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Archive for November, 2009

Legacy of The Wall: An Evil Never To Forget

[Originally published in the Randolph Herald.]

On August 13, 1961, the East German Army and police installed the Berlin wall, or Schandmauer (Wall of Shame).  It began in the dead of night with the East Germans stringing barbed wire and concertina along the line that marked the boundary between the Soviet Sector of Berlin and the English, French and American sectors.  Before that moment, there had been no physical barrier between the sectors.

The decision to approve the erection the wall was probably made on the spur of the moment , most likely by Nikita Khrushchev. It was clearly made because of the debilitating flow if refugees from East to West Germany.  By 1961, roughly 3 .5 million East Germans had left for the West.  The total loss to East Germany was measured in the tens of billions of 1961 dollars.  The Wall was clearly a snap decision, as no one in the West had any inkling that it was in the offing.  It was then and remains today a telling testimony to the horrors of Soviet style communism.

Unfortunately for the East Germans, those who departed were the cream of their crop. They were smart, educated, and competent, consisting mostly of professionals – teachers, engineers, physicians, technicians  and skilled workers – anyone capable of making a good life in the West..  They were just the kind of people whom the East German regime could least afford to lose.  The issue was often referred to as the” Brain Drain” which, in fact, it most certainly was.

Over the twenty-eight year life of the Wall, some 5,000 East Germans managed to escape, despite its existence.  In addition, over 200 were killed in the process of trying to escape.

On Sunday, November 14, 2009, an exhibit opened at Harvard University’s Davis Center which displayed photos and narratives of the Cold War Czechoslovak Secret Service’s (StB) covert photographic surveillance of dissidents in and around Prague.  It was an excellent exhibit attended by much of the northeastern Czech/American academic community as well as a diplomat from the Czech Embassy in Washington who gave an excellent presentation on the issue of surveillance of dissidents during Cold War.

These two events, the Czech exhibit at Harvard and the celebration of the demise of the Wall of Shame took place in the rather narrow contexts of the countries in which they had taken place.  This is not to say that the Wall was not important to Germans.  It was, as it symbolized the rupture of the previously heterogeneous German State, the artificial separation of families and friends and probably underlined the realities and humiliation of the German loss of the Second World War.

At the same time, the Czech surveillance exhibit, at least on the face of it, showed seemingly unaware Czechs as seen through the photographic lenses of their own secret police – their countrymen.

Even though these exhibits and events were effectively presented and celebrated, as were probably all those other commemorations of the downfall of  Soviet Communism in Eastern Europe, what seemed to be missing from them was an explicit focus on the extraordinary evils that these now fallen regimes represented not only in the countries in which they existed, but in the world at large.

Soviet-style Communism was the quintessential totalitarian regime.  It most certainly was an Evil Empire.  It was totally disinterested in the welfare of its people.  It put up its walls, surveilled its own people and murdered millions of its own citizens purely to maintain itself in power. It committed these horrors because it knew that it had scant support from its people and because it had no reason to believe that would change.

When you think of the extraordinary cynicism such an approach involves, it boggles the mind.  The regimes of the USSR and its satellite countries presented themselves to the world, particularly the developing world, as having a system worth emulating, while at the same time knowing they were  politically and morally bankrupt at home.

The world now has an entire generation that never experienced the horrors and the incredible cynicism of Soviet communism. Yet there is no communist equivalent of the Holocaust Museum.   Even though it all ended with a whimper and not in the glory of a VE day, we in the West should make sure we neither forget, or permit those who follow us not to learn just how evil those folks really were.  Otherwise, like skinheads and neo-Nazis, they will sneak back to plague us again.

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.  A longtime resident of Brookfield, he now lives in Williston.

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Why Iran wants the bomb

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

The United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. That simple act effectively ended the Second World War. It also set off a race for other countries to develop their own nuclear weapons.

France undertook its successful nuclear weapons program at the insistence of Charles de Gaulle who was preoccupied with France’s strategic independence. England, after an initial unilateral start, has largely developed its capability jointly with the U.S. The Soviet Union was the first country to develop a program (based on espionage) designed to establish a balance of power in the Cold War. China’s device was developed as a deterrent to both US and Soviet power.

Later members of the Nuclear Club began to show a change in the rationale for developing those weapons. India was interested in a deterrent, but also sought nuclear weapons to project power in their region. Pakistan’s motivation was more traditional – they needed a deterrent against their Indian enemy, but then later sold their technology to others.

North Korea’s motivation is really difficult to judge, but it is probably safe to say that is partly their perceived need for a deterrent against the US, possibly projection of power and possibly a commercial enterprise, as they are said to be helping with the development of a weapons program in Myanmar.

Israel’s undeclared nuclear weapons program, given the realities of the region in which they live, is most likely designed to give them equivalent power against an array of populous, non-nuclear countries who, they believe, wish them ill. Syria, if it truly has a program, and any other Middle East state that might want such a program, is logically looking for a counterbalance to the Israeli arsenal.

The same may well be true of Iran, however, given what has happened in the region over the last 7-8 years, they are almost certainly interested in the nuclear capability in the context of their projection of regional power.

With its military activities in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US has severely curtailed if not eliminated Iran’s two major competitors, Iraq and the Taliban, for regional influence and Gulf hegemony. A nuclear weapon is most logically a further attempt by Iran, a country acutely aware of its long and rich history, to reestablish preeminence in its region.

It seems that many countries want nuclear weapons. Does the possession of those weapons automatically enhance either the power or the security of anyone? Probably not.

Not one such weapon has been used in anger since we dropped our bombs on Japan in 1945. Yet, despite that fact, the bomb still seems to symbolize power.

In fact, the bomb is useful and powerful only as long as it is not used, and everyone on this planet knows it.

The Cold War nuclear powers already know that fact. Powers that have acquired it more recently are learning fast. They know that just about every country in the world that matters is implicitly under the nuclear protection of one of the current members of the Club. They know that if they were to drop one of their weapons on a friend of Russia, China or the US, they would seriously run the risk of being incinerated.

Even if Israel did not have nuclear weapons of its own, would Iran, above all a country of intelligent and rational people, despite what one might think of Ahmadinejad, use a nuclear weapon against Israel knowing that it would result in the virtual end of their own country either at Israel’s hand or ours? Not hardly!

No, the Iranians want the bomb simply because having it, as opposed to using it, is power incarnate. They almost certainly believe that the bomb will bring them the respect they feel is due them as a power in the region. In that context they have everything else they need to gain that respect and influence. There are 66 million of them. Iran is third in the world in proven oil reserves. Iranians are 77 percent literate. 73 percent of them are between the ages 15-65 and the median age is 27. They have thrived in an unfriendly environment for over 5,000 years. That’s a pretty good power base.

The only existential threat posed by nuclear weaponry in today’s world is the possibility of itc s falling into terrorist hands. Nevertheless, the difficulties of acquiring, handling, delivering and detonating such a weapon are overwhelming and probably well beyond the capabilities of today’s terrorist organizations.

That may well change in the future and could be complicated by major changes in Pakistan, but our defensive capabilities will grow commensurately with them. For now, however, there appears to be little objective reason for us to attack anyone simply because they have or are anticipated to have a nuclear weapon.

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 Rutland Herald and Barre Times-Argus.]

What’s going on today in the White House is the perfect argument for a non-renewable six-year presidential term. There are so many incredibly difficult and intractable issues on this president’s plate right now, that any preoccupation with the possibility of a second term is only going to inject domestic politics into the decision-making process, lead to bad decisions and, in effect, preclude Obama’s re-election in 2012.

George W. Bush’s November 2008 legacy to whichever presidential candidate was elected to follow him in office was, quite simply, a kiss of death. It wouldn’t have mattered whether it was McCain or Obama, for what Bush willed to his successor was extremely toxic and under the best of circumstances probably would have limited anyone to four years in office. Just consider Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and Iraq.

The Middle East is a different world. Americans, with their notion of American Exceptionalism, would notice little but strange behaviors, strange beliefs and strange activities. Unfortunately, this American ethnocentricity, among the most pervasive in the world, makes our dealings with different cultures abroad extremely problematical.

The key to all of this is the unfortunate fact that many of the most important foreign policy decision made by any U.S. president are made, not on the basis of the objective facts that exist in the country or region in question, but rather on the basis of the domestic political needs of the president in power and his party.

Faced with the intractability of the situations that face him in the Middle East, President Obama has little wiggle room. He is disadvantaged by his own lack of military experience. His campaign pronouncements that Iraq was a bad place to be, but that Afghanistan is a good one, do not help. When he got rid of General McKiernan and replaced him with General McChrystal, he put himself at the mercy of the military and its vocal supporters in the congress and around the country.

As an inexperienced president with no military expertise, how could he possible go against McChrystal’s recommendations? Was the president so naïve that he thought a hard-charging, ambitious, three-star would admit that virtually any counterinsurgency program would entail decades of future effort and trillions of dollars or even, perhaps, that it might not be doable? Would he think that for the first time since MacArthur, a general would go public, eschewing the chain of command?

This is not to say that the decision of what to do in Afghanistan is clear-cut. What is clear is the fact that there is no present connection between Afghanistan and terrorism. The issue in Afghanistan is the Taliban insurgency and has nothing whatsoever to do with Al Qaida. Additionally, history provides little evidence of successful, traditional counterinsurgencies. Why should we succeed here?

Given that and the fact that Afghanistan has never been successfully conquered by anyone, the policy decision should only be whether we really want or need to fight an expensive, long-lasting and problematic counterinsurgency against the Taliban, when the president has told us repeatedly that our real fight is against terrorism.

In this context, the re-establishment of Afghanistan as an Al Qaida safe haven is highly unlikely. Al Qaida was directly responsible for the defeat of the Taliban in 2002, a course of action the Taliban is hardly likely to repeat. Besides that, Al Qaida has proven it can act in America, Spain, England and France without Afghanistan.

And what of Iraq? Will the fragile respite of the past months continue or will it, as many experts fear, devolve into sectarian and ethnic struggles? If it does, what will Obama do? Will he succumb to pressure from those who feel that military response is the only and best response, like the pressure he feels today on Afghanistan, or will he find a better way to get us out of a mess with which we never ever should have become involved in the first place?

With politics what they are, the president likely will be tempted to take the middle of the road on these military issues. That will be a mistake that will almost certainly limit him to one term.

Conversely, imagine the president undertaking the unusual, groundbreaking policy of letting the realities of the situation on the ground in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Iran dictate his policies. Not only would such a policy be in tune with such realities, it would almost certainly have the best chance for “success”, however he may choose to define it. He certainly won’t get there with compromise policies based on domestic politics.

The unintended consequences of implementing a rational foreign policy built on facts as opposed to one preoccupied with domestic politics, could be a startling amount of “success,” which very possibly might even lead to a second term.

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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