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Saturday, September 28, 2013

Replying to a comment

My old friend Shelterdog has just posted the following comment on "Europe and the US." (I don't think that's where he meant to put it, but these things happen.)

" As I see it, the problem is this: if you have an international agreement that prohibits X, but the international community either lacks the fortitude to enforce the agreement or is blocked from doing so because of a veto in the Security Counsel, should we simply walk away. We turned our back on Hitler's atrocities, on those in Rwanda and (for several years) in Bosnia. Isn't that the consequence of your analysis? Whether planned or fortuitous, Obama's credible threat of military force seems to have broken the logjam, and he deserves credit for doing so without launching an attack. I don't know how that plays out when someone refuses to go along, or if Russia refuses to step in. And the much bigger question is what we do if Iran doesn't make a deal about its nuclear program, after multiple US presidents of both parties have--rightly or wrongly--drawn a red line and Israel has, too. To admit we'll keep talking but won't take military action would send a signal that a) countries like Iran can do whatever they want and b) Security Council members like Russia can simply veto any remedial military action, no matter how outrageous the situation."

To begin with, the statement, "we turned our back on Hitler's atrocities," strikes me as rather astonishing, since (as my new book describes) we built the world's largest Navy and Air Force and drafted about ten million men in order to defeat him, as indeed we did.  Of course, we wouldn't have defeated him without the help of the Soviet Union, whose atrocities you don't mention.  (We were in no position to do anything about those, of course, or about the deaths that occurred in Mao's China.)  In any case we identified Hitler as a threat to the security of the world and we defeated him.

Events subsequent to Rwanda and Bosnia have shown that our ability to stop ethnic cleansing is much less than starry-eyed liberal interventionists (e.g. our UN Ambassador Samantha Power) believe.  Four million Iraqis were ethnically cleansed--either driven out of Iraq or driven to new homes in Iraq--while the United States had about 150,000 troops in the country.  Doesn't that tell us something?  Rwanda is not the size of Rhode Island: it's the size of Maryland and it now has more than twice as many people as Maryland.  Do you have any idea how many troops it would take to stop a race war in Maryland? Far more, I suspect, than could easily be logistically supported in Rwanda.

We are therefore limited in our ability to stop atrocities in other countries by the scale of the problem.  We also need, for lots of reasons, the support of other members in the international community.  Syria, incidentally, has more than twenty million people, nearly as many as Iraq when we invaded it.

Our threat of force presented Putin with a diplomatic opportunity,. but frankly, given the way things were developing here at home I don't think it would have scared anyone very much.  Had Assad hung tough Obama would have lost the fight in Congress and how would that have helped anything?  Last but not least, regarding international law, building and using weapons--any weapons--is an attribute of sovereignty.  Nuclear and chemical weapons are illegal only to the extent that individual nations surrender their rights to build them via treaty--which Syria with respect to chemical weapons has never done.  Iran surrendered its right to build nuclear weapons (although not its right to enrich uranium) in the non-proliferation treaty, but it could denounce that treaty if it wanted to.  Israel never signed the treaty.

In short. . we disagree... just as we did, ironically, on another foreign policy issue in 1965-6.

 I have been traveling and will return next weekend with some comments on foreign and domestic crises.  

Friday, September 20, 2013

A pivotal moment?

One can in retrospect trace the causes of dramatic historical events at least twenty years back into history, but they can nonetheless emerge with startling rapidity.  Such a moment occurred, for example, in the winter of 1932-3, when Adolf Hitler and Franklin Roosevelt successively took power in Germany and the United States.  Another happened here in the US in June 1963, an extraordinary month in which John F. Kennedy first called for genuine peace between the United States and the Soviet Union, and then sent Congress a civil rights bill including a demand to open public accommodations to all.  Within a year, both initiatives had born fruit: the Test Ban treaty with the Soviets and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Another such moment occurred, of course, in Eastern Europe in 1989.  A great deal hangs in the balance in the US and the world right now, but the last week has been marked by some extraordinarily hopeful signs.  We might be nearing the climax of our great national crisis.

Let us begin with the bad news.  The United States is still threatened by the Republican Party's determination to destroy the legacy of the New Deal, if not the Great Society, and complete our return to the pre-1900 Gilded Age.  Speaker Boehner has once again lost his chance to be remembered as a major figure in American history by giving in to the Tea Party and promising to shut down the government if the President does not give up his health care reform.  "Leadership," he said, "is about listening."  There is some truth in that, but leadership is above all about facing and respecting reality and, when necessary, insisting upon it whatever the troops may think.  Boehner is not that kind of leader.  Had he refused to go along with his younger colleagues, split his party in the House, and allowed the government to continue to function, we would be on our way back to sanity again.  But he did not.   How this will play out remains a very open question.  In 1861, in another crisis in a faraway land--the Kingdom of Prussia--Otto von Bismarck, like Barack Obama a Nomad and (unlike Obama) something of an eccentric, became Prime Minister in the midst of a budget crisis related to the organization of the Prussian Army.  When the Prussian Landtag refused to pass a budget--a move similar to refusing to raise the debt ceiling--he announced in effect that since the Constitution was not, to anticipate Justice Jackson, a suicide pact, he would simply operate the government under the previous year's budget.  It took six years and two brief, successful wars to bring parliament around, but they eventually forgave what he had done.  President Obama may have to at least threaten some kind of emergency action to stave off this crisis, too--just as FDR in 1934 was ready to defy the Supreme Court had it ruled his devaluation of the dollar unconstitutional.

So what is the good news?  Most of it is on the international front, beginning with the negotiations over Syria which I treated last week.  They will not be easy, and Assad is likely to remain in power, as he was anyway, but they are a huge step forward.  Already, too, some American observers are trying to turn them into a first step towards broader arms control in the Middle East, which as I have said many times here would involve acknowledging Israel's nuclear arsenal.  And today's paper reports major changes in Iran, and in Iran's approach to the nuclear talks.  The new Iranian leadership has opened direct contact with President Obama and transferred responsibility for those talks to the Foreign Ministry.  A White House spokesman, in a potentially critical choice of words, referred to our determination to get Iran to abandon its "nuclear weapons program"--not its nuclear program or its nuclear enrichment program.  The developments regarding Syria and Iran suggest that the Obama Administration might finally be willing to abandon the foundation of George W. Bush's policies towards the Middle East, namely that all dictatorial regimes should be overthrown regardless of the consequences and that the US should attack countries seeking weapons that we do not believe they should have.  That will enrage neoconservatives and disturb AIPAC, but those are developments to be welcomed.

Yesterday Pope Francis I released an extraordinary interview suggesting that the Church must shift its focus from homosexuality, birth control and abortion, and even that the Church must foresake the right to condemn homosexuals.  For fifty years now I have been hoping to see a new Pope revive the spirit of John Paul XXIII--who died in that same critical month of June 1963--and now that time has evidently finally come.  Francis actually said that the emphasis on those issues might bring down the moral foundations of the Church.  He also said that the Church needs a new role for women, although he gave no indication that women might help define what that role would be.  (His comments on "female machismo" were certainly interesting as well, since he condemned both female and male machismo.)  I am neither Catholic nor religious, but the Catholic Church has played an enormously constructive role in many eras of western history and it could easily do so again if it simply travels down the path Francis laid out.  And nowhere, not even in Ireland, will his words have a greater impact than among the Catholics of the United States.

And last, but hardly least, Larry Summers withdrew from consideration for chairman of the Federal Reserve Board.  Few men have done more harm either to American education or the American economy than Larry Summers, and he still owes me and a number of fellow members of the class of 1969 an apology for ignoring our complaints during most of the last decade over the multimillion dollar bonuses Harvard pays to its financial managers--bonuses which continued at roughly the same rate even after they lost 1/3 of the Harvard endowment.  When President Obama chose him as his chief economic adviser I was so devastated that I really went into denial.  It worked out as badly as I had feared.  But at least he will not be an enduring legacy of the Obama Administration in other ways, as well.

I have been fooled once before during my nine years of commentary here, by the election of Barack Obama in 2008.  I thought it might be another 1932, and it wasn't.  These new developments are at this moment very tentative, and the Republican threat to modern civilization in America remains strong.  But they are encouraging developments, better than I would have dared hope for just a few weeks ago, and they make reading the newspaper considerably more inspiring every morning.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Out of the mouth of. . . .

Times change.  Let's see if I can begin with a couple of quotes.  Here's a statesman speaking on behalf of his government in the midst of a major international crisis:

     "[We stand for] adjustment of problems in international relations by processes of peaceful negotiation and agreement.  We advocate faithful observance of international agreements.  Upholding the principle of the sanctity of treaties, we believe in modification of provisions of treaties. . .by orderly processes carried out in a spirit of mutual helpfulness and accommodation."

 Here is the same man three years later in the midst of a considerably more serious situation.

     "The United States, together with most other nations, has stood firmly for the basic principles underlying civilized international relations—peace, law, justice, treaty observance, non-intervention, peaceful settlement of disputes, and fair dealing,” he said..  “The advocacy of these principles has won for us the friendship of all nations, except those which, vaguely describing themselves as the “have-nots” and claiming a superior right to rule over other peoples, are today on the march with great armies, air fleets and navies to take by force what they say they need or want."

Here is another statesman commenting on another crisis.

     "We need to use the United Nations Security Council and believe that preserving law and order in today’s complex and turbulent world is one of the few ways to keep international relations from sliding into chaos. The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not. Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council. Anything else is unacceptable under the United Nations Charter and would constitute an act of aggression."

The first two statements came from Cordell Hull, Roosevelt's Secretary of State from 1933 until 1944, one in 1937 and one in 1940.  As readers of my forthcoming new book will discover, I could have added literally dozens of similar quotes from Henry M. Stimson, Hoover's Secretary of State and Roosevelt's Secretary of War, and from Roosevelt himself.  I could also have found similar statements from Woodrow Wilson, who had tried and failed to bring the rule of law to the world in the midst of the First World War.  In the first half of the twentieth century the vast majority of Americans believed deeply that their country observed international law and treaty obligations, and that the trouble in the world was that other nations did not.  They differed on how much the US should do to make other nations behave, but not on the proper principles of international relations.

The third quote, of course, comes from President Vladimir Putin's op-ed in today's New York Times.  I learned many years ago not to endorse or dismiss statements based upon the identity of the person who made them.  Vladimir Putin is most unlikely, in my opinion, to go down as a credit to the history of his country or to the world.  He has made sure that the spirit of the KGB, which was itself a direct descendant of Tsarist suspicion of dissent, would shape the politics of the new Russia, standing in the way of genuine democracy or the growth of the kind of civic virtue that Russia has so rarely experienced.  Like the Communists and Tsarists of old, he reflexively blames his country's troubles on foreign interference.  He presides over a nation in which dissent is dangerous, particularly if the dissenter is powerful enough to make a difference, and he has manipulated its constitution to stay in power indefinitely.  His op-ed includes at least one highly dubious statement--the assertion that the Syrian opposition unleashed the chemical attack that reportedly killed more than 1000 people.  But for all that, the thrust of his column was right, and I am glad that he wrote it.  We should not have had to be reminded of our own principles by a Russian authoritarian, but that was better than not being reminded at all.

Let us now set side by side a passage from President Obama's televised address from earlier in the week, and Putin's direct response.

"My fellow Americans, for nearly seven decades, the United States has been the anchor of global security. This has meant doing more than forging international agreements -- it has meant enforcing them. The burdens of leadership are often heavy, but the world is a better place because we have borne them.. . . .

"America is not the world's policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong. But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. That's what makes America different. That's what makes us exceptional. With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth" 

To which Putin replied today:

"It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal."

Once again I can only say that I think Putin is right.  We still live in a world of sovereign states, so defined by the charter of the United Nations.  For a pre-eminent nation like the US, the opinion of other countries can serve as a check on the arrogance of power--and had Washington observed that rule during the Cold War we would have avoided some terrible mistakes.  In the Korean War the US enjoyed the support of all its major allies because the European powers agreed that that attack might be a preview for a similar attack across the border of divided Germany.  In Vietnam we got no active support from any major ally because they did not regard the war as important--and we ignored their views, with tragic consequences.  In the post-cold war era, George H. W. Bush built an enormous coalition to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, but his son could secure only a few partners for his own enterprise of overthrowing the Ba'ath regime.  In that case, too, world opinion turned out to be right.

For a former law professor, Obama's idea of international law strikes me as quite extraordinary, and very similar to that of his predecessor.  Bush II argued that we could go to war with Saddam because he had disregarded various UN resolutions, even though none of those resolutions threatened war and the Security Council would not approve it.  Obama argues that Syria has violated international law even though it is not yet a party to the international treaty on chemical weapons.  And, as Putin points out, he asserts a unilateral right to enforce his view of international law by force, just as Bush claimed the right to decide which nations should possess which weapons.  And let there be no mistake--Iran did not sign away its right to build nuclear weapons forever when it signed the nuclear Non-proliferation treaty.  The government of Iran promised not to develop nuclear weapons, but any party to that treaty can withdraw from it as it pleases, as the North Koreans already did.

My main objection to a strike on Syria remains the same: it makes so little sense.  The President, seeking to undo the impact of his Secretary of State's words, boasted that "the United States military does not do pinpricks," but how could his military strike fundamentally change the situation?  It will be like the strikes the Israelis make in Gaza and Lebanon, but on a somewhat larger scale--strikes that weaken or punish an adversary but which hold out no hope of a political solution.  Administration spokesmen are now tripping all over themselves responding to Putin's proposals for peace. Kerry has suggested that Syria's promise to turn over its weapons will take too long to implement.  Does that really make it better to unleash a strike which will surely take that offer off the table once and for all?

Obama, like Putin, is from a Nomad generation. (Putin was born one year before Stalin's death, and the Soviet Awakening began within two years after that.  In the same way, Obama's first memories must date from the exciting era of the mid-1960s, not from the deep Cold War into which he was born.)  Nomads have little commitment to principle for its own sake--they care only about results. That makes them effective executives but leaves them with little ability to define new visions.  Obama's vision of the US role in the world, sadly, is very similar to that of his Boomer predecessor, despite his greater reluctance to use ground troops.  It is no accident that it has not resonated either with the world at large or with the American people.  Putin has, indeed, offered Obama a way out. I hope he takes it.



Friday, September 06, 2013

Who speaks for the world?

One way or another we seem to be approaching a turning point in American and even world history this week.  The impending Congressional vote on a strike against Syria could indeed mark the end of the United States' role as sole superpower in the post cold war world--and a very serious blow to the Obama Presidency.  (As I write, news has just broken that the White House will not go ahead with a strike without Congressional approval.)  I am concerned for another reason.   For the first time since the 1930s--a perilous decade indeed--the world seems to be without diplomatic and political leadership. To be sure, as I have said many times here, we do not face threats similar to those of the 1930s. The age of mass armies and large-scale conquest is, for the time being, at least, over.  The threat we face isn't tyranny, but anarchy.  But not a single world leader, so far as I can see, has actually identified that threat, much less put forward a strategy to respond to it.

The immediate threat facing the world is the possibility of a regional Shi'ite-Sunni civil war in the Middle East.  That threat began to emerge in 1981, after the Iranian revolution, which led quickly to the Iran-Iraq war.  It was most dire, of course, in countries ruled by the minority sect: Iraq, where a Sunni minority ruled the Shi'ites; Syria, where the situation is reversed; and Bahrain, where a Sunni government also rules over Shi'ites.  The United States in 2003, without really realizing what it was doing, decided to put the Shi'ites--allies of Iran--in power in Iraq.   Bahrain became the exception to the Arab spring, as the US clearly made no attempt to stop the Sunni Saudis from helping to put down its revolution two years ago.  Syria has now been wracked by civil war for more than a year, with Turkey and Saudi Arabia backing the Sunni rebels while Iran and Russia back the Shi'ite Alawite regime.  Until the last month, the United States government had wisely stayed out.  Meanwhile, Egypt is threatened by a civil war between the relatively secular army and the Muslim Brotherhood which it just ousted from power in defiance of the verdict of recent elections.

Effective diplomatic leadership comes from the recognition that the peoples of the world need peace, not war--and peace is bound up with respect for international law.  On June 14 last, I suggested what a serious world leader might say to the Middle East today:  that a long conflict parallel to the 17th century Thirty Years War between Catholics and Protestants would be a catastrophe beyond measure that the whole region must try to avoid.  I have not however heard either President Obama or any other world leader say anything like that.  Instead, the US, while still disclaiming any definite interest in the outcome of the Syrian civil war--which Assad clearly seems to be winning--has arrogated for itself the role of moral enforcer of norms of behavior, and specifically of punishing Assad for using chemical weapons.  That in my opinion can only contribute to greater anarchy, especially since there seems to be no hope of securing more support for the move than George W. Bush secured for the war against Iraq, with France this time playing the role of Britain then.

Another profoundly depressing aspect of the current situation must not go unnoticed.  One country and one country alone actively welcomes the disintegration of the Muslim Middle East: Israel.  Its government solidly supports the strike against Syria--although not a more active intervention in the Syrian conflict.  Having largely failed during 65 years of existence to secure the acceptance of its neighbors, the Israelis welcome their slide into political chaos.  They also want the US government to lay the foundation for subsequent strikes against supposed Iranian weapons of mass destruction.  AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby in Washington, is the major lobbying organization supporting the Administration's call for action against Syria.  This may be a big reason why John Boehner and Eric Cantor, the Jewish Republican minority whip, have come out in favor of the President's course of action. 

And that is the problem: the pro-Israel lobby, dedicated to furthering the interests of the Israeli government, knows what it wants. Our own leadership does not.  No one is speaking for the world as a whole.  When the Cold War came to an end, we had a President who had fought in the Second World War, and he tried to use the end of the Cold War to create exactly the kind of world he had fought to create.  His successors--two Boomers and one Gen Xer--have used the situation to assert American supremacy, even as the financial base of the US government and the loyalty of the American people eroded under their feet.  The Tea Party, as I pointed out last week, is too hostile to government authority to bless a major military undertaking.  Generation X in general is very skeptical as well.  We will not, given our own limitations, be able to halt the spread of anarchy in the world. I fear the real question is whether we can stop it here at home.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Syria, Part II

President Obama's decision to seek Congressional approval for the Syrian strike he so badly wants to make has turned this crisis into a turning point in American history.  Today's newspaper stories both confirm much of what I said on Friday, and also suggest that the era of American intervention might be about to come to an end.

Today's stories, to begin with, confirm that Obama holds to the Bush doctrine just as firmly as Eisenhower held to the Truman doctrine.  The United States, he believes, has a right to punish any nation that uses "weapons of mass destruction," which in this case include chemical weapons.  Ten years ago a number of good articles appeared suggesting that it did not make much sense to lump chemical and biological weapons together with nuclear ones, but that insight seems to have been forgotten.  But that is not all.  The White House has made clear that the President wants the Congressional resolution in part to lay the foundation for later action against Iran--the action the President has consistently threatened to try to take out its nuclear program.  This confirms that the non-proliferation regime set up by the GI generation by treaty back in the late 1960s has definitely been replaced by the doctrine that the United States will decide who can (Israel) and who can't (Iran) develop nuclear weapons.  To be fair, Israel initially developed its weapons in defiance of the United States, but we have never made a public move to suggest that they should give them up as part of a nuclear-free Middle East, which is the obvious alternative strategy to military action against Iran.  The Xer President (Obama) has followed the lead of his Boomer President and our unilateral non-proliferation regime remains in force.

The second big lesson of the current crisis, as I noted yesterday, is that the "Washington rules" identified by Andrew Bacevich remain in force.  Among what remains of the foreign policy establishment, including Lindsay Graham and John McCain among the Republicans and Susan Rice, John Kerry and Samantha Power among the Democrats, American military power remains the preferred solution to any international problem, even if they define those problems differently.  The Republicans still tend to favor regime change, despite the disastrous consequences it has had in Iraq and now in Egypt.  The Democrats maintain the fantasy, for which Power won several book prizes, that a little resolute action by the US will stop crimes against humanity.  Looking at a shot of the NSC meeting that took place in the White House this morning it struck me that there wasn't anyone around the table with any really detailed knowledge of Syria.  Some of them have people working for them who have such knowledge, but I doubt that they are having much input into these decisions.

But the third lesson will emerge during the next two weeks.  I strongly suspect that it will be an historic one: that the American people, as represented in Congress, have abandoned Washington rules and will not support the intervention.  Here another historical parallel arises: the Congress's mistrust of the Executive in the wake of the Civil War, during which Lincoln had been vilified as a dictator.  I expect the resolution to fail in the House because the Republican majority will not vote to allow Barack Obama, whom they see similarly, to do anything.  Some skeptical Democrats will join them.  The picture in the Senate is more complicated but not necessarily more reassuring.  Lindsay Graham and John McCain have already said that they will oppose the resolution because it does not go far enough--it only wants to inflict a largely symbolic punishment upon Assad, rather than overthrow his regime, thus opening the way to another bloody civil war and a huge round of ethnic cleansing which, they seem to think, will somehow benefit the United States of America.  There the Democrats will face a very difficult decision.  But if the House votes action down the Senate vote will not matter.

The White House still maintains, as Lyndon Johnson did after the Tonkin Gulf resolution, that it does not need Congressional authorization to act.  Given that the Syrian government is already crowing in triumph, it will be tempted to do so to "restore American credibility" even if it loses the vote, but that would probably mean impeachment by the House.  If the House blocks action it won't be doing so out of superior insight into foreign policy, but only because it is so determined to destroy the authority of the federal government in general and Barack Obama in particular.  Still, it will mean that the consensus on "Washington rules" has now come to an end at last.

That could have been a good thing, but I don't see how, in the current context, it will be.  As I made clear yesterday I do not support air strikes to punish Syria, an essentially symbolic act which will kill innocent people and which won't stop Assad from winning his civil war.  We need a real vision and strategy to try to help bring civil peace to the Middle East.  In another depressing aspect of the current situation, it is clear that the Israeli government welcomes the chaos in neighboring Arab states and will be more than happy to see it continue, and the Israeli public is probably the only public in the world, as Ha'aretz points out today, that supports US action against Syria.  The left-wing Ha'aretz columnist Gideon Levy sees the situation very much as I do.  We are still running on the vision laid down by George W. Bush and his neoconservative staffers: the end of existing Arab governments must be a good thing.   But clearly, an entirely different kind of action, one focused on identifying new rules and values under which the peoples of the region can live, is called for.  No one in the United States is trying to supply it.  American action would not help the situation in Syria, but American retreat and division will not help either the US or the world either.