The Bush Middle East

December 4, 2018

George H.W. Bush, our 41st president, put together a coalition to turn Saddam’s Iraq back from its invasion of Kuwait. He wanted the cover of a Muslim, Middle Eastern force joining in that invasion. He promised many of the countries involved that he would go no further than the Kuwaiti border that Saddam had crossed. In retrospect, that decision postponed the bloodbath that Iraq eventually became. But skilled as he was, President Bush couldn’t avoid the curse of unintended consequences. American use of a Saudi airfield was enough to anger bin Laden and al Qaeda. Hence the first attack on the World Trade Center took place under Clinton, between the presidencies of the two Bushes.

Bush excluded Iran from the “coalition of the willing” with which he invaded Iraq. In a book on Iranian foreign policy, subtitled Alone in the World, Thomas Juneau, Sam Razavi, and several colleagues explain that Iran lives amongst considerable dangers and hostilities. Four regional nuclear powers, India, Israel, Pakistan and Russia surround Iran. Religion, ideology, and other fears and jealousies divided Iran from its neighbors. And it has been excluded from regional security arrangements like the Gulf Cooperation Council, all of whose members are on the opposite side of the Persian Gulf. Thus, Iran has been in a precarious position which it has tried to meliorate with diplomacy, a strong military and support for the Palestinians.

In those circumstances Iran and Israel have reason to unite against the Arab states that have repeatedly gone to war against Israel and lose no love for Iran. But the wars against Iraq under the two Bush presidents had enormous impact on the Middle East. They left Iran the major local power, which spurred regional realignments. Specifically, Israel and Saudi Arabia no longer needed Iran’s support against Iraq. Instead, their fears transferred to Iran. As Trita Parsi describes in Losing an Enemy, a country’s natural enemy in balance of power politics is the biggest power in the region that could pose an existential threat. Once Iraq was disposed of, both countries wanted American support against Iran. Even though Iran had supported the Palestinians, it’s support had not been a major factor and, before the defeat of Iraq, Israel was telling the American state department to ignore the public fulminations of Ahmadinejad; despite him, Israel told the state department that Iran was fundamentally friendly! That may be a big surprise on this side of the Atlantic, but countries learn to distinguish the fundamentals from what they each have to do for diplomatic reasons.

I commented last week that Iran has been one of the most westernized countries in the Middle East. Despite the Guardian Council, public support for democratic institutions has a long history in Iran. Theirs is a mixed system, both clerical and popular. And the harsh language of some of the clerics has been a reaction to the fact that the Iranian people have been very much influenced by American culture. Despite the conflict between popular and clerical preferences, the people have no taste for another revolution. The result is that Iran has been one of the most stable countries in the Middle East.

That may not be the Middle East that the two Bushes envisioned. But Obama understood that agreements with Iran were possible in the current state of affairs. If we could cool down the fears and enmities involving Iran, Obama expected that he could turn his attention to Asia, which he viewed as the much larger problem. Unlike the small Middle Eastern countries, China is an existential threat to the U.S. on the world stage, and that’s where Obama wanted to put his, and America’s, energies.

Pity that Trump neither knew nor cared. That opportunity may be gone.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 4, 2018.

 


The Importance of Learning from Others

November 27, 2018

Americans have been reluctant to accept the importance of studying other countries. We tend to divide them into good and evil and assume that’s all we need to know.

As a teenager I was interested in science and in classical music. For both, I thought it wise to learn some German. But few schools taught it in the wake of World War II. Germans were the enemy.  But two World Wars provided reason enough to study German. President Roosevelt understood how vile and dangerous Hitler was long before Pearl Harbor and took steps to prepare the American military because he could and did read Hitler’s Mein Kampf in the original German.

Americans, however, seem more concerned about being subverted by knowledge of foreign places than by the costs of ignorance. It’s as if many of us have an inferiority complex about our own culture. White racists bask in western European skin color even while screaming America first. America has enormous worldwide influence, but many Americans continue to fear comparison to worldwide knowledge.

From the Napoleonic wars through the Franco-Prussian and two world wars, old World European nations repeatedly attempted world dominance and took a hundred million people to their graves. This country created or supported numerous international institutions to keep Europe at peace, the Soviet Union at bay and level out the boom and bust cycle of international economics, but too many Americans fear those same international institutions as if they were the work of foreign hands designed to subvert us.

The costs of ignorance are serious. Too many American Administrations have treated Saudi Arabia as an ally though it is run as a savage and medieval country, and too many, except for Obama, couldn’t accept talking or negotiating with Iran despite repeated overtures to the U.S. and the fact that they are one of the most westernized, even Americanized, countries in the Middle East. We’ve made similar mistakes trying to control who governs in Central and South America, Vietnam, and other countries. America seemed incapable of appreciating the strategic sense and the long game behind Obama’s attempt to strengthen America’s position in the Far East. It may be too late to recover the ground lost to China.

It’s time to get over our terror of learning about and respecting other peoples. It’s an odd terror for a country made up of so many different peoples. It’s an odd terror for a country in which we can walk out of a bus or train station in cities like New York and enjoy the kindness of strangers who themselves come from all over the world. It’s an odd terror in a country where we talk with taxi drivers about their immigration to and joy at being here. It’s a terror that undermines the benefits of our universally admired university system.

Does one really have to be from somewhere else to appreciate the strengths of our own country? Must appreciating our own country rest on ignorance of others? Or can we trust ourselves to learn about others, to appreciate their strengths as well as faults, to build on and incorporate their accomplishments into our own as we have done in art, literature, music, theatre, dance and so many other arts and sciences, to learn from others as well as from each other as we build our own strengths? Or are we really afraid that recognizing the strengths of others will sap our own?

The internet attributes to many people, from Eleanor Roosevelt to Sam Levenson, a family friend of ours, that we must learn from the mistakes of others because we don’t have time to make them all ourselves. First, however, we need to encourage each other to explore and learn.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, November 27, 2018.

 

 

 

 


Racists and Self-Interest

August 14, 2018

I have no illusions that anything I can say would convince white nationalists to flip their political sides. Nevertheless, I think it is important to engage them.

There is of course a strong moral argument based on the Enlightenment, reflected in the Declaration of Independence, that all of us are born equal. But let me see if I can engage anyone with arguments based on their own self-interest?

First, I don’t know how many of the white nationalists have had their DNA checked by 23 and Me or similar organizations. They might find that their own backgrounds are multicultural much like the rest of us. And I’m not sure how many of the white nationalists want to reject or deport their own grandparents or other ancestors.

Beyond that, racial, religious and ethnic nationalism is basically what is called, in language stemming from game theory, a zero-sum game. That is to say, we have a pie of specific size and fight about how to cut it up. But that’s a faulty premise. In fact, the larger the group that participates in the productive process, the more there is for everyone to do. The success of this country was based on our own common market among the states from the very beginning from the Canadian to the Florida border. That gave us a big advantage and propelled this country into the forefront economically within a few years. The European Union was developed and has been prosperous for much the same reason. And there is plenty of factual data that multi-cultural workforces lead to expanding their businesses much more than homogenous ones. It’s easy to look at a single job and notice who has it and who might have had it, but without looking at whether that job and many others would exist in a narrower market one does not have anything close to a full picture. So, I don’t think trade among multiple different cultures, or the development of complex multi-cultural economies are zero sum games. I do think they expand opportunities for us all. And the economic risk from trying to cut oneself off from that is stagnation and decline.

I have another concern about rejecting multi-culturalism: China, not to mention the rest of Asia. One of the things Obama realized, a realization no less true or false if one objects to the color of the man, was that the nations of Asia were focused on their economic advancement, were working hard to grow and were quite successful at it. That was behind his hope to “pivot to Asia.” But our own treatment of people from all the Asian countries, as visitors, residents and citizens, can strengthen or weaken our relations and our cooperation in foreign and economic policy. Perceived as racist, we can become the target of attack. Nations like China and India have the size and fire power to be problems. In briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court in the early 1950s, both the Democratic Truman Administration and the Republican Eisenhower Administration argued for an end to the separate but equal doctrine partly because it made international diplomacy difficult.

I don’t even want to talk about the possibility of internal war. Both for our country and for each of us, white nationalism is a dangerous mistake.

After writing this, we took our grandchildren to Tanglewood for a Young People’s Concert. At one point the BSO played Leonard Bernstein’s music for the rumble in West Side Story, a retelling of Romeo and Juliet set in Manhattan. The rumble pitted the white Jets gang against the Puerto Rican Sharks. It ends in universal disaster. In the suite that Bernstein created from the music, as Tony lies dying in Maria’s arms, the harsh, jagged music for the rumble dissolves into the lyrical, wistful music of Somewhere There is a Place for Us. Somewhere indeed. My granddaughter caught tears rolling down my face. Bernstein like Beethoven before him believed that music could somehow bring us together. I wish it were so.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 14, 2018.


Trump’s Claimed Strengths Are Empty Boasts

June 25, 2018

Trump’s behavior offends liberals’ deepest values. They are aghast at his having babies ripped from their mothers’ hands and sometimes even their breasts so their mothers can be hauled away to immigrant detention centers without their infants and children. Liberals were distraught by Trump’s neglect of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, and they attack the Trump Administration for systematically unleashing corporate abuse of workers, consumers and those of us downwind or downstream the poisons they unload. Liberals condemn Trump’s preference for trade wars over respectful treatment of long-time allies like Canada and the E.U., with which the U.S. had fruitful trade relations. And they deeply resent his attack on the fundamental values on which American democracy was formed: his encouragement of racism, and his preference for dictators, among many others.

I think Trump is also vulnerable to a very different criticism, that his so-called strengths are empty boasts revealing a naked emperor beneath. Trump claims great negotiating skills. He told us that his real estate experience demonstrated the negotiating skills that he would use in office. But it’s an empty boast.

In office he hasn’t even been able to work with his own party. Their only significant legislation was the tax bill at the very end of the year, and his other legislative success has been getting some of the most embarrassing nominees confirmed. Otherwise he hasn’t been able to reach agreement with his own party on immigrants, and on DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. In many areas he has had to act by executive order because he can’t agree with Congress despite Republican control of both houses. But Trump says he is a great negotiator.

Just back from a meeting with Kim Jong-un, Supreme Leader of North Korea, Trump boasts of a record breaking agreement to de-nuclearize the Korean peninsula. There is however no language of agreement to parse, no details, no schedule, no promise that wasn’t made to prior American presidents, no agreement on inspection or verification. What he got instead was a photo-op. In other words, he has produced much less than President Obama got from Iran in an agreement Trump has repeatedly denounced. But Trump says he is a great negotiator.

Obama’s pivot to Asia produced the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multi-national agreement among countries ringing the Pacific: Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Vietnam, Japan, Chile, Peru, Mexico, Canada, and United States. When president Trump pulled us out, the others continued to work together. There were objectionable pro-business provisions in the agreement but Trump made no effort to improve them. Instead, he removed the U.S. from the negotiations and the agreement, and facilitated China’s increasing dominance in the pacific region. Still, Trump says he is a great negotiator.

Mexico has not agreed to build a wall, as he promised. Trump unilaterally imposed tariffs on some imports saying they would protect American business and that there would be no trade war, but there already is.  The international response to Trump’s tariff increases has been retaliation both from former allies, like Canada, Mexico and Europe, and from adversaries like China. There are no countries left to join us to bring pressure on countries causing problems. The last time this kind of tariff contest roiled international waters was in the late 1920s, giving way to the Great Depression and to World War II. But Trump says he is a great negotiator. Thank you, Mr. Trump.

Trump’s claim of negotiating skills is an empty boast intended to conceal his weakness, his unwillingness to negotiate and complete incompetence at it. His lack of skill is a scandal.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, June 19, 2018.


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