Are We Overplaying Our Hand?

May 29, 2018

I’ve tried to state these comments not in all or nothing terms but in more realistic degrees. My question is what happens to the extent that a country overplays its hand?

That the U.S. pulled out from the nuclear agreement with Iran, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, Germany and the United Nations Security Council means, first, that the U.S. will surrender some commerce and trade to Iran’s other trading partners and that some of the others will move to fill some of the gap. If the U.S. tries to assert secondary sanctions against companies based abroad that trade with Iran, that will certainly offend others of our trading partners, including the E.U. and its members. They are likely to conclude that they cannot allow the U.S. to determine their trading practices and rules. If so, they can look elsewhere. Some companies can decide that trade with the U.S. is unpredictable and decide to scale it back. In other words, one consequence of the pull out can be that the U.S. becomes a smaller, less attractive country to trade with and a less powerful international voice. We may want to isolate Iran but we might increase our own isolation instead.

I objected to the arbitration provisions of the Trans-Pacific Partnership because it gave too much power to corporations to free themselves from labor and environmental regulation – grounds of little interest to the Trump Administration. But when the U.S. pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, China stepped up to fill the vacuum. That’s a real cost that could have benefitted from continuing diplomacy rather than precipitate withdrawal. Insisting on having our own way can leave us celebrating our purity of principle but also isolated and irrelevant. And to the extent other countries can’t trust American politics and reach agreements with the U.S., America’s power and influence shrink.

Democracy generally depends on compromise. When people refuse to compromise, they lose the ability to reach a policy that the country can pursue successfully. We pursued a policy of containing communist countries for more than 50 years and it succeeded because the two parties preferred to work together than make a political issue out of that strategy. Republicans like to credit Reagan, but it was initiated under Truman, in line with the recommendations of George Kennan, and followed by Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush – presidents from both parties. These men were too wise and honorable to follow or reject policies because someone else started it. The ability to reach a consensus across party lines meant that it was stronger than party and America was strengthened as a result.

Some people who portray themselves as patriots want the U.S. to act independently of what other countries and international organizations want. But it’s questionable whether that’s actually patriotic because ignoring real world constraints runs us up against walls of resistance and sacrifices too much. The U.S. has about 1/23 of the world’s population. Running the other 22/23rds by sanctions, threats and intimidation is a heavy lift, likely to backfire. Wisdom comes harder. But it is important.

  • This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 22, 2018.
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Realism in Foreign Policy

May 29, 2018

May I have the luxury of going back to basics?

It’s important to understand the different dynamics of foreign policy. Countries often see foreign affairs through the lens of the balance of power. If the balance gets out of whack, conquest is likely, further upsetting a regional balance.

Balance of power thinking can be important but we often miss the complexities. Seeing communist states only as Red blinded us to the hostilities between Vietnam and its larger neighbors. Whether or not we could have defeated Vietnam, we never had to fight them to protect our own interests. In fact, the war in Vietnam was a great gift to China much as the war in Iraq was a gift to Iran.

Before the first Gulf War, Iran and Iraq balanced each other in the region. And Iran and Israel had a decent working relationship. It was true that Ahmadinejad said some hateful things, but both countries understood that public language between countries often had little to do with their actual policies. In that case, Shi’a Iran was trying to suppress the potential enmity between it and its Sunni neighbors. But that was largely confined to talk.

When the U.S. defeated Iraq, it upset the regional balance of power in Iran’s favor. Israel then surprised everyone by screaming about the danger of Iran. Cooperation no longer mattered. Iran was large, without significant local enemies. And Israel wanted the U.S. to need Israel as its regional agent. Friendship between Iran and the U.S. made Israel less important. Woops. For all its bluster, that made Israel feel both vulnerable and reckless. Ironically, power is often greatest before it’s exercised, and Iran’s clerics actually had a broader view of Iranian interests, but the U.S. refused to discuss it with them.

Ideological rivalry was the major dynamic of the cold war. We built radio towers and beamed broadcasts into the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Unscrupulous politicians can use ideological and ethnic divides to stir up trouble. Ideological unity can hold people together. But like the balance of power, ideological unity is fragile, and keeps changing. In the Middle East, before Trump, we largely tried to balance the ideological power of Islam with a commitment to democratic revolution and to Israel. But we’ve always limited our commitment to democracy by our own economic preferences, leading others to perceive us as hypocritical.

The European Union reflected a third approach. France and Germany fought a succession of brutal wars culminating in World War II in which France was overrun and which made refugees of a large portion of the continental population. In response, after the war, statemen in Europe brought the two countries and others in Europe together in a customs union which united former adversaries and built a sense of unity among them. The E.U. gave America the blessing of a powerful ally plus the freedom not to worry about divisions among the countries of western Europe. A declining E. U. also weakens American power.

Rock, paper, scissors? Nothing is pure or stable. Thinking about foreign affairs in terms of a single demand, issue or policy while ignoring everything else is equivalent to an infant’s temper tantrum. Thinking about Iran as if all we need to know is its clerical ideology, as if that can be simplistically defined as an axis of evil, is an invitation to disaster.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 15, 2018.

 


IRAN, the Nuclear Agreement and Donald Trump

May 8, 2018

America sees itself as altruistic and believes we should be trusted because we proved it in World War II. But, in 1953, Americans in the Embassy in Tehran helped engineer a coup d’état against the democratically selected Prime Minister of Iran. Persians admired us for our power but hated what we had done.

Americans did not understand that history when, during the Iranian Revolution of 1979, Persians stormed the Embassy and made hostages of the staff. That breached international law and was very hurtful for those involved but it was brought on by the memory that the earlier coup was managed from the Embassy. Now we both had reason to hate each other.

But the subsequent history is more interesting than the popular stereotypes. Diplomatic relations and even cooperation between Iran and Israel as well as major trade ( including Iran supplying oil in exchange for Israeli weapons and ballistic missile technology) lasted long after the Islamic Revolution and persisted despite Ahmadinejad’s hateful rhetoric. America and Iran continued cooperating about many Middle Eastern issues despite the effort of a succession of American presidents to isolate Iran.

Isolation threatened Iran. The religious division of the Middle East between the Shia, principally in Iran, and the Sunni, dominant everywhere else, provide opportunities for politicians to whip up animosities when it suits their purposes – much as Trump has whipped up animosities over racial differences and guns to dangerous levels. To stay on good terms with most of its neighbors, Iran supported Sunni positions on Palestine.

America stood back while Iran and Iraq fought a brutal war in the 1980s but then defeated Iraq under Presidents George H.W. and George W. Bush. Since Iraq had been Iran’s major antagonist, its defeat at the hands of the U.S. was a great gift to Iran and destabilized the power relations in the Middle East. Meanwhile Iran continued seeking rapprochement with the U.S. and offered to be helpful to the U.S. in our conflicts in the area, but no president was willing to talk until Obama. Obama had larger goals, to get Middle Eastern disputes out of the way while addressing problems in Asia.

Trump’s current effort to scuttle the multi-power agreement with Iran plays out stereotypes while sending terrible signals with ominous consequences:

  • Since US intelligence and military leaders and every involved head of state except the current U.S. President thinks Iran obeyed the terms of the agreement, what could count as obedience?
  • If obedience to the terms of the agreement doesn’t count, why should any country reach agreements with the U.S.?
  • If the U.S. terminates agreements at will, what is the value of diplomacy?
  • If the U.S. rides roughshod over non-nuclear countries, then nations need a nuclear capacity to hold us off.
  • And if diplomacy with the U.S. is a sterile enterprise, is war better? The origin of the Joint Agreement was European concern over the possibility of yet another war in the Middle East. Are we back to that?

Iran has become an American boogey-man, and too many think we look weak if we even talk with them. Israel’s concern has been to avoid letting any other country play a significant role in American thinking about the Middle East. That’s a recipe for trouble. It substitutes pure power for diplomacy and respectful negotiation. In fact, Iran has been anything but a loose cannon and has shown both the capacity and the willingness to resolve conflicts among us, provided that Iran be consulted and treated respectfully regarding Middle Eastern events. Only in a respectful climate can Iran play the constructive role we claim to want.

But Donald Trump wants an enemy for the political benefits. Risking the lives and safety of American and other men, women and children so Trump can look tough is a cynical abuse of his office. And if it misfires, we’ll be counting more body bags and amputees.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 8, 2018.


Images of America

March 6, 2018

When the Metropolitan Opera came on with Madame Butterfly recently, I began to puzzle about why the opera is so strongly anti-American. In Butterfly, an American naval lieutenant trifles with the heart of a young Japanese woman ending with her ritual suicide, leaving their baby to him and his new American wife.

It turns out that the story originated with a French officer about his own experiences but Puccini, who wrote the opera, saw a rewritten version, the version that became the basis of the magnificent and tragic love story he was to immortalize in music.

My students never like to be confronted with dates but dates are telling. The original version of Madame Butterfly was finished and performed in 1904. That was shortly after the end of what we call the Spanish-American war, the war that left us with Puerto Rico and, until we gave them independence, the Philippines.

America has come to think of itself as Franklin Delano Roosevelt left it, decent and triumphant in the cause of freedom and democracy. The symbols of our battle were drawn by Norman Rockwell – freedom of speech and religion, freedom from want and fear. It was a war for self-preservation – we had been attacked at Pearl Harbor. It was also a moral crusade, for democracy, freedom and the welfare of mankind. Soon after the war, President Truman and Secretary of State George Marshall sprang to the aid of refugees and impoverished people all over Europe with aid and redevelopment. America was a beacon of hope and decency for the world.

But more recently our military involvement in the Middle East and Asia has forced us to look back at our behavior, particularly in the Philippines. After World War II, some Philippinos told me they often thought of the U.S. like the cavalry in a western movie, massed on a ridge ready to save them from disaster. That may be a fair portrayal of our role there in World War II. But our part in the Spanish-American War is much less fondly remembered, in this country as well as abroad. American troops there pioneered methods of torture that we used later in Iraq. America’s great humorist, Mark Twain, wrote a searing short story about our part in the Spanish-American war – and, understanding how hard it would be for Americans to face that reality, dictated that it could not be published in his lifetime. During the war in Vietnam, we drove over to Mark Twain’s home town in Missouri and found that his War Prayer was his best selling work in the book store, but in the Mark Twain museum, The War Prayer was not to be found – it was still too upsetting for the townspeople.

The Founders of our country liked to refer to what they called the “genius of the people.” But the American people have stood for very different things at different times. Maybe it’s just that different people had more power or maybe it’s that the same people are driven by different motives. The Founders had a different thought – there’s evil in all of us.

But the wages of moral behavior are significant. The America that came off World War II leading the defense and reconstruction of the free world is not automatically the America that is closing itself off from the destinies of everyone we choose not to care about. And the international repercussions will be significant.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 6, 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.


Making America puny again, Trump is squandering our strengths and exposing our weakness

January 17, 2018

America’s share of world trade has declined from 40% to 15%. It’s population is a third of India’s and a smaller share of China’s. This is not a world in which idle bluster will force the world to heel. We clearly need to play cooperatively. But Trump is squandering our strengths and exposing our weakness. McCoy makes the stakes painfully clear. It is not pleasant reading but it is an important dose of reality. These are very important reasons to control or impeach Trump.

Trump as the Termite-in-Chief boring away at Global American Influence

By Alfred W. McCoy | (Tomdispatch.com) | – – As 2017 ended with billionaires toasting their tax cuts and energy executives cheering their unfettered access to federal lands as well as coastal…

https://www.juancole.com/2018/01/termite-american-influence.html


Making America Puny, or Is the Emperor Naked

January 9, 2018

Trump talks tough. His world strategy seems to go it alone in every context.

  • He antagonized Canada over NAFTA and Mexico over the wall.
  • He antagonized Britain by forwarding Nazi propaganda.
  • He aggravates the international refugee crisis that is roiling Europe.
  • He withdrew from world agreements to combat global warming.
  • He denies that Iran has been living up to its obligations under the Iran nuclear agreement despite the conclusions of international inspection agencies.
  • After screaming about the size of his button, quiet and patient South Korean diplomacy forced Trump to agree to pick up a phone.
  • He withdrew from Asia and the Trans-Pacific alliance and left that part of the world to China’s tender hands.
  • He abandoned an international consensus over the status of Jerusalem. Israel has demanded a great deal from us, including the antagonism of the world’s billion Muslims. But nothing is too much.
  • He doesn’t like the UN or our support of it even though it has made this country central to international everything. But who needs everything?

Tough, tough, tough, he’s talks tough alright, but he is increasingly alone. Some Americans like to say we are number one. But with mounting disputes and fewer allies, are we more than a lone tough in a bar brawl?

If we are irrelevant to the free world, who’ll care what happens to us? If our policies undermine the free world, who will come to our defense? If our only friends are strongmen who repress their own people, will they turn on us whenever it suits them? Antagonizing the world, risks being swamped by a hostile world. This is not the America of George Washington which could avoid entangling alliances while protected by the enormity of the oceans. The oceans are puny now that tiny North Korea can aim across them.

True military power is based on industrial might, not exports or raw materials. You could read the emergence of Germany and America in industrial statistics before they became world powers. But Trump hasn’t yet brought himself to support investments that would strengthen industrial power at home, like new and renovated infrastructure, science and education. Expanding coal mining and gas pumping, of which we already produce plenty, serve the world market, not industrial power at home, while American industries have begun a massive shift to other sources of energy. Oil and gas have been staples of weak third-world nations that have descended into catacombs of corruption – much as we have been doing – corruption spurred worldwide by extractive industries.

True world power is a combination of industrial, military and moral power. It requires leadership, engagement and understanding of the complexities of other nations’ needs and values. The alternative is a war against all in which America, no matter how much it claims, can and will be swamped by a hostile world. Trump’s bluster exposes our weakness, not our strength.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 9, 2018.

 

 


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