How to think about Iran

July 8, 2019

People simplify countries into good and bad, leading us to bluster about military options, and overlook better ways to get things done.

It seems required that all discussions of Iran begin with statements about lack of trust and the badness of what they are doing. But goodness and badness aren’t genes baked into each country’s DNA. Despite American complaints about Iranian government, Iran waited a year after this country reneged on the multi-national nuclear agreement before acting in conflict with its no-longer application terms. They were not, in this case, untrustworthy.

Much of the Iranian population is very westernized. Despite some of the leadership’s language, Iran is not a country of America haters, or nearly as authoritarian as much of the Middle East. Iranians have been voting for decades except when our country dislodged their democratically selected leader and substituted the Shah. Iranians don’t have as much power as they want but they have a great deal more than most of the people of the region. Until the current occupant of the White House took over, they pushed their leadership in our direction.

We’d benefit from thinking about the Middle East and Iran differently. Iraq and Iran fought a war that cost at least half a million lives, with two or three times that many casualties. American defeat of Iraq removed any Iraqi threat to Iran and made Iran more powerful, which many here regret.

But also, Israel and Iran were cooperating before the U.S.-Iraq wars. The enemy of my enemy is my friend and Iraq was their common enemy. So after we defeated Iraq, Iran and Israel saw each other as the most dangerous countries in the region, leaving Iran facing Israel and Saudi Arabia in the new Middle East.

Saudis aren’t angels. They’re decades behind Iran in their treatment of women and have caused us much more trouble. Saudi support for militant Wahhabi Islam brought 9/11 about, produced Osama bin Ladan, al Qaeda and led to the war in Afghanistan, and Saudi Wahhabi schools are radicalizing the Islamic world. Our alliance with Saudi Arabia has been very costly.

So assuming we suffer the pain and cost of defeating Iran, which countries would drive the new Middle East: Israel, Saudi Arabia or Turkey? The longstanding working relationships between Iran and Turkey have helped stabilize both. Turkey is now playing East and West against each other. It seeks entry into the EU while becoming increasingly authoritarian. If Iran were defeated, would Turkey draw closer to the west, to Sunni Islamic countries or would Turkey be more vulnerable to the Russian bear? The answer isn’t obvious. A defeated Iran would be in chaos, and the risks that could pose to all countries in the area as well as ourselves could be very severe. In other words, war is not an independent decision without understanding or controlling the aftermath.

Defeating Iran may only solidify our reputation as the world’s most warlike country. Plus, demonizing Iran is diverting us from China’s threat to the security of other countries in the Far East. If those countries lose confidence in American support, the world balance of power could change in an instant. How to make America puny again.

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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.

 

 

 

 


Saudi Arabia

October 29, 2018

To understand what happened, we should generally begin with very open-ended questions in order to avoid excluding crucial areas of investigation. Gradually, one focuses on hypotheses. A hypothesis is not a fact. It is a basis for fact-checking.

Think back to 9/11. The very idea of Saudi complicity got short shrift. We noticed that there were Saudis in the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the middle of Pennsylvania. But a number of Saudis were immediately allowed to leave the U.S. by air, even while other planes were grounded. The 9/11 Commission noted that charities sponsored by the Saudi government probably funded the attacks. But then the connection largely disappeared from public view and the focus turned to Osama bin Laden. That’s not a great recipe for finding out what happened. The hypothesis was too narrow at the start – Saudi Arabia, friend; Osama bin Laden, enemy.

It’s past time to investigate the assumption that Saudi Arabia was a friend. Saudi Arabia was selling us oil and we were selling them arms. But commercial transactions don’t automatically create friends. They do encourage friendly manners in order not to roil negotiations. And they create motives to avoid antagonism which might ruin commercial arrangements. But there can also be contrary motives. In spite of the benefits of the commercial arrangements between the Saudis and the U.S., were there reasons that the Saudis might have been inclined to attack and incinerate thousands of people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, especially if the Saudi connection could be hidden and denied?

Think about the changes in the Middle East following the 9/11 attacks. The U.S. went to war and hasn’t yet extricated itself. Our defeat of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq eliminated a large commercial competitor of the Saudis. It meant the Saudis might be able to pump much more oil without lowering its price. It could also make the Saudis seem much more important to the U.S. once Iraq had been eliminated as a major Middle Eastern player. And if America could then be convinced that Iran had become the major Middle Eastern antagonist to the U.S., then Saudi Arabia could use this country to take out a second of its major competitors. As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told the French Foreign Minister in 2010, the Saudis want to “fight the Iranians to the last American.” Middle East politics can be very complex and deceptive.

I don’t know whether the Saudis conspired to bring that about by attacking the U.S. My point is a more limited one. It is not beyond possibility that Saudi Arabia had motives to inflict a powerful terrorist attack on this country in order to get the U.S. to do its military bidding for them. That certainly doesn’t exclude the vicious role of Osama bin Laden. It means he could have been used by the Saudis for their own purposes. And, in all likelihood, he could have been stopped by the Saudis if they had wanted to.

The current occupant of the White House told us he is not interested in exploring the Saudi impact on American security at the cost of his and the country’s commercial relations with Saudi Arabia. But once you realize the extent of the deceit and manipulation practiced by Middle Eastern dictators, why in God’s name would this country want to supply them with a single round of ammunition, much less sophisticated weapons systems, bombers and fighter airplanes, before we can be much more certain of what Saudi Arabia is and has been up to? And it also makes sense to look much more skeptically at the things we have been certain of. Is Iran, which historically had quite good relations with Israel, really the major problem, or have the Saudis been stoking enmity toward Iran in order to make Saudi Arabia the major player in the Middle East?

I don’t know. I’m not writing a text. I’m asking a question, one which lawsuits are still exploring. It hasn’t yet been satisfactorily addressed, and it should be.

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

 


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, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/12/06/address-nation-president.

[2] http://www.salon.com/2015/12/09/my_daughter_is_not_tashfeen_malik/.

[3] See Murtaza Hussain, Why the Islamic State is Not Really Islamic, The Intercept, Sep. 26 2014, 12:38 p.m., https://theintercept.com/2014/09/26/isis-islamic/.

[4] Violence comes home: an interview with Arun Kundnani, OPENDEMOCRACY 22 November 2015, https://www.opendemocracy.net/arun-kundnani-opendemocracy/violence-comes-home-interview-with-arun-kundnani.

[5] See the remarks of Vice-president Joe Biden at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=25aDP7io30U; Ron Paul, , Are We in a Clash of Civilizations?  [RonPaulLibertyReport] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=opYwBt9x64k&t=2m28s; 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, http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2015/04/23/4221874.htm.

[6] See Chris Giannou, Understanding the Middle East, University of Denver, Denver, Colorado 4 April 2014, Alternative Radio, http://www.alternativeradio.org/products/giac002.


Realism about Middle Eastern Priorities

September 8, 2015

Republicans in Congress have been holding up funds for Fulbright scholarships and the Peace Corps, anything that would actually allow Americans to learn about what is going on in the rest of the world. It’s no wonder that foreign policy discussions have the smell of fantasy.

It’s long been obvious that the struggle with fundamentalist and militant Islam has been ideological. They have established schools which are aimed at stamping out the multicultural Islam we have known for a millennium and replacing it with the intolerance of Wahhabi Islam. They know the value of educating the young. That’s why Boko Haram in Africa attacks western style schools there.

And it has long been reported that a large part of the funding and much of the drive behind this intolerant violent form of Islam has been coming from Saudi Arabia, as did most of the 9/11 hijackers. Yet knowing all this, we have been falling over ourselves to help the Saudi monarchy. It’s a pyrrhic bargain, some supposed short-term gain despite long term disaster. And we’re told Israel likes it – so much for the intelligence of Israel’s government.

Meanwhile we focus on boycotting Iran. Yet Iran is irrelevant to the growing Muslim fundamentalism – the Shi’ites of Iran are not going to fund Sunni schools the Wahhabis have financed, and Iran’s own brand of Islam is settling down in response to a relatively educated and westernized culture.

Sorry folks but misreading realities outside the U.S. are the wages of believing that there is no use to learning anything outside our borders.

It’s amazing how stable a view of the Middle East the hawks maintain and how unstable the Middle East actually is. Israel is our friend regardless of how their policies stiff us. Saudi Arabia is our friend even though they cradled el Qaeda and radical Islam, Saudis were deeply involved in 9/11, and they are now funding Hamas which fights Israel. Iran is our enemy even though we fight together against ISIS and they have cut Hamas off.

The hawks seem to fear learning about what is actually happening and driven by a desire to flex muscles for the mere fact of pride in the muscles they flex. It would be really funny except they can screw up the future of this country and substitute military graves for the future of too many men and women.

Our first priority must be to turn off the flow of Saudi support for their breed of intolerance. And then to turn the internet into a trap, radioactive figuratively speaking, so that the world’s terrorists are scared off it and isolated. I’m not sure Obama or anyone in his shoes will have any choice but to continue using drones, much as I dislike them. But if we grow up and deal with the world as it is instead of the medieval fairy tale the know-nothings running Congress keep telling us it is, things might just get saner. Meanwhile, let’s provide significant funds for Americans to work and study abroad. We have a lot to learn to undo this neo-isolationist reign of ignorance.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 8, 2015.

 


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