French military strikes in Syria are an understandable reaction to the killings in Paris, but they will not diminish the threat from ISIS and could make it worse.

As Andrew Bacevich reminds us, the United States and its partners have been waging war against terrorism for decades, killing tens of thousands of people in Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries, but the extremist threat continues to grow, aroused in part by our attacks. Military strikes from the West are exactly what the militants want, providing fodder for recruitment and justifying what is otherwise unjustifiable. Will we fall into that trap again?

Air strikes cannot defeat terrorism, and a ground invasion of Syria or Iraq would be unacceptable politically and unsustainable militarily. A more realistic and effective response is needed to counter the growing ISIS threat.

Instead of pursuing the illusion of military solutions, France should join with the United States and other countries to assemble a powerful global coalition to impose tougher UN sanctions. The immediate goal should be to further isolate and weaken ISIS and cut off its vital sources of finance and supply. Greater efforts are also needed to address the underlying grievances and conditions that generate violent extremism.

If there is to be ‘war’ against ISIS (in the figurative sense), the United States, France and other countries must bring this struggle to the UN Security Council and mount a massive international campaign that is commensurate with the threat. Russia and China are on board with this agenda and will more readily cooperate if the mission is authorized through the UN.

The Security Council has imposed some initial sanctions against ISIS, but these measures have not been effectively implemented. Tougher resolutions are needed to enforce compliance with existing sanctions and establish greater authority for stronger measures.

A concerted effort is also needed to shut down the cyber jihad ISIS and its supporters are waging on the internet. Why do we allow these groups to continue using social media to glorify violence, spread hatred and recruit terrorists? This is a challenge that no state can solve on its own, where an international response under a UN mandate is urgently needed.

Many other steps can be taken to undermine ISIS and reduce the threat of extremism: more vigorous diplomatic efforts to achieve a ceasefire and political solution in Syria and political power sharing arrangements in Iraq; increased funding for the millions of refugees who have been forced to flee the conflict; sustained support for peacebuilding and development programs in the Middle East and among refugee populations in the West to address the underlying conditions that give rise to terrorism. All are approaches uniquely suited to UN involvement.

The UN was created 70 years ago to address threats to international peace and security. Let’s use the world body now to counter the clear and present danger posed by ISIS.

The proposed steps will not bring immediate results, but concerted international action can strengthen the fight against violent extremism and will avoid the harmful blowback effects that will almost certainly result from more military action.

The decision to halt troop withdrawals and keep nearly 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan is further evidence of the failure of American policy. After 14 years of military effort—with more than 2,300 U.S. troops killed, thousands more severely wounded, and the expenditure so far of more than $700 billion—the United States has been unable to suppress the Taliban or stabilize the country behind a legitimate government capable of providing effective security.

The Taliban insurgency is stronger than ever and has gained control over significant parts of the country. The number of Afghan civilians and soldiers dying in the war is higher than ever and continues to rise.

Maintaining U.S. military forces in Afghanistan guarantees that the war will continue, although the U.S. State Department has said there is no military solution in Afghanistan. It further delays and diminishes the prospects for attempting to achieve a negotiated political agreement that could end the bloodshed. The continued presence of foreign forces reinforces the Taliban narrative—that it is fighting to free the country of foreign influence—and feeds violent extremism in the region.

President Obama’s decision comes in the wake of the appalling massacre two weeks ago that killed 22 doctors, nurses and patients at the Médécins sans Frontières hospital in Kunduz. An American AC-130 gunship repeatedly shelled a known medical facility, the largest in the area, and continued firing even after frantic MSF staff called American military headquarters pleading for a halt to the attack. MSF has chargewordd that the incident was a violation of the Geneva Conventions and possibly a war crime.

How can the U.S. presume to have moral authority to act on behalf of Afghanistan after such an atrocity, and after the futility of its efforts through so many years at such high human cost?

Yes, the prospects for Afghanistan are grim. Many of the hopes for security, human rights and democracy that motivated the international intervention remain unfulfilled. But continuing to pursue military solutions will not work, and will likely make matters worse. The moral costs of continuing the war outweigh any conceivable military outcome.

It is long past time for the United States to focus instead on the pursuit of negotiations to resolve the conflicts in Afghanistan and the region through political means rather than war.

Foreign Policy Follies

To keep my blood pressure down and preserve some semblance of sanity, I have not watched the Republican debates or listened to the candidate speeches. I’ve read the newspaper accounts, especially their foreign policy statements, and I am appalled at the ignorance of what’s being said and the degradation of what passes for political discourse.

Particularly alarming to me are the false claims about American weakness and the dangerous calls for more militarism. America’s standing in the world has indeed declined in recent years. This is not because we are weak militarily, however. The United States continues to spend more on its military than any other country, three times more than China and seven times more than Russia. Rather, we are less respected because we have used military force so cavalierly and ineffectively with such harmful consequences for so many years.

Also outrageous is the claim that the Obama administration is somehow responsible for the rise of ISIS. No mention is made of the disastrous U.S.-led invasion of Iraq which shattered the state, divided Sunnis against Shias, and sparked a massive insurgency that led to the rise of Al Qaeda and later ISIS.

It is also worth noting that the decision to withdraw American forces from Iraq was based on a 2008 security agreement between the Bush administration and the Maliki regime in Baghdad. The Iraqi government firmly rejected requests by U.S. military officials to allow American forces to remain in the country.

One additional point: Barack Obama was elected president in 2008 largely on the basis of his unequivocal pledge to end the war in Iraq. Many of us applauded him for fulfilling that promise. That’s how democracy is supposed to work.

Let’s hope our democracy is strong enough to withstand the new wave of military jingoism and can pursue more peaceful approaches for achieving American greatness in the world.

Julian Bond

One of the giants of our era has passed. Legislator, writer, poet, television commentator and university professor, Julian Bond was most of all an activist for justice and peace. He was an early leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during the civil rights movement, served as chair of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and was a co-founder the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Like many others in the freedom movement Bond understood the link between the struggle for civil rights in America and the movement to end the war in Vietnam. He and other members of SNCC opposed the war and refused to serve in the military.

Bond became famous nationally in 1966 when he was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives but was barred from taking his seat because of his antiwar stance. Another election was called in the district and Bond ran and won again, but still he was barred from serving. He ran a third time and won yet again, and finally was able to take his seat after a ruling in his favor by the U.S. Supreme Court. He served in the state legislature for twenty years.

In 1967 Bond wrote and published a SNCC comic book entitled Vietnam. The remarkable document provides an insightful analysis of the injustice and racism of the war. It holds up well after all these years. You can access it here (thanks to The Sixties Project).

I corresponded with Bond over the years but never met him in person until just a couple months ago in Washington DC. Bond participated in and helped to sponsor the conference, “Vietnam. The Power of Protest,” which commemorated the 50th anniversary of the U.S. military escalation in Vietnam and the beginning of antiwar protest.

DSCN9576 (1)

With Julian Bond and Jonathan Hutto at the “Power of Protest” conference

The “The Power of Protest” conference included an event at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. It was one of the last times Bond spoke in public. His remarks that day focused on Dr. King’s famous 1967 speech against the Vietnam War and included this quote: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

Prophetic words then that remain relevant today.

Bond’s last statement, sent to colleagues just before he died, urged support for the Iran nuclear deal.

He was one of our country’s most important leaders for justice and peace. He will be sorely missed.


I am an enthusiastic supporter of the nuclear deal with Iran. The morning the agreement was announced I wrote an op-ed endorsing the agreement that was published by Fox News, which you can access here.

The nuclear deal has many obvious benefits. It blocks Iran’s ability to manufacture weapons-grade uranium and plutonium. It establishes the most rigorous nuclear inspections regime ever negotiated. It calls for lifting sanctions against Iran as it accepts enhanced monitoring and begins to implement nuclear reductions.

The success of the Iran negotiations confirms the value of sanctions as a tool of diplomacy. In our book The Sanctions Decade, George Lopez and I offered a bargaining theory of sanctions. Sanctions are means of applying pressure, but their effectiveness depends on offering to lift sanctions as an incentive for reaching a negotiated settlement.

Sanctions are best understood as tools of persuasion not as instruments of punishment. They are useful for persuading an adversary to come to the bargaining table, but they must be accompanied by meaningful incentives for cooperation.

In the case of the Iran deal it is obvious that sanctions played a decisive role in driving Iran to the bargaining table. President Hassan Rouhani of Iran stated quite bluntly last week that he was elected two years ago to remove the sanctions. Without the nuclear deal, he said, Iran would face an economic “Stone Age.”

Especially important in the Iran sanctions regime has been the unanimous support for targeted measures by the UN Security Council, including Russia and China. Also significant has been the strong financial and commercial restrictions imposed by the European Union.

The combined pressure of UN, European and U.S. sanctions applied effective persuasive pressure. The U.S.-led negotiating team offered to lift that pressure in exchange for Iran’s commitments to restrict its nuclear program. It’s a classic formula for how sanctions are supposed to work.

The New York Times recently ran an alarming and bizarre story about Pentagon plans for more war in the Middle East. President Obama is said to be considering a plan to send hundreds of additional American troops to Iraq, on top of the 3500 troops he has already committed. The plan also calls for creating a network of new US military bases to support the Baghdad government in fighting the Islamic State.

General Martin Dempsey, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is the principal advocate for the new military bases in Iraq. Here’s the bizarre part: he is describing the proposed new bases as “lily pads.”

Think about the absurdity of that. Lily pads in the desert!

Instead of “lily pads,” let’s create oases. Places of healing to promote reconciliation. Oases of fresh thinking for constructive alternatives.

US military intervention is the problem in Iraq not the solution. The United States has been using military force in the Middle East for more than a decade and the result has been more terrorism, greater instability, and the spread of violence and war. Since the US started bombing Syria and Iraq last year, extremist forces in the region have grown stronger.

Overcoming the threat of the so-called Islamic State requires diplomatic and political strategies, not US military intervention. Rather than sending more troops our government should be focusing on ending the war in Syria and achieving inclusive governance in Iraq. In Syria this means a renewed diplomatic push to end the civil war and achieve a negotiated political settlement. In Iraq it means forging power-sharing arrangements that can address the grievances of Sunni Arab communities.

The spreading bloodshed in the Middle East is a global problem, and it requires global solutions. The United States should take this crisis to the United Nations and lead a vigorous large scale response that is commensurate with the magnitude of the threat.

I outlined some of the alternative strategies in my presentation to the Sojourners Summit for Change last week in Washington. You can view my presentation and the panel discussion on countering ISIS here (at 6 minutes 57 seconds).

If the United States were to devote as much effort to political and diplomatic approaches as it does to military measures, the chances for success would increase. If our government were to send to the region thousands of diplomats, trained peacebuilders and aid workers rather than deploying more troops and building “lily pad” bases, perhaps we could begin to create those oases of sanity that are needed to counter the ravages of war.

Let’s send a clear message to the White House and Congress:

No more troops or military bases in Iraq.

Focus on diplomatic and political solutions, and support a greater role for the UN.

It was 50 years ago that the American escalation in Vietnam began, leading to the first antiwar protests. Over the course of the next decade, Howard Zinn wrote, “there developed in the United States the greatest antiwar movement the nation had ever experienced, a movement that played a critical part in bringing the war to an end.” Despite the historic scale and impact of that vast struggle, the movement for peace in Vietnam has been erased from history, unremembered and dismissed by some as irrelevant or worse—a disloyal fifth column that snatched defeat from supposed victory.

This past week in Washington DC, two significant events occurred to reclaim the history of that tumultuous time. Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute partnered with the New York University’s History Department to sponsor a scholarly conference, “The Vietnam War Then and Now: Assessing the Critical Lessons,” while former antiwar activists organized the public conference, “Vietnam: The Power of Protest. Telling the Truth. Learning the Lessons.”

Andrew Bacevich discussing the Lessons of the Vietnam War for US Foreign Policy

Andrew Bacevich discussing the Lessons of the Vietnam War for US Foreign Policy

More than 75 scholars and analysts participated in the academic conference to hear 26 distinguished experts present papers that addressed a wide range of questions: Was the war just and necessary? Was it a national revolution, a civil war, a war of aggression, all of the above? Was the war winnable? What were its consequences for the people of Vietnam and the soldiers who fought it? Were diplomatic options available for ending the war sooner? What was the impact of the antiwar movement? What are the principal lessons of the war for U.S. policy today?

Keynote speaker and former member of Congress Elizabeth Holtzman described the war as a product of U.S. ignorance (a misunderstanding of Vietnamese nationalism) and arrogance (a false faith in American military invincibility). Executive branch actions during the war may have involved war crimes, she argued, and undermined democratic accountability and constitutional checks and balances. A member of the House Judiciary Committee during the historic Watergate hearings, Holtzman traced the crimes that led to Nixon’s impeachment to White House attempts to suppress antiwar dissent and prevent public disclosure of critical information such as the Pentagon Papers. The war finally ended, she said, when the American people pressured the White House to withdraw troops and Congress banned U.S. military action in Southeast Asia and cut off further funding for the war. The video of Holtzman’s address is available here.

Cora Weiss discussing the role of antiwar protests in ending the Vietnam War.

Cora Weiss discussing the role of antiwar protests in ending the Vietnam War.

The scholarly conference overflowed with new insight into the history and meaning of the war. It deepened our understanding and appreciation of a catastrophic conflict that took the lives of millions of people in Southeast Asia and more than 58,000 U.S. soldiers, while causing the greatest civil unrest in American society since the Civil War. The Kroc Institute will work with the One Earth Future Foundation to produce a policy report on the lessons of the war. We will also work with conference presenters to produce an edited volume that preserves their valuable scholarly contributions for future scholars and students.

Following the scholarly conference more than 800 people gathered for the “Power of Protest” event at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in downtown Washington near the White House. The program included an opening ceremony emceed by Phil Donahue that featured Congresswoman Barbara Lee and honored movement elders such as Daniel Ellsberg, Cora Weiss, Staughton Lynd and Marcus Raskin. The “Power of Protest” program included a plenary panel discussion with Juan Gonzalez, Tom Hayden, Wayne Smith and former Congress members Patricia Schroeder and Ron Dellums; dozens of workshops and mini-plenaries on a wide range of topics; and a march to the Martin Luther King Jr.  Memorial on the National Mall. The program at the memorial honored Dr. King’s courageous and eloquent opposition to the Vietnam War.  It was emceed by Danny Glover and featured remarks by Julian Bond, who recalled King’s warning: “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

Phil Donahue hosting 'Honoring Our Elders' session at the public event

Phil Donahue hosting ‘Honoring Our Elders’ session at the public event

The “Power of Protest” program was one of the most moving experiences of my life—a return to the issues and social movement that shaped my life and set me on the path of working for peace that I have followed ever since. It was a moment of reunion with many former colleagues, and an opportunity to meet and engage with others I knew only by reputation. It was an event of recognition and recommitment—a passing of the torch to a new generation of activists who are addressing today’s issues of war, social injustice and climate change.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 52 other followers