Paul Pillar

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

Harper, RGIII, and NSA

Paul Pillar

The advisory panel that the White House appointed to review operations of the National Security Agency amid the leak-stained controversies about those operations appears to be coming up with some sound ideas. According to David Sanger in the New York Times, the panel probably will recommend that the White House get more directly involved in weighing the benefits, costs, and risks of such intelligence collection operations, rather like it does now with covert actions assigned to the CIA. Such involvement is necessary and proper, given that the decisions to be made include essentially political judgments about the relative importance of competing national values and interests.

Sanger also, however, points to a continued tendency to expect the NSA itself to make most of these judgments. The article states that officials who have examined the agency's programs “say they have been surprised at how infrequently the agency has been challenged to weigh the intelligence benefits of its foreign collection operations against the damage that could be done if the programs were exposed.” Think about that statement for a moment. It implies there should be times when this intelligence agency should, on its own, forgo “intelligence benefits” out of fear of the damage that a future leaker might cause.

Such an expectation not only would be another act of surrender to leakers and to whatever is on their personal agendas; it also would be yet another example of the inconsistency over time of the expectations that the American public places on U.S. intelligence agencies. It really wasn't very many years ago that one of the pieces of conventional wisdom about these agencies, repeated endlessly by commentators and commissions, was that they were risk averse and that their unwillingness to take chances in collecting information was a major cause of intelligence failure. Google the combination of “intelligence agencies” and “risk averse” and you get more than 93,000 hits. But now, it seems, these same agencies are expected instead to be more, not less, averse to risk, with respect not only to something like a human agent being endangered but also to the damage that some future Edward Snowden might cause.

At both ends of this swing of this pendulum the public perceptions have been exaggerated. The intelligence agencies always were more willing to accept risk than they were perceived to be several years ago, and they are more conscious of the risks of unauthorized disclosures than they are perceived to be now. In any event, to expect an intelligence agency such as NSA to be the primary weigher of the competing values and objectives that its operations entail is a mistake for two reasons.

One is that these agencies are not well equipped to do such weighing and balancing. They have legions of lawyers to ensure that what they do stays within bounds of the law and the rules, but the considerations to be weighed go well beyond legality and conformity with rules. Those considerations include shifting political moods in America and the reconciliation of competing social values. People in the intelligence agencies are not trained and organized to make judgments about such things. We, the public, ought to be uncomfortable if agencies that are supposed to be restricted to foreign intelligence start getting that close to matters of domestic politics. Moreover, to the extent that officials in these agencies do participate in the weighing, their perspectives naturally will tend to be shaped disproportionately by their being heavily involved in intelligence collection. I would sooner rely on political types in the White House to make a well-rounded judgment as to what the American people would consider a balanced approach.

The other reason is that if the intelligence agencies start worrying more about these broader considerations they are apt to do a less focused, less effective job of carrying out their assigned mission of collecting and analyzing foreign intelligence. Here is where the old criticisms about risk aversion might have some relevance, although the problem is more one of distraction, preoccupation, and back-of-the-mind hesitation than it is about unwillingness to take risks.

People in Washington could make a comparison here with a couple of young stars on the local professional sports teams. One is Bryce Harper, an exciting player with the Nationals baseball team whose go-for-broke style has gotten him injured more than once as he smashed into outfield fences while chasing down batted balls. The other is Robert Griffin III, whose running game is much of what made him appear to be a franchise-rescuing quarterback for the Washington football team but also has contributed to debilitating knee injuries.

Although everyone realizes that the more such players are sidelined with injury the less useful they are to their teams, the smart money in pro sports seems to say that it would be a mistake to make such players tame their aggressiveness, which is an inseparable part of what makes them stars. The preoccupation about injury that has surrounded Griffin (including having him sit out all the preseason games) has probably been at least as much of a factor as injury itself in making his sophomore season a big disappointment after the promise of his rookie year. Harper's new manager, Matt Williams, says it would be a mistake to rein in his young outfielder, and he has no intention of doing so. “I love the way he plays the game,” says Williams, which is “the way it should be played...all-out, every day, all the time, every game,” even though Harper has “paid for it by getting injured and running into walls.”

Hesitation-producing preoccupation with potential damage from either injuries or leaks is part of what makes the difference between middling performers and excellent ones, whether the performers are professional athletes or intelligence agencies. The tendency toward mediocrity becomes all the worse when the performer is relied on to do most of the risk-weighing rather than being allowed to focus sharply on the assigned job while leaving it to a coach, manager, White House, or Congress to do most of the weighing and balancing of broader considerations.

Leaning on the National Security Agency to assume most of that broader task itself, besides being another example of inconsistent public expectations being placed on intelligence agencies, also is another example of expecting those agencies to perform functions that should be performed by political leaders or the public itself. Just as after the Iraq War went sour the intelligence community was expected somehow to have saved the country from the folly of its own elected leaders, now NSA is expected to rescue the American public from inattention to how much the public's own standards and values regarding security and privacy have changed over the past decade.

Image: Flickr/Ben Stanfield. CC BY-SA 2.0.

TopicsCongressPublic OpinionThe PresidencyIntelligence RegionsUnited States

The Wise Non-Attack on Syria

Paul Pillar

Passage of even just a few months adds valuable perspective to debates about prospective uses of military force—debates in which some positions were expressed with passion and conviction. Such has been happening regarding the civil war in Syria. Not very long ago the United States and some other Western states seemed on the verge of launching their own military strikes in Syria, in addition to providing assistance to opposition elements. Since then all the reasons then already becoming visible why a forceful intervention on the rebel side of this war would be a mistake have become even clearer. Disarray prevails among the opposition elements that would be helped, with only loose connections between politicians on the outside of Syria and people with guns on the inside. Purported moderates have been weak and ineffective. The strongest opposition groups—in both intra-opposition fighting and combat against the regime—include many extremists having little or nothing in common with any Western objectives. The latest turn in this story has been a suspension of any U.S. non-lethal aid to the opposition after a coalition of Islamist fighters called the Islamic Front broke into a warehouse and took control of equipment the United States had provided to someone else.

The character of some of the most influential opposition forces has become clear enough for more voices in the West to be saying that the opposition is worse than the Assad regime. Former U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker says we ought “to start talking to the Assad regime again...As bad as he is, he is not as bad as the jihadis who would take over in his absence.” Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at Oklahoma University, comments that a policy of arming Syrian rebels “blew up in our face,” and that “someone has got to bite the bullet and say Assad stays.” What goes for assisting rebels would go even more for direct external military intervention.

If the Western attack that almost took place earlier this year had in fact been carried out, it would have dragged the United States deeply into a conflict that seems nowhere close to ending. To the extent it would have tipped a balance, it would have done so in favor of a side that, as Crocker notes, is worse than the Syrian regime. The alternative—the events that have actually played out in the intervening months—is still not pretty to watch, and the politics and diplomacy that led to an attack being called off were essentially an improvised broken play. But the result has been decidedly less bad than immersion in this civil war. There even has been a positive development on behalf of arms control with the deal regarding destruction of Syria's chemical weapons.

There still will be those who—our of inertia, cognitive dissonance, or true belief in the unlimited efficacy of U.S. military power—will argue that things would be coming out better if we had only been quicker to act, not only directly but in assisting “moderates” in the opposition. That position overlooks what it has always overlooked, including the difficulty of distinguishing in this circumstance moderates from extremists, the impossibility of keeping aid only in the hands of the former, and the other realities of the Syrian conflict that have led extremists to gain the prominence they have among the opposition.

Comparing what we know now to what was argued several months ago is useful not only for understanding what is the path of wisdom in dealing with the Syrian problem. It also is useful in evaluating other, possibly broader debates about the use of military force. Most of our after-the-fact evaluation is based on instances in which we do use force. We can draw lessons, for example, from the Iraq War—and appropriately so, given the huge cost that misguided expedition inflicted on the United States. But drawing lessons only from such episodes involves a methodological problem that social scientists would call selecting on the dependent variable. Our data base is more complete if we consider lessons from every instance in which use of force became a major issue, whether or not the eventual policy decision was to use it.

Three types of assessment are assisted by such lessons. One is the general question of when military intervention is or is not apt to be advisable. A second concerns the performance of the policymakers. In the case of the Obama administration's handling of Syria, there was initially a misdirected use of the chemical weapons issue and later reliance on luck and help from the Russians in getting out of a hole, but the final and fundamental decision on the use of force was in the right direction.

A third type of assessment concerns the credibility and wisdom, or lack thereof, of those who engage in these debates. Arguing for what would be a mistaken use of force may not harm the republic if policymakers do not accept the argument, but it still reflects just as badly on those making the argument.

TopicsArms ControlHumanitarian Intervention RegionsUnited StatesSyria

International Protest and the Bedouin of the Negev

Paul Pillar

The recent passing of Nelson Mandela has been an occasion to recall the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa. That struggle combined the efforts of domestic opponents of the apartheid regime with what eventually became an enormous international coalition of opposition that included governments—which imposed sanctions on South Africa—and nongovernmental movements. The breadth of that international opposition contrasted with the relative narrowness and weakness of opposition to some current injustices, including ones involving apartheid practices.

On Thursday, however, opposition to such practices got at least a tentative boost, when the government of Israel announced it was shelving for the moment a plan for mandatory relocation of tens of thousands of Arab Bedouin from their historic homelands in the Negev desert. Many of the Bedouin, who are Israeli citizens and a subset of the larger population of Arab Israelis, have long lived a largely off-the-grid existence in the Negev in what the Israeli government considers “unrecognized” villages. Forcibly relocating them would be a blatant violation of human rights. The Israeli government asserts that the purpose of the move would be to improve the Bedouin's lives by bringing them into a more modern situation. But unfavorable experiences of other Bedouin who had already been brought into “recognized” towns, where they had a similar lack of services and also found it more difficult to live the pastoral life to which they were accustomed, did not make the prospective move popular among those who would be affected. In fact, Bedouin leaders strongly opposed the move. Former minister Benny Begin, a principal architect of the plan, acknowledged when making this week's announcement that he had never consulted with the Bedouin themselves.

The Jericho-based journalist Jonathan Cook describes the relocation plan as—and quotes Israeli leaders as saying the same thing—in effect a continuation of ethnic cleansing that took place during the 1948 war for Israeli independence. The plan to “concentrate,” in Begin's words, the Bedouin would clear land for the construction of new towns open only to Jews. Cook notes that the new Jewish towns would be “dispersed as widely as possible in contravention of Israel’s own national master plan, which requires denser building inside existing communities to protect scarce land resources.”

Two caveats qualify this week's good news about this issue. One is that the shelving of the plan may only be temporary. There is a good chance it will reappear, perhaps in slightly modified form, once world attention has drifted elsewhere. The other is that even this temporary halt was due partly to resistance from elements among the Israeli Right, who thought the plan lacked sufficient detail and was too generous to the Bedouin.

International opposition, however, certainly had something to do with this development. This shows how such opposition, even when short of what came to be mobilized against the South African version of apartheid, can make a difference. In particular, it shows the difference it can make against other aspects of the Israeli version of apartheid, which affects far more Arabs than only the Negev Bedouin.

Much of the international opposition came from Europe; significantly less came from the United States. Many British elites lent their name to the cause. The lesser involvement of Americans no doubt is linked to the well-known role of the Israeli government in American politics. But the difference might also be related to different aspects of national history. Maybe many in Britain, when they hear of Bedouin, think of the ones with whom, and on behalf of whom, T.E Lawrence fought. By contrast, a close parallel to what the Israelis have been planning to do to their Bedouin is what the United States did to its Native Americans: relocating and concentrating an indigenous, semi-nomadic population in a way that largely destroyed its way of life and opened up land for the dominant ethnic group. There is a lot of guilt about that now, but not enough to wipe the slate clean; look at what the football team in the national capital is still named.

TopicsHuman RightsPublic Opinion RegionsIsraelUnited StatesPalestinian territoriesUnited Kingdom

Big Data, Public and Private

Paul Pillar

The collection and maintaining of huge files of information on our communications, our movements, our online searching, and much else about our individual lives is, as Laura Bate notes, hardly something that the National Security Agency or any other arm of government originated. By far the greater share of the assembling, and the exploitation, of storehouses of data about the activities of individual Americans occurs in the private sector. So why should there be so much fuss about what a government agency may be doing along this line, while there is equanimity about the much greater amount of such activity by non-government enterprises? Is there something intrinsic to government that ought to make us more worried about such data mining? Let us consider the possible bases for concluding that there might be.

Potentially the strongest such basis has to do with the presence or absence of a free market, and related to that, whether or not the activity of the individuals on which data are being collected is voluntary. When I use a search engine on the Internet I am voluntarily using a free service in return for being exposed to some advertising and allowing the operator of the search engine or my Internet service provider to collect, and exploit, data about my interests. Most interactions with government agencies and especially security agencies do not involve as much voluntarism. So maybe it is logical to be more persnickety for this reason about what government entities are doing.

That makes sense as far as it goes. But in practice the logic quickly runs up against the fallacy of equating the private sector with free markets and free will. If I want land-line telephone service at my home (and I very much do), I'm stuck with Verizon. I am forced to let Verizon collect comprehensive records of my calls—the “metadata” we've heard so much about. And of course, if someone at Verizon wanted to listen in on the substance of my calls that could be done as well, although it is a reputable company and I would be surprised if that were happening. The point is that there is much less free will and free choice in private sector data-generating activity than we might like to think, and in many cases little or no more free choice than when a government agency is involved.

This is true not just of local utility monopolies such as land-line telephone systems but to a large degree of other services in the Internet age. Some such services, including online access itself, have quickly transitioned from being seen as nifty innovations to being regarded as necessities. And again, free choice is often much less than we would like. This fact was recognized with the antitrust action against Microsoft, which was using its commanding position in operating systems to muscle into a bigger share of the market for browsers and other applications.

When there is enough market competition for users theoretically to vote with their feet—or with their fingers on the keyboard—if they are worried about what is being done with data collected on them, in practice any market correction mechanism would be very slow and clumsy. Imagine that a rogue employee at Google started using information about embarrassing web searches to ruin the reputations of particular people he was out to get. If that sort of abuse happened enough times, then perhaps significant numbers of users would abandon Google's wonderfully effective search engine in favor of Bing or something else, and Google would become less able to sell as much advertising as it does now. But the corrective process would be slow and awkward, and in the meantime a bunch of people would have their reputations ruined.

Another possible basis for distinguishing the amassing of data in the public and private sectors is to ask what controls or checks apply to each. Here there is indeed a big difference, and the difference is in the direction of there being far more controls and checks applied to government agencies than to private sector enterprises. For the security agencies there is the whole legal structure, dating back to the 1970s and strengthened since then, of restrictions and Congressional oversight. Nothing remotely resembling those sorts of external controls exists for data mining in the private sector. Then there are all the internal checks and controls, which as Bate mentions in the case of NSA are extensive. These include compartmentation of information—second nature to the security agencies, which use compartmentation to protect sensitive national security information even if there is no issue of the personal privacy of U.S. citizens. NSA senior management says publicly that only 22 people at their agency are able to query the telephone metadata that are of concern. How many people at Verizon can do something with the comprehensive record of my telephone calls? I don't have the faintest idea, and probably no one else outside Verizon does either.

Another question to ask is how the public and private sectors may differ regarding the potential for abuse, in terms of not just access and capability but also incentives. For most conceivable types of individual abuse, there is no reason to expect the incentives for individual abuse to appear more in one type of organization than the other. A potential abuser thinking of, say, looking at an ex-spouse's calling record may pop up in either the public or private or sector. Disincentives to this kind of abuse probably are stronger in the security agencies, given the regular reinvestigation regimen that people with security clearances undergo.

As for incentives that are more institutional than individual, there are further differences. As an example of a mistaken and destructive use of data mining, think of an innocent person being put on a no-fly list and, as a result, having his business damaged because of his inability to fly. Government agencies have no conceivable incentive for this to happen. For them, false positives merely add clutter and make it more difficult to accomplish their assigned mission, such as keeping real terrorists off airplanes. And when a mistake of this sort does happen and becomes public, such as putting Ted Kennedy on a no-fly list, it is an embarrassment to the agencies responsible. In the private sector, however, there always are commercial and financial interests in play. Those interests may well provide an incentive—such as for competitors in the same line of business—to damage the business of someone else.

In addition to all of these criteria, one also should ask what benefit or greater good is going to the person about whom data are being collected, as well as perhaps to others. What is being bought, in other words, in return for whatever risks or intrusions are involved in amassing the data? With the sort of data mining that NSA does, the presumed benefit is in the form of greater protection against terrorists, or perhaps other contributions to national security. There has been debate, of course, about just how much of this type of benefit is being obtained, but at least the objective is one that most Americans would consider important. The corresponding answer for private sector use of big data is harder to come up with. It would seem to consist of something like better tailoring of ads that appear on the user's computer screen, which might streamline online shopping. Nice, perhaps, but hardly in the same league as national security.

Two overall conclusions follow. One is that there are substantially stronger reasons to worry about the collection and use of big data in the private sector than in government agencies.

The other is that the prevailing pattern of public consternation about this subject being nevertheless focused on government agencies indicates that the consternation is not driven by any careful consideration of risks, costs, benefits, incentives, and choices. Instead it is driven by a crude image of government agencies, and especially certain types of government agencies, as Big Brothers worthy of suspicion or even loathing. Sentiments toward private sector enterprises vary, but the biggest contrast to the image of government is enjoyed by the titans of Silicon Valley and the enterprises they run, having the status of heroes.

The crudeness driving the sentiments is one of the main reasons (inconsistency over time in what the American public expects from the government agencies involved is another big reason) we should not be surprised if morale at a place such as NSA is low.

TopicsPublic OpinionTerrorism RegionsUnited States

Disentangling Diplomacy in the Middle East

Paul Pillar

David Ignatius offers in his column some thoughts inspired by results of a Pew Research Center poll in which the headline item is that nearly half of Americans believe the United States “should mind its own business internationally,” a finding that the Pew people describe as “one of the highest readings of isolationist sentiment in decades.” In commenting on the issue of Iran's nuclear program, Ignatius notes that completion of a final agreement will require President Obama to secure agreement from Congress and the public, and that it looks now that he will have a tough time securing that support. Ignatius is right insofar as there already is deal-scuppering trouble-making in Congress and likely to be more to come. But then he tries to summarize the public mood by saying, “The public doesn’t want war, but it doesn’t seem to like entangling diplomacy much, either.”

“Entangling diplomacy”? Hold that thought while we move down the Washington Post opinion page to the next column, the one by George Will. Will evidently is so taken by Kenneth Pollack's new book on Iran that this is Will's second column in the last two weeks that is based on it. Will and Pollack are right on two very important propositions about the Iranian nuclear matter. One is that the idea of using military force to deal with it would be, for multiple reasons, a big and even disastrous mistake. The other is that if Iran ever did acquire a nuclear weapon, deterrence would work and the situation that is generally referred to as “containment” is one we can live with. I have made these same points in my own writing.

The rest of the viewpoint Will is defending involves a giving up of any possibility of reaching further agreements with an Iran whose nuclear program stays peaceful. To be fair to Pollack—and Will is fair enough to mention this—Pollack completed his book before the recent successful negotiation of an interim nuclear agreement with Tehran. But the negative fatalism that is being expressed errs in at least three ways.

One, it goes along with the erroneous tendency to assume that Iranian policymakers are chomping at the bit to make a nuclear weapon, and that they will not do so only if forced not to do so. This is a misreading of what are ever-more-clear Iranian intentions, in which not only has no decision to build a bomb been made but also the Iranian leadership sees a more normal relationship with the West—and a permanently peaceful nuclear program—as distinctly preferable to having a nuclear weapon. Will's position involves a self-fulfilling worst-case assumption.

Second is an apparent misreading of the obstacles to a comprehensive nuclear agreement. It is true that this is very far from a done deal, but the reason is not because the terms of an agreement that would satisfy both Western and Iranian interests are not fairly clear. Rather, the main obstacle is opposition to any U.S.-Iranian agreement from hardliners, especially hardliners outside Iran. It also is true that this opposition is formidable and is determined to keep doing whatever it can to prevent an agreement, but the opposition is beatable. It is narrow, consisting chiefly of the Israeli government, those in the United States who dance mainly to that government's tune, and assorted neocons who welcome eternal hostility with what they regard as forces of darkness in the Middle East and, unlike Will, would even welcome a war with them.

Pushing against this opposition is a president and his administration who, to their credit, already have shown more drive and moxie on this matter than on almost any other foreign policy issue, or on most domestic issues. Moreover, the narrow opposition does not speak for the American public. This is where Ignatius errs by throwing Congress and the public into the same pot. Opinion polling that has directly addressed the issue of diplomacy to reach a nuclear agreement has shown two-to-one support by the American public for a diplomatic solution. Americans both do not want war and they do want a negotiated agreement.

Third, the position Will presents pays inadequate attention to what the negative fatalism means we would be giving up. First and most obviously, we would be giving up the prospect of a Middle East in which Iran does not have a nuclear weapon, a situation which everyone—including Will, Pollack, me, Barack Obama, most Israelis, the Saudis, and even the Iranian leadership—believes would be preferable to a Middle East in which it does have a nuke.

It also means giving up the prospect of ever getting away from the lines of hostility and conflict that have badly constrained U.S. policy in the region. This is where we get back to Ignatius's idea of entangling diplomacy. Except that entanglement is what we have now—in which the United States is entangled in fixed lines of conflict in which it is expected to defer to the wishes of supposed allies, is barred from ever working for mutual benefit with those labeled forever as adversaries, and is sucked into the narrow agendas and conflicts of the purported allies. Agreement with Iran on the high-profile nuclear issue would be a step toward disentangling the United States from all that, and toward greater freedom for the United States in using further diplomacy to pursue its own interests, working selectively with different states on different matters as the issues and our own interests may dictate.

TopicsCongressDomestic PoliticsPublic OpinionThe PresidencyNuclear Proliferation RegionsIsraelIranUnited States