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.

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.

Alzheimers versus Iran

March 10, 2015

No it wasn’t treason. The Constitution defines treason as “levying War against [the United States], or in adhering to their enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.”

The letter from forty-seven senators addressed to “the Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran” tells them the obvious – that we have a constitutional system in which they, forty-seven Republican senators, have the numerical strength to prevent adoption of the result of negotiations in any form other than an executive agreement. They apparently believe that the Iranian leadership had to be educated. Of course much of the Iranian leadership was educated, here.[1] The number of Iranians at all levels of government and private life in Iran who have studied in the U.S. is enormous. They know a great deal more about us than we do about them because, God forbid that we should know anything about – them! Horror. We might be corrupted by knowledge. They have no similar fear of us, despite the rhetoric of some of their fools, clearly not reflecting the majority of Iranians. They come here to study because they respect, and actually like most of us. The idea of making a grand bargain is actually attractive in Iran because most of them, in and out of government, want the U.S. on their side.

Why you ask? Because Iran’s strategic position is a big problem – a Shiite country in a sea of Sunni Muslims.[2] Their whole worldview is based on how to deal with their strategic isolation. They want power, even a bomb, not because of Israel – they know that possession of a bomb in this climate would make them more likely to be attacked, not less. They want strength to intimidate their nearer neighbors from aggression. But alliance with the U.S. would be very valuable to them. A grand bargain? If you understand what Iran needs, you’d cut through the nonsensical rhetoric on both sides and realize we could get a lot of benefits from each other, and any capable Administration would understand and strive for it.

So what’s with these senators. Actually it suggests Alzheimer’s. Some of us remember that a different Administration, a few years ago, eliminated Iraq, Iran’s major enemy in the Middle East, as any sort of threat. And then, even though Iran itself almost went to war with the Taliban,[3] that same Administration made a show of not entering into negotiations with Iran, calling it part of the Axis of Evil – self-contradictorily an Axis consisting of mutual enemies. Having messed up big time a decade ago, some are determined that if they messed up, nobody else is going to get it right. Except for the Alzheimer’s patients – they can’t remember the mistakes.

We talked for decades with the Soviets, the Communist Chinese. But not Iran – that’s off limits. The one Middle Eastern country, other than Israel, whose interests often line up with our own, is nevertheless not worth talking to. Have you ever walked into a nursing home filled with Alzheimers patients? Not all, but unfortunately a lot of them are screaming at everyone in sight and listening to no one. They can’t help it. So now we have the perfect Republican strategy – put the Alzheimers ward into the State Department, and voila, no negotiations, no strategy, no planning, no progress, but it doesn’t matter because nobody’s talking.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 10, 2015.

[1] Ishaan Tharoor, Can Iran’s New U.S.-Educated Foreign Minister Mend Ties With Washington? http://world.time.com/2013/08/06/can-irans-new-u-s-educated-foreign-minister-mend-ties-with-washington/; compare Armin Rosen, Why It Doesn’t Really Matter That So Many Iranian Leaders Have Been Educated In The US, http://www.businessinsider.com/does-it-matter-if-irans-leaders-are-us-educated-2014-10#ixzz3TwmKDXlQ.

[2] See Iranian Foreign Policy Since 2001: Alone in the World (Routledge, Thomas Juneau & Sam Razavi eds.,

2013) for excellent analyses of Iranian isolation.

[3] Douglas Jehl, Iran Holds Taliban Responsible for 9 Diplomats’ Deaths, NY Times, September 11, 1998, http://www.nytimes.com/1998/09/11/world/iran-holds-taliban-responsible-for-9-diplomats-deaths.html.

Israel, Iran and American Diplomacy

March 3, 2015

Some people are angry at Israel because they are against Israel. But some of us are angry because we care so much about its survival and think it is being stupid. Popular foreign policy here and everywhere is about waving swords and shooting anyone in their way. It’s a quick and simple solution. But depend too much on the sword and die by the sword.

I’ve been rethinking what’s been going on in the Middle East. Many of us have been assuming that the conflict between Israel and Palestine was central to Middle Eastern policy and events. I have come to realize that the Palestinians have been used mostly as pawns in a very different struggle and it’s very important to understand that.

Radical foreign fighters have shown themselves willing to flock to battles all over the Middle East, except Palestine. They’re in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Palestinians have been kicked out of much of the Middle East. Theirs is not a popular cause. So why does it keep coming up?

Iran supports Hamas and Hezbollah as a way to reduce its isolation in the Sunni world. Iran has no significant beef with Israel. Ahmadinejah scored political points with inflammatory rhetoric but he and much of that rhetoric have been replaced. By seeming to make common cause with Sunnis, however, Iran hopes to make themselves harder to oppose or fight. And by directing aid to groups fighting Israel, it immunizes itself from the reaction to some Shiite forces deep in the Sunni world.

It is not in Iran’s interest to destroy Israel. Opposition to Israel is part of Iran’s foreign policy, protecting its bona fides in the Sunni Arab world. Destroy Israel and they’ll need something else. But let’s be clear – Iran can be a serious existential threat to a stupid Israel. By comparison other threats in their neighborhood are pinpricks.

Notice the opportunity that creates. The US, Iran and Israel all have things to give each other in a true, regional grand bargain. We could reduce Iran’s regional isolation because we have considerable influence with many of the regional players, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, etc. Iran could contribute to Israel’s safety by backing off its support for Hamas and Hezbollah. And that could make a reliable peace in Palestine possible. Without external support, the Palestinians would not be nearly as threatening to Israel and a two state solution would really be possible.

I don’t mean to imply that it will be easy to get there. There’s a huge history of mistrust on both sides and both sides have good reason to mistrust the other. The nuclear negotiations, themselves difficult and sensitive, could build the mutual confidence necessary for a wider deal. Americans would have to give our leadership the support and confidence needed to work toward that goal, difficult in the face of Republican sabotage before we even know, let alone consider, whether our negotiators have proposed a constructive bargain.

The leadership of all three countries is skittish for ordinary political reasons. All three hold elections. No politician in either country wants to make a mistake on an issue like this. It would be a huge loss if fear of mistakes prevents the effort to reach a settlement of one of the big issues threatening us, Israel, the Palestinians and continually pulling the US into Middle Eastern conflicts.

I don’t have a pipeline to whatever the deal will look like. Nothing is automatic – a lot depends on our diplomacy and pressure. But major improvement is a possible outcome. So as John F. Kennedy famously told us, “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 3, 2015.

Reactions to the Charlie Hebdo bombings – Was it just about France?

January 13, 2015

In what other country do world leaders march with arms linked against terrorism? Terrorism goes on in every continent but we mourn and gather in Europe. Terrorism happens in Haifa, Jerusalem and the West Bank – in both directions – but we mourn and gather in Europe. Do we stand for a principle or is France the principle – that France cannot be touched? Or that France is in danger? But other places are in danger. For all my criticisms of Israeli reactions, they are in considerable danger as the Palestinians have been able to use Israeli reactions to the devastation caused by their own terrorism to unite much of the world against Israel. Or is there good and bad terrorism? Were the Communists right, that’s it’s all about whose terrorists are freedom fighters?

So does this lead anywhere? Is the world standing together in Paris a prelude to a principle? But where do principles lead? To more pious declarations? Pious declarations can help lead to forms of action. If the free countries of the world really wanted to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they clearly could put the screws on both sides and make a two-state solution actually happen. It’s too late to just back off and say it’s their fight and take no sides. But death there is just politics, who we stand with, not what we stand against. Letting it go on when that fight could be stopped is all about being able to use the conflict for politics, even though it is clearly spiraling out of control and enveloping us all. The conflict does no one any good except that pious declarations allowed the French to appear as friends of oppressed people without doing anything about it.

Of course we have been misplaying the Middle East for decades. We were hostile to a group of Middle Eastern leaders with real popular support because we didn’t like their domestic policies. So their peoples, or many of them, have been drawing the obvious conclusion – that their fight is international. The West doesn’t help. It just supports extractive industries and kleptocratic leaders while letting the problems of the people of the Middle East fester. Why do we expect to be free of terrorism in the West when we have a policy of supporting strong men who protect American and western business while raping their peoples and otherwise blessing all the nonsense they commit at home?

I find myself continually drawn to Pogo’s remark, “We have met the enemy and they is us.” All over the globe we have fought against peoples and leaders who try to take care of their own people. Leaders who try to provide for their own. We have had a part in displacing liberal leaders in Latin America, Africa and Asia because they really tried to make things better for their countrymen.

We who grandly tell the world about the virtues of self-government, and tell the world that our internal policies are none of their business, because we govern ourselves, do the reverse because we have the muscle.

I was struck by a statement by Chris Giannou on Alternative Radio who remarked that the world, including the Muslim world, “love you for your values. They hate you for your hypocrisy.”

Values are powerful until we compromise them with war, torture and indiscriminate killing as if the peoples of the Middle East are just there for us to play with.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 13, 2015.

Guns v. PR in Palestine

October 28, 2014

Whenever I speak about Israel and Palestine, I get angry and anguished letters from both sides. I understand. The world is going to heck in so many ways – growing population, destroying our environment, killing each other – why not have a few dreams about the good life in the Middle East. Dreams are much more fun than reality. Only a few have the strength to look with clear eyes and at both sides.

Perhaps you heard Matty Friedman in On The Media discussing the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.[i] I looked at his very interesting essay and recommend it.[ii] He makes clear some truths that should be self–evident. Read the rest of this entry »


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