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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In the Wake of Atrocities is Moderation Possible

November 28, 2015

In the wake of murders like those in Paris, is it possible to talk about moderation? The impulse to kill is very strong. I know I’d feel it if it came close. And yet we know that many innocent men are put to death. And if an innocent person is executed, the killer, or killers, are still alive. And kangaroo courts or lynch law threaten everyone. The circle of murder can widen, as it did with the infamous Hatfields and McCoys. I’ve taught a descendent of the McCoys, actually a lovely young woman in West Virginia. But a murder turned into a war and decimated the families. Was that worth it – all the innocent lives. We are taught that two wrongs don’t make a right, but in the aftermath, do we have the strength to see that?

It was very difficult to oppose the war in Iraq. We know now it was a mistake, and one that did a great deal of damage, in the lives of innocent men and women, in destabilizing the region, in creating the opportunity for Daesh to thrive.

I’m terrified of the political pressure behind the hawks now. So-called collateral damage can cause a reaction that engulfs the world in flames. Our own reactions to the Paris bombing demonstrate the fact. Yet Daesh clearly hopes that we in turn will cause so much collateral damage that it will pull all the Muslims that oppose Daesh now into the fray to defend an Islam that seems under attack.

We should have learned by now that what matters in war is not what we think is justified, but what our actions produce. Lincoln understood that, calculating carefully how and when he used the slavery issue in the Civil War. Vietnam should have brought home to us that what people think matters. But the atrocities of some both in the Administration and carrying the flag in Iraq showed that the lessons of Vietnam didn’t reach everyone. Iraq continues to be a problem for us not only because it destabilized the region but also because the crude things that some people did in the name of America continue to inflame many people about us. It’s not about appeasement; it’s about pacification. It’s about keeping conflicts as small as possible. Every conflict isn’t about Hitler in 1938; sometimes the right analogy is to Versailles at the end of World War I when the victorious allies imposed punishments that radicalized the German people. Notice how differently the end of World War II came out, when the allies reaffirmed the rule of law and found constructive ways forward, not only for us but for the German people, not only the Marshall Plan but also the European Union which gave Germany both an important role and an important stake in the future of a united Europe.

That’s hard. That takes real statesmanship. Vice-president Biden’s comments Saturday impressed me. He started by identifying Daesh’s goals and then pointed out that we should not play into their hands by widening the war against Islam. Think of Daesh as holding a match and trying to start a fire or a detonator and trying to set off an explosion. Daesh by itself is infuriating. One commentator compared them to pirates. But without sparking that wider war, they cannot defeat us or any significant country. In this conflict, we have to respond with our heads, not our hearts. Like forest fighters, we have to contain the blaze before we can put it out. President Obama’s talk about containment was absolutely right. Thank heaven that we have a president who uses his head. The question is whether the American people can rise to the challenge of supporting a policy that’s based on intelligent calculations instead of emotional displays of power.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, November 24, 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.


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