Paul Pillar

What's Going on with Military Officers?

Paul Pillar

Lately it seems that we have been reading many stories of misconduct among U.S. military officers. The most recent collective infraction concerned cheating on a proficiency test and involved a substantial proportion of the Air Force officers who control nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. We continue to hear about the alleged bribery of Navy officers who awarded logistical support contracts to the payer of the bribes. Other ethical lapses among officers of all the military services are enough to fill a catalog that the Department of Defense itself compiled. Senior Marine Corps commanders are alleged to have covered up misconduct by lower ranking members of their service in Afghanistan. General officers in more than one service are described as being abusive leaders who have created poisonous atmospheres in units they have led. Other generals and colonels are identified with seedy behavior ranging from sexual abuse and alcohol abuse to making lecherous comments about members of Congress.

Before we jump to conclusions about what all this says about any broad patterns of bad conduct or bad character in the officer corps, we should note that a concatenation of such stories in the news does not by itself prove the existence of broad, ingrained problems in a service. Perhaps we are seeing part of random fluctuations in the press's output on this or any other subject, or partly the efforts of some particularly enterprising and energetic jounalists who cover the military. Bearing in mind that there are upwards of 200,000 U.S. military officers on active duty, maybe the bad apples we read about are no more numerous than we should expect to find in other professional populations of comparable size. And maybe most of the problems are best described in terms of individual cases and individual circumstances and do not lend themselves to valid and insightful generalization.

Under the where-there's-smoke-there-might-be-fire principle, however, it is appropriate to ask whether there may be some overall reasons, applicable to this national military at this time in the nation's history, for a surge in bad behavior. The U.S. armed forces are coming off more than a decade of continuous involvement in overseas warfare, with the particular wars in question not having gone especially well, or at least ending for the United States in ways well short of what could be called victory. Stresses that this recent history places on the military as a whole are shared by the officer corps. One thinks, by way of comparison, of the years immediately after the Vietnam War, another overseas war that did not go well and a time when aberrant conduct in the military such as drug abuse was high.

The American public is treating service members returning from the more recent wars, however, much differently from how it treated Vietnam veterans. Today's uniformed military is routinely applauded at sporting events and otherwise lauded for the service that the other 99 percent of the population is not performing. Maybe herein lies a different sort of explanation for some of the bad conduct. Maybe being placed on a public pedestal leads some in uniform to feel that they are being given more latitude than others are, and that there is more room for ignoble behavior since it has already been offset by the noble behavior that the public applauds. But that is only a hypothesis, and like any hypothesis it has to deal with the fact that most members of the service, officers as well as enlisted, behave well.

Perhaps relevant is another aspect of the current phase in the history of the U.S. military, which is that it has become more separated from civilian society than perhaps at any earlier time—as measured in part by the small and shrinking proportion of the civilian population that has performed military service. One can imagine several deleterious consequences of this, some of which can be reflected in the bad news stories about officers. An abusive leadership style, for example, may have something in common with hazing and other abusive behavior in other exclusive, separate cadres. More generally, there may be less exposure to wider societal norms, or more of a notion that those norms don't apply or don't apply in the same way to the military.

More military sociology needs to be performed about such questions (or if it has already been performed, it needs to be publicized more). Not very helpful is just to take narrow actions in the name of accountability. The Robert Gates approach of finding someone to fire, whether or not the firee was even aware of whatever is the latest problem to become public, does not help. It makes the person doing the firing look decisive but offers no reason to believe that things will be better under new management. New management in the Air Force does not seem to have made much positive difference in behavior in the part of the service that handles nuclear weapons.

These issues are not ones to be left only to the military, or to the Department of Defense. They involve the military's place in larger society, and so larger society has to be involved in thinking about solutions.

TopicsState of the Military RegionsUnited States

Chameleonic Opposition to an Iran Deal

Paul Pillar

In the long story of the evolving Iran nuclear issue, we naturally tend to focus on whatever is the chapter immediately before us. Right now that mainly involves the negotiation-subverting Kirk-Menendez sanctions bill, which President Obama in his State of the Union address explicitly threatened to veto if Congress passed it. But we also ought to keep a longer-term view of how opponents of an agreement with Iran have kept changing their tune and changing their arguments as their earlier arguments have become inoperative.

Back when the Iranian president everyone loved to loathe, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was still in office, the go-to tactic for opponents was to cite whatever was the most recent outrageous rhetoric that had come out of Ahmadinejad's mouth, whether or not it had anything to do with the substance of the nuclear issue. That tactic did not work so well after Hassan Rouhani replaced Ahmadinejad, although there still seems to be little hesitation in repeatedly going to the well of mistranslated vintage Ahmadinejad “wipe Israel off the map” comments. The emphasis has now become less on what Iranian leaders say than on what nefarious intentions supposedly lurk behind what they say—hence Benjamin Netanyahu's “wolf in sheep's clothing” formulation.

There also once was much doubt expressed about whether the Iranian leadership would ever want to negotiate seriously. Then when serious negotiations got under way last fall, there was doubt expressed about whether Iran would make significant concessions about its nuclear program. Then when Iran made major concessions in the Joint Plan of Action concluded in November, opposition tactics had to be adjusted again.

The tactics in the wake of the JPA have taken several forms. One is outright misrepresentation about this preliminary agreement, including talk about its unbalanced and disproportionate nature—which is true, except that it was Iran that made disproportionately large concessions. Another is sabotage disguised as support for negotiations, which is what the Kirk-Menendez bill is all about. Another tactic is the moving of goalposts, and in particular the deal-killing demand to end totally any Iranian enrichment of uranium. Yet another is in effect to change the subject and to pretend that the question is not the pros and cons of a prospective nuclear agreement but instead a popularity contest about the Iranian regime—and anything else it may be doing that we don't like.

Netanyahu provided in a speech this week a particularly vivid example of complete abandonment of a previous argument that has been negated by accomplishment at the negotiating table. His centerpiece imagery used to be the famous cartoon bomb he displayed before the United Nations General Assembly. That cartoon would be an excellent prop for describing what has been achieved with the Joint Plan of Action, with its end to 20 percent enrichment of uranium and elimination of existing stocks enriched to that level. Except that the lines on the cartoon are moving down, not up. As Joseph Cirincione has put it, the Joint Plan of Action “drained” Netanyahu's bomb.

So Netanyahu is now arguing that what matters is not the level to which Iran is enriching, but instead the sophistication of its centrifuges. And he has changed his imagery to railroads. Netanyahu puts it this way: “What the Iranians did, and this is what the agreement determined, is that they would return the train to the first station, but at the same time, they are upgrading the engine and strengthening it so that they will be able to break through all at once, without any stations in the middle, straight to 90%.” Boris and Natasha have been replaced by Thomas the Tank Engine.

Several lessons should be drawn from all this argumentative shape-shifting. One is that those making the arguments have repeatedly been proven wrong. Another is that much of what we hear from them does not reflect genuine views or any analysis but is simply flak shot up to try to impede or kill the process at whatever place it happens to be at the moment. Yet another lesson is that the opposition will never end, no matter the terms of an agreement, because the opponents want no agreement at all. If it's not one thing we are hearing about, such as enrichment levels, it will be something else, such as the particular models of centrifuge.

And if it's not nuclear weapons, it will be other things disliked about Iran. If a final agreement based on the terms of the Joint Plan of Action gels, making it harder than ever to argue against the concept that such an agreement is the best way to preclude an Iranian nuclear weapon, expect to hear more about how, with or without a nuclear weapon, the Islamic Republic of Iran is so bad that it must be kept pressured and ostracized. Netanyahu laid some groundwork for such a future position in his speech when he said, “Now of course the Iranian threat is not just an unconventional threat.”

One of the unfortunate effects of the endless opposition is that it constitutes another form of sabotage. The Iranians may be understandably reluctant to make more concessions knowing there are elements on the other side determined to destroy any deal no matter what the terms, no matter how long it takes, and no matter what new arguments have to be conjured up.

Image: Flickr/jacinta lluch valero. CC BY-SA 2.0.

TopicsSanctionsNuclear Proliferation RegionsIsraelIran

How Much is a Drone Base Worth?

Paul Pillar

In searching and scratching for a reason for continuing the presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014, after thirteen years of warfare, the most commonly stated rationales come up short. The original purpose of the military intervention involved, of course, responding to an attack by a terrorist group that at the time had a presence in Afghanistan. But what is left of that group has not been based in Afghanistan for a long time. There also are still the questions of how much Afghanistan is to be considered unique as a potential base for terrorist attacks, and how much any physical base in a faraway place affects the level of terrorist threat to the United States. Other rationales involving human rights or democracy in Afghanistan run up against questions both about how much any U.S. military effort in Afghanistan can accomplish on those fronts and about the priority such objectives have or ought to have among U.S. interests.

Those inside and outside the administration who have thought hardest about what is and is not being accomplished by a U.S. military presence in Afghanistan keep coming back to a different reason: that we need that presence to provide enough security to operate unmanned aerial vehicles from Afghanistan (and perhaps to do enough for other aspects of Afghan security so that the government of Afghanistan will permit the continued operation of the drones from Afghan soil), and we need the drones to keep whacking at terrorists next door in Pakistan. David Sanger and Eric Schmitt's article on this subject in the New York Times is on the mark regarding the thinking on this subject. There are two undeniable facts involved in this particular rationale for staying in Afghanistan. One is that a base in Afghanistan affords a geographic advantage given where many of the targets are located. The second is that missiles fired from drones have eliminated a significant number of malevolent individuals in northwest Pakistan.

Think even harder and more broadly, however, and this rationale for a continued military presence in Afghanistan exhibits several patterns of thought that in most other circumstances would be considered fallacious.

One is to confuse availability of use with desirability of use. The drone strikes often have been considered “the only game in town” in terms of getting at undesirables in the wilds of Waziristan. But this in effect means that because the tool we happen to have is a hammer (and a very nifty hammer at that), not only do things start looking like nails, but we also feel an uncontrollable urge to keep pounding, whether or not pounding is apt to do us more good than harm.

Another pattern is to confuse ends and means. We are not using a particular lethal tool to, say, provide security and stability in a country. We are trying to provide enough security and stability in a country to be able to use the tool. There was some similar ends/means confusion earlier in the war in discussion about the role of NATO. An alliance is normally considered to be an instrument for doing something such as fighting a war, but some of the discussion was about how the war ought to be fought to maintain the health of the alliance.

A further fallacious tendency is to give disproportionate emphasis to what is visible and immediate, whether or not it is really more important than what is longer term and more obscured. This involves the pros and cons of the drone strikes themselves. It is easy to chalk up as an accomplishment the physical elimination of a suspected terrorist, because it is visible and immediate. It is a different question whether when all the more distant and less quantifiable effects such as popular reactions are taken into account, the net benefit is positive even just from a counterterrorist point of view.

Finally, there is a disproportionate focus on a tree rather than the forest. Extending an entire overseas military expedition for the sake of being able to use one weapon system in one particular area is an extraordinary deference to the tree while losing sight of the forest. Drones flown from a runway in Afghanistan are just one tool used in one location on behalf of one objective out of the many that ought to bear on U.S. foreign policy decisions.

Publicly stated rationales for foreign wars often diverge at least partly from the real reasons in the minds of policy-makers. But thinking about public reactions can be a useful check on the direction of non-public thinking and whether it is exhibiting too much of the sorts of fallacies mentioned above. How would the American public react if the president and Congress clearly explained that the reason America's longest war might be made even longer is that Afghanistan is a convenient location for operating unmanned aerial vehicles?

TopicsCounterinsurgencyNATOPublic OpinionTerrorism RegionsAfghanistan

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