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.

Regression to the Mean

August 18, 2015

Social scientists have a phrase, “regression to the mean.” What they mean is that the law of averages eventually fells families, companies or countries that are doing better than average, and eventually lift those doing much worse than the average. Now for all of us who like to say the United States is the best in the world, there is a prospect to consider.

We could just get fatalistic; it’s going to happen so what can we do about it. But of course we didn’t succeed by fatalism. Americans escaped, trekked, traveled, by rickety sailboats and steerage and every other way imaginable to get here and then they cleared the wilderness and conquered the continent and then took on the world. No fatalism about that.

They didn’t stare at each other saying we can’t do or build this or that; they joined together or got the government to help. Until the fatalists took over. Reagan said government is the problem. Strange remark, from a man who either should have known better or did, because when he took over the U.S. Government was actually remaking the world, our world. Perhaps you didn’t know that the internet was developed by DARPA as a national security project to make up for a strategic weakness of the old fashioned telephone system. Or that the transistors that run everything you use were developed as part of a government war effort. There isn’t much that you and I touch that weren’t connected in some way to the government space effort.

I could tell that story for every American generation. Government that is devoted to the welfare of the people, began here. The banking system, the transportation system repeatedly rebuilt as new technology developed, schools and the university system, the list of government projects for us is endless – until we stopped trusting each other and our own government.

So how do we stay strong, healthy, and successful? Some think we do it by fighting everyone. They must have grown up in a very tough neighborhood. Those who crunch the numbers figured out a long time ago that arms are what economists call a deadweight loss. Sometimes you really need them but they contribute zero to the economy except for the research. And like the barroom brawler, everyone’s gunning for the top gun.

We got where we are because of our economy. You can look at the economic numbers and see when Germany got ahead of England and France and then when the U.S. surpassed Germany. It’s all in the numbers. Ever since that other fatalist, George Bush said “read my lips; no new taxes,” Americans have imagined that progress was free. But we got where we are because government did the things needed to facilitate what the rest of us could do, travel, save, study, communicate, ship, research and on and on.

But now America feels so poor that it can’t repair its infrastructure, can’t fix the cables, the water and sanitary systems, can’t fund its university system except on the backs of students who haven’t yet had a chance to earn a living. If America is truly that poor, it will regress to the mean.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 18, 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 »


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