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.

Good soldiers know how to play chess

October 20, 2015

I’d like to start by stating my pride in WAMC and admiration of you, the listeners and members, who not only raised funds to keep the station on the air but also raised funds during the pledge break for the food bank, to help refugees and to retire pollution from the environment. That’s a lot to be proud of.

Turning to the Middle East, Russia wants to beef up Assad in Syria. And Putin seems to have confronted us with a fait accompli as it conducts bombing raids. No one wants war with Russia. So what to do?

Lots of people have their eyes focused on the Middle East, on Syria and its immediate neighbors. I think that reveals inexperience. Foreign affairs is a chess game. Chess was invented to train the mind for combat.

Now I’m no champion chess player. Oh I like to brag that I once beat someone who beat Bobby Fisher, which is true, but my friend hadn’t played in years and I have no idea how old Fisher was when my friend beat him. But just the same I do understand some things about chess. And one of them is that if the other guy attacks one of my pieces where it’s hard to defend, I can look for ways to take advantage of the position somewhere else on the board. Sometimes that forces my opponent to release his grip while dealing with my counter threat, or provide me with a counter-balancing advantage. Chess is often described as a game of position, but rarely is it all about one square or even one piece.

So I’m wondering what candidates you might have for places to put pressure on Russia? Ukraine anyone? Or posting troops in Poland? And how about recalculating the effects of Putin’s moves? The EU has been falling apart but a resurgent Russian bear may help put the EU back together. Arab anger has been directed against home grown Sunni regimes and against the U.S., but a resurgent Russian bear may put them in a war with ISIS and could inflame Muslims within Russia. Conservatives want America to be a player in world politics. But being a player is hardly a purpose. I’m more focused on the consequences.

People who only keep their eyes on one spot may be experts on that spot, or just naïve. But real foreign policy is global. Russia is not invincible. Putin is not a magician. The games he has been playing have answers. Keep cool.

But don’t look for lots of loud talk back. Real warriors don’t scream their intentions. Intentions become known after the fact. That’s what I expect from Obama or any president who is competent in foreign policy and not a big gasbag. As Teddy Roosevelt once said, we need to speak softly and carry a big stick. But it’s also important to remember that big sticks aren’t best wielded in frontal attacks – Picket’s charge lost at Gettysburg. Grant, by contrast, was happy to lay siege at Vicksburg and Richmond, and the soldiers under Sherman rarely fired a shot through a long campaign across Tennessee and then Georgia – except when Jefferson Davis replaced one of his best generals and his replacement immediately attacked the portion of Sherman’s Army he had left behind at Chattanooga. The Confederate Army was then promply defeated by that half of Sherman’s Army.

Good soldiers know how to play chess.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, October 20, 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 »


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