Category Archives: Foreign Policy

Yes, Heller Embarrassed Nevada

newspapers 1 The Reno Gazette Journal adds its editorial voice to the backlash over the #Iran47 participation of Senator Dean Heller (R-NV), in “Heller embarrassed Nevada with Iran letter.”   Thus, the Gazette Journal joins a chorus including the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Cincinnati Enquirer, the Nashua, NH Telegraph, the Concord, NH Monitor, the Peoria Journal Star, the Salt Lake Tribune, the New York Times, the Kansas City Star, the Sacramento Bee,  the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, the Baltimore Sun, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times,  and others. [Pol]

Senator Heller’s web site doesn’t include any press releases explaining the inexplicable.  Perhaps he’s adopting some of the other incredulous statements made, like Senator McCain’s “snow storm” excuse?  [Pol] Or, he might use the Senator Rand Paul template: “I signed the Iran letter in Order to Help Obama?”  Or, how about the former Governor Jeb Bush idea, “I approved it out of frustration?”  There’s always 60+ day Senator Tom Cotton’s version: “If Congress doesn’t approve the deal it may not last.”

Maybe the junior Senator from Nevada could mash them all together?

“I signed the Iran Letter because I was frustrated with the snow storm, and in order to help the President I thought I’d let the Iranians know that the Constitution allows the Senate to offer “advice and consent” to treaties before they’re ratified, just in case the fellows weren’t educated.”

The last part is really amusing given that the Iranian government has the highest number of US college graduates serving in any foreign government cabinet in the world.  President Rouhani has a PhD from the prestigious Glasgow Caledonian University (Scotland), Zarif has a PhD from the University of Denver; the Science, Research & Technology minister (Mohammad Ali Najafi) did post graduate work at MIT.  Vaezi, Minister of Communications, began his PhD at LSU and finished at the Warsaw University in Poland, the Minister for Industry, Nematzadeh, graduated from Cal Poly in 1968, and studied industrial management at Cal Berkeley. Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the AEO, has a PhD in nuclear engineering from MIT.  Chief of Staff, Mohammad Nahavandian, has a PhD in economics from George Washington University.  [IranPrimer]

The junior Senator from Nevada might want to consider his response and rationale very carefully because when an editorial board uses terms like “condescending, embarrassing, clueless, damaging, and hypocritical,”  the Senator’s next words should be very carefully weighed and measured.

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Filed under Foreign Policy, Heller, Iran

GOP Age of Un-Enlightenment: Heller one of the #Iran47

Heller 3

Nevada’s junior Senator, Dean Heller (R) is one of the  signers of the now infamous ‘enlightenment letter’ to the Iranian leadership.  Heller, who has a certain flare for the dramatic – if not the practicable – has demonstrated his willingness to participate in amateur political theatricals before.   Witness the “Balanced Budget Amendment” which he hauls out every session only to be reminded that the budget of a sovereign nation doesn’t have the same characteristic as a household budget in East Deer Breath.  Or, there was the gallant attempt to repeal the Dodd-Frank Act, in tandem with former Senator (now Heritage Foundation guru) Jim DeMint. This scene evaporated as well.   Considering the matter at hand, here are some absolutely unsolicited bits of advice for the junior Senator:

#1.It has come to our attention while observing your nuclear negotiations with our government that you may not fully understand our constitutional system.”  Before signing on to this line, one might be aware that the recipients include  Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who attended Drew College Prep in San Francisco, got his B.A. in International Relations from San Francisco State University in 1981, and a Master’s in 1982. He did post graduate work at the Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, and received his PhD in International Law and Policy in 1988. Here’s guessing that the Iranian Minister for Foreign Affairs might have some knowledge of U.S. governmental operations?

Opening lines such as this are patronizing or at least condescending, and one of the Things Not Done in international relations is being… patronizing or condescending.  Iran, love it or loathe it, is a sovereign nation, and that pompous, supercilious, opening sounds suspiciously like the #Iran47 would like to teach their “little brown brothers” about U.S. politics. 

#2. Don’t make obvious errors.  It really doesn’t do to have a legal heavyweight from the Bush Administration tell you that the Senate may “offer advice and consent,” but “The Senate does not ratify treaties. Instead, the Senate takes up a resolution of ratification, by which the Senate formally gives its advice and consent, empowering the president to proceed with ratification” (my emphasis). [Goldsmith]  In athletic parlance, this fumble is often called an Unforced Error.

#3. You will be known by the company you keep.  Very junior Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) has made it very clear that he wants to scuttle all attempts at diplomacy with Iran.  “The end of these negotiations isn’t an unintended consequence of congressional action. It is very much an intended consequence. A feature, not a bug, so speak,” Cotton said in January, speaking at a conservative conference hosted by the advocacy group Heritage Action for America.” [Huffington Post]  This puts the #Iran47 deep in the realm of American hardliners who see no practicality in negotiating a deal with the current Iranian government.  Not everyone has dived into that pool, including acknowledged foreign policy expert former Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN).  If Senator Heller would like to retain his “periodically moderate” label, this is not the way to do it.

#4. The more flexible you are the more options you’ll have.  Taking the hard line stance as a signatory to the Cotton Letter means that diplomacy is off the table.  What does that leave?  Let’s assume the old adage is correct: War is the failure of diplomacy.  If diplomacy is removed as an option then the only way to resolve an international dispute is with armed forces.  But, what of economic sanctions?

#5. Don’t discard options merely because they require assistance.  Unilateral economic sanctions never work.  At best they can be functional in about 13% of their applications, at least since 1970, and  usually with small countries. (Rhodesia comes to mind)  [Hill]  Then there’s this observation from the Director, Institute for International Economics, a panelist at the CFR:

“There is no case—repeat, no case—where unilateral sanctions have ever worked to induce a sizable country to make a major change in policy, no case in history that we have been able to discover. The simple reason is that the United States no longer dominates the world economy. There are always alternative sources of export, import markets, finance, whatever it may be. We alone cannot coerce others. And there are always alternatives, and they will always be available.”

And, this leads us to the next point.

#6. The more friends you have the better.  The current negotiations involve  members of the P5+1 who are actually negotiating the deal with Iran.  The U.S. isn’t the only country with a negotiating interest in the talks, the other nations include the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, Germany, and the U.S.  Some care should have been taken that what was perhaps meant as a poke at Iran wouldn’t be received as a slap in the face of the other negotiating countries.  Now, consider the next point –

#7. If the #Iran47 intend for the talks to collapse, then the intended (or unintended?) consequence could be the U.S. wedded to a unilateral policy calling for a military solution to the issue of Iranian nuclear development? After all, why would the UK, France, or Germany participate in military operations if they assume their negotiations were in good faith, and the U.S. was the one to pull out?

Should the U.S. become embroiled in a war with Iran,  a nation with about 450,000 regular military personnel, some 120,000 in the Army of the Guardians, and about 3 million combat trained paramilitary Basij, it should be reasonably obvious that the conflict would not be a simple matter of a few air strikes.  And, while the U.S. is thus engaged what happens in, say, Ukraine? Iraq? Central Africa? Nigeria? North Korea? Libya?

#8. “Regime Change” is a term freighted with negative associations. In an ethereal world of ideals, as opposed to the practical one in which we are living, we could bargain very nicely with a ‘new’ regime in Tehran.  That is, IF, the new regime was cooperative.  However, as we learned to our dismay in Iraq, a new regime doesn’t necessarily equate to a cooperative ally.  The ‘new regime’ in Iraq refused to negotiate a status of forces agreement with two American administrations, insisted on the pull out of U.S. combat forces, and then proceeded to make a hash of Sunni-Shia power relationships giving ISI a wedge into the fray.

#9. Striking a pose and taking a position are two different things. Striking a pose is easy.  One may be belligerent – fists at the ready, emotions on high;  or pacific – fists down, brain engaged. Taking a position requires thought, especially forethought, and the inclusion of a host of factors which may or may not prove to be critical elements.   One of the conveniences of militarism is that it requires little forethought – have a problem with someone? Simply shoot’em up.   The current situation in the Middle East is not a scripted melodrama from film writers; the good guys are difficult to identify and may not always be ‘good,’ and the bad guys may be helpful in one area (think Iran and its assistance against ISIL) and unhelpful in others.

Signing on as an original founder of the #Iran47 wasn’t the best idea Nevada’s junior Senator has had, and in fact it may prove to be one of his worst moments.  Unless, of course, he would like to posture as a belligerent, mindless subscriber to militarism and the notion that not only is might always right but it also always works.  This is a dubious proposition at best, and it certainly offers a future challenger an opening on an unforced error.

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Filed under Congress, Foreign Policy, Heller, Iran

Thank You For Your Service, Maybe?

PTSD There’s a difference between Militarism and Supporting Our Military.  There is also a difference between being militaristic and being supportive of our nation’s service members and veterans.  A militarist tends to regard military efficiency as the best ideal of the state, and to subordinate all other interests to those of the military services. [DictRef]  Now that the terms are defined, why do conservatives have such a difficult time comprehending the problems created when they call for a “strong” Department of Defense, and a “strong” nation, or a “strong” foreign policy, and almost simultaneously disparage the members of the military and veterans when those people express their needs?

The latest manifestation of this issue comes from radio talker Michael Savage, who offered his opinion on Armed Forces members and veterans who are suffering with PTSD:

“If the whole nation is told, ‘boo-hoo-hoo, come and get a medication, come and get treatment, talk about mental illness,’ you know what you wind up with? You wind up with Obama in the White House and lawyers in every phase of the government, that’s what you wind up with. It’s a weak, sick nation. A weak, sick, broken nation.” […] “You need men like me to save the country,” he said. “You need men to stand up and say stop crying like a baby over everything.” He continued that “men are so weak and so narcissistic” that it is “no wonder ISIS can defeat our military.” [Savage/RRW]

It Helps To Know What You’re Talking About

Mr. Savage must know what he’s doing; he must know that there’s an audience for this kind of nonsense.   First, it is obvious Mr. Savage has absolutely no personal military experience.  Had he any experience he’d know the truth of the old adage: A war leaves no one unwounded.  He was about 26 at the height of the war in Vietnam, but didn’t serve.  Nonetheless, he’s certain the nation needs “men like me to save the country.”

Shut Up and Shoot Yourself?

Secondly, the fossilized notions about mental illness embedded in Savage’s rant are appalling.  If a person seeks treatment for mental health issues, then he is “weak, sick, and broken?”  Savage/Weiner couldn’t have crafted a more blatant recipe for further weakening injured individuals.  Again, even a cursory familiarity with the U.S. military would demonstrate the Department of Defense takes PTSD very seriously, in fact there’s been the establishment of the Defense Centers of Excellence – for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury.  

In August 2013, the DoD, the Veterans Administration, and other agencies created a joint research program to study PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injuries. [Defense.Gov]  One element of the study will be a collaboration to study the factors influencing the chronic effects of mild TBI in order to improve diagnostic and treatment options, keying on a better understanding of the relationship between TBI and neurodegenerative disease.   No “boo hoo hoo” here, simply a directive from the Department of Defense and the White House that we take a serious scientific look at nature and treatment which ought to be available to any of the 2.5 million U.S. service members who have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since September 2001 and need mental health treatment.

The conception that “real men (and women) don’t cry” or that “real men (and women) don’t want to be stigmatized as having a mental health issue is dangerous in and of itself.  During a presentation for the American Psychiatric Association in 2012 it was noted that fewer than half the soldiers who reported combat related PTSD received the necessary care, and of those who participate in a treatment program between 20% and 50% will stop before the treatment is complete.  When 93% of Army infantrymen have come under fire from rockets, artillery, or mortars, and when 91% report having been ambushed or attacked, and 87% report they know someone who has been seriously injured or killed, then it’s obvious some form of scientifically based treatment programs will need to be in place to assist those who develop PTSD. [Stripes]

There’s no “boo-hoo-hoo” factor when a mental health issue, such as PTSD,  produces intrusive memories, flashbacks, nightmares, avoidance symptoms, negative feelings about self and others, inability to experience positive emotions, feeling of emotional numbness, feelings of hopelessness, memory problems, difficulty in maintaining close relationships, anger and irritability, overwhelming guilt or shame, self destructive behaviors, problems with concentration, problems with insomnia, difficulties created by being easily startled or frightened.  [MayoClinic]

This is serious stuff.  While the rates for civilian suicides remained steady at 19:100,ooo over the period of a recent study for the National Institute of Mental Health, the Army suicide rate – historically lower than the civilian rate – surpassed it in 2008 and kept climbing, until it finally dropped a bit in 2012-13.  [USAT]  What is Savage/Weiner advocating? Is his message so divorced from reality that it’s little more than “Just Shut Up and Shoot Yourself?”

An Alternative Universe of Memory

Mr. Savage/Weiner evidently defines ‘manhood’ in antediluvian terms.  Men back in the good old days were Real Men, and women knew how to act like ladies?  This TV scripted perspective never existed in any real form. Mr. Savage/Weiner seems stuck in a wonderland of Leave it to Beaver, and Ozzie and Harriet.  His definition of masculinity sounds more like an interpretation of a John Wayne movie script.  It certainly isn’t Bogart sending Bergman off in Casablanca, or Sidney Poitier in Raisin in the Sun. It most certainly isn’t ultimate slacker Hoffman in The Graduate. [NPR]  Nor is it to be found in Gregory Peck’s performance in To Kill a Mockingbird.  And, merciful heavens, it must not be anywhere near the comedic rendition from Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot.  The hard sad truth is that Mr. Savage/Weiner’s interpretation never even existed in Hollywood outside the genre of stock war movies and derivative westerns.

If Mr. Savage/Weiner is reaching about 3 million Americans with his entertainments,  about 1% of the population, then why waste pixels and print?  Because, his views energize some of the least attractive and least socially useful elements in our national repertoire of ideas.  Surely, nothing is less useful than militaristically bantering about the glories and barbarities of war, while disparaging those who come home from it  to the nightmare of PTSD.

Talk Without Money

Perhaps this isn’t such a far fetched perspective when placed in proximity to the Republican budget proposals of the recent past.  Flags, color guards, pomp and circumstance are all part of the 4th of July atmosphere attached to political performances.  However, when it comes down to the money, the appropriations for Veterans’ services life gets stickier. 

The lack of specificity in budgets crafted by Representative Paul Ryan make it very difficult to predict what the impact of his budget slashing might be, especially in the short term.  Rep. Ryan once referred to budget cuts in cost of living formulas for retired service-members as a “modest adjustment to a particularly generous program.” [WaPo]  Other modest adjustments were considered:

“The House Budget Committee, chaired by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), has told a veterans’ group it is studying a plan to save $6 billion annually in VA health care costs by cancelling enrollment of any veteran who doesn’t have a service-related medical condition and is not poor.

Committee Republicans, searching for ways to curb federal deficits and rein in galloping VA costs, are targeting 1.3 million veterans who claim priority group 7 or 8 status and have access to VA care.” [vmusa]

In other words, “No matter what we told you about taking care of you if you volunteered to take care of our country, if we can cut back on government spending at your expense we’ll do it.”  A veteran with a priority group 7 or 8 status is on his or her own – no matter how many paeans were offered and “thank you’s for your service” rendered.

Since when did we decide, as a nation, that a veteran is not really a veteran if he or she is in the “wrong category” and is thereby less worthy of a nation’s gratitude?

How much difference is there between the hate-radio talker who disparages the mental illnesses exacerbated or triggered by combat experience and the impact of that experience on a returning veteran, and the casual elimination of veterans’ benefits from selected categories merely to satisfy the “drown the government in a bathtub” crowd?

There is a point at which it must be acknowledged that militarism creates veterans, and promises to those veterans should be kept.

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Filed under Afghanistan, conservatism, Defense Department, Foreign Policy, Health Care, Iraq

Pulling Representative Heck Slowly Toward Understanding Foreign Policy

SpaghettiRepresentative Joe Heck (R-NV3) is confused about the Obama Administration’s foreign policy.  “I don’t think we have a coherent foreign policy, and that’s part of the problem,” Heck said. “We have not exercised the level of leadership around the globe as we have over the past 20 years. … The world looks toward somebody to kind of set the example. And I don’t think we’ve been setting the example that we have set previously.” [LVRJ]

First there’s a big difference between something which is incoherent and something with which there is disagreement.  The limited engagement portion of what’s lumped together as Obama Doctrine isn’t too difficult to comprehend.  Unilateral force will be used if there is a direct threat to the United States.  That wasn’t too hard, was it?

Indirect threats will be met multilaterally and not necessarily with the use of maximum force in each instance.  If force is to be used, it should be in a very precise way.  [FP] Also not all that hard to understand.  In case Representative Heck is still confused, let’s apply some examples.

ISIL: A direct threat to Americans or American interests. IS attacks threatening Americans and American interests in Iraq, especially in the vicinity of Erbil in Kurdish controlled areas presented a direct threat to Americans in the region.  Response? Air strikes.  So far so good.  IS momentum in the area has been blunted and American lives and interests protected.  Humanitarian aid and the rearming of the Peshmerga forces associated with the mission was augmented by efforts from the British, the French, and the Germans.  Multilateral, targeted, minimal force applied to secure desired results.  What’s confusing about that?  But, what of indirect threats?

Libya:  What should be done in cases of threats to global security? Once again, we find the Administration employing a multilateral approach. In 2011 an effort by the U.S., Canada, France, Italy, and Great Britain (in a coalition ultimately including 19 nations)  coordinated a campaign of air strikes, naval blockades, no-fly zones, and logistical assistance to Libyan rebels. It worked.

Syria: The civil war in Syria presents a more complicated problem for nations which perceive the situation as a threat to global security.  The Assad government has close ties to Russia, and the rebel groups range from small inexperienced moderate elements, to criminal gangs, to extremist groups, to the really extremist groups like ISIS.  Coalitions, alliances, and coterminous realignments and the creation of new coalitions, make this a very fluid situation.  Problem One was to get the stockpiles of chemical weapons out of the game.  Mission accomplished. Last month a Danish ship delivered the last 600 metric tons of chemical weapons to a U.S. ship (Cape Ray) at an Italian port, where the chemicals will be destroyed. [CNN] Multilateral. Minimal use of force (a show of force at one point) with a maximum use of diplomacy, combined with a specifically focused mission.

Calls for arming the anti-Assad rebels is a simplistic response to a complicated problem.  In December 2013 the BBC published something of a roster of Syrian rebel forces for those wishing to keep track of the players.  There’s a coalition now called the Supreme Council of the Free Syrian Army, the good news is that this is a relatively moderate group, but the bad news is that it is composed of some 30 different militias which retain their own operational independence, command structures, and agendas. In short it is a very loosely joined network of independent brigades. Then there is the Islamic Front, another coalition of about seven groups which wants to topple the Assad government and devise an Islamic state.  This is not to be confused with the Al Qaeda or jihadist groups, such as the Al Nusra Front, and the Islamic State.  But wait, we haven’t listed the independent groups such as the Ahfad al-Rasoul Brigades, Asala wa al-Tanmiya Front, or the group often associated with the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, the Durou al-Thawra Commission.

Now, just who is it that the U.S. might want to arm?  And by the way, Syria is about 64% Sunni, about 20% of whom are Kurds, Turkomans, Circassians, and Palestinians.  The Shia represent most of the other Muslims in Syria, and are divided into three groups: Twelvers, Ismailis, and Alawis.  And then there are the recently discovered by the foreign press —  Yazidis.

Now Representative Heck might want to ask himself: Does he prefer a policy which keeps U.S. interests in mind in Syria by making maximum use of diplomatic multilateral efforts and a minimal infusion of force; or would he prefer getting the U.S. mired in another swampy situation in the Middle East?

If one’s idea of a coherent foreign policy is one of moving in with a maximum use of unilateral force — and with minimal consideration of the consequences — then the Obama Administrations doctrine isn’t going to meet with one’s approval. And, that’s the question which needs to be answered by Representative Heck — If you don’t like a mission specific use of force, applied in conjunction with a multilateral diplomatic and military effort, then what do you want?

The bellicose blustering of the Bush Administration sounded coherent, but ultimately proved to produce incoherent results.  Witness our next example: Iraq.

Iraq: A nation created in the wake of World War I, with significant religious and political internal differences, formerly governed by an intransigent and despicable (albeit secular) dictator, crumbles after Sunni populations in the north and west perceive the Shiite government in the south (Baghdad/Basra) to be ignoring or damaging their interests. Kurdish populations in the northeast see the Shiite government as inimical to their interests, and the compliment is returned by the southern Shia.

The removal of ISF military leaders who are Sunni or former Baathists by the Maliki government creates a security force (army) of questionable utility.  The question is answered as the Iraqis try to form a new government in July-August 2014, and  ISIL moves from Syria into ‘friendly’ territory around Mosul.  ISIL (IS) attracts support from local Sunni groups alienated by the Maliki government, and radicals from surrounding territories.

The fractures in the Iraqi political system, fully identified in a policy review with General Odierno in 2010, are visible today. [FP]  Our goals as set forth in 2010-2011 are to (1) encourage reconciliation, (2) help develop a professional civil service, (3) promote a healthy relationship between the parliament and the executive, and (4) to support the reintegration of refugees and displaced persons.  [FP]

Recent actions by the Obama Administration have sought to get the Yazidis to safety (a multinational effort), re-arm and supply the Peshmerga (a multinational effort), and get the Maliki government in the rear view mirror in order to restore the government and the Iraq Security Force into working order.  Is this too complex for Representative Heck to ponder?

How about we set an example of using multinational cooperation to  diminish threats to global security by applying the least force appropriate in the most multilateral format possible?  Is that too difficult to understand?

Carry a Big Bull Horn and Do What With It?

But wait, Representative Heck’s apprehensions go even further:

“Heck said a lack of follow-through on U.S. threats makes America appear weak. He didn’t cite Syria, but President Bashar al-Assad suffered no serious repercussions for using chemical weapons against his own people.

“Our adversaries need to know that if they do X, then the U.S. is going to do Y,” Heck said. “And there has not been that consistency. That’s why you see actors, not only in the Middle East, but also Russia and China, push the limits.”  [LVRJ]

Breathe.  Did Representative Heck miss the part where the Danish ship met the U.S. ship in the Italian harbor — and Assad doesn’t have his chemical weapons anymore? The serious repercussion is that Assad can’t use his chemical weapons on his own people anymore because he doesn’t have them.  He’s down to barrel bombs.

Breathe, and let the breath condense on the crystal ball Representative Heck seems to have about the intentions and actions of foreign parties. If we tell people we’ll do Y if they do X — What are X and Y?

Let’s explore some of the implications of Representative Heck’s simple formula, in the application of the administration’s doctrine: Indirect threats will be met multilaterally and not necessarily with the use of maximum force in each instance.

Putin moves against Ukraine.  There is no direct threat to the United States therefore we will address the threat multilaterally and not necessarily with maximum (military) force.  Multilateral action is messy, can be slow, doesn’t make for dramatic headlines, and certainly isn’t conducive to the bellicose bluster approach. However, in this instance it’s a far better approach.

For example, the U.S. does about $160 million in trade with Ukraine, [Cen] by contrast Germany’s trade with Ukraine is estimated at $10 billion. [Siemens pdf] If economic interests are placed in the “threat” category then Germany has far more at stake in the problems between Ukraine and Russia than we do.  So do China, Belarus, Poland, Turkey, Italy, and Hungary. [Bloomberg]

But, but, but, sputter the critics, Putin moved into Crimea and we didn’t do anything.  Come to think of it, neither did the Ukrainians — possibly remembering Crimea was attached to Ukraine in 1954 as a matter of Soviet administrative convenience, and when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 Crimea negotiated terms which allowed it to be an autonomous republic. [AJAM]

While the Russians (Putin) continue to threaten interference with Ukrainian sovereignty, the latest efforts have been rebuffed.  The Russians are putting out the story that the destruction of an armored column is a fantasy — the Ukrainians have another version of events, one in which they destroyed at least half of it. [HuffPo] Meanwhile, the notion of sending arms to Ukraine sounds a bit like carrying coal to Newcastle — at one point Ukraine exported arms to Russia, included in a total of $1.3 billion in arms sales each year. [Bloomberg]

Perhaps there’s not enough drama in the careful ratcheting up of economic sanctions to cool the blood of those who, like Representative Heck, are unable to comprehend the current foreign policy direction of the Obama Administration?  However, it’s not like the Russians didn’t get some warnings as the sanctions were slowly increased until they started to hurt Russians in their grocery stores. [USAT]  Yes, Mr. Putin, if you continue to threaten (X) Ukraine, the western nations will (Y) hit you in the grocery baskets.  Worse still for Mr. Putin’s plans, the Germans, who have taken their own economic interests into consideration during the maneuvering, are now taking a much stiffer stance. [NYT]

Now, what part of Indirect threats will be met multilaterally and not necessarily with the use of maximum force in each instance. isn’t clear?

China? It’s difficult to tell what Representative Heck might be talking about, other than a generalized appeal to the old Yellow Peril line of jingoism.  However, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he knows we’re monitoring what is going on between the Philippines, Vietnam and the Chinese regarding the South China Sea. [Reuters] And, that’s what we’re doing — monitoring to see if there has been or will be a de-escalation of tempers in that region.  We will be working with Australia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and China to resolve differences — meaning we will adopt the position that Indirect threats will be met multilaterally and not necessarily with the use of maximum force in each instance.

Perhaps Representative Heck does understand that the Obama Administration will meet indirect threats with multilateral efforts and not apply the use of maximum force in each instance — then what is the substance of his criticism?  We don’t “sound” strong enough? What does that mean? We don’t “look” strong enough? What does that mean?

Representative Heck may be indulging in theater criticism — should the President’s voice have been louder? Deeper? Should the wording of policy statements have been more aggressive? Should aggressively worded policy statements be issued no matter what our friends and allies may say?  He may assert he doesn’t agree with the foreign policy direction of the Obama Administration, but surely he can’t mean he doesn’t understand it.

Never one to be considered a softy, Gen. George Patton offered this pithy bit of advice on leadership:

“You young lieutenants have to realize that your platoon is like a piece of spaghetti. You can’t push it. You’ve got to get out in front and pull it.”

President Obama seems to have received and understood that message, Representative Heck must still be working on it. Pull too hard on spaghetti and it breaks.

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Filed under Foreign Policy, Iraq, Nevada politics, Politics, Republicans

The Intractable Riddle: US Policy in the Middle East

Middle eastern foreign policy is the one topic assured to bring the house down around the ears, no matter what position may be taken.  The continued ill-will between the Palestinians and the Israelis is at once both one of the most complex and nuanced of conflicts, and one of the most blatantly bisected into warring quarters.   Sometimes we also forget that what is foreign policy for us, is someone else’s domestic policy.

Recommended Reading

Nahum Goldmann, “The Future of Israel,” Foreign Affairs, April 1970.  There is much to be extracted from this piece, even though it is framed in Cold War terms and assumes the polarization of the Soviet Union and the United States.  Among other insightful statements, Goldmann offers the prescient comment that gains secured by force of arms are, by their very nature, transient.

The domestic politics of Israel are summarized, albeit too briefly, in Brent Sasley’s “The Domestic Politics of Israeli Peacemaking,” Foreign Policy, July 22, 2013.  A piece in the Cyprus Mail, brings the problems into sharper focus:

“Recent statements by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggest that he is increasingly aware of the fundamental dilemma that Israel is bound to face: If it holds on to the occupied territories, it will be forced to choose between being a Jewish but non-democratic state and being a democratic state but seeing the Jews become a minority in their own land. It is unclear whether this dilemma is a pressing concern for the current government, but the fact that Netanyahu brought it up is quite significant.” [CM March 11, 2014]

On the other side of the border, Hamas won the 2006 elections in Gaza, but it’s hardly the only group in play.  The Jewish Policy Center has  thumb-nail sketches of the other players in the game as they were constituted as of May 2012.  Just as there are segments of Israeli politics which are incorporated into the mix of domestic/foreign politics, there are several groups which have adherents in Gaza who are not directly associated with Hamas.

Palestinian Islamic Jihad is once such group, supported by Iran, it is apolitical and primarily interested in armed resistance to Israel, [CFR]  The Al-Quds Brigade has also made its presence known in the recent conflicts with Israel, as the armed wing of the PIJ. [Al Arabiya] Efforts to negotiate any truce or even cease fire agreements has to acknowledge that the Azzeddine el-Kasam (armed wing of Hamas) may or may not be able to control the PIJ or coordinate with it.  In sum, there is no shortage of groups of varying physical capacities, membership, affiliation, and ideological strains in Gaza. Nor is one likely to find an undated  ‘scorecard’ which includes all the possible variations.*

Our Domestic Issues

The right wing talking point of the day is that Secretary of State John Kerry is “feckless.” This category would include almost anyone who (1) isn’t following the Israeli lead unconditionally, and (2) has the temerity to suggest that there are other players in the game who have some, even small, parts which might be inserted into the script.

Consider for a moment, the last cease fire negotiated, the one in which the Egyptian government (Muslim Brotherhood) was trusted by Hamas, and could assert pressure on the government in Gaza to accept terms.  Since the ouster of the government in September 2013, the now clearly anti-Hamas Egyptian government no longer has leverage in the situation in Gaza.  Israel, no doubt would prefer to have the military government of Egypt as the interlocutor, but this seems almost like wishful thinking for times now gone in the rubble of Egyptian politics.  Secretary Kerry suggested two other interlocutors — Qatar and Turkey — which now may have more leverage with Hamas, to the fury of the Israeli press. [Haaretz]

While the shuffling and realignment of Hamas and its allies plays out the role of the Palestinian Authority remains a problem. Does acknowledging Gazan/Hamas issues necessarily diminish the clout of the Palestinian Authority?  How can we keep Egypt engaged in the peace process while accepting that the Gazan/Hamas government doesn’t have much use for their services?

Is it enough to say that a cease fire — who’s even hoping for a truce now? — mentions “addressing security issues” as an umbrella for more specific discussions, or must the agreement include particular security issues to be resolved, or at least discussed? And, by whom?

Complicating the matter even more are the charges and counter-charges shedding  more heat than light on the subject.  Even a comparatively innocuous timeline of events in Gaza drew angry fire from commenters who decried its failure to include elements of the conflict going back to the foundation of the state of Israel, and the validation of Palestinian claims after World War I. [CNN]

At the very least we have a conflict in which Goldmann’s central question from 1970 (Is Israel a democracy with a Jewish minority, or a Jewish state without a democracy?) and his secondary question, (How does one disentangle a question in which there is no right or wrong, but two rights in conflict?) both remain unanswered.

See also: Palestinian Islamic Jihad, al Quds Brigades, Fatah, PFLP  Abu Ali Mustafa Brigades, Popular Resistance Committees, Salafi-Jihadist (Jaish al-Islam) and Tawid wa al-Jihad.

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Filed under Foreign Policy, Israel, Middle East, Politics

Ukraine 101

As Ambroise Bierce once put it, “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.” [BQ] It needn’t be a full fledged conflict, in these days of cable media it can be a threat of armed conflict in a volatile region.   Unfortunately, what we learn in the form of geographic knowledge we tend to subsume beneath a pile of pre-existing and often simplistic assumptions.

In the interest of complicating a complex situation further, perhaps it’s time to test a few assumptions.

1.Vladimir Putin wants to rebuild the Russian Empire.” This conclusion has been drawn by former CIA Deputy Director Mike Morell. [CBS] Morell opines that the current problems between Russia and Ukraine stem from the ouster of the former Ukrainian prime minister who sought closer economic ties to Russia.   Yes, Putin has decried the break up of the old Soviet Union, so this line of argument has a kernel of consistency.  However, it also requires ignoring the instances in which Putin has observed that Ukraine is an independent nation. [NPR]  The two notions are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but “nostalgia does not presupposed expansionism.” [IndUK]  A little more thought may be in order before we leap to this conclusion.

2.If Ukraine falls then Moldova, etc. are next.”  Slow down. If Putin’s nostalgia isn’t a ‘plan’ for Russian expansion then the argument falls apart, no matter how many nations formerly affiliated with the old Soviet Union are added to the list.

3.It’s just like Georgia.”  Every analogy, or attempt to argue by analogy, eventually crumbles into absurdity, and this one falls apart more quickly than most.   The European Union sponsored a three volume study on the 2008 conflict in Georgia and concluded the conflict was started by…the Georgians.  [EU vol 1 pdf] Specifically, a “sustained Georgian artillery attack on the town of Tskhinvali.”   Given the vast military superiority of Russian forces, had the Russians wanted re re-annex Georgia it would not have been an insurmountable task.  They didn’t. The Russians didn’t even take the Georgian capital at Tbilisi.   Georgia is still an independent entity, with a prime minister elected from a unicameral parliament. [CIA]  That doesn’t mean there aren’t some hard feelings, “Russia’s military support and subsequent recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia independence in 2008 continue to sour relations with Georgia.” [CIA]

Abkhazia has a long history of association with Georgia, but not one without periodic conflicts. [BBC] The problems with South Ossetia are more profound.  Their language is more closely related to Persian than Georgian, and Georgians account for less than 1/3rd of the South Ossetian population. [BBC] While the Russians have formally recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia  only  Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru, and Tuvalu followed suit.  Abkhazia uses the ruble as its currency and about 50% of its total state budget is financed by the Russians.  The economic situation in South Ossetia is a bit more dire, it has one major asset — the Roki Tunnel, which connects Russia to that portion of  Georgia.  Most of its economy is based on subsistence farming.

In short, it’s one thing to ‘declare’ a region independent and offer it recognition, but quite another to present the world with a fait accompli.  And, we’d also be well advised to note the geographic and economic ties between Russia and the two portions of Georgia upon which it has bestowed recognition are more complicated than a superficial glance would evoke.

4.We have to DO something.”   That would be a good thing, had we major compelling interests in Ukraine.   The major imports (in order) are (1) refined petroleum 13%, (2) crude petroleum, (3) semi finished iron, (4) hot rolled iron, and (5) railway freight cars. [OEC]  32.4% of the country’s imports come from Russia, 9.3% from China, 8% from Germany, 6% from Belarus, and 4.2% from Poland. [CIA]  The amount of refined petroleum imported might suggest that U.S. companies might be able to Drill Baby Drill into relevance.  This, of course, assumes that U.S. petroleum products sold on the international oil market would dominate the Ukrainian market.  However, when a country has a neighbor with an abundance of natural gas and refined petroleum (Russia) readily available at lower cost, then both the cost and the convenience outweigh U.S. capacity to get more involved in that market. [WaPo]  The arguments for the TransCanadian Keystone pipeline and fracking are essentially for our own domestic political consumption, and have little relevance for the petroleum (refined or otherwise) on global markets.

If we aren’t a major trade partner with Ukraine what vested interests are we to protect by involving ourselves in their political turmoil?   The related question is: Are we the global police force?  If we adopt this stance then we have to be ready to assume the costs associated with it.   We are paying approximately $816 billion for our operations in Iraq, another $701 billion for operations in Afghanistan [GP]  how much more are we prepared to pay for incursions into Ukraine…Syria…Libya…?

If we don’t adopt this stance then are we prepared to acknowledge that other nations, specifically members of the European Union, and even more specifically Germany, have greater interests involved in the stability of their relations with Ukraine and Russia?  [CarnegieEurope] [New Yorker]

Might a better American policy on the current issues between Russia and Ukraine be to allow those with more immediate interests take the lead in defusing the situation?  Or, in basketball parlance, should we be the player who makes other players on the court more effective?

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Filed under Economy, energy, energy policy, Foreign Policy, Politics

Keeping Score When It’s Not A Game

Horse Race GateCongress isn’t the only Washington, D.C. institution that’s off the rails, add the Beltway Media to the mix.  Consider the coverage of the face off over Syrian weapons:

“So far, no American bombs have been dropped on Syria, not one American soldier has died in fighting there, and no Syrian civilians have been killed by U.S. forces. But that hasn’t stopped the chattering class from eviscerating Obama, often with a mocking and condescending tone. Deeply invested in the Obama’s-stumbling storyline that was attached to the president’s initial call for bombing strikes, pundits and reporters failed (or refused) to adjust as the facts shifted and the crisis steered toward a diplomatic resolution.

The Syria coverage represents a clear case of the press adopting style over substance, as well as channeling Republican spin. Of treating foreign policy as if it were a domestic political campaign and insisting that a story unfolding half-a-world away was really all about Obama and how it affected (and/or damaged) his political fortunes. It was also coverage that often lacked nuance and context, and that refused to allow diplomatic events unfold without minute-by-minute surveys of the domestic winners and losers.”  [MMFA]

And therein lies the problem — the situation with regard to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons isn’t essentially part of a domestic political campaign — it IS a foreign policy issue.

Those who wanted background information and now seek to keep up with the current negotiations are better served by visiting the BBC Syria Profile,  KQED prvides “Six Excellent Resources,” on the Syrian situation — no Washington pundits included.

Consider the current conflict between the House Republicans and the threat to shut down the federal government.   There is some excellent background information available — just don’t wait to hear about it from the Beltway Press.   Better  background information is available from the Congressional Research Service, which published “CRS Report for Congress Prepared for Members and Committees of Congress Shutdown of the Federal Government: Causes, Processes, and Effects,” August 2013. (pdf) The CRS also created a report, “Government Shutdown: Operations of the Department of Defense During a Lapse in Appropriations,” in April 2011. (pdf)   Looking at the 2011 budget battle/shutdown threat, Business Week compiled, “How a Federal Shutdown Could Affect Americans,” in February 2011.

One of the more depressing aspects of this coverage is that some of the major news outlets have, in fact, published summarized information pieces about the economic impacts of a government shutdown — to be evidently ignored by their own pundits.  There was this prescient piece in the Atlantic,  April 7, 2011.  CNN Money published this guide on September 16, 2013.

However,  the Chatterati persists in reporting the clash between the Democrats and the Republicans, and the Republicans and the Republicans as if the economic impacts of this brinkmanship were tangential.  “Oh, by the way, if you want your question answered by a person in the USDA office — good luck. Or, if you want to find out about the status of your small business loan application — better be prepared to wait.   Do you have a contract to provide goods or services to any agency of the federal government?  Put that on hold please.”

But, but, but… sputter the talking heads on my TV screen… What about the impact on the 2014 elections?  Having purchased the Horse Race Reportage template  bit, bridle, halter, saddle, blanket and all, the pundits are trapped riding their only topic — election results.

“Well, yes, that does make things challenging. President Obama has to lead, but not too much, and not in a way that may make his rivals feel uncomfortable. He has to be hands-on and hands-off, preferably at the same time. He should use the so-called “bully pulpit,” but not in a way that connects the presidency to any specific issue Republicans may need to vote on.

And it’s against this backdrop that a few too many pundits wonder aloud why the president doesn’t overcome Republicans’ refusal to compromise by “leading” more. Many more suggested “schmoozing” would alleviate GOP intransigence.

But if Republicans are going to balk whether Obama engages or not, the advice seems misplaced.” [Benen]

The Chatterati persist in submerging foreign policy, economic issues, and social issues under the restrictive confines of “all things are politics” categorization.  It’s tantamount to “keeping score when there’s no game.”

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Filed under Foreign Policy, media, Politics