Bob Schwartz

Category: World

Putin’s Bizarro World: Simultaneously Defending and Attacking Jews

Babi Yar Momument Kiev
In the last few days, Vladimir Putin has represented himself as the enemy of anti-Semitism and therefore the friend of Jews. He says, with a selective bit of truth, that among the many constituencies who deposed former Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych were ultra-nationalists and neo-Nazis who are themselves anti-Semitic. By this logic, Putin claims that his intervention in Ukraine is in part to restore Yanukovych and deny power to those anti-Semites.

In those same last few days, synagogues in the Ukraine have been vandalized and attacked, according to Russia by those same ultra-nationalists and neo-Nazis. Few believe that. Instead it is widely believed that Russia is responsible for this anti-Semitic mischief, which conveniently fits the Russian story line.

Jews have had a tough time in Europe, in Eastern Europe, in Russia, and certainly in Ukraine. In September 1941, about 33,000 Jews were rounded up by the Nazis in Kiev, and along with tens of thousands of others, massacred in a ravine known as Babi Yar. Say what you will about the execrable, pathological and murderous Hitler, he knew how to play the strategic blame game. He regularly blamed the Jews for just about everything, but he rarely blamed someone else for hating and attacking the Jews. That was something he wanted full credit for.

So the suggestion for Putin is this: leave the Jews out of this particular rationale. The Jewish community in Ukraine is small, and it is true that in the just-evolving democratic regime, Jews will be uncomfortably standing side-by-side with people who don’t like them. Democracy makes for strange bedfellows, or at least that’s the lesson in America. Jews have enough problems without Putin as their friend and defender. Because with friends like that…

There Is Still a War in Syria

Paris Hilton As Miley Cyrus
When there was less to people’s news and info lives—a newspaper or two a day, a half-hour network news show, a couple of news magazines a week—there were stories that rose to the top and stayed there, depending on importance. This didn’t mean that second-tier or frivolous stories didn’t get coverage or traction. People always loved celebrities, always loved hearing gossip, and when man bites dog, that’s always news. The down side was a certain provincialism that came with a narrow channel and less worldly attitudes: if millions were suffering in a place nobody heard of, with people unlike us, most readers and viewers might have no idea.

Now we can know anything, though we don’t know everything, or care about everything. This has left news leaders in a delicate position. There are going to be stories that appeal to a journalist sense and a humanist sense, that deserve at least regular mention, if not coverage that might only say, “And in the misery of this place or that war, it’s still happening, with no end in sight.” The dual problem is that people can find and figure that out for themselves, without a multi-billion dollar media enterprise telling them, and those media consumers might just as well pay attention to something else.

Which is why, unlike its predecessors World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War, the Iraq War was not the top story every day of its ten years. Which is why the current violence in Iraq is barely covered, a turning away that in part must come from some profound but unspoken embarrassment.

For a few moments a few months ago, Syria was a bright shiny object. Red lines, chemical warfare, threats of military action, etc. After some erratic movement, slight progress is being made. But that progress does not include ending the civil war.

The New York Times, still possibly the world’s greatest news enterprise, has an ongoing section devoted to the Crisis in Syria. The increasing numbers stupefy: 6.5 million Syrians displaced from their homes, more than 2 million of them seeking refuge in other countries. Now we hear about a cluster of polio cases among Syrian children.

We have plenty of our own problems, individually and as a country. Some of those are not small at all. But there is no polio. And the entire population of the state of Tennessee or Indiana has not had to leave their homes behind, dodging mayhem, unsure if they will ever return, or if there will be anything to return to.

We shouldn’t expect ourselves to be exhausted or crushed by the miseries of the world; that’s what keeping track of all the problems all the time would do. So yes, you can argue that it is important to learn from the news today that Paris Hilton has spent $5,000 on Halloween costumes so that she can dress up as Miley Cyrus. But for a change of pace, a regular, maybe daily, reminder that there is still a war in Syria might be of value.

One Child Born

Newborn
And when I die
And when I’m gone
There’ll be one child born
And a world to carry on.
Laura Nyro, And When I Die

Had enough of just about everything in the news? Had enough of hearing and reading about Syria, including right here?

If you visit random.org, home of all sorts of randomness tools, you will discover a way to generate random places on earth. Find an online newspaper from one of the random places. Check the newspaper for a record of recent births.

There, for example, you will find the randomly selected Pueblo, Colorado Chieftain, with the important news that on September 8, a daughter, Boone, was born to Michelle and Andrew Bischoff.

Around 365,000 babies are born every day in the world. They are born into so many different circumstances of comfort and discomfort, ease and disease, bright and shaded prospects. But here they are, and if we are able to better the worst of those circumstances, here they will be after we are gone.

Maybe that’s not news. Maybe that’s the only news that matters.

Yellowcake and Red Line: The Colors of Casus Belli

Yellowcake
You may not remember yellowcake. Not the kind you eat. The kind that is uranium, the stuff of nuclear fission, the stuff of weapons of mass destruction, the stuff that was supposed to be in Iraq but was never found there.

Colors seem to be troublesome in talking about reasons for going to war. So maybe President Obama should have picked a different metaphor than red line. Line in the sand comes to mind. Of course, lines in the sand have a different quality. They are harder to see, and are subject to being erased by wind or water, or by a quick brush of the foot.

Maybe better to stay away from colors and lines altogether, and instead do the much harder, painful and less appealing work, leaders and citizens, of talking honestly about our strengths and limitations, the world we have and the one we want to have, and how to practically and ideally get from here to there. That would be a nice grownup change from childish colors and macho ultimata.

Syria Indecision: Give Them A (Small) Break

Decision Tree
Hard cases make bad law.

This is a maxim of the legal process. Roughly, it means that cases with lots of moving parts, with lots of collateral considerations, with no clear and straight path to resolution, produce rulings that are unsettling and unsatisfactory and, worse, have limited or counterproductive effect down the road.

Maybe the corollary is that hard foreign cases make bad foreign policy.

The indecision of Congressfolk is usually vexing, as so many of them claim to be weighing the factors, all the while putting their finger in the air to feel which way the wind blows.

This decision on attacking Syria seems to be different. There are certainly plenty of politicians who are trying to look thoughtful as they assess potential electoral damage. But this situation is so complex that for the moment, despite the usual frustration as a voter and citizen, a number of the Senators and Representatives deserve a little bit of a break. A lot of them are understandably having real trouble figuring out what to do—as are many of us.

The complexity isn’t just the result of a force of nature, and isn’t even due entirely to Assad. President Obama may have handled Syria with some degree of insight, intelligence and integrity, but he has made a difficult situation much harder. It is now widely agreed that announcing a chemical weapon “red line” long ago without a clear plan—public or at least private—to respond if and when it was crossed was a mistake. This contingency plan did not have to be tactically certain: how much evidence to need, which particular sites would be targeted. But the much bigger strategic issues—objectives and the dizzying range of possible consequences, good and bad—should have been vetted in all sorts of venues, including Congress.

That didn’t happen. So in short order, we are discussing the international conventions on chemical warfare, the forensics of discovering the use of chemical weapons, our ability to execute a limited strike, all the more or less likely impacts of a limited strike, the interpretation of the history of all our recent wars, comparison of our current situation to all those wars, and even the question of what exactly war is. So we have the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff telling a House committee this week that an air strike such as the one contemplated would be an act of war, while Secretary of State John Kerry, sitting right beside him, begged to differ: “We don’t believe we are going to war, in the classic sense of taking American troops and America to war.”

Americans are also being asked to learn more about a country and civil conflict that was often regarded as a video clip, sound bite or talking point—including discovering the shocking news that two million people are currently refugees from Syria (including one million children), leaving their country at a rate of one million people every six months.

Among those more or less likely impacts, there is a possibility that even this small action could precipitate wider and deeper crises, ones that might make our previous (mis)adventures look relatively small. We can’t be sure, of course, of this or just about anything else right now.

That’s a lot to discuss and digest. But we only have a few weeks, or so we are told. So, while Congress may be the most disliked institution in the country, seemingly stuffed with people who are uncertain about the proper ratio of self-interest to national interest, on this they are going to get a brief pass while they really do contemplate a genuinely serious and complicated situation. But after that break, when confusion is no longer an option, because deciding is the reason they get the honor and the big bucks, we expect them to vote conscientiously and to explain their vote clearly and unequivocally.

One more small matter: If any of them do vote “Present” in the final roll call on this, they should be expected to fall on their sword and offer their resignation forthwith. With only an 11% approval rate (and dropping), Congress doesn’t have room for any more of that sort of mushy politics.

Rosh Hashanah and Syria

UNHRC

Politics and prayer. There will be plenty of both during these Jewish High Holy Days.

Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, begins this evening. Please consider a donation to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to help the more than two million refugees who have so far fled Syria.

Ktivah v’chatima tova. May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.

 

Syria and the Fog of Or Else

Fog
Rhetoric is no substitute for reasoning. Or strategy.

President Obama may soon be undertaking a response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons or going to Congress with the case for such a response.

His speculation yesterday that Syrian chemical weapons might end up in an attack on America, therefore implicating our national interest, is far-fetched. But it is a necessary thing to say, given the way that matters have developed.

The U.S. stood by as President Assad brutally attacked his own people so that he could maintain power in Syria. Despite the fact that the U.S. has always tried to steer global events subtly or not so subtly, intervening in the internal strife of sovereign nations is a “red line” that we are reluctant to cross. This doesn’t mean we haven’t crossed it. It just means that if and when we do this, we do our best to make a colorable, principled case for acting under exceptional circumstances.

There are three other reasons why we’ve held back in Syria, now and over the past two years. There is our very shaky track record of Middle East intervention. There is a book-length list of potential consequences of such intervention, starting with a more violent and destabilized Syria and ending with a more violent and destabilized region and world. Finally, we have no express idea of what we want and how we want to accomplish it, without which ill effects are all the more likely if we do choose to act.

Hints of chemical weapons allowed Obama to employ his own red line: no chemical weapons—or else. Because of world history and established international agreement, certain weapons of mass destruction are deemed so out of bounds that action is semi-automatically called for. That is, using chemical weapons trumps sovereignty. The international community might stand by for the internal slaughter of thousands, no matter how inhumane, but it is quasi-obligated to answer when certain civilized conventions come into play. In other words, the chemical weapons would offer a license to act, even if the other inhumanities didn’t

A license to act—if we knew what we could reasonably achieve, if people believe that it is worth losing lives to enforce the ban on chemical weapons, if it is actually about chemical weapons, if acting doesn’t make matters worse, if we knew exactly what we planned to do and how we would deal with all the possible aftermaths. None of which is clear now. None of which is likely to be clear anytime soon.

Welcome to the fog of or else.

Syria and Foreign Incoherence

Red Line
America may not have had a coherent foreign policy since the end of World War II. And the beat goes on.

Incoherence doesn’t mean that there haven’t been successes. It doesn’t mean that other countries have done better in that time. And it doesn’t mean that the era has been an easy one: the world is more complex and diffracted than ever.

Coherence means an open, intelligent discussion about principles, followed by an open, intelligent discussion about taking action or withholding, and about the consequences and aims of the paths we choose or avoid.

Our policy seems to be driven by overwhelming ideology, good intentions and self-interest—none of which are exceptional or indictable, but all of which should be expressed in a much bigger and more sensible and realistic context. We ought to know what we’re about and candidly tell our citizens what we’re about. And when we don’t know what we’re doing—hard as that is to admit—we ought to say so.

Harry Truman was the last President to have a foreign policy named after him, in that case the Truman Doctrine. In 1947 he warned that the U.S. and the free world could not stand for Greece and Turkey falling into Communist hands (though he never used the word Communism):

It is necessary only to glance at a map to realize that the survival and integrity of the Greek nation are of grave importance in a much wider situation. If Greece should fall under the control of an armed minority, the effect upon its neighbor, Turkey, would be immediate and serious. Confusion and disorder might well spread throughout the entire Middle East….

It would be an unspeakable tragedy if these countries, which have struggled so long against overwhelming odds, should lose that victory for which they sacrificed so much. Collapse of free institutions and loss of independence would be disastrous not only for them but for the world. Discouragement and possibly failure would quickly be the lot of neighboring peoples striving to maintain their freedom and independence.

Should we fail to aid Greece and Turkey in this fateful hour, the effect will be far reaching to the West as well as to the East.

March 12, 1947

(A digression: The reason Greece was considered vulnerable to insidious forces in 1947 is that it was broke and falling apart. Presumably, without a Communist threat looming, Greece 2013 is no longer considered as significant.)

That black-and-white view was in some ways a vestige of the black-and-white war we had just finished—and won. But soon after that speech, global gray was the new black-and-white. Empires were crumbling, new nations were being made. In the year of the Truman Doctrine alone, two of the world’s most populous nations changed course: India became independent, Mao won a revolution in China—events representing more than a third of the world population. The following year, the Middle East (and history) came unglued forever with the creation of Israel. We could pretend that all this was part of some simple monolithic history, but that really made no sense.

And yet we proceeded with a dyadic us-versus-them model for decades, mostly inexplicably and unquestioningly. Korea was supposed to stop the Communism; the military result was a bloody stalemate and status quo, the economic result a Chinese hegemon. Vietnam was supposed to stop Communism; we lost the war, and Southeast Asia is a geopolitical hodgepodge. Soviet Communism crumbled, partly because of a changing world and culture, partly because being a Russian non-Communist economic and political oligarch is much more lucrative than being a party apparatchik.

When we were attacked by the Muslim Middle East, our policy was to strike back, just as we had after Pearl Harbor. Never mind that the policy was sixty years old, and that the complexities of the world could not possibly be much affected by those approaches. Sadaam Hussein is dead, and Iraq is descending at some speed into chaos. Afghanistan is or soon will be about where we found it. Osama Bin Laden is dead, but just as with the Taliban, even if Al Qaeda is diminishing, movements with other names are already rising up to take its place.

All that is preface to our incoherence in Syria.

It is easy to see why the chemical weapon “red line” matters and why proving that it has been crossed matters.

The brutality of World War I made us rethink just far we would go and where as a ‘civilized” world we would draw the line. The Geneva Protocol of 1925 prohibits their use. The community of nations has, more or less, stood behind this and its successors.

(Another digression: If the world had considered the real possibility of atomic weapons in this period between the wars, would these also have been put in the same prohibited category as chemical and biological weaons?)

The reason for taking such care about making sure the line is actually crossed of course goes back to Iraq. Having cried wolf so recently, the U.S. could not stand having its credibility questioned, internally or externally, on the issue of weapons of mass destruction.

But as the drumbeat for “doing something” gets louder in the wake of the U.S. now being completely confident that chemical weapons were used by the Assad regime, so many questions are not being asked, and if asked, not discussed or answered.

If we are already confident that thousands are killed, tens of thousands injured, hundreds of thousands displaced, and a nation is being destroyed from inside, why was the imperative waiting for this line at all? There is a global political answer, of course, which is that chemical weapons are a bigger and less assailable common ground upon which most or all can agree. That is indeed a pragmatic strategy, but we also have to talk about moral imperatives, no matter which way the discussion goes.

What exactly can and should we do? And if we do act, what do we expect and hope will be the result? And if we do act, what are the potential consequences?

Our leaders can talk about the red line in Syria, but they should stop pretending that this amounts to coherent and deep consideration. The three questions of actions, expectations and consequences should be the topic that consumes us. If we have principles and doctrines, let’s put them on the table and inspect them and see how aspirational and practical they are. If we believe in sovereignty in some cases but not others, let’s make sure that we know what the cases are and why the distinctions matter. If we do or don’t intervene in foreign political matters or insurrections or civil wars, let’s talk about it and how we act or react.

Instead, what we get are red lines and, in the case of Egypt, the sight of the U.S. being unwilling to call a coup a coup, and otherwise being paralyzed in figuring out what to do or say, so that “subtle” back channel goings on can go on.

Subtle goings on or silence can also may mean that you don’t know what to do or say, or that you don’t want the greater citizenry to hear what you are actually thinking. Maybe our leaders really aren’t very good at being statesmen. Maybe that citizenry isn’t up to the task of having discussions about what we believe, what we can accomplish and what we can’t. The only way to know this is to have it out in the open.

We seem to be more comfortable in the black and white and red line world of the Truman Doctrine. That wasn’t even a true picture of the world seventy years ago, and it definitely isn’t today. Can we talk, without slogans, without the fairy tale that the world of 2013 is a place that will resolve to our political and moral satisfaction soon—or ever? Before we make one more mistake, we have to find out.

Analogies to Egypt

Rosetta Stone

Who doesn’t love analytical analogies—situations past that bear a resemblance to current circumstances and might offer at least a little usable insight.

The current state of Egypt, like many situations in the new global age, is a bit sui generis—a unique thing of its own that we neither know how to classify or handle. For some, it is like going to watch a sports competition where you don’t exactly understand the game, don’t know nearly enough about the teams, and yet are being expected to choose sides—to root for somebody.

Here are a few of what we might call impressionistic analogies: examples from recent history that won’t withstand close scrutiny as directly related scenarios, but do have a certain similarity that at least gives us food for thought.

Iran – The impending release of Mubarek by the military government—ostensibly because the fraud case leading to his arrest would not hold up—brings to mind Iran and the last Shah. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 deposed the Shah and ended the West-friendly dynasty that the U.S. had long supported. One of the small but historically high-profile early incidents was President Jimmy Carter allowing the very ill Shah to seek medical help here in 1980—a factor in the subsequent hostage-taking, that in turn was (just one) of the reasons that Carter was not re-elected.

The U.S. is not alone in having to bet on somebody in turbulent times. Leaders are both real and symbolic in these contests. In Iran, our betting on the Shah—who was like us, who we understood, and who wss not like “them”—has proven disastrous. In the case of Mubarek in Egypt, what we wanted with him all those years was stability and moderation, but when it became apparent during the Arab Spring that we were looking decidedly anti-democratic, we opted to cut him loose and hope for democracy to follow. When that democracy started looking theocratic, possibly militantly so (Muslim Brotherhood), we were very confused and concerned—and so were the remnants of Mubarekism still in or near power. Military and stability or democracy and “adventure”. The Egyptian military made their decision, but we seem unable to decide. Will the military try to re-install Mubarek, or just leave him as a symbol of better days. Do we wish that we had handled Iran better, maybe helping to ease out the Shah and autocratic rule? It probably would not have prevented theocracy, but we didn’t try.

Iraq – Iraq, like Egypt, is another example of wanting to act strategically, while looking like the “good guy” and trying to figure out what a good guy looks like or acts like in these times. We supported Saddam Hussein, we refused to topple him, we toppled him, we executed him. All hell broke loose, and that fire may burn for generations. Whatever our skill at playing a real-world version of Risk globally, our track record in the Middle East is atrocious. At this point, we may want to consider where we stand relative to the historic record of the British and the French. (Note: We seem to have a bizarre predilection for following in their footsteps with little more, or even less, success than they had. See, e.g, Vietnam, Afghanistan, etc.)

Latin America – Our experiences in Latin America may serve as the most interesting of these tenuous analogies. The policy and history is easy to understand. We feared (still do) the incursion of Communism into the continent. We would support just about anybody who promised to keep the threat of socialism/Communism down. This put us in bed with a very bad lot, alliances that have had two lasting impacts. American fingerprints are all over the legacy of some despicable regimes. And now that many of those regimes are in the dustbin of history, residual anti-Americanism lingers on.

None of these alone, or even taken together, may offer much guidance in figuring out what to do in Egypt. Maybe a general lesson is that being powerful is not the same as being smart or being right. Maybe it’s that America is not as powerful as it thinks—back then, or even more so now—in a world it does not fully understand (again, ask the British and the French).

Egypt today is not that different from Egypt two years ago, or Syria now, or Iran or Iraq or Latin America. America has to expressly define and transparently decide how to stack our values and principles. Do we want American-style democracy or are we willing to settle for one of its other versions? Do we want democracy no matter what the results, or are we willing to trade democracy for authoritarian rule? Is authoritarian rule better than democratic or quasi-democratic Islamism, socialism or Communism? What is regional or global stability worth? What is peace worth? What is a Syrian or Egyptian or American life worth? Could billions in Egyptian aid, aside from whether or not we continue or suspend it, be better used to help Americans in an age of sequestration and austerity?

Grown up questions for grownups at the table.

Obama Must Renounce His Hawaiian Citizenship

Ted Cruz Birth Certificate

Now that we’ve (mostly) agreed that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii, there’s one final step: he must renounce his Hawaiian citizenship to legitimately serve as President of the United States.

That’s actually not right. Hawaii was a state when Obama was born there, and before that, it was an American territory (remember Pearl Harbor?).

But it is a splashy way to introduce the latest chapter in the story of Ted Cruz as possible presidential candidate.

Ted Cruz, U.S. Senator from Texas, was born in Calgary, Alberta, Canada to an American mother. The question of whether he is qualified to be President arises from Article Two, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution, which restricts the presidency to “natural born Citizen[s]”. Even though there has been a colloquial understanding that this means “born in the U.S.A.”, the point has never been litigated, and there is a growing sense that it simply means born American, rather than naturalized.

There is no dispute that Cruz was an American citizen at birth, being born of an American citizen, even if abroad. But after he released his birth certificate this weekend (see above), to answer speculation that he might not be qualified, a new wrinkle has cropped up. As indisputably as he is an American citizen, it now appears that he is—at this very moment—also a Canadian citizen. A number of experts on Canadian law are making it clear that when you are born in Canada, citizenship is automatic. You can renounce it later on if you choose, as some do. But right now, Cruz is both an American and Canadian citizen, able to vote in Canadian elections and even run for office there. (Note how weirdly complicated this would have been had he been born there before 1947, when his birth would have made him both an American citizen and a British subject: God Save the Queen.)

It isn’t clear whether Cruz has long known he was also a Canadian citizen, whether he secretly participates in Canadian ceremonies, whether he privately exhibits the legendary Canadian civility and sensibility, whether his support of the XL Pipeline was specially motivated, whether his plan to bring the U.S. government to a halt is meant to make his Canadian homeland look better by comparison, whether he still has feelings for Her Royal Highness, given that he is a citizen of the Commonwealth, if not the United Kingdom.

There is a political issue here, though one that Cruz might be able to turn to his advantage. He might be able to continue his Senate role as a dual citizen (at least it’s Canada, not Russia), but the presidency is another matter. If he does choose to renounce, he could do it on an ideological basis, pointing out how the socialist leanings of his homeland to the north have left it far behind the achievements of free market America, and how, unless America is careful, it will end up exactly like Canada—the land he chose to leave at the age of four, precisely because he knew that America was the true land of freedom and opportunity. Not to mention a whole lot warmer, particularly in Texas.