The Bush Middle East

December 4, 2018

George H.W. Bush, our 41st president, put together a coalition to turn Saddam’s Iraq back from its invasion of Kuwait. He wanted the cover of a Muslim, Middle Eastern force joining in that invasion. He promised many of the countries involved that he would go no further than the Kuwaiti border that Saddam had crossed. In retrospect, that decision postponed the bloodbath that Iraq eventually became. But skilled as he was, President Bush couldn’t avoid the curse of unintended consequences. American use of a Saudi airfield was enough to anger bin Laden and al Qaeda. Hence the first attack on the World Trade Center took place under Clinton, between the presidencies of the two Bushes.

Bush excluded Iran from the “coalition of the willing” with which he invaded Iraq. In a book on Iranian foreign policy, subtitled Alone in the World, Thomas Juneau, Sam Razavi, and several colleagues explain that Iran lives amongst considerable dangers and hostilities. Four regional nuclear powers, India, Israel, Pakistan and Russia surround Iran. Religion, ideology, and other fears and jealousies divided Iran from its neighbors. And it has been excluded from regional security arrangements like the Gulf Cooperation Council, all of whose members are on the opposite side of the Persian Gulf. Thus, Iran has been in a precarious position which it has tried to meliorate with diplomacy, a strong military and support for the Palestinians.

In those circumstances Iran and Israel have reason to unite against the Arab states that have repeatedly gone to war against Israel and lose no love for Iran. But the wars against Iraq under the two Bush presidents had enormous impact on the Middle East. They left Iran the major local power, which spurred regional realignments. Specifically, Israel and Saudi Arabia no longer needed Iran’s support against Iraq. Instead, their fears transferred to Iran. As Trita Parsi describes in Losing an Enemy, a country’s natural enemy in balance of power politics is the biggest power in the region that could pose an existential threat. Once Iraq was disposed of, both countries wanted American support against Iran. Even though Iran had supported the Palestinians, it’s support had not been a major factor and, before the defeat of Iraq, Israel was telling the American state department to ignore the public fulminations of Ahmadinejad; despite him, Israel told the state department that Iran was fundamentally friendly! That may be a big surprise on this side of the Atlantic, but countries learn to distinguish the fundamentals from what they each have to do for diplomatic reasons.

I commented last week that Iran has been one of the most westernized countries in the Middle East. Despite the Guardian Council, public support for democratic institutions has a long history in Iran. Theirs is a mixed system, both clerical and popular. And the harsh language of some of the clerics has been a reaction to the fact that the Iranian people have been very much influenced by American culture. Despite the conflict between popular and clerical preferences, the people have no taste for another revolution. The result is that Iran has been one of the most stable countries in the Middle East.

That may not be the Middle East that the two Bushes envisioned. But Obama understood that agreements with Iran were possible in the current state of affairs. If we could cool down the fears and enmities involving Iran, Obama expected that he could turn his attention to Asia, which he viewed as the much larger problem. Unlike the small Middle Eastern countries, China is an existential threat to the U.S. on the world stage, and that’s where Obama wanted to put his, and America’s, energies.

Pity that Trump neither knew nor cared. That opportunity may be gone.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 4, 2018.

 

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Foreign Roots of the Tragedy in Florida

June 14, 2016

The tragedy in Florida is linked to issues abroad. One candidate sometimes suggests we could solve our problems by isolationism, keeping our troops home, and sometimes by wiping out our adversaries with overwhelming force. His adversary has won over American military leadership with a fairly hard-nosed approach to international politics meshed with the belief that part of America’s international strength comes from our ideological appeal and social justice. What’s going to work?

The Middle East has been getting more violent. And the U.S. has been struggling to figure out how to handle it. George H.W. Bush was careful not to unravel power relations there when he rolled Iraq back from Kuwait. George W. Bush was less cautious, eliminating the Iraqi power structure without a plan to replace it. Since then we’ve been fighting multiple wars in multiple countries. Wars with guerilla tactics like these are costly. Al Qaeda and ISIL or DAESH have learned to motivate individuals or small groups outside of traceable networks. Military forces work poorly against that kind of enemy. We may be a superpower against some obstacles, but not all. The history of warfare has been a multi-millennium cycle of upstarts defeating the super powers of prior ages with new tactics.

What if we disengaged from the Middle East? I doubt Americans have the stomach for it. Israel, our so-called “ally,” continually breaks its promises to America, so the Israeli mouse drives both American Middle Eastern policy and its consequences. America cannot be an honest broker in the Middle East while backing a government of heedless buckaroos who learn nothing from the failures and constant irritation of seven decades of war, eviction of Palestinians and indiscriminate retaliation. Still less can we be an honest broker by engaging in the same tactics that make refugees of millions and radicalize too many. Who are we to criticize the Israelis when our policies have been more and more like theirs? We too pay the price. Our removal of Premier Mossadegh and replacement with the former Shah of Iran contributed to the Revolution of 1979 and subsequent demonization of America. U.S. military moves created chaos in the Sunni world, pushed Turkey toward autocracy, and helped destabilize Europe with a flow of refugees not seen since the World Wars.

Pulling out would leave a power vacuum that those we despise and sometimes fear would fill. If Russia or China were fool enough to move in, the throw weight of Islamic extremism would refocus on them. The short-run consequences, however, could be

Our policies toward the Middle East need to be rethought in light of new realities. Power relations in the Middle East have been drastically reshaped in the last fifteen years. And Saudi Arabia has been playing a double game, supporting radical Islam in return for denying the clerics the keys to governmental power, creating a Hobson’s choice for us. Obama has tried to avoid both disengagement and warfare, but his efforts to reshape thinking about the Middle East have, not surprisingly, run into a barrier of incomprehension. The U.S. should not be driven by the unreliable machinations of paranoid premiers, two-bit dictators and fractured armies in a region of declining importance to the U.S.

America accomplished a great deal in the past as a model of a fair and decent state. Foreign policy isn’t merely a contest of muscle and fire power. Its complexity requires a lot of patience. It took half of century to wait out the Soviet Union. Much as some Republicans want to credit Reagan’s grand gestures, that victory was hatched under Truman and pursued by eight presidents of both parties, without any know-it-all buckaroos upending decades of careful policy. Can we do it again? We’re going to find out.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, June 14, 2016.

 


War in the Middle East

November 17, 2015

The terrorists’ explanation for ISIS’ involvement in the Paris attacks, is that it was in revenge for the French participation in the war in Syria. Another explanation is that the attack was a recruiting tool – they’re stalemated in Syria and they use victory and the dream of an Islamic state as a recruiting tool, so they pulled off an attack that would be heard around the world, to say to young Muslims, come help promote the dream. Actually the two explanations are not inconsistent – they can both be true in the minds of different people, and sometimes even in the minds of the same people. But the two theories point in different directions. The revenge theory suggests that it would be better to stay out. The recruitment theory points to the value of simply defeating them. Recruits need something attractive to attach themselves to and losers aren’t very attractive.

Some Americans want to solve the problem by more fighting. History should make us skeptical. Our record isn’t very good in what are called asymmetrical wars, for some of the same reasons Americans were able to beat the British – warriors who are not in uniform and practice sneak attacks are very hard to beat.

And wars have unintended consequences. The Russian war on Afghanistan created the terrorist armies who later turned their arms against this country. Terrorists attacked the U.S. before we fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nevertheless, foreign wars increase the recruitment of terrorists. In Iraq and Afghanistan we fought the wrong wars, in the wrong places, against the wrong enemies. We destabilized the region in ways that left much bigger problems for us. Syria is the latest maelstrom.

So I’m convinced Obama had the right instinct to get out and try to stay out of the Middle East, especially by not putting boots on the ground. If fighting us is a recruitment ticket, staying away should be a good idea.

But the larger question is whether there is a way to minimize our participation while defeating ISIS and al Qaeda? Unfortunately, the answer doesn’t depend on us. The Iraqis and the Syrians are deeply divided. And war doesn’t seem to be uniting people in either country. The contending forces seem to fear each other as much or more than they do ISIS.

If it’s going to take a major war effort to defeat ISIS, I doubt this country has a taste for it. The economic costs would be huge. What economists call opportunity costs, the value of what we could have done with the same resources, would be even larger. The lesson seems to be, if they can’t fight their own war, we shouldn’t be trying to fight it for them.

Then again, there’s the army of refugees. Immigrants have been offered citizenship in the past in exchange for joining in war efforts. Can the able bodied among the refugees be turned into a credible and united fighting force? Are enough of them willing? And against whom would they turn their weapons? Would they be a mirror of those already fighting or would they be the only people from the area who could fight for broader and more ecumenical objectives? The humanitarian in me says they’ve already been through enough. The utilitarian in me wants the most effective way to end the problem with the least damage in both the short and long term. The skeptic in me thinks it’s another bad idea.

So I think we have four options – withdrawal, a big war, a deal among the major powers in the region, including Iran, or arming the refugees while trying to stay away. But it’s a heck of a set of bad choices. Thanks George.

— Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and author of Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and the Breakdown of American Politics. He has served on the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and in the US Peace Corps in Iran. This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, November 17, 2015.


Realism about Middle Eastern Priorities

September 8, 2015

Republicans in Congress have been holding up funds for Fulbright scholarships and the Peace Corps, anything that would actually allow Americans to learn about what is going on in the rest of the world. It’s no wonder that foreign policy discussions have the smell of fantasy.

It’s long been obvious that the struggle with fundamentalist and militant Islam has been ideological. They have established schools which are aimed at stamping out the multicultural Islam we have known for a millennium and replacing it with the intolerance of Wahhabi Islam. They know the value of educating the young. That’s why Boko Haram in Africa attacks western style schools there.

And it has long been reported that a large part of the funding and much of the drive behind this intolerant violent form of Islam has been coming from Saudi Arabia, as did most of the 9/11 hijackers. Yet knowing all this, we have been falling over ourselves to help the Saudi monarchy. It’s a pyrrhic bargain, some supposed short-term gain despite long term disaster. And we’re told Israel likes it – so much for the intelligence of Israel’s government.

Meanwhile we focus on boycotting Iran. Yet Iran is irrelevant to the growing Muslim fundamentalism – the Shi’ites of Iran are not going to fund Sunni schools the Wahhabis have financed, and Iran’s own brand of Islam is settling down in response to a relatively educated and westernized culture.

Sorry folks but misreading realities outside the U.S. are the wages of believing that there is no use to learning anything outside our borders.

It’s amazing how stable a view of the Middle East the hawks maintain and how unstable the Middle East actually is. Israel is our friend regardless of how their policies stiff us. Saudi Arabia is our friend even though they cradled el Qaeda and radical Islam, Saudis were deeply involved in 9/11, and they are now funding Hamas which fights Israel. Iran is our enemy even though we fight together against ISIS and they have cut Hamas off.

The hawks seem to fear learning about what is actually happening and driven by a desire to flex muscles for the mere fact of pride in the muscles they flex. It would be really funny except they can screw up the future of this country and substitute military graves for the future of too many men and women.

Our first priority must be to turn off the flow of Saudi support for their breed of intolerance. And then to turn the internet into a trap, radioactive figuratively speaking, so that the world’s terrorists are scared off it and isolated. I’m not sure Obama or anyone in his shoes will have any choice but to continue using drones, much as I dislike them. But if we grow up and deal with the world as it is instead of the medieval fairy tale the know-nothings running Congress keep telling us it is, things might just get saner. Meanwhile, let’s provide significant funds for Americans to work and study abroad. We have a lot to learn to undo this neo-isolationist reign of ignorance.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 8, 2015.

 


World-Wide Radiance of the American Melting Pot

February 24, 2015

In this world the grossest of inhumanity is euphemistically described as ethnic cleansing. The mutli-directional genocide of the old Yugoslavia has become routine. Boko Haram takes aim at education and at religious difference in Africa, targeting connections with America and the west. The Islamic State and al-Qaeda in the Middle East, with tentacles into much of the Muslim world, target whoever doesn’t belong and subscribe to their version of Islam or dare question their authority, They have targeted America, England, Spain, France Norway and counting. It is terrifying how quickly decent peace-loving communities have been dismembered and destroyed.

The past is prologue, but can’t be undone. The question is what do we do now. This is partly an ideological struggle because terrorists depend on recruits. How can we handle such a high-stakes ideological struggle? One aspect of that is at home.

Urging the U.S. Supreme Court to end segregation in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 both the Democratic Truman Administration and the Republican Eisenhower Administration explained to the Court that our respect for people of all races, faiths and national origins were central to American worldwide success, especially in the fight against Communism.

Our melting pot and mutual concern and respect define the best of America. Our unwillingness to give in to bigots and bigotry, racists and racism, our willingness to see, confront and deal with bigotry and racism, our determination to stop it, make our strongest appeal. It is our tolerance, our neighborliness, our welcome to all from everywhere that makes us the shining city on a hill that our Founders hoped we would be. It is not our bloodlines but our coming together to make ourselves and welcome each other as Americans that makes us so. That e pluribus unum is what the world admires. They want our neighborliness; they crave the American idealism that gives anyone and everyone a chance to make a decent living and a decent life. They crave the welcome that glows from our melting pot.

People dream of America in corners of the world where they are crushed as if they are worthless except for the masters’ business, worthless unless they are of the masters’ bloodlines, worthless unless they have something to offer, at least a bribe. We need to keep the dream of the American melting pot alive both for their sakes and for ours.

Our American melting pot is more important than ever to the world we inhabit. But make no mistake it is crucial here at home. If the hatreds that once fanned the Old World and now fan the so-called Third World land on our shores, none of us are safe. We were all melted in that pot and we all live or die together. There is no safety in a cauldron. We have to sustain the values of our shared tolerant American culture.  For all our sakes. We are all beneficiaries.

I pointed out last week that the American melting pot, one of our most fundamental of institutions, was the result of very deliberate decisions to educate us all together, without regard to wealth, faith, gender, national origin or spoken language, and then, finally, without regard to race. And yet, the Court that once announced Brown v. Board of Education is not helping to preserve that centuries-old melting pot. Instead it is making it easier, in some respects even forcing us to re-segregate ourselves by race, religion and wealth.[1] By doing that, the Court is plunging a dagger into the heart of America.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 24, 2015.

[1] See, e.g., Ariz. Christian Sch. Tuition Org. v. Winn, 131 S. Ct. 1436 (2011); Parents Involved in Cmty. Sch. v. Seattle Sch. Dist. No. 1, 551 U.S. 701 (2007); Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 536 U.S. 639 (2002); and see Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press 2010); Erica Frankenberg, Chungmei Lee and Gary Orfield, “A Multiracial Society with Segregated Schools: Are We Losing the Dream?”  The Civil Rights Project Harvard Univ. (Jan. 2003) available at http://www.civilrightsproject.harvard.edu/research/reseg03/AreWeLosingtheDream.pdf (June 22, 2007).


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