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.


An NRA Foreign Policy

November 3, 2015


Think about the NRA position that guns don’t kill people, people do, and therefore that we should protect the rights of gun ownership. Just think about the contribution that the NRA could make to the discussion of foreign affairs. The NRA position reveals that it is a big mistake to control arms trafficking. They’re spot on – we should just arm everyone, friend and foe, all the contending parties in Syria and Iraq. Al-Qaeda? Their guns don’t kill, they do. No problem. ISIS? No problem. But we can learn from the NRA that the biggest mistake is the nuclear deal with Iran! After all, if everyone had nukes, no one would use them. Peace on earth. Goodwill toward men and women. Solved that one. Thanks to the NRA.

There is the problem of identifying perpetrators. NRA’s got that solved too – tracing weapons is not allowed because it might lead to regulation and prohibition which would undermine everything they stand for. No, we’ll just have to guess who bombed whom. But the perpetrators will be scared because we might guess right among the hundreds of nations and many more terrorist groups. Peace reigns.

But the real threat is from folks who don’t have any apparent weapons – they’re hiding it. So just like Trayvon Martin and all those other souls who got what the NRA reserved for them, we have to be ready to shoot first and ask questions later. There is a chance that someone might have evil intent, especially if they don’t look right. Kill, kill, kill. Oh scratch that, Arlo used that phrase in Alice’s restaurant. Let’s say, historicize them. Remember Dick Cheney’s idea about Iraq – there was a chance they’d turn out bad, so let’s just make a mess of their place first, and let the whirlwind blow where it may – even if it whirls back on us.

Try that in Libya and Syria. Let everyone have guns, mortars, grenades and landmines. We can imagine them blowing each other’s brains out until they have depopulated the area and removed any threat to us. They already blame the U.S. anyway. Of course the weapons will end up in the hands of terrorists who will use them to fleece the people and turn the profits against new targets in America or among Americans. But then the American arms industry will really get going and we can have all-out war – now that’s a heroic future.

Now just think of the environmental advantages. China has ended its one-child policy. What to do? Nukes. How many nukes would it take to lower the earth’s population to about 3 billion? Of course radiation from that many nukes might lower the population to zero. But we could end the release of carbon and methane into the atmosphere. That way we could gain some control over global warming. The place might actually be livable again for a new race of people who emerge from the sea and the apes into homo sapiens in another two billion years. Think of that, the NRA could save the planet.

Oh my heavens where is my tongue. In my cheek? Or is it deadly accurate?

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, November 3, 2015.


Good soldiers know how to play chess

October 20, 2015

I’d like to start by stating my pride in WAMC and admiration of you, the listeners and members, who not only raised funds to keep the station on the air but also raised funds during the pledge break for the food bank, to help refugees and to retire pollution from the environment. That’s a lot to be proud of.

Turning to the Middle East, Russia wants to beef up Assad in Syria. And Putin seems to have confronted us with a fait accompli as it conducts bombing raids. No one wants war with Russia. So what to do?

Lots of people have their eyes focused on the Middle East, on Syria and its immediate neighbors. I think that reveals inexperience. Foreign affairs is a chess game. Chess was invented to train the mind for combat.

Now I’m no champion chess player. Oh I like to brag that I once beat someone who beat Bobby Fisher, which is true, but my friend hadn’t played in years and I have no idea how old Fisher was when my friend beat him. But just the same I do understand some things about chess. And one of them is that if the other guy attacks one of my pieces where it’s hard to defend, I can look for ways to take advantage of the position somewhere else on the board. Sometimes that forces my opponent to release his grip while dealing with my counter threat, or provide me with a counter-balancing advantage. Chess is often described as a game of position, but rarely is it all about one square or even one piece.

So I’m wondering what candidates you might have for places to put pressure on Russia? Ukraine anyone? Or posting troops in Poland? And how about recalculating the effects of Putin’s moves? The EU has been falling apart but a resurgent Russian bear may help put the EU back together. Arab anger has been directed against home grown Sunni regimes and against the U.S., but a resurgent Russian bear may put them in a war with ISIS and could inflame Muslims within Russia. Conservatives want America to be a player in world politics. But being a player is hardly a purpose. I’m more focused on the consequences.

People who only keep their eyes on one spot may be experts on that spot, or just naïve. But real foreign policy is global. Russia is not invincible. Putin is not a magician. The games he has been playing have answers. Keep cool.

But don’t look for lots of loud talk back. Real warriors don’t scream their intentions. Intentions become known after the fact. That’s what I expect from Obama or any president who is competent in foreign policy and not a big gasbag. As Teddy Roosevelt once said, we need to speak softly and carry a big stick. But it’s also important to remember that big sticks aren’t best wielded in frontal attacks – Picket’s charge lost at Gettysburg. Grant, by contrast, was happy to lay siege at Vicksburg and Richmond, and the soldiers under Sherman rarely fired a shot through a long campaign across Tennessee and then Georgia – except when Jefferson Davis replaced one of his best generals and his replacement immediately attacked the portion of Sherman’s Army he had left behind at Chattanooga. The Confederate Army was then promply defeated by that half of Sherman’s Army.

Good soldiers know how to play chess.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, October 20, 2015.

Misunderstanding Iran

August 12, 2014

For the last few days my wife and I attended the semi-annual meeting of the International Society for Iranian Studies. It was held in Montreal this time. Several panels were devoted to Iranian foreign policy. At one of them, scholars outlined Iran’s strategic isolation and the limited choices available to it.

The fourth panelist then launched into a comparison of what she called contextual cultures and textual cultures. I found myself thinking about the textualism of Justice Scalia and the contextualism of his more liberal colleagues. But this speaker’s point was that Iran was a contextual country in which it was the listener’s job to figure out the speaker’s meaning from surrounding circumstances. By contrast, she said, America was a textualist country, where, quoting an old saying, we “say what we mean and mean what we say.” Given that contrast, it was no wonder that we find the Iranians inscrutable and untrustworthy. Read the rest of this entry »

Settler War in Palestine

July 22, 2014

Returning from a meeting of historians, I’ve been thinking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in historical terms. Israeli settlers in the West Bank are reminiscent of the movement of settlers to our own Indian frontier until the frontier was closed in the twentieth century. Settler conflict with Native Americans over land and atrocities on both sides was continual. This isn’t the whole story but it is important.

Allies are crucial. For a century, Britain prohibited settlement west of the Appalachians and protected Indian rights in the territory they had occupied for millenia, largely preventing Indian War, except, of course, against the French. Regardless of our dispute with King George, aspects of British Indian policy were both wise and decent. Read the rest of this entry »

Other Civilizations Disappeared But What of Ours?

November 19, 2013

At Persepolis, stone carvings bear witness to tribute paid to Persian kings by other great rulers and former empires. Iran was once a great breadbasket of the world. But the Greeks stopped their advance and much of Iran is now a desert. But not America.

The great civilization of Greece disintegrated. Alexander the Great conquered much of the then known world, burning Persepolis along the way. His empire fell apart. But not the world’s only superpower.

Rome ruled from the Mediterranean to the Indus Valley. Its armies over-extended, it was conquered by barbarians. But America can keep the world at bay.

The Anasazi or Ancestral Puebloans in the American southwest suddenly deserted their cliff houses and their civilization disappeared. Unfavorable climate change contributed to the loss of their homelands. Not long before a similar fate befell the Maya who ruled much of central America, and boasted sophisticated mathematics, writing, and science. They too largely disappeared, to reemerge, perhaps, as the underlings in new nations conquered by Europeans.

The same fate befell once powerful civilizations across the great Silk Road, the Indus Valley and China, in Africa and the Americas, as they weakened themselves with war and could not control the environment which decreed that it was the turn of some other people to enjoy the right proportions of sun and rain.

But it couldn’t happen to us. Read the rest of this entry »

Reality Check on Iran

July 23, 2013

I recently attended a meeting of former Peace Corps volunteers who had served in Iran. We shared the fundamental perspective that Iran should be an ally, not an enemy, and that the current standoff is the result of government mistakes on both sides.

Iran has a democratic tradition going back to 1906, with an elected legislature or Majlis. It also had a democratically selected Prime Minister, until deposed with the U.S. C.I.A. taking credit. Iranians never forgot–their attachment to democracy is one of the strongest in the Middle East. Read the rest of this entry »

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