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.

 

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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.


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.

 

 


My introduction to Iran

November 10, 2017

With Iran in the news I’ve been remembering my own introduction to the country. Our group of Peace Corps Volunteers arrived in Iran in winter, after the semester had begun where we were supposed to teach. We were taken to the home of Prime Minister Hoveyda and stood there not knowing what to do or say. As it happened, I was standing next to the Prime Minister. Looking down, I realized we were standing on a magnificent Persian carpet.

We have a friend here who admired the carpet of another Iranian who instantly responded it was his. Sure enough, when our friend Bob got home, there was the carpet, rolled up and leaning against a corner. Bob was beside himself, not knowing what to do. But his friend showed up a few days later and admired the carpet. It’s yours, Bob quickly responded and the carpet was returned to its proper home. But I didn’t know that in the Prime Minister’s house and barely understood their system of etiquette.

I’ve since learned that it’s risky to make small talk with someone much higher on the social ladder – in any country. But I didn’t know that yet.

So I admired the Prime Minister’s carpet. Understanding American culture much better than I knew Iranian culture, Prime Minister Hoveyda dropped to the floor, motioning me to join him. He then turned over a corner of the carpet and gave me my first lesson in distinguishing the quality of Persian carpets, turning what could have been my intense embarrassment into a warm introduction to Iran.

Our next stop was Shiraz, near the ancient capital of Persepolis, in the desert over four hundred miles south as the crow flies or something like nine hours by car or bus. We went to what was then named Pahlavi University, designed to be an American style institution. All but one of us had graduate degrees so that we could teach there. The students were required to speak English and spoke it reasonably well.

But this country hadn’t told Iranian authorities who was in our group, or what we were qualified to teach. University officials had asked for natural scientists and one art historian, understanding that art historians were broadly trained and could be versatile. We had an art historian and people in the natural sciences. But we had an equal number of people in social science, economics, history, law and politics. The Peace Corps, and the late President Kennedy, wanted to get Americans over as soon as possible. So who was available determined who we sent. That was a problem, however, so Peace Corps and diplomatic personnel neglected to convey the information.

Therefore we were taken to the Provost’s office. He assembled the heads of each of the departments at the University. After he explained the situation, he asked department chairs which of us they could use. Since their semester had begun, we would be underemployed for a while, but our hosts were gracious in helping us get our feet on the ground. By the end of the semester we enjoyed many friendships among faculty and students. Our welcome was warm even if a bit chaotic.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, November 7, 2017.

 

 


Iran, Hardliners and Peacemakers Here and There

May 31, 2017

Our love for our country and recognition that we have many big-hearted citizens sometimes lulls us into assuming that we act appropriately on the world stage. But ignorance too often breaks the connection between good intentions and smart behavior. Iran emerged from World War II with a parliamentary government and a democratically selected Prime Minister. But the British and Americans didn’t like his stand on oil – he wanted a larger share of the profits for his own country. At Britain’s urging, we helped stage a coup that took him down and reinstalled the Shah of Iran. Initially, the Prime Minister got wind of the coup and defeated it. But, in the American Embassy, a second coup was planned and executed. In 1953 the Shah of Iran was reinstalled and this country took credit for it.

That was too bad. There was and is a lot of admiration in Iran for European and American ways. The very fact that they had a democratic government reflected that. The legal system and the school system reflected French approaches. But the Persians did not admire our unseating Prime Minister Mosadegh. And they knew and did not forget the role of the American Embassy in bringing that plot to fruition.

Americans in Iran felt the crosswinds. There was a great deal of respect for this country and our ideals. Americans were largely welcome. Women in the Peace Corps covered up and men they knew often protected them from any inappropriate behavior by others. Some of the men in the cities were more conflicted but villagers I met were particularly welcoming.

The Revolution in 1979 had little or nothing to do with America despite some of the language coming from the clerics. Americans had felt the rising anger toward the Shah in the years before the Revolution and Peace Corps postings ended three years before the Revolution.

With the Revolution secured, it should have been easy to arrange freedom for the American hostages. But unlike former presidents who dealt with hostages, Carter magnified the event instead of cooling it off, which gave Reagan the opportunity to arrange the delay of their release until his inauguration. The result has been a much more fraught, angry and distrustful relationship than it should have been. In effect, the American role in the 1953 coup is still having repercussions in Iran and in the Middle East.

Obama took a step toward cooling down the enmity with the nuclear deal. And most recently, the Iranian people have rejected the desire of the clerics for the second national election in a row in favor of a president who is more open to working with the West.

But the background of hostility makes that hard. They remember Mosadegh and we remember the hostages. The rhetoric coming from hardliners in each country remains very harsh. The House has just voted to impose new sanctions just when Iranians have rejected their hard-liners and the Senate may be preparing to follow suit. But Trump has an opportunity if he is aware enough to see and grab it. He can strengthen the pro-western public in Iran by toning down the rhetoric, engaging in tactful diplomacy and taking advantages of opportunities to make mutually beneficial deals with Iran, or he can be Trump, call names, and burn the enmities in for another century.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 30, 2017.


The Legacy of Barack Obama

January 3, 2017

Barack Obama has been one of our most decent and intelligent presidents. I’ll miss him. Instead of simplification and slogans, Obama explained the complexities of everything from medical treatment to foreign policy. Instead of shooting from the hip, he studied problems carefully and reached mature, intelligent decisions.

But what will stick?

Starting with foreign affairs, Obama got most of the boots off Muslim lands. When Obama took office in 2008 we had close to 200,000 soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now we have about 15,000 troops, combined, there and in Syria.

ISIS seems to have refocused on Europe but that’s still a problem for us. Europeans’ objectives are compatible with our own, so they are crucial allies, unlike the Russians. But Europe confronts many times more refugees than we do, with backlash and threats to democracy in several countries. American action in Syria added to the refugee flow, but much resulted from revolutions independent of us. More American militarization in the Arab world would inflame the refugee crisis and increase the terrorism directed at us.

Terrorists are fueled by militarization; nations are much more vulnerable to our military – that’s the difference between defeating Saddam Hussein, having him executed and trying to remain there. Trump may talk tough, but will he be fool enough to wade back into those trouble waters?

In Guantanamo, fewer than 60 prisoners remain of the nearly 800 who were imprisoned there.

Republicans dislike the Iran nuclear deal but so far they’ve nothing to show for their fears. Objections from the other signatories may prevent Trump from disavowing it. This may be the first real test of whether Trump has any grip on reality.

At home, Republicans have been yelling for years that they will tear Obamacare down the first chance they get. But their friends in the insurance industry will howl if they do, especially if Republicans leave features Americans like – a guarantee that you can get insurance, coverage for pre-existing conditions, tax credits for small businesses, etc. So it’s not clear what they’ll actually do. Obama took his health care plan from Mitt Romney’s Republican plan. I can think of improvements to the left of Obamacare, but not any that are more consistent with Republican free-market philosophy. Republicans are in a pickle.

Obama got a small stimulus soon after taking office. Terrified it might actually work, Republicans fought to keep it small. Obama’s stimulus worked, slowly, satisfying the cynicism of Congressional Republicans willing to hurt the country in order to make Obama look bad.

Dodd-Frank financial regulation still stands, reigning in a financial system that gambled with everyone else’s money and made a large number of us much worse off.

Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court. One has become the conscience of the Court, the other quieter and more conciliatory. Together, they’ve made a the Court much more fair. The future depends on how long Ginsburg lives and how long Trump is in office. The difference Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan made could disappear in a heartbeat.

So, there’s a lot to celebrate in what Obama did or tried to accomplish. But I have real fears of what could be done in the effort to discredit him instead of making things better for the people of America.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 3, 2017.


Foreign Roots of the Tragedy in Florida

June 14, 2016

The tragedy in Florida is linked to issues abroad. One candidate sometimes suggests we could solve our problems by isolationism, keeping our troops home, and sometimes by wiping out our adversaries with overwhelming force. His adversary has won over American military leadership with a fairly hard-nosed approach to international politics meshed with the belief that part of America’s international strength comes from our ideological appeal and social justice. What’s going to work?

The Middle East has been getting more violent. And the U.S. has been struggling to figure out how to handle it. George H.W. Bush was careful not to unravel power relations there when he rolled Iraq back from Kuwait. George W. Bush was less cautious, eliminating the Iraqi power structure without a plan to replace it. Since then we’ve been fighting multiple wars in multiple countries. Wars with guerilla tactics like these are costly. Al Qaeda and ISIL or DAESH have learned to motivate individuals or small groups outside of traceable networks. Military forces work poorly against that kind of enemy. We may be a superpower against some obstacles, but not all. The history of warfare has been a multi-millennium cycle of upstarts defeating the super powers of prior ages with new tactics.

What if we disengaged from the Middle East? I doubt Americans have the stomach for it. Israel, our so-called “ally,” continually breaks its promises to America, so the Israeli mouse drives both American Middle Eastern policy and its consequences. America cannot be an honest broker in the Middle East while backing a government of heedless buckaroos who learn nothing from the failures and constant irritation of seven decades of war, eviction of Palestinians and indiscriminate retaliation. Still less can we be an honest broker by engaging in the same tactics that make refugees of millions and radicalize too many. Who are we to criticize the Israelis when our policies have been more and more like theirs? We too pay the price. Our removal of Premier Mossadegh and replacement with the former Shah of Iran contributed to the Revolution of 1979 and subsequent demonization of America. U.S. military moves created chaos in the Sunni world, pushed Turkey toward autocracy, and helped destabilize Europe with a flow of refugees not seen since the World Wars.

Pulling out would leave a power vacuum that those we despise and sometimes fear would fill. If Russia or China were fool enough to move in, the throw weight of Islamic extremism would refocus on them. The short-run consequences, however, could be

Our policies toward the Middle East need to be rethought in light of new realities. Power relations in the Middle East have been drastically reshaped in the last fifteen years. And Saudi Arabia has been playing a double game, supporting radical Islam in return for denying the clerics the keys to governmental power, creating a Hobson’s choice for us. Obama has tried to avoid both disengagement and warfare, but his efforts to reshape thinking about the Middle East have, not surprisingly, run into a barrier of incomprehension. The U.S. should not be driven by the unreliable machinations of paranoid premiers, two-bit dictators and fractured armies in a region of declining importance to the U.S.

America accomplished a great deal in the past as a model of a fair and decent state. Foreign policy isn’t merely a contest of muscle and fire power. Its complexity requires a lot of patience. It took half of century to wait out the Soviet Union. Much as some Republicans want to credit Reagan’s grand gestures, that victory was hatched under Truman and pursued by eight presidents of both parties, without any know-it-all buckaroos upending decades of careful policy. Can we do it again? We’re going to find out.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, June 14, 2016.

 


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