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.

Democracy in Decline

Democracy and civil liberties have been diminishing all over the world in the past decade. This alarming trend has been thoroughly documented in recent years by the nongovernmental group Freedom House, and yet no one seems to be paying attention.

The most recent annual survey by Freedom House confirms the problem. “For the ninth consecutive year the condition of global political rights and civil liberties showed an overall decline,” the report states. Developments in 2014 were “exceptionally grim,” with nearly twice as many countries showing declines in political freedom compared to those experiencing gains. The last nine years have witnessed the longest continuous period of decline for freedom in the organization’s nearly 50-year history of publishing annual ratings.

What’s behind this worrisome trend? Freedom House does not attribute the decline in freedom directly to any single factor, but it emphasizes the harmful impact of repressive measures that have been imposed in many countries.  Civil and human rights are eroding “due to state surveillance, restrictions on internet communications, and curbs on personal autonomy.” The worst reversals were in the areas of “freedom of expression, civil society, and the rule of law,” the report concludes.

The measures responsible for this decline in freedom are often adopted in the name of countering terrorism. In response to terrorist threats the United States and other countries have imposed measures that increase the power of police and state security agencies, reduce judicial protections and due process rights, expand government control over information, and limit personal freedoms. What used to be known as the ‘free world’ has become decidedly less free in the process.

As I point out in a recent article published in Global Observatory, many of the measures adopted in the name of fighting terrorism are of uncertain effectiveness. In some cases they are counterproductive and may intensify the feelings of marginalization and repression that feed extremism.

Protections against terrorist attack are necessary, but we will not overcome violent extremism by eroding the conditions of democracy and human rights that are necessary foundations of peace.

A recent Washington Post article reports that South Africa has a significant stockpile of highly enriched uranium and has rebuffed US entreaties to relinquish the bomb-grade material. According to the article:

  • South Africa has 485 pounds of highly enriched uranium, enough to build half a dozen large nuclear weapons. This is the fissile material that was melted down from Pretoria’s nuclear weapons program when the country abandoned the bomb in 1990.
  • The Obama administration has tried to persuade South Africa officials to give up the highly enriched uranium, in exchange for a steady supply of lower-grade uranium for reactor fuel, but Pretoria has refused.

In rejecting U.S. proposals, South Africa cites U.S. hypocrisy. Washington tries to remove nuclear capability in other states while clinging to nuclear weapons itself. Like many other countries in the developing world, Pretoria has long insisted that the U.S. and the other nuclear weapons states must fulfill their obligation under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to negotiate for disarmament. The NPT is a bargain: states without nuclear weapons are required to forego nuclear weapons, while those with the bomb agree to move toward disarmament.

South Africa has special status in this debate as the only state to develop nuclear weapons and then give them up. Pretoria will have an important voice at the international nonproliferation treaty review conference that convenes next month in New York at the UN. They will join many states in urging the nuclear states to fulfill their part of the bargain and get back to the process of progressive denuclearization.

President Obama has said the United States supports the goal of achieving a world without nuclear weapons, but some in his administration seem not to have gotten the memo. The Washington Post article has a stunningly cynical yet honest quote from the former White House Coordinator for Arms Control Gary Samore, replying to South Africa’s nuclear negotiator:

“Nuclear disarmament is not going to happen…It’s a fantasy. We need our weapons for our safety, and we’re not going to give them up.”

This from the person responsible for managing the President’s supposed commitment to disarmament. Hypocrisy indeed.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is not the only one worried about a possible U.S. nuclear deal with Iran. The leaders of Saudi Arabia are also concerned.  They fear that if Washington reaches an accommodation with Tehran on its nuclear program, the two countries will begin to cooperate on other issues—including Syria, the fight against ISIS, and Afghanistan—which would give Iran greater influence in the region.

The U.S. is already working in parallel with Iran in Syria and Iraq, although officials in Washington deny any direct coordination. The two sides have similar interests in opposing the rise of ISIS. Both want to see an end to the civil war in Syria and are concerned about the spreading violence and instability in Iraq. The two countries also share the goal of attempting to stabilize Afghanistan and reduce Taliban influence.

The United States especially needs Iran’s help in Iraq and Syria. Tehran has sufficient leverage in Baghdad and Syria to encourage the political concessions and diplomatic compromises that will be needed to reduce the appeal of ISIS and stem the tide of political instability and war in the region. The U.S. knows this, which is undoubtedly one of the reasons the Obama administration is so intent on finding a solution to the nuclear standoff, which would pave the way for engaging Iran on other issues.

If Tehran and Washington reach an accommodation on the nuclear issue, Iran will begin to emerge from its political and diplomatic isolation. Sanctions will ease and new economic development opportunities will emerge. Iran will become a major regional player.

This is exactly what worries the Saudis. They do not want to see the rise of Iranian influence. Saudi leaders are concerned about Iranian support for the Houthi rebels in Yemen and the possibility of Iranian support for their own restless Shia communities. Saudi Arabia views Iran as its principal rival for primacy in the Gulf region, and as the source of revolutionary Shiite Islam which competes with Riyadh’s ultraconservative Sunni Wahhabism.

The Saudis are also very worried about ISIS, however. They are participating in the U.S.-led campaign of air strikes against ISIS, and they are bolstering their northern border against possible ISIS incursions.

The irony is that in the fight against ISIS Saudi Arabia needs Iran, just as the U.S. does. Through its support for the Shiite militias in Iraq, Iran is one of the major bulwarks against ISIS. From an objective security perspective, Saudi Arabia should be cooperating with Iran to deter and push back ISIS.

Saudi Arabia has deep geopolitical and ideological differences with Iran that prevent it from considering such cooperation, but conditions could change if the outcome of the nuclear negotiations is successful (still very uncertain) and the threat from ISIS intensifies. If their longtime allies in Washington begin to work alongside Iran, Saudi leaders may begin to do the same. Much would have to change for this to happen, but the result could be a united front against ISIS and greater security in the region.

I have a story to share about Dean Smith, the legendary basketball coach who passed away this week.

I met Coach Smith in early 1983, the year following North Carolina’s national basketball championship. This was the time of the nuclear freeze movement, which was sweeping across the United States like a proverbial prairie fire.

As executive director of SANE, I was working with our North Carolina chapter on a statewide radio advertising campaign. We were debating who would be the right person to narrate the messages. We wanted someone with breakthrough appeal—someone “who walks on water in this state,” as one of the chapter leaders put it.  We all agreed. Dean Smith was the one.

But why would the prestigious Coach stick his neck out on an issue like the nuclear freeze? Someone recalled that Smith had been among the first major college coaches to desegregate his teams. “He’s a man of dignity,” another said, “I’ll bet he’s for the freeze as well.” We decided to give it a try.

I was asked to write to the Coach and ask if he would be our spokesperson. Two weeks later came the prompt reply, “Coach Smith will be glad to participate in your campaign. Please call to arrange a time to visit.” We were ecstatic.

A couple weeks later we were there, entering Carmichael Auditorium, the scene of Tar Heels basketball heroics. We stared in awe at the many championship banners hanging from the ceiling and the dozens of trophies and plaques bearing witness to the rich traditions of North Carolina basketball. At the coach’s office we exchanged pleasantries with his assistants and were ushered into the inner sanctum, speechless in the presence of the great coach.

Smith was warm and amiable, rising from his desk in an unassuming manner to greet us and urging that we make ourselves at home. We brought with us some draft scripts. He sat down at his desk, looked them over, scribbled changes here and there, and then addressed the microphone.

Hello, this is Coach Dean Smith. Winning the national championship was a great thrill. But there is one contest nobody wins – the international arms race. We all lose in a nuclear war, and the risk grows greater every day unless we do something about it. A majority of Americans support the bilateral nuclear freeze. But it won’t happen unless you take action. … Add your voice to the growing demand for a nuclear freeze.

In another script he made a self-deprecating reference to his controversial practice of freezing the game, instructing his players to keep passing the ball rather than shoot. This was before the introduction of the shot clock in basketball. Chuckling lightly he read:

We can debate the merits of a freeze in a basketball game, but there is one freeze we can all support, the bilateral nuclear weapons freeze.

After a couple of flawless takes, Smith was finished. He smiled and thanked us for coming. We were thrilled at having met the Coach but more importantly in gaining his support for our campaign.

SANE’s radio spots hit the airwaves the following week: nearly 300 spots on dozens of stations throughout the state. News of Coach Smith’s support for the freeze was everywhere, on the front pages and in the sports section. Articles on his involvement appeared in every major newspaper in the state and on all the major television and radio stations. The widespread news coverage and the hundreds of ad placements meant that Smith’s appeal to end the arms race saturated the North Carolina market and reached millions of people.

It was a major boost for North Carolina SANE and for our efforts to build public support for the nuclear freeze. Smith was not only a great basketball coach but a person of social conscience and moral courage.


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