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Archive for June, 2009

[Originally published in The Herald of Randolph.]

Since the Second World War, the Republicans have said consistently that the Democrats’ main foreign policy problem is that they are either unable or unwilling to successfully and purposefully project American power abroad.  In this context, there are  three means by which we can project power abroad: We can do it with military operations, we can do it with covert, regime change/intelligence operations and we can do it with diplomatic operations.

Over those sixty-odd years, American administrations are said to have been involved in 32 cases of either  military or covert intelligence projections of power in which we have attempted to overthrow sitting governments.  They range from Korea through Iran and Cuba to Bosnia and Afghanistan. Democrat administrations have been involved in 10 of those operations where Republicans have supported 22. Some, like Korea, Cuba, Afghanistan and Iraq have been supported by both Republican and Democrat administrations.

Thus,  it would appear that, successful or not, Republicans are better than twice as  likely to project power through military or intelligence operations than are  the Democrats.

Just what have all those  operations really done for America?  Let’s examine alleged US  Intelligence or regime change operations first. Consider Iran (1953),  Guatemala (1954), Costa Rica (1955), Syria 1957), Indonesia (1958), Dominican  Republic (1960), Peru (1960), Equador (1960), Congo (1960), Cuba (1961),  Brazil (1964), Chile (1972), Angola (1975) and Nicaragua (1981).  Our  “success” in installing Shah Reza Pahlavi in Iran haunts us to this day.   Cuba helped solidify Castro in power.  The remaining Latin America  operations left us with a “big brother”, negative legacy that still infuriates  our Latin neighbors.  Ditto those in Africa and Islam.

Our military projections of power can be  examined in Korea (1950-53), Viet Nam (1961-73), Lebanon (1982-84), Grenada  (1983), Panama (1989), Iraq (Gulf) (1991), Somalia (1993), Bosnia (1994-95),  Kosovo (1999), Afghanistan (2001-date) and Iraq (2003-date). With the possible  exception of Bosnia and Kosovo where we have dampened ethnic hatred at least  for the moment (a positive outcome) and maybe Panama, all of which were of  relatively minor international importance, it is really hard to see the  benefits of our other, larger scale, military adventures.  Korea remains  divided and leaves a nuclear North Korea.  Viet Nam was a loss.   Afghanistan and Iraq do not look likely to be wins.

So, in relation to the amount of US national treasure poured into these military and intelligence adventures, he return seems pretty meager.   That was obvious from the start in  Korea and Viet Nam where we were motivated by a largely imagined communist  threat. Yet, we went ahead, repeating the same behaviors for over sixty years, always finding a questionable, illusory threat, now terrorism, to  justify our actions.  And we still haven’t stopped.  Or have we?
Surprisingly, President Obamahas chosen to  prolong the Iraq and Afghanistan operations, yet it would seem from his recent  statements that a really basic change is underway in our foreign policy.   He says we are not at war with Islam.  He speaks of “respect” for  Islam and of talking with Iran and perhaps even with the Taliban.  It  seems likely this new president is going to employ the most underused tool of  power projection in our national arsenal, one that has not seen the light of  day for almost eight years. – Diplomatic power.

And what happens?  President Obama  is attacked immediately by a cross-section of the press and the entire  political spectrum as soft on terror, soft on Iran, soft on Islam, and soft on  our enemies whoever they may be. Comfortable with the clearly unsuccessful  past, these critics see anything other than confrontation with our adversaries  as appeasement at best and capitulation at  worst.

Today’s  Republicans have come full circle. They have had their fling at projecting  power through military and intelligence operations at the expense of coalition  building and diplomacy. By any reasonable standard, they have come up empty.   There is really nothing left for them to do but paint today’s Democrats  as capitulators and appeasers who are soft on everything and unwilling or  unable to appropriately project American power abroad!

If we read history, which most politicians and many of our most prolific media commentators apparently do not, then it is  time to put our old military and intelligence projections of power aside, if  only because they have not served our interests in the post-WWII world. We have not employed diplomatic power as a primary weapon for years.  We really need to give it a chance,  It is our best if not only option in today’s new, confusing and increasingly complicated world.

Haviland  Smith is a retired CIA Station Chief who served in Eastern and Western Europe,  the Middle East and as chief of the counterterrorism staff.  A longtime  resident of Brookfield, he now lives in Williston.

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Having and keeping power

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

Iran has announced the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by an overwhelming majority of more than 62 percent of the popular vote, cast by a record 85 percent of Iran’s eligible voters. The Iranian reform candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi, on whom the United States had pinned much hope for a change for the better in our bilateral relations, garnered a measly 36 percent.

Was there election fraud at work here? One would suspect so, but what we think is clearly irrelevant to Iran’s leadership. What matters to the leadership – the only thing that really matters to them – is that they have maintained and continue to maintain power. That is a truth that America needs to understand and accept. If their power is threatened, the Ayatollahs will pull out all the stops to end the threat.

If you doubt that, look at the content of the Supreme Leader’s speech to the faithful on Friday the 18th.  As far as he is concerned, everything is OK with the election and any future trouble will be blamed on the protesters.

It is clear, particularly if you believe that fraud decided the election, that the specter of a popular, liberal candidate like Mir Hossein Mousavi was simply more than the Supreme Leader, currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the Council of Guardians could stand.  It is important to understand that a change to Mousavi would not result in a new Iranian revolution.  Whoever becomes the president, it is highly unlikely that there will be changes in nuclear or foreign policy.  What the Iranian protest marchers want is some liberalization in social and economic policies, not a wholesale change in government.  Despite that, the Supreme Leader and his allies clearly saw sufficient potential disaster peering at them over Mousavi’s liberal shoulder to take matters into their own hands.  The numbers of voters alone must have jarred the leadership. In short, they are not about to give up power through any means, let alone democratic elections, irrespective of whatever propaganda damage may accrue to them as a result.  In that regard, the Supreme Leader’s recent call to investigate the allegations of fraud my simply be an attempt to mitigate such damage.

The re-election of Ahmadinejad, whether legitimate or fraudulent, will have some major regional and international impacts, but most importantly, it will highlight all the negatives that we Americans see in current Iranian policies. In this context, it is completely irrelevant whether or not the election was fraudulent, and, if so, whether or not Ahmadinejad knows it. What matters is that he will base his future policies on the overwhelming 62 percent “mandate” he received from his countrymen for his past policies. That will make him more difficult, more combative and more cantankerous in his dealings with us. Liberalism and the possibility of change are the real losers in this election.

In purely Iranian terms, this new “mandate” will exist as reality as long as a Supreme Leader of Iran is in place and as long as the Ayatollahs retain power. That power, despite post-election street demonstrations, will not be seriously threatened as long as the police force, the Army and, most important, The Revolutionary Guards are on their side. There is no reason today to think that they are even close to losing control.

The election results will exacerbate Israel’s paranoia about Iran as an existential threat. It will make them more inclined to undertake military action against Iran and that will further complicate their relationship with us. Americans who do not support military action against Iran will see Israel as unnecessarily aggressive. Americans who believe that Iran really does represent an existential threat to Israel will see increasing Israeli bellicosity toward Iran as completely justified. That deepening divide will make decisions on all aspects of our regional policies even more difficult than they are today.

Under Netanyahu, Israel has said clearly that it does not want a two-state solution. In his speech on June 14, his demands for Palestine to have no arms, no control over its airspace, recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, and no consideration of the long cherished Palestinian “right to return” or hegemony over any of Jerusalem, he managed to hit just about every button that is unacceptable to Palestinians and, by extension to Muslims in general. At the same time, his only concession to the Palestinians was the creation of a politically gutted state. It would seem that his formulation was consciously designed to preclude any serious future discussion of a two-state solution.

In response to President Obama’s resolve to pursue that solution, Netanyahu’s coalition will likely do everything possible to avoid any negotiations that would bring down their government and, in their eyes, threaten their national interests. Substantive discussions of Jerusalem, settlements, border adjustments, Palestinian repatriation do not appear to be on his agenda.

The new Israeli awareness of the American position and their own still-evolving attitudes, hardened by Ahmadinejad’s reelection and Obama’s speech, will make a solution to the Palestine problem even more difficult. Everything the Israelis say about Palestine and a two-state solution will be couched in terms of the “existential Iranian threat”. We saw the beginning of this in the Iran-centered reaction of the Israelis to President Obama’s Cairo speech. The result of the Iranian reelection will only harden that position, making any constructive approach to the Palestine problem even more difficult.

Netanyahu’s intransigence stems from his having welcomed the right wing, pro-settler political parties into his coalition government. Absent a change of heart in the more liberal Kadima Party of Tzipi Livni and their willingness to join in a coalition with Netanyahu’s Likud party, the Likud must keep those parties on board or lose power.

All of these issues will complicate the delicate balances and incipient conflicts that have always existed in the region. The tensions, problems and centuries-old conflicts between Arabs and Persians, Sunni and Shia, and Kurds with Turks and Arabs will become exacerbated. Even those farther afield; the Taliban with Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as the issues between Pashtuns and Punjabis in Pakistan will have their negative impacts.

Unfortunately, given our extensive involvement in and commitment to the Middle East, they will all make our already almost insolvable tasks even more problematical. More proof positive that in that complicated region, we are at the mercy of things over which we have no control.

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 on AmericanDiplomacy.Org.]

American foreign policy must be based on American moral beliefs, yet it inevitably encounters problems in dealing with regions where belief systems are fundamentally different, such as the Middle East. Moreover, this essay argues, domestic political pressures based on moral and religious beliefs have divorced U.S. foreign policy from objective U.S. interests in the Middle East. The author believes that a more rational policy debate may at last be getting underway. – Ed.

America faces some grim realities when it attempts to formulate foreign policy for regions in the world that cleave to belief systems that are radically different from our American moral and ethical foundation. The problems come in two different ways: First, for American foreign policy to be supported by Americans it must be consistent with our belief system.  Second, once formulated and implemented, to be successful it must also be relevant to the beliefs of the region in which it is being implemented.   When belief systems are radically different, these two realities are seldom compatible.  This could not be more true than it is for American policy in the Middle East today.

Afghanistan’s Marriage Law

American and other Western media have learned recently of the existence of a new marriage law in Afghanistan that they have characterized as legalizing rape within marriage and forbidding married women from leaving the house without permission.

It has made good copy and, in playing on the “backward and anti-human rights” aspects of the law, the media, at last count, have managed to incite protests from the British, United States, French, New Zealand, and Canadian governments, as well as the United Nations and numerous feminine rights organizations. All have responded with righteous condemnation, a completely understandable reaction.

But this melodrama is interesting not just because of its inflammatory allegations of legalized rape, or for discussions of the appropriateness of the Western response to the story. It is far more interesting in the way it illuminates the problems that exist for the West in general, and the United States in particular, in formulating and implementing foreign policies for the Muslim world.

Mohammad Asif Mohseni, a senior Afghan cleric and a main drafter of the law, has said that a woman must have sex on demand with her husband at least every four days, unless she is ill or would be harmed by intercourse. He amplified, saying, “It is essential for the woman to submit to the man’s sexual desire.”

In addition, he has said that the legislation cannot be revoked or changed because it was enacted through the bi-cameral legislative process and signed by President Karzai.

However, Mohseni’s most interesting and telling comment was that “The Westerners claim that they have brought democracy to Afghanistan. What does democracy mean? It means government by the people for the people. They should let the people use these democratic rights.”  He further condemned the Western outcry saying that Western countries were trying to thwart democracy because the results did not please them.

In our culture, forced sex in or out of marriage is equated to rape. It is therefore at least inappropriate and probably illegal here at home.

In Afghanistan, the law that in our eyes “legalizes rape,” was drafted after three years of debate by Islamic scholars and Afghan legislators. Even though it was condemned by many Afghan women, it was supported by hundreds of other women who affixed their signatures or thumbprints to it.

Looking at the new law through our cultural filter, the American government and most Americans roundly condemn such legislation as at least unethical or immoral, probably as illegal, and certainly as unacceptable.

If we were to support this law as a foreign policy position, how would the National Organization of Women, the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International, to name but a few, react?  How much support would such a foreign policy get from the American people?

On the other hand, the Afghan government as well as most Afghan men and significant numbers of Afghan women, accept it as reflecting the Koran, Sharia law, and tradition, the bases of Islamic law.  How should we expect them to react when we tell them how to live their lives?  It’s easy to say that there are universal standards that apply in these cases – that they concern fundamental human rights.  And for us, they do.

Are Human Rights Universal?

However, consider the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR). No matter how appropriate and universal it seems to us, it has never been universally accepted. Quite the opposite, it has precipitated a nagging debate that has persisted over the last 60 years. Muslim countries have always objected, saying that the document was written in the Judeo-Christian tradition and as such failed to acknowledge the cultural and religious differences of Islamic countries, thus denying Muslims the freedom and right to a dignified life under their universally accepted Sharia law.

How could anyone possibly object to such fundamental truths as those in the UNDHR, we ask?

Much as we would like to think that our laws and traditions are a perfect reflection of mankind, there are plenty of other humans who would argue that point. Those differences are greatest where the belief systems are farthest apart.

All human beings are victims or beneficiaries of their own ethnocentric cultural environments and biases. Laws exist as contemporary forms of cultural traditions, and when one culture begins to tell another very different culture what is right and wrong, there is bound to be friction and conflict.

Who are we to say that our culture is right and theirs is wrong? And yet, that is invariably the problem when we start to tell disparate parts of the world how to run their lives.

Politics and National Interests

Formulating foreign policy in the United States has never been an easy matter.  As a land of immigrants, America has always had to grapple with the strongly held interests of those citizens who came here from the areas concerned.  A further complicating issue is the range of passionately held opinions ranging from right to left that flourish in our democracy and have always existed here.  A policy that satisfies one constituency is often likely to infuriate another.

The result of this is that U.S. foreign policy is more often than not formulated not on the basis of the objective facts that exist in the area concerned, but on the basis of the internal political needs of the political party in power.  In this context, it is normally understood that our policies have to be consistent with our values.  If foreign policy for a given region is out of sync with American values, that fact will cause political problems for the administration in power.

This conundrum is easily observed in the formulation of our Middle East policy.  The issue of Israel and Palestine has been on the books at least since 1967 and perhaps since 1948.  On the one hand, we have a passionately strong and effective pro-Israeli lobby that ranks among the most powerful and successful lobbies in Washington.  This amorphous grouping includes Americans who are the most unequivocal and passionate supporters of Israel.  That group is both Jewish and Christian and includes the Christian Zionists who believe that the second coming of Christ will not occur until Jews occupy all the biblical lands, including Samaria and Judea, which are currently – at least partially – under Palestinian control.

With the horrendous legacy of the Holocaust to unite and motivate them, many American Jews join the Christian Zionists in support of Israel and her territorial ambitions as mirrored in the settler program.  This group is often called “the Israeli Lobby.”

On the other hand, there is a growing group of Americans, both Christian and Jew, who look very differently at the situation.   Their views have spawned increasing interest in the two-state solution and can be seen in the birth of new pro-Israel but also pro-peace groups like J Street.  They see Israel’s West Bank settlements, as well as recent Israeli military activities in Lebanon and Gaza, as counterproductive to their notion of a decent future for Arabs and Jews alike.

This group includes a number of Americans, including foreign policy experts, who simply believe that there is a growing divergence in the perceived national interests of the United States and Israel.  This situation has been aggravated by the recent bellicosity of the new right-leaning Israeli government and its stated animosity toward Iran.  This has been manifested in increasing support for a two-state solution and opposition to the settler movement and to Israeli military aggressiveness.

In the past, it was a politically accepted although rarely tested premise that only rigorously pro-Israel parties, politicians, and policies could win American elections.  If a candidate appeared not to toe the Israeli line or showed a weakness on matters that hard-line Israeli supporters did not favor, it was political suicide.  And that may have been true.

Today that seems to be less true.  Perhaps a combination of Gaza, Lebanon, and Iran, abetted by the legacy of 100% support of “Israel right or wrong,” has tipped the balance a bit.  The beginnings of a discussion on our national interests in the Middle East, of the healthy kind that always has existed in Israel, but which has been politically suppressed here, is beginning to creep into the national dialog.

Defining Interests

Just what then are our national interests in the Middle East if we define national interests as our country’s survival and security, its wealth, economic growth, and power, and the preservation of its culture?

Survival and security, at this particular moment, pertain to terrorism and to the existence of nuclear weapons in Pakistan and their possible development in Iran.  Wealth, economic growth, and power can clearly encompass oil, trade, our balance of trade, and the national debt incurred by our military activities in the region; and all of those things can be wrapped up in the effect, largely negative at this time, of our foreign policy on the inclination of other nations to support us in our national interests.

We thus find ourselves in the difficult position of facing the fact that Policy “A,” which may very well be the objectively ideal policy to employ in Country “A,” is unacceptable either to the American people or the people of Country A for emotional, philosophical, or cultural reasons, thus making it impractical and unusable.

There really is nothing new here.  This situation has probably obtained in democracies since they began.  In trying to deal with the problem, U.S. presidents have generally gone one of two ways.  They have either done everything as much as possible in secrecy – consider Iraq or Viet Nam – or they have done it openly while trying to help the American public understand what they are up to and why – consider FDR.

There is a lesson here for President Obama.  America has reached this contemporary impasse in the Middle East for two very basic reasons.  There has never been the kind of open debate in America that exists in Israel about the day-to-day happenings in the region.  Such debate has been stifled by one-sided, pro-Israeli American organizations.  That has meant that, in general, Americans have never had sufficient information to enable them to come to valid conclusions about U.S. policy in the region.

That, in turn, means that far too many Americans are unable to understand that American and Israeli national interests, where more often than not congruous, are not always the same.  It is when they are not, as in the case of the possibility of an attack on Iran, that we need to act on the basis of our own national interests in order to avoid very real disaster.

A More Rational Approach

It is difficult if not impossible to change the values of the inhabitants of countries where we wish to apply any foreign policy, but we can surely do better at home.

Absent a real understanding of Islam and the differences between us, it is incredibly difficult, as we have seen over the past seven years, to conceive and implement a successful foreign policy based on American cultural values for a region with wildly different cultural biases.  FDR overcame a similar problem in his handling of American entry into World War II by explaining in excruciating detail why that entry was necessary.

We could use that kind of approach today to our problems in the Middle East or in any other region where our cultural differences are markedly divergent.

This rational approach to foreign policy is a difficult sell.  Despite the fact that the U.S. government and academia were full of experts who really did and still do understand the cultural and political dynamics of the Middle East, we have been unable to make our policies there rational over the past decade.  In fact, many of those policies have been directly counterproductive to our national goals and interests.

The old, irrational way of doing business into which so many administrations have fallen over the decades, has done us so much damage that any move in a more rational direction is worth every bit of the time and effort it will demand.   And it all starts with a totally free and open domestic debate conducted by our national leadership about the Middle East and our interests, policies, and goals there.  For the first time in decades, that may now be meaningfully underway under the Obama administration. 

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief. A graduate of Dartmouth, he served in the Army Security Agency, undertook Russian regional studies at London University, and then joined the CIA. He served in Prague, Berlin, Langley, Beirut, Tehran, and Washington. During those 25 years, he worked primarily in Soviet and East European operations. He was also chief of the counterterrorism staff and executive assistant to Deputy Director of Central Intelligence Frank Carlucci. Since his retirement in 1980, he has lived in Vermont.

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[Originally published on Nieman Watchdog.]

Using our military to try to deprive al Qaeda of sanctuaries will not bring us immunity from the next terrorist attack, writes a former CIA station chief. That attack can be organized, planned, funded and carried out from any safehouse in any country that allows freedom of movement. By contrast, as long as we use our military to try to mold the world to our liking, we are going to create more and more people and nations who will wish us ill, increasing the likelihood that we will be attacked again.

After 9/11, the Bush Administration concluded that it would have to look very carefully at every nation that could conceivably provide a launch pad for an al Qaeda attack on the United States.  Later it was further decided that any “failed state” in Islam could supply Al Qaeda with the environment it needed.

Of course, the state that harbored the 9/11 terrorists was not a failed state.  It was a state dominated by the Taliban.  In their Afghan facility, al Qaeda ran a complete terrorist training operation, grooming their troops for just about any conceivable paramilitary task.  They trained their recruits as guerillas, attack troops, bomb makers, snipers, suicide foot, car and truck bombers and anything else that struck them as appropriate for a terrorist organization.

What they could not train them to do in the Afghan mountain caves was to fly planes into buildings. They had to come to America for that training. Nor was it necessary for them to find a failed state or a friendly state in order to sit down and plan 9/11.  They could do that in just about any mud hut in the Pushtun countryside or in any other country that provided freedom of movement, like America, Spain, Germany, France or England, in all of which countries they have subsequently done just that.

Indeed,  9/11 was planned and then trained for in places that had absolutely nothing to do with failed states.  It would almost certainly have been successfully planned and carried out in the absence of a safe haven in Afghanistan.

We have recently been ominously informed that Somalia and the Yemen could easily turn into “failed states” that could provide support for al Qaeda training and plotting.  And if we look at a map, there are other states in Islam with which we do not enjoy cordial relationships, states that do not hold us in high esteem.  Any of these states could turn into a sanctuary for al Qaida.

Apparently the Saudis are concerned about a growing threat from the Yemen.  This concern is shared by Gen. David Petraeus, who recently told Congress that the weakness of Yemen’s government provides al Qaeda a safe haven and that terror groups could “threaten Yemen’s neighbors, especially Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.”

So, there is some reason for our allies in the Middle East to be concerned about al Qaeda and failing states.  That may mean that we should also be concerned, as long as we understand that it is not a military issue which will directly involve the United States.  It is a security problem for the Saudis and should be handled by them and any other threatened country.

There are two lessons here.  The first is that there are always bad people doing bad things in the world.  It is important for us to learn that we are not responsible for rectifying all the world’s ills.  We need to let the rest of the world accept primary responsibility for its own wellbeing.

The second is that undertaking to keep states from failing and trying to make sure that al Qaeda doesn’t have any friends who will give them sanctuary will not bring us any sort of immunity from the next terrorist attack.  That attack can be organized, planned, funded and carried out from any safehouse in any part of the world that gives its residents a relative lack of scrutiny.  It requires neither a friendly nor a failing state.

As long as we are compulsively militarily involved in trying to mold the world to our liking, we are going to create more and more people and nations who will wish us ill, increasing the likelihood that we will be attacked again.

We are at a crossroads here.  At our own peril, we are either going to continue to undertake truly high risk military operations like the Iraq war in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan and perhaps elsewhere, or, having been given the opportunity to change as a result of the elections of November 2008, we can reassess our role in the world and consider the possibility that there are other ways to do our business that will not keep us stretched thin around the world and not put us constantly in military, political and economic jeopardy.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief, who served in Eastern and Western Europe, Lebanon and Tehran and as chief of the counter-terrorism staff.

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