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Iran and Venezuela: One story of two Revolutions

Irina Tsukerman

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Authors: Irina Tsukerman & Hos Loftus*

The presence of Islamist militant groups in Latin America has a long and dark history. The brutal terrorist attacks on the Israeli embassy in Argentina in 1992, and the bombing of the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) in 1994, collectively left hundreds dead and injured. Argentina, as a country, is still dealing with the aftermath. The AMIA incident was the deadliest attack against a Jewish community anywhere in the world since WWII.

The Twin Revolutions: “Islamic” and “Bolivarian”

In the 1990s Islamist militants in Latin America lacked a base of operations. That began to change when democracy in Venezuela was replaced, first, by a strong man-led system, and subsequently, all-out dictatorship. That was the gift of the former socialist president Hugo Chavez for the country, one that he sold as his “Bolivarian Revolution”. In order to see how this played into the hands of unlikely beneficiaries—Islamic radicals from half a world away—we have to trace the story to its earliest preludes.

The sad story of the closing chapters of the democratic era in Venezuela’s history was chronicled shortly after Chavez came to power by Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian author and future Nobel Laureate in literature. In a scathing piece, published in Spain’s El País in August 1998, Vargas Llosa used harsh, but prescient words to warn of dark days ahead. The title, “the Suicide of a Nation”, in itself, spoke volumes.

Vargas Llosa offered a perspective of what was a repeating pattern in much of Latin America: as democracy fails to live up to expectations and often leads to a decline in living standards, public opinion shifts in favor of “strong men”, who would then take advantage of their popularity to cement authoritarianism. (It has to be emphasized, though, that the new authoritarian need not have come to power through elections; leading a revolution against a despised tyrant would work just as well.) This had been tried successfully before Chavez by such luminaries as Alberto Fujimori in Peru, Juan Perón in Argentina, Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, and, not least, Chavez’s own mentor, Fidel Castro in Cuba. Chavez came as a populist response to democratic claims, not as a violent usurper—at least, once he had learned his lesson.

In this sordid tale, the roots of dictatorship in Venezuela went back to the 1970s and 80s.

The early days of skyrocketing oil prices came during and after the Arab-Israeli Yom Kippur War of 1973. An unheard of influx of petrol-dollars inevitably led to massive corruption. “Inevitably”, according to Vargas Llosa, due to the economic policies that ruled Venezuela, long before Chavez. In Vargas Llosa’s view: the Venezuelan state was gigantic and interventionist. Economic success passed not through the market and winning over consumers, but nepotism, privileges, and monopolies handed out by the biggest player in the nation’s economic life: the politician in power. In other words, Venezuela was always a socialist-style, government-run command and control economy, never dynamic, property rights-based and free-market oriented.

What was left in the public coffers was spent on subsidizing everything, down to air and water. Gas was subsidized to the point that its cost didn’t even cover its transport to fueling stations! Few nations in the world epitomize the phrase “nanny state” so literally.

In this environment, an attempted coup in 1992 by a little-known Lieutenant Colonel named Hugo Chavez generated little enthusiasm, and was put down without much drama, its leader put in jail. Less than 2 years later, however, he was pardoned by the government. While this was supposed to be a conciliatory gesture, it was dismissed by Vargas Llosa in that piece as not only “suicidally irresponsible”, but also a betrayal to the nation, at that time still supportive of democracy (not to mention the majority of the military, who refused to side with the coup plotters, some losing their lives in the process). But the oil market collapse of the late 1990s lead to just as much anguish as the euphoria the price rallies had brought, and that ultimately paved the way for Chavez to successfully grab the power in the end—this time, at the ballot box. Not just that, but it gave him sufficient majorities in elected bodies to introduce and ratify a new constitution—all in the name of rooting out corruption—that conveniently also guaranteed his own permanence in power.

Which brings us to the events on the other side of the globe: Iran’s Islamist Revolution lead by Ayatollah Khomeini nearly two decades earlier. Iran and Venezuela are distant nations geographically with different languages and cultures. Still, there are important similarities between the two: oil exporting nations relying on petroleum almost exclusively as the source of hard currency. To be sure, revolutions in Iran and Venezuela were not exact replicas. Iran’s Islamist Revolution came with a violent uprising, unlike Venezuela. Nonetheless, there were numerous similarities. Both were explicitly ideological (“Islamic” in Iran and “Bolivarian” in Venezuela), rather than simply intending to establish democratic rule. They both prioritized short-sighted economic gains for the masses: the Ayatollah claimed explicitly that there would be free water and electricity for Iranians, while at the same time also promising, like Chavez, to root out the corruption that had been allowed to grow out of control in the system he wanted to overthrow. The inherent contradiction between these two goals, just discussed, apparently was missed on everyone.

As time would prove, there were yet more similarities to surface between the two revolutions. Enmity against US “imperialism” was among the founding principles of both. And they would go on trying to bolster governments and non-government players in neighboring countries that would help them put this hostility into action. As Iran founded Hezbollah in 1980s Lebanon and sought to colonize the country, Venezuela in the 2000s openly backed politicians it considered ideological allies in Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and elsewhere to create a socialist bloc. Somehow the irony of such empire-building in the name of anti-“imperialism” was missed.

In time the shared goals and shared rhetoric would bring the two revolutionary governments closer together, which might seem counterintuitive. At first glance, the Shia-based Islamist revolutionary ideology had little in common with the Soviet-backed atheist revolution that had settled in Cuba and made its way through Latin America. In reality, the “red” left has made a comfortable alliance with the “green” revolutionaries on a number of political, security, and ideological levels.  Khomeini, for instance, popularized Sunni Muslim Brotherhood texts, which themselves borrowed heavily from the Bolshevik ouevre from the 1920s and their historic predecessors, the Jacobins. The zenith of ties between the two regimes, without a doubt, came during the “presidency” of the Holocaust denier Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran, who found a brother in Chavez.

When They Failed to Deliver…

Of course none of the Ayatollah’s economic promises ever materialized. Mass arrests and summary executions that followed the establishment of the Islamist regime, the compulsory dress codes, and anti-Western xenophobia that culminated in “conquering” (to use the official language) the American embassy and hostage taking of US diplomats scared foreign and domestic investors, to say nothing of destroying diplomatic relations. Flight of capital, combined with a ruinous war with Iraq, transformed what was once one of the richest countries into a pauper nation. Undaunted, the Ayatollah shrugged off any mention of his forgotten promises in later years: “ask not what the revolution has done for you, ask what you have done for the revolution”. That this, too, was a paraphrase from an assassinated leader of the country he condemned as “the Great Satan” also passed with no sense of irony, and neither was he ever called out for his plagiarism.

Economic realities were no kinder to the revolutionary leaders in Venezuela than their counterparts in Iran. Venezuela has more crude oil than any other country in the world and it heavily depends on the commodity to power its economy. Crude oil makes up about 95% of Venezuela’s exports. Yet the government-owned oil company, PDVSA, has pumped less and less oil for the last few years because of corruption, crumbling infrastructure, and a massive debt crisis. According to its report to OPEC, Venezuela’s production was 1.62 million barrels per day (b/d) in December 2017, a decline of 649 thousand b/d (or 29%) in just one year, and more than 1.1 million b/d in five years. The current troubles of the oil industry are rooted in the oil policies implemented by Hugo Chavez (deceased in 2013, only to be replaced by the even more thuggish Nicolas Maduro). He fired about half of the workforce of the PDVSA during an oil strike in 2003, including the vast majority of top executives and technical staff, as retaliation for their participation in industrial action against him.

He forcefully renegotiated joint-ventures and operational contracts with foreign companies and partially nationalized them in 2007; on his watch, ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips withdrew from the country as a result. Investment in oil development and production declined, even during the oil price boom. The nationalization backfired on Venezuela even more in April 2018 when the World Bank’s International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes ruled in a lawsuit filed by ConocoPhillips that this company was owed over $2 billion by Venezuela’s state-run PDVSA because of the 2007 nationalization. ConocoPhillips then moved to seize PDVSA’s assets in the Caribbean, considered logistically key to Venezuela’s ability to export oil, further disrupting the country’s oil sales.

This ruling set the stage for similar suits not just against PDVSA, but also its American subsidiary, CITGO. The future of these claims is not known as of this writing, but they could not have come at a worse time for Venezuela’s already devastated economy.  The regime blames this all on US sanctions, but the timeline of events clearly shows that the decline in Venezuela’s oil production preceded US sanctions on the country’s oil sector by many years. Iran’s economy would similarly be a basket-case without sanctions due to the regime’s decades of prioritizing revolution over its people. As Ayatollah Khomeini said, the neaver-ending revolution’s death and destruction was not for “cheap melons.” Venezuela also followed the Islamic Republic’s lead in political hostage taking, by abducting Texas and Louisiana CITGO employees, who remain in Maduro’s custody after fourteen months.

The once wealthiest economy in South America, after decades of socialist rule, is now dominating the headlines as a paragon of tyranny, rampant crime, chaos, misery, and starvation. Millions of Venezuelans have fled to Colombia, Panama, and elsewhere in South America, threatening to destabilize the continent. But opening its doors to Islamic militancy means that Venezuela could be a destabilizing threat in more ways than one.

They Collaborated in the Use of Violence

Faced with mass popular discontent, the twin revolutions turned to violence against their people as the only way to guarantee their survival. In Iran, the Revolutionary Guard was established  as a counterweight to the official army, which in the beginning was seen as still having elements loyal to the last regime. This military body subsequently gave birth to branches, one of which was Quds (Arabic for Jerusalem) Force, an expeditionary force acting beyond the country’s borders. The other was the Basij, or volunteer army, which played an important part during the Iran-Iraq War, and later turned against dissidents and protesters, showing its highest level of cruelty following the fraudulent presidential elections of 2009, when street protests followed the confirmation of Ahmadinejad.

Crackdowns on public discontent in Venezuela have followed a similar pattern. Cuba helped establish the loyalist groups called “colectivos” that act similar to the Basij militias in Iran, intimidating protesters and journalists, and at times acting no different than street gangs. Iran has also pitched-in. The Quds Force has worked with the Cuban intelligence (which had previously trained Chavez) to help Maduro consolidate power; and Hezbollah enjoys a comfortable presence in Venezuela at the highest levels.

Human rights violations in both states have made them largely unwelcome on the world stage; however, dependency on cheap, if poorly processed or poor quality, oil retained clientele for both states. Later, other autocratic states, such as China and Russia, took advantage of their outcast status to expand their own base of influence, strengthen economic partnerships, make cheap investments, and to create local problems for the United States.

These ties actually go back more than a decade. They include joint training between Iranian and Venezuelan operatives. Finding safe haven in Venezuela, Hezbollah’s presence across Latin America has increased. Both Iran and Hezbollah are known to have provided the Chavez and Maduro regimes with “strategic advice”. The person in Venezuela’s Bolivarian ruling class with the most personal ties to terror groups is Tareck El Aissami, a Venezuelan of Syrian/Lebanese ancestry, who was indicted in the US earlier this year.  A 2015 report by the Obama Administration’s United States Department of State stated “[t]here were credible reports that Venezuela maintained a permissive environment that allowed for support of activities that benefited known terrorist groups”. New York County District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau stated that while El Aissami was head of ONIDEX, Venezuela’s passport and naturalization agency, he provided official documents to Hamas and Hezbollah members. He also stated that it was possible that El Aissami was recruiting Arab Venezuelans to train under Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. In February 2017, CNN reported (“Venezuelan Passports, in the Wrong Hands?”) on the sale of Venezuelan passports to individuals in the Middle East, specifically Syrians, Palestinians, Iraqis, and Pakistanis.

According to Misael López Soto, a former employee at the Venezuelan embassy in Iraq who was also a lawyer and CICPC officer, the Bolivarian government would sell authentic passports to individuals from the Middle East, with the Venezuelan passport (at the time) able to access 130 countries throughout the world without a visa requirement. López provided CNN documents showing how his superiors attempted to cover up the sale of passports, which were being sold for from $5,000 to $15,000 per passport. A confidential intelligence report obtained by CNN linked El Aissami to 173 passports and ID’s given between 2008 and 2015 to individuals from the Middle East, some of whom were purportedly associated with Hezbollah. The Venezuelan government did not investigate the allegations made by López and instead initiated an investigation against him for his act of leaking confidential documents and stated that he had abandoned his duty. Following the release of the CNN report, President Maduro demanded that CNN leave Venezuela, stating that the network had sought to “manipulate” Venezuelans.

AMIA: The Venezuelan connection

Argentina has had no closure as the actual plotters behind the AMIA bombing have never been brought to justice. Worse, the investigation itself has been plagued by accusations of incompetence, corruption, and nepotism. And that has been, in no small part, due to family relations and geopolitical interests of Argentinian presidents.

A Brazilian publication, Veja, first broke the story, in 2015, of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sending a  message to Argentinian President Nestor Kirchner via a shared friend, Chavez of Venezuela. According to the publication, in 2007, Ahmadinejad proposed to Kirchner that in exchange for funding the presidential campaign of his wife, Cristina Frenandez de Kirchner, Kirchner’s Argentina would (among other things) drop its arrest warrant through the Interpol against Iranians implicated in the AMIA attack. This came about the time that arrest warrants were issued against 6 Iranian citizens for their involvement in the attack.

Kirchner would not, in the beginning,  concede to the demands made through Chavez. Nonetheless, there was a debt to pay: since 2003, a lot of Argentinian sovereign debt had been underwritten by Venezuela, and by the end of 2008, Venezuela was in possession of 6 billion dollars of Argentinian bonds. Back in those days, the free flow of Venezuelan oil and prices of above $100 per barrel afforded Venezuela such extravagances. On top of this, for both Nestor Kirchner and his wife Cristina, who succeeded him as president, being among Chavez’s inner circle of friends was a high priority. To them, it would mean membership in the Leftist heads of state club chaired by none other than Fidel Castro. Which came with perks: they would be  shielded against accusations of corruption, which would be dismissed,  by club members in unison, as “slander by American imperialism and their local lackeys”. Other club members included Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and even Brazil as it was led by president Lula da Silva (who would later be convicted of corruption). Chavez operated as a middleman between Ahmadinejad and much of Latin America.

Iran entered commercial agreements with many of these countries. For a country facing international isolation due to its human rights record,  its denial of the Holocaust, and its nuclear weapons development activities, this was nothing short of a coup. Chavez traveled 9 times to Iran while Ahmadinejad traveled 5 times to Venezuela. When Chavez died, Ahmadinejad caused a mini-scandal among his country’s fundamentalist hardliners by stating Chavez would rise from the dead together with the divine prophet—which would be heretical according to Islamic orthodoxy—and by hugging his mother (those same hardliners would consider any physical contact between two unrelated individuals of opposite sex forbidden). None of this, of course, spoke of Ahmadinejad’s presumed “moderation”, but of deep, personal grief that came to dominate his own beliefs. There was no greater reward for Ahmadinejad in this friendship than getting Argentina to abandon the pursuit of justice for AMIA.

In January 2013, on the watch of Presidents Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, respectively, Argentina and Iran signed a Memorandum of Understanding. Rather than extradition of AMIA suspects, the Memorandum would arrange for joint hearings in which the suspects would give evidence-facing no penalty regardless of what they said. Argentina’s Jewish community condemned the Memorandum and sued to stop it.

In May of that year, Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman accused the regime of Iran of plotting the AMIA attack. In January 2015, Nisman accused President Fernandez de Kirchner of “organizing impunity” for the suspects with the goal of whitewashing the Islamic Republic’s involvement in the attack. One day before Nisman was to officially present his findings to parliament, he died, having been shot by a handgun. The mystery of his death was never solved, further complicating Argentina’s unhealed 30 year old wound. Before his death, Nisman had put together an arrest warrant against President Fernandez de Kirchner. Despite lack of proof, Fernandez de Kirchner was never able to clear suspicions that she was behind Nisman’s death, given that, obviously, no one had a stronger motive to see Nisman dead. And all of this is part of Chavez’s legacy for Argentina.  Fernandez de Kirchner was eventually put on trial for her attempted cover-up of the bombing.

While these charges against her were dismissed, she was later retried for treason. In her defense, Fernandez de Kirchner claimed that a former Obama officialhad asked her to supply Iran with nuclear fuel. Gary Samone visited Argentina in his capacity as White House Coordinator for Arms Control and Weapons of Mass destruction. Argentina had provided Iran with fuel for its “Teheran” reactor in 1987. However, this collaboration was over by the time the nuclear negotiations that would lead to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action began between Iran, the United States, and others.  The Iranian nuclear negotiators would not move forward without getting fuel for the reactor.

The United States then turned to Argentina for help. Fernandez de Kirchner asked Samone to put his request in writing, but he was not heard from again. But by implicating the Obama administration in this scenario, de Kirchner was sending a message that the Obama administration was fully aware of historical ties between Argentina and Iran, and would not press Argentina on the cover-up of the bombing to ensure the smooth transition of the nuclear deal. The same pattern of letting bad actors off the hook was later admitted by Ben Rhodes with regards to the lack of follow through on the “Red Line in Syria”, and Obama’s tacit support for the Morsi regime in Egypt despite its open ties with the Iranian regime. The Obama administration needed Argentina’s help for the nuclear fuel issue, and thus stayed mum. Iranian terrorists also tried to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the United States at the time, while backing an attempted coup in Bahrain the same year, and likewise benefiting from the turmoil of the Arab Spring all over the Sunni Muslim world. Iran’s role in all of these calamities was ignored by the Obama administration in favor of proceeding with the deal.

But the Kirchners were not the only Argentinian presidents to be accused of sabotaging the investigation. The sitting president at the time of the attack, Carlos Menem, who was of Syrian descent, was accused of covering-up involvement by regime of Syria (the ayatollahs’ partner in sponsoring Hezbollah) in the attack, for the purpose of protecting his family connections. Allegedly, Menem’s family friend and fellow Syrian-Argentinian, Alberto Kanoore Edul, had been in contact before the attack with the person who lent the truck used in the AMIA attack to the Hezbollah-related suicide bomber, Ibrahim Hussein Berro (named by Nisman in 2005).

Iran and terrorism in Latin America

Edul was also a suspect because he owned an address book that included the phone number of Moshen Rabbani, at the time the cultural attaché at the Iranian Embassy in Buenos Aires; Rabbani was the accused mastermind of the attack and one of the indicted Iranians.  This would not be the first nor the last time Iran would use diplomatic cover for planning terrorist attacks. In 2018, Morocco severed diplomatic relations with Iran over its use of its Algiers embassy to facilitate Hezbullah supply of the formerly Soviet-backed and Cuban-trained Polisario separatists with weapons and additional training. The same year, Iranian dissidents uncovered that the Vienna embassy was the center for pollting terrorist activity, which included a planned attack on the Iranian opposition in Paris. Other prospective attacks involving Iranian intelligence resulted in a foiled assassination against Ahwazi Arab opposition leaders in Denmark. Other “diplomats”, who were later expelled,  planned attacks against the PMOI leaders in Albania. In 2019, a German intelligence report noted that the Berlin embassy was at the heart of a planned attack against the PMOI/MEK in Germany.

But the investigation of Edul had been halted on the orders of Menem due to their family ties, according to the charges. Carlos Menem would stand trial for the cover-up over 30 years after his alleged crime  and ultimately be cleared of the charge, much to the dismay of victims’ families. By this time, of course, Edul was long dead. Would the outcome be different if there had not been so much delay in putting him to trial, before the main witness died? We likely will never know.

The attacker Hussein Berro slipped into Argentina through the “triple border” area between Argentina,  Paraguay and Brazil, where Hezbollah sympathies are heavy among the Lebanese immigrant community. The main city in the area, Ciudad del Este (Paraguay’s second largest city after the capital Asunción), has long been (allegedly) a financing center for Hezbollah. While Ciudad del Este is home to criminals specializing in all the branches of the “profession” (from drug and human trafficking to money laundering and bootlegging of copyright material), the only activity in the area that has been disputed, unsurprisingly by Aljazeera, is funding Islamic terrorism, which it calls “hysteria against Muslims”. But there have been convictions for channeling of proceeds from illegal activities to Hezbollah.

And according to the US Drug Enforcement Administration, Hezbollah smuggles hundreds of tons of cocaine from the Andean Region of South America into Venezuela and from there onto ships destined for European markets via West and North Africa. The DEA had long planned a crackdown on this activity, code named Operation Cassandra, which was ultimately scuttled by the Obama Administration as part of the effort to keep nuclear negotiations with Iran on track. Aljazeera might point to the absence of Hezbollah training camps in Ciudad del Este, but it is hard to imagine such vast criminal activity in South  America without having a local network of sympathizers.

Hence to say that the crime infested Ciudad del Este, also having the largest Lebanese population anywhere in South America, does not play an important part in Hezbollah’s illicit financing, is quite a stretch. The area was used as a base by Hezbollah to smuggle the AMIA attacker Hussein Berro into Argentina-what this act took was having a network of sympathizers in a lawless area. Absence of Hezbollah training camps or their paramilitary parades did nothing to hinder the plan. Belatedly in July 2019, Argentina would recognize Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. But the damage may have already been done. Realistically it is quite unlikely that victims families, or Argentina as a whole, will ever see justice served, and the wound will never heal.

Moreover, Iran-backed Hezbollah remains active in Venezuela, backing the Maduro regime and enriching itself through illegal gold mining. US Secretary of State Pompeo pointed to intelligence reports concerning the presence of active Hezbollah cells within Venezuela as additional evidence substantiating the allegations of the close links of the Maduro regime with the terrorist organization. There are concerns that with the help from Iran, Russia, and Cuba, Venezuela is not only a tacit supporter for Iranian terrorism, but is itself turning into a hub of international terrorism.  Many of the terrorists benefited from the frozen funds released in cash pallets to Tehran by the Obama administration as part of the JCPOA. The gold mining is but a tip of the iceberg. Other evidence traces the roots of illegal gold smuggling from Venezuela through Morocco to Russia and Iran. Hezbollah’s gold smuggling activities in Africa are also well established; close collaboration between various corrupt regimes and Venezuela, on drug as well as gold trafficking should attract greater scrutiny.

Is the Opposition Any Better?

Meanwhile, back in Venezuela, the only opposition to Maduro’s brutal socialist autocracy has been another socialist, Juan Guiado, who has thus far failed to recruit away enough support from the military to provide a viable alternative to the regime. Guiado is being lauded as a savior of Venezuela, simply because he is not Maduro and is promising to respect the popular will and the democratic process. But would he be able to withstand scrutiny on his own merits?

The Venezuelan opposition to the Chavez and Maduro regimes and the country’s striking economic downturn after accelerating its progress on the socialist path has been leftist. In other words, oppositionists complain about personalities and policy, not necessarily ideology. Guiado’s promise lay largely in a return to the rule of law, a break with Iran, Russia, and Cuba, and restoration of positive relations with the United States as well as European Union and Organization of American States members. By backing somewhat more moderate leftist opposition to the current regime, Venezuelans are signaling that they have lost their trust in dictators, but not in the system that breeds them. Will the economic situation in Venezuela improve if a less corrupt and autocratic version of Maduro comes to power?

It remains to be seen, but as we saw, long before Chavez, Venezuela’s economy had been constrained by the trappings of socialism—and this ironically helped Chavez come to power.  In the meantime, ordinary Venezuelans are living through a nightmare of starvation, corruption, and violent crime, which is forcing them to flee in their millions—the largest population displacement not related to war in decades. Inflation has reached the point that even criminal gangs do not see their activities as profitable due to high price of firearms on the black market (!). Maduro, of course, blames everything on the US, and now, he has allies inside the US government parroting his talking points.

Anti-Americanism Inside the American Government

That is because the Venezuelan calamity has become a golden opportunity for politicians and pundits to make political hay. The best example is Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota), who, echoing Maduro, claimed: “A lot of the policies that we have put in place has kind of helped lead the devastation in Venezuela, and we’ve sort of set the stage for where we’re arriving today”. When dismissed as “not knowing what she is talking about” by Vice President Pence, Omar responded:  “Women of color have heard this before.”

But those following the crisis in Venezuela for some time remember clearly that it did not start as a racial issue; in fact,  some of the earliest and most clear-headed warnings about where Venezuela was headed came from the so called “people of color,” such as world-renowned author Mario Vargas Llosa.

Omar in fact “doesn’t know what she is talking about” (charitably speaking), and hiding behind her gender and ethnicity doesn’t change that.

The so-called democratic socialist presidential candidate Bernie Sanders recently tried to distance himself from an editorial on his senatorial website praising the “American dream” in Chaez’s Venezuela. However, he still opposes all efforts to help liberate Venezuela from the Maduro regime, and more recently claimed that Soviet Union and Venezuela don’t count as examples of “failed socialism”.

Many of the same members of Congress and former Obama administration officials, who have now joined the foreign policy commentators for various publications, who have opposed intervention in Venezuela also prepared or delivered talking points that the only way to avoid war with Iran was to go forward with the deal. The reasons for not pressuring any of Iran’s proxies, fellow travelers, and allies in the Middle East and Latin America were couched  in similar language.  Iranian and Venezuelan propaganda machines have managed to create the impression that the regimes in these countries, despite rampant fraud and intimidation of the opposition, are legitimate and democratically elected, and therefore interventionism would be illegal and contrary to the popular will of their citizens.

Policy Recommendations

U.S. policy towards Iran and Venezuela has been polarized and uneven, which sends mixed messages to allies and adversaries alike. Seeing the largely partisan split on whether to pressure the Iran regimes and whether to follow the Monroe Doctrine, which allows forceful intervention against foreign forces in Latin America, tells both Tehran and Caracas that these vulnerabilities can be exploited ad infinitum. While the President and Congress, or Republicans and Democrats, are fighting over what to do and how to do it, the regimes can continue implementing their agenda with the single-minded focus only authoritarian governments can enjoy.

Furthermore, the vacillations over policy within the same administration signals weakness. US allies, on the other hand, are getting the message that the US is not a stalwart or reliable “friend in need” and may in the future lean further on Russia and China—the two states looking to edge US influence out of the Middle East and Latin America—for partnership and assistance. The US has failed to follow through on many promises regarding “maximum pressure” against Iran,  nor has it fully supported Guiado, leaving him out in the cold when he appeared to be on the verge of securing military support for the overthrow of Maduro. The resolve of the US in conducting effective foreign policy and securing its own interest, much less standing guard against exportation of revolutions and instability around the world, is currently very much in question.

Whether the Trump administration can redirect its energy to a focused effort or whether it will continue to be torn between keeping isolationist election promises and having to respond to real-time needs with serious long-term consequences remains to be seen. However, there are several commonsense ideas and principles they should adopt as a guide for figuring out the next steps to prevent further deterioration of the security situation that ultimately threatens US borders and the security of its bases and allies:

Acting from a Position of Strength

-Maduro’s regime is ultimately weak and hinges on the willingness of the military apparatus to support his claims. The military will hold out for its own interest in access to mines and so forth. Guiado, in negotiations, may need to cut temporary deals with the military to get their backing. It is up to the United States to ensure that if he does ultimately succeed in this endeavor, these deals do not become so entrenched as to lead to another crisis.

-Maduro is heavily dependent on foreign actors. Without infusions of bailout cash, credit, military, and intelligence support from Iran, Russia, Cuba, and China, he would hardly be expected to last. Interrupting the flow of this support should be the top priority for the administration, especially if it is reluctant to engage in direct military intervention. That also means cracking down on illegal schemes, but most importantly going after—and very personally—the individual actors within each state’s government involved in overseeing these infusions and schemes.  Sanctions should be imposed against these individuals preventing them from traveling to the US and freezing their assets. Interpol “red notices” should be used to advance the possibility of arresting these officials, undoubtedly profiteering from the support for these actions. Avoiding sanctions and intervening with Venezuela or other countries should be made costly and unpleasant for the apparatchiks of the patron regimes.

-Hezbollah assets have been frozen in Argentina, but money is fungible and they can ultimately shift their activity to more friendly states, such as Bolivia. If Colombia is sufficiently destabilized by the flow of refugees from Venezuela, it can crack and end-up adopting a socialist system of governance. The exporters of revolution can take advantage of the refugee crisis to destabilize existing pro-American governments. Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, all corrupt states, with varying degrees of weakness, are ripe for exploitation. Cartel activity in Mexico makes it an ideal counterpart for Iran’s Hezbollah in particular. The US should take measures to prevent proliferation of terrorists and ideological outreach in these and other states. Iran has established numerous “cultural centers” to mask Hezbollah activity and indoctrination all over Latin America. How soon until the trainees there are responsible for more than just enrichment schemes and plot more terrorist attacks, perhaps eventually reaching the US or making travel and business in Latin America undesirable for anyone except Iranians, Russians, and Chinese?

-Bankrupting Iran, forcing out Russia, and providing a suitable and practical alternative to China’s self-serving and corrupt projects in Latin America should be the pillars of US policy. Iran, even with all its illicit activities, nor Russia afford costly technical development races and the type of investments that US can. Russia cannot afford systematic investment in anything but defense agreements. For this reason, most of Russia’s foreign policy is focused on destabilization at the expense of someone else.

-China’s economy, too, is weakening; even with its Confusius Institutes, the mission of which is to whitewash China’s image, it is coming to a reckoning with the fact that it has simply failed to deliver on many of its promises and investments, and that most of its projects benefit Beijing to the exclusion of client countries, their local labor forces, and general populations. This is where the US has an opportunity to reengage in building people to people relationships, and optimizing business, educational, and humanitarian opportunity in line with its own policies and interests, and as a contrast to China’s corrupt deals with local officials.

-The US, for its part, should not make promises it does not have the political will to keep.  Its allies would rather see consistent, limited support than grandiose statements backed up by nothing at the moment they become dependent on expectations stemming from those promises. That said, if threats to bad actors are issued in public, there should be an immediate and well thought out follow through even if it is unpopular. That will ultimately do more to deter these actors than weeks of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

II. Beware of Limitations of Pragmatic “Reformism”

A faction of the “reformists” in Iran gained popularity as a political decoy by the regime to create an impression of a struggle between “hard-liners” and “moderates”. Iran used politicians who appeared willing to engage in diplomatic discussions with the West (always on their terms) in order to secure concessions, and ultimately, to push through the financially and politically beneficial nuclear deal with Western countries. Ultimately, the number of political arrests and executions soared under the “reformist” President Rouhani, showing that he was just as much of a puppet of the ayatollahs in charge as the tough-talking former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

These dichotomies—that if the West does not back the “moderates”, the scary “hard-liners’ will triumph—were ultimately a propaganda fiction dispersed by the regime itself. Elections in Iran are effectually meaningless given the supreme rule of the Ayatollah. Not to take any chances with the powerless parliament, all major elections in Iraq are fraught with fraud to ensure that no real reformist could ever be elected. The “reformist” narrative is deployed merely to fool willfully naïve Westerners or provide the less credulous with a public excuse for their lucrative political or business deal with Tehran. The “reformist” narrative may well have largely outlived itself, but similar such moves are likely to try to secure a new nuclear deal or other political concessions in the future. No doubt the regime will use this stick-and-carrot tactic of its own invention to push back against new sanctions, waiting to drag the US and Europeans back to the negotiating table until such time as the administrations change and those willing to go along with Iran’s agenda come to power.

Iran’s success in that regard may very well have carried over elsewhere. If Guiado is nothing more than a Venezuelan version of a “Reformist” who says just enough of the right things to the Western ear to manipulate the politicians and the public, he may be no less dangerous than the Maduro regime. If the Venezuelan government is a puppet of foreign powers, likely so is the opposition, at least one that is well known and has an open following.  In Russia, opposition leaders who openly ran against Vladimir Putin, such as Boris Nemtsov, met an untimely end, or like Alexey Navalny, spend half their time behind bars in “temporary” custody.

The fact that Guiado is so openly out and about and was even able to engage with the military in power negotiations shows that the Maduro regime is fairly secure in itself and can afford to use one known opposition leader as propaganda for its alleged limitations or willingness to cater to the popular will and provide the appearance of democracy on some limited level. The West should not look on Guiado as a savior, but rather as a tool serving a particular purpose at the moment while working to educate the population about the fallacies of following anything even remotely associated with the current system, as well as seeking to build up future leaders who have not been produced by the same circumstances as Maduro. Tempting as it may seem to consider Guiado as a “pragmatic choice” at the moment, because he is the lesser of two evils, it is not in fact clear that because he is willing to pander to Western democracies today, he will not become an equal or even greater evil when in power.

III. Don’t let Iran, Cuba, Russia, China, and Venezuela get away with political hostage taking

All of these countries have engaged in taking Americans and other Westerns, as well as dual nationals, as hostages for the purpose of gaining political legitimacy through negotiations over their release, securing concessions, or in some case, as during the nuclear deal with Iran, receiving financial ransoms in a hidden form. The US has been able to secure the release of some but not all through high costs to its own credibility; many others remain imprisoned, charged with espionage, treason, and other national security crimes as a way to pressure the US and other Western governments.

So far, all of these countries have been able to get away with these actions with impunity, and have even been rewarded with attention, money, and other benefits. They should be severely punished instead. In 2018, Senators Rubio, then-Senator Nelson, Menendez, and Cornyn introduced a bill that would hold Iran accountable for hostage taking and other human rights abuses. Similar measure passed in the House in 2018, with the idea of criminal and civil penalties for foreign officials, not just sanctions. The penalties would include denying access to American education to their families, confiscation of assets, and possible imprisonment for those responsible traveling to the United States. The bill never reached the vote in the Senate, but should be reconsidered in light of recent developments and Iran’s rising aggression and persistent continuation of this policy.

Similar versions of the bill should be individually crafted to apply to other countries that have engaged in these unlawful practices. Without feeling the pain for engaging in such abuses, there is no reason for these policies to stop.

IV. Responding to Gold Smuggling and Money Laundering

Senator Ted Cruz recently reintroduced a measure designed to stop Iranian and Venezuelan smuggling of gold and other precious metals. This is but one of a host of illegal activities which keep both regimes financially afloat. Congress should bring this measure to a vote as soon as possible; there is no reason to let two illegitimate regimes unjustly enrich themselves while stealing natural resources. The VERDAD actresponding to Venezuelan money laundering and gold passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in May 2018. It is important to expedite the passage for this bill into law, and to work on securing consistent implementation afterwards. The same applies for similar measures against the Iranian regime.

V. Accountability for the AMIA bombing

US senators are pushing for a resolution that would assist Argentina in its probe to uncover the full truth behind the 1994 Jewish Center bombing. The resolution should receive not only full support from Congress, but also the backing of the White House. Furthermore, the Venezuelan angle should be explored and exposed, and the role the Obama administration played in any assistance or silence in the cover-up by the Kirchners should likewise be aired. The White House can play an important role in directing its intelligence agencies to release and share any relevant information, and perhaps to be further involved in an investigative capacity. However, that role should not be relegated to the security apparatus: any investigative journalists or other experts who have leads or information that could be of assistance to this issue should likewise be involved.

VI. Securing US borders

The history of Hezbollah drug smuggling and presence in the United States shows that further measures need to be taken to secure borders from infiltration by criminals, contrabandists, terrorists, and spies.  The security involved is a complex combination of border fencing or walls, better human security implementation, satellite overwatch of human movements, immigration reform, and electronic measures of control. At the end of the day, however, spies and saboteurs can also enter legally under various covers, so better training and close cooperation with other intelligence agencies is paramount to preventing fraudulent entries into the US. 

The spread of destabilizing activity in the US can also spread through existing Iranian communities, mosques, “cultural centers”, existing regime propagandists imbedded in universities and think tanks, as well as assorted businessmen and women who travel back and forth. Being vigilant and training community members and institutions to be aware of common activities that can be harmful to US security should play an important role in the national defense.

VII. Chaos and instability help export revolutions

The Arab Spring movements did not bring real liberalism nor create Jeffersonian democracies. Instead, they created a chaotic cycle of upheavals, crackdowns, and the formation of unstable and unsecured democracies in such places as Tunisia. The biggest beneficiary was Iran, who exploited the power vacuums or friendly regimes (as in Morsi’s Egypt) to further its influence and subversion campaigns.

Western states were openly backing these movements even as Iran exploited them aggressively on the ground. The best way to guard against Iran’s exportation of revolutionary, violent, and anti-Western ideas to the Arab world and elsewhere is by working with governments across the region to implement reforms needed to educate and empower the young people to build and strengthen local communities to address local needs rather than turning to meddling foreign powers for ideological engagement and the kind of “help” that has brought nothing but misery for all involved.

The same principle applies to Latin America, where Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Bolivia are seeking to spread their repressive revolutions and socialist systems by various means to more prosperous and stable countries.  The outcome of the “resistance” culture, of those who use populism to create upheavals to real or imaginary grievances, is societal wreckage of Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela. America and the West needs to assert its leadership based on principles and proactive policies that promote peace and prosperity.

*Hos Loftus, MD, formerly Seyed Hossein Lotfizadeh, was born in Iran. He lived through the Islamic Revolution at a young age. He is a neurologist living on Long Island with his family. He offers an Iranian-American’s perspective on Middle East politics

Irina Tsukerman is a human rights and national security attorney and analyst based in New York. She has written extensively about geopolitics, foreign policy, and security issues for a variety of domestic and international issues and her writing has been translated into Arabic, Farsi, Spanish, French, Portuguese, German, and Indonesian.

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Politics as Reflection: Even in an Election Year, Real Change Must Come From “Below”

Prof. Louis René Beres

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“What is the good of passing from one untenable position to another, of seeking justification always on the same plane?”-Samuel Beckett, Endgame

Again and again, in vain, Americans seek progress in politics.  But as really ought to have been learned at this point, ritualistic elections can never save the United States. Conventional wisdom notwithstanding, no president or congress can ever halt the corrosive withering of heart, body and mind that now so plainly afflicts the beleaguered nation.

 Here are some pertinent details. No matter how well intentioned and capable, whether Democrat or Republican,  a  US president’s proposed “rescue program” can only tinker at the edges of what is important. Naturally, there can always be various recognizable increments of apparent progress, but nothing that could overcome America’s growing indifference to meaningful education. If truth be candidly told, the glaring detachment of America’s current president from even a modicum of historical or scientific knowledge accrues to his political benefit.

Ironically, this detachment represents anything but a political liability.

Rather, it is a resounding political plus.

Credo quia absurdum, warned the ancient philosophers, “I believe because it is absurd.”  Today, in the United States and elsewhere, revealed ignorance has  become a tangible political asset. There is nothing intentionally “cute” or obnoxious about offering such a distressing observation about politics and “mind.”  

It is simply correct.

We should begin at the beginning. Every human society represents the sum total of individual souls seeking some form or other of “redemption.”[1] Ultimately, these searching souls must be mended “at the source,” that is, at the crucially core levels of individual human learning and personal transformation.

These souls can never be  “saved”  by narrowly self-serving institutions of any government or politics.

Never.

It’s not complicated. Like certain others, Americans now inhabit a society so numbingly false that even their most sincere melancholy is wanton and contrived. Wallowing in the mutually-reinforcing twilights of submission and conformance, the people have strayed far from any ordinary expectations of serious learning.

In essence, without any real or compelling reasons, Americans have freely abandoned the once-residual elements of Jeffersonian good citizenship.

In consequence, together with the unceasing connivance of charlatans and fools, a lonely American crowd now hides without shame from even its most accurate kinds of reflection.

There will be a price to pay. Any society so clearly willing to abjure its obligations toward dignified learning – toward what American Transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson once called “high thinking” – is one that should never reasonably expect to endure. What else ought we to expect from a society that elects a president who reads nothing, absolutely nothing at all, and who then affirms with wholly undiminished pride: “I love the poorly educated?”[2]

Today, in the United States, the evidence of abject surrender to “mass” (the term embraced by the great Spanish existentialist philosopher Jose Ortega y’ Gasset and Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung);  to “herd” (the word favored by German/Swiss philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and Austrian psychologist Sigmund Freud[3]); or “crowd” (the choice of Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard) is everywhere to be detected. Resigned, at best, to an orchestrated future of dreary work and civilizational mediocrity, Americans too often lurch foolishly from one forfeiture to the next. Now, the people  remain oddly content to wage rancorous culture wars between ideological groupings.

At the same time, treating all formal education as a narrowly instrumental obligation (“one should get better educated in order to get a better paying job”), Americans very easily accept flagrantly empty witticisms as profundities (“We will build a beautiful wall;” “Barbed wire can be beautiful;” “The moon is part of Mars;” etc.), and then consult challenging ideas only rarely.

Always, the dire result is more-or-less predictable; that is, a finely trained work force that manages to get the particular job done, but displays (simultaneously) nary a hint of  learning, compassion or worthwhile human understanding.

One never hears of any literary, artistic or cultural presence in the Trump White House, unless we should be willing to count the president’s rapper meeting with Kanye West or the humiliating appearance of Duck Dynasty as main “speaker” at Trump’s 2016 Republican Convention .

Credo quia absurdum.  Every sham can have a reinforcing patina. This president who has never even glanced at the US Constitution, might well be re-elected. How shall this glaring contradiction be explained?

Whatever the answer, The American people should never express surprise at the breadth and depth of their present and still-impending national failures. Within the currently celebrated hierarchy of collective American  values, we may conclude, and without any hesitation, “You are what you buy.” Plausibly, without ever-more frenzied buying (aka the “retail sector”), our stock markets (together with all others) could soon find themselves in irreversible peril.

What this means, inter alia, is that American economic progress is contingent upon a ceaseless American willingness to subordinate what is truly important to whatever can readily be purchased.

There is more. In the bitterly fractionated United States, an authentic American individualis now little more than a charming artifact.  Among other things, the nation’s societal “mass,”  more refractory than ever to intellect and learning, still has no discernible intentions of taking itself seriously. To the contrary, an embittered American ‘mass” or “herd” or “crowd” now marches in deferential lockstep, foolishly, toward even-greater patterns of imitation, unhappiness and starkly belligerent incivility.

Incontestably, for Americans, searching self-examinations are fully in order. Already, it is possible for We the people to be lonely in the world or lonely for the world, and – regrettably – an anti-intellectual American mindset has simultaneously spawned both remorseless forms of  lamentation. On the plus side, there is an ascertainable antidote. Before it can be “applied,” however, and before a more harmonized nation can be detached from any such bifurcated loneliness, there will first have to be an “awakening.” The pertinent message of this call to consciousness would be as follows:  A society constructed upon willfully anti-intellectual foundations must inevitably be built upon sand.

Nothing more.

The American future is not hard to fathom. More than likely, whatever might be decided in politics and elections, Americans will continue to be carried forth not by any commendable nobilities of principle or purpose, but instead, by a steady eruption of personal and collective agitation, by endlessly inane candidate repetitions and by the perpetually demeaning primacy of extended public ignorance.  At times, perhaps, We the people may be able to slow down a bit and “smell the roses,”  but their visibly compromised and degraded country now imposes upon its exhausted people the breathless rhythms of a vast and struggling machine.

Much as many might eagerly wish to deny it, the plausible end of this delirium will be to further prevent Americans from remembering who they are and (far more importantly) who they might once still have become.

 What can be done to escape the menacing pendulum of America’s own mad clockwork?  Conveniently, though the country continues to pay lip service to the high ideals of the Declaration and the Constitution  ( no one seriously presumes that the American president has taken even a few minutes to read through these musty old documents), these lofty principles are invoked only for ostentation. For the most part,  Americans now lack any more genuine sources of national cohesion than celebrity sex scandals,  sports team loyalties and the always comforting distractions of war, terrorism and genocide.[4]

Sadly, Americans inhabit the one society that could have been different. Once, we harbored a preciously unique potential to nurture individuals, that is, to encourage Americans to become more than a smugly inert mass,  herd or crowd. Then, Ralph Waldo Emerson (also fellow Transcendentalists Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau) described us optimistically as a people animated by industry and “self-reliance.” Now, however, beyond any serious contestation, we are stymied by collective paralysis, capitulation and a starkly Kierkegaardian “fear and trembling.”

 Surely, all must eventually acknowledge, there is more to this chanting country than viscerally-driven rallies, tsunamis of hyper-adrenalized commerce or gargantuan waves of abundantly cheap entertainments: “I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” rhapsodized the American poet Walt Whitman, but today, the American Selfhas devolved into a delicately thin shadow of true national potential. Distressingly, this Self has already become a twisting reflection of a prior authenticity.  Now it is under final assault by far-reaching  societal tastelessness and by a literally epidemic gluttony.

Regarding this expressly gastronomic debility, it’s not that we Americans have become more and more hungry, but rather that we have lost any once residual appetites for real life.

In the end, credulity is America’s worst enemy. The stubborn inclination to believe that wider social and personal redemption must lie somewhere in politics remains a potentially fatal disorder. To be fair, various social and economic issues do need to be coherently addressed by America’s political representatives, but so too must the nation’s deeper problems first be solved as a matter for individuals.

Should Americans continue to live within a hypnotizing cycle of blatantly false expectations, and thereby celebrate the vague and atrophied impulses of a primeval mass instinct, the sole remaining national ambition will be to stay alive. Surely America must be capable of sustaining substantially higher ambitions.

In the end, American politics – like politics everywhere [5]– must remain a second-order activity, a faint reflection of what is truly important. For now, it continues to thrive upon a vast personal emptiness, on an infirmity that is the always-defiling reciprocal of any genuine personal fulfillment. “Conscious of his emptiness,” warns the German philosopher Karl Jaspers in his modern classic Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1952), “man (human) tries to make a faith for himself (or herself) in the political realm. In Vain.”

 Only a rare few can ever redeem themselves and the American nation, but these quiet and self-effacing souls will generally remain hidden, more-or-less in “deep cover,” perhaps even from themselves. Still, America’s imperative redemption as a nation and as a people will never be found among those who chant meaningless gibberish in ritualized political chorus. We shouldn’t seek more fevered political “rallies” in America; we need a population that can take learning[6] and thinking seriously.[7]

A declining civilization compromises with its most threatening afflictions, sometimes shamelessly. To restore the United States to long-term health and “high thinking” – an Emersonian task so daunting that it could sometime become a pretext for society-wide convulsions  – Americans must look beyond their perpetually futile faith in politics. Only when such an indispensable swerve of consciousness can become an impressively conspicuous or even universal gesture – that is, when Americans finally seek their “justifications” on a different plane – can the people hope to heal a splintering and nearly-broken land.


[1] This insightful metaphor is drawn from the writings of Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung.

[2] In a markedly similar vein, warned Joseph Goebbels, Third Reich Minister of Propaganda: “Intellect rots the brain.”

[3] Sometimes, however, Sigmund Freud used his own version of Nietzsche’s “herd,” which was “horde.” Significantly, perhaps, Freud maintained a general antipathy to all things American. In essence, he most objected, according to Bruno Bettelheim, to that country’s “shallow optimism” and its corollary commitment to a crude form of materialism. America, thought Freud, was very evidently “lacking in soul.” See: Bruno Bettelheim, Freud and Man’s Soul (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983), especially Chapter X.

[4] In terms of international law, which remains an integral part of US law, such sources represent, inter alia, a violation of this timeless jurisprudential axiom: “Rights cannot derive from wrongs,” or  Ex injuria jus non oritur. For properly jurisprudential sources of authoritative “incorporation” into US law, see: See especially The Paquete Habana, 175 U.S. 677, 678-79 (1900); The Lola, 175 U.S. 677, 700 (1900); and Tel Oren v. Libyan Arab Republic, 726 F. 2d 774, 781, 788 (D.C. Cir, 1984).

[5] Nothing in this essay is meant to suggest that the pertinent national failings are in  any way uniquely American. To the contrary, the problem being discussed is presumptively worldwide or “generic.”

[6] See, by this writer, at The Daily Princetonian: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/article/2018/06/a-core-challenge-of-higher-education

[7] This brings to mind Bertrand Russell’s keen observation in Principles of Social Reconstruction (1916): “Men fear thought more than anything else on earth, more than ruin, more even than death.”

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Why the Weird and Uncompromising Get Elected

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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Why is it that the US and Britain have chosen weird uncompromising leaders when the essence of statesmanship is calculated compromise.  Worse, if not shocking, is that 43 percent of India’s new parliament elected in May are facing criminal charges, including rape and murder.  Out of the 303 lawmakers in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party, 116 face charges.  He himself was not considered suitable for a US visa because of the organized 2002  killings/pogrom of Muslims in Gujarat while he was leader; he was given a visa only after he became prime minister.

Trump has just fired John Bolton his third National Security Adviser in two-and-a-half years.  Ever since taking office, he has been abrogating agreements unilaterally.  Iran now refuses to talk to him, and announced that the removal of Bolton, a notorious Iran hawk, makes no difference.  This lack of trust after Trump walked out of the previous agreement, one with the imprimatur of the Security council and major world powers, is to be expected but there is also the matter of dignity.  No self-respecting nation can tie itself to the whims of an erratic leader.

Boris Johnson meanwhile is flouting the norms and traditions of parliament.  He has prorogued the current session not for two or three days as customary but for nearly five weeks until October 14.  Uproar and an appeal to the courts against this upending of democracy followed.  A Scottish judge has now ruled the prorogation illegal.  Tellingly, the 21 Tory members, who were turned out of the Tory party in parliament, joined the opposition to pass a law requiring Boris to seek an extension preventing the no-deal Brexit on October 31 if he has not come up with an agreement by October 19.  Boris’  hands have been tied, his government losing control of the parliamentary agenda.  His scheme to end debate on the issue by proroguing parliament has backfired badly, leaving commentators wondering if Boris has been the worst prime minister this century.

One of the persons Boris threw out of his party was Nicolas Soames, a grandson of Winston Churchill and a 37-year member of parliament, another was its longest serving member.  No grace in the graceless as they say. 

Trump on the other hand is fixated on golf.  Until July this year, he had spent over $105  million of taxpayers’ money on his golfing trips.  Extrapolated over his entire tenure including re-election, he could cost the taxpayer $340 million according to Forbes, which is far from a left-wing magazine. 

So why do people elect such leaders?  Perhaps the underlying cause is income stagnation for the majority (adjusted for inflation) since the late 1970s.  Yes, GDP has grown but the benefits have been skewed to the upper 20 percent quintile.  When the voters have not found an answer from mainstream Democrats and Republicans, they have resorted to mavericks like Obama and now Trump.  In the UK it is Johnson — heaven help them if his no-deal Brexit prevails for it is expected to be an economic disaster. 

When blame is focused on immigration, as in Britain, Hungary, Poland and now the US, extreme right-wingers take center stage with crude but appealing rhetoric, and often get elected.  So there we have it, while Trump denied funding by Congress is drawing funds from the defense budget to build his wall on the Mexican border.

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US-North Korea Crisis Decision- Making: Growing Risks Of Inadvertent Or Unintended Nuclear War In Asia

Prof. Louis René Beres

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“We fell in love!”-US President Donald Trump, referring to North Korean dictator Kim Jung Un after Singapore Summit (June 2018)

Credo quia absurdum, warned the ancient philosophers. “I believe because it is absurd.” While US President Donald Trump continues to express inexplicable confidence in his North Korean counterpart  (and a simultaneous lack of faith in his own intelligence community), he also fails to understand something rudimentary: The stability of any upcoming crisis decision-making process between Washington and Pyongyang will have less to do with “loving” leader relations than with Kim Jung Un’s unmistakably  core commitment to personal military power.

 In this increasingly worrisome conflict “dyad,” one of the most understated and under-referenced risks to the United States concerns inadvertent or unintended nuclear war.

On such urgent risks, words matter. Initially, in seeking to fashion a coherent security policy, President Trump and his strategic advisors should approach all pertinent issues at the primary or conceptual level. Inter alia, it will soon become necessary for Mr. Trump to understand that the various nuclear war risks[1] posed by inadvertence must be differentiated from the expected hazards of a deliberate nuclear war. These latter perils could stem only from  those Washington-Pyongyang hostilities that had been (1) intentionally initiated with nuclear weapons; and/or (2) intentionally responded to by express retaliation with nuclear weapons.

This is the case whether such unprecedented military actions were undertaken to achieve strategic surprise,[2] or instead as the result (expected or unexpected) of enemy irrationality.[3]

 Prima facie, these are distinctly  many-sided and “dense” calculations. In any deliberate nuclear war scenario, and before any presidential ordering of an American preemption,[4] the designated North Korean leadership would first need to appear(a) nuclear-capable and (b)  irrational. Without this second expectation, any US preemption against an already-nuclear adversary would be irrational on its face[5]. Washington, therefore, must continuously monitor not only tangible North Korean nuclear assets and capabilities, but also the substantially less tangible mental health characteristics of Kim Jong Un.

Although some might mock this second intelligence imperative as unnecessary or “clinically impossible,” it remains conceivable that the dictator in Pyongyang could at some point pretend irrationality.

The decipherable differences here would not be narrowly academic or entirely linguistic.

Factually, moreover, it is Kim Jong Un’s counterpart in the White House (and not Kim himself) who has publicly mused about the potential rationality of pretended irrationality, and who takes  oddly conspicuous comfort from his assessment that the two presidents “fell in love” back in Singapore.

This is not the sort of “romance” upon which to build a core US national security policy.

There is more. When the US president and his national security advisors consider the co-existing and fearful prospects of an inadvertent nuclear war with North Korea, their principal focus should remain oriented toward more institutional directions – that is, to the expected stability and reliability of Pyongyang’s command, control and intelligence procedures. Should it then be determined that these “C3I” processes display unacceptably high risks of mechanical/electrical/computer failure; indecipherable pre-delegations of nuclear launch authority; and/or unpredictable/unreliable launch-on-warning procedures (sometimes also called “launch-on-confirmed-attack”), a still-rational American president could feel the more compelling need to consider a plausibly appropriate preemption option.[6]

Another complex factor in any such prospective decision-making process would be (a) the apparent advent of hypersonic weapons in North Korean arsenals; and (b) the extent to which this emergence were paralleled in American arsenals and/or strategic calculations.

At this already advanced stage in North Korean nuclear military progress, the probable  costs to the United States and certain of its allies accruing from  a defensive first-strike would be more-or-less overwhelming and thus potentially “unacceptable.” This foreseeable understanding seems to have escaped Trump, who first stated publicly at the end of May 2019 that North Korean tests of short-range missiles “do not worry” him. This blithe and manifestly ill-conceived observation suggests that the American president (c) is erroneously focused only on direct (long-range) missile threats to the United States, and (d) is unmindful of conspicuously challenging escalatory possibilities, especially the immediate importance of shorter-range missile threats.

Why so urgently important?

 In the first place, North Korea’s short-range missiles could target US allies South Korea and Japan; also, US military forces in the region. While an attack on these forces would carry a near-automatic assurance of a more or less measured American retaliation, aggression against regional US allies would almost certainly call for such a reprisal. In essence, therefore, Kim Jung Un’s short-range missiles could sometime bring the United States into a full-blown war, even though these missiles would never have been launched against the American homeland.

In the second place, it is improbable but not inconceivable that South Korea could wittingly or unwittingly initiate a conventional conflict with North Korea,  thereby realistically mandating a US military involvement in the conflict. Were this to happen, Seoul would have effectively “catalyzed” a North-Korea-US war. In any such many-sided belligerency, even nuclear weapons could be fired. Also worth studying in the unprecedented realm of catalytic nuclear war would be a narrative wherein an altogether different state or sub-state could arrange an anonymous first-strike against South Korea, Japan and/or regional US forces.

What about a US preemption? In principle, at least, certain calculable preemption options could not be dismissed out of hand in any balance-of-power world system.[7] More precisely, any residual American resort to “anticipatory self-defense”[8] could be nuclear or non-nuclear and could be indicated without any express regard for Kim Jung Un’s presumed rationality. Still, the well-reasoned cost-effectiveness of any US preemption would almost certainly be enlarged by including such carefully calculated presumptions.

What would be the most plausible reactions concerning a Trump-ordered preemption against North Korea? When all significant factors are taken into account, Pyongyang, likely having no meaningful option to launching at least some massive forms of armed response, would intentionally target certain designated American military forces in the region and/or high-value South Korean armaments and personnel. President Trump, still assuming enemy rationality, should then expect that whatever North Korea’s precise configuration of selected targets, Kim Jung Un’s retaliatory blow would  be designed to minimize or avoid any massive (including even nuclear) American counter-retaliations.

There is more. All such high-consequence calculations would involve adversarial policy intersections which could be genuinely “synergistic”[9] and assume perfect rationality on all sides. If, for example, the American president should sometime decide to strike first, the response from Kim Jung Un should then expectedly be proportionate; that is, more-or-less similarly massive. In this particular escalatory “game,” the willful introduction of nuclear weapons into any ensuing conflagration might not be dismissed out of hand by either “player.”

What then?

 Noteworthy, too, at least at that markedly uncertain and unstable point, any such a game-changing introduction would more likely originate from the American side. This sobering inference is based upon the understanding that while North Korea already has some nuclear weapons and missile delivery vehicles, it is also still rational and not yet prepared operationally to seek “escalation dominance” vis-à-vis the United States. For the moment, at least, it would seemingly be irrational for Pyongyang to launch any of its nuclear weapons first.

Sometime, at least in principle,  Mr. Trump, extending his usually favored stance of an argumentum ad bacculum (an appeal to force)  could opt rationally for a so-called “mad dog” strategy. Here, the American president, following his just-ordered preemption, would deliberately choose a strategy of pretended irrationality.

Any such determined reliance, while intuitively sensible and arguably compelling, could backfire, and thereby open up a slippery path to a now unstoppable escalation. This self-propelling competition in risk-taking could also be triggered by the North Korean president, then pretending to be a “mad dog” himself. Significantly, any feigned irrationality stance by Kim Jong Un might be undertaken exclusively by the North Korean side, or in an entirely unplanned tandem or “synergy” with the United States. In all conceivable variants of crisis bargaining between Washington and Pyongyang, even those without any synergies, the highest-level decision-making processes would be meaningfully interdependent.

This means still greater levels of complexity and still lesser significance assignable to any presumptive “love” relationship between the two presidential adversaries.[10]

Regarding complexity, in absolutely all of these plausible bargaining postures, each side would have to pay reciprocally close attention to the anticipated wishes and intentions of  Russia and China. Accordingly, one must now inquire, does President Trump actually believe that China would find it gainful to support him in any still-pending nuclear crisis with North Korea? To answer such a query, it ought to be quite plain that Mr. Trump’s ongoing and potentially accelerating trade war with China would be manifestly unhelpful.

Regarding further complexity, what transpires between Washington and Pyongyang in crisis decision-making circumstances could be impacted by certain other ongoing or escalating wars in Asia. In this connection, most portentously relevant would be any substantial escalations of the Kashmir conflict, especially those that might involve an introduction of nuclear weapons. Unquestionably, any correlative crossing of the nuclear threshold in that India-Pakistan conflict dyad would fracture a longstanding taboo in world politics, and presumptively heighten the likelihood of a US-North Korean nuclear exchange.

Notwithstanding President Donald Trump’s exaggerated confidence in basing foreign policy decision-making upon extrapolations from commerce, it is all genuinely complex, stunningly complex,[11] even bewilderingly complex. Also reasonable to assume is that in any such many-sided circumstances, the North Korean president would no longer be pretending irrationality. He could, at some point, have become authenticallyirrational. Regardless of difficulty, however, the differences here would be well worth figuring out.

Relevant scenarios must soon be posited and examined dialectically. If President Donald Trump’s initial defensive first strike against North Korea were less than massive, a still rational adversary in Pyongyang would likely take steps to ensure that its own preferred reprisal were correspondingly limited. But if Trump’s consciously rational and calibrated attack upon North Korea were wittingly or unwittingly launched against an irrational enemy leadership, the response from Pyongyang could then be an all-out retaliation. This unanticipated response, whether  non-nuclear or non-nuclear-nuclear “hybrid,” would be directed at some as yet indeterminable combination of US and allied targets.

Inevitably, and by any sensible measure, this response could inflict grievous  harms.

It is now worth considering that a North Korean missile reprisal against US interests and personnel would not automatically exclude the American homeland. However, should the North Korean president maintain a determinedly rational “ladder” of available options, he would almost certainly resist targeting any vulnerable civilian portions of the United States. Still, should he remain determinably willing to strike targets in South Korea and/or Japan, he would incur very substantial risks of an American nuclear counter-retaliation.

In principle, any such US response would follow directly from this country’s assorted treaty-based obligations regarding “collective self-defense.”[12]

There is more. Such risks would be much greater if Kim’s own aggressions had extended beyond hard military assets, either intentionally or as unwitting “collateral damage” brought to various soft civilian populations and/or infrastructures.

 Even if the unimaginably complex game of nuclear brinksmanship in Northeast Asia were being played only by fully rational adversaries, the rapidly accumulating momentum of events between Washington and Pyongyang could still demand that each “contestant” strive relentlessly for escalation dominance. It is in the notably unpracticed dynamics of such an explosive rivalry that the prospect of an “Armageddon” scenario could be actualized. This outcome could be produced in unexpected increments of escalation by either or both of the dominant national players, or instead, by any sudden quantum leap in destructiveness applied by the United States and/or North Korea.[13]

Looking ahead, the only foreseeable element of the “game” that is predictable in such complicated US-North Korean calculations is the contest’s inherent and boundless unpredictability. Even under the very best or optimal assumptions of enemy rationality, all relevant decision-makers would have to concern themselves with dense or confused communications, inevitable miscalculations, cascading errors in information, unauthorized uses of strategic weapons, mechanical, electrical or computer malfunctions and certain poorly-recognized applications of cyber-defense and cyber-war.

Technically, one further analytic distinction is needed between inadvertent nuclear war and accidental nuclear war. By definition, an accidental nuclear war would be inadvertent, but reciprocally, an inadvertent nuclear war need not be accidental.[14] False warnings, for example, which could be spawned by mechanical, electrical or computer malfunction (or by hacking)[15] would not signify the origins of an inadvertent nuclear war. Instead, they would fit under clarifying narratives of an accidental nuclear war.

“Everything is very simple in war,” says Carl von Clausewitz in On War, “but the simplest thing is still difficult.” With this seemingly banal but profound observation, the classical Prussian strategist makes plain that serious military planning is always problematic. Largely, this is because of what he famously called “friction.” In essence, friction describes “the difference between war as it actually is, and war on paper.”

Unless President Trump is able to understand this core concept and prepare to manage unpredictable risks of an unintentional war with North Korea, any future “love letters” from Kim Jung Un would be beside the point. While the specific  risks of a deliberate or intentional  nuclear conflict between the United States and North Korea should remain front and center in Washington, these risks ought never be assessed apart from these closely associated hazards of crisis decision-making. All of these risks could be overlapping, mutually reinforcing or even synergistic, daunting circumstances in which the plausible “whole” of their effect would be tangibly greater than the simple sum of their constituent “parts.”

There is one last matter to be clarified. This has to do with the nature  of “superpower” relations within the underlying balance of power structure of world politics.[16] Whatever the differences in preferred nomenclature, it is apparent that we are now entering (wittingly or unwittingly) an era of “Cold War II.”[17] Depending upon the dominant configurations of this new Cold War, US-North Korea nuclear decision-making will be more-or-less destabilizing. It follows, for President Donald Trump and the United States, that Washington-Pyongyang nuclear bargaining must takes its dominant cues from two different though intersecting directions.

In the end, a great deal will depend upon the American side’s willingness to base relevant policies upon intellectual or analytic foundations.

In the end, such willingness will trump any alleged benefits of having fallen “in love.”


[1] Whatever these particular risks, they could be intersecting, “force multiplying” or even “synergistic.” Where an authentic synergy were involved, the “whole” of any attack outcome could then be greater than the tangible sum of its component “parts.”

[2] In his seminal writings, strategic theorist Herman Kahn introduced a further distinction between a surprise attack that is more-or-less unexpected, and one that arrives “out of the blue.” The former, he counseled, “…is likely to take place during a period of tension that is not so intense that the offender is fully prepared for nuclear war….” A total surprise attack, however, would be one without any immediately recognizable tension or signal. This particular subset of the surprise attack scenario would be very difficult to operationalize for national policy benefit. See: Herman Kahn, Thinking About the Unthinkable in the 1980s (Simon & Schuster, 1984).

[3] Recalling the 20th-century German philosopher, Karl Jaspers: “The rational is not thinkable without its other, the non-rational, and it never appears in reality without it.” This insight can be found in Jaspers’ “Historical Reflections” on Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.

[4] Worth noting here too is that any such ordering of a preemptive attack by an American president would be exceedingly problematic under US law (especially under pertinent US Constitutional constraints). There are, therefore, critical jurisprudential as well as strategic implications involved.

[5] Nonetheless, the American president could conceivably still benefit from a preemption against an already nuclear North Korea if refraining from striking first would allow North Korea to implement certain additional protective measures. Designed to guard against preemption, these measures could involve the attachment of “hair trigger” launch mechanisms to nuclear weapon systems and/or the adoption of “launch on warning” policies, possibly coupled with identifiable pre-delegations of launch authority. This means, increasingly, that the US could be incrementally endangered by steps taken by Pyongyang to prevent a preemption. Optimally, this country would do everything possible to prevent such steps, especially because of the expanded risks of accidental or unauthorized attacks against its own or allied armaments and populations. But if such steps were to become a fait accompli, Washington might still calculate correctly that a preemptive strike would be both legal and cost-effective. This is because the expected enemy retaliation, however damaging, could still appear more tolerable than the expected consequences of enemy first-strikes  –  strikes likely occasioned by the failure of “anti-preemption” protocols.

[6] From the standpoint of international law, it is necessary to distinguish preemptive attacks from “preventive ones.” Preemption is a military strategy of striking first in the expectation that the only foreseeable alternative is to be struck first oneself.  A preemptive attack is launched by a state that believes enemy forces are about to attack.  A preventive attack, however, is launched not out of any genuine concern about “imminent” hostilities, but rather for fear of a longer-term deterioration in a pertinent military balance.  In a preemptive attack, the length of time by which the enemy’s action is anticipated is presumptively very short; in a preventive strike, the anticipated interval is considerably longer. A related problem here for the United States is not only the practical difficulty of accurately determining imminence, but also that delaying a defensive strike until appropriately ascertained imminence can be acknowledged could prove “fatal” or existential.

[7] The core concept of a balance of power – an idea of which the nuclear-age balance of terror is a particular variant – has never been more than a facile metaphor. Significantly, it has never had anything to do with creating or ascertaining “equilibrium.” Moreover, as such balance is always a matter of individual and subjective perceptions, adversary states can never be sufficiently confident that pertinent strategic circumstances are actually “balanced” in their favor. In consequence, inter alia, each side to any conflict must “normally” fear that it will be left behind; accordingly, the perpetual search for balance generally produces ever-wider patterns of national insecurity and global disequilibrium.

[8] This term is drawn from customary international law, an authoritative source of world legal norms identified at Art. 38 of the UN’s Statute of the International Court of Justice.  Already, international law, an integral part of the legal system of all states in world politics, assumes a general obligation to supply benefits to one another, and to avoid war at all costs. This core assumption of jurisprudential solidarity is known formally as a “peremptory” or jus cogens expectation, that is, one that is not even subject to question. It can be found in Justinian, Corpus Juris Civilis, Hugo Grotius, The Law of War and Peace (1625) and Emmerich de Vattel, The Law of Nations or Principles of Natural Law (1758).

[9] In any synergistic intersection – whether in chemistry, medicine or war – the “whole” of any result would exceed the simple sum of its policy-determining “parts.”

[10] Pertinent synergies could clarify or elucidate the world political system’s current state of disorder (a view that would reflect what the physicists prefer to call “entropic” conditions), and could themselves be dependent upon each national decision-maker’s own subjective metaphysics of time. For an early article by this author dealing with interesting linkages between such a subjective metaphysics and national decision-making (linkages that could shed additional light on growing risks of a US-North Korea nuclear war), see: Louis René Beres, “Time, Consciousness and Decision-Making in Theories of International Relations,” The Journal of Value Inquiry, Vol. VIII, No.3., Fall 1974, pp. 175-186.

[11] Reciprocally, of course, the White House has been seeking to persuade Americans and others by way of very deliberate simplifications.  See, on the plausible consequences of any such deceptive measures, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s pertinent observation in On Certainty:  “Remember that one is sometimes convinced of the correctness of a view by its simplicity or symmetry….”

[12] For the differences between “collective self defense” and “collective security,” see this writer’s early book: Louis René Beres, The Management of World Power: A Theoretical Analysis (University of Denver Monograph Series in World Affairs)( (1973).

[13] This brings to mind the philosophical query by Irish playwright Samuel Beckett in Endgame: “What is the good of passing from one untenable position to another, of seeking justification always on the same plane?”

[14] Reminds Herman Kahn in his On Escalation (1965): “All accidental wars are inadvertent and unintended, but not vice-versa.”

[15] This prospect now includes the plausible advent of so-called “cyber- mercenaries.”

[16] For a related conceptual argument by this author concerning Israel’s security in the Middle East, see: Louis René Beres: https://besacenter.org/mideast-security-and-policy-studies/israeli-nuclear-deterrence/

[17] In essence, postulating the emergence of “Cold War II” means expecting the world system to become once again bipolar. For early writings, by this author, on the global security implications of such an expanding bipolarity, see: Louis René Beres, “Bipolarity, Multipolarity, and the Reliability of Alliance Commitments,” Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 25, No.4., December 1972, pp. 702-710; Louis René Beres, “Bipolarity, Multipolarity, and the Tragedy of the Commons,” Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 26, No.4., December 1973, pp, 649-658; and Louis René Beres, “Guerillas, Terrorists, and Polarity: New Structural Models of World Politics,” Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 27, No.4., December 1974, pp. 624-636.

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