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December 8, 2017

Jerusalem

President Trump recently stated his intentions to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, recognizing the latter as the capital of Israel. Though merely symbolic, such a move is nevertheless ominous and won't be without consequences.

At present there are no foreign embassies located in Jerusalem. Though Israel considers the city in its entirety—East and West—as its capital, all foreign governments with embassies in Israel maintain them in Tel Aviv. There are, however, foreign consulates located in both sides of Jerusalem.

For instance, Italy's consulate keeps offices in East and West Jerusalem: in the East to work with the Palestinians and, in the West, to assist "the Italian Jewish community of Jerusalem." The description on their website doesn't mention Israel.

An embassy is the diplomatic headquarters located in a host country, generally headed by an ambassador. It is standard practice that a government's embassy be established in the host country's capital, and that there be only one embassy and one ambassador designated per host country.

Consulates, on the other hand, generally do not operate in the context of the diplomacy between two countries. They do tend to work in coordination with the embassy and its mission, and can perform many of the same services. Yet, consulates are smaller is status and usually function in a bureaucratic capacity, handling visas, passports, trade, education, and so on.

For example, the United States has diplomatic relations with Germany. Accordingly, the US embassy and its ambassador are located in Berlin. However, Washington also has consulates located throughout the country: in Dusseldorf, Frankfurt, Munich, and elsewhere.

The matter of embassies and consulates is normally not a contentious one. With Jerusalem, the issue is a bit more involved.

The present international status of Jerusalem dates back to 1948 and 1967. After the 1948 war between Israel and the Palestinians (and the surrounding Arab states), Jerusalem was divided into West and East: the former became the capital of Israel and the latter went to Jordan. (As part of the armistice, the West Bank was assigned to Jordanian control and Gaza to Egyptian control; hence twenty years of delayed sovereignty for what was supposed to become the state of Palestine.)

During the June 1967 war, or Six-Day War, in addition to Egyptian and Syrian territory, Israel occupied the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza, along with East Jerusalem. Israel would then annex East Jerusalem, meaning Israel now considered it Israeli.

Conquest and annexation of territory contravenes international law, specifically the UN charter (Article 2) and the Fourth Geneva Convention (Article 47), both to which Israel is a signatory. Moreover, following the Six-Day War, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 242, which emphasizes "the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war." Security Council resolutions have the force of law and are actionable.

Since 1967, Israel has encouraged and facilitated the transfer of its citizens to live in occupied East Jerusalem. This transfer is also in contravention of international law, particularly the Fourth Geneva Convention (Article 49). Today, roughly 200,000 Israeli settlers live in East Jerusalem.

Especially in light of UN 242's call to "achieve a peaceful and accepted settlement," the illegal post-1967 situation has required—and has yet to receive—diplomatic resolution. This illegal postwar situation, which we call the Palestine-Israel conflict, has existed now for fifty years, largely due to Israeli intransigence and US consent.

Any diplomatic settlement of the conflict will have to address a core list of issues. Those issues are: borders, territory, settlements, East Jerusalem, and refugees. East Jerusalem is therefore central to the diplomatic agenda. It is also fundamental both to Palestinian hopes of statehood and a lasting peace between Israel and Palestine.

For fifty years, the United States has played a direct role in preventing a solution to the conflict (see chapter 5 of my Straight Power Concepts in the Middle East for a summary). Nevertheless, in small increments, moments of progress took place during the peace process (1991-2001). And on paper, the United States upholds the two-state solution, namely, two independent states—Israel and Palestine—based on the post-1948 borders, called the Green Line. The issue is simply one of willingness. Resolution of the conflict is very much attainable.

Trump’s decision to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem will dramatically increase the difficulty in getting any diplomacy underway. There is supposedly a peace plan in the works, led by Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, but nothing of any kind of substance, beyond a few recently made blank utterances, has been produced.

The decision will also further legitimize Israel's illegal expansion in the West Bank, potentially inspire further brutality toward Gaza, as well as encourage rightwing elements within Israel's government. (Encouragement of rightwing elements has, after all, been a leitmotif for this president.)

Given the importance of East Jerusalem to the Palestinian cause, the city's overall importance to the Arab world, and its religious significance to billions of people, Trump has risked much for many in an effort to satisfy a few.

Upon word that the president was for sure going to make the announcement, the US consulate in Jerusalem alerted its staff, while the State Department warned embassies around the world. The immediate reaction was concern for security.

In general, the response to a good idea is not to batten down the hatches.





October 2, 2017

U.S. Entry into Vietnam: More Doctrine than Disorder

[Self-published blog post]

In this essay, I wish to touch on some of the circumstances and thinking that resulted in US operations in Vietnam. It was the political and ideological substructure that produced the war, and therefore is the only means of comprehending it.

Two connected points highlighted in particular are (1) the feeble claim that Ho Chi Minh and his party were communists above all else, and (2) that primary to US decision making was not communism, but power projection and enhancement of its own prestige, with consideration given to markets and resources.

"Vietnam has the right to be a free and independent country—and in fact is so already."[1] These words were spoken on September 2, 1945, by Ho Chi Minh, the leader of Vietnamese nationalism, when he declared the independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). Ho and his party, the Viet Minh, were embarking on the creation of a (very) long-desired independent Vietnam. This should have been the birth of a sovereign nation.

The Vietnamese had lived under French colonial control since the mid-1800s, and briefly under Japanese rule (1940-45) during World War II, with France functioning as an adjunct during that period. After the war, and with Japan defeated, France moved against history to reestablish itself in Indochina, just when colonialism was coming to an end elsewhere in Asia and Africa. In late 1946, tensions escalated between Vietnamese desire for self-rule and French imperialism, ushering in the First Indochina War.

Despite reduction by Washington to a puppet of international communism—for either China (after 1949) or the Soviet Union—Ho was nothing of the sort. Even early on, in the 1920s, his relations with the Kremlin had been touch and go, mostly owing to Ho being too flexible and inclusive in his approach to revolution for Moscow's liking. By the 1940s, there was no evidence to suggest Ho was a Soviet pawn. Even US diplomats maintained he was nothing more than a nationalist who had the support of the vast majority of the country.[2]

Similarly, there is little to show for Stalin's interest in Vietnam, being concerned primarily with postwar reconstruction and security. The scholarly literature presents the Kremlin in a light wholly different from the one Americans have come to know through spy thrillers.[3] As for China: though Ho, for lack of options, accepted material support from Beijing in the Viet Minh's war against France, his words of hesitation on the matter are revealing: "It is better to sniff French shit for a while than eat China's all our life."[4]

In addition to principally being a nationalist, Ho was heavily influenced by Western liberalism and was almost notoriously moderate. As one surveys the standard histories of the Vietnam War,[5] one repeatedly encounters both how much those who worked with him (French diplomats, American intelligence agents, and others) were impressed by Ho and found him likable; and that Ho was ready and eager to negotiate with anyone. On multiple occasions he was criticized within his own party for being overly moderate.

Though fond of Western liberalism, Ho grew familiar with its lack of hospitality. Near the end of World War I, Woodrow Wilson issued his Fourteen Points, a blueprint for world peace upholding such principles as self-determination and democracy. Following the war, at the Versailles peace conference in 1919, Ho petitioned for Vietnamese self-determination, perfectly in accordance with Wilson's avowed ideals. It would not be the first time the United States would ignore Ho's entreaties. Ho would then take an interest in Leninist thought and its anti-colonialist orientation, thus providing the Americans with a certified reason to dismiss him.

Of course, there were Wilson's words and then there was Wilson. The twenty-eighth president did indeed speak of lofty ideals, but those ideals generally applied to powerful countries or weak countries ruled by a powerful someone. His administration's foreign policy was defined largely by interventionism, projecting US power into a list of countries in the Western Hemisphere—Cuba, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Mexico—not to mention Russia.

The point is that Wilson was a continuation of an increasingly interventionist and expansionist US foreign policy. In a sense, expansionism is in the country's DNA; crossing the continent and realizing Manifest Destiny was only the beginning. By the twentieth century, a set of principles and doctrines steering US foreign relations had been established that did not spell tolerance for small countries pursuing a course of autonomy, typically viewed as radical or militant nationalism. In essence, this is the beginning of what would later be labeled the domino theory.

The domino theory was based on a fallacy called "slippery slope": if one country "fell" (that is, became independent and self-sufficient), then the next might, then the next, and so on. And typically, the countries in question tended to be small in size and economy, and commonly agrarian.

This logic was self-evident and required no justification. Any country judged to be a domino soon to fall—other metaphors included rotten onions and apples, and infected meat—needed US protection from itself. After WWII, White House planners operating within the largely contrived Cold War ideology applied the domino theory in an expressly communist context, referred to as containment.[6] And with the United States taking its expansionism global after 1945, Northeast and Southeast Asia became early priorities.

Vietnam fell squarely in the domino-about-to-fall category. It was endeavoring to cut its own path, improve the lives of its people, and make its way in the world. Free and fair elections were held in 1946. A famine was fought. And literacy rates were going up. The DRV was moving forward—despite the presence of three foreign powers on its soil at the time: China, France, and Great Britain. Ho would also make multiple attempts to reach out to President Truman, and was paid no attention just as he was at Versailles by Wilson.

France, however, decided to stay, wanting to reassert itself as an imperial power, if for no other reason than to give its self-image a boost. The Truman administration, regardless of the opposition of world opinion to the French presence in Vietnam, transitioned from consent to support for French designs on Indochina. And the more Truman and his advisers read communism into the activity in the region, the more it was axiomatic that France needed assistance, another matter looked upon unfavorably by world opinion. "Most of the countries of the world do not share our view," observed John Foster Dulles, secretary of state under President Eisenhower, "that Communist control of any government anywhere is in itself a danger and threat."[7]

At the peak of US support for French operations, the United States was footing 80 percent of the bill for the Franco-Viet Minh war. It was of course better that Paris do the dirty work, though Washington viewed French efforts with disdainful disappointment for not being aggressive enough. By 1954, France became the ultimate disappointment and called it quits, especially after the battle at Dien Bien Phu.

The peace conference in Geneva shortly after Dien Bien Phu bisected the country into North and South, as had been done in Korea, this time at the 17th parallel. The accords called for elections in two years' time, which Ho Chi Minh would have won handily. However, this gave White House strategists ample time to ram into place a system of governance in a newly independent South Vietnam, or Republic of Vietnam (RVN). Though the South would suffer under this system's repeated brutality and corruption, it was brutality and corruption that Washington could superintend; for American officials, anything was preferable to genuine Vietnamese sovereignty.

Those in the South found the viciousness of leaders like Ngo Dinh Diem not to their liking, and a deep resentment took hold throughout the country. This resentment eventually grew into organized resistance in the form of the National Liberation Front (NLF; dismissed as Vietnamese Communists, or Viet Cong). Washington viewed the NLF as a marionette operated by the DRV, as it was unthinkable that villagers in the South would be unappreciative of all that America was doing for them.

For the Vietnamese in general, the Americans were merely the new French. As historian Marilyn Young points out in her classic survey: "Indeed, the divisions within villages reproduced those that had existed against the French: 75 percent support for the Front, 20 percent trying to remain neutral, and 5 percent firmly pro-government."[8]

Simply put, the Vietnamese people were never on-board. And the more Washington pushed, the further it got from its goal. This is how and why the American war in Vietnam began.

This is why the United States killed millions of people, subjecting a peasant country the size of New Mexico to unprecedented firepower. Strategists, advisers, policy architects, military officers, and a series of presidents pursued the preservation of a wholly unpopular system in an artificial country (the RVN), and the more the Vietnamese—North and South—refused to yield, the harder Uncle Sam brought down the hammer.

Integral to the domino theory, of course, was intimidation. Small and weak countries were expected to cower. And anything short of cowering was met with corrective action. The resistance that the United States encountered in Vietnam was beyond the pale, elicited outrage, and had to be dealt with accordingly.

What was deliberate and based on long-established doctrines has been replaced in the popular imagination with the language of "mistakes" and getting "sucked in." This language is not new and, in the case of Vietnam, has its roots in Washington's "liberal" (centrist) criticism of the war. "In this view," says historian Mark Atwood Lawrence, "the U.S. commitment in Vietnam represented major errors of judgment but did not flow from deeper flaws in American motives or institutions."[9] The distinction is a crucial one.

It is precisely the "deeper flaws in American motives" that resulted in the US military deploying over two million service personnel (1964-75) to carry out democracy prevention. This would, in turn, send a message to the next country considering self-determination, while enhancing the reputation of US hard power.

The melodramatic photos of key players like President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara belie the consistency of US decision making. Talk of policy instead gets replaced with talk of personalities—always a dangerous preoccupation in the realm of politics. Yet, under the noise of individual behavior existed a regularity, an order, and a logic. "If personalities, egos, and individual factors were the dominant building blocks of crucial historical decisions," observes war historian Gabriel Kolko,

there would hardly be more than chaos to cope with, and social processes, forms, and patterns would be buried under a mass of idiosyncratic behavior. Vietnam's place in postwar American foreign policy can be traced very clearly and explained as part of a coherent strategy as well as a continuous dilemma.[10]

The atrocity that was the Vietnam War was not merely the collective savagery committed on the ground or the spectacle of violence seen in footage and movies. The atrocity was also the calculated resolve among successive White Houses and corresponding staff that spanned three decades and displayed a consistent line of reasoning that made sense given the priorities.



NOTES

[1] Marilyn B. Young, The Vietnam Wars, 1945-1990 (HarperPerennial, 1991), 11.

[2] George C. Herring, America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975, 4th ed. (McGraw-Hill, 2002), 13.

[3] See Melvyn Leffler, The Specter of Communism: The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1917-1953 (Hill and Wang, 1994), ch. 2. Leffler is a leading Cold War scholar who has done detailed work, but this title is short and reader-friendly. Likewise with David S. Painter, The Cold War: An International History (Routledge, 1999), ch. 2.

[4] Herring, America's Longest War, 22.

[5] In addition to the general surveys cited in these notes—Young, Herring, and Lawrence—see also Robert D. Schulzinger, A Time for War: The United States and Vietnam, 1941-1975 (Oxford University Press, 1997).

[6] One of the best corrective analyses of Cold War ideology remains Noam Chomsky, Deterring Democracy (Hill and Wang, 1992), ch. 1

[7] William Blum, Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions, since World War II, rev. ed. (Common Courage Press, 2004), 124.

[8] Young, Vietnam Wars, 73.

[9] Mark Atwood Lawrence, The Vietnam War: A Concise International History (Oxford University Press, 2008), 112.

[10] Gabriel Kolko, Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the United States, and the Modern Historical Experience, reprint (The New Press, 1994), 168.

Follow-up to Ken Burns, "The Vietnam War"

This is a follow-up to my Sep. 18 post on episode one of the Burns-Novick documentary The Vietnam War. Today, I also posted a separate essay above entitled "US Entry into Vietnam: More Order than Disorder," which reviews some of why the American war in Vietnam took place.


In my posting on the first episode of Ken Burns's ten-part documentary The Vietnam War, I pointed out that the film's opening words were a continuation of what Americans have routinely been told about the war, but that the episode contained some good information. The opening words spoke of the war as "begun in good faith, by decent people, out of fateful misunderstandings, American overconfidence, and Cold War miscalculation." On balance, the subsequent nine episodes tend to reinforce this narrative.

While Burns and Lynn Novick do include interviews, discussion, and footage of a multitude of perspectives, the film tilts toward the American experience. True, the project was directed by Americans, whose careers have centered on America, and was presumably made mostly for an American audience. Nevertheless, episode to episode one feels that the GIs took the worse beating. The documentary doesn't say this, and presents information to the contrary, but the scale isn't conveyed.

When one takes into account the sheer disparity in fatality figures, the extent of the film's partiality is revealed. To illustrate, the death toll for Vietnamese was on the order of the entire population of Chicago. Fatalities for American service personnel, on the other hand, coincide with the capacity of Soldier Field where the Chicago Bears play.

All in all, the bar was low. And, in my view, Burns and Novick didn't have to do much to do good. The way the war has been recalled, discussed, packaged, and processed is distorted so severely that the Vietnam War that exists in the American imagination is a grotesque—a different one. And given that this misconception lies under 40 years of sediment, every little bit helps.

Burns and Novick do treat the North Vietnamese story. We meet Ho Chi Minh, who is presented in a reasonable light. Ho's outreach to the United States is noted, as well as his non-identification with Communist China or Moscow. We see a country that desired independence get bisected, with "independence" forced upon the South by the United States as the White House saw fit. And we are introduced to a number of North Vietnamese and "Viet Cong," who share their experiences.

So some of the origins of the war do receive treatment. And because the film deviates slightly from cinematic depictions—The Deer Hunter, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, and others—progress is made. Though at this point, all these decades later, Burns and Novick ran little risk in presenting a deeper, more honest, less nationalist version of the history. Whether this team would make such a film is another matter.

Taking into account how incremental and careful this film was, could one interpret the results as maybe a temperature reading of the culture? That maybe this is where we (still) are at the moment? (Or maybe it's just where Burns and Novick are.) In either case, a great distance must be covered if we are to prevent further such crimes. Recent history offers limited hope, such as the protesting of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Nevertheless, the support for invasion was 70 percent.

September 18, 2017

Ken Burns, "The Vietnam War"

Last night I watched the first episode of Ken Burns's new documentary, The Vietnam War. Nine more episodes will air on PBS over the next two weeks.

I was eager to begin the series. Though not without a few criticisms, I enjoyed—and continue to dip into—his equally extensive Civil War documentary, which originally aired in 1990. And I was therefore immediately intrigued when I learned he was doing a Vietnam film.

Among the reasons for my curiosity and longtime personal interest in the Vietnam War are that (1) it was one of the worst atrocities of the post-1945 period, (2) my country was responsible, and (3) few Americans to this day (my observation) seem to understand even the basic political realities of the conflict—and therefore recall the event with deficient moral clarity.

Much of what exists in the popular imagination regarding Vietnam is a reflection or parallel of the narrative captured by Hollywood: the United States tried to virtuously fight the spread of communism, played "referee," got "sucked in," made "mistakes," a few bad apples did bad things (e.g., the My Lai massacre), and we ultimately lost. The end. (I discuss Hollywood's treatment in greater detail in my "review" of the film American Sniper.)

This version of the history offers a more acceptable story. For one, we end up the well intended injured party. For another, the experience gets reduced to common sense: Vietnam was a series of tragic decisions, "that was then," America is wiser now.

Burns and co-director Lynn Novick seem to have made an effort at correcting, if moderately, these nationalistic impressions and misbeliefs.

Over its 90 minutes, episode one traces the almost century-long story of French colonialism in Vietnam, Vietnamese resistance, the 1954 Geneva Accords that partitioned the country into North and South, and ends with the inauguration of John F. Kennedy. Along the way, some sound discussion (and excellent footage) offers important background on Ho Chi Minh and Vietnamese desire for independence.

Though it would be easy to nitpick the beginning of an 18-hour documentary, I feel the episode pays insufficient attention to US motives in supporting the French in their war against the Viet Minh and the suppression of Vietnamese self-determination. Concepts such as the domino theory (prevention of the spread of communism) do get mentioned. And one CIA operative does correctly state that what was going on in Southeast Asia in general in the 1950s—movements seeking self-determination—was simply the beginning of the post-colonial era in the region; that Washington was looking at these developments through the Cold War lens that divided the world into good and evil.

This doesn't go far enough—suggesting a kind of naivete on the part of planners, as well as forgetting US foreign policy in the Western Hemisphere well before the Cold War—but at least someone in the film said American policymakers were wrong.

In a follow-up piece, I will briefly discuss a few of the points I feel would have deepened the episode and provided better, crucial context for understanding what followed. Specifically, the importance of the domino theory: the central US motive to prevent Ho and the Viet Minh (who were not seeking to become a satellite of China or the USSR) from running the country, and instead design a Vietnamese "independence" suitable to White House strategists.

That said, a fairly good start. The opening remarks about the war being "begun in good faith, by decent people, out of fateful misunderstandings, American overconfidence, and Cold War miscalculation" are unfortunate and more of the same. Yet, at its best, the film so far is a small step toward history. And as mentioned, the photography and footage are impressive. But where are the historian interviewees?




September 4, 2017

"Socialism"

I found this Guardian article informative and, more to the point, uplifting. Given the current political trajectory in the United States, which is little more than a continuation of the late-1970s and the Ronald Reagan era, it is heartening to know that millennials are, at the very least, fed up. Not only with the results, but they are also, to a degree, fed up with what produced them. This is progress.

As mentioned in the article, a recent survey of young adults by Harvard University found that 51 percent do not support capitalism, with 42 percent supporting it. At the same time, there is increasing interest in looking critically at the major policy concerns—financial regulation and healthcare, especially—that affect the working class. The poll seems to indicate an overall dismay with corporate greed and financial instability, not a wholesale rejection of free enterprise.

I'm generally hesitant with the words "socialism" and "capitalism." These terms of art pertain to political economy, and over the years have been stripped of any useful meaning. Much like "liberal" and "conservative," they have become team names.

Particularly in the United States, "capitalism" denotes the way "we" do things (which is closer to corporatism). On the obverse, there is "socialism," denoting the way "they" do things, traditionally meaning Soviet-styled "communism" (which was little more than highly centralized state-capitalism).

By extension, philosophers Adam Smith and Karl Marx were assigned patronal status to represent each system, respectively. That this was based on a misreading (or non-reading) of both thinkers was always irrelevant, their actual writings deemed incidental.

Because of the potency of ideology, the Cold War us-them formulation worked well, simultaneously encouraging voter support of policies that were harmful to the population, while discouraging criticism of said policies, even muted consideration of alternatives. Upholding at the same time freedom and compliance has been a longstanding schizophrenic reality in American culture.

Three generations later, the facts are in and being felt everyday. The currents that have benefitted a few—deregulation, tax cuts, anti-unionism, privatization—were and are sold as beneficial for everyone. But the results simply do not square with the rhetoric. Moreover, there has been a general hesitancy to see or voice this fact. Again, ideologies like nationalism ("capitalism" being a key ingredient) are a potent force; adding a racial dimension, used handily by the Republican Party, makes them even more so.

Millennials seem able and willing to question the false catechism held dear by the Baby Boomers and the subsequent generation to which I belong. Likewise, minority groups show the same inclination to support policies that are beneficial for them. Taken in aggregate, I dare say, the future might be less overcast.

Three points touched upon in the article that I feel are important: (1) Progressives need to talk to Trump supporters and working class people who self-describe as "conservative." Much is shared in common by these two groups. (2) If progressive politics in America is going to be labeled "socialism" (which, for what it's worth, I'd prefer it wasn't), it cannot be smothered by intellectuals and radicals fixated on theory and the sound of their own voices. Given the opportunity, they will strangle the hope of anything ever getting accomplished. And (3), if there is an "entry point," it seems plausible that it will be the healthcare issue. The public pays taxes; the public should receive services—something Adam Smith would have no problem with.

If movement in this direction is to be effective, keeping these points in mind will be vital. Progressivism should always be inclusive, practical, and specific. In other words, the very things we have gotten wrong for decades now.

An unintended but pertinent topic on this Labor Day.

August 14, 2017

North Korea and US provocation

[self-published blog post]

The current tensions concerning North Korea are connected to history, unnecessary, and dangerous. President Trump is playing two games simultaneously. One he understands, one he likely does not.

The former is the game of domestic politics. With record-low approval ratings sitting somewhere around 35 percent, a daily shellacking in the press, increasing tensions with his own party, and a formal investigation that could mean his presidency, Trump knows that war, even the rhetoric of war, is a winner. And the president could use some winning. The population, the press, and the political establishment all share a deep, abiding respect for military power and the use of that power. That one is easy.

The latter game is one of foreign policy. Here he is out of his depth, playing with fire, and could possibly move matters into a conflagration. According to Siegfried Hecker, a former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and someone familiar with North Korea and its capabilities, "The greatest North Korean threat we face is not from a nuclear-tipped missile hitting the US mainland, but from Washington stumbling into an inadvertent nuclear war on the Korean peninsula."

Looking at recent history, the fire Trump is playing with was started by the George W. Bush administration, and kept alive by Obama.

During the 1990s, the Clinton administration, which was also hawkish on North Korea, eventually engaged in substantive diplomacy with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), North Korea’s official appellation. The dialogue, owing much to the efforts of former President Jimmy Carter, produced results. As summarized by historian Bruce Cumings, a leading scholar on Korea, "President Bill Clinton got it [the DPRK] to freeze its plutonium production for eight years (1994-2002).... Clinton also signed an agreement with Gen. Jo Myong-rok stating that henceforth, neither country would bear 'hostile intent' toward the other."

However, the agreements were not to last. "The Bush administration promptly ignored both agreements and set out to destroy the 1994 freeze." "The simple fact," says Cumings, "is that Pyongyang would have no nuclear weapons if Clinton's agreements had been sustained."

When, in 2002, George W. Bush included North Korea in his "axis of evil" formulation in the context of the "war on terror," it is little wonder Pyongyang's interest in joining the "nuclear club" became steadfast. Barack Obama would simply maintain the posture of his predecessor in the form of bomber flights near the North Korean border, cyberwarfare, and the so-called "pivot" to power projection in Asia, to name a few specifics.

The US-DPRK tensions have therefore been induced. If Washington wished, it could with relative ease engage Pyongyang diplomatically, build on the Clinton agreements, and work toward full normalization of peninsular North-South relations and Washington-Pyongyang relations.

The current situation is not a case of the world's policeman being burdened and threatened by a rogue, lunatic dictator. For one: while certainly vicious, power hungry, and creepy, Kim is a rational actor; his broader priorities are economic development and self-preservation—of his country and himself. For another: the United States is not an innocent bystander and has been heavily involved in Korean affairs since 1945. Three points worth taking into consideration:

1. CREATION: At the end of World War II, Washington (with Moscow's agreement) unnecessarily divided the peninsula along the 38th parallel into north and south "spheres of influence." This is something that should never have happened. It also sowed the seeds of future war.

2. DESTRUCTION: Initially a peninsular conflict, Washington played a direct role in the Korean War (1950-53), conducting saturation and incendiary bombing in the north, killing refugees, and contributing to a death toll of approximately 2-3 million Koreans, the majority being civilian. (The numbers for the Korean War, with regard to Korean and American deaths, are eerily close to those of the Vietnam War.)

3. PROVOCATION: Ever since the Korean War, the United States has maintained a strong military presence in and around South Korea. This includes Washington keeping nuclear weapons in South Korea over the course of the Cold War, as well as conducting with South Korea military exercises that continue to present day.

In the meantime, people are following the situation between the White House and North Korea with understandable concern. However, there is as of yet little cause for panic. Though dangerous, the tough talk between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is, so far, just that. At present, there is no physical movement, such as mass mobilization, toward armed conflict. North Korea knows a fight would be devastating, and those who steer US foreign policy know that a nuclear conflict on the Korean Peninsula would be catastrophic, with global implications.

Moreover, the United States and North Korea are in diplomatic contact. Referred to as the "New York channel," the US envoy for North Korea policy, Joseph Yun, and a senior North Korean diplomat at the UN, Pak Song-il, have been conducting back-channel meetings since February. Beyond the topic of Americans being held in North Korea, the substance of the meetings is unknown. Even if there is a modicum of discussion of the present tensions, there is value and sanity in both sides, at the very least, engaging in "talk about talks," as it has been put.

North Korea is a country that borders on being dystopian. It is not a place I would want to live. And one can effortlessly point at Kim, who is just as much a cult leader as anything else, and cast judgment. But Americans would be remiss to not include the part their country has played. Simply put, we shouldn't be shaking our heads, lamenting the state of the world; we should be pointing at the White House for its contributions to the state of the world. Its present contributions.

Because, should their be misread signals in the current crisis and a trigger gets pulled, the state of the world would get remarkably worse.

August 7, 2017

Fourth edition

The first book, The Palestine-Israel Conflict: A Basic Introduction, has been re-released in a revised and updated fourth edition.

This new edition features the events of the 2012-16 period (spanning Obama’s second term), as well as many small changes throughout the book.

Amazon is now taking orders:

https://www.amazon.com/Palestine-Israel-Conflict-Basic-Introduction/dp/0745399266

The occasion of a new edition is always bittersweet. The title has been in print for 12 years now, and along the way I’ve had the repeated opportunity to bring it up to date and make improvements. In the bitter column, however, the book sadly remains topical. I look forward to it properly becoming, as such, a history book.

Nevertheless, the publisher and I are excited about the new edition, and it’s my hope that it will accommodate those seeking a summary of both the conflict’s history and its recent developments.

Thank you for the continued support and interest.

Gregory



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