Featured Post

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...

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.