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Archive for January, 2009

Welcoming A New Foreign Policy

President Obama made his first visit to an Executive Branch agency on his fourth day in office.  He made it (horrors!!) to the State Department and that has caused a stir of comment in the media.  Apparently, at least recently, Presidents have made their first such visits to the Defense Department.

What are we to make of this alleged “break with tradition”?  However, before examining that, understand that this tradition was clearly not broken by mistake.  It was a forceful, practical and philosophical statement by the new President.

During the Bush administration, with the Neoconservatives in power, it made sense that the first visit would be to the Pentagon.  After all, the Neocons disparaged everything that had to do with diplomacy.  They saw diplomacy as irrelevant in their idyllic, US-run “unipolar world”.   They saw international organizations, like the UN and Nato and alliances with individual nations as counterproductive to their basic conviction that unilateral military power is the first tool to be used in the conduct of foreign policy.

In short, under Bush, neoconservative foreign policy held that the views and needs of our friends and allies were irrelevant in the context of our own national imperatives.  That attitude is what got us into Iraq and it is at the root of what has gone wrong in our overall Middle East policy.  We so alienated our old friends and allies that they refused to support us militarily, politically, economically or psychologically.

The realities of Iraq have shown clearly the folly in pursuing that policy.  It really doesn’t matter how militarily powerful you are, it’s hard to succeed without friends and allies.

Nevertheless, under Bush and the Neocons, the military held preeminent influence in the executive branch of the US Government, not just in military matters, but in foreign policy as well.  President Bush would underline that fact in his “first visits” to the Pentagon, as would any of his predecessors who accepted the primacy of the military establishment in the US Government’s foreign policy.

President Obama apparently broke tradition by visiting the State Department first and in the process of doing so established some additional new markers.

In his comments at State, the new president underlined his commitment to seek an equitable solution in Palestine.  If there is to be such a solution, the United States will have to get involved and remain involved to the bitter end, despite the inevitable frustrations that such negotiations will bring.  The United States will equally have to be even-handed, recognizing the needs of both Palestine and Israel.

In addition, the president appointed former Senator George Mitchell as our new Middle East envoy.  That is a total break with the past eight years.  Mitchell, a skilled and proven negotiator, has taken no public position on the Palestine issue except to say that the ongoing 60 year conflict has to stop.  If he is to be effective, he will have to be even-handed.  And he has started out well.  He is the first such envoy who not started out without being known to be partisan on either side.

The Bush administration didn’t get serious about Palestine until far too late in the game.  When they finally did, they were viewed on the basis of their policies and participation as pro-Israel at the expense of the Palestinians.  The positions taken by the Bush administration during the Gaza incursion underlined the position that they would act only to defend Israeli activities.  In pursuing that policy, they totally alienated the Muslim world.

The important fact is that change is here. The new president has made it clear that in matters of foreign policy, the military, appropriately, will become of secondary importance to the State Department.

Additionally, America will get involved in the Palestine issue. If the Palestinians and the Israelis are to find their way to peace, it will be only with the assistance of an honest broker.  The choice of George Mitchell over the other rumored candidates gives promise that our approach will have as its goal the construction of a fair and evenhanded agreement that will guarantee peace and security in the region.  Without such an agreement, it is unlikely that America will reach even its most rudimentary goals in the region.

All of this is a clear indication that under President Obama, America will return to a realistic foreign policy and that in doing so, it will seek once again to return to a practical and moral position which will allow it to offer itself as an honest broker in the search for equitable peace in the Middle East.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA Station Chief who served in East and West Europe and the Middle East and as Chief of the Counterterrorism Staff.

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[Originally published in the Randolph Herald.]

President Obama has nominated Leon Panetta as his candidate for the Director of the CIA. That decision has provoked a flurry of commentary in the media, most of which focuses on the fact that Mr. Panetta has no experience in the intelligence business.

It’s logical that CIA outsiders who have no personal experience with the intelligence business might think of a lack of experience as a shortcoming. Many former insiders share that belief, but for different, more emotional reasons.

The simple fact is that there is very little connection here. An intimate knowledge of the intelligence business, where it may occasionally be useful to a CIA Director, is certainly no guarantee of success.

The most important issue at stake in the choice of a new Director is whether or not the candidate is going to be effective. What makes any given Director effective can be defined: The Director must be willing and able to speak truth to power, he must have access to the President and he has to be a person of established substance outside the CIA who will command respect at the White House, with the public and on Capitol Hill.

One of the most effective Directors during the CIA’s first thirty years was John McCone. McCone knew nothing of the intelligence business, but he had a high reputation in his own right. He was a successful industrialist, a former Director of the Atomic Energy Commission, and a long-time senior governmental advisor. He was respected in the Congress and in the White House and his reputation gave him easy access to a president who valued what he had to say.

In direct contrast, there stands a long line of CIA Directors who were either promoted from within the Agency, or who, by dint of past experience elsewhere, were assumed to be well suited for the intelligence business. Their experience, by and large, is less effective. None of them had much of an established reputation outside the intelligence world, which meant that in order to maintain a relationship with their President, some were tempted to do injudicious things for their Presidents as in Richard Helms’ support to the Watergate burglars, and George Tenet’s positive WMD assessment provided to the White House during the run-up to the Iraq invasion.

As a group, and despite the affection and respect they may have inspired within the Agency, they were less effective as Directors. They knew us all by name and that made us feel good, but they often had imperfect relationships with their Presidents and their reputations outside their Agency experience were often non-existent, further diminishing their effectiveness.

George Tenet, who spent years on the staff of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, will always be remembered for his positive “slam dunk” assessment on the existence of WMD in Iraq – an opinion reportedly offered because he knew the truth was inconvenient and would not support the Administration’s already chosen policy for an invasion of Iraq. If so, he compromised the truth he should have spoken in order to preserve a relationship with the President, which was based entirely on his status as CIA Chief.

So, we come to Mr. Panetta, a man of broad and diverse experience in the Government who carries with him great respect for his past deeds as a lawyer, US Representative, White House Chief of Staff and professor.

His nomination by, and access to, President Obama is clearly built on a reputation earned during a diverse career that had nothing to do with the intelligence business. If it is felt that this lack of experience will be a drawback to him, the Obama Administration should be able to find the right kind of person with the right kind of experience within the CIA, perhaps from the National Clandestine Service, to serve as his Deputy Director of CIA. In addition, the choice of experienced Deputy Directors of the various CIA directorates should give Mr. Panetta all the expertise he could possibly want.

It’s difficult to see this nomination in anything but a positive light. The last thing the CIA needs today is an “old pro”. To do its job properly, the CIA needs to be professionally connected to the White House and Mr. Panetta will clearly do that.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA Station Chief who served in East and West Europe and the Middle East and as Chief of the Counterterrorism Staff. A longtime resident of Brookfield, he now lives in Williston.

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[Originally published in the Rutland Herald and Barre Times-Argus.]

Israel and Hamas have both declared unilateral ceasefires in the Gaza. History would argue that it is highly unlikely that, barring external intervention, any sort of peace has much of a chance.

Perhaps understandably, Western criticism of Israel over their Gaza incursion has seemed concerned primarily with the carnage inflicted on the Palestinians. That carnage is at the very least unsettling, but the real issue is the highly destabilizing effect that the Israeli invasion is having on the Middle East.

Palestinians believe they have legitimate complaints about their situation today. Having had no tangible support outside the Muslim world for their aspirations, they have resorted to asymmetrical warfare and terrorism in an attempt to get some attention and help. On the other hand, Israelis, content with their lot and not receptive to desires to revisit Palestinian issues, wish only to have some peace without having homemade rockets rained down aimlessly on them from the Gaza strip.

Israel is an economic powerhouse. Palestine is an economic basket case. The Israelis have an efficient, western style military establishment which employs tanks, artillery, drone aircraft and helicopter gunships armed with high tech American rocketry. The Palestinians deploy Toyota pickups, poorly trained fighters, rudimentary unguided rockets and Soviet era Kalashnikov rifles.

We know what the Arab and Israeli people want. They have consistently polled in favor of peace.

Unfortunately, that is not what their leaders want. Hamas, the only democratically elected group in Palestine, want to “push the Israelis into the sea.” The Israelis want to destroy Hamas. They would prefer to deal with the Palestinian Authority, the weak, corrupt and generally reviled West Bank government which they see as a “reasonable” entity with which to negotiate the future of Palestine and stop the incessant rocket attacks.

So, the governments of Israel and Palestine are locked in a struggle which cannot be “won”. Despite that, Hamas has already declared a “heavenly victory.” If the Israelis leave one Hamas member alive who can launch a rocket at Israel, they cannot “win.” Hamas will not push Israel into the sea. At the end of the incursion and the onset of the ceasefire, neither side has achieved any of its long-term goals

Irrespective of how we in the West see the Gaza incursion, most Arabs/Muslims view it as a genocidal atrocity. The result is that the Gaza events are radicalizing the Arab/Muslim world, bringing daily increasing support to Hamas and radical Islam.

Any hope we have to deal successfully with our problems in Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Palestine and with terrorism, lies in not losing the support of that great majority of Arabs/Muslims who are moderate. We already have lost many as a result of our incursions into Afghanistan and Iraq. Gaza is rapidly making the situation worse and we are losing the battle for those moderates.

That puts in grave doubt the continued existence of the “moderate” Arab regimes that we call our allies. Unfortunately, when Mubarak in Egypt, the Kings in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, the Sheiks in the Gulf or any other “moderate” leader is threatened by a radicalized citizenry, the continued viability of even their form of moderation is doubtful.

Because of the paternalistic, non-democratic, often repressive nature of the rule of such “moderates”, the only alternative to them rests in a radical lslam of the sort proposed by the Muslim Brotherhood (philosophical godfather to Hamas and Hizballah), Al Qaida, the Taliban and the Iranian Mullahs. The rise of Muslim fundamentalism will surely be accompanied by the fall of “moderate,” secular Arab states.

The continued radicalization of Arab/Musllim citizens will promote the fundamentalist cause and essentially finish off most of our hopes for moderation and progress in the Middle East. This will be an ongoing, endless disaster for Israel and will make our struggles with radical Islam and fundamentalist terrorism even more difficult than they already are.

The Arabs and Israelis will not, repeat not, voluntarily solve these outstanding issues. Only sufficient pressure from moderate Islam, Europe, Asia, North America and the U.N. has any potential to lead to a solution. Unless that group is committed to finding an evenhanded, fair solution to the Palestine problem, there is not much hope for progress for Israel, America or our friends and allies.

Such a commitment requires spending political capital to overcome the dug-in positions of the antagonists. Most of the world is ready. America needs to get involved. Is the Obama administration prepared to spend such capital, where the Bush administration clearly was not? Does our currently diminished reputation in the world permit that? If not, can we recoup our old prestige?

If all the answers are negative, the future for America in that part of the world and, in the long run, for Israel, is indeed bleak.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in East and West Europe, the Middle East and as chief of the counterterrorism staff. He lives in Williston.

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[Originally published in the Barre Times-Argus and Rutland Herald.]

Objective articles about Palestine and Israel in the Israeli press are pretty commonplace. Israeli readers have ready access to all points of view. Haaretz, Israel’s oldest newspaper and one of its most influential, is a leader in presenting balanced commentary on and criticism of Israeli policy. It does so without censorship and with a clarity and passion that is rarely seen in mainstream American media.

Unfortunately, writing objectively about Palestine in the United States, which inevitably involves criticism of both Israel and Palestine, is akin to standing in the sights of a bazooka aimed by those Americans who have passionately pro-Israeli views on the subject.

Passionate and uncritical American supporters of Israel have long painted all criticism of Israel in the most negative light. Part of that campaign has involved labeling anyone who speaks out against Israeli policies or activities as “anti-Semitic.” While it is true that negative comments on Semites (Jews, Arabs and others) are anti-Semitic, negative comments on the country of Israel are not.

The power of the term makes its use highly inflammatory in our culture. We have reached the point where many in the media are reluctant to criticize any Israeli policy or activity, anticipating that they will be labeled as “anti-Semitic,” with all its ugly connotations. This produces a de facto censorship of criticism of Israel, even when such criticism is justified. Israel, like America or any other country in the history of the world, has done things that need to be examined and openly discussed.

When such discussion does appear in the American media, as in the recent case of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, two American scholars who severely criticized the “Israeli lobby” (passionate, doctrinaire and uncritical supporters of Israel) in the U.S. press, it is typically labeled as “anti-Semitic” and when it’s applied to a Jew, as “self-hating” by that same “Israeli lobby.”

So, America has a free press, but it’s not really free when it comes to open discussions of Israeli policies and activities. Sadly, the important ongoing battle against real, continuing anti-Semitism is undermined whenever opposition to Israeli government policies is automatically branded as anti-Semitic.

Given the importance to America of Israel and the Middle East, the ongoing violence in the Gaza Strip serves simply to remind all of us of the wholly unsatisfactory state of affairs in Palestine. Without a solution to the Palestine problem, America will be hard put to find favorable solutions to its problems with radical Muslim terrorism or with Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Syria or Pakistan. Arabs and Israelis will simply continue to kill each other indiscriminately, guaranteeing perpetual unrest in the entire Middle East.

At this moment, it would appear that those in power in Palestine and Israel are not prepared to respond to any of their own internal constituencies other than their most radical elements. Despite the existence of Fatah as a “moderating” voice in Palestine, Hamas remains openly dedicated to the ultimate destruction of Israel and is essentially at war with that country.

According to recent polls, 60 percent of Israelis would trade land for peace. Yet, the West Bank settlers and their Israeli and American supporters in and out of government, are totally unwilling to even discuss the issue of those settlements as part of any solution for the Palestine problem.

Those settlements, like the radical Arab policy of “pushing Israel into the sea,” will always be the key obstacles in any peace process. The Arab intent to annihilate Israel is totally unacceptable. The West Bank settlements have been declared illegal under international law. Neither policy is morally superior to the other: Each is wrong.

So, the shelling of Israel from Gaza and the retention and expansion of Israel’s illegal West Bank settlements continue simply to mollify the extremist elements on both sides who feel they will somehow lose if an agreement is reached.

What Americans need to understand is that a Palestine/Israel peace will come only when the West Bank settlements are gone and when Israel is accepted in the region and guaranteed peace and security by the extremists who would now annihilate her. There will be no peace without such accommodations, only endless conflict.

The original goals for Palestine and Israel included a land-for-peace deal and a two-state solution. They still represent the only fair answers for all sides. God knows, we condemn the Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel. If we cannot even rationally discuss the West Bank settlements in our “free” press without being labeled “anti-Semitic,” what hope is there for America to sponsor or even help with an equitable solution that is in the interest of all concerned parties, ourselves included?

Not much!

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA Station Chief who served in East and West Europe and the Middle East and as Chief of the Counterterrorism Staff. He lives in Williston.

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[Originally published in Nieman Watchdog.]

Why is finding fault with Israel seemingly off-limits in so much of the mainstream American media?

Objective articles about Palestine and Israel in the Israeli press are pretty commonplace. Israeli readers have ready access to all points of view. Haaretz, Israel’s oldest newspaper and one of its most influential, is a leader in presenting balanced commentary on and criticism of Israeli policy. It does so without censorship and with a clarity and passion that is rarely seen in mainstream American media.

Unfortunately, writing objectively about Palestine in the United States, which inevitably involves criticism of both Israel and Palestine, is akin to standing in the sights of a bazooka aimed by those Americans who have passionately pro-Israeli views on the subject.

Passionate and uncritical American supporters of Israel have long painted all criticism of Israel in the most negative light. Part of that campaign has involved labeling anyone who speaks out against Israeli policies or activities as “anti-Semitic.” While it is true that negative comments on Semites (Jews, Arabs and others) are anti-Semitic, negative comments on the country of Israel are not.

The power of the term makes its use highly inflammatory in our culture. We have reached the point where many in the media are reluctant to criticize any Israeli policy or activity, anticipating that they will be labeled as “anti-Semitic,” with all its ugly connotations. This produces a de facto censorship of criticism of Israel, even when such criticism is justified. Israel, like America or any other country in the history of the world, has done things that need to be examined and openly discussed.

When such discussion does appear in the American media, as in the recent case of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, two American scholars who severely criticized the “Israeli lobby” (passionate, doctrinaire and uncritical supporters of Israel) in the U.S. press, it is typically labeled as “anti-Semitic” and when it’s applied to a Jew, as “self-hating” by that same “Israeli lobby”.

So, America has a free press, but it’s not really free when it comes to open discussions of Israeli policies and activities. Sadly, the important ongoing battle against real, continuing anti-Semitism is undermined whenever opposition to Israeli government policies is automatically branded as anti-Semitic.

Given the importance to America of Israel and the Middle East, the ongoing violence in the Gaza Strip serves simply to remind all of us of the wholly unsatisfactory state of affairs in Palestine. Without a solution to the Palestine problem, America will be hard put to find favorable solutions to its problems with radical Muslim terrorism or with Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Syria or Pakistan. Arabs and Israelis will simply continue to kill each other indiscriminately, guaranteeing perpetual unrest in the entire Middle East.

At this moment, it would appear that those in power in Palestine and Israel are not prepared to respond to any of their own internal constituencies other than their most radical elements. Despite the existence of Fatah as a “moderating” voice in Palestine, Hamas remains openly dedicated to the ultimate destruction of Israel and is essentially at war with that country.

According to recent polls, 60 percent of Israelis would trade land for peace. Yet, the West Bank settlers and their Israeli and American supporters in and out of government, are totally unwilling to even discuss the issue of those settlements as part of any solution for the Palestine problem.

Those settlements, like the radical Arab policy of “pushing Israel into the sea,” will always be the key obstacles in any peace process. The Arab intent to annihilate Israel is totally unacceptable. The West Bank settlements have been declared illegal under international law. Neither policy is morally superior to the other: Each is wrong.

So, the shelling of Israel from Gaza and the retention and expansion of Israel’s illegal West Bank settlements continue simply to mollify the extremist elements on both sides who feel they will somehow “lose” if an agreement is reached.

What Americans need to understand is that a Palestine/Israel peace will come only when the West Bank settlements are gone and when Israel is accepted in the region and guaranteed peace and security by the extremists who would now annihilate her. There will be no peace without such accommodations, only endless conflict.

The original goals for Palestine and Israel included a land-for-peace deal and a two-state solution. They still represent the only fair answers for all sides. God knows, we condemn the Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel. If we cannot even rationally discuss the West Bank settlements in our “free” press without being labeled “anti-Semitic,” what hope is there for America to sponsor or even help with an equitable solution that is in the interest of all concerned parties, ourselves included?

Not much!

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[Originally published in The Randolph Herald.]

In the simplest of terms, capitalism is an economic system in which the means of production are privately owned. Socialism is a system in which the means of production are owned collectively or entirely by the state. Communism is a system in which there is collective ownership of the means of production.

From the Marxist perception, capitalism will move to socialism and socialism ultimately will evolve into true communism where the advanced level of awareness (and selflessness) of the people will permit the common ownership of the means of production and property in a classless, egalitarian society for the equal benefit of all members of that society.

The simple fact is that for a number of valid reasons far too complicated to explore here, such a classless society has never evolved on this planet and, given human nature, probably never will. It’s hard to think of man as perfectible.

Whether you like the theory and/or practice of capitalism or not, it has brought the vast majority of our people a standard of living unparalleled in the history of man.

At the same time, there has long been a massive ad hoc program in this country designed to label anything its authors did not like as “socialism”. Most of those who use the word haven’t the foggiest idea what socialism really is. They use it to condemn out of hand such programs as single payer health systems, when many of them benefit directly from such programs themselves. Our military medical program is a single payer system – thus a “socialist” system. With a short stretch, the system which supports the US Congress is a single payer system. If we all had that system (for which we all pay) there would be no philosophical problems with such a reviled “socialist” program.

Most poignant of all is what has been going on in the United States since the subprime crisis, the financial meltdown and a crashing economy hit us. A Republican administration, champions of unfettered capitalism and undying foes of anything they can label “socialist” is in the process of taking over banks, major insurance companies, Investment houses, mortgage companies and capitalist institutions like the automobile industry.

That said, the subprime crisis was not created by the Republicans alone. The Democrats played a large role in creating a system which made unbelievably risky loans to people who never should have been considered worthy. What the Republicans did do was lead the way on deregulation of just about every institution that might have helped us avoid such a crisis.

More than that, before the party was hijacked by Southern Democrats after 1964, the Republicans had represented fiscal responsibility. Yet, over the last eight years they have turned us from a healthy surplus to the greatest deficit this country has ever known. That fact, added to the constant “spend, spend, spend” message of the past eight years, has had a truly negative effect on our balance of payments, our national debt, the weakening of our dollar and our miniscule level of personal saving. These realities, along with the issues in our financial markets, are what is causing our current pain.

Now, we are going to bail out an automobile industry that has been out of step with the needs of this country for years. They have muscled their way out of café standards, preferring to build monster trucks and SUVs that netted them $10,000 per vehicle, to the design and production of fuel-efficient vehicles that might help us survive the inevitable rise we will once again see in the price of oil.

What are we to think? If everything goes according to what appears to be Federal government’s plans, the government, funded by us taxpayers, will soon own most of the banking, mortgage, insurance, securities, and automobile industries. Having done all of that, the government will probably be expected to bail out any other industry hit hard by our recession. Commercial real estate companies are mumbling and could be next, or any other industry that produces items that we do not want or need, or cannot afford.

So, our cherished capitalism, built from the onset on a system of risk and reward, is in the process of dropping the risk component. Instead, those industries are being bailed out by the government, an act which ultimately will serve only to destroy the system as we know it. Capitalism isn’t capitalism when risk is removed. Carefully regulated risk is what constantly forces it to improve. When you remove the risk, you destroy all the potential good in the system. We are likely heading mindlessly toward Socialism, a system whose productivity pales historically in comparison to capitalism.

Haviland Smith is a former long-term resident of Brookfield. He now lives in Williston.

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