Friday, February 12, 2016

Voters Take Sharp Anti-Establishment, Change-Oriented Turn; Defense Department, Same Old Conflict-Inducing Policies: Trouble Ahead!?

If the early polls, caucuses and primaries have revealed anything about what is to come in this year's election, it is that the electorate is in an extremely anti-establishment, change-oriented mood. The party-backed Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, is being given a challenge no one anticipated by an independent-minded democratic socialist, Bernie Sanders, and the candidates backed by mainstream Republican party leadership do well to run a distant third in the early polling and state primaries. Voters are clearly fed up with politics as usual, the same old political party leadership, the gridlock in Washington DC, the declining state of America's middle class, repeated disappointment in political leadership which promises so much, yet produces so little, our own nation's infrastructure failing while billions of dollars and thousands of lives are lost in foreign endeavors which fail to resolve conflicts, only make them worse.

 Unfortunately, different segments of the American public are being driven in opposite directions in their desire to repudiate the political status quo. Anti-establishment Democrats are moving towards the left, towards Bernie Sanders, anti-establishment Republicans towards a wild card outsider, Donald Trump, or an extremist right-wing Tom Cruz, with many independents joining in  the move toward one extreme or the other.  Sanders surprising and growing appeal is pulling Hillary Clinton's campaign further towards the progressive side than it would otherwise be, ideally she would position herself as a moderate,  comfortably in the middle. The outcome of this clash is certainly impossible to foresee at this time, but one thing does seem all too clear--an increase in polarization and divisiveness is likely, both during the election and beyond, which can only produce more stalemate and peril for the nation.

 The campaigning is a full-blown media spectacle, fascinating and often entertaining for the viewer, but are we observing the gradual approach of a political perfect storm, the parties and the population so divided that the consequent breakdown in the functioning of Washington DC could have catastrophic results? Hopefully this will not occur, but it is a possibility if the pull towards the extremes continues, if some degree of moderation and collaboration does not emerge.  Both of the latter have been in all-too-short supply lately.  The historical ideal in our nation has been that, after the presidential election is over, congressional leaders on both sides of the political divide work together with some degree of accommodation and compromise to provide legislation in the best interests of the entire nation. This ideal has happened less frequently in recent decades, and hardly at all since 2008, to the great detriment of our nation's progress and well-being.

Meanwhile, while our domestic focus is on the looming election battles, our Defense Department establishment has been issuing some policy statements and warnings of foreign threats which sound all too reminiscent of past pronouncements and conflict-inviting policies that led to ill-fated consequences.  Defense Secretary Ash Carter testified before Congress as to his perception of our nation's greatest foreign threats, specifying three nations, Russia, Iran, and North Korea. Strangely similar to the tragically-conceived "Axis of Evil" of the George W Bush administration, in which Iraq, Iran, and North Korea were named, it would be a tragedy if it led to similar results.  The danger in such hostility-arousing labeling is that it can tend to make more likely the very negative outcomes it is warning against.  In the case of the Axis of Evil, it preceded the administration's  initiation of a manipulated war of choice against the first-named Iraq, the consequences of which we are still struggling with, after 13 years, at great loss of life and tremendous national treasure and esteem. In the current listing of foreign threats, it places them in a firm role of adversary, rather than as nations, among many others, with whom we have various issues that need to be dealt with, negotiated, and contained, preferably in concert with other nations. We are negotiating in this fashion with Iran, and containing the ambitions of North Korea.  With Russia, it is a different story.

 It is especially concerning to see Russia on the list of threatening nations, and placed at its very top. That issues exist with Russia is undeniable, over the Ukraine, Syria, nuclear weapons control, Iran, expansion of NATO, Putin's leadership style, etc. The West, however, bears at least partial responsibility, along with Russia and other nations, for these issues arising.  Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has given up their open expansionist drive and replaced a communist economic system with a system incorporating free enterprise.  Many in the West, however, especially in the US, have never given up seeing Russia as a threat, and have treated Russia in a way that would invite its enmity. A real "mirror image" effect occurs between the US and Russia, they see the US as a threat to them, which mirrors the threat we and our allies fear from them. This sets up, of course, a vicious circle, in which each side makes moves to counter the threats they perceive from the other side, and these responses can indeed be threatening.

 Russia does have considerable reason to feel threatened by the West.  Attempts to expand NATO to its very borders, earlier in Georgia, now in the Ukraine; the placement of missile systems in nations on their borders; some of our political leaders castigating Russia as a threat, even prior to any threatening behaviors emanating from that nation. Russia has, and should, react against what it perceives as threats to its national security.  When western influences attempted to draw a neutrally-aligned Ukraine into the western orbit with a governmental overthrow in 2014, this was clearly a reach too far which Russia could not allow, they wasted no time in acting to secure their long-standing rights in the Crimea. Russia has shown willingness to negotiate with the West, over the fate of the Russian-speaking eastern Ukrainian regions through the Minsk process, also in the fight against terrorist groups, in reaching the Iran Nuclear treaty agreement, and in nuclear weapons security negotiations. They are offering to join in negotiations over Syria, and in the fight against ISIS, and there has been recent progress in talks for a ceasefire between conflicting sides in Syria, so some of the carnage can end, the needs of the displaced and refugee population attended to, and focus placed on defeating ISIS.

 With our prime immediate world threat being ISIS, priority should be on seeking full international cooperation in that battle. Seeing  Russia at the head of an enemy list is counter-productive to any hope of engaging them in any fruitful negotiation and collaboration in that, and many other, pressing regards. When there is great reason and some room to negotiate, prematurely casting a nation as an enemy not only often has the self-fulfilling prophecy effect previously described, it also reduces the likelihood of drawing that nation into full cooperation in needed joint endeavors, like the defeat of ISIS.  Other leading nations do see ISIS as their major threat, while our nation's priority remains divided and muddled, fighting ISIS but also supporting rebel groups fighting to overthrow Assad . Syrian military forces  constitute the most powerful ground forces capable of fighting ISIS in their Syrian strongholds. We can't have it both ways, supporting groups fighting Assad and having effective ground forces fighting ISIS at the same time.  If the fight against ISIS is the highest priority, Assad's forces are needed, and would be in this battle, along with other Moslem forces, and with Russian and full western support.  With a temporary ceasefire in the civil war against Assad by the rebel groups, and with Assad's fate  deferred until later, this can occur. Secretary of State Kerry's negotiations to achieve this end deserve full support.  The battle against ISIS will take effort over time, and western involvement and leadership in the Middle East will need to be replaced by locally-generated Middle Eastern engagement and solutions.  This will lead to uncertain outcomes and perhaps be difficult for western powers to fully accept, but the days of western-induced, fought, and maintained regime change and control are over, if history is any judge.

In short, both domestically and in the foreign affairs field, major changes are in the air, being forced upon the US, if not deliberately chosen, by failures  in the political and international status quo that has existed.  In the domestic arena, it is the voting public that is demanding change, only establishment politicians and vested interests are highly resistant. In the foreign arena, profound changes in the world we live in are necessitating the need to change our nation's way of dealing with the world around us.  We are still the sole military superpower, but there are now other, multi-sources of power. The world economy, emerging nations, restive populations, communications advances, the demand that nations must cooperate in dealing with major climate, health, terrorist, and numerous other active and frequent global threats.  Change is never a smooth, seamless process, many people will actively resist, perhaps view change as a negative capitulation of principles they hold dear. Others will push too hard, expect too much progress too soon, and set themselves up not only for massive disappointment but also for massive resistance from opposing forces. Is there leadership available capable of negotiating the challenging, troubled times ahead?  Only time will tell.