Post #90: Memorandum from President Trump


January 21, 2017

To: All Intelligence and Diplomatic Personnel

From: The President

We are about to embark on a new era in the conduct of US foreign policy.  Forget your previous sensitivity training; forget previous commitments made in the name of the United States. We’re going to do business differently—in fact, operate like a business—so get on board.  Following are some of our new principles and practices.  Learn them.

  • No more “Mr. Nice Guy.” We are the strongest country in the world; it’s time to act like it. We want peace, but we don’t fear war. That’s our new mantra; that’s how we recover the respect of our power that has been frittered away.
  • We have no permanent allies, only governments that either serve our interests or must be shoved aside.
  • The military and intelligence communities will be getting more money, the State Department less.  We’ll cut State’s budget by reducing staffs abroad and in Washington, particularly those positions (such as visa officers and translators) that do routine work of no great urgency.  But we will increase the number of military attachés.
  • We will secure our borders with additional personnel, better weapons, and more formidable barriers.  This will occur at the same time that we deport all individuals illegally in the US.  And yes, that includes children born here.  Unfortunate, but necessary.
  • In the Middle East, our main enemies are Iran and ISIS.  At the first sign that Iran may be violating the nuclear agreement concluded by the previous administration, we will terminate the agreement and issue a one-time warning to Iran to stop what it’s doing.  We will deploy military forces in the region to reinforce the warning, and we will work with Israel on the most effective enforcement action.  (Same goes for North Korea: No more “strategic patience.”)  As for ISIS, we will begin amassing appropriate military forces, including US ground forces, to destroy it.
  • China and Russia are our principal rivals; we must and will reduce their influence and their power.  We don’t need China; it must be put in its proper place as a second-rate dictatorship. For example, instead of telling the Chinese how much we wish them “peace and prosperity,” let’s keep prodding them to act lawfully toward their citizens and neighboring countries—and punish them if they don’t! We will confront China in the South China Sea and anywhere else in East Asia where it challenges us and our friends.  And we will put obstacles in the way of its investments here and elsewhere.  Same with Russia; we will show by forceful demonstration that it cannot get its way with Ukraine or any other European country.  In short, we must be tough both in language and policy.
  • We will stop giving multinational companies advantages that our other businesses don’t have. If multinationals want to put assets abroad, and export US jobs, they’re going to have to pay a price for it—no more tax advantages, in other words.
  • Enough speculation about climate change. The science is uncertain, and there is plenty of time to do something about it if necessary.  But we must not let fear of climate change hinder our search for new sources of energy.  We need all the oil we can get, whether from the Saudis, the Arctic, or Alberta.
  • Last point, but perhaps the most important: Loyalty to me is the key to effective foreign policy.  If you cannot accept that, and doubt what we’re doing, leave now.

Post #89: China’s Insecurity

Several developments in China over the past few weeks have shown us a country quite different from the one often portrayed by outsiders—an emerging superpower, with global economic reach and ambitions to challenge American predominance, at least in Asia.  The real China, the one most familiar to its citizens, faces serious, long-term problems at home.  In just the last few weeks these include a major industrial chemical explosion in Tianjian (just the latest in a string of industrial accidents), successive currency revaluations, a stock market crash, an anti-corruption campaign that has landed quite a few big names, and a widening net to catch lawyers and anyone else who speaks for human rights and the rule of law.

Every one of these developments has international implications, directly or indirectly.  But we should mainly be concerned with their internal implications.  What ties these problems together is that they expose China’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities, and underscore the leadership’s insecurity when it comes to dealing with them.  Concern in the US, Japan, and elsewhere about China’s international ambitions diverts us from the reality that China’s leaders must cope with social, political, economic, and environmental problems on a scale that demands a significant share of the country’s resources and prestige.  When toxic chemicals spread over a major city as the result of an entirely preventable accident and local government-private investor collusion; when tens, even hundreds of thousands of people lose their savings in a stock market crash; when members of the communist party elite are jailed while many more live a privileged life built on corruption and connections; when protesters and their lawyers risk all in efforts to right certain wrongs—not only do ordinary Chinese suffer.  The system itself is under the microscope.

The leadership’s restrictions on media coverage of these events reflects full awareness in Xi Jinping’s inner circle that the party-state’s legitimacy—its right to rule without competition—is at stake.  Power exercised in ways that convey greater concern about social “stability” than about people’s livelihoods risks unleashing mass anger, expressed not only in violent incidents directed at local authority but also in social media that even the public security bureau’s “great firewall” cannot completely shut down.

China’s leaders also understand that the danger to themselves lurks within their own ranks.  Purges of thousands of officials at various levels of authority may make the system less corrupt, and may weed out people loyal to previous leaders.  But purges probably also cause resentment among the bureaucratic survivors who see their careers and traditional ways of operating under assault.

In a political system that has established, transparent, and effective outlets for addressing injustice, these kinds of developments can be contained and resolved.  But China, as many of its own intellectuals freely and forthrightly acknowledge, falls well short when it comes to providing such outlets.[i]  In fact, Xi Jinping’s administration is moving in the opposite direction, imposing further social controls to prevent citizens from organizing to create change. A primary example is the new national security law, which codifies and attempts to legitimize the crackdown that has been going on for some time, now labeled ideological and cultural “security.”  One Chinese academic is quoted as saying that the law’s language is troubling for the obvious reason that it is so all-encompassing; the dragnet can be used (and is being used) to suppress independent voices of many kinds.  (From a foreign policy standpoint, the law stretches “core interests” in new directions. Here I see the same kind of problem Americans often face when presidents arbitrarily identify “the national interest,” “vital interests,” and “national security.”  Whatever the leader decides is “core” or “vital” becomes such, whether it’s the South China Sea islands or Iraq.)

Underscoring Xi’s sense of the communist party’s vulnerability is his assumption of powers that extend even beyond Chairman Mao’s. As Roderick MacFarquhar at Harvard has written, Xi not only heads the new Central National Security Commission in charge of implementing that law ( He has taken over every important leadership position in the party and government: general secretary of the party and president of China, posts Xi assumed on taking power; the Central Military Commission; and “leading groups” in charge of economic reform, foreign affairs, Internet security, and information technology.  Believing that the Soviet Union collapsed because “their ideals and conviction wavered,” and because no “real man” emerged to resist collapse, Xi is engaged in a Mao-like attempt to create a “China dream” and revive an ideology that no longer resonates among citizens.  Very much in the Mao mold, Xi (to quote MacFarquhar) “has been forced to go negative, listing alien doctrines to be extirpated. According to a central Party document, there are six ‘false ideological trends, positions, and activities’ emanating from the West that are advocated by dissident Chinese: constitutional democracy; universal values; civil society; economic neoliberalism; Western-style journalism, challenging China’s principle that the media and the publishing system should be subject to Party discipline; and promoting historical nihilism, trying to undermine the history of the CCP by emphasizing the mistakes of the Maoist period.”

Thus, “the West” once again is China’s bogeyman, providing a convenient target whenever a lawyer or protesting farmer must be dragged from home.  Promoting this kind of negative nationalism—that is, strong national feelings built on an external threat rather than internal pride—can only work for awhile.  The economy remains the key to popular loyalty, and right now it is faltering, with slower growth and declining exports.  As one Chinese commentator observes: “Everyone understands that the economy is the biggest pillar of the Chinese government’s legitimacy to govern and win over popular sentiment,” said Chen Jieren, a well-known Beijing-based commentator on politics. “If the economy falters, the political power of the Chinese Communist Party will be confronted with more real challenges, social stability in China will be endangered tremendously, and Xi Jinping’s administration will suffer even more criticism” (  China’s economy may well be fundamentally sound, as one expert writes (  But “the economy” is not people, and as we all know, GDP and other macro figures can be quite misleading when it comes to issues of social inequities.

President Xi will soon visit Washington.  President Obama can either press China hard on currency valuation, human rights, and cyberhacking, or he can engage in a dialogue of equals and pursue common ground on climate change, Iran, the South China Sea dispute, and North Korea.  In choosing the latter course, Obama would be recognizing that Xi is plagued by domestic problems largely of his own making.  US pressure on him now would not only be strongly resented; it would be quite counterproductive.  Let the Chinese people determine the fate of what Xi Jinping calls the “China dream.”



[i] For readers of Chinese, I would particularly point to a recent roundtable in the pages of the historical and political journal Yanhuang chunqiu, “Five People Discuss Constitutional Governance,”

Post #88: Consorting with the Devil

Throughout the Cold War, and doubtless right down to the present, professional people with skills relevant to “national security” have been secretly recruited to work for the Central Intelligence Agency and the Department of Defense. Universities are among those particularly targeted.  Scholars and campus research centers have received CIA and DoD funding for conferences and publications, for collecting intelligence while abroad, and even for spying, all under cloak of secrecy. A good brief review of these activities in earlier days is at (Also recommended is Noam ChomskyLaura Nader, and Immanuel Wallerstein, The Cold War and the University: Toward an Intellectual History of the Cold War Years [The New Press,1998].)

Among the more notorious examples is the 1985 scandal at Harvard, in which the head of its Center for Middle Eastern Studies Center was found to have a financial contract with the CIA for research and conferences (  He was forced to resign. Yale has had unusually close ties with the CIA dating back many years, contributing student recruits and directors (

Universities are hardly alone in having intelligence ties to government agencies. Foreign affairs specialists working at think tanks, living abroad, or serving in nongovernmental organizations are also prey. I was one of those people. In 1966, following my graduate education, I was hired by the RAND Corporation in California to work in a classified, DoD-sponsored project to assess “Viet Cong Motivation and Morale.” The project aimed at finding weaknesses in the enemy’s thinking that the US military could exploit through psychological warfare and bombing.  I and others read field interviews with captured Vietnamese soldiers to try to discover what drove their dedication and willingness to fight no matter the hardships.  Like some other of my RAND colleagues, I wound up concluding exactly the opposite of what the Pentagon funders of the project wanted, namely, that the “enemy” was us, and that Viet Cong motivation could not be overcome by napalm, Agent Orange, or carpet bombing (and in fact was heightened by such actions).  The best US strategy, we concluded, was to get out of Vietnam.  But most colleagues at RAND did not see things that way, and, the RAND-DoD partnership continued.

Telecommunication companies, starting with AT&T and Verizon, are also part of the intelligence network.  Thanks to Edward Snowden, they are now known to have had a long and friendly relationship with the National Security Council under the NSC’s Special Source Operations. AT&T for over a decade (at least to 2013, perhaps still today) collaborated with the NSC in collecting billions of emails and wiretapping United Nations Internet communications. The companies received hundreds of millions of dollars for allowing the NSC to tap communications between foreigners and between US citizens and foreigners (

The latest revelation concerning those who “consort with the devil” concerns psychologists in the American Psychological Association.  In utter disregard for professional ethics, a number of prominent psychologists worked closely with the CIA’s and the Pentagon’s torture programs in Afghanistan.  They not only condoned but personally profited from torture, all in the name of supporting the US war effort ( It was a case of first-class collusion, abuse of authority, and conflict of interest—and it went largely unnoticed until recently.

The report on the psychologists cited above finds that at every fork in the road, when choices had to be made about participation in the torture programs, they rationalized participation on the basis that the various torture tactics employed really didn’t amount to torture. Left unsaid was that some of the decision makers were under contract with the CIA or the Pentagon, or served on one of their advisory committees.  Several of them used approval of participation in torture to then contract with the Pentagon or CIA for profitable work, including ways to improve interrogation techniques.

You would think that such unethical, indeed disgraceful behavior would warrant a complete overhaul of the APA’s ethics guidelines, dismissal from APA posts of those psychologists who participated in the torture programs, and public naming and shaming of others who were involved.  But so far, despite not one but two major reports on the APA’s involvement —the other is at—the APA reportedly is merely considering what to do. As though the honorable thing to do is somehow unclear.

Private professionals working secretly on projects that enhance war making is a problem that is likely to get worse as opportunities outside government to pursue one’s chosen academic craft diminish.  Anthropologists who can’t find tenure-track teaching positions are working for DoD in Afghanistan.  Lawyers find government positions more lucrative than private practice—and then, as under George W. Bush, authorize torture and other illegalities. Think tank experts shill for the government in hopes of landing on the inside.  All these people will, of course, vigorously assert their independence of mind, when in fact they have been coopted.  The question then is, Who speaks for peace and what are the rewards for it?

Post #87: The Number One Global Security Issue? Climate Change

In my very first blog posted in February 2014, I noted that US leaders were finally categorizing climate change as a global threat on the order of weapons of mass destruction.  In the short time since, the bad news surrounding climate change has gotten considerably worse.  We are, as Eric Holthaus just wrote for Rolling Stone, at the point of no return (  He offers many telltale signs, ecological and environmental, some familiar and others not.  But perhaps the most decisive finding is the rate of climatic change, “unprecedented for at least the past 1,000 years” according to five scientists with the Joint Global Change Research Institute, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, in College Park, Maryland. Their study, like many others, urges immediate mitigating actions with the caution that even positive efforts will not have much impact before mid-century (

As he enters his last year of office, President Obama’s characterization of the threat posed by climate change has become quite dramatic and shrill.  He told Coast Guard Academy graduates in May: “I am here today to say that climate change constitutes a serious threat to national security, an immediate risk to our national security, and, make no mistake, it will impact how our military defends our country” (  Then, on August 2, introducing his plan to curb climate change and promote his clean power plan, he said that “no challenge poses a greater threat to our future, and to future generations, than a changing climate” (video of the speech at

There is good reason for linking climate change to international security.  Climate change impacts every major international security issue, as Keith Johnson shows in a recent article for Foreign Policy (“The Meltdown of the Global Order,”  In the South China Sea dispute, for example, the contested islands have the potential not only to yield significant amounts of oil and gas, but also to become inundated before very long.  Hence China’s land reclamation project, which in the end may be a huge waste of time and money.  Environmental refugees within countries and across borders have become commonplace.  The looming fight over the Arctic’s resources as the ice melts; the worldwide water crisis, affecting every country whether wealthy or poor; the shift of weather patterns that will impact food supplies; the warming of oceans and the consequences for fishing—these and many more changes are in motion now, and all have serious potential for conflict between nations.

The sooner we understand the interconnection between climate change and security, the faster we can get our priorities straight. It’s not a matter of putting the other security issues on the back burner; it’s just that climate change is the most urgent matter for all species. As the President said, “we’re the last generation that can do something about it.”  Other dangers will linger for a long time, but “there is such a thing as being too late when it comes to climate change.”

I concluded my February 2014 post with the following:

“Will it take a climate catastrophe to mobilize legislators to action?   Will John Kerry, having denounced the “tiny minority of shoddy scientists … and extreme ideologues” who question global warming, now do the right thing and reject the Keystone XL fracking plan?  Will the Obama administration finally display leadership at the next international conference on global warming?  Stay tuned.”  I’m not optimistic; the time to act decisively is exceedingly short, and Obama’s maneuvering room on environmental issues is limited by the Republican Deniers and I’m No Scientists. But I believe each of us must do what we can and not let the daily bad news immobilize us. Let’s support organizations that have a proven track record on the environment, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Rainforest Alliance, and groups in your immediate area that are keeping the predators at bay.

P.S.: Please use the Comment option on this web site to suggest other groups—local, national, international—that are worthy of support.

Post #86: With Friends Like These

The Pentagon Papers record a last-minute conversation between President Dwight Eisenhower and President-elect John F. Kennedy on Inauguration Day. The subject was the war in Indochina, which already was going badly. Eisenhower “wondered aloud why, in [US] interventions of this kind we always seem to find that the morale of the Communist forces was better than that of the democratic forces.” His answer was the deeper “sense of dedication” of the communists. But overcoming that problem, Eisenhower concluded, should not stand in the way of deeper US involvement in support of its friends.

From Eisenhower to Obama, no president has quite figured out how to resolve either end of that problem: working with an unpopular, repressive, but strategically important government whose actions and values are directly at variance with those professed by US leaders, or effectively combating a highly motivated armed opposition. Pakistan is a representative case—a military-dominated authoritarian regime whose value to US administrations lies in the common fight against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The US judgment for many years has been that the strategic alliance with Pakistan outweighs Pakistan’s consistently undemocratic and inhumane conduct at home. In just the last few weeks, Pakistanis have been taken out of their homes in the middle of the night on charges of subversion, the ruling government has survived a challenge of fraudulent election in 2013, and a number of senior political figures have been arrested by paramilitary forces.

Washington may quietly protest these offenses from time to time, but policy in practice is to maintain huge military and economic aid programs to Pakistan, and thus be allowed to conduct drone strikes. In fact, a review of reported US concerns about Pakistan shows that the chief issue for Washington has been Pakistan’s uninspired pursuit of terrorists in its borderlands, not its failures as a democracy. As a result, the US is a major part of the problem described above—contributing to the terrorists’ dedication, enabling hard-line military rule and the undermining of competitive politics, and alienating the general population. Thus does Eisenhower’s dilemma remain.

The list is long of US allies that understand how easy it is to defy Washington when their political record is up for review. They know that strategic value always trumps human rights and democratization. Only in rare instances has the US government actually carried out a threat that an authoritarian government either reform or face a cut or elimination of aid. (The US did reduce military aid to Pakistan once, after the flap over the US killing of Osama bin Laden and a US air attack that resulted in a number of Pakistani civilian deaths. But about eight months later, in July 2012, aid was restored.) Chile, Philippines, Israel, Egypt, Iraq, Turkey, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Brazil, South Korea, Haiti, Argentina . . . all of them have at one time or another received substantial US aid despite full knowledge in Washington of their governments’ discarding of democratic norms and often horrific behavior toward their own citizens. Military officers from many of these countries regularly send officers to the US for training, which supposedly includes learning to respect human rights, only to return home ready to wreak vengeance on protesting civilians—using US weapons in many instances, in violation of longstanding agreements.

Why does the US countenance torture, imprisonment without trial, denial of fundamental freedoms, and other abuses by governments that receive its aid? A cynic would say, with some justice, that since the US government practices these same things at home and abroad from time to time, taking a hard line with allies that do the same would be an obvious double standard. I suggest two other answers. First, some US officials actually believe they can induce reforms through patient persuasion, using aid as leverage. Second, too many US leaders regard the abuses as a nuisance, since foreign policy in practice is about power relations and not ethics. (As we learned from the US-supported overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile, State Department area or country specialists may often disagree with that prioritization, only to be overruled by their superiors.) Thus, leading US officials over many years have decided that governments with valuable assets need to be given a wide berth; they need time to reform, officials will say. Punishing or pressuring friendly authoritarian regimes thus becomes mere theater, intended only for critics back home.

While this game plays out, US support of Pakistan remains robust. Consider the following:


  • Between 1951 and 2011, total US aid to Pakistan came to $67 billion ( In recent years US aid has averaged around $1.5 billion.
  • According to the Congressional Research Service, between FY2002 and FY2015, US security-related assistance—referring to six separate programs in military training and counterterrorism and counternarcotics activity as well as weapons sales—amounts to around $7.6 billion.
  • If we include another special military program under which the defense department reimburses Pakistan for support of US-led military activities (a total of nearly $13 billion between FY02-15), we have total security assistance in that period of over $20 billion. This amount compares with about $10.5 billion in economic aid (
  • Pakistan ranks 16th as a recipient of US arms from 2011 to 2014 (four years). See (Note that this list covers US weapons exports only and not other categories of military-related assistance, including drone strikes.) Half the countries in the top 16 are in the Middle East/North Africa, by the way.
  • In terms of human development, Pakistan ranks 146th among 186 countries, despite all the years of US and other countries’ development assistance. (India ranks 135th.) (The rankings are from the UN Development Program’s annual Human Development Report:


To the best of my knowledge, there has not been a single instance in which US pressure on authoritarian regimes that receive US aid has produced meaningful political reform. Aid has never been an effective lever, in part because the recipient government has leverage of its own—such as by making empty promises knowing the US values “security and stability” above all else, or turning to a US adversary for the same assistance. The best leverage the US has is itself illegal: helping overthrow a friendly government when its value has eroded, such as Diem’s and Minh’s in Vietnam, Marcos’ in the Philippines, and Allende’s in Chile. So what can be done?

It is time to end the charade of “reform for aid.” The US should dump Pakistan, which has long since become a strategic liability and a moral nightmare. No claims of partnership against terrorism or concern about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons or the potential for Pakistan’s descent into chaos can make up for that country’s corrupt, military-dominated politics, the well-known links between its intelligence apparatus and terror organizations, and the abject failure of democracy to take root and civil society to be respected. Maintaining “influence” in Pakistan by continuing to ply its military with economic and military aid has yet to be demonstrated.

Some might object to such a drastic policy change on the basis that it would be an invitation to China to extend its role in Pakistan. China does have important interests in Pakistan based on rivalry with India and Xi Jinping’s “One Belt, One Road” plan to broaden and deepen China’s economic ties to its far west. But China’s so-called “strategic partnership” with Pakistan, as Akbar Ahmed at American University tells us, contains “contradictions and tensions . . . Pakistanis are an overwhelmingly Muslim nation, and Islam, because of the tense political situation in Xinjiang, is not a popular religion in secular China today. There is also a public debate about the extent to which Pakistan should be supported. Those opposed to it point out the nature of Pakistan’s corrupt politics and breakdown of law and order” ( Let the Chinese grapple with these contradictions; I predict they will fare no better than the Americans and will wind up getting very little influence for a very large investment.

The bottom lines: While the US is engaging adversaries, it should also be disengaging from false friends. And peace and security are not possible without real (i.e., human) development.

Post #85: We Apologize

The following article originally appeared in Global Asia, vol. 10, No. 2 (Summer 2015), pp. 112-117, under the title “’We Apologize’: Two Words to Embrace to Right Injustices.”

Apologies are never easy—not between individuals, not between governments or corporations and citizens, and certainly not between nations with a history of conflict. Handshakes, such as between Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong in 1972, and between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin in 1993, are a good start symbolically, but they are not the same as a heartfelt apology for past violence. Expressions of remorse come closer, but still do not express what a forthright apology entails: a direct acknowledgment of wrongdoing and determination that it will not be repeated.

Leaders of states rarely apologize. They don’t want to appear weak, they don’t want to injure national pride, and they don’t want to run afoul of their political supporters or competitors. If the states they lead happen to be major powers, the chances are even slimmer that their leaders will ever have to account for decisions that ordinarily would warrant an apology—such as for ordering secret missions to assassinate foreign leaders, suppressing ethnic and religious autonomy within their borders, jailing and torturing people without trial, orchestrating coups to topple other governments, or seizing another country’s territory. To the contrary, triumphant great powers mete out “justice” for others’ crimes, as they did at the Nuremberg and Tokyo war crimes trials and now before the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Great powers do not apologize even when – like the US in Vietnam – they lose wars in which they carried out great destruction. They define war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity, but they don’t suffer for committing those crimes. Thus, while Americans, Russians, Chinese and Europeans sit in judgment at the ICC, you will not find their political leaders in the dock to answer for drone attacks, carpet bombing, chemical warfare and other criminal acts.

Violent non-state organizations are the least likely to apologize, since they are not beholden to a public and often have no centralized command. Guerrilla bands, terrorist organizations and anti-government militias are responsible for terrible deeds, such as the beheading of “infidels,” the abduction and trafficking of children and use of them in war, raping and pillaging in villages, and trading diamonds for weapons. Leaders of such groups may occasionally be caught and punished, but they are no more likely to apologize than the police and army that pursued them without regard for civilians caught in the middle of the fighting.

The elusive sorry

Two very different current situations tell us a good deal about the politics of apologizing: in Japan, where ultranationalists are back in business, discounting the aggressions of World War II and the sexual enslavement of women; and in the US, where the CIA’s torture of Islamist prisoners in Afghanistan with approval at the highest level has now been fully documented (

Ian Buruma’s The Wages of Guilt is a marvelous comparative study of the different ways Germans and Japanese, in positions high and low, have reacted to the aggressions of their governments in the World War II period. While the Germans have for the most part faced the past forthrightly, the Japanese have shown embarrassment, obfuscation and self-righteousness. The prime minister of Japan is highly unlikely to emulate Willy Brandt, who went down on his knees in the Warsaw ghetto to apologize. Nor is the leader of Japan’s parliament likely to give his countrymen a history lesson in how the country became a “criminal state,” as Philipp Jenninger, president of Germany’s Bundestag, did in 1988 — for which he was widely criticized. Japan is on the other end of the stick, as senior officials find ways to deflect the apology issue, such as with assertions of moral equivalence: the atomic bombing was another Holocaust, or Japan’s imperialist adventures simply followed the example of Western colonizers, thus excusing or at least mitigating the crimes of the emperor and his military chiefs.

To be sure, Japanese officials have at times attempted to apologize for past transgressions. In the so-called Kono Statement of 1993, a cabinet official admitted that the military had resorted to sexual slavery, and in 1995 socialist Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama acknowledged Japan’s aggression in World War II.  Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, in a joint statement with South Korea’s President Kim Dae-jung in 1998, expressed “deep remorse and heartfelt apology” for the “tremendous damage and suffering” Japan caused. And again, on the 100th anniversary of Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910, Prime Minister Naoto Kan said: “For the enormous damage and suffering caused during this colonial rule, I would like to express once again our deep remorse and heartfelt apology.” (

But Japan’s ultranationalists and various government officials have consistently objected to the statements, and may yet disavow them. Now, under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, excuses for the past have given way to outright attempts to bury it. Ominously, Abe’s resistance to apologizing has unleashed right-wing assaults on intellectuals and the liberal press, where regret over Japanese imperialism’s rampages and support of Article 9 of Japan’s “peace constitution” remain strong. As Professor Chung-in Moon of Yonsei University and editor-in-chief of Global Asia observes, some moderate Japanese academics have knuckled under, dodging the matter of Japan’s direct responsibility for atrocities by comparing Japan’s behavior to that of Britain, France and other colonial powers that never apologized. (“Apology Still a Distant Dream,”

Abe, a neo-nationalist, wants the Japanese to take pride in their history, upgrade the military’s role in national security and change Article 9 to allow the military to engage in collective-security actions abroad. Abe established himself as a history denier in his initial term as prime minister, saying for example that there was no proof that the Imperial Army forced “comfort women” into prostitution or trafficked in them. (see Mindy Kotler’s excellent article at He still holds to that position today. So, while Abe has finally shaken the hand of China’s leader and vowed to “learn from” the past, he has avoided numerous opportunities to face up to Japan’s past and fully support previous Japanese statements of regret. (see the interview of Abe in the Financial Times, March 27, 2015, p. 7)

US avoidance

For the US, torture is only the latest issue that cries out for an apology. After all, US military forces have been deployed abroad hundreds of times in the name of international peace and stability, and these missions have resulted in very high civilian casualties, not to mention US losses. Torture is merely one element of illegal US power, and the Senate committee deserves applause for bringing its use in Afghanistan to light. Former US officials such as Vice President Dick Cheney are not about to apologize for supporting torture, however. In fact, he said he would “do it over again” if he had to. ( That view applies to instruments of mass violence used now or in the past by the US, such as drones, chemical weapons, and of course, atom bombs. None of these actions has ever led to an official apology, even when — as in the case of former defense secretary Robert McNamara, in his book Argument Without End: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy — someone in authority steps forward to acknowledge that US decision making was deeply flawed. But more than a policy mistake occurred. US war making exacted a terrible price on peoples, cultures and ecosystems in Southeast Asia – a price that keeps rising due to unexploded ordnance and chemical weapons like Agent Orange (George Black, “The Lethal Legacy of the Vietnam War,” The Nation, March 16, 2015, pp. 13-28). Don’t the people of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia deserve an apology as much as, say, South Koreans and Chinese deserve one from Japan?

It can be done

There are precedents for official apologies, or at least statements that tend in that direction. Here are some offered roughly over the last 25 years:

  • In a statement of regret, the British government acknowledged its role in bringing on “The Great Hunger” in Ireland between 1845 and 1850 — by ignoring the potato blight that caused massive crop failure, the deaths of between 1 and 1.5 million people, a mass emigration of Irish Catholics and the eventual north-south division of Ireland. (Sarah Lyall, “Past as Prologue: Blair Faults Britain in Irish Potato Blight,” New York Times, June 3, 1997)
  • In 1988, US President Ronald Reagan formally apologized to Japanese-Americans who had been confined after Pearl Harbor under the presumption of disloyalty. About 120,000 people were interned by order of President Franklin Roosevelt. (Katherine Bishop, “Day of Apology and ‘Sigh of Relief,’” New York Times, August 11, 1988)
  • In 2002, North Korea’s Kim Jong Il apologized to Japanese Prime Minister Ichiro Koizumi for his country’s abduction of 12 people from Japan in the 1970s and 1980s, saying that his “special forces were carried away by a reckless quest for glory. It was regretful and I want to frankly apologize. I have taken steps to ensure that it will never happen again.” Kim said that the four abductees who were still alive were free to return home. In return, Koizumi expressed “deep remorse and heartfelt apology” for Japan’s 35 years of colonial rule over Korea (
  • In 2008, the Australian government, “to remove a great stain from the nation’s soul,” apologized to its Aboriginal people. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said “we say sorry” for the degrading actions of the government over many years, in particular the removal of many thousands of aboriginal children from their families as part of a policy of forced assimilation. (Tim Johnston, “Australia Says ‘Sorry’ to Aborigines for Mistreatment,” New York Times, February 13, 2008) Similarly, in 1988 the Canadian government formally apologized to indigenous peoples for various racist and paternalistic policies, and compensated them for the indignities they suffered (
  • In 1998, US President Bill Clinton went to Rwanda to apologize for the failure of the US and the international community to act to save lives in the genocide, as he called it for the first time. He promised every effort to prevent another one. ( The following year, Clinton said the US was “wrong” to support the right-wing Guatemalan government’s attacks on Mayan villagers and leftist guerrillas in the 1960s — support that also involved CIA training of the Guatemalan military in operations that amounted to genocide and widespread human rights violations. ( Still later, US officials apologized to around 700 Guatemalans who, in the 1940s, were deliberately infected with syphilis by American public health doctors in an effort to test the efficacy of penicillin. The same doctor who later performed such experiments on black men at Tuskegee was involved in the Guatemala case. Guatemala’s president at the time of the revelation called the action a crime against humanity. (Donald G. McNeil, Jr., “U.S. Apologizes for Syphilis Tests in Guatemala, “New York Times, October 1, 2010).[1]


Note, however, certain common elements in these apologies and regrets. They were long overdue, but were finally issued only after years of domestic political wrangling. Opposition to apologizing usually centered on the feeble argument that only the government that caused the harm could legitimately apologize. Except for the interned Japanese-Americans and the Japanese abductions, none of the apologies was offered with compensation to the victims and their survivors. (In the latter case, it was the Japanese government that paid, disguised as economic aid.) Lastly, in no instance was the harm caused declared a crime as a warning to then-present or future officials.

These cases in any event are the exception to the rule. The list of unspoken apologies for terrible, illegal, heinous acts that resulted in thousands, sometimes millions of deaths, mostly of civilians, is long indeed — state interventions and invasions, civil wars and coups, repression of ethnic, religious, and other groups, violence directed at women and children, and government and corporate acts that cause destruction of the planet’s environment. It might be objected that satisfying all the just claims for an apology would be impractical. But the goal is a solemn statement that “we are sorry,” not retribution or compensation. And while no amount of apologizing can ever wipe away crimes against humanity, most people understand the difference between forgiving and forgetting. Such crimes should never be forgotten, but we can preserve our humanness by forgiving precisely in order to ensure that the victims are not forgotten.

Why it matters

Does apologizing matter as a step toward peace? Britain’s apology to Ireland may have helped in the settlement of the conflict in Northern Ireland and the demobilization of the IRA. (In 2002, the IRA also offered “sincere apologies and condolences” to civilians it killed during the 30-year war in Northern Ireland. Might the history of US-Iran relations, from the hostage crisis to the nuclear confrontation, been very different if Washington had apologized for US training and support of the SAVAK, the Shah’s secret police, and other costly interventions in Iran’s political life? Wouldn’t Turkey’s stature rise if it finally, on this the 100th anniversary of the genocide against Armenians, expresses remorse for its near-universally accepted responsibility? If Japan tomorrow were formally, unequivocally and irrevocably to apologize for aggressions, atrocities and illegal territorial claims, wouldn’t its international image and relations with its neighbors measurably improve? More importantly, Japan’s sense of self might be different; apologizing would begin a process of healing, even though it might also exacerbate divisions between generations and political factions.

Ian Buruma may be right that while Japan’s victims want apologies, a fundamental political transformation in Japan is the necessary first step. But counting on such a long-term prospect only defers the day of reckoning that a few choice sentiments could greatly shorten, to the country’s immediate benefit. But to hasten that day, those who would like Japan to apologize might consider setting an example. What right do Americans or anyone else have to demand that Japan finally and fully apologize for its World War II-era crimes when the US and other governments will not for theirs? Why not a heartfelt US apology to the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Why not a Chinese apology to the families of those killed at Tiananmen or in Tibet, or a Korean apology to the victims of the Gwangju Uprising? Why not a US apology for torture — it’s an international and domestic crime, after all — and prosecution of those political and intelligence officials and contracted psychoanalysts who devised and approved it?

Perhaps the Germans once again have come up with a teaching moment. As recounted by Elizabeth Kolbert (“The Last Trial,” The New Yorker, Feb. 16, 2015) a German artist named Gunter Demrig has created Stolpersteine (stepping stones), which he embeds in public sidewalks to memorialize individual victims of the Holocaust. The stones are placed in neighborhoods where the victims were last known to have lived. There are now over 50,000 such stones in several German cities as well as throughout Europe. Governments that erect memorials to soldiers and wars can surely support these and other ways to honor the innocent victims of state terror and promise, like Willy Brandt and Bill Clinton, “never again.”

Mass violence is a blight on civilization itself, and one of the civilized things we can work for is to urge governments to express profound remorse for what, in our names, they have done, and in doing so begin the painful process of learning from their mistakes. Contrition for having inflicted great pain and suffering on another people is the human thing to do, and potentially the pathway to policy change. Who knows? A multitude of apologies might help disseminate a new value of nonviolence and global responsibility. I can think of no country that can claim the moral high ground and evade this solemn responsibility.


[1] The US government has a history of condoning secret experiments on prisoners and soldiers without their full knowledge of the danger or consent to accepting it. For many years, starting in the 1940s, radioactive materials were injected in a wide range of people, including university employees, Inuit villagers and mentally challenged school children to test their reactions. A government-appointed committee uncovered this practice ( Recall too the CIA’s MK-ULTRA experiments in the 1970s, which tested the behavioral effects of hallucinogenic drugs on unknowing people as part of a bio-weapons research program. Eighty universities, hospitals, prisons and pharmaceutical companies received CIA support for these experiments.

Post #84: The Engagement Critics

One of the predictable outcomes of any US effort to reset relations with an adversary is that allies start whining about their vulnerability and demanding some sort of compensation for it. Thus, no sooner was the nuclear deal with Iran concluded than the Israelis, Saudis, and other Middle East partners criticize it as representing abandonment and emboldening Iran to become a stronger meddler in neighbors’ affairs. All sorts of dire predictions about horrendous consequences are already on record, clearly intended to influence the Obama administration to give these folks something for their pain—like money, arms (both of which they get in abundance), and especially new commitments.

When such demands are made, moreover, US allies know full well that they can count on support from hawks in Congress and think tanks who have been issuing warnings for many months about the nuclear deal. These are people who feast on threats. Now they are in full throttle, talking as though engaging Iran amounts to something just short of treason.  The Middle East will come tumbling down: Iran’s Shiia allies will make trouble in the Occupied Territories, Yemen, and elsewhere; Syria will go down the drain; new turmoil will mark Iraq and Afghanistan.  And of course in the end, the predictions insist, Iran will develop nuclear weapons, compelling an Israeli response.

The burden will be on Obama to resist these pressures.  He knew from the outset of negotiations with Iran that reaching an agreement that had the ayatollah’s blessing was only half the battle, that the other half was at home and with Iran’s enemies in the Middle East.  One well-informed analyst with the Brookings Institution in Washington argues that the Saudis and their friends will be especially insistent that the US “demonstrate its readiness to push back against Iran’s expansionism around the region. And the primary arena in which the Arab states wish to see that from the United States is in Syria.” But as this analyst goes on to say, Syria “is the one [place] where the current US president is least likely to undertake any more assertive action to counter Iran . . . ” ( Let’s hope she’s right.

Critics of engaging Iran, and even supporters such as the analyst just quoted, make the common and dangerous error of putting their entire focus on Iran’s capacity for troublemaking. This, despite all the evidence that Israel and Saudi Arabia, among other US partners, are also guilty of troublemaking—and that Israel has never been pushed to open to inspection, much less reduce, its nuclear arsenal.  Nor have the Sunni Arab partners, all autocracies, been pressed by the US to reform their political systems so as to be able to accommodate the many sources of inequity, which the Arab Spring evidently did not accomplish.  Haven’t they ever heard of burden sharing?  Failing to confront these realities leaves the US precisely where it is now: having to prove its “resolve” and its “leadership” by deepening its already steep, multi-front military involvement in the Middle East.

As I wrote in the previous blog piece (#83), the administration should use the nuclear agreement as the opening wedge in a broader policy shift that seeks normalization of relations with Iran.  Let Netanyahu and the Saudi princes rant; the US aim should be peace, security, and social justice for the peoples of the region, not satisfaction of other states’ destructive ambitions.

(Be sure to read Thomas Friedman’s July 15 interview with President Obama. The interview contains some excellent reflections on the strategic importance of the Iran deal, on learning from the Iran case, and on engagement in general. See

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


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