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.

An NRA Foreign Policy

November 3, 2015


Think about the NRA position that guns don’t kill people, people do, and therefore that we should protect the rights of gun ownership. Just think about the contribution that the NRA could make to the discussion of foreign affairs. The NRA position reveals that it is a big mistake to control arms trafficking. They’re spot on – we should just arm everyone, friend and foe, all the contending parties in Syria and Iraq. Al-Qaeda? Their guns don’t kill, they do. No problem. ISIS? No problem. But we can learn from the NRA that the biggest mistake is the nuclear deal with Iran! After all, if everyone had nukes, no one would use them. Peace on earth. Goodwill toward men and women. Solved that one. Thanks to the NRA.

There is the problem of identifying perpetrators. NRA’s got that solved too – tracing weapons is not allowed because it might lead to regulation and prohibition which would undermine everything they stand for. No, we’ll just have to guess who bombed whom. But the perpetrators will be scared because we might guess right among the hundreds of nations and many more terrorist groups. Peace reigns.

But the real threat is from folks who don’t have any apparent weapons – they’re hiding it. So just like Trayvon Martin and all those other souls who got what the NRA reserved for them, we have to be ready to shoot first and ask questions later. There is a chance that someone might have evil intent, especially if they don’t look right. Kill, kill, kill. Oh scratch that, Arlo used that phrase in Alice’s restaurant. Let’s say, historicize them. Remember Dick Cheney’s idea about Iraq – there was a chance they’d turn out bad, so let’s just make a mess of their place first, and let the whirlwind blow where it may – even if it whirls back on us.

Try that in Libya and Syria. Let everyone have guns, mortars, grenades and landmines. We can imagine them blowing each other’s brains out until they have depopulated the area and removed any threat to us. They already blame the U.S. anyway. Of course the weapons will end up in the hands of terrorists who will use them to fleece the people and turn the profits against new targets in America or among Americans. But then the American arms industry will really get going and we can have all-out war – now that’s a heroic future.

Now just think of the environmental advantages. China has ended its one-child policy. What to do? Nukes. How many nukes would it take to lower the earth’s population to about 3 billion? Of course radiation from that many nukes might lower the population to zero. But we could end the release of carbon and methane into the atmosphere. That way we could gain some control over global warming. The place might actually be livable again for a new race of people who emerge from the sea and the apes into homo sapiens in another two billion years. Think of that, the NRA could save the planet.

Oh my heavens where is my tongue. In my cheek? Or is it deadly accurate?

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

Yalda and a Healthy New Year

December 23, 2014

I’m writing this after a party for what Persians call Yalda, the winter soltice. There is a significant Persian community in this area, refugees, immigrants and students. This group was put together by the Alaei brothers. They are the doctors who were imprisoned in Iran for the temerity of trying to treat people with Aids and discussing the best techniques for doing it with other doctors around the globe.  When he was released, Kamiar came here to Albany to finish his doctorate at the School of Public Health. We spent the better part of a year praying for the release of his brother Arash and as soon as he was released he joined Kamiar here in Albany. They have now been joined by their sister and Kamiar by his bride.Medical res

And as soon as they landed they started to work to set up an international program in health and human rights. Both brothers became globe-trotters, working to set up allied programs all over the world. Many institutions here in Albany, including Albany Law where I teach have joined the effort. Kamiar and Arash worked with governments, UN agencies, large foundations and universities wherever they could. I can’t begin to say how much respect I have for their effort – and I am certainly not alone, as international medical organizations and others have honored them for their work. Most of us have dreams. They are making theirs become reality.

But – I told Kamiar there would be a “but,” – the biggest health problems around this world are not medical, but political.

Africa is suffering from the lack of government – good government that could stop the wars that have killed millions there and are still killing, pillaging and selling girls into slavery. Good government that could provide sanitary services and vaccinations.

Governments around the globe are allowing industry to poison their workers with toxic gases and chemicals in the plants, and poison the people outside by dumping toxic chemicals into the air and water, or by destroying the land and forests that keep the waters clean.

We are relatively healthy in the US because of government – because government did supply the clean water and sanitation and the public health and disease control systems and the medical research to make that possible. Don’t be fooled by labels, a very large share of the research dollars have come from the government, a very large share of the medical systems until very recently were public – without government few of us would have had decent medical care.

We need to upgrade the water supplies. We need to maintain and upgrade sewage disposal and landfills. We need to fund basic medical research, research that is fundamental to the health of all of us. It is increasingly clear that we need government to continue adequate vaccination programs. And we need government to deal with the spiraling problems of global climate change that will sicken all of us if government doesn’t get out ahead of them.

So what I wish people here and abroad for the new year, is good responsible government that keeps the peace and protects the health of their peoples. That’s a real holiday gift and a happy, healthy new year.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 23, 2014.

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 »

Intransigence – the Auto-immune Disease of Democracy

July 9, 2013

Obviously I’ve been following the news from Egypt like everyone else. You don’t need commentators to tell you that ousting a democratically elected government is undemocratic and unacceptable. But I want to talk about Morsi’s mistakes because they illustrate a major misunderstanding of democracy.  Read the rest of this entry »

The Earth has its own ways of cooling down

June 18, 2013

Let me begin by congratulating the station on a successful fund drive. These guys are terrific, the work they do is important.

For me it’s been three weeks since we’ve last talked, and I’m glad to be back. I’ve spent time thinking about what’s really important. A lot of what I try to do is to put things in a perspective that I hope you can use. For many of you, I’m preaching to the choir, but collectively, there is a mountain we have to move.

Some people don’t like to think about global warming, either because it’s too big a topic, or because thinking about it doesn’t make them happy. But not to think about it is to help to bring it on, to be part of the failure to force our politicians to make stopping the greenhouse effect a top priority.

Let’s understand how the earth can rebalance itself. It’s really very simple. The earth can flood, boil, infect, dehydrate and starve us to death. Have you seen people starving to death, or people dying of thirst? It’s not a pretty sight, even when it’s someone else. But an angry earth won’t spare us. Some of the changes are happening faster than predicted. And it’s not clear to me whether the changes will be gradual or catastrophic. Some of our children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren will be in the sights of disaster. Once the earth gets rid of most of us, the greenhouse gasses will slowly decline in the atmosphere. And then, maybe, if the hot earth doesn’t boil the atmosphere itself away, maybe the earth can begin to rebalance and cool down. Read the rest of this entry »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 266 other followers