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A very specific test for the Iran deal

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James Fallows provides a useful framework for how we should approach the Iran deal:

A week ago I volunteered my way into an Atlantic debate on the merits of the Iran nuclear agreement. The long version of the post is here; the summary is that the administration has both specific facts and longer-term historic patterns on its side in recommending the deal.

On the factual front, I argued that opponents had not then (and have not now) met President Obama’s challenge to propose a better real-world alternative to the negotiated terms. Better means one that would make it less attractive for Iran to pursue a bomb, over a longer period of time. Real-world means not the standard “Obama should have been tougher” carping but a specific demand that the other countries on “our” side, notably including Russia and China, would have joined in insisting on, and that the Iranians would have accepted.

“What’s your better idea?” is a challenge any honest opponent must accept. If this deal fails—which means, if the U.S. Congress rejects an agreement that the U.K., France, Germany, Russia, China, and Iran have accepted—then something else will happen, and all known “somethings” involve faster Iranian progress toward a bomb.

On historical judgment, I said that for two reasons the supporters of the deal should get the benefit of the doubt. The short-term reason is that nearly everyone who in 2015 is alarmist about Iran was in 2002 alarmist about Iraq. You can find exceptions, but only a few. That doesn’t prove that today’s alarmists are wrong, but in any other realm it would count. The longer-term reason is that the history of controversial diplomatic agreements through the past century shows that those recommending “risks for peace” have more often proven right than their opponents. (Don’t believe me? Go back and consider the past examples.)

Three topics for today’s updates, with a connecting historical theme.

Correlation of Forces

In the two weeks since the deal was announced, the forces pro and con have lined up. The clear opponents include:

— The congressional GOP, which invited Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to speak against the deal long before it was struck, and virtually all of whose members oppose it.

Candidates for the GOP presidential nomination, including Scott Walker with his promise to revoke the deal on Day One in office (which would be difficult, unless he could convince Russia, China, etc. to reinstate sanctions), Mike Huckabee with his odious “oven” line, and the rest who oppose the deal as uniformly as they opposed Obamacare.

Many Israelis in and out of government, from Benjamin Netanyahu to Natan Sharansky. And, using arguments like Netanyahu’s, American organizations like AIPAC, Bill Kristol’s Emergency Committee for Israel, the Zionist Organization of America (which went out of its way to endorse Huckabee’s statement), the Anti-Defamation League, and of course Sheldon Adelson.

So who do we have on the other side?

Most of the American public, by a 54-38 margin, according to a new poll by the Democratic-affiliated Public Policy Polling. “Voters within every gender, race, and age group are in support of it, reflecting the broad based mandate for the deal,” the PPP analysis said.

Most Jewish Americans, by a larger margin than the public in general, according to a Los Angeles Jewish Journal poll reported in the The Jerusalem Post. In this poll, American Jews supported the deal by a 49-31 margin; among the rest of the public in this study, the support was only 28-24, with a very large group undecided. According to the poll, 53 percent of Jewish Americans wanted Congress to approve the deal, versus 35 percent who wanted Congress to stop it.— Numerous Israeli analysts and former military and intelligence-service officials. For instance, various members of the IDF’s general staff; a former head of Mossad; a former head of Shin Bet; a scientist from Israel’s nuclear program; a former head of the IDF’s intelligence branch; a former deputy national-security advisor; another former IDF official; the think-tank Molad; Marc Schulman of; and many more. Every American has seen and read the literally cartoonish fulminations of Netanyahu against the deal (see below). How about more coverage of the Israeli defense professionals making the opposite case?

Five former U.S. ambassadors to Israel from administrations of both parties, and three former U.S. Under Secretaries of State (including Thomas Pickering, who held both jobs), who issued a public letter on Monday supporting the deal. Sample passage: “Those who advocate rejection of the JCPOA [the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s Nuclear Program, a.k.a. the deal] should assess carefully the value and feasibility of any alternative strategy. … The consequences of rejection are grave: U.S. responsibility for the collapse of the agreement; the inability to hold the P5+1 together for the essential international sanctions regime and such other action that may be required against Iran; and the real possibility that Iran will decide to build a nuclear weapon under significantly reduced or no inspections.”

More than 100 former U.S. ambassadors, career and political alike, and from both parties, who signed a similar public letter endorsing the deal. It begins, “The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran stands as a landmark agreement in deterring the proliferation of nuclear weapons.”

More than 60 American “national-security leaders”—politicians, military officers, strategists, Republicans and Democrats—who issued their own public letter urging Congress to approve the deal. E.g., “We congratulate President Obama and all the negotiators for a landmark agreement unprecedented in its importance for preventing the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran.” Here are a few Republicans who signed this letter: former Special Trade Representative Carla Hills; former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill; former Senator Nancy Landon Kassebaum. Here are a few Democrats: former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell; former Defense Secretary William Perry. I’m resisting saying: But what do any of them know, compared with Mike Huckabee?

Hans Blix, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who a dozen years ago tried to avert the disaster in Iraq. He says of the deal, “I think it is a remarkably far-reaching and detailed agreement. And I think it has a potential for stabilizing and improving the situation in the region as it gradually gets implemented.”

— A number of Iranian dissidents, who say that the deal could shift the internal balance in their country.

— An increasingly solid bloc of Democrats in Congress, being marshaled by Representatives David Price of North Carolina and Lloyd Doggett of Texas, who have been working since last year to reinforce support for the deal. “While demanding thorough scrutiny, this agreement appears to mark genuine progress for all who believe that peace will make us more secure than war with Iran,”Doggett (a longtime friend from our days in Texas) said when the deal was announced. “The bomb-Iran naysayers for whom the only good deal is a dead deal will unceasingly raise obstacles, but ultimately reason will prevail and the President’s leadership will be sustained.” It is interesting (to put it neutrally) to contrast the Price-Doggett effort, which has the support of Nancy Pelosi, with the equivocation of their Senate counterpart, leader-aspirant Chuck Schumer.

— An increasing number of journalists asking: if not this deal, exactly what? A notable example is Fareed Zakaria, who wrote: “Let’s imagine that the opponents of the nuclear agreement with Iran get their way: The U.S. Congress kills it. What is the most likely consequence? Within one year, Iran would have more than 25,000 centrifuges, its breakout time would shrink to mere weeks and the sanctions against it would crumble. How is this in the United States’ national interest? Or Israel’s? Or Saudi Arabia’s?”

I could go on, but you get the point. Judge for yourself. You can be persuaded by Netanyahu, Huckabee, Cruz, Kristol, Adelson, et al., all of whom were wrong on the last high-stakes judgment call about U.S. interests in the Middle East. Or by an overwhelming majority of the people from both parties with operating experience in America’s war-fighting and peace-making enterprises in this part of the world.

The Rut of History . . .

Continue reading.

It’s pretty simple: Don’t like the deal? Then tell me a realistic, specific, better option. If you cannot, then you have to accept that the Iran deal is the best option possible. (The question is not whether you dislike the Iran deal. It’s whether you can offer anything that’s better. If you can’t—well, then.)

Related story: Why History Gives Obama the Benefit of the Doubt on Iran

Written by LeisureGuy

28 July 2015 at 11:14 am

The Link Between Climate Change And ISIS Is Real

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Joe Romm reports in ThinkProgress, providing an instance of the general threat to security that climate change poses (according to the US military):

Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley linked climate change to the rise of ISIS earlier this week. Conservatives pounced. Score this round for O’Malley.

For three years now, leading security and climate experts — and Syrians themselves — have made the connection between climate change and the Syrian civil war. Indeed, when amajor peer-reviewed study came out on in March making this very case, Retired Navy Rear Admiral David Titley said it identifies “a pretty convincing climate fingerprint” for the Syrian drought.

Titley, a meteorologist who led the U.S. Navy’s Task Force on Climate Change when he was at the Pentagon, also said, “you can draw a very credible climate connection to this disaster we call ISIS right now.”

Compare the words of Admiral Titley — former Deputy Assistant Chief of Naval Operations for Information Dominance (!) and currently Director of Penn State’s Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risks. — with O’Malley’s (video here):

“One of the things that preceded the failure of the nation-state of Syria and the rise of ISIS was the effect of climate change and the mega-drought that affected that region, wiped out farmers, drove people to cities, created a humanitarian crisis that created the symptoms — or rather, the conditions — of extreme poverty that has led now to the rise of ISIL and this extreme violence.”

Let’s run through the science underpinning what O’Malley, Admiral Titley, and others have said.

We know that the Syrian civil war that helped drive the rise of the terrorist Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) was itself spawned in large part by what one expert called perhaps “the worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilizations began in the Fertile Crescent,” from 2006 to 2010.

That drought destroyed the livelihood of 800,000 people according to the U.N. and sent vastly more into poverty. The poor and displaced fled to cities, “where poverty, government mismanagement and other factors created unrest that exploded in spring 2011,” as the study’s news release explains.

The March 2015 study, “Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought,” found that global warming made Syria’s 2006 to 2010 drought two to three times more likely. “While we’re not saying the drought caused the war,” lead author Dr. Colin Kelley explained. “We are saying that it certainly contributed to other factors — agricultural collapse and mass migration among them — that caused the uprising.”


Events leading up to 2011 Syrian uprising, with chart of net migration of displaced Syrians and Iraqi refugees into urban areas (in millions) since 2005. Source: Kelley et al. (2015)

The study identifies “a pretty convincing climate fingerprint” for the Syrian drought, Admiral Titley told Slate at the time. Titley is the former COO of NOAA.

In particular, the study finds that climate change is already drying the region out in two ways: “First, weakening wind patterns that bring rain-laden air from the Mediterranean reduced precipitation during the usual November-to-April wet season. In addition, higher temperatures increased moisture evaporation from soils during the usually hot summers.”

This study and others make clear that for large parts of the not-terribly-stable region around Syria — including Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, and parts of Turkey and Iraq — brutal multi-year droughts are poised to become the norm in the coming decades if we don’t reverse carbon pollution trends ASAP.

Climate models had long predicted that the countries surrounding the Mediterranean would start drying out. In general, climate science says dry areas will get dryer and wet areas wetter.

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

23 July 2015 at 10:26 am

The Iran Deal Goes to Washington

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Elizabeth Drew has a good column in the NY Review of Books:

The first thing to know about all the noise being made in Washington over the nuclear deal with Iran is that there’s a lot of play-acting going on. A number of politicians, particularly Democrats, are striking positions to get them past this early period; several significant Democratic Senators simply aren’t yet ready to say they’re for the deal, though many of them are expected to be. The real question isn’t where they are now but where they’ll end up. Therefore some statements shouldn’t be taken literally. When Ben Cardin of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said recently that he had questions about the coming deal, some journalists and other observers interpreted this as a sign of trouble; but his statement simply reflected political prudence. To be taken seriously on such a weighty issue, a politician needs to be seen as having carefully considered his or her position.

This may be where the Republicans are making a mistake. Lindsey Graham was caught out by reporters on Tuesday when he condemned the deal and then, in response to their challenges, admitted that he hadn’t read the more than one-hundred-page agreement, nor did he know what was in it. House Speaker John Boehner also immediately denounced the deal. Boehner’s tack, which others also employ, is to charge that the agreement isn’t as tough on Iran as what the president said he would seek. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who officially entered the 2016 presidential race the day before the Iran deal was formally announced, said that it should be abrogated by the next president on day one—which would free Iran to pursue a nuclear weapon and create an unholy mess with our allies. The Republicans’ rush to judgment undermines their position.

In fact, knowledgeable analysts say that the final deal fulfills what was outlined in the interim framework agreement announced in April. Jim Walsh, a security and nuclear policy expert at MIT, describes it as “the most intrusive multilateral agreement in nuclear history.” According to Walsh, the deal’s inclusion of a “snapback” provision—the rapid restoration of sanctions if Iran is caught cheating—is “unprecedented.”

Yet I can find no one on the side of the deal who thinks that it will have majority support in either chamber, which means that the president will veto what Congress sends him. Therefore, beneath all the rhetoric, the realists here are looking for one thing: whether there will be enough votes in the Senate and the House—one-third plus one of the members—to uphold that veto. (A veto can be overridden by a two-thirds vote in both chambers.) It’s believed that there’s a sufficient number of House Democrats who will vote to sustain it. So what happens in the Senate is the crucial question. . .

Continue reading.

It’s sort of depressing to see such an important issue being addressed with partisan ignorance. It’s quite clear that the GOP will, regardless of what the agreement says, oppose it, just as they said when Obama took office that they would oppose anything he proposed, regardless of the merits. Mitch McConnell was quite proud of that thinking.

In the wonderful book by Roger Fisher and William Ury, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In (a book that the GOP could profitably study), there is this passage on negotiating with the other side:

To direct their attention toward improving the options on the table, discuss with them hypothetically what would happen if one of their positions was accepted. In 1970, an American lawyer had a chance to interview President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt on the subject of the Arab-Israeli conflict. He asked Nasser, “What do you want [Israel’s Prime Minister] Golda Meir to do?”

Nasser replied, “Withdraw!”

“Withdraw?” the lawyer asked.

“Withdraw from every inch of Arab territory!”

“Without a deal? With nothing from you?” the American asked incredulously.

“Nothing. It’s our territory. She should promise to withdraw,” Nasser replied.

The American asked, “What would happen to Golda Meir if tomorrow morning she appeared on Israeli radio and television and said, ‘On behalf of the people of Israel, I hereby promise to withdraw from every inch of territory occupied in 1967: the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Jerusalem, the Golan Heights. And I want you to know, I have no commitment of any kind from any Arab whatsoever.’”

Nasser burst out laughing. “Oh, would she have trouble at home!”

Understanding what an unrealistic option Egypt had been offering Israel may have contributed to Nasser’s stated willingness later that day to accept a cease-fire in the ongoing hostilities.

The proposed agreement with Iran does include verification procedures, a point the GOP seems unable to grasp.

The GOP should be asked what they want Iran to do. Their answers would be interesting. Indeed, it’s strange that the question is not asked. Instead, they are asked what they would do, not what they want the Iranians to do.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 July 2015 at 3:58 pm

Retired General: Drones Create More Terrorists Than They Kill, Iraq War Helped Create ISIS

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Both states seem pretty obvious, but obviously some disagree (but without evidence—the evidence supports the retired general’s observations). Murtaza Hussain reports in The Intercept:

Retired Army Gen. Mike Flynn, a top intelligence official in the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, says in aforthcoming interview on Al Jazeera English that the drone war is creating more terrorists than it is killing. He also asserts that the U.S. invasion of Iraq helped create the Islamic State and that U.S. soldiers involved in torturing detainees need to be held legally accountable for their actions.

Flynn, who in 2014 was forced out as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, has in recent months become an outspoken critic of the Obama administration’s Middle East strategy, calling for a more hawkish approach to the Islamic State and Iran.

But his enthusiasm for the application of force doesn’t extend to the use of drones. In the interview with Al Jazeera presenter Mehdi Hasan, set to air July 31, the former three star general says: “When you drop a bomb from a drone … you are going to cause more damage than you are going to cause good.” Pressed by Hasan as to whether drone strikes are creating more terrorists than they kill, Flynn says, “I don’t disagree with that.” He describes the present approach of drone warfare as “a failed strategy.”

“What we have is this continued investment in conflict,” the retired general says. “The more weapons we give, the more bombs we drop, that just … fuels the conflict.”

Prior to serving as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Flynn was director of Intelligence for the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. During his time in Iraq, Flynn is credited with helping to transform JSOC into an intelligence-driven special forces operation, tailored to fight the insurgency in that country. Flynn was in Iraq during the peak of the conflict there, as intelligence chief to Stanley McChrystal, former general and head of JSOC. When questioned about how many Iraqis JSOC operatives had killed inside the country during his tenure, Flynn would later say, “Thousands, I don’t even know how many.”

In the upcoming interview, Flynn says that the invasion of Iraq was a strategic mistake that directly contributed to the rise of the extremist group the Islamic State. “We definitely put fuel on a fire,” he told Hasan. “Absolutely … there’s no doubt, I mean … history will not be kind to the decisions that were made certainly in 2003.”

Over his 33 years in the Army, Flynn developed a reputation as an iconoclast. In 2010, he published a controversialreport on intelligence operations in Afghanistan, stating in part that the military could not answer “fundamental questions” about the country and its people despite nearly a decade of engagement there. Earlier this year, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 July 2015 at 1:43 pm

On the one-year anniversary of Israel’s attack on Gaza, an interview with Max Blumenthal

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In The Intercept Glenn Greenwald prefaces his interview with Max Blumenthal with this:

One year ago today, Israel invaded, bombed and shelled Gaza, and continued to do that for the next seven weeks. According to the U.N., at least 2,104 Gazans were killed — 1,462 of whom (69 percent) were civilians, including 495 children. A total of 6 Israeli civilians, and 66 soldiers, were killed. The shockingly high civilian death rate in Gaza included the now-iconic imagery of four young boys from the same family being killed by Israeli warships while they played on a beach in front of a hotel filled with foreign journalists.

Months after the attack concluded, U.N. Chief Ban Ki-moon visited Gaza and labeled the destruction “beyond description,” far worse than prior Israeli attacks. At least 17,000 homes “were obliterated or severely damaged during the conflict,” and it will take two decades to rebuild them; thatmeans that “nearly 60,000 people have lost their homes.” On countless occasions, entire large families of Gazans were instantly extinguished by Israeli violence. Because the population of Gaza is so young — 43 percent are under the age of 15, while 64 percent are under the age of 24 — the majority of its residents know little beyond extreme suffering, carnage, violence and war.

As harrowing as that data is, it tells only a small part of the story. Statistics like these have an abstract property to them: cold and clinical. Viewing the devastation of Gaza through their lens can have a distancing effect. They erase the most affecting facts: the stories of human suffering and devastation caused by this attack, the sadism and savagery that drove it.

That is what makes Max Blumenthal’s new book about this Israeli attack so compelling, so necessary. Entitled The 51 Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza, it humanizes this event like nothing else I’ve read. Blumenthal spent weeks on the ground in Gaza in the middle of the war (during a five-day ceasefire) and after it concluded. The book is filled with very well-documented history, facts and statistics relevant to what the Israeli military calls Operation Protective Edge. And all of those are both interesting and important. But his interviews with individuals in Gaza about their lives and what they witnessed will reshape how you think about all of this even if, as was the case for me, you followed the events closely while they unfolded.

The unbridled Israeli brutality that drove this attack, combined with the unprecedented ability of Palestinians to document what was happening to them through use of the Internet, significantly changed the way Israel is perceived around the world. This attack will prove to be historically important for how the world regards Israel, and Blumethal’s book is indispensable for understanding what happened here.

Even in the world of the Israel/Palestine debate — where smear campaigns and vicious ad hominem attacks are routine — Blumenthal is the target of some of the most scurrilous attacks you’ll ever see. In part that’s because he’s an unlikely candidate to have become one of the most vocal Jewish critics of Israel: the son of a Washington insider closely associated with the Clintons. In part it’s because he’s an unflinching and fearless critic, avoiding euphemisms and niceties when, by design, they obscure the truth. In part it’s because he has in the past sometimes opted for polarizing rhetoric and provocative, illuminating tactics.

But this book will likely surprise even those who have followed Blumenthal’s work and are sympathetic to his worldview. The 51 Day War is remarkably free of polemic, even as it retains its passion. It seems clear, at least to me, that Blumenthal was so moved by what he heard and saw in Gaza that he knew nothing would be more effective and revealing than just letting those stories speak for themselves. So he largely gets out of the way and simply serves as a vessel for the voices of those who are so rarely heard from in the Western world: those who live under Israeli brutality in Gaza.

I spoke with him for roughly 40 minutes about his book, as well as his own odyssey that has led him to devote himself to this topic with such singular devotion. Whatever your views on Israel and Gaza, Blumenthal is articulate, thoughtful and deeply knowledgeable, and has done extensive, real reporting to write this book. He’s very worth listening to, and the book is highly worth the read. Our discussion can be heard on the player below, and a transcript is provided here.

Continue to hear and/or read the interview.

Written by LeisureGuy

9 July 2015 at 10:48 am

Posted in Mideast Conflict

Today’s Civilian Victims in Yemen Will Be Ignored Because U.S. and Its Allies Are Responsible

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It’s now acceptable for the US to kill civilians (outside of combat zones, note—just civilians going about their routine daily loves, shopping at the market), and moreover such killings do not even merit a mention in the mainline news. “Sure, we killed a bunch of civilians. So what? They weren’t Americans.” That seems to be the attitude. (Recall the profuse apologies and headlines when one of our drone attacks did kill an American—that was awful. Other nationalities, no biggie.) Glenn Greenwald reports in The Intercept:

In Fayoush, Yemen this morning, just outside of Aden, “a massive airstrike”hit a marketplace and killed at least 45 civilians, wounding another 50. Officials told the AP that “bodies were strewn about following the strike.” The bombing was carried out by what is typically referred to as a “Saudi-led coalition”; it is rarely mentioned in Western media reports that the U.S. is providing very substantial support to this “Saudi-led” war in Yemen, now in its fifth month, which has repeatedly, recklessly killed Yemeni civilians.

Because these deaths of innocents are at the hands of the U.S. government and its despotic allies, it is very predictable how they will be covered in the U.S. None of the victims will be profiled in American media; it’ll be very surprising if any of their names are even mentioned. No major American television outlet will interview their grieving families. Americans will never learn about their extinguished life aspirations, or the children turned into orphans, or the parents who will now bury their infants. There will be no #FayoushStrong Twitter hashtags trending in the U.S. It’ll be like it never happened: blissful ignorance.

This is the pattern that repeats itself over and over. Just see the stone-cold media silence when President Obama, weeks after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, ordered a cruise missile strike in Yemen, complete with cluster bombs, which ended the lives of 35 women and children, none of whose humanity was acknowledged in virtually any Western media reports.

All of that stands in the starkest contrast to the intense victim focus whenever anAmerican or Westerner is killed by an individual Muslim. Indeed, Americans just spent the last week inundated withmelodramatic “warnings” from the U.S. government — mindlessly amplified as always by their media — that they faced serious terror on their most sacred day from ISIS monsters: a “threat” that, as usual, proved to be nonexistent.

This media imbalance is a vital propaganda tool. . .

Continue reading.

From the point of view of the civilians shopping in the market, the attack was outright terrorism. It would not be unlikely that surviving family members might want revenge.

Written by LeisureGuy

6 July 2015 at 11:28 am

“Where is the public outcry for an explanation of how the longest war in American history is on a course to end in failure?”

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Patrick L. Smith, always worth reading, interviews Andrew Bacevich for Salon:

Andrew Bacevich has been a singular critic of American foreign policy since he began publishing on the topic 13 years ago. His second book, “American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy,” came out in 2002 and defined his turf: He is a critic of the policy cliques who knows them from within. After “The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War” (2005) came “The Long War” (2007), “The Limits of Power (2008) and “Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War (2010)—titles that speak for themselves. Two years ago Bacevich published “Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country.” By then he had lost a son to an explosive device in Iraq—an event that seemed to inform the book with the dignified stoicism that marks Bacevich’s character.

Now 68, Bacevich is a West Point graduate who served a tour in Vietnam before taking a doctorate in diplomatic history at Princeton. He subsequently taught international relations at West Point and Johns Hopkins before joining the IR faculty at Boston University in 1998. Bacevich is now emeritus and devotes his time to getting the books out.

I met “the dissident colonel,” as he is known in my household, when he spoke at the Providence Council on Foreign Affairs this spring. He spent the evening outlining the book now in his desk, which rests on 10 Theses, as he calls them, after the 95 Theses Martin Luther nailed to a church door (supposedly) in Wittenberg in 1517. They are a detailed critique of what Bacevich considers our 35-year War for the Greater Middle East. He dates this to 1980, when President Carter declared the Persian Gulf a strategic interest warranting military defense. With the Carter Doctine, Bacevich said that evening in Providence, “Carter lit a fuse without knowing where it led.”

“Learning offers a first step toward devising wiser, more effective, and less costly policies,” Bacevich also said on that occasion. I subsequently traveled to Boston to record this exchange. I found him as I had expected: a conservative man in various respects, a scholar with a disciplined mind ungiven to barricades and placards but vigorously opposed to the direction of American policy abroad and well aware of its roots in our consciousness of exceptionalism.

You’re a critic of American conduct abroad on numerous grounds — I would say a critic with a very particular perspective, and I hope we can explore that. For now, a point of confusion, at least for me: In “American Empire,” the 2002 book, you note that American policy, or statecraft, as you call it, lost its coherence in the post-Berlin Wall period. Policy before 1989, you thought, was more or less, as you say, mainly realistic. When we met [at the Providence CFR], on the other hand, you traced a certain grandiose streak in U.S. policy to Carter’s 1980 doctrine, which got us into what you’re now calling the War for the Greater Middle East, a 35-year escapade at this point. Can you clarify your thinking on this? When, in your view, did the policy elite lose its way?

To clarify a little bit, until roughly 1990 the hierarchy of interests that shaped U.S. foreign policy privileged Europe and East Asia. Those were the two most important theaters in U.S. foreign policy. And notwithstanding horrific mistakes made along the way, Vietnam being the most important but by no means the only one, if you look at the period from the late 1940s to the 1990s, in the main U.S. policy in these two pivotal regions qualifies as realistic. There was a certain cohesion to U.S. policy. Indeed, one could say there was a strategy. If you wanted to reduce that strategy to a single word, the word would be “containment.” At least until 1980, the Middle East—I prefer the term the Greater Middle East—tended to be viewed as peripheral in the hierarchy. My argument is that this began to change in 1980, when Jimmy Carter, in response to the hostage crisis in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, promulgated the Carter Doctrine.

Now, it didn’t overnight vault the Greater Middle East to the top rank of U.S. foreign policy interests, but it began that process. And indeed, the end of the Cold War, which tended at least marginally to diminish the importance attributed to Europe and East Asia, facilitated that. So by the time you get to the 1990s, and certainly by the time you get to 9/11, there’s been this substantial change, and the change gets expressed above all and most regrettably in the reorientation of the U.S. military. Militarily, the United States doesn’t abandon Europe, and it certainly hasn’t abandoned East Asia, but if you look at where we’ve sent U.S. forces to fight or to occupy, especially since 1990, it’s clear that the focal point now is the Greater Middle East. And, to further the contrast, unlike the period of the Cold War, when you can make an argument that there was a certain cohesion in U.S. policy, there’s been virtually none with regard to the Greater Middle East. What we have is almost a pattern of random military interventionism justified by all kinds of reasons, few of which have produced anything like a positive outcome, and which cumulatively contributed to the destabilization of the Greater Middle East.

I couldn’t agree with you more on that latter point. An American imperium bent on incessant expansion and more or less global dominance is among your bedrock descriptions for what we now live with. Two of the biggest questions on any paying-attention American’s mind are just how dangerous this is and whether there is any plausible prospect of change: a new American ambition, purpose or however you want to put it. What are your views in each case? The danger of it and the plausibility of change.

In the danger of pursuing the imperium?

Yes. You have a lot of non-Americans saying the American foreign policy is the single most disorder-creating factor in global affairs today, right?

Well, the preliminary point is to understand where this urge to create a global imperium came from. And several facts contributed. One of which is the long-standing, deeply embedded claim of American exceptionalism, which assigns to us a responsibility to transform the global order in our own image. That goes back to the founding of Anglo-America, the City upon a Hill.

Winthrop’s sermon in 1630, to be exact, yes.

Right. But the end of the Cold War and the nearly simultaneous military event we call Operation Desert Storm gave the first twist to that long-standing expectation of what we are called upon to do. The end of the Cold War persuaded American elites in both parties, people on the left and people on the right, that liberal democratic capitalism was destined to triumph everywhere, that the last ideological challenger had been vanquished.

The “end of history” is set.

The end of history is set. So that seemed to bring the vision of global hegemony that much closer. Desert Storm seems to demonstrate—this is not so inaccurate, misleading—that the United States is in possession of military powers such that the world has never seen. We believe by 1991 that we have not only vanquished the last standing ideological opponent, but that we have achieved a military supremacy.

Now you combine that sort of generalized mission to save the world with the end of history and with the belief that we now possess the means to exercise dominance, and you have a very explosive combination that, by the 1990s, makes global hegemony seem possible. Of course, the 1990s is not the decade of the evil neoconservative and the bad Republicans. It’s the decade of Bill Clinton, of the liberal Democrats calling the shots. But if you look at what happens in the 1990s, you find this expansive rhetoric. They don’t use the term “empire,” but it is an imperialistic rhetoric, and you also find, under Clinton, a growing willingness to put that American military power to use. To do what Clinton would argue would be good things in the world. And that takes the form of a far greater willingness to intervene. In Somalia, in Haiti, in Kosovo, in Bosnia, with the expectation that somehow this interventionism is going to produce stability, spread our values, help to bring into existence this new American-dominated order. Problem is, of course, that the results are considerably different. Instead of creating stability we create instability, and, of course, the chickens come home to roost on 9/11, with the attacks on Washington and New York.

We’ll come back to this question of exceptionalism in a minute.

You’ve been proven right times 10 in arguing a long time ago that the thought of post-Cold War disarray in American policy circles—no aim, no strategy—is wrong. The aim from the first Bush and Clinton onward has been to cast the world in the American image, just as you said: open markets, a sort of extreme capitalism. That leads straight to the problem of exceptionalism, as you’ve just suggested. I take it you agree. Now, here’s the question: If the problem is the consciousness of exceptionalism, the matter of change becomes more daunting. You’re not talking about changing a law, you’re not yet talking about changing how many divisions we ought to have in Guam. You’re talking about changing a kind of national consciousness.

So, returning to the previous question, how realistic is this? You mentioned in Providence, “We must learn the lessons.” It’s a good phrase: Of course we must learn the lessons. But, time and again I have to say to myself: I don’t see any evidence of learning in Washington. They’re allergic to the past. They can’t stand history. We’re a nation of forgetters. How realistic is it to expect them to learn anything? And if we don’t learn anything, we’re in a very bad track. . . .

Continue reading.

Interesting questions, eh?

Written by LeisureGuy

3 July 2015 at 4:04 pm


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