Denis McDonough: A Caricature of Realism

The Buzz

The New York Times has produced what must be the most comprehensive public account so far of the Obama administration’s internal deliberations on Syria. A few things are noteworthy. The administration comes off rather well--once you discount that it lacks a strategic vision. Most officials, even some with hawkish reputations, are painfully aware of the complexities and complications that bedevil every U.S. policy option. Many figures live up to their popular reputations. Samantha Power says to White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, “if you had met the rebels as frequently as I have, you would be as passionate as I am” about aiding them. Susan Rice, by contrast, warns that deeper involvement “could consume the agenda of the president’s second term,” a remark that ironically parallels her much-regretted Rwanda quip: “if we use the word genocide and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November election?” Tellingly, the Times’ otherwise long and detailed narrative offers little information on Obama’s decision to push a Syria intervention through Congress. There is even less about the decision to accept the Putin plan. This is further testament to the hastiness of both moves.

At moments, McDonough comes off well, resisting Power’s “passion” for armed salvation and hewing closely to the president’s own perspective. One might be tempted to call his instincts “realist.” The Times account shows such hopes are misplaced, revealing McDonough’s ultimate stance as pressure grew within the administration for closer ties to the rebels:

Mr. McDonough, who had perhaps the closest ties to Mr. Obama, remained skeptical. He questioned how much it was in America’s interest to tamp down the violence in Syria....Mr. McDonough argued that the status quo in Syria could keep Iran pinned down for years. In later discussions, he also suggested that a fight in Syria between Hezbollah and Al Qaeda would work to America’s advantage.

Patiently watching as ones’ challengers turn on each other might seem like the height of realism. Yet here it’s more of a cartoon-villain caricature of realism - one in which statesmanship means coolly tolerating any amount of death, destruction, and chaos, so long as it is visited upon the enemy. Yet that’s not realism - it’s barely distinct from nihilism. While actual realists have often given less weight to moral and emotional concerns, they do it out of regard for broader strategic interests, not out of a beggar-thy-neighbor thirst for blood. And adding any strategic breadth to McDonough’s view shows its weakness.

In absolute terms, the war is putting great pressure on a number of American friends. Refugees swamp Jordan and Turkey, and add to the social challenges facing Europe. Israel faces new instability on its border. Lebanon is on the brink of civil war - or, strictly speaking, closer to the brink than usual. U.S. differences with Saudi Arabia have been thrown into sharp relief. The Kurdish question has become even more complex, with potentially grave implications for stability in Iraq and for Turkey’s attempts to resolve its internal Kurdish troubles. Long-standing Middle Eastern borders are now being questioned. Relations with Russia have become more tense. Sectarian tensions stoked by the conflict have led to violence around the globe - including against Americans. It’s hard to see why we should root for all this to continue.

McDonough might answer that our Middle East policy still centers on two areas of concern: Iranian power and the threat of Sunni terrorism. That these forces are now focused on each other and not on us could be seen as a relative victory, even if there have been serious costs on other fronts. This view is also mistaken, and for multiple reasons. Jihadists, and to a lesser extent Iran, are deeply dissatisfied with the current regional order. It has deliberately marginalized and suppressed them both. The United States, however, finds the present arrangement more agreeable than most plausible alternatives. The Syrian conflict has chipped away at the foundations of that order, presenting opportunities for those it keeps out. The black banner of jihad now flies openly and proudly over parts of Syria - unimaginable just a few years ago.

Rising sectarianism can also play into our rivals’ hands. Arab Shia are now more likely to be targeted - and accordingly more likely to accept Iranian and Hezbollahi friendship. Iran has suffered a huge and expensive loss of influence in Syria, but its power over Syria’s remains has grown as Assad has turned from ally to dependent and as Iranian-tied militias have sprung up. Iran will now have to be included in any Syrian peace deal, and that wasn’t the case when the conflict first began. And Sunnis infuriated by the Alawi-Shia butchery of their coreligionists are more susceptible to the anti-Shia narratives of takfiri extremists.

Worse still is the excellent social-networking opportunity the war has produced for extremists of all stripes. Iran has new friends inside Syria, and it has deepened its ties to Iraqi Shia militias involved the conflict. And the war has been a magnet to Sunni jihadists around the globe, who are now in Syria making connections, being radicalized and learning how to fight. Osama bin Laden emerged from a previous international jihad campaign. This time it may be worse. Hundreds of the jihadist fighters in Syria come from Western countries. What happens when they come home? Keeping them out only partially solves the problem - a jihadist with nowhere to return to may be left with no alternative but continued jihadism.

McDonough’s view that the Syrian civil war serves American interests is unpersuasive. The only beneficiaries of continued violence in Syria are Bashar Assad and Al Qaeda. The United States - like Iran, like Israel, like everyone else - is losing.

Image: Wikicommons/Pete Sousa

TopicsSecurity RegionsSyria

Don't Surrender to Leakers

Paul Pillar

One of the best summaries of the escapade involving endlessly dribbled-out secrets stolen from the National Security Agency came this week from Representative Mike Rogers (R-MI), chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. As Rogers put it:

A systems administrator with only the dimmest understanding of the legal and technical complexities of vital counterterrorism programs stole and disclosed a mountain of properly classified material. The compromised programs are authorized in law and carefully overseen by Congress, the Justice Department and the courts. Yet these selectively leaked documents, framed hyperbolically by an activist masquerading as a journalist at the Guardian, have created the dangerous misimpression that the intelligence community is lawless. The American people must not accept this absurd myth. Congress also can’t let Edward Snowden’s anarchy paralyze us from addressing real threats to our country.

The damage from the leaks, to U.S. foreign policy and U.S. national interests, mounts with each dribble, and the amount and variety of the damage are sweeping. The most recent inflictions of damage concern relations between the United States and important foreign partners ranging from Brazil to Germany. The visible part of the damage includes public expressions of disapproval by foreign governments and consumption of the valuable time and attention of the president of the United States in efforts to smooth out the ruffles. There probably are related invisible parts of the damage as well, wherever public ruffles affect the non-public work of government agencies, including work that involves international cooperation in tackling shared threats and problems.

None of this damage is due to the NSA programs that are the subjects of the leaks. All of the damage comes from the leaks themselves. Even if a foreign government somehow were to learn through its own capabilities of U.S. collection of signals intelligence aimed at its agencies or leaders, its response would be quietly to intensify efforts to bolster its own communications security. To do otherwise and to raise a stink about the matter would risk further compromising its own counterintelligence capabilities and damaging a relationship it would not be in its own interests to damage. It is only when such collection activity is made public through a leaker, with all of the embarrassment and public pressures that are triggered by such a revelation, that leaders feel obliged to take conspicuous umbrage, with all of the further damage that entails.

There is no way to undo the damage that already has occurred. The current episode is an occasion for redoubling efforts to prevent similar damage from future would-be leakers and their collaborators. This involves, among other things, ending nonsensical references to governmental efforts to preserve security as “going after whistleblowers.”

We also need to avoid compounding the damage by shying away from doing worthwhile things, either as executive branch operations or as legislation, because leakers have scared us away from doing such things. Chairman Rogers made the observation quoted above in the course of expressing disappointment with a Washington Post editorial that suggested the political atmosphere following Snowden's leaks makes it unrealistic to pass legislation enlisting government help for private companies in defending against foreign cyber espionage. Rogers is correct in stating that Congress should not be freed of its responsibilities on this subject, and that American companies should not have to fend entirely for themselves when the threat is often coming from foreign governments.

A later Post editorial, while saying several sensible things on the broader subject of foreign intelligence collection, again unfortunately exhibits a pattern of being scared by leakers. In referring to reported collection against communications involving the president of Brazil, the Post says:

But the potential benefits of collecting intelligence on nominally friendly leaders has to be weighed against the potential blowback if the operations are exposed — which in the Internet era has become increasingly likely. It seems unlikely that anything gleaned from Ms. Rousseff’s e-mail is worth the trouble it has caused.

We are partly seeing the effects of the cleverness of the activist who is masquerading as a journalist, who started his dribble of leaks with revelations about collection within the United States that is directed against terrorism, before moving on to leaks about very different forms of electronic collection, collected for very different purposes. The starting focus on terrorism has led to the habit of evaluating almost anything NSA or the intelligence community does by asking how many terrorist attacks the intelligence prevented. Actually, access to the email of an important foreign leader, if such access were to be gained, would be quite useful to U.S. policymakers in a number of respects. And again, the “it” in the reference to “trouble it has caused” properly refers to the leaking, not to the intelligence collection.

More fundamentally, if we were to resign ourselves to giving up anything that would cause a flap if exposed, on the grounds that “in the Internet era” exposure is likely, this would mean ceasing most collection of the entire intelligence community—all of it except what is directed against open source material. Most intelligence collection is kept secret because most of it assuredly would cause flaps if exposed. This is true not just of NSA's electronic activities. Human espionage, for example, almost always involves the violation of some other country's laws. If we were to abandon all of this, the damage from leaks would be exponentially higher. We would be the losers, and foreign-based activists dedicated to undermining U.S. foreign policy would be the winners.

TopicsCongressCyber SecurityIntelligenceTerrorism RegionsUnited States

Oliver Stone's Silly Syria Screed

The Buzz

Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick have joined the debate over how the Obama administration should address the conflict in Syria. Writing in the Daily Beast on Tuesday – the release date of their profoundly misleading The Untold History of the United States, which the Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz has correctly dismissed as “less a work of history than a skewed political document, restating and updating a view of the world that the independent radical Dwight Macdonald once likened to a fog, ‘caused by the warms winds of the liberal Gulf Stream coming in contact with the Soviet glacier’--but now more than twenty years after the dissolution of the Soviet empire”– they suggest a new course for Washington’s Syria policy. But Stone and Kuznick flatter themselves. The impracticability of their policy prescriptions--which are themselves outgrowths of a specious view of America’s place in the world--means their proposals should not be taken any more seriously than their history.

Since the Syrian rebellion erupted in March 2011, a large and growing body of scholarship, studies, and commentary regarding the root causes of unrest there and elsewhere during the Arab Spring has emerged, with explanations ranging from rejection of autocratic rule to greater global interconnectedness enabled by information technology. That Stone and Kurznick merely point to economic issues – high poverty and unemployment levels – and sectarianism as the conditions that made Syria “ripe for an explosion” suggests that neither has delved too deeply into the existing literature.

Their suggestion that America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 “helped unleash the sectarian passions that now roil Syria” is ahistorical in the extreme: since 1966, Syria has been brutally ruled by members of the Alawite sect, who make up around twelve-percent of Syria’s overwhelmingly Sunni-majority population. “Sectarian passions” are old news in Syria; older, even, than the first Iraq War. It gets better: the U.S., according to Stone and Kurznick, is also largely responsible for the droughts that, starting in 2006, devastated Syrian agriculture, exacerbating the economic factors purportedly responsible for the uprising. They reference a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report from 2011 that argued that the cause of the increased frequency of Mediterranean droughts, including Syria’s, was man-made climate change, something which Stone and Kurznick assert “the U.S., most pointedly and most shamefully, still refuses to take seriously.” Yet the United States is hardly the sole cause of climate change, and Stone and Kurznick give minimal attention to the host of other factors behind Syria’s agricultural problems - including Syrian government policies that ThinkProgress said had “criminally combined mismanagement and neglect of Syria’s natural resources.”

In fact, one could be forgiven for concluding that Stone and Kurznick see America as the root of all the world’s ills, or at least all of its wars. Indeed, they even go so far as to suggest that the U.S. is standing in the way of putting “the world back on a path toward peace.” Stone and Kuznick agree with interventionists that “something needs to be done” in Syria, but “not a military strike” or arming the rebels. Since “a solution will not come from solely within Syria – at least not in the near future”, one “will have to be imposed from without”; that is, via “unified U.N. Security Council action”. While the authors note that efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis through the Security Council have been blocked by Russian and Chinese vetoes, they neglect to mention that these vetoes were cast against Western-led efforts to potentially use military force in or impose sanctions on Syria. But the authors suggest that the substance of these proposed efforts was not why Russia and China vetoed.

What then could explain the repeated opposition by Russia and China in the Security Council? Maybe Russia sees standing up for its Syrian client and against the West as a means to recoup some of its Soviet-era global sway. Perhaps Russia also wants to maintain access to its naval facility in Tartus. It’s certainly plausible that China is just following Russia’s lead, and would back down if and when Russia does. Both countries have extensive defense and trade ties with the Assad regime, and thus might want to keep it afloat; this surely counts for something.

Imagine that America’s relations with Russia and China dramatically improved overnight, thereby, following the authors’ logic, enabling cooperation on Syria. What would cooperation on Syria look like, and what could be accomplished cooperatively then that cannot be done today? Would Russia and/or China somehow compel the Assad regime to hand over power? Would all elements of the highly fragmented opposition be asked to lay down their arms, and would all comply? Would Russia, China, and the U.S. cooperate in using force to compel an armistice and maintain peace? Stone and Kuznick offered no answers for they have none. What they offer is shallow chest-thumping masquerading as policy proposals.

This is surely not the last time the team of Stone and Kuznick will instruct the rest of us in how America should conduct its foreign policy. Let’s hope, against the odds, that next time their little suggestions might actually be workable and suited to solving real-world problems. After all, this is not just show business.

Image: George Wiman. CC BY-SA 3.0.

TopicsSecurity RegionsSyria

Poor Reasons to Oppose a Treaty

Paul Pillar

Primitive opposition to the recently signed arms trade treaty surfaced again last week, in the form of a letter signed by fifty U.S. senators led by James Inhofe of Oklahoma, Jim Moran of Kansas, and Joe Manchin of West Virginia. As with any time a group of American politicians says anything having to do with firearms, the Second Amendment gets invoked. But the treaty has nothing whatever to do with the Second Amendment or rights contained within it. The treaty not only has no effect on well-regulated militias but also no effect on gun ownership by individual Americans.

The treaty's stated purpose is to establish “the highest possible common international standards” for regulating the international trade in conventional arms and to combat the illicit trade in such arms, thereby contributing to the further goals of “international and regional peace, security and stability,” “reducing human suffering,” and promoting “cooperation, transparency, and responsible action” by the parties to the treaty. In short, it has to do above all with curbing the flow of munitions across international borders and into the hands of the likes of Joseph Kony or Charles Taylor. But the political subtext in the United States evidently is that the gun lobby gets nervous whenever “arms” and any conjugation of “regulate” appear in the same document (even though that is true of the Second Amendment itself).

Actually, there is one place where the treaty could be said to get into Second Amendment matters. Right up front in the preamble, the treaty reaffirms “the sovereign right of any State to regulate and control conventional arms exclusively within its territory, pursuant to its own legal or constitutional system.” One would think this reassurance would be enough, but the objecting senators complain that this is only a “weak, non-binding reference” rather than a recognition of “fundamental individual rights.” So the senators would be more comfortable with having an international treaty determine what are the fundamental individual rights of Americans, rather than leaving it to America's own legal and constitutional system to do that? They had better be careful what they wish for.

The senatorial letter has some other comparably misdirected complaints. The letter notes, for example, that it is possible for the treaty to be amended by three-quarters of the parties if complete consensus for amendment is not achieved. But the letter does not mention that no amendment shall apply to a state until and unless it explicitly accepts the amendment, and that as with most international conventions there is provision for a state to withdraw from the treaty altogether.

Something else in the letter of opposition is noteworthy because it actually involves foreign policy and the transfer of arms across international boundaries, rather than spurious threats to domestic rights. The letter says that the treaty “includes language that could hinder the United States from fulfilling its strategic, legal and moral commitments to provide arms to key allies such as the Republic of China (Taiwan) and the State of Israel.”

A report in the Times of Israel identifies the language in question as a prohibition on exporting arms if the exporting state “has knowledge at the time of authorization that the arms or items would be used in the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, attacks directed against civilian objects or civilians protected as such, or other war crimes as defined by international agreements to which it is a Party.” The treaty goes on to require exporting states to assess whether a prospective export of arms would “undermine peace and security” or could be used to commit or facilitate a “serious violation” of international humanitarian or human rights law or international conventions on terrorism and transnational organized crime, and that if it determines there is an “overriding risk” of any such consequences it should not authorize the export.

This raises two questions for the letter-writers. First, exactly what exported arms do they have in mind that would be used for war crimes or breaches of the Geneva Conventions or in the United States's own judgment would lead to violations of human rights law or any of the other listed offenses? Second, why would it be in U.S. interests to export arms that would have such consequences?

TopicsArms ControlCongressDomestic PoliticsInternational Law RegionsIsraelUnited StatesTaiwan

The Saudi Snit

Paul Pillar

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has just had a tantrum. A day after winning one of the rotational seats on the United Nations Security Council, the Saudis announced they would not take the seat. This move undoubtedly has annoyed and even angered many others in member states and at the United Nations, not least of all in states that campaigned unsuccessfully for one of the non-permanent seats on the council. Diplomatic heads are shaking over this unprecedented situation. The closest thing to a precedent was a boycott of council proceedings in 1950 by the Soviet Union, which came to regret its tactic when in its absence the council authorized a U.S.-led intervention in Korea. But the Soviets had a permanent seat not to be filled by anyone else. It is unclear after the Saudi announcement whether the General Assembly will be picking a replacement member for the Security Council or there will be an empty chair.

Some predict that the Saudis, like the Soviets, will come to regret their move, and that prediction probably is correct. Although some Saudis may have genuinely believed that an unusual move such as this would help direct attention to their favored issues, plenty of smart Saudi officials would recognize multiple flaws in the tactic. Annoyance with Saudi Arabia probably will be a stronger international reaction than than any felt need to pay more attention to the Saudis' favorite causes. Action on the issues of high concern to Riyadh is stymied by factors other than merely insufficient attention to them. It also is not entirely clear exactly who or what is the target of the Saudis' disapproval. Ostensibly it is the Security Council itself, but according to some interpretations the Saudis are trying to express disapproval of U.S. policies.

A different and credible way to look at the Saudi move is as simple pique, less a matter of any calculation than of emotion and frustration at high levels, probably the level of the king. In this respect it is the result of a flawed policy-making system that does not do a good job of weeding out high-level emotion. The United States probably has done a better job of weeding such stuff out. Think of a short-tempered Harry Truman and all of the angry letters that he wrote but never got sent.

An explanation involving more calculation is that the Saudis had second thoughts about how casting votes at the Security Council would force them to be more specific and open in their preferences. This is different from the sort of behind-the-scenes influence with which they are more comfortable and is better suited to the type of power they wield. That still does not explain or excuse, of course, their earlier decision to seek the council seat.

The proper posture for the United States and others to take is a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger disapproval of what the Saudis have done, with the disapproval based on procedure rather than substance. Substantively some of the Saudis' favorite causes and positions are consistent with U.S. interests, and others are not. But the United Nations Security Council serves a useful function regardless of one's position on any of the issues it addresses. Shunning it, especially in a way that screws up the long-established procedures for filling seats on the council, does not help the council do its job any better. And it would be a mistake to encourage the notion that an absence of talk and engagement about controversial issues is better than the alternative.

TopicsUN RegionsSaudi Arabia