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Should Gorbachev Be Tried For Treason?

Jacob Heilbrunn

In the early 1990s, the Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky wrote a diverting book review in the New Republic about Mikhail Gorbachev. His take was that Gorbachev, if I recall correctly, had to be an American agent. Who else would have so incompetently allowed the work of decades to crumble almost overnight?

Now Russian legislators are hoping to punish Gorby, as he used to be known in America, where he was always far more popular than back home. Flush with victory in Crimea, several Duma members apparently want to put the old boy on trial. Yevgeny Gydorov, a Duma member of the United Russia party, apparently believes that Gorbachev may have been an American spy. And the Guardian reports that Ivan Nikitchuk, a Communist Party deputy, wants him to go on trial. Lawyers, not historians, need to investigate why the USSR went poof. Nor is this all. It's time to ferret out domestic enemies. He says, "The fifth column in our country has been formed and works in the open, funded by foreign money." Maybe Gorbachev was on Ronald Reagan's secret payroll?

For his part, Gorbachev isn't taking the accusations lying down. He says that they are "absolutely unreasonable request from the historical point of view." Well, maybe. But it's hard to avoid the feeling that a trial—a real, honest and open trial—might actually not be such a bad thing. It could take place in a neutral territory—say, Switzerland. Recall that Trotsky submitted to a commission presided over in 1937 by the American philosopher John Dewey. It carried out no less than thirteen hearings in Mexico City, where Trotsky was living. The Dewey commission's mandate was to investigate the charges lodged against the old Bolshevik at the Moscow show trials. The result was a book called Not Guilty.

Instead of complaining about the prospect of charges, then, Gorbachev should welcome them. They would provide him a chance to clear the air, to show that the assertions being lodged by his detractors and enemies are nothing more than calumnies. It could be a great occasion for historians, politicians and diplomats from the era to reconvene and discuss it. New insights would be sure to emerge. Gorbachev, who loves publicity, would be back in the limelight, at least for a few weeks. He could even expect his own Not Guilty book.

The pickle for Gorbachev, who endorsed Vladimir Putin's annexation of Crimea, is that he would probably be forced to plead incompetency. It's not as though he actively wanted to see the Evil Empire disappear. To his credit, he realized that the old ways were over. But he was under the delusion that he could establish some kind of Swedish social democracy, headed by the Soviet Union, to hold together the Warsaw pact. But the second Hungary opened its borders, East Germany started to lose its population. Absent a Soviet willingness to use tanks, East Germany quickly dissolved and was incorporated, or, if you are a Germanophobe, annexed, by West Germany.

Still, a dispassionate inquiry is hardly what Gorbachev's adversaries are seeking. They want catharsis, a scapegoat that they can pin the blame on for the loss of the cherished empire. A state investigation into Gorbachev's role is improbable. Prosecutor General Yury Chaika will surely decide that the question of "Who lost the empire?" is above his pay grade. But it's clear that the debate over Gorbachev's legacy isn't over. It's just beginning.

ImageRIA Novosti archive, image #359290 / Yuryi Abramochkin / CC-BY-SA 3.0.

TopicsMuckety Mucks RegionsRussia

The Folly of the Pollard Ploy

Paul Pillar

Although it looked for a time, after the latest breakdown of the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process,” that the notion of trying to buy some cooperation from Benjamin Netanyahu by freeing the spy Jonathan Pollard had expired along with talks, it appears that a stake still has not been driven through this really bad idea. It should be. Pollard's record has not changed. He was responsible for one of the most voluminous thefts of U.S. secrets ever. He is nobody's patriot, having been paid handsomely for his betrayal and having tried to peddle his pilfered secrets to other governments in addition to Israel's.

And please, let us not hear any more the gratingly oxymoronic comment that leniency should be shown to Pollard because he was “spying for an ally.” Label Israel however you want—and there are good reasons, including ones involving misuse of U.S. secrets, to question the label “ally”—but espionage is a hostile act. Insofar as anyone acts this way, they are not acting as an ally.

To release Pollard short of his duly pronounced sentence would be another blow against public understanding of the reality that it is impossible to have any effective program of national security without secrets. That understanding already has been weakened lately with the badly inappropriate lionization of another wholesale stealer of U.S. secrets, most of whose disclosures have had nothing whatever to do with the privacy rights of American citizens on whose behalf he claimed to be acting.

The sort of trade involving Pollard that has most recently been contemplated would hardly buy anything anyway. At most it would keep going for a short additional time talks that were going nowhere. To make them go somewhere would require a fundamental decision by the Israeli government to trade conquered land for peace, and releasing Pollard would not bring about such a decision.

Think about what such a trade would say about the issues under negotiation and especially about the Israeli position on such issues. It would show that whatever the Israeli government was holding out on before and that became part of the trade was not really a matter of principle or of Israeli security as had been claimed. It would reveal the whole business to be tawdry bargaining, of the sort that strings along a process enabling the Israeli government to appear to be working toward a two-state solution without really doing so, rather than a genuine and focused pursuit of peace in partnership with the Palestinians. And it would enable Netanyahu to reap whatever short-term domestic benefit comes from winning release of the spy.

Maybe Netanyahu has no shame in being part of such dealings, but it would be demeaning to the United States. It would show the Obama administration to be so desperate for what it would bill as a diplomatic success—or rather, just the absence of failure—that it was willing to play Netanyahu's cheap game. It would give political benefit to a government that has caused much trouble to U.S. interests. And it would not divert Israel from a course that is over the long term destructive to Israel's own interests.

The one good thing about Pollard being eligible for parole next year is that, if he is in fact paroled, the sordid idea of releasing him early in a deal with Israel will finally be gone once and for all.

TopicsIntelligencePost-Conflict RegionsIsraelUnited StatesPalestinian territories

A Peril to the Iran Nuclear Deal

Paul Pillar

There exists, right now, a problem with one side's obligations not being fulfilled as provided for under the preliminary agreement, known as the Joint Plan of Action, that Iran reached with the United States and its negotiating partners (the P5+1) last November. This lack of fulfillment endangers the process of negotiating a final agreement. It is an understandable source of consternation to the other side, which will increasingly doubt the first side's ability and willingness to make good on its commitments, including in any final deal. Hardliners on the second side will pounce on any non-fulfillment of the terms of the JPA as a reason to scuttle the whole process.

So is Iran not living up to its commitments under the JPA? Well, we do have hardliners on our own side eager to pounce. In fact, they are so eager that they are trying to pounce even though there isn't anything to pounce on. Senators Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL), who led the recent unsuccessful effort in Congress to impose additional deal-busting sanctions after conclusion of the JPA, have sent a letter to President Obama that bemoans indications of some increased Iranian oil sales and says “If Iran moves forward with this effort to evade U.S. sanctions and violate the terms of oil sanctions relief provided for in the JPA” the United States should in effect renounce its obligation under the JPA to—this is the wording of the JPA—“pause efforts to further reduce Iran's crude oil sales.”

The senators make it sound as if Iran has some obligation under the agreement to knuckle under to sanctions, don't they? Otherwise how could Iran “violate” what they are talking about? But Iran has no such obligation. All the obligations in the preliminary agreement concerning sanctions are obligations of the P5+1 (including that very mild “pause efforts” clause, which does not entail rolling back the existing oil sanctions). All of Iran's obligations involve restrictions on its nuclear program. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran so far is in compliance with those obligations.

No, the current problem in implementing the agreement involves another part of the P5+1's side of the deal, not Iran's side. Specifically, it involves the unfreezing in installments of a small portion ($4.2 billion out of an estimated $100 billion) of the Iranian money that already was earned from prior oil sales and is sitting in non-Iranian banks. Iran has been unable to withdraw much of the money that it was supposed to have gained access to by now. It appears the problem is not direct violation of the agreement by the U.S. Treasury or any of the other governments involved. Instead, the banks that are to handle the funds are so deathly afraid of running afoul, however inadvertently, of any continuing sanctions that Treasury is enforcing that they have not made the money move. The fear is understandable, given how huge and complex the sanctions regime has become and also how huge have been fines that Treasury has levied on transgressors. The marvelous sanctions machine is so powerful that it continues to exude power and have effects even after a switch has been turned off. Treasury needs to do more than just saying “go,” and more than it has done so far to put banks into their comfort zone, for the JPA to be implemented the way it was supposed to be.

Iranian President Rouhani had a big enough challenge domestically as it was to sell a preliminary agreement that gave the P5+1 most of what it wanted in restricting the nuclear program while getting only modest sanctions relief in return. His selling task is made all the harder when even that modest relief is not properly implemented. And there certainly are hardliners on his side ready to pounce on any such developments.

This issue is a reminder of how an Iranian belief that the West and especially the United States will come through with positive action if Iran makes desired concessions is just as important as (and given how the issue has evolved, has become even more important than) an Iranian belief that it will be hit with still more negative consequences if it does not concede.

The current problem also underscores how much work—political, not just administrative—on the U.S. side remains to be done to prepare for the undoing of sanctions that will be part of any final agreement, and that necessarily will be substantially greater than the minor sanctions relief in the JPA. Members of Congress are still talking about piling on more sanctions when they ought to be discussing how to take sanctions off the pile. We have already seen how hard it is to redirect the sanctions machine. Aircraft carriers do not turn around on a dime, and neither do sanctions, especially ones as complicated and extensive as the ones on the Iranian pile. Even if the more optimistic projections of when a deal will be struck in Vienna do not prove true, it is not too soon for Congress and the administration to be working diligently on this and for it to be a subject of public discussion.

TopicsCongressSanctionsNuclear Proliferation RegionsIranUnited States

NATO Expansion and the Road to Simferopol

Paul Pillar

Beyond the policy issue of what to do now to bring the crisis with Russia over Ukraine to as much of a satisfactory conclusion as may be possible, we ought to reflect on our own role—the role of the West and especially the United States—in paving the road toward this crisis. To do so is not to minimize the direct responsibility of Vladimir Putin's government for what Russian armed force has done, and for the disingenuous aspects of what that government has said. Nor does it negate the role of dysfunction in the Ukrainian political system. But a significant part of this story is how the West cornered the Russian bear before the bear bit back.

More specifically, an important element in that story was the eastward expansion of NATO into what had been the Soviet empire, as well as talk about expanding it even further to embrace Ukraine and Georgia. We should not only understand the importance of that development for getting to the current crisis, but also what that development exhibited about American habits of thought and action in foreign affairs. It exhibited several such American tendencies, which also have surfaced in other ways and on other issues.

Forgetting the power of promises. The expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe broke a promise that the United States had made to Mikhail Gorbachev and that was part of a package of understandings facilitating the peaceful reunification of Germany. Breaking the promise was probably in part the arrogance associated with being the remaining superpower and feeling untroubled about the keeping of commitments. It also reflected a general American tendency, amid one-sided focus on the credibility of threats, to overlook how the making of promises and commitments is a useful diplomatic tool. Breaking promises weakens the tool. Holding one's own side accountable for fulfilling promises is important for the same reason that the right to be sued, and not just to sue, is an important civil right domestically; it is the right to be able to make an enforceable promise.

Institutional inertia. NATO has been one of the biggest success stories among multilateral alliances. It went well beyond most such alliances in constructing a joint command structure that even the French rejoined after a Gaullist spell outside it. The hazard of such institutionalization, supported in the case of NATO by a civilian bureaucracy ensconced in its compound outside Brussels, is that the institution starts being seen as an end rather than a means, which is not what alliances are supposed to be about. This was the case with much discussion about the military mission in Afghanistan, which was seen as a way to keep NATO healthy and occupied. When earlier decisions were being made about the future of the alliance at the end of the Cold War, it was psychologically hard to bring the success story to a conclusion. This would have been like breaking up a winning team. Once it was decided to keep the team in business, eastward expansion naturally followed as a way to keep the business healthy.

Impulsively using a direct U.S. hand. For the United States, NATO has been the principal means to keep a direct U.S. role in the security affairs of Europe, and along with that much of the political affairs of the continent as well. So the United States has had this additional perceived stake in not only the continuation but the expansion of NATO. Using the instrument of NATO, however, has exemplified an American tendency to think that if something is worth doing it needs to be done by the United States itself or with the United States in the lead, rather than realizing the advantages of letting others carry most of the necessary water. As the former Soviet vassals in Eastern Europe called out for inclusion in the West, an opportunity was missed to let the West Europeans carry most of that water. In the first few years after the end of the Cold War, the European Union was at a height of attractiveness and vitality, with the Maastricht Treaty (which converted the European Community into the EU) signed in 1992 and the troubles of the eurozone still some years away. The EU was the perfect instrument for leading the way in westifying the east, and surely the economic and cultural risks that the Union would take on should be considered no greater than the commitment represented by Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty, which commits every member of the alliance to come to the defense of any other member under attack. But instead the order for the East Europeans became NATO first, EU second.

Insensitivity to the fears and concerns of others. The United States, relatively secure in its North American redoubt, has historically had a hard time appreciating how much other nations see the threatening side of someone else encroaching into their own neighborhood. Even though we have had our own Monroe Doctrine, we tend not to notice equivalent sentiments on the part of others. It should not have been as hard as it apparently was to anticipate how extension of a western military alliance to the borders of the old Soviet Union, and moves toward extending it even farther, would elicit some of the Russian sentiments that it has, especially in a country that lost 20 million people in World War II.

Triumphalism. The world in American eyes is in many respects like a commercial battle for market dominance, with the outcome registered in terms of wins and losses. The Cold War was a Western win; it seemed natural for the winner to extend its market penetration even more. The win-loss outlook also resembles a sporting event, and there was a yearning not just to record but to flaunt the win. Except there would not be an opportunity for anything quite like, say, MacArthur's shogunate in Japan after World War II. Expansion of NATO became a way to put a big, bright “W” on the scoreboard.

Need for an enemy. Another aspect of the typically Manichean way in which Americans tend to look at international politics is that there has to be a foe—something or somebody against whom the United States leads the forces of freedom and light. Once 9/11 came along there were Sunni extremists and al-Qaeda, but terrorist groups never make as good a foe as a state. Besides, the eastward expansion of NATO was already under way before 9/11. Iran has served as a more recent bête noire, but it has not entirely displaced Russia, which evokes old Cold War habits and actually does have nuclear weapons.

Few, if any situations, will bring into play each of these habits in the same way the stand-off over Ukraine has. But the habits appear unhelpfully in other situations as well, and Americans would be well advised to be more conscious of them.

TopicsEuropean UnionNATOGreat Powers RegionsRussiaUnited StatesUkraine

Who Sticks Up For Israeli Arabs?

Paul Pillar

The hang-up in current well-intentioned U.S. efforts to wring out of Israeli-Palestinian talks something that could be called a framework agreement—with the administration evidently so anxious for such a result that it is contemplating a move to buy favor with Israel that would be just as mistaken as the last time it came up—is a familiar example of each side wanting the other to move first. This sort of situation has arisen repeatedly in what we still call the Middle East peace process. The present stand-off involves implementation of a prior understanding according to which the Israelis would release some Arab prisoners while the Palestinian Authority would limit its diplomacy to talking with the Israelis and Americans rather than referring its grievances to international fora where anyone perpetuating an illegal occupation would have a decided legitimacy deficit.

Israelis are understandably reluctant whenever they are called on to release prisoners with blood on their hands. Palestinians are understandably reluctant to limit themselves perpetually to a talkfest that, 47 years and 650,000 Israeli settlers after the occupation began, still leaves them stateless.

The reluctance to go first is old. What is new in this round of the talkfest is the Netanyahu's government insistence that the Palestinian Authority perform some sort of anointment of Israel—the full and formal name of which is “State of Israel,” and which the Palestinians long ago formally recognized—as a “Jewish state”. The demand regarding the “Jewish state” formulation was not one that ever appeared during negotiation of Israeli peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, when indefinite delay was not an Israeli government objective.

Robert Satloff makes one of the more game and creative efforts to rationalize this inconsistency by saying that the conflicts with Egypt and Jordan were “essentially territorial disputes” whereas the one with the Palestinians is “existential” and raises “deep in the minds of many Israelis” that the Palestinians with whom they are negotiating “have a long-term plan to destroy Israel.” The idea of such an existential threat to an Israel that is overwhelmingly more powerful than the Palestinians and would remain so with a two-state solution is, of course, risible. It might cease to become so only over the long-term, and only because of demographic reasons and not secret plans, in the absence of a two-state solution. 

The Palestinian leadership is understandably resistant to the “Jewish state” demand partly because it would implicitly bias how to resolve the “right of return” issue, which today is really more an issue of right to compensation. The reluctance also is understandable because acceding to the demand would mean having Palestinian leaders explicitly endorsing second-class status for Arabs within Israel. That latter factor gets back to the current impasse over release of prisoners. Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas says Arab Israeli prisoners should be included in the release; the Israeli government strongly opposes including them and contends that was never part of its understanding with the Palestinian Authority.

So there is another inconsistency at hand. The “Jewish state” demand implicitly draws a line that leaves on the outside the more than 20 percent of Israel's residents who are not Jewish. But the Israeli government has drawn another line that also leaves these people outside the orbit of those on whose behalf Abbas can speak or negotiate.

Israeli Arabs do have some political rights, being able to vote and elect members of the Knesset—although with an unwritten rule that Arab representatives can never be part of a governing coalition or form part of the necessary support for one. That would hardly make any less offensive a Palestinian Arab leader endorsing their second class status. The fact that there exist U.S. Congressional districts with large Jewish populations that regularly elect Jewish representatives would not make it any less offensive (and not just to the establishment clause of the Constitution) if the United States were to declare itself a “Christian state” and to insist that other nations declare it so as well.

The “Jewish state” demand is clearly another way for the current Israeli government to avoid coming to closure on creating a Palestinian state while seeking to attribute blame for any breakdown of negotiations to the Palestinians. It thus is a way to continue the occupation indefinitely without admitting that this is what is happening.

More broadly, the tactic is yet another indication of this Israeli government's refusal to recognize, as a geographic and demographic reality, that Israel cannot be democratic, Jewish, and sovereign over all the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan. It can be any two of those things but not all three. Netanyahu's government has in effect chosen, without admitting it, democracy as the characteristic to be discarded. This choice is the fundamental reason this round of negotiations, although it was admirable for the U.S. administration to have a go at it, faces failure. 

TopicsHuman RightsReligionPost-Conflict RegionsIsraelUnited StatesPalestinian territories

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