran's invasion of the country under the banner of disarming the Islamic State.” So what exactly are the alternative scenarios in Iraq they have in mind, which of those are better for U.S. interests and why, and what is the Iranian role in each? They don't say. If Iranians are doing heavy lifting on the ground in killing ISIS fighters, and in the process getting their own people killed and sustaining other costs in the process, rather than that happening to us, why should that make us unhappy?

Krauthammer does something similar regarding Yemen, where he laments how the current turmoil there is interfering with U.S. drone operations against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). And the cause of the turmoil, he says, is the advance by the rebel Houthis, who are “agents” of Iran (they aren't, although they probably do get some Iranian aid). In fact, the Houthis hate AQAP. They fight against AQAP. And again, if such people fight and die while acting against this Al Qaeda affiliate, why should we be unhappy about that? If that kind of action on the ground means fewer U.S. drone strikes, and thus less of the accompanying grief the United States gets from such strikes because of the symbolism and the collateral damage involved, that is a good thing for us. But Krauthammer evidently gets a rise out of drone strikes and considers them more important than facilitating the most cost-effective way (from the standpoint of U.S. interests) of reining in a group such as AQAP.

Yet another fundamental deficiency in these sorts of attempts to undermine the nuclear negotiations is that they say nothing about internal Iranian politics. The outcome of the nuclear negotiations will have significant effects on Iranian politics, with consequences for the sorts of Iranian regional policies that these authors don't like. Specifically, failure of the negotiations will be a major blow to the moderate and pragmatic elements represented by President Rouhani, and a boost to the hardliners who, just like hardliners on our side, don't want an agreement and thrive on perceived threats from the other country. Failure of the negotiations would be more apt to increase, and certainly would not decrease, the sorts of Iranian behavior about which Krauthammer and Ross et al. are raising such alarms.

These more fundamental flaws hardly exhaust what is badly mistaken about these two pieces. Krauthammer, for example, is seemingly unaware of all the official, disinterested judgments on the subject when he asserts that Iran is “marching toward a nuclear bomb.” In fact, Iranian leaders probably have not decided to build a bomb. When bemoaning extensions of the negotiations he says not a word about the critical limitations on Iran's program that the negotiations already have achieved. And most of his picture of supposed region-wide Iranian empire building is really an observation about the salience of the Sunni-Shia divide and its role in contemporary Middle Eastern conflict. If he is going to focus on that, he needs to explain why the United States should have any interest in taking sides in that sectarian dispute within the Muslim world.

Ross et al. are living in an alternative universe when it comes to just about everything they say about the nuclear negotiations. According to them, the talks are “stalemated”; no—as arms control and similar multilateral endeavors go, the progress has actually been rather rapid, on what is necessarily a complex and technical set of topics. The authors repeatedly talk about a “generous catalogue of concessions from the West” as contrasted with supposed Iranian inflexibility. Even a cursory look at the Joint Plan of Action, the preliminary agreement that established the obligations that the parties are observing now, shows how false that picture is. The West got what it wanted most, which included ending medium-level enrichment, restricting work on the most suspect reactor, limiting stockpiles of low-enriched uranium, and unprecedented levels of international monitoring inspection. The Iranians have not yet gotten what they want most, which is relief from the debilitating financial and oil sanctions that are still firmly in place.

There is so much vagueness in Ross et al.'s call for a “revamped coercive strategy” that we are left to wonder exactly what they have in mind. Their call for Washington to “reengage in the myriad conflicts and civil wars plaguing the region,” given that they are looking for more involvement than is going on right now, does not sound encouraging. It does not sound like what is wanted by the American people, who are not anxious right now to get bogged down in myriad conflicts and other people's civil wars. And if the authors are worried about the extent of Iranian influence in Iraq, they need to explain how whatever they have in mind would reduce that influence, given that an eight-and-a-half year war with a peak of 170,000 U.S. troops left Iraq with more, not less, Iranian influence than before.

Ross, et al. conclude by stating, “The United States and Iran are destined to remain adversaries.” Oh, so it's not a matter of facts and analysis and experience, but instead of destiny. Or rather, we are supposed to consider Iran to be forever nothing but an adversary because people such as these authors tell us that's what we should believe. As long as enough people believe that, the United States and Iran really will be adversaries forever. Don't believe people who want to lead us down such a path.                                                                                     

TopicsIran Israel RegionsMiddle East

Why America Will Miss Saudi King Abdullah

Paul Pillar

A leader does not have to be a truly great person to play a historically significant role if placed in a situation that is sufficiently fragile and weird to force such importance on the individual in charge. King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, who died overnight at age 90, was in such a situation by being in charge in Saudi Arabia, a family-run kingdom that is both weird and fragile—an anachronism in the twenty-first century. Although the Saudi monarchy is still almost absolute, the individual king is not, since he has to contend with factionalism and ambitions within the royal family. But the family politics are just another of the complications that pose a challenge to the man at the top who has to hold the whole thing together, baling wire and all. Abdullah occupied that role for 20 years, the first ten as crown prince and de facto regent when the disabled King Fahd was still alive, and the last ten as king himself. During this time he personally affected many things of importance to the Middle East and to U.S. interests there.

The people of Saudi Arabia are probably better off for having had Abdullah as king than would have been their lot with most other rulers. He recognized the need for the country's society to modernize and moved in that direction about as much as he could within the severe limits posed by tradition, the religious establishment, and the necessity for consensus. This was particularly true regarding the role of women, however painfully slow progress in this area has been by the standards of those of us in the West who do not have to deal with those same limits. Probably the clearest manifestations of Abdullah's intentions in this regard are to be found at the mixed-gender university for science and technology that bears his name.

Abdullah governed in ways that were generally congenial to U.S. interests. This was in large part due not to any particular initiative or insight by the leader but rather because of natural convergence of some Saudi and U.S. interests. This has been true regarding oil prices insofar as a lower price is on balance good for the U.S. economy and Saudi Arabia, with its large oil reserves, does not want prices high enough to accelerate the move to alternative fuels. It was during Abdullah's rule that the kingdom stopped trying to export its extremist problem and instead began dealing with it seriously and directly, and that change clearly was in U.S. interests. The change, however, owed less to conspicuously inspired leadership than to the hard knocks of terrorist attacks within the kingdom.

The feature of Saudi foreign policy that probably did owe the most to initiative by Abdullah was his proposal for linking resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to full recognition of, and making of peace with, Israel by all the Arab states. He persuaded those other Arab states of the wisdom of this concept, and the concept is known today as the Arab League peace plan. It is still out there—and reaffirmed just the other day by the Arab League—ready to be taken up by anyone who genuinely wants peace between Israel and all its Arab neighbors.

Saudi Arabia has a system of political succession that by its very nature cannot continue indefinitely. The kingdom's founder, King Abdul Aziz, made it thus when he determined that he should be succeeded by his many sons, one after the other, rather than using the usual vertical monarchical succession based on primogeniture. The succession has not reached the end of that line of brothers and half-brothers yet, but with Abdullah's passing it is getting closer. The succession to the throne of 79-year-old Prince Salman is not reassuring; Salman already has shown signs of losing his faculties.

Abdullah did make a move a couple of years ago that lessens the political uncertainty; he effectively designated as next in the succession after Salman the 69-year-old Prince Muqrin, the youngest surviving son of Abdul Aziz. Muqrin,who now is the crown prince, seems to have a fair amount on the ball. If he becomes the principal decision-maker, with or without Salman alive, during the next few years that probably would be good for the kingdom.

Things in Saudi Arabia, still a strange place, could have been much worse than they have been under King Abdullah.                               

TopicsDomestic Politics RegionsSaudi Arabia

The Blue Patch of Ignorance

Paul Pillar

The graphic that was on the front page of the New York Times on Saturday is striking. It accompanied a story about how 2014 was Earth's hottest year on record. There is a bar chart showing how average global temperatures have been rising over the past century and markedly so since the 1970s, and how the ten warmest years have all occurred since 1997. But just as eye-catching is a world map that uses color to depict how temperatures in different areas of the globe in 2014 differed from the average for each area: red for hotter and blue for colder, with the intensity of the color indicating how much of a divergence there was from the average. As would be expected with the hottest year on record, most of the map is red. But given that temperatures do not vary uniformly around the world, there is some blue. And the one patch of blue that covers an area with any significant population happens to be over the central and eastern United States, with some adjacent parts of Canada. (Remember those wayward polar vortices last winter?) The only other blue areas that are over parts of continents are in eastern Antarctica, which is uninhabited, and a small piece of northern Namibia and southern Angola, in one of the more sparsely populated parts of Africa.

If weather were the product of some sort of intelligent design, this pattern might lead one to conclude that the designer wanted to tilt debate in the United States on climate change in favor of the climate-change-deniers. No matter how many reminders experts issue that short-term variations in weather are not to be equated with longer term climatological change, there is nothing like a good blast of cold air through Washington to cool receptivity to messages about the need to slow and arrest global warming. There still would be plenty of ostrich-in-the-sand denial on this issue regardless of the current weather, but in general the less that Americans are directly and immediately feeling ill effects of a problem, the less likely that U.S. policy will be shaped to deal with the problem.

This correlation is most obvious with the climate change issue itself, but is not limited to it. Terrorism, for example, is a phenomenon rooted in circumstances and policies that are spread across many countries but that usually leads Americans even to recognize that a problem exists only if they themselves are hit with some of the consequences. And even though terrorist attacks involve human volition, exactly where and how terrorist consequences emerge out of larger patterns of political and social dysfunction involves, like any one year's weather, essentially unpredictable variation. There is no overall intelligent design.

Grabbing the American public's attention requires not only an impact on Americans themselves but an impact that is, like a city full of hot uncomfortable air, obvious and impossible to miss. Consequences for Americans and U.S. interests can be substantial but still missed without that kind of immediacy and obviousness. This is true even when the consequences flow from actions taken by the United States itself. It is true, for example, of the economic harm to the United States of U.S.-imposed sanctions. It is true as well of many ways in which other countries and peoples impede the projection and exercise of American power overseas.

The blue patch hovering over most of the United States in that map in the Times thus can stand for more than just last year's respite for some of us from the heating up of the planet. It also can represent a more general pattern of ignorance of much of the red vastness beyond U.S. borders. It can be thought of as a blue haze that miraculously protects us from the immediacy of much of the world's problems but also obscures our understanding of them. The only difference from what the map depicts is that the phenomenon does not stop in the high plains but instead also includes the western United States.                                      

TopicsClimate Change RegionsUnited States

A Sanity Check from London on Iran

Paul Pillar

Those who want to maintain endless tension and animosity between the United States and Iran, and who thus have been endeavoring to kill any diplomatic agreement between the two countries, are racing ahead with their latest project and will be very busy during the week ahead. That project, the AIPAC-promoted Kirk-Menendez sanctions bill, will be the subject of a Senate banking committee hearing, with only anti-agreement witnesses so far announced, on Tuesday, to be followed by the committee's mark-up of the bill on Thursday.

Promoters of the bill are racing to beat two things. One, and worst from the promoters' point of view, would be completion of the international negotiations (which also are due to resume in plenary session this coming week) to limit Iran's nuclear program and announcement of an agreement. Even before any agreement is reached, those pushing the bill also have to worry about losing the support of those who may have originally believed the cover story that the legislation is intended to strengthen the hand of U.S. negotiators but who come to realize that the legislation is instead about spoiling the negotiations and killing a deal. Key among this group are Senate Democrats, including some who in the last Congress signed on as co-sponsors of an earlier version of the Kirk-Menendez bill.

Those in this group, and anyone else who might genuinely but mistakenly believe that passage of this bill would aid negotiations, would do well to pay close attention to the comments on this subject from British Prime Minister David Cameron, in a joint press conference with President Obama at the White House on Friday. “On Iran,” said Cameron, “we remain absolutely committed to ensuring that Iran cannot develop a nuclear weapon. The best way to achieve that now is to create the space for negotiations to succeed. We should not impose further sanctions now; that would be counterproductive and it could put at risk the valuable international unity that has been so crucial to our approach.”

The prime minister further commented on how those who had predicted that the sky would fall with the reaching 14 months ago of a preliminary agreement—which already has placed the most important restrictions on Iran's nuclear program to ensure that it stays peaceful—have been proven wrong. “To those who said,” stated Cameron, that “if you do an interim deal, if you even start discussing with the Iranians any of these things, the sanctions will fall apart, the pressure will dissipate, no one will be able to stick at it—that has demonstrably been shown not to be true.”

Some background to these remarks from the British leader are useful to keep in mind. The United Kingdom is a full participant in the nuclear negotiations with Iran, as part of the P5+1 (or EU3+3, as they prefer to say on the other side of the Atlantic). It is not an interloper in someone else's diplomatic business, and British diplomats and leaders have at least as much basis as anyone else for knowing what is working and what is not in the negotiations.

Britain also is a country that, like the United States, has historically had some really bad relations with Iran. In Britain's case this experience dates back to a British and Soviet invasion of Iran during World War II, beginning an occupation that extended until almost a year after the end of the war.

Today, the United Kingdom—unlike certain other countries that would like to influence the fate of the nuclear negotiations—has no significant interests in the Middle East that are discernibly at odds with those of the United States. And the comments on Friday came not from some soft post-conflict European liberal, but instead from the leader of the Conservative Party in the country that is still in many respects America's most important ally.

There are two major takeaways from Cameron's comments. One is to provide further confirmation that the myth that something like the sanctions bill before the Senate would facilitate negotiations and hasten an agreement is exactly that: a myth. When people actually doing the negotiating say something would weaken rather than strengthen their negotiating hand, that's a good indication that it indeed would not strengthen their hand.

Actually it should not even be necessary to get independent confirmation of this from someone like Cameron. Even if one were to assume the very worst about Barack Obama's objectives—such as that he were willing to give up the store solely to claim a foreign policy achievement or to burnish his legacy—there would be no conceivable reason for him to oppose any measure that really did strengthen his bargaining hand rather than weaken it.

The other takeaway to be had from the comments of an allied leader concerns the likely fallout if the deal-killers succeed in their effort through something like the sanctions bill. The most direct consequence would involve the responses of Iran. In the best, or least bad, case it would mean greater Iranian reluctance to make concessions because Iranian confidence in Washington's ability and willingness to live up to its end of a deal would be shaken even more than it already is. In a worse case it would mean an Iranian conclusion that the Congressional action is so counter to the spirit if not the letter of the interim agreement that the only alternative is to leave the negotiating table and go home.

But the further consequences concern the responses of the rest of the international community. Cameron indirectly reminded us of that by saying that he was commenting as “someone who played quite, I think, a strong role in getting Europe to sign up to the very tough sanctions, including oil sanctions, in the first place.” The interim agreement did not cause the beloved sanctions regime to unravel. But if the U.S. Congress wanders so far away from an international consensus and off into right field that it is seen as the main impediment to an agreement, unraveling is likely to begin.

Good, reliable allies have several uses, and not just in providing more warplanes to fight someplace. Helping to protect ourselves from our own solipsistic tendencies is another thing they can do for us.       

TopicsIran United Kingdom RegionsMiddle East

5 Things Wrong with the Reaction to the Paris Attacks

Paul Pillar

The responses, outside as well as inside France, to the recent attacks in Paris have become a bigger phenomenon, at least as worthy of analysis and explanation, as the attacks themselves. This pattern is hardly unprecedented regarding reactions, or overreactions, to terrorist incidents, but what has been going on over the past week exhibits several twists and dimensions that are especially misleading or misdirected.

1. Scale of the attacks vs. scale of the reaction. Seventeen people, not counting the perpetrators, died in the Paris incidents. With the usual caveat that the death of even a single innocent as a result of malevolently applied violence is a tragedy and an outrage, the response has been far out of proportion to the stimulus. The magnitude of what the Paris attackers did was modest by the standards even of international terrorism, let alone by the standards of all malevolently applied violence or of political violence in general. By way of comparison, about the same time as the Paris attacks the Nigerian extremist group Boko Haram conducted a massacre in a town in which probably several hundred, and possibly as many as 2,000, died. The international attention to this incident was minuscule compared to the Paris story.

Of course anything disturbing that happens in a major Western capital is bound to get more attention than an even bloodier happening in a remote part of an African country. Probably another reason why press coverage of the Paris story was enormous from the beginning was that the target of the first attack was part of the media, and that ipso facto makes the story of greater interest to the press itself.

But much of what we have been seeing over the past week is an example of how public and political attention to something, regardless of what that something is, tends to feed on itself. Once a certain level of salience is reached and enough people are talking and writing about a subject or an event, then for that very reason other people start talking and writing about it too. As the attention snowballs, political leaders feel obligated to weigh in and to appear responsive, regardless of their private assessment of whatever started the crescendo of public attention. Thus in the current instance even the White House feels obligated to answer for the president or vice president of the United States not having flown off to join a crowd in Paris.

2. Consistency vs. inconsistency in upholding free speech. With the initial attack being against the staff of a magazine, the whole story quickly became couched as one of upholding the right of free speech and freedom of the press (a particular reason for the interest of the press itself and thus the extensive coverage the press devoted to the story). Lost sight of amid the swell of street-marching champions of such civil liberties is the inconsistency in getting so worked up about this one affront to free speech but not to others. Surely we ought to be worked up as much about other, comparable limitations on free expression, especially when the power of the state is used to enforce those limitations. In France itself the state enforces a variety of such limitations—some of which might be offensive to those who were offended by what the magazine published, and some of which are apt to be offensive to other groups—often with criminal penalties attached. Of course, glaring examples become even easier to find outside Western liberal democracies. One thinks, for example, of the outrageous blasphemy laws in Pakistan. And last Friday Saudi Arabia administered the first 50 of 1,000 lashes as part of the punishment of a human rights advocate accused of “insulting Islam” because he established an online forum for discussing matters of faith. Some international protest was heard in response, but nothing remotely comparable to the outpouring in Paris.

3. Right to free speech vs. responsibility in exercising that right. The exerciser of free speech in question in Paris was a satirical magazine that seems to specialize in cartoons that are bound to offend a lot of people. It is fair to say that in the centuries of struggles for civil liberties, this is probably not one of the nobler vehicles for the cause. We are not talking Thomas Paine here. What is that “je suis Charlie” stuff supposed to mean? That we are all dedicated to putting down religious prophets? With most rights also go responsibilities, and prudence in the exercise of those rights, with an honest effort to bear in mind the consequences of what one does or says. Responsible, prudent exercise of a right does nothing to diminish or compromise that right.

We in the United States should have had occasion to think hard about such matters recently with the episode involving a comedic Hollywood movie that offended the North Koreans—and ordinary North Koreans, not only the regime, were offended. If North Korea conducts computer sabotage against an American company, we certainly should strongly object to that. But we also might imagine how we would react if a North Korean film company, or any other film company for that matter, were to produce a movie with a plot centered around assassinating the president of the United States. We would understandably object, and it is unlikely that we would be discussing the issue primarily in terms of artistic freedom or a right of free speech.

4. Unity vs. disunity among world leaders. That image of foreign leaders locking arms with President Hollande and each other suggests that they are of one mind about whatever they were marching down the avenue about. Don't believe it. It was a phony show of unity. Each one of those leaders had his or her own reasons for being there, involving politics back home as well as international politics, and not just to show solidarity and good will toward the French. This may have been most apparent with the graceless Benjamin Netanyahu, who rebuffed the French government's request for him to stay away rather than inserting his own agenda, but he was not unique in having an agenda. (Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas initially acceded to a similar French request for him to stay away, before Netanyahu's decision to crash the event made it politically necessary for him to come as well.) If President Obama had attended, it mainly would have been to avoid subsequent political criticism at home for not having attended. That is a bad basis for deciding how to apportion the president's time.

5. Debate about Islam. The Paris events have rekindled an old debate about whether the seeds of violent Islamist extremism can be found in the content of Islam itself. That debate had a surge a couple of decades ago when Samuel Huntington was writing about a clash of civilizations and about how Islam has “bloody borders.” The debate gets a renewed surge whenever, say, Congressman Peter King says something on the subject or events such as those in Paris transpire. The debate will never be resolved.

The debate as commonly framed is not very useful because even if those who argue that the content of Islam explains the motivations of those who commit violent acts in its name were right—and they are more wrong than right—that would not take us very far toward any implied policy recommendations. There still would be the fact that the great majority of adherents to the same religion are not violent and are not terrorists. There still would be nonviolent Islamist parties, movements, and regimes to deal with, and there still would be large Muslim populations whose emotions and preferences would have to be taken into account.

President al-Sisi of Egypt spoke the other day about the need for a reformation of Islam. Maybe he's right, but it certainly would not be up to Western governments to accomplish, push, or otherwise influence any such reformation. There probably isn't much else al-Sisi himself could do to accomplish it.

One of the essential policy-relevant points that Western governments do need to understand is that Islam provides a vocabulary for expressing a wide variety of ideologies (a fringe subset of which is used to justify violence). Another essential point is that notwithstanding the very wide array of ideologies and objectives found under the banner of Islam, there is a widespread sense of a single Muslim community or umma; what happens to one part of that community can become a grievance or inspiration for actions of another part, including a violent part.    

Image: Flickr. 

TopicsFrance terrorism RegionsWestern Europe

Sanctions and Symmetry in the Iran Negotiations

Paul Pillar

Notwithstanding the obvious asymmetries in soon-to-resume nuclear negotiations with Iran (it's Iran's nuclear program, not the U.S. one, that is being restricted; it's the United States, not Iran, that is sanctioning someone else's economy) the perceptual and political similarities that Americans and Iranians have brought to this encounter are striking to anyone who has been following the subject closely. To begin with, the chief policy-makers in each country clearly want to reach an agreement. On the Iranian side this includes not only the foreign minister who has been conducting the negotiations and the president who has been directly overseeing them but also the Iranian policy-maker who matters most: the supreme leader. It is almost inconceivable that Ayatollah Khamenei would have made it possible for President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif to have gone as far as they have already gone, and to sign Iran up to the commitments they already have made in the preliminary agreement reached in late 2013, if he did not genuinely share the objective of completing the negotiations and reaching a final agreement.

Both the U.S. president and the Iranian supreme leader have publicly voiced skepticism, however, as to whether the negotiations will in fact succeed. Probably the expressed doubts are in each case partly tactical, to limit the perceived political damage to each leader should the negotiations fail. But the doubts probably also reflect genuine assessments of the challenges that each side faces in reaching, and securing domestic support for, an agreement.

That gets to one of the clearest elements of symmetry between the two sides. Each government is burdened with substantial opposition from domestic elements that oppose any U.S.-Iranian accord. The hardline opponents on each side act and sound remarkably alike. Each is embedded in a broader domestic political opposition to the incumbent presidential administration and is quick to exploit any setback to that administration for political advantage (and each realizes that if the nuclear negotiations can be torpedoed that would be a significant setback for the president they oppose). Each never tires of demonizing the other country and attributes the most malevolent intentions to it. Each fulminates about how its own country's leaders are supposedly conceding too much and giving away the store. Each couches its opposition in terms of getting a better agreement, when in fact it does not want any agreement at all.

A reminder of how much of a factor is hardline opposition in Iran came the other day when hardliners in the Iranian parliament forced a sort of no-confidence vote over how Zarif has been handling the negotiations. Zarif prevailed, but just barely. Only 125 of the 229 legislators present voted in his favor, with 86 voting against.

The next big ploy of hardline opponents in the United States will be to push a new version of sanctions legislation similar to what Senators Mark Kirk and Robert Menendez introduced in the previous Congress. The new version is still being written, but the previous version contained elements that might well have constituted a violation of the preliminary agreement, and if it had been enacted an unsurprising Iranian reaction—one that Iranian hardliners probably would have demanded—would have been to declare Iran's commitments under that agreement to be null and void and to walk away from the negotiating table. But let us assume, in line with what we have heard lately from the American hardliners, that the new version to be voted on as early as this month would not be a blatant violation of the existing agreement but instead would be a “conditional” measure that would impose additional sanctions on Iran if a final agreement were not reached by the deadlines that the negotiators had previously announced (March for a political agreement, and June for a full document with all technical details).

Now let us perform a thought experiment in which we imagine Iranian hardliners doing what would be their closest possible equivalent to what the American hardliners are trying to do. Imagine that the Iranian majlis, or parliament, enacts legislation that commits Iran to taking certain steps if agreement is not reached by the announced deadlines. Specifically, if there is no agreement, Iran would resume building up a stockpile of low-enriched uranium. It would resume enrichment of uranium to the 20 percent level. It would resume development of the nuclear reactor at Arak in ways that would facilitate use of it to produce plutonium. It would rescind the additional special access given to international inspectors and revert to the lesser level of inspection consistent with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and prior agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency. In other words, the Iranian hardliners' legislation, just like the American hardliners' legislation, would undo commitments made in the preliminary agreement of November 2013. And just like the American hardliners, the Iranian hardliners would justify their legislation as a conditional measure that would help to provide an incentive to the other side to negotiate seriously and not to drag out the talks indefinitely. As such, the measure would be portrayed as an aid to negotiations rather than an undermining of them.

What would the U.S. reaction be to such an action in the majlis? Would the legislation, as claimed, make the U.S. administration more inclined than before to make concessions, increasing the likelihood that an agreement would be reached on the announced schedule? Of course not. Americans of various political stripes would denounce the action of the majlis as a major show of Iranian bad faith. The talk in Washington would not be about making more U.S. concessions but instead about what the United States could do to pressure Iran in return. Those who had openly questioned Iran's seriousness about wanting an agreement would say, ”We told you so.” Even those in the U.S. administration with high confidence in the good will of Rouhani would have their faith shaken in his ability to implement the terms of an agreement. And American hardliners would voice the most outrage of all (however much they would privately welcome this boost to their own deal-killing endeavors).

What works in one direction works in the other. The responses to the imaginary legislation of Iranian hardliners point to the likely responses to the (unfortunately real) legislation being cooked up by American hardliners. Iranians of various stripes would see it as a major show of American bad faith. It would amplify the already considerable doubts in Tehran about true American intentions and about the ability of even a well-intentioned Barack Obama to make good on the U.S. side of a deal in the face of resistance by a Republican Congress. In Iranian eyes it would make any further Iranian concessions seem less apt to bring desirable results, thus more risky politically for any Iranian leader to offer, and thus less likely to be offered. Consequently the negotiations would be more likely to fail. U.S. officials conducting the negotiations know what, which is why they oppose the legislation. Those pushing the legislation know that, too, which is why they are pushing it.

It is usually only when speaking in private or when too inexperienced or naive to disguise true intentions that the pushers acknowledge their objective. More often they promote the idea that what they are doing will provide the United States with useful leverage and induce Iran to make still more concessions. And some people genuinely believe that. This is one of several respects in which Americans tend to believe that bargaining with another state works in an asymmetric, exceptionalist way, in which other humans respond to pressures and inducements in a fundamentally different manner from how Americans themselves respond, when in fact there is far more symmetry. Thinking in role-reversal terms might help to correct that mistaken belief.                                                   


TopicsIran RegionsMiddle East

America's Big Challenge: Finding the Off-Ramp in Iraq

Paul Pillar

Americans are not very good at ending their involvement in wars. No, that's not a pacifist statement about a need to stop fighting wars in general. It is instead an observation about how the United States, once it gets involved—for good or for ill—in any one war, has difficulty determining when and how to call it a day and go home. A major reason for this difficulty is that Americans are not Clausewitzians at heart. They tend not to see warfare as a continuation of policy by other means, but instead to think of war and peace as two very different conditions with clear dividing lines between them.

Americans thus are fine with wars that have as clear an ending as the surrenders of the Axis powers in World War II, which continues to be for many Americans the prototype of how a war should be begun, conceived, and concluded. But America's wars since then have not offered conclusions this satisfying. The one that came closest to doing so was Operation Desert Storm in 1991, which swiftly and decisively achieved its declared objective of reversing the Iraqi swallowing of Kuwait. Even that victory, however, left an unsatisfying aftertaste in some (mostly neocon) mouths, because Saddam Hussein remained in power in Baghdad.

It thus is difficult for U.S. leaders, even if they are capable of thinking in disciplined Clausewitzian terms, to explain and to justify to the American public, and to the political class that makes appeals to that public, the wrapping up of an overseas military involvement without a clear-cut, World War II-style victory. This is a problem no matter how well-founded and justified was the original decision to enter a war.

Other dynamics are commonly involved in such situations, including the one usually called mission creep—the tendency in an overseas military expedition for one thing to lead to another and for one's military forces gradually to take on jobs beyond the one that was the original reason for sending them overseas. Any nation can get sucked into mission creep, but Americans are especially vulnerable to it. The yearning for clear-cut and victorious conclusions to foreign military adventures is one reason. Others are the American tendencies to see any problem overseas as a problem for the superpower to deal with, and to expect that if the United States puts its minds and resources to the task it can solve any problem overseas.

Some insights about this subject can be gleaned from comparing two big recent U.S. military expeditions: the one in Iraq from 2003 to 2011 and the one in Afghanistan that began in 2001 and continues today. There is no comparison between the two regarding the original reasons for initiating them, and in that sense it is unfortunate how much the two came to be lumped together in subsequent discussion. One was a a war of aggression with a contrived and trumped-up rationale; the other was a direct and justified response to a lethal attack on the United States. Iraq really was the bad war and Afghanistan the good one. But as time and costs dragged on and Afghanistan became America's longest war ever, it gradually lost support among Americans and Afghans alike.

The failure in Afghanistan was in not finding, and taking, a suitable off-ramp. The off-ramp that should have been taken was reached within the first few months of the U.S. intervention, after the perpetrators of the 9/11 attack that was the reason for the intervention had been rousted from their home and their sometime allies, the Afghan Taliban, had been ousted from power. Regardless of what would have happened in Afghanistan after that, there would not have been a return to the pre-September 2001 situation there, both because the Taliban would have no reason to ally again with a bunch of Arab transnational terrorists who had brought about such a result, and because the United States's own rules of engagement changed so much that no such return would be allowed to occur whether or not U.S. troops were on the ground.

No good off-ramp was found with the Iraq War, and there never was going to be a really good one, given how ill-conceived the war was in the first place and how little thought the makers of the war had given to the post-invasion consequences. The U.S. administration that perpetrated the war did a political finesse of the problem, using a surge of force to reduce the violence in the civil war enough to be able to say that they did not leave Iraq falling apart, and then setting with the Iraqi government a schedule for U.S. withdrawal that would have to be implemented by the next administration. That set the stage, of course, for promoting the myth that the war had been “won” by the time power was handed over in the United States and for blaming the subsequent administration, when it duly implemented the withdrawal schedule it had been given, for all the later indications that the war clearly had not been “won.”

It also set the stage, now that the United States has troops back in Iraq, for talk about the need for a "long-term American presence" to avoid repeating the supposed mistake of cutting and running. How long is “long-term” does not get specified. In other words, no off-ramp is identified. In other words, it's again the familiar problem of not knowing how and when to wind up involvement in a foreign war. The error committed in Afghanistan, of missing the ramp and turning what had been a justified response to an attack on the U.S. homeland into an endless attempt at nation-building in a country thousands of miles away, risks being repeated in Iraq.

The problem of ISIS—the reason for the latest intervention in Iraq—will go away, but not in a sufficiently clear-cut manner to satisfy the American yearning for victory and for drawing bright lines to mark the division between war and peace. There won't be a surrender ceremony on the deck of a tugboat, let alone a battleship. The Obama administration needs to articulate as clearly and specifically as possible what the off-ramp will look like—a formulation such as “ultimately destroy” ISIS doesn't cut it. Public opinion needs to be prepared for a departure from Iraq that makes sense in terms of the specific U.S. interests served while being much less satisfying than securing someone's unconditional surrender or complete and unambiguous destruction. If departure is not to come from anything but impatience and exhaustion, the only other alternative is an endless U.S. military presence.

And an endless presence is no solution at all. It certainly is not from the standpoint of wise use of U.S. resources. Nor would it be from the standpoint of solving Iraq's problems, given how any such solution depends on political accommodation of differences among Iraqis themselves, and given the resentments that arise from the inevitable damaging effects of the use of U.S. military force—another lesson from the war in Afghanistan.             

Image: U.S. Marines Flickr.

TopicsIraq Afghanistan RegionsMiddle East

The UN, the PA, and the Peace Process

Paul Pillar

George Orwell, who imagined a Ministry of Truth that dispensed untruths, and Charles Dodgson, who as Lewis Carroll had Humpty Dumpty making words mean whatever he wanted them to mean, would appreciate how some concepts routinely get flipped and stood on their head in much of what is said about the unending Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One of the recurring examples was in full display this week as the United Nations Security Council failed to pass a pro-peace-agreement resolution. It seems that only in this conflict can involving the United Nations—the most multilateral forum on the planet—be routinely denounced as “unilateral.” This latest effort at UN involvement failed, while actual unilateral moves on the ground, which make a peace agreement ever more difficult, continue.

Routine abuse of other concepts in talking about this conflict also were evident at the Council this week, including in the statement made by U.S. ambassador Samantha Power while voting against the resolution. Power said her government opposed the resolution because peace “will come from hard choices and compromises that must be made at the negotiating table” and because hardships and threats associated with the conflict “will not subside until the parties reach a comprehensive settlement achieved through negotiations.” This continues the canard that a multilateral resolution of this sort is somehow a substitute for, or an attempt to circumvent, bilateral negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians when in fact it is nothing of the sort. The draft resolution repeatedly, and either explicitly or implicitly, recognizes that any agreement will have to emerge from such negotiations. A central operative paragraph is an exhortation to the parties “to act together in the pursuit of peace by negotiating in good faith.”

The resolution does get into some of the substance of what is to be considered an acceptable resolution of the conflict, but only in ways that already are broadly recognized by the international community—and for the most part explicitly by the United States—as necessary parts of any agreement that ever could be reached and would stick. Some principles are laid out, but specific hard choices and compromises will still have to be made at the negotiating table. The resolution states, for example, that the boundaries of the Israeli and Palestinian states should be based on the June 1967 borders with “mutually agreed” and “equivalent” land swaps; exactly what those swaps will be must come out of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The resolution calls for “a just and agreed solution to the Palestine refugee question” but does not presuppose what that solution should be.

Another commonly abused concept is “balance.” Power's statement asserted that the resolution is “deeply unbalanced” and “addresses the concerns of only one side.” In fact, the resolution is centered on the objective of “two independent, democratic and prosperous states, Israel and a sovereign, contiguous and viable State of Palestine.” It calls for security arrangements “that ensure the security of both Israel and Palestine through effective border security and by preventing the resurgence of terrorism.” It declares that a final status agreement shall put “an end to all claims and lead to immediate mutual recognition”; references in the resolution to the Arab League peace initiative lead to the clear conclusion that mutual recognition would include recognition of Israel not only by Palestine but by the other Arab states.

The resolution is about as balanced as it can be in the face of a highly unbalanced situation. An unhelpful fiction plaguing discussion of this issue is that the conflict is symmetric when in fact it is highly asymmetric. The fundamental asymmetry today is that one side is the occupier and the other side consists of those who are occupied. The occupier could, if it chose, make it possible for a Palestinian state to be established this year. Those who are occupied have no such power. The most peaceful and respectable thing they can do, in addition to negotiating in good faith at a bilateral negotiating table, is to plead their case at the United Nations.

The United States (and, of course, Israel) lobbied hard against the resolution, being particularly assiduous in twisting the arm of the Nigerian president. The pressure succeeded in getting enough abstentions (in addition to a “no” vote from Australia) that the resolution failed to get the nine affirmative votes needed for passage, even though it did get a majority. Thus the Obama administration can say that it was not the U.S. veto that prevented adoption of the resolution. But make no mistake: this pro-peace resolution failed because the United States, once again, did the bidding of the Israeli government and opposed it.

On the basis of what the resolution says, and of what the United States has repeatedly said it favors regarding an Israeli-Palestinian peace, the opposition made no sense. It might make sense if it is part of a calculated management of the balance sheet of favors and influence that tends to be involved in the Israel lobby's interaction with the U.S. Congress. Maintaining this kind of “pro-Israel” (actually, pro-Likud) position at the UN might make it slightly easier for the administration to ward off Congressional trouble-making on, in particular, a nuclear agreement with Iran. Senator Lindsey Graham issued a reminder of the potential for such trouble when he declared the other day that the Republican-controlled Congress, rather than exercising independent judgment about what is in U.S. interests regarding policy toward Iran, will instead “follow” the “lead” of the Israeli prime minister—who endeavors to undermine U.S. diplomacy on the subject.

Now Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, in the wake of the Palestinians' setback at the Security Council, is moving to have the PA join additional international treaties and organizations, including the International Criminal Court. This is generating the usual protests from the Israeli government, and thus from the U.S. government. The Palestinian action is described as another supposedly destructive “unilateral” move—or as members of the Israeli government have put it, “aggressively unilateral.” Amid such reactions, and what will be the usual forms of punishment, such as Israel withholding tax receipts that are supposed to belong to the Palestinians, one can lose sight of the nature of what the Palestinians are doing by adhering to such international conventions and institutions. They are voluntarily signing on to commitments to observe certain standards of behavior. That seems like just the sort of step that one should hope and expect to see from people who want their own state.

The point is underscored by a threat the Israeli government is voicing in response to the ICC move—viz., that if the Palestinians have any ideas about bringing suit in the court against Israel for its conduct during its most recent demolition of Gaza, then Israel will counter with accusations about Palestinian war crimes. Fine. It would be great to have a thorough airing before an international tribunal of everyone's conduct during that tragic episode (although there are reasons to question whether the ICC would be able and willing to assume that role).

But that would still leave the underlying, unresolved conflict. As long as it is unresolved, there will continue to be, in addition to many other regrettable things, periodic Israeli lawn mowing in Gaza, with more operations like Cast Lead and Protective Edge. This brings us to one of the most trouble-plagued concepts of all—because the concept itself is inherently weird—which concerns the nature and existence of the Palestinian Authority itself.

The PA was established two decades ago as supposedly a means to transition from naked occupation to a Palestinian state. Not only have the scheduled dates for that transition already gone far, far into the past; the PA has occupied a role that has made it more of an impediment to creation of a Palestinian state than the facilitator of one. With the PA existing as an entity that is supposed to have some state-like qualities but not be a state, Israelis who—like those currently in power in Jerusalem—oppose creation of a Palestinian state are able to have things both ways to keep such a state from ever coming into being.

The PA serves as the Palestinians on the plantation, as distinct from the ones in Gaza who are off the plantation. The notion of the PA as a transition mechanism keeps alive the fiction that the Israeli government really is committed to such a transition. It keeps alive the notion that Palestinians should “earn” statehood by building a state from below, while the occupier imposes conditions on it from above that never really enables it to do that kind of building. And if the PA gets uppity enough to start behaving like a real state, as it has done at the UN and in signing those international conventions, then it swiftly gets slapped down.

The most effective thing the PA has been permitted to do is to serve as an auxiliary administrator of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Those who denounce the PA for signing treaties on grounds that it is not a state are right; it is indeed not a state. It is more like a prison trusty.

Khalil Shikaki of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah says of the prospect that Abbas's ICC move will bring about crippling economic punishment from the United States as well as Israel, “This could indeed be the beginning of the end of the PA. They fully realize that.” If this happens and the trappings of a false transition are stripped away, and a gussied-up occupation becomes once again a naked occupation, it may turn out to be the most useful thing Abbas has ever done. Such a development may stir the international pot just enough, and get enough more Israelis to think hard about the costs and consequences to their nation of continuing the occupation, to save the possibility of, in the words of the failed Security Council resolution, “two independent, democratic and prosperous states, Israel and a sovereign, contiguous and viable State of Palestine.”


TopicsIsrael Palestinian Territories RegionsMiddle East

Lower Oil Prices Will Not Turn Producers into Pushovers

Paul Pillar

The steep drop in the price of oil during the latter half of 2014 has generated much comment about how this development has weakened major oil-producing countries and supposedly made their governments more pliable on issues that separate them from other countries. Such commentary flows partly from the tendency of media and the commentariat to over-analyze any major development and to identify winners and losers. In the current instance it also reflects how people have happily noticed that several of the significant producers whose revenues have been most adversely affected by the price decline are countries commonly identified as adversaries of the United States, including Venezuela, Russia, and Iran. Edward Luttwak remarks that the price decline “is knocking down America's principal opponents without us even trying.”

The commentary reflects in addition a belief that is in evidence whenever similar hopes are placed on the consequences of someone else's economic pain when that pain is imposed not by the market but instead by sanctions. The belief is that there is a reliable and positive correlation between the other country's economic discomfort and the willingness of its government to make diplomatic concessions.

That belief is mistaken, regardless of whether it is markets or sanctions that have caused the economic and fiscal damage. It is mistaken because the presumed connection between a country's economic discomfort and its regime's diplomatic flexibility considers only one half of the regime's calculations. The other half concerns whether, and how much, that regime believes it can improve its economic situation by making concessions to its adversaries. If it sees no prospect for improvement, it has no incentive to concede.

The point becomes all the clearer when, as with the recent drop in petroleum prices, it is a market that is causing the economic pain. Markets have no mechanism for pain reduction when someone changes a negotiating position or diplomatic posture. If lower oil prices really are making the leadership of Russia more willing to make concessions regarding the conflict in eastern Ukraine, what is supposed to happen regarding the prices and the pain if such concessions are made? That car-owners in the West will be so happy about this development that they will start driving more, thus burning more fuel, sending crude oil prices back up, and repairing the damage to Russian finances?

The further, usually implicit, assumption underlying false beliefs about market-induced economic discomfort leading to diplomatic flexibility in cases such as Russia or Iran is that the cumulative effect of both sanctions and lower prices will push a regime past some breaking point beyond which it ceases to resist. The notion of a breaking point has underlain other American foreign policy thinking, which has involved not only economic discomfort but also the infliction of physical pain through kinetic means. The notion was the basis for Operation Rolling Thunder, the Lyndon Johnson administration's prolonged and escalating bombardment of North Vietnam in the 1960s. The notion is somewhat akin to the gambler's fallacy that by persisting and playing a little longer one's results will change for the better.

The Vietnam War example illustrates another part of the logic pertinent to such situations that is essential but commonly overlooked when people place hopes on the consequences of someone else's pain. That part concerns the importance the other side places on the issues that are at stake. Regimes and nations will endure a great deal of pain on behalf of causes that are very important to them. Moreover, in such bargaining relationships the logic works both ways, and the relative importance to us and to the other guy of the issues at stake is critical, too. If it makes sense for us to think about the other side having a breaking point, then it would make just as much sense for the other side to think about our breaking point, even if that point is to be expressed not in intensity of pain at any one moment but instead in impatience and the duration of stalemate.

Even if the idea of a breaking point were valid, we Americans are poorly equipped to identify any such point as it applies to others, including the adversaries most at issue today. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, referring to the oil price drop, said, “We have been in much worse situations in our history, and every time we were getting out of these fixes much stronger. This will happen this time.” He's right about Russian history, which included among other ordeals the incredibly costly fight against the Nazis in World War II. The Iranians also have had their ordeals, with the most salient and costly one for current Iranian leaders being the eight-year war that Saddam Hussein's Iraq launched against their country.

The false hope being placed on lower oil prices and their presumed effect in softening the positions of adversaries may itself have the damaging effect of discouraging the flexibility that will be needed on the part of the United States to resolve important unresolved issues. Such flexibility, and not just contrition and concession from Vladimir Putin, will be required for even a partial resolution of the prolonged crisis in Ukraine. An even greater potential for damage concerns the nuclear negotiations with Iran. The hope for a more pained and supposedly more pliable Tehran as a result of reduced oil revenue probably is entrenching further the notion that Iran must make all remaining concessions to reach a deal. That notion, if it persists, is likely to mean the failure of the negotiations and the loss of a golden opportunity to resolve the issue and assure that Iran's nuclear program stays peaceful.  

Image: Wikicommons.       

TopicsSecurity RegionsIran

Why ISIS Could Destroy Itself

Paul Pillar

The fortunes of the extreme and violent group known variously as ISIS/ISIL/Islamic State seem to have changed markedly during the past few months. This summer the group was commonly portrayed, amid much alarm, as a relentless juggernaut that was scooping up so much real estate that it was a threat to overrun Baghdad and much else far beyond. But the progress that was so frightening to follow in maps in the newspaper has stopped. The juggernaut has stalled. There will be endless debate about the causes of this change of momentum, ranging from military measures that the United States has taken to the somewhat more enlightened policies of the Iraqi central government. These and other influences have their effects, but the larger phenomenon of the decline of ISIS—decline not just that has happened so far but is yet to come—can be explained most of all by the group's own policies and practices.

The abhorrent and inhumane methods of the group are a major part of that explanation. Just as we abhor such methods, it should be no surprise that most people in the Middle East abhor them, too. Methods such as the highly publicized killing of individual captives have, besides terrorizing ISIS's adversaries, increased the prominence of the group and probably impressed would-be foreign recruits by showing that ISIS is the meanest, baddest, and most consequential organization engaged in the conflicts in Iraq and Syria. But living under the rule of such a vicious group can be at least as repulsive to the locals as watching it from afar is to us. Such a way of exercising power locally is ultimately not a good way to win support. We saw a similar reaction in an earlier phase of the Iraqi civil war.

It behooves us to learn what we can, as those charged with directly confronting ISIS evidently are trying to do, about the basis for whatever appeal the group does have, and especially about any appealing ideas it offers. The good news is that ISIS offers hardly anything in the way of such ideas. It cannot become an ideological lodestar the way Osama bin Laden and his al-Qa'ida did, because ISIS offers nothing as original as Bin Laden's idea of hitting the far enemy as a way of getting eventually at despised near enemies. The appeal of ISIS to its recruits has been based not on ideology but on directly and brutally establishing facts on the ground. The appeal reduces to the principle that everybody loves a winner. But ISIS has stopped winning. It is like a shark that must keep moving forward to survive, but it is not still moving forward.

The establishment by ISIS of a de facto ministate was widely seen as an accomplishment and a sign of strength, but it also is a vulnerability. If you run a state, you are expected to make the trains run on time, and you will lose popularity if you don't. ISIS is demonstrating that it lacks the ability to manage a state, and people in the areas it controls—including even Raqqa, Syria, the major city it has held the longest—are suffering from a collapse of public services. Trying to run, however unsuccessfully, the ministate also represents for the ISIS leadership a drain on attention and resources that might otherwise be used for expansion.

The proclamation of a caliphate, although it has had some value for the group in impressing and attracting foreign recruits, lacks the sanction and recognition that in the eyes of the vast majority of Muslims such a move is supposed to have. Mainstream Muslim scholars and religious authorities have avoided anything that even hints at recognition. Some fundamentalist Salifis have even likened ISIS and the moves it has made to extremist outcasts at the time of the Prophet. To the extent that the self-styled caliphate is seen more as a usurpation of Muslim aspirations than a fulfillment of them, the proclamation of a caliphate will turn out to be more of a liability than an asset.

When an adversary is hurting his own cause, generally the most effective thing to do is to stand aside and not get in the way. This is true of political debate, civil wars, and many other forms of conflict. The United States cannot get entirely out of the way of this one, insofar as it can do a few things that, tactically and on a piecemeal basis, limit the short-term harm that ISIS inflicts. But taking a longer-term and more strategic view, which recognizes how ISIS is hurting its own cause, for the United States to do less rather than trying to do more (especially more that is visible and kinetic) is apt to be the wisest course. Injecting new focal points for controversy and collateral damage, on the basis of which ISIS can make new appeals, is apt to slow the process of the group greasing the ramp of its own decline. It also is apt to make the United States more of a direct target of whatever harm the group is still able to inflict.

Image: U.S. Air Force Flickr. 

TopicsIraq Syria RegionsMiddle East