Deterrence After the Cold War

Paul Pillar

Richard Betts offers a characteristically perspicuous essay in the newest Foreign Affairs about what has happened to the U.S. use—or nonuse, or misuse—of deterrence in the years since the Cold War. His overall observation is that the United States appears to have unlearned some of the lessons that it successfully applied during the Cold War. It has used the mechanisms of deterrence in situations where this use has needlessly worsened relations with the apparent target of the deterrence; confronting Russia with an expanded NATO is the leading example that Betts analyzes. Conversely, the United States has failed to use deterrence in situations where it should have done so. Here the glaring example is the George W. Bush administration's launching of a war against Iraq—rather than relying on deterrence to keep Saddam Hussein where Secretary of State Colin Powell said he was as of May 2001: “in a box.”

In addition to the issues of NATO and relations with Russia, Betts draws policy implications regarding the handling of Iran. He reviews the reasons—which ought to be easy to understand, but seemingly to many people aren't—why deterrence of even a nuclear-armed Iran is far preferable to launching a war against Iran. He also criticizes as sometimes muddled and inconsistent the way deterrence figures into the U.S. approach toward China and the Far East—scene of a Cold War failure to use deterrence properly, in Korea in 1950. Betts appears to prefer a clear either/or approach to deterrence, in which we make unmistakable the places where we are willing to respond forcefully while not leading others to believe that we are making deterrent threats in other places.

This preference leads to one point on which Betts's analysis can be challenged, as it relates to Cold War deterrence of the USSR. Insofar as U.S. nuclear weapons figured into deterrence of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe, there necessarily was some ambiguity. The West never did come up with a good answer to the question of whether, and why, the United States would risk incineration of New York for the sake of saving Hamburg. But that involves an unresolvable point of historical debate. On matters of current policy relevance, Betts's observations are astute.

Betts does not really address why lessons were unlearned and the same nation's use of a strategic concept as basic as deterrence has been so much less skillful in the past couple of decades than it was for most of the four decades before that. Let me offer two explanations.

One is that this is another indication of the tendency, which Americans in particular exhibit, to overestimate the newness of things, especially when moving from one identifiable era to another. A drastically changed world was the common way of looking at the end of the Cold War. The nature of threats was seen as having become thoroughly different from before, and thus altogether different strategies had to be used. Such views were significant exaggerations of actual change. But it nevertheless meant that many Cold War lessons were discarded not only because one generation succeeded another but also because the lessons were mistakenly seen as obsolete.

The other explanation involves the post-Cold-War-victory hubris of the unipolar moment. Some—including some who got into positions to shape policy—thought we didn't have to think as much about deterrence anymore because the United States now had the freedom and the power to accomplish much more directly through the application of military force, and to do so by taking the initiative rather than waiting to respond to someone else's transgression. The Iraq War demonstrated some of what was wrong with that line of thinking. But some lessons not only get forgotten; in some quarters they never seem to get learned in the first place.

TopicsNATODefenseHistoryNuclear Proliferation RegionsChinaRussiaIranIraqUnited States

Yale's Proposed Interrogation Center

The Buzz

If a 1.8 million dollar Department of Defense grant goes through, Yale will soon establish (under the U.S. Special Operations Command) the Center of Excellence for Operational Neuroscience to train Green Berets in "interview techniques." What kind of interview techniques? That depends on who you ask. The interviewees? Paid members of New Haven's immigrant community.

Psychiatry professor Charles A. Morgan III, the proposed leader of the project, says that by practicing on immigrants the center will teach soldiers a new "cross-cultural" approach to intelligence gathering that would replace more violent interrogation-style techniques. Critics argue that the project will victimize New Haven's large immigrant population and is inconsistent with medical ethics. Natalie Batraville and Alex Lew of the Yale Daily News asked on Friday: "Is there an assumption in Morgan’s desire to use more ‘authentic,’ brown interviewees as test subjects, that brown people lie differently from whites—and even more insidiously, that all brown people must belong to the same “category” of liar?"

The Yale Herald's original report about the center stated that exposing trainees to "Moroccans, Columbians [sic], Nepalese, Ecuadorians, and others" would help inform their sensibilities about when people from other countries were lying. This seems to be compounded by a paper co-authored by Morgan in 2010 with two other Yale psychiatry professors. According to the Huffington Post, "That research, funded by a grant from the Department of Defense, used 40 native Arabic speaking men 'self-identified as being conservative Muslims' to determine whether their heart rates changed when they were asked to lie."

While the center does not yet exist, these questions have already sparked a firestorm regarding the purpose of the proposed center and the role of academia in shaping future soldiers. Either way, the proposed use of the immigrant population in this training experiment certainly appears exploitive. After all, this being a university campus, why can't they practice these nonviolent techniques on broke college kids who want to make a buck? Or would that damage the realism of interviewing someone who looks more like a "terrorist"?

TopicsEthicsPsychology RegionsUnited States

A Subtle Shift at Foggy Bottom

The Buzz

Over at National Journal, Matt Vasilogambros looks at secretaries of state Hillary Clinton and John Kerry and asks what the transition from the former to the latter will mean for U.S. foreign policy. He concludes that the differences between the two are chiefly ones of tone and style rather than substance. In his words:

While observers have been quick to point to the stark differences in Kerry and Clinton’s personalities—the international superstar Clinton and the sometimes monotone Kerry—his tenure as secretary might not be as dissimilar from hers as they think.

There is some level of truth to this, and Vasilogambros is right that nobody should be expecting a major overhaul at the State Department as President Obama heads into his second term. But there is at least one significant policy difference between Clinton and Kerry that he misses: the two leaders’ beliefs on military intervention and the use of force. That is, where Clinton has been more of a hawk, more willing to employ military force in the service of American interests and ideals, Kerry has generally been more restrained and skeptical about what that force can accomplish.

Consider two examples from Obama’s first term: Afghanistan and Syria. Recall that during the 2009 Afghan strategy review, Clinton was a strong and vocal advocate for the “surge” recommended by the Pentagon and the military commanders. Conversely, Kerry was a critic of this plan. As he said in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing after Obama announced his new policy in December 2009:

Absent an urgent security need, we should not send American troops in to clear places unless we are confident that we have the Afghan partners and resources in place to build on our victories and transfer both security and government functions to legitimate Afghan leaders. Frankly, I am concerned that additional troops will tempt us beyond a narrow and focused mission. And, with 30,000 troops rushing into Afghanistan, I believe we will be challenged to have the civilian and governance capacity in place quickly enough to translate their sacrifice into lasting gains.

Likewise, as the administration debated what to do about the ongoing slaughter in Syria, Clinton proposed arming the Syrian rebels. Upon taking office recently, Kerry distanced himself from this idea, saying, “I'm not going to go backwards,” and stressing that the steps he and the administration were contemplating toward Syria were primarily “diplomatic.”

This is not to suggest that Kerry is a peacenik. Indeed, Kerry supported the 2011 Libya intervention (as did Clinton), and back in May 2012 he said that it might be time to consider establishing safe zones and arming the opposition in Syria, though he did not actually recommend doing so then. Both secretaries of state are well within the boundaries of mainstream Democratic Party thinking. Yet within those boundaries, Kerry has been noticeably more reluctant to recommend using military force abroad or taking steps that might invite future interventions. It’s a subtle but meaningful difference that seems to be in line with the administration’s broader evolution in its approach to foreign and defense policy.

TopicsDefenseHumanitarian InterventionSecurity RegionsAfghanistanSyria

Do Writers Still Need Publishers?

The Buzz

Once upon a time, some publishers thought that the proven business model for newspapers and magazines would slowly transition from print to the electronic medium. Things didn't quite play out that way. Many established media companies failed to foresee that the new medium of the internet would create disruptive new formats that would upend the old model. Exhibit A is the blog (a term which only entered the rarified lexicon of the Oxford English Dictionary in 1999). But another related yet different format deserves more attention.

Unlike the quick commentary that is the staple of the blog, the aggregator focuses primarily on pointing users to content from other sources. Some such as the Drudge Report link to news headlines, while others like the RealClearPolitics family of sites provide links organized by topic. The Browser is a general interest aggregator that emphasizes quality over quantity. The site's editor, former journalist Robert Cottrell, writing in the Financial Times, recently gave a fascinating look into what he is doing as an aggregator—and what the rise of the format means for journalism:

I don’t pretend that everything online is great writing. Let me go further: only 1 per cent is of value to the intelligent general reader, by which I mean the demographic that, in the mainstream media world, might look to the Economist, the Financial Times, Foreign Affairs or the Atlantic for information. Another 4 per cent of the internet counts as entertaining rubbish. The remaining 95 per cent has no redeeming features. But even the 1 per cent of writing by and for the elite is an embarrassment of riches, a horn of plenty, a garden of delights. Each day I seek my six pieces with these criteria in mind: would I go out of my way to recommend this piece to one of my own friends? Will it inform and delight the intelligent general reader? Will it still be worth reading a month or a year from now?

Cottrell points out that the old newspaper model (which tells us that yesterday's paper is useless), along with the internet's constant demand for the fresh and seemingly novel, has created a sad situation in which "we overvalue new writing, almost absurdly so, and we undervalue older writing." He laments the first-rate piece "that deserves to be read for years to come and yet will have at most two days in the sun." This seems particularly apt when it comes to a long-form piece that may have been in the works for months, and yet to the dismay of its author is considered stale in less than a week.

This phenomenon of the self-destructing piece is all the more frustrating if one accepts that long-form journalism, whether consumed in bound printed form or on an iPad, generally still requires the kind of resources—both financial and editorial—that traditional publishers provide. On this point, Cottrell seems overly optimistic about the potential for eliminating the role of the publisher:

[I]t seems to me almost inevitable that a new business model for reading and writing online will prevail in the future, which consists of readers rewarding directly the writers they admire. Almost inevitable, because this is by far the most efficient economic arrangement for both parties, and there are no longer any significant technological obstacles to its general adoption.

This direct model may work for the blog format—Cottrell cites Andrew Sullivan's recent decision to go independent—but it ignores the value added by the traditional editorial process that serious publications still provide. When it comes to a long-form piece that is months in the making, many topics originate with editors. And most pieces go through multiple revisions that refine and polish, all in an attempt to achieve the highest shine possible.

There has always been some form of aggregation in journalism, though it used to go by other names: syndicated columns or wire services, for example. The difference today is how easy the web makes it to hang out a shingle and become an aggregator, no AP subscription required. Readers should be thankful that so many have taken on the task, because there has never been such a growing mountain of data to sort through. And yet it seems unlikely that there will be as much quality content to aggregate without publishers and editorial staff ensuring that the next long-form viral hit sees the light of day in the first place.


Pistachio Perplexity

Paul Pillar

Pistachios have long been one of Iran's leading products and biggest exports after oil. Thus when the Clinton administration, during its final year in office, wanted to take a stab at rapprochement with Iran, pistachios figured in the initiative. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright gave a speech in which, besides acknowledging some of Iran's historical grievances against the United States, she announced the lifting of import bans on Iranian pistachios, caviar and carpets. The initiative did not go anywhere because Iranian leaders took offense at a critical reference in the speech to Iran's “unelected hands,” but it was a reminder of how important the greenish nut in the tan shell, and specifically export of the nut, is to Iran.

Thirteen years and a lot of sanctions later, it was thus somewhat surprising to hear a few days ago that the Iranian regime was imposing a six-month ban on export of pistachios. The official explanation for the move was that it was intended to help hold down the domestic price of pistachios—amid the sanctions-exacerbated inflation that is plaguing the Iranian economy. The domestic price was considered especially important right now, with the approach of the Iranian new year, when many Iranians will be buying a lot of pistachios for their holiday entertaining. A further explanation, not stated officially, was that the regime had tried to jawbone Iranian pistachio producers into accepting what amounted to voluntary price restraints and was not getting the cooperation it wanted. The suspension of exports was an exercise of leverage against the recalcitrant growers.

Either the leverage worked or the regime came to conclude that the export suspension would be self-damaging; according to subsequent reporting the suspension has been revoked. Iranian producers were alarmed that even a brief interruption of exports would mean a lasting loss of market share. Their chief competitor in this market—the country that has been the second-leading producer of pistachios and in recent years has been challenging Iran for the number one spot—is the United States. The two countries that are facing off over a nuclear program and weighty security issues in the Persian Gulf are also the world's biggest competitors on pistachios.

The picture gets more interesting when bringing into it the country that is the largest per capita consumer of pistachios—which also happens to be the country most vigorously stirring the pot over that nuclear issue: Israel. Strange as it may seem now, given the constant Israeli campaigning to pressure and isolate Iran as much as possible, in the recent past the United States has lobbied Israel not to import Iranian pistachios. Israel hasn't officially imported anything Iranian in some time, but the pistachio trade is a leaky one in which it has been well known that Iranian pistachios were making their way to Israeli consumers through Turkey or other routes. Back in the Clinton administration, Secretary Albright was on the case. In instructions sent to the U.S. embassy in Israel three years before she made that speech on Iran, the State Department said, "Reports of Iranian pistachios entering Israel . . . are a source of growing concern. Given the goal Israel has placed on the need for the international community to pressure and economically isolate Iran . . . such imports are unacceptable." The U.S. lobbying of Israel on the issue was not motivated solely or even primarily by a perspective on what it takes to influence Iran. The lobbying reflected lobbying on the U.S. government by the pistachio growers in the San Joaquin Valley of California, who were hoping to get a bigger part of the lucrative Israeli market.

Israel denied there was a significant problem but nonetheless responded by making more of an effort to crack down, so to speak, on illegally imported nuts. Israel also imposed a special tariff on all non-U.S. pistachios, to make price competition between Iranian and U.S. producers more equal than it was. Despite those measures, the issue did not go away, and late in the Bush administration the United States was still raising the matter with Israel. Even without a price advantage, many Israelis apparently prefer the Iranian variety of pistachio. “It's no secret—the taste is better,” says Tel Aviv wholesaler Moshe Mussafi.

The dessert of this story is the news over the weekend, which was a front-page item in Israel, that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a government-funded ice cream budget for his residence of $2,700 annually. The ice cream comes from a gourmet shop near the residence, and the prime minister's favorite flavor is pistachio. The play of this story in Israel, especially as exploited by Netanyahu's political opponents, has been that this is an unjustified extravagance when other Israelis are being asked to observe austerity. The Iran angle does not seem to be an issue, and the New York Times article on the subject says that the pistachio ice cream was “presumably not made with an Iranian variety of the nut.” But the taste issue and the difficulties in policing the pistachio trade that have kept the Iranian product coming into Israel for years make it unlikely anyone can say this with anything approaching certainty. It is interesting to reflect on the possibility that the leader who is the most prominent and vocal antagonist of Iran in the world might, as he relaxes with his favorite treat after dinner, be savoring a product that was grown somewhere in Kerman Province.

There is not a clear lesson from this story, but some possible observations come to mind. Messing with a free market for political reasons can have odd effects. Sanctions can have odd effects, or bring odd responses. Policies that supposedly have a large diplomatic purpose are often driven by more parochial interests, especially economic ones. And perhaps something about how pistachios, like politics, can make for strange bedfellows, or at least strange lines of conflict and cooperation.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/MadMaxMarchHare. CC BY-SA 2.5.

TopicsSanctionsNuclear ProliferationTrade RegionsIsraelIranUnited States