The Art of Appeasement

30 07 2009

Asia Times
30 July 2009

[My two-part commentary published in today’s Asia Times.]

In the early stages of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Adlai Stevenson, JFK’s notoriously dovish UN Ambassador, suggested that the US offer Moscow a non-confrontational trade to stave off a nuclear exchange: we withdraw our missiles from Turkey, and the Soviets withdraw their missile components from Cuba.  Upon hearing his advice, President Kennedy and every member of his secretive ExComm group (assembled to troubleshoot the crisis) scolded Stevenson for recklessly forgetting the obvious lessons of Munich, when Britain and France appeased Hitler prior to the Second World War.  Only a fool, they said, would reward the aggression of tyrants like Hitler and Khrushchev with diplomacy.  But then, lo and behold, under cover of absolute secrecy, President Kennedy went ahead and made nearly the exact same ‘appeasing’ trade that Stevenson recommended.[1]

It would seem, then, that if Kennedy handled the situation well—and there is a virtual consensus that he did—then appeasement is appropriate so long as no one knows about it.  Ironically, the only party with whom we ever felt a need to be secretive was the USSR, and they were the only ones privy to the deal.  The subterfuge, then, was apparently for the sole benefit of the American people, who would have likely seen this trade as a sign of capitulation and weakness, even if it came (as it eventually did) on the heels of a forceful blockade of Cuba.  Kennedy knew that Americans were just as likely as anyone to mistake the feeling of humiliation for the presence of weakness, and proceed to throw him under the bus.  But why?

With enemies ranging from empires to nation-states to terrorist organizations, the policy of appeasement has been scorned for the last 70 years to rouse the rabble out of its comfortable apathy and confront unadulterated evil. Unsurprisingly, however, our disdain in the West for any scent of appeasement has led to a widespread and knee-jerk tendency to identify and dismiss any policy of restraint or conservation, frequently at the expense of grounded foreign policy.  Not only, then, is appeasement wildly over-diagnosed, but even when accurately identified, the policy is quickly discarded as a tool of the weak.  And with the Obama Administration making numerous overtures of reengagement with Syria, Iran and other controversial parties, a close examination of both the legitimate and delusional perils of appeasement is long overdue.  Anti-appeasement rhetoric and survival instincts run amok have clouded our judgment, and it is time to right the ship. Read the rest of this entry »

Precedents and Damage Control in Kosovo

15 04 2008

European Affairs
Vol. 9.1, Summer 2008

In matters of foreign policy, Western governments and their officials more often than not take rhetorical refuge in assertions of vague principle. It is nearly impossible for a country, especially a superpower, to declare and implement consistent policies because there are simply too many conventions and traditions that must be honored in the name of comfort and stability. When confronted with any inconsistencies, the natural response for a democratic government is to play dodge-ball, often frantically.

When Costa Rican government officials are asked about their positions on, say, micro-lending in Kosovo, the political fallout of almost any answer would be miniscule, if only because Costa Rica does not have significant political, economic or relational capital in Kosovo. In contrast, as a superpower, the United States has its hand in an infinite number of cookie jars, and inevitably that hand will get stuck. Not only are there more jars around the world in which America inserts itself, but there are more contraptions (money, pride, ideology, tradition) in those jars that can ensnare America’s hand, often over relatively minor concerns whose symbolism seems to take the shape of public policy.

The NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999, the UN protectorate that followed, and the symbiotic push for Kosovo’s development and independence have left many scrambling either to bemoan or trivialize the impact that Kosovo’s status could have on the global order. Given that the intervention, protection and development of Kosovo have each defied convention in various ways, there has been no shortage of curiosity as to what message has been delivered (and to whom) by the heavy international involvement in Kosovo. But what precisely is that message? Who is supposed to hear it, and who is not? Which precedents actually pose a threat, and to whom? And finally, how might these concerns and their inherent inconsistencies translate into future foreign policy?

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Negotiating America’s War on Terror

15 02 2008

Asia Times
Negotiating Honesty in America’s War on Terror
15 February 2008

[The following is a cultural exploration of the real reasons we Westerners despise terrorism; how our morality and history of victory shaped our perceptions; and how these perceptions have restricted our foreign policy and commandeered our expectations when it comes to the identity and ideology of the people at the other end of the negotiating table.]

There is a robust dialogue in the west concerning just causes for declaring war (such as preemption, self-defense, etc.), but very little discussion about the methods of warfare that we (and other westernized countries) have come to regard as either justifiable or unconscionable.  Americans, in particular, have developed a keen sense of what constitutes fair and unfair behavior in conflict and war, but much like members of any culture, westerners seldom question (or even ponder) their unequivocal abhorrence for certain behavior, such as terrorism and hostage-taking.  It is important to recognize the difference between why we emotionally hate terrorism, and why we are politically adverse to it.  The justifications are intertwined, just as they are in the rest of our moral-centric policies; but their differences should be addressed.

Ultimately, if we do not understand why we despise terrorism so much, then we cannot define terrorism.  If we cannot define terrorism, we cannot define victory.  If we cannot define victory, we cannot achieve it.  And finally, if we cannot achieve victory in an ideological war, then what good are our cultural values, anyway? Admittedly, this last question is rather circular, but this is precisely the point, as the following should indicate.  Americans have great difficulty framing foreign policy (and most objectives, generally) outside the scope of values and morals.  In the case of terrorism, it is with a rather bizarre twist of rhetoric that we have endorsed a war whose bounds are frighteningly limitless in every possible way. Read the rest of this entry »

Derailed in Damascus, and by Damascus

26 02 2007

Israel Policy Forum – Special Report
26 February 2007

There is a general tendency in the West to describe countries like Syria, and its regime in Damascus, in blanket political and (often) moral terms. Such analysis is an oversimplification in most countries but particularly so in Syria, which has an immensely complicated geopolitical position in the Middle East. To be of any use, Syria must be scrutinized.

More so than any other Arab country, Syria’s government and its power brokers are inherently secular and opportunistic, driven by good-old-fashioned survival instincts. When mixed with Syria’s distinctive geography, this opportunism has led the Syrian government to play a disproportionately large role in the numerous conflicts plaguing the entire region. Without question, Syria is at the physical and political center of Middle East politics.

To the southwest is Israel, the unwelcome Jewish neighbor who captured and annexed the Golan Heights after resisting Syrian invasions in 1967 and again in 1973.

To the west is Lebanon, serving as a Syrian playground and cash cow for nearly three decades, until Damascus over-played its hand and was dealt a very visible and painful defeat by reformists that still reverberates today.

To the east is Iraq, the hotbed of a failed US occupation—a failure, US officials say, thanks in large measure to Syria’s refusal to monitor jihadist movement across its 605km border with Iraq.

And beyond Iraq to the east is Iran, the Islamic Republic ascending to be perhaps the dominant Muslim player in Middle East politics—explicitly recruiting (and buying) the support of Syria and several extremist groups dedicated to Israel’s destruction.


It is often tempting (especially from an American and post-9/11 perspective) to dismiss the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as a blatant sponsor of terror—a role that he even admits openly, though framed in a different context.

Unsurprisingly, 9/11 has led most westerners to view terrorism in black-and-white terms, but given the tremendous complexity of Assad’s precarious regime and very precise interests, it would be a grave mistake to use the understandable western disdain for terrorism to justify a refusal to view Syria in anything but Manichean terms.

In order to engage Syria with any substantive or symbolic diplomacy, it is crucial to understand the nuances of what is important to the ruling Assad family and the tenuous balancing act that Syria must (and usually does) maintain. Only then can the obstacles to Syrian interests provide texture to the behavior of the Syrian government, and its role in the wider Middle East.


Perilous Freedom: The US War in Iraq

15 12 2006

15 December 2006

There are a number of important questions that must be addressed when analyzing and attempting to resolve the current war in Iraq.  First, why now?  Why is it that this same insurgency and civil war did not happen when Saddam Hussein was in power?  Second, to whom does this war belong? And finally, what has prevented the parties from reaching a political settlement?

It is important first to note that while the Bush Administration has certainly made plenty of mistakes, even if the execution of this war and its aftermath had been flawless, it is very likely that a civil war would have erupted nonetheless at some point during the post-war reconstruction.  The power balance disrupted by the invasion was simply too fragile and volatile not to explode into chaos.  But why and how did the US invasion invite resistance to grievances that seemed no worse—and in many instances, better—than under Saddam’s iron fist?

Hussein seemed to reinforce his own reputation as a merciless and savage ruler every chance he had.  He started an 8-year war in Iran in 1980 which cost nearly a million lives.  He routinely slaughtered thousands of Kurds in northern Iraq for seeking greater political autonomy, and any Shiite he arbitrarily deemed as seditious was summarily executed unless s/he was believed to merit torturing first.  He tortured and killed anyone (and their families) who disagreed with or doubted him.  And yet despite all this, it is because the US soldiers now occupying Iraq represent an entirely democratic society that Iraqi Sunnis have opted violently to resist the far-less repressive US forces.


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