War in the Middle East

November 17, 2015

The terrorists’ explanation for ISIS’ involvement in the Paris attacks, is that it was in revenge for the French participation in the war in Syria. Another explanation is that the attack was a recruiting tool – they’re stalemated in Syria and they use victory and the dream of an Islamic state as a recruiting tool, so they pulled off an attack that would be heard around the world, to say to young Muslims, come help promote the dream. Actually the two explanations are not inconsistent – they can both be true in the minds of different people, and sometimes even in the minds of the same people. But the two theories point in different directions. The revenge theory suggests that it would be better to stay out. The recruitment theory points to the value of simply defeating them. Recruits need something attractive to attach themselves to and losers aren’t very attractive.

Some Americans want to solve the problem by more fighting. History should make us skeptical. Our record isn’t very good in what are called asymmetrical wars, for some of the same reasons Americans were able to beat the British – warriors who are not in uniform and practice sneak attacks are very hard to beat.

And wars have unintended consequences. The Russian war on Afghanistan created the terrorist armies who later turned their arms against this country. Terrorists attacked the U.S. before we fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nevertheless, foreign wars increase the recruitment of terrorists. In Iraq and Afghanistan we fought the wrong wars, in the wrong places, against the wrong enemies. We destabilized the region in ways that left much bigger problems for us. Syria is the latest maelstrom.

So I’m convinced Obama had the right instinct to get out and try to stay out of the Middle East, especially by not putting boots on the ground. If fighting us is a recruitment ticket, staying away should be a good idea.

But the larger question is whether there is a way to minimize our participation while defeating ISIS and al Qaeda? Unfortunately, the answer doesn’t depend on us. The Iraqis and the Syrians are deeply divided. And war doesn’t seem to be uniting people in either country. The contending forces seem to fear each other as much or more than they do ISIS.

If it’s going to take a major war effort to defeat ISIS, I doubt this country has a taste for it. The economic costs would be huge. What economists call opportunity costs, the value of what we could have done with the same resources, would be even larger. The lesson seems to be, if they can’t fight their own war, we shouldn’t be trying to fight it for them.

Then again, there’s the army of refugees. Immigrants have been offered citizenship in the past in exchange for joining in war efforts. Can the able bodied among the refugees be turned into a credible and united fighting force? Are enough of them willing? And against whom would they turn their weapons? Would they be a mirror of those already fighting or would they be the only people from the area who could fight for broader and more ecumenical objectives? The humanitarian in me says they’ve already been through enough. The utilitarian in me wants the most effective way to end the problem with the least damage in both the short and long term. The skeptic in me thinks it’s another bad idea.

So I think we have four options – withdrawal, a big war, a deal among the major powers in the region, including Iran, or arming the refugees while trying to stay away. But it’s a heck of a set of bad choices. Thanks George.

— Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and author of Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and the Breakdown of American Politics. He has served on the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and in the US Peace Corps in Iran. This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, November 17, 2015.

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.


Brandeis and Zionism

October 27, 2015

The struggle between Israel and Palestine and the intransigence of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, leads me to think about a founder of American Zionism. In a book to come out early next year, I wrote:

… [P]rior to his Supreme Court appointment in 1916, Brandeis became leader of the American Zionist movement, heading a committee to assist endangered European Jews. He would found the American Jewish Congress, the Palestine Endowment Fund and the Palestine Co-operative Company. Zionism expressed Brandeis’ understanding of American values, the same right for Jews as other nationalities to a homeland, to strengthen their claim to equality among the world’s peoples. Palestine, he argued, must not be claimed by war but by purchase and settlement, “with clean hands … [so] as to ennoble the Jewish people. Otherwise, it will not be worth having.” He compared Zionism to the recent independence and unification of Italy, Greece, Bulgaria, Ireland and the more short-lived Servia. For Brandeis, support for justice, fairness and democracy everywhere, in service to “the brotherhood of man,” makes one a better American.[1]

Brandeis lived long enough to fear events in Europe and advise Jews to leave Germany but he died in 1941 before we joined the war, and before Israel was born in a bath of fire. May he rest in peace.

Instead, conflict has radicalized both Israelis and Palestinians and there seems to be no brakes on the spiral of violence.

A Palestinian graduate student at RPI told me Palestinians had every right to kill any Israeli, and Israelis have no right to fight back because they are wrong. His solution was the mirror image of Israel’s, takeover of the other’s land. I pointed out that would lead to the slaughter of everyone on both sides. He shrugged. Muslims from other places listening to us made clear they got my point. But extremists on both sides make peace impossible.

I see no mechanisms in their societies to resolve the conflicts and bring people together. Israelis and Palestinians are segregated in their living space, often by walls, boundaries and checkpoints. They are segregated in schools by faith and location. They are segregated in business, finance, wherever they might work together – save where Israeli employers hire Palestinian laborers, who work when Israel allows.

Our country has brought people together since the founding, in commerce, finance, colleges and schools. Still we suffer domestic conflict between racial and other groups. Congress and a string of American presidents supported desegregation to bring people together. The formerly segregated South changed a great deal, but backlash persists across America. Curing deep-seated antagonisms is difficult. It is next to impossible where they are reinforced by physical and legal walls.

I doubt Israel and Palestine have either the time or the will to build bridges between them. Each believes in re-taking the others’ lands, not sharing them.

My concern at this point is for America. I see little advantage to our country in being drawn further into an intractable conflict with religious zealots on both sides who kill peacemakers, national leaders, and noncombatants, to prevent or derail the possibility of peace. I fear that the future includes a great deal of slaughter, and am no longer convinced it can be averted. Our only choice may be whether we, in America, get blamed for it. The Israelis need to hear that message loud and clear. There is no chance of a decent resolution as long as Israel believes they have our unconditional support.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, October 27, 2015.

[1] Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and the Breakdown of American Politics 34 (NYU Press 2016).

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.

Realism about Middle Eastern Priorities

September 8, 2015

Republicans in Congress have been holding up funds for Fulbright scholarships and the Peace Corps, anything that would actually allow Americans to learn about what is going on in the rest of the world. It’s no wonder that foreign policy discussions have the smell of fantasy.

It’s long been obvious that the struggle with fundamentalist and militant Islam has been ideological. They have established schools which are aimed at stamping out the multicultural Islam we have known for a millennium and replacing it with the intolerance of Wahhabi Islam. They know the value of educating the young. That’s why Boko Haram in Africa attacks western style schools there.

And it has long been reported that a large part of the funding and much of the drive behind this intolerant violent form of Islam has been coming from Saudi Arabia, as did most of the 9/11 hijackers. Yet knowing all this, we have been falling over ourselves to help the Saudi monarchy. It’s a pyrrhic bargain, some supposed short-term gain despite long term disaster. And we’re told Israel likes it – so much for the intelligence of Israel’s government.

Meanwhile we focus on boycotting Iran. Yet Iran is irrelevant to the growing Muslim fundamentalism – the Shi’ites of Iran are not going to fund Sunni schools the Wahhabis have financed, and Iran’s own brand of Islam is settling down in response to a relatively educated and westernized culture.

Sorry folks but misreading realities outside the U.S. are the wages of believing that there is no use to learning anything outside our borders.

It’s amazing how stable a view of the Middle East the hawks maintain and how unstable the Middle East actually is. Israel is our friend regardless of how their policies stiff us. Saudi Arabia is our friend even though they cradled el Qaeda and radical Islam, Saudis were deeply involved in 9/11, and they are now funding Hamas which fights Israel. Iran is our enemy even though we fight together against ISIS and they have cut Hamas off.

The hawks seem to fear learning about what is actually happening and driven by a desire to flex muscles for the mere fact of pride in the muscles they flex. It would be really funny except they can screw up the future of this country and substitute military graves for the future of too many men and women.

Our first priority must be to turn off the flow of Saudi support for their breed of intolerance. And then to turn the internet into a trap, radioactive figuratively speaking, so that the world’s terrorists are scared off it and isolated. I’m not sure Obama or anyone in his shoes will have any choice but to continue using drones, much as I dislike them. But if we grow up and deal with the world as it is instead of the medieval fairy tale the know-nothings running Congress keep telling us it is, things might just get saner. Meanwhile, let’s provide significant funds for Americans to work and study abroad. We have a lot to learn to undo this neo-isolationist reign of ignorance.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 8, 2015.


Support the Iranian-American Nuclear Bargain

September 2, 2015

I have been very disappointed with Sen. Schumer and those of his colleagues in both houses of Congress who will not support the agreement with Iran. I’m sure they have convinced themselves that their stand is good for America, good for Israel, and good for their supporters. They should know better.

Many people like to talk about Iran as if it’s uniform – Iran is this; it acts like that. But Iran is many things just like this country is many things –Red and Blue; hawks and doves. We change, sometimes radically –flipping right or left. Our politics and culture respond to events.

The same is true in Iran. Some of us who have worked in Iran lived in historically tribal areas where their government had forced people to give up their migratory lives. Some lived in areas that had supported the Shah; others that were hostile to our interference, helping to depose an elected government and restore the Shah. The position of women has been changing radically; they are extremely well educated and participate in large numbers in Iranian professional life as doctors, attorneys, etc. Iranian culture is also changing radically, reflected in widespread and very public choices of dress, music and customs in conflict with the traditional religious injunctions. Attendance and participation in religious rituals is decreasing considerably. Even the clergy are affected by the changes. This is not your parents’ Iran.

A large portion of the Iranian people are very westernized and very friendly to the U.S. They are the people that chose Prime Minister Rouhani. Another group organized around the Ayatollah has been very suspicious. Contemporary Iranian politics is about the jockeying between those groups.

We can make sure that the hard-liners win the Iranian contest by withdrawing from diplomacy, refusing to resume trade, and making it clear that nothing will lead to rapproachement. That will lead to the most anti-American outcomes within Iran.

But if we are willing to engage, to use diplomacy, to arrange agreements to lower the tensions, to trade and travel, we will strengthen our friends there and help them gain and hold the upper hand. We can’t and don’t control Iranian politics. But we can and should see the complexity that is modern Iran and take advantage of the openings it gives us. Refusing to see and account for the changes in Iran isn’t hard-headed realism, it’s blindness.

We’ve made mistakes like that before. Our hatred of communism closed our eyes to the realities of Asian politics and blinded us to the possibility of using Vietnam to play balance of power politics between Russia and China. After an expensive war, we now trade with the same regime we fought for almost a decade. We can be smarter with Iran.

Iran is now the most westernized and stable of all the Middle Eastern Islamic countries. Around Israel, in every direction, countries have been getting less stable and more dangerous. Missing the opportunity to cultivate our friends in Iran would be a huge mistake for us and for the Israelis whether or not they can see that.

I have one concern – that the price of the agreement with Iran will be to arm Israel enough so that they feel free to thumb their noses at American efforts to broker a peace. I think it would be a good corrective for Israeli politics to wonder about American support. This cannot be a world without constraints, for Israel, Iran or anyone.

There is something called a self-fulfilling prophecy. Things happen because our beliefs make it happen. We can wreck the future or we can build a decent one. It’s our choice.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 1, 2015.

Future Oriented Diplomacy Toward Iran

July 22, 2015

We did something that infuriated Iranians in 1953 by organizing a coup removing their democratically selected Prime Minister. They did something that properly infuriated us in 1979 by taking our embassy staff hostage. George Bush announced that Iran was part of the Axis of Evil. So now is the die cast? Are we doomed to permanent enmity? Trapped in stereotypes and hatred, too many see no way to a better future except by deepening the conflict with every kind of force.

I have a fair amount of contact with people who study Iran or spend time there periodically. And they all tell me the same things. Iran is changing. Even clerical views are becoming less radical. The population at large is becoming more secular, less radical, and narrowing the clergy’s options. There is less attendance at the mosques and more activity that contradicts the strict interpretations of Islamic theology that worry Americans. Iranians are wearing unsanctioned clothing, listening to unsanctioned music and news, even dancing and producing theatre. Not only middle-class Iranians but up and down the income scale and across Iran geographically people are changing toward much more cosmopolitan views and lifestyles.

Those developments are important. They signal a widespread Iranian desire for rapprochement with this country, a weakening and a softening of clerical control over the government, and the possibility of moving toward much better relations between our countries.

We should not lose sight of the fact that Iran had a democratic government long before the Revolution and that Iran had an Israeli diplomatic presence while the rest of the Middle East treated Israel as a pariah. Although the Iranian Revolution dislocated some of those traditions, Iran cannot be lumped in with the radicalization of some sects in the Sunni world. It has long been following a separate, westernizing path.

A westernizing trend with deep roots in the population of an economically progressive and powerful Islamic country needs to be encouraged. Despite all the rhetoric about bringing Iran to its knees with sanctions, the sanctions are being used in Iran to sustain the more conservative elements in Iranian religion and politics. It is a clumsy American foreign policy that guarantees that the future will be worse than the past. The short term is dominated by disputes. Diplomacy, however, cannot ignore the long term.

That was the genius of the European Union. Germany and France had been enemies, repeatedly fighting major wars over several centuries. Yet after World War II they were united, but not by sanctions, reparations and renewed threats. Instead we rebuilt Germany under the Marshall plan, while French and German statesmen, with British and American backing, envisioned a world in which Germany could be a partner and an ally. That took vision, not merely the repetition of slogans about battles and hatreds.

I don’t mean to imply that the EU is a model that can be repeated wherever there are enemies. But diplomacy must work toward a vision for how we can share a better world.

That is really the strength of the Obama-Kerry plan. Instead of insisting that old disputes must fan future ones, it strives to reduce the friction and heal the wounds, while important historic forces work inside Iran so that it can regain a positive role in resolving middle-Eastern struggles.

And yes, of course, this agreement does not solve everything. The Iranians reached out to George Bush with a proposal to put a broad range of disputes on the table but instead of responding through diplomatic channels, he publicly called Iran part of an Axis of Evil. It’s hard to tell what that may have cost us. As some diplomats say, put everything on the table, agree on nothing. My point instead is that there are fundamental developments in Iran that should be encouraged, and that it is a huge mistake to write them off. Lack of vision can make a decent future unreachable.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, July 21, 2015.


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