The Syria Dilemma

There’s news this morning that the United States, Great Britain, and France have launched air strikes against the Assad regime in Syria.  The strikes are in response to what the three Western allies call a chemical weapons atrocity committed by the Assad regime on its own people, and are targeting laboratories, production facilities, storage facilities, and other elements of the regime’s chemical weapons capabilities.

5ad199560f2544131873fb90Nobody wants to see civilians assaulted by chemical weapons, of course, and I agree with President Trump that anyone who uses chemical weapons is a “monster.”  The problem is that the Assad regime denies any use of chemical weapons, and its allies — namely, Russia and Iran — are backing the regime.  Indeed, at one point Russia claimed that Great Britain had, for some elusive reason, staged the chemical attack.  The outlandishness of that claim gives us a pretty good idea of how to assess the relative credibility of the charges and countercharges concerning who did what.

But in the curious arena of international affairs, questions of credibility and truth, and right and wrong, often don’t mean much.  Attacking Syria will have consequences for our relations with Russia and Iran, such as they are, and might put other American allies, like Israel, at increased risk.  Of course, it could also risk drawing the United States deeper into the quagmire of internal disputes in a foreign nation, a la Afghanistan and Iraq.  On the other hand, do countries like the United States, France, and Great Britain, which have the ability to take concrete steps to try to stop the use of chemical weapons, have a moral obligation to do something like launching these attacks when international organizations like the United Nations prove to be incapable of protecting innocents from monstrous and barbaric attacks?

It’s a dilemma that is above my pay grade, and one which I hope our leaders have thought through thoroughly and carefully.  I’m all for stopping the use of chemical weapons, but it is the unpredictable long-term consequences that give me concern.

The Oil Story

Recently I ran across an interesting article on developments in the oil-producing world.  Provocatively headlined “The Collapse of the Old Oil Order,” it addresses the dissension within the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and the economic forces that are affecting the price of oil and keeping it below $50 a barrel.

Much of the article addresses geopolitical forces — like Saudi Arabia’s very rocky relations with Iran and Russia, two other big petroleum producers, and changes within the Saudi regime itself to move the Kingdom’s economy away from near-total reliance on oil prices and its seemingly endless supply of crude — but the piece also gets into the basics of global supply and demand.  And those familiar elements from Economics 101 have changed in ways that the experts didn’t really predict, especially on the supply side.

With the discovery of massive supplies of shale oil and gas in the United States and the development of technology to extract it, for example, there’s lots of new supply in the marketplace, and no one is making the predictions that we’re going to run out of oil in the foreseeable future that we used to hear.  In addition, green initiatives and other forces have affected the demand for oil in developed countries, and the consumption of oil in developing countries hasn’t bridged the gap.  The result is an oversupply, with countries whose oil production costs are highest struggling to deal with the current economic reality.

Gas prices aren’t exactly cheap — in Columbus and nationally, they’ve actually increased recently — but they are far from their peak prices of $4.00 a gallon or more years ago.  And the days when mighty OPEC was unified and could singlehandedly send shock waves through the global economy seem to be behind us.  It’s a good example of how predicting the future based on the uninterrupted continuation of current trends can often be wrong.

2016’s Rocky Start

It’s only the first official workday of 2016, and already the year is off to a very rocky start.

In the Middle East, tensions are high because Saudi Arabia — where Sunni Muslims predominate — recently executed a prominent Shiite Muslim cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, for terrorism-related offenses.  That angered Iran, the Shiite power in the region, with protesters in Tehran setting fire to part of the Saudi embassy there.  Saudi Arabia has now given Iran two days to withdraw its diplomats from the Kingdom.  So, in a Middle East that is already aboil because of ISIS, fighting in Syria and Iraq, and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian disputes, we layer on a conflict between Saudi Arabia, the money power and home to Islam’s most holy sites, and Iran, the revolutionary religious state that has long sought to be the leading Muslim power in the area.  And that dispute will not only increase the political turmoil in the region, it also might affect the world’s oil markets, which have been plunging recently.

1904But that’s not all.  In China today, stocks tumbled 7 percent, triggering a premature end to trading.  It’s not entirely clear why China’s markets have plunged — China’s economy is a black box, and many of China’s economic decisions seem the product of manipulation, rather than the workings of the law of supply and demand — but signs point to the fact that the Chinese economy is headed for the rocks.  Given the size of the Chinese economy, that’s bad news for the rest of the economically interdependent world that seems to be teetering on the brink of another recession, and other Asian stock markets also fell today.  We’ll see whether European and American markets follow suit.

So, even more contentiousness in the war-torn, terrorism-addled Middle East powder keg, and bad signs from one of the world’s largest economies and a principal engine of growth in recent years.  What about America?  Oh, yeah — it’s a presidential election year, which means we’ve got a lame duck President, and according to the polls the two currently leading candidates to replace him are a blow-dried bumptious buffoon and a dissembling also-ran who couldn’t comply with basic email security rules.  And we’ve got months, and months, and months of electioneering and campaign commercials in our future, too.

You know, 2015 really wasn’t that bad.

Redefining “Success”

John Kirby, a spokesman for the United States Department of State, has published a “year in review” piece on the Department’s official blog.  He notes that while “the year was not without challenges,” the “United States has helped to change the world for the better” and adds:  “Our diplomats have been busy, and they have met with significant success across a range of issues.”  He then gives his “take” on them using “a great hashtag — #2015in5Words — which was recently trending on Twitter.”

One of the #2015in5Words items Kirby lists is “Bringing Peace, Security to Syria.”

syrian-refugees-opener-6151Huh?  Syria?  The Syria where a bloody civil war between the terrorist forces of ISIS and the repressive regime of Bashar al-Assad has provoked a huge refugee crisis?  The Syria where significant parts of the control are under the control of a deadly terrorist group and where fighting is going on, even now?  The Syria where every big power is flexing its muscle and where, thanks to the support of Russia and Iran, it looks like the murderous Assad might conceivably stay in power?

How does Kirby explain that the U.S. was involved in “Bringing Peace, Security to Syria”?  He doesn’t, really.  He says only that the U.S. has “stepped up to aid the Syrian people during their time of need” and that “the UN Security Council passed a U.S.-sponsored resolution that puts forward a roadmap that will facilitate a transition within Syria to a credible, inclusive, nonsectarian government that is responsive to the needs of the Syrian people.”  Americans should be proud of their traditional generosity to others, of course, but neither increased aid or the passage of a preliminary United Nations Security Council resolution can reasonably be characterized as “Bringing Peace, Security to Syria” in the face of intense ongoing fighting.

Oh, and another “success” included by Kirby is “Winning Fight Against Violent Extremists.”  It touts the “Summit on Countering Violent Terrorism” hosted by the White House in February 2015 and says “this monumental summit launched an ongoing global CVE effort now underway that reaches throughout the world and across countless nations” that ultimately will lead to the defeat of ISIS.  Seriously?  We’re supposed to count a summit meeting that barely hit the news as a success?  Only a flack could say, in the wake of the events in Paris, San Bernardino, and other locations of horrific terrorist actions in 2015, that we are “winning fight against violent extremists.”

Diplomats are supposed to have credibility, but when you’re searching for “success” and trying to present your case in 5-word hashtags that were recently trending on social media, this is what you get.  Maybe there’s a reason the Department of State’s official blog is called “Dipnote.”

Permanent Protest

  
When Kish and I lived in Washington, D.C. in the early ’80s, a “Ban the Bomb” protestor camped in Lafayette Square Park, just across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House.  His protest area featured a number of hand-lettered signs about the perils of nuclear weapons that featured photos of the devastation at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  In those days of the Reagan Administration, nuclear weapons were a big issue: some American communities were declaring themselves “nuclear-free zones,” as if municipal ordinances could repel nuclear warheads, and President Reagan was accused of being a dangerous war-mongerer.

Then the Berlin Wall fell, and the Soviet Union ceased to exist, and the United States and the Soviet Union talked about eliminating their nuclear stockpiles, and the worries about Mutually Assured Destruction and “duck and cover” seemed to be quaint issues that were behind us.

But, 35 years later, the “Ban the Bomb” protest is still there in Lafayette Park, with its little encampment and crude signage.  And the nuclear issue, unfortunately, is still with us, too — except now the concerns aren’t about the Soviets, but about Iran, and North Korea, and ISIS, and rogue terrorist groups using nuclear weapons to advance their inexplicable political and religious agendas.  Nuclear weapons are back on the front page, and the issue seems to have curdled and gotten worse, and more dangerous than ever.  

Nobody seemed to be paying much attention to the protest area, though.  Maybe we should.

The Perils Of Foreign Policy Hubris

Things aren’t going real well on the foreign policy front for the U.S. of A. these days.

Among other areas of concern, mass killings are continuing in Syria. Iran is moving closer to nuclear capability. North Korea is rattling its sabers. And Russia appears poised to annex the Crimea, and has accused the United States — of all things — of conducting foreign policy under the “rule of the gun.” Talk about the pot calling the kettle black!

No American, regardless of their political affiliation, should be happy with this state of affairs in this dangerous world. I’m not sure, either, how much influence American foreign policy has had on any of these developments. I’m not saying that the U.S. is powerless, but I also believe that we cannot fully control everything that happens in the world.

That’s why I’d encourage every American administration, regardless of party, to avoid displaying tremendous hubris about foreign policy. When President Obama took office, he famously promised to practice “smart” foreign policy and had Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly present a “reset” button for U.S. relations with Russia to the Russian Minister — an odd attempt to marry foreign policy with a campaign-style photo opportunity. Odd, isn’t it, that the new American government would so publicly attempt to distance itself from the preceding administration’s policy? It shows how far we’ve come from the approach that prevailed for most of the 20th century, when Republicans and Democrats alike contended that partisanship ended at our borders and pursued uniform policies, like “containment,” that were followed for decades by administrations of both parties.

No doubt the Obama Administration, from the President on down, legitimately believed that it would be able to produce better relations with Russia — but obviously that didn’t happen. Their supreme confidence in their own ability to control world affairs was sorely misplaced. Now, with Russia moving aggressively to annex territory and intimidate its neighbors, the Obama Administration and its grand promises and “reset” button photo ops look foolish. The embarrassing contrast of the empty “reset” button with the reality of Russian military and geopolitical maneuvering makes the current situation all the more injurious to American credibility in world affairs.

Hubris is never an attractive quality. We’re now seeing that, in foreign affairs, it can have disastrous consequences. Let’s hope that the next presidential administration recognizes that fact.

Sixty Years Without A Bath

Meet Amoo Hadji. He’s an 80-year-old Iranian guy who lives in a stone hut, sleeps in a depression in the ground, and hasn’t had a bath in 60 years. That’s right — he hasn’t bathed since the Eisenhower Administration.

Frankly, Amoo’s lack of personal hygiene isn’t the only thing you might find objectionable in his lifestyle. He eats dead animals and smokes animal dung in his pipe. And, because he doesn’t bathe, we can assume he’s not hauling out the Pepsodent to get sparkling fresh breath after he chows down some rotting animal flesh and chases it with a relaxing camel turd after-dinner smoke.

The story linked above, which includes photos of Amoo and his Stone Age lifestyle, leaves some significant questions unanswered. After following basic social norms for 20 years, why did Amoo decide to skip the benefits of soap and water for the next six decades? Did his Mom just give up on hectoring him to wash off a few days’ filth? Is there any way to describe what he smells like? A professional wrestler? A camel? A goat? Milk that has been left in an abandoned refrigerator in the blazing sunshine for several days?

And what does Amoo Hadji do with his time, other than hunting for animal carcasses and dung? Is he a blogger? Does he have a Facebook page? Is he married?

Iran And Nukes

Today the United States and a group of other countries reached agreement on a proposal that addressed the Iranian nuclear program.  The agreement is a temporary one, apparently designed to freeze the Iranian program in place so that additional negotiations can occur.

According to the BBC, the key elements of the agreement are that Iran will stop enriching uranium beyond a certain point, allow inspectors increased access to its nuclear sites, and stop development of a plant that could create plutonium, and in exchange no new sanctions will be imposed for six months and Iran will receive billions of dollars in relief from existing sanctions.  U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry says the deal gives the U.S., and Israel, “breathing space” for additional negotiations with Iran.  Iran says the deal recognizes its right to enrich uranium; Kerry denies that.

Is it a good deal?  I tend to trust Israel on Middle Eastern matters, because the Israelis have shown a very clear-eyed view of the realpolitik in that perpetually challenging region of the world.  They have to be clear-eyed, of course, because their very survival is on the line.  It’s fair to say the Israelis aren’t happy about this agreement, and neither are their supporters — both Republican and Democrat — in the U.S. Congress.  In fact, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a “historic mistake.”  The Israelis and their supporters think the sanctions were working and should have been continued until Iran agreed to end its program.

I don’t trust Iran.  I don’t trust a government that has called for the obliteration of Israel, that still has a scent of fanaticism about it, that has cracked down on its own citizens as they have tried to exercise basic freedoms, and that has been a fomenter of terrorism and unrest in the Middle East for decades.  How do you negotiate with a country that you can’t trust?

Well, That’s A Relief!

Today U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was interviewed on NBC’s Meet The Press about the international talks concerning the Iranian nuclear program.  At one point during the interview, Kerry said:  “We are not blind, and I don’t think we’re stupid.”

Thank goodness the Secretary of State provided the world with such assurance!  Of course, it would have been more effective if he also had made it clear that the United States is not demented, deaf, morally bankrupt, hopelessly naive, or emotionally exhausted, either.

Weird that the Secretary of State would portray the American approach to the negotiations in such a defensive way, isn’t it?  Has our standing in the world reached such a point that we actually need to address international concerns that our most senior diplomats are being hoodwinked by the likes of the Iranians?

I don’t think America is blind or stupid, either.  I’m hoping that, as the talks with the Iranians proceed, our government is carefully coordinating with the Israelis and approaching Iranian promises with appropriate skepticism.  What does it say, though, that our allies apparently concerned about the quality and experience of our leaders that the American Secretary of State would feel impelled to say such a thing?

Amateur Hour

I can’t help but reach the conclusion that the Syrian situation has been badly handled by the White House and the State Department.

From the President’s early comments that purported to draw a “red line” if the Syrian government used chemical weapons, to the announcements that the U.S. would be involved in an imminent strike after claiming to have incontrovertible evidence of Syria’s use of gas against its own people, to Great Britain’s embarrassing refusal to become involved in any action, and finally to President Obama’s abrupt decision to seek Congressional approval for some kind of action against Syria, the Obama Administration seems to be making it up as it goes along. The President now needs to resort to what the New York Times describes as “the most extraordinary lobbying campaign of Mr. Obama’s presidency” to try to convince lawmakers to support the Administration’s plans and avoid a humiliating loss in Congress that would further undermine the President’s credibility abroad.  In the meantime, even the President’s supporters think his performance has been “embarrassing” and the Syrians feel like the President’s decision to reverse course is a victory of sorts.

This blundering means that the problem goes beyond Syria and its use of chemical weapons to raise much broader issues.  President Obama often seems to think that his rhetorical powers are so extraordinary that if he just gives a speech, everything will change — but that’s not how things work in the world.  He should never have drawn the “red line” without knowing that he would be supported, in Congress and in the world at large, in taking action if Syria crossed it.  Obviously, he didn’t do so.  Now, his credibility, and the credibility of the United States as a whole, is at stake.

Thanks to those mistakes, we’ll never have the ability as a country to have a free discussion about whether to intervene in Syria or, as Secretary of State John Kerry puts it, engage in “armchair isolationism,” because the congressional debate will be colored by comments, like those of Senator John McCain, that the failure to back the President’s hasty words with action could be “catastrophic.”  Such comments recognize that the Syrian chemical weapons issue, tragic as it is for the Syrian people, is a small blip on America’s geopolitical screen.  The much bigger and more important issues are what might happen if China or Russia — or Iran or North Korea — feel that the President’s words mean nothing.  Once he loses credibility with our adversaries it will never be fully regained.

I happen to think we shouldn’t intervene in Syria, and I don’t care whether a blowhard like John Kerry calls me an “armchair isolationist” or not.  As a country, America needs to address this issue and decide what our role in the world will be and make some hard choices about our vital interests in view of our finite economic resources.  Now we may be cornered and forced into taking ill-advised, poorly defined action in a country where our national interests really aren’t implicated because the President didn’t think before he talked.  Indeed, Kerry’s remarks yesterday suggest that the Obama Administration wants to leave open the option of sending our ground troops into Syria — which seems like an extraordinarily bad idea in just about every way.

These are an amateur’s unfortunate mistakes, but mistakes that could have real, painful consequences for our country nevertheless.

We Don’t Understand Iran, And They Don’t Understand Us

The Onion has fooled many with its fake news stories.  Now it has caught its biggest fish yet:  the official Iranian news agency, Fars.

Fars reported as fact an Onion spoof about a fake Gallup poll that found that 77 percent of rural white Americans would rather vote for Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad than President Obama.  The Fars story included The Onion‘s fake quote from a West Virginia resident who purportedly said the Iranian leader “takes national defence seriously, and he’d never let some gay protesters tell him how to run his country like Obama does”.

Fars has apologized for its blunder, but I think its apology tells us something more significant about Iran than the fact that Fars was initially duped by The Onion.  In the apology, the Fars editor-in-chief said:  “Although it does not justify our mistake, we do believe that if a free opinion poll is conducted in the US, a majority of Americans would prefer anyone outside the US political system to President Barack Obama and American statesmen.”

If the head of the official Iranian news agency truly believes that Americans would prefer a hateful, repressive, anti-Semitic figure like Ahmadinejad to our own President, there is a huge gulf in understanding between our two countries.  When those two countries are jousting about Iran’s reckless efforts to obtain nuclear capabilities, such a lack of understanding can be extremely dangerous.  If Iranians think it is plausible that rural Americans would vote for an intolerant, deluded bigot like Ahmadinejad, what are they thinking about President Obama’s warning, in his recent speech to the United Nations, that the United States “will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”  Are they taking that warning seriously, or are they kidding themselves about that, too?

Barbie, Our Cultural Ambassador

Barbie, the popular doll, has been the target of criticism over the years.  Many people think that Barbie’s improbable figure projects unhealthy concepts about the ideal female body for the young girls who love the doll.  Others say Barbie is too frivolous and clothes-obsessed.  Mattel, the maker of Barbie, has tried to thread the needle by offering Barbies with professional careers — like Barbie the architect — while at the same time selling the clothes and cars and houses that the pre-teen Barbie owners crave.

A recent news story, however, may help to rehabilitate Barbie’s reputation.  It turns out that the doll is the subject of a crackdown by the Iranian government.  It is removing the dolls from stores because they say that Barbie is a “manifestation of Western culture.”  In a benighted land where women must wear head scarves, interaction between men and women is strictly regulated, and opportunities for women are few, Barbie’s miniskirts, makeup, and general air of fun and freedom make the government uncomfortable.  So, the dolls are being confiscated — which won’t be easy because Iranian girls apparently love Barbie just like American girls do and have resisted previous crackdowns.

Who would have thought that a little plastic toy could carry so much cultural weight?  Anything that make the Iranian government feel uncomfortable — and might cause Iranians to see their government for the repressive authoritarian regime that it truly is — can’t be all bad.  Maybe, instead of architect Barbie, Mattel should introduce Ambassador Barbie.  Hey, or even President Barbie!

Out Of Iraq, And Holding Our Breath

Today President Obama met Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki to commemorate the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq.  By the end of this month, all troops will be gone, leaving Iraq as an ally that will have to fend for itself in one of the world’s most volatile regions, with Iran as its neighbor.

At this point, no one knows what Iraq’s future is — or whether America’s intervention in the affairs of that sovereign nation was beneficial or harmful, stabilizing or destabilizing, a game-changer or a waste of blood and treasure.  We know that America succeeded in overthrowing a murderous dictator and, after years of hard fighting and many American casualties, helped to establish a relatively peaceful democratic government in the vast, totalitarian expanse of the Middle East.  The question is the staying power of Iraq and its current government, and whether it can maintain order for long enough for democratic institutions to truly take root.  It will be years before the answers to those questions become clear.

I heard a report this morning that said that President Obama would spend this week touting the withdrawal of the troops and what he believes has been a foreign policy success.  This is not a time for a “Mission Accomplished” moment, however.  Proud words about America’s withdrawal and its meaning could quickly turn to ashes if the fragile Iraqi democracy collapses into a hell of suicide bombings and blood-soaked sectarian violence.

 

The Power Of Words, And The Power Of Guns

This morning’s BBC features this headline “Libya:  US urges tough United Nations resolution.” One can only imagine the rueful reaction to that headline in Benghazi, where rebels wait while the forces of Muammar Gaddafi close in, or in Tripoli, where Gaddafi and his bloodthirsty supporters must be laughing at an international community that has done little to prevent him from crushing the rebellion.  Given what has happened over the past few weeks, this headline on a Reuters story may be more apt:  “Leaders dither as Gaddafi hails final showdown.”

The reality is that urging “tough” United Nations resolutions doesn’t mean much in the face of guns and mercenaries.  And saying that a foreign leader should leave doesn’t mean much, either.  The days when pronouncements of American presidents left people quaking in their boots are long since over.  If there is no resolve to take actions, words ring hollow — but even meaningless words and lack of action nevertheless can have negative consequences.

If, as now appears likely, Gaddafi survives the rebellion and executes or imprisons all of those who defied him, what message has been sent?  If you live under an authoritarian regime and are considering a rebellion, the message is loud and clear — you might get a pat on the head from the ever-debating members of the U.N., but don’t expect much more than that.  If you are Hugo Chavez, or Robert Mugabe, or the leadership of Iran, you realize that there isn’t much stomach for confrontation, and perhaps you decide to conduct your affairs even more recklessly.  And if you are Israel, or some other pro-Western government in a volatile region, you begin to calculate your chances of survival if American words aren’t backed up with deeds and you adjust your policies accordingly.

I’m not saying that America should intervene militarily in every foreign policy crisis or act as the world’s policeman.  I am saying, however, America should zealously guard whatever is left of its credibility and not issue pronouncements unless it is willing to back them up.

 

The Wave Rolls On

In the Middle East, these are interesting times — which means these also are interesting times in the halls of the State Department.

With popular protests having brought down the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, the wave of demonstrations for democracy is sweeping on to other countries in the region.  We are seeing unrest in Bahrain, violent encounters between government forces and anti-government activists in Libya, and clashes between police and protesters in Yemen.  Governments in places like Jordan are trying to implement reforms that they hope will quell popular unrest.  The wave has even reached Iran, where there have been confrontations between security forces and supporters of opposition to the government.

It is not clear yet how big, or how powerful, this wave of protest against undemocratic regimes will be.  Waves are unpredictable.  Sometimes waves that look enormous peter out, and waves also can be indiscriminate in their destructive force.  In a year, we could see a Middle East that looks pretty much the same as it does right now, or we could see an area filled with many new governments.  And if that is the result, who knows whether the governments will support peace with Israel and be favorably inclined to America, or whether we will see more governments predicated on intolerant religious fundamentalism, or whether we will see something else entirely?  In America, and in Israel, we watch with anticipation and dread as the wave rolls on.