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.

 

 


Israel and Palestine – Peace in the Middle East

December 18, 2018

In a pair of recent commentaries, I have addressed the Middle East, and particularly the misperceptions of Saudi Arabia and Iran. I’d like to return to the Middle East but this time in regard to Israel and Palestine. If there is any topic on which hate mail is assured, it is Israel and Palestine. It is also a topic on which many find it difficult to understand or acknowledge any middle ground. Commentary critical of Israel will be misunderstood by many of Israel’s supporters as an attack on its existence. Commentary critical of the Palestinians will be misunderstood by many of their supporters as an attack on their claims to live in the historic territory.

I understand the pain of both sides, but this has reached an outrageous level. I remember speaking with a Palestinian college student who told me that it was OK to kill Israelis but not for Israelis to fight back. Obviously, he was reflecting views that had become widespread among Palestinians. Conversely it seems OK to many Israelis to kill and push Palestinians out of their homes much like European settlers of this country took Indian land in the face of contrary promises. There cannot be peace, Salaam or Shalom, on such terms from either side.

Louis Brandeis, one of our great Supreme Court Justices and also a leader of the international Zionist movement, wrote that for Israel to be valuable it had to be purchased and settled peacefully, [quote] “with clean hands … [so] as to ennoble the Jewish people. Otherwise, it will not be worth having.”[1] [close quote] Unfortunately, the two sides have been at war since 1948. And neither has kept faith with us. They have made numerous promises about stopping settlements or attacks, and then ignored their promises. That is unacceptable. It multiplies the wounds. And it makes America into a faithless partner. Do we only insist that some countries honor their commitments while allowing others to ramble through the house of horrors? Enough.

American presidents have been faced with a quandary. Try to take a middle ground and they will be accused of abandoning Israel. But support Israel unflinchingly and this country loses the respect it has had in the Muslim world, a huge percentage of the people of the globe, and risks new injuries to the people of America. To support either without peace is to condone murder, mayhem and ever more refugees.

For years, diplomats have identified the basic elements of what a deal would have to look like. American presidents could simply refuse any further support, funding, arms or trade to either side that resists or violates the terms of a square deal. Unconditional support of either side invites what we’ve been calling moral hazard, continuing to fight without taking responsibility for the consequences.

If we can’t insist on decent, defensible terms, then we have no business supporting anyone in the Middle East. Out, out America. Let not America’s candle light the way to still more killing and tragedy.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 18, 2018.

[1] Allon Gal, Brandeis, Judaism, and Zionism in Brandeis and America 71 (Lexington, KY: Univ. Press of Kentucky, Nelson L. Dawson, ed. 1989).


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.

 


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.


The Middle East, European Colonialism and the Result of Blank Checks

February 27, 2018

Steven Pinker, in The Better Angels of our Nature, argued we’ve become less bloody over the centuries. But so many issues involve life and death. For two weeks this country has been discussing how to stop school shootings. This week let’s address life and death in the Middle East. Next week, events permitting, let’s discuss two issues that threaten life worldwide.

I can count on hate mail whenever I speak about the Middle East. But let’s put some things in perspective.

The world’s refugee problem swamps most countries’ willingness to take people in. Our government wants to restrict immigration and we fight over who and why. Reaction to flows of refugees threaten democratic governments across Europe and contributed to the vote for Brexit. In addition to their own disputes, the American military footprint has aggravated war and population displacement in Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Palestine among many countries in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Stepping back historically and geographically, most countries are dominated by conquering populations. This country conquered and decimated Native Americans to create our bi-coastal America. A succession of warring populations, Huns, Visigoths, Franks, Saxons, Vikings and more, fought for Europe long before the modern wars.

This has hardly been a good way of solving problems or competition for land. But even more harm lurks in the suggestion that we undo it.

The creation of Israel was plainly the result of European refusal to accept its Jewish population. Historically, the Turks in the Ottoman Empire, and the Moors in Spain, before Ferdinand and Isabella Christianized it, were much more hospitable to Jews. The twentieth century brought the fate of the Jews to a head. Europe could have solved its integration problem. But seeing the handwriting on many walls in the 1930s, people like Justice Brandeis, then on the U.S. Supreme Court, were telling friends in Europe to get out quickly. But where to? Franklin Roosevelt, despite close personal and professional relationships with many Jews, blocked boatloads of Jewish refugees from our shores for political reasons.

So the west solved its problem by exporting it – to Palestine. Everyone was a victim in this process. Jewish refugees were uprooted and they in turn uprooted Palestinians. What to do?

At about the same time, Britain was facilitating the breakup of the Indian subcontinent into India and Pakistan. It cost something like a million lives and uprooted many times that. The two countries still find it difficult to get along, but undoing 1948 is not on the table. It cannot be.

It is not true that whatever is, is just. That was proposed by the conservative philosopher Robert Nozick and I most emphatically reject it. But redressing all the wrongs of the past comes at a cost which will involve many who themselves were neither perpetrators nor victims and sometimes both. The argument about who was right and who was wrong in Palestine is not a soluble argument. No one was treated as they should have been. But even more important, fixing those wrongs implies a fight to the death of everyone there. That I cannot wish.

I cannot support complete and utter conquest for either side. We might once have insisted on an enforceable compromise. America once played a role as an honest broker and could have maximized the chance for peace. But we could not continue to play that role while giving Israel a blank check to violate its promises about settlements. The result, I fear, is going to be tragic. It may simply be too late to avert widespread disaster.

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


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.

 


For Whom the Bell Tolls Amid the Refugee Crisis

January 12, 2016

Wars in the Middle East are creating huge flows of refugees. If war creates refugees, we either have to have a way to stop the wars or a policy about refugees. Just saying we will or won’t let people in is a decision, not a policy. One must think past those decisions to the enormous consequences.

Countries can try to exclude refugees leaving them to fend for themselves wherever they are. Countries can also put them in camps, let them in but then leave them to fend for themselves, or help them settle. Surrounding countries can also stop them at borders, keep them in camps, or let or help them settle. The permutations produce very different results.

More than six decades ago, Arab states refused to let the Palestinians settle. Ipso facto they created a permanent Palestinian fighting force. But who would the Palestinians fight? The oppressors keeping them in the camps, or the oppressors who pushed them out of their land? Which story would they buy? Refugee issues can fester. Both Palestinians and Israelis feel their backs to the wall and feel themselves fighting for survival, with lethal results.

Incidentally at the same time, a much larger refugee crisis existed in the Indian subcontinent leading to the separate nations of India and Pakistan out of the British Raj. That land is still troubled, though neither denies the other’s right to exist. In both cases, the mass exoduses left powerful marks on the stability of the regions.

And on the US southern border what happens to the people we exclude and what happens to us because of it? Impoverished masses elsewhere are likely to do the same things that impoverished masses do here – turn to some forms of crime. I doubt, when one takes white collar crime and tax evasion into account, that crime is much more prevalent amongst the poor but it is different – mostly theft, drug dealing or prostitution for survival or quick cash.

Then there’s the effort to deport people who were brought here as small children, an effort some of the prominent Republican candidates have endorsed. Ok, what are those kids going to do when they are back in their countries of origin? Many of them will find themselves jobless because they are strangers in what Americans insist on calling their land. But those young people brought up in the United States will prove valuable to criminal enterprises abroad because they could cross the borders and pass here easily. From an American point of view, those likelihoods of crime and participation in organized crime abroad are dangerous here. Volatile borders do no one any good.

Would it be better to bring them in, settle, employ and educate them and our people too, than to insist that everyone is on their own volatile devices to deal with the cruelties of a world without mercy. And then think about the effect of refugees on the people they leave behind. Think about the letters home, and the money home. Who is the so-called Great Satan when family write back with ordinary family developments – marriages, jobs, babies – and send money.

Creating a population tsunami and then pushing people back into swirling lifeboats has consequences for all of us. “No man is an island,” wrote John Donne, “entire of itself….. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 12, 2016.


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