Ronald Reagan is without a doubt a conservative icon who, as President, had many victories but one victory currently relevant does most emphatically not belong to Reagan, even though it’s often attributed to him. Once again the United States finds itself negotiating with Iran. Americans are considering whether the negotiations have accomplished their stated goal: To keep Iran from building a bomb. The question is, is the deal a good one? Could we have gotten a better deal? Could Reagan have gotten a better deal? “Reagan didn’t need a deal” is the slogan running through Conservative circles. The implication being that Reagan achieved release of the hostages in 1980 through sheer force of personality. Surely any rational person knows what a farce that is. But let’s go through the events anyway.
Most people are familiar with the first part. The secular leader of Iran, the Shah, supported by the US and very friendly to western powers, was overthrown in a religious coup. The Embassy was stormed and 52 American were taken hostage for over a year. They were released the day Reagan was sworn in.
In one respect Conservatives are correct. Reagan did not need a deal. Because Carter had already signed one. It’s called the Algiers Accord. It’s a simple document. We promise to stay out of their business. We release 7.9 Billion dollars of Iranian assets and sanctions. They also get some immunity in civil courts. In return, they deposited one billion dollars in an escrow account as part of arbitration agreement to compensate Americans for assets lost in the revolution. Iranians would receive assets held by the US belonging to the Shaw and Iran would honor their international debts and obligations. Oh, and the hostages would come home. Because the Iranians refused to negotiate with the US without an Algerian intermediary (it wasn’t called the Algerian Accords for nothing), and the numerous linguistic barriers the negotiations took a great deal of time. It also took a lengthy amount of time to physically transfer some of the assets (such as 50 tonnes of gold). Additionally, Iran was in a war with Iraq which also complicated safe transportation.
In the end it was Carter who secured the release of hostages through a reasonable and complex deal. It was also Carter who was generous and statesman enough to allow Reagan to make the announcement and implicitly claim credit. The next time Reagan would negotiate with Iran he would sell our enemy weapons and transfer the funds to murderous death squads against the explicit orders of congress. This was not a success. If there was any justice in the world, the Iran-Contra scandal should have brought down the Reagan administration. Beside Carter, Only Obama has successfully negotiated with the Iran. He’s created a medium term impediment to Iranians acquiring a nuclear weapon. In theory the Iranians say they don’t want a nuclear weapon, they only want nuclear power. Which is fine. It’s very healthy on the part of the Iranians to wish to diversify their economy. However, there’s no reason we should trust them. So these negotiations are necessary. I won’t go into the finer points of the treaty in this blog.
The point is that the near mythological status that Reagan holds has corrupted the history of our dealings with Iran and have created entirely unreasonable expectations. Without respect, even for an enemy, and compromise, negotiations mean nothing. It’s time to understand a deep history of the world instead of knee-jerk short-term politicized reactions.
Because we have a 24hour news cycle with no one actually doing any reporting, it’s important to ask, “who’s to blame for ISIS?” Is the President to blame for not moving fast enough with the airstrikes or moving faster with the military aide to “moderate” anti-Syrian forces? A solution to intensify the fighting perhaps but, at this moment, it is doubtful that ANY amount of aide could have resulted in a quick and decisive victory. The “moderate” rebels are divided, disorganized and moderate only in the sense that they’re not quite as bad as everyone else in the region. Yet. However, they just don’t have enough support to take and hold all of Syria which is a necessary step to preventing a group like ISIS from forming. Not only that, the more support they get from outside help, the less legitimate their cause. Any meaningful or decisive help will make it all but impossible to form a government in the aftermath. Few of the Presidents critics seriously blame him for ISIS, just the fanciful notion that he didn’t use a magic wand to fix the problem because he hates America. So if it’s not Obama, who can we blame next?
Well Bush obviously. It was his ill conceived and poorly executed war that destabilized the region and allowed ISIS to gain a foothold. It was Bush that paved the way for Maliki to come to power, it was him that screwed up the rebuilding of Iraq, and it was him that failed to integrate all the various factions.
Without a doubt, Bush is certainly guilty of some of that, as is Maliki, but neither is Bush to blame for the rise of ISIS. For one, ISIS started in Syria not Iraq and has only a tenuous connection to the troubles there. Assad himself destabilized Syria in events that had little to do with our Occupation in Iraq. Once Bush pushed the Sunni and Baathist minority from power, conflict was inevitable. A civil war between Sunni and Shia has been ongoing in that region since the fall of Saddam and has now escalated into ISIS. Perhaps if Bush, Assad, Maliki had been perfect rulers and Sunni, Shia, Kurds, Christians, and other minority groups could have buried the hatchet and forgiven each other for centuries of atrocities and successive repressions, ISIS could have been avoided, but that a bit much to ask for any one president.
Besides, think about it. What would have happened had we done nothing? Imagine that Bush institutes a period of nation building a civic projects to heal the nation after 9/11 instead of going to war. What happens next? We obviously can’t know the details, but we know the rough outline of this story. It’s been repeated so often there is no need to guess. At some point through weakness or incompetence Saddam or his successor falls. There’s a coup, or a revolution. Maybe the Kurds start it or the Shia. Eventually the shit hits the fan and the price for newly minted rubble goes way way down. The various factions can’t get their act together or unite in common cause and regional powers get involved in a complex conflict and chaos is born.
ISIS was inevitable. They were a glass set half off the edge of a table. Sure Bush may have bumped the table and Obama may have failed in his heroic dive to keep it from shattering on the floor but the glass itself had always been doomed. There was no saving it. There’s no cleaning it up or putting it back together. And, unless we wish to remain there forever and ever we can not and should not be involved.
In a perfect world there would be no ISIS or terrorism. But in a nearly perfect world, what do you do? You refused to be terrorized, you stand against the erosion of civil liberties, you build this nation instead of tearing down others.
Conservative Americans in their umbrage over President Obama’s perceived weakness over Ukraine, are making the same mistake as Putin. They accuse the president of weakness because they want to DO something flashy and explosive and what is the President doing? Seemingly nothing. As perverse as it sounds, and as counterintuitive as it might be, conservatives and Putin are on the same side. That’s not to suggest that conservatives are unpatriotic, quite the contrary. But they see the world through the same old fashioned Cold War perspective as Putin does with the same old geopolitical goals and means. Massive arms build ups, military industrial complexes, fighting proxy wars, accruing debt. Your classic Reaganism. It won’t work in the short term and in the long term it’d be disastrous for US foreign and domestic policy.
Do you know why we’re giving Ukraine economic assistance instead of military? If we’d followed the conservative playbook we would have done the same thing as Russia. Sent complex and sophisticated weapons into a volatile area. As a result that airline could just as easily have been shot down with by the Ukraine government instead of the rebels and that would have been a disaster for us instead of Russia. Because of this inevitable atrocity, Russia is now a pariah among nations and facing even stricter sanctions. Moreover, military aide would further justify Russian involvement. With more weapons to match the Russians, the situation would escalate, atrocities would be committed and it would be our fault. We’d run the very real risk of destabilizing the region and permanently dividing Ukraine. People would flock to the Russian banner not because of Pro-Russian sentiment, or for nationalism but simply to fight the intrusive Americans. In the exact same way, a narrowly divided Ukraine has shifted dramatically to the west because it resents Russian involvement.
So we’re popular. For now. What of it? Russia could roll right over Ukraine militarily if it wanted to. We need to do something to prevent it. Right? No. We don’t. Imagine for a moment that Russia could and would take over not only eastern Ukraine but all of Ukraine and even the nations further west, what should we do? The conservative playbook says to draw a line in the sand and build up a powerful (and expensive) army that’s so powerful that Russia doesn’t dare cross it. This is wonderful for Russia. Russia sees a massive sophisticated army on its border and responds to this existential threat by cracking down on freedoms without inciting it’s people, beefs up its economy through defense spending, and build exclusive trade partnerships with its allies. Russian power and prestige grows. It collects hardened allies from those nations hostile to American intrusion and now we’re back to the Cold War.
It won’t work so let’s toss out the conservative playbook even though Putin is still reading from its pages. Let him. Let Russia take Crimea, East and West Ukraine and whatever else it can seize militarily. Russia won’t be able to keep the territory any more than the Soviets could. The move would spark massive unrest which would provoke equally massive repression. This would begin an unending cycle of violence and retaliation that would destroy the regional economies and make the newly claimed territory ungovernable and worthless. Eventually Russia would have to retreat and western powers would move in diplomatically and economically to consolidate power in the region. How do we know this? Because that’s what happened last time and it led to greater political, economic, and military integration under the western aegis.
If Russia makes the same mistakes a second time the gains for the west will be even greater. The key is economic stability and prosperity. This is a war of ideas and trade not with guns and bullets. If conservatives confront Russia with an aggressive military posture, Putin will mirror it and consolidate or expand power. Consider that even now Russia has gained an insignificant peninsula and (potentially) a small bit of land in Eastern Ukraine. As a result it’s been diplomatically isolated, proWestern sentiment has skyrocketed, and where the Russian economy was doing relatively well it risks depression or even collapse due to ever tightening sanctions. Russia can not exist as it is in isolation. No sophisticated economy could. If you really want to battle Russia, develop cheap and easy alternative fuels. You’ll crash the Russian economy even without sanctions and you remove Russia’s only real leverage. OR better yet, reduce the military, balance the budget, provide a legitimate safety net, invest in education and technology, and broaden dollar diplomacy and trade agreements. That’s how you win.
#Sochiproblems is more of an embarrassment for American than for Russia
The above article has been drifting through the social networks lately and it deserves comment. At first blush, the author is correct to point out the shallow pettiness of Americans expressing their unsubtle schadenfreude. Schadenfreude is by it’s very nature petty, but the author is treating the Sochi Olympics like any other Olympics when it most certainly is not.
The Olympics are hosted in countries around the world and nowhere is the host city really “ready” for the Olympics. “Readiness” isn’t the issue. If you told the world that accommodations would be sparse and primitive people would have flocked to them anyway. They would have called it “camping” or some such nonsense and enjoyed it. It’s not about the accommodations. In so much as I feel sorry that Russians have to live in Russia, we’re talking about a state that exists as a deeply dysfunctional kelptcracy and has managed to hold on to enough influence in the world to actively make the world a worse place, all the while touting its inherent awesomeness. The problem is the hubris of demanding attention on the world stage while gleefully violating civil rights, curtailing freedoms, and abetting war crimes and genocide around the world. Russia is using the Sochi Olympics as a show case for it’s power and sophistication at home and abroad, and it took mere minutes of real scrutiny to pierce the facade.
There’s nothing wrong for an American to point out the poisonous tap water, but there is for a Russian. It’s fun and games for everyone else but not in Putin’s Russia. For decades, Putin has been tightening control over the press, social media, and the internet. Honest reporting about glitches in Sochi are not tolerated by the Putin’s regime. How can they be when Sochi is, at the moment, a symbol for Russian prowess. Russia is running as fast as Putin can take her into a new dark age and no one in Russia seems to mind. Even if free, honest, and fair elections were held tomorrow do you seriously think that Putin would lose? That’s the bitch about democracy, even (and sometimes especially) autocratic dictators tend to be very popular.
So the pettiness has a point. If Russia is going to use the Olympics as a symbol of it’s might and glory, the rest of the world is going to point out the flaws, the failings, and horrors. I have no idea what will provoke change in Russia, but I know that change won’t come if we ignore problems, especially symbolic problems. #sochiproblems may be petty, but it’s a necessary pettiness.