Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Iraq: The Actors Speak for Themselves. Pt.3

Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih, a Kurd:

1. The law of the land says no militias. So any movement that has militias will be disqualified (from elections).

2. The Sadr movement is an indigenous, major political movement of this country. Attempts at isolating them or excluding them will not serve Iraq's stability and prosperity. It is in our interest to have the Sadr movement as an integral part of the political process. --source

Does anyone see a contradiction here?

Note also that, contrary to media reports, Maliki’s campaign has not been against “militias,” which are everywhere in Iraq, but specifically against al Sadr, which raises another question: is Salih indicating reservations about Maliki’s campaign? Salih’s comment comes just after a multi-party demonstration against the attack on Sadr City and new Sunni calls for an end to the violence and killings of civilians (reported and translated by Badger on his Arab Links blog). We may be seeing the beginning of the breakdown of Maliki’s brand new anti-Sadr political coalition.

Questions About A Nuclear Attack on Iran

To the Politicians Advocating the Legitimacy of a Nuclear War of Aggression Against Iran:

Leaving aside all issues related to the morality of committing mass murder in the absence of a clear and present danger and giving you a very generous benefit of the doubt by assuming for the moment that you truly do care about your country and are mentally stable, I have a few questions for you:

  1. Why should we endanger our national security by provoking a war when there is no current threat to us?
  2. Why should we start a war when we have, to date, refused to explore alternative options, such as, if you will pardon my language, talking?
  3. Why should we start a war against Iran on behalf of an extreme right-wing militarist faction in a foreign country when that country (Israel) is a nuclear superpower probably 50 years ahead of Iran in terms of military technology?
  4. Do you truly think that a country that would attempt to talk us into starting a nuclear war can be considered a friend of the U.S.?
  5. If your answer is “yes,” why do you think a nuclear war near that country would actually enhance the quality of life and security of that country’s people?
  6. Given the fact that Iran has no prospects whatsoever of catching up to Israel in nuclear weapons capabilities in our lifetimes, why does the issue of a nuclear attack on Iran even arise?
  7. Given the fact that the Islamic Republic of Iran has not ever invaded another country (unlike Israel) and has no colonies (unlike Israel), what is the evidence for asserting that it would be likely to commit a suicidal act of aggression?
  8. Given that the most recent U.S. government/academic model of the environmental impact of a regional nuclear war determined that the global “nuclear winter” and skin cancer effects would be even worse than previous models had indicated, what makes you feel that these risks are worth taking? Include, in your answer, an estimate of the number of American civilians who would die from the fallout produced by an attack on Iran and the economic costs to agriculture from the resulting "nuclear winter" impact for: a) an attack that eliminated all of Iran's nuclear industrial sites, b) an attack that destroyed the Iranian regime, c) an attack that "obliterated" the Iranian population.
  9. How many U.S. soldiers in Iraq do you estimate would die from radioactive poisoning or cancer as a result of the fallout from a nuclear attack on Iran for each of the three above scenarios?
  10. How many U.S. soldiers in Iraq do you estimate would die from the resultant fighting and attacks on long U.S. supply lines in Iraq for each of the three above scenarios?
  11. In light of the still unfolding long-term implications of a) the U.S. invasion of Iraq, b) the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, c) the two major Israeli invasions of Lebanon in 1982 and 2006, d) the U.S. “Blackhawk down” episode in Somalia, and e) the 2006 intervention in Somalia by the U.S.-backed Ethiopians, what is your estimate of the situation that would result in the Mideast six months and six years after a nuclear attack on Iran? What justification do you feel there is for claiming to be able to make any reasonable calculation of the results?
  12. What is your estimate of the global political changes that might result from an unprovoked attack on Iran? In formulating your answer, please consider: a) the attitude of nuclear power Russia, which has offered Iran certain nuclear security guarantees; b) the attitude of nuclear power Pakistan, which prides itself on having the world’s first Moslem nuclear bomb; c) the possible changes in behavior of all nuclear powers toward their own enemies, once a precedent is established that it is acceptable to launch a nuclear attack on a non-nuclear power in the absence of an immediate and existential threat to one’s homeland; d)Israel’s attitude toward all the rest of the Mideast; e) India’s attitude toward Pakistan; f) China’s attitude toward Taiwan; g) the attitude of North Korea, now mulling the possibility of terminating its nuclear weapons program; h) the attitude of industrial powers worldwide (e.g., Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Argentina, Mexico, Turkey, Egypt) on the issue of becoming nuclear weapons states for their own security.
  13. What do you think the risk is that a U.S. attack on Iran might provoke a global military alliance against the U.S., led by Russia and China but with the support of most other countries, out of pure fear of further U.S. aggression? In formulating your answer, please address whatever justifications you may have for viewing such a possibility with equanimity.
  14. If the U.S. were to launch a nuclear attack on Iran, which poses no significant or immediate threat to the U.S., on the justification that any potential future threat to a U.S. ally constitutes sufficient justification for a U.S. attack, what U.S. response would be reserved for a true threat or an actual attack?
  15. Should the U.S. have the option of employing calibrated responses to different types of attack (e.g., attacks on U.S. interests vs. attacks on the U.S. homeland, localized attacks intended to warn vs. full-scale attacks intended to destroy the U.S., non-nuclear vs. nuclear attacks)?
  16. What would your response be if an unidentified source (possibly al Qua’ida, seeking to trap the U.S. in another Mideast quagmire) exploded a nuclear weapon to provoke the U.S. into attacking Iran?
  17. Do you recognize any risk that an implacably hostile and rhetorically belligerent policy toward Iran might make the U.S. vulnerable to such a trick by a third party?
  18. If you are one of the folks who brought us the Iraq War, then why should we listen to you at all?

Please provide answers on paper, with your signature. You will be held responsible for the results of your actions.

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Cost of Imperial Israel

Paul Craig Roberts, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury under Reagan, has written yet another excellent essay on U.S. foreign policy, entitled “What the Iraq War Is About.” Roberts argues, as the quotes below show, that Iraq is all about imperial Israel. I suspect he would argue that U.S. hostility toward Iran is about exactly the same thing.

My position is slightly different in that, as I have said before, I believe there are two primary reasons for Washington’s hostility toward an independent stance on the part of either Iraq or Iran: Israel and oil (feel free to substitute the word “power” for “oil”). Independent of a desire to ensure the ability of Israeli militarists to continue their expansion, oil (upon which power rests) and a broader concern with power itself still seem to me to explain a good deal of the enthusiasm for war. I admit that this costly war was illogical as a means of obtaining oil: Iraq and Iran under all their various regimes are always happy to sell us their oil. But that just shows the Administration couldn’t do its arithmetic.

As for the possible additional reason--that war was correctly seen as a highly profitable corporate business, I would encourage others to offer evidence about how significant that reason might be.

All that being said, Roberts’ logical argument about the centrality of supporting Israeli regional dominance is well and concisely stated. Quotes follow, but the whole article is strongly recommended. What is missing from the argument is evidence. Perhaps some of us will live long enough to see that in official U.S. records to be released in 30 years or so (assuming our democracy still lives). In the meantime, readers are cordially invited to offer whatever evidence, confirmatory or disconfirmatory, they may have.

Roberts’ key points:

If the U.S. invaded Iraq for any of the succession of reasons the Bush regime has given, why would the U.S. have spent $750 million on a fortress "embassy" with anti-missile systems and its own electricity and water systems spread over 104 acres? No one has ever seen or heard of such an embassy before. Clearly, this "embassy" is constructed as the headquarters of an occupying colonial ruler.
The fact is that Bush invaded Iraq with the intent of turning Iraq into an American colony....

If colonial rule were not the intent, the U.S. would not be going out of its way to force Sadr's 60,000-man militia into a fight. Sadr is a Shi'ite who is a real Iraqi leader, perhaps the only Iraqi who could end the sectarian conflict and restore some unity to Iraq. As such he is regarded by the Bush regime as a danger to the American puppet Maliki. Unless the U.S. is able to purchase or rig the upcoming Iraqi election, Sadr is likely to emerge as the dominant figure. This would be a highly unfavorable development for the Bush regime's hopes of establishing its colonial rule behind the facade of a Maliki fake democracy. Rather than work with Sadr in order to extract themselves from a quagmire, the Americans will be doing everything possible to assassinate Sadr.

Why does the Bush regime want to rule Iraq? Some speculate that it is a matter of "peak oil."…This explanation is problematic….

The more likely explanation for the U.S. invasion of Iraq is the neoconservative Bush regime's commitment to the defense of Israeli territorial expansion. There is no such thing as a neoconservative who is not allied with Israel. Israel hopes to steal all of the West Bank and southern Lebanon for its territorial expansion. An American colonial regime in Iraq not only buttresses Israel from attack, but also can pressure Syria and Iran not to support the Palestinians and Lebanese. The Iraqi war is a war for Israeli territorial expansion. Americans are dying and bleeding to death financially for Israel. Bush's "war on terror" is a hoax that serves to cover U.S. intervention in the Middle East on behalf of "greater Israel."

Note that nothing in the above in any way questions the right of Israel to exist as one among many Mideast states within its legally recognized international borders. The issue here concerns only whether or not Israel will be supported in its drive to expand beyond those borders to occupy Palestinian and Lebanese land and whether or not Israel's policy, in effect since the 1980s, of reliance on overwhelming military force to dominate the whole region will be supported.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Dealing with Nuclear War: Test for a Mature Democracy

Saudi Arabia and Iran, according to a storyline that militarist circles in the U.S. like to promote, are engaged in a fundamental struggle for survival. In that context, the following remarks from an editorial in the Saudi paper Arab News on Hillary's threat to "obliterate" Iran are noteworthy:

Editorial: Clinton’s Threat to Iran
24 April 2008

If there were any doubt that if she made it to the Oval Office, Hillary Clinton’s term would be George Bush Mark III, the lady made it plain on the eve of Tuesday’s Pennsylvania primary....
Monday night, Clinton drove home her “toughness” by threatening to “obliterate” Iran if it launched an attack on Israel. Given the kind of foreign policy advisers she has (the same as those who paved the way for Iraq war), she may not wait for Iran to “attack” Israel. It can be a pre-emptive “obliteration.”
This is the foreign politics of the madhouse. It demonstrates the same doltish ignorance that has distinguished Bush’s foreign relations. It offers only violence where there should be negotiations and war where there could be peace. At a stroke, Clinton demonstrated to everyone in this region that if she were the next occupant of the White House, Iraq-like death and destruction would be the order of the day.

Even the Republican candidate, John McCain, has not been so war-like in his views of Iran. This experienced politician has at least had the good sense to leave open as many options as possible. And there is now a strong sense that if he were president, Barack Obama’s inclination would be to try to pick up some of the many opportunities for negotiation and peace-making that have been discarded by the belligerent Bush administration....
There is little or no consideration of how simplistic Washington analysts actually plunged the region into chaos in the first place. America’s world outlook remains disturbingly black and white. Hillary Clinton has demonstrated that even if she knows better, she is prepared to ride and exploit this mulish ignorance.

The threat to “obliterate” Iran is dangerous folly. What though has this woman given to the implicit threat Israel makes to the rest of the region with its own nuclear arsenal? How does she imagine that such talk will play to those Iranians who want rapprochement with Washington?
Questions critical to the future of all of us...the kind of questions a mature democracy would be debating in an election season.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Iraqi Maneuverings

The decision officially made by Iraqi Prime Minister al Maliki, though perhaps with more than a little urging from behind the scenes, to corner Moqtada al Sadr seems to have been designed at a minimum to persuade Moqtada to give up his estimated 60,000-man militia and become just a weak factional leader in a political system where power grows out of the barrel of a gun. Instead--Surprise! Surprise!—it risks pushing him in the opposition direction, toward setting up his own competing political system.

Al Sadr has, over the past year, been taught several lessons:

  • Unilaterally declaring a ceasefire does not protect you from being attacked;
  • Participating in the political process does not protect you from being attacked;
  • Allowing Tehran to broker a ceasefire in Basra does not protect you from being attacked in Baghdad;
  • If you have a political perspective (unified state, rapid U.S. troop withdrawal) that puts you at odds with other power centers, you are at risk.

Given these lessons, one would indeed think it would be difficult to make the decision to give up a 60,000-man army and put one’s faith in the generosity of one’s political opponents. This is the context behind the comment of Mohan Abedin, director of research at St. Andrew’s Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence, who said that "Muqtada has shown a great deal of patience not calling for an all-out war yet with so much pressure on him.” Indeed, one of al Sadr’s political supporters was anonymously quoted as saying that his “emphasis is now on weapons and fighting, not politics.”

While this is a serious indication of the direction in which al Sadr may be moving, it is nevertheless clear that he continues to play politics, as indicated by his nuanced refocusing of last week’s threat to fight if Maliki and the U.S. do not stop attacking his forces. Focusing on “open warfare against the Americans,” he is now stressing the importance of Iraqis avoiding killing each other.

Still calling on his own forces to avoid fighting, he is maintaining his threat of open warfare, but focusing it on occupation forces, saying "When we threatened 'open war' we meant a war against the occupier, not a war against our Iraqi brothers.” Nevertheless, war against Iraqi brothers continues, as this good background piece describes.

Meanwhile, al Sadr is calling on other Arab states to give political support to Iraqi efforts toward independence. The temporizing of Arab leaders at this week’s Kuwait “neighbor’s summit” suggests they may be listening to him.

And now, only a month after the Battle of Basra, the former prime minister Jaafari is rumored to be moving toward alliance with al Sadr, which would crack the wall of isolation that has been thrown around al Sadr in recent weeks.

Given the relatively restrained resistance of Moqtada's JAM in Basra, it seems fair to wonder if all the rhetoric about open war is anything more than bravado. It may be, as is being argued by some, that Basra has been not only an utter defeat for Moqtada but one popular with the people of Basra.

But the hypothesis that Moqtada chose to limit his resistance does fit with Moqtada’s historical behavior of avoiding open showdowns when offered an alternative. It also fits with his efforts to portray himself as a patriot and maneuver Maliki out of a complete break. Finally, it seems the better part of valor, for it could be argued that time is on Moqtada’s side. One could hypothesize that the longer he resists, the more he trumpets his independence from Iran (a claim al Hakim cannot easily make), the louder he calls on Iraqis to unite against the invader, and the more the Baghdad poor are subjected to collective punishment, the better Moqtada’s political position. Given the likelihood of American troop withdrawal, time may well be on his side militarily as well.

The opposite argument would be that time is on Maliki’s side because the longer he carries on the offensive, the more desperate Moqtada’s poor supporters will become and the longer Moqtada keeps retreating, the more he will look like a paper tiger.

For all the talk of who has military power, the issue may in the end be decided by two political issues:

  1. the skill with which Maliki rewards all his new coalition partners, the Kurds salivating over Kirkuk and the Sunnis demanding control of ministries and access to the military;
  2. the degree to which Moqtada’s religious and ethnic excesses have alienated him from the Iraqi people.

Maliki and his supporters want to create that “single center of power” that would so greatly simplify the Iraqi political system. He now appears to have made progress toward that goal in both Basra and Baghdad. Time will tell if he is really succeeding or if the “process of energizing” the political system will instead provoke the emergence of new and unanticipated dynamics.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Israel-Iranian Relations: A View From Israel

Although U.S. politicians and the mainstream American media seem to feel that honest analysis of the issue of Israeli security is virtually taboo, Israelis, not surprisingly, take this issue extremely seriously and frequently consider its implications thoughtfully. A recent article from the Jerusalem Post, from which excerpts are given below, is a good example of the kind of analysis that America's self-proclaimed "friends of Israel" should engage in.

Washington Watch: On Iran - also try diplomacy


As George W. Bush prepares to leave town, one of the many pieces of unfinished business is his vow to thwart Iran's nuclear ambitions. Instead, Teheran is far closer today to having a nuclear weapon than when he came to office.

His refusal to engage in any substantive dialogue with the Iranians unless they first accepted his terms may explain why all three presidential contenders have promised greater emphasis on diplomacy....

IRAN'S DANGER is more than a nuclear weapon that may be years away. It is its financing, training, weapons and diplomatic cover for a terror network that targets Israel. Teheran is also spreading its influence across the Middle East - with a U.S.-provided foothold in previous enemy Iraq - that threatens not only Israel but also American's traditional friends in the Arab world.

A nuclear weapon will be a potent instrument of blackmail for Iran and an umbrella for its terrorist allies.

The threat to Israel should not be underestimated, but Iran has much more reason to worry.

Iran's nuclear weapon is still theoretical; Israel's is not. Israel is widely believed to have several hundred nuclear warheads, and its delivery systems are far more advanced, accurate and diverse than Iran's.

Iran is developing ballistic missiles, with North Korean help, and they are believed capable of hitting Israel. Israeli long range Jericho missiles are accurate and reliable. Iran has nothing to match Israel's batteries of the Arrow anti-missile missiles.

Iran's air force is barely functional; Israel's is one of the best in the world.

Israel's German-built Dolphin submarines, according to some reports, may be equipped with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, giving Israel a nuclear triad: airplanes, missiles and submarines.

That gives Israel a powerful deterrent: a second strike capability, a Cold War concept indicating the ability to launch nuclear missiles even after a country has absorbed a heavy first blow.

Israeli military officials have said they don't have the number of planes, missiles, aerial tankers and other systems needed to go after all of Iran's nuclear installations - which are widely scattered and deeply buried - even if they knew where to find them. But they do have the capacity to wreak enormous damage on the country's energy infrastructure and other assets.

THE AYATOLLAHS are perfectly willing to send thousands of children to die in a war with Iraq or suicide bombers to Israel, but you won't see any of them strapping on explosive belts themselves. They are not suicidal; their goal is not to die for the Islamic republic but to let others do the dying while they spread the Shiite revolution to the Sunni Arabs. They know that a nuclear attack on Israel will bring the kind massive retaliation that will leave their revolution in cinders.

For Israel, war against a nation state like Iran means no targets are off limits - unlike going after terror groups hiding among the civilian population in Lebanon or Gaza. Israel would have no compunction about visiting shock and awe on Iran, unfettered by delusions of converting it to democracy.

Iranian leaders seem to compete with each other in threatening to obliterate Israel, but when Israelis respond with their own bravado, the Iranians run crying to the UN, filing formal protests.

Every recent Israeli prime minister has considered Iran the one enemy which can pose an existential threat, and they have focused much of their diplomacy on trying to get the international community to take Iranian nuclear ambitions seriously as a global threat and not just as an Israeli problem.

The next American president clearly understands that, but also that the Bush administration's "no diplomacy" policy only made a bad situation worse.

And polls show the American Jewish community feels the same way.

Impact of "Small" Nuclear War on the "Winners"

'Regional' Nuclear War Would Cause Worldwide Destruction
By Alexis Madrigal

This invaluable science note in Wired reviews some of the damage that would result worldwide from a local, "small," contained nuclear conflict, including:

  • severe damage to the ozone layer;
  • sharp rise in skin cancer;
  • global cold wave;
  • reduction in global food production, which is already at crisis levels.
These dire results come from a model created by the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics and Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, University of Colorado; the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, University of California; and the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

Unfolding a Mideast Nuclear Umbrella: A Positive Step Washington Could Take

Powerful political factions exist today in two Mideastern countries advocating an aggressive, militant foreign policy that is needlessly spiraling the region toward war. Many issues--including justice, economic development, security on a host of levels--need to be resolved to bring stability to the Mideast, but perhaps the most fundamental, because it is the ultimate red line, is nuclear security. In a word, the Mideast needs a nuclear umbrella – a believable guarantee that no regional state need fear a nuclear attack.

In Iran, Ahmadinejad, leader of the super-nationalist war (vs. Saddam) generation, is making a career out of pretending to be the 21st century’s Saladin. Whether Ahmadinejad or anyone else in Iran actually cares about the fate of Palestine is very much open to question; whether Ahmadinejad or anyone else in Iran would actually risk the security of their own country by fighting on behalf of Palestinians is even more doubtful. No matter; his rhetoric raises tensions; that, after all, is its purpose: it is the existence of such tensions that give Ahmadinejad his much-desired status. Those tensions are kindling; regardless of intent, the more dry kindling, the greater the danger posed by every spark.

In Israel, governing circles are dominated by a clique advocating not just overwhelming military dominance as the strategic solution to Israel’s security issues but, even after having now achieved that dominance, aggressive military solutions on a tactical level as well. For example, Israel not only insists on being the sole nuclear power of the region but also on resolving sociopolitical disputes in Gaza through military means. Were Israel to use its regional superpower standing as a security blanket to enable it to show tactical magnanimity, the insistence on total strategic dominance might, just barely, be justifiable, but to use it as the excuse to deny independence to marginalized, poverty-struck civilian populations is not only morally inexcusable but strategically irrational. It can only condemn Israeli citizens to endless war.

Focusing on either of these countries alone will do nothing to resolve the problem. Both factions must be dealt with simultaneously, for they stimulate each other’s excesses. In both Iran and Israel, the ruling faction asserts the self-fulfilling nonsense that "they" only understand force. Bounds need to be placed on the increasingly irrational rhetorical war, a highly contagious virus, to pave the way for reasoned discussions of differences. At the moment every effort to resolve any specific regional disagreement, e.g., resolution of the Golan Heights dispute, is sabotaged by the understandable hypnotic focus on nuclear fears. The most logical way to create an atmosphere conducive to solving problems would be to erect a regional structure for minimizing the threat of a nuclear attack.

We need not obsess over the mechanics of making this work. Were Washington to announce a clear policy that it would not be the first to use nuclear weapons in the Mideast and that it would condemn without reservation any party that was the first to use them, that would open the door to devising a believable regional nuclear umbrella.

Umbrellas with holes don’t work. A nuclear umbrella must protect all regional states equally to have value. Were Washington to guarantee the nuclear security of all regional states, then the region would have escaped its most emotional concern and would be able to begin to think rationally about how to solve all the other problems it faces.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Like War? Plenty of Candidates Will Be Happy to Give It To You

Events move faster than we can comment on them. I just finished posting a discussion about the Mideast in which I warned:

Americans will tend to blame Moslems for any ratcheting up of tension by the Administration, locking the next administration into an extension of the war policy, which would go far to solidifying all the dangerous Bush policy innovations (nuclear war threats as normal policy options, claims that preventive war is a morally legitimate form of behavior even in the absence of an immediate and unavoidable threat, the way to deal with the Moslem world is by force, the solution to the oil crisis is to take control of other people’s oil resources).

Already, the U.S. has taken two steps in precisely that direction. First came the sad, desperate bid by Hillary to scrape a few votes out of the gutter by tearing a page out of the playbooks of the likes of Ahmadinejad and Netanyahu. (For a pointed critique of Hillary's dangerous bluster, check out The Nation.) And second, it apparently worked. Iranians, Israelis, and Americans all seem to vote for bullies.

Israel: Is Your Goal Peace or Domination?

Hamas' political leader Khaled Meshal has just made the following statement:

We agree to a [Palestinian] state on pre-67 borders, with Jerusalem
as its capital with genuine sovereignty without settlements but without recognizing Israel.

The Haaretz article pointed out that “Meshal used the Arabic word hudna, meaning truce, which is more concrete than tahdiya - a period of calm - which Hamas often uses to describe a simple cease-fire. Hudna implies a recognition of the other party's existence.”

Israel can say that it demands regional superpower status; it can say that it cannot live with a free Palestinian people; it can say that it insists on retaining control over Palestinian territories it captured in the 1967 war because having illegal settlements there is so convenient; it can say that its claims to Jerusalem have more moral legitimacy than the claims of Palestinians. It cannot, any longer, say that it is Hamas that is blocking peace.

Meshal may be lying or telling the truth; he may have been sincere when he made the remark and change his mind later. But this is a fair peace offer. Indeed, it is extremely generous: far more like a reasonable final compromise agreement than an initial public offer to tip the region out of endless war and toward settlement.

The ball is in Tel Aviv’s court. Tel Aviv has only two choices: respond with some conciliatory gesture to match that of Hamas or bear responsibility for continued conflict.

Iraqi Gamble

Gareth Porter has written a provocative analysis of the political maneuverings behind the Battle of Basra, the plans of the Bush Administration, and the relations between Maliki and Iran that needs to be considered. According to Porter,

What Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, did not reveal is that
Maliki was deliberately upsetting a Petraeus plan to put US and British forces into Basra for a months-long operation to eliminate the Mahdi Army from the city.

His thesis is plausible and important if true, but it seems debatable. If this is the real story, then what explains Maliki’s aggressive attack on Moqtada in Baghdad, which betrayed the spirit if not the letter of the Basra ceasefire agreement? However, the debatable nature of Porter’s thesis is precisely the point: it needs to be debated and investigated, not swept under the rug.

Why is this important? It matters both for the future of Iraq and more broadly for the future of both Washington’s confrontation with Islam and for the future role of the U.S. in the world.

Concerning the broad confrontation between Washington and the Moslem world, this would, if true, be a significant piece of confirmatory evidence for the hypothesis that Bush will end his presidency by intensifying his confrontation with the Moslem world. Such a policy--for which U.S. behavior toward Pakistan (at least until their recent election), Iran, Somalia, Palestine, and Lebanon…and now Iraq provide confirmatory evidence—by a lame duck administration would be highly risky. The “this is our last chance” perspective of a lame duck administration easily induces risk-seeking behavior.

Americans will tend to blame Moslems for any ratcheting up of tension by the Administration, locking the next administration into an extension of the war policy, which would go far to solidifying all the dangerous Bush policy innovations (nuclear war threats as normal policy options, claims that preventive war is a morally legitimate form of behavior even in the absence of an immediate and unavoidable threat, the way to deal with the Moslem world is by force, the solution to the oil crisis is to take control of other people’s oil resources).

Cheney and his friends argued in well-known public writings at the end of the Clinton Administration for a fundamental change in U.S. foreign policy. They achieved that goal temporarily. Were the incoming administration locked into an unspoken acceptance of the legitimacy, morality, and appropriateness of this extremist, belligerent policy of brutal military force as the primary approach of the U.S. toward the rest of the world, the norms of Western behavior would be truly shifted – back from the slow post-WWII emergence of the revolutionary concept of egalitarian international law and “America, leader of the free world,” (the moral example) to the 19th century days of unabashed imperialism.

Of course that is reading a great deal into one policy decision to destroy a single militia that appears guilty of many crimes against Iraqis (albeit no more guilty than al-Hakim’s militia that is Maliki’s power base or the Sunnis). Nevertheless, just as Bush had moderate policy alternatives that could have replaced his recent missile attacks on Pakistan and Somalia, he had choices regarding policy toward a faction that was participating in the political process, providing desperately needed local government services, and observing a ceasefire.

Therefore, Washington’s visible military support for Maliki’s attack in Basra and, more significantly, its attack in Baghdad after the agreement on a Basra ceasefire, already constitute strong evidence that the Administration is rigidly maintaining its hardline stance. If Porter’s nicely argued thesis that Bush had actually intended an even larger, U.S.-led battle in Basra is true, that significantly strengthens the argument.

Concerning Iraq in specific, if Maliki did in fact intend to use his own attack to prevent a U.S. offensive, numerous interpretations with implications for Iraqi stability are possible. Porter may be correct in implying that Maliki was trying to save Moqtada, albeit in the process teaching him a lesson, but Maliki’s needlessly hardline rhetoric that did so much to make the ultimate compromise ceasefire look like a defeat for Maliki suggests otherwise. Perhaps he is just starting to think he is actually the ruler of Iraq and doesn’t like the idea of the initiative being in the hands of the occupier. Or, in a slight variation on that point, it may be that Maliki appreciates that he would look somewhat emasculated were he to have victory over fellow Shi’a handed to him by the occupier.

Let’s assume that Maliki does in fact want to defeat Moqtada and unite the Shi’a right now, rather than after the summer ends or after Bush leaves office or after U.S. troops start to leave or after the Sunni Awakening forces get their act together and transform themselves into a unified military force capable of challenging the Shi’a. A quick victory would help to:

  • Solidify Maliki’s tenuous hold on leadership;

  • Prevent the anticipated defeat of Maliki/Hakim forces by Moqtada in the fall elections;

  • Head off the emerging Sunni threat by unifying the Shi’a (although perhaps at the expense of unsettling the Sunni even more);

  • Cement his alliance with Iran, which seems to have been playing both sides of the Shi’ite factional dispute.

This would all constitute a risky plan on Maliki’s part, given the degree of legitimacy Moqtada has as the leader of a geographically and socially cohesive section of the Iraqi population, but as long as Maliki is perceived to be in charge and U.S. troops can be manipulated into playing a support role to guarantee him military superiority, he may calculate that he can exploit America’s military power in Iraq safely and then watch from a position of power as the U.S. military shadow fades away.

Maliki gets the power to dominate his domestic opponents; violence declines, facilitating the departure of U.S. forces. Iran has the satisfaction of seeing its proxies solidly in control of a post-colonial Iraq. More, Maliki carries out his plan of creating a Shi’ite political region in the south, giving Iran a rich playing field for exercising its influence. A satisfying mirage for the heat of summer, indeed.

Unfortunately for Maliki, “mirage” is exactly what such a plan will very likely prove to be. As I discussed earlier,

U.S. occupation destroyed the ethnic unity of Iraqi society, provoked the rise of Islamic militancy, created a power vacuum that was
naturally exploited by all manner of local tough guys, and thereby opened the door for al Qua’ida, which, in its own equally barbaric way, moved as efficiently as the U.S. to take advantage of events to sink its teeth into the carcass of Iraqi society.

An all-out military offensive to destroy Shi’ite opponents and unify Iraqi Shi’a by force would probably exacerbate rather than end these trends started by the U.S. occupation.

  • First, the gamble that Moqtada can be overwhelmed is a risky one.

  • Second, what reason is there to expect the Sunnis, with their new 90,000-man military (albeit it one in fragments rather than formed into an army), simply to sit on the sidelines? Might they not be tempted to aid whichever Shi’ite group finds itself at a disadvantage in order to keep the Shi’a disunited?

  • Third, might the prospect of victory by Maliki, whose reticence to allow the Sunnis to join either the political system or the national army has already produced some evidence of a Sunni tactical recalculation, not persuade the Sunnis to resuscitate their ties to al Qua’ida?

The list of theoretical possibilities could be extended endlessly; more valuable would be a group effort by those concerned to develop a list of impacts that are actually emerging, as evidence becomes available. It is a fateful decision for a government to make the decision to attack its own capital. It is also a fateful decision for the factions dividing one ethnic/religious group in a diverse and disunited society to decide to resolve their conflict through force. The potential long-term consequences of this sudden shift away from compromise merit careful study before all the so-called progress under the surge goes up in smoke.

The point to keep in mind at this early stage of the process is that the extreme complexity of the Iraqi political situation makes calculating the outcome of an aggressive initiative particularly hard. In a complex situation, the more extreme the shift in behavior (short of some “final solution” like genocide), the more numerous the changes, the more rapid the adaptation of all actors in the system, and, thus, the more difficult it will be to predict the outcome. Iraq is characterized at present by:

  • an unusually large number of political parties;

  • an unusual degree of power possessed by these parties as a result of their private militias;

  • an extreme degree of foreign military, intelligence, and financial inputs into the Iraqi political system resulting from the weakness of the Iraqi government;

  • extreme ferment—rapidly evolving factional alliances and tactics;

  • an unusually rich range of significant political perspectives (Ba’athist, federal, confederal, Shi’ite revenge, jihadi, colonial, pan-Shi’ite).

This summer in Iraq is not just going to be hot but filled with surprises...with ominous implications for the far more important conflict between Tel Aviv and Tehran.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Israeli Nuclear Espionage in U.S.

ANALYSIS: New espionage affair may be old story, but will greatly damage Israel
Yossi Melman, Haaretz Correspondent

Some key points:

Israel's argument, that the handling of Jonathan Pollard was an
exceptional and one-time event, has once again been proven incorrect....

The Pollard affair revealed that the Defense Ministry operated a secret unit under the name of the "Science Liaison Bureau" (also known by its Hebrew acronym "Lakam"), which for years fulfilled intelligence and
equipment-gathering missions for the nuclear reactor in Dimona and also served as a sort of "theft contractor" for the Israeli security industry.

Iraq: The Actors Speak for Themselves. Pt. 2

More quotes of participants in the Iraq theater...

Moqtada al Sadr:

...what is the sin of the followers of Al Sadr that they should emerge from the oppression of the destroyer [Saddam] to fall, thereafter, under
the oppression of the occupation, and of the government and the nawasib, and the great and the pulpits and the rumors and the assassinations and the policies that have come to us from beyond the borders, and the silence of the religious powers, and of the political powers, domestic and foreign and international? The beloved Gaza was blockaded and everyone was silent, and [likewise] now the city
[Sadr City] is blockaded and everyone is silent, and where now are human rights, and [the rule of] laws, which they wish to impose for the sake of their spurious "freedom and democracy"? Is their sin resistance which is the honor and strength of this world and the next, because the people have not and will not compromise their right to resist the occupier of any nationality. ...

Or is their sin that they are the popular base which has not accepted your politics and your ugly worldly fighting, because they do not accept the partition of Iraq, nor do they accept the theft of its wealth, or any long-term agreement that favors the occupier more than it
favors Iraqis, or leaving camps or fixed bases for the occupier

--Thanks to Badger for translation and original posting.

Independence, peace, national unity, Iraq for Iraqis...a nice, moderate, patriotic party platform.


Dr. I. al-Shammari:

[from a transcript of the interview with Dr.I.Al-Shammari,(head of the Islamic Army of Iraq/IAI) aired on Arabic, Al-Jazeerah TV on the 9th of April 2008. translated by layla anwar]

"When the Axis of Evil welcomes the Great Satan and there has been 4 rounds of talks between the US and Iran what does that mean ?"

As I said, there is a convergence of interests between the US and Iran, in their imperialist designs in Iraq (and Afghanistan). Inside of Iraq,
Iran and the US are Muta’a partners (temporary marriage) and outside of Iraq there is a cold war going on between them. We don’t know how long this Muta’a marriage will last in Iraq, maybe they will turn it into an American civil marriage.Iran has occupied Iraq and has helped the U.S occupation. Iran’s interests in Iraq are not just strategic but they also derive from greed. We all know the tactics of "taqiya" (dissimulation) and Maliki is serving both. It is in the interest of Iran not to have any form of stability in Iraq. The US and Iran are only fighting on who will get the bigger share of the cake.


Hillary Clinton:

[in an interview airing on Good Morning America Tuesday, responding to a question about what she would do if Iran attacked Israel with nuclear weapons]

I want the Iranians to know that if I'm the president we will attack Iran....In the next ten years, during which they might foolishly consider launching an attack on Israel, we would be able to totally obliterate them.

--Thanks to Annie for providing the two above quotes (see her comments).

And what would Hillary do if Israel launched a nuclear attack on Iran?

See also this pointed discussion of Hillary's attempt to match Ahmadinejad's most quotable quote.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Leadership and Mideast Peace

Jimmy Carter had his share of problems as president and made his share of mistakes, but Jimmy Carter is no longer a politician; he has become something all too rare in arrogant, emotional, all-too-powerful, yet all-too-insecure 21st century America: Jimmy Carter has become a stateman, a leader. He has become a stateman because he thinks about problems and approaches solutions carefully; instead of quick condemnations, he promotes contact, consultation, compromise. He has become a leader because he has learned how to look through the biases and false assumptions and taboos of the moment to point a hopeful way forward.

No one knows the future. No one knows if Hamas will in fact prove willing to live in peace with a peaceful Israel returned to its legal borders. Even the leaders of Hamas almost certainly do not know. Events have a way of pushing people into places they never planned to be. No one knows if Hamas will accept a fair peace because Hamas has never been offered the opportunity. Perhaps someone should.

Iraq: The Actors Speak for Themselves. Pt.1 of a New Series

Here's a strange idea: instead of labeling everyone and then dismissing whatever they say or do, why not actually listen to their words? Can people lie? Actually, it can be difficult...the truth will out. A lot could be learned from listening carefully. At least, I think that is the case. Shall we try the experiment on, say, Iraq?

All who are interested in playing, feel free to submit new quotes as actors related to the Iraqi situation speak out.


Hasan Kazemi Qomi, Iranian Ambassador to Iraq:

"We are encouraging the (Iraqi) government to fight the outlaws. But we
are against the way the Americans are implementing the policy by bombing and
closing down Sadr City....In this way people are suffering. The wrong policy of
Americans by bombing innocent people will yield bad results."

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Hubris & the Complexity of Pushing Around the "Weak"

A society deficient in the modern standards of offensive power (industrial technology, military reach) easily tempts those vulnerable to hubris to intervene. It is easy to overlook the distinctions between defensive power and offensive power, as it is easy to overlook the distinctions between latent power and “active” power--power that is currently being exercised. An attacker possessing active, offensive power will have the greatest impact on a society lacking both over the short run. The longer the conflict lasts, however, the more the attacker will lose his advantage, as the latent power of a society to defend itself comes to the fore.

Unfortunately for an attacker, the degree of hubris required to persuade it to launch a risky and unnecessary war in the first place will probably suffice to put it even further under the spell of hubris when its initial foray appears to be successful. So it will gain confidence precisely when it should be engaging in self-criticism, as the balance begins invisibly to tip in favor of the defender.

These are not unheard-of insights; professional decision makers who fail to take them into account really have no excuse. Nevertheless, overlooking them is one of the more common historical patterns.

The trick is to avoid putting too much faith in the level of offensive power possessed by a society or in the level of active power being employed by that society. Rather, one should constantly pay attention to the degree of complexity of the political situation that might result from attacking (or intervening in a less belligerent manner).

These considerations give rise to the counterintuitive hypothesis below. Intuition would suggest that extreme behavior (and it is difficult to imagine more extreme behavior that an invasion) by a modern power should defeat a less modernized society and that the longer the effort by the modern power is maintained, the greater the likelihood it will emerge victorious. But that is linear thinking which naively assumes that if a certain amount of effort has a certain impact, then more effort will have more impact.

Hypothesis: In a complex situation, the more extreme the behavior, the more numerous the changes, the more rapid the adaptation of all actors in the system, and, thus, the more difficult it will be to predict the outcome.

Caveat: The words “in a complex situation” are important. If the situation is
very simple or is rendered “simple” by some action such as genocide or ethnic
cleansing or nuclear war that shatters or eliminates the society, the above
hypothesis no longer applies. It would also no longer apply if the society were
strictly regimented by totalitarianism. The more complex a system is, however,
the more applicable this hypothesis is.

My interest is in political systems, but I suspect that the hypothesis applies to any system. The classic analogy would be the picture we have of the early earth at the point when life theoretically emerged from a highly energized (presumably by lightning, erupting volcanoes) soup containing numerous highly reactive chemical agents and catalysts.

The political equivalent of such complexity would include:

  • numerous factions which frequently modify their behavior, goals, and alliances;

  • the possession of great energy in the form of willpower, military power, manpower, and funding by many of the contending factions;

  • no single center of power or legitimacy;

  • many interactions both within groups and between groups;

  • debate over and evolution of norms;

  • numerous conflicting ideologies.

It is absolutely NOT clear which side is favored in such a situation. On the contrary, I would venture that theoretically it is fair to say no side with any constructive goal at all—whether a goal for good or evil—is favored. Only an actor aspiring to achieve chaos and destruction has reason to feel confident in such a situation. Adding energy to the system (sending in troops, bombing, providing foreign aid, whipping up ideological fervor) does not predict success; it predicts change! In other words, yes, without a doubt, outside intervention will have an impact…but not necessarily anything remotely resembling the desired impact.

The additional energy generates more links among actors in the society (e.g., the apolitical get mobilized when their security is threatened), more link types (e.g., willingness in extremis to work with those one formerly shunned), and greater flexibility (more ideas are exchanged, more opportunities present themselves, and the more threatening environment focuses the mind). Actors become more willing to adapt, which provokes further adaptation by other actors. Not only behavior but also norms adapt, and adaptation at one level (e.g., individual norms) may lead to adaptation at other levels (e.g., militia policy).

This process of energizing, of making a society more complex (interconnected, coevolving, creative, self-started, uncontrolled) should be welcomed by those who were at the bottom of the power structure with no hope for the future. Now is their chance. It should be feared by those who want stability, control, security, reliable long-term investment opportunities, treaty rights, or democracy. So, ironically, the more a modern power projects its power to modify a traditional society without utterly destroying it, the more turbulent and unpredictable that traditional society is likely to become. The gentle, slow, cautious exercise of power may be not only nicer and cheaper but actually more effective.

At least, that’s the conclusion to be drawn from complexity theory. I will undoubtedly make some remarks in the near future about how this appears to work in the real world and would welcome any confirmatory or disconfirmatory evidence others may care to offer.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

U.S. Military Report: Iraq At Risk of "Failing as a State"

A February U.S. military report from the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the
National Defense University terms Iraq "at risk of failing as a state and describes the situation as follows:

the Shi’a factions that dominate the government in Baghdad and
their Kurdish allies continue to balk at making political concessions—including refusal to adopt inclusive political practices or end the broad application of de-Ba’thification laws—that could undermine
their newfound positions of power. Rather than creating accountable
ministries staffed by apolitical technocrats and experts, they find it
necessary to ensure control by embedding family, friends, and clients in powerful (and lucrative) posts. While they have promised cooperation with American and coalition forces in the war on al Qaeda and other terrorist elements, in reality they define terrorists as their political or tribal opponents and the militias those opponents control.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Confused Bush Iraq Policy Destabilizing Iraq, Empowering Iran

Washington is exacerbating Shi'ite factional conflict, fomenting civil war, building up Tehran's influence, and fighting a war against the poor in Iraq.

The tactics that Washington is pursuing in Iraq appear to be exacerbating several long-term trends that risk destabilizing Iraq even further and may well also undermine U.S. influence. Washington’s militant intervention into intra-Shi’ite factional politics is pouring gasoline on that dispute, fomenting civil war between the two most powerful Shi’ite militias in Iraq by encouraging (or ordering?) Maliki to suppress Moqtada’s Mahdi Army. Washington is simultaneously laying the groundwork for a civil war between Iraqi Shi’a and Sunni by funding the organization of numerous local Sunni military units (e.g., the Awakening groups), which could evolve rapidly into a Sunni militia that would challenge the Shi’a since these units are gaining power without a commensurate move toward satisfaction of Sunni grievances.* Washington is also fighting Iran’s war in Iraq by intervening in Shi’ite factional disputes on the side of the pro-Iranian Badr faction that constitutes Maliki’s main support. And finally, since Moqtada represents the poor urban Shi’ite underclass beyond the reach of government services, Washington is making war on the poor,** a bad foundation indeed for building democracy.

*According to Fadhil Ali, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki justified his reluctance to recruit Sunni fighters to the government forces by indicating that the banned al-Baath Party and al-Qaeda had ordered their members to infiltrate the Awakening groups (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, January 5).

**Badger, in another of his invaluable leaks of Arabic-language reports from the Iraqi media, reports that, according to information from the two main hospitals in Sadr City (i.e., not including wounded or killed who did not make it to those two hospitals), the on-going U.S.-Maliki-al Hakim attack on Sadr City alone has resulted in 300 deaths and 1621 wounded.

A policy of marginalizing the poor by emphasizing the use of force to suppress their representatives, not to mention collective punishment against the poor themselves through both neglecting to provide services and turning Sadr City into a blockaded ghetto, sets up society for a long period of conflict. (For parallels, check out the impact of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which provoked the formation of Hezbollah; the half century-long civil war against the rural poor in Colombia; and of course the endless sad saga of the mistreatment of the population of Gaza.)

An alternative exists: Washington could encourage inclusiveness by working to open the political system as wide as possible.

  • First, Washington could try to include the Shi’a poor in the political system by maximizing the central government’s provision of social services to areas such as Sadr City. The new plan to form “sons of Iraq” councils in Sadr City is a gesture in this direction, but clearly playing second fiddle to the Bush Administration’s addiction to violence as the solution of choice to all problems. Empowering the poor would, of course, empower Moqtada, but empowering opponents is what democracy is all about.
  • Second, Washington could promote an Iraqi energy policy focused on ensuring that all groups of Iraqis benefit. Such a policy might, of course, entail certain costs for Big Oil.
  • Third, Washington could push for the inclusion of the new Sunni groups into the government and army.

Of course, the prospect of the emergence of a truly national Iraqi government might cause some eyebrows to be lifted on the part of Maliki and al-Hakim, who think they have a lock on national power; any neocons who still foresee a lasting U.S. condominium in Iraq; and Tehran, increasingly comfortable as the real power behind the throne.

Admittedly, the Bush Administration has a problem. If it tries to bring everyone into the political system, then Iraqi forces favoring Iraqi control over Iraqi oil resources will no doubt gain influence. So will Iraqi forces favoring Iraqi control over Iraq in general, which might shorten by several decades the lifespan of all those very solidly constructed U.S. military bases. So the Administration has to weigh that against the hornet’s nest of ethnic conflict into which it is now sticking its big, pointed stick. What to do? What to do? After all these years and all that money, should Washington let the bases and the oil slip through its fingers in the name of inclusiveness and democracy? Or, should it suffer through a new wave of ethnic violence that will plague Bush’s last few months in office, the election, and the beginning (if not the middle and end) of the next president’s term in office as well? To some, it may indeed seem tempting to try to force the transformation of Sadr City into one 3,000,000-man-strong strategic hamlet.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Jabbing a Stick into a Factional Hornet's Nest

Theoretical musings on the implications intervention in a factional dispute by an external power...

To view a political faction as an entity whose nature can be ascertained and labeled and then taken for granted, henceforth a “friend” to be helped or an “enemy” to be defeated, is to misunderstand human political behavior. Factions certainly have natures: indeed, individual members may come and go while a faction’s nature endures; individuals may also have their own natures transformed by the experience of becoming members. Nevertheless, the nature of a faction may also evolve, and the greater the evolutionary pressures imposed by a unstable and threatening environment, the more rapidly it is likely to be forced to evolve. Factions emerge out of a competitive environment via coevolution; i.e., they are all constantly adapting to each other, feeling their way toward better “fitness.” Members may believe they share a set of constant goals, but over time perceptions will shift, accommodations will be made, norms will shift, and the nature of the faction will evolve in response to evolutionary pressure.

The lessons of this perspective that sees factions as adaptive rather than static are critical to dealing effectively with a country characterized by intense factionalism:
  • Factions are primarily concerned with adapting to a new environment that is itself rapidly adapting and therefore almost certainly perplexing even for actors at home in the local culture. (A faction whose primary concern is some pure ideological goal probably won’t last very long.)
  • There may be no theoretical reason why overwhelming force won’t defeat a faction, but the practical problems pose major obstacles - 1)The high probability of having to fight in an urban environment, where military action may well provoke so much civilian hatred that every victory only raises the faction’s recruitment rate; 2) Cultural complexities that will undercut the effectiveness of every move, to the point of tricking an external actor into helping its real enemies and harming its real friends (should there be any); 3) The longer the attack by an outsider continues and the more that attack harms civilians, the more the local faction will be able to wrap itself in the flag. To the degree the faction becomes identified with the population, it becomes impossible to defeat, short of outright genocide.
  • To the degree that a faction constitutes the practical, on-the-ground local government, it will have a degree of legitimacy that will give it far more resilience than it is likely to derive from its military weapons, so it will almost certainly be far stronger than it appears to an outsider. A solidly based faction in a country whose government and society have collapsed will, for the locals, be the only game in town. Frontal attack is the least effective means of eliminating such a faction.
  • Opportunities for influencing the course of events will crop up frequently, but control will be almost impossible: the former because both the environment and all the actors will be constantly experimenting with new tactics; the latter because no one, least of all an external actor, will be able to predict the long-term impact of any change in behavior.
  • Given the inevitable challenge an external actor will face in becoming familiar with a new culture, the risk of being manipulated by self-proclaimed local allies exists;
  • Factions, as adaptive actors, are likely to be radicalized by pressure, not to mention outright attack, a self-fulfilling proposition;
  • All or nothing policies that burn one's bridges (e.g., by cutting all ties with an opponent, refusing to negotiate, labeling the opponent as evil, committing some act of evil of one's own that the opponent can never forgive) are irresponsible gambles because of the impossibility of predicting their effect and, at best, unreasonably expensive ways to achieve one's goal because any number of less expensive methods are likely to be available.

To view a political system as a complex adaptive system composed of interconnected, coevolving factions is to accept the limits of human knowledge and control. The most valuable reward to be derived from such a perspective may simply be the way it deflates hubris.

This perspective also grants one the luxury of patience: since lasting control over anything is so unlikely, one can logically step back a little; today’s defeat may bring tomorrow’s victory. The absurdity of constant motion is revealed.

Third, this perspective invalidates the argument that the ends (e.g., military security, energy security, protection of the faith, democracy) justify the means (e.g., terrorism, state terrorism, collective punishment, war on cities, preventive war). If everything is constantly adapting to everything else, not only will the extremist means necessary to achieve some goal today very possibly no longer be necessary tomorrow, but it is quite likely that one can influence the situation to one's benefit with moderate means - because there are no absolutes. The behavior of actors in a complex system is very easy to influence. Conversely, the ultimate outcome of any nudging is impossible to determine. Both points argue for cautious, incremental nudging rather than extreme, violent, "burn your bridges" approaches.

In sum, the more intense the factional competition and the more fluid the structure and rules of the political system, the greater the pressure to adapt, and, therefore, the greater the opportunity for subtle elicitation of desired behavior rather than the all-or-nothing military attack that, if less than totally successful, will exacerbate the opponent’s hostility.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Key statements by Richard Falk comparing the collective punishment of the people of Gaza to the Nazi Holocaust are given below, but his complete address of June 29, 2007, is well worth reading; unfortunately, it is more relevant to more places in the world today than it was even last year.

There is little doubt that the Nazi Holocaust was as close to
unconditional evil as has been revealed throughout the entire bloody history of the human species….

Against this background, it is especially painful for me, as an American Jew, to feel compelled to portray the ongoing and intensifying abuse of the Palestinian people by Israel through a reliance on such an inflammatory metaphor as ‘holocaust.’...

Is it an irresponsible overstatement to associate the treatment of Palestinians with this criminalized Nazi record of collective
atrocity? I think not. The recent developments in Gaza are especially disturbing because they express so vividly a deliberate intention on the part of Israel and its allies to subject an entire human community to life-endangering conditions of utmost cruelty.

Creating a Gulag in Baghdad

Sadr City: 3,000,000 poor people surrounded by troops, cut off from the rest of their country, with social services provided by Moqtada al Sadr's Mahdi Army. Who is winning the hearts and minds of Iraqis?

Listen to this report by Pepe Escobar of Real News:

Highlights from the video:

Muqtada al-Sadr, in all western reports, is always branded as a
firebrand cleric or a radical cleric. There's nothing to it. In fact, he's a
very, very clever politician. He knows that al-Maliki is after him and the Sadrists, because the government in Baghdad and the Americans are terrified that the Sadrists are going to win the next provincial
elections in October.
This also means that the battle of Basra a few
weeks ago that became battle of Baghdad as well is not over. In fact, the encroaching of Sadr City, which is the main area of concentration of the Sadrists, continues. Sadr City's basically a gigantic slum—it could be northern Africa or near the Pakistani tribal areas—with 3 million people. They are poor, they are angry, they are seething, and they come from all parts of southern Iraq. And now they're being totally strangled. The whole area's being strangled. To get to Sadr City there are only two boulevards from the other parts of Baghdad, and then there's a main boulevard that crosses Sadr City, and then you can drive, in fact walk, around a labyrinth inside the slum. What the Maliki forces are doing with the help of the Americans is to completely
strangle this area. They already strangled twelve mini-neighborhoods among the 79 neighborhoods that compose Sadr City. So this in a nutshell is what the Maliki government, the embattled Maliki government, and the American forces in Baghdad are doing. Their new surge in fact is a gulag. They are trying to transform Sadr City into a 3 million-people gulag in the center of Baghdad.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Militias in Iraq ***Are*** the Government!

Uprooted and Unstable: Meeting Urgent Humanitarian Needs in Iraq

By Kristele Younes & Nir Rosen

New report from Refugees International

If you wonder what is happening in Iraq, rather than listening to Congressional testimony, just read the new report from Refugees International. It focuses on the plight of the roughly one-sixth of the Iraqi population that has, since the U.S. invasion, been forced to flee from its home. Many key points of the report deal specifically with the directly related nature of governance in Iraq today. Some key points:

Five years into the US military intervention in Iraq, the country is
dealing with one of the largest humanitarian and displacement crises
in the world.
According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 2.7 million Iraqis are internally displaced, 1.5 million of them after the Samarra bombings of February 2006. The needs of the displaced are not adequately addressed by the Government of
Iraq or the international community. This vacuum is quickly being filled by militias and other armed groups
, who engage in hearts and minds campaigns and provide assistance as a means of building support for their political and military goals.

In addressing security concerns in Iraq, the US is failing to take into
consideration the needs of the cvilian population and the consequences of leaving these needs unmet.

As for the Iraqi government, it resembles the rest of the country. Fragmented and torn apart by sectarian rivalries and corruption, it is unable and unwilling to use its important resources to respond appropriately to the humanitarian crisis. The security situation is
far from stable, and the likelihood of further displacement is high. In
this environment, returns of displaced Iraqis should not be encouraged, and measures must be taken to ensure that appropriate mechanisms are in place to deal with all possible contingencies….

Shiite and Sunni Militias:
Filling the Assistance Gap

Refugees International visited many locations inhabited by displaced families throughout Baghdad. Many live in makeshift homes, water leaks on them in the rain, livestock graze in mounds of garbage where
barefoot children play, dirt roads are flooded with sewage. Many have little access to clean water or
electricity. Assistance is scarce. As a result of the importance of non-state actors in the delivery of assistance and security, civilians are joining militias, whether the Mahdi Army or Sunni militias.

Displaced Iraqis are no exception. In need of an array of services, and often led by the desire to “belong” to their new communities, increasing numbers of displaced men are now members of these armed groups.
The Government of Iraq shows little capacity or willingness to deal with the displacement crisis, which angers international governments
that provide funding for humanitarian assistance and prevents them from adopting a more proactive approach to the humanitarian crisis.

Refugees International met with a representative from a donor government who expressed dismay at the fact that the Government of Iraq has billions of unspent dollars that have yet to be allocated to the
humanitarian response. A European donor told RI that the Ministry of Finance does not want to release funds, and that many Ministries do not have anyone in charge. According to a UN official in Baghdad,
“Iraqi Government institutions can’t spend money properly because they have no staff.” One telling example is Iraq’s Committee for Disarmament, which has a 35 million dollar budget, and a staff of

Because of the Government of Iraq’s inability to respond to the needs
of Iraqis, and the UN ’s slowness in addressing the humanitarian
crisis in Iraq, a vacuum was created that is being filled by non-state actors.
The fragmentation of Iraq and the eradication of any form of real government benefit militias and individual political movements
that provide assistance as an integral part of their programs. As a
result, non-state actors play a central role in providing assistance to
families throughout Iraq. The largest “humanitarian” organization in Iraq is the Sadrist movement affiliated with Muqtada al Sadr, the
anti-American Shiite cleric, and his local Offices of the Martyr Sadr,
which exist throughout Iraq — from Kirkuk to Baghdad to Basra.
Operating on a model similar to the Lebanese Hezbollah, his sustainable program provides shelter, food and non-food items to hundreds of thousands of Shiites in Iraq….

As part of its assistance programs, the Mahdi Army — Muqtada al Sadr’s armed group — also “resettles” displaced Iraqis free of charge in homes that belonged to Sunnis. It provides stipends, food, heating oil, cooking oil and other non-food items to supplement the Public
Distribution System (PDS ) rations which are still virtually impossible to transfer after displaced Iraqis have moved to a new neighborhood, though it is easier for Shiites to do so. Even when the displaced succeed
in transferring them, they find that, because of rampant corruption and banditry on the roads, they do not get more than fifty percent
of what the rations used to contain. 80% of the population of Iraq was dependent on the Public Distribution System before 2003.

Refugees International visited an office of the Sadr movement in the Ur district of Baghdad. The office provided locals with clothing, milk, oil, rice, sugar, clothes and fuel for heating and cooking when supplies are available. The central government does not play any role in that area. Locals even come to the Sadr office for the adjudication of legal disputes. The office also provides stipends to displaced families and the families of slain or imprisoned Mahdi Army men.

Sunni militias play a similar role with displaced and other needy
Sunnis. They too settle the displaced in homes that belonged to Shiites. There is less organized help for Sunnis, but the Islamic Party — the
main Sunni political Party in the Government — is an important service provider, distributing food and non-food items, providing medical relief and supporting local NG Os. Sunni militias also handle the distribution of key items such as heating gas. As Sunnis in Baghdad
get virtually no electricity or other services from the government, they rely on local militias and warlords to secure their areas and manage what services they can obtain.

The Calculus of External Intervention in Factional Disputes

Imagine a country ruled by four roughly equal factions, each representing a different segment of the population. All four agree that the country should remain united and avoid civil war, but they disagree on almost every other issue. Is this a stable political system?

Add: each feels that it can trust none of the others, and each realizes that the danger of civil war is great. Now one might expect considerable surface turbulence but an underlying stability because all will exercise restraint out of fear that things could get worse.

In such a situation, what options do meddling external powers have? Any intervention would raise suspicions; aid to one faction would be likely to push the other factions to seek their own external patrons; and all calculations about the dangers of civil war would be redone. Intervention would be highly likely to destabilize the situation. Of course, destabilizing the equilibrium to the external power’s advantage would very likely be the external power’s intent, but how would an external power go about calculating the likely outcome of any intervention? Could such a calculation possibly have any reliability?

Add: a potential external patron exists to provide support to each of the factions. Now the consequences of intervention become effectively impossible to calculate.

But some conclusions can be drawn:

  • Intervention will raise tensions and lead to instability.
  • The outcome of that instability cannot be predicted.
  • As for the probability of being able to destabilize the situation but still keep it under control so that it moves in a desired direction, that would depend on how political systems work.

A mechanic may tinker with a car, tightening a screw here, greasing a wheel there in the quite reasonable expectation that he can achieve an expected level of performance. When one wheel is being greased, the other wheels do not demand more grease for themselves or reject “bribery” and call for death to all mechanics; they just sit there. A car can be engineered. When one attempts to engineer a society, something very different occurs: tinkering with one part causes all the other parts to adjust, some slowly, some faster; that in turn causes the original part to adjust, changing all on its own in reaction to unseen changes occurring elsewhere in the system even while the “mechanic” is applying the grease! Unless the mechanic is extremely observant and works very fast, he may well end up greasing a part that has already transformed itself into something new: an ally becomes an opponent, a supporter of the official political system experiments with violent regime change or tries to blow up the mechanic.

The mere act of providing public support may so embarrass a client that the client feels forced to oppose its patron or may weaken a client’s legitimacy in the eyes of the public.

The provision of support to one faction will almost certainly provoke insecurity on the part of all the others, persuading each to take a new look at its options for acquiring commensurate support from potential allies that it may have. This in turn sets up
a new competition: factions already competing for power now find themselves competing for external patron support. Whether or not any patron is supplying arms, rumors to that effect will fly, pushing all the rest in that direction.

The reason that the mental model of tinkering with a car to engineer the desired performance fails when applied to a political system is straightforward: the car is a simple system, the polity is a complex system. (One could have a car that was complex; the idea is explored in “transformer” cartoons. One could also have a relatively "simple" society – Hitler and Stalin worked hard to achieve that goal.) But the made-up political system in our story contains four independent factions who chose to accept certain constraints on their otherwise intense mutual competition: a gross simplification of the systems in most real countries but nevertheless already very complex.

So all these complications flow from a supposedly straightforward effort by one external actor to aid one faction in a four-faction political system that, although complex, is still so simplified as to be only barely relevant to the real world.

A Little More Reality
Now, let us add a little more reality to our mental model. Let’s say that our society, which is governed by four factions, contains only three ethnic groups. Two groups are united and represented by one faction each. The third group has a class cleavage, with one faction representing the rich and one the poor. Let’s also assume that this third ethnic group has an absolute majority, so the country’s stability rests on its division (preventing it from taking control). By the way, this most fortunate country has four armies – one owned by each faction. A recent history of bitter ethnic conflict makes it extremely difficult for any sincere, long-term cooperation to occur among the three ethnic groups. Each army is solidly based in its own segment of society and has ready access to an endless supply of arms. Attacking it will thus result in immediately increased popular support, rising rates of recruitment, rising inflow of arms, and increasingly extreme and unconventional defensive tactics.

Now, what are the implications of any decision by an external actor to get involved in the internal politics of our model country?

How might the two small ethnic groups react if they see outside intervention on behalf of one faction representing the large ethnic group in an attempt to unify that large group?

How might external actors who share the ethnicity of one of the small ethnic groups react?

How might any neighboring country react, watching the level of instability rise?

Whatever the answer, one conclusion is clear: the situation now is even less predictable than it was for our initial model. Yet this remains an unrealistically simplistic model: it describes no real country. To describe a real country would require all sorts of additional complications; one might need, for example, to add a scattering of small splinter factions eagerly waiting for a chance to take over.

But to represent reality one would also have to describe not just the components of the political system but also its dynamics. What is happening? What is the process, for example, by which a political faction gains legitimacy in the eyes of the public? Legitimacy may be expressed by voting in a stable democracy or by volunteering to join a militia in a less mature polity; either way, the factions need it to survive. What is the process by which factions acquire and dispense resources? How are these processes affected by external intervention? Does the effort expended by the external actor translate into something gained? Does the effort necessarily even gain anything...or does it have a negative impact? In a word, when an external actor intervenes in an internal factional dispute by siding with one faction against another, what impact does this have?

Conceiving of the society in question as a machine whose performance needs to be enhanced through some skilled engineering will make it almost impossible to figure out the correct answer. Rather, one should conceive of the society as a complex adaptive system. This will certainly not “provide the answers,” but it will suggest valuable questions and provide essential warnings. To be continued...

Monday, April 14, 2008

Impact of U.S. Policy on Iran-Iraq Relations

Analysts of Iraqi politics Brian Katulis and Matthew Duss point out the "strategic confusion" of Washington's policies toward Iraq and Iran:

Over the past five years, Iran has hedged its bets, maintaining ties and offering support to all of the major Shiite factions in Iraq, including Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army, which fought pitched battles with the Iraqi army and the Badr Corps last month. But Americans should be clear about where Iran's closest allies are in Iraq. They are at the highest levels of the Iraqi government.
With the Iraq war in its sixth year, the United States needs to step back from its current approach in Iraq, which at best could be described as strategic confusion. The United States is working to isolate the Iranian regime internationally through sanctions and threats, yet in Iraq our current policy is working to consolidate the historic expansion of Iran's influence that came as a consequence of the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq in 2003.
It is time for the United States to remove itself from the quagmire in Iraq and begin a phased redeployment of troops. Staying on the current path will only continue to strengthen Iran's position in Iraq and the region, a result that undermines America's national security interests.

Somalia = Iraq?

The following comments from a perceptive review of the situation in Somalia by Newsweek shines light on how foreign intervention can complicate local politics and generate undesired results.

In late 2006 the United States backed Ethiopia's incursion into
Somalia, designed to oust the Islamic Courts Union, the Islamist coalition that had taken over much of the overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim country. (Al-Shabaab was the Courts' military wing.) Washington accused the Islamists of harboring Qaeda operatives involved in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and
Tanzania. But the Courts had also brought more stability than Somalia had enjoyed in years. Somalis could walk the streets and do business again, and many welcomed the Islamists just as war-weary Afghans hailed the Taliban in the 1990s.

Now, by trying to prevent another terrorist haven like Afghanistan from developing, America may have helped create another Iraq, this
one in the volatile Horn of Africa. "Every year this fighting continues, the situation worsens," says Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Abdul Salaam of Somalia's Transitional Federal Government. The Islamists' eviction in 2006 left a power vacuum that the U.N.
government still hasn't managed to fill. Ethiopian troops are loathed as occupiers and rarely leave their heavily fortified bases. And al-Shabaab has broken off from the Courts to wage a brutal and effective insurgency. The guerrillas have overrun at least eight Somali towns this year and control parts of the capital. Where once they brought order to Somalia, they now gleefully spread chaos.

Mogadishu looks like Baghdad during its darker days. Thousands of Ethiopian soldiers are hunkered down behind sandbags, concrete
barriers and heavy artillery. Whenever they go out on patrol, their heavily armored convoys are blasted by roadside bombs, rockets and small arms fire. In recent weeks, al-Shabaab has stepped up a suicide-bombing campaign; an attack last week targeted a compound housing African Union peacekeepers, wounding nine and killing one. Leaflets warning of death to government collaborators likewise recall Iraq.

Factions in Islamic Politics

For outsiders, factions constitute one of the most misunderstood aspects of Islamic politics, in part because of lack of familiarity with local culture and politics but also because all too often the dynamic is perceived by outsiders as static. Outsiders tend to underestimate the degree to which the very process of Western intrusion into a Moslem society causes change. In a desperate search for understanding, outsiders quickly label individuals and groups “good” or “bad,” “anti-somebody” or “pro-somebody,” in the assumption that not only are these labels meaningful but that they remain so, failing to understand the degree to which their very intrusion causes the perceptions, attitudes, tactics, and goals of the factions to evolve. Complexity is about adaptation, not stability, and a Western-Islamic sociopolitical confrontation is nothing if not complex.

Such a confrontation challenges rules of morality, norms of behavior, methods of organizing society, and power relationships at every level. This pressure sets off an unpredictable jockeying among all the political forces in the society, as they try to figure out where they should stand and where they want to stand. Since the answers for each individual and group are greatly a function of the conclusions that all other individuals and groups draw, an enormous amount of calculation and recalculation ensues.

This situation gives rise to an endless series of practical questions of enormous import for anyone concerned with taking effective action but whose answers are not only difficult to determine but frequently ephemeral:

  • Should the Taliban in Pakistan be viewed as distinct from al Qua’ida? What about the local Uzbekis or various tribal activists? When groups differ, even slightly, what are the long-term implications of subjecting them to the same military pressure?
  • Should the Islamic Courts Union and al-Shabaab be viewed as parts of the same faction or should the former be seen as a relatively moderate reformist group and the latter seen as “terrorist,” as some now call it? Do those labels matter? Should a foreign government wishing to have influence refuse to deal with a violent group that arises in reaction to outside military attack?
  • How many factions even exist in, say, Iraq? If we simplify and say that, for some purpose, there are four: the Kurds, Abdul-Aziz Hakim’s Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq (ISIC) and its Badr Organization militia, Sadr’s Mahdi Army, and the Sunnis, then would it be preferable for some purpose to have three (removing sadr)? What impact will it have on the Sunnis, with their new 100,000-man militia, if the majority Shi’a are reunited under one faction? How would that influence the behavior of the Shi’a? Would a united Shi’a majority be more likely to share oil with the Sunnis, invite them to participate in national government, or admit their Awakening troops into the national army? And how will all this affect the behavior and popularity of the smaller factions (e.g., Maliki’s Dawa) that we so conveniently ignored in order to create the simple mental model of a four-faction political environment?

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Clear Talking About Moqtada al-Sadr

You have to search for it, but the torrent of hot air about the justifications for continuing the U.S. occupation of Iraq actually includes some highly perceptive remarks. Consider, for example, Joe Klein's concluding comments in a nice review of the Petraeus hearings:

the Petraeus battle plan apparently includes an anti-Sadrist move,
which may mean a spurt of violence as widespread and vicious as the worst of the Sunni insurgency. Is that why the general wants a "pause" in the U.S. withdrawal this summer?

What could possibly be the rationale for this? Perhaps it is that Sadr's Mahdi Army is the most potent force opposed to long-term U.S. bases
in Iraq—and that a permanent presence has been the Bush administration's true goal in this war. I suspect the central question in Iraq now is not whether things will get better but whether the drive for a long-term, neocolonialist presence will make the situation irretrievably worse.

Another example is the refreshingly clear comments by Matthew Yglesias that follow, which, to summarize, argue that Moqtada is not anti-American, he wants a free Iraq. That may be anti-Bush or anti-Cheney or anti-empire (if Joe Klein is correct), but it is not anti-American.

We oppose Sadr because Sadr opposes the U.S. military presence in Iraq. Indeed, at times he opposes it through violent means that lead to the death of our troops. But "killing people who oppose the U.S. military presence in Iraq" isn't a reasonable rationale for the U.S. military presence in Iraq. This is what's led Joe Klein to speculate that the anti-Sadr tilt is driven by our quest for permanent military bases. Sadr is an opponent of what we're doing in Iraq, but he doesn't have some larger conflict with the United States -- he's not plotting an invasion of Delaware, he's willing to sell oil on an open market,
etc. -- and while his credentials as a liberal democrat are highly suspect, so are those of the people we work with in Iraq (and Saudi Arab, Kuwait, Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, etc.) all the time. That's not to say we should partner-up with Sadr or wish him particularly well in his adventures, but it's just to reiterate the point that we could easily afford to adopt a posture of indifference to Iraq's internal political disputes and just go home.