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Another New Book Available: States of the Union, The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published States of the Union: The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023.   St...

Monday, January 26, 2009

War crimes and American strategy

I spent the weekend discussing Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire at a conference, and on the way home I finished reading a new, short book by a remarkable investigative journalist, Deborah Nelson. Entitled The War Behind: Vietnam Veterans Confront the Truth about U.S. War Crimes, it was written after two researchers named Kali Tal and Nicholas Turse had uncovered an Army file of a number of extensive investigations of war crimes that began after the revelation in 1969 of the My Lai massacre As she eventually realized, the Army had started the investigations to forestall possible accusations of cover-up. Most of them—like the My Lai revelation—were provoked by letters from soldiers, often written after they had left the service. (We owe our knowledge of My Lai to Ronald Ridenhour, who had gone from Vietnam to journalism school in Arizona, and whose extraordinary letter—dispatched to more than 20 offices in Washington—can be read here.) Another spur was the Winter Soldier investigation, a series of hearings (later turned into a documentary film, now available again) sponsored by Vietnam Veterans Against the War, which were the basis for John Kerry’s famous testimony before a Congressional Committee—testimony for which other veterans have never forgiven him.
Nelson and Nick Turse tracked down an extraordinary number of veterans and senior officers who had written letters, participated in atrocities, and participated in investigations. Quite a few had died, including one George Lewis, who had written an extraordinarily detailed letter to General Westmoreland, then the Chief of Staff of the Army, from Germany in May 1970 about the huge body counts run up by the 9th Infantry Division in the Mekong Delta during 1968-9. Lewis, still in the military, signed his letter “Concerned Sergeant,” but army investigators eventually identified him. A year later, after Lt. William Calley’s conviction for My Lai, “Concerned Sergeant” wrote two more letters. By September 1971 the CID had identified Lewis as the man, but General Westmoreland ordered that the investigation be closed before he could interviewed. After a lengthy search, Nelson and Turse found that Lewis had died in 2004 after years of homelessness, drug addiction, and heart disease. No action was ever taken against the commanders of the 9th Division, Generals Ewell and Hunt, who were also the subject of scathing criticism in About Face, the autobiography of David Hackworth, who had been one of their battalion commanders.
Another extraordinary finding referred to the famous case of Lt. Col. Anthony Herbert, who became a national figure after appearing on the Dick Cavett show to discuss his attempts to bring war crimes—especially involving coercive interrogations—to the attention of higher authority. It has long been known that the Army waged an intensive campaign to discredit Herbert, even enlisting 60 Minutes in their effort to do so. Newly available documentation proves the Army had found that Herbert had told the truth in several key allegations. Worse, it turns out that on April 15, 1971, Major Carl E. Hensley of the Criminal Investigation Division, who was leading the Herbert investigation, shot himself in his home. Within 24 hours the CID Chief, Henry Tufts—who later assured General Westmoreland that he had more than enough material to discredit Herbert—announced that the suicide had absolutely nothing to do with the Herbert investigation. That was false. The file on Hensley’s suicide contains sworn statements by both a psychiatrist and his wife confirming that he had become deeply depressed by problems involving his work. He never discussed them specifically with either one, but he told his wife that he had “suppressed information and could get four to ten years for what he knew.” When she asked him what he was talking about, he replied that “it goes all the way up to the highest,” and said that shooting himself was the only way out. Two days later he carried out his threat.
Almost without exception the superior officers Nelson found denied that their units had done anything wrong. More than a few criticized her for bringing up old allegations and asked her instead to help drum up support for the war in Iraq. Many stated, in one way or another, that no one understood the pressures soldiers were under. Nelson also went to Vietnam to gather information on specific accusations. Looking for evidence of one documented massacre, she sometimes found memorials to several more (usually involving from two to a dozen deaths) that she had known nothing about.
War crimes investigations in Iraq have followed a similar pattern to those in Vietnam. Only one Marine is still awaiting trial in the Haditha massacre of more than 20 people—charges against most of them were dropped. (Sean Hannity, by the way, frequently rails against Congressman John Murtha for not having apologized to the Marines involved after the Marine Corps had dismissed most of the charges.) The disposition of the Abu Ghraib allegations—the subject of an amazing documentary by Errol Morris, Standard Operating Procedures—is well known. The Nation published a very long study, based on statements by soldiers who identified themselves, about more or less random killings of Iraqi civilians, but it drew little attention. Some months ago it developed that some US soldiers in Afghanistan had gone on a rampage on a highway, shooting perhaps 10 civilians at random, but I am not aware that any prosecutions are underway. The United States simply is not disposed to act harshly against soldiers who commit war crimes in this kind of environment.
I am not sure myself how these cases should have been handled. On the one hand, I feel crimes should be published, especially by the United States, which did so much to establish the Nuremberg precedents. On the other hand, I have felt for 40 years—since the My Lai revelations at least—that such crimes are inevitable any time that large numbers of foreign soldiers are deployed in a hostile environment. The real fault lies with the highest authorities who undertake these kinds of wars in the first place, and the only remedy is not to make the decision to subdue foreign populations.
Near the end of the book Nelson introduces to a venerable gentleman who agrees with me, retired army Brigadier General John Johns, who spent many years as a faculty member in military institutions after the war and is a qualified military ethicist. It turns out that Jones both worked on investigating war crimes allegations—a job he took very seriously—and also wrote a study on the Army and counterinsurgency and nation building in the late 1960s. It became policy guidance, but higher-ups deleted his most important conclusion. I quote from Nelson’s paraphrase, based apparently on her own interviews with Johns: “Foreign combat forces, such as the United States military in Vietnam, could not successfully conduct such wars. The most fundamental reason, he argued, was that the nature of such wars made atrocities inevitable, regardless of leadership and training of the troops. Fighting insurgents would place U.S. troops in populated areas, where the combatants were mixed with civilians. That would give the insurgents a tremendous advantage, unless the U.S. forces were willing to accept a high level of civilian casualties. But killing civilians would only increase support for the insurgency.” Although Army leaders avoided any possible counterinsurgencies for their own reasons during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, they did not want to put that lesson in print. Now we are back in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Officials,” Johns told Nelson, “should not go into counterinsurgency operations without accepting the fact hat atrocities will be committed, they will turn the people against us, and we will lose.”
I agree with Johns, not simply because of atrocities, but because I believe that the day in which a traditional third world nation—certainly one with a warrior tradition—will accept a regime imposed by a western army is long, long past. It seems, indeed, as if our stay in Iraq will terminate about as quickly as the British one did 80 years or so ago. Right now President Obama desperately needs good advice about Afghanistan, and we can only hope that he gets it. When I recently expressed skepticism about new wars in distant lands on an email list, a conservative Boomer accused me, in effect, of never having gotten over Vietnam. He is right—not because of squeamishness or sentimentality, but because it taught me a lesson about the limits of U.S. power that I shall never forget, and which the nation may have to learn all over again.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Good News on Foreign Policy

On April 14, 2007, I posted a draft inaugural address such as I hoped to hear a new President deliver today, or perhaps in the first few months of his Administration, laying out a new foreign policy for the United States. My text (readily accessible in the archives at right) drew on American traditions since Wilson, with particular emphasis on FDR and JFK, to show how a new President might get back on track. Having grown up partly in an Embassy residence and spent my entire adult life studying the foreign policies of various great nations, I cannot help but think that I might have something to contribute, while at the same time I must recognize that I never sought the kind of life which actually might have led to a position of influence. I did, a month or two ago, post the entire text on the Obama transition website, with the disclaimer that while I certainly did not expect to see it appear in full, I hoped some of the ideas might be useful. The months of the transition, I must say, were not particularly hopeful from my point of view with respect to foreign policy. The Administration had managed to commit us to three more years in Iraq, and President Obama himself had talked repeatedly during the campaign of a major troop increase in Afghanistan. The Israeli government has also struck another blow against the peace process in the last few weeks. The retention of Robert Gates and the appointment of Hillary Clinton were equivocal signals that certainly did not herald any immediate change in policy,. I have held my tongue—perhaps uncharacteristically—to give our new President a chance, while pinning my hopes on the man himself. Secretary Clinton, in particular, I am sure, will do her damndest to implement any tasks that she is given—leaving her boss with the responsibility to give her the right ones. Today he sent a very strong signal that he will indeed do just that.
I am not so deluded as to think that my posting on the transition site had anything to do with the President’s text, but I am all the more delighted that the key paragraphs devoted to foreign policy did echo some of the points I made 21 months ago. Let’s take them point by point.

"As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our founding fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake. And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more."

Looking back, I see that I alluded relatively briefly to this point, but it was a wonderful place for the new President to begin, and echoes the quote from Jefferson on the worldwide impact of the Declaration of Independence with which I concluded my own peroration.

"Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint."

That paragraph clearly echoes JFK’s great American University speech nearly 45 years ago, from which I quoted at length. Faced with the Soviet Union, Kennedy renounced the idea of winning the Cold War by force and called for a peaceful competition based upon American ideals. “The force of our example” also echoes both Jefferson and John Quincy Adams.

"We are the keepers of this legacy. Guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort — even greater cooperation and understanding between nations. We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people, and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan. With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet. We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you."

The reference to the “nuclear threat” is also encouraging, but most welcome is the idea of “leaving Iraq to its people”—an echo of FDR’s and Churchill’s Atlantic Charter, claiming for all the peoples of the world to choose the form of government under which they would live, provided that they would give us the same opportunity.

"For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.
"To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West — know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."

Here perhaps the contrast with the outgoing President was most striking. History, not the U.S. military, shall deal with tyranny, and mutual respect, not submission to American will, will define our relations with Muslim nations. And the United States itself, where all citizens are equal, shall again become the model for a multinational world. (The reference to the dissolution of “lines of tribe” will surely be read with great interest in the rest of the world.

"To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it."

Freedom from want was another of FDR’s four freedoms, but that last paragraph also echoes poor Lyndon Johnson, who thought he could meet the needs of Southeast Asians as he had those of hill country Texans, once they had been bombed into acquiescence. Meanwhile, the pledge to work for a cleaner environment sets us on a new path altogether.

"As we consider the road that unfolds before us, we remember with humble gratitude those brave Americans who, at this very hour, patrol far-off deserts and distant mountains. They have something to tell us today, just as the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages. We honor them not only because they are guardians of our liberty, but because they embody the spirit of service; a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves. And yet, at this moment — a moment that will define a generation — it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all."

We shall continue to honor the troops while recognizing that we need other kinds of service as well, particularly here at home. That, and that alone, can make us the beacon of light the new President spoke of in the opening. I am very moved to think that we may have a President whose ideas about the U.S. and the world seem to have quite a bit in common with mine—and a Secretary of State who certainly has the energy and determination to start putting them into effect.

Friday, January 16, 2009

A Boomer's Farewell

More than four years ago, immediately after the re-election of President Bush, I referred to him as a “man of the sixties.” Like my college classmates who stormed University Hall to protest the war in Vietnam, I suggested, he was sure that the rightness of his beliefs entitled him to disregard any law or precedent—not to mention the facts of the case—to make his dreams come true. That was why, having made this or that decision, he refused ever to reconsider it, no matter how badly it was turning out in practice. Two nights ago, in his Farewell Address, the President confirmed exactly what I had said, then and repeatedly since, in these words.

“As we address these challenges -- and others we cannot foresee tonight -- America must maintain our moral clarity. I've often spoken to you about good and evil, and this has made some uncomfortable. But good and evil are present in this world, and between the two of them there can be no compromise. Murdering the innocent to advance an ideology is wrong every time, everywhere. Freeing people from oppression and despair is eternally right. This nation must continue to speak out for justice and truth. We must always be willing to act in their defense -- and to advance the cause of peace.”

Ironically, as Bush prepared to leave the White House—quite possibly as the last modern conservative Republican to occupy it—he echoed the most famous pronouncement of the founder of that strain in American politics, Barry Goldwater, in 1964: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” But Goldwater was wrong then, and Bush is wrong now. The idea that any leader can know and apply absolute truth in the service of absolute good was exactly the idea that our Founding Fathers designed the Constitution to protect against. Bush’s last words perfectly explain why they were careful not to mention God in the text of the Constitution, which was above all an earthly document designed to keep man’s worst impulses in check. Bush is perhaps the first President we have ever had who chose to unleash them so recklessly, and the world and the country have paid the penalty.

The words of the new testament, quoted in the midst of the Second World War by George Orwell, give the lie to Bush’s argument: “There is none that is righteous, no, not one.” The Founders had learned this the hard way: they had seen the British constitution, which they believed to be the most just on earth, degenerate into tyranny and military rule. They wrote the Constitution, and added the Bill of Rights, to make absolute power impossible, no matter how righteous any cause seemed to be. And when, 80 years later, secession tested the Constitution, we were fortunate enough to have a leader, Abraham Lincoln, who turned the war into a moral struggle, but never made it into an absolute one. Never was this clearer than in the opening of his Second Inaugural, a speech delivered, like Bush’s, in the midst of war—a far more terrible war.

“Both [sides] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

In the same way that Muslim revolutionaries believe in their righteousness as fervently as George W. Bush believed in his, Lincoln recognized that both the North and South claimed the support of the Lord. Both, clearly, could not be right; neither, perhaps could be entirely right. And even though the North won the war and slaver was abolished, the evil that brought it about continued to plague the nation in other forms, since it simply reflected the evolution of human nature and American institutions up until that time, which it would take more than a century to undo.

All our greatest Presidents have understood this. Roosevelt led us into world war on behalf of the four freedoms, including freedom of religion, but he obviously recognized that the victory over the Nazis and the Japanese required compromises with evil—and specifically with the Soviet Union—that he was prepared to make. Kennedy in June 1963 voiced exactly the thoughts that Bush now calls upon us to reject. “No government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue. As Americans, we find communism profoundly repugnant as a negation of personal freedom and dignity. But we can still hail the Russian people for their many achievements in science and space, in economic and industrial growth, in culture, in acts of courage.” And, he continued, we could work with the Soviets to create a real peace, despite our differences—exactly what Bush has claimed to be impossible with respect to adversaries far less dangerous than the Soviets ever were.

The President is wrong to say there can be no compromise with evil: human nature being what it is, there can be nothing else. We have not, and will not, create heaven on earth. His democratic/free market utopia is now in the ashcan of history alongside the Marxist-Leninist fantasies of his and my contemporaries on campuses forty years ago. The task of statesmen is to design the compromises that must be made. Because George Bush never understood this, he contributed less than nothing to the welfare of the United States and the world.

Because of Bush’s belief that righteousness trumps all, the United States government has detained foreigners (and one or two Americans) indefinitely, disregarded the Constitution and the law designed to enforce it, and tortured prisoners. We now face a terrible, critical choice: whether to remain true to the structure of international law that we began to set up at the end of the Second World War, or to claim, in effect, that war crimes are the prerogative of any American administration that simply decides to carry them out. We will almost surely be unable to escape this choice no matter what the new Administration decides to do, or not do. I have been reliably informed that already a German judge has sought to indict Donald Rumsfeld for war crimes and that only the intervention of the German government persuaded him to desist on diplomatic grounds. Such pressure will be less effective after January 20.

Yet even if the crimes of the last seven years are not punished, we can take some solace from the Founding Fathers. When—in correspondence I quoted here years ago—Jefferson protested the lack of a Bill of Rights in the original Constitution, Madison replied that no matter what the framers inserted, future governments would find a way around it. Jefferson did not disagree but insisted that a written Bill of Rights would make it easier to restore liberty after the crisis was over. So they should, and perhaps that is all we can reasonably expect. These last eight years can live as a warning of what the United States, under the wrong Prophet leadership, can became. Sadly my own generation did not produce the man or woman who could undo Bush’s work, but we still hold considerable power. The new President obviously regards politics as the art of the possible and intends to put an end to these abuses. Perhaps we should, as we must, trust in his wisdom to decide what other steps to take.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Why the Middle East Only Gets Worse

In his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides the Athenian showed how wars break out from a confluence of immediate and long-term causes. Sparta and Athens in 431 B.C. had at least three minor points of disagreement between them, but "what made war inevitable," he wrote, "was the growth of Athenian power and the fear that that occasioned in Sparta." The same analysis can be applied to any war, because nations never actually fight over trivial matters. The assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 was part of Serbian intelligence officers' long-term effort to disrupt Austria-Hungary, and Germany's assent to an Austro-Hungarian attack on Serbia was an attempt to break, or defeat, the Franco-Russian alliance against Germany. What Thucydides did not say was that the failure of certain wars to occur--at least for the time being--represents a similar mix of long- and short-term causes. That is illustrated by a remarkable piece of journalism in today's New York Times, the account of Israel's failed attempt to get American approval for a strike on Iranian nuclear facilities during the last year. The essentials of the story are simple: the Bush Administration refused sometime during 2008 to agree to an Israeli strike but instead undertook a broader covert effort to sabotage Iran's nuclear weapons program. But the details introduce a series of much larger issues, issues which I have been treating intermittently here for the last four years.
Since the states of the Middle East secured their full independence since the Second World War the United States has cherished various fantasies of turning some or all of them into friendly clients. Ironically it scored its first major "success" in Iran itself in 1953 when it orchestrated the overthrow of an elected but nationalist government in favor of the Shah of Iran. Meanwhile the sale of oil allowed us to develop a long-term relationship with Saudi Arabia. Jordan, where colonial British interest had been strongest, remained relatively pro-western, as did Lebanon, with its largely Christian population, until the mid-1970s. But the new nationalist regimes in Egypt, Syria, and eventually Iraq became violently anti-western, anti-American, and anti-Israel. In 1967 Egypt and Syria managed to pull Jordan along with them into a confrontation with Israel that resulted in an Israeli pre-emptive attack. Recently released documents show an Israeli envoy in Washington telling American officials, on the eve of the war, that they should diplomatically support Israel in a pre-emptive attack not because Nasser had closed the Straits of Tiran--the ostensible cause of the war--but because of Nasser's intention of dominating the Middle East. Nasser indeed lost the war and resigned, but returned 24 hours later to popular acclaim. Meanwhile the 1967 war re-ignited the Palestinian issue and put the PLO on the world political map.
During the next decade a spectacular change took place, as Nasser's successor Anwar Sadat re-established Egyptian prestige with his 1973 attack on Israel and eventually made peace with the Jewish state. That turned out to be a false dawn. Peace with the Palestinians did not follow, Sadat was assassinated two years after the peace treaty, and meanwhile, Shi'ite fundamentalism overthrew the Shah of Iran. Iranian-sponsored terrorists took over a good deal of Lebanon. Saddam Hussein tried to replace Nasser as the leader of militant Sunni Islam. In 1990 he overreached himself by occupying Kuwait. The resulting war enhanced American and moderate prestige again, and restarted the Arab-Israeli peace process, but that collapsed again around 2000.
After 9/11 the Bush Administration decided that it was going to redraw the political map of the Middle East by force, beginning with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. (There is plenty of evidence that they wanted to move on to Iran and Syria after taking care of Iraq, but things did not turn out to be so simple.) The Administration also decided to discredit and remove what turned out to be relatively moderate Palestinian leadership under Yassir Arafat. This was a Boomer-led policy based upon absolute truths--the idea that democracy and free markets would solve any problem anywhere, any time. It has had further negative effects. Two militant, broad-based, well-organized political parties, Hezbollah and Hamas, control much of Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, largely because of elections the US demanded. Israel has taken a variety of steps (now including the Gaza invasion) that will probably make peace impossible for a long time to come. The government of Egypt would undoubtedly lose a free Egyptian election and give way to a radical regime. Jordanian youth are increasingly drawn to fundamentalism. And Iran now has enormous influence over Iraq and has been working hard on increasing its capacity to enrich uranium.
Now as President Bush and Vice President Cheney made clear many times, the logic of their policy seemed not only to favor but to demand an attack on Iran. Having invaded Iraq based upon false claims that Iraq was developing nuclear weapons, they surely could have been expected to attack Iran to stop a real program, or to allow Israel to do so when the Israelis asked permission. Why they did not, however, turns out to reflect both contradictions within the American government, and a recognition of the contradictory effects of their own policies.
To begin with, as I pointed out about a year ago, the American intelligence community, in its Iran NIE, struck a blow for sanity. Today's Times story says something that I do not remember from reports at the time. That estimate based its key conclusion--that Iran had stopped working to develop a nuclear weapon--on evidence, good evidence, that Iranian scientists had stopped working on the design of a nuclear warhead. They had not, however, stopped enriching uranium--that program, which could indeed be designed for peaceful purposes as the Iranians claim, has been going on at full speed ahead. The intelligence community was probably doing two things at once: raising justified doubts about how close Iran was to getting nuclear weapons on the one hand, and trying to head off an attack that would set the rest of the Middle East aflame and vastly increase the chances of mass terror in the US on the other. President Bush, who relies famously on his "instincts," didn't really accept the conclusion, but it did make it impossible for the United States itself to launch an attack.
The Israeli request for permission and assistance to make an attack on Iranian facilities themselves put the US in exactly the same position as the government of imperial Germany in 1914, when the Austro-Hungarians asked for permission to attack Serbia. The Germans, as I showed many years ago, told them to go ahead because they had decided that this was an opportune moment for a trial of strength with France, Russia, and, if necessary, Britain. But Austria-Hungary was actually more of an independent actor then than Israel, apparently, is now. It needed only permission, while the Israelis needed both bunker-busting bombs that only the US could supply, and more specific permission to overfly American-occupied Iraq. The American rejection of the latter request illustrated the dilemma into which we have been thrown.
By now even President Bush has had in effect to abandon the fantasy of a truly democratic and pro-American Iraq, and has had to content himself--like Lyndon Johnson in South Vietnam in 1965--with a much lesser objective: an Iraqi government that will not throw the United States out. In the lengthy negotiations that led to the Status of Forces agreement the Iraqis insisted that the United States could not use Iraq as a base for an attack on another country. The new government, moreover, is determinedly anti-Israel (at one time, Ahmed Chalabi had promised the Bush Administration to fix even that problem, but he proved a false hope). The Times reports bluntly that the Administration thought the Iraqis would throw us out if we allowed Israeli aircraft to overfly Iraqi territory to attack Iran. The President was not about to sacrifice what he still hopes will be his most enduring contribution to history.
That, however, was not all. In late 2006 the President had to make what now looms as a rather bizarre compromise. Donald Rumsfeld, as I have pointed out, was not removed because of the Democratic victory in the Congressional elections or because he was too warlike: he was removed to make the surge possible. But to replace him the President was induced to pick a man from the Silent generation, Robert Gates, who had been a member of the Baker-Hamilton Commission and who was probably recommended by President Bush's father. (Bob Woodward, in State of Denial, seems to indicate this at one point, partly with the help of a conversation in which the President told him that Gates had been recommended by a prominent Texan whose name he could not remember.) Gates evidently understands that attacking Iran would create a regional catastrophe. Admiral Fallon was sacrificed partly for stating publicly that the US would not attack Iran, but the policy he favored has prevailed. Meanwhile, Gates will stay in office.
As matters stand now Iran may well get a nuclear weapon within five years or so, even if Israel does attack Iran on its own. There is in my opinion only one way to prevent it, and that is a long shot: a serious proposal from the Obama Administration to de-nuclearize the entire region, including Israel. Meanwhile, the anti-western political trends in the Arab world seem likely to continue. Israel, whatever it does, is unlikely to have genuine peace with its neighbors. It would do best, in my opinion, to ask what kind of co-existence it wants, and how it can help keep violence between it and its neighbors (including Hamas and Hezbollah) at a minimum. That violence has turned out to be the price of the decision to create and maintain Israel, and nothing that Israel or the US can do can stop it. They can, however, make decisions that will either increase or lessen it.
Germany in 1914 did not need to assure the survival of Austria-Hungary by telling it to go ahead and attack Serbia--a move which as it turned out did not even achieve its objectives for Austria-Hungary. In the same way, the existence of the United States is simply not at stake in the Middle East, unless we put it at risk by endless, useless involvement. Ironically, because the Bush Administration was as irresponsible at home as it has been abroad, our economic situation will provide another reason to reverse course in that region. But what the new Administration will do remains entirely unclear.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

The Great Foreign Policy Question

Barack Obama will come into power in less than three weeks with a virtually free hand in domestic affairs, because previous policies are obviously bankrupt. In my youth I heard old New Dealers remark wistfully that FDR might actually have taken more radical steps in 1933 than he did, so desperate were the business and financial communities for help on any terms. The situation seems very similar right now. Foreign policy, however, is another matter. Seven years ago the Bush Administration put us on a new course in the Middle East: an attempt to set the regions' political development on a new course, with the help of large infusions of American military power. So far the results have been almost entirely negative, but the policy has nonetheless become institutionalized and developed a tremendous momentum of its own. It is not clear whether the new Administration can, or wants to, reverse it.
What the United States has tried to do in both Afghanistan and Iraq since 2002 is almost unprecedented. Our previous interventions in the Third World, both in the Caribbean and in East Asia, took advantage of at least some existing local institutions. South Korea had an Administration developed during 40 years of Japanese rule (and was actually quite a bit better of in 1945 than Japan, having been untouched by the war), while the South Vietnamese government built on the French colonial administration. In Afghanistan, on the other hand, we eliminated the Taliban, the only central authority, while in Iraq we tried to end the influence of the Ba'ath Party, which had held the country together for about thirty years. In both countries we have been attempting to build new central political and military institutions from scratch while using American troops to fight insurgencies. The results have not been encouraging.
Violence is down in Iraq, but there is really no evidence of truly national loyalty to the Maliki government among Sunnis, Shi'ites, and Kurds. Underneath the American occupation, power struggles among and within the three major groups continue, with shifting alliances. The new Status of Forces agreement has turned important authority over to the Iraqi government--including the authority to man the checkpoints in the Green Zone--and we do not really know if it is ready to handle it. The American advisory mission has run into some of the same problems encountered earlier by American efforts in Nationalist China and South Vietnam: any military leader who is favored by the Americans tends to become suspect. But the same agreement bids fair to lock us into a long-term advisory relationship with the Iraqi military, and a long-term presence of tens of thousands of troops, unless the new Administration decides to negotiate a new agreement.
The situation in Afghanistan is much worse. The Taliban has been gaining steadily for several years and more American troops are on the way. The New York Times reported two days ago that the entire government runs on bribes, bribes fueled by the country's only two sources of cash: drug profits on the one hand, and American and other foreign aid on the other. This too is a recurring problem with American interventions: American cash, designed to strengthen our clients against our enemies, winds up setting off lengthy struggles among our would-be friends for their proper share. Other NATO partners have recently suggested that we should abandon the idea of building a large Afghan national army and simply begin playing the various tribes off against each other in classic imperialist fashion. Even more serious, however, are the broader effects of our involvement. The Taliban controls sanctuaries over the Pakistani border and is gaining in strength within Pakistan itself. Because it has been able to cut our troops' main supply line through Pakistan, we are now reportedly building new bases in the former Soviet states north of Afghanistan--a strategy that has already failed once before, when the government of Uzbekistan threw us out. Russia seems unlikely to welcome such a move. All this has been set in motion by the outgoing Administration, making it hard for a new one to shift course.
Meanwhile, in parallel, Israel has for the last six years been attempting both to disengage from some Palestinian territories and to bludgeon hostile forces on its borders into submission--a process that has entered a new phase with the new attacks on Gaza. Backed by the United States, the Israelis have insisted that they can negotiate only with Palestinians who both accept Israel's legal right to exist and renounce any right of Palestinian return inside the 1967 borders. That policy backfired in 2006 when Hamas won the election in Palestine, eventually allowing it to take over the Gaza strip. The Israelis have been willing to conclude cease-fire agreements with Hamas but not to discuss any kind of long-term political truce, which might provide a basis for relatively peaceful coexistence for several decades, like Willy Brandt's agreements with East Germany in the 1970s. By undertaking the Gaza operation now, Israel has secured a reaffirmation of US support for these policies and heightened regional tension during the American interregnum--something which I do not believe to have been accidental. A similar intervention in Lebanon to try to crush Hezbollah in 2007 backfired and this one has been touted as an attempt to undo the damage of that failed effort. Its outcome is also uncertain. Meanwhile, the Israeli historian Benny Morris, in yet another Times op-ed, has warned of new Israeli military initiatives.
The Israeli-American attempt to persuade the Palestinians that they need leaders ho will work with us--an attempt inaugurated with great fanfare by President Bush in 2002 when he called upon Palestinians to elect new leadership to replace Yassir Arafat--has so far failed to help Mahmoud Abbas and his associates. Indeed, the retreat of relatively westernized and moderate leadership seems to be continuing in much of the region--certainly in Lebanon, and now, it seems, in Jordan, where fundamentalism is increasingly popular among the young. Political trends in the Arab community in Israel are also reported to be alarming.
It is not my place to tell Israelis how to conduct their foreign policy, but previous attempts to bludgeon the Palestinians into submission have not worked. Meanwhile, I see no evidence that American military involvement in the region has done anything but harm. Of the Obama National Security team, Secretary Gates may indeed favor a partial pull-back, as recommended by the Baker-Hamilton Commission (of which he was originally a member); General Jones, the new National Security Adviser, has been intimately involved in Israeli-Palestinian issues for the last few years and (perhaps a hopeful sign) turned down an offer of a high State Department position under Condoleezza Rice; and Hillary Clinton, after a brief flirtation with the Palestinian cause in the 1990s, has been as a Senator among Israel's most reliable supporters. Any real impetus for change will have to come, evidently, from the President himself. With domestic affairs so pressing, I suspect we will not see any for at least a couple of years, and during that time various confrontations from South Asia to the Mediterranean will probably escalate.

P.S. I did see Valkyrie. It is in my opinion the best movie of the season so far (I've seen Doubt, Benjamin Button, and Slumdog Millionaire, but not Frost/Nixon or Revolutionary Road), but one of the most accurate historical movies I have ever seen. The mostly-British cast was also excellent.