What Realism wrought in Syria

June 3, 2014 § Leave a comment

Some weeks back, I debated the renowned political scientist Steve Walt of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government on Chris Lydon’s excellent Radio Open Source. The debate happened at 3am my time, so I wasn’t as coherent and articulate as I’d have liked to be, and I didn’t get enough time to challenge some of Steve’s statements. I recently wrote the following piece for The National in which I critique what I think is wrong with political Realism, an approach that in most cases I tend to agree with.

Four months after the Syrian regime gassed the neighborhoods of Eastern Ghouta, Ryan Crocker, the blue-eyed scion of the US foreign policy establishment, offered sobering advice. “It is time to consider a future for Syria without Assad’s ouster,” wrote he in an op-ed for the New York Times, “because it is overwhelmingly likely that is what the future will be.”

It is overwhelmingly likely that this is what the future will be, but it is only because there is a readiness in the US foreign policy establishment to consider a future for Syria without Assad’s ouster. The readiness is based on false choices and flawed assumptions. It is undergirded by the intellectual dogmas of realism.

Realism is making a triumphant return after a decade of disasters wrought by neoconservatism. Realists had warned about the folly of invading Iraq and predicted dire consequences. They were proved right. Realism had also served as a useful check on imperial over-reach during the Cold War. As an analytical aid, it is sober, conscious of the limits of power, and leery of what the American sociologist C. Wright Mills called “military metaphysics” – the preference for resolving political problems through military means.

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A Lecture by Walter LaFeber

April 2, 2014 § Leave a comment

The following is a lecture given by the great historian of US foreign policy Walter LaFeber.

The Syria Test

February 27, 2014 § Leave a comment

Residents wait to receive food aid distributed at the besieged al-Yarmouk camp, south of Damascus on January 31, 2014. (UNRWA)

Residents wait to receive food aid distributed at the besieged al-Yarmouk camp, south of Damascus on January 31, 2014. (UNRWA)

Tonight I’ll be joining Stephen Walt on the wonderful Radio Open Source with Christopher Lydon to debate the crisis in Syria. I rarely disagree with Steve on anything but on Syria our views diverge. Steve is a formidable interlocutor and Chris is a radio legend who knows how to cut to the heart of a subject. I am hoping that today’s debate leads to greater clarity. Here’s from Chris’s introduction:

The nightmare in Syria has slipped off the front page. Yet civilians are still dying by the hundreds every day. Thousands are dead and millions more displaced across Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq. Petroleum “barrel bombs” have replaced sarin gas and the specter of al-Qaeda seems to hover over it all.

We’ve been there before, debating how to respond to a humanitarian crisis halfway across the world. Vietnam in the ’70s, Beirut in the ’80s, Kuwait and Bosnia in the ’90s, and of course Iraq and Afghanistan. Four months ago, Syria looked like the next in that series, with destroyers sailing to the Gulf and Tomahawk missiles armed and ready to fire. Were we right to breathe a sigh of relief, or was non-intervention a worse course than risking another quagmire?

What should we have done, what can we still do, and is it too late to pass the test in Syria?

Max Blumenthal discusses Goliath at the New America Foundation

December 7, 2013 § Leave a comment

Max Blumenthal discusses his book Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel with Peter Bergen of the New America Foundation. (Also check this excellent defence of Blumenthal’s free speech by James Fallows of The Atlantic).

The Geneva Breakthrough

November 24, 2013 § 2 Comments

This is a positive and historic development. Not only will it relieve pressure on ordinary Iranian people, it will also empower the country’s reformists. It will also put the interests of the powerful merchant against the interests of the hardliners. It will erode the power of hawks not just in Iran, but also the US and Israel.

This also creates an opening for a negotiated settlement of the conflict in Syria. Until now Iran’s hardliners have been running amuck in Syria, and the IRGC has been actively at war. Now Iran has something to lose. The US has gained leverage that until now it didn’t have. It is now in a position to pressure Iran to drop its support for Assad. Given the fragility of the entente, the last thing Iran would want is to jeopardise it by continuing a policy with an uncertain end.

Iran’s Secret Army

November 24, 2013 § 18 Comments

As the world celebrates the deal between the West and Iran, it should be remembered that Western concerns over Iran’s nuclear programme – and the sanctions which have so damaged Iran’s economy – were provoked by Israeli concerns, and that these are not existential but strategic. Iran doesn’t need a nuclear weapon but only the ability to enrich uranium to a level where it could quickly make a nuclear weapon. At that stage, the bullying power given Israel by its own nuclear arsenal vanishes. A sensible approach to the problem would have reduced Tehran’s nuclear ambition while disarming Israel. The West, of course, did not press for this, and Iran, despite its stale ‘resistance’ rhetoric, did not hold out for it.

In general, it’s good to see tension reduced between Iran and the West. The great shame is that while a deal is done over the nuclear programme, something that was never much of a threat, Iran has not been called to account for its pernicious intervention in Syria, a far greater threat to regional and international security. Iran’s intervention is on a far greater scale than any Saudi or Qatari interference. The Islamic Republic’s ‘revolutionary’ legitimacy is of course destroyed by its siding with a tyrant against a revolutionary people, and its Shia legitimacy will also be destroyed in the eyes of any thinking human being, for it has joined Yazeed in a war against a struggling Hussain. After Assad’s employment of sectarian death squads, ‘Shia’ Iran’s deployment of racist occupation forces to direct the tyrant’s fightback has been the single biggest factor amplifying the sectarian nature of the conflict. It has already dragged Lebanon back to the brink of civil war. Some argue that peacable relations between the US and Iran will defang Iran’s hardliners. That may happen eventually, but it will be far too late for usurped and shattered Syria.

I used to argue that the West and the Arabs should work with Iran. I used to repeat the line about Iran not having attacked another country in three centuries. (I made allowances for its pernicious role in keeping Iraq divided and sectarian; Iraq had after all attacked Iran in the past.) Unfortunately this line is no longer true. The Arabs are now absolutely right to regard Iran as an aggressive, expansionist threat. This deal has by no means secured peace in the region.

Choose your own Apocalypse

October 24, 2013 § 1 Comment

The Forward’s great cartoonist Eli Valley responds to anti-Iran doom-mongering by Israel lobby figures like Sheldon Adelson.

Gilbert Achcar on the Syrian Revolution

October 8, 2013 § 2 Comments

In this interview published at Socialist Resistance, the clear-sighted leftist Gilbert Achcar explains the importance of standing in solidarity with Syria’s popular revolution and the need to resist the propaganda of Western, Russian, and Gulf counter-revolutionary forces. Achcar is interviewed by Terry Conway.

TC: Could you assess the present state of the Arab uprising in general before we focus more specifically on Syria?

GA: What is happening now is a confirmation of what could be said from the start; the fact that what began in December 2010 in Tunisia, was not a ‘Spring’ as the media called it, a brief period of political change during which one despot or another is overthrown, opening the way for a nice parliamentary democracy, and that’s it. The uprisings were portrayed as a ‘Facebook revolution’, another one of these ‘colour revolutions’.  I, for one, insisted from the beginning that this was a misrepresentation of reality. What started unfolding in 2011 was a long-term revolutionary process, which would develop over many, many years if not decades, especially if we take into account its geographic extension.

From that perspective, what we have had so far is just the opening phase of the process. In some countries they have managed to go beyond the initial stage of overthrowing existing governments; this was the case in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya – the three countries where the regimes were overthrown by the uprising. And you can see that these countries are still in a state of turmoil, instability, which is usual in revolutionary periods.

Those eager to believe that the Arab uprising has ended or was stillborn focused on the initial victory of Islamic forces in elections in Tunisia and Egypt. Against such doomsayers, I stressed the fact that this was actually unavoidable since elections held shortly after the overthrow of the despotic regime could only reflect the balance of organised forces that existed in these countries. I argued that the Islamic fundamentalists’ period in power would not last long, if we consider the real roots of the revolutionary process.

This long-term revolutionary process is rooted in the social reality of the region, characterised by many decades of stalled development – a higher rate of unemployment, especially youth unemployment, than in any other region in the world over several decades.  These were the real basic causes of the explosion, and as long as these causes are not addressed, the process will continue. Any new government which has no solutions to these root problems will fail. It was predictable that the Muslim Brotherhood would fail: in my book The People Want, which was of course written before Morsi’s overthrow in Egypt, I argued that the Muslim Brotherhood would fail inevitably. I wrote the same about Ennahda in Tunisia, which is now faced with a very strong protest movement that puts the future of the government in question.

So there is an ongoing process throughout the region, which, like any revolutionary process in history, has ups and downs, periods of advances and periods of setbacks – and sometimes ambiguous periods. The most ambiguous event in the whole process until now has been the recent experience in Egypt where we saw this huge mass mobilisation against Morsi on 30 June, which was a very advanced experience in democracy by a mass movement asking for the recall of an elected president who had betrayed the promises he made to the people. But at the same time, and here lies the ambiguity of course, you had the military coup and widespread illusions that the army could play a progressive role, including amongst dominant sections of the broad left as well as amongst liberals.

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How Pakistan Can Stop Drone Strikes

July 4, 2013 § 1 Comment

This article appeared at The Atlantic.

Nawaz SharifThe picturesque valleys of Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan are overlooked by the immense snowcaps of Nanga Parbat. At more than 26,000 feet, it is the world’s ninth tallest mountain, but for alpinists it is a challenge far greater than Everest. It’s a rare mountaineer who is unaware of its reputation as “the killer mountain.” The notoriety derives from its deadly avalanches and crevasses, but the death that was visited on a group of climbers last month took a much different form. Eleven mountaineers were killed when militants affiliated with the Pakistani Taliban entered their basecamp and unleashed a deadly fusillade.

The assailants claimed the slaughter was retaliation for a June 7 drone strike that killed the Taliban deputy leader Waliur Rehman. Unlike the mountaineers, Pakistan was braced for the attack. Only the location came as a surprise.

Earlier in the month, when the newly elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif took office, he had used his inaugural address to ask the U.S. to refrain from further attacks in Pakistan. It took less than 48 hours for the CIA to ignore his demand and launch the deadly strike that killed nine, including the Taliban leader. Pakistanis were incensed. It was more than a breach of the country’s sovereignty; it was also an intervention in its politics and an invitation to further violence.

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Glenn Greenwald on the state of American journalism

June 29, 2013 § Leave a comment

Glenn Greenwald speaks at the Socialism 2013 conference. He is introduced by Jeremy Scahill.

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