Paul Pillar

Big Data, Public and Private

Paul Pillar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TopicsPublic OpinionTerrorism RegionsUnited States

Disentangling Diplomacy in the Middle East

Paul Pillar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TopicsCongressDomestic PoliticsPublic OpinionThe PresidencyNuclear Proliferation RegionsIsraelIranUnited States

Sanctions Hurt Us

Paul Pillar

An infatuation with economic sanctions, applied against countries Americans do not like such as Iran, loses sight of the concept that sanctions are only a tool for trying to accomplish some other objective, rather than being an objective in their own right. This lack of understanding shows up mainly in the tendency to think of the economic pain that sanctions inflict on the target country as an end in itself, as if we lived in a completely zero-sum world in which pain for a country we don't like equates to gain for us. We do not live in such a world, and pain for someone else does not directly mean any gain for us.

We also tend to overlook, however, how our own sanctions inflict direct costs on ourselves. Think about this partly as a matter of economic theory. Sanctions represent government interference in the workings of the market. They prevent enterprises from doing what the market would otherwise determine to be the most efficient way of supply meeting demand. The interference inevitably entails added costs, which we Americans share.

The formidable, fear-inducing enforcement of U.S. sanctions against Iran entails substantial costs for U.S. companies. Not only are these companies excluded from some major opportunities for new business; they have to jump through additional hoops to make sure they do not run afoul of the enforcers in areas where they still are doing business. A Washington Post story concerns how this fear leads American companies to report to government regulators in excruciatingly minute detail anything they do that could conceivably brush up against the sanctions. Citibank, for example, felt it necessary to report that it made four dollars in profit from ATM transactions in Bahrain that involved a joint venture that included two Iranian-owned banks. It is remarkable that some members of Congress who otherwise do not hesitate to preach that onerous government regulations and the administrative burdens they impose are bad for the American economy are also enthusiastic backers of the sanctions.

With Iran there also is, of course, the effect on the oil market. The state of that market has been a major factor in the economic history of the United States over the past half century. In general (with the exception, of course, of the oil industry itself) it has been bad for the American economy when foreign oil producers and especially the OPEC cartel have gotten their act together enough to jack up prices, and good for the American economy when freer competition among producers has prevailed and oil prices have fallen. Higher oil prices mean higher costs of doing business for most of the American economy.

Notwithstanding all the high hopes about domestic shale oil production, production in the Middle East still matters a lot. We could use some more vigorous, price-depressing competition among foreign producers. West Texas Intermediate is going today for $97 per barrel, about twice what it was five years ago as the recession was close to hitting bottom. The Iranian oil minister says Iran would like to strike up exactly that type of competition. But it won't happen as long as the sanctions against Iran are in place.

Then there are all of the other non-economic and non-quantifiable but still significant costs to the United States of the sanctions. The enormous diplomatic effort expended in erecting and maintaining the sanctions regime has burned a lot of chits with other countries around the world, as well as much energy and attention of U.S. officials. It would be nice to see that political capital expended on something that has more direct benefit to U.S. interests.

And as illustration of another sort of cost, consider the case of a Ph.D. candidate at New York University whose field research in Iran was put on hold because of sanctions-inflicted complications and fears of those giving her a research grant that they might run afoul of the government enforcers. It took nine months of administrative hassles and thousands of dollars of legal expenses incurred by the university before she finally got Treasury Department approval to make her trip. Even then, she was prohibited from taking into Iran any laptop, hard drive, cell phone, audio recorder, or camera. Count this as a blow against greater American understanding, through academic research, of Iran.

This case brings to mind all the hand-wringing after the Iranian revolution in 1979 of how poorly Americans and American officials were said to have understood what was going on in Iran at the time. Some of the most enthusiastic American promoters of sanctions today make no secret of their longing for some sort of new Iranian revolution that would overthrow the current regime. They are unlikely to get their wish, but if they did, such political change would probably be all the more a surprise because of how their beloved sanctions are getting in the way of broad understanding of what is going on in Iran today.

Image: Flickr/Eli Duke. CC BY-SA 2.0.

TopicsBankingCongressPolitical EconomySanctions RegionsIranUnited States

The Lesson of Pre-World War II Germany

Paul Pillar

The victorious allies at the end of World War I were not entirely of one mind regarding the handling of the peace, but a strong sentiment (especially in France) was that it ought to be a tough, punitive peace. Germany had been defeated but not crushed during the war, and most of the combat had not even taken place on its territory. It was therefore the peace, in the minds of many of the victors, that ought to be crushing, including the payment by Germany of heavy reparations.

Given such terms, German consent to the treaty in 1919 was, as described by the British historian A.J. P. Taylor in his classic The Origins of the Second World War, “given grudgingly and unwillingly, after long debate whether it would not be better to refuse to sign.” Germans called the Versailles treaty “a Diktat or a slave-treaty.”

The Diktat had three unfortunate and major effects in Germany. One was a determination to undermine the treaty itself. In Taylor's words:

The peace of Versailles lacked moral validity from the start. It had to be enforced; it did not, as it were, enforce itself. This was obviously true in regard to the Germans. No German accepted the treaty as a fair settlement between equals...All Germans meant to shake off at any rate some part of the peace treaty as soon as it was convenient to do so.

Another effect was a determination to assert more broadly Germany's power and a dominant place for it in Europe, as a reaction to the treatment it was receiving at the hands of the World War I victors. And a third effect was to boost extremist elements that expressed these resentments in their starkest and sharpest form. The harsh peace was a political bonanza for the Nazi Party, which railed against it throughout its rise to power.

Economic pressure was a key ingredient in the harsh treatment of Germany. Some of the thoughts in the allied countries about this began during he war, when an economic blockade, writes Taylor, “was believed to have contributed decisively to Germany's defeat.” A continued blockade also “helped to push the German government into accepting the peace treaty in June 1919.” What sort of argument about a current issue does that remind you of?

The idea back then, as one hears now, is that if economic pressure helped to achieve some past success then keeping the pressure on would achieve still more success. This was part of thinking behind the reparations. But the reparations only accentuated all of the negative German responses to the peace treaty. The reparations came to be blamed for everything going wrong in Germany in the postwar years: for poverty, for unemployment, for the hyperinflation of 1923, and for the depression of 1929. As Taylor writes, “Every touch of economic hardship stirred the Germans to shake off 'the shackles of Versailles'.”

The strong negative sentiments came to be applied not just to the reparations themselves but to every other aspect of the peace that affected Germany. Taylor explains:

Once men reject a treaty, they cannot be expected to remember precisely which clause they reject. The Germans began with the more or less rational belief that they were being ruined by reparations. They soon proceeded to the less rational belief that they were being ruined by the peace treaty as a whole. Finally, retracing their steps, they concluded that they were being ruined by clauses of the treaty which had nothing to do with reparations.

For those reasons Germans came to reject disarmament. When Hitler had a chance, he discarded that part of the peace. For the same reasons the Germans came to reject the cession of land to Poland. And when Hitler had a chance he discarded that part of the peace as well.

Despite the implications of all of this for present-day handling by stronger powers of relations with economically pressured weaker powers, one seldom hears references to this piece of history. Instead one hears, ad infinitum, references to a piece of history about interwar Germany that came later—after the Nazi regime was firmly established. References to Munich and appeasement have become so commonplace and so loosely applied that they have long since debased the rhetorical currency involved and have come to constitute an insult to the victims of Nazi crimes. More such analogizing keeps getting done with reference to the current issue of Iran and its nuclear program. The analogy is very poor. Ali Khamenei is not Adolf Hitler, and Iran has neither the ability nor the will to try to conquer the rest of its region. Perhaps a new low of ridiculousness in such comparisons was reached the other day when the columnist Bret Stephens argued not just that there is an analogy here but that the interim agreement reached with the Iranians in Geneva is worse than what took place at Munich in 1938. As Daniel Larison at The American Conservative notes, this assertion is so absurd that probably even Stephens doesn't really believe it.

We indeed ought to extract lessons from the momentous events in Europe between the two world wars. And we ought not just to cry “Munich” as a substitute for thinking but instead to think carefully about how those lessons apply to current calls to keep turning the economic screws on Iran and to settle for nothing less than what would amount to capitulation by Iran on the nuclear issue. We should think about the experience with Germany when we hear, for example, Senator Lindsey Graham denounce the interim agreement because “we had a chance to deliver a body blow” but instead eased, to his distaste, some sanctions in return for Iranian concessions. A “body blow,” if this means Iran capitulating on the issues rather than genuine bargaining that produces an agreement both sides consider fair, is not achievable. Even if it were, it would be a bad thing from the standpoint of U.S. interests because it would encourage the sort of effects that the post-World War I treatment of Germany encouraged in that country. First, it would mean Iran would view any document it signed as a forced, unfair arrangement that it would have strong incentives to undermine and overturn when it was able to—rather than having, as is eminently achievable, an agreement that Iran as well as the West would have strong incentives to uphold. Second, it would stoke among all Iranians a desire to find ways to assert Iran's power and influence as redemption for the humiliation it had suffered. And third, it would boost politically the extreme, hardline tendencies in Iranian politics that favor the sorts of Iranian policies that we would consider most objectionable.

Image: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1972-062-01 / CC-BY-SA.

TopicsHistorySanctionsNuclear Proliferation RegionsIranGermanyUnited States

Cuba and the Sanctions Juggernaut

Paul Pillar

Last week the government of Cuba announced that it was ceasing nearly all of the consular services that it provides in the United States. The reason was that the sole U.S. bank that had been willing to handle an account for Cuba is no longer willing. With no bank account, the Cuban interests section cannot do such things as accept payment for visa fees. This development will curb what had been growing travel between the United States and Cuba. The impairment of travel is a bad thing not only from the point of view of the Cuban government, which needs revenue from tourism, but also the current U.S. government, which appropriately sees greater travel and unofficial contacts as relief for separated families as well as encouragement for the sorts of free economic and political ideas that have been stifled under an isolated Castro dictatorship.

The key constraint is Cuba's continued place on the official U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. That list, created under a 1979 law, long ago ceased to bear much resemblance to actual patterns of state sponsorship of terrorism, in terms of which countries are on the list as well as which ones are not. Cuba, which has been on the list longer (since 1982) than any other country currently listed, is one of the most glaring anomalies. The most recent official U.S. report on state sponsors of terrorism, the one for 2012, gives no reason to conclude otherwise. The report states that there is “no indication that the Cuban government provided weapons or paramilitary training to terrorist groups.” There are some retirees of the Basque terrorist group ETA (which appears on the verge of disbanding) in Cuba, but the report notes that the Cuban government evidently is trying to distance itself from them by denying them services such as travel documents. Some members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have been allowed into Cuba, but that was because Cuba was hosting peace talks between the FARC and the Colombian government.

The U.S. sanctions mechanism run by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) in the Treasury Department is so effective and formidable that it strikes fear into the hearts of banks and other private sector organizations that might otherwise consider dealing with a listed state, regardless of how flimsy are the reasons for a state being on the list and how much the current U.S. administration might actually welcome commerce with it. A lawyer in Miami who has worked on matters related to the international banking and the sanctions against Cuba observes, “Banks are very nervous about any type of misstep about money flowing to any country on the OFAC list, because the fines, even if you only make a small mistake, are huge. You have to scrutinize everything coming in and out. The problem is, who wants to take that on? You just can't make money on these accounts.”

This problem regarding Cuba reflects three unfortunate patterns that also have infected the American approach to certain other states as well, such as Iran.

First is the tendency to think that isolation and pressure are the only sound way to deal with regimes that for one reason or another we don't happen to like. The counterproductive nature of the decades-long unilateral U.S. embargo of Cuba has gradually come to be recognized, and is reflected in the Obama administration's welcoming of U.S.-Cuban travel. That the embargo has long outlived whatever usefulness it may have had is reflected in how diplomatic isolation of the United States on the matter is at least as prominent as any economic isolation of Cuba. Each year the United Nations General Assembly passes a resolution condemning the embargo. This year's vote was 188 in favor, two opposed (the United States and Israel), and three abstentions (Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Palau). But enough of the old pro-isolation thinking resides in American politics for Cuba to remain on that state sponsor list.

Second is the chronic misuse of counterterrorism as a banner under which to pursue some other agenda. Those pursuits have included such things as launching costly wars of choice abroad and extending unchecked executive power in the United States, as well as making archaic anti-Castro gestures. The costs of such misuse include not only the warping of debate regarding those other initiatives but also the discrediting of real counterterrorism.

Third is how sanctions and their use to inflict economic punishment have come to be used as if they were an end in itself rather than a tool to help accomplish some other objective. Give the folks at OFAC and Treasury credit for how well and how diligently they perform the task assigned to them. The fear in private sector institutions that makes it hard for Cuba to find a banker and that will keep sanctions against Iran from unraveling are evidence of how well those officials do their job. But if the objectives that sanctions are supposed to help achieve are to be achieved, there needs to be as much attention to winding sanctions down or taking them off as there is to winding them up and keeping pressure on.

TopicsBankingDomestic PoliticsUNSanctionsTerrorism RegionsCubaIranUnited States

In Search of a Mission in Afghanistan

Paul Pillar

With attention justifiably focused on the new nuclear deal with Iran, much less public notice has been taken of steps to make America's longest war even longer. Negotiations with a difficult Hamid Karzai over a bilateral security agreement (including a just-completed trip to Afghanistan by national security adviser Susan Rice) aim to provide a legal framework for keeping American troops in Afghanistan until 2024. U.S. forces intervened in the Afghan civil war in 2001. If a U.S. military presence continues for the duration of a new agreement, that's 23 years. Some soldiers who were part of the early deployments could have come home, gotten married, and had kids who will enlist and serve in the same war their parents did. The post-2014 missions are supposed to be training and counterterrorism, but amid an ongoing war, U.S. troops will be at war as long as they are there.

Karzai has been acting somewhat strangely lately, most recently with his refusal to sign promptly a draft agreement even though its endorsement by an Afghan loya jirga should have given him sufficient political cover to do so. The demands he has most recently been making of the United States as supposed conditions of signing sound reasonable at first glance, but upon further reflection it is hard to see exactly what the Obama administration could be expected to do in response. One demand is for help in getting peace talks going with the Taliban. The United States is already on the right side of that one. It always could give this cause more effort and priority, but with other diplomatic tasks—especially the Iran negotiations—on the plates of the president and secretary of state, it is probably wise that they not try to burn much more of their energy on this one. The other demand is for release of all Afghan citizens from Guantanamo. As Karzai should know, Mr. Obama's freedom of action to realize his goal of closing the detention facility at Guantanamo has been severely curtailed by Congress, although the Senate recently gave a glimmer of hope that this might change.

Karzai is a short-timer lame duck, and some of these negotiating problems may go away when he completes his term. But there are more fundamental problems with the American approach to Afghanistan that have to do with American politics and stale American conventional wisdom. President Obama avoided what would have been a new political issue when he firmly and correctly refused an earlier Karzai demand to apologize for the actions of American troops in raiding Afghan homes. Against the backdrop of the imaginary “apology tour” he was alleged to have taken in his first term, it is easy to imagine the hay that his domestic political opponents would have made of any acquiescence in that demand. But Mr. Obama is still burdened by the role that Afghanistan has played as the “good war” that has been a counterpoint to the bad war in Iraq that to his credit he opposed from the beginning. Bad war or not, his opponents criticized him for not trying hard enough to seal a deal with the Iraqi government to keep some U.S. troops there. Against that backdrop—and with the importance of his efforts to use diplomacy to avoid what would be another very bad war, with Iran—he cannot afford to do things in Afghanistan that make him look like an isolationist wimp. And so the push for a bilateral security agreement with Afghanistan continues.

The stale conventional wisdom is what has led many Americans and American policymakers of both parties to view impoverished Afghanistan, a graveyard of empires half a globe away from the United States, as somehow so key to U.S. security that it would warrant keeping U.S. troops in a civil war there for nearly a quarter century. This attitude is another of the unfortunate aftereffects of the national trauma that was 9/11. The attitude ignores how terrorist threats are not based primarily on possession of a piece of real estate, how the Afghan Taliban has no incentive (at least not without being under constant U.S. attack) for playing host again to al-Qaeda, how even if a piece of real estate is useful to terrorists Afghanistan is hardly the only piece available, and how the radical Sunni terrorist threat has already diffused far beyond Afghanistan.

Even if negotiations with the Taliban acquire momentum, future political arrangements in Afghanistan will depend mostly on what they always have depended on there: a lot of local deals rather than one single national one. And even if U.S. military trainers and advisers make good progress in imparting skills to Afghan troops, the loyalties of those troops will be as fragile and fungible as they always have been in Afghanistan.

The zero option for what kind of military presence the United States should have in Afghanistan after 2014 should not be regarded as just a failure of negotiations. It should be regarded as a possible outcome desirable in its own right. Karzai's frustrating negotiating behavior might be a useful hook for helping to get us there.

Image: U.S. State Department-Flickr

TopicsCounterinsurgencyCongressDomestic PoliticsPublic OpinionThe PresidencyTerrorism RegionsAfghanistanIranIraqUnited States

Iran Deal: Here Comes the Tough Part

Paul Pillar

For anyone who genuinely wants to avoid an Iranian nuclear weapon and whose attitude toward the nuclear negotiations with Iran has not been shaped by some other agenda, the “Joint Plan of Action” that was agreed to in Geneva this weekend is a major achievement that deserves enthusiastic applause. Without delving into minutiae that understandably would spin the heads of most Americans who are not nuclear technology enthusiasts, several key attributes of this agreement stand out.

First, it unmistakably moves Iran farther away than it is now from any ability to make a nuclear weapon, and even farther away from any such ability it would have in the future in the absence of this agreement. Among the facets of the deal that do this are the stopping of enrichment of uranium to 20 percent and the conversion of all current material enriched to this level into forms making it unavailable for enrichment to the level required for weapons.

Second, Iran's program will be subjected to an unprecedented degree of international inspection, going beyond the treaty obligations of Iran or any other country and providing additional assurance that any Iranian departure from the terms of the agreement would be quickly detected.

Third, for anyone keeping score of such things, any imbalance in the deal is markedly against Iran and in favor of the P5+1. Iran has accepted significant restrictions—for now as a matter of the next six months—on the very aspects of its program that matter most regarding possible military use, while getting sanctions relief during the same time frame that is minor compared to the crippling oil and financial sanctions that remain in place.

And fourth, the deal does exactly what a preliminary agreement was supposed to do, at least from the viewpoint of the P5+1: to provide time for further negotiations without fear that Iran would use that time to work closer toward the capability of making a bomb. The agreement achieves the very result that was the ostensible objective of the repeatedly voiced demand by critics in Congress for Iran to cease all uranium enrichment. That objective is that Iran should have no more partially enriched uranium, available for possible further enrichment, after several more months of negotiations than it does now. The deal assures that objective, through an Iranian commitment not to increase its stock of 3.5 percent uranium in addition to the provisions dealing with 20 percent enrichment. If anyone still has reason to fear negotiations being used as a stalling tactic, it is Iranians who will see their country continue to lose billions each month as the oil and banking sanctions continue to inflict additional economic damage.

Everyone involved in the negotiations, and particularly Secretary of State John Kerry on the U.S. side, deserves much credit for what has been accomplished. As Kerry observed, however, the next phase of negotiations “will be even more difficult.” The difficulty will not come from any lack of a basis, consistent with both Western and Iranian interests, for reaching a final agreement. The outlines of such an agreement have been clear for some time, and the Joint Plan of Action has made them even clearer. The chief difficulty will instead consist of continued resistance from those opposed to any agreement and to any reduction in estrangement between the United States and Iran. Those opponents, and American politicians who follow their lead, will strive to inhibit the negotiations and prevent a final deal, no matter what the terms.

It will not matter to these opponents that negotiations that have already occurred and the preliminary agreement already reached have invalidated what used to be some of their principal arguments. They have abandoned arguments before when shown to be wrong and simply shifted to other lines of attack. With the new deal invalidating the argument that Iran could use a period of negotiations to work toward producing fissile material for a nuclear weapon, that argument will be abandoned as well. The opponents will look for other ways to screw up the process and spike a final agreement.

There are several things the opponents can do. The principal one is a continuation of moves in Congress to slap still more sanctions on Iran—a subject of much of the immediate comment by members of Congress in the first 24 hours after the preliminary deal was announced. Never mind the complete lack of logic in the notion that inflicting more punishment immediately after negotiations have borne more fruit than ever before, and the Iranians have made more concessions in an agreement than ever before, is somehow a way to induce still more concessions from them. Logic and reason will take second place to resourcefulness in trying to sabotage a further agreement. One tactic opponents may use is to enact more sanctions against Iran in the name of issues other than the nuclear program (such as terrorism or human rights) and to claim that they do not violate the interim agreement. There may be legislation along such lines in the months ahead that will raise the issue of whether President Obama needs to exercise his veto power.

Probably even a greater hurdle than this kind of procedural sabotage is the eventual need for concurrence of the U.S. Congress in removing most of the existing sanctions as part of a final agreement, not just in refraining from enacting new ones. This concurrence will be tough to get. A substantial slice of the Congress still appears inclined to stick to a deal-killing insistence that Iran be allowed no uranium enrichment at all. In this respect Kerry and the Obama administration, despite what in other respects has been a virtuoso performance in handling the latest rounds of negotiations, may have tactically erred in its effort to dance around the “right to enrich” issue. It has long been clear that any conceivable deal would need to involve some Iranian enrichment of uranium. Indeed, the Joint Plan of Action refers specifically to “a mutually defined enrichment program” in laying out parameters for a final agreement. This language is presumably part of what made it possible for the Iranians to concur in the preliminary agreement. It might have been better for the administration to have made clear all along that enrichment would be part of a curtailed Iranian program, rather than leaving this matter hanging out there as a handle for opponents to grab in the later and more difficult phase of negotiations.

It will be in trying to sell to the Congress a final agreement that a drawback of the two-phase approach to negotiations may become apparent. The very negotiating success in phase one may, in one way, make it harder to overcome opposition to an agreement in phase two. Because the Iranians conceded so much and the P5+1 so little in phase one, a follow-on agreement may look like it exhibits the opposite imbalance. Iranian obligations under a final agreement will consist chiefly of making permanent the sort of restrictions on their program that they agreed to on a temporary, six-month basis in the preliminary agreement. If they do that, the assurance the whole process provides against an Iranian nuclear weapon will remain strong. What the P5+1 will have to do if a final agreement is to be reached is to grant sanctions relief that is far more substantial than the modest amount granted in the preliminary deal. Without that, the Iranians have no incentive to make further concessions. Accusations being heard today that the preliminary agreement is unbalanced in favor of Iran lose credibility with even a cursory look at the terms of the agreement. Similar accusations against a final agreement, however, may sound more believable to many ears, in Congress and among the public.

Hope in offsetting these hazards lies partly in an offsetting advantage of the two-phase approach. The achievement of a substantial preliminary agreement—a historic departure after all the missed opportunities and non-dialogue of past years—imparts a sense of momentum. It of course buys negotiating time. It serves as a confidence-building measure, wiht the Iranians having more opportunity to demonstrate good faith and seriousness. And it provides more opportunity to demonstrate the invalidity of arguments being used by those out to undermine the negotiations. One of the arguments that is next likely to be shown invalid is the notion that limited sanctions relief would cause the entire sanctions regime to start to unravel.

The agreement reached in Geneva is an important positive development with regard not only to the nuclear weapons issue but also to broader U.S. interests in the Middle East and the conduct of U.S. diplomacy there. In this respect the agreement represents two beneficial things, both of which the principal opponents of the agreement are trying to prevent (which is why they will continue to try hard to undermine the process). First, it is a modest step toward a more normal relationship between the United States and Iran, in which points of disagreement as well as agreement can be managed in a businesslike way, as part of a wider conduct of U.S. foreign policy in which matters of disagreement and agreement with all other powers in the region also would be handled in a normal, businesslike way. Second, it is a demonstration that when a U.S. administration puts its mind to it, it can conduct initiatives and achieve results to advance U.S. interests even when opposed by hardline foreign governments with influence in Washington. To sustain these benefits requires a continued sustained push to the finish line: a final agreement in the next phase of the negotiations with Iran. The stakes are high, for reasons that go well beyond what the Iranians do with their nuclear program.

Photo Credit: U.S. State Department Flickr.

TopicsCongressDomestic PoliticsPublic OpinionThe PresidencySanctionsNuclear Proliferation RegionsIsraelIranUnited States

What Would the Gipper Do About Iran?

Paul Pillar

The distinguished career of George Shultz culminated in his service as secretary of state for most of Ronald Reagan's presidency. Shultz showed at the time his ability to discern Reagan's intentions better than some other senior members of the same administration. So when Shultz starts drawing Ronald Reagan comparisons, we maybe ought to pay attention. Shultz makes such a comparison with the current issue of Iran, in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal.

Iran may not be the most propitious topic for drawing lessons from Reagan's foreign policy. For most of Reagan's administration Iran figured chiefly as the opposing side of a U.S. tilt in favor of Saddam Hussein's Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War. That policy was interrupted and contradicted by what became perhaps the blackest mark on Reagan's presidency: the Iran-Contra affair.

Shultz recites several unexceptional, but unenlightening, maxims regarding how, he says, Ronald Reagan negotiated—such as “be realistic,” “recognize opportunities when they are there,” and “know what you want so you don't wind up negotiating from the other side's agenda.” No one should have any problems with any of that advice. But then Shultz presents a simple hardline posture toward negotiations with Iran, featuring the advice to “up the ante” if our side is not getting what it wants from the other side.

Shultz's advice has several deficiencies regarding today's situation with Iran—in particular, complete inattention to what goes into the Iranian side's bottom line, and to what may be unacceptable to Tehran, and thus unachievable at the negotiating table, no matter how much an ante is upped.

The particular Reagan-era issue from which Shultz extracts his advice by analogy is that of intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) in Europe. The story he tells is that the Soviets initially had a bunch of those weapons in Europe and we didn't; Reagan upped the ante by deploying comparable U.S. forces; the Soviets then started showing negotiating flexibility, leading eventually to a treaty abolishing that category of nuclear arms. That's a true story.

But there isn't any kind of arms race like that going on between Iran and the United States. Indeed, focusing on arms balances helps us to understand the actual perspective of the Iranian leaders toward nuclear weapons. Those leaders know that even if Iran were to try to build such a weapon it could never come anywhere close to the nuclear strength of either the United States or Israel, with its large and longstanding arsenal of nuclear weapons, and that consequently one or a few nukes would be at least as much a liability as an asset. That is part of why the Iranians, rather than deciding to build a nuclear weapon, have decided to pursue a negotiated agreement with the West that would preclude them from doing so. Realizing all this does not argue for the sort of hardline approach Shultz recommends.

Shultz does realize that upping the ante in the current situation would involve enacting more anti-Iran economic sanctions, not deploying nuclear-tipped missiles. But he doesn't draw any comparisons with economic sanctions directed against the Soviet Union during the Cold War, although such a comparison would be more appropriate than his INF example. He might have referred specifically to the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which was enacted in 1974 and was intended to use restrictions on trade to pressure the Soviets into allowing more emigration of Jews. The Soviet response in the first years of Jackson-Vanik was to reduce the number of visas for would-be emigrants, evidently to avoid showing weakness in the face of such pressure. A similar dynamic is at play in the Iranian case, as in many other situations. The Soviets continued to be stingy with exit visas through most of Mr. Reagan's presidency. It was not until the Soviet Union was falling apart that the floodgates of Jewish emigration finally opened.

There is a different, more fundamental, characteristic of how Ronald Reagan approached conflict with the prime adversary of the day. It is one that George Shultz could have been expected to mention because he saw this in Reagan, as many others failed to, when they were both in office. Reagan envisioned an eventual end to the kind of bitter, all-consuming conflict that the Cold War had become, and he did not behave as if the conflict would go on forever. Related to this outlook, he was serious in talking about a world that eventually would be free of nuclear weapons. An arms build-up in the short term was a means to getting to this end, not a goal in itself. (Reagan and Barack Obama have in common that they are the two presidents who have clearly articulated the objective of a nuclear-weapons-free world.)

Reagan approached negotiations firm in his belief that the Cold War would end, and that it would end in the not too distant future. Shultz understood this perspective. Inveterate Cold Warriors in Reagan's administration such as William Casey and Caspar Weinberger never seemed to understand it. They seemed to be content to fight the Cold War forever.

Rather like those old Cold Warriors, there are some who seem content to have hostility with Iran last forever. This tendency has multiple roots, including the goal of the current Israeli government to keep Iran isolated and estranged from the United States, and the psychic need of many Americans for a new prime foreign adversary now that we don't have the Soviet Union to kick around any more.

This is not how the Gipper would handle Iran today. Being realistic and recognizing an opportunity when it is there, he would seize that opportunity.  If he were to approach the problem the same way he approached the Cold War with the U.S.S.R., he would use negotiations not in an unrealistic attempt to attain the unattainable but instead to move closer to the goal of ending the new cold war, the one with Iran.

TopicsArms ControlThe PresidencySanctionsNuclear Proliferation RegionsIsraelRussiaIranUnited States

How to Stimulate Political Change in Iran

Paul Pillar

Those endeavoring to sabotage any negotiated agreement with Iran have shifted their arguments in interesting ways as events have successively caused their arguments to lose credibility. Once upon a time, well before the last Iranian elections and when there were no active negotiations to speak of between Iran and the Western powers, one heard the contention that the Iranian regime didn't really want normal relations with the West because it saw its isolation as an important ingredient in its power. The idea was that the more opportunity the Iranian people had for interaction with more enlightened parts of the world, and the less their regime could pose as defenders of a beleaguered nation, the less patience ordinary Iranians would have with their own backward political system and the less secure would be the mullahs' rule.

One doesn't hear that line of argument much anymore, now that the current Iranian leaders, including the supreme leader as well as the president, have demonstrated beyond any doubt that they do seek a better and fuller relationship with the West. The nay-saying has shifted to assertions that we might get a deal with Iran but it won't be a good one. We are hearing plenty of this kind of nay-saying right now, of course. But as the shape of a likely preliminary nuclear agreement has become known, in which relatively minor sanctions relief would be linked to significant, time-buying restrictions on Iran's nuclear program—and especially an end to enrichment of uranium to the 20 percent level, which figured prominently in the lines that Benjamin Netanyahu drew on his famous cartoon bomb last year—the credibility of this line of argument has weakened as well.

Thus along with continued strenuous efforts to spin the emerging preliminary deal in a way that magnifies the sanctions relief and minimizes or overlooks the Iranian concessions, the saboteurs have turned to broad-scale denunciation of anything negative that can be said, validly or otherwise, about the Islamic Republic of Iran. Most conspicuous are Netanyahu's endless fulminations about how Iran is apocalyptic, medieval, messianic and in every other respect a perpetual heart of darkness. Some of those in the United States who support Netanyahu's campaign search for human rights transgressions such as discriminatory treatment of Baha'is, while others utter vague warnings about Iran's “hegemonic ambitions.” None of this entails any logic in favor of rejecting rather than signing a nuclear deal with Tehran. Not having a deal will not provide a whit of help, for example, to any Iranian Baha'i. It is all just an attempt to make any doing of business with Tehran seem distasteful.

The argument-shifting and departures from logic have made increasingly transparent how this campaign is about wanting to prevent any deal with Iran at all, not trying to get a “better” deal. The Obama administration, the rest of the P5+1, and the American public would do well not to be distracted by any of this. But we should think anew about the implications of the old argument regarding how more interaction with the West could endanger the existing political order in Iran. If Iranian leaders supposedly once feared a nuclear agreement leading to more extensive trade and other dealings with the West because this would undermine the basis for their rule, shouldn't we be optimistic about such secondary political effects, as a bonus beneficial consequence, if Iranian leaders nonetheless do accept an agreement?

The logic of the old argument has some validity, and there probably are hardliners in Tehran who are so wary of an agreement for this very reason that they are still on balance opposed to a deal. The supreme leader and others in the current leadership also undoubtedly have thought similar thoughts. But they also realize that the political standing of the current management will depend as well on economic improvement that only a more normal relationship with the West can bring. They evidently are willing to take their chances on long term secondary and tertiary political effects in order to cope with the here and now.

Those effects will not show themselves suddenly. It is not as if a nuclear agreement would mean that a nation in seclusion will abruptly become aware of what is going on in the outside world. Contrary to Netanyahu's assertions, Iran is not a medieval country where people do not wear blue jeans—as many jeans-wearing Iranians have been quick to tell him. But over the longer term the effects are likely to be along the lines projected by the Lebanese journalist Rami Khouri:

Just as Helsinki in the mid-1970s helped trigger in a nonviolent way the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire 15 years later, so would a rapprochement between Arabs, Iranians and the West create conditions inside Iran that would inevitably change its ideological configuration and allow a more natural resumption of historical evolution in the country, which is what a majority of Iranians seems to want. I suspect that robust economic growth and the absence of a confrontational relationship with foreign countries would allow Iranian forces of pragmatism and liberalism to expand their sway inside the country, and eventually – perhaps within 5-7 years – bring down the remnants of the hard Islamic revolutionary regime that still dominates the country’s power structure.

Iran has evolved significantly even during the three decades of the Islamic Republic. Although the evolution has not been all in one direction, most of it has been in directions that entail improvement from our point of view. Some of this evolution is due to the passage of time, in which a revolutionary regime that initially feared it could not survive without like-minded regimes surrounding it came to realize that was not the case. It is partly due to the practical need to meet domestic demands. And it is partly due to an awareness of what sorts of Iranian behavior internationally do or do not elicit cooperation and advance Iranian interests. More, rather than less, normal interaction with the Iranians is what will not just continue but accelerate these trends, leading to effects such as those Khouri describes.

This is the way to encourage political and social change in Iran. It is fantasy to believe instead that endless pressure will eventually cause pressured Iranians to rise up in revolt. In a Gallup poll taken earlier this year (even before Hassan Rouhani became president) that asked Iranians whom they hold most responsible for the sanctions against Iran, 46 percent said the United States and only 13 percent said the Iranian government. (The next most frequent responses were Israel nine percent, the Western European countries six percent, and the United Nations six percent.) The principal beneficiaries of endless beleaguerment are hardliners, not counterrevolutionary liberals. Those in the United States who wish, openly or tacitly, to overturn the political order in Iran have another reason to support the current nuclear negotiations.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Shahram Sharif. CC BY 2.0.

TopicsCivil SocietyDomestic PoliticsHuman RightsPublic OpinionPolitical EconomySanctionsNuclear Proliferation RegionsIsraelIran

Not De Gaulle, But California

Paul Pillar

Last month Dov Zakheim, in the course of discussing the baleful influence of the Tea Party phenomenon on U.S. national security, likened some of what we are seeing to the French Fourth Republic, which lasted only a dozen years following World War II. The comparison is apt, and not only with regard to the effect an image of unreliability—which in the case of the Fourth Republic stemmed largely from short-lived, revolving-door governments—has on foreign relations. We also have been seeing in Washington much of what the French called immobilisme: a simple inability to get things done.

With a historical precedent such as that, we naturally should think of what lessons the precedent might hold for how we could get out of our own similar problems. What brought the Fourth Republic to an end and opened the way to the longer-lived and relatively more stable Fifth Republic was not just impatience and disgust with the immobilisme but a full-blown crisis involving the insurrection in Algeria, which had begun in 1954. Portions of the French army began revolting, with the high command that was fighting the war in Algeria making common cause with French settler interests and threatening to move on Paris.

Also crucial to what would follow was political leadership and one leader in particular: Charles de Gaulle, the French Cincinnatus and leader of the Free French in World War II. The rebellious generals of 1958 insisted that de Gaulle come back from Colombey-les-Deux-Églises and rescue the nation once again. De Gaulle did so, becoming the last premier of the Fourth Republic before becoming the first president under the new constitution of the Fifth.

The outsize prestige and stature of de Gaulle were needed even beyond that moment, as the Algerian insurgency wore on. Contrary to the expectations of some of those who had called for his return, de Gaulle concluded that Algerian independence had to be accepted and initiated peace talks. A quartet of French generals who, along with pieds noir French settlers, could not stomach that concept attempted a putsch in Algiers in 1961. De Gaulle stared down that move but then had to contend with a terrorist campaign by the Secret Army Organization, led by Raoul Salan, a former commander of French forces in Indochina and an escaped perpetrator of the putsch. For an American comparison, imagine if a former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq or Afghanistan had first attempted a coup and then formed a terrorist group that started setting off bombs in American cities.

In short, really bad stuff. We do not want to go through anything like what the French went through. If this is the cure for immobilisme, it would be fair to say the cure is even worse than the disease.

The right response to that gloomy conclusion is to look for even partial cures, including ones in our own experience. They exist, particularly in the reform of election laws. This kind of procedural and legal engineering can do much to overcome even the less salubrious aspects of contemporary American political culture.

For an exemplar and for lessons we can look not to France of the 1950s but to California of the past few years. Two pieces of electoral reform have been especially beneficial. First, California is one of the few states that have taken legislative and Congressional redistricting out of the hands of state legislatures and given the task to nonpartisan commissions. Second, California is one of three states (Louisiana and Washington are the others) to adopt the open primary system, in which the top two vote-getters regardless of party face each other in a second round election if no one gets a majority in the first. These two changes have greatly increased the need for politicians, if they are to be elected, to appeal to a broader spectrum of opinion rather than to a narrow party base.

The results in California have been dramatic. In short order it has gone from a model of fiscal and political dysfunction at the state level to a place in which much productive across-the-aisle work gets done. There is no doubt that making the same electoral changes across the country would make an enormous difference in how the U.S. Congress operates. How Congress operates now, with the frequently invoked threat of a Tea Party primary challenge exemplifying why it operates that way, richly earns it its nine percent approval rating from the American public.

Part of what made electoral reform possible in California is that it is easier there than in most other states for citizens' movements to put initiatives on a statewide ballot. That practice has its own problems, including overly long ballots and the constraining effects of the notorious Proposition 13. But it is not nearly as bad as coups and insurrections as a way of overcoming immobilisme.

Leadership has been important, in California as well as in France. A Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, provided important muscle in pushing for reform. The current Democratic governor, Jerry Brown, has used his veto power to help contain some impulses from within his own party that did not have broad support. Neither Schwarzenegger nor Brown is a de Gaulle, but they help give us hope for what leadership can do in greatly improving the way this republic works without, as the French did, tearing up a constitution and starting from scratch.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/inqvisitor. CC BY-SA 3.0.

TopicsCongressDemocracyDomestic PoliticsPublic Opinion RegionsAlgeriaFranceUnited States