Post #133: Left Unsaid at the Third Debate

Donald Trump waited one day before delivering the punch line to his sad joke, “I will keep you in suspense” about respecting the election results.  “Unless I win,” he said to great applause from his supporters.  One would expect no less from an exceptionally arrogant man who (as I discussed in the previous blog #132) cannot accept defeat.  (His son, Trump Jr., is a chip off the old block.  He is quoted as saying that the White House would be a “step down” for his father—a classic “sour grapes” line.)

By taking this unprecedented position, Trump ensured headlines, and probably sent a few more Republican candidates down the tubes.  He clearly doesn’t care, since only his “voice” counts, not the party’s.  He will become another in a long list of dictators-in-waiting.

But I was also struck by what the candidates didn’t say in the third debate.  Here are ten items I (and, I imagine, many of you) would have liked to have heard discussed:

  1. Climate change –Once again, barely a word about the world’s number-one long-term security issue.
  1. Nuclear weapons – a discussion of next steps toward genuine arms control, meaning a minimum force (if not nuclear abolition), a halt to further refinement of nuclear weapons, and a new agreement with Russia on substantial weapons reductions.
  1. Mosul– Rather than debate how Mosul is being attacked, talk about the aftermath. There won’t be a Mosul, or a Raqqa, once ISIS is driven out.  As large-scale fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria has already shown, there is nothing left standing when it is over.  The unspoken problem then becomes providing for refugees and the sick, wounded, and elderly survivors who cannot leave.
  1. Syria –Deeper US involvement, such as by announcing a no-fly zone that Hillary Clinton favors, won’t save lives in Aleppo or anywhere else, but will almost certainly expand the US role, produce more civilian casualties, and bring it closer to a confrontation with Russia.
  1. Russia –A new Cold War is in nobody’s best interest. The contrast between Trump’s know-nothingism and Clinton’s cold warriorism leaves out the possibility of a creative diplomatic approach to Russia. (Consider that the US is now charging Russia with violating the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, negotiated by Reagan and Gorbachev, by moving ahead on a ground-based cruise missile program.  This comes on the heels of Russia’s withdrawal from a plutonium accord.  Thus, the direction of US-Russia relations remains decidedly negative, hostile, and thus dangerous.)
  1. China–US policy is a mix of multilevel engagement and muted conflict. While the US maintains its “pivot” to Asia, China is continuing its buildup in the disputed South China Sea islands and is courting the Philippines, whose new president Rodrigo Duterte is talking while in Beijing of “separation” from the US. Should US policy toward China change in response?  Should Washington call Duterte’s bluff?
  1. Energy – Candidates always talk about our needing more energy. But the future points to reliance on renewable sources, which are getting cheaper and are clearly more dependable than fossil fuels and nuclear power.
  1. Relations with Israel–Will the US continue to give Israel what it wants, with occasional mild (and meaningless) criticism, or will it finally base policy on principles on social justice, self-determination, and protection of human rights?
  1. Income inequality – It’s fine to talk about creating jobs, but growing income inequality in America means still more for the 1 percent, less for the middle and lower income classes, and thus poor-paying jobs.
  1. Military spending—Where will money for increased federal spending on social needs come from? We can talk about higher taxes on the wealthy or cuts in Social Security, but axing military spending remains the taboo subject.

Presidential debates should be learning opportunities.  There was a time when they actually were.  These last three debates were shouting matches—undignified, personality-based, extremely limited in information or thoughtfulness.  America’s “noble experiment” suffered greatly from the exercise.


Post #132: America’s Dangerous Moment

On the eve of the third and (thank God!) final presidential debate, the main item still in question is not who will win the election but whether Donald Trump will accept the results.  That is America’s dangerous moment.

Trump is well and deservedly known for being a sore loser.  He loves to make deals, but by his own admission, he hates to settle disputes and is willing to spend lots of money on lawyers either to win them eventually or have them go on forever.  Thus it is no surprise that as he faces defeat at the polls, he is stepping up his charge that the election is rigged and voter fraud is rampant.  Needless to say, he offers no proof of either charge.  This is what children often do: When they’re losing a game, they walk away rather than accept defeat, charging that the game was unfair.  (Of course, when they win, the game is entirely fair.)  Now we have the child-man Trump, who loves winning primaries but would rather destabilize the presidential election than face being a loser.

As the media (which Trump blames for the rigging) has widely reported, here and there are Trump supporters who likewise can’t stand the prospect of losing.  They seem ready to commit violence at the polls or after the election.  Republican officeholders around the country have offered assurances that the elections will be fair; Republicans and Democrats have people watching to see that they are.  Many studies have concluded that instances of voter fraud are rare.  Mike Pence has said he has confidence that Trump will accept the election results—not the same thing as rejecting charges of rigging, and like Trump’s charges, unsubstantiated. Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric is going to create ugly incidents, and the last thing the country needs is a perception that the elections are illegitimate.  Lock him up?

I hope President Obama is prepared to send federal marshals wherever necessary to protect the sanctity of the ballot box, just as President Eisenhower used troops to enforce desegregation in Little Rock, and President Kennedy dispatched federal marshals to protect the freedom riders and escort James Meredith to end segregation at the University of Mississippi.  There are hateful, violence-prone people out there who march to Trump’s drumming.  We cannot allow him to play the dictator and deny good citizens the right to vote.

Post #131: The Final Days of Donald Trump

Heading Into the Second Debate

Until a few weeks ago, historians of the US presidency were fixed on Donald Trump’s meteoric and unpredictable rise.  Now they will have to focus on his meteoric and unpredictable descent.  October 7, 2016 will be remembered as the day Donald Trump effectively lost the election when his contemptuous, disgusting view of women, though well known years ago, came fully into public view with the release of a video that captured his “extremely lewd” (Washington Post) words.  Trump’s retreat—an apology that made the laughable claim that “everyone who knows me” knows he is really not a misogynist—was a charade, since everyone knows Trump never really apologizes.

Now the Republican Party chorus line of Trump supporters is again in a pickle: Do we or don’t we dump Trump?  Can we dump Trump?  (Almost certainly not.)  As of October 9, forty-four Republican members of Congress, governors, and former officials had disavowed their previous endorsement of him, and a few even called for Trump to step down in favor of Mike Pence (who said he felt “offended” by Trump’s remarks but, incredulously, hoped the upcoming debate would “show what is in his heart”).  (For a list of all prominent Republicans who have announced they were dropping their support of Trump since his candidacy began, see  House speaker Paul Ryan was so “sickened” that he disinvited Trump from a campaign event in Wisconsin; Pence refused to attend in Trump’s place.  But most Republican leaders rolled their eyes and, as on previous occasions when Trump has said stupid, ugly things, continued by their silence to support him.

The second presidential debate thus took on new drama.  Would Hillary Clinton shake Trump’s hand?  (She didn’t when they took the stage, but did at the end.)  Could the town-hall style debate focus meaningfully on any topic other than his attitude toward women?  (It did.)  Would he try to refocus the debate on Bill Clinton’s affairs?  (He tried.)  Pity the moderators.

The Trump video is the second gift he has handed to Hillary Clinton.  The first one was his candidacy: Had the Republicans put anyone other than Trump (or Ted Cruz) up for the presidency, I believe Hillary would have lost the election.  Now the video, a second gift not only because of its damaging contents, but also because it hit the press at exactly the same time as some very damaging WikiLeaks emails that reveal Clinton’s coziness with Wall Street, which paid her very well to reassure bankers and corporate leaders of her support of free trade deals and their self-regulation.  She is recorded making a distinction between her public and private views—and her private views turn out to be anything but progressive. But the Trump video stole the headlines, and was the first topic in the second debate.


Notes on the Second Debate

Only by taking into account Trump’s near-impossible situation might we say that he did better than expected.  But in fact he was his usual self: unrepentant, repetitive, and consistently unwilling to give direct answers to questions.  He tried to hold Clinton responsible for just about every problem, from inner-city poverty and crime to chaos in the Middle East and even his ability to use the tax regulations to avoid paying federal taxes.  His best moments were attacking her on the private emails and her unfortunate remark to donors about Trump’s support by “deplorables.”  His worst moments were his dismissal of moderator Anderson Cooper’s question that suggested Trump was guilty of “sexual assault” by insisting the video merely showed “locker room talk” (he used that phrase four times); his baffling shift from the video to boasting that he will “knock the hell out of ISIS”; and his promise that if elected he would appoint a special prosecutor on Clinton’s emails, telling her “You’d be in jail.”

Clinton held her ground when criticized.  She showed poise, patience, and precision, and repeatedly stressed her thirty-plus years of public service, particularly on behalf of women, children, and minorities.  Clinton’s strategy on the infamous video, well advised in my view, was not to “pile on,” though the first question on a president’s “appropriate behavior” did lead her to say—after Trump made his usual proclamation that “nobody has more respect for women”—that the video “represents exactly who he is,” a man who “insults, ranks, and embarrasses women.”

Public and foreign policy issues did get some attention, though nothing new emerged in the well-known positions of the candidates.  Obamacare, immigration, taxes, Syria, the next Supreme Court nominee, and energy were discussed.  Trump did raise eyebrows when he disagreed with Pence, who has urged further US military action in Syria, and when he again defended Russia, suggesting that perhaps no hacking at all had occurred and that Russia and Bashir al-Assad are simply engaged in “killing ISIS.”  (But then Trump said, “I know nothing about Russia,” which is surely correct.)  And when debating energy policy, Trump claimed “EPA is putting the energy companies out of business,” which must be news to Exxon-Mobil et al., whereas Clinton offered a plan for transitioning to clean energy, relying more on natural gas and coal now but focusing on fighting climate change.

Nothing in the second debate suggests a change in the trend to Clinton nationwide.  Trump’s supporters will not flee his sinking ship, but Clinton will probably make further gains among minorities, women, and independents.  His long history of misogyny has caught up with him, and I cannot imagine that anything might happen to change that reality between now and election day.

Post #130: Notes from the First Debate

Now that a few days have passed since the first Clinton-Trump debate, I want to offer a few evaluations.  Prior to the debate, pundits said that Trump needed to moderate his temperament and show more discipline, while Clinton needed to be more inspiring and worthy of trust.  He didn’t; she did.  In particular:

  • Clinton scored some telling blows on four issues: women, Trump’s taxes, racism, and economic planning. She responded convincingly to his charge that she lacks the stamina to be president.  She hammered Trump for his ongoing refusal to reveal his tax returns, raising questions about what he is hiding.  She correctly excoriated him for his racist background, drawing a link between his early redlining in housing to prevent African Americans from renting apartments and his five-year campaign challenging President Obama’s US citizenship.  And Clinton effectively distinguished her ideas for a middle-class economy from Trump’s plans to further enrich the wealthy.
  • Trump presented only one idea for increasing jobs in the US: bring multinational companies home. Not a bad idea, but hardly the solution to unemployment around the country.  Strangely, Trump regularly scores higher than Clinton on the economy, yet she fairly well shattered his supposed business acumen by pointing to the many working people he has “stiffed” over the years, not to mention his business failures.
  • In foreign policy, Trump showed that he has no clue about the most pressing international issues. Clinton was excellent on three in particular: the Iran nuclear deal, NATO, and nuclear weapons.  Trump was simply unprepared to debate the details, incorrectly stating (for example) that NATO only began planning to fight terrorism after he criticized it, that NATO was not involved in the Middle East conflicts, and that he had always opposed US involvement in Iraq and Libya.  When it came to nuclear weapons, Trump was completely uninformed as to the huge US advantage and the continuing very expensive modernization program that Obama has approved.
  • Trump’s characterization of the place of the US in the world was eye-opening. He said the US had been reduced to a Third World country, and had been “ripped off by every single country in the world.”  As usual, he put the blame mainly on Mexico and China. (Clinton did not challenge these views, by the way.)
  • Trump refused to acknowledge the role of Russia in email hacking, instead saying it could have been any country or even a “400-pound” person sitting in bed!
  • One of Clinton’s best moments, I think, was her straightforward apology for using a private email server while secretary of state. (She should have apologized months ago and saved herself endless ridicule.)
  • Finally, Trump defeated himself in this debate: His chaotic presentation, his inability to stay on message despite having been given far more time than Clinton, his defensiveness, his arrogance, and his typical refusal to backtrack on well documented lies demonstrated weaknesses of character and intelligence.

Donald Trump does not take losing lightly.  But he is his own worst enemy. His attack on the moderator, Lester Holt, for being biased is absurd considering the many times Holt failed to stop Trump from talking beyond the allotted time and avoiding answering several questions.  Trump’s sexism was on full display, underscored by Clinton’s mention of the Miss Universe pageant winner whom Trump attacked for being overweight and “a problem.”  In short, Trump’s performance was poor and his post-debate performance even worse.

Clinton was not perfect.  I wish she had said at least a few words about the international security threat posed by climate change, the necessity of major reductions in the US nuclear weapons arsenal and military spending generally, the urgency to address poverty in America and not just its middle class problems, a just peace in the Israel-Palestine conflict, and the leadership role that the US ought to play in welcoming refugees from Syria and other countries at war.


Post #129: Carrots or Sticks? Addressing North Korea’s Fifth Nuclear Test

As many experts predicted, North Korea (DPRK) followed another ballistic missile test with its fifth nuclear-weapon test on September 9.  The event continues a pattern of testing increasingly sophisticated weapons and delivery systems (see my Post #116) designed as much to thumb noses at the international community’s sanctions as to demonstrate that North Korea, unlike Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, has the ability to defend itself.  Once again the community of North Korea watchers is divided as to Pyongyang’s motives and what to do to rein in its military program.

Among these observers is a substantial number who believe that sanctions alone will not move Pyongyang from its current course.  They believe the North, and for some China as well, needs to be provided with incentives to return to the bargaining table, with nuclear disarmament of North Korea the goal.  But they also believe North Korea must be punished if it rejects the bargain the US would offer, lest it become an unmanageable threat to its neighbors and eventually to the US homeland.

Retired Joint Chiefs chair Admiral Mike Mullen and former Senator Sam Nunn, for example, offer a four-point plan:


  1. . . . China can help get North Korea back to the negotiating table. . . . To encourage China to participate, the United States should offer a new dialogue on the future of the peninsula that includes discussion of the disposition of U.S. forces. This dialogue should coordinate planning in the event of a crisis and convey that it is not U.S. policy to cause the collapse of the North Korean regime.
  2. New and genuine incentives should be offered for North Korea to participate in substantive talks. These talks would include the possibility of a comprehensive deal in which North Korea, South Korea and the United States — supported by China — signed a peace agreement that would finally end the Korean War and gradually normalize relations in exchange for complete nuclear disarmament and progress on human rights. A new diplomatic approach could potentially freeze North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and lay the groundwork for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.
  3. Further steps must be taken to increase economic sanctions that more severely restrict the regime’s funding sources. The Obama administration laid a foundation for this with the strong sanctions recently achieved by the U.N. Security Council with the support of China and Russia. . . . Current enforcement of sanctions is far too lax.
  4. . . . The Pentagon should step up its work with U.S. allies to build the capacity necessary to enhance deterrence on the peninsula, enforce sanctions and impede North Korean missile programs. Expanded naval capacity will be needed to interdict North Korean vessels, detect submarine activity and intercept North Korean missile launches. (

Included in their plan is a military response if North Korea refuses to negotiate:  “future North Korean aggression would be met with an active and proportionate self-defense response, including inside North Korea,” and interception of long-range North Korean missiles.

Joel Wit, at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, also advocates a new deal with North Korea that would stop and eventually eliminate its nuclear arsenal (  He endorses negotiating a permanent peace treaty with North Korea as well as suspension of annual US-South Korea military exercises.  But like Mullen and Nunn, Wit calls for enhanced sanctions against the North and supports the Obama administration’s decision to deploy a regional missile defense (known as THAAD)—a decision that China has vigorously opposed in the belief the system is actually directed at its missiles.

These ideas are an improvement over the Obama administration’s policy of “strategic patience,” which has relied on escalating sanctions, UN Security Council declarations critical of North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests, and the mistaken belief that China is the key to denuclearizing the North.  (See my Post #106.)  As was true under George W. Bush, Obama has ruled out direct talks with North Korea unless and until it first agrees to eliminate its nuclear weapons—a nonstarter if ever there was one. We should therefore welcome calls for resuming negotiations with Pyongyang, whether in the Six Party Talks that ceased in 2009 or in some other format.

Kim Jong-un evidently is amenable to denuclearization talks, based on a North Korean statement of July 6.  But combining carrots with sticks is very unlikely to interest Kim Jong-un for the simple reason that he and his military leaders will see the formula as sticks now, carrots later.  They will need to see real carrots from the US, South Korea, and Japan up front before they put their sticks down.  What they are seeing now is commentary from pro-engagement sources that stress the North Korean nuclear threat, and the urgency of a multilateral effort to halt it.

Specifically, calling for North Korea’s complete denuclearization as a condition of an agreement puts the cart before the horse.  Its nuclear weapons, as the North’s leaders see it, are the only thing standing between survival and regime change—and probably also between China’s support and abandonment.  North Korean leaders are not about to surrender those weapons at the outset or during negotiations; and even if a new agreement is arranged, it seems doubtful at this point that they would surrender them. We have to believe Kim Jong-un when he says the DPRK will never give them up.  No doubt the Chinese believe him; they understand that many years of living under the shadow of US nuclear superiority requires a credible deterrent, and the North is clearly bent on having one of its own.

Denuclearization should therefore be the last item on a negotiating agenda, not the first: It should follow on other agreements that build trust and convince the North that regime change is not US or South Korean policy, as Mullen and Nunn say.  If the North Koreans are given incentives that are meaningful and reliably delivered, nuclear weapons will be useless to them except as the ultimate deterrent and a prod to the great powers to accept them as negotiating partners.

One such incentive, supporters of engaging North Korea generally agree, is concluding a peace treaty to replace the Korean War armistice. The treaty, guaranteed by the US, China, Russia, South Korea, and Japan, would provide security assurances to the DPRK by acknowledging the legitimacy of the North Korean state and pledging not to attack it.  Establishing diplomatic relations with the North, providing official economic development aid, and resuming delivery of humanitarian relief (the US has provided virtually none any since 2009, and the DPRK’s northeast is recovering from major floods right now) are among other steps that would help build trust.  Eventually, military matters must be discussed, including the North’s substantial weapons modernization program that keeps tensions high on the Korean peninsula.  Only when a pattern of faithful implementation of agreements by all sides has been established can negotiators move on to nuclear weapons.

Now that North Korea has a significant stockpile of nuclear weapons, however—at least 10, probably closer to 20—and is getting closer to having the capability to deliver them across the Pacific, complete denuclearization no longer seems achievable. The best deal might be to freeze and later warehouse those weapons under strict international supervision by the International Atomic Energy Agency.  As Andrew Nathan writes, a new deal may even require US recognition of North Korea as a nuclear-weapon state (“Who Is Kim Jong-un?” New York Review of Books, August 18, 2016).

China has every reason to support a diplomatic resolution that forestalls a nuclear confrontation on its border. But it will not be party to a US-engineered strategy that amounts to regime change. US-China differences over theater missile defense, the South China Sea islands, human rights, and several other issues have created a contentious relationship.  (The Obama-Xi agreement on climate change is a welcome exception.)  Even in better circumstances, China could never be expected to undermine Kim’s rule and create a chaotic border situation that ultimately would redound to the benefit of South Korea and its US ally.  But given today’s US-China tensions, marked by a widespread belief in Beijing that the US is again seeking to contain China and undermine its reforms, full-out Chinese pressure on North Korea is inconceivable.  To the contrary, many accounts suggest official and local-level tolerance for North Korean evasion of UN sanctions in collaboration with Chinese trading firms.

“I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.” –Abraham Lincoln

In my most recent posts on North Korea—#115 and 116—I argued that sanctions will not be effective against a regime that has historically found itself on the defensive, is internationally isolated, and is led by a young man who seems out to demonstrate that he is even tougher than his father and grandfather.  Only by returning to the negotiating table can the US clarify its and the DPRK’s intentions and discuss incentives that might persuade North Korea to shelve its nuclear weapons, open them to international inspection, stop producing more of them, and agree to a ban on selling or transferring ballistic missiles.  Negotiations are probably the only way to regain China’s (and Russia’s) cooperation in bringing about a deal.  The alternative of constantly upping the pressure on North Korea has led it to produce longer-range missiles and more powerful nuclear weapons—with the prospect that the next US president will have to deal with 50 to100 North Korean nukes (


Post #128: The Dark Side of United Nations Peacekeeping


United Nations peacekeeping operations (PKOs) involve over 125,000 soldiers deployed in sixteen countries, with a total budget of nearly $8 billion.  Their missions range from interposing themselves between combatants to providing relief from a health or environmental crisis.  These missions are difficult to organize and finance, yet often represent the only alternative to large-scale loss of innocent lives.  As welcome as “blue helmets” may be in very trying circumstances, however, there is a major negative: UN peacekeeping soldiers sometimes do more harm than good.

All too often, UN soldiers behave just as badly as the soldiers they are meant to deter, raping and pillaging in complete violation of their mission and to the great discredit of the organization itself.  Following on widely publicized cases of sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers in Bosnia and Kosovo in the early 1990s, a UN-commissioned study in 1996 on the fate of children in war noted: “Children may also become victims of prostitution following the arrival of peacekeeping forces. In Mozambique, after the signing of the peace treaty in 1992, soldiers of the United Nations Operation in Mozambique (ONUMOZ) recruited girls aged 12 to 18 years into prostitution. After a commission of inquiry confirmed the allegations, the soldiers implicated were sent home. . . . In 6 out of 12 country studies on sexual exploitation of children in situations of armed conflict prepared for the present report, the arrival of peacekeeping troops has been associated with a rapid rise in child prostitution.”

The study recommended: “Prevention of gender-based violence should include a role for the military, and United Nations peacekeepers in particular. Senior officers often have turned a blind eye to the sexual crimes of those under their command, but they must be held accountable for both their own behaviour and that of the men they supervise. The 12 case studies on gender-based violence prepared for the present report found the main perpetrators of sexual abuse and exploitation to be the armed forces of parties to a conflict, whether governmental or other actors. Military training should emphasize gender sensitivity, child rights and responsible behaviour towards women and children. Offenders must be prosecuted and punished for acts against women and children.”  ( )

But the UN took none of these steps. Thus: “There were 99 allegations of sexual abuse against UN staff last year, a 25 percent increase over 2014, affecting peacekeeping operations in countries including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti, Ivory Coast, Libya, Mali and Sudan” ( “Failure to investigate and act” is part and parcel of the problem.  In most cases, it seems that the UN secretary-general became aware of the problem but chose not to take immediate action.  Other UN agencies likewise have turned a blind eye to reports of rape and human trafficking.

In 2013 French peacekeepers not directly under UN command raped boys at a refugee camp in Central African Republic, and the next year, when a formal UN PKO took over, more than forty cases of sexual abuse, mostly of girls, were reported.  In the latter case, only one abuser was charged with a crime (   An internal UN report said: “The end result was a gross institutional failure to respond to the allegations in a meaningful way. . . . In the absence of concrete action to address wrongdoing by the very persons sent to protect vulnerable populations, the credibility of the UN and peacekeeping operations are in jeopardy” ( report above).

When wrongdoing by peacekeeping soldiers occurs, the UN’s usual response is to send the soldiers home.  The UN is not allowed to arrest and prosecute; only a soldier’s own government has those powers, and they are rarely used.  Of course there is much talk about having better trained soldiers and more of them, including more female soldiers, but the wheels grind slowly.  What remains in place is perhaps best described by Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s secretary-general: a culture of impunity. “If people feel and know they are not going to get away with this, we’ll have a whole different system,” he said. “If the U.N. can’t ensure accountability on something like sexual violence, how is the U.N. able to talk to anybody else? I think there’s a massive gap and much more to be done” (

The UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti in 2010, following on a massive earthquake, is another example of peacekeeping gone awry.  A special rapporteur appointed by the UN has reported that waste from the UN base established in Haiti was the likely source of a cholera outbreak that has killed at least 10,000 people.  Though the UN leadership has finally taken some responsibility for the consequences, it has thus far refused to make payments to the victims’ families.  This prompted the rapporteur to say that the UN “upholds a double standard according to which the U.N. insists that the member states respect human rights, while rejecting any responsibility for itself” (

Then there are the cases in which the UN PKO sits on its hands in the midst of terrible violence.  The Rwanda genocide is surely the best known instance.  But now we have South Sudan, where the PKO has just been increased to 16,000 soldiers in response to a breakdown of a peace agreement in the civil war.  The UN mission is being accused of failing to prevent violence, widespread sexual abuse by local soldiers, and looting of food supplies.  The UN contends that forces loyal to the government are mainly responsible ( for atrocities committed against civilians, but the peacekeeping operation has done little to stop it.  Foreign aid workers, who face enormous obstacles as people flee the country and hunger increases, have lately been a principal target of government-backed soldiers (  The secretary-general has expressed “outrage” and ordered a special investigation.  By the time the investigation ends and some action is taken, we can imagine what the death toll will be.

There is no question in my mind that we need international peacekeepers trained to prevent or at least minimize violence and to respect UN conventions on the rights of children, women, and refugees.  When performed properly, PKOs are worth every penny; their total budget is less than one tenth of one percent of global military spending.  But those at the UN who are responsible for PKOs, and who are always pleading for more money and other resources, need to take a hard look in the mirror.  Too many peacekeeping soldiers have engaged in criminal or grossly negligent behavior, and the UN leadership has often done little more than cover up the problem or, when pushed, study it.

Post #127: Mission Impossible in the Middle East

We all know from personal experience how difficult it is to burn the candle at both ends when we’re trying to satisfy two people who are at odds with one another.  Yet that is exactly what Washington is now trying to do with the Turks and the Saudis, two security partners in the war on ISIS with authoritarian governments.  Relations with Turkey now require that Washington placate a leader, Recep Tayyif Erdogan, who has just survived a military coup attempt and is now resuming a crackdown on political opponents.  Unfortunately for the US, those opponents include the Kurds, who are also (and very effectively) fighting ISIS.  By providing air support for the just-launched Turk offensive against ISIS positions in the border area with Syria, the US must somehow restrain the Kurds who are fighting in that same area.  Clearly, Turkish forces are just as determined to diminish the Kurds as they are to defeat ISIS, for Turkish leaders know that the Kurds’ quest for greater autonomy, if not outright independence, for all their people—in Syria, in Iraq, and in Turkey—is the Kurdish end game.  The US, in the Nixon-Kissinger era, has stifled that quest once before, and by every indication Washington remains opposed to Kurdish independence.

Meantime, the US is guilty of complicity with Saudi Arabia in the horrific civil war raging in Yemen.  US intelligence, bombs, and equipment are critical to the Saudis’ devastating air campaign that, according to a just-released report by the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has killed at least 3,800 civilians, wounded over 6,700, forced a tenth of the population to flee their homes, and destroyed many nonmilitary structures such as hospitals and schools (  The US has long been a major supplier of arms to Saudi Arabia, notwithstanding that regime’s protection and promotion of Wahhabism, an extremist form of Islam that fuels jihadist violence around the world (

Here is “crackpot realism” (in C. Wright Mills’ phrase) at its worst: the Obama administration, determined to buy back the Saudis’ affection after concluding a nuclear deal with Iran that they strongly oppose, abets relentless bombing of civilian targets in Yemen.  (The UNHCHR report cited above called for investigating possible war crimes there.)  As with Turkey, US leaders seem to feel compelled to apologize, look the other way, and pay something for doing the right thing—supporting the Kurds and engaging the Iranians.

In an editorial on “the exasperating complexity of Washington’s foreign policy” (whew!), the New York Times explains how the US is caught between placating Turkey, “an important NATO ally” and “a repository for allied nuclear weapons,” and maintaining good ties with the Kurds (  The editorial sides with Vice President Joe Biden who, in visiting Turkey, opted for trying to conciliate—he reportedly apologized for not arriving sooner—rather than saying “what most American officials really think.”  And what do these officials supposedly think?  That the Erdogan government deserves condemnation for using the coup attempt as a basis for further repression, and for arousing suspicion of that the US supported a coup.  The Times concludes that realism, meaning Turkey’s strategic importance, trumps (sorry) concerns about human rights and humane governance.

In Turkey and Saudi Arabia we have two grossly undemocratic regimes whose leaders have learned the fine art of manipulating US foreign policy priorities to serve their own interests and keep autocrats in power.  It’s an old story. US leaders, on the other hand, never seem to learn—or, if they are clear-eyed, seem unable and unwilling to break with the past.  These are embarrassing relationships that contradict professed American values and undermine international partnerships.  Worst of all, they are extremely costly to innocent people caught up in their countries’ war machine.  As the head of the UNHCHR said regarding Yemen, the international community has “a legal and moral duty to take urgent steps to alleviate the appalling levels of human despair.”

We might as well call US policy in these cases for what it is: appeasement.  And appeasement, which is what happens when you try to burn the candle at both ends, never works; the appeased party is never appeased.  We can expect the Turks to keep demanding the extradition of the cleric Fethullah Gulen and containment of the Kurds; and we can expect the Saudis to keep demanding US assistance in their Yemen bombing campaign and deeper involvement in Syria in order to overthrow Bashar al-Assad.  Both will want increased “rent” from the US—money and weapons—in return for their support of US policy.  They know, just by looking at the shape of US politics, that nobody of consequence is going to say “no.”

Critical appraisals of foreign affairs from a global-citizen perspective.