Tag Archives: Middle East

Monday’s Mtg: Is it time to rethink U.S.-Saudi relations?

American discomfort with its relationship with Saudi Arabia has been growing for many years. It’s not just a result of 9/11. Human rights, democracy promotion, and gender equality play larger roles in U.S. foreign policy than they used to do. The Arab Spring, which the Saudi regime fiercely opposed, spurred at least a faint hope that the Middle East could one day get long without a brutal theocracy and exporter of radical ideology at its center.

Yet, the same obstacles to downgrading our de facto Saudi alliance that have led every president since FDR to rely on it. Saudi Arabia is the only big oil producer with enough reserves and spare refining capacity to maintain supplies to the West and keep prices from fluctuating wildly. The House of Saud has been a pro-American (in its policies, if not in rhetoric or support for radicals) anchor of stability in a troubled Middle East. This has been especially true since 1979 when the revolutionaries toppled our only big secular Arab ally, the Shah of Iran; and it’s been reinforced recently as Bush/Cheney’s hope to install a stable pro-Western regime in Iraq turned to ashes. Also, despite its long-time support for radicalism, the Saudi government has been relatively tolerant of Israel in recent years, hostile to Iran, and since 9/11 willing to help us fight Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Now comes President Donald Trump.  As they say in the Middle East, oy, vey.

It is very hard to know where Trump stands on most any foreign policy issue or how long he will stand there. But, so far Trump appears to be doubling down on Saudi Arabia. As the articles below explain, Trump’s first foreign trip was to Saudi Arabia. They lavished Trump with praise, awards, and gifts, and as a result he appears to have green lit the Kingdom’s blockade of one neighbor (Qatar) and continued savage war against another (Yemen). Trump also reportedly really, really wants to abrogate the nuclear treaty with Iran, which the Saudi government absolutely would love since it is locked in a virtual Cold War with Tehran and desires our support.

I think all of this leaves us with a few basic questions and partial answers, such as…

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. What major interests do we have in common and not in common with the Saudi government?
  2. Has that changed recently? What is Saudi govt trying to accomplish domestically and abroad? Is it achievable? Risky? Good for us?
  3. What is Trump doing? It is a coherent policy shift or more of a whim?
  4. Will these changes hold; i.e., can a president fundamentally change the U.S.-Saudi relationship, or do its roots run deeper?
  5. How, specifically, could we downgrade the U.S.-Saudi relationship? Range of possible consequences, including Riyadh’s and others’ responses.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Pre-Trump –

Trump –

After Trump –

  • U.S.-Saudi relationship will survive Trump because for better or worse we’re stuck with each other.

NEXT WEEK: Does Big Money really control U.S. politics?

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Monday’s Mtg: Is the Future African?

Africa matters. Yes, media coverage of the continent tends to focus on the bad news like civil wars, coups, corruption, poverty, and disease. And, much of Africa suffered a kind of lost decade in the 1990s, as many of its most brutal post-colonial regimes finally fell from power and civil strife engulfed them. Think Rwanda, the Congo, Liberia, Sudan, and Sierra Leone. Chaos and war and famine reigned in the 1980s and earlier in some countries.

But Ali asks, is Africa poised to turn it all around and be the next big global success story?  Could it one day command as much of the world’s attention and respect (and trade and investment) as Asia does now?

It’s a little hard to generalize about such a vast and diverse continent. As this striking map shows, the United States and China and India and Western Europe could all fit inside of Africa, with room to spare. The Congo alone is about as large as the USA west of the Mississippi.  Africa contains one-fifth of the world’s population (1.2 billion) and will hold one-fourth of it by 2050. In terms of diversity, how about 54 countries, some thinly-peopled desert nations, others tropical, others mountainous. Africa possesses vast natural resources, a rapidly-growing young labor force, and a lot of recent industrial and technological success to brag about. The links below give more details.

the continent has a long list of problems, as well. Civil wars, communal violence, and terrorism still plague some African nations. There is enormous rural and urban poverty, corrupt governance and weak civil societies. In many countries, institutions essential to economic/social development are underdeveloped, like infrastructure, K-12 education, agriculture, and public health.

Yet…so was East Asia’s! Maybe the real underlying issue here is one we have discussed before: What’s the secret sauce of economic, social, and political development? What can African nations do (individually, since “Africa” doesn’t do anything, and together, since regional cooperation is underdeveloped too.) to help themselves turn the corner? How long will it be before centuries of foreign exploitation and decades of local misrule are a memory? Finally, what can we (the United States, the West, whoever else) do to help?

Africa is a yawning gap in my international knowledge. I will cook up a brief intro to our topic and then we can discuss. I hope we can take a stab at answering Ali’s question and coming up with factors might determine if Africa’s rosy future ever comes true.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. How has Africa fared in the 21st century? In general, big anchor countries, smaller nations?
  2. Reasons to be optimistic? People, leaders, institutions, economies, etc.
  3. Pessimistic same. Worst problems and emerging problems.
  4. What needs to be done: By Africans? By outsiders?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

About Africa –

Africa’s immense prospects – and problems.

Some specific problems –

Specific Countries –

  • [Maybe I’ll add some this weekend.]

NEXT WEEK: Does history have a direction or goal?

Monday’s Mtg: Lessons of the Six Day War, 50 years later

It started on June 5, 1967, and was all over by June 10. In response to Egyptian military mobilization and naval blockade, Israel’s air force attacked Egypt pre-emptively. Syria and then Jordan joined in, backed by other Arab countries, and Israeli ground forces fought and won on three fronts. An armistice (not peace) was signed on June 11.

As you know, the Six Day War transformed the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy. To quote a 50th anniversary NYT retrospective the war “tripled Israel’s landmass overnight and gave it dominion over the lives of more than a million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.” It also gave Israel control of the Sinai desert and Golan Heights, killed off pan-Arabism, and set the stage for five more decades of war and strife.  Just for starters.

I don’t really have an agenda on this one. I know there is a lot of historical controversy concerning a number of revisionist histories of the Six Day War and its immediate aftermath. I just don’t follow these issues closely enough – nor do I have the time – to link to all of the major POVs and arguments. I just thought it would be interesting to try to take a half-century perspective on the war’s legacy. Perhaps some of you are well-versed in this particular era.

Here is some general background on the Six Day War and a few retrospectives.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

NEXT WEEK:  What should Americans be nostalgic about?

Monday’s Mtg: Is Turkey the Future or the End of Moderate Islamism?

President Trump has all but declared war, at least a cold one, on Islam. So far, it’s just a rhetorical war, and the man’s actual foreign policy is harder to predict than his domestic policies, which was our focus last week.

Regardless of our constant obsession with every minor action  and utterance of our new president…

[Update Sunday night – You all know I usually try to keep us from wandering too far for too long off-topic.  But, how can we fixate on Turkish politics at a time like this, given the worldwide reaction to Trump’s EO on refugees?  Let’s start with that before we get into our topic.  BTW, this Administration’s immigration policies might all by themselves have some influence on the future of political Islam.]

…the rest of the world hasn’t gone away. Never has. Never will. About 40 of the 200 countries in the world are Muslim-majority nations. Many of them, especially the 22 Arab nations, are in the early stages of what promises to be a decades-long or centuries-long transition from authoritarian, one-party dictatorships to…well, to something else.  Possible outcomes in these countries for the next few decades range from a painless move to liberal democracy (very unlikely, I’ve read) to a tragic region of failed states and all-against-all civil wars like Syria, Libya, and Iraq have endured (less likely, but nightmarish). Where in between they end up and how awful the road getting there will be are some of the most important questions of the 21st century.

That’s why I wanted us to discuss what’s going on in Turkey. Turkey? Well, as you may be aware since 2002 Turkey has been run by an “Islamist” political party known as the Justice and Development Party, or AKP. This 15 years is far longer than any other Islamist party has been allowed to rule anywhere else. Under its charismatic leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the AKP won democratic elections a half-dozen times and survived a military coup attempt last July. Just a few years ago Turkey’s AKP was hailed as the world’s only successful model of a liberal Islamist political movement that accepted the rules and limits of democracy.

Boom.  Splat. If you follow the news, you know this has all been blown up. Erdogan has steadily moved Turkey downhill towards authoritarianism and tyranny for a few years now. He has used the coup to finish off democracy, crushing the opposition parties, the military, and the courts that stood as the last major roadblocks to Turkey becoming just another Arab thugocracy.

Does Turkey’s downfall mean that hope for a moderate version of political Islam was an illusion all along? If so, many (albeit not all – e.g., India) of those 40 Muslim-majority countries may have to kiss democracy goodbye for a long, long time, since Islamism is far more publicly popular in these very conservative countries than liberalism is.

I’ve been reading a lot on this subject lately, including this book and this book and some journal articles. So, I will open our meeting on Monday with a brief description of what has been happening in Turkey and why it matters.  Also, I will identify several of the major arguments we will be working with concerning whether moderate Islamism is/is not sustainable and is/isn’t compatible with democracy.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. Turkey –  Why do recent events in Turkey matter? — A brief history of modern Turkey and its version of Islamism. — Why did people used to say the AKP was a model for moderate Islamism? — Why has Erdogan dismantled Turkish democracy and become a tyrant?
  2. Islamism – What is Islamism, anyway? What separates moderate Islamists from the radical/revolutionary and/or violent ones?
  3. Lessons: What should the West learn from Turkey’s failure re:
    1. Whether Islamist movements can be trusted to accept democracy?
    2. How badly past/present Arab dictators (Mubarak, Assad, Saddam, Kaddafi, etc.) screwed up their countries and make democracy so hard?
    3. The future of the region?
  4. USA: What can/should we do about any of this (Turkey, Syria, ME, etc.)? [Hint: Trump’s “take their oil” since “to victors belong the spoils” gets an F.]

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

Turkey –  

Islamism and liberal democracy –

USA Policies –

NEXT WEEK: Have America’s Elites Failed Us?

Monday’s Mtg: Are We Paying Too High a Price to Combat Terrorism?

What better way to start the New Year than by debating an impossibly complicated question? How in the world could we judge the benefits and costs of the Global War on Terror (GWOT)? I still call it the GWOT because, even though President Obama mercifully retired the clunky phrase in 2013, it remains an apt description of the sheer scope and scale of our anti-terrorism efforts.

The easiest measure of anything government does is its budgetary costs. For the GWOT, even that is hard to gauge. That’s partly because some spending is secret but mainly because anti-terrorism is an embedded function throughout government at all levels now and it’s hard to separate out the anti-terrorism spending. Almost 1,300 government organizations and 2,000 private companies work on anti-terrorism. One estimate puts total GWOT spending since 9/11 at around $1.7 trillion and others put the long-term costs (inc. caring for the disabled vets) at more than $4T. Critics often express such monetary costs in terms of the opportunities foregone to have spent the money solving America’s other problems or leaving it in taxpayers’ hands.

There have been many, many other costs to fighting Islamist terrorism, of course. 5,000+ American dead and 50,000-100,000 wounded (excluding 9/11 casualties and the, ahem, 1 million or so foreign civilians.). Weakened civil liberties and creation of a vast surveillance state. Accrual of unilateral presidential power. A fearful electorate. Loss of respect for American leadership.  There are many more, some serious, others perhaps not.

Yet, we cannot ignore the benefits of anti-terrorism efforts. Al Qaeda has been decimated over 15 years and (for the moment) largely is reduced to rooting for lone wolf attacks by extremist social media junkies. ISIS, AQ’s rival and wannabe successor is slowly being rolled back, although at great cost. Our government has prevented all but a handful of Islamist terrorist attacks planned on U.S. soil since 9/11. Anti-terror efforts also have yielded other benefits that are less visible, like a revamping of public health and emergency response/disaster relief infrastructure and greatly improved international intelligence-sharing and money laundering enforcement.

What’s the bottom line?  Well, that is for us to discuss. But, a few points  I will come back to during our discussion:

  1. There is a reason they call it “asymmetrical warfare.” The costs of defending against terrorist attacks are inevitably huge compared to the damage of any single attack.
  2. The damage attacks do goes far beyond their immediate casualties. The public grows fearful and vengeful.  Politicians panic.  Democracies get brittle and fragile. How much crazier would our politics be if other 9/11-scale attacks had succeeded or if we had Europe’s ISIS problem?  In comparing costs to benefits of anti-terrorism, we have to look at the dogs that haven’t barked, too.
  3. The GWOT is far larger than the catastrophic Iraq war.  How would you judge counter-terrorism had we not invade Iraq?
  4. President Trump will soon control our vast surveillance and counter-terrorism apparatus.

I’m still pondering ways to structure our meeting to accomplish more than just let us serially vent about our biggest war on terror pet peeves (Iraq, torture, NSA, not preventing ISIS’s rise, drones, etc.)  Later this weekend I will try to do some discussion questions that might help us. Have a good New Year!

(AND, start thinking about topic ideas for 2017!)

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. TBD

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

NEXT WEEK:  The coming tidal wave of elderly prisoners.

Monday’s Mtg: When Is War Justified?

It’s a particularly apt time for us to discuss the moral justifications for war. Monday is Memorial Day, sure, and for several years we have been agonizing over whether there is a moral imperative to intervene in Syria’s civil war and/or use U.S. ground troops to destroy ISIS.

But, several recent developments sweeten the pot for us.  Today (Friday) President Obama visited Hiroshima, and he  offered no apology for the atomic bombs.  Just last month the Catholic Church decided to formally abandon (wow) its long-standing Catholic Just War Doctrine after a 3-day meeting convened by Pope Francis.  That doctrine lays out the conditions under which a war may be started and conducted and still be moral. Francis is said to be working on a new encyclical on war and violence which will bring doctrine “closer to Christ’s teachings.”  And, of course, on any given day Donald Trump tells cheering crowds that he would revive torture, murder terrorists’ families, and just annihilate all of our enemies without regard to the moral costs to innocents or to us.

The exact details in Just War Theory are, I figure, up to Catholics to decide for themselves. But, I thought the Just War Doctrine would serve as a nice stepping off point to explore the moral justifications of war more generally because the moral questions the Doctrine seeks to answer are the same ones we wrestle with any time we contemplate use of military force.  As was noted when we debated the causes of modern wars last year, armed conflict in the 21st century is evolving in some important ways. I ask you: Do the moral justifications for war need to evolve with it, to better reflect a new century of stateless terrorist networks, hybrid revolutionary-terrorist-criminal group like ISIS, failed states, cyber attacks, and drones?

Below are some readings on Just War philosophy and these emerging issues in war and morality.  I’ll see you all on Memorial Day evening. A new topic list for June – September will be available.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Catholics: What is Catholic Just War Doctrine? What moral questions does it address and when does it say war can be a moral act?
  2. Laws: How do the international Laws of War and U.S. law permit wars to be started and fought?
  3. Presidents: How did Presidents Obama and George W. Bush do so? How different? What is Hillary’s/Trump’s POV?
  4. Public: Do Americans agree on the moral justifications for waging and conducting wars and their aftermaths? Do conservatives and progressives really disagree much?  Why do they cheer Trump’s bloodthirsty remarks?
  5. You: When do you think war is justified? Self defense only? Defend our allies? Preemptive and preventive war? Stop nuclear proliferation. Humanitarian intervention?  What’s fair in drone use, cyber defense/offense, Gitmo, torture, etc.
  6. 21st century: Do political changes (like terror networks and failed states) and technological developments (like cyber warfare and drones) change the moral calculus / moral limits on war?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

CivCon Mtgs on War:  What causes modern warsISISDid we have to drop the bombs on Japan?

Just War Theory basics:

  • An expert explains it in 2012 at NYT: Part 1 and Part Two. Recommended
    Or, see this 2015 Wash Post explainer: One. Recommended.
  • Much more detail on just war philosophy, if you want it.

Obama and just wars:

  • Obama’s POV on when war is morally justified. Recommended.
  • The Obama Doctrine: An amazingly candid (but optional very long) interview with Obama 3/16 at Atlantic Monthly.

Emerging Issues:

Next Week: Are there better ways to police the police?

 

Monday’s Mtg: The Sources of Islamist Radicalism.

In a new century of dizzying changes, the Middle East remains the world’s most unstable and destabilizing region. More than a dozen large and strategically important countries were frozen in time for half a century by their cruel, post-colonial autocrats and the corrupt, hypertrophic states they created to cling to power. A great thaw is inevitable and can only be welcomed. Despite the violence and disappointments of the aborted Arab Spring five years ago, the Ancien Régimes’ days are all numbered. The urgent question we will consider on Monday is what will replace them?

The consensus I read is that, at least for a while, the heirs to power in many of these nations will be “Islamist” political parties.  Islamism, or political Islam, refers to the philosophy that the legal and political systems in a Muslim country must be based on Islamic principles. Obviously, since no society ever agrees on exact religious principles, there is no single Islamist set of beliefs or unified movement (despite the dreams of Al Qaeda and ISIS). Each country has multiple, competing Islamist parties and/or social movements that represent different philosophies, sects, ethnic groups, and societal interests.

Are any of them compatible with democracy and a peaceful foreign policy? Well, so far the most radical and even revolutionary and terroristic Islamist movements have gained the strongest positions. These include the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Palestinian territories, and – most hideously – ISIS and other Al Qaeda offshoots in Syria and parts of Sunni Iraq. And let’s not forget the crusty old radical Shiite regime in Iran and the new one we created in Iraq, or the radicalized messes in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But, there is hope. More moderate Islamist political parties are sprinkled throughout the Middle East. Most notably, Turkey’s Justice and Development Party has won elections in Turkey for a decade, mostly in a democratic manner. Still, I’m not sure any one is confident that Islamist political parties can become or remain democratic – especially in the traumatized, divided, and chaotic nations they will inherit all over the Middle East.

So, I thought we could start with the most basic and probably most important question: What are the sources – the causes – of radical Islamism?  I’ll open with some brief remarks on (1) the main strains of radical Islam, and (2) conventional wisdom on the main drivers of that radicalism. I hope we can discuss the role religion plays in spurring Muslim radicalism without getting stuck in the stupid gear that our political system is stuck in, “Is the Islam religion itself the sole cause of radicalism and terrorism, Y/N?” Islam plays a big role, sure. But, what role, why, and what else contributes?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week:   The Supreme Court and the 2016 election. 

Monday’s Mtg: Do Neoconservatives Still Control GOP Foreign Policy?

I have long argued that there is no real “civil war” in the Republican Party, at least not over its domestic agenda. They are arguing mainly over tactics and leadership, not policy differences. This week’s meeting, though, is about the one major area where the GOP is truly divided: Foreign policy.

To some extent, this is a function of having no sitting president, since the president is so central to setting foreign policy. Yet, I think the Republicans truly are adrift on foreign affairs. It’s not just that their leaders are making more and more extreme statements on foreign affairs (Read the links below to get a sense of the bizarre statements their presidential candidates have repeatedly made at their debates.) It’s that, underneath this bumper sticker-level rhetoric, the GOP has not seemed to have settled on a doctrine or strategy on foreign affairs that could replace the neoconservatism of the Bush years. Neocons are fighting like Hell to reassert their influence in the GOP.  Rubio is one.  So is Jeb Bush.  I think now would be a good time for Civilized Conversation to try to figure out what the GOP stands for in foreign policy beyond condemning everything Obama has done and promising miraculous outcomes.

Neoconservatism, you’ll recall, began in the 1970s but really got its groove on as a product of conservative intellectuals rethinking the U.S. role in the world after the fall of the U.S.S.R. Its ranks included theorists like Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton, and Richard Perle; and some seasoned politicians like Cheney, Rumsfeld, and McCain. To simplify somewhat, neocons believed that post-Cold War it fell to the United States to dominate global affairs, especially militarily, and that the United States should use military force and the threat of it to prevent any other power from becoming strong enough to challenge U.S. dominance anywhere in the world. They also believed the USA should compel regime changes in “rogue states” like Iran, North Korea, and (especially!) Saddam’s Iraq. Finally, some of the younger neocons emphasized that future U.S. military interventions to achieve national security goals should try to birth democracies, or at least stable pro-Western governments.

After 9/11, the neocons’ big moment came.  Their philosophy quickly became the core of the Bush Doctrine of preventative war and the Global War on Terror. You know the rest of the story. Eight years later, Barack Obama was elected by a weary public to pick up the pieces. Obama’s foreign policies were a mix of more war and military force, diplomacy, and some retrenching/winding down of old wars. Obama’s results were mixed, too, as we have discussed on several occasions.

As for the Republicans, it’s hard to tell what they believe now.  Based just on their presidential candidates’ statements, it seems they believe that

  • every evil in the world is coming to kill us in our beds (led by an entire religion, Islam) and we should all be terrified;
  • It’s all because Obama’s weakness, cowardice, and/or secret sympathy with the enemy emboldened them; and
  • The GOP’s strategy is to kill every enemy as dead as possible (somehow), but without inconveniencing Americans too much.

That is why I wanted to have this meeting. There has to be something nuanced and sophisticated underneath all of that hyperbole, doesn’t there? This is the party of Eisenhower, George Bush Sr., and Bob Dole, after all.  Maybe there is more continuity in U.S. foreign policy than it appears at this weird moment in our political history.

I will start us off on Monday with…something. Since many progressives use “neocon” to mean “all conservative beliefs I hate,” maybe I’ll try to define the term’s different meanings to different people. I’ll also read the links on Rubio and the other prez candidates’ POV to see if I see any pattern other than hawkishness.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. HOW does foreign policy get made for a party that does not hold the presidency? Who makes it (Congress, interest groups, think tanks, Fox and talk radio) and how can we know what they believe when no one is in charge?
  2. NEOCONS: What were the neocons’ original core beliefs? Did they have merit, despite the Bush failures?
    ** Who are today’s neoconservatives? Has their thinking evolved?
  3. OTHERS: What other competing foreign policy factions exist in today’s GOP?
    ** Which presidential candidate is represents which competing POV?
    ** How popular is each alternative within the Party?
  4. THE BATTLE: What drives the GOP FP debate? Events and fear of attack? Belief that Obama has been weak/naïve? Suspicion of diplomacy? Xenophobia or fear of Islam? Partisanship and fear-mongering? Lack of experienced leadership?
  5. THE WAR: Which faction/POV will come out on top? Wither the neocons?
  6. DEMS: Is Hillary Clinton a bit neocon? Will this help or hurt her in the primary and/or general election?

OPTIONAL BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week:  Socialism’s meaning today.

Monday’s Mtg: Nuclear Agreement With Iran.

As the whole world knows, on Tuesday night 7/14/15 the United States and 6 of the world’s major powers (+ the EU) announced a major arms control agreement with Iran. Historic, is more like it, for good or ill. After nearly 40 years of cold war, proxy wars, and sometimes actual war with Iran, the West finally has a signed, detailed, multilateral agreement to limit the Islamic State’s nuclear program. However, the agreement does far less than we initially wanted in terms of dismantling and eliminating Iran’s existing nuke program. Its provisions are complex and the road ahead is long. Few observers doubt that Iran has given up its desire to get nuclear weapons capability, at least in the long term.

Still, if this agreement (formally the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) actually succeeds in achieving its stated objectives, Iran will be kept out of the nuclear weapons club for at least the next decade, and probably closer to two decades. If Iran can successfully cheat or if the treaty regime falls apart, Iran likely will get its bomb capability. The result of that likely (but not indisputably) would be war(s) and a regional nuclear arms race. The stakes are very high.

Congress has the next 60 days to approve or reject the agreement. Obama is aggressively stumping for approval while GOP politicians and conservative pundits have thunderously denounced it as another Obama appeasement of an implacable enemy. So, our little group is entering the maelstrom as it’s just getting started.

There’s a lot for us to talk about on Monday night. I will start us off with a short summary of the terms of the agreement. Then, I want to add what I think is some important context that I think will help us in evaluating the pros/cons of the nuclear agreement. Don’t be lulled by the over-the-top remarks the GOP presidential candidates are making. Legitimate questions really do exist about the merits of the agreement and I hope we can address each of the major ones.

###  I found us a great NEW LOCALE.  I’ll fill you in Monday and we can start meeting there on July 27. ###

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. What is in the new agreement with Iran?
    1. Basic structure and terms: Who has to do what by when and how, etc.?
    2. Enforcement: How will we monitor compliance and punish Iranian transgressions?
  2. Compromises: What have we conceded and what did we get in return, and the same for Iran?
  3. Comparisons:
    1. How far away from our negotiating objectives did we end up?
    2. Is this the best deal we could have obtained from Iran? How can we know that?
    3. Were there any realistic alternatives to this pact?
  4. Effectiveness:
    1. Will the agreement work – Will it successfully freeze and partially roll back Iran’s nuke program?
    2. Is that enough? How specifically could we have achieved more?
    3. How likely is the West to stay vigilant so the agreement doesn’t fall apart?
  5. The Region: How will this agreement affect our other conflicts with Iran and the region’s other festering problems? How might it affect politics inside Iran?
  6. To watch for:
    1. Key events in implementation calendar.
    2. Signs that signal Iranian cheating or manipulation?
    3. USA: Would a GOP president really abrogate the agreement?

LINKS –   Zillions – Focus on highlighted ones!

Next Week – Inequality: Its Causes and Consequences.

Monday’s Mtg: Who Is To Blame for Iraq and Syria?

Our group has been debating the Middle East’s problems since we formed more than a decade ago (!). Most recently, we discussed the failures of the Arab Spring (2/14) and the rise of ISIS (9/14). (I thought these posts had some good links, BTW.) In those meetings, I steered us away from blaming individual actors (like Iraqi leadership, U.S. presidents, Iran and other regional meddlers) in favor of structural and historical factors. This made our discussions a bit incomplete, since there is plenty of blame to pass around, obviously. But, the blame game is not very conducive to civilized conversation.

Now, the luxury of avoiding assigning blame is ending. Who “lost” Iraq and Syria (not to mention Libya, Egypt, etc.) is going to move to front and center as the 2016 presidential election gets closer. With the economy recovering and Obamacare and marriage equality now settled law, the Republican Party is widely expected to try to make 2016 a foreign policy election. Why? Much of the Middle East – especially Iraq and Syria – is a genuine catastrophe. Plus national security is the one issue area where the public consistently trusts the GOP more than the Democrats. So, they are going to try to hang ISIS and the whole of the Middle East’s problems around Hillary Clinton’s, ex-Secretary of State neck.

There is a certain nationalistic narcissism to these arguments. The United States does not control the fate of the Middle East and it’s pretty arrogant to think we ever could unilaterally summon some pre-fabricated peaceful future for the region.

Still, it should go without saying that we are high up on the list of culprits, at least concerning Iraq. Bush’s invasion and our decade-long occupation unleased that nation’s Pandora’s Box of horrors and barred the country’s throat to outside subversion. Tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians died and millions fled. Al Qaeda infiltrated and is still there, as are Iranian- and Saudi-backed armed groups. Sunnis and Shiites fought one bloody civil war in 2004-06 and basically started fighting another one the moment we left. ISIS is the hideous result of that decade of war and infighting. Syria is different. No one can say the United States caused the civil war, and maybe no one could have stopped the 6-years of slaughter or prevented ISIS’s rise. But, if anyone could have, it was us and we did not really try.

So, I think a backwards-looking meeting assigning blame for Iraq and Syria is important and not just because of campaign politics. It’s the only way to hold our leaders accountable for their actions (or inactions) and learn from our mistakes.

On Monday, you don’t need me to rehash the last 15 years of U.S. Middle East policy. But, I will try to open with something useful to frame our discussion. Probably I’ll just bring us up to speed on recent events and then list the main candidates for culprit-hood in Iraq and Syria. You all can let me know if you want us to focus mainly on the U.S. role in Iraq and Syria’s problems or more on actors inside Iraq and Syria and regional meddlers like Iran and Saudi Arabia.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. Who do the American people blame for Iraq and Syria? Why do you think they assign blame in this way?
  2. Iraq:
    1. Why couldn’t Iraqis reconcile in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq? Who besides Iraqis is to blame for that? What specifically did Bush do or not do to screw things up and what should he have done?
    2. Could action by Obama have prevented ISIS’ rise? How so?
  3. Syria:
    1. What caused the long, bloody stalemate?
    2. What specifically were U.S. options for intervening?
    3. Is it realistic to think we would have made a difference?
  4. To what extent are other outsiders (Iran, Arab governments) to blame for Iraq and Syria? Could the United States have kept them from meddling?
  5. What are the big lessons here for future U.S. foreign policy?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READINGS –  Lots of them! Pick and choose. 

NEXT WEEK:  Is there a looming Retirement Crisis?