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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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.


Is America For Sale? Is Trump Motivated to Sell Us Out?

June 20, 2017

Two lawsuits have now been filed over Trump’s violation of the emoluments clause.[1]

Emoluments is an eighteenth-century word rarely heard before Trump became president. It’s a rare president who ever came into office with assets that could motivate him to sell us out. And still rarer the president who refused to give up all interests in such investments. But Trump has refused to sell his assets or put them in a blind trust. His assets therefore are at risk here and abroad and their value is closely related to Trump’s dealings with foreign powers and domestic corporations and investors.

Foreign governments understand how to press his buttons. Like any lobbyist who curries favor with those in power, these governments understand that they may get better treatment if they patronize his enterprises. China granted numerous trademarks and other business advantages to Trump enterprises. Officials from China and many other countries use his hotels, lease or buy facilities from him, dine at his restaurants and thereby shift substantial amounts of money to him as well as help him publicize his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. All of this has raised the market value of Trump’s properties as all these foreign and domestic supplicants want to show Trump how they can feather his nest.

Now Trump has reversed positions he took during the campaign and his first weeks in office toward his foreign and domestic business partners and authorities. He reaffirmed the one-China policy, and backed off China’s expanding control over the South China sea. Trump abandoned his criticism of Saudi Arabia, and fell solidly behind it in a dispute with Qatar, where the U.S. has its largest regional base. Trump consistently excludes Saudi Arabia from his immigration bans though Saudis have dominated the terrorist events of the past two decades.

Was that because it was good for America or because foreign governments and officials gave him the rights he wanted for his enterprises abroad. With Trump we can never know.

The name for Trump’s behavior is corruption. Corruption includes using public power to gain personal wealth or profit, or accepting benefits that could lead a public official to take action contrary to the public interest. It’s almost impossible to prove a bribe – I’ll do this for you if you give me that. Politicians, lobbyists and other supplicants avoid the language of a deal and let the quid pro quo be inferred and implied. Numerous federal, state and local statutes prohibit public officials from accepting anything of value precisely because the quid pro quo is never stated but  always understood.

Whether Trump’s motives are pure or disgusting, he is in fact showing everyone how private advantage can be extracted from public office and laying America open to corruption. In many countries you get no help from government officials without bringing ever more costly “presents” to them. Trump’s behavior threatens to extract our energy and innovation for the benefit of Trump, his family and friends. That’s the essence of corruption and corrupt governments reduce their peoples to beggars.

This country worked hard to ensure an honest, dedicated, civil service. Despite all the jokes about government employees, our civil service has been the envy of most of the world. All of us will pay for Trump’s private empire.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, June 20 2017.

[1] Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics In Washington v. Donald J. Trump, U.S.D.C., S.D.N.Y., Jan. 23, 2017, https://s3.amazonaws.com/storage.citizensforethics.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/23140054/CREW-DJT-Final.pdf and District of Columbia v. Trump, US.D.C., D.Md., June 12, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/06/12/us/politics/100000005161070.mobile.html. And see Jackson Diehl, China and Saudi Arabia have seduced Trump into being their sweetheart, Washington Post, June 11, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/china-and-saudi-arabia-have-seduced-trump-into-being-their-sweetheart/2017/06/11/d4001330-4c67-11e7-a186-60c031eab644_story.html?utm_term=.dae3f8d62c7a, Sui-Lee Wee, Trump Adds More Trademarks in China, New York Times, June 14, 2017, B5, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/13/business/trump-china-trademarks.html, and David Marsh, Trump’s China First Policy, MarketWatch, June 6, 2017, http://www.marketwatch.com/story/trumps-china-first-policy-2017-06-06.

 


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.

 


Suckers for Trump

May 31, 2016

Let me begin by reminding you of Trump’s claims,[1] and end with some questions.

“I’m totally pro-choice” he declared and then took it back: “I’m pro-life” and told MSNBC that “there has to be some form of punishment” for a woman who has an abortion, later modified that only the doctor should be responsible. Plus he supported Planned Parenthood, and defunding them.

Remember the poor woman in Providence whose house was taken under eminent domain? “Eminent domain is wonderful” he told Fox News, and within a month told another outlet, “I don’t like eminent domain.”

He told CNN “I’m an environmentalist,” but tweeted “Global warming is a total, and very expensive, hoax!”

He once “support[ed] the ban on assault weapons and … a slightly longer waiting period to purchase a gun.” but “I don’t support it anymore.” Now he says he’s “the strongest person running in favor of the Second Amendment.”

In 2000 he said “We must have universal health care” but his campaign website read “It is not enough to simply repeal this terrible legislation,” and says he’d substitute “free market principles” on health care.

On taxes, in 2015 he described his tax plan as “a big tax reduction, including for the upper income.” On May 5 he told CNBC “I am not necessarily a huge fan of” cutting taxes for billionaires.

It’s not clear who Trump likes as people. First he refused to denounce the Ku Klux Klan and other white nationalists supporting him. Under fire he reversed course but many white supremacists, including David Duke, continue to support Trump. He’s blown hot and cold on refugees: “on a humanitarian basis, he said, “you have to” take in Syrian refugees. But now he wouldn’t. “I love Hispanics!” he tweeted on Cinco de Mayo, pictured with a taco bowl. Except of course that he wants to build a wall and send them all back to Mexico.

Donald thinks military policy is a cinch, “It would take an hour and a half to learn everything there is to learn about missiles. … I think I know most of it anyway.” He waffles on whether he would trust the Russians or not. He liked NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which unites Europe and the U.S. militarily. “I see NATO as a good thing” he said recently but six days later decided “NATO is obsolete.”

The Middle East befuddles him. He supported invading Iraq. and crowed that “It looks like a tremendous success” but four days after that said, “The war’s a mess.”

He supported fighting in Libya: “Qadhafi in Libya is killing thousands of people, nobody knows how bad it is, and we’re sitting around, we have soldiers, all over the Middle East, and we’re not bringing ‘em in to stop this horrible carnage. … We should go in, we should stop this guy, which would be very easy and very quick.” But he said later, “I never discussed that subject.… We would be so much better off if Qadhafi were in charge right now.”

What are we supposed to make of Trump’s contradictions and about-faces? Does the adjective he uses endlessly to describe Hillary fit Trump better? Does he know what he’s talking about? I’m more interested in how we decide what he’s for? He’s inviting people to buy their own dreams. Whatever you’re for, he wants you to think he is too. Selling people their own dreams is a great sales tactic. It’s natural to believe others think like us. But if we guess wrong, who wants to be Donald’s sucker?

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 31, 2016.

[1] Clips collected on http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/05/donald-trump-2016-contradictions-213869;  Michael P. Lynch, Truth, “Politics and the Power of Contradiction,” New York Times, May 8, 2016, at SR2, available as Michael P. Lynch, Trump, Truth, and the Power of Contradiction, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/08/opinion/sunday/trump-truth-and-the-power-of-contradiction.html?_r=0; “A Trump Sampler: His Changing Views,” New York Times, May 8, 2016, on page SR2, available at http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/05/08/sunday-review/a-trump-sampler-his-changing-views.html.


Strategy for defeating DAESH (a/k/a ISIS)

March 25, 2016

Juan Cole, one of the most consistently astute observers of the struggle in the Middle East, explains that DAESH depends on fear to drive recruits to its hideous mission. The way to choke off that recruiting tool and speed the defeat of DAESH is with a warm welcome to Muslims and Muslim refugees:

Counter-terrorism therefore in this case would involve counteracting Daesh polarization and spread of hatred. The only way to impede their attempt at radicalizing Muslims is to reach out to Muslims with love.

Conversely the expressions of fear and hate from people like Donald Trump actually make the war harder to win by driving Muslims into the arms of DAESH. Here is a link to Juan Cole’s post.


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