Intervention in Libya, and It Wasn't American

Paul Pillar

Within the past week the United Arab Emirates, aided by Egypt, conducted airstrikes against Islamist militias in Libya. The targeted forces are among the contestants in the surging turmoil and civil warfare in Libya. The airstrikes do not appear to be part of a large and bold new initiative by Egypt and the UAE, which did not even publicly acknowledge what they had done. Nonetheless the strikes were, as an anonymous U.S. official put it, not constructive.

The incident—along with some questions about whether it had caught the United States by surprise—has led to some of the usual hand-wringing about how U.S. relations with allies are not what they should be, how there supposedly is region-wide dismay with a U.S. failure to do more to enforce order in the region, and how if the United States does not do more along this line there may be an interventionist free-for-all. This type of reaction is inappropriate for at least two reasons. One is that it fails to take account of exactly how differences between putative partners do or do not make a difference. Sometimes such frictions matter for U.S. interests and sometimes they don't. Assuaging an ally is good for the United States if there is some payoff, not necessarily immediately, for its interests in behavior from the ally that is different from what it otherwise would be.

The other reason is that to the extent the United States may have encouraged interventionist free-for-alls, it is because it has done too much rather than too little. The United States's own penchant for military interventions has been probably the biggest factor in a breakdown of previous noninterventionist norms in international relations. The United States also has acquiesced in similar norm-breaking behavior by others that is easy for the Egyptians and Emiratis to see. As former ambassador Chas Freeman notes, “Gulf states and Egypt have seen many instances of Israel doing whatever it wants without us. They’re saying, if Israel can use U.S. weapons to defy the U.S. and pursue its own foreign policy objectives, why can’t they?”

Three valid observations are worth making about this episode. One is that the turmoil in Libya to which Egypt and the UAE are reacting followed directly from regime change in which Western intervention was instrumental. The United States played less of a leading role in that intervention than some other Western states did, and according to the Pottery Barn rule it does not own the resulting wreckage by itself. But that background is worth remembering.

Second, the airstrikes are a reminder that if forceful things are to be done in the Middle East, the United States doesn't necessarily have to be the one to do them. That principle applies to more constructive uses of force than hitting the Libyan militias. The UAE has a pretty good air force; maybe next time it can use it for more worthwhile purposes.

Third, the episode is a demonstration that even partners or allies are apt to be moved to action not to protect interests they share with us but to pursue objectives we do not share. Both Egypt and the UAE have reasons related to their own domestic politics and shaky legitimacy for taking sides in the Libyan internal war against the Islamists. The United States, by contrast, has no good reason to weigh in one one side or the other in that war. If friends and allies of ours get impatient with us for not doing more on behalf of goals that are important to them but not to us, tough.                         

TopicsLibya Egypt UAE RegionsMiddle East

Germany's Challenge: Ensuring Democracy in the Western Balkans

The Buzz

The high-level Western Balkans Conference, organized in Berlin today, August 28, will be wisely used by Germany to launch a renewed European Union focus towards the Balkans, a region that fluctuates between aspiring to become a part of the EU and fueling a system of “managed democracies”, the term now widely used to describe illiberal political systems that control their societies but provide the appearance of democracy.

Germany’s initiative to engage with the Balkans comes after a decade of retreating U.S. interest in the region and a time of a stated EU “break from enlargement” at least for the next five years, as announced recently by the new European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.

However, the European Union cannot allow the existence of “black holes” within Europe, especially in a region where external influences have left the footprints of their civilizations. The Ukraine crisis has rightly raised Germany’s attention to needing to deal more actively with the Western Balkans, even when the EU cannot offer concrete steps toward integration.

Getting the Western Balkans on board is much more than a security issue. The rising influence of Turkey with its neo-Ottoman strategy finds ground in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania and Kosovo. Contrary to propaganda, this is not a bottom-up project based on culture and religious traditions, but a pragmatic engagement of similar-minded leaders based on economic interest and the attractiveness of a more authoritarian-minded regional power. Serbia, on the other hand, remains isolated, cooperating with Russia and other non-European actors in a tepid attempt to pressure and extract concessions from the EU on Kosovo, and to maintain its former leading role in the region.

The Balkans are also undergoing a period of democratic regress. The main problem of the region today is the state of its dysfunctional democracies. Bosnia-Herzegovina has been shaken by social movements against a nonfunctioning regime. Macedonia preserves the Ohrid Agreement as a facade while interethnic relations become more problematic. Albania is ruled by a clientelist government similar to the “Hungarian” model, which is ruining the balances of power and may influence the rise of social movements in the near future. In Montenegro, the same political elite has ruled the country for more than two decades. In several of the Western Balkan countries, such as Macedonia and Albania, the political opposition regularly boycotts parliament in the hope of raising attention to the loss of democratic principles and institutions.

A state of managed democracy is ubiquitous and seems to please the ruling elites. The liberal democracy that was the inspiration of the Eastern European peoples after the fall of the Berlin Wall is beginning to fade away toward illiberal democracy.

The entrance into the Western Balkans of a leading democracy and global actor such as Germany can help to transform the status quo and raise expectations. It provides new momentum of which both parties must take advantage: Germany to strengthen its leadership role and responsibility within Europe, and the Western Balkans to accelerate integration into the European Union. If this initiative does not generate positive political and economic impacts, there should be no doubt about the direction in which the Western Balkans will head.

Agim Nesho, President of the Albanian Council of Foreign Relations and former Albanian Ambassador to the United States and the United Nations.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Government of Montenegro/CC by-sa 3.0

TopicsDemocracyForeign Policy RegionsGermanyBalkansEurope

Decades-Old Security Council Resolutions Are Holding Israeli-Palestinian Peace Back. It's Time for Something New.

The Buzz

When Secretary Kerry’s anticipated failure to mediate an Israeli-Palestinian permanent status agreement resulted in a complete stalemate of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, it was clear it might have severe short and long-term repercussions. On the short term it led to a resumption of the cycle of violence and may threaten the survival of the Palestinian Authority. The kidnapping of three Israeli youth by a Palestinian terrorist group and the escalation that followed it, first in the West Bank and then in Gaza Strip, demonstrated this danger.

Hardly have the parties digested the failure of Secretary Kerry to mediate an Israeli-Palestinian agreement and the possible ramifications of a political stalemate, and here we are, engulfed in yet another round of violence between Israel and Hamas ending with a cease fire, which may prove shaky, as a first step towards a long-term stabilization of Gaza through its reconstruction and providing the population with a future perspective. In the short run it will help diminish the motivation of Hamas to renew fighting. In the longer run it could be a first step in a renewed attempt to relaunch the political process. In the wake of the latest round of escalation it should be clear to all parties that what was perceived to be a status quo is not tenable, even in the short run. On the long run the continuation of the status quo means a slide towards a binational state that will be neither Jewish nor democratic, while continuing to deny the Palestinian people the right to self-determination.

With no real changes in the basic positions of the two sides, it is difficult to assume that Secretary Kerry will succeed in restarting the negotiations between Israel and the PLO, and even if he were to succeed, there is no reason to believe that the next round of talks would be more successful. It leads to the conclusion that change of leadership in one or both sides is needed for real, results-oriented negotiations to take place, because it seems that even the recent bloodshed and suffering will not lead to the necessary change of heart among the current political leaderships.

Against this grim backdrop, the emphasis should be focused now on the short term on managing the crisis caused by the latest military round in Gaza and avoiding steps on the ground that might preempt a future agreement, such as expansion of the settlements project. For the longer term steps that will set the stage for renewed future negotiations between new leaderships are required. One of the steps that should be seriously considered by the international community (and the parties concerned) is passing a new UN Security Council resolution (different then the resolution that is discussed in the context of the Gaza ceasefire) that will reflect the changing reality since the passing of the last relevant resolution, and therefore, the need for a new reference. Until recently the talks between the two sides where based on two outdated UN Security Council resolutions, 242 and 338. The first one is from 1967 and the latter is from 1973. After more than twenty years of futile negotiations more detailed terms of reference that deal with the specific problems of this conflict are needed. Secretary Kerry tried to mediate an agreement between the two sides on such terms of reference in the form of a framework agreement, to no avail. The international community is the only one that can determine these terms of reference through a new UN Security Council resolution. It should be based on a US understanding of the nature of reasonable terms of reference drawn from the last two rounds of negotiations, during the premierships of Olmert and Netanyahu.

These terms of reference have to deal with the main subjects of the permanent status agreement; borders between the two states, security, Jerusalem, refugees and the finality of the agreement. It should also reflect the fact that although the parties did not succeed in concluding an agreement the gaps between, the positions of the two parties were narrowed down in important areas. They should enshrine some important principles of the permanent status agreement, such as basing the borders on the 1967 line with mutual equal swaps of territories, two capitals in Jerusalem, Israel and Palestine as the nation states of the Jewish people and the Palestinian people respectively, security arrangements that will include a nonmilitarized Palestinian state, and a mechanism for compensation to the Palestinian refugees and their rehabilitation.

There should be consideration of the UN chapter on which the resolution should be based. It seems that Chapter 6 that deals with “Pacific Settlement of Disputes” is suitable.

There is no doubt that the mere idea of introducing a new UN security council resolution, which will serve as a new basis for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, will be opposed by the parties concerned because the principles that will be included in the resolution will not fully reflect their positions. Key to such a step let alone to its success is the US. But the US alone should not lead that effort. It’s the Quartet (composed of the UN, EU, Russia and the US) that should take the lead in drafting the resolution, leading consultations with the parties concerned and the Arab states. Based on the consultations, a resolution should be put to a vote in the security council. As the saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Since it’s broke, it is about time for the international community to set the stage for yet another attempt to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on a new and realistic resolution. Some may argue that there are more pressing issues in the Middle East like the civil wars in Syria and Iraq, but there is no reason to believe that dealing with one of these pressing issues will be at the expense of the others. Eventually it is not possible to escape from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and an important side benefit of such a resolution might be also providing a stimulus for internal political changes in the two sides that will serve the purpose of resolving of this protracted conflict.

Brig. Gen. (ret.) Shlomo Brom and Ambassador (ret.) Shimon Stein are Senior Fellows at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Hu Totya. CC BY-SA 3.0.

TopicsDiplomacyUnited Nations RegionsPalestinian territoriesIsrael

Iran and the Nuclear Sanctions Debate

The Buzz

Whether or not a grand bargain is struck with Iran, we’re likely to have another debate in Washington over whether economic sanctions “work.” Economic sanctions are most likely to be effective where they are least likely to be used: against America’s allies. With a few exceptions, the threat of sanctions serve as an effective deterrent against starting a nuclear program in the first place. However, once states start nuclear programs, economic sanctions are unlikely to reverse their progress.

Sanctions Can Prevent Nuclear Weapons Programs, But They Don’t Stop Them

The biggest successes from economic sanctions come before they are ever used. After China had its first nuclear tests in the 1960s, members of the Kennedy administration feared that it would not only weaken the United States’ position in Asia, but unleash a cascade of proliferation that would ultimately result in West Germany’s acquisition of the bomb.

States that have relied on the United States’ conventional and nuclear umbrellas also relied on access to the open economic order constructed and supported by the United States after the Second World War. A number of states that have fallen under the United States’ “sphere of influence” have eschewed nuclearization—from Japan to South Korea, Taiwan and Germany, because the benefits of the bomb were outweighed by the costs of sanctions (namely, losing access to the international economy). Even where the logic of international anarchy would seem to dictate starting a nuclear program (as in the China case or, more recently, with North Korea’s series of nuclear tests), the prospect of incurring sanctions and losing access to American markets and security guarantees has deterred a number of states from attempting to join the nuclear club.

Sanctions Give Nuclear States Incentives to Redouble Their Nuclear Efforts

Social scientists and historians often focus on what they can observe. Because we seldom see sanctions preventing states from giving up the bomb, we mistakenly equate this with the idea that sanctions never work.

When sanctions are imposed on states pursuing the bomb, they serve as a boon for pro-nuclear lobbies. States pursue nuclear weapons for a variety of reasons: because they have rich supplies of the materials needed to build the bomb, nationalism, domestic politics or the security dilemma. Whatever states’ initial motivations are, nuclear-weapons programs are rich sources of rents. They allow the bureaucracies responsible for developing a nuclear weapon to grab a larger slice of the budgetary pie.

Second, because nuclear-weapons programs invite sanctions from the United States and a number of other states, they provide protection for struggling industries. In a number of instances, these states are pursuing import-substitution as an economic strategy. Sanctions are something to be welcomed, not an instrument of statecraft to be avoided. While Rouhani’s Iran has hinted at wanting to become more open to the world economy, in previous decades Tehran has pursued protectionism over free-market liberalism, as did Saddam's Iraq.

Implications for the Talks with Iran

The book has yet to be written about Iran. Proponents of engagement, such as Trita Parsi, have argued that coupled with the Arab Spring, the economic pressures brought on by the sanctions have rattled the regime. This perspective suggests that Supreme Leader Khamenei prefers to uphold the regime to acquiring the bomb. A successful bargain would ameliorate tensions with a long-standing adversary, prevent the outbreak of a war and could open the door to cooperation across other shared areas of interest between Washington and Tehran. Furthermore, the sanctions responsible for having damaged the Iranian economy (along with Mahmoud Rafsanjani’s mismanagement) were responsible for Rouhani’s victory in the 2013 presidential elections. Should a comprehensive deal be reached in November 2014, the sanctions will have played a significant role.

Some publicly circulated reports in the United States suggest that elite Iranian decision makers have not made up their minds as to whether they want a nuclear weapon. Many hawks in the United States and in Israel disagree, believing that the regime in Tehran is bent on acquiring such a capability and are simply playing for time. According to this perspective, any deal would be used to unwind the sanctions regime as a means of strengthening the Iranian economy. Once prosperity returns, the mullahs will covertly reinvest in the nuclear program.

What Happens After Unipolarity?

Much of the literature on the relationship between the use of sanctions to combat nuclear proliferation has rested upon the preferences of the United States. However, what happens if the United States ceases to be the world’s global hegemon? For instance, what if the world remains unipolar, but America is succeeded by China? Or, if the United States remains a great power, but the world becomes bipolar or multipolar?

Scholars such as Matthew Kroenig have argued that it is force, rather than friendship, that determines states’ attitudes toward nuclear proliferation. Great powers tend to take a hardline toward nuclear proliferation because it interferes with their ability to project military force. Weaker states are more sanguine about the threat because they are relatively unconcerned with their ability to project force.

If the United States continues to decline relative to other states, it is likely that other rising powers will pick up the slack against proliferators. The reason is simple: prospective proliferators’ joining the nuclear club will pose a threat to them in much the same way states like China threatened the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1960s and Iran threatens the United States today.

Dr. Albert B. Wolf is an Israel Institute Fellow with the Leonard Davis Institute for International Relations at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  He is currently writing a book examining the effectiveness of coercive diplomacy in curbing nuclear proliferation.

Image: Iran president website

TopicsNonproliferationNuclear WeaponsSanctions RegionsIranUnited States

ISIS in Perspective

Paul Pillar

Americans, following a long tradition of finding monsters overseas to destroy, are now focusing their attention and their energy on a relatively new one: the group variously known as ISIS or ISIL or the Islamic State. The group has become a major disruptive factor in the already disrupted internal affairs of Iraq and Syria, and it is legitimately a significant object of concern for U.S. policy as far as instability and radicalism in the Middle East are concerned. The outsized role that this group has come to play in discourse about U.S. foreign policy, however—including hyperbolic statements by senior officials—risks a loss of perspective about what kind of threat it does or does not pose to U.S. interests, and with that a possible loss of care in assessing what U.S. actions in response would or would not be wise.

Several attributes of ISIS have repeatedly and correctly been identified as measures of the group's strength, and aspects of the group's rise that are worthy of notice. These include its seizure of pieces of territory in both Iraq and Syria, acquisition of financial resources, and enlistment of substantial numbers of westerners. Although these are impressive indicators of the group's success, none of them is equivalent to a threat to U.S. interests, much less a physical threat to the United States itself—at least not in the sense of a new danger different from ones that have been around for some time. Money, for example, has never been the main determinant of whether a group constitutes a such a danger. Terrorism that makes a difference can be cheap, and one does not need to rob banks in Mosul or to run an impressive revenue collection operation in order to have enough money to make an impact. Even a terrorist spectacular on the scale of 9/11 is within the reach of a single wealthy and radically-minded donor to finance.

The involvement of western citizens with terrorist groups has long been a focus of attention for western police and internal security services. To the extent this represents a threat, it is not a direct function of any one group's actions or successes overseas, be they of ISIS or any other group. Several patterns involving westerners' involvement with foreign terrorist groups are well established. One is that the story has consistently been one of already radicalized individuals seeking contact with a group rather than the other way around. If it isn't one particular group they seek out, it will be another. A further pattern is that, despite frequently expressed fears about westerners acquiring training overseas that they then apply effectively to terrorist operations in the West, this hasn't happened. Faisal Shahzad and his firecracker-powered attempt at a car bomb in Times Square illustrate the less ominous reality. Yet another pattern is that apart from a few westerners whose language skills have been exploited for propaganda purposes, the westerners have become grunts and cannon fodder. They have not been entrusted with sophisticated plots (unsuccessful shoe bomber Richard Reid being the closest thing to an exception), probably partly because of their evident naiveté and largely because of groups' concerns about operational security and possible penetration.

The control by a group of a piece of territory, even if it is mostly just sand or mountains, is what most often is taken mistakenly as a measure of the threat a group poses, and this phenomenon is occurring in spades with ISIS. Probably seizure of land is interpreted this way because following this aspect of the progress of a group is as simple as looking at color-coded maps in the newspaper. The history of terrorist operations, including highly salient operations such as 9/11, demonstrates that occupying some real estate is not one of the more important factors that determine whether a terrorist operation against the United States or another western country can be mounted. To the extent ISIS devotes itself to seizing, retaining, and administering pieces of real estate in the Levant or Mesopotamia—and imposing its version of a remaking of society in those pieces—this represents a turn away from, not toward, terrorism in the West. Significant friction between ISIS (then under a different name) and al-Qaeda first arose when the former group's concentration on whacking Iraqi Shias was an unhelpful, in the view of the al-Qaeda leadership, digression from the larger global jihad and the role that the far enemy, the United States, played in it.

Traditionally an asset that non-state terrorist groups are considered to have, and a reason they are considered (albeit wrongly) to be undeterrable is that they lack a “return address”. To the extent ISIS maintains a mini-state in the Middle East, it loses that advantage. Any such mini-state would be more of a burden to the group than an asset, beyond whatever satisfaction the group gets from installing its warped version of an Islamic order in its little piece of land. Maintaining and exerting power in the mini-state would be a difficult, full-time job. The place would be a miserable, ostracized blotch on the map with no ability to project power at a distance. It would be a problem for the immediate neighbors, and even more of one for the governments out of whose territories the mini-state had been carved, but its existence would not make ISIS any more of a threat to the United States than it otherwise would be.

We Americans need to exercise some introspection regarding how and why we are reacting to the ISIS phenomenon the way we are, beyond the way we interpret shadings on a newspaper map (and beyond the usual politicized biases that infect any policy discussion in Washington). To some extent the group is filling a need for a well-defined, personified adversary. We don't have Osama bin Laden to fight anymore, but now we have Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. We also are reacting quite understandably to the group's methods, which are despicably inhumane, and to its objectives, which are disgustingly medieval. The burst of attention to the group over the past week clearly results largely from the grisly killing of a captured American photojournalist. We all abhor that event, and we should. But we also should bear in mind that an emotional reaction to such an incident produces the wrong frame of mind for debate, and cool-headed deliberation, about public policy.

What may be most disturbing about the tenor of current discourse on the subject is how much of it is expressed in absolute terms, with many proclaiming that ISIS “must be destroyed,” or words to that effect. Such absolutism undermines the consideration that should be given to other U.S. interests and objectives (as there always will be) affected by pursuit of that one objective, and consideration of costs as well as benefits (there always will be both) of any U.S. action taken in pursuit of that objective. We have heard similar absolutism before, and we have seen the results. We heard it with the post-9/11 false syllogism that if terrorism is considered a serious problem then we must recognize that we are at “war,” and if we are at war then that means we must rely principally on military force. We heard it also in the dictum that if there is even a one percent chance of something awful happening to us, then we must treat that as a certainty.

The absolutist approach leads to inappropriate derision and dismissal of policy steps as “half measures” when they may in fact be—considering the costs, benefits, and other U.S. interests at stake—the most prudent steps that could be taken. Some actions that would set back ISIS may be, given the circumstances, sensible and cost-effective. Other possible measures may seem aimed more directly at the goal of destroying ISIS but, given the circumstances, would not be sensible.

And what does “destroying” the group really mean? Our experience with al-Qaeda should have taught us to ponder that question long and hard. We killed innumerable “number three” leaders of al-Qaeda, we killed bin Laden himself, and we have rendered Ayman al-Zawahiri a largely irrelevant fugitive. We have in effect destroyed the organization, or at least as much as can be expected from more than 13 years (yes, the process started before 9/11) of destruction. But the methods we really were worried about lived on through a metastasis that led to the emergence of other organizations. ISIS is one of those organizations. If ISIS is “destroyed,” there is little reason to believe that the methods we most worry about, and associated ideologies, will not take still other forms.

The seeds of the death of ISIS lie within its own methods and objectives, which are as abhorrent to many of its would-be subjects as they are to us. The group rode to its dramatic gains, in both Iraq and Syria, on larger waves of opposition to detested incumbent regimes. Its losses can be just as dramatic if the political circumstances that led to such opposition are changed. They already are changing in Baghdad, and it still is possible for political change of some sort, which excludes any groups as extreme as ISIS, to take place in Syria.

The extent of any terrorist threat to the United States does not depend on killing any one organization. It will depend partly on those political processes in countries such as Iraq and Syria. It also will depend on how well the United States, in going after any one monster, does not create other ones. In that regard we cannot remind ourselves often enough—especially because this fact seems to have been forgotten amid the current discussion of ISIS—that ISIS itself was born as a direct result of the United States going after a different monster in Iraq.                                          

TopicsTerrorism Iraq Syria RegionsMiddle East