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.

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