Category Archives: Foreign policy

Iran nuclear deal is better than status quo

The criticisms of a proposed deal with Iran have been loud and often reckless, but few critics have suggested alternative ideas on preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.

The primary leverage the United States has in convincing Iran to forgo developing nuclear weapons is economic sanctions. Iran has been reeling since sanctions were imposed, and the hope of getting the sanctions lifted is what brought it to the bargaining table.

Sanctions imposed solely by the United States would have minimal effect on Iran. The sanctions have been effective because they involve not only the U.S., but also the United Kingdom, France, Germany and, separately, the European Union, as well as China and Russia.

These nations support the nuclear deal with Iran. They have made clear they do not favor continuing economic sanctions against Iran if a deal collapses because the U.S. rejects it.

While Americans tend to bristle at the idea we should be in lock-step with other developed nations, this situation is different. The success of the economic sanctions depends on the participation of other nations. If they discontinue sanctions against Iran, we have lost the most powerful non-military leverage we have against Iran.

For years, the U.S. and the rest of the world have been engaged in a guessing game as to how long it would take Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. While there is broad consensus among Americans that a military strike would be appropriate as a last resort to prevent development of such a weapon, the reality is that we are handicapped by a lack of information.

The nuclear agreement would change that. While the proposed international monitoring of Iran’s nuclear facilities may be imperfect, it is a vast improvement over what exists today.

The best estimates are that Iran could develop a nuclear weapon in two to three months. Once the deal is implemented, Iran would need a year to build nuclear weapons. And the world would have plenty of advance notice, because Iran would have to violate the monitoring requirements of the agreement during that year.

Griping about the deal is not productive. Americans want to avoid a war with Iran, a nation that is larger than Iraq and Afghanistan combined. The issue is how best to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons while minimizing the likelihood of war.

Does the deal improve our ability to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon as compared to the status quo? Clearly it does. Unless critics can offer something better — something that is acceptable to the other nations participating in the imposition of sanctions — they should embrace the agreement as being beneficial, if not perfect.

(Published July 30, 2015)

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Shelby slams Obama, not Assad

With the world watching, U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa, could not resist the temptation of insulting his Commander-in-Chief.

Shelby on Tuesday announced he would vote against a resolution authorizing President Barack Obama to use limited military force against Syria.

Shelby’s position was sensible. An attack on Syria does not clearly serve U.S. interests. Indeed, it could easily damage American interests by triggering retaliation against our allies. Shelby could have expressed his opposition as many of his colleagues have done, with dignity.

Instead, Shelby treated the president with derision.

“President Obama has failed to articulate a compelling American interest in this conflict,” Shelby complained. “I have heard the President’s argument. It is weak and vague, in my judgment.”

There was a time when this nation stood proudly against evil. Americans have lost their lives throughout this nation’s history opposing brutality and offering support to the downtrodden. There have been times in our history when military action was seen both as noble and necessary, even in the absence of valuable oil reserves or threatened trade alliances.

“He has also failed to clearly explain what he intends to achieve and how he intends to achieve it,” Shelby said.

Short of publicizing a target, Obama has been explicit on both. He proposes a limited strike, without the presence of U.S. troops in Syria, which will serve as a deterrent to the further use of chemical weapons. Bashar al-Assad enjoyed a tactical benefit from gassing 1,400 men, women and children. Obama has been entirely clear that Assad needs to pay some cost; that he must recognize, even in civil war, there are global norms to which leaders must adhere.

“I will vote against President Obama’s plan because it appears that he does not really have one,” Shelby said in a last slap of condescension. It was an ironic complaint from a senator who strongly supported the shock-and-awe war expected to quickly unleash the latent love Iraqis held for America.

Possibly the most remarkable fact of Shelby’s scornful statement — one that condemned his own president but not the murderer of thousands in Syria — was that he said it from a pedestal Obama provided.

Presidents should obtain congressional approval for military actions in all but the most extreme situations, but the reality is they rarely do so. Obama recognized America is tired of war. He saw that Americans were weary of serving as protectors of people we are unlikely to meet in lands we will never see. He may also have appreciated a deep skepticism borne of too many wars that proved to be less about ideals than about riches.

Obama did not have to defer to Congress, but he did. He hoped that elected representatives like Shelby would agree that America still has a role in protecting the weak from their oppressors.
Obama turned out to be wrong. Neither Congress nor the people are willing to pay the cost, in lives or dollars, to deter Assad from gassing more of his own people.

Shelby could have voted against the resolution, and in doing so he would have followed the wishes of an increasingly cynical U.S. population. To couch his opposition in condescension and insult — not for the dictator who has massacred hundreds of thousands of Syrians, but for the leader of the free world — was an embarrassing display.

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Iraq lesson should inform US on Syria

The White House last week announced that the “intelligence community does assess, with varying degrees of confidence” that chemical weapons have been used in Syria. Many in Congress and throughout the United States believe we should intervene.

The rush to display our military might should be tempered by the lessons of the Iraq War.

On Feb. 5, 2003, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell laid out compelling evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and that its president, Saddam Hussein, was preparing to use them. The dictator had uranium for a nuclear bomb. He had warheads and drones packed with biological weapons. Hussein was working with al-Qaeda operatives.

“My colleagues,” Powell told the United Nations, “every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.”

All of it was false. There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Hussein was full of bluster, but he had destroyed weapons of mass destruction years before in response to international sanctions. He was murderous and oppressive and belligerent, but when the United States and a few allies invaded Iraq on March 20, 2003, they did so based on false information.

That was the first mistake of the Iraq War.

The second mistake involved estimates of its likely duration and its cost, both in lives and money.

As the administration made the case for war in late 2012, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld gave the official prediction: ‘‘I can’t say if the use of force would last five days or five weeks or five months, but it certainly isn’t going to last any longer than that.’’

The last U.S. troops did not leave Iraq until December 2011. Before the withdrawal, almost 4,500 U.S. troops had lost their lives. More than 32,000 were wounded. At least 100,000 Iraqi civilians died in the eight-year conflict.

While White House statements suggest certainty that sarin gas was used on a “small scale” in Syria, many questions remain. The most obvious: Who used it? The Syrian military has stockpiles of sarin, so it is an obvious suspect. Would it risk an international invasion to use the toxin on a small scale? As one expert put it, that’s like using a nuclear missile with an acorn-sized warhead.

On the other hand, opposition groups — including some with al-Qaida connections — have every reason to invoke U.S. might in the effort to overthrow the government of President Bashar Assad. Even Syrian doctors, horrified at the deaths caused by conventional weapons, have an incentive to encourage U.S. involvement.

The humanitarian crisis in Syria is real. If conclusive evidence emerges that substantial quantities of chemical weapons are being used by the Assad government, the crisis may be such that the U.S. cannot morally wait for an international consensus on military action.

If we learned anything from the Iraq War, though, it is that now is the time for a judicious evaluation of the facts.

It is too late to undo the mistakes of Iraq. It is not too late, however, to learn from them.

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Painful lessons from Iraq War

Ten years ago today, U.S. bombs and missiles were raining down on Baghdad.
It was the second day of America’s “shock and awe” campaign. The lessons from a war that officially ended last year should guide U.S. leaders as they navigate a world that has, if anything, become more complex.

Was the war a mistake? A complete answer may be impossible for years or even decades, but it looks like one.

That’s not to say it had no positive results. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator and an avowed — if impotent — enemy of the United States. He had every incentive to develop nuclear weapons. While the United States was beyond his reach, many U.S. allies and some U.S. troops were vulnerable to his military capabilities.

The removal of Saddam and his government opened a path to democracy for Iraq, another positive, and ended the oppression of the Iraqi people.

Any discussion of the negatives of the Iraq War must begin with the deception that convinced Congress and most Americans to support it. There were no weapons of mass destruction. There was no secretive plot with al Qaida. The administration of former President George W. Bush concocted some pieces of evidence and exaggerated the significance of others. America invaded a sovereign nation that, while full of bluster, presented no threat.

Then comes the cost, most importantly in lives. U.S. families continue to grieve for the 4,448 service members who lost their lives in the Iraq War. Another 3,400 contractors died there. And any claim that the invasion benefited the people of Iraq must be balanced against the stark reality that 134,000 Iraqi civilians — 70 percent of Iraqi casualties — died in the war.

The monetary cost also was dramatic, and has much to do with why Americans fret over the federal debt a decade later. The United States borrowed $2.2 trillion to finance the war. The total cost, with accrued interest, will reach $3.9 trillion. America spent money it did not have on a threat that did not exist.

It’s too early to know other results of the war. Instead of a functioning democracy, Iraqis are embroiled in civil strife and violence. As economic opportunities improve, religious extremism may give way to productivity. A strong negative for U.S. interests is that Iraq was a check on Iranian ambitions. Even more than the United States, Saddam’s Iraq had every reason to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.

The lesson of the Iraq War is not just that wars are costly, but that the results are impossible to predict. Americans watch in horror the atrocities in Syria, but intervention could cause more problems than it solves. North Korea and Iran are frightening enemies that, like Saddam’s Iraq, use bellicose rhetoric to unite their people. A clear lesson of the Iraq War is America should focus less on the words of foreign leaders than on a reasoned assessment of the threat.

Any benefit from the Iraq War does not appear to have been worth the cost in lives or money. That knowledge should not turn America into a pacifist nation, but it should remind our leaders that war is a last and tragic result of diplomatic failure.

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Political bluster is risky

Americans need look only as far as their own presidential campaign to understand the importance of open diplomatic relationships, especially with potential enemies.

GOP candidate Mitt Romney is playing the same political game that candidates from both parties have always played. He is trying to tap into American patriotism by painting other countries as threats.

Romney labeled Russia as “our No. 1 geopolitical foe.” He promises actions that would ignite a trade war with China and real wars with Iran and Syria. His words are not intended for the foreign countries, but for his U.S. political base. If he wins the presidential election, he will no doubt spend months trying to repair the relationships he damaged.

Romney’s belligerence is not unique to him or to America. He is using a tried and true political tactic.

A few decades ago, such posturing was not a major threat to peace. Romney could have made such comments at a tea party rally and the nations he vilified might never have heard about it. Before 24-hour news cycles and the Internet, a politician could be a warmonger for a domestic audience and a reasonable ally when dealing directly with other countries.

Today, though, the people of other nations hear the comments. Leaders in Russia, China and Iran have had to match Romney’s hostility to avoid seeming weak to their people.

Iranian leaders are using the same tactic. The country is in desperate economic straits. In an effort to keep the people from turning on them, Iran’s leaders are railing against foreign enemies. Just like Americans, Iranians rally together if convinced by their leaders that they face an external threat.

The damage caused by such comments is reparable only if leaders of countries can communicate directly with each other. If Romney takes office, he needs to be able to tell officials in Russia, “Sorry, I was just playing politics.”

When the only information we have about Iran is what its leaders are saying to their people, we are likely to mistake political bluster for aggressive intentions.

Neither America nor the rest of the world will end the practice of creating foreign threats to secure domestic unity. To minimize the resulting conflicts, America needs open diplomatic communications with all nations, especially when tensions are high.

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