Limits of offshore balancing

The New America Foundation convened a conference this week to showcase the work of Robert Pape, in the hopes that his policy prescriptions will be picked up as an alternative to our current strategy in Afghanistan. This would be a terrible idea. 

Pape's research shows that the majority of suicide bomb attacks occur in places occupied by U.S. military forces; from this he concludes that we should adopt a strategy of "offshore balancing." By which he means to remove U.S. forces and rely on military strikes into the countries, along with more effective political and economic engagement. Neither the research nor the prescriptions are sound bases for policy.

To say that attacks occur where U.S. forces are deployed is to say no more than Willy Sutton, who robbed banks because "that's where the money is." Pape's approach ignores the context in which deployment and stationing of U.S. forces occurs. We send troops to advance our interests, protect our allies, and contest the political and geographic space that groups like al Qaeda and the Taliban are operating in. Of course the attacks will stop if we cede those political objectives. But the troops are not the point, the political objectives are the point.

The second important context Pape glosses over is that suicide attacks do not occur wherever in the world U.S. troops are deployed. Troops stationed in Germany, Japan, or South Korea are not at risk of suicide attacks from the people of those countries. This is not just about U.S. troops, but also about the societies we are operating in. It is about a radical and violent interpretation of Islam that we are using military force to contest.

The policy prescriptions Pape advances are also problematic. An offshore balancing approach means that we will not be engaged with military forces on the ground, and yet what we have learned in the Balkans, Iraq, and Afghanistan is that we achieve our objectives most fully when indigenous forces are partnered with us and made able to take over the work of U.S. forces in the fight. They have greater legitimacy, local knowledge, and make the outcome most durable. That was the Bush administration's strategy in Iraq, and it is the purported approach of the Obama administration in Afghanistan. Pape's policies have no way to achieve that improvement in the capacity of partner forces.

An offshore balancing approach is also inherently retaliatory and has been shown to increase the resistance of affected populations to supporting our objectives. We threaten to use force from the safe confines of distance; that use of force may have pinpoint accuracy but will often be less precise and cause more civilian casualties than forces on the ground, which will again feed into public attitudes about whether to support U.S. goals. Instead of working with the people most affected and helping build their capacity to protect themselves, offshore balancing does little to change the problem in positive ways.

Except for the "improved" political and economic activity. How that will be undertaken in a deteriorating security environment is mysterious. Moreover, if we could do any better at the provision of political and economic engagement, we'd already be doing that.

Convincing allies the U.S. will commit itself to fight unless we have troops stationed where we expect the fight to occur has always been difficult. The history of the Cold War is replete with transatlantic discussion of extended deterrence: would the United States really send the boys back over if Germany were attacked? Would the United States really use nuclear weapons when our own homeland would be at risk of retaliation? It seems unlikely those concerns would be attenuated in societies we are less politically and culturally similar to than we are to Europeans.

In short, Robert Pape's "offshore balancing" approach would reduce violence by giving our enemies what they want: our disengagement, the ability to terrorize with impunity the people of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other places where the battle of ideas about Muslim modernity is engaged.


Shadow Government

Negotiations amid the settlement freeze

In negotiating tradecraft, the distinction between positions and interests is a fundamental one. Parties with divergent interests can unite behind common positions, like the environmentalists and trade unions who opposed NAFTA in the 1990s. Just as often, parties with opposing positions fail to perceive their common interests, like divorcing parents whose acrimony blinds them to what is best for their children.

It is neglect of this vital distinction that now has the United States scrambling to salvage Middle East peace talks, which are threatened by a resurgent dispute over Israeli settlement activity. The Obama administration initially viewed the settlements issue as "low-hanging fruit" -- the Palestinians, Arab states, international public opinion, and frankly even many Israelis were against settlement activity, whereas a seeming minority on the Israeli right favored it. Thus, the White House viewed insistence on a settlement freeze as a way to restore confidence in U.S. impartiality while jump-starting the peace process. As is now well-known, precisely the opposite occurred -- U.S. relations with all sides have been strained, and the peace process has yet to take flight.

To understand what went wrong, one must look past the Israelis' and Palestinians' positions on settlements and understand how they define their interests.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, in a June 14, 2009 speech, provided insight into his opposition to a settlement freeze. In his remarks, Netanyahu asserts that "The simple truth is that the root of the conflict has been -- and remains -- the refusal to recognize the right of the Jewish people to its own state in its historic homeland." In his view, Arab efforts to eliminate Israel began in 1947 with the United Nations proposal to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, and have not truly ebbed since despite Israel's peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. That those efforts began before Israel took the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, and that rocket fire from southern Lebanon and Gaza continued after Israeli troops withdrew from both territories, are to Netanyahu and many Israelis evidence that the presence of Israeli troops in the West Bank is not the cause of the animosity toward them.

It is this interest-- defending the continued existence of a Jewish state that has been under attack since its founding -- that leads not only to Netanyahu's insistence that the Palestinians explicitly acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state, but also to his rejection of a settlement freeze. If the Palestinians and Arabs will not do the former, Netanyahu and his allies view the latter as pointless at best and at worst dangerous succor to those who would delegitimize Israel. While many Israelis do not share Netanyahu's position on settlements, they do share his interest in defending Israel's legitimacy, and thus have reacted negatively to what they view as Washington's harsh approach.

The Palestinian narrative is quite different. For Palestinians, the events of 1948 constituted a catastrophe which left them scattered and displaced. In the nations which received them, they were -- with few exceptions -- refugees or guest workers with few rights and little respect, despite the lip service paid to the Palestinian cause. For years, Palestinians themselves had scant voice in that cause, and there was little support among leaders in the region or elsewhere for the independent state envisaged in 1947.

For Palestinians, these twin interests -- justice for refugees who have been the region's second-class citizens for sixty years, and ensuring that the emergence of a Palestinian state remains viable -- motivate deep opposition to continued Israeli settlement activity. In their view, it makes little sense to engage in negotiations aimed at satisfying these interests while simultaneously acceding to activity which undermines them.

On Monday, Netanyahu offered to extend Israel's settlement freeze if the Palestinians would recognize Israel as a Jewish state, and the Palestinians immediately refused. Given the interests described above, one can see why Israel made the offer, as well as why the Palestinians rejected it. Israel is ready to modify its position on a settlement freeze if its interests are otherwise satisfied; but Palestinians likewise wish to see their interests fulfilled, and not merely their position on a settlement freeze conceded. For this reason, the Palestinians for their part have insisted that Israel and the United States declare that the basis for negotiations over the borders of a Palestinian state will be the "1967 lines" to ensure a Palestinian state's viability.

Thus the fight over a settlement freeze is in reality a conflict by proxy over the competing interests of each party. But because those interests will only be satisfied through negotiations, and not conceded by the other side prior to the talks, no sustainable compromise can be found as long as the freeze remains an issue. For this reason, temporarily extending the freeze as the United States is reportedly seeking to do can only postpone a crisis for another day, if that. Moving forward will require that the Obama administration acknowledge that its early emphasis on settlements was mistaken in order to deflect blame and anger that might otherwise be directed at Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Abbas for changing their stances.

The good news is that while Israeli and Palestinian positions on a settlement freeze are seemingly irreconcilable, the interests underlying their positions are not. Indeed, polling data and anecdotal evidence suggest that the people on both sides are ready for a two-state solution. What's more, the parties have other interests -- such as the desire for peace and quiet for their people and to sideline extremists sponsored by Iran -- which enhance the motivation of each to find common ground. This is where American mediation must play a role -- helping the parties see past their conflicting positions, and to recognize their mutual interests.