It has been heartening to hear from so many readers of this blog. Many have asked when I will be writing more commentary. I have told them this:
There are some periods in life when words cannot be found to describe the feelings and the thoughts that come to you. The last nine months have been that kind of a time for me.
On December 21, 2013, my father John S.D. Eisenhower died after 91 extraordinary years. Just weeks before his death, he finished his fourteenth book, American General: The Life and Times of William Tecumseh Sherman. On realizing that he would not be able to see the book through the editorial and production phase, he asked me – just days before his passing – if I would “complete” it. I was honored to step in and American General has now been published by NAL Caliber, a division of the Penguin Group. In the book’s foreword, I wrote that John Eisenhower had an “extraordinary ability to connect the intellectual dots across centuries of history and articulate them as simple principles, often associating them with the events of the day.” For me, this rare gift was inspiring.
During this same time, my mother, Barbara Thompson Eisenhower Foltz, struggled with rapidly declining health. Much to our sorrow, our brave and eternally optimistic mother died recently on September 19. As the daughter-in-law of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, she was a hostess, a goodwill ambassador, and the mother of four inherently rambunctious (if well-trained) children. I am still amazed at how she managed, with virtually no help, to be a loving, unharried mother and a glamorous public figure. She set the gold standard.
There was an additional passing that also touched my siblings and me. On September 14, only five days before our mother’s passing, Delores Moaney, our beloved housekeeper of 65 years, died at the remarkable age of 98. She, and Sgt. John Moaney, who served as General Ike’s valet during the war, was with my grandparents from 1946 into their last years. Not long after, Delores came to live with me for a decade, helping me raise my three children as I juggled domestic life with a demanding full-time job. She remained an integral part of our family until the end of her life, forging all the while a continuing friendship between her grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and ours.
How ironic, in a sense, that these three souls left us at the same time. They had been tireless servants of the public good during some of the most dangerous years of global history. They had lived a lot, experienced unforgettable things, and led productive lives. As the time drew near each, in his or her way, was ready to go. Still, we found it difficult to let them leave.
In this we were not alone. As we mourn the loss of our loved ones, all of us feel the growing absence of their generation every day. Our elders are leaving us when so many of the values they championed—modesty, humility, and selflessness seem to have disappeared from the scene.
As John Eisenhower would have put it: the challenge is to find a way to meld the best traditions of the past with today’s world of change and transformation. And, there are reasons for hope. Common decency and service to others have not gone away. They live in parallel with the false heroes of a noisy, attention seeking and superficial culture. It is up to us to look for the exemplars of the world in which we want to live.
The story of the last nine months has not only been sadness. The circle of life seemed complete when, on August 8, my newest grandchild was born. In holding her, it has been impossible not to think about my parents—or about the future and what might transpire in her lifetime. It has also been sobering to think that she will be looking to me for guidance, perspective, and an anchoring with the past. I feel this responsibility, too, with other members of the rising generations, especially as I begin another Strategy & Leadership (SALTT) seminar for undergraduate students at Gettysburg College.
And so it is time to start my commentary again. I hope to share my thoughts on subjects that are central to our future, especially matters related to strategy and leadership. These discussions are at the heart of what will influence the country our young people inherit, just as they will determine our country’s place in the world.
Still, I will write my regular offerings with pause and humility. I know my wiser counselors–those who knew me best– have gone. But they will always be a part of who I am and how I think. How this comes together, however, will be for the first time – mine alone.
Ten years ago I came out with a book, “Partners in Space: US-Russian Cooperation after the Cold War.” Perhaps for that reason, I was asked to testify before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee on Science and Space. Titled, “From Here to Mars,” the April 9, 2014 hearing featured experts on NASA exploration strategy, international cooperation in space, and commercial space efforts. Chairman Bill Nelson (D-FL) presided and Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) was also present at the hearing:
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee, thank you for this opportunity to testify before you today. It is an honor to be here.
I hope to address the geopolitical issues surrounding NASA’s exploration efforts. It is impossible to think about a space exploration strategy, however, without putting it into the context of today’s events in Russia and in Ukraine.
I support well-targeted sanctions on Russia, which will have a direct impact on President Putin’s thinking. But for reasons that I will outline, I believe that rolling back space cooperation could be counterproductive and damaging to our national security and our long-term space agenda.
International cooperation is vital if missions of increasing complexity are on the international agenda, such as Mars.
During the Cold War, scientific and technical communities played a vital role in serving as a bridge between the United States and the Soviet Union, especially during times of crisis. Many multilateral and even bilateral interactions survived the Soviet invasion of Hungary, Sputnik, the U-2 incident, the Cuban missile crisis – as well as the Soviet invasions of Czechoslovakia and later Afghanistan.
But since the Cold War ended, US-Russian cooperation on nuclear security and in space has been at the heart of enhancing the United States’ national security.
The restrictive measures on space cooperation announced by NASA last week, however, could well threaten our achievements of the last twenty years.
Here are three reasons why we need to lift last week’s ban on all cooperation outside of the operations related to the ISS:
1. Our national security is greatly enhanced through cooperation
Since 1992, US-Russian cooperation in space has had a positive impact on the transformation of the Russian aerospace industry, which was, at the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse, a bastion of Soviet hardliners. US interaction with the Russians on the Shuttle-Mir program and then the International Space Station brought unprecedented transparency and access to sensitive Russian facilities, along with a growing adoption, in Russia, of western best practices.
Since then, the lessons we have learned together have strengthened our overall performance in space beyond just the ISS, and have provided an indispensable window into the workings of the Russian military-industrial establishment.
2. If the goal of limiting cooperation is designed to send a strong message to President Putin, we need be careful. It could backfire.
The scientific community, as opposed to the aerospace industry, was traditionally the most progressive of all political sectors in the Soviet Union. But today, as a result of our cooperation, both of those sectors in Russia see us as their friends. Rather than sending a strong message to President Putin, suspension of cooperation will strengthen political hardliners who would prefer that Russia “go it alone” or work with countries more sympathetic to their views.
3. Safety depends on trust.
Much has been said about our mutual dependency in space. Safety of human life requires cooperation. At the moment, operations on the space station are proceeding as normal. Trust, however– that invaluable yet fragile commodity– can be easily eroded. NASA’s announcement last week that it will suspend “the majority of its ongoing engagements,” including high level visits, email exchanges and video conferencing could leave many of our friends in Russia high and dry and potentially change the more general atmosphere. Collective attitudes even in the Russian space sector could change, which might negatively impact working relationships on the ISS and potentially even safety.
As we know from history, it is always easier to terminate space cooperation than it is to get it started again. And we will not be able to meet our long-term goals in space without it. We should consider establishing the general principle going forward that space cooperation should be exempt from sanctions.
Space has unique capacities to serve the global community. It can be a force for preventive diplomacy, transparency and for sustaining and building bonds among those who are willing to put aside solely national pursuits. The lynchpin of this goal must be engagement. We must be wary of any space policy that provides only short-term symbolic satisfaction, just as we should be cautious of those in both countries who might want to exploit this crisis for short-term commercial or political gain. They could, ultimately, undermine our long-term strategy in space and possibly jeopardize the enormous human and financial investment we have already made.
For press coverage of yesterday’s hearing, please see an article from The Orlando Sentinel titled “Nelson and Rubio discuss NASA’s plan to restrict ties to Russia” and an op-ed published yesterday by Marina Koren in the National Journal.
This morning, Susan Eisenhower appeared as a guest on WAMU’s The Diane Rehm Show to talk about the rapidly developing situation in Crimea, which has left the United States and Europe pitted against Russia in a standoff reminiscent of the Cold War era. In a segment titled “What’s Next For Russia’s Relations With The West,” guest host Frank Sesno and panelists discussed the consequences of Russia’s actions. Eisenhower was joined by Christian Caryl, senior fellow, Legatum Institute; James Goldgeier, Dean of the School of International Service at American University; and Jack Matlock, U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1987 to 1991. Listen to this morning’s broadcast on NPR’s website.
At a campaign fundraiser yesterday, Hillary Clinton managed to step on a geopolitical landmine when she compared Vladimir Putin to Adolf Hitler. Even though she has now been forced to backtrack a bit, her choice of historical analogy was unfortunate to say the least. Her jab at the Russian president may have played well with Hillary’s supporters, but it makes you wonder if she or anyone else in the public spotlight can ever stop politicking when it comes to delicate international events.
In the former Soviet Union there is no period in living memory as wrought with raw emotion as World War II. During the war the Soviet Union, under Russian control, served as one of the United States and Great Britain’s indispensable allies. The Eastern front, in battles of unparalleled violence and brutality, claimed the lives of nearly three million Germans and resulted in more Soviet casualties than all the other combatants combined. More than twenty-five million Soviet people perished in the “Great Patriotic War” in the fight against Nazism. In that context, had the Soviet Union failed on the Eastern front the path to victory for the United States and Great Britain would have been much more difficult, if not downright impossible. During the war, Ukraine fell to Nazi forces, ushering in terrible circumstances for that country under occupation. At the same time, however, it is well known that there were a significant number of Ukrainians who collaborated with the Germans as a way to throw off the Soviet yoke, which had cost millions of Ukrainian lives in the preceding decades. There were even Ukrainian SS units – a fact that still rankles many in Russia, since these weapons were aimed at the USSR – our Allied partner. Russian-Ukrainian tensions on this have continued to last, in some circles, to this day.
Although Hillary Clinton may get away with such an inappropriate comparison, it doesn’t mean she should have made it in the first place. Many pundits surmised that Hillary’s slam on Vladimir Putin, in the words of analyst Ian Bremmer, is an attempt to “inoculate herself” against political accusations that as Secretary of State she was the architect of the U.S.-Russian “reset” policy. This could well have been her motivation, but I believe there is more. It was also a way for her to reinforce indirectly the “wisdom” of Bill Clinton’s administration for pushing NATO expansion, even though it is another one of the underlying causes of tension between Russia and Ukraine.
Hillary Clinton’s ill-conceived assertion, however, is in keeping with the general tone adopted by President Obama and Secretary Kerry—advanced perhaps with an eye to the forthcoming midterm elections. Surely they know that it is strategically incompatible to condemn individuals in such vociferous, personal ways if they expect to gain that very same person’s trust or agreement for the crafting of a solution. Such personal attacks may also make the person dig in more. By expressing in this way their justifiable alarm at Russia’s intervention, the Obama administration has risked losing the opportunity to be an honest broker. It is now, very possibly, too late for a shift in roles.
Had the U.S. seen its value as peacemaker at the outset we might have found more receptivity for serious negotiations and redeemed ourselves, in part, for some of our own past mistakes. Earlier this week on “Face the Nation,” Secretary of State John Kerry condemned Russian action: “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in [a] 19th-Century fashion by invading another country on [a] completely trumped-up pretext.”
Has America’s policy-making class already forgotten our numerous “preemptive” interventions—most notably the U.S. invasion of Iraq on the grounds that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction? When it turned out there were none, advocates for the attack on Iraq found endless other “pretexts” for the necessity to act.
During the last week stepping up to the podium gave policy-makers the sense that they were doing something about the situation. But talking does not excuse the more fundamental failure to develop a sound strategic policy. Any strategy in this case must be backed by the realities that beg us to choose the highest and best use of our limited options. The situation in Ukraine is complicated and potentially dangerous. So how do we support Ukraine and its independence and, at the same time, convince the Russians that this is not a zero-sum game? The art of diplomacy has to include more than sticks. If there are no carrots on the table any outcome is far less likely to be sustainable over the long haul.
Today former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger underscored the biggest issue for the West in a similar way. “Public discussion on Ukraine,” he wrote, “is all about confrontation. But do we know where we are going? …The test of policy is how it ends, not how it begins.”
Kissinger warned against the temptation to make the Russian-Ukrainian crisis into a showdown. “If Ukraine is to survive and thrive, it must not be either side’s outpost against the other — it should function as a bridge between them.”
Henry Kissinger’s words remind us of another era, when our public officials were wise men and women – strategists who put longer-term international security concerns ahead of domestic political pandering.
Considerable ink has been devoted to reviews of “The Monuments Men,” the newest World War II story to hit the movie theaters. Starring an ensemble cast of A-list Hollywood actors, under the direction of George Clooney, the movie has endured some harsh criticism. It tells the story of a handful of men and women who saved countless cultural treasures from wartime destruction – perhaps a little known facet of the war until now. The most telling complaint is that the movie suffers from an “Ocean’s Eleven” style, with all its jocularity, superficiality and we-don’t- answer- to-anyone formula. There is something to what the critics say. In fact, there were nearly 400 men and women who served as Monuments Men, and they coordinated, to the extent possible, with their combat counterparts in preserving what could be saved during some of the most difficult points in the war.
In essence, Clooney would have had a far richer story to tell if he had touched on the military/arts cooperation that transpired. Perhaps the reason he adopted a simple, one-dimensional approach rests with today’s culture. We worship the idea of what I would call “heroes acting alone.” Good people are more likely to get this designation if they are celebrities or if they are seen to be operating outside of authority, and certainly apart from any military chain of command.
By bowing to this contemporary impulse Clooney lost the opportunity to offer this account in its truly extraordinary context. During World War II, the United States and its allies were in an existential fight against Nazism, a war of brutality and destruction not seen before or since. The trade-offs were often agonizing. While simultaneously meeting the life and death demands of our combat operations, it was deemed that, for the future of our civilization, it was vital to try and save Europe’s cultural treasures. Time was of the essence. We had to win the war decisively and in doing so assure the survival of millions of people, including victims of the Holocaust. Despite these grave considerations, Clooney’s film made gratuitous swipes at the armed forces for, among other things, failing at times to get out of the art professors’ way.
At the same time, saving Europe’s magnificent cultural artifacts required much more than President Franklin Roosevelt’s recognition of the mission’s value — contrary to what the movie implies. It took General George Marshall’s assent, as well as the commitment of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was held responsible for winning the war as quickly as possible. It also required an operational framework. On December 29, 1943, General Eisenhower issued an unprecedented order to his commanders, charging them with protecting the monuments and other cultural artifacts “as far as war allows.” The Monuments Men, or the A.M.G. (Allied Military Government officers), would work with pilots to identify the locations of these cultural sites so that military efforts could be made to avoid bombing them, if at all possible. The A.M.G. officers reported directly to the Operations Division of Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces, Europe (SHAEF) headquarters, under Eisenhower’s command. Even with glitches and overriding military requirements, if not for these commanders and countless warfighters it would have been impossible for the Monuments Men to do their work.
The Greatest Generation would not have understood telling this story Clooney’s way. “Heroes acting alone” is part of our ethos, not theirs. It is a pervasive notion throughout contemporary culture, from sports “heroes” who somehow earn this status independent of their teammates, to corporate leaders who take all the credit when their companies succeed. It also exists in the arts and scholarship communities— where geniuses often think their work should speak for itself, even though it is teams of gallery owners, museum curators, and publishers who bring their work to the public.
Robert Edsel’s book, Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, which served as the basis of Clooney’s film, has inspired its share of controversy in arts circles. But if it was Edsel’s book that caught Hollywood’s attention, and not earlier works by art scholars, there is a reason for it. Edsel built a constituency for the story.
It is clear that Robert Edsel’s book stands on the shoulders of other scholars — he did cite them and even helped some in their work. But, he understood that in today’s world it is not enough to write a book — or even produce a documentary film. So, he turned his unshakable commitment to this story into a cause, and he applied focus and a relentless determination to do what had to be done to inspire others and engage them in his quest. This demanded more than a decade of personal sacrifice and a ready willingness to contact and enlist strangers to his mission. As part of this plan, Edsel established the Monuments Men Foundation to serve as a repository for the artifacts, documents and stories that surround this tale. In 2007, the Foundation received a National Humanities Medal from President George W. Bush in the presence of a number of surviving Monuments Men.
After years of hard work, today the Monuments Men Foundation has become a valuable resource for veterans, their families, art lovers, and World War II buffs who want to connect to this history. The Foundation currently has a program to encourage American GIs to return to their country of origin the cultural treasures they themselves took home as war “souvenirs.” It has already borne fruit. Additionally, over the years, Edsel and his Foundation have also discovered new stories and unearthed artifacts and other archival material not previously discovered.
I was exposed to the depth of Robert Edsel’s passion on this topic many years ago, just after the publication of his first book, Rescuing Da Vinci, in 2006. He came to the Eisenhower Institute to speak on the subject. A few years later, he contacted me about a newly discovered audio tape of General Eisenhower after the war. The General was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art receiving an honorary lifetime fellowship for his role, and that of the Allied military under his command, in saving these treasures.
Since then, Edsel has traveled the world on behalf of his foundation, written Saving Italy (2013), chased new leads, lobbied Congress on the Monuments Men’s behalf, and held the hands of dying veterans to convey our collective gratitude. The movie would have never been made without him.
Whether you like Clooney’s interpretation of this World War II story or not, at least this major motion picture brought the Monuments Men into the national consciousness and won these remarkable veterans the appreciation they deserve. The Allied Force’s cooperation and coordination with the Arts communities, including the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, saved many of Western culture’s priceless treasures. Robert Edsel and the work of his Foundation brought this story to Hollywood and to the international stage.
It reminds you of what can be accomplished when people make a determined effort — together.
“For two decades, one in ten light bulbs in America has been powered by nuclear material from Russian nuclear warheads. The 1993 United States-Russian Federation Highly Enriched Uranium Purchase Agreement has proven to be one of the most successful nuclear nonproliferation partnerships ever undertaken. The completion of this ‘swords to ploughshares’ program represents a major victory both for the United States and Russia.” – U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, November 14, 2013
Yesterday, American officials and their Russian counterparts marked the end of the Megatons to Megawatts program with the last shipment of Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) from Russia to the United States. This nuclear fuel was part of a bilateral program, stemming from an agreement reached in 1992, that converted 20,000 Russian warheads into commercial reactor-grade fuel. This was done at no cost to the U.S. taxpayer – and it produced enough energy to power homes and businesses across the entire United States for two years.
In the many speeches I have given on nuclear issues, I have always pointed to this program as an example of how nuclear energy has aided our non-proliferation agenda—raising the ironic notion that nuclear power may be one of the most effective ways of reducing or eliminating excess weapons-grade nuclear material. Judging from audience reaction over the years, apparently this program was—unfortunately—one of the best-kept secrets in the energy field. The Megatons to Megawatts program was an inspired “win-win” for both Russia and the United States and eliminated tens of thousands of warheads from Russia’s nuclear stockpile through a mutually beneficial commercial transaction.
The program’s end was marked during the 60th anniversary of Atoms for Peace, President Eisenhower’s seminal address to the United Nations on December 8, 1953. Megatons to Megawatts epitomized Eisenhower’s vision to develop the peaceful uses of the atom. The thirty-fourth President’s commitment to this goal transformed a science that had been, until that time, focused primarily on military applications and the production of nuclear weapons. By challenging the international community to work towards developing the peaceful uses of the atom, this U.S. initiative opened the way for nuclear energy production, nuclear medicine, and other applications in food and water safety. This assured U.S. leadership in finding “the way by which the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life.”
Much of world is better today because the atom has been applied to life-sustaining purposes, and its role can only become more important in the future. Nuclear energy is the only baseload form of electricity that does not put carbon into the atmosphere – a crucial consideration as the planet grapples with climate change and its consequences. And, millions of lives are saved worldwide every year through the use of nuclear medicine for the diagnosis and treatment of serious medical conditions. Annually, twenty million people in the United States alone benefit from such treatment.
One can only reflect on the transformational leadership that was required to “reframe” the atomic issue in 1953. Just months before Eisenhower’s speech, Joseph Stalin had died and the Soviet Union had broken the U.S. monopoly on the testing of the hydrogen bomb. The hydrogen bomb was and is a terrifying weapon, several hundred times more powerful than the atomic bomb used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The world quivered at its awesome, destructive power.
In contrast, we seem complacent today. Despite the pending economic and physical dislocation, we have no long-term plan for addressing the potentially catastrophic consequences of climate change. And Washington pundits say it is “too hard” to get carbon legislation back on the table.
At the same time, nuclear power – the most powerful carbon-free technology – is being threatened by short-term market forces. Recently, decisions were made to shutter perfectly safe and reliable nuclear power plants—which are fully amortized—for economic reasons. These relate to the shale gas “revolution” that promises cheap, abundant supplies and short lead time construction. As abundant as gas may be, ultimately it must be a transition fuel as gas still emits 50% of the carbon that is typical of coal. If nuclear energy continues to be marginalized will we still have the technical capability in the United States –and the work force – to ramp it up again when we finally have the courage to deal with the looming climate catastrophe? Market forces are short-term mechanisms—yet we are relying on them in this case for addressing a crucial long-term problem.
For America to remain a strong leader and to address its longer-term carbon-constrained future we must have an energy strategy. This entails aligning both the methods and the means to assure a diversified energy portfolio. This is recognized in many important policy circles but deemed, apparently, controversial from a political standpoint.
There are additional consequences for the United States if we retreat from what was traditionally our global leadership in nuclear energy. Leadership requires the capacity to use leverage and influence to achieve objectives. The United States needs a robust nuclear program if it is to continue to be a force for curbing nuclear proliferation and competing in the lucrative global nuclear industry. Unless we act soon, an industry founded in this country will continue to yield its position to friends, competitors and potential adversaries alike.
Aside from the carbon-free generation of electricity, nuclear energy has also provided ways —ironically — for many countries of the world to cooperate. For those nations in compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, peaceful nuclear cooperation has, at times, been extraordinary—making the world a safer place.
The times demand a renewed vision – one that will keep the United States in the civil nuclear game. Its sixty year history has been one of remarkable success from every conceivable metric, including its capacity to create stable, well-paying domestic jobs. When it comes to peace and prosperity the whole must be greater than the sum of its parts. Megatons to Megawatts showed us that this is possible.
The growing pressure on Washington Redskins owner, Dan Snyder, to change the team’s name prompted TIME Magazine to suggest in its November 4th issue an “alternative name more fitting for a sports team in the nation’s capital.” The lighthearted proposals included: The Washington Gridlocks, the Washington Whistleblowers, or the Washington Deficits.
(A disclaimer here: I do not follow sports. This was embarrassingly evident one evening when, acronym challenged as I am, I asked some guests at a dinner party in Florida what FSU stood for. The look of incredulity on the faces around the table prompted my defensive retort: “Sorry, the only FSU I know is the Former Soviet Union.” Unfortunately that didn’t make it better. Nor did I acquit myself on another occasion when I was asked if I knew about Crimson Tide. I replied by asking if it was an especially virulent form of ocean-based algae.)
Perhaps because of my general ignorance of sports, the TIME article made me smile. Indirectly, the magazine hinted at one of my long-held assertions. Politics in America has become more like a football game than “the art of the possible” – a means for debating and resolving policy issues. For many reasons, not the least of which is the competition to attract television viewers and Nielsen ratings, politics has become a game of winners and losers; a clash of showy rivalries. These passionately, sometimes obsessively-held team allegiances are based on loyalty rather than substance or performance. This is part of the fun in sports, but it is no laughing matter in politics.
During the recent budget standoff I could not help but feel like I was at the Super Bowl. It was as if the country was divided like fans at a national football field. On one side of the stadium the Democrats cheered, pompoms fluttering. On the other side, GOPers were roaring and honking horns, except for some who were grimly quiet. After brief stints of action on the political field, broadcasters provided endless replays and non-stop commentary, breaking down which side had more momentum going into the second half.
Excessive attention was placed on the freshman from Texas, whom tea partiers regarded as the GOP’s most valuable player. But it turns out the rookie was anything but. He let his team down by fumbling the ball while eyeing the bleachers. It soon became clear that he never had the goal [post] in sight.
In the weeks following the shutdown it was not much better. Instead of having a hard-headed national discussion on how to avoid further brinksmanship and finally come to a deal, we were subjected instead to endless post-game analyses of who won, who lost, and why. On October 23, weeks after the impasse had (temporarily) ended, Express, a scaled-down version of the Washington Post, had an insert. On the left side of the centerfold the headline read, “GOP Feels Shutdown Hangover.” I started reading. Then, attracted by the right page headline – “Who’s in a Better Position to Win?” – I was expecting an analysis of what the budget and debt standoff would mean for the midterm elections. Instead, I discovered I was reading the sports page!
I grant you that sports are a wonderful pastime for fans everywhere; they offer endless hours of enjoyment and serve as an innocent way to blow off steam. But the sports culture has now permeated the politics of policy in an alarming way, most significantly by trivializing the national stake we have in cooperation and collaboration.
This country has significant challenges, not the least of which is the refusal of our elected officials to practice the art of governance and compromise—one of the bedrock requirements of our system.
We are in the midst of revolutionary changes on many levels at home and abroad. If we can do more to think of ourselves as one team, we are more likely to find ways to address our challenges. Much good can be regained if we define progress as something other than the score.
So, if Dan Snyder takes TIME Magazine’s suggestion seriously and concludes that the name of his team must have some reference to the nation’s capital, I would suggest he consider something fun like the “Washington Cherry Blossoms” or the “Washington Monuments.” If those names do not sound like a fighting man’s team then perhaps the “Washington Legislators” would be more appropriate. That way there would be no more questions about the culture of politics and sport. And, if Snyder’s team plays well at least one set of Legislators would actually be making things happen.
In transformational times, assessing and reassessing one’s basic assumptions is critical for navigating the confusing and dangerous shoals of public and foreign affairs. Like those who perpetually “fight the last war,” far too many people are inclined to view every development through the lens of their own experience. The conflict in Syria and the U.S. government shutdown may be two differing but relevant cases in point.
The United States and Russia may have agreed to a framework for identifying and destroying Syria’s chemical weapons, but for all of the difficulties associated with getting rid of this arsenal it is no longer the critical issue it once was in determining the outcome of the conflict. The nature of the opposition to Bashar al-Assad is. With a Geneva II peace conference in the works, the international community is grappling with the inherent problems of assessing and making progress with a dangerously fractured opposition.
Despite the U.S.-Russian agreement, these two countries have yet to have a full meeting of the minds on the nature of the Syrian opposition and what that means for the outcome of the civil war and the future of the region.
It appears from the outset that the United States has downplayed the growing role of al-Qaeda- linked groups among the anti-Assad opposition. Just last month, Secretary of State John Kerry said, “I just don’t agree that a majority are al-Qaeda and the bad guys. That’s not true. There are about 70,000 to 100,000 oppositionists…Maybe 15 percent to 25 percent might be in one group or another who are what we would deem to be bad guys.”
Secretary Kerry also suggested that the United States would somehow end up as the power broker were Assad to be ousted — going on to say that this would require a negotiation on who would eventually run Syria.
The Russians have been at best skeptical of American assumptions and at worst shocked by what they might describe as U.S. naiveté. Rightly or wrongly, their take on the what they regard as an opposition riddled with Islamist radicals has led them to support the Syrian government at all costs –as their way of keeping a lid on the growing extremism in that country, and the potential for it to further destabilize the region.
The differences in Russian and American perspectives on this says a lot about the way our respective cultures interpret facts—not surprisingly, largely through the lens of our own historical experiences.
The potential for a minority faction takeover of an opposition movement is is infused in the Russian mind. Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the minority Bolshevik faction in the opposition Russian Social Democratic Worker’s Party, staged a successful coup in 1917. This power grab marginalized the majority of his party, the Mensheviks, and overturned a nascent parliamentary government in Russia—thus ushering in communism and the establishment of the Soviet Union, which lasted for more than seventy years.
The power of a radical minority, as the Russians well know, garners its strength and capability from its utter devotion to its cause and a willingness to use any means whatsoever to accumulate and ultimately seize power. With such determination, others who are unwilling or unable to be similarly focused and ruthless often have virtually no leverage at the end of the day.
On the U.S. home front we enjoy the blessings of stable government. The prevailing mood of the majority has largely triumphed. But due to continuing standoffs over fiscal matters, many people in America are beginning to wonder if we may have inaccurately analyzed a developing brand of domestic extremism. While they do not necessarily advocate violence, fringe elements on the right and left are extremists nonetheless as they do not accept any form of compromise; they get their energy from the unwavering righteousness of their causes.
At the moment, a faction of the Tea Party movement has provided the “leadership,” albeit one with a radical agenda, to shut down the United States government for the first time in 17 years. Moderates and traditional conservatives, fearful of their political tactics, have only just begun to realize the true danger posed by this dedicated and unyielding group.
Until now moderate Republicans have tolerated this minority in their ranks, assuming that in the end they could control, if not appease, this small faction. But the GOP establishment’s gamble may fail, threatening the party’s prospects for the mid-term elections and possibly damaging its longer term viability. The attention-seeking Senator Ted Cruz and his ilk are not dedicated to defunding the Affordable Care Act as much as they seek to dismantle much of the federal government. It appears that they will stop at nothing short of getting their way, since they have no strategy for ending this stalemate. While it is inconceivable that this minority’s tactics could extend beyond legislative measures, the potential to do catastrophic harm to our economy looms with the coming debt ceiling negotiations.
While the situation in Syria and the United States are in no way contextually similar, there is at least one lesson we can learn from what is now unfolding. Our collective experience of “majority rules” is the lens through which the United States often reflexively evaluates developments – at home and abroad. In the 20th century our system largely shielded us from political and sectarian violence. Even with a fortunate history, however, we are living in a fast-moving era that requires us to keep an open mind – constantly reevaluating the true nature of what is really happening. The United States should not underestimate people who have a fanatical passion to prevail – not overseas, and apparently not even in the halls of Congress.
Last night, President Obama confirmed that he is in favor of giving diplomacy a chance to succeed in defusing a potential conflict with Syria. It was a relief for most people to think that there might be an alternative to a U.S. military strike, which could have brought with it a cascade of unintended consequences. However, it was somewhat disheartening that the president did not say more in recognition of the Russians’ initiative. Their proposal is not just a tactical opening, its a strategic one.
Earlier this week the Russians gave President Obama a gift — a way out of a potentially embarrassing failure to garner support in Congress for striking Syria. The president tried to spin the diplomatic development last night by saying it was a direct result of the administration’s “tough” position on strikes. This does not ring entirely true. The president’s campaign to gain authority to strike Syria was not a credible threat. Russia had only to read the public opinion polls, as well as the Washington Post to see the daily head count on Congressional votes. The support simply wasn’t (and isn’t) there. Given the budget, sequester and debt ceiling talks that are in the offing, it is unimaginable that Obama could have ordered air strikes over the objections of Congress.
Now that this proposal is on the table there are two important questions that arise: Are the Russians sincere in trying to find a solution to this crisis? And is their proposal to identify and dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons feasible, given the magnitude of the undertaking, especially in a war zone?
As someone who has spent more than twenty-five years of my career travelling to the former Soviet Union, I can offer one overarching principle regarding the Russians—an observation shared by nearly every person who knows them well. The Russians are not easy to work with when they are being forced to comply with orders from elsewhere and when they feel they are being treated in a patronizing or disrespectful way. But, they can be counted on in big ways when they feel that a plan or a proposal is truly in their best interests. (For further reading on this see my book, Partners in Space: U.S.-Russian Cooperation after the Cold War—only one book among many that makes this point.)
Is the effort to identify and destroy Syrian stockpiles of chemical weapons, then, seen by the Russians as decidedly in their interest? I think so.
First, the Russians would probably like to know for sure where all those weapons sites are. Right now we may overestimate how much they know about the exact whereabouts of this material. They have an overarching interest in the country as well. There are Russians living there and they have an important naval port at Tartus, on the Mediterranean coast.
Second, the Russians would want to make sure that those stockpiles don’t end up in the hands of Sunni Islamic radicals, fearing that in a worst-case scenario these extremists – with probable ties to Islamic radicals in Chechnya and the former Soviet Union – would pose a threat to Central Asia and Russia.
Finally, the Russians would like to reestablish themselves as players on the international scene. This episode has put President Vladimir Putin and his Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, back into the public eye as diplomats – in contrast to the shoot-first-and-ask-for-the-UN-report-later Americans.
Contrary to the credit the president took for himself last night, the Russian initiative is not the result of a warm or particularly constructive relationship between the two presidents. It was an agile attempt by the Russians to take up Secretary Kerry on his off- hand comment that dismantlement might be the one thing that would avert the strikes. Whatever the reason for it, it is a welcomed effort. And it is that effort that holds the key to the second question: is such a proposal feasible?
Disarmament experts have warned about the complexity of identifying and destroying Assad’s chemical weapons—and they are correct in that. It is a very big tactical consideration, which would entail a great deal of time, resources, and personnel. But the Russian initiative has uncovered two factors of strategic importance. First, the Syrian government has finally admitted the existence of its stockpile, and second, the Russians, if given an incentive to do so, are apparently willing to leverage their relationship with the Assad regime to find a resolution to the current crisis. These are not necessarily the intransigent Russians National Security Advisor Susan Rice and UN Ambassador Samantha Power say they are.
In the last fifteen to twenty years Russia has been largely ignored on the international stage. There is no real downside to making them feel important again. The last two decades of U.S./Western interaction with the Russians have been rife with perverse incentives. Let’s now work with the Russians to see if, through them, we can bring to closure the arrangements with Assad on chemical weapons and move toward a broader approach to ending the civil war– not to mention helping to make the UN Security Council functional again. If they have some “skin in the game” they are more likely to use the United Nations in a constructive way.
Let’s try and restore the spirit of cooperation with Russia that made it possible for us to successfully meet earlier U.S. goals: to build an international space station; to secure weapons of mass destruction with Russia through the Cooperative Threat Reduction programs under the Nunn-Lugar initiatives; and to negotiate and ratify the New START Treaty. With the right diplomatic approach to the Russians, we can use their Syrian initiative as a way to meet our larger more enduring objectives. It will be challenging, but as the old adage goes: you can get anything done if you don’t care who gets the credit for it.