How to think about Iran

July 8, 2019

People simplify countries into good and bad, leading us to bluster about military options, and overlook better ways to get things done.

It seems required that all discussions of Iran begin with statements about lack of trust and the badness of what they are doing. But goodness and badness aren’t genes baked into each country’s DNA. Despite American complaints about Iranian government, Iran waited a year after this country reneged on the multi-national nuclear agreement before acting in conflict with its no-longer application terms. They were not, in this case, untrustworthy.

Much of the Iranian population is very westernized. Despite some of the leadership’s language, Iran is not a country of America haters, or nearly as authoritarian as much of the Middle East. Iranians have been voting for decades except when our country dislodged their democratically selected leader and substituted the Shah. Iranians don’t have as much power as they want but they have a great deal more than most of the people of the region. Until the current occupant of the White House took over, they pushed their leadership in our direction.

We’d benefit from thinking about the Middle East and Iran differently. Iraq and Iran fought a war that cost at least half a million lives, with two or three times that many casualties. American defeat of Iraq removed any Iraqi threat to Iran and made Iran more powerful, which many here regret.

But also, Israel and Iran were cooperating before the U.S.-Iraq wars. The enemy of my enemy is my friend and Iraq was their common enemy. So after we defeated Iraq, Iran and Israel saw each other as the most dangerous countries in the region, leaving Iran facing Israel and Saudi Arabia in the new Middle East.

Saudis aren’t angels. They’re decades behind Iran in their treatment of women and have caused us much more trouble. Saudi support for militant Wahhabi Islam brought 9/11 about, produced Osama bin Ladan, al Qaeda and led to the war in Afghanistan, and Saudi Wahhabi schools are radicalizing the Islamic world. Our alliance with Saudi Arabia has been very costly.

So assuming we suffer the pain and cost of defeating Iran, which countries would drive the new Middle East: Israel, Saudi Arabia or Turkey? The longstanding working relationships between Iran and Turkey have helped stabilize both. Turkey is now playing East and West against each other. It seeks entry into the EU while becoming increasingly authoritarian. If Iran were defeated, would Turkey draw closer to the west, to Sunni Islamic countries or would Turkey be more vulnerable to the Russian bear? The answer isn’t obvious. A defeated Iran would be in chaos, and the risks that could pose to all countries in the area as well as ourselves could be very severe. In other words, war is not an independent decision without understanding or controlling the aftermath.

Defeating Iran may only solidify our reputation as the world’s most warlike country. Plus, demonizing Iran is diverting us from China’s threat to the security of other countries in the Far East. If those countries lose confidence in American support, the world balance of power could change in an instant. How to make America puny again.

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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.


The AUMF and War in the Middle East

June 18, 2019

Among the problems with the outdated Authorizations for the Use of Military Force are the countries trying to get Uncle Sam to fight their wars, the difficulty in telling who did what, and in knowing what even our own Administration is up to. Remember that one American Administration took us into Vietnam on the basis of attacks on American military vessels that never happened, and another Administration took us into Iraq on the basis of similarly cooked evidence.

Nor is it easy to tell what the current Administration is doing. The Administration tells us it is confronting Russia by implanting weapons in their power grids.[1] But Trump Administration officials warned the former secretary of Homeland Security not to bring up its efforts to confront Russian interference with upcoming American elections.[2] Are we facing them or bowing to them? As Bret Stephens put it, “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.”[3]

Should we support the Administration’s warlike stance toward Iran, on the assumption that we have accurate information that Iran torpedoed two tankers in the Gulf of Oman, including one that is Japanese owned, or should we believe the Japanese that the ships were attacked “by a ‘flying object’” from the air, not torpedoes in the water?[4] Is the best comparison the cooked attack in the Gulf of Tonkin in the Johnson Administration or the cooked claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction in the George W. Bush Administration?[5]

And what is all this for? Trump says he wants to stop Iran from going nuclear but Obama had already done that for the foreseeable future. Trump instead released Iran from its obligations under the nuclear agreement. The difference seems to be that Trump wants the credit. But he keeps threatening Iran and getting mad when they don’t lie down and play dead. Worse, Iran is disciplined and intelligent enough to find ways to fight back. Trump seems to figure that Iran alone has no right to fight back, though that way of thinking is likely to involve us in a totally unnecessary war, unnecessary because the agreement he terminated did a pretty good job.

The fist pumping and showing off of military hardware is supposed to make Trump look tough, but it risks the lives of American men and women, not to protect America, but to protect Trump’s reputation, whether as tough guy or as bully depending on whom you ask.

American lives should not be spent in the Middle East. There’s little evidence that we can do any good. Its oil is no longer important and would be better left in the ground. It’s run by a bunch of petty dictators, most of whom would fade into insignificance without American aid and involvement. Moreover, by comparison to most countries in the Middle East, Iran has a relatively stable democratic system. Iran’s clerics have certainly imposed limits but nevertheless the people have a major voice in the choice of the Prime Minister and the legislature. Let Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states fight their own battles.

Meanwhile, I completely agree with Paul Barker, another former Peace Corps Volunteer who served this country in Iran, like I did, and who wrote the LA Times that before this Administration “leads the U.S. into yet another disastrous war, our lawmakers must repeal the 2001 and 2002 Authorizations for the Use of Military Force and secure the passage of the Prevention of Unconstitutional War with Iran Act. The U.S. can ill afford to stumble into yet another forever war in the Mideast.”[6]

[1] David E. Sanger and Nicole Perlroth, U.S. Escalates Online Attacks on Russia’s Power Grid, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/15/us/politics/trump-cyber-russia-grid.html.

[2] Eric SchmittDavid E. Sanger and Maggie Haberman, In Push for 2020 Election Security, Top Official Was Warned: Don’t Tell Trump, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/24/us/politics/russia-2020-election-trump.html?action=click&module=RelatedCoverage&pgtype=Article&region=Footer.

[3] Bret Stephens, The Pirates of Tehran: If Iran won’t change its behavior, we should sink its navy, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/14/opinion/iran-oil-tanker-attack.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage.

[4] Eliot Higgins, Was Iran Behind the Oman Tanker Attacks? A Look at the Evidence, June 14, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/14/opinion/iran-tanker-attacks.html?action=click&module=RelatedLinks&pgtype=Article.

[5] Id.

[6] Paul Barker to the LA Times, , 5/18/19.


No Time for Moderates

May 27, 2019

We’re suffering a worldwide attack on tolerance, the brotherhood and sisterhood of all peoples, and the principles of democracy and equality that make it possible to share the country and much of the globe in peace. The results, from Brexit to White Nationalism, the resurgence of Nazism in Europe, intolerance in India and China and ethnic warfare over the scraps of economic failure endanger us all. America, founded on tolerance, equality and democracy, should be leading the world out of this dangerous morass instead of smoothing the path to hell.

Commentators have long seen and feared the separation of national politics from the needs of the great mass of working people. Both national parties partook of that separation. Republicans revere Reagan but he crippled the unions, the organizations of working men and women. And claiming that government is the problem, not the solution, Reagan crippled efforts to address their problems. Democrats followed national economic trends without paying enough attention to the dislocations among working people. That combination made white working people feel left out, instead of uniting us in pursuit of a better world for everybody.

That’s recent history. Much further back, Alexis de Tocqueville, famous French nobleman, toured the U.S. in the 1830s and had the genius to see far into this country’s future. Tocqueville told us that democracy required widespread economic well-being.  The very first paragraph of the U.S. Constitution talks about the “general welfare” but many poo-poo it as merely precatory language, not authorizing government to take care of the people. Those who poo-poo that language think the Constitution is merely about freedom from government rather than the creation of a government capable of providing for the people. Their misreading of history is perverse and dangerous.

Seymour Martin Lipset, one of the twentieth century’s great political scientists, pointed to the world-wide connection between democracy and economic welfare. Germany, which had been a great economic power, lost its illustrious and democratic Weimar Constitution after going through economic hell between the world wars.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt told America that he was saving capitalism by protecting the great mass of Americans from the ways capitalism went awry. The big shots of industry couldn’t understand that their behavior wasn’t sacrosanct. They couldn’t understand that capitalism too has to operate by standards of ethics and principles of sharing. Roosevelt was the architect of American economic success for the next half century precisely because he put in place the rules by which it could operate for the benefit of the entire country, not merely the captains of industry and finance. We have forgotten and dishonored Roosevelt’s legacy of making government serve the people. He rescued this country from the Great Depression, “promote[d] the general Welfare,” as the Constitution provided, and set the country on a sound economic keel, a legacy that would honor any leader.  Fools now sneeze at his accomplishment so they can promote something new – poverty for all.

There’ve been plenty of warnings. Now we have a chance. It’s not enough to beat Trump. We need a victory for the principle that everyone counts and everyone needs to be protected. It doesn’t matter whether it’s called “socialism” or something else. The idea that it’s a bad idea to take care of each other has got to go – permanently – and all the conservative nonsense about the damage of helping each other. Either we care for each other or we will suffer a war of all against all regardless of what you call it – fascism, communism, totalitarianism – the results won’t be good for anyone except the oligarchs.

Forget “moderate” Democrats. If “radical” describes the philosophy of taking care of each other, we need it NOW. Bless all the people with the decency and humanity to care about their neighbors, fellow citizens and fellow human beings. The blessed are those who care.

– This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 28, 2019.


Iran and the US

May 14, 2019

I can’t update the news from the Persian Gulf except to express my skepticism. I intended to go behind the news to look at Iranian and American views of each other. I still think that’s useful.

Problems between our countries are vestiges of nineteenth and early twentieth century colonialism which gave the west control over Iranian oil fields. In the 1950s, Prime Minister Mossadegh was unwilling to continue that relationship. This country replaced him with the Shah largely over oil, creating a relationship that hurt Iranian pride..

Iran also shared a border with the former Soviet Union and there had been military conflict between them. Mossadegh, sought peaceful coexistence with the U.S.S.R. Although his behavior was similar to other unaligned leaders like Tito in Yugoslavia, this country refused to show him the same respect.

After its Revolution, with its present combination of an elected legislature and clerical Guardian Council, the U.S. spent decades trying to isolate Iran, despite Iranian overtures to negotiate all our differences. Needing alliances outside our sphere of influence, Iran maintained alliances with conservative Middle Eastern religions. Of course that makes them seem even worse to us.

Obama’s willingness to show respect for Iranian sovereignty and not treat them like an American client, was crucial to his ability to reach a deal over nuclear fuel. Obama believed a fundamental mistake of American Middle Eastern policy has been the belief that we could and should control it for purposes that have had little to do with American security.

But this Administration believes it gets support at home by flexing its muscles along with threats and insults. As Reese Erlich put it, “To assert U.S. hegemony in the Middle East, Washington must have a truly evil enemy to combat. Mad mullahs with nukes fit the bill.”[i] The story they’ve been telling looks as far from reality as the Bush-Cheney story of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

What does Trump’s America look like to Iran?

Despite our warships, Iran has good reason to think we’re weak. American alliances are in shambles and US trading preeminence is over. One-on-one trade deals maximize US power over weak countries but it sours relations with others. Our sanctions against Iran foul the economies of countries that used to be our friends. Equally important, another war in the Middle East would weaken us in parts of the world, like the Far East, where our interests are truly being challenged.

For our traditional European allies, Trump’s bizarre affection for dictators, is a turn off and a warning sign. And it encourages the militarization of countries like Turkey which used to be part of the peaceful, human rights respecting, democratic countries of NATO and the E.U.

So across the globe, including hotspots, like Turkey, North Korea, and Iran, it now seems that American agreements can’t be trusted. That gives them a reason to seek, not avoid, nuclear arms, because without them, they would be as vulnerable to American conquest as Iraq was. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that Iran threatened to enrich their nuclear materials beyond what they need for peaceful uses. That, of course, is counter-productive for America, although they are a lot further from building a weapon than this Administration would have you believe.

And it must seem to Muslims that we are supporting 21st century crusades through US threats, client dictators and carte blanche to Israel.

As for breaking news from the Gulf, we have learned from Vietnam and Iraq, that our government does not always tell us the truth. Sadly, this president is no paragon of honesty. And after the Kashoggi affair, it is clear that Saudi Arabia and its allies are less than trustworthy. So I believe the best analogy for what’s going on, is what went on, in Iraq.

 – This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 14, 2019


[i] The Iran Agenda Today, 45 (2019).


Problems Proving Obstruction and Conspiracy

April 2, 2019

Two statutes add to the many issues that complicate the status of Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

One defines obstruction of justice as “imped[ing] the due administration of justice.”[1] It has been treated as necessary that one have specifically intended to obstruct a proceeding. One can prove that someone like Trump intended to impede justice either by statements of intent or actions that make it obvious. Obstruction is about such things as Trump’s dismissal of Comey and urging an end to the investigation. It would have been cleaner if Trump had recused himself from the investigation. But he didn’t dismiss Rosenstein or Mueller or order either Comey or Sessions to end the investigation, only encourage them to. Was that enough? It probably would be if you told a police officer to get lost. But, even though Congress is not limited by the same rules of evidence, Supreme Court decisions about evidence of intent will complicate things. Let me come back to that in a moment.

A second statute makes “[A]ny conspiracy for the purpose of impairing, obstructing or defeating the lawful function of any department of government . . .” a violation of federal law.[2] Participants must agree, intend, and do something to further the conspiracy. Once again, intent might be proven by explicit statements, or by actions that make it obvious.

The Supreme Court, however, is not a friend of the obvious. It ratcheted back the law of conspiracy in an antitrust case saying that it is not enough to show that two people or companies acted as if they were acting in concert. The Court wants something closer to an explicit statement or admission.[3]

The Court doesn’t like to infer intent from behavior, except for infering intent to favor African-American efforts to equalize their opportunities with those of whites. The Court decided that many electoral district lines were unconstitutional racial gerrymanders in favor of African-Americans based on the shapes of the lines, even where the more obvious purpose was political gerrymandering which, to this day, they refuse to condemn.[4] But the Court resists finding that white officials disadvantaging minorities did so intentionally.[5] In one case they would not even get to the evidence, writing that such discrimination by high public officials was “implausible.”[6]

Intelligent attorneys would stop short of explicit statements or admissions. Politicians and criminal conspirators often make agreements based on unstated understandings. Trump came much closer to the brink than an intelligent lawyer would have. But notice the absence of any explicit quid pro quo. There’s no “release the recordings, Mr. Putin, and we’ll deliver the EU.” There’s no “let us help you violate our laws to get information on the Democratic National Committee or candidate Clinton.” It wasn’t even in the form of requests that they do some illegal things in the U.S. Instead the evidence we know about was all encouragement – saying that would be great, we hope Putin does it, or we predict he will. Trump’s statements are not explicit. Lawyers recognize that circumstantial evidence is often the most reliable but this Court thinks big shots and major corporations should be protected from it. Here, the evidence we know about is ambiguous – does it indicate a joint endeavor or simply knowledge of Putin’s actions?

The strength of the evidence will depend in part on whether Congress is willing to ignore the Court. In other words, the U.S. Supreme Court had its favorites and its scapegoats even before Trump’s appointments made it worse. None of that makes Trump blameless but it does mean that there will be battles over the evidence if there is any attempt to impeach.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 2, 2019.

[1] 18 U.S.C. § 1503, 1505 and https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/obstruction_of_justice.

[2] Hass v. Henkel, 216 U.S. 462, 479-480 (1910).

[3] Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007).

[4] See, e.g., Bush v. Vera, 517 U.S. 952 (1996); Shaw v. Hunt, 517 U.S. 899 (1996).

[5] See Wards Cove Packing Co. v. Atonio, 490 U.S. 642 (1989); and see also League of United Latin American Citizens [LULAC] v. Perry, 548 U.S. 399, 517 (2006) (Scalia, J., concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part).

[6] Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009).


Why Its Values Made America Great & the alt-Wrong Would Impoverish It

March 25, 2019

Last week I spoke about Trump’s other threats to American principles, unity, democracy and world power. This week I’d like to address why they matter.

Equality is a central American value, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and throughout the Constitution. Racial, religious and ethnic discrimination are at the heart of Trump’s attacks on refugees from Islamic countries, the so-called caravan from Central America, Puerto Ricans after the hurricane, and kudos to his alt-wrong loyalists after deadly attacks. But discrimination is extremely costly to all of us, not just to the victims. It denies us the best available people for jobs and wastes our efforts in unproductive battles with each other. Lincoln told us that “a house divided cannot stand.” Economists describe such battles as deadweight loss – deadweight because they add nothing to national welfare, income or resources; loss because the battle is expensive in time, money, and lives. The Civil War was an extreme example, killing and maiming a large proportion of American men. Economists add opportunity costs – all the time, money and lives that could have been put to productive and useful purposes. In effect by dividing us and dividing our politics on unproductive issues, the alt-wrong is beggaring America, making it poor again.

Democracy is also central to American values, enshrined in our founding documents. But Trump tries to shred the freedom of the press to criticize elected leaders, principally him. He tries to dismantle the obligation of office-holders to obey the law. And he tries to dismantle democratic processes to solve issues by verbal discussion, not guns, what he has called “Second Amendment rights.” His misbehavior proves that democracy makes mistakes. But democracy invites America to focus on the general welfare, not the welfare of the “dear leader” as Kim is described in Korea or his American friend here. Sure, there is plenty of corruption which our emoluments clause would have reduced had the Republican leadership paid more attention to our Constitution. But the Constitution provides the means to kick the bastards out, encourages competitors to try and parties to appeal to the great bulk of us, not just the rich and famous. Democracy could do better if more Americans took the principles of democracy seriously, including fair elections with universal adult suffrage and honest campaigning. Democracy is the scaffold; we get its benefits only if we cling to it.

American values of equality and respect have had a unique power in this world, allowing people across this globe to see the value of our principles to them, as respected members of the world that America tried to create. Chris Giannou said on Alternative Radio that people in much of the globe “love you for your values. They hate you for your hypocrisy, because you do not live up to your values.” Our values galvanized a unified free world. They underlay all the institutions the free world created to keep us united and working together. We still talk freely about working together in the context of sports. But Trump and his alt-wrong see no value in unity and working together and despise it in politics and world affairs. They waste their energy and ours in destroying the ways this country spread its influence across the world and led the world in the protection of freedom and democracy.

So yes, America can be torn apart. But what awaits is the whirlwind, the war of all against all, in which none of us is safe. All the blessings of unity, democracy and world power are at stake.

—  This commentary is scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 26, 2019. For comments on the Mueller report that I included on air, see the next post.


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