ANNALS OF DIPLOMACY : PRESIDENT OBAMA’S SURPRISINGLY SUCCESSFUL FOREIGN POLICY

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^ Syria peace talks to begin in Geneva — old-school diplomacy : John Kerry working with Russia’s foreign policy negotiators

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As the late George Kennan pointed out, in his book Russia and the West Under Lenin and Stalin, it is difficult for a democracy to conduct a successful foreign policy. The political demands upon the President inject domestic concerns into an exercise that isn’t domestic. Blocs of voters, of this or that ethinic origin, call upon the President (and his party), with an upcoming election in mind, to favor the nation or ethnicity whence these voter blocs came or to which they feel kinship. In war as in peace these electoral pressures lean upon the President’s decsion, angling them in a direction, perhaps, that, objectively considered, should not be the case. A prime example — hardly the only — is Israel. I have long argued that Israel’s foreign policy, no matter how compelling its case, must not be allowed dictate ours; but the significance of Israel sympathy, in both our political parties albeit differently in each, makes my argument difficult to apply. It was the same, with Russia, before, during, and after World war II. People were affronted, then pleased, then scared, by what the Soviet union seemed to represent; and these feelings led American policy makers to mistakes that could have been avoided.

Prime among the mistakes avoidable was our support of authoritarian dictators because these were opposed to communism. Of course they were; but they also opposed democracy, an ideal which we profess to the whole world, whose peoples often believe us. Perhaps we should not profess democracy to the whole world. Maybe that is the ultimate mistaken pressure by our domestic politics upon our foreign policy. Certainly the argument has been made by many among us, that we should support dictators who will keep lids on populations whose political ways cannot be predicted and of which many are anarchic at best, violent, cruel, terrible. The argument has merit; yet I disagree with it. Eventually dictators fall, and when they do, we have to live in the consequences.

There is no guarantee at all that peoples who overthrow a dictator will thank America for supporting their cause. A dictator makes almost every group his enemy. That his enemies can’t agree on almost anything other than his fall is his prime survival asset. Yet if America means anything in the world any more, it’s that we are a friend to ordinary people seeking normal lives; and among the enemies of a dictator these are almost always the majority. We refuse this lesson at our peril. Who, today, would not say no, if we could do it again, to the CIA’s role in overhrowing Iran’s Mossadegh government in 1953, an overthrow that has tainted Iran’s relationship with our country ever since ? This is a lesson that we have in fact learned; today our diplomacy supports and encourages peoples seeking freedom. The result is not always happy. Oppressive dictatorships are hardly a great school for teaching democracy — a culture of tolerance, of discussion, of differences equally respected. Yet are we wrong to encourage people to seek it ? Not at all. Too easily we forget how long it took the West to move from feudalism to oligarchy to revolution to democracy. Why should peoples elsewhere find the path any easier ?

The lesson I have outlined above has been learned by some of us; not much by others. Unhappily, most Republicans favor a foreign policy of supporting “friendly” dictators and of military first. This policy, they argue, worked with the Soviet Union, and it kept the peace in the Middle East for 50 years. And so it seemed to; but the Soviet Union collapsed largely of its own, bankrupted by its fear of our military might, morally ruined by its incompetence and rigidity, deafened by the din of outmoded theory. The most effective step against Soviet dominance taken by our Republican policy makers wasn’t military at all. it was six words spoken in Berlin by President Reagan : “Mister Gorbachev, tear down this wall !”

The voice spurred eastern Europe’s peoples. They believed Reagan. They also believed in themselves.¬†Some three years later the wall did indeed come down.It was a superb moment in American diplomacy; yet in retrospect it was an easy moment. The Soviet union was already crumbling.

Far more difficult the moments of crisis, most unprecedented, to which the Obama Administration has had to respond : the “Arab Spring” ; the Syrian Civil war; Iran’s nuclear development ; relations with Russia ruled by the mercurial Vladimir Putin and with a secretive and cruel North Korea ; the antics of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela ; the fight against Al Qaeda. In every case where moves could be made — not much can be done about Kim Jong Un — the Obama Administration has moved very well indeed. We have managed relations with the uprising populaces of Libya, Egypt, and Syria about as well as these anarchic situations allowed. And if in Libya we miscalculated Benghazi — and still find it hard to keep up with its 26 shell games — we aced the big picture : most every tribe in Libya thanks us for our part in overthrowing Gaddafi. In Egypt, we avoided — while praising the Cairo “street” generally — committing fatally much to any faction, and thus we retain a fair reputation with all, even with the current military rulers. Secretary Kerry brokered a rapprochement between Netanyahu’s Israel and Erdogan’s Turkey without alienating Erdogan’s growing number of enemies.

Secretary Kerry — without realizing it at first, but once he did realize it, capitalizing superbly — found a means to a pact with Russia that ended the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons stores and use. Most important of all, Kerry and his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif reached an interim agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, and that interim agreement is now working. Granted, that the agreements and pacts that Kerry has achieved were brought about by both sides — it really does take two to tango; yet one can’t get diplomacy without doing diplomacy. Which means that the two sides have to respect one an other and openly accord each other that respect. Kerry, like Hillary Clinton before him, has done that.

Kerry’s diplomacy has not been the same as Clinton’s. Hillary Clinton made the world’s women her special constituency. The world is full of cultures in which women take second, even third place; Clinton never missed an opportunity to condemn the downgrading of women or to call upon women to assert their rights. Kerry is not female and cannot speak as Clinton spoke. His diplomacy has been much more old school. It reminds me of the diplomatic practice of British foreign ministers of the 19th Century — a diplomacy of personal relationship, of flexibility and tolerance, a diplomacy also of money deals. We have never pursued such a diplomacy because America had never benn, until recently, a satisfied nation as was Great Britain after the defeat of Napoleon. Until recently, we have either been an expanding nation, even an imperial one, or we have — like Britain during the era of Napoleon — confronted by a huge world-encompassing enemy (or two : Mao Tse-dong’s China as well as Soviet union). Today all that is past. Amderica has finished expanding, and e no longer confront huge rivals. We exist now in a multifold world of many powers, just as did the Great Britain of Castlereagh, Palmerston, Gladstone, Disraeli, and Lord Grey, and it is to President Obama’s great credit (and to John Kerry’s), that our diplomacy fully recognizes our current situation and seems quite skillful at sailing upon it. I know of no current Republican who similarly gets what is really happening outside our borders.

As i write, Kerry is taking America into perhaps his most delicate negotiations yet : the Syria peace discussions set to begin in Geneva as son as all the details can be worked. we already see how hard this negotiation will be in the affair of inviting Iran. First invited, then dis-invited, evidently because President Obama objects. But if Iran were to be invited, how to leave out the Kurds, who have a major presence in eastern Syria (and the bordering part of Iraq) and are pressing a world-wide campaign on twitter and facebook demanding that that they be included. This may take months to manage, and no success is at all assured.

As a foreign policy president Obama has also been lucky. As George Kennan pointed out in the book i mentioned at the start of this column, it matters greatly who in a country is doing the diplomacy. Much of our diplomacy during the Lenin and Stalin years failed because the preconceptions borne by our foreign ¬†policy people ill accorded with the facts. (So too did diplomacy then often fail because of false preconceptions on the Russian side.) Our policy people also badly misread the situation in Nazi Germany; and of course Nazi Germany misread us. There seems to be less misreading going on these days in the foreign ministries of major nations — ourselves as well. In large part that’s the result of the internet and social media. No nation gropes to understand other nations 1000s of miles away as they did in the 1960s, 1930s, 1910s. This is the setting in which President Obama finds his good luck. But it isn’t all luck. it’s also how open foreign policy people are to the facts unfiltered by preconception. The Obama foreign policy people read the facts better than almost anyone.

His political opponents disparage him so much that they do not see what he (and secretary Kerry) are achieving, or why, or are solely fixated on the fight against Al Qaeda, a fight on which all our policy makers agree (a fight that Obama has pursued with a warlike ruthlessness) and also because they do see Obama’s great policy mistake ; the NSA and its huge, wartime-ish overreach. Obama really does see the fight against Al Qaeda as all-out war; and it is ironic that, on this score, his Republican opponents, until reecntly so military-minded, want to scale back. On this issue, I happen to agree with Obama’s Republican opponents. The threat posed by Al Qaeda terrorists is not so mortal that we need compromise our civil liberties to fight them. It is time to curb NSA much more radically than Obama now proposes; maybe even to dismantle the department of homeland security, which seems to have inconvenienced many of us and violated the rights of some, to no great accomplishment. In these things, shrewd vigilance by all our people counts for much more than blanket micro-surveillance by headstrong bureaucrats. It would be a shame if Obama’s brilliant record, so far, of diplomatic accomplishment and near destruction of Al Qaeda were nicked and mocked by his insistence on a surveillance society.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

#MAGOV : ELECTION OVERLOAD ? DON’T KNOCK IT

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^ five of the seven US Senators who have represented Massachusetts since 2009. can you name the other two ?

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A couple of days ago I was conversing as usual about Massachusetts politics with a friend who suddenly stopped me. “Do you realize we’ve had seven different US Senators in this State the past four years ?”

I had not, in fact, realized that. He counted them out : Ted Kennedy, Paul Kirk, Scott Brown, Elizabeth Warren. John Kerry, Mo Cowan, Ed Markey. Yup, seven it is.

We’re not used to such stuff. Before 2009, Massachusetts had sent the sme two men to the Senate since 1984, when John Kerry replaced Paul Tsongas. That’s what we do. We want our Congressmen and Senators to build up huge seniority, to outlast their opponents, to leave the Federal bureaucracy no chance to put off reforms in hopes that the reformer would just go away. It work. Kennedy and Kerry got a lot done in their 47 and 29 years in the Senate. Meanwhile, the seven who have followed them had, in comparison, barely time to put a name plate on the office door. It’s the same deal for a Massachusetts Congressman. Get him or her elected and then re-elect him or her every time until the seniority passes critical mass. Almost no Massachusetts Congressmen get defeated. The last time it happened was 1996, when Peter Torkildsen was beaten by John Tierney, who has held the 6th District seat ever since.

Given our state’s political habits it’s no wonder that people here are now calling the tide of elections, special and otherwise, rolling through Massaachusetts as “election overload.” In addition to the US senate elections there’s been a Special election in the 5th Congressional District, a Boston Mayor election, several State Legislature “specials” — and more of these to come — and, in eleven months, the regular election for Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, and more. For some of these “specials,” very few voters have bothered. Even the dramatic, confrontational Boston Mayor election only induced 37 % of the City’s voters to cast a ballot.

About the same percentate of the State’s voters balloted in the now legendary 2009 US senate “special” in which Scott Brown became the only Republican that we have sent to the US Senate since 1978. It seems as though 36 to 37 % of voters is our State’s participation ceiling other than on “normal” election dates. On those dates, between 70 and 80 percent of our voters vote. The state has two classes of voters : the “always active” 36 to 37 percent and an equal number of “only at the usual time”people.

What is the difference between these two groups ? I’d say that the only-at-regular-time people see voting as a duty, while the participant actives see it as connection. Those who vote whenever an election is called actually expect, or hope, that their vote will move things. The duty voters probably vote as skeptics, not believers. That’s healthy. Politics is an arena of agendas, not saviors. We should be skeptical of agendas. But we also need believers in agendas; and my point in this column is that we should welcome, not shrug at, the tide of elections now rolling over Massachusetts. Our democracy was not set up for lifetime office holders. Well into the 20th Cehtiury it was uncommon for Senators and Congressmen to serve for 20, 30, 40, even 50 years, as some have done since. Citizens stood for office, served, and came home again to their lives and communities. The Massachusetts custom, since the 1920s, of saying “why replace someone who’s down there doing his job ?” now gives way to a series of fresh faces, one after another, many people voicing our State’s concerns, each in his or her own way, and — we hope — voicing the concerns of more voters than just the insiders who for so long had everything their own way.

Almost all of our state’s political indsiders are Democrats. It is totally a good thing that, since 2009, they have had to campaign to the 70-80 of voters who vote in elections rather than just to the 15 % who control the Democratic primary, For decades, our state’s politics was — with the exception of Governor elections — the purview of a very small core whose members spoke only to themselves. That’s not true now. With so many elections at hand for so many offices, vast numbers of candidates who, in the period 1960-2008 would never have had a chancve, now have that chance. Many of therse newcomers are Republicans. Some are Tea Party. Much of what the Tea candidates, in particular, have to say shocks and disgusts; but better that it be said out in the open, where it can be confronted, than seething in silence. As for the Democrats, they now divide on many issues, between Obama-Clinton centrists and the labor-Left who would like to use Elizabeth Warren as their banner. All of which assures me that in the foreseeable future, Massachusetts will be a state with three — maybe four — political parties stepping into a never-ending exercise of democracy in action. After all, there’s at least five major candidates going for the Governorship, several others, and a lengthening list of new names vying to be Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, Treasurer, and state Legislator. Don’t knock it.

—- Michael Freedberg / Here and Sphere

“WE HAVE REACHED AN AGREEMENT”

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^ Javad Zarif looks happy, John Kerry looks exhausted. Last night in Geneva, signing agreement.

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“We have reached an agreement.”

With those five words, tweeted at about 9:30 EST last night, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif made history. He did not make it alone. Our Secretary of State, John Kerry, also made it. As did the foreign ministers of France, Germany, Russia, and China.

At 10:15 PM a proud President Obama addressed the nation. He outlined the specifics of the agreement.

And so it was ; Iran and the world have agreed — to the following :

1.Iran will cease enriching uranium beyond five percent grade. As verification, Iran will dismantle links between networks of centrifuges.

2.All of Iran’s existing stockpile of uranium already enriched to 20 percent, would be diluted or converted to oxide, thus making it not readily available for military use.

3.No new centrifuges, neither old models nor newer, can be installed. Centrifuges already installed, but not currently operating, can not be started up.

4.Iran can still enrich uranium to a level of 3.5 percent grade and need not dismantle its existing centrifuges.

5.In return for this interim agreement, the United States agrees to provide $ 6 billion to $ 7 billion of sanctions relief, of which about $ 4.2 billion represents Iran oil revenue presently frozen in coreign banks. It is noted that this sanctions relief requires only Executive Order, not approval by Congress.

The interim deal has a six-month time frame. This, to allow time for negotiators to agree upon the terms of a permanent agreement.

And there you have it. A deal with Iran. A year ago such a thing looked impossible. But where human beings are involved, things change. People change their minds, even people of different nations. In this case, everyone changed. Iran elected a new government with a clearly stated, change message that could not have won election without the OK of Iran’s Supreme Leader. And the Western powers — with Russia and China joining in at last — decided that they would settle for less than a permanent agreement.

And what an agreement ! It bears repeating : Iran has agreed to do what it insisted it would not do : stop enrichment of uranium and, indeed, to dilute uranium already enriched. Centrifuges turned off and no new start-ups. Centrifuge linkages dismantled.

The Boston Globe quotes as Zbigniew Brzeznski and Brent Scowcroft, former American national security advisers talking of “the apparent commitment of the new government of Iran to reverse course on its nuclear activities…” That is exactly what Iran’s new government has now done.

Of course an interim agreement leaves the future sort of open. But not completely. Agreements between nations that have barely spoken to one another, and then often vituperatively, do not congeal overnight. This first dip into the waters of concord may, however, prove addictive. Once even enemies begin to find that they have some interests in common, they often find that they have more. And thus larger agreements become doable, even desirable. It happened thus with the conflict in Northern Ireland. Why not between Iran and the West ? Iran is not a medieval tyranny. Its leaders are not desert illiterates. Iranians rank second to no one in science or in technological ingenuity. Iranians are educated, modern, entirely au courant with the cutting edge, modern world. Same for their leaders. Do not be fooled by the turbans and beards, so caliphate in appearance. These turbans tweet.

Israel’s prime minister professes to distrust this agreement. I find his distrust misplaced. I have no doubt that the new Iranian leadership is no friend of Israel ; that it will continue to fund and promote Hezbollah in Lebanon ; and that it would not mourn much were Israel to disappear. But I think it quite certain that Iran is not about to rain missiles or atomic bombs on Israel. Iran knows that that would be its end as well as Israel’s. Which means that Israel will simply have to accept that it has an undefeatable enemy nearby, and to live with it — as it has been doing quite successfully with other, nearer enemies for many decades. I think it will find a way to manage.

Meanwhile, kudos to John Kerry, our state’s former Senator, who has now brokered two heroic deals : this one, and the elimination of Bashir Assad’s chemical weapons. You haven’t forgotten that one, have you ?

—- Michael Freedberg / Here and Sphere

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