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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The Importance of Learning from Others

November 27, 2018

Americans have been reluctant to accept the importance of studying other countries. We tend to divide them into good and evil and assume that’s all we need to know.

As a teenager I was interested in science and in classical music. For both, I thought it wise to learn some German. But few schools taught it in the wake of World War II. Germans were the enemy.  But two World Wars provided reason enough to study German. President Roosevelt understood how vile and dangerous Hitler was long before Pearl Harbor and took steps to prepare the American military because he could and did read Hitler’s Mein Kampf in the original German.

Americans, however, seem more concerned about being subverted by knowledge of foreign places than by the costs of ignorance. It’s as if many of us have an inferiority complex about our own culture. White racists bask in western European skin color even while screaming America first. America has enormous worldwide influence, but many Americans continue to fear comparison to worldwide knowledge.

From the Napoleonic wars through the Franco-Prussian and two world wars, old World European nations repeatedly attempted world dominance and took a hundred million people to their graves. This country created or supported numerous international institutions to keep Europe at peace, the Soviet Union at bay and level out the boom and bust cycle of international economics, but too many Americans fear those same international institutions as if they were the work of foreign hands designed to subvert us.

The costs of ignorance are serious. Too many American Administrations have treated Saudi Arabia as an ally though it is run as a savage and medieval country, and too many, except for Obama, couldn’t accept talking or negotiating with Iran despite repeated overtures to the U.S. and the fact that they are one of the most westernized, even Americanized, countries in the Middle East. We’ve made similar mistakes trying to control who governs in Central and South America, Vietnam, and other countries. America seemed incapable of appreciating the strategic sense and the long game behind Obama’s attempt to strengthen America’s position in the Far East. It may be too late to recover the ground lost to China.

It’s time to get over our terror of learning about and respecting other peoples. It’s an odd terror for a country made up of so many different peoples. It’s an odd terror for a country in which we can walk out of a bus or train station in cities like New York and enjoy the kindness of strangers who themselves come from all over the world. It’s an odd terror in a country where we talk with taxi drivers about their immigration to and joy at being here. It’s a terror that undermines the benefits of our universally admired university system.

Does one really have to be from somewhere else to appreciate the strengths of our own country? Must appreciating our own country rest on ignorance of others? Or can we trust ourselves to learn about others, to appreciate their strengths as well as faults, to build on and incorporate their accomplishments into our own as we have done in art, literature, music, theatre, dance and so many other arts and sciences, to learn from others as well as from each other as we build our own strengths? Or are we really afraid that recognizing the strengths of others will sap our own?

The internet attributes to many people, from Eleanor Roosevelt to Sam Levenson, a family friend of ours, that we must learn from the mistakes of others because we don’t have time to make them all ourselves. First, however, we need to encourage each other to explore and learn.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, November 27, 2018.

 

 

 

 


Drumbeat for More Middle East Chaos

September 25, 2018

The Ahvaz National Resistance took responsibility for an attack on a crowd watching a parade in southwest Iran over the weekend. National Security Advisor John Bolton had urged that the U.S. assist and encourage that very group. So, when Iranian President Rouhani pointed the finger at the United States, should we ignore it as nonsense from “the axis of evil” or should we take seriously the possibility that the U.S. condoned or supported the attack? Or that Saudi Arabia helped out, with American knowledge and support?

Are these deadly games conducted by people confident that the price will be paid by everyone else, soldiers and civilians, other than themselves? It certainly has all the earmarks of Middle East hawks who want to do what they did in Iraq while hoping the war would come out differently.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told the French Foreign Minister in 2010 that the Saudis want to “fight the Iranians to the last American.”  With a clear understanding of the politics of the Middle East, Obama refused to be drawn in. But for Trump, war would unleash patriotic fervor that might improve his approval ratings. He will not be the first president to sacrifice American and other lives to benefit his reputation, behavior that is criminal and may be treasonous.

Trita Parsi is a Swedish Middle Eastern expert whose family left Iran as refugees when Parsi was four. He now lives in America. Parsi has written an excellent analysis of what is happening in the MiddleEastEye. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have been putting pressure on the US to bomb Iran for decades. They are now saying they will take the battle inside Iran but without the military ability to do it – they haven’t even been able to defeat the Houthis. Their real objective is to bring America into the fight, perhaps by triggering retaliation that would force this country to defend our so-called allies. Saudi Arabia has been the Middle East’s major trouble maker. Its fingerprints were all over the 9/11 attacks.

The Trump Administration is likely complicit. The day before the attacks, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “told the Islamic Republic of Iran that using a proxy force to attack an American interest will not prevent us from responding against the prime actor.” In other words, without evidence, he is already blaming Iran for something it hasn’t done. This is reminiscent of the run up to the war in Iraq. That war to eliminate nonexistent weapons of mass destruction did a great deal of damage, unnecessarily killing American soldiers and civilians in the Middle East, unsettling the area and, instead of shutting down terrorism, laying the area open to ISIS and other terrorist groups. Facts matter. The evidence wasn’t there, and, in reality, the war did more harm than good.

A year ago, Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton laid out a plan for working with Saudi Arabia and Israel to pull out of the nuclear agreement with Iran and other nations and develop a more a warlike policy toward Iran, despite the international inspectors’ continued reports that Iran was complying with the restrictions in the nuclear deal, known as the JCPOA. Parsi writes that “The Trump administration’s Iran policy is following the Bolton memo almost point by point.” Bolton urged the U.S. to assist and encourage a number of groups inside Iran, including the Ahvaz National Resistance, to fight to overturn the government of Iran. In its saner moments, the American government treated some of the groups Bolton wanted to fund as terrorists, including the same group that claimed responsibility for the recent attack in Ahwaz. That puts U.S. fingerprints on the drumbeat for war.

Parsi explains:

For Saudi Arabia and the UAE, this makes strategic sense. Their ability to compete with the much larger and more cohesive Iranian state in the long run is highly questionable.

Their simple solution is to get the U.S. to fight their competitor. They can’t but we can. For good measure Trump wants Iran to pay reparations for 9/11 despite the absence of evidence of their involvement and in the face of evidence of Saudi involvement.

The Trump Administration is trying to work us up with fake claims, fake blame, fake purposes – all for the faked glory of Trump.

Instead of protecting America, this president is working to injure it for his own benefit.

Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran. This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, Sept. 25, 2018.


IRAN, the Nuclear Agreement and Donald Trump

May 8, 2018

America sees itself as altruistic and believes we should be trusted because we proved it in World War II. But, in 1953, Americans in the Embassy in Tehran helped engineer a coup d’état against the democratically selected Prime Minister of Iran. Persians admired us for our power but hated what we had done.

Americans did not understand that history when, during the Iranian Revolution of 1979, Persians stormed the Embassy and made hostages of the staff. That breached international law and was very hurtful for those involved but it was brought on by the memory that the earlier coup was managed from the Embassy. Now we both had reason to hate each other.

But the subsequent history is more interesting than the popular stereotypes. Diplomatic relations and even cooperation between Iran and Israel as well as major trade ( including Iran supplying oil in exchange for Israeli weapons and ballistic missile technology) lasted long after the Islamic Revolution and persisted despite Ahmadinejad’s hateful rhetoric. America and Iran continued cooperating about many Middle Eastern issues despite the effort of a succession of American presidents to isolate Iran.

Isolation threatened Iran. The religious division of the Middle East between the Shia, principally in Iran, and the Sunni, dominant everywhere else, provide opportunities for politicians to whip up animosities when it suits their purposes – much as Trump has whipped up animosities over racial differences and guns to dangerous levels. To stay on good terms with most of its neighbors, Iran supported Sunni positions on Palestine.

America stood back while Iran and Iraq fought a brutal war in the 1980s but then defeated Iraq under Presidents George H.W. and George W. Bush. Since Iraq had been Iran’s major antagonist, its defeat at the hands of the U.S. was a great gift to Iran and destabilized the power relations in the Middle East. Meanwhile Iran continued seeking rapprochement with the U.S. and offered to be helpful to the U.S. in our conflicts in the area, but no president was willing to talk until Obama. Obama had larger goals, to get Middle Eastern disputes out of the way while addressing problems in Asia.

Trump’s current effort to scuttle the multi-power agreement with Iran plays out stereotypes while sending terrible signals with ominous consequences:

  • Since US intelligence and military leaders and every involved head of state except the current U.S. President thinks Iran obeyed the terms of the agreement, what could count as obedience?
  • If obedience to the terms of the agreement doesn’t count, why should any country reach agreements with the U.S.?
  • If the U.S. terminates agreements at will, what is the value of diplomacy?
  • If the U.S. rides roughshod over non-nuclear countries, then nations need a nuclear capacity to hold us off.
  • And if diplomacy with the U.S. is a sterile enterprise, is war better? The origin of the Joint Agreement was European concern over the possibility of yet another war in the Middle East. Are we back to that?

Iran has become an American boogey-man, and too many think we look weak if we even talk with them. Israel’s concern has been to avoid letting any other country play a significant role in American thinking about the Middle East. That’s a recipe for trouble. It substitutes pure power for diplomacy and respectful negotiation. In fact, Iran has been anything but a loose cannon and has shown both the capacity and the willingness to resolve conflicts among us, provided that Iran be consulted and treated respectfully regarding Middle Eastern events. Only in a respectful climate can Iran play the constructive role we claim to want.

But Donald Trump wants an enemy for the political benefits. Risking the lives and safety of American and other men, women and children so Trump can look tough is a cynical abuse of his office. And if it misfires, we’ll be counting more body bags and amputees.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 8, 2018.


Sticking with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Iran nuclear agreement

December 5, 2017

JOPAC was the multi-national 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, known as the Iran nuclear agreement. I’m happy to say that I’ve never been closer to nuclear weapons than listening to my chemistry professor, himself part of the Manhattan Project that created the first A-bomb, talking about them. My cousin Mimi worked at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory but all she could tell me was that she was there. Happily she lived into her 90s. But I have had some experience in Iran.

I was teaching at Pahlavi University, now called something else. Someone was sent to oversee the University. We were all warned to stay away from him. He wasn’t trustworthy. But this brash yours truly thought he knew better so I called on him. He was an economist. I had an article about the difference between Iranian and Turkish economic success to show him. He was of course interested.

Suddenly no one would talk with me. Not a word. I finally cornered someone and insisted he tell me why. He accused me of having called all Iranians liars. I remembered that on the first page of the article, Harvard Prof. David McClelland, with whom I had corresponded, criticized vague and unscientific statements about Iran like “All Iranians are liars.” McClelland set out to study Iran much more precisely. The young man I had cornered had good enough English that he understood exactly what had happened. All of a sudden people talked to me again – as if nothing had ever happened.

Would it have been better if I’d followed orders? Probably but it didn’t hurt that I had exposed the distortion of what I had said. Just as clearly, lots of people there took truth seriously.

Iran is a negotiating culture. You negotiate over everything, from carpets to the seams in a coat you’re having made. When I was getting ready to leave, I sat down with a Persian friend to sell him some of my record collection. He assumed I wouldn’t negotiate but would name fixed prices. I assumed he would negotiate so I asked for more than I wanted. When I realized what had happened, I reverted and gave him the records for much less than we’d agreed. Neither of us wanted to take advantage of the other. But if he’d negotiated as expected, I would never have thought him a liar. It’s just about conforming to culture and how things are done.

The Peace Corps Iran Association, or PCIA, composed of people like myself who served over there, has taken the position that “the Iran nuclear agreement [was a] historic and … excellent example of the success of diplomacy to resolve a major, contentious issue that threatened regional and world peace. As has been certified by the International Atomic Energy Agency … tasked … in the agreement to monitor and verify Iran’s compliance … Iran is abiding by the agreement. United States security agencies have confirmed the IAEA assessment.”

PCIA “urges the United States and Iran, along with the other parties to the agreement, to continue to uphold and abide by the agreement and to take no action that would violate the agreement.” PCIA concluded that both the United States and Iran should keep their word. Incidentally, Ambassador John Limbert, who was one of the U.S. Embassy hostages held for a year and a half, instead of being filled with bitterness and reaching cavalier conclusions about the country, told us at a recent conference of former Peace Corps Volunteers who served there, that he too, urges that we stay the course.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 5, 2017.

 

 


My introduction to Iran

November 10, 2017

With Iran in the news I’ve been remembering my own introduction to the country. Our group of Peace Corps Volunteers arrived in Iran in winter, after the semester had begun where we were supposed to teach. We were taken to the home of Prime Minister Hoveyda and stood there not knowing what to do or say. As it happened, I was standing next to the Prime Minister. Looking down, I realized we were standing on a magnificent Persian carpet.

We have a friend here who admired the carpet of another Iranian who instantly responded it was his. Sure enough, when our friend Bob got home, there was the carpet, rolled up and leaning against a corner. Bob was beside himself, not knowing what to do. But his friend showed up a few days later and admired the carpet. It’s yours, Bob quickly responded and the carpet was returned to its proper home. But I didn’t know that in the Prime Minister’s house and barely understood their system of etiquette.

I’ve since learned that it’s risky to make small talk with someone much higher on the social ladder – in any country. But I didn’t know that yet.

So I admired the Prime Minister’s carpet. Understanding American culture much better than I knew Iranian culture, Prime Minister Hoveyda dropped to the floor, motioning me to join him. He then turned over a corner of the carpet and gave me my first lesson in distinguishing the quality of Persian carpets, turning what could have been my intense embarrassment into a warm introduction to Iran.

Our next stop was Shiraz, near the ancient capital of Persepolis, in the desert over four hundred miles south as the crow flies or something like nine hours by car or bus. We went to what was then named Pahlavi University, designed to be an American style institution. All but one of us had graduate degrees so that we could teach there. The students were required to speak English and spoke it reasonably well.

But this country hadn’t told Iranian authorities who was in our group, or what we were qualified to teach. University officials had asked for natural scientists and one art historian, understanding that art historians were broadly trained and could be versatile. We had an art historian and people in the natural sciences. But we had an equal number of people in social science, economics, history, law and politics. The Peace Corps, and the late President Kennedy, wanted to get Americans over as soon as possible. So who was available determined who we sent. That was a problem, however, so Peace Corps and diplomatic personnel neglected to convey the information.

Therefore we were taken to the Provost’s office. He assembled the heads of each of the departments at the University. After he explained the situation, he asked department chairs which of us they could use. Since their semester had begun, we would be underemployed for a while, but our hosts were gracious in helping us get our feet on the ground. By the end of the semester we enjoyed many friendships among faculty and students. Our welcome was warm even if a bit chaotic.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, November 7, 2017.

 

 


The Legacy of Barack Obama

January 3, 2017

Barack Obama has been one of our most decent and intelligent presidents. I’ll miss him. Instead of simplification and slogans, Obama explained the complexities of everything from medical treatment to foreign policy. Instead of shooting from the hip, he studied problems carefully and reached mature, intelligent decisions.

But what will stick?

Starting with foreign affairs, Obama got most of the boots off Muslim lands. When Obama took office in 2008 we had close to 200,000 soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now we have about 15,000 troops, combined, there and in Syria.

ISIS seems to have refocused on Europe but that’s still a problem for us. Europeans’ objectives are compatible with our own, so they are crucial allies, unlike the Russians. But Europe confronts many times more refugees than we do, with backlash and threats to democracy in several countries. American action in Syria added to the refugee flow, but much resulted from revolutions independent of us. More American militarization in the Arab world would inflame the refugee crisis and increase the terrorism directed at us.

Terrorists are fueled by militarization; nations are much more vulnerable to our military – that’s the difference between defeating Saddam Hussein, having him executed and trying to remain there. Trump may talk tough, but will he be fool enough to wade back into those trouble waters?

In Guantanamo, fewer than 60 prisoners remain of the nearly 800 who were imprisoned there.

Republicans dislike the Iran nuclear deal but so far they’ve nothing to show for their fears. Objections from the other signatories may prevent Trump from disavowing it. This may be the first real test of whether Trump has any grip on reality.

At home, Republicans have been yelling for years that they will tear Obamacare down the first chance they get. But their friends in the insurance industry will howl if they do, especially if Republicans leave features Americans like – a guarantee that you can get insurance, coverage for pre-existing conditions, tax credits for small businesses, etc. So it’s not clear what they’ll actually do. Obama took his health care plan from Mitt Romney’s Republican plan. I can think of improvements to the left of Obamacare, but not any that are more consistent with Republican free-market philosophy. Republicans are in a pickle.

Obama got a small stimulus soon after taking office. Terrified it might actually work, Republicans fought to keep it small. Obama’s stimulus worked, slowly, satisfying the cynicism of Congressional Republicans willing to hurt the country in order to make Obama look bad.

Dodd-Frank financial regulation still stands, reigning in a financial system that gambled with everyone else’s money and made a large number of us much worse off.

Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court. One has become the conscience of the Court, the other quieter and more conciliatory. Together, they’ve made a the Court much more fair. The future depends on how long Ginsburg lives and how long Trump is in office. The difference Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan made could disappear in a heartbeat.

So, there’s a lot to celebrate in what Obama did or tried to accomplish. But I have real fears of what could be done in the effort to discredit him instead of making things better for the people of America.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 3, 2017.


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