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, 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.



Sticking with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Iran nuclear agreement

December 5, 2017

JOPAC was the multi-national 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, known as the Iran nuclear agreement. I’m happy to say that I’ve never been closer to nuclear weapons than listening to my chemistry professor, himself part of the Manhattan Project that created the first A-bomb, talking about them. My cousin Mimi worked at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory but all she could tell me was that she was there. Happily she lived into her 90s. But I have had some experience in Iran.

I was teaching at Pahlavi University, now called something else. Someone was sent to oversee the University. We were all warned to stay away from him. He wasn’t trustworthy. But this brash yours truly thought he knew better so I called on him. He was an economist. I had an article about the difference between Iranian and Turkish economic success to show him. He was of course interested.

Suddenly no one would talk with me. Not a word. I finally cornered someone and insisted he tell me why. He accused me of having called all Iranians liars. I remembered that on the first page of the article, Harvard Prof. David McClelland, with whom I had corresponded, criticized vague and unscientific statements about Iran like “All Iranians are liars.” McClelland set out to study Iran much more precisely. The young man I had cornered had good enough English that he understood exactly what had happened. All of a sudden people talked to me again – as if nothing had ever happened.

Would it have been better if I’d followed orders? Probably but it didn’t hurt that I had exposed the distortion of what I had said. Just as clearly, lots of people there took truth seriously.

Iran is a negotiating culture. You negotiate over everything, from carpets to the seams in a coat you’re having made. When I was getting ready to leave, I sat down with a Persian friend to sell him some of my record collection. He assumed I wouldn’t negotiate but would name fixed prices. I assumed he would negotiate so I asked for more than I wanted. When I realized what had happened, I reverted and gave him the records for much less than we’d agreed. Neither of us wanted to take advantage of the other. But if he’d negotiated as expected, I would never have thought him a liar. It’s just about conforming to culture and how things are done.

The Peace Corps Iran Association, or PCIA, composed of people like myself who served over there, has taken the position that “the Iran nuclear agreement [was a] historic and … excellent example of the success of diplomacy to resolve a major, contentious issue that threatened regional and world peace. As has been certified by the International Atomic Energy Agency … tasked … in the agreement to monitor and verify Iran’s compliance … Iran is abiding by the agreement. United States security agencies have confirmed the IAEA assessment.”

PCIA “urges the United States and Iran, along with the other parties to the agreement, to continue to uphold and abide by the agreement and to take no action that would violate the agreement.” PCIA concluded that both the United States and Iran should keep their word. Incidentally, Ambassador John Limbert, who was one of the U.S. Embassy hostages held for a year and a half, instead of being filled with bitterness and reaching cavalier conclusions about the country, told us at a recent conference of former Peace Corps Volunteers who served there, that he too, urges that we stay the course.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 5, 2017.



Peace Corps and Legal Services

April 11, 2017

The Trump Administration hasn’t included the Peace Corps in its proposal for fiscal year 2018. It proposed cutting the international affairs budget by nearly a third.[1] It struck funding for the Legal Services Corporation which provides funds for poor people to defend what little they have. And, as we are all aware, it has advanced its war on truth by trying to cut the budget of National Public Radio. None of that will save much in the budget but it will damage the country and make life coarser and less secure for the people in it.

On Feb. 27, 2017 “retired three and four star flag and general officers from all branches of the armed services” wrote congressional leadership “to share our strong conviction that elevating and strengthening diplomacy and development alongside defense are critical to keeping America safe.”

These generals and admirals told Congress from their own experience “that many of the crises our nation faces do not have military solutions alone – from confronting violent extremist groups like ISIS in the Middle East and North Africa to preventing pandemics like Ebola and stabilizing weak and fragile states that can lead to greater instability” as well as “refugee flows that are threatening America’s strategic allies in Israel, Jordan, Turkey, and Europe.”

These military officers made it plain that “The military … needs strong civilian partners in the battle against the drivers of extremism– lack of opportunity, insecurity, injustice, and hopelessness.” From their experience, “The State Department, USAID, Millennium Challenge Corporation, Peace Corps and other development agencies are critical to preventing conflict and reducing the need to put our men and women in uniform in harm’s way.…”

The Trump Administration’s blueprint for FY2018 for 150 international affairs budget functions included no budget proposal for the Peace Corps. According to the Congressional Research Service, the nearly quarter of a million Peace Corps Volunteers who have served in 141 countries provide a form of “public diplomacy” for America, not to mention the “short-term … [postings for] emergency, humanitarian, and development assistance at the community level … including post-tsunami Thailand and Sri Lanka and post-earthquake Haiti.”. And they bring back with them and help the rest of us understand other parts of the world that few of us get to see. Both the specific attack on the Peace Corp and the general attack on diplomacy are part of the foolish short-sightedness of the current Administration.

Apparently the Administration doesn’t like poor people in the United States any more than abroad, as it made clear by trying to end the Legal Services Corporation. In commentary in the Times Union, Dean Alicia Ouellette of Albany Law School just stuck to the facts:

“People facing life-altering crises — parents losing custody of their children, families facing wrongful foreclosures, veterans wrongly denied benefits, the elderly scammed of life savings by fraudulent businesses, farmers struck by natural disaster — need the help of lawyers.”[2]

But for the Trump Administration, if you’re too poor to hire an attorney, you don’t deserve justice.  It’s not just the people who are deprived of their rights; it’s the public as well. According to a Massachusetts study, government funding of various types of legal representation showed returns of from two to five times the amount expended on counsel, depending on the area of legal services, not including the very significant benefits to state residents.[3] Those benefits can be very significant. Dean Ouellette cited a study by the New York City Bar Association showing savings to the city of more than half again the cost of providing legal help to people who can’t afford it in a variety of non-criminal matters. Other studies similarly show that the cost of erroneous convictions vastly exceeds the cost of providing counsel.[4]

For this president, no injury to the public or to the vulnerable is too great.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 11, 2017.

[1] Congressional Research Service,



[4] James R. Acker, The Flipside Injustice Of Wrongful Convictions: When The Guilty Go Free, 76 ALB. L. REV. 1629, 1631-36, 1708-09 (2012/2013).

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.

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.

Iranian-American Diplomacy

June 15, 2015

My wife and I are back from a reunion of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) who had served in Iran, and a conference with some of this country’s experts about Iran.

Our first plenary speaker, Bill Beeman of the University of Minnesota, is a very well-known scholar about Iran. He described the complexity of their system of manners and the ease with which foreigners misunderstand Iran. I asked about Iran experts in the State Department. Beeman explained that Secretary Kissinger attacked what he called clientitis, where experts sympathize with the country they study and resist what political leaders want to do. Following Kissinger, the foreign service routinely rotates diplomats to prevent too much specialization. That has advantages and disadvantages; dialogue between experts deeply steeped in a culture and generalists with other concerns is important.

Beeman added that many in Washington claim expertise about Iran, connected with think tanks with axes to grind. Scholars independent of ideological organizations can afford to see reality without coloring it with what they want to happen. Certainly independent scholars need to be heard.

I am convinced that Beeman’s message about the complexity of Iranian culture and the ease of misunderstanding it is accurate. All former Peace Corps Volunteers, and others who have immersed themselves in a foreign culture, can attest to the ways that cultural signals are easily misunderstood in both directions. In diplomacy that can spell disaster.

Our headline speaker was former Ambassador John Limbert, the last U.S. ambassador to Iran and a hostage for 444 days. Limbert now teaches at the U.S. Naval Academy.

I brought Beaman’s comments to Ambassador Limbert. He responded that the State Department has some knowledgeable people and a seasoned negotiator like Secretary Kerry can pick up a great deal by listening closely. I teach interviewing and I know the importance of active listening that seeks to understand without substituting one’s own assumptions. But I couldn’t shake concern that decades of detachment from Iran will handicap negotiators on both sides. It’s too easy to see each other as hostile and assume the worst, or to miss what is really important to them and misunderstand what they are actually offering. That’s especially difficult because so many people claim to know what Iran intends.

As an example of the complexity of our and Iran’s interests, Ambassador Limbert described the U.S. expectation after the Revolution that Iran would be hostile toward the Soviet Union. The Russians had treated Iran as part of its empire for a long time and there were good reasons for Iranian hostility. But Iran did its best to maintain friendly relations and trade with the USSR. Had they suddenly become pro-Soviet? Or were they defending themselves by trying to avoid incurring Soviet wrath. Limbert’s point was that we have to learn to see their actions through their eyes, not our own, to understand and respect their own Iranian nationalism just as they must respect ours.

We have many overlapping interests. But Iran also cares about the mistreatment of Shi’a populations in the Middle East. Iran sees that as defensive and about justice, not about conquest or aggression. It is easy for Iranians to see the US as supporting a ring of Sunni dynasties around Iran.

That doesn’t create any clear picture of what should happen. Limbert’s point is that diplomacy is both necessary and difficult. Seeing it simply as us against them misses the complexities and the opportunities. In other words, give diplomacy a chance.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 16, 2015.

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