The Putin Problem

In an interview President Biden called Russian leader Vladimir Putin a “killer.” What does that mean exactly? Does Putin randomly kill people the way, say, the Mexican cartels do south of the U.S. border? Has he killed more people abroad than the U.S. has in its numerous wars since 9/11? Or is Biden speaking in a more metaphorical way about killing hopes amd dreams? In that case the President is rather imprecise, a risky behavior among heads of state with control of nuclear weapons that can end the world.

Putin laughed it off by challenging Biden to a debate. The American media was more serious and seemed to back the President. This contrasts with the media of the Stalinist years which tended to lavish praise on one of the world’s worst mass murderers during the 1930’s and wartime ’40’s. Acclaimed leftwing writer Max Eastman couldn’t get published anywhere because he supported Communist leader Leon Trotsky over Stalin – the cancel culture of the time.

In comparison to Stalin Putin is a minor impediment to U.S. and indeed global interests. Shorn of Stalin’s acquisitions in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, he seems intent on preserving what’s left in a reinvigorated Russia. That means he is a familiar figure, a nationalist leader both autocratic and skillful. U. S. policy can be tailored to that situation. Unlike Stalin, and some would say the U.S. today, he has not embarked on expansion, just holding his own.

He has some grounds for complaint. As the Soviet Union dissolved in 1989, then U.S. Secretary of State James Baker made a trade with Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev: Russia would surrender control of East Gernany to a reunited Germany in exchange for a U.S pledge not to extend the NATO alliance eastward toward Russia. That was violated during the Clinton Presidency, and ever since NATO has been expanding and contemplates adding still more small countries on Russia’s border.

At the height of the Cold War the fervently anticommunist Reagan Administration made sure economic sanctions affecting the Soviet Uinion were limited and carefully targeted because of international opposition. In today’s more permissive environment, the U.S. has freely resorted to their routine use. President Trump, in particular, made them a substitute for an outright war he pledged not to start. In fact, by crippling an economy, they are injurious to the people, not to the leadership who rarely change their policies. It’s really a feel-good effort on the part of the sanctioners.

There’s no doubt the other two great nuclear powers – China and Russia – will continue to compete with the U.S. and look for advantages where they can. For this the U.S. must stay geopolitically alert with minds up to the job, but military action should be a last resort and threats issued with care. There has been one helpful change. Today the U.S rivals are rational exercisers of power with their own interests clearly in view, not the feverish unpredictable ideologues that wrecked the world in the last century.

Trump’s Parting Sanctions

All the tumult over a disputed election and the protest march on the Capitol obscure a possibly greater danger overseas. The Trump White House with a foreign policy under the control of the war-fixated neocons has imposed a stream of crippling sanctions on Iran that could lead to a possible military clash before the Democrats take charge.

The White House understandably fears that President Biden will restore the agreement that President Obama made with Iran: a suppression of its nuclear activities in return for a lifting of U.S. sanctions. It was by no means perfect but a way of reducing tensions with Iran, a Middle East power, much the way Trump eased hostilities with nuclear-armed North Korea. As Bob Woodward writes in his none too favorable account of Trump in his book Rage, “…it was not by the Establishment playbook, but as Trump says repeatedly, we had no war. That was an achievement. Diplomacy should always be worth a try.”

But Trump has done the opposite with Iran without apparently noting the contradiction. He has applied sanctions not only to Iran but to companies doing business with Iran. These have been added weekly since November, perhaps a record in economic punishment short of war. Secretary of State Pompeo adds that Iran has joined al-Qaeda as “partners in terrorism,” which is reminiscent of the charge that Iraq was allied with al-Qaeda, a fiction that helped lead to the disastrous U.S. Iraq war.

Iran is of little danger to the U.S. It vies with Israel for power and influence in the Middle East. Israel has nuclear weapons, but Iran does not, and Israel wants it to stay that way. Like other countries – the U.S., Israel, China, Russia, whatever – Iran pursues its national interests. While these can be unsettling, they are not the menace of the fanatical, death-dealing ideologies that imperiled the world for close to a century. We’re dealing with practicalities of statecraft today even if nuclear weapons hover in the background. Containment worked before. It can work again.

Afghans Betrayed

U.S. treatment of Afghans in the unending war has been a mixture of confusion and indifference. Friends and enemies may be indistinguishable, the friend today may be the enemy tomorrow in multi-faceted Afghanistan. How is a hapless Washington bureaucrat going to keep up with all of this? That said, Major Mohammed Naiem Asadi was clearly on our side.

A decorated helicopter pilot, he has logged thousands of flight hours and is said to have destroyed more of the enemy than anyone else in the Afghan air force. In response the Taliban have threatened his life on the ground. They told his father hand over your son or we’ll kill your entire family.

Major Mohammed Naiem Asadi

Knowing the threat is serious, Major Asadi asked for asylum in the U.S. and apparently it was granted. But just before he and his wife and daughter were about to board a plane to the U.S., the decision was reversed on Washington orders. The reason? Like so much else in the Afghan war it was unclear. But orders are orders.

Now Asadi is in hiding no less a target of Taliban wrath.

Mullah Mohammed Khaksar was intelligence chief of the Taliban until its leader Mullah Omar had some doubts and demoted him to deputy interior minister, where he still had control of a large police force. When I met him in Kabul on an assignment for Voice of America a year before 9/11, he seemed friendly and hospitable but clearly the voice of the Taliban.

No so. At great personal risk, he was in contact with the CIA and was furnishing not only useful information but plans on how he and other defecting Taliban leaders could link with an anti-Taliban military force and overthrow Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden. He told Kathy Gannon, a top reporter covering Afghanistan: “There were people in the Taliban who wanted to work with the international community, who didn’t want the foreign fighters, who wanted them gone. But with no help from the outside, we couldn’t do anything, and then it was too late.”

Mullah Mohammed Khaksar

With the war underway, he offered information on where bin Laden might be found. That too was ignored. Knowing he was now an obvious target of the Taliban, he asked for some protection from the U.S. He was turned down and soon executed by the Taliban in the city of Kandahar.

Mullah Khaksar of the past and Major Asadi of today may serve as bookends for a  war that didn’t have to be, and their plight can symbolize what a beautiful country and proud people have endured.

Trump, Biden and War

President Trump based his 2016 campaign on stopping wars, and he pledged at least not to start a new one in contrast to the Obama administration which had launched a series of them, large and small. He kept his word, but in place of the direct killing of war, he substituted the indirect killing of economic sanctions, applied abundantly to countries, companies and individuals that had offended.

These sanctions tend to hurt people but to spare rulers who are well insulated against them. Thus, policies seldom change under economic pressure, and a public may even rally in defense of its leader against foreign interference. As it’s said, carrots should accompany sticks in foreign policy, but so far we see mainly the sticks of sanctions.

A number one target is Iran, which is no threat to the U.S. but is a force in the region and an enemy of Israel. Thus, the purpose of sanctions seems rather nebulous. It’s not entirely clear what Iran must do to lift them. The sanctions on Syria that have led to intense suffering appear to be payback for its ruler Bashar al-Assad remaining in power despite U.S. efforts to remove him. Russia, which came to his defense, is also under U.S. sanctions.

Trump recently vetoed a Congressional resolution to stop U.S. support of Saudi Arabia’s war on neighboring Yemen. Yet his backers insist he means what he says, and in his second term he will end the wars. That means confronting an establishment quite solidly opposed to him and also, as he admits, his own White House staff. The neocons among them, especially Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, are intent on war with Iran. Yet he appointed them. Others are available who could carry out his wishes as chief executive.

As a sign of the times, some neocons have jumped ship and joined the Biden campaign. That seems counter-intuitive since as Vice President Biden urged a rather peaceful course on Obama. He wanted to pare down the U.S commitment to Afghanistan and opposed the mindless Libya war. Among Obama advisers on foreign policy, he was considered the most realistic. But is the Biden of those years the less certain, more isolated Biden of today? That can be determined by serious press scrutiny and debates with Trump.

If elected, Biden would be caught between an increasingly divided Democratic Party. A sizable peace movement is growing within, illustrated by the recent primary victory of African American Jamaal Bowman over Eliot Engel, highest ranking Democrat on the House foreign relations committee. U.S Senator Bernie Sanders, runner up to the Presidential nomination, clearly identifies with peace and has a substantial following that will have influence in a Biden administration.

Off setting this is the arrival of a dozen new Democratic House members from defense and intelligence agencies who are more militantly inclined and can swell the ranks of the neocons. Then, too, the party fears being labeled soft on national security, thus providing ammunition to the Republicans. So it seems that no matter who wins in November, war may not be endangered.