A Worthwhile Redirection in Pakistan

Paul Pillar

The victor in the recent Pakistani elections, Nawaz Sharif, has indicated he places high priority on improving relations between Pakistan and India. Sharif made some significant strides in promoting detente between the two South Asia powers during a previous stint as prime minister, and he wants to recoup ground that was later lost after the terrorist attack in Mumbai in 2008 by a Pakistani-based group. Wasting no time, Sharif has invited Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Pakistan to attend Sharif's swearing-in.

This is all to the good, and has received recognition as such in India (although with caution in the case of the right-wing nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party). Americans, however, need to be prepared for how a successful Sharif may bring about some changes in Pakistani-U.S. relations that may not seem so good in Washington. This is suggested by an editorial earlier this week in a major Indian daily, the Hindustan Times. The editorial said that part of what Indians ought to hope for from a new administration in Islamabad is “a government that will understand that cutting dependence on the United States and China is only possible if Pakistan has a modus vivendi with India.” Note the implication that understandably can raise American eyebrows: a looser Pakistani relationship with the United States may accompany a less hostile Pakistani relationship with India.

Sharif is indeed likely to do a good number of things that will not sit well in Washington. Some of these things he would be doing anyway, but some of them will be related to his attempted rapprochement with India. The political realities he faces include, besides the Islamist militants who have become a bigger part of Pakistani affairs in recent years, a Pakistani military that ended his last prime ministry with a coup and whose main reason for existence is to defend the country against arch-adversary India. The more political risks Sharif takes in improving relations with that adversary, the more he will have to bolster his nationalist credentials elsewhere, including on matters involving relations with the United States.

There will be a tendency in Washington to judge Sharif's performance piecemeal, involving whatever is the latest concern about security in northwest Pakistan or something else. It would be better to take a more strategic view with the big lines of conflict in South Asia in mind. Indian-Pakistani rapprochement is still worthwhile and very much in U.S. interests, even if it is accompanied by greater nationalist testiness in U.S.-Pakistani relations. It is worthwhile partly because stability in the relationship between the region's two nuclear-armed powers is important in its own right. It also is worthwhile because improvement in that relationship will make it easier for Washington to deal with some other regional issues important to it.

The most prominent of those issues involves Afghanistan. The background to just about every Pakistani policy and action about Afghanistan that is unhelpful, including ones involving the continued Pakistani relations with the Afghan Taliban, is Pakistani concern about India. To Pakistan, Afghanistan is its strategic depth in the standoff with India, and it gets apoplectic over any inroads that India itself makes in Afghanistan. The more that the Indian-Pakistani relationship improves, the less intense will be the apoplexy and the less troublesome a player Pakistani is likely to be on issues involving Afghanistan.

Image: Tore Urnes, CC BY 2.0.

TopicsDefenseTerrorism RegionsAfghanistanIndiaUnited StatesPakistan

What Closing Guantánamo Means

The Buzz

Daniel Klaidman’s cover story in the current issue of Newsweek is about the Obama administration and its approach to the prison in Guantánamo Bay. He picks up on President Obama’s comments two weeks ago—in which the president said that the prison “needs to be closed” and that he “was going to go back at” the challenge of closing it—and reports on the administration’s thinking and the obstacles to doing so.

Possibly the biggest piece of news in Klaidman’s story is this:

In the coming days, Obama plans to address both Guantánamo and drones—another festering, controversial element of the administration’s national-security agenda—in a broad “framing” speech that will try to knit together an overarching approach to counterterrorism. In the speech, Obama plans to lay out a legal framework for the administration’s evolving strategies on targeting, detention, and prosecution.

Klaidman tells us that the “interagency wrangling” over the contents of the speech “has apparently taken months,” and that the speech “had been scheduled for last month but was then abruptly rescheduled.” One imagines that the Boston Marathon bombing was the reason why. (Klaidman also reports that in the wake of the bombing, Obama “will also address the evolving threat of self-radicalization and lone wolves.”)

At any rate, the fact that the administration wants to address all of these issues publicly is at least a limited piece of good news. A public accounting and defense of Washington’s approach to counterterrorism and targeted killings has long since been due. But on the Guantánamo question in particular, two things are worth watching. The first is something that Klaidman observes—namely, the concern on the part of the president’s critics that this will turn out to be just another Obama speech, heavy on lofty rhetoric yet “rarely followed up by resolute action.” They worry that he will express “righteous indignation,” but then “be persuaded by his political team that the time is not right to fight.” Given how the past four years on Guantánamo have unfolded, this is an entirely reasonable concern for civil libertarians and others to have.

Second, and more important, is the issue of what the president actually means when he says that he wants to close Guantánamo. He has long wanted to shutter the physical facility in Cuba—that much is clear. But as both Benjamin Wittes and Glenn Greenwald (a supporter and a critic of indefinite detention, respectively) noted after Obama made his comments two weeks ago, that does not mean ending the system of indefinite detention that is Guantánamo’s defining characteristic. Even if Congress had put no restrictions on Obama’s ability to close Guantánamo, the practice of holding some number of people indefinitely, without any charges, would have continued. It would have simply been a smaller number of people, held at a domestic facility within the United States. As Wittes wrote, Obama is trying to have it both ways. He wants to keep the core benefit of Guantánamo, “the ability to detain enemy fighters and leaders outside of the criminal justice system,” but also wants to “partake of the rhetoric of its delegitimization.”

Klaidman’s reporting suggests this is not about to change. He notes, in a parenthetical aside, that “shutting down the facility would likely entail freeing some prisoners, transferring some to jails in other countries, prosecuting some, and moving still others—those being held indefinitely—to U.S. prisons” (emphasis added). This would be progress of a sort, but it’s not exactly what most people would think of when they imagine the government “closing Guantánamo.” As the president gives his anticipated speech, how he presents this choice merits very close attention.

TopicsTerrorismSecurity RegionsCubaUnited States

Bret Stephens Misreads Henry Kissinger

Jacob Heilbrunn

There is a curious paradox in criticisms of President Obama from the right. On the one hand it complains that he is vastly expanding the range and reach of government domestically. On the other hand it complains that he is not expanding the range and reach of government enough in foreign affairs.

A good case of the latter impulse comes in a lively recent column by Bret Stephens, a leading neoconservative columnist for the Wall Street Journal and winner of a Pulitzer prize. Stephens raises what he calls the "Kissinger question," which, as he defines it, is whether or not America needs a foreign policy at all, the title of a book that Kissinger published a few months before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. In Stephens' view, America, under Obama, does not. It has what amounts to a series of tactical moves designed to obscure the fact that Obama is, at bottom, uninterested in foreign affairs. Stephens goes on to suggest that this presidential disposition is widely shared. Even Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass comes in for a drubbing—he, of all people, Stephens warns, has suggested in a pithy new book that foreign policy, given the battered state of the American economy and the dubious outcomes of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, should begin at home.

As Stephens sees it,

These are the sorts of views—isolationist is the only real word for them—that crowd my inbox every week, and they're not a fringe. A growing number of Americans, conservatives too, have concluded that the lesson of the past decade is that, since the U.S. can't do it all, the wisest, most moral, and most self-interested course is to do nothing.

Not being privy to the contents of the items that fill up his inbox each week, I can't really comment on who is writing to Stephens. But his contention that a wave of isolationism is sweeping across the country seems as overwrought as the old neocon conviction that Saddam Hussein was on the verge of building nuclear weapons that he was preparing to hand over to Al Qaeda. Like the American Enterprise Institute's Danielle Pletka, who also invoked the isolationist bogeyman in a recent column, he makes it a little too easy for himself by bifurcating the debate over foreign affairs into neoconservatives (globalists) and the everyone else (ostriches).

To accomplish this task, Stephens does violence to the subtle thought of Henry Kissinger. He alludes to a book by Kissinger called Does America Need A Foreign Policy? to contend that it anticipated the kind of neoisolationism that Obama would propound as president. The only problem is that it doesn't. Remaining cautious about intervening directly in the Syrian civil war, as Obama has plainly indicated he intends to do, hardly is tantamount to the dreaded word of isolationism. It has more in common, in fact, with traditional Republican realist tenets propounded by presidents such as Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and George H.W. Bush. If Obama was really an isolationist, would he be pivoting to Asia? Would he be beefing up military cooperation with Israel, a country he recently visited? And so on.

Nevertheless, there is something to Stephens' complaint. While it is too much to brand it isolationism, there is clearly an upsurge in caution about intervention abroad, an impulse that seems both logical and inevitable and one that the neocons themselves helped create by championing a war in Iraq that boomeranged. Is it any wonder that Americans, confronted with the anfractuosities of societies riven by tribal and ethnic feuds, have developed an aversion to the notion that American forces can safely be inserted to set wrong aright?

But this disposition, in my view, is far closer to Kissingerian realpolitik than neoconservatism. Kissinger never argued for hegemony, as have the neocons. Instead, his entire foreign policy was based on the idea of an equilibrium of the great powers, analogous to the one that emerged at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and, more or less, kept the peace in Europe for much of the nineteenth century, and, it could be argued, only truly went under in August 1914, when the houses of Europe engaged in what amounted to a mutual suicide pact. The quest by a leader to topple world order is bound to provoke a countervailing coalition and invariably leads to destruction and chaos, whether it is Napoleon or Hitler.

What Kissinger was calling, indeed has always called, is to avoid what the political scientist D.W. Brogan termed the illusion of omnipotence. An equilibrium rather than hegemony has always been, and remains, the soundest basis for peace and prosperity, particularly revelant at a moment when China is a rising power and the grim realities of international rivalries have not subsided, despite the ebullient prognostications of the proponents of globalization. The extent to which Obama is carrying out an overdue realignment of American foreign policy can be debated. But to dub it isolationism and to invoke 1939, as does Stephens, is not merely unhelpful, but also quite misleading.

Images: Left: Veni Markovski, CC BY-SA 3.0. Right: Dr. Ghulam Nabi Kazi, CC BY-SA 3.0.

TopicsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States

More Costs of a Pseudo-Scandal

Paul Pillar

If I were a political adviser to those relentlessly pushing recriminations about the attack last year on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, I think my advice would be, “Give it a rest.” This pseudo-scandal has become so forced, so contrived, and so blatantly driven by motives other than safeguarding the security of U.S. interests that the unending push has already passed the point where it serves any identifiable objectives, even partisan political ones. The subject, about which a panel of inquiry has completed its work and issued its report, is already tiresome; imagine how much more tiresome it will be to voters by 2016 after three more years of it.

A poll on Benghazi released this week by Public Policy Polling suggests that the agitation on the subject is keeping a Republican base agitated but not making wider inroads on public opinion. One has to ask what good it does Republicans to dwell on something that keeps one segment of the population angry about Barack Obama (and Hillary Clinton) when that segment was already angry about Obama anyway. When asked whom the respondent trusted more on the issue of Benghazi, 49 percent said Hillary Clinton and 39 percent said Congressional Republicans. On other questions asking for an overall favorable or unfavorable rating, Clinton enjoys an eight-point margin over Congressional Republicans, the same margin as in a similar poll in March.

The poll did show that the angry base has gotten the intended message that there is supposedly a scandal involved. A plurality of Republicans (but only small percentages of either Democrats or independents) said yes to the question of whether this was the “biggest scandal in American history.” By margins of greater than three to one, Republicans polled said it was a worse scandal than Watergate, Iran Contra, or Teapot Dome. That's an interesting result given that in one case the issue involved nuances conveyed in some talking points, while each of the others involved criminal behavior in the form of attempted subversion of an American election with a subsequent cover-up, illegal diversion of arms into a foreign war, or bribery of a cabinet officer to get preferred exploitation of publicly owned natural resources.

The customary ignorance of the American public is no doubt at play. Probably the proportion of the general population that could say today what Teapot Dome was about measures in the single digits. A scandal seems worse if you've actually heard about it. The ignorance factor was suggested by another question in the poll asking where Benghazi is. Ten percent believe it is in Egypt, nine percent in Iran, six percent in Cuba, five percent in Syria, four percent in Iraq, and one percent each in North Korea and Liberia, with another four percent being unwilling to guess. Maybe those who said Cuba have Benghazi confused with Guantanamo. It would be interesting to know what those who said North Korea think the incident was about.

Probably the failure of the agitation about Benghazi to make wider inroads on public opinion is due not only to the tiresome, contrived and partisan nature of the agitation but also to the fact that it never had a logic in the first place. The message being promoted seems to be that the administration was shying away from describing the incident as terrorism in order not to undermine, during the 2012 election campaign, a claim to having success against international terrorists. But when did Barack Obama ever contend that international terrorism has been licked? When the presidential candidates were asked in one of the debates—several months after Osama bin Laden had been killed—what each believed to be biggest national security threat facing the country, Obama replied, “terrorism.” However the incident in Benghazi is characterized, four Americans were killed. There is no way to sugar-coat that, whether the T-word is used or not.

The endless harping about Benghazi has costs beyond, and more important than, wasted time by Republicans who have better ways to try to win votes and defeat Hillary Clinton. Among those costs are the fostering of misunderstanding of some fundamental realities about such incidents and about terrorism. Shortly after the Benghazi attack I mentioned some of those realities, including the inherent hazards of overseas representation and the inability to protect every installation everywhere, and the fact that the details of such incidents are nearly always obscure initially and become clear only in hindsight. As the harping continued other costs grew. These included promoting yet another misunderstanding about terrorism: the idea that popular anger at the United States and the machinations of a group are somehow mutually exclusive explanations for any terrorist incident. Still another is the notion that nonstate violence is worth worrying about if it can be linked to al-Qaeda but is not much of a threat if it cannot. There also is the cost of inducing future secretaries of state and other officials to impair U.S. diplomacy by futilely pursuing a zero-risk approach to overseas representation.

As the pseudo-scandal continues to be pushed, other costs come to mind. An obvious one is the big distraction this entails from useful work Congress could otherwise be doing. Of course, we are no strangers to similarly ineffective use of Congressional time and attention. Probably the Benghazi kick has been no more of a distraction than the House of Representatives voting for the 33rd time (or maybe its more—it's so many there doesn't seem to be an accurate count) to repeal Obamacare. One also needs to consider, however, the drain on the time and attention of officials in the executive branch. Having five different House committees holding hearings on the same subject is an enormous diversion from the main duties of those who are responsible for diplomatic security.

The poll questions about the relative severity of different scandals brings to mind another cost: a debasing of the currency regarding what really is a scandal and what episodes in our nation's history ought to be thought about and have lessons extracted from them. Another example of this is found in a column this week by the Washington Post's Jackson Diehl. Diehl validly observes that the unending agitation over talking points about Benghazi is a misdirected digression from serious issues that ought to be addressed in a bipartisan manner, such as a failure to “adequately prepare for an emergency in post-revolution North Africa.” One might broaden the point by saying that we also ought to be discussing, again in a bipartisan manner, what assumptions underlay the Western intervention in Libya and whether it ever was a good idea. But then in an apparent effort to achieve some kind of partisan balance, or just to scratch some old itch, Diehl contends there is equivalence between the folderol over Benghazi and the episode in which in the course of selling the invasion of Iraq the George W. Bush administration made a false claim about Iraqi purchases of uranium ore in Africa, with the office of Vice President Cheney doing battle with a former ambassador who investigated the matter.

There is no equivalence at all between these two episodes. The one involving the vice president's office—like Watergate, Iran Contra, and Teapot Dome, but unlike Benghazi—involved criminal behavior. Vice presidential aide I. Lewis Libby was convicted of perjury, providing false statements to investigators, and obstruction of justice. Diehl also gets the other essentials about the episode wrong. Although he writes that what the retired ambassador, Joseph Wilson, said was mostly “grossly exaggerated, or simply false,” the principal thing Wilson said—that no such purchases of uranium ore were ever made—was absolutely correct, with the administration's claim being dead wrong. The reason the vice president's office got so deeply involved in the matter was to try to find ways to discredit Wilson and the agency that hired him because the truths they spoke were complicating the effort to sell the Iraq War.

Although Diehl says we should have had “a serious discussion of why U.S. intelligence about Iraq was wrong,” he fails to mention that on this very matter U.S. intelligence was right, having repeatedly warned the White House against using the temptingly juicy tidbit about purchases of uranium ore. The episode was one of the most salient indications that far from being misled into Iraq by bad intelligence, the war-makers in the administration were determined for other reasons to launch the war and were only using intelligence selectively to try to bolster their campaign to sell the invasion.

And lest we forget, the damage to the national interest from that expedition was many, many times greater than anything involving Benghazi. Now that's scandalous.

TopicsCongressDomestic PoliticsElectionsTerrorism RegionsIraqLibyaUnited States

The AP Scandal Shows That the Obama Administration Is Going Rogue

Jacob Heilbrunn

The Obama administration is mired in a fresh scandal of its own making. The revelation that the Justice Department has been snooping into the phone records of Associated Press reporters and editors indicates that the administration's ruthlessness when it comes to trying to protect its reputation and sources knows no bounds. Attorney General Eric Holder, always a poor choice for a cabinet post, should resign. Coupled with the revelation that the IRS has been selectively targeting Tea Party groups and the botched handling of the Benghazi terrorist attack, the administration confronts a second term that appears to be ending even before it has even really begun.

Obama has always prided himself on being squeaky clean when it comes to governing. He campaigned for transparency in government. He said he was against soft money. He said that members of his administration would have to demonstrate the highest ethical standards ever. Well, that was then. He has nominated the tax-dodging billionaire Penny Pritzker, who bankrolled his political ascendancy, to serve as his Commerce secretary. He has hoovered up any and all funds he can attract, infuriating proponents of campaign finance reform. And now his administration, in its mad and obsessive and destructive pursuit to quash any leaks, has besmirched itself by targeting journalists for investigation.

Leaks have always plagued presidents. They are a function of a national security state that has always aspired to total control in the post-World War II era—in 1986, Ronald Reagan's Chief of Staff Don Regan proposed creating a standing cadre of FBI agents to ferret out leaks. But the ability of the state to exercise surveillance over its citizens was always limited. No longer. Technology has marched on. The president who can order an assassination by using drones—and initially claimed that he could target a U.S. citizen in America until Sen. Rand Paul denounced him—is also busily snooping on the media. The Associated Press says that Holder and his minions ran amok: They monitored

incoming and outgoing calls, and the duration of each call, for the work and personal phone numbers of individual reporters, general AP office numbers in New York, Washington and Hartford, Conn., and the main number for AP reporters in the House of Representatives press gallery.

Was Obama aware of this program? Did he order it? Or was it done solely on Holder's initiative? White House press spokesman Jay Carney says it had "no knowledge" of the secret program. If it didn't, maybe the White House should pay more attention to what is going on in the ranks of its administration.

It seems that the investigation of the AP journalists was prompted by the revelation that a U.S. spy inside the ranks of a Yemeni Al Qaeda group had helped to foil an airliner bomb plot. An aggrieved administration went on the offensive to try and discover who leaked the information. Instead, it has only embarrassed itself.

The fixation with leakers is counterproductive. The problem with targeting leakers, of course, is that they often play a valuable role in helping to inform the public about what, exactly, is taking place in the government when it comes to foreign affairs. Sometimes leaks redound to the benefit of an administration or allow it to spin the news. Obama, however, has displayed a kind of compulsive desire to stifle leakers from the outset of his presidency.

The result is what AP chief Gary Pruitt is calling a "massive and unprecedented intrusion" into civil liberties and press freedoms. Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists told the Washington Post, "“This investigation is broader and less focused on an individual source or reporter than any of the others we’ve seen. They have swept up an entire collection of press communications. It’s an astonishing assault on core values of our society.” It is no small irony that Obama, who declared that he would halt the George W. Bush administration's violations of personal freedoms, has exceeded the mendacity of his predecessors in creating a new star chamber to hunt down his detractors and enemies. Obama isn't protecting American freedoms. He's going rogue. If this keeps up, Obama may accomplish the impossible and create a wave of nostalgia for Mitt Romney.

TopicsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States