Foreign Policy, Trump

New World Order…

This piece originally appeared in the Lewiston, Idaho Tribune

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Sometimes, what appears to be a minor change in political direction turns out to be a historic turning point.

Did most Americans in 1933 realize that the slew of legislation that flew through Congress in the first 100 days of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency would shape the American political environment for decades? The New Deal was a marketing slogan, but the legislation behind the words continues to define the Democratic Party. 

Did most Americans know that an obscure Supreme Court decision in January 1976 involving little understood aspects of campaign finance law – Buckley v. Valeo– would become the triggering event that transformed American politics, leading eventually to “dark money” and vast amounts of unregulated cash perverting democracy? 

Political change rarely comes quickly or decisively, but most often plays out over time in fits and starts. The Age of Trump may be an exception to that rule. 

Will historians look back on Trump’s tenure as a blip or a head spinning turning point? In one area – foreign policy – I’d bet on chaotic turning point. And Idahoans have, if they choose to pay attention, a front row seat to this turning point with their junior senator now chairing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Yet, Jim Risch seems wholly content to get along and go along with the chaos in American foreign policy rather than make even a feeble effort to shape the direction. 

Ronald Reagan at the Berlin Wall challenging the Soviet leadership

As proof that we have arrived at a historic point rather than a one-off deviation from norm, consider the fact that the party of “tear down this wall,” Ronald Reagan’s famous challenge to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, has transformed itself into a party that not only tolerates, but meekly acquiesces to the former KGB operative who seeks to re-establish the Russian empire. And a Republican president willingly helps him. 

Beyond the stunning and unequivocal conclusions of the Mueller report regarding Russian election interference, including the widespread distribution of disinformation designed to sow discord and help elect Trump, there is other growing evidence of Vladimir Putin’s “grand strategy” to reassert Russian influence in a host of ways. 

A new analysis prepared for the U.S. military reads like something Reagan would have reacted to: “Contrary to conventional analysis, after two decades under Vladimir Putin, Russia represents an ideological challenge to the West, not just a political and military rivalry. Although NATO continues to possess impressive overmatch against Moscow, that edge is dwindling, and Western vulnerabilities in certain military areas are alarming. Moreover, the unwillingness of Western experts and governments to confront the ideological — as well as political and military — aspects of our rivalry with Putinism means that the threat of significant armed conflict is rising.”

The key phrase there is “the unwillingness . . . to confront.”

Donald Trump this week verbally assaulted the British prime minister and the UK’s ambassador to Washington for the handling of Brexit, the still pending UK withdrawal from the European Union, and for a leaked series of British assessments of Trump and his administration, but there has never been even a mild rebuke from the president for Russian actions. Instead, Trump recently joked with Putin about not again interfering in an American election and, of course, Putin favors anything weakening European unity.

As for the Brit ambassador who reported to London that stories of chaos in the Trump White House were mostly true and that Washington has become an unreliable ally, the president Tweeted: “The wacky Ambassador that the U.K. foisted upon the United States is not someone we are thrilled with, a very stupid guy.” 

Two pals in Helsinki…

After Trump repeatedly praised Putin before his election as “a strong leader” and someone he could make great deals with, Trump dismissed all the U.S. intelligence agency’s belief that Russia interfered in his election. “I have President Putin here,” Trump said in that surreal moment in Helsinki in July 2018, “he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this, I don’t see any reason why it would be …” 

Trump recently questioned the long-standing U.S.-Japan mutual defense agreement and he has repeatedly diminished the NATO alliance that has kept the peace in Europe for 75 years. He has shredded relations with France, Canada and even Australia. Yet after North Korea’s murdering dictator called Trump mentally deranged, a dotard, a gangster and a frightened dog, the president chose to coo over the “love letters” between the two, while angling for yet another face-to-face meeting. 

In almost all of the post-war period the Republican Party has claimed the mantle of being strong on national security and the GOP language about protecting American interests often put Democrats on the defensive. Republicans routinely assaulted their opponents for opposing expensive weapons systems. Steve Symms made hay with such issues when he defeated Frank Church in 1980 in the most celebrated Idaho Senate race ever. 

Yet, the challenge presented by Putin and his fellow autocrats must be countered with more than military might, as the new Pentagon report makes profoundly clear. “Political objectives matter to the Kremlin in a zero-sum worldview,” the report asserts. “For Russia to win, the U.S. has to lose.”

Or as the commentator Philip Rotner wrote recently: “Trump’s retreat from the values that defined the post-World War II era of American exceptionalism has immediate negative consequences, above and beyond the long-term damage it does to America’s unique place in the world (as if that weren’t enough).

“It’s a gift to the tyrants of the world. It gives them the one thing they most covet: Impunity.” 

So where is Idaho’s Risch during this historic transformation of U.S. foreign policy? I’ll remind you again that he said recently that, “Russia is the most overrated country in the world.” Putin must live to hear a conservative Republican in the foreign policy establishment say such things because the Russian knows where he wants to go even if the senator does not. 

Risch has explicitly rejected the kind of activist role in shaping foreign policy that marked Church’s long career, as well as that of Idaho’s William Borah in the interwar period. He has the title of chairman, but he is clearly a figurehead, content to win re-election next year by embracing all things Trumpian.

History will not treat either of them well.  

Foreign Policy, U.S. Senate

The Surest Senator of All…

When he speaks about big issues Idaho Senator Jim Risch, the new chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, likes to invoke his experience, the dozens of times he’s been on the ballot, his leadership of the Idaho State Senate and his early years as the Ada County prosecutor. One of Risch’s go-to lines is “I’ve been at this a long time.” 

In the increasingly rare interviews Risch grants or when he, also rarely, entertains questions from voters his setup often goes something like this: “I’ve been at this [politics] a long time, I’ve been through 34 elections, I was a prosecutor and [in the context of the Russia investigation] I know what evidence looks like.” 

Idaho Senator James E. Risch

All politicians display a certain level of confidence. It goes with the territory these days. The humble, self-effacing public servant is a relic of American political history, if indeed it has ever existed. But Risch has raised self-assurance to a new level, unlike anything Idaho has seen, well, ever and it’s gotten him into trouble. 

Risch’s first real controversy as chairman came over his initial handling of the Senate’s demand for information from the Trump Administration on the murder of Washington Postcolumnist Jamil Khashoggi. When senator’s demanded that the administration follow the law and report on who had ordered Khashoggi’s brutal murder, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – Risch calls him a close friend – essentially said: “Mind your own business.” 

Risch’s initial response was to fully back the Trump line. “We asked for the information. They sent it. And I put out a press release,” Risch told reporters. Then the proverbial organic matter hit the fan. Senate Republicans on Risch’s own committee demanded more and he did schedule a closed hearing earlier this week, but not before apparently misleading fellow Republicans on just how forthcoming the administration had been. All in all it was a stumbling, incoherent performance by a guy who has “been at this a long time.” 

You have to wonder why? 

Why has Risch worked so hard to shield the president from confronting the murder of a journalist, a murder the nation’s intelligence agencies have placed squarely at the feet of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman? Why are fellow Republicans like Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio, Chuck Grassley and Mitt Romney confronting the administration over reprehensible Saudi behavior, while Risch has been carrying Trump’s water on both shoulders? 

Remember that Trump has said of the Crown Prince, a pal of his son-in-law, that “maybe he did and maybe he didn’t” order the journalist’s murder.

During a contentious recent television interview, recorded while Risch was attending the annual Munich Security Conference in Germany, the senator invoked his “I’ve been at this a long time” certainty with another wrinkle he likes to use – “I know more than you, but because it’s classified I couldn’t possibly comment.” 

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, identified by U.S. intelligence agencies as the man responsible for ordering the death of Washington Post columnist Jamil Khashoggi

Asked by veteran journalist Tim Sebastian whether he agreed with Graham’s characterization that there “was zero chance” that bin Salam had not ordered Khashoggi’s murder, Risch spun into a linguistic tap dance, first refusing to answer whether he agreed with the South Carolina senator and then invoking secrecy.

“I’m on the Intelligence Committee,” Risch said, “Lindsey isn’t. I’ve looked at every scrap of evidence there is on [Khashoggi’s murder] and unfortunately because of my position on the Intelligence Committee I can’t sit here and reiterate that for you, and in that regard I can’t comment on that.” Risch then said he could comment on the 17 Saudi nationals sanctioned by the U.S. government, but apparently his opinion about the Crown Prince is classified. 

Again the question is why? Does Risch so value his access to the White House that he won’t summon moral outrage at the murder of a journalist whose body was dismembered with a bone saw and has still not been found? Why was he willing to launch his chairmanship by alienating fellow Republicans who must increasingly see him as an apologist for the heinous? Is Risch so concerned about a primary challenge from the far right that there is no “red line” of support for Trump that he will not cross? 

In the same period that the senator was covering for the president and the Saudi Crown Prince he was effectively dismissing concerns about Trump campaign involvement with Russia. “It is simply not there,” the former prosecutor explained of his reading of Trump-Russia collusion. That certainty comes even as we now know that Paul Manafort, the convicted former Trump campaign chairman, was meeting with Russian operatives and sharing polling information literally while Trump was securing the GOP nomination in 2016.

In the face of mounting evidence of ongoing Russian efforts to interfere with American elections Risch told the Boise Chamber of Commerce recently “Russia is the most overrated country on the face of the planet. They get so much ink here. They get so much attention here, simply because of Trump, of course. These guys are incredibly inept. They are a nuclear power, there is no question about it. They certainly have some juice, there is no question about it. These guys, they are all bluster.”

Put that comment in context and again ask yourself why? 

On July 27, 2016, then-candidate Trump looked straight into television cameras in Florida and said, “Russia, if you’re listening. I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing” — messages Hillary Clinton was said to have deleted from a private email server.

“Actually, Russia was doing more than listening,” as the Associated Press reported last week. “It had been trying to help Republican Trump for months. That very day, hackers working with Russia’s military intelligence tried to break into email accounts associated with Clinton’s personal office. It was just one small part of a sophisticated election interference operation carried out by the Kremlin — and meticulously chronicled by special counsel Robert Mueller.” 

And ask yourself why wouldn’t the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee want to get to the bottom of that and so much more?  

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Borah, Church, Foreign Policy, Trump, U.S. Senate

The Risch Doctrine…

Idaho Sen. Jim Risch became chairman of the prestigious Foreign Relations Committee last week and as nearly his first act he bashed the two Idahoans who held that position in the past, William Borah and Frank Church.

In an interview with Idaho Press reporter Betsy Russell, Risch also said his “repertoire does not include sparring publicly with the president of the United States. For many, many different reasons, I think that’s counterproductive, and you won’t see me doing it.”

UNITED STATES – APRIL 8: Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, questions Secretary of State John Kerry, during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

In one interview, the new chairman offered a remarkable display of historical ignorance, senatorial obsequiousness, hubris and blind partisanship. Call it “the Risch Doctrine.”

Let’s take them one by one.

“William Borah was around at the time when it was very fashionable, and indeed you could get away with non-involvement in a great matter of international affairs,” Risch told Russell.

The senator is correct that Borah, who represented Idaho in the Senate for 33 years, was, to say the least, skeptical about an aggressive U.S. foreign policy. More correctly, Borah was a non-interventionist, an anti-imperialist and a politician who believed passionately that the Senate must exercise a significant role in developing the country’s foreign policy. He would have been the last to say he would avoid “sparring publicly” with a president. He did so repeatedly, including with presidents of his own Republican Party.

Borah’s determined opposition to the peace treaty after World War I was based in large part on Woodrow Wilson’s arrogance in insisting that the Senate rubber stamp his handy work, accepting his terms or no terms.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Risch says he has his disagreements with President Donald Trump, but you’d be hard to pressed to find even one, while his record is ripe with acquiescence to an administration whose foreign policy from Syria to North Korea and from NATO to Saudi Arabia feels more unhinged, more chaotic by the day.

While Borah elevated the Foreign Relations Committee to something approaching equal standing with Republican presidents such as Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover, Risch is first and last a partisan, even to the point of going down the line with Trump, while many other Senate Republicans broke with him this week over sanctioning a Russian oligarch. With a Democrat in the White House, Risch was never reluctant to bash a foreign policy decision. His “sparring” was always in plain sight. Now, it’s all quiet on the Risch front.

Risch also could not refrain from repeating an old smear against Sen. Frank Church, effectively accusing Church of weakening the nation’s intelligence agencies.

“In my judgment,” Risch said, Church “did some things regarding our intelligence-gathering abilities and operations that would not serve us very well today. We need a robust intelligence operation.”

We have a robust intelligence operation, one that has frequently made serious mistakes that require constant vigilance from U.S. senators.

Risch should know this. He’s on the Senate Intelligence Committee, but he has repeatedly excused Trump’s own disregard, indeed contempt, for intelligence agencies, including dismissal of an FBI director who was just a bit too independent for Trump’s taste. You have to wonder if the new chairman has read even a summary of Church’s still very relevant work.

What Church’s landmark investigation really did in the 1970s was to explain to the American people, as UC-Davis historian Kathryn Olmsted told me this week, “what the CIA and FBI and other agencies had been doing in their name during the height of the Cold War.” As professor Olmsted, a scholar of American intelligence and its oversight noted, Church’s investigation “revealed many abuses and some crimes that had been committed, for example, by the CIA.”

One of those crimes was spying on American citizens. The National Security Agency actually conducted mail and phone surveillance on Church and Republican Sen. Howard Baker.

“Thanks to the Church Committee,” Olmsted wrote, “we now know that the CIA engaged mafia dons to stab, poison, shoot and blow up Fidel Castro; that it tried to poison Patrice Lumumba’s toothpaste and that it hired goons to kidnap the general in Chile who was trying to uphold his country’s constitutional democracy and thus stood in the way of a U.S.-backed coup. (He was killed in the course of the kidnapping.) The committee also revealed the FBI’s infamous COINTELPRO program, including the harassment of Martin Luther King Jr.”

Church didn’t weaken the intelligence community — he held it accountable. His work created the modern framework for congressional oversight, that is if Congress would use the power of oversight, and Church’s investigation led to the protections of the so-called FISA court that requires a judge to sign off on surveillance of a kind that the intelligence agencies once initiated on their own.

“This is a great time to be a Republican,” Risch told a partisan crowd at a Lincoln Day dinner in Shoshone last week. “You will not hear about this in the national media, but we have done a great job running this country.” Quite a line to utter while a quarter of the federal government remains shut down and while the president is operating with an “acting” chief of staff, Interior secretary, Office of Management and Budget director, attorney general, Defense secretary and has yet to even nominate ambassadors to a couple dozen countries.

Jim Risch, the committed partisan, has always been the kind of politician focused on his next election. He’s up in 2020 in what should be one of the safest seats in the country and he’s put all his chips on Trump.

But what if things are different in a few months or in a year? What if Robert Mueller’s investigation unspools a web of corruption that makes President Richard Nixon and Watergate look like a third-rate burglary? What if Risch has bet on the wrong guy?

He’s standing on the rolling deck of the USS Trump right now, raising nary a question about a president implicated in scandal from porno payoffs to Russian collusion. The super-partisan will never change, but his hubris may yet — and again — get the best of him.

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Foreign Policy, GOP, Trump

Two Things About the Mattis Resignation…

  Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.

–Resignation letter of General James Mattis

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The resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis is being seen, as it should be seen, as not merely a senior Cabinet member leaving after losing a policy battle, but rather as a fundamental repudiation of the worldview of an American president. 

The resignation has stunned Washington, shaken our allies and, for the first time in the first two years of his chaotic presidency, caused significant numbers of elected Republicans to stir themselves to something approaching opposition.

The push back comes too late however. The damage is done. The work to re-establish American moral and political leadership across the globe will take a generation to repaired, if in fact it can be repaired.

Two things about Mattis’s resignation strike me as historically significant. 

Mattis and Trump

First, a principled resignation from public service has rarely, in fact hardly ever, been a feature of our politics. The only resignation in modern times that comes close to what Secretary Mattis did yesterday was the resignation of then-Secretary of State Cyrus Vance in 1980 in protest of President Jimmy Carter’s decision to attempt a rescue of American hostages held in Iran. That resignation, quietly made before, but not publicly announced until after the ill-fated rescue mission failed, was mentioned in the first three graphs of every Vance obituary when he died in 2002.

In other words, Vance, like Mattis, told the president of the United States that he was so fundamentally opposed to an administration’s policy that he could no longer serve. 

This kind of resignation (as I have noted before) occur with some regularity in other western democracies. Key officials, for example, have been fleeing Theresa May’s government – 19 high profile resignations so far this year – over the British prime minister’s handling the Brexit mess.

Anthony Eden, then the British foreign secretary, resigned in February 1938 after a dispute with Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain over the best approaching to dealing with Benito Mussolini.

French President Emmanuel Macron has recently suffered the resignations of several high ranking officials in his government, one of whom spoke publicly of Macron’s “lack of humanity,” a line that could just as well apply to Trump.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Here’s hoping that the Mattis resignation over a serious matter of principle – of course, Donald Trump broadly ignored Mattis’s advice on a range of issues, not just Syrian policy – begins a new phase in American politics where serious people quit rather than work in an environment that debases their judgment and their sense of patriotism.

As for the argument that Mattis has provided what little adult supervision exists in the Trump Administration, and that he stayed so long in the face of so much chaos in order to protect the military and the world from the worst of Trump, I just don’t buy it.

You only provide the kind of supervision Trump needs (but won’t accept) if you are effective. In the main, the retired Marine Corps general, was not all that effective when it comes to policy. He opposed the decision to abandon the Iranian nuclear deal. Trump did it anyway. He opposed the senseless and constant Trump criticism of NATO allies. Trump kept it up. He even lost on the question of who should head the Joint Chiefs of Staff when Trump rejected his favored nominee. Even when Trump refused to acknowledge the importance of the late Senator John McCain’s career, Mattis publicly did so, but without offering even a mild rebuke to the president’s petty meanness.

The best outcome of Mattis’s resignation could be that the impact of his action will jar Washington Republicans out of their get-along/go-along Trump stupor and cause, at least some of them, to provide real oversight and substantive checks on the president. Mattis presumably could have stimulated this outcome months ago. Now, at last, he has. Maybe, just maybe, a corner has been turned in the reality TV series that the American presidency has become. 

Mattis resignation letter

The second takeaway for me from this historic moment is simply the head spinning reality that this foreign policy and national security chaos is taking place in a Republican Administration. The laws of politics and the orientation of our political parties has been turned completely upside down. The same Republicans who lamented, often with good reason, the Obama Administration’s approach to foreign and defense policy now own the most dysfunctional presidency in modern times. 

Republicans were once able to savage Democrats as “weak” on national security and eager to retreat from world responsibilities. That story line is now completely reversed thanks to Donald Trump.

Republicans who once based a good part of their brand on a clear-eyed reality about America’s role in the world have now embraced an ignorant, uninformed foreign policy that has trashed the post-war international order, facilitated the ambitions of China to further dominate the Pacific, emboldened authoritarian dictators, faked its way through North Korean talks about nuclear weapons and made Vladimir Putin the happiest man to occupy the Kremlin in a long, long time. 

Historians will write about this Republican collapse of rationality for generations to come, as well as those who aided and abetted it. While I suspect General Mattis will be mostly a footnote to this history, remembered more for his resignation than his accomplishments, one phrase in his resignation letter should be the jumping off point to assess why the GOP has fallen so far so fast. A fundamental reason for this debacle is simply the wholesale abandonment of fact-based competency in favor of the ranting and ignorance of a man totally unfit for the office he holds.

“Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from Syria was made hastily, without consulting his national security team or allies … Trump stunned his Cabinet, lawmakers and much of the world with the move by rejecting the advice of his top aides and agreeing to a withdrawal in a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.” 

Associated Press coverage of Trump’s Syrian decision.

The key phrase in Mattis’s letter came as he explained his belief in the importance of international alliances and the need to oppose the evil intent of what he called “malign actors and strategic competitors.” Mattis based his opinion, he said, on insight gained, and this is the key phrase, “over four decades of immersion in these issues.”

In their hearts and minds most elected Republicans know that Donald Trump is an ignorant buffoon totally out of his depth. They must pray every night that he will not have to confront a real international crisis.

To allow Trump to get and keep the job he has many Republicans have suspended belief in the importance of “immersion” in reality. The GOP has traded competency and rationality for power and party. And that train wreck continues to unfold in real time.

Many Republicans have been relying on a guy like Jim Mattis to keep this careening locomotive on the tracks. Now, what do they do?

Foreign Policy, Idaho Politics

The Myth of the Saudi Special Relationship

My weekly column in the Lewiston, Idaho Tribune 

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On June 9, 1979 Molly Ivins, the brilliant and still widely mourned reporter – she had a rare knack for simultaneously turning a phrase and twisting a knife with her journalism – had an Idaho datelined story in the New York Times.

“Confrontation over Mideast Policies Apparently Taking Shape in Idaho ’80 Race for Senate,” was the headline over Ivins’ story where she explored the fallout from a speech then-Senator Frank Church had given that was deemed to be highly critical of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Church, then chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, actually had criticized both the Carter Administration and the Saudis in his widely reported speech. Both were guilty, Church said, of undercutting efforts for a comprehensive Mideast peace. The U.S. was “pinning our policy to false assumptions,” Church said, much as the U.S. had placed a losing bet on the “a rotting regime” in Iran when for decades presidents of both parties made apologies for the Shah.

Jimmy Carter with Idaho Senator Frank Church

Church, predictably, was accused of undermining a vital strategic relationship when he criticized the Saudi regime, which was then as now, an often violent and repressive dictatorship. But the Idahoan did it anyway, taking on both a president of his own party and Idaho economic interests. The Boise-based construction firm Morrison-Knudsen had a huge contract in 1979 to build a new city in Saudi Arabia and Church’s eventual 1980 opponent, Steve Symms, was calling for accommodation with the region’s dictators in the interest of selling both American weapons and Idaho wheat.

Some things never change.

Amid the broad international condemnation of the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, a gruesome, barbarous hit almost certainly ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – MBS to his “friends” – the current president can only focus on what Time magazine calls a “cold financial calculation: Saudi money for U.S.-made weaponry” that results in American jobs. Or as Donald Trump put it recently, “I don’t like the concept of stopping an investment of $110 billion into the United States.”

Murdered journalist – and U.S. resident – Jamal Khashoggi

It is a brutal and cynical calculation and, like so many other “myths” which have long been the foundation of American foreign policy, it will be self-defeating. Frank Church knew that 40 years ago, Trump and his congressional enablers never will.

The Saudi-U.S. relationship is a veritable case study of how money, influence and delusion come together in Washington, D.C. The Washington Post recently outlined how the “sophisticated Saudi influence machine” has lavished millions on lobbyists, consultants, law firms and think tanks in order to prop up the myth that the Saudi dictatorship is a vital U.S. ally. The kingdom spent more than $27 million on such influence buying last year.

Robert Kagan, a veteran of the George W. Bush State Department and now a foreign policy analyst at the Brookings Institution, has argued that America has long harbored a fantasy about “reforming” dictators like MBS. Fanciful as it now seems, some Americans once thought Mussolini or the Shah of Iran would “reform” and we placed naïve bets on such fiction.

“Today, the Saudi crown prince’s U.S. supporters are asking how he could have been so foolish if he, as it appears, ordered the murder of Khashoggi,” Kagan wrote recently. “But who are the fools here? Dictators do what dictators do. We are the ones living in a self-serving fantasy of our own devising, and one that may ultimately come back to bite us.”

Which brings us to the Idaho politician currently in a position to influence U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia. You might be excused for forgetting that Senator Jim Risch, the Idaho Republican, has such power. But the man who will almost certainly be the next chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee hasn’t, near as I can tell, spoken a syllable about the Saudis. No statement of concern or condemnation over the Khashoggi murder. No thought or threat about sanctions. Risch, who never tired of slamming one aspect or another of Barack Obama’s foreign policy, is now a sphinx as a feckless president makes excuses for the inexcusable.

Jim Risch, the Idaho Republican, will soon chair the Foreign Relations Committee

Some argue, and perhaps Risch believes this too, that American interests are served well enough by the Saudi regime’s effort to create “stability” in the Middle East, while using our weapons and help to churn up more chaos in Syria, Yemen, Egypt and elsewhere.

The real Saudi objective and the overriding objective of every despot – this has been the case since Franklin Roosevelt’s historic tete-a-tete with King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud in 1945 – is the preservation of the wealth and power of the ruling monarchy.

When Frank Church called out the Saudis in 1979 he was at the height of his influence and he used his platform to try to redirect U.S. policy. As his biographers LeRoy Ashby and Rod Gramer have noted Church “thought it was time for somebody with some stature in American politics to speak plainly to the Saudis.”

It’s well past time for that to happen again. If only there were a courageous Idahoan in a position of authority in the Senate. But guts and the perspective to take on a woefully ignorant president and a Washington influence machine in the service of a corrupt foreign government is not something you’ll find in Jim Risch.

2016 Election, Foreign Policy, GOP, Obama, Russia, Trump

Trumping the Shark…

 

        “And we’ve got our soldiers sitting there [in South Korea] watching missiles go up. And you say to yourself, ‘Oh, that’s interesting.’ Now we’re protecting Japan because Japan is a natural location for North Korea. So we are protecting them, and you say to yourself, ‘Well, what are we getting out of this?’”

Donald J. Trump in an interview with the New York Times

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Republicans, particularly those from the traditional post-war internationalist wing of the Grand Old Party, have devoted most of their waking hours over the past seven and a half years to assailing Barack Obama’s “fickle” foreign policy.

Obama has been bashed for “leading from behind,” for constantly “apologizing” for the United States, for being unwilling to double down on a purely military response to the violence and political turmoil from Egypt to Syria, from Ukraine to Iran.

Neville Chamberlain in 1938
Neville Chamberlain in 1938

In this Republican view Obama is a Kenyan socialist update of Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister who redefined the word “appeasement” so that it has become the most damning of all foreign policy epithets.

Then the GOP nominated Donald Trump.

I’m going to posit that never before in the history of modern U.S. politics has one party, a party that has for so long held rock solid views on foreign policy and America’s place in the world, so quickly and violently changed direction. The Trumpian “pivot” on foreign policy is now complete and the implications are coming into focus. As usual with Trump there is little doubt or nuance.

The Republican presidential candidate detailed for the New York Times yesterday his belief that as president he would not automatically guarantee 70 years of commitments to European security, would not condemn the massive violations of civil liberties underway in the wake of an attempted coup in Turkey and would remove American military and security commitments from far east allies like Japan and Korea.

And that’s just for openers.

The only thing missing from Trump’s capture of the Republican Party were seconding speeches of his nomination from anti-democratic thugs like Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Turkey's Erdogan
Turkey’s Erdogan

Imagine Barack Obama making a statement like Trump made yesterday. Reminded by the Times David E. Sanger that since the attempted coup in Turkey Erdogan “put nearly 50,000 people in jail or suspend them, suspended thousands of teachers, he imprisoned many in the military and the police, he dismissed a lot of the judiciary. Does this worry you? And would you rather deal with a strongman who’s also been a strong ally, or with somebody that’s got a greater appreciation of civil liberties than Mr. Erdogan has? Would you press him to make sure the rule of law applies?”

Trump’s reply: “I think right now when it comes to civil liberties, our country has a lot of problems, and I think it’s very hard for us to get involved in other countries when we don’t know what we are doing and we can’t see straight in our own country. We have tremendous problems when you have policemen being shot in the streets, when you have riots, when you have Ferguson. When you have Baltimore. When you have all of the things that are happening in this country — we have other problems, and I think we have to focus on those problems. When the world looks at how bad the United States is, and then we go and talk about civil liberties, I don’t think we’re a very good messenger.”

Forget the messenger, worry about our own rule of law with such a man in the White House. Worry also about the cognitive dissonance on the new GOP ticket. At the very moment Trump’s interview was posted online Republican vice presidential candidate Mike Pence was saying this: “We cannot have four more years of … abandoning our friends. … Donald Trump will … stand with our allies.” Right. Got it.

The Reagan doctrine of American Exceptionalism has been reduced in the Age of Trump to: “We’re not in a position to be more aggressive. We have to fix our own mess.” Apparently fixing “our own mess” will cause Trump to look for inspiration to the dictators he refuses to condemn.

Loyal readers know that I have often voiced my own profound concerns about an American foreign policy based on the constant expansion of U.S. military power or the belief, held by Hillary Clinton among others, that nearly every foreign policy challenge demands a military response, but Trump has gone where no Republican has gone since at least Robert Taft in 1952.

Goldwater slogan in 1964
Goldwater slogan in 1964

Trump has torn the Republican Party from its post-war moorings, even more so it is now clear than Barry Goldwater did in 1964. His appeal to nativist, know nothingism, his exploitation of fear, his appalling ignorance of our own history and the world’s has gone way beyond anything we have seen since McCarthy in the early 1950’s. This is truly the GOP’s McCarthy Moment and no time, as Edward R. Murrow said of the Republican’s earlier demagogue, for citizens – particularly Republicans – who oppose his nonsense to remain silent.

It is now truly time to contemplate the consequences of turning over the country’s foreign policy – the nuclear codes for crying out loud – to a man who shouldn’t be trusted with the key to the executive washroom. The country has been here before. Barry Goldwater’s campaign in 1964 proclaimed that “In your heart you know he is right,” but American voters saw through Goldwater’s bizarre suggestions that battlefield nuclear weapons might be used in Southeast Asia, that a nuclear warhead was “just another weapon” and that North Vietnam could be reduced to a “mud puddle” if only we had the right leadership.

The last time a radical hijacked the GOP, American voters agreed with Democrats who countered Goldwater’s slogan with their own: “In your guts you know he’s nuts.”

Donald J. Trump is certifiably “nuts.”

2016 Election, Churchill, Foreign Policy, GOP, Obama

Fear Itself…

     Obama’s response to the attacks also raises a more political question: Why hasn’t a man known for his rhetorical gifts done more to address the fear the attacks instill in ordinary Americans? – Greg Jaffe, The Washington Post

——

It is difficult, perhaps even impossible, in a harsh world of partisanship and amidst the instant Twitter feed, to answer emotion and fear with facts. Barack Obama, never particularly good at the soft arts of politics, including the basic political skill of clearly and patiently explaining his policies, learned that lesson anew this week.

Senator Cliche
Senator Ted Cruz, (R) Cliche

It must gall Obama, a smart and careful man, even if his legion of opponents and distractors never admit it, to have to confront a smart, calculating and cynical man like Senator Ted Cruz. Cruz taunted Obama in the wake of the Paris terror attacks and the mad rush to denounce Syrian refuges to debate him on the issues and “insult me to my face.”

One almost wishes Obama would simply say: “Ted, you’re just not that important. We are talking about bigger things than your ego or campaign.” But that type of putdown is just not the Obama way and you cannot belittle unless you first explain. Obama’s presidency-long inability – or unwillingness – to effectively and consistently confront his critics and explain himself is among his major shortcomings as a leader.

Obama has an off putting tendency when challenged to either adopt the persona of a law school lecturer and make a legal case, or simply embrace, as he did this week, a dismissive tone with his critics. Perhaps an effective strategy when the issues are trivial, but not when the stakes are as high as they are in our post-Paris moment. Obama often seems to float above the circus, aloof and detached and when he does engage, as he did recently on the refugee issue, his dismissive, lecturing tone is counterproductive.

Even with Republicans offering little but recycled talking points – the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank correctly says Republican plans to deal with the so called Islamic State involves “killing them with clichés.” – the Paris attack and the resulting climate of fear call for more from a president who can, if he puts his mind to it, be a supremely effective communicator.

The World Needs…

“The world needs American leadership,” said Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the new House Speaker. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California opined that “we want our homeland to be secure,” while Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana spoke of the need to “go and root out and take on ISIS.” Clichés for sure, but language that speaks to the need to offer leadership, reassurance and perspective.

The latest outrage from the continuing frontrunner Donald Trump, a call for closing mosques and creating a national database of Muslims, once would have been a disqualifying comment in national politics, but Trump will probably ride it higher in the polls. Such are the days of our lives and such is the ability of a demagogue to stir up fear and hatred.

For his part Cruz says “we are at war with ISIS,” but short of calling for greater use of American air power he offers precious little beyond what the Obama Administration is currently doing. Cruz and the others hoping to draft in the wake of Trump’s openly racist appeal to Americans who disdain immigrants (and now refugees) have succeeded, at least temporarily, in shifting the national debate from defeating a radical ideology to closing the borders to the victims of that ideology.

It is craven, cynical and fundamentally un-American, but in the hands of a modern day Joseph McCarthy like Cruz or a political P.T. Barnum like Trump it sells with the voters both need to crawl to the top of the GOP heap. It also resonates with many Americans who are just frightened and confused and seek candid reassurance and common sense. Lindsay Graham, the one true hawk in the Republican field, is so far behind he can speak the truth about the pandering of those higher in the polls.

Senator Lindsey Graham
Senator Lindsey Graham

“Are you willing to do what it takes to destroy ISIL?” Graham said recently referring to Cruz and others who are long on cliché, but short on ideas. “Are you willing to commit American ground forces in support of a regional army to destroy the caliphate? If you’re not, then you’re not ready to be the Commander-in-Chief, in my view, and you’re really no different than Obama.”

This is the crux of the real debate the Congress and the nation needs. What do we do to destroy these violent remnants from the 13th Century? I’m waiting for a Congressional committee to actually have a hearing and call some real experts to testify about real options. That’s old fashioned, I know, but used to be what the Senate Foreign Relations Committee did.

Ground troops? Will the American public accept that? What will greater air strikes accomplish? If Syria’s Assad is deposed, which is American policy, who and what replaces him? We thought Iraq was tidied up when Saddam toppled and that didn’t work out so well. Would Syria be different and why? Do we risk a joint effort with Putin to fight ISIS and to what end? If we arm some additional group or groups in Syria are we just doubling down on the less-than-successful Iraq policy that saw us leave millions of dollars worth of military hardware behind in the desert, hardware that in some cases the radicals now use? Are there other options? Let’s hear them.

Explain the Policy….Please 

Obama’s Syrian policy and approach to ISIS have been called “feckless” and his recent comment that the movement was “contained” may well rank with George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” as the silliest thing either man said during his tenure. It is also true that the President fumbled for too long while Syria burned and the refugee crisis has occurred during his watch and will be part of his legacy. Still, unlike his fire-breathing detractors on the right, I am willing to concede that Obama has a real policy for the region, a policy largely informed by what has not worked in the recent past. What has been missing is his patient, repeated articulation of that policy.

By failing to fully take the American people into his confidence and carefully explain the stakes and the real options, Obama contributes to what is truly feckless – the domestic debate about ISIS and Syrian refugees, how to ensure U.S. and European security, and the proper and effective U.S. military and diplomatic response to the mess in the Middle East.

It is a moment that demands calm, reasoned, candid national leadership that only a president can provide. We are waiting.

A Lesson From History…

Churchill: "If we open a quarrel between the past and the present, we shall find that we have lost the future.”
Churchill: “If we open a quarrel between the past and the present, we shall find that we have lost the future.”

I am reminded of what leadership in a moment of crisis sounds like re-reading Winston Churchill’s remarkable speech in the wake of the abject British defeat at Dunkirk in the summer of 1940. It was one of the worst moments of World War II and had events or political rhetoric turned even a bit differently we might be living in a very different world.

Thousands upon thousands of British troops had remarkably been evacuated from the French port of Dunkirk following the collapse of the French Army west of Paris. The British troops hauled back across the English Channel escaped with their lives, but not much else. A vast amount of precious material and equipment was left behind in the interest of saving the British Army so that it might fight again. Everyone knew at the time, especially Churchill, that Dunkirk was a military disaster that ironically is now often remembered as a spectacular success.

Churchill, newly the prime minister, had to explain the disaster to the House of Commons where criticism of the government was building amid calls for an investigation of the debacle in France. The moment demanded explanation, painful candor and hope. He confronted the situation directly and brilliantly:

“We have to think of the future and not of the past,” Churchill said. “This also applies in a small way to our own affairs at home. There are many who would hold an inquest in the House of Commons on the conduct of the Governments – and of Parliaments, for they are in it, too – during the years which led up to this catastrophe. They seek to indict those who were responsible for the guidance of our affairs. This also would be a foolish and pernicious process. There are too many in it. Let each man search his conscience and search his speeches. I frequently search mine.

“Of this I am quite sure, that if we open a quarrel between the past and the present, we shall find that we have lost the future.”

There are too many in it…let each man search his speeches…we shall find we have lost the future. One yearns for such talk at moments of national confusion, trial and fear.

…None Whatever for Panic and Despair…

At the end of his Dunkirk speech, Churchill uttered his famous “finest hour” phrase that is the most remembered part of the speech, but a line he spoke earlier seems particularly appropriate for the current moment.

“Therefore, in casting up this dread balance sheet and contemplating our dangers with a disillusioned eye, I see great reason for intense vigilance and exertion, but none whatever for panic or despair.”

Cheers broke out in the House of Commons.

The rhetoric from the current campaign trail regarding the Middle East is nothing if not panic and despair. It is not a time for a lecture on the law or peevish scolding, but it is time for something more from Barack Obama. He might start by repackaging Franklin Roosevelt because the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. A weary and wary nation longing for strength and hope needs to hear that from the top.

2016 Election, Foreign Policy, Immigration, Politics, Refugees

Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor…

– – – – –

It says something about the state of American politics that the quarterback for the Green Bay Packers makes more sense on the issue of moment than most of the people seeking to become president of the United States.

Packer statesman Aaron Rodgers
Statesman Aaron Rodgers

When players for the Packers and the Detroit Lions lined up last Sunday to observe a moment of silence in recognition of the horrible events in Paris some nitwit in the crowd yelled out a slur against Muslims. Rodgers heard it, as did most everyone else.

The Packers proceeded to lose a close game to the Lions, but when Rodgers met reporters after the game the derogatory comment was clearly still bothering him.

“I must admit I was very disappointed with whoever the fan was that made a comment that was very inappropriate during the moment of silence,” Rodgers said.

“It’s that kind of prejudicial ideology that puts us in the position we are today as a world.”

The quarterback as statesman.

Trojan Horse or Horse’s Something…

Meanwhile, that old charmer who continues to lead the Republican field in all the polls suggested we might need to shut down the nation’s mosques, while we round up every Syrian in the country and deport them. No kidding. You can look it up. Donald Trump also compared Syrian refuges to the Trojan Horse, which may just be about a perfect analogy for what his candidacy means to the modern Republican Party.

Christie: Not even a five year old orphan. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
Christie: Not even a five year old orphan.

Chris Christie, who I would really like to think knows better, vowed to let no Syrian refugee in the country – even orphans under the age of five. “I don’t think orphans under five are being, you know, should be admitted into the United States at this point,” the big-hearted big man said. “But you know, they have no family here. How are we going to care for these folks?”

Most of the nation’s Republican governors spent Monday tripping over themselves to be first in line – on dubious and likely illegal grounds – to say “no” to any Syrian refugees. Even Bobby Jindal, the Louisiana governor whose parents immigrated to the United States from the Punjab region of northern India, rushed out an executive order outlawing any Syrian from crossing the pristine borders of his state. Jindal cited the terror attacks in Paris as having triggered his need to “protect the citizens and property of Louisiana.”

I’m guessing Jindal in his zeal to protect his people missed recent stories about extremist protests in, well, the Punjab region of northern India. One governor’s violent extremist is another’s dangerous Syrian, I suppose.

Ted Cruz, born in Canada of Cuban parents, wants to allow only Christians in the country. Ben Carson says we should do everything possible to help out the huddled masses yearning to be free; everything but let any of them into the United States. Marco Rubio agrees because the government is so incompetent it cannot do an adequate background check.

Texas…ah, Texas…

And then there is Texas, never a state to take a backseat on the crazy bus. A Lone Star state legislator, Republican Tony Dale of Cedar Park, wrote to his state’s U.S. Senators: “While the Paris attackers used suicide vests and grenades it is clear that firearms also killed a large number of innocent victims. Can you imagine a scenario were [sic] a refugees [sic] is admitted to the United States, is provided with federal cash payments and other assistance, obtains a drivers license and purchases a weapon and executes an attack?”

Yes, you read it correctly – don’t let those refugees in the good old U.S.A. because it’s just too darn easy for them to get a gun. Dale, of course, is one of the biggest champions of gun rights in the Texas Legislature. Would it be unkind to mention that his biography lists Representative Dale as a member of the Roman Catholic Church, whose leader has repeatedly reminded the world, and did again Sunday, that refugees are all God’s children whose need comfort and “their human dignity respected.”

Syrian refugee children near the Turkish border
Syrian refugee children near the Turkish border

I could go on, but Aaron Rodgers has already said much of what needs to be said. Shame he is just trying to get to the playoffs and not to the White House.

One of the most difficult things to do in politics is to keep your head when everyone around you is losing theirs. Or as Rick Klein of ABC News puts it, “The speed with which the Paris attacks went from a national-security debate to an immigration one says more about the perceived state of today’s Republican Party than it does about today’s perceived security threats. The Republican contenders have sought to one-up themselves with letters, bills, demands, and sound bites.”

A Simple – and Wrong – Answer to a Complex Question… 

Another difficult thing for politicians is nuance, subtlety and complexity. The Paris attacks, the downing of the Russian airliner and all the rest provide enormous cause for concern and caution. The modern world may well be continuing down a long, dark corridor of uncertainty as the twilight struggle against fundamental evil goes forward. But this nuanced, subtle and complex struggle will not be won on the basis of who gins up the most outrageous sound bite or issues the most bombastic executive order.

In fact, the vapid and short sighted response from Americans who should know better may actually play directly into the hands of those who would do us harm.

As Scott Atran, a researcher who has spent time interviewing Islamic State recruits in several countries in an effort to understand their motivations, wrote in a thoughtful piece in the New York Review of Books, “the greater the hostility toward Muslims in Europe and the deeper the West becomes involved in military action in the Middle East, the closer ISIS comes to its goal of creating and managing chaos.”

This is precisely what Syrian and other refugees are fleeing.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

World Vision, the widely respected NGO that advocates worldwide for children, estimates that 12 million Syrians have fled their homes in the midst of the continuing civil war. Half of these refugees are children; children who have, at a minimum, lost opportunities for education and anything approaching a normal life and, at worst, face malnutrition and abuse.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, who must have one of the world’s most difficult jobs, said recently “It was not the refugee movement that created terrorism; it is terrorism together with tyranny, together with war, that created refugee movements.”

My people came to the United States from Wales and Germany, others in my family trace roots to Poland and Luxembourg. Maybe your family came from Norway or Italy, Mexico or Sudan, Russia or Rwanda. Perhaps you know someone who started life in India or Japan or Vietnam or a hundred other places.  A big, good hearted nation, even one that finds itself in the middle of a confusing, dangerous, even deadly world, does not lead from fear and it does not insist on simple, tidy answers to complex realities in a part of the world that often remains foreign and unknowable to westerners.

Owning What We Helped Make…

One of the best things I have read on the mess that is Syria and Iraq was written by the Washington Post’s David Ignatius and published recently in The Atlantic.

“America has not changed Iraq or Syria, but the wars there have indeed changed America,” Ignatius wrote. “Americans have learned the limits of military power and covert action; the U.S. has helped create enemies that did not exist before George W. Bush’s mistaken invasion of Iraq in 2003 (I described my own mistakes in supporting the Iraq War, and explained the lessons I drew from this horrible experience, in a 2013 column); it has fostered a degree of mistrust so acute that many in the region now welcome the vain autocrat Vladimir Putin as a deliverer. Obama’s policies may have been weak and feckless, but they have reflected a widespread desire among Americans to extricate the country from the Middle East’s long wars.”

We did our part to create this mess and that includes helping create a few million refugees and now it’s time to show that we are better than the jingoistic rhetoric and fear mongering for votes from governors and presidential candidates and those who couldn’t find Aleppo on a map.

We are better than that. At least I think we are.

– – – – –

[Note: Thanks to those readers who noticed this site was down for a few days for a little maintenance. We’re back and thanks for reading!]

2016 Election, American Presidents, Baseball, Baucus, Foreign Policy, Iran, John Kennedy, Johnson, Middle East, Obama, Politics, Pope Francis, Truman, U.S. Senate, Visions, World Cup

Deal or No Deal…

There was bipartisan understanding that when the Iranians indicated a readiness to talk the U.S. would lead the negotiations to test Iran’s seriousness. – Statement supporting the Iranian nuclear agreement signed by sixty bipartisan foreign policy and national security leaders.

– – – – –

Republican opposition to the Obama administration’s historic nuclear deal with Iran has been visceral. Most Republicans disliked the idea even before negotiations commenced in earnest. They hated the deal when the preliminary details emerged months ago. Now they detest the final agreement.

U.S. and Iranian negotiators earlier this year.
U.S. and Iranian negotiators earlier this year.

Much of the opposition is purely partisan, some is based on historic rightwing Republican opposition to any foreign policy agreement, a good deal is based on both a concern about the deal’s impact on Israel and a desire to curry favor with the Israeli-American lobby, and some is based  – a minor consideration one suspects – on the belief that a better deal could be had if only there were better negotiators.

I wrote back in April about the traditional Republican skepticism about foreign policy agreements that dates back to the Treaty of Versailles, but the current visceral NO seems in an altogether new category of opposition.

Placed in the wide context of presidential deal making in the post-war period, the almost total Republican opposition to a deal, which is designed to prevent, or at the very least substantially delay, Iranian development of a nuclear weapons, is a distinct outlier. It is difficult to find an historic parallel to the level of partisan disdain for a major foreign policy initiative of any president, Republican or Democrat. It amounts to the emergence of a new political generation of what Harry Truman’s Secretary of State Dean Acheson once called “the primitives.”

Return of “the primitives…”

It took the administrations of Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy more than eight years to negotiate a test ban treaty with the Soviet Union. Kennedy doggedly pursued the negotiations – Great Britain was also a party to the talks – and finally signed the treaty in August 1963. A few weeks later the Senate ratified the agreement by the strongly bipartisan margin of 81-19 with fifty-six Democrats and twenty-five Republicans constituting the majority.

John Kennedy signs test ban treaty flanked by Senators Fulbright and Dirksen and, of course, LBJ.
John Kennedy signs the limited test ban treaty in 1963 flanked by Senators Fulbright and Dirksen and, of course, LBJ.

The treaty came about in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis, hardly a moment in 20th Century history when trust in the Russians was at a high point. The same could be said for Richard Nixon’s effort to craft the first strategic arms limitation treaty or Ronald Reagan’s later efforts to strike a grand disarmament bargain with the Soviets that Reagan hoped would eliminate nuclear weapons.

Jimmy Carter’s effort to sign and ratify the Panama Canal treaties in the late 1970’s arguably contributed to his defeat in 1980, as well as the defeat of several Senate liberals – Idaho’s Frank Church, for example – who courageously supported the effort to ensure stability around the vital canal by relinquishing control to the Panamanians. Senators from both parties supported the treaties or they never would have been ratified.

In each of these cases there was substantial political opposition to presidential action, but it is nearly impossible when looking closely at this history not to conclude that each of the “deals” were beneficial to long-term U.S. security. An underlying assumption in each of these historic agreements is that presidents of both parties act, if not always perfectly, always with desire to produce an outcome that is in the nation’s – and the world’s – best interest. Few reasonable people would suggest, given the intervening history, that Eisenhower or Kennedy, Nixon or Carter or set out to make a deal that was not ultimately in the country’s best interest or that would imperil a long-time ally.

Yet, that is precisely what Republican critics of President Obama’s agreement with Iran are saying. Representative Trent Franks, an Arizona Republican, called it “an absolute disgrace that this president has sacrificed the security and stability” of Israel in order to reach a deal. “This is a betrayal that history will never forget,” Franks added. Franks is the same guy who introduced a resolution authorizing war with Iran back in 2013.

Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk.
Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk.

Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk went even farther. “This agreement condemns the next generation to cleaning up a nuclear war in the Persian Gulf,” Kirk said. “It condemns our Israeli allies to further conflict with Iran.” Kirk continued: “This is the greatest appeasement since Chamberlain gave Czechoslovakia to Hitler.” The senator predicted that Israel would now have to “take military action against Iran.”

Idaho Senator James Risch, a Republican and member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said “the deal shreds the legacy of arms control and nonproliferation that the United States has championed for decades – it will spark a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that will be impossible to contain.” Risch accused the president and Secretary of State John Kerry of going back on commitments to Congress and said, “The West will have to live with a nuclear Iran and will abandon our closest ally, Israel, under this horribly flawed agreement.”

Senator Lindsey Graham, a GOP presidential candidate, said “This is the most dangerous, irresponsible step I have ever seen in the history of watching the Mideast. Barack Obama, John Kerry, have been dangerously naïve.” Graham admitted on national television that he had not read the agreement, which was announced just an hour before the South Carolina senator pronounced his judgment.

OK…What’s Your Suggestion…

When you sift through the various denunciations of the Iran deal you find a remarkable degree of consistence in the criticism: abandonment of Israel, a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, assurance that Iran would be locked into an absolutely certain path to attain nuclear weapons. What is also remarkably consistent is that among all the words used to denounce the deal are very few that actually address the details contained in the 150-plus page document. As a result, Republicans come dangerously close to suggesting that Obama and Kerry have consciously sold out Israel, made an already explosive Middle East more so and weakened U.S. national security all in the name of just naively making a deal.

There are legitimate questions about the best way to contain Iran in any quest for the ability to produce nuclear weapons. Would continuing sanctions against Iran without international inspections of Iranian facilities be better as an approach that what Obama suggests, which allows for detailed oversight that is backed by our allies the British, French and Germans, as well as Putin’s Russia? That would be a real debate over effectiveness, a principled discussion over means and ends.

There are two men in Washington to watch closely as this “debate” reaches the end game. One is Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who has lately railed against the agreement, but remains a thoughtful, fair-minded voice on foreign policy deals. The other is Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, one of the key members of the U.S. team that worked out the deal with Iran who all seem to agree actually knows something about the subject of nuclear weapons development.

In a recent NPR interview, Moniz offered a full-throated defense of the agreement. “I think we should realize that basically forever, with this agreement, Iran will be, in some sense, farther away from a nuclear weapon than they would be without it,” Moniz said. “Now, clearly in the early years, in the first decade, first 15 years, we have lots of very, very explicit constraints on the program that roll back current activities. Whether it’s in enrichment, whether it’s in the stockpile of enriched uranium that they hold, whether it’s in R&D, all of these are going to be rolled back, complemented by much, much stronger transparency measures than we have today.”

The Whole World is Watching…

While Congressional Republicans work to overturn the administration’s Iran deal – Mario Rubio has pledged, for example, to undo the deal on his first day in office – much of the rest of the world has moved on. The most impressive leader on the current world stage, Pope Francis, has endorsed the deal and will speak to Congress just days before the vote. Germany’s Angela Merkel, a politician who displays more grit and gumption than the entire United States Senate, strongly backs the deal. Great Britain has re-opened its long shuttled embassy in Tehran and French officials have spoken of a “new era” in its relations with Iran.

iranmapRejecting the deal will serve only to strengthen the hand of the Iranian hardliners and the other hardliner who is party to the agreement, Vladimir Putin of Russia. Do Congressional Republicans, or for that matter Democrats like Chuck Schumer who oppose the deal, think for a minute that Putin will not find a way to fill the void that will be left if the Iranian agreement collapses in the huff of American domestic politics?

Perhaps the Europeans recognize what some American politicians fail to grasp. A fifteen year, highly monitored deal to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons is about as good as it gets in the modern Middle East. The critics who wonder what happens after fifteen years are missing the fact that the interval provides a window for young and more worldly Iranians to assert themselves as the country tiptoes back into the world community.

The pragmatic bottom line question is simply this: can the U.S. and the rest of the western world continue a policy of isolation for a country of 80 million people, more than 40 percent of whom are under 24 years of age? Obama’s agreement isn’t perfect, but this deal gives the west leverage to influence and indeed control the Iranian nuclear threat for a not insignificant number of years into the future.

Without a deal our leverage consists of two blunt instruments: continued sanctions that further alienate a whole new generation of Iranians and a pre-emptive military assault on Iranian nuclear facilities. Some folks casually invoke the “bomb, bomb Iran” option, but cooler heads know it would very likely mean a general war in a region where the United States’ ability to turn its military might into political change has been a dismal failure.

Ironically, as the administration has now started saying, Iranian failure to live up to the terms of the nuclear deal would actually create the context and rationale for taking military action to end the threat of a nuclear Iran. The international community will never support unilateral U.S. military action, but could be made to support air strikes, for example, if the Iranians cheat on the agreement.

The president, I believe, will ultimately prevail on the Iran deal and we’ll quickly return full attention to the political circus running up to another election. Still, it is worth considering the question Obama has persistently asked the critics of his diplomacy: What is your option? The answer is mostly crickets, but it is still a good question.

 

2016 Election, American Presidents, Baseball, Britain, Bush, CIA, Foreign Policy, John Kennedy, Libya, Middle East, Military History, New York, Obama, Otter, Politics, Truman, World Cup, World War I, World War II

The Education of the Younger Brother

It’s difficult, no matter your personal politics, to not have some sympathy for Jeb Bush and his efforts to articulate a plausible foreign policy approach for his presidential campaign. Given the wreckage his brother left him – and us – it’s a balancing act worthy of the Flying Wallenda Family.

George W. and Jeb  (AP Photo/Mari Darr~Welch, File)
George W. and Jeb (AP Photo/Mari Darr~Welch, File)

Bush’s stumbling attempts to get his arms around the issues, however, points out how dangerous things can be on that high wire. Still if he hopes to be president, Jeb will be forced to regularly and publicly struggle with brother George W’s legacy in the Middle East, while always trying to tip toe around the smoldering wreckage. No easy task.

Bush tried mightily this week to both avoid talking about the family mistakes and pin the continuing mess in Iraq and Syria on the current president and the former secretary of state. Even he must know its a stretch. Bush’s major foreign policy speech, delivered on the hallowed ground of the Reagan Library in California, was equal parts reinventing recent history and continuing the proclivity of many American politicians to work very hard to avoid confronting obvious, if difficult truths.

Grappling with the Facts and Lessons on History…

WW1centenary_715x195 (1)Across Europe this summer and last, the Brits, French, Germans and others have been marking both the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and the centenary of the Great War that did not end all wars. British school children have taken field trips to the scenes of the carnage on the Somme in 1916 and near the tiny Belgian village of Passchendaele in 1917. But in reading about the various memorials and events, one gets the impression that something is missing from the history of this war – why did this catastrophe happen, this great war that destroyed empires, spawned an even more destructive second world war and gave us – apparently to the continuing astonishment of many current politicians – the map of the modern Middle East that was drawn during and after the war with little regard for facts on the ground?

The commemoration of the Great War and the end of the second war is, of course, entirely appropriate, but remembering the conflicts is not nearly enough. And some politicians – Japan’s prime minister, for example – would just prefer to move along, thinking; been there, done that. The anniversary of the Great War, for example, is only being quietly marked in Germany and the French continue to mostly ignore the their own troubled history during the second war.

British historian Max Hastings
British historian Sir Max Hastings

Failing to heed the lessons from such vastly important events has consequences, including the repeating of old mistakes. We must, as the respected British military historian Sir Max Hastings said recently, probe and question, debate and discuss the meaning, the causes and the consequences of our wars.

Hastings argued in a 2014 interview with Euronews that it is a serious mistake to simply mark the horror of the Great War without a serious grappling with the issues and reasons behind the fighting. Hastings’ lessons about that war and about the importance of teaching its lessons to new generations is worthwhile viewing. One wishes the current crop of candidates took the time to listen and think about such big questions, particularly as they rush to define their foreign policy platforms in an area of the world that is still so very unfamiliar to us.

Cloudy Thinking, Shaky Facts, Bad History…

In terms of understanding issues like the U.S. role in Iraq and the rise of ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant sometimes called ISIS – we can’t even agree what to call the movement) there is always a simple, concise explanation that is wrong, which leads me back to the allegedly “smarter” Bush – Jeb.

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki
Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki

The essence of Bush’s recent foreign policy argument is that Iraq was “secure” in 2009 following the “surge” of American troops that was instituted by his brother. That strategy, temporarily at least, propped up the perfectly awful regime headed by former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Malicki.

Then, at least in Bush’s telling, President Obama with the support of Hillary Clinton let it all go to hell with the premature removal of American combat troops from Iraq. Therefore, under this logic and accepting Bush’s telling, Obama and Clinton “lost” Iraq and paved the ground for the rise of the spectacularly brutal ISIL. Bush’s analysis if, of course, mostly aimed at Clinton and is simple, concise and mostly wrong.

Writing in The New Yorker, Dexter Filkins, one of the more astute analysts of the American experience in Iraq, says: “the Republican argument that a handful of American troops could have saved Iraq misses a larger point. The fundamental problem was American policy—in particular, the American policy of supporting and strengthening Maliki at all costs. Maliki was a militant sectarian his whole life, and the United States should not have been surprised when he continued to act that way once he became Prime Minister. As Emma Sky, who served as a senior adviser to the American military during the war in Iraq, put it, ‘The problem was the policy, and the policy was to give unconditional support to Nuri al-Maliki.’ (Sky’s book, The Unraveling, is the essential text on how everything fell apart.) When the Americans helped install him, in 2006, he was a colorless mediocrity with deeply sectarian views. By 2011, he was an unrivalled strongman with control over a vast military and security apparatus. Who enabled that?”

Filkins’ answer to the enabling question is that George W. Bush, Obama and Clinton all had a hand in creating the mess, but he also notes a fact that Jeb ignores – it was his brother who established the timeline for the troop withdrawal, a timeline that Obama was only too happy to implement since he had campaign to get U.S. troops out of Iraq. Amending that agreement, as Bush said “everyone” thought would happen, was entirely contingent on the Iraqi government we had helped establish agreeing to U.S. troops remaining. Changing the Bush agreement, given the internal strife in the country, was never going to happen and, in fact, the Iraqi parliament refused to consider modifications of the troop withdrawal timeline.

As Filkins says, “at best, Jeb is faulting Obama for not amending the deal.”

Other commentators, including Paul Waldman, have observed that Jeb Bush, as well as other Republicans, continue to believe, against all evidence, that the United States could bend the internal politics of Iraq in a way that we might like. Remember the rhetoric about a western-style democracy taking root in the heart of the Middle East? It was a pipe dream and still is.

“And this is perhaps the most dangerous thing about Bush’s perspective on Iraq,” Waldman wrote recently in the Washington Post, “which can also be said of his primary opponents. They display absolutely no grasp of the internal politics of Iraq, now or in the past, not to mention the internal politics of other countries in the region, including Iran. Indeed, most Republicans don’t seem to even believe that these countries have internal politics that can shape what the countries choose to do and how they might react to our actions.”

As for Clinton, who of course is the real political target of Bush’s recent critique of past and present U.S. Middle East policy, Dexter Filkins says: “She played a supporting role in a disastrously managed withdrawal, which helped lay the groundwork for the catastrophe that followed. And that was preceded by the disastrously managed war itself, which was overseen by Jeb Bush’s brother. And that was preceded by the decision to go to war in the first place, on trumped-up intelligence, which was also made by Bush’s brother.

“All in all, when it comes to Iraq, Clinton doesn’t have a lot to brag about. But Jeb Bush might want to consider talking about something else.”

Let the Debate Continue…

Or would it be too much to just ask that Bush – other candidates, as well – grapple with the grubby details of the mess in the Middle East. It is a convenient sound bite to say, for example, that Obama and Clinton “allowed” the Islamic State to emerge amid all the sectarian violence that we could never have successfully controlled, even had we committed to U.S. boots on the ground for the next 50 years. Such thinking does little – nothing really – to help explain what has really happened in Iraq and why.

Islamic State fighters
Islamic State fighters

In a truly chilling article in the current New York Review of Books, an anonymous writer identified as a senior official of a NATO country with wide experience in the Middle East, provides some insight into all that we don’t know and can’t comprehend about the forces that have unleashed havoc in Iraq and Syria.

The latest ISIL outrage includes, according to the New York Times, a policy of rape and sex slavery, across a wide swath of the region. The sober and informed piece should be required reading for every candidate as a cautionary tale about how American policy, beginning with George W. Bush, has been a tragic failure. It is also a stark reminder of the real limits of what our military power can accomplish.

“I have often been tempted to argue that we simply need more and better information,” the writer says in attempting to explain ISIL. “But that is to underestimate the alien and bewildering nature of this phenomenon. To take only one example, five years ago not even the most austere Salafi [ultra-conservative Islamic] theorists advocated the reintroduction of slavery; but ISIS has in fact imposed it. Nothing since the triumph of the Vandals in Roman North Africa has seemed so sudden, incomprehensible, and difficult to reverse as the rise of ISIS. None of our analysts, soldiers, diplomats, intelligence officers, politicians, or journalists has yet produced an explanation rich enough—even in hindsight—to have predicted the movement’s rise.

“We hide this from ourselves with theories and concepts that do not bear deep examination. And we will not remedy this simply through the accumulation of more facts. It is not clear whether our culture can ever develop sufficient knowledge, rigor, imagination, and humility to grasp the phenomenon of ISIS. But for now, we should admit that we are not only horrified but baffled.”

If there is any good news amid the re-writing of our recent and often disastrous history in the Middle East it may be contained in the fact that Jeb Bush’s quest for the White House will mean that the American legacy in Iraq will continue to be debated. Smart politics might have dictated that Jeb leave the sleeping dogs of W’s policies lie, but that was never an option. The mess his brother made is still too raw and too important not to demand ongoing discussion, particularly from another Bush.

History will assign the blame for U.S. policy in the Middle East and I’m pretty confident how that will shake out. American voters, even given our short attention span and penchant to accept over simplification of enormously complex issues, should welcome the discussion that Jeb Bush’s speech has prompted. He may be, as Paul Waldman says, “shockingly obtuse” about the limits of American power and as misinformed as some of the people who led us down this rabbit hole, but we still need to force the debate and challenge the “theories and concepts that do not bear deep examination.”

Who knows, as Max Hastings suggests when considering the lasting lessons of the 100 year old Great War, we might actually learn something.