Friday, April 27, 2012

War on Terror, War on Justice

As the war on terror heats up, liberty and justice become increasingly constrained.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Is Moderate Turkey Losing Its Balance?

What will happen to the Mideast if the Turkish model of moderation fails to keep its balance on the tightrope of regional affairs?

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Nuclear Hysteria

Trust but verify. To verify your "friends," listen to them. You may be surprised.

We Americans like to put countries in neat categories, simplify issues, take a stand, and get on with life. Those are very dangerous habits in our messy little world. A perfect example of the American tendency to oversimplify is "Israel." Almost all Americans seem to assume that the term "Israel" means something. Do all Israelis have identical opinions, attitudes, and intentions? OK, obviously not. all socially conscious Israelis? Again, five minutes' reading of any Israeli newspaper makes it clear they do not. about all national security officers in the current Israeli administration?

Pick the most critical national security issue of the day and listen to the public remarks in the last week about Iran of key members of the regime in Tel Aviv:

Prime Minister Netanyahu: To fear telling the truth, which is that there are those today who also seek to destroy millions of Jews, is to disrespect the Holocaust and insult its victims. The Prime Minister of Israel is not only allowed to conjure the memory of a third of our people when speaking of existential threats, it is his duty. [Haaretz 4/25/12.]

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gantz:We are a temperate state. The State of Israel is the strongest in the region and will remain so. Decisions can and must be made carefully, out of historic responsibility but without hysteria....Clearly, the more the Iranians progress the worse the situation is. This is a critical year, but not necessarily 'go, no-go.' The problem doesn't necessarily stop on December 31, 2012. We're in a period when something must happen: Either Iran takes its nuclear program to a civilian footing only or the world, perhaps we too, will have to do something. We're closer to the end of the discussions than the middle....[WM: Iran] is going step by step to the place where it will be able to decide whether to manufacture a nuclear bomb. It hasn't yet decided whether to go the extra mile. [Haaretz 4/25/12.]
Those not sufficiently impressed with the level of hysteria in the above Netanyahu quote should read the whole speech; Netanyahu's grossly overblown historical allusions that implicitly accuse all who dissent from his viewpoint of being either idiots or traitors are explained in the Israeli media.

Hysterical people with their fingers on nuclear buttons are not friends; they are enemies...and very dangerous ones.

An  Israeli review of the Israeli military-intelligence revolt against Netanyahu.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Defining Standards of Official Behavior

Both government and corporate officials must be held to high standards for democracy to function. Some examples follow.

It really is not that hard to define standards of behavior for corporate or government leaders that merit severe criminal penalties when violated. Examples of egregious official misbehavior that causes vast social harm are legion.

Cover-Ups. Democracy rests on knowledge. All cover-ups thus have unknowably profound consequences for society. Consider the recent allegations that BP covered up the failure of its equipment years before the poisoning of the Gulf of Mexico. Whether or not criminal negligence existed in either case, the mere fact that the initial failure was covered up greatly enhanced the likelihood that the second failure would occur. If it causes public harm, it is the public's business.

Standard #1. Punish the act of covering up, of hiding information that harms society independently from any judgments about the intent of those committing the act that was covered up.

Coming soon...
Candidate Standard #2. The Buck Stops at the Top. Make punishment of the boss mandatory in all cases of corporate misbehavior.

End the Afghan War

Withdraw all Western Troops from Afghanistan Petition | GoPetition

We Americans cannot end the Afghan social conflict, but we can quite probably end the international Afghan war. I say this on the assumption that no significant Afghan party to the conflict wants to carry the fighting to the U.S. To the degree that assumption proves invalid, concerted international police action--which should have been the initial U.S. response to 9/11--will probably suffice. What the U.S. can do is stop pouring fuel on the fire. More, the U.S. can step back, tacitly admitting it lacks the wisdom to run things in Afghanistan, and encourage international Muslim assistance to Afghan society.

Sign the petition, please.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Too Big to Punish

The concept of ethical standards of behavior for either corporate officers or government officials has become something of a joke in this bright, new century. Politicians seem utterly uneducated when it comes to discriminating between right and wrong, the media morally dead, voters hopelessly confused, the powerful cynical and smirking all the way to the bank. Petty offenders feel the full force of the law, but the serious criminals who buy elections, impoverish millions, and provoke wars that undermine society and governance are “too big to punish.” Are ethics and morality really too complicated to think about in our busy modern world? Not really—the answer is staring us in the face.

We are all held up to standards of behavior. Drivers must drive on the right, at least in the U.S. This illustrates an arbitrary but quite valuable standard; head-on collisions are inconvenient. Other standards are less arbitrary yet bizarrely more controversial and far more studiously avoided. Minor bureaucrats are sternly warned to avoid “even the appearance” of conflict of interest while national leaders pursue self-enriching conflicts with few qualms and almost no risk of punishment. Still, at least in some countries, ordering the murder of a political opponent is deemed beyond the pale. Even for the most powerful officials in major democracies, then, at least some standards exist. The question, for those who care about the quality of governance, is how far to carry these standards, how high the standards should be, and how rigorously the most powerful officials should be held to these standards.

No Empire Is Too Big to Fail; No Leader Too Big to Punish
Lawyers can and will debate the details endlessly. More important and most glaringly absent in contemporary American public consciousness is the principle underlying the debate over standards. Why should, for example, a President not be allowed to lie to the people about his reasons for launching a war? Why, for example, should drones not be sent to kill untried individuals who are “suspected” of being either military or civilian adversaries? Why, even if drone attacks are judged appropriate, should the President or some unknown official buried in the bureaucracy of the CIA or the Pentagon not be allowed to make the decision to kill such adversaries in cold blood without a formal judicial finding? Why should a bank official be allowed to evade personal responsibility for “losing” someone’s mortgage papers and then stealing back the house of a homeowner who was faithfully paying his or her mortgage? Why should a corporation that poisons a nation's prime fishing grounds continue to exist, and why should its officials not contribute every penny of their ill-earned millions in compensation? Where lies any justification for allowing those who commit the most grievous sins against society to evade responsibility simply because they disenfranchised, impoverished, poisoned, or slaughtered an uncounted number of unknown people rather than a single specific individual?

Are these just tedious hair-splitting issues for lawyers to argue behind closed doors, carefully protected from the prying eyes of the foreigners being bombed or the Americans whose mortgages have been stolen? Well, no, they are not; they are, in fact, rather clear-cut examples of a society that has lost its path to the degree that it can no longer recall its own values. These issues rest solidly on a simple principle that has been clearly stated for all to see more than once in our nation’s history. Abraham Lincoln did not “invent” this principle, but he may have stated it best half way through the war “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal…and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

That is the essence of “American values,” not slavery (on cotton farms or in Chinese factories), not genocide (of Native Americans or Palestinians), not the propping up of thuggish regimes that host our naval bases, not the protection of corporations that poison our commons, not neo-conservative wars of choice, not neo-liberal economic oppression. By what mental slight-of-hand did "national interest" come to mean the opposite of "the people's welfare?"


Thursday, April 19, 2012

Standards of Behavior for Officials

Democracies will never function well until standards of behavior for officials are defined and the officials are held accountable for meeting those standards. Yearning for honest officials may be naive; demanding the public definition of required standards of behavior is not. Far better the implementation of strict standards of behavior for officials than to suffer "a long train of abuses and usurpations" leading to "absolute Despotism." 

I posed a very rude question on this blog yesterday, but rude or not, democracies need to wrestle with such questions. Today, let's approach the issue of the quality of governance more gently with another question:

Do democracies need to hold public officials to standards of official behavior?

By "official behavior," I refer to the acts they take as officials, rather than in their private lives.

Imagine some surely imaginary scenarios, such as a leader who lies to the people about his reasons for launching a war of choice or a general who lies (either to the people or to his commander-in-chief) about how well he is managing his campaign during a war, or a leader who whips up a war fever for some private agenda. These are, by any reasonable moral standard, truly criminal acts, acts that either cause or greatly risk the deaths of thousands. The worst acts of what we are pleased to call "terrorism" ever known pale by comparison with such crimes. Yet, the leaders of democracies are almost never punished for them. Indeed, it is not even clear if they are technically "illegal."

By what standard would guilt even be proven in court? Suppose a politician makes his career by calling for war, year after year, against some antagonist that never attacks, claiming that a threat nevertheless exists and walks, year after year, smiling to the bank with billions in foreign military aid from a naive patron. Were such deception ever to occur, how would one prove it? He can always claim he really believed there was a threat and that it was precisely the military aid that prevented disaster.

The problem of creating standards of behavior for officials in a democracy is not a simple one. "Let the voters decide" clearly does not work; the voters almost never choose to educate themselves sufficiently to make informed decisions and, indeed, hardly can, given the collusion between parties and by the media, not to mention the fog of classification under which every official act is buried for the protection of the guilty. (And, by the way, I actually do know that some secrets are worth keeping, but these are few and far between, while the secrets to prevent the voters from educating themselves about official guilt are all-pervasive.)

But even the attempt to define standards would at least put officials on notice and perhaps attract public attention to the difference between official claims and reality. We have standards for bank clerks and engineers; why not for the men and women who have their finger on the nuclear button? Just for one (surely imaginary) example, imagine a general conducting a foreign campaign who claims he is making progress when statistics indicate that enemy attacks are increasing. Or imagine a regime that hands billions of dollars of aid to rich financial corporations deemed "too big to fail" without A) accounting publicly for what the welfare recepients do with those taxpayer funds or B) holding the CEO's of those corporate welfare queens accountable for the actions that led to the need for the welfare in the first place. Might one be able to define a simple standard of behavior such that these acts could be found, in a court of law, to be punishable crimes?

I dare say, one could, and I would further propose that a set of standards be defined and that all officials above a certain grade automatically have their careers reviewed by, say, the Supreme Court before retirement to determine whether or not grounds for referral to the Department of Justice might exist, with both their right to further government office and their pensions withheld pending a decision.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

When Does Cover-Up = Treason?

When powerful officials cover up their errors to protect themselves and that cover-up means not just the continuing deaths of both Americans and innocent foreign civilians but the worsening of the long-term situation and the undermining of national security, is there a point at which such a cover-up should be considered a sign of incompetence, a punishable offense, or even treason?

Pentagon is suppressing an unclassified report by a Pentagon investigator just back from Afghanistan that charges, according to its unofficial version published in Rolling Stone:
Senior ranking U.S. military leaders have so distorted the truth when communicating with the U.S. Congress and American people in regards to conditions on the ground in Afghanistan that the truth has become unrecognizable. This deception has damaged America’s credibility among both our allies and enemies, severely limiting our ability to reach a political solution to the war in Afghanistan.... 
the situation demonstrates a growing and expanding willingness on the part of our country’s senior military leaders to use “Information Operations” even on domestic audiences to manipulate the system in order to get what they want....
Without a change in our strategy in the field and a return to honest and frank public statements by our leaders, the likelihood of the United States Armed Forces suffering an eventual defeat in Afghanistan is very high.

Little wonder the Pentagon is suppressing this historic expose of Obama's misguided war: no sin is worse in Washington than embarrassing the big guys. My question is this:

How serious does a cover-up have to be for it to be considered treason?

Monday, April 16, 2012

Winning Coalition for the U.S.-Iranian Nuclear Dispute

As Tehran, Washington, and Tel Aviv maneuver, the world is trying to figure out what the three sides really want, but there are no “three sides.” The conflict pits zero-sum militarists against positive-sum moderates.

All three sides are constantly in flux internally and in relation to each other, so even if the world knew all the secrets of each, where they are headed would still be unknowable for they do not know themselves. Yet logic can carry us rather far once we abandon the hopelessly simplistic image of "good" and "bad" regimes.

Starting with Tehran, it seems fairly safe to assume that at least three distinct perspectives are well represented within the factionalized and bitterly competitive ruling elite: 1) nuclear arms are “haram;” 2) nuclear arms per se may be risky but nuclear ambiguity is a great bargaining chip; 3) neither national security nor the realization of national goals is possible in a nuclear world without nuclear arms (i.e., this third faction may in turn be composed of a faction that feels the bomb is the only way to defend Iran and another faction that is committed to the high risk road of international adventure). It is illogical to assume that a fundamentalist religious regime claiming its right to rule is derived from God would repeatedly and publicly insist that nuclear arms are evil if it were committed to building them, so it is only logical to assume that some measure of genuine regime antipathy for owning nuclear arms truly exists. To the degree that nuclear ambiguity serves as a catalyst for persuading adversaries to negotiate in good faith, i.e., to offer something Tehran really wants, the Tehran faction that consider nuclear arms haram and the faction that is open to a pragmatic, positive-sum bargain will be thrown together, and Iranian media are replete with indications that the latter faction should not be discounted.

Hossein Mousavian--former Iranian nuclear negotiator with ties to Ali Larijani, a background of cooperating with the U.S. as an Iranian official, and now living in the U.S.--published a well-balanced and moderate op-ed in the Boston Globe that is rumored to present the position Jalili was advocating in Istanbul. Mousavian's recommendations for Washington were surprisingly low-cost:

the United States should credibly demonstrate that the ultimate goal is “engagement’’ and not regime change. The P5+1 should offer a package that includes three major elements: 1) recognition of Iran’s inalienable rights for enrichment; 2) removal of the sanctions; and 3) normalization of Iran’s nuclear file. 

Although a neutral observer of the U.S.-Iran conflict might well imagine that Washington would at a minimum need to recognize Iran and address its legitimate national security concerns, Mousavian evidently considers neither of these concessions essential to making progress on the initial nuclear phase of the bilateral discord. For any Washington officials who may wish to avoid war, that is good news: tough U.S. moves toward peace can be postponed for later...presumably after the election.

The degree to which Mousavian represents the views of major Tehran power-holders of course remains unclear, but he has presented a low-cost set of U.S. moves that could put U.S.-Iranian discourse on a more professional foundation and his background suggests it is logical to assume his views will resonate with at least some portions of the Iranian national security establishment.
It should, in brief, be obvious to serious national security decision-makers in Washington that it is in the national security interest of the U.S. to grease the wheels for an Iranian factional realignment by presenting compromise offers that promote cooperation rather than making hardline demands that equate to an Iranian surrender.

Factionalism is of course not limited to Iran. Tel Aviv is firmly under the control of the “Greater Israel” faction that is committed both to maximizing Israeli power and permanently subjugating the Palestinian people. But even this faction is fundamentally split between those represented by risk-seeking Netanyahu who seem eager to fight to the last American to shove Iran back into client status and those, represented by recently retired and risk-averse Mossad chief Meir Dagan, who worry about provoking a disaster for Israel. Neither moderate nor liberal factions appear to play any significant role in the current Israeli power structure, but many representatives of such views speak out bluntly and regularly in the Israeli media, cautioning about not only a self-provoked disaster for Israel but the immorality of Israel’s repression of Palestinians and the harm that the Israeli garrison state is doing to Israeli democracy. These out-of-power thinkers represent a potentially revolutionary force for Israel’s future that was far more influential traditionally in Israeli politics than it is today.

The extraordinarily bitter and irresponsible factionalism in Washington separates two sides of the old superpower coin: the neo-con, zero-sum militarist faction vs. the empire-light conservative Democrats. But progressive, moderate perspectives remain among Washington officials, even if marginalized, and the argument that Washington could, by skillful diplomacy, elicit more cooperation from a factionalized Iran can be turned around: a less awkward, short-sighted, and egregiously uncooperative Tehran could also elicit a more balanced, more positive-sum attitude on Washington’s part. The more Tehran removes ambiguity from its nuclear policy, the easier it will be for those forces in Washington trying to prevent war to prevail. To put it differently, the more Tehran hardliners hide what they are doing in Fordo, the more Iranian representatives at nuclear talks make speeches that lack detailed substantive compromise offers, the more they empower American neo-cons and Israeli “Greater Israel” advocates.

The current situation, then, is three sets of internally competitive factions, one in each country. As illustrated in "The Current U.S.-Iranian-Israeli Political Impass," this unfortunate reality prevents resolution of the nuclear dispute by confusing common interest in national security with domestic political infighting, separating and weakening the forces in each country that could, if interacting, find a solution. This situation greatly empowers extremists because they do not need close coordination: it only takes one actor to start a war.

The road to a positive-sum solution that could potentially end the nuclear dispute with mutual acceptance of the independence and national security of all lies in the joint realization of those in each regime favoring cooperation that cooperation needs to begin at the factional rather than national level. Once coordination between the cooperative factions of the U.S. and Iran begins, the tone of the debate changes from "how can we defeat the enemy" to "how can we solve the problem." Redefining the terms of debate is critical to finding a real solution. Once that happens, it becomes vastly easier to persuade members of the flexible faction to joint in, thus building momentum to marginalize extremists.

Two recent indications of apparent Iranian interest in cooperation are Larijani's offer of eventual "permanent human monitors" and Jalili's weekend reference to Khamenei's fatwah as an opening to "disarmament." While perhaps indicative of an Iranian interest in compromise, these rhetorical initiatives fall far short of the type of major substantive concession that Iran, with its huge nuclear infrastructure, could afford to make. Without harming its stance of nuclear ambiguity, Tehran could, for example, open the Fordo underground refinement facility or the Arak heavy water plant to full public inspection or announce temporary termination of construction and/or operation pending the removal of sanctions. Closing one while keeping the other open would demonstrate flexibility while making the statement that Iran has multiple options in the face of continued Western intransigence while weakening protests from Netanyahu that Obama's willingness to negotiate was only giving Iran more time. A temporary concession made on the requirement of a Western response within a specified time would empower U.S. advocates of compromise now fatally weakened by Iranian refusal to go beyond rhetorical steps that can easily and not unreasonably be dismissed by Western cynics.

In sum, the simplest picture of what is happening that everyone needs to keep in their heads is not “Iran, the U.S., and Israel,” but three sets of factions vying for influence. To prevent war and resolve the nuclear dispute, the Tehran, Washington, and Tel Aviv factions willing to define a deal centered on the concepts of mutual security and a willingness to do business together must figure out a way to coordinate and shift the debate from zero-sum barbarism to positive-sum rationality.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Opportunity for Obama to Resolve His Iran Dilemma

Tehran has just placed a great opportunity in the hands of Western nuclear negotiators by stressing that Khamenei's anti-bomb fatwa creates an opportunity for non-proliferation. Obama will be evaluated by historians in great measure by how he responds.

In reaction to the just completed round of nuclear talks between Iran and the West, Iran's chief negotiator Jalili has described Khamenei's fatwa calling nuclear arms "haram" (morally forbidden) as having “created an opportunity for concrete steps toward disarmament and non-proliferation.” 

Jalili's statement prepares the way in Tehran for nuclear compromise as the morally correct and politically correct way forward, if only the West will make some effort to present attractive offers couched respectfully. Tehran has clearly stated, in American language, that compromise is "on the table." This is a hugely significant statement for an extremely hostile and surely somewhat nervous regime that has been struggling since its inception for independence from Western domination.

It is always easier for politicians to announce how tough they are and to portray compromise as "treachery," as every American who has been awake for the past 15 years well knows. In a weak state under threat of attack, such tactics are all the easier. In that context, Jalili's remark should be treated as a major signal of Tehran's willingness to meet the West half way. Of course, it may not be such a signal, but in any case, it is a statement that powerful factions of the Iranian political leadership will have great difficulty disowning and which serves the national interests of all Western societies.

Washington should applaud this statement and find a way to respond positively with substantive offers that are presented as building on this foundation laid by Iran's Supreme Leader. Great diplomacy seizes opportunities.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Obama's Iran Dilemma

Obama faces a dilemma on the Iran issue: no common ground exists between the demands of the Netanyahu "Greater Israel" faction for unilateral security and the legitimate demands of any patriotic Iranian regime. Moreover, what is good for both the American and Israeli societies would be very bad indeed for the Netanyahu "Greater Israel" faction.

Plenty of room exists for a reasonable compromise between the U.S. and Iran: Iran needs security, while the last remaining superpower can surely live with a secure Iran. To reach that positive-sum position, both sides will obviously have to move some distance from their preferred solution space, but both can easily do so and maintain "their way of life." Moreover, such a compromise also satisfies the legitimate national security interests of the Israeli people.

Nevertheless, Obama faces a real dilemma, though it is a political dilemma rather than a national security dilemma, because no common ground exists between the demands of the Netanyahu "Greater Israel" faction and the legitimate demands of any patriotic Iranian regime. The crisis with Iran appears to exist because Washington has not ever sincerely and consistently, i.e., persuasively, offered Iran a compromise. (I say "appears" because Washington has never offered Iran a real compromise, so the proposition that Tehran would accept such a compromise, while logical, remains untested.) Instead, Obama is publicly demanding, in essence, that Iran surrender its ability to defend itself and surrender its independent foreign policy by placing itself in a strategic position of such inferiority that its independent stance becomes clearly untenable. The collusion of the Shah and the Shi'i mullah landowning class with British and U.S. intelligence to overthrow the Iranian democracy movement in the early 1950's notwithstanding, it is hard to imagine any Iranian regime today accepting such a negotiated defeat.

No national security justification exists for Washington's stance. Given nuclear transparency on Iran's part, that country presents no particular security threat to the U.S. or Israel. A strong and independent Iran symbolizing opposition to the current world order is something both the U.S. and Israel could live with, if not benefit from, to the degree that it would encourage both to reconsider their behavior toward the rest of the world. A deal with Iran would have immediate benefits for the U.S. in its efforts to stabilize both Iraq and Afghanistan by facilitating negotiated solutions to the endless instability in those two countries. A strong but clearly non-nuclear Iran would, however, challenge two things: U.S. global dominance (as opposed to U.S. global leadership) and Greater Israel (Israeli regional military domination, Israeli territorial expansion, and the repression of the Palestinian people). 

A deal with Iran that left Iran transparently non-nuclear, clearly enunciated the parallel goal of ultimate (if not immediate) Israeli nuclear transparency and nuclear demilitarization, made room in the world for an Iranian political challenge to U.S. or Israeli regional domination, and recognized Iran's right to possess the means of self-defense would have both benefits and drawbacks for various American and Israeli factions. For the people of the U.S. and Israel (as well as for the people of Iran), the benefit would be the opening of the door to a more cooperative and more stable relationship with the Muslim world, not to mention the strengthening of domestic democracy. American or Israeli empire-builders, on the other hand, would suffer a powerful and immediate setback. Justifying foreign wars or waving the bloody shirt to win elections would become far more difficult. International relations would take a different course.

One might argue that Iran should take the deal still publicly being offered by Obama and submit to avoid war. Admittedly, giving up the ability to defend itself is a small loss for Iran, since it obviously really has no ability to defend itself against nuclear Israel anyway. But such a deal would represent a humiliating return to the days of being a lackey of the West. The humiliation part will be hard to swallow, and the humiliation part is surely Netanyahu’s minimum goal because the whole nuclear issue is only a proxy for Israeli hegemony. The Greater Israel faction ruling Israel does not want equality and mutual security; it wants domination. It wants a carte blanche for Israeli control over, if not obliteration of, Palestinians and the continuation of its overwhelming military superiority over all of its neighbors, to put it simple, "unilateral insecurity" for everyone else.

This leaves Obama with a problem: if he cuts a rational deal with Iran designed to resolve the nuclear problem, then it must include something for Iran and that “something” must surely address Iran’s legitimate right to self-defense. This is not difficult – U.S. guarantee of no attack plus support for the sale to Iran of Russian air defense missiles might suffice. A more reasonable deal would include diplomatic recognition of Iran as a country, termination of all efforts at regime change, and acceptance of Iran as a political counterpart like every other state on earth with which the U.S. would consult on regional issues.
The problem is that a rational deal trading complete Iranian nuclear transparency for Iranian national security will take the sting–the humiliation–out and therefore such a deal WILL NOT SATISFY NETANYAHU. On the contrary, a deal that recognizes Iran’s right to exist, be safe, and continue to pursue its independent foreign policy, while frankly quite fine for the U.S., would be the worst defeat the Greater Israel faction has ever suffered. So Obama has a problem.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Emergence of a Joint Russian-Chinese Strategic Vision

Washington clearly lacks the wisdom to manage a “war on drugs” or a “war on terror” or a “war for democracy” in a Muslim society. A more counter-productive effort in world affairs would be hard to find. But if Washington exits Afghanistan without leaving a process of effectively addressing the drug problem in place, then some very nasty scenarios that are hardly imagined today may become highly possible.

What one day is an entirely defensive effort to combat the international trade in illegal narcotics can another day seamlessly morph into an aggressive military alliance. Some today in the West may find it easy to sneer at the strategic military potential of the so-far timid and disunited Shanghai Cooperation Organization, but illegal narcotics are providing a strong rationale for SCO’s members to cooperate militarily, and there’s plenty of talk in Russian media about the drug threat, which is killing 100,000 Russians a year.

Consider the context:
  1. Afghanistan is NATO-occupied, so responsibility for the flood of illegal narcotics poisoning the societies of Russia and the rest of the SCO member states lies at NATO’s door;
  2. the Western campaign in Afghanistan is failing;
  3. U.S.-Pakistani relations are in trouble;
  4. Narcotics and terror not only are linked but are so portrayed in Russian media.

In this context, the long-term trend in Russian-Pakistani ties merits watching. Russian “drug tsar” Victor Ivanov recently lauded rising Russian-Pakistani anti-drug cooperation:

Антинаркотическое сотрудничество России и Пакистана активно развивается. Взаимодействие двух стран "перешло в доверительную фазу". [Golos Rossii (Voice of Russia) 3/29/12.]

His claim that “mutual trust” has been established should focus Washington minds. Moscow has been encouraging Islamabad’s interest in joining the SCO for some time. Are Washington’s abuses of its special relationship with Islamabad making Russia’s more delicate approach seem attractive? It certainly will if rumors of Russian financial support for the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline that Washington so bitterly opposes come true.

Like Pakistan, Iran has observer status in the SCO, but Iran seems too hot to handle, given its current self-defeating policy of nuclear ambiguity. Given Washington’s own endlessly hardline stance, however, a slightly more sophisticated Iranian nuclear policy might open SCO’s door. What if SCO officially offered Iran one of the obvious potential nuclear deals that Washington so carefully evades, e.g., end to sanctions, financing of the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline, defensive ground-to-air missiles, full membership in SCO, and the explicit right to refine medical-grade uranium in return for the “permanent human monitoring” of Iran’s nuclear project that Larijani has already offered? The next Nobel Peace Prize might go to Putin, and the SCO might discover its strategic mission.

But there’s more. Even NATO member Turkey is glancing toward SCO. To the degree that SCO constitutes no more than a local effort to support global stability, everyone could join, but in the context of a need to replace a failing U.S. power center in Central Asia and in the context of a backward-looking Washington rejecting Ankara’s self-portrayal as leader of Mideast moderates, a SCO deal with Iran that takes the nuclear issue off center-stage might confer significant momentum to Ankara’s delicate winks in SCO’s direction.

В рамках ШОС, Турция будет стремиться к поддержке своей роли лидера региона Ближнего и Среднего Востока, опираясь на дружественные и родственные отношения с тюркскими и исламскими государствами. Россия поддержала заявку Турции на получение статуса партнера по диалогу в ШОС. []

If Washington continues tripping over its own feet, as it has now for 15 years, while Moscow and Beijing creep forward through the diplomatic bushes, it becomes easier and easier to imagine the SCO picking up some of the slack. Beijing and Moscow will have to find common strategic ground, but Washington’s continuing obsession with pleasing Israel’s extreme right will make that easy, especially if Iran can smooth the rough edges off its foreign policy. A SCO with a strategic vision plus the membership of both Pakistan and Iran would be an entirely different animal than it is today, a sleek bear sporting dragon wings. If the reversal of trends as the U.S. presence in Central Asia is replaced by a joint Russian and Chinese presence occurs in the context of a bungled U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan that leaves behind a virulent drug mafia, then SCO would have a legitimate strategic purpose: the flying bear might start breathing fire. Given that, how hard would it be for Russian and Chinese strategic thinkers to justify…well, a “war on terror,” and how easily might such a war come to generate the same horrors that the Bush-Cheney war did?

Further Reading:

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Logic of Politically Motivated Violence

Political violence is expensive, with the bills coming in for a long time after the guilty parties (politicians and voters) have vanished from the scene. Political violence is not an act but a process, a vicious cycle, with unforeseen but logical linkages. Israeli policy toward Palestine and Israeli policy toward Iran are a single case in point.

Award-winning journalist, author, daughter of two Holocaust survivors, and herself victim of Israeli government persecution Amira Hass has charged the Israeli government with repressing Palestinians, following the model of the U.S. campaign of near-extermination of Native Americans in the 19th century, for the purpose of "Jewish hegemony and superiority."

This must be said: For the sake of hegemony, Israel is mortgaging the well-being of its children and the lives of its grandchildren, together with the well-being and lives of children and grandchildren throughout the region. [Haaretz 4/11/12.]

Nobel laureate Gunter Grass has just laid out the other half of the logical circle of politically motivated violence, warning:

The nuclear power Israel endangers
The already fragile world peace....
I am silent no longer
Because I am tired of the West’s hypocrisy
[Translation by The Washington Post.]
Political violence cannot exist in a vacuum, simply occurring and then ending. It necessarily exists as a process that flows both forward, affecting its target, and backward, affecting its perpetrator. American crimes of the 19th century are used to justify Israeli crimes of the 21st, and America's guilt inhibits Americans from protesting. Israel's policy of force against Palestinians leads logically to Israel's policy of force against Iran, sucking in and threatening morally weakened America. Violence engenders violence, in a vicious cycle of widening scope.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Drones for Peace?

Are Tehran and Washington figuring out a positive-sum method of employing drones for peace?

Drones have brought enormous new layers of risk to international relations, causing insecurity, murdering innocents, creating provocations, facilitating illegal warfare by the Imperial Presidency outside of Congressional control. But now one sees glimmers of an unstated Tehran-Washington agreement to use them not for war but peace.  In this perhaps unnegotiated and certainly not admitted deal, Washington illegally violates Iran's borders to acquire evidence that Iran is living up to its promise not to build nuclear bombs, and, having--so far--evidently acquired that evidence, can thus justify opposition to Israeli warmongers. Tehran, for its part, publicly claims that Washington is doing no such thing while bragging that it is nevertheless using its own drones to keep a careful watch over Washington's threatening naval armada in the Persian Gulf.

Thus, each side has neatly made the argument that it is guarding national security so that no hostilities need occur. While this apparent deal is a risky game and falls a bit short of a serious, long-term, positive-sum relationship, it is at least better than the childish prancing about that the world has seen in recent years by war-advocates and the terminally insecure on both sides. As long as the American drones are used only to discover Iranian secrets that confirm Iranian public assertions and Iranian drones are not attacked by U.S. warships, this tricky game can perhaps make a contribution to cooling the tempers of extremists calling for war or brinkmanship.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Muslim Spring

The Arab Spring, now under counterattack, should by rights, be transformed into a "Muslim Spring"--a New Deal for the world's Muslims. Such an outcome would greatly strengthen U.S. national security...provided that Washington can find the wisdom to support it.

Is the marvelous, uplifting Arab Spring over? As Peter Harling of International Crisis Group put it in Le Monde [2/1/12]:

Si le "printemps arabe" suscitait l'enthousiasme aux beaux jours, le pessimisme est désormais de saison. Dans les médias, un glissement sémantique s'est opéré du thème révolutionnaire vers un registre à connotations négatives, où le triomphe des islamistes, les dynamiques de guerre civile, la désillusion et l'impuissance figurent en bonne place. 

It is, of course, not about the Arabs. The issue is whether or not Islam, in eclipse for half a millennium as a ruling force in the world, will have its “spring,” and this is no “mere” academic issue but a matter of national security for us all, given that it encompasses possible nuclear war against Iran and the potential collapse of Pakistan. By rights the Arab Spring should be the Muslim Spring. Who has suffered from foreign interference more than Afghans? When will Pakistanis regain real independence and achieve decent governance? Will Iranians be able to escape foreign aggression, find their place in the sun, and achieve decent governance? Can Bahraini Shi’a, not to mention Saudi Shi’a, achieve justice peacefully or will the Sunni rulers insist on playing their nasty zero-sum game until they entice the Iranians and perhaps Iraqi Shi’i to get involved? Will Turkey truly emerge as the leader of a moderate Islamist bloc, or will marginalization of the Kurds become Turkey’s fatal flaw?

Perhaps unfortunately for Muslims, the current U.S. presidential election will have much to say because the American elephant will either continue to trample or will walk more gently through the global political jungle…as it chooses. The point is that Americans have a choice, and if we choose to slam the door on the emerging Muslim political thaw—the move toward moderation and demands for civil rights, it will surely rebound greatly to our harm. Making ourselves the enemy of the moderates will in effect make us the ally of extremists, though they will, once empowered, hardly thank us for the favor.

This is by no means an argument in favor of yet another U.S. intervention to “save the world.” The fact is that the U.S. cannot at this point avoid interfering in fundamental ways: it is already up to its neck in Muslim affairs. The U.S. will directly impact the emerging Muslim spring and, accurately, be blamed. But exactly what will we be responsible for? The answers to the questions enumerated above will all depend significantly on U.S. behavior. The more Washington supports Bahraini Sunni marginalization of Bahraini Shi’a, the more radical they will become in self-defense and the more attractive Iranian support will appear. The more Washington insists on military solutions to Waziristan’s problems, the more likely will be the radicalization of Pakistani political activists and the collapse or radicalization of the Pakistani state. Etc., etc. Muslim spring is the best defense against fundamentalist terror. Muslim spring can make a critical contribution to U.S. national security.
Sad Update...Bahraini sectarian violence

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Defeating Ourselves in Afghanistan

Long-time author and reporter on the Afghan debacle of the last generation Steve Coll describes a collapsing U.S. Afghan policy that is also "destabilizing" Pakistan and is seen by the Pakistani military (not to mention himself) as imperiled because "the logic chain of the American military campaign is broken." [The New Yorker 3/29/12.] Too focused on short-term advantage and, more seriously, benefit specifically of American and allied elites rather than the populations of either Afghanistan or America, Washington's policy all too often amounts to lifting rocks only to drop them on its own feet. Afghanistan is just the most recent example in a long line of making the same mistake over and over.

U.S. policy toward the Muslim world is manifestly ineffective. The particular locus of crisis moves around, but the bottom line is the same: harsh military repression combined with long-standing background economic policies that support client regimes while undermining popular economic development jointly provoke fully justified anti-American feeling. The U.S. needs a new grand strategy, a real strategy thoughtfully constructed of an incremental series of mutually supporting and logically consistent steps that build on each other to create a political atmosphere in which momentum builds toward an outcome of benefit to both Muslim and American societies, rather than focusing exclusively on elites. 

Elites of course prefer padding their own pockets, but the price (albeit one paid primarily by the populations) is recurrent instability, including terrorism and wars. To a degree, current U.S. policy does already have "an incremental series of mutually supportive and logically consistent" components, though one should not push the 'logically consistent' part too far, but the real problem is that these components rest on a zero-sum foundation. That may be the tried and true historical foundation for great power politics, but the world has changed. Events from 9/11 to the 2007 financial crisis to the horrifying years of the Iraqi insurgency should suffice to demonstrate how outdated and self-defeating the old zero-sum policy of force has become. As columnist and strategic thinker William Pfaff put it:

The United States' millenarian notions of a national destiny and the militarism that has infected American society have been responsible for a series of wars from which Washington has gained little or nothing, and suffered a great deal, while contributing enormously to the misfortune of others. ["Manufacturing Insecurity," Foreign Affairs 11-12/10, 140.]
One can obviously make a strong moral argument for positive-sum policy, but that is not needed; even from the perspective of pure self-interest, zero-sum foreign policy in a tightly interdependent world is a self-defeating proposition. The most effective way to achieve a more rational and stable situation is by designing a positive-sum strategy while keeping one’s gun in one’s holster. (Everyone knows the gun is there.) Even if U.S. policy were perfectly logical, with all moves fully consistent, a policy based on a zero-sum foundation that considers force the conflict resolution method of choice is in today's world a non-starter.

The Peace Candidate on Washington's Afghan War
It was a waste, there's not gonna be a happy ending, and I think the Republicans have dug a hole for themselves because they're trying to out-militarize the president, say 'we should do more.' Yet 75 percent of the American people say 'we've had enough.' [Ron Paul on Face the Nation.]

But as the whole decade-long Afghan war demonstrates, U.S. policy toward the Muslim world is far from logically consistent. The Pakistani-Afghan theater of the broader U.S. confrontation with politically active Islam is a case study in mutually contradictory, self-defeating policies based on a zero-sum view of the world that comes dangerously close to defining the world's one billion Muslims as "the enemy." Washington seeks military victory but it is precisely its use of military force to resolve political, cultural, and economic disagreements that breeds hostility. Washington wants Pakistan’s support while seeking to deny it desperately needed Iranian gas imports. Washington provides nuclear technology to India, thus aggravating Islamabad insecurity and contradicting its policy of opposing Iran’s nuclear program. And the rising prospect of a U.S. military retreat from Afghanistan seems increasingly to look, in Washington’s eyes, like defeat rather than transformation from a vigorous but short-sighted military policy to a vigorous but long-term policy of encouraging politically-active, reformist, independent Islamic stabilization and development. 

Grand Strategy
Grand strategy is composed of a coordinated set of policies. Faced with Hitler or Attila, one naturally turns to violence because destruction appears the only alternative. Fortunately, no such threat is even remotely visible on the political horizon, so the U.S. has choices. Counterintuitively, however, the U.S. has restricted itself since 9/11 (with the exception of some fine words, e.g., in Cairo) to a grand strategy of military empire, arbitrarily denying to itself a range of powerful foreign policy tools that, in the hands of a skillful superpower, can have impressive effectiveness.
The ineffectiveness of brute military force for creating a new world of long-term benefit to American society has in barely a decade been made glaringly clear. Iraq and Lebanon are in Iran's orbit, Somalia a basket case, Afghanistan a looming U.S. defeat, and Pakistan a crisis very visible on the horizon. Turkey is alienated, and Israeli democracy under domestic attack. The U.S. should seize the opportunity to come up with a more effective grand strategy than the combination of invasion, drone bombings, and blatant military threats backing up economic sanctions to force adversaries to surrender in return for the right to kneel at the "negotiating" table. ["Grand Strategy."]

A policy of support for independent, reformist Islamic political  activism would not be a policy leading to U.S. empire or U.S. control over local resources or U.S. military bases for dominating Central Asia, but it might be a policy consistent with U.S. security and with a reasonable probability of being effectively implemented.