Post #74 – After Cuba: Will Obama Follow Up with Venezuela?

A year ago mainstream news reports out of Venezuela suggested that the post-Hugo Chàvez era was going badly for his successor, Nicolás Maduro.  The US media painted a picture of a country that was headed toward a Latin version of the Arab Spring, with popular protests mounting against the government.  But the reality was quite different.  The chief purpose of the protests, led by people who were involved in efforts twice previously to unseat Chàvez, was to destabilize a democratically elected government.  Though the protests were sizable at times and did reflect genuine frustrations among the middle class and the wealthy, the government continued to win elections and command majority support, especially from the poor who have been most helped by the radical social changes first introduced by Chàvez.

Now, in the wake of US-Cuba engagement, an opportunity exists for normalizing US relations with Venezuela on the same basis President Obama proposed to Raúl Castro: We acknowledge our differences and agree to disagree.  But sanctions and confrontation will not resolve the differences.  So let’s talk and resume relations.

I’ll get back to that opportunity in a moment, but first a bit of recent background.

The Maduro government was elected in a country that has a solid history of independently monitored free elections.  Speaking in 2012, for instance, Jimmy Carter said: “As a matter of fact, of the 92 elections that we’ve monitored, I would say the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world” (www.globalresearch.ca/former-us-president-carter-venezuelan-electoral-system-best-in-the-world/5305779).  Venezuela also has a vibrant civil society (which includes tens of thousands of worker-owned cooperatives and community councils), and a strong opposition press.  Maduro points to Venezuela’s achievement in reducing poverty and income inequality, which accounts for the fact that the poor go about their lives normally while the rich take to the streets.  In short, Maduro is neither Bashir al-Assad nor Moammar Kaddafi.

Venezuela certainly has its share of problems: scarcity of foodstuffs and other basic commodities, dependence for exports on oil, very high inflation, and an exceptionally high rate of violent crime.  There is plenty of room for progressive change, and according to scholars who have been on the scene, the government last year was addressing these problems while also reaching out to critics.  In doing so, writes Steve Ellner—who teaches in Venezuela—Maduro has come under criticism from the left for not being tough enough on business and opposition political leaders.  (See his article at https://nacla.org/article/venezuela-chavistas-debate-pace-change.)  Now, with an economy in freefall, he has toughened up, perhaps too much so.

Maduro last year charged that the US government and press are “on the side of the 1 percent who wish to drag our country back to when the 99 percent were shut out of political life and only the few—including American companies—benefited from Venezuela’s oil” (www.nytimes.com/2014/04/02/opinion/venezuela-a-call-for-peace.html).  Indeed, the US is Venezuela’s number-one customer for oil and, according to a report in the New York Times, the Maduro government has quietly renegotiated contracts with Chevron and other oil companies to help finance the state oil monopoly, Petróleos de Venezuela, or Pdvsa. In return, companies will regain significant control over how they run their drilling operations.  (See “Venezuela, in Quiet Shift, Gives Foreign Partners More Control in Oil Ventures,” October 9, 2014.)

Nevertheless, official US sympathies lay with the antigovernment forces.  Evidence exists (see http://truth-out.org/news/item/22121-venezuelas-deep-political-education-means-venezuelans-will-withstand-right-wing-protests) of US efforts to destabilize the Venezuelan government in much the same way that it did in overthrowing Salvador Allende in Chile: funding the political opposition, trying to isolate Venezuela internationally, and carrying out disinformation campaigns with the US as well as Venezuelan press to undermine the Maduro government.  One document from November 2013 is particularly damning.  It shows:

           “that the US Agency for International Development (USAID) collaborated with the Colombian government and Venezuelan opposition leaders to destabilize Venezuela and stoke massive protests. The document, obtained by journalist and attorney Eva Golinger, was the product of a June 2013 meeting between US-based FTI Consulting, the Colombian Fundación Centro de Pensamiento Primero Colombia (Centre for Thought Foundation of Colombia First), and Fundación Internacionalismo Democratico (Democratic Internationalism Foundation). The third tactic outlined in the 15-point strategy document openly called for sabotage . . . ” (http://readersupportednews.org/opinion2/277-75/22199-focus-how-washington-is-playing-venezuela-like-a-fiddle)

           This report is entirely believable inasmuch as the US was directly implicated in a coup attempt against Chàvez in 2002.  That effort, which succeeded in removing him from power for about 48 hours, was the product of collusion between his opponents and Reagan-era officials in the Bush administration who had been involved in the Iran-Contra scandal (www.theguardian.com/world/2002/apr/21/usa.venezuela).  It took two years before declassified information made plain that the CIA knew in advance of the coup, and while CIA and other US officials supposedly passed on warnings of a coup to Chàvez, questions remain about how much information was actually provided and what connections to the coup group US officials may have had (www.nytimes.com/2004/12/03/international/americas/03venezuela.html?_r=0).  The coup effort collapsed when most Latin governments refused to recognize the new government, which had US support.

          Thus, until very recently “another Chile” in Venezuela did not seem far-fetched.  The Obama administration stoked the fires in March when it issued an executive order on sanctions against several members of the Maduro government.  The order made the extraordinary declaration that Venezuela is a threat to US national security and constitutes a national emergency (www.nytimes.com/2015/04/08/world/americas/white-house-seeks-to-soothe-relations-with-venezuela.html). Those words drew immediate criticism, not only in Venezuela but throughout Latin America—enough to draw a quick retraction from Washington, where it was understood that the incendiary language confirmed Maduro in his warnings about US interference.

Now, in the wake of the Obama-Castro meeting, positive diplomacy seems to be in train: A senior US aide was reported to have traveled to Venezuela to meet with government officials, presumably to clear the air and perhaps even attempt to lower the volume of hostile rhetoric.  Obama reportedly met privately with Maduro on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas in Panama City on April 11, a meeting characterized by a Maduro aide this way: “there was a lot of truth, respect, and cordiality” (www.washingtonpost.com/business/latest-on-americas-summit-pot-bangers-protest-over-maduro/2015/04/10/621062ac-dfe5-11e4-b6d7-b9bc8acf16f7_story.html).

At the recent summit, which Cuba attended for the first time, Obama and Castro shook hands.  After reviewing a history of grievances against the US, Castro offered a surprising apology: “I have told President Obama that I get very emotional talking about the revolution. . . . I apologize to him because President Obama had no responsibility for this.”  And he added: “In my opinion, President Obama is an honest man” (www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/in-historic-face-to-face-obama-castro-vow-to-turn-the-page/2015/04/11/0342929c-e0ab-11e4-b6d7-b9bc8acf16f7_story.html; www.nytimes.com/reuters/2015/04/11/world/americas/11reuters-cuba-usa.html).  Obama responded in kind, noting that differences between the two countries should not get in the way of dialogue and the resumption of normal economic and other relations, and that the process of normalization required patience. It is only a matter of time before the trade embargo and Cuba’s designation as a sponsor of terrorism are removed.

The Cuba-US normalization could not come at a better time for both Venezuela and the US, and indeed for all of Latin America.  As Obama said at the Summit of the Americas: “The Cold War is over. . . . Cuba is not a threat to the United States.”  The same should be said about Venezuela which, unlike Cuba, has a proven record of democratic governance.  The Venezuelan opposition’s destabilizing efforts violate that tradition, as does the government’s reported violations of people’s civil liberties and the right of opposition leaders to protest. A national dialogue in Venezuela is urgent, but the bottom line is that Venezuelans must be allowed to work out their own destiny, free from fear that the US will promote regime change.

 

 

Post #73 – The Iran Framework: A Case Study in Engagement

We have every reason to celebrate the so-called framework agreement with Iran.  It exemplifies the best of President Obama’s foreign policy, namely, engaging adversaries.  Remember when candidate Obama’s argument for engagement during campaign 2008 was ridiculed by Hillary Clinton, among many others?  Now Obama has two major engagement successes to crow about, leaving behind those who are quick to criticize the deals with Cuba and Iran as anything from foolish to treasonous.  Needless to say, neither of those understandings is complete; the devil is always in the details, and there are plenty of them.  But to reach this point after more than 35 years when other administrations have either failed to cut a deal or refused to try is nothing short of extraordinary.  And in the case of Iran, the nuclear agreement comes at a crucial moment, not merely in terms of Iran’s nuclear-weapon potential but more broadly with respect to the chaotic shape of Middle East politics.

John Limbert was a political officer in the US embassy in Tehran when the nightmare hostage crisis unfolded in 1979.  Out of his captivity has come a seminal guide, Negotiating with Iran: Wrestling the Ghosts of History (2009), that reflects his deep background in Persian studies and his commitment to dialogue and mutual understanding.  His book examines several cases of crisis in Iran and then offers a number of guidelines to successfully negotiating with the Iranians.  At a time when we are hearing loud criticisms of the nuclear deal and efforts by Congress members, and Israel, to undermine it, we should pay attention to what experts like Limbert have to say.

Limbert proposes fourteen negotiating lessons.  I have selected seven of them, and added one of my own.  Comparing the lessons with the framework just concluded allows us to see how effectively the two countries’ diplomats worked together.

 

  1. Avoid legalisms; seek solutions based on “mutually agreeable standards” that Iran can claim as a victory. Having two MIT scientists who knew of one another discuss technicalities was a key to successful talks. That allowed many details of an accord to focus on science, not politics.  As for claiming victory, while Secretary of State John Kerry and other US officials could cite major concessions by Iran, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif could boast that Iran will keep its centrifuges and nuclear enrichment program, its major nuclear research site at Fordo, and some of its uranium stockpile.
  2. “Be aware of Iran’s historical greatness” and past grievances based on humiliations by foreign powers. President Obama, in an interview with Thomas Friedman of the New York Times and elsewhere, has shown his attentiveness to Iran’s history and culture. He has pointed to the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s mention of Iran’s unhappy history with the US, and has made respectful comments about Iran’s greatness and right to acknowledgment as a major regional power. (The interview is a must-read: nytimes.com/2015/04/06/opinion/thomas-friedman-the-obama-doctrine-and-iran-interview.html.)  Throughout the years of talks with Iran, its leaders have above all else demanded “respect,” i.e., justice and recognition of Iran’s legitimacy.  The nuclear negotiations have provided that.
  3. Clarify lines of authority: be sure to talk with the right people, but also present a common US position. This was a challenging lesson to follow inasmuch as the ayatollah deliberately kept in the background, letting his negotiators do their thing but without committing himself to the outcome.  On the US side, Republican and others’ sniping presented obstacles for negotiators, in particular when 47 US senators signed a letter to the ayatollah warning that any agreement was subject to Congressional review.  Nevertheless, the “right people” were evidently at the table and were able to craft an agreement that, on Iran’s side, the ayatollah did not negate and, on the US side, amazed even some conservative critics.
  4. Understand Iranian interests. Obviously, removing the sanctions was essential to a deal, but not at any price.  Iran’s insistence on keeping fuel rods at home and not shipped to Russia was essential face-saving, and US negotiators did not allow that position to halt the talks.  Likewise on the centrifuges issue: The US negotiated down their number (from about 19,000 to 6,000), but Iran still has some 5,000 allowed to operate according to CIA director John O. Brennan.
  5. Do not assume the Iranians are illogical, uncompromising, untrustworthy, duplicitous. US negotiators clearly did not. Hopefully, they kept in mind that many Iranians view Americans the same way.
  6. Ignore hostile rhetoric and grandstanding; be businesslike and professional—and be willing to stay the course.
  7. Remember that there were successful US-Iran talks in the past, for example in 2001-2002 over Afghanistan following the fall of the Taliban.
  8. Be ever-conscious of the politics of a deal—the fact that on each side, it must be sold to wary buyers and outright opponents who want to see it fail. This is why the “optics” of the deal are so important, with each side having a different narrative of the deal’s strengths so as to make it more attractive domestically.  The message here: Don’t interpret public statements about the deal by the other side as backsliding with the intention to subvert it.

The nuclear deal with Iran, if it holds, could potentially open a new era in US relations with the Middle East.  Though the Saudis, the Israelis, and some other supposed friends of the US will object, a cooperative US-Iran relationship is a critical piece in the overall puzzle to find a path to something resembling stability.  We can see the outlines of cooperation with Iran in Iraq and Afghanistan, where Washington and Tehran have common interests.  Simply put, Iran’s leaders feel threatened by ISIS, al-Qaeda, and the Taliban.  To be sure, there are also places—Yemen, Israel/Palestine, Libya, and Syria—where the US and Iran are at odds.  But if the nuclear deal can move forward, and termination of sanctions can lead to a fruitful economic relationship, the agenda of cooperation may expand and violence-by-proxy may greatly reduce.  For the US, an end to one-sided relationships in the Middle East would be a blessing, with positive ramifications for Israel and others.

Post #72 – An Enemy of Peace

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has established himself as the biggest enemy of peace in the Middle East.  His thoroughly unwelcome and error-marred speech to Congress on Iran, his last-minute racist scare tactics on election eve in Israel, and his disingenuous post-election statement that he really does support a two-state solution all reveal a man who fears a just Middle East peace and will do everything he can to thwart it.

President Obama has taken the correct position in distancing himself from Netanyahu and, with the usual diplomatic language, making plain that so long as Netanyahu is in charge, the peace process is dead.  Their widely reported strained personal relationship is one thing (note the body language in the photo below from a 2011 meeting); the main thing is that the United States and the Palestinian Authority do not have a negotiating partner.  What Netanyahu said in the last moments of his electoral campaign simply cannot be walked back: that no two-state solution will ever occur while he is prime minister; and that the Arab vote is a threat to Israel’s political system.  This is a man who will say and do whatever it takes to preserve his power and keep the Palestinian people in a subordinate place.

Netanyahu has a lot of help in achieving those objectives, both in Congress and from his embassy in Washington.  The Israel Lobby remains powerful and well-funded, with many resources for ensuring that military and economic aid to Israel continues, that the Palestinian cause is ignored, and that Israel’s nuclear weapon arsenal is never a fit topic of debate.  Netanyahu’s faithful front man–the American-born Israeli ambassador, Ron Dermer–is a key figure in the lobby—a man who, like his boss, never takes a backward step when it comes to promoting an expansive notion of Israel’s security needs. He is reportedly working tirelessly to restore Bibi’s credibility and embolden Congress members to maintain sanctions on Iran (www.nytimes.com/2015/03/26/us/israel-ron-dermer-ambassador-iran-nuclear-deal.html).  Unless and until the Israel Lobby is reined in, significant change in US policy is hard to imagine.

President Obama correctly stated that “figuring out how do we get through a real, knotty policy difference” is the chief challenge now.  But “getting through” should not mean salving over the differences and reaffirming the unbreakable US-Israel partnership.  Rather, Washington should “get through” by using Netanyahu’s offensive behavior as an opportunity to change course in its Middle East policy.  As I have suggested before (see Post #68, for example), a new course should include reaffirmation of the two-state solution within the pre-1967 war boundaries, major development assistance to the Palestinian Authority, and rejection of Israel’s encroachments on Palestinian land.  Working through the United Nations Security Council rather than continuing to rely on bilateral diplomacy with Israel should also be part of a new US agenda.  And the President should condemn outright the Israeli-Republican axis that has formed to undermine his efforts to engage Iran and craft a just peace between Israel and Palestine.

 

Post #71 –Should We “Balance” Threats to the Environment?

How does a US administration promote greater energy independence, protect its fragile environment, and make both oil executives and environmentalists happy?  President Obama’s answer is to give something to everyone, thus balancing pleasure and pain and hoping everyone will stay off his back.  Thus, he has decided to veto the Keystone XL project, greatly expand protected areas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (“Anwar”), and restrict greenhouse gas emissions by federally owned facilities and vehicles. These actions make environmental groups happy and anger Republicans.  In the case of Anwar, however, Obama has thrown the Republicans a large bone: opening up significant Atlantic Ocean coastline to new oil and gas drilling.

To administration officials, this coupling of energy and environmental policy is responsible stewardship, a proper balancing of production and protection.  But is this stewardship or just plain politics?  Sure, it’s wonderful that the Anwar will be larger by millions of acres; I derived a certain pleasure watching Alaska’s Senator Lisa Murkowski go apoplectic on public television as she railed against Obama’s decision.  And the idea of pitting Republicans from different states against one another—Alaska’s “loss” is North Carolina’s gain—is a classic divide-and-conquer strategy.  But in the end, does this balancing act really balance?

First, opening up a huge swath of federally owned shoreline—from Virginia to Georgia—to oil and gas exploration risks another BP-type disaster.  This is no small bone to calm the savage dogs on the right. Department of the interior officials are quick to reassure us that safeguards will be in place before exploration begins and that the leased area is 50 miles from shore.  But we’ve been down that road too many times to feel reassured.  Recall, for one thing, that the Deepwater Horizon rig was 41 miles from Louisiana’s shore.  For another, since the BP spill, no new safety regulations have been enacted by Congress, and in the current climate, if they are issued, they will have to come from the administration itself.  Who will be president when the time comes?

Second, how does this trade-off square with a tougher approach to climate change?  There are literally trillions of cubic feet of natural gas and billions of barrels of recoverable oil in these federal lease areas.  When drilling finally gets underway, supposedly after 2020, what impact will all this new fuel have on the climate?

Third, Atlantic Coast governors anticipate a revenue windfall from the oil leases.  Will that actually happen?  Will the new riches really be used for education, environmental protection, development of “soft” energy sources, and other good purposes?  Or will the windfall mainly wind up in the producers’ pocketbooks?

Fourth, how will the oil and gas leasing decision affect the livelihoods of coastal people who rely on tourism, fishing, and other traditional industries?  We have only to look at the Louisiana bayou for one answer.  Oil drilling and thousands of miles of underwater pipelines to the Gulf of Mexico have contributed to enormous loss of bayou wetland.  Combined with all the levees that keep the Mississippi River’s rich sediment from reaching the delta, the oil companies’ operations threaten to end local people’s livelihood—trawling for shrimp, crab, and various fish—within a generation.   The bayou will be no more.  (See a gem of a book, Bayou Farewell by Mike Tidwell, for further detail, as well as www.mississippiriverdelta.org/discover-the-delta/what-went-wrong/.)

Looking for balance when tough choices must be made is certainly a challenge for any political leader, especially (as in Obama’s case) when faced with divided government.  But just as with the problem of protecting privacy while widening the government’s surveillance net—another contentious issue on which Obama seeks balance—the notion that somehow everyone can be satisfied or at least neutralized doesn’t always wash.  Protecting the environment at a time of looming catastrophe, like protecting civil liberties in the face of terrorism, must have priority.  Some values and objectives defy balancing, period.

Which brings me to a moving presentation in Eugene, Oregon by Mary Wood, Professor of Law at the University of Oregon and author of Nature’s Trust: Environmental Law for a New Ecological Age (http://law.uoregon.edu/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/City-Club-2-Jan.30.pdf).  She is a strong advocate for the public trust doctrine, which evokes “an ancient moral covenant that runs from one generation to the next, to protect natural bounty so that it will pass down the lineage of Humanity.”  Under this doctrine, she says, government officials are “strictly obliged to protect this natural wealth for the citizens.”  Applying the public trust doctrine means, for example, that the public has an enforceable right to protect forests, fisheries, and air from destruction and pollution, and therefore to stop every environmental assault that is creating irreversible climate change.  The Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act have clearly been inadequate to protect our natural resources, Wood argues.  “A trust approach treats the resource as common property shared by all states and nations as co-trustees, each having the duty to protect the shared resource. . . . It offers a common platform of responsibility that citizens can use worldwide to hold governments accountable even absent an international climate treaty, which may never come about.”

The public trust doctrine is an important approach to dealing with climate change, one that actually has a long history in the US.  Shortly, a lower-level court in Lane County, Oregon, will hear a suit brought by two teenage girls to define the public trust when it comes to young people’s rights in an era of climate change.  Stay tuned.

Post #70 – When It Comes to Foreign Policy, Obama Has the Upper Hand

The President and quite a few members of Congress are at a standoff over two important issues of foreign-policy process.  Many in Congress, from both parties, dislike his proposal for Congressional authorization to fight the Islamic State.  Others dislike his negotiations with Iran which, if successful, would end in an executive agreement rather than a treaty.  In the case of the authorization, critics (mostly Republicans) either want a greater US investment in the struggle against the IS, especially in Syria, or (mostly Democrats) are suspicious that the authorization’s limited time frame for US involvement (three years and no “enduring offensive ground combat operations”) will not really bind the next administration.  As for the Iran agreement, forty-seven Republican senators made their position apparent with their unprecedented letter to Iran’s leaders warning that any agreement the Obama administration might reach would have little real meaning, since they have the ability to undermine it.  These senators demand a treaty, which of course they have the votes to scuttle, though their real game is to prevent any agreement at all.  Along with some hardline Democrats, the Republicans demand more sanctions on Iran to prevent it from going nuclear.

From a peace and conflict resolution perspective, how might we view these debates?

The authorization being sought by the administration, while intended as a compromise between endless US involvement and limited intervention, is—as some critics maintain—something of a subterfuge.  We’ve had enough experience with the exercise of presidential war powers to know that when presidents face strategic failure abroad, “national security” consistently wins out and limits on their power are ignored.  No president is going to walk away from the fight against IS, in which the US is already deeply invested, short of at least the appearance of victory.  The Obama administration has said as much by insisting, just as George W. Bush did, that the president really doesn’t need a new authorization from Congress.

All that Obama really wants is an update of the authorization he inherited after 9/11.  But whether he gets it or not, he will still carry around the same blank check Bush got to wage war against terrorism anywhere and in any form.  What Congress should authorize is a very tightly worded law that terminates all US military activities other than training within 18 months, removes any possibility of reentry into the Middle East theater (including Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan), and calls for using US diplomatic and economic resources to promote a Middle East coalition (which would include Iran) against the IS.

On Iran, the Republican senators made a peevish and amateurish move by writing to the ayatollah.  They became the mirror image of the hardliners in Tehran, inserting themselves into the negotiations in a brazen attempt to disrupt what might be a breakthrough with Iran. They should have addressed the President with something like the following:

Mr. President, as a former US senator you are well aware of the importance of consulting Congress on major foreign-policy issues.  With Iran, we believe the issues are so important as to warrant a treaty which, under our constitution, requires the “advice and consent” of the Senate by a two-thirds vote. Submitting a treaty to the Senate affords full public debate and avoids the harmful consequences of secret diplomacy.  An executive agreement is an end-run around our democratic process, and in this case, where negotiations with Iran affect our friends and allies in the Middle East, we need a full-fledged debate and vote.

Even though the Republican senators really aren’t all that interested in the constitutional issue, they do have a point in raising it.  As readers know, I fully support the nuclear talks with Iran and hope it will lead to deeper engagement.  But the President’s insistence on an executive agreement rather than a treaty is part of a disturbing and longstanding pattern of presidential avoidance of Congressional participation in the foreign policymaking process.  The Vietnam War set that pattern in concrete: use of executive agreements increased dramatically, Congress had little to do but pony up money to support the war, and the “imperial presidency” became part of the language.  That’s why the War Powers Act became law, though it has not proven able to seriously weaken presidential war making power.

And there is where the two cases—the Middle East authorization and the Iran agreement—come together.  For both, the President has the upper hand, by precedent and by the very nature of the foreign-policy process.  He can decide to ask for additional war-making authority from Congress, or not.  He can ask the Senate to “advise and consent,” or not.  As military and diplomatic commander-in-chief, he can deploy his constitutional authority—or not.  It would be no different if a Republican were president, as Bush I and Bush II showed in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Not a pleasant conclusion.

Post #69 – Crime and Punishment in China: The Underside of Reforms

China’s supreme leader, Xi Jinping, is vigorously carrying out a campaign against corruption.  The targets have been high-ranking party and military officials, past and present; province and other local officials; and a few tycoons.  On the surface, Xi’s campaign would seem to be a commendable effort to cleanse the system of one of its worst vices.  But there is more to the story than appears—not only regarding corruption but crime and punishment in general.

I have long argued that China’s foreign-policy behavior is mainly conditioned and constrained by priority concerns at home, above all the maintenance of rapid, state-led economic development.  Although Beijing has displayed considerable assertiveness on some external issues—notably, maritime territorial disputes with Japan and Southeast Asian countries—the PRC leadership’s focus is what it has always been, on maintaining domestic social and political stability so that development can proceed unhindered by popular forces.  This priority, which has strong historical roots, prompts any Chinese leader to ensure by whatever means necessary that order and economic development go hand in hand, that the communist party’s authority and legitimacy never be questioned, and that the military remains firmly under party control.  If the leadership upholds those priorities, it believes, China will achieve great-power status and will ensure the country’s security from external threat.

This understanding of Chinese priorities is as relevant today under Xi Jinping as it was in earlier times, notwithstanding differences in the economic and social policies of Chinese administrations.  When it comes to internal security, Xi is more Maoist and Leninist than Marxist—committed, that is, to the maintenance of the one-party state and ideological purity far more than to social equity and reduction of class distinctions.  Yes, Xi is an economic reformer, furthering the ambitions of Deng Xiaoping to make China a major international player.  But Xi insists, just as Deng and Mao did, that “democratic dictatorship” must prevail amidst economic changes—first, because those changes may cause social disruption; and second, because the Chinese Communist Party officials may succumb to the lure of the market and enrich themselves, thus undermining the party’s claim to exclusive right to rule.

Those concerns have some validity.  The rapid pace of China’s market socialism has aroused criticism of official policy from many different sources—intellectuals, think-tank experts, NGOs, even former senior party and government officials, not to mention ordinary people who experience the widening gap between rich and poor.  Many people hurt by new economic priorities have become upset to the point of hostility toward authorities: workers laid off from state-owned industrial enterprises, farmers whose lands have been seized without fair compensation, citizens whose law suits and petitions have been ignored or even led to their being jailed, and people forced from their homes by government and private construction projects (such as dams, urban renewal, and golf courses).

To divert attention from these problems and demonstrate attentiveness to popular resentment, Xi launched the anti-corruption campaign soon after taking office in 2012.  Together with the income gap, official corruption is a major source of people’s disenchantment with the one-party state.  Among the so-called “tigers” who have been punished are Zhou Yongkang, head of internal security; General Xu Caihou, former vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission; Liu Zhijun, onetime minister of railways; and Bo Xilai, the party leader in Chongqing who was on his way to joining the apex of communist party power, the politburo’s standing committee.  Thousands of local-level officials and senior military officers just below the top level have also been punished for corruption, which usually takes the form of bribery, graft, or sale of patronage.

On the other hand, Xi’s own family has amassed a fortune in the reform era, as the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists reported last year (http://sinosphere.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/01/22/report-details-overseas-accounts-of-chinese-elite/?hp).  Cronies of the first family have likewise profited without fear.  Numerous Chinese billionaires have been coopted (and protected) by being brought into the communist party’s legislative organs (www.nytimes.com/2015/03/03/world/asia/in-chinas-legislature-the-rich-are-more-than-represented.html).  Thus, whereas being a tiger can be risky, and watching them being caged may be popular with the Chinese masses, being a “princeling” as part of a prominent family or being part of the president’s inner circle can be richly rewarding.  It affords exceptional opportunities for lucrative investments, senior corporate and banking appointments, access to offshore tax havens, and education abroad.  Politically attuned Chinese easily identify this privileged elite.  They see that those officials who are toppled typically do not include Xi’s closest associates, and thus how often cronyism triumphs over justice.

One prominent Chinese writer has rightly called Xi’s approach “selective punishment” (www.nytimes.com/2015/01/17/opinion/murong-xuecun-xis-selective-punishment.html).  With a few exceptions, the crackdown targets political rivals and people outside the official “family.”  It is “more of a Stalinist purge than a genuine attempt to clean up the government,” often relying on extra-judicial means.

Xi regards corruption as one of the most important threats to China’s security. Western-style democracy is another. Here he has followed in the footsteps of his predecessor, Hu Jintao, who warned that “international hostile forces are intensifying the strategic plot of westernizing and dividing China.”  To combat this supposed threat, but at the same time to exploit it, Xi Jinping has engaged in what Elizabeth C. Economy terms a “power grab.”  Political reform to him means “consolidating personal power by creating new institutions, silencing political opposition, and legitimizing his leadership and the Communist Party’s power in the eyes of the Chinese people” (“China’s Imperial President: Xi Jinping Tightens His Grip,” Foreign Affairs, November-December 2014).

From Economy’s article and other sources, here are the specific ways in which the Chinese leadership’s anti-Westernism has manifested:

 

  • Strengthening regulation of the Internet, not only by censorship and shutdowns of web sites but also by arresting and humiliating popular bloggers;
  • Cracking down on NGOs that hold the promise of becoming an organized opposition;
  • Restricting academic research and teaching that reflects Western ideas, such as civil society, judicial independence, and press freedom;
  • Prosecuting newspaper editors and writers, lawyers, artists, professors, women’s rights activists, and others who are too outspoken in behalf of individual or group rights, and/or challenge the party-state’s authority too vigorously;
  • Responding forcibly to indications of ethnic or local independence, such as Hong Kong’s pro-democracy demonstrations, Tibet’s quest for autonomy, and separatist tendencies in ethnic minority areas.

The bottom line: reform and repression are not contradictory trends in China.  Rather, they are mutually reinforcing.  Selective punishment ensures that reforms do not lead to domestic chaos.  Reforms, by meeting many people’s material needs, sustain people’s faith in communist party leadership and thus reduce the need for large-scale, violent repression such as happened in Mao’s time.  These companion actions are supposed to be the key to restoring China’s greatness internationally—the “China dream,” in Xi Jinping’s slogan—while preventing the undermining of the communist party’s authority.  But as many observers have suggested, it’s a delicate, perhaps unsustainable balancing act.

Post #68 – Netanyahu’s Visit and the US Opportunity

Washington is on edge these days.  Democrats are bewildered, the President is seething, Republicans are salivating, K Street and J Street lobbyists are working overtime—all because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is coming to town.  But there’s no need to fret just yet; there may be a silver lining here.

Someday, if we’re real lucky, Netanyahu’s forthcoming address to Congress at the invitation of the Republican majority will be regarded as (you’ll excuse the expression) a godsend for US policy in the Middle East.  By causing a ruckus in Washington, he may set in motion a recalibration of US relations with Israel.  Susan E. Rice, the President’s national security adviser, said in a televised interview that Netanyahu had “injected a degree of partisanship, which is not only unfortunate, I think it’s destructive of the fabric of the relationship.”  Not the usual diplomatic language—and quite at odds with Netanyahu’s insistence that, far from using the visit to political advantage as he seeks reelection, he must speak out against a possible US-Iran nuclear deal that would be a “great danger to the state of Israel.”

Not that President Obama or liberal Democrats are going to jettison Israel or weaken security ties to it. That’s politically inconceivable, in no small part because such a wholesale change in course would badly hurt the Democratic nominee for president in 2016.  But greater balance in US policy toward Israel, such that Tel Aviv would no longer exercise a virtual veto and the American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC) would not automatically buy influence in Congress, would be a welcome change.  Obama has made a good start by pressing for a nuclear agreement with Iran despite considerable pressure from Israel and from Congress, some of it from hard-line Democrats.

As I’ve written before, a US policy based on the human interest and by definition distanced from Israeli priorities would actually benefit Israel’s security while also promoting broader US interests in a Middle East peace.  This new policy would also lend hope to the Palestinian people that they, like their Israeli neighbors, can live a decent life with personal security.

Such a policy ought to include:

  • Termination of further Israeli settlements in disputed territory and of Palestinian lands.
  • Mutual Israel-Palestine diplomatic recognition and exchange of security assurances.
  • Promotion of a Middle East nuclear weapon-free zone.
  • Release by Israel of funds due the Palestinian Authority.
  • A major increase in international development assistance to Palestine, with the focus on water, education, and job-producing construction.
  • Internationalization of Jerusalem.
  • Removal by Israel of obstacles to free movement of people for work and other ordinary purposes.

Let’s see if the President and Secretary of State John Kerry can withstand the predictable blizzard of nonsensical criticism that he doesn’t love either Israel or America.

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

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