Jeffrey D. Sachs

Economist Environmental reporter
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Jeffrey D. Sachs is the Director of The Earth Institute, Professor of Sustainable Development, and Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University. He is Special Advisor to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the Millennium Development Goals, having held the same position under former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. He is Director of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network. He is co-founder and Chief Strategist of Millennium Promise Alliance, and is director of the Millennium Villages Project. A recent survey by The Economist Magazine ranked Professor Sachs as among the world’s three most influential living economists of the past decade. Sachs is the author, most recently, of The Age of Sustainable Development,” 2015 with Ban Ki-moon.

Jeffrey D. Sachs, USA 03/02/2018 0

Ending America’s Disastrous Role in Syria

America’s official narrative has sought to conceal the scale and calamitous consequences of US efforts to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. That is understandable, because US efforts are in blatant violation of international law, which bars UN member states from supporting military action to overthrow other members’ governments.

Much of the carnage that has ravaged Syria during the past seven years is due to the actions of the United States and its allies in the Middle East. Now, faced with an alarming risk of a renewed escalation of fighting, it’s time for the United Nations Security Council to step in to end the bloodshed, based on a new framework agreed by the Council’s permanent members.

Here are the basics. In 2011, in the context of the Arab Spring, the US government, in conjunction with the governments of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and Israel, decided to bring down Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, even though overthrowing another country’s government amounts to a blatant violation of international law. We know that in 2012, if not earlier, President Barack Obama authorized the CIA to work with America’s allies in providing support to rebel forces composed of disaffected Syrians as well as non-Syrian fighters. US policymakers evidently expected Assad to fall quickly, as had occurred with the governments of Tunisia and Egypt in the early months of the Arab Spring.

The Assad regime is led by the minority Alawi Shia sect in a country where Alawites account for just 10% of the population, Sunni Muslims account for 75%, Christians make up 10%, and 5% are others, including Druze. The regional powers behind Assad’s regime include Iran and Russia, which has a naval base on Syria’s Mediterranean coastline.

Whereas America’s goal in seeking to topple Assad was mainly to undercut Iranian and Russian influence, Turkey’s motive was to expand its influence in former Ottoman lands and, more recently, to counter Kurdish ambitions for territorial autonomy, if not statehood, in Syria and Iraq. Saudi Arabia wanted to undermine Iran’s influence in Syria while expanding its own, while Israel, too, aimed to counter Iran, which threatens Israel through Hezbollah in Lebanon, Syria near the Golan Heights, and Hamas in Gaza. Qatar, meanwhile, wanted to bring a Sunni Islamist regime to power.

The armed groups supported by the US and allies since 2011 were assembled under the banner of the Free Syrian Army. In fact, there was no single army, but rather competing armed groups with distinct backers, ideologies, and goals. The fighters ranged from dissident Syrians and autonomy-seeking Kurds to Sunni jihadists backed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

While vast resources were devoted to overthrowing Assad, the effort ultimately failed, but not before causing massive bloodshed and displacing millions of Syrians. Many fled to Europe, fomenting Europe’s refugee crisis and a surge in political support for Europe’s anti-immigrant extreme right.

There were four main reasons for the failure to overthrow Assad. First, Assad’s regime had backing among not only Alawites, but also Syrian Christians and other minorities who feared a repressive Sunni Islamist regime. Second, the US-led coalition was countered by Iran and Russia. Third, when a splinter group of jihadists split away to form the Islamic State (ISIS), the US diverted significant resources to defeating it, rather than to toppling Assad. Finally, the anti-Assad forces have been deeply and chronically divided; for example, Turkey is in open conflict with the Kurdish fighters backed by the US.

All of these reasons for failure remain valid today. The war is at a stalemate. Only the bloodshed continues.

America’s official narrative has sought to conceal the scale and calamitous consequences of US efforts – in defiance of international law and the UN Charter – to overthrow Assad. While the US vehemently complains about Russian and Iranian influence in Syria, America and its allies have repeatedly violated Syrian sovereignty. The US government mischaracterizes the war as a civil war among Syrians, rather than a proxy war involving the US, Israel, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Qatar.

In July 2017, US President Donald Trump announced the end of CIA support for the Syrian rebels. In practice, though, US engagement continues, though now it is apparently aimed more at weakening Assad than overthrowing him. As part of America’s continued war-making, the Pentagon announced in December that US forces would remain indefinitely in Syria, ostensibly to support anti-Assad rebel forces in areas captured from ISIS, and of course without the assent of the Syrian government.

The war is in fact at risk of a new round of escalation. When Assad’s regime recently attacked anti-Assad rebels, the US coalition launched airstrikes that killed around 100 Syrian troops and an unknown number of Russian fighters. Following this show of force, US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis disingenuously stated that, “Obviously, we are not getting engaged in the Syrian civil war.” In addition, Israel recently attacked Iranian positions in Syria.

The US and its allies should face reality and accept the persistence of Assad’s regime, despicable as it may be. The UN Security Council, backed by the US, Russia, and the other major powers, should step in with peacekeepers to restore Syrian sovereignty and urgent public services, while blocking attempts at vengeance by the Assad regime against former rebels or their civilian supporters.

Yes, the Assad regime would remain in power, and Iran and Russia would maintain their influence in Syria. But the US official delusion that America can call the shots in Syria by choosing who rules, and with which allies, would end. It’s long past time for a far more realistic approach, in which the Security Council pushes Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, and Israel into a pragmatic peace that ends the bloodshed and allows the Syrian people to resume their lives and livelihoods.

Licensed from Project Syndicate

Top photo: “While vast resources were devoted to overthrowing Assad, the effort ultimately failed, but not before causing massive bloodshed and displacing millions of Syrians.” (Photo: Domenico/flickr/cc)

Jeffrey D. Sachs, USA 12/24/2017 0

Stopping Armageddon

American arrogance and President Donald Trump’s delusional worldview have brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. Before it is too late, American citizens must make overwhelmingly clear that we do not want millions of Americans or others to perish in a reckless attempt by the Trump administration to overthrow the North Korean regime or denuclearize it by force.

We would rather accept a nuclear-armed North Korea that is deterred by America’s overwhelming threat of force than risk a US-led war of choice, one that would almost surely involve nuclear weapons. Yet National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster has explicitly said that Trump rejects “accept and deter.” The danger from Trump could not be greater.

“Accept and deter” is not appeasement. It is the moral and practical requirement of survival. Appeasement would be the case if North Korea were demanding the surrender of the United States or South Korea, but that’s not the case. North Korea argues that it needs nuclear arms to protect the regime from the threat of a US attack. According to North Korea, it seeks a “military equilibrium,” not a surrender of the United States or South Korea.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has just called for direct talks with North Korea without precondition. This is a glimmer of hope. Given Tillerson’s fragile hold on office and Trump’s continued reckless rhetoric vis-a-vis North Korea, we need to rally in favor of diplomacy.

Sad to say, North Korea’s fears of a US-led overthrow are realistic at this moment in history. Creating the conditions for North Korea’s eventual denuclearization would require trust-building over many years of patient diplomacy and interaction, including US diplomatic recognition of North Korea.

The United States faces a trap of its own making. For decades, this country has forcibly overthrown regimes it deemed to be hostile to US interests. North Korea fears that it is next.

Recently, three regimes that ended their nuclear programs were subsequently attacked by nuclear powers. Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons program came to an end after the first Gulf War, in 1990; Saddam was overthrown by the US in 2003. Moammar Gaddafi ended his nuclear program in December 2003 and was overthrown by US-backed forces in 2011. Ukraine surrendered its nuclear forces in 1994 in return for security guarantees, but was subsequently attacked by Russia in 2014.

Since the early 1990s, North Korea has repeatedly demanded security guarantees from the United States – including diplomatic recognition, economic measures, and other steps – in exchange for ending its drive toward a nuclear arsenal. Several agreements were in fact reached on the idea of guaranteeing North Korean security in return for denuclearization, yet all of the agreements subsequently collapsed. A very insightful and balanced account of these failed attempts is provided in a Brookings Institution report by a senior Chinese foreign policy expert, Fu Ying, chairwoman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National People’s Congress of China.

Mutual distrust is the basic reason for repeated failures. The US again and again dragged its feet on granting diplomatic recognition and economic assistance to North Korea, despite explicit promises to do so. North Korea, for its part, violated the spirit if not the letter of the agreements, using covert means at times to skirt agreed nuclear safeguards. Both sides have been trapped in the “security dilemma,” meaning that each believes the worst about the other and acts accordingly. The result is a terrifying arms race and downward spiral toward nuclear war.

In this tit-for-tat pattern, it is difficult if not impossible to identify who has broken the various accords first. The bottom line is that there is no security agreement for North Korea, and no long-term suspension or abandonment by North Korea of its nuclear program. Now Trump’s tempermental instability could trigger a nuclear war through the belief adopted by either side that the other is about to launch a devastating preemptive attack.

The Trump administration is threatening North Korea with war if it fails to denuclearize. There are probably senior US military advisors who believe in the possibility of a quick “decapitation” of the North Korean regime before its nuclear weapons are unleashed. Some advisors may believe that America’s antimissile systems would protect the US and its allies in the event that North Korea launches its nuclear weapons.

In my view, any confidence in a military solution is reckless and immoral. Most expert assessments suggest massive deaths in South Korea, perhaps 20,000 per day, from a conventional war, much less a nuclear war. Most experts believe that the antimissile systems are highly imperfect, with a real possibility of failure.

If there is one lesson of history, it is to doubt the boastful pronouncements of warmongers. Things go wrong. One’s own weapons systems frequently fail. Treachery, surprise, accidents, errors are the essence of war. And with nuclear war, one doesn’t get a second chance. In the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK’s reckless generals urged a military attack, believing that a nuclear war could be avoided. The truth was that the Russian and Cuban troops were already deployed to use battlefield nuclear weapons in the event of a conventional US attack.

Perhaps the most important lesson that came out of the Cuban Missile Crisis is the conclusion of President Kennedy in his famous “Peace Speech” of June 1963, which ushered in the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty:

“Above all, while defending our own vital interests, nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating retreat or a nuclear war. To adopt that kind of course in the nuclear age would be evidence only of the bankruptcy of our policy — or of a collective death-wish for the world.”


Top photo: The mushroom cloud from US nuclear test named “Castle Bravo.”

By Common Dreams