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Category: Foreign policy

Brexit victory and Trump’s candidacy show that history is cycling backward

Originally published June 24, 2016

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Following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of communism, Francis Fukuyama famously wrote an article in the National Interest entitled, “The End of History?” He postulated that the prediction of the German 19th Century philosopher, Hagel, had come to fruition: that liberal democracy had proven itself the ultimate victor in the contest of ideas and the form of government.

Brexit and Donald Trump are proving Dr. Fukayama distressingly wrong – or at least, premature.

The slight majority of voters in the United Kingdom have now voted to tear themselves from the European Union – leading to renewed calls for Scotland to secede to be followed out the door by Northern Ireland and even Gibraltar.

The British pound is down over 10%, to a 35 year low and the Dow is likely to open down 700 points in the morning.

The “Leave” folks in Britain have much in common with the Trumpistas: they have been the economic losers in globalization and the information economy, fear immigrants to want to isolate themselves from the big, scary world. They even have Trump-like xenophobic leaders showing the way in the personages of the self-described “radical,” Nigel Farage, and the truth-challenged, former Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. And here’s the even scarier link to the American election: the “Remain” vote had appeared to be eking out a narrow win in pre-vote and then in exit polling.

So was the polling off – or were voters just embarrassed to tell pollsters their deep down secret that they intended to cast their ballots to break with Europe? In the United States, in the face of negative polling Donald Trump has claimed that he will benefit from a “reverse Tom Bradley” effect – namely, that he polls worse than his actual standing.

The Brexit vote is a warning to Americans, and particularly diehard fans of Bernie Sanders: if supporters of liberal democracy don’t get out and vote this November, we could wake up on November 9th in the same position as the British are this morning: dazed, confused and seeing the end of their way of life.

Our Republic survived Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and two Bushes, and it would have survived John McCain and Mitt Romney. It won’t survive Donald Trump. He does not understand democracy, has no appreciation of the Constitution and has authoritarian impulses that are on display for all to see. We are potentially watching the crumbling of a Weimar America, with democrats (and Democrats) squabbling among themselves while the fascist are on the rise.

It can’t happen here? Well, look what just happened in the United Kingdom.

Hillary Clinton is not the most natural politician, as she has acknowledged. And she is surrounded by fake scandals and untrue allegations which take longer to debunk than for Fox News to repeat. But she is a very smart, capable and genuinely caring person who is well-suited to guide our country and lead the free world in a positive direction.

Americans face a binary choice this election (it’s either Hillary and incremental progress or Donald and precipitous decline, strife and dislocation), and we dare not follow the British example and reverse history.

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Iran nuclear deal eliminates existential threat to Israel

Originally published July 15, 2015

On my last day visiting Israel three years ago, our tour group met with a national security advisor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu named Sheldon Schulman. And his talk was more than sobering. It was downright frightening – and depressing about the future existence of the Jewish state. He joked about how all national security briefings those days had become meetings about Iran (which was “topic one” in all political conversation in Israel).

Netanyahu’s advisor then grimly recounted a nightmare scenario that would result if Iran acquired a nuclear bomb.

“Mr. Schulman related to us that starting this September, all Israeli schoolchildren in Grade 5 and above will receive training on how to survive a nuclear attack – including on how to care for younger siblings should their parents be separate or killed. Mr. Shulman told us that Iran has constructed models of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to test the correct height at which to explode a bomb over those cites for maximum impact. In Mr. Shulman’s view, once Tehran gets the bomb, it will make good on its threats to use it against Israel.”

He went on to explain that Israel could not wait to see if it would survive a first strike from Iran because its command and control facilities in such a small country might be tested beyond capacity. In other words, traditional deterrence (“mutual assured destruction”) that kept the peace between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. during the Cold War would not work between Israel and Iran. So once Netanyahu’s red-line on Iran’s nuclear program had been crossed, which was coming soon, Israel would be forced to take preemptive military action – especially because he believed that Obama’s red-line was Iran actually launching nuclear missiles against Israel (which in retrospect seems ridiculous).

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Now that the Obama Administration and the other P5 +1 countries have negotiated an agreement that will freeze and roll-back Iran’s nuclear program, Netanyahu is now playing a bait and switch. He and his aides are no longer emphasizing a potential Iranian bomb as an existential threat to Israel, which had been the sole focus of their previous concerns. Instead, the threat has now shifted to a non-nuclear Iran unbridled by international sanctions throwing its weight around the Middle East with better-financed conventional armaments. And how could Obama have signed off on the nuclear deal without linkage to the Iranian conventional threat?

But this is where a conversation that our tour group had with an Israeli kibbutz leader comes back into memory. Unlike the Netanyahu aide, the kibbutz leader was more concerned about Israel’s inability to fight back against Iranian proxies, such as Hezbollah guerillas located across the border in Lebanon, if their principals in Tehran are armed with nuclear weapons.

I’m guessing that even the more practical kibbutz leader is unhappy with the pending Iran nuclear deal because he’d be unhappy about sanctions relief.

But Israel has been fighting a conventional war against Iran and its Arab neighbors since its founding – and doing pretty well at it. Yes, the lifting of sanctions against Iran does pose a problem and may have an effect on the regional balance of power. It increases the conventional threat to Israel and may cause a non-nuclear arms build-up among the Gulf Arabs to counter Iran. But it won’t cause a nuclear arms race among the Gulf Arabs. And most importantly, it will eliminate the threat to Israel’s very existence that Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon would have constituted.

President Obama addressed the sanctions issue at his press conference Wednesday, saying:

“Do we think that with the sanctions coming down, that Iran will have some additional resources for its military and for some of the activities in the region that are a threat to us and a threat to our allies? I think that is a likelihood that they’ve got some additional resources.

“Do I think it’s a game-changer for them? No.

“They are currently supporting Hezbollah, and there is a ceiling, a pace at which they could support Hezbollah even more, particularly in the chaos that’s taking place in Syria.

“So can they potentially try to get more assistance there? Yes.

“Should we put more resources into blocking them from getting that assistance to Hezbollah? Yes.

“Is the incremental additional money that they’ve got to try to destabilize the region or send to their proxies — is that more important than preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon? No.”

The bottom line is that Iran is not going to stop being Iran because of this accord, and regime transformation was always going to be beyond the scope the negotiations. Remember, China and especially Russia have no interest in including non-nuclear issues in the negotiations, and their participation in the sanctions regime was critical to its effectiveness – which sanctions regime unravels internationally once Iran agrees to resolve the nuclear issue irrespective of whether the U.S. signs off on the agreement.

There certainly is hope that the present agreement with Iran will be an inflection point, leading to at least a détente with the Islamic Republic – maybe even an entente if engagement, commerce and diplomatic relations follow. “Iranians are generally believed to be one of the most pro-American populations in the Middle East,” according to the RAND Institute as corroborated by Pew Research Center surveys of global attitudes toward the United States. (52% of Iranians view America favorably, whereas the Egyptians with a positive view barely break double digits.) Ironically, it may be this potential for a geopolitical realignment that has the Israelis and Gulf states most worried. But any such realignment would have to include a rapprochement, with them, too, for the Persians to rejoin the community of nations that respects the rule of law and other countries’ sovereignty.

The bottom line is that we do not need to go to war with another Muslim country to disarm it, and that was the alternative to the present agreement with Iran. We avoid war, and Israel avoids being subject to an existential threat of nuclear annihilation from an Iranian bomb, which is now under wraps. That’s a good tradeoff, historic even.

The Obama Doctrine: fiercely minimal, but about to change to confront ISIS?

Originally published August 30, 2014

068e8a193d871ff37cbf0081671113a4I ignored the political commentariat yesterday because I couldn’t bear to hear the predictable fallout from President Obama’s statement at his press conference that “we don’t have a strategy [on striking the Islamic State] yet.” Like his gloss on Elizabeth Warren’s more articulately stated riff that business owners don’t build the public infrastructure needed to run their companies, Obama’s admission of a lack of strategy obviously didn’t mean what his critics would contend it did – that the Administration had no ideas about confronting ISIS. Rather, it is clear that members of the Administration have plenty of ideas, but our chess-player-in-chief is wading through the policy options before carefully and deliberately deciding on the nation’s proper course.

The president is either awfully prescient or incredibly lucky because his decisions on foreign policy that have appeared dubious in the moment have proven themselves over the long haul.

Libya? His critics wanted American to lead a full-scale military invasion to topple Colonel Gaddafi. Obama held back and let other European nations lead a multinational bombing campaign, which had the same result.

Syria? The Administration threatened airstrikes after Assad crossed the president’s redline on the use of chemical weapons. Republicans decried redlines that mean nothing. Instead of a barrage of missiles that would have felt good but accomplished little, Obama negotiated the dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.

Ukraine? Oppose the Russians with sanctions, but do not engage them with militarily.

Al-Qaeda? Hillary Clinton belittled Obama’s position in the 2008 presidential primary campaign that as president, he would pursue a high value terrorist even in Pakistan if the Pakistanis wouldn’t. When he made good on that promise against Osama bin Laden in 2011, Obama scored the biggest foreign policy success of his first term.

Is there a common theme to President Obama’s broad foreign policy? Some believe that the outlines of the Obama Doctrine have taken shape. Peter Beinart calls it “fierce minimalism.” By that Beinart means that the president has been relentless in pursuing a vigorous campaign of anti-terrorism where American interests and lives are in direct involved. Bin Laden. Somali pirates. The Mosul Dam.

As Beinart puts it,

“… Obama has shown a deep reluctance to use military force to try to solve Middle Eastern problems that don’t directly threaten American lives. He’s proved more open to a diplomatic compromise over Iran’s nuclear program than many on Capitol Hill because he’s more reticent about going to war with Tehran. He’s been reluctant to arm Syria’s rebels or bomb Basher al-Assad because he doesn’t want to get sucked into that country’s civil war. After initially giving David Petraeus and company the yellow light to pursue an expanded counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan, he’s wound down America’s ground war against the Taliban. Even on Libya, he proved more reluctant to intervene than the leaders of Britain and France.

“On the other hand, he’s proven ferocious about using military force to kill suspected terrorists. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, he’s basically adopted the policy Joe Biden proposed at the start of his administration: Don’t focus on fighting the Taliban on the ground, since they don’t really threaten the United States. Just bomb the hell out al-Qaeda from the air….”

In other words, the president is not willing to commit American blood and treasure to intervene abroad for broad, vaguely defined policy goals. Hillary Clinton derided Obama’s formulation that “Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle. According to Secretary Clinton, ““Great nations need organizing principles.”

Obama is betting that at this moment in history, the United States is not in need of any such grand organizing principle. The founding generation needed popular sovereignty as an organizing principle. The Civil War generation to save the Union. The WWI generation to make the world safe for democracy. And the WWII generation to defeat Nazism and then communism.

We seem to define our organizing principles negatively, by what we need to oppose. Putin’s recent invasion of Ukraine aside, Russia is no Soviet Union and likely not the basis for a grand geo-strategic doctrine for the 21st Century. The fight against spreading radical jihadism may just be that generational struggle that requires a big national, and international, policy to confront effectively. When the president decides to more broadly engage the Islamic State, his strategy choice will undoubtedly be fierce, and it may need to need to go beyond minimalism.

On Syria, Obama is not Bush, and Kerry is not Powell, but that may not be enough

Originally published August 31, 2013

Secretary Of State John Kerry Speaks On Syria At The State DepartmentFor the United States, the manner in which we are now approaching intervention in Syrian is almost the negative, mirror image of Iraq in 2003. But might we be fighting a little too hard to avoid the mistakes of the last war, while ignoring non-military strategies, such as economic sanctions, that might be more effective?

Back then George W. Bush was itching for war with Iraq; Barack Obama is still trying to extricate us from Bush’s wars. Bush, and his Secretary of Defense, predicted a war that would be a cakewalk and an occupation where our forces would be greeted as liberators. Obama is under no such illusions and has no interest in embarking on any nation building whatsoever in Syria, promising a limited campaign and no “boots on the ground.”

On the surface, the biggest difference between the two interventions is the stated cause for each. Bush sold the Western public on war based upon Saddam Hussein’s hidden weapons of mass destruction. And we felt awfully mislead when those WMD’s never materialized. Unlike Colin Powell ten years ago, John Kerry today doesn’t have to make up stories of chemical attacks on Syrian civilians because we can see their maimed and dead bodies with our own eyes. Yes, we still have to trust the American intelligence assessment as to who employed the chemical weapons and how many have been killed. But there are not many plausible culprits other than the Syrian regime given who was targeted, how and when.

There are also, however, some haunting similarities. These are both wars of choice, not of necessity. Neither the U.S., nor any of our allies, was attacked. In both instances we acted (or apparently imminently will be acting) preventively based upon hypothetical geo-strategic concerns: in Iraq, that we would plant the seed of democracy that would spread to and stabilize the entire Arab world. And in Syria, that we are upholding a World War I-era “international norm” banning the use of chemical weapons, deterring Iran on its own WMD development and simultaneously reassuring Israel that it need not go it alone on Iran.

But what is the endgame of our intervention in Syria? Two years ago, Obama said that Bashar Assad had to go, but he has been reluctant to arm the rebels given their alliance with jihadi, Al-Qaeda types. In his speech yesterday, Secretary Kerry said our “primary objective” in intervening in Syria is “to have a diplomatic process that can resolve this through negotiation” – a political, not military solution. In other words, the Administration is not seeking regime change, but a negotiated settlement. So we are trying very hard to make sure that Syria 2013 does not turn into Iraq 2003-2013.

It’s hard to see how a pre-announced, short-term, limited cruise-missile barrage will change the strategic calculation on the ground and bring Assad, and his Russian and Iranian benefactors, to the bargaining table. And it risks asymmetrical retaliation that we cannot completely foresee.

If we’re not really committed to full-scale, sustained military intervention in Syria to topple Assad (or even threatening to do so), why not try something else that would bite his regime but not shift the balance of power to rebels we’re not quite sure about?

How about more stringent economic sanctions? Sanctions hastened the end of apartheid in South Africa and have for some time now been squeezing Iran – perhaps contributing to its election of a reformist president by a convincing majority.

A recent analysis suggests that Russia has been aiding Syria in circumventing international sanctions, and that with some tweaking, we could clamp down on Syrian financial assets held in Europe and have a real effect on its behavior.

If we’re going to go in a new and different direction on Syria, by all means, yes, let’s not repeat the mistakes of Iraq, but in doing so, also find an effective solution.