Category Archives: Foreign Policy

Kindness as an Instrument of Foreign Policy

Monday, April 16, 2012

On Thursday, April 12, the government of North Korea launched a multi-stage rocket which it said was intended to put a satellite into orbit, but which our government feared was an attempt to test that rocket as a potential vehicle for the long-distance delivery of nuclear weapons. It’s a scary thought to be sure. The only good news is that the rocket malfunctioned and never achieved its stated or other objectives. At most, its failed launching will turn out to be a learning experience for North Korean rocket scientists and engineers.

Shortly thereafter, the United States.. No, let’s make that “we,” to personalize the point. Shortly thereafter, we canceled a deal we had struck with North Korea to provide badly needed food aid to that country in return for its agreeing to calm things down and not initiate any threatening, “provocative” actions.

Keeping in mind that I am absolutely no fan of dictatorships and of the North Korean government in particular, I have a problem with what we’ve done. First of all, it’s North Korea’s right as a sovereign nation – whether or not we like the form or substance of its government – to develop weapons, including weapons we have long had in abundance. “We have these weapons, lots and lots of them, very high tech and powerful, but you (North Korea) can’t.” That’s what we’re saying. Why not? Because we don’t trust that they will have them, but not use them.

Unfortunately, our argument is intellectually, maybe even morally corrupt.


It’s time we paid China off.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

By “we,” I mean us. Literally, you and me, as opposed to Congress which could order the pay off, or the Department of the Treasury which could just do it. More on this distinction in a moment.

You know how your relationship with a person, a friend or relative, changes when you let them do you a favor? Especially if you borrow money from that person? It does, doesn’t it. You lose leverage. You know it, and the other person knows it. It may, in fact, be why the other person offered or agreed to do you that favor in the first place, to change your public, if not private, attitude toward his or her behavior. It used to be okay for you to be openly critical of that creep in your department, until he covered your ass with your supervisor when you blew that assignment.

Question of the Day: Exactly whose war is McChrystal fighting?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The question isn’t whether or not General McChrystal and his high ranking aids should have criticized the President and other national security senior players in public. His remarks, however accurate and commonly held within the military, were entirely inappropriate. He deserves to be fired. The President has no choice but to make an example of him and those of his staff who were unable to keep their opinions to themselves, on the record or not, in the presence of a Rolling Stone reporter.

The question is not even whether or not the General’s comments were accurate and, if so, what their implications might be for our foreign policy and politics.

The question is, given the considerable differences between the General and the President and our civilian national security management, whose war has the General been fighting? The one the President, our elected leader, has instructed him to fight, or the one General McChrystal believes he should be fighting?

The question of the day is, “Who’s in charge?” Has General McChrystal honored his Constitutional obligation to the maximum extent of his abilities, regardless of his personal opinions of the quality and direction of elected decision-making, or has he allowed those personal opinions to affect the course of our military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan?


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Question of the Day: Who are we to tell Iran (or any country) that they can’t have nuclear weapons?

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

For the record, I find nuclear weapons, for any imaginable purpose, including self-defense, to be abhorrent. I don’t want there to be nuclear weapons, and I certainly don’t want Iran to have them for all the obvious reasons.

My problem with the repeated demands we have made has to do with the integrity of our position. My rule about telling other countries what to do is simple. Don’t expect them to acquiesce to demands that we wouldn’t agree to ourselves.

Question of the Day: Are US interests always consistent with world peace?

Friday, October 9, 2009

Today’s award of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama raises the question of whether or not what’s in our best interest is also, invariably, in the interest of world peace?

First things first. We need a definition before this article begins to sound like the answer to a question at some beauty pageant. Mine is a very narrow concept. By “world peace” I’m referring to the balance among nations and/or ethnic or cultural interests that minimizes the use or material threat of military action to accomplish their objectives. We can all agree to disagree and keep talking – as long as no one gets hurt or dies in the meantime. And yes, I can be breathtakingly simpleminded sometimes, but I’m not writing a book here.

Are there circumstances when President Obama will take, or not take action to protect US citizens and interests, here and abroad, because those actions will be detrimental to world peace? It’s not a ridiculous question. Far from it.

We and some other Western countries have a problem with terrorism on the basis of which we have justified military action in Iraq, and now in Afghanistan. Those actions have, arguably, stimulated reactions by the terrorists, of course, but also on the part of other countries which sympathize with their beliefs, if not with their methods, with ramifications that extend beyond the original disagreement between “them” and us.

Have our actions in the Middle East had a calming effect or have they heightened international tensions in the region and elsewhere? What are we going to do if Pakistan, a nuclear arms power, doesn’t cooperate to the extent that we think is necessary to deny our enemies safe harbor and other support they are now receiving in that country? Under what circumstances will we – President Obama – tolerate what we perceive to be misbehavior by any sovereign nation, weak or powerful, in support of movements which threaten the United States? How far are we willing to go, on our own, to prevent Iran from developing and disseminating nuclear weapons given the implications for regional and world peace of a US-lead preemptive attack?

Don’t misunderstand my point. Without question, I’m certain the President takes into account the international ramifications of any military initiative he considers. But is it, his decision process that is, about “world peace,” or is really a matter of going as far as we can, of doing as much as we can get away with, militarily speaking, to protect the United States?

The former, global perspective is more civilized, broadly defined, and speaks to a loftier, more humane national character that puts the welfare of others at least on a par with that of our own people. The latter is all about selfishness and protecting our citizens and interests at the expense of others – others who may or may not be involved.

Nobel Prizes notwithstanding, the question is, which Presidential mindset do we want and have in The White House? In Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, I think we’re about to find out.


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The US Policy Against Assassination: Where should we draw the line?

Saturday, July 11, 2009

As we all know, it is against US policy to assassinate the leaders of foreign governments. My first reaction to this rule has always been positive. Killing anyone is a bad thing, even in self-defense. It may have been justified. It may have been necessary to save your own life, or the lives of family and countrymen, but it’s still a bad thing to have to kill anyone. I say this on moral grounds, intellectually speaking, having never found myself, thank goodness, in the position of having to take someone’s life to protect my own or the lives of others.

Government leaders are high profile people who are relatively easy to kill. Getting away with it is another story, but if you’re motivated and have sufficient resources at your disposable, it’s doable. Doable, maybe, but does it make any sense? Is a practical thing to do? We kill their President, they kill ours. What a mess. There are consequences, short- and long-term repercussions that are often unpredictable and counterproductive to our objectives. Moral issues notwithstanding, assassination is bad politics and no substitute for good foreign policy based on intelligent diplomacy.

So what’s my problem? My problem is that I’m not sure where we should draw the line. On a personal level, if someone threatens you with deadly force, with a loaded gun for example, if they present a “clear and present danger,” well, you have every right to defend yourself. In fact, you have the legal and common sense right to take preemptive action. You do not, in other words, have wait until you’ve been shot at to shoot back.

On a societal level, the police and our military overseas routinely hunt and often kill people who have demonstrated their willingness and ability to take the lives of innocents. A South Carolina serial killer – a lone gunman who was clearly not the leader of a sovereign nation – was himself recently killed in a shootout with a policeman. For similar reasons, our military, acting as our national police force overseas, has killed a good number of Al Qaida leaders and operatives – and is still aggressively looking for Osama bin Laden, dead or alive.

However many his followers, Mr. bin Laden is also not the leader of a sovereign nation. He’s a criminal, a murderer of innocents who routinely and repeatedly demonstrates his disregard for the lives of his followers and enemies alike. In every way I can imagine, bin Laden meets the criteria for a “clear and present danger” deserving of the use of lethal force, if necessary, to stop him. I have no reason to believe that bin Laden, himself, has ever killed anyone. Doesn’t make any difference, does it? Even if he’s never hurt anyone, personally, he’s recruited, trained and commanded his followers who have.

But what would happen if Mr. bin Laden was the not just a criminal on the run, but a head of state, the elected leader or dictator of a sovereign nation? …a head of state using national resources to recruit, train, arm and surreptitiously command followers whose demonstrated purpose is to kill innocent Americans and other nationals, perhaps including his own countrymen? Now what?

Our best, most civilized diplomatic efforts fair to even curtail, let alone stop the carnage. Other nations add their voices, but to no avail. Do we just let Mr. bin Laden hide behind his government title? If, heaven forbid, bin Laden or his counterpart in the Taliban were to seize control of the government of Afghanistan, is that it? Are they safe? Does the mantle of authority, democratically elected or not, somehow suddenly change everything?

Given that our government believed in the imminent threat of weapons of mass destruction, was the assassination of Saddam Hussein out of the question just because he was the leader of a sovereign nation? If Kim Jong-il’s North Korea poses a real, clear and present nuclear weapons threat to the United States and our allies in the region, and we believe that he, personally, is the problem, isn’t a preemptive assassination a more rational solution than war? I’m not suggesting it, mind you, just raising the question.

If it was up to me, what would be the fine print in our government’s policy against assassination? I don’t know, and it bothers me that I don’t.


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The Last Laugh Hypothesis: An Alternative Foreign Policy for North Korea

Thursday, June 25, 2009

North Korea, however reprehensible its government, has the same right to have weapons, nuclear or other, as we do. If, let’s say, Denmark decided it wanted nuclear weapons, would we be threatening economic sanctions and forcibly boarding their ships? Of course not. We don’t like North Korea, but that we don’t trust its government is no excuse for telling it what to do. Lots of countries don’t like or trust our government. Do we tolerate them telling us what to do? Do we really even care what they think? The fact is, we pick on North Korea because we are big, strong, wealthy and we can get away with it.

The fact is, we have no moral ground to tell North Korea to stand down. Our nuclear arsenal is huge. We have the technology for delivering those weapons over vast distances and with incredible precision. And we are the only country to have ever used one, twice. Where exactly do we get off telling another country that it can’t have the weapons we already have in abundance, and refuse to dismantle?

Unfortunately, in the process of throwing our weight around with characteristically impatient foreign policy, we have created a world in which tough talk and threatening to build nuclear weapons is a way to get our attention. The more they pound their chests, the more we pound ours which may work for gorillas and adolescents on a school playground. As foreign policy, however, it’s a counterproductive waste of time, money and, quite possibly, lives.

Let’s try something very different. Instead of punishing the North Korean people for their government not behaving the way we would like, why do we just step back and let its government build whatever weapons and suppress its people as it sees fit. Let’s put aside the guiding principal that no country whose government that isn’t democratically elected has quite the same sovereign rights as one whose government is. Instead, let’s open our economy to this rogue nation, avoiding only certain high technology sectors for now.

Mind you, I’m not suggesting that we offer economic assistance, or cooperation which is really what I have in mind, as a reward for not developing nuclear weapons. That would just be encouraging bad behavior. No. What I’m suggesting is that we stop talking about nuclear weapons and make an unconditional offer of open, bilateral economic development with the United States and other western nations. “What can our economy do to work with your economy? …No strings attached.”

The objective is to link their economy to ours and do everything we can, through our private sector and without US government assistance, to improve the quality of life for the North Korean people. It will take time, years, but the magic of economic development will eventually have its effect, gradually at first, but then increasingly so. Over time, government leaders will come and go, overseeing an increasingly open North Korean society that serves a growing class of entrepreneurs and business and other professionals who demand the freedom to enjoy the benefits of their labor and creativity.

And one day, the North Korean government we once distrusted, rightly so, will have made the transition to democracy which Capitalism demands, and will no longer care about the nuclear weapons we once feared they would build. Why? Because, to put it simply, people with stuff will do their best to take care of it and acquire more stuff – which doesn’t give them the time or motivation for warmongering.

One thing’s for sure. Whatever we’re doing now isn’t working. Why not give economic development a chance? The current regime in North Korea will think it has won, has made its point, oblivious to the irrepressibly infectious capitalism we spread to every economy we touch. Fine. It is a victory without substance, of rhetoric we can easily tolerate, without the sticks and stones which are our real concern. Years from now, when the current government is history and North Korea is the new South Korea, we will have had the last laugh.


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