Archive for the ‘Foreign Policy’ Category


August 7th, 2018

Listening to the radio while doing my morning exercises, I just heard an apologist for Trump describe his reimposition of sanctions on Iran as part of a reasonably coherent strategy to achieve regime change there by the means of economic pressure.  He went on to characterize this as a program to promote democracy.  To me, it was astonishing that nobody immediately called bullshit on this.  Yes, I am incurably naive and such things do astonish me.  But then again, this was NPR, where it is an article of journalistic faith never to challenge a right wing bullshitter.   How it promotes democracy to attempt, by use of our economic force majeure, to immiserate the people of a foreign, sovereign nation in the hopes that they will rise up and overthrow their government, was not explained.  Nor was it explained why it is considered reasonable to expect that such people, driven by poverty and oppression to destroy forcibly the existing governmental institutions of their country, would replace what they had jettisoned with something more Jeffersonian.  The man promoting this arrogant idiocy, in  almost complete albeit probably willful ignorance of history (Libya? France?  Russia?  China? Germany? etc.), spoke with great confidence, fluency, and truthiness.  Judging by recent polls showing GOP support for der Gropenfuhrer holding firm, not to mention his continuing enthusiastic reception by the Republican faithful at campaign rallies, there is no shortage of American Barnaby Rudges who can be fooled by this kind of thing.  It is a salutary reminder that even if the President were to choke on a pretzel, he is only the gross tip of a sizeable iceberg.

Why Not Let’s Just Kill A Buncha Folks

April 10th, 2018

In the ongoing media yakkety-yak concerning the recent Syrian/Russian chemical attacks on civilians in Douma, reference is made frequently to the media’s hazy recollection that Trump ordered missile strikes on an airfield a year ago in response to something like such an atrocity.  Will he or won’t he do it again?  One of the things that seems to be forgotten is that the missile strikes did minimal damage, and the airfield was in use again almost immediately.  The missile strikes were a public relations display of ire at human suffering, ordered by a man who is indifferent to the sufferings of others but is fairly sensitive to public relations.

I mention the above in order to emphasize the point that this story is not really about Donald Trump and whatever he may or may not do, although the American media, speaking to and representative of a supremely narcissistic nation, persists in presenting it that way.  The story is about Bashar al Assad.  When you think about it that way, one thing becomes glaringly obvious.  Assad is fighting an existential threat to his regime; and not just to his regime.  For him, one may be reasonably sure, the existential threat is personal.  From that perspective, any action, including the use of chemical weapons, is measured by whether it makes his survival more or less likely.  And by that yardstick, the chemical attack on Douma has been a success, in that it helped secure the battlefield from his enemies.

An equally obvious corollary is that any “punishment” child Trump may, in his “wrath”, mete out, is entirely beside the point unless it is directed tellingly and personally at Assad himself, with sufficient impact to threaten to reverse whatever gains he may have accrued toward his own survival by virtue of releasing the chlorine gas in the first place.  Otherwise, it is just a cost of doing business.  One may surmise with reasonable confidence that Assad and Putin made this calculation for themselves long ago; literally scores of such attacks have taken place since Obama drew his red line.

Take it a step further.  Suppose Trump blows some stuff up.  Suppose he even kills some people.  Suppose some of them are Russians.  Suppose, finally, that Assad and Putin are not the only people playing this game who know the score well enough to understand that every bomb not dropped directly on Assad’s head is a mere public relations gesture.

I am not advocating anything here, much less that high explosives be deployed by the U.S. in the cause of regime change.  I am just pointing out who is getting played for dupes in media coverage that breathlessly enquires, over and over, “What will he do?  Will he do what he did before?”  The deaths likely to result from the imminently forthcoming “punishment,” since that punishment almost certainly will not reach to Mr. Assad, will serve no purpose but public relations; it is hard to believe that Mr. Trump, Mr. Assad, and Mr. Putin do not understand this.  It occurs to me that ISIS was universally reviled in these parts for lopping off people’s heads in order to make a statement.  Tell me how we’re different.  I’m listening.


UPDATE 4/14/18:

Well, the good news, if it is not premature to say so, appears to be that they didn’t kill anybody.  So, for only tens of millions of dollars in expended munitions, it seems the following results have been achieved:

  1. Trump enjoyed a catharsis.
  2. Macron and May picked up potentially valuable IOUs against the United States.  You don’t think their participation came free, do you?  I say “potentially” valuable because the debtor-in-chief is Trump, and we all know what his word is worth.  This may explain why Merkel decided the game wasn’t worth the candle.
  3. Trump, May and Macron got to look tough in defense of “international norms”.
  4. Putin got to look tough in standing up to the US, and loyal in standing by his ally, Assad.
  5. Trump got to look tough on the Russians.
  6. Trump got to commit an act of war against a foreign sovereign nation without getting congressional approval, thus striking another blow for the fuhrerprinzip.
  7. U.S. weapons manufacturers will get to build replacements for the expended munitions.  Jobs jobs jobs!
  8. Some empty buildings in Syria got blown up.
  9. Assad got to use chemical weapons on “his” people, again, without paying anything much for it.  Sure, see #8, above.  But this doesn’t amount to much, given the stakes he is playing for.

I’d call this a win-win, wouldn’t you?


September 5th, 2013

Tactical Tomahawk Block IV Cruise Missile TestKilling a bunch of Syrians by dropping bombs on them does not seem to me to be an appropriate way to express disapproval of the means chosen by Bashar Al-Assad for killing a bunch of Syrians.

There is no such thing as a “limited surgical strike.”  There is only one thing you can be sure of.  If we send tens or hundreds of cruise missiles into Syria, innocent people will be killed. Where it stops is not in our control.

I perceive a peculiar frivolity in Obama’s assurances that just retribution for Assad’s atrocity will be accomplished without putting any American “boots on the ground.”  It is tantamount to saying, we care about what you did deeply enough to kill somebody for it, only not if it involves any risk to ourselves.  The message it sends to the world is not that there are firm limits on the means with which nations may perpetrate violence, but rather that the United States exercises its power in a manner that is unserious, fearful, and confused; we lack the courage of our convictions, but we are willing to see others suffer for them.

If Bashar Al-Assad has committed what amounts to a felony in international law, of sufficient gravity to warrant the death penalty (we are after all talking about killing people as punishment for it), then a “limited response” that does not accomplish regime change is inadequate and beside the point. I am not suggesting that we should invade Syria and depose Assad.  I am saying that anything less is senseless.

I do not understand the moral calculus whereby our slaughter of innocent people is just retribution for Assad’s slaughter of innocents.  Since World War II, the entire civilized world has condemned the practice of mass retaliation, of punishing an entire group or community for acts of some of its putative members, that was a major compenent of the Nazi evil.  Now we are going to punish “Syria.”  Or the “Syrian government.”  Or somebody.

A “limited, surgical strike” carefully avoiding regime change and targeted at degrading Syrain military capabilities ensures that the one person in Syria whom we deem most culpable is the one person in Syria who is safest from us.

Among the most depressing things I have heard recently is Obama’s statement that a limited military attack is not an act of war.  I would not have believed him capable of such hypocricy.  Imagine his response if Syria were to conduct a “limited” bombing strike against certain industrial facilities in the U.S. intended “only”  to degrade our capacity to use drones.

Why is it necessary to act militarily at this moment against this particular violation of international law?  The entire world stood by and watched Rwanda sink into genocide, and did nothing.   China’s treatment of Tibet is atrocious.  Israel has been committing violations of international law, including war crimes and arguably crimes against humanity, for decades.  I’m not advocating that we attack Israel or China, nor that we merely ignore atrocities.  But why is Assad’s atrocity suddenly the  intolerable one?  Why has Obama drawn a “red line” here, and only here?  And who appointed him to draw it?

This is vigilante justice.

If Obama really wants to uphold international law and international norms of conduct, he should get this country to sign on to the International Criminal Court and work to provide the U.N. with real enforcement power.  The U.S. isn’t the world’s policeman, and shouldn’t be, but the U.N. could be.  The U.N. should have standing armed forces with the capability of going anywhere and arresting even heads of state.  Haul Assad before the I.C.C. to answer charges of mass murder against his own people.

Oh – we’re afraid that the I.C.C.’s power would be turned against us.  This is the lame excuse we’ve heard for years for the U.S.’s refusal to ratify the treaty.  Well, that’s what those of us who work in law enforcement call a deterrent.  It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.  I wouldn’t mind being the citizen of a country that is deterred from launching unprovoked murderous assaults upon other nations.  I wouldn’t mind living in such a world.

An open letter to President Obama about Iran

March 10th, 2012

Iranian Queen, about 500 B.C.E.

Dear President Obama,
I am distressed to read reports that the United States is considering Israel’s request to provide it with armaments to destroy Iran’s hardened nuclear facilities.  The request should have been rejected outright.  Despite suspicions, there is insufficient evidence to conclude that Iran is engaged in making a nuclear weapon.  Even if Iran were doing so, the existence of such a weapon would not pose an existential threat to Israel, which has sufficient capacity of its own to render any attack suicidal.  Nor would the existence of such a weapon pose any threat at all to the United States, for similar reasons.  Slanderous allegations to the contrary, Iran’s government is not insane, and is unlikely to make nuclear weapons technology available to terrorists, knowing as well as anybody that what goes around comes around.  The thousands and thousands of Irani innocents who would die and be injured as a proximate result of an Israeli or American attack, the others who would be injured and would die as the result of Iran’s legally justifiable actions in self defense, the environmental devastation to Iran and beyond, the catastrophic impact upon the world economy, all speak against encouraging Israeli bellicosity.  There is nothing to gain, except perhaps a temporary disruption of Irani developments in nuclear technology, and incalculably much to lose.  In this case, as in many others, the Israeli right-wing government’s conception of its interest is contrary to the national interest of America, not congruent with it.  Prime Minister Netanyahu should have been slapped down when he said “You are us.”  No we’re not.  (I’m Jewish, by the way, for what it’s worth.  An American Jew.)  “I have your back, no matter what” is nice language for the schoolyard, and it sounds good in buddy movies, and I can understand the political calculations that make it an attractive thing to say to AIPAC, but it is inconsistent with your primary responsibility to safeguard American lives, property, and national interest.  It is most certainly not consistent with these goals to launch unprovoked wars of aggression in unstable parts of the world, as George Bush found out to all of our chagrin.


Seth Steinzor