Paul Pillar

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

How Not to Show Decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind

Paul Pillar

The role that foreign views play in policy debate in Washington and especially on Capitol Hill has taken some strange forms lately, and none stranger than with the hot topic of the Iranian nuclear program. What an irony to hear American neocons saying “Merci!” and “Vive La France!” after the French foreign minister suddenly added demands to, and thus spiked or at least delayed, a tentative preliminary agreement with the Iranians that was on the verge of being inked. Was it really that long ago that the same neocons were deriding France as one of the countries of old Europe that could not see the wisdom of launching that most ambitious, and most disastrous, of all neocon projects: the Iraq War? Remember eating freedom fries with your burgers? Remember how the war-makers in the Bush administration told France and other major allies and every other member of the United Nations that did not support the war to shove it, and then hooked the poodle Blair up to his leash and went to war anyway? One might be tempted to chalk up the different handling of France ten years ago and today to a change in French views. Governments themselves change, after all. But it was the rightist government of Jacques Chirac that was in power when the neocons started their war in Iraq. Today the French president is a socialist. Not the direction of turnaround one would expect.

No, this history had nothing to do with anyone's wisdom or substantive views. Both a decade ago and today, the neocons have just been using France as a convenient prop and support for debating points, or ignoring it to the extent it was not otherwise convenient. This gets to the first couple of rules about showing appropriate respect for opinions from abroad. One is not to use people as props. Another is to be consistent in one's own thought, policies, and behavior, as if foreign opinion really were having a constructive impact on one's own thinking. The neocons here are showing consistency in one respect; people who never met a U.S. war they didn't like were responsible for starting one war ten years ago, and are now pushing policies toward another Middle Easern state that increase the chance of another war. But of course there is not any consistency in the attitude toward European allies.

Showing a decent respect to the opinions of mankind, including mankind overseas, does not mean bowing to the views of any particular slice of mankind. The writers of the Declaration of Independence who used that phrase about respect to opinions were explaining, after all, why they were spelling out their reasons for committing a revolutionary act. They were not submitting to any foreigner's view as to whether to commit that act. The interests of one's own nation need to come first. A modern clarion statement of that principle, with regard to the same issue about Iran and nuclear matters, comes today from Tom Friedman, who reminds us:

We, America, are not just hired lawyers negotiating a deal for Israel and the Sunni Gulf Arabs, which they alone get the final say on. We, America, have our own interests in not only seeing Iran’s nuclear weapons capability curtailed, but in ending the 34-year-old Iran-U.S. cold war, which has harmed our interests and those of our Israeli and Arab friends.

That should be obvious. It should go without saying. But a major chunk of the American body politic is acting today directly contrary to that principle. They use some states as props; they act as lawyers for other states.

Note that the Declaration of Independence refers to the opinions of mankind, not the rhetoric or agendas of foreign governments. Here, too, a principle of showing appropriate respect for opinion is being violated. Even those American politicians who show no shame or compunction about acting as lawyers for a foreign state, Israel, make the further mistake of equating the interests of that state with the rhetoric and agenda of that state's current government. On the matter of Iran and its nuclear program, as on some other important issues, the pronouncements of Benjamin Netanyahu definitely should not be equated with the interests of Israel. Knowledgeable and patriotic Israelis have a very different view about what approach on this matter would be good for Israel. Looking beyond Netanyahu's short-sighted strategy of unending conflict and hostility, an improvement in U.S.-Iranian relations would be very much in Israel's long-term interests, in addition certainly to the interests of the United States.

Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) has been exhibiting all of these patterns in perhaps the most extreme form of any member of Congress, to the point of being a caricature of such things. He was in exceptional form following a supposedly classified briefing on Wednesday for senators from Secretary of State Kerry, Vice President Biden, and Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, who has been the lead negotiator on Iran. Kirk compared the Obama administration to Neville Chamberlain and, while Kirk is doing everything he can to overturn a diplomatic process designed to prevent both a war and an Iranian nuclear weapon, he said “Today is the day I witnessed the future of nuclear war in the Middle East.”

The briefing was “fairly anti-Israeli,” Kirk said. “I was supposed to disbelieve everything the Israelis had just told me, and I think the Israelis probably have a pretty good intelligence service.” So a United States senator was calling the U.S. secretary of state and the vice president liars because of what a foreign government had told him.

Kirk wasn't finished. He berated “Wendy” because her “record on North Korea is a total failure and embarrassment to her service.” Such a blast ignores the history of U.S. handling of the North Korean issue, in which the administration that came after the one in which Sherman earlier served effectively abandoned a negotiated agreement and returned to diplomacy only after the North Koreans had tested a couple of nuclear devices. But as long as previous records on other issues are being dug up—and what certain foreign governments are saying is being invoked—Kirk would be advised to review the record of his favorite foreign prime minister regarding the Iraq War, for which Netanyahu was a vocal cheerleader, spewing assertions that turned out to be badly mistaken and misguided.

The approach followed by Kirk, and others in less fulsome and extreme form, is not only failing to show decent respect in the spirit of the founders; it is an approach that deserves no respect itself. To the extent it comes to determine policy it endangers respect for the United States.

Image: Flickr/Daniel X. O'Neil. CC BY 2.0.

TopicsCongressDomestic PoliticsPublic OpinionGreat PowersNuclear Proliferation RegionsIsraelIranFranceIraqUnited StatesNorth Korea

Our Scarce Veterans

Paul Pillar

As the nation uses the occasion of Veterans Day to express appreciation to its military veterans, we should reflect on another reason to cherish our veterans all the more: that there are so few of them, and their numbers are shrinking. As a proportion of the total U.S. population the ranks of veterans have been thinning for more than four decades, from 13.7 percent in 1970 to about 7 percent as of the most recent census in 2010, and almost certainly less than that now. This trend cannot help but have significant effects on prevailing American attitudes about many things. These especially include, but are not limited to, matters of war, peace, and national security.

The effects are especially felt through the veteran or non-veteran status of political leaders. Here the corresponding trend is even more marked than for the general population. Thirty-five years ago 77 percent of members of Congress had served in the military. Today the proportion of members, in both the House and the Senate, who are military veterans is 20 percent. This decline has at least three consequences.

The most obvious one is that most of the people who most conspicuously pronounce on, and who vote on, matters involving the possible use of military force have no direct experience with such use. This does not mean veterans have uniform views on such matters; looking at the postures of the members of Congress who have served in the military suggests that they do not. But it does mean that the complications and unforeseen practical consequences of employing force, which often have turned out to be the most important facet of such employment, probably are insufficiently understood or appreciated.

A second consequence is a broader loss of perspective regarding what is or is not important, what does or does not pose grave threats to the national interest, and what is or is not worth fighting for, not just military but politically. In the hyper-partisan atmosphere that now prevails on Capitol Hill, it has become normal to hear members on one side of the aisle denounce those on the other side as the greatest threat the republic has ever faced. We probably would be hearing less of that sort of thing if more members had served their country in a capacity in which they had faced real and serious threats from outside the republic.

A third effect is to diminish a sense of shared effort on behalf of the nation, and of appreciation of how some of the greatest things this country has accomplished, and could accomplish in the future, involve an organized collective effort on a national basis. That sense is inherent to service in the military but is necessary in many other areas, including in domestic and economic policy. Its diminution has made us all the more a nation of self-centered individuals focused narrowly on pursuing individual fortune or fame, and insufficiently aware of the common efforts needed to maintain the conditions that make that pursuit possible.

Clear implications do not follow from any of this regarding the best way to structure military service. Some have used similar observations to argue for reinstatement of conscription, but such arguments are offset by practical considerations regarding effectiveness of the force and by the unfairness of what is in effect forced labor obtained at below-market rates. It is a reason, however, not just to honor our veterans but to wish we had more of them.

TopicsCongressDomestic PoliticsDefenseState of the Military RegionsUnited States

The Saboteurs Go Into Overdrive

Paul Pillar

Those dedicated to maintaining perpetual hostility toward the Islamic Republic of Iran, and thus to sabotaging any negotiated agreement that resolves all or part of the issue of Iran's nuclear agreement, are facing their most challenging week in some time. Favorable reports have been coming from the talks in Geneva, the U.S. secretary of state is flying there to confer directly with the Iranian foreign minister, and the negotiators seem to be on the cusp of an interim agreement. The response of the saboteurs is not to retreat, or even to wait until details of any deal are announced, but instead to redouble their efforts to subvert the process. The output of those efforts can be confusing to those who are not saboteurs themselves but instead have a genuine concern about keeping Iran's program peaceful.

Some of the saboteurs' principal accusations and arguments, regardless of how invalid they may be, are couched in terms that have resonance with those having honest concerns and with other Americans. There is, for example, the idea of going for the jugular and making sweeping demands of the Iranians, including in particular the demand to end all enrichment of uranium. Such a demand is a sure deal-breaker, which is exactly why many of those making the demand are making it. But the idea of winning big appeals to Americans' competitive instincts. Some of that kind of spirit and attitude comes through in a piece from Ray Takeyh, who argues that “Washington is in a position to demand the most stringent of nuclear accords and should pay scant attention to Iran's oft-proclaimed red lines.” Such an outlook evokes visions of an over-amped football coach who tells his players during a game against a banged-up opponent, “We've got them where we want them, boys—let's run up the score!”

We are not playing a football game, or a zero-sum game. Humiliation of Iran does not advance U.S. interests. The “most stringent” of conceivable accords is not necessary—as a matter of either technical monitoring or Iranian motivations—to achieve the desired result of keeping the Iranian nuclear program peaceful. Making sweeping demands instead would move farther away from that result by killing the chance of a deal, not only because some specific substantive demands would be unacceptable even to a hard-pressed and heavily sanction Iran, but also because of the political need of any Iranian leader to save face and avoid humiliation.

Then there is the handling of sanctions, and especially a push to add still more sanctions to the existing pile. That also would make an agreement less likely, principally by being another signal to the Iranians that the United States only wants to squeeze the Islamic Republic rather than to deal with it. And again, some of those pushing the idea of still more sanctions are doing so precisely because this would make a deal less likely. Here the appeal to those other, more honest, Americans comes from the idea that if something has worked so far, it would be even better to have more of that same something. In the present instance, the notion is that if sanctions have helped to bring the Iranians to the negotiating table, more sanctions is what we need to make them make more concessions. The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, among others, has voiced exactly this argument.

Life is full of circumstances in which even if a little of something works, this doesn't mean more of the same thing would work better. Dylan Williams gives the example of how a small amount of baking powder helps to make yummy muffins, but using a whole boxful of the powder would not make better muffins. If the negative signaling effect of added sanctions is hard for those honest Americans to understand, what should be easier to comprehend is the most fundamental of principles about how the exertion of pressure affects someone else's incentives. For the sanctions game to work, it is important not only for sanctions to be in place as long as there is no movement on the other side of the negotiating table, but also that the other party be convinced that if it does make the concessions we desire, the sanctions will come off. If not so convinced—if facing the prospect of nothing but unending and even escalating sanctions no matter what it does—the other side has no incentive to make any concessions at all. What also should be easy to understand is that after years and years of sanctions against Iran, the centrifuges are still spinning and the rest of the Iranian nuclear program is still growing. In this important respect, the sanctions—and always putting them on, not taking them off—have not “worked” at all.

Much of the rest of what is coming from the saboteurs is a confused jumble, with as much as possible in the way of suspicions and supposed dangers being thrown around in the hope that something will stick. Some of that confusion is between what each side might do unilaterally and what would be done as part of a mutual agreement. Much is being said about how no sanctions relief should be given until and unless the Iranians place specific and significant restrictions on their program. But that is exactly what seems about to come out of the talks in Geneva.

Probably the most important thing honest, concerned Americans can do in listening to all of this is to keep in mind how much of it is coming ultimately from the saboteurs, and what the saboteur's motives are. The chief motive is not to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon; it is to keep Iran in a hated, pressured, isolated status, and maybe even eventually to wage a war against it. The current Israeli government is unmistakably the ultimate protagonist in sustaining the hostility toward Iran, in order to prevent Iran from being an independent and accepted player in the region, to avoid giving the United States more diplomatic and political options in the Middle East than it has now, and to continue to divert attention from Israel's clinging to, and colonization of, occupied territory (a matter on which the Israeli prime minister has been so obstinate as to drive Secretary of State Kerry, before he left Israel for Geneva, to deliver a burst of angry honesty on the subject). With that as the Israeli posture, the posture of many others in the American political system automatically follows. Added to that are some other players in American policy debate who need Iran as a bête noire or who yearn for another war in the Middle East.

To emphasize awareness of all of this at least as much as the substance of what the saboteurs are saying is not an ad hominem cop-out; it is a way for the honest Americans to be wary of dishonesty, and to avoid being hopelessly confused by the barrage of tendentious commentary. When someone is throwing up a smokescreen it is best not to try to analyze the smoke but instead to move away from those throwing it up.

There also needs to be accountability. If the goal of ensuring the Iranian nuclear program stays peaceful is not achieved, responsibility for that outcome needs to be assigned clearly to those who—either as saboteurs or those who are too politically pusillanimous to stand up to the saboteurs—are working today to kill the best possible chance for achieving that goal.

Image: Wikicommons/Creative Commons License.

TopicsCongressDomestic PoliticsSanctionsNuclear Proliferation RegionsIsraelIranUnited States

The Costs of Scandals, Real and False

Paul Pillar

The Washington Post's media reporter, Paul Farhi, had an interesting article earlier this week about the life cycle of news stories about “scandals.” The pattern Farhi discerns is that an incriminating report or accusation that quickly pushes a story to the status of “scandal” gets lots of attention, but that subsequent information that undercuts or negates the original version of the story gets much less. And so some stories retain in many minds the elevated status of “scandal” even after the factual basis for assigning that status has crumbled.

Among the examples Farhi cited was the IRS policing of tax-exempt status, in which the later information indicating that the enforcement efforts involved were directed at groups all across the political spectrum received far less attention that the original version of the story, according to which the enforcement was aimed only at conservative groups. Another of his examples was about the White House allegedly leaking classified information about a foiled terrorist plot, with the later, more accurate but less noticed, information being that the leak had actually come from a former FBI agent with a criminal record.

Farhi is writing about this as an issue of how well the press does its job, and there is indeed an issue there. But there are some other consequences of how “scandals” are treated and perceived that also deserve notice. For one thing, the term scandal has been debased. The problem is not just incomplete or erroneous information about happenings that have acquired that label, but also a looser standard for applying the label. A term that used to be reserved for what is legally or morally outrageous is now applied to what is just politically edgy. That's too bad; our useful vocabulary has been diminished, as has our moral sensibility. Teapot Dome was a true scandal; much of what gets that label today is not.

There also are unfortunate effects on policy debate and ultimately on policy itself, in two respects. One is that much of that debate is ill-informed, in the sense of being based on that early and erroneous reporting. Moreover, the public's understanding of many issues reflects an imprinting on whatever was the first version of the issue that came to the public's attention. The problem is thus one of public psychology as well as inconsistent press coverage.

Another consequence for policy and policy debate involves the opportunity costs of so much attention being sucked up by “scandals.” The president and members of Congress are having their time badly diverted from matters that are far more important for the well-being of the republic. Of course, this is often a problem less of inconsistent press coverage than of willful political manipulation. Whatever the exact impetus, the public, press, and Congress alike are because of this diversion paying much less attention to many things that deserve much more attention. A list of those things could go on and on: strategic issues in the eastern Pacific, the Arab-Israeli peace process, and much else.

TopicsCongressDomestic PoliticsEthicsMediaPublic OpinionThe PresidencyPsychology RegionsUnited States

Mirror-Image Hardliners

Paul Pillar

Despite the many and obvious differences between the United States and Iran as the two countries take tentative baby steps toward a less destructive relationship, there also are some striking symmetries in taking those steps. Policymakers on both sides want an agreement to resolve differences over Iran's nuclear program, are wary or even skeptical about achieving such an agreement, but are nonetheless trying to negotiate one. Both sets of policymakers are having to deal with resistance from hardliners on their own side who would not welcome an agreement. Both are having to fend off accusations that they would be giving up too much in negotiations. For both, the task of managing the hardliners on their own side is made all the more difficult by the statements, and sometimes actions, of hardliners on the other side.

The Obama administration, to its credit, recently has been investing some high-level lobbying time in an effort to stave off a move in Congress to add still more sanctions against Iran to the mountain of them already in place. Such a move would undermine the negotiating effort and reduce the chance of reaching an agreement. It would be a slap-in-the-face response to recent positive movement on the Iranian side and be taken by many Iranians as another indication that the United States does not really want a deal and instead is just stalling for time while sanctions wreak more damage on the Iranian economy.

The Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is making corresponding efforts to stave off efforts by the hardliners on his side to undermine the negotiations. This was clearly the principal purpose of a talk he gave to students on Sunday, in which he said, “No one should consider our negotiators as compromisers...They have a difficult mission and no one must weaken an official who is busy with work.” Khamenei's comments are the strongest refutation yet of the notion that the diplomatic initiative of President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif may not have the supreme leader's backing.

While making clear that he does back the initiative, Khamenei also expressed his skepticism about whether negotiations can succeed in the face of the indications of permanent hostility on the other side, specifically mentioning the repeated threats of military attack against Iran. In a comment that mirrors cynical references in the United States to Iran's “charm offensive,” Khamenei said, “We should not trust an enemy who smiles. From one side the Americans smile and express a desire to negotiate, and from another side they immediately say all options are on the table.”

For anyone in the United States who wants to avoid an Iranian nuclear weapon and thus ought to be supporting the negotiations that are the best way to secure that objective, support must include full awareness of the challenge that the Iranian leadership faces in managing hardline resistance inside Iran. In particular, support in this respect means carefully avoiding giving Iranian hardliners any additional ammunition in support of the argument that negotiations are at best a waste of time and at worst a danger to Iran.

Support also means not being turned off by the inevitable hardline utterances on the Iranian side. Some such utterances will come directly from hardliners who do not want an agreement; others will represent part of the hardliner-management effort of leaders who are making the policy and who do want an agreement. So this week, for example, with the anniversary of the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979, there will be more “death to America” chants and songs. This sort of thing, too, is a mirror image of some of what is heard in the United States. It corresponds to the more bellicose war-threatening statements directed against Iran, which has included even the outrageous extreme of a major bankroller in American politics calling for a nuclear weapon to be fired at Iran.

TopicsCongressDomestic PoliticsSanctionsNuclear Proliferation RegionsIranUnited States

America's Amnesia About Intelligence

Paul Pillar

Attitudes of the American public and elected officials toward intelligence go in cycles. There is an oscillation between two types of perceived crisis. One type is the “intelligence failure,” in which things happen in the world followed by recriminations about how intelligence agencies should have done a better job of predicting or warning of the happening. The recriminations are customarily accompanied by “reform,” or talk of it, which chiefly means finding ways to do things differently from what was done before—not necessarily better, just different. Usually there also are accusations of malfeasance by individuals, even though there is an inherent tension between attributing failure to unreformed institutions and attributing it to individuals who screwed up. Often the response also involves additional empowerment of institutions, in the form of added resources or added authorities.

The other type of crisis involves seeing institutions as too empowered, with the response being to place additional restrictions on them. For U.S. intelligence agencies one of the most conspicuous examples of this phase of the cycle was in the 1970s, with some of the agencies in question already suspect as the nation came out of the Vietnam and Watergate eras, and with the principal response being to erect Congressional and legal checks that are still in place today. Now we are seeing in a somewhat milder form the corresponding phase of another cycle, as the nation comes out of more than a decade of recovery from the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which stimulated the most recent burst of empowerment. There is new talk about reducing the powers and scope of activity of agencies and adding more checks and restraints.

The nation tends to lose sight of any phase in a cycle beyond the one it happens to be in at the moment. Memories of these matters are short. Most Americans have already forgotten how in the national mood that prevailed in the first couple of years after 9/11 much of what today gets labeled as a “scandal” would not have been considered at all scandalous.

Similar cycles operate regarding other dimensions involving intelligence, with the same pattern of public and political responses in one phase laying the seeds for a later and different sort of crisis. After 9/11 a leitmotif of the recriminations was that there was insufficient sharing of information across bureaucratic boundaries and between governmental agencies. Then later, with more sharing taking place, an army private or a contract techie could get access to, and publicly compromise, boatloads of information that went well beyond their own areas of responsibility. The chair of the Senate intelligence committee, Diane Feinstein, has acknowledged that the post-9/11 emphasis on more sharing probably has had something to do with the recent problems of megaleaks.

A review of the history of intelligence failures and what has been said about them afterward shows there is no limit to the scope of what might come to be deemed a failure. Anything that is later seen as a surprise outside the intelligence community is interpreted as a failure within the community. It does not matter whether or not the subject matter is something that policymakers had already been focusing on. Intelligence is not just expected to provide answers; it is expected to prevent surprise even if the relevant questions have not been asked, or even thought of, by anyone else. Accordingly, most of the intelligence community's work is not in response to specific questions or tasks levied by the policymaker-consumers, although such levies always take priority. The intelligence agencies constantly have to be seeking not just new information but new insights about new topics or even just new possibilities, if there is any chance that the possibilities will involve something that might bite us in the future.

This is part of the background to why most of the current voluminous discussion about what the president knew or what he directed regarding collection by NSA is uninformed and off the mark. It does not reflect how the intelligence community operates, or how it must operate if both it and the president are to do the jobs expected of them. NSA and the other intelligence agencies conduct their operations according to a rigorous and well-established system of establishing and regularly revising priorities for intelligence collection and analysis. Policymakers are full participants in that system, and there will be no surprises to them regarding the overall shape and scope of the agencies' collection activities. The intelligence agencies also have battalions of lawyers whose job it is to ensure that the agencies operate strictly within the limits set by statute and by executive orders. At the same time we cannot, and should not, expect the president or his senior aides to get so mired in micromanagement that they are approving the turning on of individual switches at NSA or other individual collection efforts. They simply don't have the time for it.

A refusal to recognize these realities flows partly from simple ignorance of how the intelligence process and the intelligence-policy nexus works. The ignorance involves the misconception, for example, that most intelligence work involves receiving a high-level request for a specific answer to a specific question, and delivering a specific collected tidbit in return. Tidbits there are, but the yield from collection aimed at, say, foreign leadership communications is at least as likely to serve as part of the information base for analysts who then, based on a variety of sources, present policymakers with a comprehensive and firmly-grounded assessment of what a foreign government is up to.

The refusal also stems from the incentive of politicians, pundits, and press to frame an issue so that there will be a story either of a lackadaisical, bystander president or of a rogue intelligence agency. Either of those stories is juicier than the reality.

Look back again at the history of what are deemed intelligence failures and we can also see another expectation habitually placed on intelligence agencies: that they ought to be aggressive, creative, and resourceful in going after every piece of information abroad that they can get their hands on and that might help to ward off possible threats or otherwise to inform U.S. foreign policy. This is just the sort of expectation that is usually made of any enterprise, in government or in the private sector, that we hope will achieve excellence. Cracking as tough a collection nut as high-level communications in a foreign government is the sort of accomplishment that in other times and circumstances has been seen as a feather in an agency's cap. Imagine the confusion and consternation when in the current times the feather is described as a scandal.

Another unrealistic aspect of much of the current discourse about this whole affair is the notion that clear lines can be drawn between friends and foes and that clearly different rules can be applied to each. This is unrealistic partly as a matter of foreign policy and how foreign states play in U.S. interests. Every state has varying degrees of shared and conflicting interests with the United States, and nearly every one of them is part of a problem as well as being part of a solution. The other element of unrealism again has to do with expectations placed on intelligence and what comes to be seen as a surprise and an intelligence failure. The biggest surprises occur where previous patterns—which might have been the basis for categorizing foreign states and making different rules for dealing with them—fall apart. The surprises involve instability where we thought we had stability, a threat arising where we didn't think there was one, or a foe appearing where we thought we had a friend.

The preferences and sensitivities of friends have long been a complication for intelligence collection. In the 1970s the shah of Iran was considered a good, close friend of the United States, who did much to sustain the U.S. defense industry with his arms purchases and who was relied upon as a pillar of stability in the Persian Gulf. The collection sensitivity with the shah concerned not so much collecting information on his own government but rather the rubbing of shoulders with the Iranian opposition to better understand it. The shah's government did not like us to do that because it implied a recognition of the opposition and possible fears for the stability of the regime. Then came the Iranian revolution, which now occupies a prominent place on most lists of U.S. intelligence failures, with the principal explanation for failure being inadequate collection of information about the pre-revolutionary opposition.

The oscillation in American attitudes toward U.S. intelligence agencies will continue. The amnesia about earlier phases in each cycle also will continue. When the next big failure occurs, we will have forgotten the dis-empowerment that people are calling for now, and how it may have contributed to that next failure.

TopicsCongressPublic OpinionThe PresidencyIntelligence RegionsUnited States

The Surge of Violence in Iraq

Paul Pillar

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki of Iraq is in Washington this week, getting away for a moment from the violent mess in his home country. An acceleration of bombings over the past few months has put the killing in Iraq on a pace that if continued for the rest of this year will match or surpass the high level seen in 2008, when an earlier round of civil war was raging there.

The upsurge of violence in Iraq has generated surprisingly little new policy debate in Washington. That's probably a good thing, because there is little that the United States can do, or should try to do, about it anyway. If it is generally accepted that the United States ended its Iraq misadventure nearly two years ago and that there is no political basis for trying to reverse that ending, that is a good thing. At least, it is good as long as we do not lose sight of the principal long-term lessons of what we are witnessing, including the futility of trying to inject democracy through the barrel of a gun and how the overthrow of even nefarious dictators is not sufficient to open the door to justice and tranquility.

Several related reasons probably account for why those who might be expected to stir again this particular pot are not doing so. There are distractions nearby in the Middle East, of course—especially in Syria, about which there has been much effort at pot-stirring back here in Washington. The Syria issue has been soaking up most of the pro-interventionist sentiment lately. That is part of a larger pattern in which those who exhibit such sentiment most strongly are comfortable whacking one target at a time and then moving on to something else (which is part of why the expedition in Afghanistan was given insufficient attention for years while Iraq was the favored target). They do not recognize the Pottery Barn rule, and they are more interested in slaying dragons than in repairing crockery. Besides, the Iraq War is such an unpleasant memory, and has been demonstrating for years why the invasion was such a colossal mistake, that most of those who favored the invasion would rather not dwell on it.

Another factor, which sets Syria apart from Iraq in many minds, concerns the regional sectarian line-up. Much of the sentiment in favor of doing more for the Syrian opposition is fueled by the idea that the Assad regime is an ally of Iran and that anything associated with Iran should be actively opposed. That is a crude and unproductive way to frame thinking about the Middle East, but it does unfortunately frame much such thinking. Maliki, as a Shiite leader who has cuddled up to Iran, is not by that thinking seen worth going to bat for with much vigor, even when terrorists are conducting serial car-bombing in his cities' streets.

Maliki is, however, accepted as a legitimate leader and interlocutor who may be around for some time. (He faces re-election in April.) Here an interesting comparison and contrast is with Egypt. Maliki has acted in at least as much an authoritarian manner, and has ridden roughshod at least as much over his opponents, as Mohamed Morsi ever did during his one-year tenure as president of Egypt. Yet no one seems to be anticipating a military coup against Maliki. The main reason, of course, is that Iraq—where the U.S. occupation authority disbanded the mostly Sunni-led military years ago—has no military establishment with anything like the political and economic clout that the one in Egypt has. But there also does not seem to be any of the kind of American sentiment that, if an Iraqi coup were somehow in the cards, would condone such a coup in the way the coup in Egypt has been condoned. We are seeing the effects of another crude but prevalent way of framing thinking about Middle Eastern conflicts: that Islamists are bad guys and secularists are the good guys. In Egypt, the president was the Islamist; in Iraq the prime minister is more secular than the fanatics who are detonating the car bombs.

Meanwhile Maliki is doing some of his own framing, particularly in blaming trouble in his country on mayhem being exported from Syria and in asking for more U.S. military aid to deal with that kind of security problem on its border. This is a warped view of what underlies the violence in Iraq. Some of the trouble is going across that border west to east, but more of it has moved east to west. The most extreme of the major participants in the Syrian civil war is the group calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which arose during the Iraqi civil war and only later moved into the action in Syria. Maliki should be told he needs to spend less time trying to be a player in other peoples' wars and devote more attention to reconciliation and inclusiveness in his own country.

Although American pro-interventionists have been taking mostly a “been there, done that” attitude toward Iraq, expect to hear more recriminations about how if only the United States had stayed the course the place would not be such a mess today. Maybe Maliki's visit will rekindle some such talk. Don't believe the talk; the depth of the divisions and weakness of the political culture, and the resulting problems in Iraq that would have defied solution by any expeditionary force, are too apparent to deny.

TopicsAutocracyDemocracyForeign AidPost-ConflictTerrorism RegionsEgyptIranIraqSyria

The Two Amigos and the Middle East

Paul Pillar

Lindsey Graham and John McCain, the two-thirds of the Three Amigos who are still in the U.S. Senate since the departure of Joe Lieberman, contributed to the opinion pages of the Washington Post this weekend a short reprise of their familiar positions on front-burner Middle Eastern issues: act forcefully to defeat the Assad regime in Syria, be obdurate toward Iran, etc. Nothing new here, but it might be worth reflecting for a moment on one of their accusations: that the administration's “failure in Syria” is part of broader “collapse of U.S. credibility in the Middle East.” Graham and McCain's particular usage of the term credibility exemplifies something broader, too: a habit of associating the concept only with forceful actions, especially military actions, rather than with any other policy course.

This restrictive concept of upholding a nation's credibility does not flow from any dictionary definition of credibility (“the quality or power of inspiring belief”). Whether any given action or piece of inaction tends to inspire belief depends of course on context and on what else the state in question has said or done on the same subject. There is no reason to postulate an asymmetry in favor of forceful action or any other kind of action.

There are valid grounds for criticizing the Obama administration's policies on Syria, especially the overemphasis on the issue of chemical weapons with insufficient advance thinking about what to do if a significant chemical incident were to occur. But the administration's subsequent seizing on the Russian initiative after the chemical incident in August was in a real sense a making good on its own word about viewing chemical weapons as the most important dimension of the Syrian conflict. That is an unjustifiably narrow way of viewing the conflict, but at least the administration was being consistent, and consistency is an important ingredient of credibility.

The Two Amigos write that the president “specifically committed” to them in the Oval Office “to degrade the Assad regime’s military capabilities, upgrade the capabilities of the moderate opposition and shift the momentum on the battlefield.” Those of us who have not been flies on the Oval Office wall cannot referee that one. But publicly the president has not made the sort of commitment that would warrant the Amigos' accusation that he “abandoned” the Syrian opposition.

Another erroneous application of the concept of credibility is the senators' equating loss of credibility with how “Israel and our Gulf Arab partners are losing all confidence” in the administration's diplomacy, with references to recent indications of the Saudi regime's displeasure. Displeasing other states, when there has been no failure to live up to a treaty commitment and when the other states—as is true of both Israel and Saudi Arabia—have major differences of interest with the United States as well as some shared interests, has nothing to do with a failure of credibility. Consistent pursuit of the United States's own interests is much more of a foundation for maintaining credibility.

Graham and McCain do inadvertently give us an example in their piece of how U.S. credibility can be hurt. In referring to the Iranian nuclear issue they say, “We should be prepared to suspend the implementation of new sanctions, but only if Iran suspends its enrichment activities.” This formulation comes out of a letter that eight other senators also signed and that tries to portray this package as a balanced “suspension for suspension” deal. This is a ludicrous play on words. There is nothing reasonable or proportionate about linking a demand for one side to stop completely an ongoing program in return for the other side not piling on still more new sanctions, which doesn't really entail a suspension of anything. The wordplay is unbelievable. If we want the Iranians or anyone else to believe that the United States is serious about reaching an agreement, this sort of silliness damages U.S. credibility.

Image: Flickr/ISAF Media.

TopicsCongressThe PresidencySanctionsNuclear Proliferation RegionsIranUnited StatesSyriaMiddle East