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Correcting the first draft of history – Obama’s Red Line

The great undoing has started.   President Obama’s most defining achievements — from healthcare reform and economic recovery to the drawdown of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — divided the country to the extent that our new President and Congress are hell bent on undoing anything that might be considered an enduring legacy.

Of the many arenas for expected change, perhaps the most consequential will be the departure from Obama’s approach to advancing and protecting U.S. interests in the world.  Obama consistently prioritized diplomacy.  His two major international accomplishments came through diplomacy: securing an agreement to prevent Iran’s development of nuclear weapons and the international climate change agreement.  Unfortunately, both are high on the list of the great undoing of the Trump administration, regardless of the possible costs.

Donald Trump and his team cite a presumed loss of international prestige and influence around the world as a result of Obama’s reluctance to use military force without exhausting diplomatic solutions.  As their case in point, they have advanced a narrative about the no-good options case in a prolonged Syrian civil war.  Such a narrative has taken on a conventional wisdom that ignores the events that actually transpired.

The narrative has its own short-hand nomenclature: the red line.  In Syria, Obama laid down a “red line” in August 2012 that, once crossed by Syria’s President Bashar Assad, would draw the U.S. into military engagement in Syria.  Obama’s exact words were “a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.  That would change my calculus,” referring to a decision on military involvement in Syria.

Within a year, video footage out of Syria began to seep out of Syria forcing such a “change of calculus.”  An August 21, 2013 attack against a suburb of Assad’s own capital revealed use of chemical weapons, and UN inspectors arrived in Syria to investigate.  Obama began preparing the groundwork for a military response, first by consulting with allies and then exploring options of limited strikes to cripple Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons.  Planners assessed the risks of military strikes against caches of chemical weapons.  While the U.S. had a stated policy of regime change in Syria, Obama focused his planning for military option on one achievable goal – the removal of chemical weapons.

A timeline of events over the next few weeks reveals how quickly events on the ground shifted to disrupt Obama’s plans.

On August 29, the British Parliament voted against Prime Minister Cameron’s motion condemning Assad for the attack, the first step for British participation in military intervention.  Weighing heavily on that vote was the still fresh memory of the consequences of British involvement in the Iraq war.

Faced with the loss of his closest ally, Obama made two announcements two days later.  First was his decision to “take military action against Syrian regime targets.”  The second was more consequential.  He also decided to “seek authorization for the use of force from the American people’s representatives in Congress.”

At the time, Obama sounded confident that he would be able to convince Congress on the appropriateness of military action, despite his awareness of the public’s weariness with war after Iraq and Afghanistan.

After just one week, it had become clear that Congress would not back Obama’s request to use military force in Syria.  Public opinion polls also opposed U.S intervention, and Obama was running into the same brick wall that a Republican Congress imposed on any proposals emanating from the White House.  On September 8, five Republican Senators announced their opposition and a sixth, Lindsey Graham, said “It’d be great if the Russians could convince Assad to turn over his chemical weapons to the international community. That’d be a terrific outcome.”

Faced with a near certain defeat in Congress, Obama’s room to maneuver was limited.  In what has been portrayed as an off-the-cuff remark, Secretary of State John Kerry opened up a potential avenue to achieve the same outcome as a military strike of eliminating the chemical weapons that Assad could use on his own people.  In response to a reporter’s question on September 9, Kerry said Assad could avert military action by the U.S. if he would “turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week.”  The Russians moved quickly to propose just such an outcome.  Obama responded tentatively, holding out the use of military action if such a plan was merely cause for delay.

The next day, Obama asked Congress to postpone a vote to allow for diplomacy to play out the diplomacy set in motion by Kerry’s remarks.

After an intense, accelerated negotiations, Kerry and his Russian counterpart announced on September 14 the framework of an agreement that would start a process to remove the chemical weapons in Syria under the supervision of the international community.

British destroyer escorting shipment of chemicals out of Syria in February 2014; photo courtesy of British Ministry of Defence

British destroyer escorting shipment of chemicals out of Syria in February 2014; photo courtesy of British Ministry of Defence

Less than a year later, on June 23, 2014, the UN certified that the last of Syria’s chemical weapons had been removed.  That included over 1300 metric tons at over 45 different sites in Syria.  The size alone of that stockpile makes it hard to conceive that military intervention would have had the same outcome.

Obama’s detractors, especially those in Congress who worked to thwart approval of military engagement in Syria in September 2013, suffer from amnesia.  Not content with this erroneous story line, some have connected the red line statement to the continued suffering in Syria, to the military involvement of Russia to bolster Assad, to a mass migration to escape what looks to be genocide in Aleppo and Syria’s other war-torn regions.  This is misplaced; Assad and Putin hold full responsibility for those crimes against humanity.

The red line narrative that ought to be taking hold as the nation prepares for the transfer of power reveals a leader who laid out a concrete goal and achieved it, through a diplomacy that involved the UN, friends and allies, and even adversaries.  We will come to appreciate such strategic deliberation.  My thread of hope is that we as a nation do not pay too high a price for the untethered, transactional bullying that lies ahead.

This article first appeared in the Berkshire Eagle and History News Network.

 

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To Russia With Love

When wondering how to make America great again, encouraging a foreign government to influence our election, does not come to mind.  Neither does denying that it happened, let alone refusing to even receive the intelligence reports that indicate the extent of that foreign involvement.

The tables have been turned.  For decades, the U.S. did meddle in foreign elections.  The cases are well known, whether it was CIA financing a propaganda campaign to ensure victory for Italy’s Christian Democrats in 1948, Edward Lansdale of the CIA running the campaign for Philippines President Ramon Magsaysay in 1953 or even spending millions of dollars to prevent Salvador Allende from winning the Chilean election in 1964.

The U.S. did not stop at trying to influence elections, but actively sought to overturn elections that had put into power leaders inimical to our interests.  Declassified documents spell out efforts in Iran, Congo, Chile and Guatemala to destabilize the countries in order to lead to the overthrow of the elected leaders.

Perhaps, this is the era of greatness that Donald Trump had in mind when he adopted the slogan for his campaign.  However, these activities did not make the U.S. great, but in the long term harmed our reputation around the world.  More recently, overt attempts by the U.S. to weigh in on foreign elections have backfired.  In 2002, U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia Manuel Rocha warned that the election of Evo Morales as President might result in the cutoff of aid to the country.  Morales lost that election but rode to victory in the next elections, riding on resentment against the U.S.

Foreign media seek out U.S. statements on their elections, but most Ambassadors are careful to avoid becoming part of the electoral debate.  In the Philippines elections this year Ambassador Philip Goldberg resisted the temptation to criticize the authoritarian candidate Rodrigo Duterte and echoed the refrain taken by the U.S. in foreign elections, “Our job and my job and also the job of the people in the U.S. is to stay out of your politics and to let the Filipino people decide who is going to be your President.”

Montage by Donkey Hotey, Flickr, Wikimedia Commons

Montage by Donkey Hotey, Flickr, Wikimedia Commons

Now, however, we are faced with the likelihood that the U.S. has been on the receiving end of foreign election meddling.  In considering this turnaround on the sanctity of democratic elections, it is important to note a series of troubling aspects:

— this is the electronic equivalent of the Watergate burglary, where operatives physically broke into the offices to seek physical files from the Democratic campaign.  This time, files were copied electronically.

— the release of the files did influence the outcome of the election.  The e-mails did not break news of illegal activities, but did highlight embarrassing statements from Democratic party officials on a recurring basis over the course of the final weeks of the campaign.  Further, they provided enough material for a candidate who is so cavalier with the truth to repeat his “Crooked Hillary” theme to audiences primed to chant for her arrest.

— Donald Trump denying that this happened is a little like Donald Trump repeating for years that President Obama was not born in the U.S.  Just because he says it, does not make it so.  And even knowing it is false doesn’t mean he will stop saying it.

— it is not out of character that the man who is famous for not having even a short attention span would reject intelligence briefings.  Those analysts preparing the briefings were not the people behind the lead up to the Iraq War in 2003.  That was George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and George Tenant who politicized the process and got the intelligence they wanted, even if they had to make it up.

— the connection to Russia and to Vladimir Putin that Donald Trump, his campaign and now several of his Cabinet selections should raise questions about the motivation of the Russians and of the Trumps.  There are many ways to reset relations with Russia, and perhaps good reasons to do so.  But, denying their involvement in our elections?  Next, he might deny they have taken over Crimea.  No, he actually already did say that.

Most alarming, though, is contemplating what should be done as a result of this electoral meddling, and further what could be done.  The constitutional crisis borders on the unthinkable and the unprecedented.  The courage to investigate this fully, first by President Obama and then by members of both parties in Congress, is the best example of a democracy still intact.

This post originally appeared in History News Network.

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Trump’s approach to foreign policy: all tweets, no depth

 

trumptweetsFor our President-elect, history starts now.  Except for a slogan referring to some vague, bygone time of American greatness, Trump’s understanding of history appears to be limited only to what has personally happened to him, as he has built casinos and golf courses and hotels here and abroad.

Nowhere has that been more clear as he stepped into foreign affairs this week, clunking and stomping around on an equilibrium of highly nuanced policies on Cuba, on Pakistan and India, and on China and Taiwan.  Our relations with these nations have run a course of balancing inconsistencies and quasi-fictitious arrangements that have led to a calm, stable, even muddle-through status quo.  As a result, potential areas of distrust, resistance to U.S. interests, and even conflict have been avoided.

With a Twitter threat to Cuba following the death of Fidel Castro, Trump vows to break the recently restored diplomatic relations.  As if the Obama administration’s overture to Cuba in 2014 were a real estate sale, Trump wrote “If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole, I will terminate deal.”  Prior to the normalization of relations, 55 years of policies that sought to overthrow Castro, even kill him, isolate the country and penalize its people economically fed Castro’s iconic reputation as the man who stood up to the United States.  After the Cuban missile crisis and Castro’s forays into the proxy wars in Africa and Latin America, Cuba became a symbolic talking point in U.S. politics, an easy throw-away line to garner a small, but influential voting block in the state of Florida.

What Obama accomplished in his overture to Cuba extended beyond the island nation and advanced U.S. interests in the rest of the hemisphere that was tired of American views toward Latin America that focused on a small island nation.  Obama’s breakthrough allowed the U.S. to approach the region with a clear understanding of where our interests truly lie: in large trading partners such as Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Colombia and Chile or in states threatened by criminal organizations whose populations are fleeing to the U.S. to seek refuge.

In taking the phone call from the leader of Taiwan, Trump stepped into another untidy region with a complex history.  With one simple tweet, “The President of Taiwan CALLED ME today to wish me congratulations on winning the Presidency,” Trump upended 35 years of a one-China policy balancing act that gave our diplomatic recognition to the Beijing China government, but also, according to the Taiwan Relations Act, “promote(s) extensive, close, and friendly commercial, cultural, and other relations between the people of the United States and the people on Taiwan, as well as the people on the China mainland…”  That law passed in 1979 commits the U.S. to support Taiwan’s self-defense.  It’s not “interesting” that the U.S. sells Taiwan military equipment, as Trump defended his call in a subsequent tweet, it’s the law.  The U.S. doesn’t refer to the Taiwan leader as President, because, in the law the U.S. doesn’t recognize Taiwan as a country.

The Taiwan-China relationship is a third-rail, highly potent issue for both the island and the mainland.  For the past 35 years, the U.S. has been careful not to touch it.  Until now.

The call raised all kinds of questions whether the President-elect received any prior briefing where these issues might come up.  Trump’s communications advisor, Kellyanne Conway, insisted on CNN that Trump receives briefings prior to these foreign calls.  That implies that his actions and statements were not errors, but part of a conscious strategy.

However, in the one transcript released from a call – with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif – the nature of those briefings raises further questions.  The transcript read: “Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, you have a very good reputation. You are a terrific guy. You are doing amazing work which is visible in every way. I am looking forward to see you soon. As I am talking to you Prime Minister, I feel I am talking to a person I have known for long. Your country is amazing with tremendous opportunities. Pakistanis are one of the most intelligent people.”  Is it remotely possible that one of his advisors actually briefed the President-elect and told him to say those things, or that it might be advantageous to say “I am ready and willing to play any role that you want me to play to address and find solutions to the outstanding problems?”  What exactly might those outstanding problems be?

It has been widely reported that Trump is not attending the daily intelligence briefings, delegating that responsibility to his Vice President-elect.  However, if there were in fact briefings by members of his new foreign affairs team, one must wonder what the strategy behind the calls might be.  Conversations with foreign leaders are opportunities to advance U.S. interests, to push for a specific point.  Of course, he is only the President-elect, and of course it is natural for foreign leaders to make congratulatory calls.  If he claims that he doesn’t require a strategy since he is not yet President, then he must surely be aware that these foreign leaders are pursuing their own strategies.  Why, otherwise, would Pakistan be so eager to release a transcript from the call, except perhaps to send a message to its rival India?  Or to embarrass Trump and the United States in front of the rest of the world?

History didn’t start on November 8.  The candidate whose supporters overlooked egregious views and activities is soon to be our next President, interacting with peoples who may not be so forgiving.  He will have no choice but to engage in corners of the world with long, untidy, complicated histories, with us and with their neighbors.   A President Trump will not be rewriting history from January 20, 2017 on; he will enter the stage well into the play.  And if he doesn’t take these complicated pasts into account, he runs the risk of getting outmaneuvered and manipulated by other countries for their own interests, rather than defining and advancing our own.

This article first appeared in the History News Network and the Berkshire Eagle.

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Our democracy lost

Every year for the past 40 years, the State Department has issued annual human rights reports as mandated by Congress.  It falls to each U.S. Embassy to prepare the draft country report, based on news clippings collected and interviews and meetings held throughout the year.

Each country report follows a standard format with sections that address topics ranging from protection of individual liberties, arbitrary arrest, freedom of the press, and elections and political participation.

These reports invariably generate controversy, from foreign governments that chafe over the criticism and from human rights organizations who complain that friendly or strategically important countries are not criticized enough.  Most object to the U.S. setting itself up as the arbiter of human rights practices around the world, and a few, including China, have started preparing their own reports on human rights in the United States.

We don’t need reports from other countries, though, to appreciate the flaws in our political system or to understand that we now have a minority run government, in all branches.

The evidence is clear.

Popular vote.  At the executive level of government, for the second time in five elections, the candidate that lost the popular vote has won the election, thanks to the archaic apparatus of the Electoral College. The original framers of the Constitution were nervous about direct democracy and set up mechanisms to limit the vote to white men owning property and to create indirect elections for both Senators and the President.  Only once since 1992 have the Republican candidates for President won the popular vote, but by the end of Donald Trump’s term they will have run the Executive branch for 12 years.

Redistricting.  In the legislative branch, redistricting has allowed the Republicans to put themselves in a near-permanent majority.  New census data each ten years requires legislatures in states with changing populations to re-draw districts.  The result has been a patchwork of districts drawn to protect incumbency and isolate racial and ethnic minorities.   Justin Lewitt from Loyola Law School who tracks redistricting has identified which party controls the process in each district.  He estimates that Republicans “unilaterally control the process” for 210 congressional seats in 18 states, while Democrats have primacy in 44 congressional seats in 6 states.

This resulted in an election where a total of 380 incumbents were re-elected to the House of Representatives out of 393 who ran, for the highest percentage of incumbency since 2004.

Voter suppression.  Redistricting is just one factor in a minority maintaining political control.  This year was the first Presidential election since 1968 held without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act.  In the last six years, 20 states have enacted new voter requirements that effectively suppressed the vote by requiring photo IDs, by curbing voter registration efforts or by limiting early voting.  The lower turnout in 2016 than in 2012, particularly among racial and ethnic minorities, helped ensure a Trump victory and the retention of a Republican majority in the Senate.

Take the case of Wisconsin. With a new voter ID requirement, voter turnout was its lowest in 20 years, with a 13% drop in Milwaukee.  More than 300,000 people who voted in the last Presidential election could not vote, in a state that was decided by a margin of less than 20,000.

Supreme Court.  Before the election, the New York Times referred to the Senate Republican failure to act on President Obama’s nomination to the Supreme Court as a “coup against the Supreme Court.  The Constitution provides the President with the authority to make appointments with the advice and consent of the Senate.  Prior to the election, when Senate Republicans were convinced of a Clinton victory, they indicated that they would reject any of her nominees, for the duration of her term.  With a Trump minority victory, Republicans can now protect a solid conservative majority on the bench that can sustain these efforts to maintain minority control by suppressing voting rights further or preventing curbs against unlimited financing in campaigns by businesses and political action committees.

Even more egregious than the redistricting or suppressing votes or failing to act on the Supreme Court nomination were the separate, unprecedented interventions in U.S. electoral politics by two entities: the FBI and the Russian government.  To the clear advantage of the Republican party, both influenced the outcome of the election more than a Watergate break-in intended to find out campaign strategies of the opposition.  That we were powerless to prevent either of these from influencing our elections does not mean that both should not be fully investigated, especially since Rudolph Guiliani, a prominent Trump supporter, boasted that he had inside information that the FBI was going to announce its re-opening of the e-mail investigation.

These are systemic flaws which, if they occurred in another country, would find their way into the human rights report and raise questions as to the integrity of the political process.

Since the election, the political discussion has moved away from these systemic issues, reviewing the real and repeated mistakes of the polls, the media and the campaigns.  We are reminded of the need to unite the country behind the winner and are deep into the machinations of a transition and a parlor game on appointments to the new administration.

An annual human rights report gets away from the daily news and focuses on broader systemic issues.  Even though there is no provision to write a report on our own country, it is obvious we need a longer term review of our flawed electoral processes.

Fifty years from now, historians will not be reviewing the transition and appointments.  They may, though, be reviewing this election as one of the steps on the way to the erosion of our democracy.

This article originally appeared in History News Network and the Berkshire Eagle.

Annual report on U.S. support for human rights. Photo, State Department

Annual report on U.S. support for human rights. Photo, State Department

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Is there a role for apology in U.S. foreign relations?

President Truman laying wreath at Monument for the Niños Héroes.  Photo, courtesy of Truman library

President Truman laying wreath at Monument for the Niños Héroes. Photo, courtesy of Truman library

The apology that a U.S. sailor gave after being detained by Iranian security forces in Iranian waters has set off a firestorm of criticism over the humiliation of our military. The video that was taken by Iranian soldiers saw the man identified as the commander of the U.S. vessel as saying, “It was a mistake that was our fault and we apologize for our mistake. It was a misunderstanding. We did not mean to go into Iranian territorial water. The Iranian behavior was fantastic while we were here. We thank you very much for your hospitality and your assistance.”

Cries of a “disgrace” and “humiliating” were heard by those who could not bring themselves to credit the diplomats with the sailors’ release and the avoidance of an international incident that could have derailed not only the nuclear deal with Iran, but also, we have since learned, an exchange of prisoners that had been the subject of negotiations for well over a year.  One Congressman, Tom Rooney, from Florida and a member of the House Select Permanent Intelligence Committee, implied that the State Department had instructed the sailors to “make that kind of statement.”  The State Department was vigorous in its denial that an apology had been issued in order to obtain the release of the sailors.

Absent from the back and forth of accusation and denial is any discussion of the merits of apology, either as national policy or behavior, towards foreign or domestic parties.

The rush to reject apology makes one wonder what happens to the approach to family disputes.  Is an apology under those circumstances a sign of weakness, or is it a recognition that the path towards resolution might require an apology?

For sure, foreign policy is not marital reconciliation.  Yet, history shows apologies have been an element of U.S. behavior, at home and abroad.

Coincidentally, the sailor’s apology came within days of the anniversary of the U.S. overthrow of the legitimate ruling monarchy of Hawaii.  On the 100th anniversary of that event, a bipartisan majority in Congress issued a resolution apologizing to “to Native Hawaiians on behalf of the people of the United States for the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom on January 17, 1893” and for the “deprivation of the rights of Native Hawaiians to self-determination.”

Other examples spring readily to mind: the issuance of apology to and even compensation paid to the Japanese-Americans sent to detention camps during World War II (an event that Donald Trump cited as justification to ban the entry of all Muslims into the U.S.)

Less well known was the first visit to Mexico by a sitting U.S. President, Harry Truman, in 1947.  Truman did not have to utter the precise words of apology as he laid a wreath at the Mexican monument to their Niños Héroes on the eve of the centennial of the war with Mexico which saw the loss of nearly half of its territory.  Mexicans not only took the gesture as an apology, but, instead of seeing it as weakness, they received it in the way it was offered.  They enthusiastically embraced Truman as a “new champion of American solidarity and understanding,” in the words of Mexican Foreign Minister Ramon Beteta.  Others went further, as one eyewitness was quoted as saying, “one hundred years of misunderstanding and bitterness wiped out by one man in one minute.”  The response led President Clinton to repeat the gesture in 1997 when he visited Mexico City.

U.S. allies around the world are less reluctant to abjure apology as a component in their foreign relations.  In 2007, the British government expressed regret and authorized payments of £20 million to compensate victims tortured by its forces during the Mau Mau rebellion against British rule in Kenya in the 1950s.  Just last month, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe offered “apologies and remorse” for the “immeasurable and painful experiences” suffered by women in Korea forced to provide sexual services to Japanese soldiers during the World War II.  As part of a settlement with the government of South Korea, Japan agreed to make payments to a fund for victims.  Other examples include Canada’s apology in 2008 to First Nations peoples for the system of Indian Residential Schools and Australia’s apology in 2014 to Indonesia for naval ships straying into Indonesian waters without permission.

The apology last week in the Persian Gulf differed from other examples in that it was likely a spur-of-the-moment decision by the commander, as opposed to national policy arrived at after considerable discussion, and in the Hawaii and Mexico examples, after 100 years has lapsed.  More recently, though, we have the cases of the U.S. and NATO forces who apologized for military operations in Afghanistan that result in civilian deaths.

Presidential politics make the issue of apology harder.  Taking a cue from Mitt Romney’s 2010 campaign book titled, No Apology: The Case for American Greatness, candidates and pundits on the eve of the Iowa caucuses rushed to criticize weakness, claiming as well that the Iranians violated the Geneva Convention and its clauses related to treatment of prisoners in wartime.  Such short memories.  Less than ten years ago, these same individuals were trying to back away from and even rewrite that convention to suit U.S. methods of interrogation.

A refusal to accept any measure of accountability for U.S. behavior implies that no actions have been taken that have been either mistaken or misguided or immoral.  Or that they were justified to make America great.

In discussing the negotiations that Secretary Kerry and his team had with Iran over the prisoner exchange, he recalled that the Iranians repeatedly raised the 1953 coup organized by U.S. intelligence to overthrow the legitimately elected Mohammad Mossadegh as President of Iran.  The Iranians remember, and we deny.

I do subscribe to the notion of greatness for my country that I served for almost 30 years.  It is a greatness, though, that has the strength, confidence and wisdom to hold itself accountable for its errors and to aspire to do better.

This post originally appeared on History News Network.

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