My President, Right or Wrong

Last week at the United Nations, Hugo Chávez, the president of Venezuela, called President George W. Bush “the devil” and complained he could still smell the sulfur. The reaction was immediate, visceral, and scary. Even the president’s most virulent enemies took umbrage. Charles Rangel, a liberal democrat from Harlem, raged, “You don’t come into my country… you don’t come into my congressional district… [and] condemn my president.” Congressman Rangel had probably never before called George Bush “my president.” Nancy Pelosi, a staunch opponent of the president and leader of the House Democrats, called Chávez “an everyday thug” for calling the president “the devil.” Besides a childish outburst of name-calling, what is going on and why does it matter?

Rangel’s terminology demonstrates what underlies these outbursts. One of the basic human instincts is to rally around the clan when it is attacked. No doubt such a reaction was vital to protecting the tribe when it was vulnerable to aggression from outsiders. Consequently, when Americans heard their leader being described in as Lucifer, their reaction was to come to his defense and attack the attacker.

This is important because it describes vividly what is wrong with George W. Bush’s foreign policy. His approach to other countries is summed up in his famous axiom, “you are either with us or against us.” Those countries he thought the worst he infamously described as the “axis of evil.” Rather than sit down and talk with those regimes, he enunciated a policy of “regime change.” Apparently, he believed that when we invaded Iraq, we would be welcomed. Although Saddam Hussein had many enemies both within and without Iraq, his countrymen and women rallied around him and his colleagues when he was attacked, just as Rangel and Pelosi came to the aid of our president.

Besides labeling Iran as a member of the axis of evil, Bush recently called the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a tyrant. No doubt that increased support for Ahmadinejad in Iran. In addition, the U.S. government’s threat of sanctions against Iran because of its nuclear activities has also strengthened its rulers. Threats, name-calling, belligerent behavior – all strengthen the will of those attacked.

For over half a century, the U.S. has been threatening Cuba: we have imposed an embargo and limited financial dealings with that island, all in an effort to overthrow Fidel Castro. As we know, all of this has failed, and he remains as popular as ever, even with a failing economy, which he blames on our embargo. The real reason for the decrepit Cuban economy is the failure of communism everywhere to produce prosperity and economic growth. Cuba has been no exception. The U.S. sanctions give Castro a wonderful excuse for his failed economic system.

Embargoes and sanctions almost never work. Usually one or more countries are willing to ignore the strictures on selling and buying from the offender. The U.S. has had sanctions against Iran for decades without any appreciable effect, except that their commercial planes are dangerous because we refuse to sell them spare parts. Iraq was subject to sanctions approved by the UN, yet Saddam Hussein lived well. The hardship inflicted on the Iraqi people failed to generate any significant opposition to the Sunni-led government.

Only in South Africa have sanctions worked. Sanctions probably worked because many in the white minority government traced their roots to the UK and were troubled by the loss of the relationship with their mother country. In addition, it seems likely that many whites felt guilty about their treatment of blacks. It was helpful that most of the world participated in the ostracism, although some nations did ignore the embargo. Whatever the causes, South Africa counts as an exception to the rule that sanctions don’t work.

Our threats to North Korea have also been counterproductive. George Bush has opined, “I loathe Kim Jong II,” and has called Kim a pygmy. North Korea’s inclusion in the axis of evil made the leaders of that backward, Stalinist country very angry. Unlike Iran or Iraq, neither of which ever threatened the U.S., that country has ignored our sanctions and continues to pursue a goal of nuclear weapons with long-range rockets capable of crossing the Pacific. In a speech to the UN General Assembly, the deputy foreign minister of North Korea declared that the financial sanctions, imposed shortly after the issuance of a joint statement at the six-nation talks on the North’s nuclear program, convinced Pyongyang that it was pointless to continue the negotiations. The belligerency projected by our government has only raised the anger of other peoples and contributed to strengthening the governments to which we object.

It now turns out that Pakistan cooperated with the United States only because the State Department threatened secretly to “bomb that country back to the Stone Age.” Yet Pakistan’s cooperation, which President Bush has praised, has not led to the capture of Osama bin Laden. The madrassas in that nuclear-weapon state still teach hatred of the West. It is also clear that Pakistan’s president, Pervez Musharraf, is disgruntled with his role. He has written a memoir in which he justifies his actions as necessary to avoid U.S. aggression. At the same time, however, Pakistan was selling nuclear technology to North Korea.

Nevertheless, after we threatened Pakistan, Musharraf did cooperate with the so-called War on Terror. We never threatened him publicly. Most Pakistanis were unaware that the U.S. had bullied their leaders with the threat to unleash our Air Force on them if they failed to cooperate. Had we made the warning public, it is unlikely that we would have gotten the cooperation that we did. A public threat would have produced strong support for the government and opposition to the U.S.

Why did this administration use secrecy in the case of Pakistan but not in dealing with Syria, Iraq, Iran, and North Korea? If you plan to make war on a country, demonizing their leaders builds domestic support for the military action. If you have no intention of taking action against the country, quiet diplomacy makes sense. Even secret coercion, however, as in the case of Pakistan, can come back and bite you or, as the CIA says, produce “blowback.” Public threats make poor allies. Does this imply that all the countries in the axis of evil are slated for regime change? With our troops tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan, only air attacks are now feasible. By publicly threatening these countries, the administration has made any diplomatic solution very difficult if not impossible, leaving them with only force as a way out — a disastrous solution.