Tag Archives: Iran

Collusion, Not Statecraft

I don’t usually cite to Daily Kos, because I am aware that its articles are reported through a liberal lens and I’m not interested in simply becoming part of an echo chamber.

Despite its clear–and acknowledged–editorial perspective, however, I have found the site to be factually accurate–and often, very persuasive. I was especially convinced by a post analyzing the effects of Trump’s decision to renege on U.S. commitments made in the Iran Agreement (an agreement our inarticulate President likes to call a “deal.”)

A number of foreign policy experts have expressed frustration with the withdrawal because it reduces America’s ability to exert influence in the region and rather dramatically increases the prospects of destabilization, if not war. The recurring critique is that no one  (not even Israel, Bibi notwithstanding) benefits from this decision.

As the post reminds us, however, there is a beneficiary. Putin’s Russia.

Crude oil futures have leapt from $26 at the time of Trump’s election to $77 today. Back in January, Trump actually certified that Iran was in compliance with the nuclear agreement. However, Trump threatened to end the agreement if it wasn’t expanded to include items unrelated to Iran’s nuclear program and “strengthened” in unspecified ways.

Trump increased his warnings that he would end the deal in February, and by March was engaged in talks with European allies—talks at which allies consistently urged Trump to remain in the deal and Trump consistently announced his intention to walk away. As the talks wore on, and Trump’s intransigence became clear, fears of a destabilized Middle East began to shore up oil prices.

Russian oil production hovers around 10 million barrels a day. That means the increase that has already happened in oil prices is providing Putin with an extra $520 million a day. …

Everything else that Trump has or hasn’t done about Russia, any sanctions, any tariffs, any expelled diplomats, absolutely pales in comparison to the huge boost he provided to the Russian economy by backing away from the Iran nuclear deal. In fact, short of actually starting a shooting war in the region, it’s difficult to find anything else that Trump might have done of more benefit to Putin. It’s certainly difficult to think of anything Trump might have done to generate a more certain boost for Russia.

As any political pundit worth her salt will confirm, poor economic performance is a threat to even an autocratic politician, and Russia–which is very dependent on oil prices–has been running up steep deficits and cutting vital programs.

As the post notes, Russia’s economic problems have also hobbled its ability to deploy its military.

In 2014, as oil prices declined again, the value of the ruble tumbled, making it more difficult for Russia to borrow or import goods. At the start of 2015, the purchasing power index for Russia—the actual value of the country’s money when it comes to buying a standard “basket of goods”—was the lowest in the world.

The falling ruble triggered waves of inflation across Russia, putting prices up by double digits across the board, raising the interest rates to near 20 percent, and leading to widespread calls for wage and price controls. In 2016, Russia faced growing debt and declining GDP. Retail sales and personal wealth were both sharply down. Predictions were for a sustained period of oil prices below $20.

Anti-Putin demonstrations during the past few years have addressed a number of grievances, but this economic reality was clearly a major source of popular dissatisfaction. But as long as Iran continued to participate in the world’s oil markets, the oil prices that are so important to Russia’s economy would remain low.

Oil prices could be driven up only if the U.S. re-imposed the sanctions that had prevented Iran–the third largest player in OPEC–from selling its oil on the world market.  Those sanctions had been lifted under the agreement Trump just trashed. Immediately after he reimposed them, Americans faced  additional sticker shock at the gas pump.

Rising pump prices are blunting the positive effects of sweeping tax cuts on Americans’ spending, potentially undercutting a pillar of economic growth this year.

Withdrawing the U.S. from the Iran agreement may have infuriated our European allies, imposed costs on American consumers and made the world less safe. But it was a huge gift to Putin.

For a communist, Putin sure understands return on investment.

The Anti-Mensch

When I read that Trump had abrogated the Iran deal, I felt a familiar pain in the pit of my stomach. These bouts of indigestion and nausea have increased since November of 2016, as have my concerns over the world my grandchildren will inherit, and the role models they will choose to emulate.

Trump’s Presidency has been a consistent perversion of a value structure to which most Americans have long given lip service (if not always fidelity). Even if the country and the world emerge more or less intact from this dangerous, surreal period, how much permanent damage will have been done to our concept of civilized, moral, adult behavior?

When my children were very young, I used to tell them I wanted them each to grow up to be a mensch. Mensch is a yiddish word meaning “a real human being–a person of integrity and honor.”

What are the sorts of behaviors that characterize a mensch?

  • There’s civility, of course. Respect for other people. Courteous behavior in even trying situations. An absence of name-calling or other efforts to demean people with whom one  disagrees.
  • A rejection of bigotries both overt and latent. Refusing to judge one’s fellow human beings on the basis of such things as skin color, religion, gender or sexual orientation. A recognition that other people are entitled to the same rights and respect we claim for ourselves.
  • A healthy modesty–by which I mean recognition that none of us has all the answers, that other perspectives deserve consideration, that there is always more to learn, that it is always possible that one may turn out to be wrong.  A healthy modesty also implies respect for expertise, for the counsel of those with specialized or superior knowledge. A mensch has sufficient self-worth and self-confidence to give credit where it is due, and will instinctively recoil from bragging or grandstanding.
  • Maturity. Adults have a capacity for self-restraint, an ability to defer gratification when necessary to the pursuit of longterm goals. A mensch demonstrates maturity by admitting when he is wrong, and apologizing when something he has said or done makes such an apology appropriate. A mensch doesn’t engage in childish tantrums or schoolyard bullying conduct like publicly berating or humiliating others.
  • Respect for authority–as distinct from obsequiousness. A mensch balances his obligations to the rules and to those in charge against his duty to confront injustice, even when such confrontation entails a personal cost.
  • Personal Integrity. A mensch keeps his word, honors his commitments, pays his bills.  (As my father used to say, he “walks the talk.”) His behaviors are consistent with his pronouncements. Persons of integrity do not knowingly lie or mislead.
  • A good heart. A mensch genuinely cares about others in his family, his community and his country. He supports efforts to ameliorate poverty and injustice. He participates in activities intended to make the world a better place.

None of these ideal behaviors require riches or even intelligence, although like most parents I hoped my children would do well financially and would have the self-awareness that is one of the many benefits of an inquiring and lively intellect.

When I compare the behaviors and values that most parents try to instill in their children to Donald Trump’s daily, embarrassing eruptions, I cringe. President Obama was–and remains– a mensch; post-Presidency, even George W. Bush has been one.

Trump is the anti-mensch.

How do parents raise thoughtful, compassionate, responsible children when the media constantly reports the activities of a President who violates and scorns–on a daily basis– every behavioral norm they are trying to inculcate?

I’m keeping Tums in business.

 

The Dangers Of Know-Nothingness

I don’t know which is more maddening–the ignorance of the voters who were willing to turn the country over to a man who had no concept of domestic policy or world affairs and a clear disinclination to learn–or the hubris of an aggrieved con artist who fancies himself immensely more able than he is.

Trump is a walking manifestation of the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

The New Yorker has published an article detailing the reactions of experts–aka people who actually know what they are talking about–to Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran accord. The article begins by confirming that Iran is in full compliance with the terms of that agreement, and that the other signatories–including countries we consider close allies–all counseled against Trump’s action.

Critics were scathing about the U.S. withdrawal. James Dobbins, a former U.S. Ambassador to the E.U., who negotiated with Iran after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and now works at the RANDCorporation, said that the decision “isolates the United States, frees Iran, reneges on an American commitment, adds to the risk of a trade war with America’s allies and to a hot war with Iran and diminishes the prospects of a durable and truly verifiable agreement to eliminate the North Korean nuclear and missile threat.”

Wendy Chamberlin, a former career diplomat who is now the president of the Middle East Institute in Washington, warned that by forfeiting American leadership in the one successful multilateral deal in the volatile Middle East, Trump risks making a bad situation worse.

The withdrawal from the agreement comes days before the U.S. moves its Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, another controversial decision that has inflamed anti-American passions. “Trump is pouring gasoline on a Middle East in flames already, with his Iran and Jerusalem decisions,” Bruce Riedel, a former C.I.A., White House, and Pentagon staffer who is now at the Brookings Institution, told me.

Trump’s decision also undermines the transatlantic alliance, crafted after the Second World War, between the United States and Europe. The President defied a determined last-ditch pitch by America’s three most important European allies, made during visits by French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and the British Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson.

Daniel Kurtzer, a former Ambassador to Israel and Egypt now at Princeton University, said Trump has reneged on America’s word and undermined American credibility.

“The United States used to be the leader, the convener, and the engine of international diplomacy. Trump’s actions have turned us into an untrustworthy and erratic diplomatic outlier.”

Re-imposing sanctions on Iran will create the greatest division between Europe and the U.S. since the Iraq War, Mark Fitzpatrick, the executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies office in Washington, told me. “Only this time it will be worse, since not a single European state sides with the U.S. on this matter.” Beyond Europe, American credibility worldwide “will go down the tubes,” he said. “Who will ever want to strike a deal with a country that, without cause, pulls out of a deal that everyone else knows has been working well? America will be seen as stupid, arrogant, and bullying. Pity the poor U.S. diplomats who have to explain this illogical decision to their host countries.”

And then–once again–there’s Russia. As several foreign policy experts have pointed out, Trump’s decision benefits Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin.  It strengthens Russia’s hand and diminishes that of the United States. On CNN, Michael McFaul, a former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, was blunt. “We’re playing into Putin’s hand.”

Is that collusion? Or just Trump’s trademark incompetence?

The Know-Nothings–Trump and his base–don’t care. They are incapable of distinguishing between bluster and substance.

Meanwhile, the rest of us are watching an un-self-aware ignoramus lay waste to America’s global influence and good name.

The Trust Problem

Listening to the news this weekend, it occurred to me that my standard lecture on Marbury v. Madison highlights why Trump is unlikely to get a deal with North Korea. (Bear with me here.)

As most readers of this blog know, Marbury  established that the Supreme Court is the final arbiter of constitutionality. The case arose because President Adams–in the last hours of his term–nominated a number of people for judgeships (packing the courts ahead of Jefferson’s assumption of office). In those days, these “commissions” had to be delivered to the appointee to take effect, and due to the timing, Marbury didn’t receive his. Jefferson refused to honor his predecessor’s appointment by having his Secretary of State, James Madison, deliver the commission.

Justice Marshall, who authored the opinion, was between the proverbial rock and hard place. If Jefferson didn’t have to honor the commitments of his predecessor, the new government would be weakened; if he ordered Jefferson to deliver the commission, and Jefferson refused (which was likely), the Court’s authority would be permanently compromised.

I’ve always thought Marshall’s solution was on par with that of Solomon and the baby. He ruled that a commission properly made must be delivered–but he also found the law under which the appointment had been made constitutionally defective, and the commission null and void. Jefferson (I’m sure grudgingly) acquiesced to the decision–including the proposition that the Court was the final voice on constitutionality– since he got the practical result he’d wanted.

When we discuss this case in class, I usually pose a scenario: I have a student assume he owns a car-towing business. He just got a contract with the city, and in order to service it, hired two new people and bought a new truck. Business is great. Then a new Mayor is elected, and refuses to honor the contract.

I ask the student “Would you ever do business with the city again?” The answer is always no. (Sometimes, “hell no!”)

Which brings me to Trump and Korea. And Iran. And the Paris Accords.

At the same time Trump is bragging about his deal-making prowess and suggesting that only he can get a binding agreement with North Korea, he is hell-bent on rejecting the United States’ “binding” commitments to Iran. He has previously refused to honor his predecessor’s decision to join the Paris Accords. (For purposes of this discussion, I will omit mention of the numerous “deals” he reneged on as a private citizen, and the myriad times he stiffed people to whom he owed money. I will also forego discussion of the times the U.S. has bailed on its promises in the past.)

If I were Kim Jong Un, I wouldn’t trust the word of a President who is currently demonstrating that the nation’s word is worthless.

Kim’s hair may be as silly as Trump’s, but I get the impression that he is a whole lot smarter than the un-self-aware ignoramus who currently shames all sentient citizens. Trump is likely to get rolled–and unlikely to realize it.

 

 

Wishful Thinking Isn’t Foreign Policy

A post-debate column from the Brookings Institution focused on a criticism of Administration foreign policy that is dangerously disconnected from reality in its naivete.

The Republican presidential candidates last night disagreed on many important issues, but on foreign policy, they showed a remarkable unanimity. Together, they presented what boils down to a consensus Republican foreign policy manifesto: “Obama is weak; I am strong.”

As the author notes, the message is simple: favoring diplomacy over force is weakness.

The problem with this very simplistic worldview is front and center in the current debate about the Iran nuclear agreement. Opponents–not all of whom are Republicans, and several of whom should know better (yes, Senator Schumer, I’m looking at you)–routinely fault the agreement as “not good enough,” but fall curiously silent when they are asked to propose alternatives. To date, I have not heard any of them offer a single specific suggestion; when pressed, they say something like “I’d get a better deal,” without explaining what “better” would look like or how they would achieve it.

None of those who are opposed to any deal at all with Iran have said what they would do instead. Implicitly, of course, they are counseling war.

All of the Republican candidates seem intent on ignoring the changes in the world that limit America’s capacity to achieve such dramatic outcomes. America’s military power is second to none, but it has been shown in both the George W. Bush and Obama presidencies to have severe limits in achieving foreign policy outcomes. Overall, particularly since the global financial crisis, power has diffused; strong, new competitors have emerged, and even America’s allies have grown more independent and willful as they have grown in relative power. No presidential act of will can change those stark realities.

Indeed, this was a realization not originally of President Obama, but of President Bush, whose second-term foreign policy looks much more like that of Obama than that articulated by the Republican candidates at the debate. It was George W. Bush after all, humbled by American difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan, who started the process of withdrawal from Iraq, began the search for an Iran deal, and chose to respond to the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia with sanctions and negotiation. The ideas of preemptive war and unilateral American action were essentially abandoned by the end of the Bush presidency, in fact if not entirely in rhetoric.

The Iran deal is a case in point. It is all well and good to counsel abandoning it on the first day. But, after scrapping the deal, the United States does not have the capacity to reconstruct the international coalition that kept Iran in its box the last 13 years. All of its allies have accepted this deal, and without them there can be no effective effort to deny Iran a nuclear weapon.

There’s a reason thoughtful and knowledgable people–from Dick Lugar and Madelyn Albright to nuclear weapons experts–have strongly endorsed the Iran agreement.

Wishful thinking is not strategy; posturing and self-delusion are not foreign policy. It took an unnecessary and costly war to teach George W. Bush that lesson; we don’t need a repeat performance.