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;  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,; “A Trump Sampler: His Changing Views,” New York Times, May 8, 2016, on page SR2, available at

Muslims and the barbarians laying claim to Islam

January 5, 2016


President Obama commented a few weeks ago that Muslims in America must do more to stop Muslim violence and many have suggested that the Muslim community has not been doing enough to stop it.[1] That struck me as very false, given my own contacts in the Muslim community. So I reached out to learn what is happening in the Muslim community.

All communities have their share of nut-jobs and criminals but that is no more true of Muslims than the rest of us. Several white self-styled Christian groups have been much more dangerous to Americans. Muslims point out that the much larger phenomenon of non-Muslim violence has not been treated as reason for shame by members of other religious groups.[2]

Muslims repeatedly point out that the ideology of ISIS, ISIL, DAESH or whatever we call it, is out of step with Islamic practice and preaching here and around the globe, un-Islamic and fundamentally heretical. There are always exceptions, but generally fighters are not being nurtured in the mosques. In fact ISIS recruits typically do not start with any strong Muslim or other religious faith – they are empty inside looking for a cause.[3]

Muslims warn that nationalism fuels violence. We talk about reaction to “boots on the /ground.” Muslim scholars make a broader point, here in Arun Kundnani’s words:

“We all know the ‘war on terrorism’ kills more civilians than terrorism does; but we tolerate this because it is ‘their’ civilians being killed in places we imagine to be far away. Yet colonial history teaches us that violence always ‘comes home’ in some form: … as refugees seeking sanctuary … the re-importing of authoritarian practices first practised in colonial settings, or indeed as terrorism. The same patterns repeat today in new forms.”[4]

Moreover we are confused about who the enemy is. There is considerable evidence that Saudi Arabia was behind the development of ISIS as an effective fighting force precisely to draw America into support of Middle Eastern dictatorships and to quash the Arab Spring. I think there are many factors that gave rise to ISIS and plenty of blame to go around, but they did quash the Arab Spring, whatever chance that awakening might have had, and Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states did help bring ISIS into being.[5]

Muslim scholars and commentators argue that revolution and revolutionaries are spawned by failure to adhere to western ideals, support for authoritarian rulers, bombing by planes, drones and other military attacks that kill civilians and leave communities in shambles, and by trading arrangements that support slave labor in many parts of the globe.

As Chris Giannou, former chief surgeon for the International Committee of the Red Cross, told the Alternative Radio audience, Muslims, Arabs, Asians, Africans “love [Americans] for your values. They hate you for your hypocrisy, because you do not live up to your values. The vast majority of the American public has absolutely no idea of what their government does in their names around the world.”[6]

Telling us what they think we want to hear is an occupational hazard of politicians – that’s how they get elected. But Americans need to see through self-congratulatory claims about how good America is and how bad everybody else is, and resist the call to solve every problem by killing ever more people. It’s not good for our security, our country or our the world. It is crucial to resist the urge to enlarge this conflict, crucial to keep it as small as possible. That’s the best way to put it out with the least damage.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 5, 2016.

[1] See President Obama, Address to the Nation, December 6, 2015,


[3] See Murtaza Hussain, Why the Islamic State is Not Really Islamic, The Intercept, Sep. 26 2014, 12:38 p.m.,

[4] Violence comes home: an interview with Arun Kundnani, OPENDEMOCRACY 22 November 2015,

[5] See the remarks of Vice-president Joe Biden at; Ron Paul, , Are We in a Clash of Civilizations?  [RonPaulLibertyReport]; Khaled Abou El Fadl, The End of the Arab Spring, the Rise of ISIS and the Future of Political Islam, ABC Religion and Ethics 23 Apr 2015,

[6] See Chris Giannou, Understanding the Middle East, University of Denver, Denver, Colorado 4 April 2014, Alternative Radio,

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.

War and the Separation of Powers

September 10, 2013

In 1950 Harry Truman sent troops to Korea without consulting Congress. Republican criticism did not withstand American hostility to Communism and American nostalgia for give ‘em hell Harry. It became a precedent. Read the rest of this entry »

The Arab World and Us

July 30, 2013

I have been quite disturbed by events in Egypt. We won’t know for some time what has been happening behind the scenes, but it appears that the Obama Administration told the Egyptian military that our support would not flag, which I, and certainly they, would have read as a green light to eliminate the Muslim Brotherhood.

Look at that geographically. Read the rest of this entry »

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