What an unusual season—or seasons, I should say. The inner workings of American foreign policy are rarely as exposed as they have been over the past couple of years. We ought to appreciate the clarity of this interim and take from it lessons that will make us smarter. And angrier, which is my abiding hope.
One still has to look past the well-embroidered drapery of mis- and disinformation that official Washington weaves to understand events as they are. As ever, one must read the press not to know what has occurred in any given case, only to know what we are supposed to think occurred. Then commences the search for what did occur. It can be found; I cannot recall a time during my professional life when the “alternative” press—how I dislike this term—bore more responsibility than it does now.
The lesson available to us at the moment has to do with duplicity. And we ought not miss it because what is at issue in two specific cases could hardly be more significant. One, the Obama administration signed an accord governing Iran’s nuclear program last July; it is the single most constructive thing the U.S. has done in the Middle East, among very few, in many decades. Two, in February it signed an agreement with Moscow providing for a partial ceasefire in Syria and new talks intended to produce a lasting peace and a political solution; there is a chance now to alleviate what is currently the world’s worst political and humanitarian crisis.
American duplicity now jeopardizes both of these multilateral undertakings. Over the past several weeks it has grown perfectly evident that the administration is well along in subverting the Iranian and Syrian accords by either working against them (the Syria case) or abrogating the commitments it made when it signed them (the Iran case). There is time still to reverse course, but there is little to suggest the Obama administration has any intention of doing so.
Given the magnitude of these two questions, the rest of the world is effectively invited to hold the bag as Washington continues its ever more desperate effort to sustain its place atop the global order. The reality we must accept is that nothing else matters to the policy cliques—no number of deaths, no risk of regional war.
Once in a while we get a glimpse of those who execute American policy abroad in the act of lying, or betraying another nation or going back on their word. Now we have a chance to see that treachery, even if it is noon on a sunny day, is a standard feature in the American diplomatic repertoire. In the sanctum sanctorum of the policy cliques, where only the high priests are permitted, Machiavellian deceit—“stylish and accomplished amorality,” as one truly awful historian of U.S. policy puts it—is a badge of worldly wisdom. If the paradox is not too much, having no principles is a principle held high within the cliques.
I consider context and history essential in any conversation, as this column’s readers might be tired of hearing by now. Let us begin with a little of both.
America was founded on the certainty of its innocence, and in the republic’s earliest years there was justification for this. It was the European powers who made the world a sordid, Hobbesian place where all fought all in their own interests alone. Democratic Americans, fair and fair-minded, desired only friendships abroad and no “foreign entanglements,” as Washington famously put it in his farewell address.
The tradition comes down to us—even as it has been entirely mythical since the Spanish-American War and our subsequent suppression of democratic aspiration in the Philippines in the early years of the 20th century. Walter Russell Mead, the supercilious historian quoted above, wrote as recently as 2001 that Americans are still “the Mr. Magoo of the world community.”
The smell of cornpone is strong in Mead’s “Special Providence,” a title that makes it hard to read on even as one must—again, strictly to understand what one is supposed to think. Our problem in foreign affairs remains our innocence, it seems. We are too democratic in determining our foreign policies—shall I write that out again so it can sink in?—and so our “moralistic illusions” ever intrude. We have to close the “moral gap” between our desire for a fair and balanced world and things as they are.
“The United States continues to enjoy both at home and abroad a kind of hayseed image when it comes to foreign policy,” Mead writes, “that of an innocent, barefoot boy unaccustomed to the wiles and ways of the sharp international operators.”
Does it indeed, Professor Mead.
“Special Providence” is Mead’s opus on American policy, and it is held in very high regard. Now you know the approved thinking. Now you understand that our policy elites do not like to start wars of choice, disrupt other nations, shred social fabrics, break international law incessantly and all the rest. But these things are necessary because they are the ways of the world. Dislike it as we may, we have to join the Hobbesian scrum in our own interests alone. If we had a just foreign policy dedicated to peaceable international relations, the rest of the world would scoff just as Metternich and Bismarck and all those British foreign secretaries did.
And now we are ready to take a brief look at just what Washington has been up to with the Iranians and the Syrians of late.
As early as January, five months after it was signed, one would have to be half-blind not to suspect that the accord restricting Iran’s nuclear activities to peaceful purposes—energy generation and medical research, primarily—was fated to be another of Washington’s deals that are not deals. The Iranians need this agreement to work for all sorts of reasons, let there be no question. But—straight out front—I applaud them for patiently sticking with it given all that the Obama administration has done to negate it since it was concluded last summer. They have ample reason to walk away.
Remember “implementation day,” last Jan. 16? That was when the International Atomic Energy Agency certified that Iran had met all the conditions stipulated in the accord it signed with the U.S. and five other major powers. Secretary of State Kerry grandly announced in Vienna that sanctions imposed on Iran would thenceforth be lifted.
Remember the next day, a Sunday? The White House immediately announced a new set of sanctions against 11 Iranian companies, institutions and individual people because Iran had tested a ballistic missile the previous autumn.
Last month came more of the same. This time the Iranians conducted several missile tests over a period of two days. And on March 25 the administration announced another round of sanctions, these once again imposed by the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.
You can read all manner of things about these developments. The Israeli press will tell you without qualification that the missile launches violate not only a U.N. Security Council resolution, but also the nuclear accord itself. Not even the American media are trying to put that latter thought over.
The American press has stepped back, too, from its accounts of UNSCR 2231, the resolution passed when the nuclear accord went through last July. The new resolution supersedes all previous U.N. rulings, and, reflecting tough negotiations beforehand, alters the language subtly but significantly. Previous Security Council votes barred Iran from testing ballistic missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. Resolution 2231 simply “calls upon Iran” not to conduct such tests.
A small matter, except that it is not. The change in language is not an accident. It is there to accommodate Iran’s very real post-agreement interests. Iranians live next door to a hostile nuclear power—the Israelis, of course. The Saudis recently took an order of Chinese-made missiles capable of bearing nuclear warheads. Having dropped what nuclear ambitions it may have had—and I question if it ever had any—Iran has a right and emphatically a need to defend itself.
You can translate 2231 into plain English this way: The Security Council prefers you would not test ballistic missile technologies, but under international law it can do no more than prefer it. The Americans, in the person of the self-regarding Samantha Power, assented to the language in 2231, we must not forget. Now Power protests that it means something other than what it means. The only people who take this fleck of duplicity seriously seem to be members of the American public. No one else does.
For a time the U.S. pretended the Iranian tests breached 2231, and the New York Times duly reported the tests as so doing. But both the administration and the Times have subtly stepped back in their customarily dishonest way, if you have been following the news reports. They had to: The stated position is indefensible. Not even Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon can bring himself to plain-spoken condemnation of Iran’s testing activities.
In any event, there is this logical lapse: Iran has certifiably dismantled all aspects of its nuclear program that would have made it capable of weaponizing enriched uranium. Nonetheless, say the Americans, we will impose sanctions on Iran for developing missile technology that would make it capable of firing one of the nuclear weapons we have just made certain it cannot build.
Look at it this way and tell me, please, why Washington is imposing new rounds of sanctions even as it has announced that the severe, encompassing sanctions related to our nuclear suspicions have been removed. This is also what I mean by duplicity: Let’s make a deal. Now that you’ve lived up to it, we’re going to set to sabotaging it.
Did I just write that U.S. sanctions “have been removed?” Editorial error. That is not at all accurate.
A few Sundays back Iranians celebrated Nowruz, their new year, and Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, traveled to Mashad, a holy city up near the northeast border with Afghanistan, to speak. “The Americans did not act on what they promised in the nuclear accord,” Khamenei explained in a nationally televised address. “They put something on paper but prevented the materialization of the objectives through many diversionary ways.”
What did Khamenei mean? He complained about the sanctions imposed after the missile tests, but that is only one diversionary means. Khamenei said “many.” If you have no truck with the supreme leader, I ought to add, he was quoting Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s able and highly regarded foreign minister and the top negotiator in the nuclear talks last year. What do they mean, then? What does Iran mean?
A trickle of reports begin to answer these questions, although only one—no surprise—is available on this side of the Atlantic. Robert Parry’s Consortium News just published “The ‘Hybrid War’ of Economic Sanctions,” a compelling analysis by Alastair Crooke, a former European Union adviser on the Middle East with decades of experience in the region. Crooke’s Beirut-based website, Conflicts Forum, published the piece in slightly different form a few days earlier.
“What is happening is significant,” Crooke begins. “For whatever motive, the U.S. Treasury is busy emptying much of the JCPOA [the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the July nuclear accord] of any real substance…. Treasury officials, since ‘implementation day,’ have been doing the rounds, warning European banks that the U.S. sanctions remain in place and that European banks should not think, even for a second, of tapping the dollar or euro bond markets to finance trade with Iran, or to become involved with financing infrastructure projects in Iran.”
“Banks well understand the message: Touch Iranian commerce and you will be whacked with a billion dollar fine—against which there is no appeal, no clear legal framework—and no argument countenanced. The banks (understandably) are shying off. Not a single bank or financial lending institution turned up when President Rouhani visited Paris [earlier this year] to hold meetings with the local business elite.”
The vogue for sanctions evident in the corridors at Treasury these days will eventually bite Washington in the backside, Crooke argues elsewhere in his thoughtful, wide-ranging piece. I agree with him. Given how many nations we now purport to isolate, we are well on the way to isolating ourselves more than any of them.
As it starts to shape up, the Iran deal looks worryingly like the sort of cake-and-eat-it transaction Washington has something of a name for. And consider this: If Hillary Clinton is chosen as our next president, we will have an Iran hawk in the White House who will worsen this situation swiftly and markedly. Duplicity, after all, is Clinton’s default position, her modus operandi.
Our apparent betrayal of Iran is not yet conclusive, but of what we know now it is of a piece with our history. And we would be barefoot hayseeds, truly, were we to miss this. Washington dropped Gorbachev down a hole when, as glasnost got under way, it assured him that NATO would not advance eastward. That was a greater treachery still than what it is doing with the Iranians. But why not go all the way back? Americans turned on Emilio Aguinaldo’s insurgency in the Philippines after suckering his Jefferson-reading democratic aspirants into believing the U.S. would arm them against the Spanish colonists. The rest was slaughter, Filipino skulls on sticks.
The trust of others. Respect and self-respect. Honor in the eyes of others and in our own. How little most others think of us now, and of this you should have no doubt. What interests me is how little we have come to think of ourselves.
As a display of duplicity, there has been no beating the Syria crisis over the past year or two. And it gets only more graphic of late.
It is two years ago this spring that the Obama administration began its bombing sorties against the Islamic State. It would be a long effort, we read, the object—correspondents always falling for the military’s vocabulary—to “degrade” the suddenly prominent extremists. Then the bombing campaign more or less dropped out of the news for a long while, you may recall. There were few reports of progress.
I confess it took me a long time to see and then acknowledge that the Pentagon was not serious about defeating or degrading or doing anything else with regard to the Islamic State. The questions then became: Could it be that Syria is a replay of Afghanistan in 1979-1980, when Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s national security adviser, persuaded the peanut farmer from Plains to finance the Islamist militias that eventually became al-Qaeda? Was the object, in fact, to let the war run on and let arms leak to the worst elements active on the ground until the Assad government in Damascus collapsed?
Give me credit. The lights had gone on before the Russians entered the war last Sept. 30 and made short work of the Islamic State’s advances. I had already posed the above questions by then. But the Russian intervention was decisive, as should now be evident. All of a sudden we have regular news reports of the progress of Americans and those they back against the Islamic State. Ask yourself why this is. My conclusion: The Russians forced Washington’s hand. One does not want to hear any longer about casualty counts, barrel bombs, destroyed hospitals and all the rest—not until Washington’s gross cynicism in prolonging the war is laid out on the table for all to see.
At this point C.I.A.-armed militias in the “Syrian” “opposition”—who knows the composition of these groups and who knows what they oppose?—are exchanging fire with Pentagon-armed militias near Aleppo, the now-contested city in the northwest of the country. So the Los Angeles Times just reported. But Russia did more than tie the mess known as the Syrian opposition in knots when it intervened from the air. It also advanced a proposal blueprinting a peace process that is now the basis of talks proceeding in Geneva. These talks resumed Wednesday.
This is a more subtle challenge. Secretary Kerry declares himself to be four-square behind these negotiations, naturally—he could hardly take any other position. But look a little more closely.
One, the opposition side is represented by a Saudi-supported group called the High Negotiations Committee. This is led by one Mohammed Alloush, who leads, in turn, Jaysh al-Islam, the Army of Islam. Who is he and what is it? It is well to know, as these are the people Washington thinks ought to negotiate Syria’s future.
Mohammed Alloush is the brother of Zairan Alloush, a formerly imprisoned extremist who presided over Jaysh al-Islam until a bomb killed him some months ago. Mohammed Alloush’s objections to the Islamic State appear to be sectarian: They do not read the Quran correctly. He used to refer to Shiites and Alawites, the Shiite sect to which Assad belongs, as “filth,” although, as a larger role for Alloush drew near, he muted the rhetoric and visited a tailor. I suppose we are to be reassured. (Who paid for the suits, I want to know—the Saudis or the State Department.)
Jaysh al-Islam declines to join the Free Syrian Army, which—such as it may exist as a unified force—is the closest thing to a credible opposition now active in Syria. At one point its predecessor, also headed by Zairan Alloush, collaborated with al-Nusra, which is barred from the Geneva talks as a terrorist organization. Pretty much everyone concerned except the Americans, Saudis and Turks consider Jaysh al-Islam a terrorist group, too.
There are good reasons for this. Jaysh al-Islam is fighting for an Islamic state governed according to Sharia law, just what Syria and the rest of the Middle East needs. Not quite a year ago it broadcast a video depicting its execution of 18 alleged Islamic State fighters. Last autumn another video shot by another opposition faction revealed that Jaysh al-Islam keeps captured Alawite soldiers and civilians in cages and deploys them as human shields. By the evidence this latter video is authentic.
What more is there to say on this first point? Mohammed Alloush and Jaysh al-Islam head the opposition delegation in Geneva. This group almost certainly fires American-made weapons. I used the term “gross cynicism” to refer to Washington’s doings in Syria. If you can think of a better term, please advise in the comment box.
Two, last month, as the Geneva talks proceeded—holding out tenuous promise of success after many failed attempts in the past—the Obama administration announced that it is once again sending arms and trainers to the Syrian opposition. Can you believe it? Can you believe the timing? This is reported to be at the recommendation of Defense Secretary Carter, who once again proves to be the man of peace wherever he goes.
Take a breath and ask yourself just what Washington is doing in Syria at this highly charged moment. Mr. Magoo would be preferable to those running this policy, in my view.
I have been reading Andrew Bacevich’s new book, “America’s War for the Greater Middle East,” about which more in due course. He is brilliant in identifying the process by which, Brzezinski acting for Carter, the U.S. determined that “military preponderance” across the Middle East was to be the strategic objective in a war against (then) the Soviets that will never end. Even at this late date, even after all the ensuing failures, one following another, Washington cannot see the region with any other eyes.
The policy cliques will never explain to you that they wage war upon war via bombing campaigns, drones, subversions, sanctions and diplomatic betrayals in the name of American primacy. The rest of the world understands this perfectly evident truth well enough. It knows all about American duplicity and the barefoot-boy pose Walter Mead writes of. In the end, you and I are the ones who are supposed to be duped. In Mead, I ought to add, we have a textbook example of scholarship at the service of ideology. This you find everywhere these days.
Patrick Smith is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is also an essayist, critic and editor. His most recent books are “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale, 2013) and Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World (Pantheon, 2010). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is patricklawrence.us.