Disloyalty if not Treason

November 12, 2019

The U.S. was the world’s most powerful country when Trump took office. Though we couldn’t control everything, we influenced outcomes all over the world. Then Trump pulled us out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, leaving China the dominant player in the Pacific. He withdrew from the multi-power nuclear agreement with Iran, leaving Iran to reorganize its nuclear ambitions to meet its new security situation. Bizarrely he keeps claiming Iran must abide by the agreement even as the founders of our country would have explained to him that breach by one party to an agreement terminates the other’s obligations to it. He withdrew from the Paris climate agreement, not only undermining the international effort to limit global warming, but undermining other countries’ willingness to count on American promises. And he withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia, inviting Russia to restart the nuclear arms race.

He publicly questioned the value of the two major institutions formed to keep the Russians in check – the European Union which strengthened and unified Europe as a counterforce to Russia, and NATO, the military alliance between the U.S. and the European countries outside the Russian orbit, famously dubbed the “Iron Curtain” by Winston Churchill. He urged letting Russia back into the economic organization of major economies despite having been kicked out because of the Russian invasion of Crimea. He pushes Putin’s proposal that Ukraine virtually give Russia back its eastern provinces, the ones Russia had invaded until the West pushed back. And he has just invited the Russians back into Syria and a major role in the Middle East. In reality, Trump is being impeached because he keeps helping Russia.

I know there are people who call themselves super patriots who believe the US would be better off able to make its own independent decisions. What that means, of course, is that we will no longer have the trust and confidence of other countries who will no longer see us as reliable allies. When we do our best to isolate Iran, we think of it as a punishment, but when we do it to ourselves, it’s supposed to be a great advantage.

Yes, we think of ourselves as a superpower, but how much of the world can we take on alone? We didn’t win World War II alone. We certainly had the major role in the Pacific but those of us who lived through or studied the War, know that Russia did most of the fighting in Europe. So there is a large cost to isolating ourselves and convincing our allies that they can’t rely on us. If they can’t rely on us, then they can’t be reliable for us. They have to seek their own advantage.

In sum, Trump has enormously weakened America. It’s bad enough if he did it out of stupidity. But it’s disloyal if he did it for his own advantage. And since Russia can clearly be described as an enemy of the US, even though we’re not now making war against each other, we would be justified in calling that treason.

Let me suggest that you read and think about Art. III, sec. 3, of the Constitution:

Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.

Whether or not it fits the definition of treason, weakening America for the advantage of Russia and China is certainly disloyal. As Hamilton explained in The Federalist, the basis for impeachment is “the abuse or violation of some public trust.”[1] No abuse of public trust can be more serious than disloyalty to America for the benefit of a foreign power.

  • Broadcast on WAMC/Northeast Public Radio on Nov. 12, 2019

[1] Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, The Federalist, No. 65 (Hamilton) at 396 (Clinton Rossiter ed., New American Library 1961); and see Peter Charles Hoffer and N.E.H. Hull, Impeachment in America, 1635-1805 chronicling the development of impeachment from English precedents through the Founding Era in America (Yale U. Press 1984).

 


Sa’adi’s Iranian Poetry and International Order

October 29, 2019

This could be called a tale of two birthdays. While celebrating my wife’s birthday at a restaurant, she got an email in response to her request that the writer handle some things at an upcoming national conference.

Early American presidents ended their letters by declaring themselves “Your most humble and obedient servant.” They believed in humility and public service. Persians express humility differently. Like my wife and myself, the writer of the email she opened had been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran. His note reflected Iranian hyperbole and the Persian system of manners which they call Ta’arof: “I am your sacrifice,” he wrote, “you may walk on my eyes.” That was not a complaint, but, in context, much like Jefferson’s expression of humility and willingness.  The Persian reference to injuring eyes preserves painful memories, like many nursery rhymes we sing unsuspectingly. The Persian reference is to Mongol rulers, descendants of Genghis Khan, who cut out their opponents’ eyes. Knowing it’s meaning, I’ve never been able to use that expression. But both his and Jefferson’s reflect a culturally rooted sense of civility.

My dad visited me while I was in the Peace Corps and I threw him a party for his 70th birthday. While there, he gave me a book of Persian poetry as a gift, the Gulestan or Rose Garden, by Sa’adi, a much loved thirteenth century Persian poet, and the pride of the city where I worked as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Poetry is very important to the Persians. There were monuments in Shiraz to Sa’adi and Hafez who wrote just a few years after Sa’adi died. Two centuries earlier, Ferdowsi wrote his Shahnameh or Book of Kings, a beautifully poetic attempt to remember the pre-Islamic past of Iran.

This Administration, and some of its predecessors, have tried to force Iran into submission with painful restrictions on trade. This and other countries have also tried to isolate Iran among dangerous regional regimes that have threatened Iran in the past, most notably Russia and the Soviet Union.

The Peace Corps Iran Association, of which my wife is president, was invited to make a presentation at the Kennedy Center. As part of that presentation, John Limbert, himself both a former ambassador and hostage, responded to the policy of penalizing and isolating Iran with a reference to the poetry of Sa’adi.[1] Many Persians know Sa’adi’s poetry by heart. In fact, when I called a friend to ask him about the language Ambassador Limbert had recited, I heard my friend’s father start reciting the entire poem in the background.  Here is the couplet Limbert recited – in both Persian and English translation:

نمیبینی که چون گربه عاجز شور

به چنگال در آرد چشم پلنگ

Nemibini ke chun gorbeh ‘aajez shavad,

be changaal dar avarad, cheshm-e-palang?

Have you not seen the cornered cat,

whose tiny claws will tear out the eyes of a leopard?

The implication is that they don’t want to fight but can and will to save their country.

It is a mistake to think of Iran in stereotypical terms as a bunch of brutes. Like all peoples, they can overreact, especially during a revolution, and international politics often brings out the worst instincts of nations. Nevertheless, I experienced Iranians as a very decent, cultured and friendly people, but a people who love their country and expect to be treated with respect. It’s funny, but showing respect is, at once, one of the easiest and most difficult things to do. Often, it’s little more than the language that reflects each other’s humanity and accomplishments. But it’s so difficult when we fight about who’s number 1.

[1] The Gulistan or Rose Garden of Sa’di , 85-86 (George Allen & Unwin, ltd. Edward Rehatsek, trans., W.G. Archer, ed. 1964) (in the eighth story in the first chapter).


War and the Sources of Fake News

June 25, 2019

The president would have us believe that anything critical of him is fake. To which many respond that everything out of the president’s mouth (or twitter feed) is fake. Both statements, of course, are false.

Everyone makes mistakes but deliberately faked news often has government hands all over it. One American Administration took us into Vietnam based on lies about what happened in the Gulf of Tonkin, which were revealed when government reports were finally declassified. Another took us into Iraq on the basis of cooked evidence about weapons of mass destruction.

Teaching free speech, I don’t compare truth and falsity – there are enough screw-ups to go around. I compare whether there is better information when the press can act as watchdog or when we are forced into total reliance on official pronouncements. Around the world the answer is obvious. Here the answer is clouded by our attachments to our favorite politicians. But the so-called classification system is designed to feed us cooked evidence when an Administration thinks we can’t deal with truth. Of course, some secrets are kept for reasons of national security or diplomatic reasons, but much is protected only for political reasons. All Administrations convince themselves that it’s good for America that they keep secrets or that they deliberately mislead us. We simply have to assume that even our own government lies to us regularly, sometimes convinced that it’s good for us and often convinced that distortions are good for themselves.

That’s why the press matters. No person or institution can understand everything or get everything right.  Even Einstein didn’t although I certainly like his batting average. But only by examining conflicting evidence do we have some hope of teasing out what we need to know.

John Stuart Mill gave us our basic understanding of free speech and press, teaching that public officials have reasons to mislead: for reelection, to enlarge their own power, to get what they want done, to protect themselves or their beliefs, etc. His point was human fallibility coupled with power to throttle everyone else spells a high likelihood of official gobbledygook masquerading as truth. Worse, official censorship blocks the press from digging and correcting as many important stories as possible. Science, by contrast, is designed to keep challenging mistakes and getting better answers. A free press, too, can keep improving answers.

Go back to the examples I made at the head of this essay. The press made lots of mistakes about Vietnam, Iraq, and elsewhere. But the most damaging mistakes resulted from intentional government newsfeeds designed to mislead. We eventually learned the truth about those and many other cases because reporters kept pushing for more and better information.

Unfortunately I’ve learned over many years not to trust our presidents – they have too many reasons to mislead us that seem good to them. I think Trump is worse than most – he so often misstates the facts that I never trust him. Conservative commentator Bret Stephens wrote, “the Trump administration has credibility issues, to put it mildly, which is one reason why electing a compulsive prevaricator to the presidency is dangerous to national security.” On the other hand, many other presidents have told the truth just often enough that we become gullible when they really want to mislead us.

There’s no way to know what the situation will be between the U.S. and Iran by the time this is broadcast.  But too many lives are at stake; too much depends on figuring out what information is accurate, who is telling the truth and who isn’t, let alone whether it justifies killing both Iranians and Americans. Let there be no war.


Climate Change and Flooding in Shiraz

April 16, 2019

Have you seen the pictures of the flooding in the city of Shiraz in Iran? I spent two years living in Shiraz, in the middle of the Iranian desert. Shiraz is near the ancient capital of Persepolis, its Greek name – the Iranians call it Takht-e-Jamshid, or the thrown of Jamshid. It was the winter capital of the legendary kings of Persia: Cyrus and Darius. It was the winter capital because it was warm, much warmer than their summer capital. My future wife was stationed in Hamadan, which the ancient kings used as their summer capital because it was cool. I visited her there and I can testify to the temperature difference.

Persepolis and Shiraz are in the great Iranian desert. It’s very dry. I’d seen it drizzle but you never needed to worry about covering up from the rain. My friends and I were once invited to an open house at an observatory and that was the only evening on which I remember clouds and a very few drops. In fact, it was so unusual that when we made a wrong turn and ended up in the ammunition dump of the Persian army and told the soldiers we were going to the place where you go to see the stars … sure, a likely story! So that was the time I was held at gunpoint in Shiraz until they called the General who was fluent in English and sent his jeep to rescue us. Except for that teaser, and what they piped down from distant mountains, no, there was no water in Shiraz.

But now I’ve seen photos of flooding in Shiraz. Cars and trucks literally swept along in water several feet deep, floating, pushed by currents of water – I hesitate to say downstream because there was no stream, so what’s down or up?

It’s not nice when it floods in the desert. People aren’t prepared for it. There’s no infrastructure to deal with it. People get carried to their deaths by sudden walls of water. And the water doesn’t stay and do any good. The land can’t soak it up.

The floods in Shiraz are more than a curiosity. They are another reflection of a changing and very unpredictable environment. Sharp environmental changes push people out of their homes, kill others, destroy ways that people earned their livelihood and sustenance. Even now the American military is thinking about the implications. But it’s a worldwide problem and they all need to think about it. People will need protection. Others will become refugees looking for places they might be able to live. Everything is up for grabs.

I once chatted with a very successful engineer about the fact that his home is 8 feet above sea level in New York City. Why not move to higher ground? Because when the water rises 8 feet, New York won’t function like a city; the infrastructure will be overwhelmed. How about moving up to this area where except right next to the Hudson the land is a couple of hundred feet above sea level? Because millions of people from New York City will overrun this area like the gold rush overran Sutter’s Mill in California. A world in climate change will be unpredictable and dangerous.

Maybe we should deal with the climate.

— This commentary is scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 16, 2019.

 


U.S.-Iran Relations – the Atlantic Council Meeting on the Anniversary of the Iranian Revolution

February 19, 2019

A few days ago, I came back from a meeting at the Atlantic Council in Washington on the 40th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution.

Speakers laid out how Iranians see their own position in the world. The “terribly bloody cataclysm” of the Iran-Iraq war was crucial. Estimates vary, but the Iraqi invasion of Iran cost hundreds of thousands of lives in the 1980s.  That made clear to Iran the danger of powerful nearby states. The rise of ISIS on the ashes of Iraq made equally clear the danger of non-state actors and the danger that weakened states can’t control terrorist groups. Those are national security problems, not ideological issues. As Ariane Tabatabai put it:

Iran sought to adjust its policy to balance two oft-conflicting objectives: Undermining central governments to ensure none would become strong enough to pose a threat to Iran while also striving to prevent them from collapsing and creating fertile grounds for terrorists.

While Iraq was strong, their common enmity against Iraq united Israel and Iran. But once Iraq was defeated, the two countries began to see each other as the only states in the region capable of an existential threat to themselves.

The U.S. also became unreliable. As John Limbert, a career American diplomat and former hostage, describes:

In the last hundred years, for Iranians, the United States has gone from friend to puppet master to enemy and scapegoat. In Iranians’ century-long struggle for dignity and independence, Americans were originally on the right side…support[ing] Iran’s constitutional movement, and…help[ing] Iran preserve its independence against…the Soviet Union….[Not long after, however, the U.S. developed] an unhealthy patron-client relationship with the repressive Pahlavi monarchy.

In the more recent past, the U.S. sided with Iraq against Iran in the war between the two, excluded Iran from regional conferences and imposed sanctions, all of which increased Iranians’ concern for their own national security.

Iran, of course, played a role in the breakdown of relations. But diplomats try to push irritants and misunderstandings aside in order to make more fruitful relations possible, unless, of course, the game is to have an enemy for use as a bogey-man with which to threaten the population for the rulers’ interests, not the public’s. Even after a succession of presidents refused to engage with Iran, Obama showed that it could still be done.

Trump claims to be a great negotiator. But his tools appear limited to threats, sanctions and name-calling. That can be effective in limited circumstances, for a bargain over a single event, where prospects for future relations or reactions in countries looking on don’t matter. But others now realize that they can’t trust the U.S. to look past short-term advantage and build for a stronger future by playing what diplomats call the long game. Playing the tough instead, Trump encourages a backlash. Focusing on the short-term and ignoring the long game, he encourages others to plan without us – and against our interests. Making Iran feel less secure, he makes it more determined to rely on its own arsenal of weapons, heightening the danger to Israel and other allies.

Good negotiators figure out what other negotiating partners need. They develop win-win deals for long term and fruitful relations. Negotiations that don’t work that way push everyone to find ways out, ways to take advantage of each other. Rewards can be much greater when negotiators negotiate for mutual advantage.

In dealing with Iran, Trump looks for short-term advantage and long-term hostility. He will surely get it and we will pay the price.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 19, 2019.


Our handling of Iran is juvenile

January 28, 2019

While we have been focused on domestic politics, some of what this Administration has been doing abroad poses serious risks. The Administration has been trying to make Iran the devil behind everything we don’t like and threats have been flying back and forth. That has many of us concerned about where we are going.

The MEK has been the darling of the Administration as a potential successor to the mullahs because they both dislike the Iranian regime. Never mind that the MEK objected when Khomeini decided to release the hostages, that it has been a terrorist organization and killed Americans. Never mind that it has no support in Iran because it backed Iraq against Iran in a war that left 300,000 Iranians dead, and never mind that human rights organizations have documented its abuses. Never mind that Iranians despise the MEK’s version of Islam because it is “worse than the current mullahs.” But it is apparently enough that it dislikes the mullahs regardless of what might happen if they actually tried to take power in Iran, mirroring the tragedy of the second Bush war with Iraq.

Our handling of Iran is both juvenile and dangerous.

We, in this country, are very upset that Russia may have interfered in our elections. Yet we behave dismissively about the American engineered coup d’etat that removed the democratically selected prime minister of Iran and brought the Shah back.

That was a while ago but it led directly to the taking of hostages 26 years later. Everyone in Iran knew that American staff inside the Embassy had reorganized a failed coup d’etat, ended democratic government and brought monarchy back. So yes, the Iranians violated international norms by storming and seizing the Embassy, but would we do less if we believed that Russia was organizing a coup in their Washington embassy? Or would it have been our patriotic duty to stop it by any means necessary?

Yet all the enmity between Iran and the US stems from those two events and we don’t seem to be able to get past it. Iran tried on several occasions to reestablish a decent relationship with the US. It offered to negotiate the full panoply of differences between us. But no president before Obama was willing to deal with them. It was considered unpatriotic even to talk with Iran.

We changed the balance of power in the Middle East by defeating Iraq, leaving Iran the sole major local power and target because power in the region had become unbalanced. This country then worked to complete their local isolation, refusing to include them in regional meetings and arrangements. Their relationship with Israel had been fine and productive until we tried to squeeze them out. Like Germany in NATO, Iran could easily have been included in regional security arrangements. It could and would have become a much better friend than the likes of the Saudis.

But we got furious at every step, shaking fists, making threats, even threatening war, instead of using our heads to create a peaceful Middle East. It’s been much like a fight between kids in a sandbox except that all the kids have powerful weapons. Some presidents need to grow up, for the sake of our fellow citizens.

Tyrants want enemies to vilify in order to unite the country behind them instead of against them. It’s also a distraction from the embarrassments of domestic politics. But warlike behavior can get out of hand, leading some young men to their deaths and families to become refugees. Getting people to unite behind an unpopular president is a sick reason for people to go to their deaths.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 29, 2019.

 

 


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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