The Danger of Derailing the Iranian Nuclear Deal

Paul Pillar

Inflection points in the history of U.S. foreign relations sometimes are marked by new departures and new roads taken. But they might instead entail blown opportunities to take new and better roads, with significant damage resulting from the failure to take them. That failure involves opportunity costs at a minimum, and other costs as well. We may be getting close to the latter type of inflection point, with significant danger that opponents of any agreement to restrict Iran's nuclear program will succeed in wrecking the deal.

As of this writing the greatest chance of wrecking it appears to involve not what is going on at the negotiating tables in Europe but instead what the U.S. Congress may do back in Washington to sabotage the work of the diplomats. The energy for the Congressional wrecking ball comes, as it always has, from three sources.

One is a general need for a foreign enemy and a habit of viewing America's role as one of militant and uncompromising confrontation with that enemy. This habit and felt need have roots in some broader American attitudes, although they are manifested most starkly in neoconservatism. Iran has been filling this role of needed enemy for some time.

A second is the strong opposition of the right-wing Israel government—with everything that customarily implies regarding American politics—to anyone making any agreement with Iran. This opposition serves the Israeli government's purposes of fixing blame for regional problems firmly on someone else, of positing opposition to such an enemy as supposedly a basis for U.S.-Israeli strategic cooperation, and of diverting international attention from problems directly involving Israel itself.

The third driver, which has become especially relevant the more that the Iran negotiations have become a prominent effort in Barack Obama's foreign policy, is the determination of much of the Republican opposition to oppose anything that Mr. Obama favors and to deny him any achievements. The heightened acrimony over the issue of immigration has made this even more of a factor than before, if that is possible. Amid talk about government shutdowns and freezing of all appointment confirmations, trashing of a diplomatic agreement with Iran would be done while barely batting an eyelash.

If the deal-wreckers succeed, we will have a negative turning point in U.S. foreign relations because the opportunity for any kind of nuclear deal with Iran will be lost for an indefinite future. The conditions that made it possible for the two sides to get as close to agreement as they now would quickly unravel in multiple ways. The Iranian president would in effect become a lame duck, the influence of hardliners in Iran would rise, and credibility that had been built up during the negotiations would dissipate. The alternative to whatever deal emerges from the current negotiations would be no deal at all.

Having an agreement emerge during a lame duck Congress was supposed to be the most sabotage-resistant timing, and it probably is. But expectations now are that what will most likely be announced this month is not a complete agreement but rather some version of an extension of the previous interim deal and a partial agreement with additional details yet to be negotiated. This situation unfortunately will be an invitation to those wielding the wrecking ball to do serious damage after the new Congress convenes. They probably will take multiple whacks with the ball. There is, for example, a bill sponsored by the incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, that is designed to get a hasty vote of disapproval of the agreement before anyone would have much chance to study it. There also would be a push (most fervently from Senator Mark Kirk) to impose more sanctions, which would violate the interim agreements and provide cause for the Iranians to walk away from the table. The fact that keeping the terms of the current interim agreement in effect would achieve the presumed goal of freezing or rolling back the Iranian nuclear program would do little to slow down the deal-wreckers.

Blowing the opportunity for an agreement would be all the more a shame because, according to the preeminent criterion of preventing any Iranian nuclear weapon (not to mention other consequences of an agreement), the choice between a deal and no deal is almost a no-brainer. No deal would mean fewer restrictions on the Iranian program and lesser inspection and monitoring of it. Iran would have a much clearer path to a nuclear weapon, if it chose to take it, without an agreement than with one.

We are approaching a critical point in U.S. foreign relations. It is gut-check time especially for Democrats who have to decide whether they are going to take the responsible position for the sake of U.S. interests in the Middle East or instead be tempted into being part of a veto-proof Iran-bashing, “pro-Israel” majority. Perhaps taking the responsible route will be made a bit easier by seeing how the opposition to an agreement has become increasingly and blatantly partisan, as illustrated by a hard-line letter initiated this week by Kirk and Marco Rubio that got signatures from 43 Republican senators but not a single Democrat.         


TopicsIran RegionsMiddle East

Post 9/11 Stat You Should Know: America has now Conducted 500 Targeted Killings

The Buzz

The most consistent and era-defining tactic of America’s post-9/11 counterterrorism strategies has been the targeted killing of suspected terrorists and militants outside of defined battlefields. As one senior Bush administration official explained in October 2001, “The president has given the [CIA] the green light to do whatever is necessary. Lethal operations that were unthinkable pre-September 11 are now underway.” Shortly thereafter, a former CIA official told the New Yorker, “There are five hundred guys out there you have to kill.” It is quaint to recall that such a position was considered extremist and even morally unthinkable. Today, these strikes are broadly popular with the public and totally uncontroversial in Washington, both within the executive branch and on Capitol Hill. Therefore, it is easy to forget that this tactic, envisioned to be rare and used exclusively for senior al-Qaeda leaders thirteen years ago, has become a completely accepted and routine foreign policy activity.

Thus, just as you probably missed the tenth anniversary—November 3, 2012—of what I labeled the Third War, it’s unlikely you will hear or read that the United States just launched its 500th non-battlefield targeted killing.

As of today, the United States has now conducted 500 targeted killings (approximately 98 percent of them with drones), which have killed an estimated 3,674 people, including 473 civilians. Fifty of these were authorized by President George W. Bush, 450 and counting by President Obama. Noticeably, these targeted killings have not diminished the size of the targeted groups according to the State Department’s own numbers.

This piece comes courtesy of CFR's blog Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Image: Wikicommons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsUnited States

America's Immigration Nightmare Continues

The Buzz

I disagree with the president’s use of executive power to protect illegal immigrants who have openly defied our laws for years. But he’s right to say that our immigration policy is “broken” and we have “de facto amnesty.” Neither party wants to deport them. Illegal immigrants eventually become Democratic voters. If they do not attain citizenship, their children get it automatically by birth and will likely vote Democratic when they are eighteen and throughout their lives. What’s more, a number of Republicans, ignoring these long-term political effects, like immigration because it depresses wages, thereby helping businesses.

Republicans have given us de facto amnesty by executive inertia for decades. President Reagan signed the first amnesty law (the Immigration Reform and Control Act) in 1986. The other part of that law was supposed to crack down on employers who knowingly hired illegal workers. This was never enforced. The law is a farce. When Republicans controlled the White House, they did nothing to beef up enforcement. The only difference between that and what President Obama has done is a formal announcement. And if I had to choose between an announced amnesty and a stealth one, I’d rather have it announced. At least the public knows who to blame when they suffer the unintended consequences—lower wages for high-school graduates, more people on entitlement programs and so on.

Every Republican member of Congress knows we don’t enforce the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). They also know that millions of illegals work every day in agriculture, food processing, construction and other low-wage jobs. They could have held hearings, subpoenaed the owners of the major ag and poultry processors to testify, humiliated them on national television, enlarged the budget for workplace enforcement of IRCA and all the other tools that make for high Washington drama. When Congress gets its blood up, things change.

But the opposite occurred. When the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) raided a major Georgia onion farm and arrested hundreds of illegal workers, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), a conservative who says he is against illegal immigration, demanded the DHS stop raids in his state. They stopped. The same thing happened in Nebraska when meat processors were raided, and in Texas when chicken processors were briefly put on the spot. Republicans came to the rescue of business.

Is President Obama’s executive “action”—more aptly, inaction—any worse? I think not. He is essentially doing two things: exercising discretion in who gets deported and issuing work permits to millions of illegal immigrants. He has the authority to do the first. Congress has not appropriated enough money to deport all the illegals in the country. So someone has to prioritize who gets removed. That someone is the federal agency in charge—the DHS.

So the president can effectively promise the illegals in the country who have not committed a subsequent crime that they won’t be deported. They can’t all be deported, unless the Republicans in control of Congress seriously want to purge the nation of illegals, and as I’ve said, they plainly don’t want that. President Obama was correct to point out in his speech that Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush had issued executive orders to protect groups of illegals from deportation. Republicans at the time did not oppose it. He made his actions sound like they were being reasonable and humane, rather than usurping of congressional prerogatives.

Speaker Boehner’s speech deplored Obama’s executive actions. But listen closely and you will not hear a single Republican advocate deporting the millions of illegals the president will protect. They apparently agree with the president that deporting long-term illegal is is “not who we are.” They are merely angry that the president is acting “unilaterally,” just as they have done for decades when they held the presidency.

Republicans also say they will deny funding for the executive action. I fail to see how deferring deportations costs anything. Rather, it saves money. And as for the issuance of work permits, I read in the New York Times that Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the part of the DHS that issues them, is self-funding—that is, it generates money from fees it charges for documents, rather than by appropriations. If so, then the talk of a cutoff is simply bluster. The president ended his speech by saying immigrants are a “net plus.” Many economists disagree, pointing out that the effects of the last two decade’s historic levels of immigration are lower wages for American workers with high-school educations. And almost all of the new jobs created by immigrants went to the immigrants themselves. So it’s a net minus. The only political figure to make this point is Sen. Sessions (R-AL). I hope that those Republicans who say they deplore the president’s actions will soon outline an alternative immigration point of view.

Howard W. Foster is a lawyer specializing in civil RICO cases involving the employment of illegal immigrants.

TopicsImmigrationDomestic Politics RegionsUnited States

The Damaging Myth About "Winning" the Iraq War

Paul Pillar

One of the most persistently voiced myths about U.S. foreign policy of the past several years—and because of that persistent voicing, one apparently already entrenched in the minds of many Americans—concerns the status as of about five years ago of the big experiment in regime change and nation-building known as the Iraq War. According to the myth, the war was all but won by then, with just a few more touches yet to be added to complete the forging of a stable Iraqi democracy, before the Obama administration snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by prematurely withdrawing the remaining U.S. troops that were need to finish the job. No matter how often the myth gets repeated, it is just as false now as the first part of the myth was five years ago.

It is easy to see the motivations for promoting the myth. Probably the leading motivation is to relieve the cognitive dissonance and the blow to personal reputations of those who promoted or strongly supported the war itself—the grandest neoconservative project ever and the biggest foreign policy endeavor of the George W. Bush administration—only to see it materialize as one of the biggest and costliest blunders in the history of U.S. foreign policy. Also rough on amour-propre, and in a way more worthy of understanding and even respect from the rest of us than is the case with the war-promoters, is how those in uniform who were given the task of carrying out the project have not been able to claim honestly that their efforts and sacrifices resulted in a victory. Yet another obvious motivation, which arises whenever Barack Obama's political opponents find a stick they can employ to beat him, is to use the troubles of Iraq today as one more such stick.

With regard particularly to that last motivation, it always has been puzzling how the part of the myth relating to Obama's policies gets propagated even though it was the Bush administration that established the schedule for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq by 2011. The Obama administration merely carried out the terms of the agreement that the Bush administration had negotiated with the Iraq government. In response to assertions that Mr. Obama “didn't try hard enough” to negotiate a new agreement with different terms, which implication are we supposed to draw: that Mr. Bush did not try hard enough in the first place, or that when Bush people and Obama people each try to do the same thing we should expect the Obama people to be better at it?

But the myth has more significant consequences than its effect on the partisan scorecard.

A reflection of the discrepancy between the myth and Iraqi reality arose in a public debate in which I participated a couple of months ago, the topic of which concerned the efficacy, or lack thereof, of additional applications of U.S. military force in the Middle East. One of my opponents on the pro-efficacy side (a prominent neocon pundit) asserted that Iraq was “at peace” in 2009. As one measure of what this supposedly peaceful state looked like, consider the statistics compiled by the Iraq Body Count project, which show 5,309 civilian deaths from the continued violence in Iraq in 2009. For comparison, that is more than total U.S. combat deaths for the entire war. It also includes only documented civilian deaths, which are basically collateral damage, and does not reflect either undocumented casualties or the full toll among government forces and militias who were the principal combatants.

The civil war unleashed by the U.S. invasion and ouster of the Iraqi regime has had an unbroken history, from then through today. Like most wars, its intensity has ebbed and flowed. The surge of U.S. troops in 2007 and 2008 was one factor, but only one, involved in one of the ebbs. And if there are more than 160,000 U.S. troops in a country, as there were in Iraq at the peak of the U.S. occupation, we certainly should expect some effect on the ebb and flow. Even with the temporary ebbing of the violence, the issues driving the civil war remained unsettled—fundamental issues involving distribution of political power in Iraq. The surge was intended to make it possible for Iraqis to resolve those issues, and in that respect the surge failed. There is an unbroken history from the conflict of interests that caused the civil war and its associated mélange of insurgencies to break out a decade ago, to the conflict of interests—which is mostly the same unresolved conflict of interests among sectarian and ethnic communities—that underlies the violence in Iraq today. There also is an unbroken history from the most violent and extreme of the groups in Iraq as of several years ago and the feared group ISIS—which is the same group with a new name and a new leader—that is such a preoccupation today.

There never has been a logic accompanying the myth. If eight and a half years of U.S troops in Iraq were not enough, then why should we expect a few more years (or would it turn out to be only a few?) of a troop presence to be sufficient? And if 160,000 troops were not enough, then why should we expect a smaller number (or would it re-escalate to a large number?) to be sufficient?

The myth seems to be predicated on some strange process of telepathic osmosis by which democratic thoughts in the minds of American troops in Iraq would somehow have gotten former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki to have turned away from his sectarian and authoritarian habits and nourished an inclusive, tolerant, multi-confessional democracy. What else exactly could U.S. troops in Iraq have done if they had lingered longer in Iraq to have made such a political difference? Threaten to overthrow Maliki, through a kind of U.S.-led military coup, if he didn't get with the program? If U.S. forces instead would have been helping to provide security against the extremist groups and Sunni insurgents whose support has been rooted all along in opposition to the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad, that would only have reduced rather than increased Maliki's incentive to reform and to be more inclusive.

If telepathic osmosis was not expected to work and whatever good U.S. troops would have done would be in spite of the unhelpful ways of Iraqi politicians such as Maliki, then the job would never be done, if the job is defined as making way for a stable Iraqi democracy standing on its own. Or at least it would not be done on any time scale less than generational—a time scale, measured in decades, long enough for a new political culture to evolve. Until then, U.S. troops would have been sitting forcefully and indefinitely on the ingredients of a volatile stew—a little like how Saddam Hussein sat on top of it in a much more brutal way, before the U.S. removed him and the stew boiled over.

No, we never won, or almost won, the Iraq War. One of the uniformed leaders who was given the task to try to do that, now retired three-star general Daniel Bolger, has painfully—but honestly, and not buying into myths that would be soothing for him and his colleagues—acknowledged this by writing:

“The surge in Iraq did not 'win' anything. It bought time. It allowed us to kill some more bad guys and feel better about ourselves. But in the end, shackled to a corrupt, sectarian government in Baghdad and hobbled by our fellow Americans' unwillingness to commit to a fight lasting decades, the surge just forestalled today's stalemate. Like a handful of aspirin gobbled by a fever patient, the surge cooled the symptoms. But the underlying disease didn't go away.”

The damage that the myth about Iraq inflicts is not limited to fostering public misunderstanding about an important episode in modern American history, although that is indeed harmful. It is not limited to fostering misunderstanding about who was right and who was wrong about that episode and thus who should and should not be listened to on similar matters, a misunderstanding that also is harmful. The damage extends to the encouragement of more general misconceptions about efficacy of the exertion of U.S. power overseas.

George Kennan made a somewhat similar observation about an earlier set of myths and recriminations concerning developments in another faraway country that has been a preoccupation of Americans. The belief that we “lost China,” wrote Kennan, “seriously distorted the understanding of a great many Americans about foreign policy, implying that our policy was always the decisive mover of events everywhere in the world; that in any country of the world, including China, we had it in our power to prevent the rise to positions of authority of people professing Marxist sympathies...”

The ideologies that Americans fear the most now are ones other than Marxism. And the myth involving Iraq is a more extensive one than the one involving China in that it posits the United States having “won” Iraq before “losing” it. But the damage Kennan identifies—the mistaken belief that if U.S. power and especially military power is applied with sufficient determination and persistence, the governments of other countries will be composed of people who are to our liking or at least act in accordance with our liking—is the same.                                                                                    

TopicsIraq RegionsMiddle East

Understanding Georgia's Evolution

The Buzz

The ongoing conflict in Ukraine has kept reignited Western attention focused on the former Soviet republics, a varied group of countries often misunderstood by outsiders. Last week Georgia returned to the news due to perceived tumult within the government. On November 5, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili dismissed the Defense Minister, Irakli Alasania, following the latter’s comments regarding the arrest of employees of his ministry. Two other ministers then resigned in solidarity. Commentators were quick to emphasize Mr. Alasania’s pro-Western credentials, and to cast into doubt the commitment of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition to its Euro-Atlantic trajectory. A domestic political dispute was contrived to suggest that Georgian Dream is not Western in orientation and is using the judicial process to punish its political rivals.

These suggestions are unfounded. The recent dismissal and resignations are domestic political issues and have no connection to the course of foreign policy.  It is not surprising that this dispute allowed some opponents to accuse Georgian Dream of being secretly controlled by anti-Western forces, as this is a frequent albeit unfortunate feature of our politics. Political disagreements erupt for many reasons and are a natural part of democracy, and in parliamentary democracies like Georgia’s—as is true of most European countries—political movement at these times often seems excessive.  For Georgia, a more experienced democracy might have explained the events of last week more coherently, but even so the explanation would not have focused on judicial overreach or the judiciary’s meddling in politics.  Parliament and the government have in fact worked to improve judicial independence and to ensure the proper tools are in place to prevent the judicial process from being politicized, preventing the law enforcement system, specifically the Prosecutor’s Office, from becoming pulled into the epicenter of the political process, to introduce certain legal tools to protect the Prosecutor General and his/her deputies from having to take a position on political issues. The law enforcement system, including the Prosecutor’s Office, must be kept out of the political epicenter. This is one of the most important lessons we have learnt from recent events. We must consider this and improve our work.

Georgia’s ambitions to join NATO and the EU are as strong as ever. No political party would seek to change this course, not least because of the inevitable backlash from voters, who overwhelmingly favor integration with NATO and membership in the EU. Only this summer Georgians celebrated the ratification of an association agreement with the EU, and in September they welcomed the package for enhanced cooperation that was offered at the NATO summit. Overwhelmingly, Georgians support their country’s European and Euro-Atlantic integration. This is a firmly-grounded conviction, which is impossible to change or reverse overnight.

Despite Georgia’s commitment to its Euro-Atlantic trajectory, it also needs relations with Russia, its largest neighbor and an important trade partner. NATO and the EU support the improvement of Georgia’s relations with Russia, as does the American government. Vilifying the current government’s difficult work to improve certain aspects of that relationship is not only unhelpful for Georgia, but damaging to the stability of the wider region. Furthermore, as many commentators seem to have forgotten, there are strict and inescapable domestic limits on any Georgian government regarding rapprochement with Russia: relations cannot be normalized until Russia ceases to recognize the independence of the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and withdraws its forces from Georgian territory.

The current government has worked to lessen tensions, to reduce the danger of conflict, and to improve less-politicized areas such as trade and visas. Neither NATO nor the EU is prepared to bankroll Georgia or defend it militarily if another conflict erupts with Russia. This was made eminently clear in 2008 and more recently when conflict broke out in Ukraine. It is illogical to suggest that Georgia’s government is anti-Western simply because it understands this reality.

A Euro-Western trajectory has been pursued by Georgian policy makers for over twenty years; it was neither the discovery of former president Mikheil Saakashvili, nor is its continuation dependent upon individual politicians like Irakli Alasania. Many generations of Georgians since 1990s have contributed to Georgia’s Western trajectory, I need to admit that President Saakashvili and Irakli Alasania did their best in that regard. In spite of the exact balance of power in Parliament and the government, the country’s direction remains unchanged.  A stronger political opposition may emerge in our parliament as a result of last week’s events, but this is a positive development. An opposition willing to work constructively with the majority, and ready to hold it  accountable, will foster a political landscape in which parties compete for the mandate to build a strong, secure, democratic Georgia, able to stand independently as an ally and member of NATO, the EU, and the transatlantic partnership.

Tedo Japaridze is the former Georgian foreign minister and current chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Georgian parliament.  

Image: Wikicommons/Creative Commons 2.0.