The shooting at the Pensacola naval air station, and the Trump administration’s reaction to it, illustrate much of what is wrong with how international terrorism is discussed in public discourse today. This includes a fixation on the question of whether there are “links” between the perpetrator and known groups, as if the answer to that question determines whether we should worry about the incident or not. That focus follows from thinking about terrorism in terms of evil designs by certain groups or states and their leaders and not in terms of how individuals can become so angry over conditions or causes important to them that they resort to terrorist violence.
Such a perspective tends to overlook the ways in which U.S. policies stimulate anti-U.S. terrorism. The suspect in the Pensacola attack probably was the author of earlier messages on Twitter complaining about U.S. support to Israel and “crimes against Muslims” — familiar themes in terrorism against American targets, including prior jihadist terrorism within the United States. Such attacks are still dastardly crimes, and the guilty party is the person wielding the gun or knife, but that does not erase the fact that U.S. policies have much to do with how many such crimes occur and how many Americans fall victim to terrorism.
Another major distortion is to bend treatment of the incident according to policy preferences regarding certain Middle Eastern states. The Trump administration’s immediate response to the attack was to bend over backward to try to keep it from upsetting relations with Saudi Arabia, the attacker’s homeland. President Trump passed along a thoughts-and-prayers message from King Salman, without passing along any assurances about Saudi investigative help. This evokes memories of past terrorist attacks in which Saudis were involved, Americans were victims, and the Saudi regime was of little help in the subsequent investigation and actually impeded the investigators. Such incidents included the 1995 bombing of a compound in Riyadh housing managers of a U.S. military assistance program, and the bombing of a U.S. military barracks at Khobar Towers in eastern Saudi Arabia.
State sponsorship of terrorism has dropped significantly over the past three decades. At least that is true of governments either directly perpetrating or instigating terrorist operations. A persistent problem of states and terrorism involves the less direct malevolent effects of what certain states do, and Saudi Arabia is Exhibit A in that problem. It is no accident that fifteen of the nineteen men who carried out the mother of all of international terrorist attacks — 9/11 — were Saudis.
Related to the problem is the intolerant Wahhabism that is the actively propagated Saudi state religion. Its effects worsened following concessions the Saudi regime made to religious hardliners after religious fanatics took over the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979. For years afterward, the Saudi leaders’ policy was not to combat their terrorism problem but instead to export it — including to Afghanistan, where the Saudi-born Osama bin Laden grew his violent business. The Saudis did not get serious about combating terrorism until after two more bombings in Riyadh in 2003, which again killed Americans but also claimed a significant number of Saudi victims.
The Trump administration has put the latest attack, and terrorism in general, in the framework of its policy toward the Middle East, which rigidly takes sides in regional rivalries and is built around unrelenting hostility toward Iran. Within this framework, one side, the Iranian side, is portrayed as never doing any good and the other side, which includes Saudi Arabia, as never doing any harm. Such a framework instills a badly mistaken picture of the roots and patterns of Middle Eastern terrorism today.
The oft-repeated mantra about Iran being the “number one state sponsor of terrorism” is an anachronism. It was applicable in years past, when fifty U.S. diplomats were taken hostage in Tehran and in subsequent years when the Iranian regime conducted serial assassinations of exiled dissidents. That behavior stopped years ago. The last time any American blood was spilled in a terrorist event (as distinct from warfare) in which Iran had a hand was the Khobar Towers attack over two decades ago. The only Iranian-conducted terrorist attacks in recent years have been not very successful attempts against Israeli targets, in what clearly was intended as retaliation for assassinations of Iranian scientists—assassinations that met the definition of terrorism every bit as much as the attempts to retaliate for them. Iran has been heavily involved, especially in Iraq, in combating the most ominous terrorist movement of recent years — Islamic State — and has been the victim of major Islamic State attacks within Iran.
The usual rationalization for continuing to pin the “number one sponsor” label on Iran is that it has been allied with, or given assistance to, groups such as Hezbollah or Hamas, which — whatever else they are, including local governments, members of national parliaments, and movements resisting foreign occupation — have at some time used terrorist tactics, in which innocent civilians have been killed. If such assistance is sufficient to make a nation a state sponsor of terrorism, then the label of state sponsor must be applied much more widely than those chanting the mantra about Iran like to apply it. It certainly would apply to Saudi Arabia for, among other things, the aid it has given to al-Qaida offshoots in Syria. And the label would apply to the United States for, among other things, aiding a Kurdish militia in Syria that has direct organizational connections to the Turkish Kurdish group Kongra Gel (formerly known as the Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK), which remains on the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations.
It is Saudi Arabia, not Iran, that in recent times has retrogressed to the kind of direct violent deed that had been largely gone from the terrorism scene since the 1980s and that unmistakably constitutes not just state-sponsored but state-perpetrated terrorism. It was just over a year ago that employees of the Saudi regime, acting under high-level direction, gruesomely murdered a critic of Saudi policies in a Saudi diplomatic facility. And American interests were again involved; the victim was a resident of the United States and a columnist for a major U.S. newspaper, who left children who are U.S. citizens.
Most anti-U.S. terrorism today is not likely to be state-directed but instead will involve the kind of initiative by angry individuals that probably was involved in the Pensacola attack. But what happened to Jamal Khashoggi also needs to be remembered if one is to understand international terrorism today and the role of states in it, undistorted by the spin and policy preferences of the administration of the day.
Paul R. Pillar is Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies of Georgetown University and a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He is also an Associate Fellow of the Geneva Center for Security Policy.
Handout photo shows US President Joe Biden (C-R) and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky (C-L) take part in a bilateral meeting, on the final day of a three-day G-7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, on May 21, 2023. The final day of the three-day of the Group of Seven leaders' summit is under way in the western Japan city of Hiroshima, with focus on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his talks with international leaders. Photo by Ukrainian Presidency via ABACAPRESS.COM
Roughly 70% of Americans want the Biden administration to push Ukraine toward a negotiated peace with Russia as soon as possible, according to a new survey from the Harris Poll and the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
Support for negotiations remained high when respondents were told such a move would include compromises by all parties, with two out of three respondents saying the U.S. should still pursue talks despite potential downsides. The survey shows a nine-point jump from a poll in late 2022 that surveyed likely voters. In that poll, 57% of respondents said they backed talks that would involve compromises.
The new data suggests that U.S. government policy toward the Ukraine war is increasingly out of step with public opinion on the eve of the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion.
“Americans’ strong support for U.S. diplomatic efforts to end Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stands in stark contrast to Washington’s reluctance to use its considerable leverage to get Kyiv and Moscow to the negotiating table and end this war,” said George Beebe, the director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute.
The Biden administration has publicly rejected the idea of negotiating an end to the war with Russia, with U.S. officials saying that they are prepared to back Ukraine “as long as it takes” to achieve the country’s goal of ejecting Russian troops from all of its territory, including Crimea.
Just this week, Russian sources told Reuters that the U.S. declined a Kremlin offer to pursue a ceasefire along the current frontlines in conversations held in late 2023 and early 2024, including a round of unofficial talks in Turkey.
U.S. officials denied the claim, saying there was no “official contact” between Moscow and Washington on the issue and that the U.S. would only agree to negotiations involving Ukraine. Reuters’ Russian sources claimed that American officials said they did not want to pressure Kyiv into talks.
The Harris/Quincy Institute poll involved an online survey of 2,090 American adults from Feb. 8 to 12. The results are weighted to ensure a representative sample of the U.S. population. The margin of error is 2.5% using a 95% confidence level.
As the House weighs whether to approve new aid for Ukraine, 48% of respondents said they support new funding as long as it is conditioned on progress toward a diplomatic solution to the war. Others disagreed over whether the U.S. should halt all aid (30%) or continue funding without specific conditions (22%).
This question revealed a sharp partisan divide on whether to continue Ukraine funding in any form. Fully 46% of Republicans favor an immediate shutoff of the aid spigot, as compared to 17% of Democrats.
Meanwhile, 54% of Democrats and 40% of Republicans favored conditioning aid on diplomatic talks. “The American people seem more clear-eyed than Washington in recognizing the urgent need to pair aid for Ukraine’s defense with a diplomatic offensive,” Beebe argued.
The poll also showed that most Americans expect the war to drag into at least 2025. Only 16% of respondents thought the war would end this year. Others were evenly split on how long the war might last, with 46% expecting it to be resolved before the end of 2026 and 38% saying there is no end in sight.
Confiscating Russia’s sovereign assets is an act of economic war. Seizing and transferring these assets to Ukraine may make Washington feel virtuous, but it will not bring peace. Passage of this bill will only reinforce the view of hardliners in Moscow that Russia’s war lies not just with Ukraine, but really with the United States and the West. Any hope that the United States and Russia could work toward stabilizing or improving relations will subsequently be destroyed.
There is no justification for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but enacting this bill will make peace less likely. Ukrainians have courageously defended their country for nearly two years, but even Ukraine’s former top military commander General Valery Zaluzhny admits the war is now a stalemate.
Russia’s frozen assets could be used as a bargaining chip during negotiations, but once Congress provides the president the authority to seize Russian assets, there will be immense political pressure on him to carry out the policy to avoid looking weak. President Biden was recently pilloried by the media and members of my party for returning frozen Iranian assets in exchange for five American hostages. He is unlikely to make that decision again.
Confiscation will only convince Moscow that there is no negotiated settlement to be had with Ukraine. The result will be a destroyed Ukraine. More Ukrainian soldiers and civilians will die, and more cities and towns will be turned to rubble.
History is replete with examples of economic warfare turning into violent hostilities. Many historians believe the U.S. embargo of 1807, which was intended to punish France and England for their aggressions at sea, led to the War of 1812. Likewise, FDR’s decision to freeze Japan’s sovereign assets and implement an embargo on oil and gasoline exports led to Tokyo’s decision to attack Pearl Harbor.
The past teaches us the folly of embracing every proposed act of revenge. U.S. senators are duty-bound to ask whether our actions will ensure American security and prosperity. In regard to the REPO Act, the Russians already answered that question for us. Moscow says they will retaliate in kind against the United States and our allies, with some estimates claiming upward of $288 billion in Western assets that Moscow could confiscate.
Nicholas Mulder, an assistant professor of history at Cornell University, highlights the danger of the “destabilizing precedent that western countries would set by seizing assets to end a war they are not openly involved in.” Professor Mulder states that such an action “would broaden the coercive actions that states could take for disputes to which they are not a direct party.”
Confiscating Russia’s assets will also certainly convince other countries, including China, that the United States can no longer be trusted as the guarantor of the global economy. They will seek to move away from the dollar and hold their reserves in other currencies. This process of de-dollarization will be an unmitigated disaster as it will degrade America’s financial strength and ensure the prosperity Americans have come to expect is no longer attainable.
In addition, this bill will hand the Russians another tool to fuel resentment against the United States. American leaders speak of a “rules-based international order” but the theory that the United States can confiscate the assets of another country we are not at war with is legally dubious.
Professor Mulder argues that “economic reprisals are the prerogative of injured states, not of third parties.” Rather than compel respect for international law, our actions will demonstrate to our adversaries that we are flouting it. This bill will be used by the Kremlin to show the world that while Washington demands that others follow the rules, we are happy to break them whenever we see fit.
In a multipolar world, Washington can no longer expect to act with impunity, particularly when dealing with a nuclear power. We understood the serious dangers our country faced during the Cold War. But three decades of repeated foreign policy disasters proves that Washington’s foreign policy establishment is badly broken.
A good way to start on the road to fixing that broken foreign policy is rejecting this disastrous bill.
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Prabowo Subianto, running for president, in Bandung, Indonesia. (Shutterstock/Dhodi Syailendra)
(JAKARTA, INDONESIA) — Soon after voting ended in the world’s fourth-largest country and third-largest democracy, Prabowo Subianto is claiming a knock-out blow winning more than half the vote and the necessary number of provinces to eliminate both his challengers.
According to unofficial tallies, which have been historically accurate, Prabowo has garnered 58% of the vote in today's contest. The official count will not be announced until mid-March and his opponents have yet to concede defeat.
Nevertheless, highly popular incumbent president Joko Widodo (Jokowi)’s backing for the former special forces commander, and active undermining of his own party’s candidate Ganjar Pranowo, is a big reason for the ostensibly lopsided result. But the famously temperamental Prabowo’s clever rebranding as a cute and cuddly grandpa seems to have helped quite a bit, too.
Arriving in Jakarta just as the three-day “quiet period” was beginning spared me all the raucousness of the election campaigning. But the billboards of the three candidates — Anies Baswedan, Ganjar Pranowo, and Prabowo — were prominently plastered across the city. The few everyday folk I spoke to seemed to favor the former general. A young hotel housekeeper told me she voted for Prabowo (as did almost all her friends and family) as he was “a strong leader, and honest.” Reports here speak of the youth vote as being a big factor in the result.
Much of the U.S. commentary has pointed out that Prabowo was once banned from entering the U.S. for his links to a military unit accused of human rights atrocities. To that the feisty general might say: get over it. After all, the United States was forced to lift the ban on his entry after Jokowi — after beating Prabowo in a bitterly-fought election in 2019 — invited him to become his defense minister.
Now that Prabowo is likely to become president, such musings are chiefly academic. While my interlocutors in town seemed worried about democratic backsliding in the country (and this has been apparently underway for a couple of years), relatively few voters appear swayed by this concern. And in an increasingly multipolar world, Washington is less able to influence how other countries choose their leaders, and tell them how they should govern.
For his part, as president Jokowi has focused relentlessly on economic growth and domestic issues, though he also skillfully steered Indonesia’s G20 presidency in the turbulent wake of the Ukraine war. Under him Indonesia has not only prospered, but also put into place a tough industrial policy, including limiting or banning the export of certain valuable natural resources, such as nickel. This encourages these resources to be processed in-country, which helps grow and sustain economically valuable industries that require these resources, such as electric vehicle parts, thereby diversifying and strengthening the Indonesian economy.
The European Union has responded by taking him to the WTO, and the United States has not been exactly enthusiastic on these “downstreaming” policies. But China has played ball, building ore-processing plants in the country. Beijing has also built shiny new infrastructure, most prominently a new “Whoosh” bullet train from Jakarta to Bandung.
Meanwhile, Jakarta has not expressly taken sides in the U..S-China tussle. This is hardly surprising. Non-alignment (or bebas dan aktif — free and active — as the Indonesians call it in Bahasa) is a core Indonesian grand strategy principle. Indonesia was a foundational contributor to the idea of non-alignment in the Global South, with the famous 1955 Bandung conference being held there.
Even under the authoritarian leader Suharto, who tilted toward the United States, Indonesia maintained strong relations with arch-communist Vietnam. Though China was shunned by Suharto — and the Chinese-Indonesian minority treated poorly — it all seems in the rear-view mirror in today’s Indonesia. China is Indonesia’s biggest trade partner and among its biggest investors. Hoardings commemorating the Chinese new year are visible in parts of the city and the community is much better integrated than in the past.
Furthermore, when it comes to Russia, Indonesian social media has been rife with sympathy with Moscow on the Ukraine war.
What will Prabowo’s foreign policy be like? His past record indicates that the ex-general is much more a strong-willed, if volatile, pragmatist than an ideologue. Today, this means a continuation of Jokowi’s policy record of economic growth and the development of domestic industry and infrastructure. Thus business-friendly relations with Beijing, as also attempts to attract more American investment and trade, will continue.
Prabowo is also far more exposed in his youth to the world than was Jokowi when he was sworn in. The former general has lived in Europe and Singapore and was trained by the U.S. military. Which means that Indonesia under him could be somewhat more vocal on regional and international issues than it has been. Recall Prabowo’s bold play on a Ukraine peace plan at the United Nations last year.
Nevertheless, unless Washington makes a big deal of past human rights issues (unlikely), there are opportunities for incremental strengthening of ties. Military exercises between the two have been on an upswing lately. Indonesia has also softened its earlier opposition to AUKUS and refrained from joining BRICS, partly keeping relations with Washington in mind.
Trade relations are something to watch however, with Washington’s new focus on imposing labor standards on its major trading partners. This is not always welcome in Global South capitals which see lower labor costs as a comparative advantage. Unlike the United States these days, Indonesia is also very comfortable with trade integration. It was the most important ASEAN member leading the RCEP process and continues to lead in shaping the implementation of the world’s largest trade agreement.
Should there be a Republican in the White House next year, issues such as trade deficits could loom large. Indonesia also seeks a critical minerals agreement with the United States and hopes to benefit from the Inflation Reduction Act’s clean energy subsidies, but it will be a long haul to get there.
As long as Washington understands that Indonesia is committed to a non-aligned rise, there is much scope to deepen ties. Indonesians see their relations with other major powers as being defined on their own merits and not as a byproduct of any other relationship. That ought to be a good basis for moving forward.