Friday, April 24, 2015

What policy? What strategy?

About 43 years ago, at the end of my first year in graduate school, I decided that I would study diplomatic history--the history of the relations among states, and especially, in my case, the reasons that wars occur among them.  That seemed like a natural decision, given the state of history at that time and the age in which I and my teachers were living in.  Every major college and university history department had at least one diplomatic historian, and many had more.  One of my most treasured books is a volume of conference papers, Pearl Harbor as History: Japanese-American Relations, 1933-41I, in which several dozen American and Japanese historians discussed the roles of various parts of the governments in Tokyo and Washington in bringing about the Second World War in the Pacific.  In the late 1970s, as a Harvard assistant professor, I had the pleasure of assigning about half of it as optional reading, as well as relying upon it myself.

It would be quite impossible to convene a similar conference today either about the Pacific War or about any other war, because historians who can discuss such subjects competently are an endangered species.  The change in the profession over the last 43 years profoundly affected my own life, but that is not what I want to talk about today.  When the historical profession abandoned the study of politics and government in favor of issues of gender, race and class as they apply to average or marginalized citizens, it removed itself from public affairs, and stopped teaching its students about how the world got into the shape that it is in today.  No one cared that two generations of undergraduates (Gen Xers and Millennials) would leave elite colleges and universities without any sense of how international relations works and how nations become involved in wars.  I admit that I am marginally overstating my case--there are still some capable diplomatic historians working in various schools--but not by very much. And now, I am convinced, the effects of this are showing up in the bankruptcy of American strategic thought, and the eclipse of any independent perspective on world affairs based upon history and diplomatic experience that can compete with political imperatives.

These thoughts arose after I read this story in yesterday's New York Times, about a new documentary that will appear this fall on HBO based upon the recorded diaries of Richard Holbrooke, one of the last of the old-school diplomats.  Holbrooke, a younger member of the Silent generation, got his career off the mark in 1962 in South Vietnam, where he became a provincial adviser in a large province of the Mekong Delta.  There he discovered that the hundreds of strategic hamlets listed by the South Vietnamese government existed mainly on paper.  When he returned to Washington a few years later, he found himself futilely trying to explain to President Johnson that there were limits to what the U.S. could accomplish in Vietnam.  In the 1990s, Holbrooke negotiated a belated end to the war in Bosnia--a peace that has held ever since.  And under Barack Obama, he was given responsibility for Afghanistan and Pakistan, where he dreamed of bringing yet another war to a successful conclusion.  He was unable to do so before a ruptured aorta killed him late in 2010.

To judge from this story, Holbrooke wanted to begin negotiating with the Taliban and its Pakistani patrons at once in 2009, but he could not do so.  The Obama Administration bowed to the will of the military and escalated the American presence in Afghanistan instead, trying a new surge that has now wound down almost to nothing without appreciably improving the situation.  We shall have to wait for the full documentary and diary, but it seems that the President did so for political reasons: he was playing it safe.  He and his advisers at the White House, including his national security adviser, did not really have a policy and strategy in Afghanistan, but they wanted to look as if they were acting sufficiently vigorously.  That meant more troops and more deaths, without bringing peace into view.

The same criticism can be leveled against the drone program, a tactic which the United States apparently borrowed from the Israeli government after 9/11. (This is confirmed by the testimony of a retired head of Mossad in the Israeli film, The Gatekeepers.)  In this case, as in the war on terror generally, the Obama Administration has simply followed the lead of its predecessor.  Because 9/11 was hatched in Afghanistan and other terrorist acts have been hatched in Pakistan, we must do what we can to kill potential terrorists there, whether they have any active designs upon the United States or not.  (In fact, although we have had one major terrorist incident in Boston and two failed ones in Times Square and in an airliner over Detroit, all of those were perpetrated by young men who had spent most of their lives in the United States.)  Drone strikes inevitably kill innocent people and stimulate resentment, but this Administration, like the last one, seems to live in terror of another major incident here at home, and even more of seeming to have done too little to stop it. 

A real policy and strategy for the Muslim world from Syria to Pakistan would require a realistic sense of the possibilities for the various countries of that region, and an emphasis on allowing them to live together in peace.  No policy offers quick and beneficial results.  The Sunni-Shi'ite split has not been so bad for centuries.  The President's opening of relations with Iran is at least a step in the right direction, but in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Iraq and Yemen he has not been able to stem the deterioration of the situation.  Nor has he shown any talent for the whole of his Administration for engaging with foreign leaders.  When he met with the Italian Prime Minister just the other day he did not bother to inform him that American drones had killed an Italian hostage along with an American one. 

John Kerry has focused upon crises in Ukraine and Syria and the talks with Iran, and he helped broker the Syrian chemical weapons deal and move the Iranian agreement forward. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, undertook no major diplomatic initiatives in her four years as Secretary of State.  Emphasizing issues like women's rights and human rights generally assumes that the world is in a relatively stable state already--and it is not. 

Clinton's campaign is running into more trouble almost every day.  This morning's revelations about the Russian-Canadian uranium deal that seems to have profited the Clinton foundation while she was Secretary are serious.   Since the Democrats have no other candidate who even qualifies as a national figure, this will probably benefit the Republican candidate.  A Republican victory would probably put neoconservatives in positions of influence once more. I would not dare predict exactly what they would do, but I would not count on them for a rebirth of American diplomacy.

Diplomacy is more difficult than ever now, since the populations of the non-western world are so much larger and more autonomous than in the 19th and 20th centuries, making their histories, cultures and interests more important.  The naive neo-Hegelian assumption that they are all destined to become ore like us is no substitute for real knowledge of their history--and ours.  The growth of western influence over the last two centuries was closely tied to advances in western knowledge and education.  Those advances, in history at least, came to an end some time ago.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Sliding towards anarchy

In 1786-7, a number of prominent American leaders corresponded about the new nation's slide towards anarchy.  The national government established by the Articles of Confederation was too weak to perform essential functions.  States issued their own currencies, many of which had become worthless.  In Massachusetts economic and monetary problems had led to an armed insurrection, Shay's rebellion.  In addition, the Confederacy had no way to make states take steps necessary to enforce the peace treaty signed with the British in 1783, inviting a British resort to war against an entirely undefended nation.  The result was the Constitutional convention in Philadelphia and the drafting of the new Constitution, which solved these problems within a decade--a fantastic achievement.  There is a rather wonderful symmetry to the origins of the United States as we know it.  An excess of governmental authority provoked the revolution that began in 1775; a deficit of it led to the writing of the Constitution.  The Founders, in short, had learned from experience that either too much authority or too little could be fatal to liberty.

Today's news indicates that we are sliding towards a similar moment in our history.  Having joined with the other leading powers of the world to reach an agreement severely constraining Iran's nuclear program, President Obama faces unanimous opposition to it from Republicans in Congress, as well as some Democrats.  As the New York Times reports today, the White House has now agreed to a measure--the Corker-Menendez bill--that will give Congress 60 days to pass a resolution of approval or disapproval of an agreement once it is reached.  If Congress passes a resolution of disapproval over the President's veto, the proposed law specifically states that some sanctions against Iran--those mandated by Congress--cannot be lifted.    That would either kill the deal, or leave the United States completely isolated among the major powers of the word, including the European Union.

There are two reasons that Congress might do just that. The first, of course, is that Congressional Republicans remain committed to the strategy they adopted in January 2009: to oppose resolutely anything that President Obama wants to do.  The second, which the Times story today manages to avoid mentioning entirely, is the power of AIPAC, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, over Congress.  AIPAC is closely allied with the Netanyahu goernment and thus has sought to kill the deal with Iran.  Exactly how AIPAC keeps Congress in line was detailed nine years ago in a brilliant article by Michael Massing in The New York Review of Books, which I summarized on May 21, 2006.  It ranks with the NRA as one of the lobbies which no vulnerable member of Congress dares to cross.  The real question before us today is whether AIPAC actually intends to use the new resolution to block the lifting of sanctions by mobilizing veto-proof majorities in its favor.  A brief news item on AIPAC's web site specifically refers to that very possibility.  Peter Baker, who wrote the Times story, certainly has the resources to run down that question, but he chose not to use the words "Israel" or "AIPAC" in his story.  Well-informed sources in Washington have confirmed to me that AIPAC indeed wants to pass such legislation over the President's veto to kill the deal, but they co not believe that AIPAC can get enough Democrats in both the House and Senate to vote their way to override a Presidential veto.  I am not so sure.

The United States achieved its position of world leadership after the Second World War because legislators put partisanship aside.  A Republican Congress, filled with isolationists, passed the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan in 1948.  In 1951, as Robert Caro has shown, archconservative Senator Richard Russell of Georgia made sure that General MacArthur could not use Congressional hearings to mount a real challenge to President Truman's authority after Truman had relieved MacArthur in Korea.  Congress gladly went along with President Nixon's SALT agreement and with successive steps by Nixon, Ford and Carter to normalize relations with the government of China.  Under Ronald Reagan Congress made a half-hearted and unsuccessful attempt to prevent the sale of AWACS early warning aircraft to Saudi Arabia, which the Israeli government opposed.  The Iranian deal is however the first time in a long time that any President has taken a step that the Israeli government opposes, and its fate will show how much power remains in the White House in our partisan age.

I have said many times here that my grandparents' and parents' generation bequeathed an extraordinarily stable world, at home and abroad, to Boomers like myself.  I have also said that most of us took it entirely for granted and took advantage of it to indulge our every personal and political whim.  This has destroyed any national consensus on the most fundamental issues before us, and it is not clear where a new consensus might come from.  But the real question, which I raised in the last paragraph of No End Save Victory, is whether the disintegration of our institutions will reach the point where our civilization can no longer function effectively.

Friday, April 03, 2015

Our new Middle Eastern policy

During the 1990s neoconservatives became obsessed with the fantasy that democracy, which had apparently just scored such a dramatic victory in eastern Europe and the former USSR, might also transform the Middle East.  George Bush, who in no way differed from the neoconservatives, picked up that ball and ran with it after 9/11, deposing Saddam, and handed it off to Barack Obama, who eagerly embraced the Arab Spring and even put together a coalition to topple Muammar Qadaffi in Libya, giving himself a scalp to match Bush's in Iraq without the accompanying 8 years of war.  That policy has proven to be a disaster.  Our hopes in Eastern Europe and the USSR have been disappointed: most the former USSR is ruled by corrupt or authoritarian states, and Vladimir Putin is exploiting the situation to expand.  Several eastern European governments, including Hungary,. have also developed authoritarian tendencies, and are giving Putin a chance to establish a foothold inside the EU and NATO.

The Middle East, meanwhile, has descended into the nightmare of a regional religious war, quite similar to the Thirty Years War in Europe that divided Catholics and Protestants.  Shi'ites led by Iran and Sunnis led by Saudi Arabia are clashing violently in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, and could so so even in Saudi Arabia itself.  For the past few years the Obama Administration has deluded itself with visions of a "third force" of "good guys" who will oppose both extremes and become reliable clients of the US, if not friends of Israel, but this fantasy has inevitably been disappointed, first in Iraq and then in Syria.  Those interested in the "third force" might want to look sat Graham Greene's The Quiet American, published in the mid-fifties, which developed the concept at some length in the context of Vietnam.  Last week the New York Times referred bluntly to this fallacy in a news analysis article, and the Administration seems to be abandoning it too.  A new policy is slowly emerging.

That policy seems to consist in dividing up the region based upon religion, with different winners in different areas.  Iran and the Shi'ites are the bigger winners.  We have already created a client government for the Iranians in Baghdad, and we are now relying on the Iranians to deal with ISIS, a Sunni group whom we have suddenly defined as the biggest threat in the region.  One may note that this really isn't so sudden.  ISIS, although no one wants to talk about it very much, is really a reincarnation of Al Queda in Iraq.  Because of ISIS we are even backing away from our determination to replace Hafez Assad with unidentified good guys in Syria.  While the nuclear deal with Iran that has just been announced can stand on its own merits, it is undoubtedly a step towards a working relationship with Iran in other areas as well.

But while we have effectively thrown in with the Shi'ites in the Tigris and Euphrates valley and the territory immediately to its East, we favor the Sunnis, led by Saudi Arabia, in the region of the Persian Gulf.  This policy emerged clearly a few years ago at the height of the Arab Spring, when we blessed Saudi military intervention to put down the majority Shi'ites in Bahrain.  Now Yemen, recently touted by the Administration as a success story,. has also fallen into chaos and civil war, and the Saudis and the Egyptians are intervening against Shi'ite rebels there.  (Ironically, half a century ago Egypt and Saudi Arabia were on opposite sides of a civil war in Yemen between a conservative monarchy and Arab nationalists backed by Nasser.)  We don't seem to be unhappy about this at all.

I fear that the religious war in the Middle East is turning into yet another episode in the history of genocide and ethnic cleansing which, as I showed in Politics and War, played such a big role in European history in the first half of the twentieth century.  There, too, it began in the Middle East, first with the Turkish genocide against the Ottoman Empire's Armenian minority during the First World War, and then with a massive transfer of Greeks from the new Turkish republic back into Greece.  In the Second World War it involved the slaughter of millions of Jews and Poles,. followed by the expulsion of as many millions of Germans from a newly enlarged Poland, from Czechoslovakia, and from elsewhere in Eastern Europe.   Genocide and population transfer broke out again in the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia, and now the Middle East has been set aflame, divided along religious lines. Four million Iraqis, according to some estimates, were displaced during the last decade of fighting.  Millions of Syrians are now refugees, and everyone expects a bloodbath among the Shi'ite Alawites if the Sunnis win the civil war there.  The government of Israel, meanwhile, seems generally well satisfied with this state of affairs, which allows it to claim that all Arab political movements are violent terrorists with whom peace is impossible, and to escape the danger of a united Muslim front trying to force them to make peace.  Indeed, regarding the Iranian nuclear program, Israel is essentially allied with the Saudis.

The nuclear issue will now pose a big challenge for both the great powers and the states of the Middle East.  If the deal with Iran goes through, Saudi Arabia may well react by developing a "breakout capability" of its own.  The alternative to a Middle East dominated by three states with nuclear weapons--Iran, the Saudis, and Israel--is a nuclear-free Middle East.  A Democratic Administration that came into office in 2017 might try to make the agreement with Iran a first step in that direction, but to do so,. the question of Israel's own nuclear capability would have to be put on the table. (It has received astonishingly little mention in the controversy over Iran.)  This would be my dream, but it seems, frankly, very unlikely to happen under a Democrat, and quite impossible under a Republican.

The world emerged from the two world wars with a dream of peace.  That dream was never realized, but the two victors in that war, the United States and the Soviet Union, did a relatively good job of maintaining peace for the next half century.  We are now definitely in a multipolar world of much weaker states and one whole region of it has been set aflame in the Middle East.  Other dangers threaten elsewhere.  Within fifty years, the serious study of the history of international politics will have begun again--inspired, as always, by great and terrible events around the globe.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Israel, Palestine and the US










































U.S.-Israeli relations are in crisis, and it seems they could possibly be on the verge of a fundamental shift, insofar as the U.S. may abandon its defense of Israel in international forums, based on the Israeli government's failure to pursue a two-state solution in general, and Benjamin Netanyahu's explicit repudiation of it during the campaign in particular.  In an effort to make sense out fo the situation, I decided this morning to put together some facts and figures, and I must say I am rather surprised by what I have found.  Let me begin, though, with some basic historical background.



Since the founding of the state of Israel with President Truman's enthusiastic support in 1948, only once has an American President used his leverage to stop Israel from doing anything it wanted to do.  That was in 1957, after the Israelis, for the first time, had occupied the Sinai peninsula after starting a war with Egypt together with Britain and France.  The original leadership of Israel had never been satisfied with the borders it established in 1949, and this was their first chance to expand.  In order to force Israel out of the Sinai, President Eisenhower threatened to end the charitable contribution deduction for donations by American Jews to Israel.  In an age of 90% marginal income tax rates, this was no idle threat.  Tel Aviv yielded.  Nothing like that has ever happened again, and the American pro-Israel lobby, headed by AIPAC, has exploited our political system to make sure that it does not.  Thus in 1980 it was fairly clear that Jimmy Carter, if re-elected, would probably have used the threat of withholding American aid to force the Israelis out of the West Bank, but Ronald Reagan defeated him in a landslide, and the threat passed.  The decision in the 1990s by the Israelis to let the Palestinians establish a governing authority in the West Bank was an American one, not an Israeli one, as was the subsequent decision to withdraw from the Gaza strip.

Yitzhak Rabin seriously wanted peace withe Palestinians, and was assassinated by an Israeli as a result.  Ehud Barak in 2000 also made a serious peace offer, although we will never know if he could have gotten the whole Israeli government to accept it, because the Palestinians did not accept it at the time.  Not too long after, George W. Bush officially endorsed a Palestinian state, although he also announced that Israel could not be expected to return to the 1967 borders because of the "facts" that had been created "on the ground."  Since then, Presidents Bush and Obama have defended whatever the Israeli government has chosen to do, including repeated invasions of the Gaza strip and Lebanon, while arguing that that government had to work for a two-state solution.  Yet no Israeli government, since Barak, has made a real effort to reach an agreement along those lines.  Until now, two US Presidents have been content with lip service and continued to oppose attempts by the Palestinians to declare themselves a state, or to join various international organizations, including the UN itself.  The Palestinians, almost uniquely among the peoples of the world, remain a people without full legal status in any state.

Now let's look at a few population figures, courtesy of well-sourced Wikipedia articles.  We'll begin with the most controversial numbers, the number of Israelis who have settled in the West Bank and East Jerusalem since 1967.  The number of settlers in the West Bank was 17,400 in 1980, the year after the Israeli Government signed the Camp David accords with Egypt.  It was 112,000 in 1993, when Rabin and Arafat began their negotiations for a Palestinian state.  But by the end of that decade the number of settlers had approximately doubled, and it reached 234,500 by 2004.  It has now nearly doubled again--it is estimated at 400,000 as of last year  These figures do not include East Jerusalem, where the growth of the Jewish population has been equally dramatic.  It was only 76,000 in 1980, but reached 152,800 in 1993, 182,000 in 2004, and between 300,000 and 350,000 as of last year.  Jews now outnumber Arabs in East Jerusalem by a ratio of about 3 to 2.  Nothing, in short, has stopped successive Israeli governments and the settlement movement from increasing the Jewish population of the occupied territories in the 48 years since the Six Day War.  But the settler population has not increased faster, in absolute terms, than the population of Israel as a whole.  That population has grown from about 2.5 million in 1970 to 4.4 million in 1995 and over 6 million today.  To put it another way, out of the 3.5 million in new population that Israel has added since 1970, less than a million live in the West Bank or East Jerusalem.

For the last 15 years the US government has effectively agreed to tolerate the expansion of settlements, for the most part, in exchange for some kind of fig-leaf peace process that offers a theoretical hope that it might come to an end.  Occasionally the Israeli government has been willing to offer some kind of temporary freeze or slowdown, but it never lasts for very long--and occasionally the US government expresses hostility when the Israelis make a particularly provocative announcement of a new settlement.  The Israelis who are now complaining that Obama will not accept Netanyahu's retraction of his rejection of Palestinian statehood are in effect asking that we go back to business as usual.  But the question is where the Israelis are actually trying to go.

I have often wondered whether the extremists in the settler movement and politicians like Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennett dream of the actual ethnic cleansing of the West Bank, removing essentially all the Arabs and turning it into completely Jewish territory.  The historian Benny Morris, about whom I have blogged in the past, speculated that the West Bank population might have to be removed if an Islamist government took power in Egypt or Jordan some years ago, and other Israelis have spoken of the "transfer" of the population.  Yet what I did not realize until I looked into this today ios that such a project seems quite hopeless.  Although the Israelis have expanded their settlements and taken more and more land in the West Bank, the Palestinian population in both the West Bank and Gaza has grown much more quickly than the Jewish population of Israel.  The following table tells the story,. looking at the whole last century.

 Arab jewish population in Israel Palestine 1914 to 2005





Current figures show the trend has continued, although the Jewish population remains barely higher than the total Arab population within Israel proper and the occupied territories.  The Arabs have used the eternal weapon of poorer, oppressed minorities: their birth rate.  The number of Palestinians without citizenship rights continues to increase.  They may be getting squeezed into smaller areas on the West Bank--as they have been in Gaza--but they are not getting pushed out. Even in East Jerusalem, where Jewish population growth has been most dramatic and Jews are now in the majority, the Arab population still seems to have increased.

It seems to me that the Palestinians' failure to achieve statehood, combined with their shrinking territory and extraordinary population growth, certainly explains their increasing radicalization.  But more importantly, it is clear that the Palestinian problem is not going away. Netanyahu and the current Israeli government seem to think that the increasing radicalization and chaos in the Arab world, combined with the US's continuing obsession with the "war on terror" that is leading us into more and more Muslim nations around the world, will allow them to continue building settlements and denying the Palestinians any political status.  Many right-wing Israelis are now talking about the "one-state solution," which in the nature of things cannot be anything but an apartheid state, in which Jews with rights control the destiny of Arabs who do not have them.

It is in this context, it seems to me, that an American decision to endorse Palestinian admission into the UN might make sense.  It would recognize the reality that between 5 and 10 million Palestinians in their own homeland cannot be denied political rights forever.  But this would lead to an all-out battle between AIPAC on the one hand and the Administration on the other. The attack could include a Congressional move to de-fund the UN if the Palestinians are admitted, and would surely include attempts to get Hillary Clinton to repudiate Obama's move (which she may do anyway, given her own history), and all-out support for the Republican candidate in 2016.  AIPAC's leadership is however far more conservative than American Jews as a whole, and there is no way to know how many voters they might sway.

I am an idealist of a peculiar kind: I think that strategy and foreign policy must be based upon reality.  I do not, frankly, think that current Israeli strategy is, because given demographic trends I do not see how it could possibly lead to a good outcome.  And I do not like to see my own government in Washington in thrall to the mistakes of another government. With Israel moving increasingly to the right, it is time for the United States government to show some real independence.  I think John Kerry and Barack Obama would like to do so, and I hope that they will.