FOREIGN POLICY POLICIES, ANALYSIS, AND RESOURCES
The Foreign Policy Domain tracks and reports on policies that deal with US treaty obligations, relations with other countries, engagement with international organizations, and trade policies. The domain tracks policies emanating from the White House, the Department of State, United States Agency for International Development, Office of the US Trade Representative, and Office of the US Representative to the United Nations.
Latest Foreign Policy Posts
Brief #92—Foreign Policy
By Will Solomon
While not as omnipresent as it often has been, the issue of conflict with Iran should loom large in the context of the 2020 election. Indeed, it’s important to consider just how much more serious this issue has grown in the last four years. A central premise of Trump’s 2016 campaign was exiting the 2015 JCPOA— perhaps the single biggest foreign policy achievement of the Obama administration.
By Will Solomon
On April 12, 2002, Hugo Chávez, then President of Venezuela, was briefly removed from power in a military coup. Chávez returned to power two days later, buoyed by popular support, largely from poor and working-class Venezuelans. At the time, American officials denied involvement and largely blamed Chávez for instigating the instability that led to his downfall; only two years later, redacted CIA documents revealed that the United States was aware of the coup well in advance, and likely had some amount of communication with the coup plotters.
To believe otherwise would have been naive; the long history of American involvement in Latin America is common knowledge at this point, and it has continued into the 21st century, if often more subtly. But this is an illustrative recent example, and Venezuela is a particular case.
The oil-rich nation’s recent history was largely defined by the government and policies of Hugo Chávez. Although not without blemishes, Chávez’s early policies had a dramatic ameliorative effect on the poorest members of Venezuelan society: unemployment and poverty dropped significantly during his early tenure, oil exports boomed, and per capita GDP more than doubled. Chávez was an outspoken opponent of US imperialism and aligned Venezuela with other “pink tide” Latin American leaders, like Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Evo Morales in Bolivia, as well as much older US antagonists like Fidel Castro in Cuba.
This is not to say suffering disappeared: violence was and remains high in Venezuela, inflation has been consistently high, and of course, the vast majority of the growth that took place was the result of high oil prices and an entirely oil-dependent economy. Things in the country have gotten dramatically worse since Chávez’s death in 2013 and Maduro’s ascension to power, clearly due in part to mismanagement of the economy by the government.
However, this situation has been dramatically worsened by US sanctions, beginning in 2014. Officially US sanctions have largely been in response to political repression and alleged links to drug trafficking by members of the Venezuelan government. In practice, the US maintains cozy links with far more repressive states than Venezuela, and it is difficult not to see Venezuelan socialism—and its opposition to US hegemony in the Western hemisphere—as a thorn in the side of Democratic and Republican administrations alike.
The noose around Venezuela has been increasingly tightened over the course of the Trump administration. Trump has repeatedly floated a military invasion of Venezuela, and in early 2019—along with numerous other Western nations—recognized Juan Guaido, the de facto leader of the Venezuelan opposition and self-proclaimed president of the country, as the legal president of Venezuela, an essentially unprecedented move.
While Venezuela has (temporarily) moved out of the national spotlight, the efforts to oust the government continue; in March of this year, the US State Department offered a $15 million reward for the capture of the current President of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, ostensibly for connections to drug trafficking, and in May of this year, a small and essentially privatized military invasion of Venezuela—with the goal of ousting Maduro—was stopped by the Venezuelan military. Indeed, in the last several days, Trump’s legal team has absurdly alleged that supposedly anti-Trump voting machines were created by Hugo Chávez.
In light of these ongoing destabilization attempts, it is with some nuance that we must consider the situation in Venezuela and the American relationship with that nation. Venezuela, perhaps more so than any other similar foreign nation (like Iran, or North Korea), holds a special status as a pariah in US media. The Venezuelan government is loathed and considered illegitimate by nearly as many Democrats as Republicans; even those towards the more progressive ends of the US electoral system, like Elizabeth Warren, have recognized Guaido as President of Venezuela.
None of this is to absolve the Chávez or Maduro governments from blame. The situation in Venezuela over the last several years has become catastrophic; the best one might say is that they took a bad situation and made it worse. But as Noam Chomsky has said, we ought to apply pressure to the leaders for whom we are responsible, not moralistically condemn foreign actors. With a nation like Venezuela—an oil-rich country with its own long history of American imperial aggression —this is even more true. If the United States had any serious interest in helping the people of Venezuela, sanctions would be lifted, or at least drastically altered, and humanitarian aid would genuinely be offered; the emphasis on regime change would be dropped, and a diplomatic detente would be pursued. We ought to be suspicious of anything short of that.
The Center for Economic and Policy Research—“The Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) was established in 1999 to promote democratic debate on the most important economic and social issues that affect people’s lives.”
https://www.codepink.org — “CODEPINK is a women-led grassroots organization working to end U.S. wars and militarism, support peace and human rights initiatives, and redirect our tax dollars into healthcare, education, green jobs and other life-affirming programs.”
Democracy Now!—“Democracy Now! produces a daily, global, independent news hour hosted by award-winning journalists Amy Goodman and Juan González. Our reporting includes breaking daily news headlines and in-depth interviews with people on the front lines of the world’s most pressing issues.”
America Needs to Rethink Its Use of Military Force
By Will Solomon
November 4, 2020
It can be difficult to find coherence in Trump’s agenda, foreign policy included. In contrast to almost every prominent Republican since at least World War II, Trump has espoused (at least rhetorically) a doctrine of isolationism since his run for and during his time as president, railing against NATO and American involvement in the Middle East—and specifically bucking Republican orthodoxy in vocally criticizing the Iraq War. (Arguably, this latter position was a major reason Trump won the Republican primary in 2015-16).
One of the more bizarre aspects of the Trump presidency has been the increased militarism and aggressiveness by Democrats in response to both this rhetoric and Trump’s actualized foreign policy. But does this quasi-role reversal reveal a genuine strategic shift by the Trump administration, and a significant move away from a previously-existing bipartisan consensus on American overseas commitments? It is helpful to examine two regions in which Trump has sought to reduce American troop commitments.
First, the War in Afghanistan, which remains the longest-running war in US history. As noted above, a major feature of Trump’s 2016 campaign was a rhetorical commitment to reducing American involvement in the Greater Middle East. However, over the first two years of the Trump Administration, the number of soldiers in Afghanistan actually increased, possibly to a maximum of over 15,000 soldiers. This number has reportedly decreased over the past two years and was listed around 8,600 earlier this year—roughly the level they were at when Obama left office—after the February 2020 peace deal with the Taliban. Earlier this fall, Trump announced without warning that all US troops would be out of Afghanistan by Christmas—and yet it appears there is no substance behind the claim, and a gradual if indefinite process of withdrawal will continue.
Trump has also repeatedly made a spectacle of criticizing NATO allies for not contributing enough to the mutual defense pact. This summer, the US announced its intent to remove 12,000 troops out of Germany. While Trump claimed this was because of German failure to sufficiently pay into the treaty, Pentagon officials stated this was consistent with long-term strategy—and it is noteworthy that about half those troops were to be redeployed to Belgium and Italy, which pay a lower percentage of GDP towards their defense budgets than does Germany. This is arguably also consistent with the “pivot to Asia” that began during the Obama Administration.
While Trump’s rhetoric has signaled a marked shift from prior postwar American presidents, thus far, his actions with regards to military deployments overseas have been fairly consistent with recent precedent. Like Obama in particular, Trump has relied heavily on airstrikes, drone warfare, and special forces raids in military engagements across the globe.
Which is not to say this is good: despite frequent proclamations to the contrary, the seventy-five years since the end of World War II have been marked by violence and destabilization around the globe, much of it directly instigated by the United States. The most significant war of the twenty-first century—the War in Iraq—was the result of a largely unilateral American decision to invade a sovereign nation. The war may have resulted in a million dead, including several thousand American troops, and Iraq remains a broken nation. The War in Afghanistan—frequently characterized as the more just war—has, again, become the longest-running war in US history, and is acknowledged by senior US government officials as unwinnable.
Trump’s rhetoric should not be downplayed, and having an erratic mouthpiece at the head of government is a major threat to international security. But the media ought to pause on its reflexive opposition to Trump and ask, broadly, whether American military engagements overseas are achieving their aims. Indeed, what exactly are these aims? This does include questions like: what is the purpose of NATO in the year 2020? Are these deployments of American soldiers helpful, or destabilizing? While answers may vary by case, recent history (not just including Trump’s tenure) would suggest that this broad strategy ought to be reconsidered, regardless of who is president.
https://www.codepink.org — “CODEPINK is a women-led grassroots organization working to end U.S. wars and militarism, support peace and human rights initiatives, and redirect our tax dollars into healthcare, education, green jobs and other life-affirming programs.”
https://www.veteransforpeace.org — “Veterans For Peace is a global organization of Military Veterans and allies whose collective efforts are to build a culture of peace by using our experiences and lifting our voices. We inform the public of the true causes of war and the enormous costs of wars, with an obligation to heal the wounds of wars.”
https://www.democracynow.org — “Democracy Now! produces a daily, global, independent news hour hosted by award-winning journalists Amy Goodman and Juan González. Our reporting includes breaking daily news headlines and in-depth interviews with people on the front lines of the world’s most pressing issues.”
Brief # 95 Foreign Policy
Trump’s Erratic Military Policies
By Colin Rugg
October 23, 2020
In the wake of Jeffrey Goldberg’s September 3rd Atlantic report lambasting Trump for his disparaging comments about the United States Military, the president has come under fire from Military commanders and politicians on both sides of the aisle. Trump has a reported history of mocking veterans, calling soldiers who lost their lives abroad “losers,” making disparaging remarks about prisoners of war, and complaining that “nobody wants to see” disabled veterans injured in the line of duty at a military parade. On a Memorial Day visit to the grave of Lt. Robert Kelly, son of Gen. John Kelly, the president reportedly turned to the general and said, “I don’t get it. What was in it for them?” The president denies these claims. But actions speak louder than words and the president’s lack of respect for domestic and international military norms goes much deeper than the claims of disrespectful language.
To understand the president’s current cagey relationship with the US military, it is important to understand the context in which he interacts with it. During his presidential campaign in 2016, Trump promised to swiftly pull troops back from “endless wars” The American people, tired of seemingly endless conflict with billions of dollars spent on a national defense budget in lieu of domestic needs, were generally in favor of the sentiment despite concerns of military top brass and Republican lawmakers. But the urgent demands of addressing the insurgence of the Islamic State and rising tensions between the Afghan government and the Taliban pushed the president to increase foreign military presence, raising the Obama-era cap of 8,400 troops stationed in Afghanistan to 15,000.
Now, under the shadow of a looming presidential election, Trump has been hasty to make good on his promises to reduce the foreign US military presence. In contrast to Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden’s stated goals to support longtime NATO allies and to pull out of the Middle East “in a manner that ensures we both guard against threats to our homeland and never have to go back,” Donald Trump does not seem concerned about such long-term concerns. Gen. Frank McKenzie, the top US military commander for the Middle East claims that at the current rate, the number of troops in Afghanistan could fall below 4,500 in November, and down to 3,000 in Iraq.
While the withdrawal of troops might sound like good news to humanitarian and the America-First movements alike, the policy’s carelessness should be of concern to both parties. Iraq and Afghanistan are both in critical political moments that require support beyond what local governments can provide.
The Afghan-Taliban peace talks are only just beginning and are already steeped in contention. President Trump is clearly eager to disengage, proclaiming victory as soon as the Taliban came to the negotiating table, already having lowered the number of troops well in advance. In the wake of the president’s hasty retreat, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that the negotiations will be deeply contentious. They have already been marred by increased Taliban attacks on Afghan soldiers and assassination attempts, with scores of civilians killed in the crossfire.
Iraq has also seen Trump declare premature victory only to disengage with no thought for long-term consequence. The president announced in late 2018 that the US would withdraw nearly all its troops from Syria under the pretense that the Islamic State was decimated. And while the radical terrorist movement indeed lost all its territory and their leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, military commanders from Iraq and the Pentagon urge caution. Both put the current number of Islamic State members between 14 and 18 thousand – 4 to 8 thousand more than when the organization first proclaimed a caliphate.
Not only is the Islamic State still growing and organizing underground, but those who survived the initial conflict have been further radicalized and trained in live combat. Masrour Barzani, the Prime Minister of Iraqi Kurdistan and former leader of the Kurdish paramilitary force known as the peshmerga, claims the Islamic State is reorganizing at an alarming rate. Even at its nadir, the organization continued to launch an average of 60 attacks a month on Iraqi security forces. It is under these circumstances that Trump is removing antiterrorism forces from the country, leaving a nascent anti-American Islamist terrorist organization to develop undisturbed.
Trump’s ham-fisted attempts to make good on his electoral promises will have disastrous consequences in the Middle East. It has already cast doubt on the United States’ reputation as a loyal ally following the president’s removal of troops stationed in longtime NATO allied countries like Germany.
But the most frustrating aspect of the president’s military policy is the fact that these actions are deeply hypocritical. Trump boasts about delivering on his campaign promises to cut foreign military spending and bring American forces home, while in the same breath he signs into law the National Defense Authorization Act which drastically increased the military budget, redeploys soldiers elsewhere around the world, and bullishly enflames conflicts with the potential to pull the United States into deeper military entanglements. He recalls and redeploys forces to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain on a whim, baiting Iran into conflict. According to the Congressional Research Service, Donald Trump’s history of conducting unilateral military action against Iran could easily lead to future military conflict, including action against Iranian allies or proxies, retaliation against Iranian key targets and facilities as seen in the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, blockades, or even outright invasion. With the current breakdown of international military cooperation as well as the lack of communication and support between the United States and its NATO allies, it is likely that a regional conflict would be deeply taxing for the United States.
Trump’s blatantly hypocritical approach to military policy will have disastrous results for the American people and our allies abroad. It will risk American lives by pushing away our allies, enflaming our regional rivals, and allowing anti-American terrorism and instability to grow deep roots abroad, while skirting around the stated goal of decreasing the military budget. These policies were put in place to stroke Trump’s ego by allowing him to grandstand on an international stage, spend exorbitantly on nothing more than a show of force, and lend false legitimacy to the claim that he made good on his promises to the American people.
Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) – TAPS provides a variety of programs to offer compassionate care to those grieving the loss of a loved one who died while serving in the Armed Forces, or as a result of service. TAPS has helped more than 70,000 surviving families, caregivers, and casualty officers since the nonprofit was founded in 1994.
https://www.un.org/en/sections/about-un/how-donate-united-nations-system/ – In the absence of a multilateral military mission from the United States, the best hope at maintaining stability and decency abroad is through the support of international organizations like the United Nations.
https://www.usa.gov/confirm-voter-registration – Vote in the upcoming 2020 presidential election. Foreign and Military policy are inextricably linked to the Commander in Chief. We need a responsible steward of our nation now more than ever.
Although some of us may have missed it with all of the covid-19 news, in early August, U.S. intelligence reported to Congress that Russia, China, and Iran are attempting to interfere in the 2020 presidential election. Russia appears to be launching the largest offensive, with China and Iran making smaller, more limited incursions. Both sides of the aisle have now turned the report into an excuse for partisan grandstanding and factional ammunition. Democrats have used the report as further evidence that Trump is Putin’s desired candidate. Republicans have fired back with the fact that Biden is Iran and China’s desired candidate.
However, in the cases of China and Iran, it is wholly over-simplifying to say that they are running the same manner of interference as Russia. Facebook’s head of security has said that on their platform, the accounts linked to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) were more focused on generating an audience and then dividing said audience rather than supporting Biden in particular. Beijing certainly favors Biden, but their backing seems less concerted than Russia’s support for Trump. This may be due to Biden’s hardline statements against CCP human rights violations in Xinjiang or the fact that he is viewed more favorably by other democratic nations, threatening coalition-building potential. China’s efforts are also largely focused on political issues specifically related to Chinese business interests. For instance, the TikTok ban, the closure of Chinese consulates over accusations of industrial espionage, and resistance against Huawei’s 5G network. And for Iran, although the efforts certainly favor Biden, they appear to be more focused on encouraging mistrust in public institutions and circulating anti-American content than expressly denigrating Trump.
Compare this to Russian efforts, which have been the long-term continuation of the weaponization of social media through deep fakes, bot farms, disinformation, and trolling to support the Trump campaign since the 2016 election. Although Trump’s administration and the Republican party’s record on Russia has been largely harsh, Trump has personally expressed positive rhetoric and admiration for Putin. In addition, Biden was involved in anti-Russian policies based upon the invasion of Ukraine and pro-Putin opposition under the Obama administration.
It would appear that China and Russia are the key players in this election interference, with Iran played a subordinate role. Chinese efforts have been defined as being different from Russian. Although China is currently following Russia’s lead in weaponizing social media platforms, some worry that it may choose to follow a soft-power strategy that has shown promise in Australia and is far harder to combat under a democratic framework. In Australia, Chinese immigrants with connections to the CCP were found donating large sums of money to pro-Beijing political campaigns and attempting to influence Chinese-language media, civic groups, and on university campuses. These efforts are largely conducted through proxies and brushed aside by Beijing with rebuttals of plausible deniability. China has been promoting a positive public image in the U.S. for years through personal exchanges, relationships with American business leaders, retaliatory threats, lobbying, disinformation campaigns, and more.
All of this partisan mud-slinging obscures the real issue, however. To put it simply, Iran, China, and Russia are attempting to realize political outcomes in the U.S. that are advantageous to their respective regimes while concurrently damaging and ultimately shattering ordinary American’s faith in their public institutions. They appear to be succeeding, although the degree to which this is due to foreign interference is debatable. Doubt has been cast on the electoral process and this threatens all of us. Democracy is built upon confidence in the voting system and the integrity of public institutions, and to be frank, we were already on shaky ground due to controversy over the electoral college and big money’s influence on political outcomes.
In addition, we as liberals should not be downplaying China and Iran’s efforts to support the Biden campaign in favor of spotlighting Russia and Trump. These practices, no matter the source, should not be normalized or seen as less dangerous than Russian exertions. It also distracts from real infrastructure problems facing the coming 2020 election, such as the lack of poll workers and the weakening of the U.S. postal service’s capacity.
Despite the threat to our elections, however, U.S. intelligence sources have reiterated that it is unlikely that America’s enemies abroad can currently manipulate voting to the point of altering true results. The U.S. has greatly improved its cyber election defenses since 2016 and much of the public is aware of the threat from foreign interference. The bulk of disinformation is actually coming from domestic sources rather than abroad, with mostly right-wing sources copying and employing tactics made popular by Russia in 2016. This is probably a far greater threat than foreign interference, as social media companies cannot easily clamp down on private citizens within the U.S. who claim that they are simply disseminating their political opinions.
Perhaps the gravest danger of nuclear proliferation today is the invisibility of the problem. As it stands, the United States officially has about 5800 nuclear weapons. Russia has about 6400. China has about 300. Six other states possess nuclear weapons; several others may be attempting to acquire them.
And yet the days of the Cold War are long gone. No more shelter-in-place drills, no more hiding under desks, no more fallout shelters. Culturally, the threat and fear of mass nuclear violence have largely dissipated—aside from occasional flare-ups surrounding “rogue states” like North Korea, or broad fears of nuclear terrorism. But all said, the risk of nuclear conflict is as serious as ever—perhaps the most serious it has ever been, given the lack of public awareness of the problem, modernization and proliferation of weapons, the caliber of the leaders currently in power, and the crumbling international framework for managing arms control.
To begin with the last point: a long series of nuclear arms control agreements began in the early days of the Cold War. This notably included the Limited Test Ban Treaty, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and numerous others—some between the United States and USSR, and some with an international framework.
The limitations of the treaties have been clear. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was never ratified by India, Pakistan, and Israel, all of which ultimately acquired nuclear weapons. The central premise of the treaty—that non-nuclear states would not pursue development of nuclear weapons, as nuclear states pursue eventual disarmament—has not been met with any serious progress towards disarmament by the major nuclear weapons states, the United States included.
Perhaps more urgently, landmark agreements between the US/USSR (and later Russian Federation) have been allowed to expire, or have been abandoned. The 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which limited anti-ballistic missile capabilities between the two states, lapsed in 2002, when the Bush Administration exited the agreement. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty was abandoned by the US, then Russia, in 2019. The last remaining US-Russia nuclear weapons treaty, New START—signed in 2009—may expire in 2021, largely due to the unwillingness of the Trump Administration to renew it.
A related issue has been modernization of the nuclear arsenals. In the United States, this began as a $1 trillion plan under the Obama Administration, and includes submarine, bomber, and missile upgrades, as well as new deployments of so-called “low-yield”—and thus, theoretically more “usable”—nuclear weapons. Russia has also pursued modernizations, including hypersonic weapons.
Finally, it ought to be noted that smaller but potentially apocalyptic nuclear flash points remain, such as between India and Pakistan. Both are nuclear states with regular border clashes and aggressive—and particularly in India’s case, extremely nationalistic—governments. Other states, like Iran, do not currently have nuclear weapons, but may be on the path to acquiring them.
The United States is not the only international actor when it comes to nuclear proliferation, but it is by far the most significant. The US remains the only nation ever to have used a nuclear weapon in war. Despite ongoing American decline, its status as a superpower, and the enormity of its arsenal, necessitate American involvement in serious international efforts to reduce proliferation. Ideally, this would involve bilateral arms control agreements with Russia, a halt to American nuclear modernization plans, some sort of multilateral mediation at specific conflict sites (including a real defusing of tensions with states like North Korea), and a true move towards nuclear disarmament.
Of course, the Trump Administration has repeatedly demonstrated that it regards international diplomacy as, at best, a nuisance. Trump has personally demonstrated an erratic fascination with nuclear weapons and his administration has shown an utter lack of interest in any efforts to reduce nuclear proliferation. Indeed, its policies in Iran have significantly heightened the probability of that country developing nuclear weapons. Relatedly, there is evidence that Saudi Arabia is potentially pursuing nuclear weapons, possibly with US assent.
To address this, it must be kept in mind that American unilateralism as regards nuclear weapons has been a largely bipartisan policy with a long history. It was the Bush Administration that exited the ABM, and the Obama Administration that agreed to an enormous modernization of the nuclear arsenal. That said, much of the effectiveness of arms control in the past was also broadly bipartisan, and more importantly, instigated by mass public pressure. If the current path is to be altered, the urgency surrounding eliminating nuclear weapons must be renewed.
- https://kingsbayplowshares7.org — Members of the Kings Bay Plowshares 7 are due to be sentenced for a non-violent, anti-nuclear action—dating to 4/4/2018—during which they entered the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base to stage an anti-nuclear protest. Read about the case and donate at the links above.
- https://www.armscontrol.org — “The Arms Control Association, founded in 1971, is a national nonpartisan membership organization dedicated to promoting public understanding of and support for effective arms control policies.”
- https://thebulletin.org — “The Bulletin equips the public, policymakers, and scientists with the information needed to reduce man-made threats to our existence.”
While not as omnipresent as it often has been, the issue of conflict with Iran should loom large in the context of the 2020 election. Indeed, it’s important to consider just how much more serious this issue has grown in the last four years. A central premise of Trump’s 2016 campaign was exiting the 2015 JCPOA— perhaps the single biggest foreign policy achievement of the Obama administration. Beginning on May 8, 2018, Trump made good on this threat, officially withdrawing from the agreement. Tensions with Iran have grown steadily since. The start of 2020 saw the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Suleimani at Baghdad International Airport, a major escalation of the conflict. Most recently, on September 19, 2020, the United States unilaterally attempted to reimpose all pre-JCPOA UN sanctions on Iran. (This includes a conventional arms embargo on Iran, among other prohibitions). While the efficacy of these sanctions are somewhat limited by the sheer exhaustion of sanctions already placed on Iran, coupled with the international community’s opposition to the sanctions, the United States still wields considerable power to hassle other countries and companies that do attempt to do business with Iran.
Any discussion of American-Iranian diplomacy must take into account the long and contentious history of relations between the two countries. In 1953, a CIA-backed coup overthrew the popularly elected Iranian prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddeq, primarily over American and British objections to his nationalization of the British Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (later, British Petroleum). Mosaddeq was replaced by Shah Reza Pahlavi, whose often-brutal reign was financially and militarily supported by the United States until he was overthrown in the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Though less well-remembered (at least in the United States), American efforts to destabilize Iran were amplified after the Islamic Revolution and concurrent hostage crisis. September 2020 marks the 40th anniversary of the start of the Iran-Iraq War, which began after Saddam Hussein invaded Iran. The war, ultimately the longest conventional war of the 20th century, was brutal for both sides, but particularly Iran. Although the United States played the two countries off each other during the war (Henry Kissinger famously said: “it’s a pity both sides can’t lose”), US sympathies were definitively with Saddam, and the US assisted him with targeting, weapons sales, and other logistical support. Perhaps most egregiously, in 1988, the United States missile cruiser Vincennes, stationed in the Persian Gulf, shot down Iranian Air Flight 655, killing all 290 passengers aboard. And finally, lest it be forgotten—it was widely believed that an American overthrow of Iran would be the sequel to the American invasion of Iraq. Iran was listed, along with Iraq and North Korea, in Bush’s famous “Axis of Evil” speech, and it is likely only the quagmire in Iraq that prevented the Bush Administration from taking this second step.
Today Iran is a regional power, and heavily isolated by America and its regional allies (particularly Israel and the Arab Gulf States). Predictably, because of American withdrawal from the JCPOA, Iran has stopped complying with the terms of the agreement and has begun to expand its enriched uranium stockpile.
Trump appears to have little understanding of or interest in how his actions will destabilize the Greater Middle East. Despite implicit and explicit promises to end American involvement in the region, with regards to Iran he has dramatically escalated the potential for mass conflict. While Trump’s opinions may often be unformed and fickle, he continues to be advised by a number of long-time Iran hawks, like Mike Pompeo.
It hardly bears restating, but it should be emphasized that even a regional war would be devastating to all parties involved, particularly to Iranian citizens and other civilians in the region. The odds of a large-scale ground war and invasion—as with Iraq—seem low, but the prospect of a devastating air war, with serious Iranian resistance, remains quite possible. It is worth bearing in mind that at least several hundred thousand Iraqis died as a result of the American-led invasion in 2003, and the body count may well exceed one million.
It should also be noted that despite its weaknesses from years of sanctions and isolation, Iran remains a strong country with a multi-millennia history. Iran is not in the position Iraq was in in 2003 (and arguably, Iran’s position has been strengthened by the US destruction of Iraq). Iran would be quite capable of mounting a major defense, directly and through proxies, like Hezbollah.
Finally—aside from making it extremely difficult, logistically, for a hypothetical Biden administration to re-enter the Iran deal, the Trump administration has created the possibly more severe problem of utterly shredding American credibility vis-à-vis international treaties. Why should Iran (or North Korea, or Venezuela, etc.) sign any treaty with an American administration if the next one can rip it up? Trump and those surrounding him evidently care little about this in the pursuit of their own agenda.
As tensions remain extremely high, and particularly as the election approaches, it is also worth noting that for decades Iran has been portrayed as an aggressor in US media and by the vast majority of Republicans and Democrats. However even a cursory reading of regional history shows that Iran has far more often been the victim of geopolitical machinations by America and Western powers. All in all, Iran has reacted as a rational state actor, while the absurdity of the Trump administration’s approach has increasingly demonstrated that the United States is acting as a rogue state; and the long trail that has led to this moment was paved by a bipartisan consensus in Washington. It is imperative that those looking for change through the US domestic political process remember this.
- https://ploughshares.org — “For over 39 years Ploughshares Fund has supported the most effective people and organizations in the world to reduce and eventually eliminate the dangers posed by nuclear weapons.”
- https://www.codepink.org — “CODEPINK is a women-led grassroots organization working to end U.S. wars and militarism, support peace and human rights initiatives, and redirect our tax dollars into healthcare, education, green jobs and other life-affirming programs.”
- https://aboutfaceveterans.org — “We are Post-9/11 service members and veterans organizing to end a foreign policy of permanent war and the use of military weapons, tactics, and values in communities across the country.”
US intervention in Latin American politics extends back almost to the founding of this country, predating even the Monroe Doctrine. Overt interventions in the 19th and early 20th centuries included the Mexican-American War, Spanish-American War, Banana Wars, and many others. These interventions evolved into slightly more covert but equally, if not more, violent interventions during the Cold War and post-Cold War eras. This has included countless US-backed coups, training and support for right-wing paramilitaries, an over half-century long effort to destabilize Cuba, and innumerable other cases. It is in this context that we must evaluate the American relationship with Bolivia, particularly in light of the coup d’état that occurred in that country last year.
Bolivia serves as an especially interesting case because, in the space of days, the country transitioned (non-democratically) from a left-leaning, socially-democratic, Indigenous-led government to a far-right, overtly Christian one. This rapid change was only mildly and briefly noted in most of the US press, despite the clear undemocratic nature of the shift and the violent repression in the country that accompanied it.
The immediate situation went as follows: in October 2019, Evo Morales ran for a fourth term as President of Bolivia. Morales was the first Indigenous leader of the majority-Indigenous nation and his years in power were characterized by broad economic advancement for the poorest citizens of the country (among many notable statistics, the proportion of Bolivians living in extreme poverty went from 36% to 17% during Morales’ time in office). Morales was one of a handful of left-leaning leaders elected in Latin America in the 2000s, including Luis Inacio Lula da Silva in Brazil and Rafael Correa in Ecuador. Despite some criticism for standing for a fourth term, Morales remained broadly popular and was the favorite to win last year’s election.
Indeed, as votes were being tabulated, it became clear Morales would win and the only question was by how much (Bolivian law requires a 10% margin of victory, plus winning over 40% of the vote, to avoid a second-round run-off). Before the election had been called, however, the Organization of American States, who was monitoring the election, alleged with little evidence that there were counting irregularities and declared the vote fraudulent. The Trump administration and prominent Republicans like Marco Rubio (and numerous Democrats) came out against Morales. Despite his agreeing to new elections, on November 10, the military publicly demanded Morales’ resignation, and he fled the country. After his ouster, right-wing, white Christian Senator Jeanine Añez appointed herself interim president. Meanwhile, mass protests by the Morales’ base, following the coup, triggered a brutal state crackdown, in which at least several dozen of his supporters have been killed.
Despite a lack of procedural legitimacy, Añez remains president today, and new elections have thus far been postponed twice. Notably, a study earlier this year by MIT’s Election Data and Science Lab determined that last year’s election was indeed fair.
How does the US fit in amidst this? Clearly, its early denouncement of Morales and support for the OAS lent confidence to the right-wing political and military forces that ultimately initiated the coup d’état. The OAS has a long history of domination by Washington, and specifically, in intervening in elections seen as unfavorable to the United States (Haiti in 2000 and 2010 are two recent examples). The US press also played a supportive role by downplaying the military’s role in overthrowing Morales and over-emphasizing perceived antidemocratic tendencies by Morales himself. Perhaps above all, like other left-wing Latin American leaders, Morales had long been a thorn in Washington’s side, and there was clearly an eagerness among US leaders to see him go.
It is too early to know with any certainty whether Washington had inside knowledge of or involvement with the acute effort to remove Morales, but it has been widely suggested that Bolivia’s vast lithium reserves—essential to electric car batteries—lent significant impetus to Western support for a change in government. Indeed, Morales had cancelled a contract with a German lithium mining company, ACISA, only a week before the coup took place, after mass protests from local residents.
Despite Trump’s “America First” isolationist bluster, the United States continues to remain a violently destabilizing actor around the world. The administration’s actions in relation to countries as far-flung as Iran, Yemen, Venezuela—and here, Bolivia—have served to exacerbate regional tensions and, in many cases, intensify American involvement in the affairs of these nations. In this case, it is the people of Bolivia who will suffer most.
https://amazonwatch.org/about — “Amazon Watch is a nonprofit organization founded in 1996 to protect the rainforest and advance the rights of Indigenous peoples in the Amazon Basin. We partner with Indigenous and environmental organizations in campaigns for human rights, corporate accountability and the preservation of the Amazon’s ecological systems.”
https://www.internationalpolicy.org — “The Center for International Policy (CIP) works to make a peaceful, just and sustainable world the central pursuit of U.S. foreign policy. We promote cooperation, transparency and accountability in the international relations of the United States. Through research and advocacy, our programs offer common sense solutions to address the most urgent threats to our planet: war, corruption, inequality and climate change.”
On August 31, flight LY971 landed in the United Arab Emirates after a three-hour journey from Israel. The touchdown acted as a seal of approval on the Abraham Accord, the agreement to normalize relations between the two countries. The deal was brokered by the Trump administration behind closed doors and announced suddenly on August 13.
The accord was hinted at in the Emirati ambassador to the United States Yousef Al Otaiba’s op-ed in Israel’s largest daily newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, in which the diplomat decried Israel’s plans to annex parts of the West Bank and offered the suggestion of diplomatic normalization as an alternative. Al Otaiba’s hopes for greater economic ties and security cooperation came to fruition: Israel suspended the planned annexation, while the Emirati government in Abu Dhabi signed the Abraham Accord into law. The Trump administration joined national newspapers in both signatory nations in pronouncing the agreement a historic step towards peace in the Middle East. The UAE is now only the third Arab government to normalize relations with Israel, after Egypt and Jordon.
Yet despite the fanfare, the Palestinian Authority and civil society throughout the Middle East have roundly criticized the deal for breaking the consensus in the Arab world that no country unilaterally sign a peace treaty with Israel.
And the deal was indeed unilateral — the Emirati government did not clue in any other Arab nation to its plans, abstaining even from inviting the Palestinian Authority or any other body representing the Palestinian people to the negotiations. Thus, an agreement that ostensible hinged on Israel halting its annexation of Palestinian-occupied land completely blindsided Palestinian leadership. Pro-peace movements view the move in bad faith and believe that the outcome of the Abraham Accord is at best ineffective and at worst harmful to the Arab world’s stated goals of a two-state solution and a lasting peace in the Middle East. Nour Odeg, a Palestinian writer and analyst, is quoted in the New York Times as writing that Abu Dhabi, “tried to use us as a fig leaf…Nobody buys it…Palestine did not factor into this.”
While this accord was sold to onlookers as a way of defending the Palestinian people from Israeli annexation efforts, the facts on the ground show that peace in the West Bank was, at best, an afterthought. This was an act of convenience for the signatories parties as well as for the Trump Administration, which used the accord to support two regimes friendly with the president, while ignoring the root of a conflict that was supposed to be center stage in the negotiations.
The deal was marketed as an accomplishment as great as the Israeli treaties with Egypt and Jordon, one that would bring peace to the Middle East, and yet it failed to accomplish any of its stated goals. This accord, while certainly a major shift in regional politics, is in no way relatable to the aforementioned peace deals, which marked the end of armed conflicts. In addition, the deal does little to address the root of the conflict it set out to resolve, with Israel showing little desire to negotiate with any Palestinian organization. Mairav Zonszein is quoted in the Jerusalem Post as pointing out that the Abraham Accord is Isreal’s attempt to sign a peace agreement with a country it was not at war with, “while continuing to occupy millions of Palestinians.”
The Emirati demand to halt Israel’s annexation plans was granted, though the plans had already long been stalled by recently-indicted Prime Minister Netanyahu’s waning political heft while he awaits the fourth election in a single year, following three contested results. In addition, poignant Brookings Institute analysis suggests that Netanyahu is surely keeping an eye on the upcoming US presidential election, with full knowledge that going forward with the planned annexation would potentially sour relations with a new, anti-annexation Biden-Harris administration. The UAE’s demands acted as an excuse for Israel to put a pause on an already drawn-out and internationally unpopular policy while appeasing hardliners within the country. With a window into regional markets, security cooperation and diplomacy with the Arab world on the table in return for simply maintaining the status quo, Israel got a whole lot more than they gave.
The UAE proclaimed their support of Palestine while using them as a justification to sign the Abraham Accord, unilaterally moving the goalpost for rapprochement with Israel from “when Palestine is liberated” to “when Israel pauses its current annexation plans.” The fact that Abu Dhabi has been inching towards normalization with Israel for years coupled with the lingering question about why they never consulted with the Palestinian Authority about their plans makes it clear that true peace between Israel and the Palestinians wasn’t exactly on the forefront of their mind.
As for the Trump administration, the salesmanship around the issue clearly points to the president’s plans to use the accord as a tagline in his reelection campaign. Branding a coming-together of two conservative, Trump-friendly administrations that leaves Palestinian civil liberties and self-determination out of the conversation as “peace in the Middle East” is the same kind of misdirection we have seen from this presidency on countless domestic and foreign policies throughout the last four years. While Arab-Israeli rapprochement could do wonders for developing soft diplomacy in the region, critics are right to worry that by leaving Palestinians outside the negotiations in such a supposedly historic treaty, and one that affects them so directly, sets a bad precedent for future negotiations.
As the broker of this accord, it was the Trump-administration’s solemn duty to use this opportunity to progress true peace in the Middle East. Instead, the president kicked the can down the road. The outcome of this agreement highlights the fact that president’s foreign policy is based on supporting governments over people, and that his administration is in no rush to address the underlying causes of regional instability as long as his allies come out on top. With so many Americans working tirelessly to address similar trends in the president’s domestic policies, it can be easy to overlook the damage done to the international landscape. Yet it is more vital now than ever to build solidarity between social movements and across borders to defend the decency of those lives ignored by authoritarian and reactionary governments.
- IfNotNow is a, in their own words, a “movement of Jews to end Israel’s occupation and transform the American Jewish community.” The organization takes a stand against hate-fueled division, using progressive ideals to educate about antisemitism, racism, and other forms of abuse.
- The United Palestine Appeal, or UPA, works to alleviate the suffering of Palestinian people on the West Bank, Gaza Strip and in refugee camps abroad. They also put resources into developing Palestinian society through socioeconomic and civil development campaigns.
- The Palestine Advocacy Project is an advocacy organization dedicated to ending the unjust treatment of the Palestinian people through public media campaigns, informational training, workshops and seminars.
By Brandon Mooney
August 4, 2020
Unless you’ve had your head buried in the sand for the past month, you have no doubt heard about the controversy surrounding whether Trump had been briefed on intelligence claiming that Russia offered bounties to the Taliban in Afghanistan for the targeting and killing of U.S. servicemen.
Unless you’ve had your head buried in the sand for the past month, you have no doubt heard about the controversy surrounding whether Trump had been briefed on intelligence claiming that Russia offered bounties to the Taliban in Afghanistan for the targeting and killing of U.S. servicemen. With more right-wing news sources and the Trump administration offering a variety of arguments such as that the intelligence was not verified, that the intelligence was never brought to Trump’s attention, or that Russian and Taliban denials of the affair should be taken as truth; one can quickly surmise that the American public will probably never know the truth. Plausible deniability is on Trump’s side, and however much liberal audiences may cry out, it is unlikely that the official narrative will change. It has become, as all things are in the era of Trump, a “he said, she said” debate with each side claiming wrongdoing by the other. However, this event raises the opportunity to take a look back over Trump’s foreign policy with Russia.
As many media sources have pointed out, the Trump administration’s seeming foreign policy goals and treatment of Russia has been nothing if not confusing. Marked by anti-Kremlin policies from the administration and GOP allies mixed with a litany of pro-Putin sentiments from Trump, it is an odd tangle of conflicting elements. Looking first at moves by the Trump administration, one finds a fairly homogenous approach of resisting Russian influence. Back in 2017, the Trump administration closed two Russian diplomatic trade annexes and shut down Russia’s consulate in San Francisco over accusations of espionage. However, it was reported that Trump had either been disinterested in said closings or had never been brought in on the decision, with then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis spearheading the move. In the same year, the administration approved the selling of lethal arms to Ukraine to resist Russian-backed forces in Crimea, a move that the Obama administration had refused to do. Moving forward, in 2018, the Trump administration pushed for a $1.4 billion increase in the European Deterrence Initiative budget, an almost 41% increase over the Obama-era.
However, these foreign policy decisions are juxtaposed by Trump’s personal rhetoric. He has suggested re-instating Russia into the G-7, from which it was removed in 2014 following the annexation of Crimea. He has also floated withdrawing U.S. troops from Germany, which many see as allowing Russian influence in the region to swell and a weakening of NATO power. He was criticized for revealing top-secret Israeli intelligence on ISIS bomb-making to Kremlin officials in a closed-door meeting as well. Trump has posted various pro-Putin remarks over Twitter, and even sent out a congratulations on Putin’s election victory. Trump has also largely denied Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and seems to give Russia the benefit of the doubt on most issues. A series of bipartisan sanctions imposed on Russia in 2017 by Congress was met by heavy criticism by Trump’s White House and on Twitter.
Whenever he comes under criticism about his personal treatment of Russia, Trump argues that he has been the toughest president on Russia in recent history and points to the moves by his administration that I mentioned above. However, one has to wonder how many of those moves came from him and how many came from those around him. Is he truly anti-Kremlin and just admires an oil-rich autocrat masquerading as a democratically elected president? Although I do believe that Trump wishes to push American national interest, I seriously doubt that his version of national interest involves an aggressive anti-Russian component. This is not to say that diplomacy should be abandoned or that the U.S. should be antagonistic, but that refusing to admit to Putin’s authoritarian tendencies and the Kremlin’s desire to manipulate the American electorate in order to erode our power abroad is ultimately far worse than turning a blind eye.
As much as Trump may say it doesn’t, his rhetoric matters. Posting on Twitter is his main avenue for communicating with the wider world and acting congenial and supportive of the Russian regime should not be dismissed as casual talk without meaning. You can bet that the Kremlin is watching, learning, anticipating, and acting upon the things that Trump posts. They obviously see him as an ally in a world order that views Russia with suspicion. The fact that his administration has been tough on them has not appeared to overly sour Putin’s chummy relationship with Trump nor dissuade Russian trolls and interference.
In closing, although the Trump administration as a whole has made admirable moves towards resisting Russian influence and pushing for the expansion of American national interest, Trump’s own feelings and narrative of Russia is highly divergent and does not fill me with confidence. Hypothetically, if Trump was told that Russian operatives were paying the Taliban to kill U.S. servicemen, from a reading of his tweets, I am not confident that Trump would take this as intelligence to act upon. And in a world where our president has openly expressed admiration for a world leader that utilizes the organs of state for personal enrichment, that should worry all of us.
July 8, 2020
Touted by supporters as the new NAFTA 2.0, one of the major tenets underlying the Trump Administration’s foreign policy platform was recently put into practice. On July 1, the USMCA (United States – Mexico – Canada Agreement) officially replaced NAFTA as the economic blueprint to regional trade. For the past 3 years, the Trump Administration has been revising and modifying specifications of the free trade policy that has governed the rules of North American cross-border commerce.
The administration has repeatedly attacked previously negotiated free trade agreements, characterizing them as one-sided trade deals that weakened America’s competitiveness in the global market. NAFTA was no exception to presidential criticism. In the past, the president has threatened to punish American manufacturers who sought to utilize supply chains south of the border, by subjecting them to tariffs on domestic re-entry, even when U.S. businesses have been able to lower costs, raise profits, and increase market capitalization.
Briefly, some of the elements of USMCA incorporated as part of the revision were higher degrees of protection for the automotive industry through more stringent rules of origin. Auto manufacturers must ensure that 75% of the components used in the production of passenger vehicles come from North America, up from 62.5% under the original NAFTA terms. If producers fail to comply, automobiles in production will be subject to duties and tariffs each time automotive content is exchanged from country to country. The lifecycle of the automotive manufacturing process requires extensive cross-border mechanical flow of parts and commercial testing, exposing producers in the region to inflated costs. Besides meeting a quota on automotive contents, the USMCA requires that 70% of the steel and aluminum used in production must originate from either Mexico, Canada, or the U.S. Moreover, labor initiatives ensure that nearly 45% of content must be produced by regional workers, earning a minimum of $16 per hour. Although other general labor, environmental, and intellectual property provisions were administered through USMCA, the basis of the Trump trade policy has been built on a foundation dominated by the tenets of mercantilism, targeting a host of actors ranging from domestic industries to global trading partners.
President Trump has repeatedly used false narratives and misguided nationalism as the “smoke and mirrors” to justify his protectionist agenda. Nothing has been politicized more and understood less than the benefits of foreign trade. The Trump administration has cultivated the notion that trade policy has been negotiated from a position of weakness, to which Americans have long shouldered the cost, citing the overall trade deficit as proof of his claims.
The problem with this assertion is that it’s rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of the way the global economy operates. While it is certainly true that the U.S. runs a persistent trade deficit with most of its trading partners, the balance of trade is an inconsequential metric in determining success in the global market. The gains to trade are not governed by the ability to run a positive balance of trade, but rather by the capacity to increase overall standards of living. In fact, the trade deficit is only a portion of the total effect of international commerce and is reciprocated and financed by a capital surplus. Dollars spent abroad on imports always come to return as capital investment, maintaining the constant flow of jobs and economic growth. However, because the Trump administration has politicized the trade deficit as a means of imposing protectionist policies, the president has used this as justification to shield some of the biggest companies on the planet from foreign competition, all at the expense of taxpayers. Truth is, the trade deficit is no more a symptom of economic failure than the trade surplus is of economic success.
On the contrary, the way to make American businesses more competitive is not through protecting them from foreign competition, but rather encouraging them to use the most efficient factors of production, whether its supply chains in Mexico or factories abroad. More than half of the products imported from countries like Mexico and Canada are raw materials used by manufacturers in the downstream value-added sectors of the economy. Allowing producers to operate in an open market ensures they will be able to lower cost, boost economic growth, and create economies of scale. When small businesses can be the benefactors of an open market, rather than one restrained by tariffs, quotas, and subsidization, they are able to maximize profit and re-invest back in the U.S. economy, thus creating long-term sustainable employment.
A successful trade relationship should seek to promote mutual interests, where the benefits of one nation don’t undermine that of another. The global landscape has transitioned since the times of the Cold War. No longer does the international community reward power and conflict but rather peace and cooperation. Countries who have integrated economic interests have a greater propensity to cooperate in achieving prosperity.
With that said, approximately a year ago, the Trump Administration publicly declared political victory after the U.S. forced Mexico to capitulate to initiatives set forth by the president in an attempt to get the Mexican government to reduce the effects of illegal immigration. This so-called agreement was bound by the threat of billions of dollars of tariffs the U.S. promised to impose on Latin American imports in the absence of Mexico’s cooperation. The problem with this arrangement is that if Mexico fails to meet its objectives, the president will ultimately unleash the punitive effects of this mutual destructive scheme that would not only harm regional economic growth but would also exacerbate the effects of illegal immigration.
Rather than seeking a policy that would induce such austere effects for both Latin America and the U.S., the president should seek to promote incentives necessary to make both nations better off. Policies that foster multilateral success would discourage citizens from leaving home in search of economic prosperity. Granting U.S. market access would enable trading partners to boost earnings. When America’s trading partners prosper and earn more, they can, in turn, buy more from American producers, which would ensure the U.S. remains competitive in the global market. The success of American exporters will always be contingent on whether foreigners have the financial necessities to acquire U.S. products. Therefore, when the president seeks to punish our trading partners, he ultimately punishes Americans as well.
Ultimately, as long as the Trump Administration continues to deviate from the traditions that have promoted international security and global prosperity, neither the U.S, Mexico, nor Canada will be the benefactors of the potential windfall that the productive forces of unrestricted free trade can potentially unleash for North America.
- Center for Strategic & International Studies – [https://www.csis.org/topics/economics/trade-and-international-business] – is a non-partisan U.S. think tank that provides analysis of the climate, global trends, and risks in the global commercial environment. They consult on policy issues ranging from international trade, governance, competitiveness, and international economic development.
- Cato Institute – [https://www.cato.org/research/trade-policy] – is a public policy research organization dedicated to the principles of freedom, free-markets, and peace. Through publishing policy proposals, blogs, web features, op‐eds and TV appearances, Cato has worked vigorously to present citizens with incisive and understandable analysis.
- Mercatus Center – [https://www.mercatus.org/tags/trade-and-immigration] – is a university-based research center bridging the gap between academic ideas and real-world problems. Their mission is to generate knowledge and understanding of the institutions that affect the freedom to prosper and live peaceful lives.