The Madman Approach to Foreign Policy

May 15, 2018

Many foreign policy experts and media pundits are up in arms over the approach that President Trump has used in his dealings with North Korea and Iran. Trump has used outlandish name calling,  heavy-handed military threats, tough economic sanctions, and a willingness to take policy responses to the brink of hostilities, all in an effort to send a message to Kim Jong Un and the mullahs in Iran that the United States means business when it says that nuclear weapons will not be tolerated by these two members of the Axis of Evil.

Since this approach, which some have termed the “Madman” strategy, is the opposite of Obama’s “diplomacy of hope”, there is a natural fear among many in this country that Trump is not only pushing the foreign policy envelope but more seriously is taking this country down the road to war. By giving off the presidential vibe that the United States is willing to bring down the governments of North Korea and Iran, even if that means a military strike or perhaps even some sort of invasion, the president is sending the signal  that he must be viewed as unpredictable, perhaps even unhinged, and can’t be trusted to solve disputes and threats through conventional diplomacy.

Trump’s supporters and his foreign policy advisers likely wouldn’t use the term “madman” to describe the chief executive, but they clearly agree that the only way to deal with bad guys in the world is to scare the devil out of them with outrageous threats and tough name calling. As the argument goes, taking on the persona of a madman is more effective than diplomatic compromise that does little to change the behavior pattern of disruptive regimes. Scaring the regimes is the only way to get the attention of the bad guys and force them to renounce the way they operate on the international stage.

Trump is too narcissistic and arrogant to self-describe himself as a “Madman”. Yet he certainly relishes the tough guy approach to foreign policy that depends on tactics suitable for a leader who isn’t afraid to signal that he just might be a little unhinged and willing to take the ultimate risk in order to make his adversaries bend to his will.

Of course there is only one fatal flaw in the Madman approach to foreign policy – it could easily lead to war as adversaries call the Madman’s bluff or engage in tactics that avoid the prospect of regime change or modifications of behavior patterns. There is nothing inherently wrong with diplomacy,  negotiated solutions, compromise, consensus building, and moderate approaches to solving disputes; there are countless examples where these approaches have been effective. But we now live in the time of Madman foreign policy, which means we all need to pray that taking the country to the brink of war does not mean that the Madman takes us over the brink.


Facebook, Twitter and National Security

March 21, 2018

There are 2.2 billion Facebook users and 974 million Twitter accounts. In the spirit of transparency, I am on both these social media sites. But my comments today are not about who is on Facebook and Twitter, rather I want to go back to the 1950’s and 1960’s and remind people about U.S.-Russian relations and patriotic fears about threats to our national security and national reputation.

When the Russians launched Sputnik in 1957 it was the first artificial Earth satellite. A few months later Sputnik 2 was launched with a living animal, a dog named Laika, who died a few hours after launch. It was not until early in 1958 that the United States launched Explorer 1, this country’s first satellite.

The launching of the two Sputniks not only embarrassed the United States but initiated a frantic effort to catch up to the Soviets in the space race and win back its reputation as the world’s leader in science and technology. Schools from elementary through college stressed the value of science and math and urged young people to become interested in space. Generous National Science Foundation grants were offered to budding scientists to attend graduate school and create a “technical army” to challenge the Soviets. And the Kennedy administration pledged to win the space race and eventually place a man on the moon.

But the most important result of Sputnik is that it awakened a realization that this country was threatened by the Soviets and patriotic Americans needed to take steps to win the space race and overcome the Russian threat to our economic, educational and governmental system. Space became a national security issue and Americans climbed on board to take on the Russians and beat them at their own game.

Today this country is again threatened by the Russians only  now with cyber security “Sputniks”, well planned and executed activities to hack our electoral system, divide our nation with fake news, and weaken our democratic institutions and democracy itself. But like our naive attitude toward space science and technology during the 1950’s, today our social media companies like Facebook and Twitter were easily duped into being party to this attack on our country.

What is most disturbing is that the patriotic spirit that filled this country after Sputnik is sadly missing from not just the social media giants but too many leaders in our government. Those who head the social media companies and indeed many who work for those companies seem more interested in increasing their bottom line, piling up stock options, buying fancy cars and living the good life.

Far too many of our best computer minds are in the start-up mode as they develop new social media sites, useless apps, and silly games. Of course all this energy is about making a quick buck and becoming an instant millionaire. Few of these bright minds are going into cyber security, government intelligence agencies or the military; there just isn’t enough money to be made in national security and patriotic employment that protects our democracy.

What this country is experiencing is a social media divorced from real world threats and hostile governments bent on weakening our country. It’s not how many friends you have on Facebook or retweets on Twitter but how we are responding to our enemies who are working overtime to play upon our obsession with social media in ways that divide us.

Hacking our elections by the Russians is the new version of Sputnik – science and technology designed to embarrass the United States, show up our weaknesses and threaten our democracy. Just like in the post-Sputnik era what we need in this country is a patriotic push to challenge and quickly defeat the Russian threat.

Trump – Trusting his Gut

March 13, 2018

The State Department is a shell of its former self, there are no ambassadors in key countries in Asia and the Middle East,  economic, domestic and foreign policy advisers in the White House who are level D minds keeps growing, and the lobbying swamp is not being drained but rather is filling up. What this country is left with is a president who now claims that it is better if he just trusts his gut when making important decisions. This is now what the term “unconventional president” has come to mean – play to your base, use Twitter to lash out at opponents, and allow a gigantic ego to control the direction of the country.

Apologists for the President and even some mainstream pundits are beginning to claim that the “unconventional president” is keeping his campaign promises, challenging national and international rules that have gone years without serious review, and playing the tough guy (or madman) in order to Make America Great Again.

But the world works, or a least has worked, since the end of World War II on a foundation of trust, cooperation, consensus, and mutual respect. While the stock market is erratic but upward bound, the economy is strong,  and unemployment is down, there is no doubt that the United States under President Trump has lost influence in the world and is fostering a climate of unilateral protectionism. If Trump’s developed a catch phrase for his ” gut ” policy perspective it would be The World Be Damned ( except Russia).

Following the ” gut ” and damning the world may sound good to those who live in a time long gone and think that policies are best defined as implemented on a foundation of testosterone. But we live in a time when the world is inter-connected, there are multiple powers around the globe, expert analysis and the truth still hold value, and relying on the “gut” is so filled with risk and miscalculation that one wrong move could spell economic, domestic and foreign policy disaster.

Those who support President Trump may feel a rush of energy and revenge when their guy takes on the establishment, but feeling good about ridiculing fake news, that weakling Obama or the globalists at the UN or the World Trade Organization does little to repair the damage to our international influence or reputation. What the “35 percenters” fail to realize is that feeling good is temporary, but losing influence and reputation to other world powers can easily be lasting. There is no doubt that the US is one of the richest country in the world and a major military power, but the US has slipped in so many socio-economic categories and most importantly is no longer as Ronald Reagan said, “that shining city on a hill,” Trusting your ” gut ” does not lead to a “shining city on a hill.”


The Generals

October 10, 2017

This country has been fortunate to have distinguished military leaders as presidents, cabinet officials and heads of our national security system. These men have often brought a patriotic spirit, a commitment to public life, organizational skills and personal discipline to their positions in our government. From George Washington to Dwight Eisenhower to George H. W. Bush military training and wartime service shaped their leadership and decision-making capabilities.

Today during the Trump administration the military men that serve as his closest advisers are being called upon to function in a manner that requires a different type of leadership style and decision-making skill. Generals Kelly, Mattis and McMaster are basically charged with reining in an impulsive, petty, juvenile and grudge-holding chief executive.

The more we hear about the Trump generals it appears that they are the last line of defense against chaos and gross miscalculation. When the generals first signed up for service in the White House they didn’t think that they would be responsible for saving the country from a completely unqualified leader of the free world. Of course no one forced them to accept their jobs, but they likely saw the new president as a change agent who was committed to “Making American Great.”

But months into their jobs, it is clear that Kelly, Mattis and McMaster have come to realize they have an enormous responsibility to “Make America Safe.” Whether it is North Korea, Iran, Russia, or any other international hot spot that gets the president to start a new tweet storm, the generals have become the voices of reason and caution. Although at this time there is no definitive proof of “quiet collusion” among the generals, I suspect that there are midnight calls among the three on how to “Keep America Safe” and convince Trump from taking this country into the abyss. Already there are signs that the generals’ have decided that frequent policy reviews, delay in decision-making, control of Oval Office access, and some much needed staff house cleaning are the best means of avoiding chaos and gross miscalculation.

What will be interesting and at the same time dangerous is what happens if we enter impeachment mode or the Republican leadership decides that it is time to use the 25th Amendment and push Trump out of office. How will the generals respond to the political processes in place or will they take the lead in actually pushing their boss out the door?  If the Republicans continue to accept the status quo with the hope that the child president will change, will the generals do the dirty work? We have never really had a Latin American style palace coup in this country, but if the chaos and miscalculation continues and the president takes us into the abyss, will the generals move from advisers to a military junta? Keep your eye on the generals.


What Ever Happened to Latin America?

March 30, 2017

U.S. foreign policy has often been driven by responding to crises or threats to our national interests and security.  This response is no different under the Trump administration, although the public pronouncements and policy decisions are to say the least unconventional.  As in the past we send troops to fight Middle East wars; we engage China and the rest of Asia over trade and investment; we pay close attention to our relationship to our European allies, especially in terms of dealing with growing Russian expansionism; and we often provide generous assistance to those desperately poor and ill in Africa. But as was the case with other administrations, this country takes a pass on Latin America. We know it’s there south of our border but that’s pretty much the extent of our interest.

Sure we are wrapped in an epic struggle with Mexico over the wall and the North American Free Trade Agreement, but our relationship with our neighbor to the south is more about domestic issues than foreign policy concerns. Take Mexico out of the equation and all the other Latin American countries are not viewed within the context of crises, interests and security. To quote the oft-used slogan, “There is no there there.”

The fact that Latin America is way down our foreign policy agenda is probably a good thing, since we have enough on our plate with the rest of the world. But it is kind of interesting that a part of the world that sends us cocaine, baseball players, tangos, rumbas, sambas, precious metals, cheap clothes, fresh fruits and vegetables, and of course Gisele Bundchen is all but forgotten. See what happens when a part of the world is generally at peace without war, border disputes, terrorists or crazed leaders.  Sure there is massive corruption, areas of gang violence, and desperate poverty, but compared to many parts of the world Latin America is likely happy to be ignored.

U.S. disinterest was not always the case as during the 20th century we sent our troops throughout the Caribbean and Central America to “bring order and democracy” and help the people become ” like us.” This work as policeman to the hemisphere didn’t really pan out as we left the region not so much better off as relieved. Now in the 21st century our mission is largely business related – to spread Wal-Marts everywhere, bring our brand of football to the masses (the Patriots play the Raiders in Mexico City in November) and make sure that the lithium from the deserts of Bolivia and Chile make their way north to our battery manufacturers.

Thank goodness Latin America is just “there” to our south so we can spread mischief, mayhem, and malice in other parts of the world.


How Quickly We Forget

March 21, 2010

The seventh anniversary of the United States invasion of Iraq was quietly remembered over the last few days- a few demonstrators, a few spirited speeches against the war, but mostly short memories of what has been our most divisive war since Vietnam. How quickly we forget.

There are about 96,000 US troops in Iraq, down from 170,000 during the height of the surge. Most of our troops are encamped on the fringes of Baghdad or in the Green Zone and tasked with reserve missions rather than frontline combat or those night patrols over dangerous and bombed filled roads. 

Over the coming months those numbers should drop again, although it is unlikely that the number of troops stationed in Iraq will ever be a mere token presence. It is also important to realize that our largest embassy in the world is in Iraq, and those civilian personnel will definitely remain in force for a considerable period of time. It is now up to the men and women in the khaki pants and shortsleeve shirts to become the face of American intervention.

Historians will have much to debate about the war – 4300 lives lost, ten times that number in casualties and perhaps as much as $ 3 trillion in national treasure. It is important to remember that the initial justifications for the war have all faded into the background- no WMDs, no clear ties to al Qaeda, and no real national security threat from the regime of Saddam Hussein. But in an unusual twist, Iraq will be remembered as our longest nation-building, domestic security and democracy enhancement project.

Today there is much to be pleased with in Iraq, although progress must be judged in tiny increments of improvement. Free and fair elections, relative peace, a budding economy, and increased levels of national unity. But as this slow improvement was taking place, Americans have moved on to the next war in neighboring Afghanistan or to fears about the economy and the endless domestic battles over health care reform.

The question of the day and every day in the coming years will likely be ” Was it all worth it?” Certainly the war was not worth it if the question is built on the initial justifications. But Americans are a people who rarely like to admit that a war was a waste or had no merit, and so building a new Iraq, a new democratic Iraq, a new united and properous Iraq will become the mantra for justifying all the dead and wounded and the price tag. Most wars are a waste of lives and money, few rise to the level of the ” greatness” as was the case in World War II, but the Iraq war is unique in that its justification evolved over time and the memory of all the miscalculations and arrogance are but a distant memory.

Did We Really Win the Vietnam War?

March 9, 2010

On a recent trip to Vietnam I could not help think about the end of the war in 1975 with the rescue helicopters on the roof of the US Embassy and desperate Vietnamese trying to get out of the country before the Vietcong captured Saigon. The Vietnam War is often described as this country’s most serious military defeat with 58,000 dead, 1300 MIAs and the onset of self-doubt and reluctance to challenge communist insurgency. Despite the upbeat promises of victory by the generals ( “the light at the end of the tunnel”), the exaggerated daily body counts of the enemy, and the constant reminder about falling dominoes in South East Asia, the US was never able to master jungle warfare.

Thirty-five years later the war is not only a distant memory in Vietnam, but also we just may have won the hearts and minds ( and pocketbooks) of the Vietnamese people. Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are booming examples of the capitalist ethic. In Hanoi I stayed in the Hanoi Hilton, not the prison where John McCain endured unbelievable torture, but the American hotel chain. Examples of United States corporate presence are everywhere – Chevrolet SUVs, Apple iPhones, Miller and Bud, and always the face of Colonel Sanders hawking Kentucky Fried Chicken. Looking up from my hotel in Ho Chi Minh City I turned and saw the Prudential Financial Center.

While the Vietnamese have been open to our products, we have also fostered a vibrant trade relationship with them. Since the beginning of diplomatic relations during the Clinton presidency, Vietnam has found the United States a welcome market for its goods – textiles, wood products, silk, shoes and low level computer components. I happened to glance at my Rockport shoes while in Hanoi and was surprised to see Made in Vietnam on the label. Since opening up Vietnam to the global economy, the United States has become a major trading partner with over $ 15 billion in trade annually.

I was most surprised to see little public display of the materials of warfare from the 1970s. Other than the war museum with rusted out US helicopter gun ships and jet fighters, the Vietnamese show little interest in discussing that period or shoving their victory in the faces of Americans. If there is any animosity about foreign intervention it is directed at the Chinese, who historically have invaded and dominated their neighbors to the south. In fact this year is the 1000 anniversary of the Vietnamese leader, Ly Thai To’s great victory over the Chinese. Parks in Hanoi were full of flowery celebrations recognizing the liberation of Vietnam from Chinese control.

Traveling through the country it is difficult not to run into American tourists. Last year over 300,000 visited Vietnam and more are expected in the coming years. Many from the Vietnam War generation want to return out of curiosity and the lure of lush highlands and beautiful beaches; others to perhaps purge those visions of napalmed children and massacres of unarmed villagers. But for whatever reason, there is a growing bond between Vietnam and the United States and the movement of people between both countries. Every morning outside the US Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City long lines of people with their papers in order enter the fortress-like compound hoping to get a visa to head to the states where areas such as Orange County, California have become “Little Saigons.”

But as I moved around Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City I was constantly reminded that this remains a communist country. The hammer and sickle flag blows into the wind next to the Vietnamese flag with its gold star over a field of red. The picture of Ho Chi Minh is everywhere exhorting the populace to work hard, be ethical and take pride in the revolution. When I left the country, the US Embassy issued a report highly critical of human rights abuses by Vietnamese officials. Vietnam may be capitalistic in the Chinese mode, but it is a one party state which does not tolerate political dissent or opposition organization.

The Vietnam conflict has for years remained to many a disturbing military defeat. But Vietnam today is a far different country from what it was during the war. In fact to see Vietnam now it is possible to come to the conclusion that we just might have won the war.

The Killing Fields Thirty Years Later

March 3, 2010

The Kingdom of Cambodia is a country with a horrific past, but its people, especially the young, are determined to move beyond the genocide of 2 million innocents by the infamous Pol Pot and his Khymer Rouge revolutionaries and enter the new global economy.

I visited the country recently and saw both the terrible legacy of mass murder in the torture chambers used by the Khymer Rouge and the hope for a better future that fills the air in the  major cities like Phnom Penh and the quiet villages that dot the lush countryside. Everywhere there is hustle and bustle ( the constant noise from millions of Honda motorbikes)  and a firm belief in the capitalist ethic ( the US corporate presence is everywhere).  From the small shop owners to the burgeoning tourist trade around the Angkor Wat temple region, Cambodia is now open for business.

But as with all less developed countries, particularly those that have suffered through a period of internal chaos and destruction, Cambodia is a country with a sad underside that is not immediately visible to the foreign tourist. I visited orphanages where sad eyed children begged to be taken to America, HIV group homes where kids whose parents died from the disease are taken care of, as they too have contracted the disease, and makeshift school houses where five year olds from the most desperate of conditions are given English language training only because the headmaster gives their parents extra rice rations to permit the children to stay in school.

The study of English is a national phenomenon as I visited a major university where each day there are hundreds of classes taught to eager students who believe that facility in the world’s dominant language will give them a leg up in new global business environment. Many Cambodians have used their facility in English to leave the country and head at least temporarily to the United States. Long Beach, California is now the center of Cambodian immigrant life with Lowell, Massachusetts a close second.

The Cambodian people are filled with beauty and grace; they have preserved their heritage and overcome unbelieveable tragedies. Yet reviving a country thirty years after the killing fields destroyed the professional class has made national revival difficult. It is said that time heals all wounds, and Cambodia is an example of this wisdom.

Starting from Scratch

January 18, 2010

How to rebuild a country that is a failed state, an economic basket case and a sad example of perpetual instability and injustice?  The Haitian earthquake poses a monumental problem not just for the Haitian people and what’s left of their inept government, but also for the international community, which will undoubtedly spend billions in the coming years to get the country back on its feet.

Just when Haiti was beginning to see a faint glimmer of hope as relative political stability and some foreign investment interest were more in evidence, the earthquake smashed all possibilities. Now besides the unimaginable human and physical destruction, there is the near complete absence of governmental institutions and leaders. It is the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and other rich countries that are runninig Haiti, and will likely do so for years to come.

Some optimists believe that the earthquake offers the country a new opportunity to start over and build a nation anew, not just with new structures, but a new social and political culture that is based on a more cooperative spirit, honest and active government, and a willingness of the diaspora to return home and lend their talents and money to create a Haiti that is able to stand on its own, rather than depend on international hand outs.

But even if this terrible tragedy offers hope and opportunity, rebuildiing Haiti is a generation’s work that will cost hundreds of billions, perhaps trillions of dollars, far more than the hundreds of millions in aid raised or committed so far. It is when the media leave and the world turns its attention to a new tragedy that the Haitians will be left to their own resources to start anew.

Fortunately, the Haitians are a people of enormous strength and resilience who have plenty of experience with adversity, but this is not an ordinary natural disaster; this is the destruction of an entire country with the capital city of Port au Prince enduring the worst of the destruction.

The reality of this crisis is that hundreds of thousands of Haitians will be seeking protected status in the United States and elsewhere in the world; an international police force will be on the ground keeping the peace for years with an enormous price tag; and rather quickly money that is flowing now will begin to dry up, leaving the recovery a patch work of some successes and many failures.

Hope is all the Haitian people have at this time, but the devastation is just too overwhelming to turn hope into faith in the future. Haiti may never recover.

Respect and Understanding

November 25, 2009

I was recently in the Middle East, in particular Jordan and Egypt. Over a seven day period I had numerous conversations with college students and administrators that often led to the thorny issue of what Americans think of Muslims and the Muslim world.

The message that came across to me loud and clear was that what the Muslim people wanted most from the United States was respect and understanding, rather than what they perceived to be false impressions, cruel stereotypes and group condemnation.

They were overjoyed with the election of Barack Obama and the end of the Bush/Cheney regime. But they wanted more than just a change of administrations; they wanted to see a new period of changed perceptions and genuine goodwill.

 Many of the students and faculty were convinced that Americans saw all Muslims as terrorists and had little respect for the religious beliefs and customs of the Middle Eastern world. Although they embraced much of our popular culture from KFC to Hollywood movie mayhem, they wanted Americans to see them as good people, normal people, friendly people. My hosts never missed an opportunity to drive home examples of the civilized Arab world- the countless contributions to mathematics, science, and literature that originated in this the cradle of civilization.

This theme of respect and understanding has been central to the Middle East pysche for years, if not generations, and has often been the greatest obstacle to achieving peace agreements and reducing the terrorist threat. From the perspective of my hosts, if Americans could see the Muslim people as no different than other people, many of the thorny issues of the region could begin to move toward resolution.

But from the American point of view, it is difficult for visitors to this region to move past the outward image of Muslims – the head scarfs and burqas on women, the dominance of males in the social structure, the rigid rules of Islam and the lack of a religious reform movement to replace the jihadist philosophy.

Respect and understanding of the Muslim world will only come with greater contacts between everyday people from this country and the Middle East. This may sound like some idealistic bromide, but barriers that separate people are only broken down when people talk to each other and accept each other as equals, despite their differences.