Archive for April, 2011

[Originally Published in the Herald of Randolph]

What is there about the United States that makes it possible for us to get involved in foreign affairs when we have little, if any idea exactly what is going on or how our involvement, whatever that may be, will effect the outcome.  The “Arab Spring” is the perfect example of this issue.

Since the end of the Second World War, we have supported any regime in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, providing we believed that the regime in question would support US interests.  Over time, that has brought us into uncomfortable relationships with Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the old Soviet Central Asian Republics, now states.

We signed on with those countries simply because we felt it in our interest to do so.  Oil was important, although far less so for us than for Europe and Asia.  What we were really after, whether we articulated it clearly or not, was regional stability. The Cold War caused us to seek allies against the Soviet Union to deny them oil and international support.  In support of that, we believed we needed those states to be politically stable.

The problem was that those geographic entities that called themselves states were inherently unstable largely because they had been created without any particular thought being given to ethnic, tribal, or religious realities by the imperial powers that created them. They were, as can be seen in Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria, made up of ethnic, religious and tribal groups that had little sense of nation, and loyalty primarily to their tribe or religion.  Libya is the perfect example.  As a country which is probably likely to turn into two or three separate states, Libya comprises something on the order of 140-150 separate tribes and tribal groupings.

That has always been true and we have always known it.  How can we now employ a policy based on the likelihood that there is hope for unity in Libya? How can we assume that those disparate groupings will cast aside of thousands of years of animosity and suddenly enter into the 21st century world with a welcoming hand?

In Afghanistan, we predicate our success in creating a unified state on being able to assemble and train police and Army forces that will keep order once we leave.  Absent a repressive government like the Taliban we overthrew, how can that be possible?  If we want a police force that represents all the people, we have to have Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek, Turkmen, Baloch, Aimak, etc, etc, on it and they have to serve throughout the nation, despite the fact that they are historically at odds with each other.  There’s nothing new here.

Iraq is no different, just a bit farther down the road toward internal strife.  Because of their past, the Sunnis, who have always run things, honestly believe they are entitled to do so in the future.  Why, many of they still actually believe they are the majority group in Iraq!

The Shia, never having been allowed to run anything and having been horribly mistreated by the Sunnis, know they are the majority group and believe they should rule.

And the Kurds!  The Kurds have been mistreated by just about everyone in the Region and are not about to let that happen again.  They will look out for their own interests despite the interests and needs of any other group.  And to further complicate everything, the Kurds who at thirty million people are the largest ethnic group in the world without a country of their own, have something up to fifteen million living in Turkey where they are restive, repressed and a source of major concern for Turkish stability.

What started simultaneously with our invasion of Iraq and subsequent re-invasion of Afghanistan was a process of ferment in the Middle East. It is difficult to argue that the invasion was irrelevant to the Arab Spring.  What we have done, quite simply, is start the process that is leading to the forcible removal of all the old tyrants who have been our stability-friendly allies for the past 75 years.

That is not necessarily a bad thing. Unfortunately, with all the religious, tribal and ethnic divisions in the Middle East today and given its dismal record of accommodation, it seems unlikely that there will be comity in the short run or that we will see what we think of as a positive outcome there for a very long time.

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

A nation-state is by definition a political, geopolitical, cultural and/or ethnic entity which derives its internal legitimacy through national consensus.

Since today’s Iraq was first established after the First World War by western imperial interests and modeled on the concept of a nation-state, relative stability has been maintained there through repressive governance.

That has been necessary because there has never been enough common interest among the diverse religious, sectarian and ethnic groups in the geographic area called “Iraq” to find government by consensus.  The concept of nation-state has existed only  geographically, never politically, culturally or ethnically.

As a “country” characterized by centuries-old, deep, sectarian and ethnic divisions, Iraq does not have the kind of citizenry that is suited by belief, culture, experience or history to make consensus government prosper. One hundred years of repressive internal indigenous governance, plus almost 400 years of previous Ottoman rule, have not created an electorate that is prepared for anything remotely resembling self-governance, let alone democracy.

Iraq, as now configured, is a poor bet for successful self-determination.  Its people hold little in common.

According to the existing Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between America and Iraq, all remaining US forces will have to exit Iraq by December 31, 2011.

Room for negotiation on our final departure date is contained within the SOFA, but it seems unlikely that there will be political will in Iraq to make any changes.

The powerful Shia leader, Moqtada al-Sadr is currently studying religion in Iran.  He continues to command the Mahdi Army which fought very effectively against our troops, particularly in 2004. Al-Sadr has just replied to Secdef Gates’ recent suggestion that the SOFA might be extended.

He first organized a massive march by tens of thousands of his followers in Baghdad.  He then indicated very clearly that any SOFA extension is unacceptable, saying that if it were changed, “The first thing we will do is escalate the military resistance activity and reactivate the Mahdi Army …… Second is to escalate the peaceful and public resistance through sit-ins”.

This statement has already had a major impact on the sitting Maliki coalition government.  The Sadrists are part of that Maliki coalition.  Their only apparently inflexible condition, one that has brought them in and out and back into that coalition, has been strict adherance to the SOFA. If U.S. troops are not totally out of Iraq by December 31, 2011, not only will he gin up the old Mahdi army with all its fractious implications, he will also withdraw support from the Maliki Government and thus precipitate its fall.

This will leave Iraq without a government and at the mercy of the Mahdi army which would probably turn out to be the dominant military organization in Iraq and which is not particularly friendly to the concept of Iraqi democracy or even statehood, except on its own terms.  There is so little appetite in Iraq for this scenario that change in the SOFA and the continued presence of US troops in Iraq is short of zero.

Implosion is certainly a nightmare scenario for Iraq and only slightly less so for the US.  Without sufficient ability to keep law and order, as Saddam and the US have done over the past 30+ years, present day Iraq is more than likely to fracture into its component parts – Sunni, Shia, Kurd. That process will attract all kinds of attention from the region.  Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Syria, and particularly Iran all have major stakes in any Iraqi outcome.

The only real issue is whether or not the neighbors are prepared to initiate and support hostilities against their rivals.  This seems unlikely, but no one really knows.

What is clear is that, without some sort of effective power center, which has historically been repressive, Iraq will be unlikely to be able to maintain internal stability and is likely to fracture into its component parts.

More importantly, given the sub rosa reality of a deeply divided Iraq, that is precisely what is likely to happen whenever we leave, whether in nine months, nine years or nine decades!  With or without Al-Sadr in the government, Iraq will face the future with inadequate internal control.

At the end of this year we will leave because we have no leverage to change the situation.  Rather than fruitlessly pursuing SOFA changes, we should spend the rest of the year working to make our departure as minimally threatening to regional stability as possible.

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[Originally published in American Diplomacy]

What we are seeing today in the Arab World is at least partly the result of underlying ambivalence in US foreign policy since World War II. During that period we have vacillated between a “realist” foreign policy that purports to reflect our national interests and an “idealist” policy that purports to reflect our higher values. Changes in administrations, and thus policy, have resulted in a practical, observable ambivalence.

The success of any country’s foreign policy lies at least partly in its consistency and in the ability of other nations to “read” that policy on a long-term basis. In that regard, an ambivalent policy is absolutely the hardest to read and deal with.

During the Cold War, there was little misunderstanding between America and the Soviet Union. Both sides understood the other’s policies. The Soviets understood that we were committed to containment and that Mutually Assured Destruction was an absolute. We both believed that if we were to get too aggressive, those policies would go into effect, resulting in a nuclear holocaust.

It’s a pretty straightforward issue for a country to identify its national interests both at home and abroad. Those reflect the country’s economic, cultural, political and social goals. In short, they represent the reason for the existence of the state.

Foreign policy in any given country at any time is a reflection of either the national interests of that country, or the values of its peoples. It is where the two are combined or conflated that troubles begin. In a purely logical way how can you have a consistent foreign policy that is based on national interests and on higher values when changing from a liberal to a conservative administration? The two are far too often in conflict!

There are essentially two distinct approaches to foreign policy. First, a “realist” foreign policy places national interests and security above ideology, ethics and morality. The second or “idealist” school posits that foreign policy must reflect the ethical, moral and philosophical values of the country.

Under Woodrow Wilson, “Idealist” foreign policy did not accomplish what it was designed to do which was to eliminate wars in Europe after WWI. As a result, there have been modifications, which have approached the problem by creating international mechanisms like NATO, the UN, and GATT. That seems to be working a bit better as we have not had a third world war in Europe.

Since the Second World War, the United States has bragged increasingly about American “exceptionalism” – the notion that our system is superior to any other in the world. The backbone of that claim lies in our liberal democracy where “liberal” is defined, inter alia, as “favorable to or in accord with concepts of maximum individual freedom possible, especially as guaranteed by law and secured by governmental protection of civil liberties.” Exceptionalism has been the basis of our “idealist” foreign policies. We have had a foreign policy that sporadically has been based on our own principles, but also on our national interests. Unfortunately, foreign policy is at its worst when it vacillates between “realist” and “idealist.”

One of the biggest complaints that Arabs have about US policy is the fact that we have traditionally supported, or at best turned a blind eye to some of the most brutal dictatorships in the world. Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Algeria, Morocco, Iran, the list goes on and on. The history of the post-WWII Arab world is littered with dictators or autocrats. Did we support them because we liked the stability they provided? Or was it their oil, or their support for us in the Cold War, or their grudging tolerance of our Palestine policy? Never mind that it was at the cost of freedom for their peoples.

The Arab League

So there we were, supporting and selling the ideals of liberal democracy while at the same time doing everything undemocratic that we possibly could. We were in the throes of the most “realist” period of foreign policy imaginable. We did what was in our national interest, but not what we said we were all about morally, ethically and philosophically. And we did that for an Arab world that did not fail to see just how hypocritical we really were.

Then, the “Arab Spring” hit Tunisia. Faced with mounting evidence of Arab discontent, we have turned 180 degrees to a new “idealist” foreign policy in which we have sought to support all of those peoples in Islam on whom we had turned our back during our “realist” period. We also turned on all those undemocratic leaders we had supported for 75 years!

Are we offended that so many states in the Arab World are upset with us; or that they are apparently going their own way without our counsel; or that we have almost zero credibility and less than zero influence in the region?

We are paying the price for the vagaries of foreign policy inconsistency. Over the decades, we have tried to sell Arabs a bill of goods. Claiming an “idealist” foreign policy, we have said that we represent an exceptional, liberal democracy that should be the envy of the world and a model for its further development. At the same time, we employed a “realist” foreign policy that, in our ongoing reaction to emerging Arab yearnings for self-determination, is being show to have supported every evil thing in Arab life that we have claimed to oppose.

We have been playing both ends shamelessly against the middle and we have now been caught. There are good and bad things about both the “idealist” and “realist” schools of foreign policy. If we were as powerful and macho as we like to think we are, the “realist” policy might be an option. Given today’s world, it is not and for a power on the wane, “idealist” has its advantages. The true “shining city on the hill” requires no aggressiveness, no hypocrisy, only that we look and behave like a liberal democracy!

Obama’s “idealist” foreign policy in the Arab World now stands in direct contradistinction to the “realist” policies of George W. Bush and we are accused of hypocrisy. It would appear that our Obama foreign policy has completely replaced that of Bush. The question of which of those policies has the greater chance of success is not the pragmatic issue today. That issue is pretty straightforward: What will be the practical effect of this changeover from “pragmatic” to “idealist”?

Much of the Arab World is what it is today because of its exposure to western Imperialism during the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. During those times, western imperial powers created “states” to suit their own needs. Consciously or unconsciously, they bunched inherently hostile tribal, ethnic and religious groups into single states. That resulted in the creation of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, to mention only those now actively bedeviling us, states that contained within them enough hostility to remain perpetually in a precarious state of instability and thus, perhaps more easily governed. In some of those states, leadership was taken over by minority groups that could only govern repressively.

Incidentally, those are precisely the kinds of states to which Al Qaida is attracted.

So, the Arab World is composed of many “states” that up until now have been governable only through repression. That is the region into which we have so naively intruded. Apparently, we have either been disinterested in the realities of the region, or contemptuous of them. With American political leadership that believed so strongly in our exceptionalism, we thought we could be successful despite those realities!

Of course, the verdict is not yet known. Perhaps Arab self-determination will lead to some sort of governance that will be acceptable to such diverse and hostile local groupings. Or Perhaps ancient animosities will prevail.

What we can safely say right now is that it is the United States that has let this genie out of the bottle. With that genie has gone the old stability that was maintained, to our net advantage, without the consent of the governed. And stability is a primary requirement for progress.

In a country governed by idealism, that was almost certainly the right thing to have done. However, the world under discussion here is neither idealistic nor democratic. If history offers wisdom, it is difficult to see how things will improve, either for us, or for the peoples of the Arab world.

If one eliminates repressive rule, as we are now so fervently advocating, the only way to stability lies in consensus and self-determination, neither of which seems like a logical winner in the religiously, ethnically and tribally divided and hostile Arab world.

Finally, what does our new “idealist” foreign policy portend for the future? Will we broaden our humanitarian mission to other countries where the citizens are threatened by their governments? There certainly are a lot of them around the world. How does China fit into that? North Korea? Syria? And what about all similar countries in Africa?

Just what will our criteria for involvement be? Precisely what will cause us to intervene? Will we say it has to be something important, like oil or the end of a hateful dictatorship we really don’t like? Or will we stay flexible and only intervene when it suits us politically?

Talk about slippery slopes!

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 in the Rutland Herand and Barre Times-Argus

Many American independents voted for Barack Obama in 2008 because they thought he was the smartest Democrat available. They put him in office. Given what we were facing in the aftermath of the incredibly profligate and counterproductive Bush presidency, smarts were what were needed.

Many voters figured he was smart enough to successfully lead the Democrats against what was bound to be a single-minded, ruthless Republican onslaught intent on retaking power in Washington.

Many in the political center hoped in 2008 that Obama understood that he was taking over the helm of a Democratic Party on the cusp of a particularly virulent philosophical and political war with the Republicans. They hoped he would provide the kind of leadership required to protect moderates from the core beliefs and philosophies of the American social, economic and political extremes.

Unfortunately, he has done none of this. He has sailed blithely into his presidency as if it were simply another Ivy League old-boy’s session, persuaded that well-intentioned people would surround him in Washington and that reason would prevail.

Well, guess what! Washington is not populated by reasonable people. It is run by power-hungry career politicians who don’t fret about bending the rules and who sleep well when they break them.

This is not a loving family picnic. In fact, it is a no-holds-barred, bare-knuckle fight to the political end. For today’s Republicans, that means consigning the Democrats to the political trash bin for as long as humanly possible, preferably forever.

It’s wonderful and touching to hear Democrats tell us about taking care of the disadvantaged, the elderly and the sick. But that’s not a viable strategy for 2012. That’s a plan that sold in the past when times were far different and we had the luxury of being willing to stick to our core principles and beliefs.

Now, given our economic and fiscal realities, it’s all about jobs and money and if you look closely, you will see that while the Republicans are offering new and radical ideas for change, the Democrats, under Obama’s leadership, are offering today’s status quo. Unfortunately for them, the preservation of our entitlement programs, as written, is not going to be a winner in 2012.

It is inconceivable that the leader of the Democratic Party would simply continue to preach compromise when the Republicans are prepared to do and say anything, however outrageous or unprincipled or half true, that will weaken his chances for re-election and make his party even more irrelevant.

So, in the interim, and lacking any brilliant, innovative or hopeful new proposals or initiatives from the supine congressional Democrats, what can Obama do? So far, under his leadership, all the Democrats are doing is trying to maintain as much of the status quo as possible. Without attendant prosperity and economic well-being, that is not the basis for a viable election campaign.

Before the 2012 elections, the president needs to convince his supporters that he is not a dilettante sitting on the sidelines, waiting for his political enemies to “compromise.” He needs to come up with his own concrete initiatives that will address the country’s existential issues, rather than waiting to react negatively to provocative Republican proposals.

He and his party might start with concrete proposals for the modification of Social Security and our other increasingly economically non-viable entitlement programs, to make them capable of surviving this century in ways consistent with his party’s principles.

Could Democrats propose an entirely new, infinitely more equitable approach to taxation?

Our military establishment, designed to fight the great land wars of the 20th century, is poorly designed to fight the kinds of struggles that now face us. If we had the right model, which Democrats could design, it would not only be far more effective, but would cost us billions, perhaps trillions less than our present military establishment. In light of our national interests and financial situation, can we afford not to change?

In that context, could we consider wholly new proposed policies for terrorism and for the Middle East to replace those that have failed us for years? By any rational measure, we are not heading for successful conclusions to our ongoing adventures in that region.

The Democrats look bereft of helpful ideas. They propose nothing new, preferring to cling to past programs that, even they will acknowledge, need to be modified to survive. They are being beaten to the draw every day by a hungry, purpose-driven, unprincipled Republican Party that has far more on its agenda than a re-do of Social Security.

That’s the kind of situation that can best be reversed by presidential leadership and we haven’t seen much of that coming from this White House.

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