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Biden was right

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates claims in his new memoir that Joe Biden was ‘wrong about every major foreign policy decision of the last 40 years.’ He reiterated that view yesterday in his interview with NPR and identified some of the issues on which Biden was supposedly off base.

I was involved in all of the issues he mentioned, from opposing the Vietnam War and U.S. support for dictators, to urging sanctions and diplomacy rather than war in Iraq. In my view Biden was right on all the policies Gates mentioned:

  • Voting with the Congressional majority in 1973-74 to reduce financial support for the soon-to-collapse Saigon regime, which the United States had tried unsuccessfully to prop up and turn into a viable government through more than a decade of war.
  • Hailing the fall of the tyrannical Shah of Iran in 1979 as an advance for human rights, which it was initially until the ayatollahs suppressed the secular opposition and installed a new form of theocratic oppression.
  • Voting in the early 1980s against the excessive and bellicose military buildup of the Reagan Administration, especially the boondoggle B-1 bomber and the even more absurd Pentagon monstrosity, the MX mobile missile system.
  • Showing the courage to vote in January 1991 against authorization for the first Gulf War, arguing along with 46 other Senators for sanctions and diplomacy rather than military attack.

On these and other issues Biden stood against war and military intervention and for greater diplomacy and restraint in American foreign policy. He was also correct in supporting President Obama’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq and in advising the President not to escalate in Afghanistan.

I agree with some of the policies Gates has advocated over the years, especially his skepticism about militarized approaches to countering terrorism. I often quote his 2008 speech on security strategy in which he said that military operations “should be subordinate to measures to promote participation in government, economic programs to spur development, and efforts to address the grievances that often lie at the heart of insurgencies and among the discontented from which the terrorists recruit.”

In his critique of Biden, however, Gates seems stuck on cold war thinking and failed policies of the past. The MX mobile missile? Do we really need to debate that again?

Let’s focus instead on policies for the future that can enhance our security and prevent war.

How remarkable that in our secular age the ‘person of the year’ is Pope Francis. Rarely in history has a leader of the Church enjoyed such broad popular support, or offered so much hope and inspiration. And not just to Catholics.

In the traditional Vatican Christmas prayer this week, Pope Francis departed from his prepared script to appeal to atheists and people of other faiths. “I invite even nonbelievers to desire peace,” he said. He called for all people of conscience to unite in the mission of building peace.

Pope Francis made a similar appeal earlier this year in his homily before a huge crowd at the Vatican Prayer Vigil for Peace in September. As he did this week the Pope offered his message of peace not just for Christians but also for “our brothers and sisters of other religions, and every man and woman of good will.” He called upon all people to cry out forcefully against violence and war. “Leave behind the self-interest that hardens your heart … and open yourself to dialogue and reconciliation.” Francis also repeated the famous words of Pope Paul VI: “War … is always a defeat for humanity.” He reminded us that peace is not separate from the demands of justice but is rooted in personal sacrifice, clemency, mercy and love.

In appealing for peace and reaching out beyond the Church, Pope Francis continues the tradition of Pope John XXIII, whose famous encyclopedia, Pacem in Terris, was published 50 years ago. In that historic document Pope John expressed a new spirit of universality, directing his message not just to Catholics but all people of good will. Pope John defined peace as an ordered society based on moral principles and rooted in human rights, including the right to “a worthy standard of living.”

Pope John described peacemaking as “an imperative of duty; it is a requirement of love.” We are called to be “magnanimous” in serving as a “spark of light,” he declared, to be a “vivifying leaven” to help bring about the beloved community of peace based on the love of God.

Pope Francis is following in the footsteps of Pope John in upholding an important but often ignored teaching of Christianity. Peacemaking is not an optional commitment. It is a requirement of faith.

It is more than that, though, as Pope Francis reminds us. It is a mission to which all people are called, believers and non-believers alike. It is a message not just for Christmas but for all seasons, an appeal to overcome hatred with love and work for a more just and peaceful future. 

Many words of praise have been spoken and written about Nelson Mandela in recent days. Rightly so. He was one of the most transformational figures in modern history. A people’s hero who embodied the worldwide resistance to apartheid and a national leader who demonstrated the power of reconciliation.

When we honor Mandela we honor the anti-apartheid movement he led and are reminded again of the power of nonviolent resistance. It is ironic that Mandela went to jail in the 1960s refusing to condemn the armed struggle against apartheid, because his release from prison decades later and the success of the South African freedom struggle resulted almost entirely from nonviolent action.

The armed actions of the African National Congress’s military wing did not have a major impact in weakening the apartheid system. It was the intensifying civil resistance of the people that ultimately brought down the regime.

In the 1980s the United Democratic Front of anti-apartheid groups organized a massive campaign of noncooperation and political defiance that made the country ungovernable. People all over the country participated in rent boycotts, student strikes, consumer boycotts and worker ‘stayaways.’ By 1986 fifty-four townships and some half a million households were participating in rent boycotts. In 1988 the Congress of South African Trade Unions organized the most successful general strike in the country’s history. An estimated 70 per cent of the workforce participated in the three-day strike. During those years the regime faced a constant onslaught of political resistance and civil noncooperation that undermined its ability to maintain public order.[i]

Meanwhile the worldwide antiapartheid movement mounted a massive campaign for sanctions and economic divestment that undermined the financial viability of the regime. As South Africa became more turbulent and political pressures increased in many countries against support for the apartheid system, corporate investment began to dry up, and banks slowed and eventually stopped lending money to the regime. In the United States by the early 1990s an estimated 28 states and 92 cities had adopted divestment resolutions urging companies not to do business with firms linked to the apartheid system.[ii] In 1986 the U.S. Congress adopted the Comprehensive Apartheid Act, overriding a veto by President Reagan.

These external pressures combined with widespread domestic resistance to force the regime to release Mandela and opened the door to the creation of a nonracial democracy.

So as we offer homage to Mandela, let us also pay tribute to the many millions of people in South Africa and all over the world who participated with him in the historic campaign to end apartheid.


[i] See Robert M. Price, The Apartheid State in Crisis: Political Transformation in South Africa (Oxford University Press, 1991); and Jeremy Seekings, The UDF: A History of the United Democratic Front in South Africa, 1983-1991 (Ohio University press, 2000).

[ii] See Jennifer Davis, “Sanctions and Apartheid:  The Economic Challenge to Discrimination,” in Economic Sanctions: Panacea or Peacebuilding in a Post-Cold War World?, eds. David Cortright and George A. Lopez (Westview Press, 1995); and Richard Knight, State & Municipal Governments Take Aim at Apartheid (American Committee on Africa, 1991).

Give Diplomacy a Chance

The response to the Iranian nuclear deal in the United States has been surreal. The media is talking about the risks of the deal, but as I point out in my blog today for Sojourners, the terms of the agreement favor the U.S.

Under the terms of the deal Iran agrees to:

  • freeze its stockpile of low enriched uranium and halt the installation and operation of additional centrifuges;
  • halt enrichment to higher levels and render its existing supplies of higher enriched uranium unsuitable for further enrichment; and
  • halt the development of its heavy water reactor at Arak.

Verification and monitoring of the Iran nuclear program will increase significantly. The sanctions relief offered to Iran is temporary and can be reversed if Tehran reneges on any part of the deal.

The agreement limits Iran’s nuclear program and increases its transparency. From a U.S. perspective, what’s not to like?

Let’s contact our Senators and demand that they give diplomacy a chance. Urge them to oppose any further sanctions as long as Iran complies with the agreement.

The Blame Game on Iran

As we witness the unseemly blame game between the U.S. and Iran over who was responsible for the failure to reach a nuclear agreement last week in Geneva, several points are worth considering.

  • The powerful international anti-Iran coalition (Israel and the Gulf states) can exert significant influence and seems determined to wreck any possibility of rapprochement between Iran and the West.
  • The inside story of what happened in Geneva last weekend is not known yet, but it seems that the government of France was chiefly responsible for scuttling the deal. France’s motivations are unclear, but the prospect of lucrative arms deals with the Gulf states could be a factor.
  • The bash-Iran caucus in the U.S. Congress has been given a boost and seems determined to rush ahead with additional sanctions legislation that could further endanger the prospects for a negotiated solution.
  • The negative statements and accusations between U.S. and Iranian officials this past week do not augur well for building the atmosphere of respect and trust that is necessary to reach political agreement.

The latter point is especially important. Arms control agreements depend upon political trust and the willingness of states to cooperate for mutual advantage. Objectively the United States and Iran have plenty of self-interested reasons for working together to advance security in the region, as Thomas Friedman wrote the other day in the New York Times. Whether they can overcome the legacy of mistrust and the organized resistance of the anti-Iran coalition remains to be seen.

Meanwhile the question needs to be asked, what is the alternative? Military strikes that would be disastrous and make matters much worse? Continued sanctions that weaken the Rouhani government domestically and impose further hardship on the Iranian people?

Diplomacy is the only option and it must be continued until a nuclear deal is reached.

This is a crucial week for U.S. policy toward Iran and for the prospects of reaching agreement to control Tehran’s nuclear program. The new government in Iran is reportedly offering to limit uranium enrichment and nuclear production and to permit more intrusive international inspections of its nuclear program. Let’s hope U.S. officials are wise enough to take advantage of this flexibility and will respond appropriately.

As many of us have been arguing, this is not the time to impose additional punitive sanctions on Iran. Rather, the United States should offer sanctions relief as an inducement to encourage Iranian concessions. That message is starting to take hold in Washington.

Last Friday Vice President Biden and Secretary of State Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to defer action on new sanctions against Iran. In yesterday’s New York Times chief U.S. negotiator Ambassador Wendy Sherman is quoted as saying that some sanctions could be eased as part of the negotiations with Iran. She specifically mentioned the option of “limited, temporary, reversible sanctions relief.”

Last week I said the same thing in an online article for the Christian Science Monitor. If I am being plagiarized, I’m glad for it. Take the ideas, Ambassador, and run with them. Hopefully they can help the U.S. and Iran settle the nuclear standoff.

Awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is a tribute to the organization’s pivotal role in enforcing the prohibition against chemical weapons. The challenge of eliminating weapons of mass destruction has always been high on the agenda of the Nobel Committee. This award is also an affirmation of OPCW’s current role in managing and verifying the difficult task of destroying Syria’s huge stockpile of chemical weapons.

The Nobel Committee’s unstated but implied message is that efforts to prohibit and destroy weapons of mass destruction deserve international support and that technical organizations like OPCW can play an important role in this process. The OPCW has been scrupulously non-political in its operations, focusing on the technical tasks of verifying and monitoring implementation of the Convention on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which entered into force in 1997.

Similarly robust non-political technical bodies are needed for the still uncompleted task of prohibiting nuclear weapons. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is the main organization charged with monitoring nuclear programs around the world.

Waiting in the wings is the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), which was established in 1997 when the comprehensive test ban treaty was negotiated. The U.S. Senate has refused to ratify the test ban treaty, however, so the CTBTO cannot begin full operations. Other countries have also failed to ratify, but the United States is the most important hold-out. If Washington were to ratify, other countries would follow suit, the treaty would come into force, and the CTBTO would be able to realize its full potential in detecting illegal nuclear explosions.

Some Senators oppose the test ban treaty with the claim that violations could not be verified. Their refusal to ratify, however, prevents the enhanced monitoring and inspection mechanisms that would make compliance with the treaty easier to verify.

Hopefully one day (after the Senate has done its duty) the Nobel Committee will be able to acknowledge the work of the CTBTO in helping to ban nuclear testing—and in moving the world closer to a prohibition on nuclear weapons.

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