Today’s Hiroshima doesn’t give the TV journalists a lot to work with. It’s a raucous, bustling, mid-sized Japanese city with only few reminders of its destruction by atomic bomb in 1945. There’s the skeletal dome of the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall (which was right under the blast), and discreet plaques on various other buildings saying that such-and-such a middle school, with 600 students, used to be on this site, and that’s all.
So it’s no wonder, with President Barack Obama’s scheduled visit to Hiroshima this week (but no apology), that practically every journalist writing about the visit resorts to quoting from Paul Fussell’s famous article in the New Republic in August, 1981: “Thank God for the Atomic Bomb”.
At a time when all right-thinking intellectuals in the United States deplored the 1945 decision to drop two of America’s new atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it was shocking for a university professor to point out that they had saved his life. For Paul Fussell was a university professor in 1981, but in 1945 he had been a 20-year-old infantry second lieutenant getting ready to invade Japan.
He had already been through almost a year of combat in France and Germany, and he was one of the few original soldiers left in the 45th Infantry Division. The rest had been killed or wounded, and Fussell had reached the point where he KNEW that he too would be killed if his division was committed to combat again. (Soldiers who see real combat all reach this point eventually.)
But his division was going to be committed to combat again. Having survived the war in Europe, he was going to be sent to Pacific, and the 45th Division would be in the first wave of landings on the main Japanese island of Honshu in March 1946. Like his few surviving comrades from the European war, he absolutely knew that he would die in Japan. And then he heard about the bomb on Hiroshima and the Japanese surrender.
When I interviewed Paul Fussell in the mid-1980s for a documentary, even in recollection the emotions he had felt when he learned that he had been reprieved, that he would live to grow up, were so strong that he was crying and trembling. The atomic bomb did save his life, and perhaps the lives of a million others who would have died if there had been a full-scale invasion of the Japanese homeland. For him, that was enough.
It will have to be enough for us, too. In any case, we do not need to engage in the tricky accountancy of balancing the quarter-million horribly real deaths at Hiroshima and Nagasakai against the hypothetical (but quite realistic) estimates of a million military and civilian deaths if the Allies had really had to invade Japan.
There’s a different way of looking at the Hiroshima bomb. It’s often mentioned by the hibakusha (bomb survivors) who struggle to give meaning to the horrors they experienced. If not for those bombs on living cities, they argue, the world would not have been afraid enough of these new weapons to avoid a nuclear war all down the long years of the Cold War.
I suspect Barack Obama sees the logic of that, and that he is going to Hiroshima not because it is a symbol of the past, but rather to use it as a warning for the future. At the beginning of his presidency, in April 2009, he said in a speech in Prague: “As the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a responsibility to act.”
It has not acted decisively yet, and it is unlikely to do so before Obama’s presidency ends next January. All he can claim is a deal that probably prevents Iran from becoming the next nuclear power, and a controversial trillion-dollar programme to modernise US nuclear weapons while reducing the actual numbers. But if the remaining weapons have more accuracy and higher yields, have you actually achieved anything?
Obama’s heart is certainly in the right place. He has held four nuclear security summits during his presidency, mainly aimed at improving the custody measures meant to keep the weapons out of the wrong hands, and getting the nuclear powers to move away from launch-on-warning postures that keep everybody at hair-trigger alert.
In Hiroshima, he will probably ask the US Senate once more to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (ten years and counting). He will talk up a proposed new treaty banning the production of fissile material. He may even call for a world without nuclear weapons, although that is a concept that does not have much support in Washington.
But it’s hard to get the world’s attention when the threat of nuclear war seems low, and almost impossible to get real concessions out of the great powers when it seems high. In the end, Obama is just using Hiroshima to remind everybody that we have a lot of unfinished business to conclude in the nuclear domain.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 12. (“It will…Japan”; and “In Hiroshima…Washington”)
“The Russians had a more realistic analysis of the situation than practically anybody else,” said Lakhdar Brahimi, the former United Nations Special Envoy to Syria. “Everyone should have listened to the Russians a little bit more than they did.”
Brahimi was referring to the Russian offer in 2012 to end the growing civil war in Syria by forcing the country’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad, to leave power. The Russian proposal went before the UN Security Council, but the United States, Britain and France were so convinced that Assad was about to fall anyway that they turned it down. Why let the Russians take the credit?
So Assad is still in power, several hundred thousand more Syrians have died, and millions more have fled. But Brahimi’s comments are still relevant, because the Russians are still right.
Finally, very reluctantly, the United States is coming around to the long-standing Russian position that the secular Baathist regime in Syria must survive, as part of some compromise peace deal that everybody except the Islamist extremists will accept (although nobody will love it).
Such a deal back in 2012 would have involved the departure from power of Bashar al-Assad himself, and it could still do so today. He’s mostly just a figurehead anyway. He was living in England, studying to be an optometrist, until the death of his elder brother made him the inevitable heir to the presidency that his father, Hafez al-Assad, had held for thirty years.
It’s the Baathist regime’s secular character that makes it so important. Its leadership is certainly dominated by the Alawite (Shia) minority, but it has much broader popular support because all Syria’s non-Muslim minorities, Christian and Druze, see it as their only protection from Islamist extremists. Many Sunni Muslims, especially in the cities, see it the same way. They also see it as the one Arab government in the region that has always defied Israel.
The deal that the Russians could have delivered in 2012 would have ditched Bashar al-Assad but left the Baathist regime in place, while compelling it to broaden its base, dilute Alawite influence, and stop torturing and murdering its opponents. An over-confident West rejected that deal, while its local “allies”, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, gave weapons and money to the Islamist rebels who aimed to replace the Baathists with a Sunni Muslim theocracy
Fast forward to 2015, and by mid-summer the Islamist forces, mainly Islamic State and al-Qaeda, control more than a third of Syria’s territory. The exhausted Syrian army is retreating every time it is attacked (Palmyra, Idlib, etc.), and it’s clear to Moscow that all of Syria will fall to the Islamists unless Russia intervenes militarily. So it does.
When the Russian air force started attacking the Syrian rebels on 30 September last year, Western propaganda went into high gear to condemn it. Russian President Vladimir Putin “doesn’t distinguish between ISIL (Islamic State) and a moderate Sunni opposition that wants to see Mr Assad go,” said US president Barack Obama. “From (the Russian perspective) they’re all terrorists – and that’s a recipe for disaster.”
All America’s sidekicks said the same thing. “These (Russian) military actions constitute a further escalation and will only fuel more radicalisation and extremism,” said France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the US and Britain in a joint statement on 2 October.
The Russians simply ignored the Western propaganda and went on bombing until they had stopped the Islamist advances and stabilised the front. Then they proposed a ceasefire.
The brutal truth is that there is no “moderate Sunni opposition” in Syria any more. Almost all of the remaining “moderate” groups have been forced into alliances with al-Qaeda’s local franchise, the Nusra Front, and the deal that the Russians might have brokered in 2012 is no longer available. The ceasefire they proposed in late 2015 deliberately left the Islamist groups out – and the United States (better late than never) went along with it.
That ceasefire has now been in effect for more than three months, and although there are many violations it has significantly lowered the level of violence in Syria. In the longer term, the Russians might be able to produce sufficient changes in the Baathist regime (including Assad’s departure) that some of the non-Islamist fighting groups might break their alliances with al-Qaeda and accept an amnesty from Damascus.
Maybe even the Islamist-controlled areas can be re-conquered eventually. Or maybe not: it’s a bit late for a peace settlement that preserves Syria’s territorial integrity. But at least the US State Department has finally abandoned the fantasy of a “moderate” rebel force that could defeat both the regime and the Islamist rebels in Syria, and instead is going along with the Russian strategy.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has wisely given US Secretary of State John Kerry equal billing in the ceasefire initiative, and there has been no crowing in Moscow about the Americans finally seeing the light.
Great states never admit mistakes, so there will be no apology from Washington for all the anti-Russian propaganda of the past year. But it is enough that the US government has actually changed its tune, and that there is a little bit of hope for Syria.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 10 and 14. (“Such…years”; “All…October”; and “Maybe…strategy”)
After the Syrian army recaptured the city of Palmyra from Islamic State a week ago, US State Department spokesman John Kirby admitted that the liberation of the ancient city was a “good thing”. But he could not resist adding: “We’re also mindful, of course, that the best hope for Syria and the Syrian people is not an expansion of [President] Bashar al-Assad’s ability to tyrannise the Syrian people.”
This was entirely in line with the long-standing US policy of seeking to destroy both Islamic State and the Syrian government (i.e. the Assad regime) at the same time. But that was never more than wishful thinking, especially as the United States was quite sensibly determined not to commit its own ground troops to the conflict.
If the Syrian army actually had collapsed (as was looking quite likely before the Russians intervened to save it last September), nothing could have prevented Islamic State and the rival Islamist forces of the Nusra Front from taking the whole country. They might then have fought each other for control, but all of Syria would have ended up under extreme Islamist rule.
But the opposite is not true. The revival of the Syrian army, and even its reconquest of Palmyra, does not mean that the Assad regime can destroy Islamic State, let alone regain control of the whole country. Nor does Russia have any intention of helping President Assad to pursue such an ambitious goal, as Moscow made clear by withdrawing most of the Russian combat aircraft from Syria two weeks ago.
Russia’s strategy has been more modest and realistic from the start. It was to restore the military stalemate that had persisted until the spring of 2015, and to convince the remaining non-Islamist rebel groups that they had no chance of somehow riding to power on the coat-tails of an Islamist victory over the Assad regime.
This hope was as delusional as the American policy in Syria. By mid-2015 between 80 percent and 90 percent of the Syrian rebels actively fighting the Assad regime belonged to Islamic State or to al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise, the Nusra Front, and its Islamist allies in Ahrar al-Sham. Moreover, the remainder of the rebels, the non-fanatics or so-called “moderates”, were mostly allied to the Nusra Front.
This curious alliance came to pass mostly because the Nusra Front wanted to avoid the American and “coalition” bombs that were falling on Islamic State. So it created a broader alliance called the “Army of Islam” that wrapped these small “moderate” groups around the Islamist core, and the United States fell for it. Or at least American propaganda fell for it.
The Russians cheerfully bombed all these forces indiscriminately, making no distinction between Islamists and the allies of Islamists. The United States ritually condemned the attacks on the latter groups (always described as “moderates”), and the Russians cheerfully ignored that too.
And after five months, when most of the “moderates” had been persuaded that they were never going to gain power through an alliance with the Islamists, Moscow proposed a ceasefire that would include the “moderates” but exclude the Islamists. That ceasefire has now been in effect for almost a month.
The negotiators for these moderate groups are still demanding the departure of Assad from power as the price of a permanent ceasefire. They haven’t a prayer of getting such a sweet deal, but the Russians are putting pressure on Assad to come up with a formula of words, however vague, that will persuade them to accept amnesty and come in from the cold without losing too much face.
The Islamists, although largely surrounded and blockaded, will not be defeated any time soon by military force, but they are growing weaker and may fall to fighting among themselves.
And the Syrian Kurds, the only American allies on the ground in Syria, will probably manage to hold on to the long strip of territory they control along the border with Turkey. However, they may have to settle for being an “autonomous province” within Syria if they wish to avoid a Turkish invasion.
President Vladimir Putin’s goal was to isolate the Islamists and reconcile the rest of the rebels with the Assad regime, and it is well on the way to accomplishment. It will not be a happy ending for any of the groups involved in the Syrian civil war, but it is the least bad outcome that can now be realistically imagined.
It will not put an end to all the fighting on Syrian territory. Not all the refugees will want to come home to such a country, and the terrorism abroad will continue. (But then, it would continue even if Islamic State disappeared – you don’t need a state to plan terrorist attacks.)
When no decisive victory is possible for any side, it makes sense to stop as much of the shooting as possible.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 14. (“And the Syrian…invasion”; and “It will…attacks”)
If the US Congress had not imposed a two-term limit on the presidency in 1947 after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s record four electoral victories, President Barack Obama would be a safe bet for a third term next November. He inherited the worst recession since the Great Depression, and now the United States has the healthiest economy of all the major powers, with unemployment back down to 5.5 percent.
But Obama can’t run for president again, so the time has come for the pundits to start delivering their assessments on the success or failure of his policies. First up is Jeffrey Goldberg, national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine, with a lengthy article called “The Obama Doctrine” on the man’s conduct of American foreign policy over the past seven and a half years.
As you would expect when discussing a man whose basic rule is “Don’t do stupid shit”, Goldberg’s piece is mostly an examination of what Obama didn’t do, not what he did. He didn’t go to war with the Assad regime in Syria. He didn’t get into a new Cold War with Russia over Ukraine. He didn’t bomb Iran, instead making a political deal to block its nuclear weapons ambitions. He didn’t attack North Korea even when it did test nuclear weapons.
None of these foreign policy choices would be remarkable if we were talking about Japan or Canada or Germany. Even in former imperial powers like Britain and France, where the interventionist reflex is still alive and kicking, Obama’s choices would not be controversial.
But in the Washington foreign policy establishment, where every conflict on the planet tends to be redefined as an American problem and almost unlimited military force is available to attack the problem, Obama’s approach was heretical.
Democrats were just as opposed to his heresy as Republicans. Indeed, despite the wreckage of George W. Bush’s invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq that Obama’s administration inherited when it took office in early 2009, his own first secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, was a classic interventionist.
After she left office in 2013, Clinton told Goldberg that “the failure to build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad…left a big vacuum, which the jhadists have now filled.” But Hillary Clinton actually got her way on Syria.
The real failure of American policy on Syria in 2011 was the tolerance extended to Turkish, Qatari and Saudi Arabian shipments of arms and money that were intended to subvert the faltering non-violent revolution and replace it with an armed revolt whose goal was a Sunni Islamic state, not a secular democracy.
Obama and Clinton must share the blame for the fact that the United States became part of this operation in early 2012, providing arms that it sourced from Libya to avoid Congressional oversight. By then the non-violent protests had been largely suppressed and Syria was stumbling into a civil war – which subsequently killed 300,000 people and turned half the country’s population into refugees.
Most Syrians would now agree that it would have been better to accept the failure of the non-violent movement and the continued rule of the execrable Assad regime than to see their country virtually destroyed. I suspect that Obama sees Clinton’s Syrian policy, in hindsight, as the greatest mistake of his time in office – but he did partially redeem himself by refusing to bomb Syria during the “poison gas” episode of 2014.
Clinton also told Goldberg in 2014 that “great nations need organising principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organising principle.” Nobody said it was, but it is a good guide when deciding on actual policies, and Obama has been pretty consistent in observing it even with regard to the Middle East.
His fundamental insight – and his greatest break with the orthodoxy of the American foreign policy establishment – has been to understand that very little that happens or could happen in the Middle East is a threat to America’s vital interests. Even Israel’s well-being is only a sentimental consideration for the United States, not a strategic one, although like all American politicians he is obliged to pretend otherwise.
Only if the Islamist extremists of the Nusra Front and Islamic State were to overrun all of Syria would Israel be in any danger, and the Russian military intervention in support of Assad’s regime since last September has largely eliminated that possibility. So Obama has been free to concentrate on the issues that he thinks are really important, and that is where he has made real progress.
His foreign policy has been minimalist only with regard to the traditional “strategic” concerns inherited from the Cold War and America’s long, deep and mostly futile engagement with the Middle East. In his “pivot” to Asia, in reestablishing ties with Cuba, above all on the issue of climate change (which he rightly sees as the crucial issue for the next generation and beyond), he has been an activist in his foreign policy – and a largely successful one.
Neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump, the two main contenders for the succession, will be a patch on him.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4, 9 and 11. “None…controversial”; “Obama…refugees”; and “Clinton…East”)