Paul Pillar

Egyptian Repression and the Gaza Strip

Paul Pillar

The Egyptian military regime's quashing of opposition ought to be of concern on several counts. It is, first and most obviously, a setback for democracy. Michele Dunne and Thomas Carothers aptly note that it is misnomer to talk about “Egypt's transition to democracy” because there is no such transition taking place right now.

Then there is the upsurge in extremist violence that naturally results whenever peaceful channels for pursuing political interests are closed. It was easy to predict that the opposition-quashing policies of the Egyptian junta would mean a subsequent increase in terrorism. We have been seeing lately not just an increase in terrorism but what would qualify as a wave of it. Such terrorism has implications beyond Egypt's borders. We should recall that the current leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, won his terrorist spurs as a leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad attempting to overthrow the government of Hosni Mubarak.

There is another, more specific, respect in which internal repression in Egypt is having malevolent effects outside Egypt. Within Egypt the generals are clearly obsessed with attempting to eliminate the Muslim Brotherhood as a political force, however unsuccessful that attempt may ultimately prove to be. Next door in the Gaza Strip the dominant political element is Hamas. Hamas began as the Palestinian version of the Muslim Brotherhood. As such, it has also become a target of the Egyptian generals' wrath. The result has been Egypt's closing of its border with Gaza, including the underground tunnels that have been an economic lifeline for the Strip. This means returning to more stringent implementation of the Israeli-instigated policy of trying to strangle Hamas by turning the Gaza Strip into a blockaded open-air prison.

That is a bad development in several respects. It is, first of all, simply wrong to subject an entire population to hardship in order to try to undermine a particular party or movement. It is doubly wrong when, as years of experience with the Israeli policy (tacitly supported for a long time by the Mubarak government) demonstrate, the attempt to strangle Hamas to death is unlikely to succeed.

There also is, again, an encouragement of extremist violence. A Hamas under pressure is less, not more, likely to contain such violence. Hamas still evidently sees advantages in maintaining a cease fire between itself and Israel, but it apparently it is now making less effort than before to check the activities of more extreme groups such as the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. That in turn has implications for Israelis suffering casualties, the danger of a bigger eruption of Israeli-Palestinian hostilities, and further diminution of the chances of success for the U.S.-sponsored peace effort.

Democratization is sometimes thought of as being in tension with other interests that require cooperation with an existing undemocratic regime. Egypt has often been thought of this way, with reference to such interests as military access and preferred passage through the Suez Canal. But that is the wrong way to look at what is going on today in Egypt. Damage to democracy there is also damaging other U.S. equities. As Dunne and Carothers observe, “Unlike in some countries where U.S. interests pull in conflicting directions, the achievement of democracy in Egypt would advance the critical U.S. security interest in longer-term stability as well as peace with Israel and would help to contain violent extremism.”

TopicsDemocracyPost-Conflict RegionsIsraelEgyptPalestinian territories

Men on Horseback in the Maghreb

Paul Pillar

The contrasting political trajectories of Tunisia and Egypt—the first and second countries out of the Arab Spring gate—have received much attention lately. Tunisians have exhibited more of a spirit of compromise, which has facilitated visible progress toward the sort of genuine democracy the country had lacked since independence. Recent political news from Tunisia has included the voluntary stepping down from power of the Islamist Ennahda party in favor of a non-partisan cabinet, and near-completion of the writing of a new constitution in which Islamists and secularists have found middle ground in a relatively (though not always) smooth process. Meanwhile in Egypt, generals who seized power in a coup against the elected president, Mohamed Morsi, seem to find a new way each week to tighten a repressive grip on the country.

Various possible explanations can help to explain the contrasting histories of these two North African countries. One can look at demographics and economic and social structures. Tunisia is smaller than Egypt, it has a more diverse and more successful economy, and its population is both more religiously homogeneous and overall more secular. Perhaps the leading proximate cause, however, of the different political course of the two nations over the past three years is the status and nature of each country's military before any of the upheaval began.

The Egyptian military has long had a dominant and disproportionate political role. Since a military coup overthrew King Farouk in 1952, Egypt has essentially been under military leadership, even though the leadership succession of Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak took off their uniforms and called themselves presidents. Hosni Mubarak was ousted when he was because that is when the rest of the Egyptian military decided he was no longer useful to them.

In Tunisia, the military has enough cohesion, respect, and clout for its actions (or inaction, in not carrying out certain orders) to have played an important role in the ouster of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. But it has no tradition, anything like that of its Egyptian counterpart, of ruling itself. The sorts of events that have taken place in Egypt over the past year would be inconsistent with its culture.

One can extend this typology by contrasting both Tunisia and Egypt with the country in between: Libya. As with many other institutions or supposed institutions in Libya under the regime of Muammar Qadhafi, what passed for a military was little more than an extension of Qadhafi's personal and highly centralized rule. The military therefore was not a significant factor in either ousting Qadhafi or in providing a foundation for a new political order.

These observations do not point, of course, to much of anything that the United States or any other democratically-minded outsider can do about what is going on politically today in these countries. But it suggests some things to look for in armies and politics, not just in North Africa but elsewhere. In Turkey, perhaps Reccip Erdogan's most positive contribution to his country, notwithstanding his own authoritarian streak, will be that he appears to have stared down the generals sufficiently well that another Turkish military coup seems far less conceivable now than it was just a few years ago. This is a sign that even a historically grounded political culture of a military can change. Pakistan, which has recently completed a peaceful transition from one set of civilian leaders to another, will also be interesting to watch over the next several years to see if there really has been a definitive break in that country's tradition of alternating military and civilian rule.

Back in Egypt, a current much-discussed question is whether the military chief, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, will run for president. If he does, that would certainly confirm continuation of the pattern that dates back to the coup against Farouk. But if he doesn't, that would not necessarily indicate much of a break in that pattern. For a model, one can look at yet another country of the Maghreb: Algeria. It has a long-serving (and physically ailing) civilian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who from time to time demonstrates his own political initiative. But ask Algerians who really runs the country and the answer is le pouvoir, a collective gray eminence that consists primarily of military brass but more broadly is a sort of military-industrial-intelligence complex. If a civilian and not el-Sisi were to become Egypt's next president, this might represent a system similar to that in Algeria.

TopicsDemocracyHistoryState of the Military RegionsAlgeriaEgyptLibyaTurkeyPakistanTunisia

Iran and the Stumble Toward Geneva II

Paul Pillar

The handling of the issue of Iranian participation in the next round of multilateral discussions on the civil war in Syria has been something of an embarrassment—certainly for the United States, the United Nations, and the conglomeration known as the Syrian opposition. The United States has seemed to be more interested in words rather than in substance in the demands it has been placing on Iran. It finally got its way by strong-arming the U.N. Secretary-General into withdrawing an invitation he had already extended (while the Iranians simultaneously said they are not interested in participating on the basis of the terms being demanded of them). If this whole episode foreshadows how the conference that this is supposed to be all about is apt to go, the odds of success now appear even longer than they did before.

The U.S. opposition to Iranian participation defies a basic principle of how inclusiveness is related to prospects for success in such multinational endeavors. Or as Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov—who has been made to sound like one of the more reasonable people in this affair—put it, “Negotiations involve sitting at the table not just with those you like, but with those whose participation the solution depends on.” If we suspect someone we don't like of causing later trouble, the chance of such trouble-making does not lessen by keeping that someone outside the collective diplomatic tent rather than inside it; the opposite is more likely to be true. The conference is not going to operate according to some voting system in which each possibly contrary vote we can exclude makes it more likely we will get our way. Positive results will require something more like a consensus. If Iran—or anyone else—were to stand in the way of consensus an appropriate response would be at that point to call them to account publicly.

An air of unreality surrounds what has supposedly been the central substantive issue involved: getting “mutual consent” among all involved—including the current Syrian regime—on installation of a new transitional government for Syria. The principal factor that makes that seem unreal is that the Assad regime has not been losing the war lately. That makes the necessary squaring-the-circle trick of getting this regime to negotiate its own demise all the harder to accomplish, if it wasn't already impossibly hard. Another factor is the question, which has been increasingly acknowledged of late, of whether the regime's demise would be all that desirable anyway, given the nature of the fractious and extremist-infested opposition.

The episode has exhibited the general tendency, which appears on other issues as well, to worst-case what Iran might be up to. Why would the Iranians be more likely to get in the way of negotiating the Syrian regime out of existence than the Syrian regime itself would be? A useful bit of background to remember is that the odd-couple alliance between Iran and Syria began as a response to both being rivals of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, which is no longer a factor. Yes, there are some other commonalities, such as economic ties and the relationships of each with Lebanese Hezbollah, but if Assad were on shaky enough ground to make an Assad-less transitional government a reality, his regime would be as much of a liability as an asset to Tehran.

It is hardly surprising that Iran would balk at the sort of conditions being imposed on it to participate in Geneva II. The Iranians are being called on to declare full allegiance to the outcome of an earlier conference from which they were pointedly excluded. Who else would be willing to do that? And if Iran's assistance to one side in the Syrian civil war is some kind of disqualifier, it is hard to explain why similar conditions are not applied to those who have stoked the war by supplying lethal assistance to the other side.

We are seeing another instance of the urge to isolate and ostracize Iran at every opportunity. Perhaps the Obama administration's going along with that urge is related to the need to keep on track the negotiations over Iran's nuclear program. Part of the strategy of bolstering domestic support for those negotiations and to fend off accusations that the administration is being too accommodating toward Tehran is to show toughness toward it on other fronts. That may be a wise approach, given that there is a better opportunity to advance U.S. interests substantially with an Iranian nuclear deal than there appears to be in any management of the Syrian civil war. But in the meantime the resulting diplomacy is not pretty.

Image: Flickr/eflon. CC BY 2.0.

TopicsUNPost-Conflict RegionsIranUnited StatesSyria

De-Trivializing the Nazis

Paul Pillar

This week the Israeli Knesset took the first step toward enactment of a bill that poses difficult questions for the legislators because it to some degree abridges free speech but does so for benign purposes. The bill would criminalize derogatory use of the word Nazi or related terms as applied to people other than the real Nazis, or to use symbols related to the Holocaust for purposes other than educational ones. Penalties for violation would include fines and up to six months imprisonment.

One objective of the legislation is to place Israel on stronger ground when urging other countries to take action to curb the rise of neo-Nazi movements. But another important purpose is to check the widespread tendency—observed not just in Israel but also elsewhere—to use comparisons with Nazis so loosely and indiscriminately that the usage debases the historical currency. The trivial use of Nazi-related comparisons and imagery threatens to trivialize the real thing. When comparisons with the Nazi regime keep getting applied to matters that come nowhere close to the horrors associated with that regime, this risks degrading understanding of how horrifying that regime was, as well as constituting an insult to its victims. Combating this tendency is a worthwhile objective.

The tension between this objective and the value of free speech is reflected in a thoughtful letter to the New York Times from Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League. Foxman says he has “conflicting emotions” about the action in the Knesset. On one hand, he writes, “if there is any country in the world that needs to make sure that the events of World War II and the Holocaust are not trivialized, it should be Israel.” But on the other hand, a civil libertarian ought to be troubled by the prospect that “language, even if it is an ugly epithet that cheapens the historical meaning of the Holocaust, can be punished by the law as a criminal act.”

While this letter is reasonable, coming from Foxman it invites further comment about the standards he uses in taking positions and whether he is consistent in doing so. Some of the most prominent positions he has taken on behalf of his organization have had very little to do with countering defamation. There has been, for example, his opposition to construction of a mosque in Manhattan near the World Trade Center site, opposition that struck many as disguised bigotry. There also was his resistance to any formal condemnation of the century-old genocide against Armenians—resistance that continued as long as Turkey still had good relations with Israel.

That last example reflects what appears to be the overriding standard that Foxman does consistently apply, which is to support whatever is in line with the policies of the Israeli government and to oppose whatever is contrary to those policies. This is the respect in which Foxman's positions stray farthest from anti-defamation. In fact, he seems to be just fine with defamation when the person being defamed is a critic of Israeli policies.

This is all pertinent to that bill before the Knesset, because one of the most prominent practitioners of invoking Nazi Germany comparisons is the current Israeli prime minister. Benjamin Netanyahu repeatedly applies this comparison as part of his unrelenting effort to demonize Iran and kill any accommodation with it. He and some of the other members of his government have continued to apply it as a preliminary agreement on limiting Iran's nuclar program was being reached last fall.  The comparison is as baseless as most other loose applications of the Nazi simile. There is no equivalent to Adolf Hitler in the Iranian leadership, Iran is not trying to conquer the rest of its region and has no ability to do so, and an agreement with the Iranian government to restrict its nuclear program has nothing in common with the carving up of a European country and handing part of it over to Hitler.

A member of the Knesset who opposes the bill did ask in this week's debate whether passage of the bill would mean that Netanyahu would be jailed for comparing former Iranian president Mahmud Ahmedinejad to Hitler. Ahmedinejad is now out of office, and perhaps as long as Netanyahu does not use the word Nazi or start drawing swastikas on pictures of current Iranian leaders he would not be subject to prosecution even if the bill becomes law. But his repeated comparisons with the Munich agreement and events of the 1930s associated with Germany have the same purpose and cause the same damage—damage that the pending legislation is designed to reduce.  References to European diplomacy in the 1930s are meaningless to today's audiences except in the context of the nature of the Nazi regime and the war and genocide that ensued. 

That leads to this question for Abraham Foxman: since you share, quite understandably and appropriately, a concern about how carelessly using Nazi Germany similes cheapens the historical meaning of World War II and the Holocaust, when are you going to start criticizing Benjamin Netanyahu for doing so?

TopicsHistory RegionsIsraelIranGermany

The Highly Competent NSA

Paul Pillar

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

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

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

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

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

Image: Creative Commons/Flickr.

TopicsPublic OpinionIntelligence RegionsUnited States

The Iran Deal Meets Obamacare

Paul Pillar

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image: Creative Commons/Flickr: Glyn Lowe Photoworks.

TopicsCongressDomestic PoliticsSanctionsNuclear Proliferation RegionsIranUnited States

Gates, War, and Responsibility

Paul Pillar

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

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

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

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

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

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

TopicsCongressDefenseHistoryThe Presidency RegionsAfghanistanIraqUnited StatesVietnam

Threats to Israeli Security, Imagined and Real

Paul Pillar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image: Creative Commons. 

TopicsPost-ConflictTerrorismSecurity RegionsIsraelPalestinian territories

Breaking Down the Freedom Agenda

Paul Pillar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image: Wikicommons.

TopicsDemocracy RegionsUnited StatesMiddle East

Let's Be Honest on Iran

Paul Pillar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image: Wikicommons. 

TopicsCongressSanctionsNuclear ProliferationWeapons Inspections RegionsIsraelIranUnited States

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