Saturday, May 31, 2008

Making the New Nonpolar World Liveable

Richard N. Haass (Foreign Affairs, May/June 2008, p.52) makes the important point that while the now-emerging global political nonpolarity may be inevitable, “its character is not.” He continues with a critical contribution by opening a discussion of what action the U.S. should take to influence this dangerously “random” (i.e., unpredictable) nonpolarity away from instability. He takes as his base assumption that systems with numerous actors “tend toward greater randomness” and points out some ways in which the U.S. is currently contributing to such randomness, such as unrestrained consumption of scarce petroleum resources, which enormously inflates the power of many state and nonstate actors. However, Haass barely stratches the surface of steps that could be taken to construct a structure of global governance to manage the otherwise dangerously complex and unpredictable world that he foresees and that is, indeed, quite visible on the horizon of the contemporary world with the dual challenge to the rule of international law that currently comes both from the Islamic extremists and right-wing Western extremists, not to mention assorted narcotics and proliferation criminal networks.

Return to Being a Positive Example for Democracy. Democracy at the point of a gun, a wild-eyed hypothesis whose pointlessness has been all too clearly demonstrated in recent years, needs to be replaced by a restoration of America the example. Here, Haass hit the nail on the head, calling for the U.S. “to get its own house in order” (pp. 52-53). Bombing foreign cities because “bad guys” are mixed into their populations (what urban center has no bad guys?) or allowing local police to threaten with death refugees from fleeing U.S. cities that collapse (as happened after Katrina) does not make our system attractive, nor does torture of suspects whose guilt has not been proven or the gradual degradation of civil rights. Democracy is automatically attractive when it is nurtured, when it goes beyond meaningless elections to structuring a political system that is all-inclusive, when it protects unpopular minority opinion, when it paves the way for the common good. Actually realizing such a utopian society may be beyond the capacity of mankind, but when America is perceived at least to be working toward such a vision, it becomes irresistibly attractive and gains a power no other society can match.

From Selfish Capitalism to the Green Revolution. It is precisely the U.S., the citadel of unrestrained consumption, that needs to lead the revolution toward sustainability. Only the U.S. has the combination of economic power, excess consumption, and technical expertise to invent a profitable, sustainable, post-carbon economy. Science can be the solution, but government needs to focus scientific creativity. Call it the Green Manhattan Project or the Green NASA or the Green DARPA: government-funded research would help, government prizes for accomplishments would help, but most of all a tax structure that rewards green innovators would open the door to a new future in which we conceive of green industry as the nation’s business.

Real Non-Proliferation. Nothing more clearly symbolizes the dangerous slide of the international political system toward “random” nonpolarity than the image of a lone terrorist with a suitcase WMD. A sincere effort to curb proliferation is an essential component of a policy designed to create a stable future. Such an effort would entail, at a minimum:

  • consistent rules for all;
  • a structure of rewards for those who do not acquire certain weapons (e.g., a promise that a nation that does not possess nuclear weapons will not be threatened with nuclear attack)
    support for those willing to accept international assistance to guard the WMD that they possess;
  • a clear policy that the government will not participate in any activity designed to proliferate WMD for political benefit.

Today, not one of the above non-proliferation principles is taken seriously by decision-makers.

The point, then, is that even though we cannot prevent the world from becoming more unpredictable, there is much we could do to guide the world in a more comfortable direction…but it will require a fundamental rethinking of how the U.S. behaves.

We do not want a world dictatorship; no known human agency has the integrity to merit such power. Yet we also do not want the random unpredictability of hundreds of uncoordinated, self-centered actors butting heads with dangerous destructive but minimal constructive power. The best outcome for the foreseeable future is a complex world with many empowered actors who nevertheless operate within a structure that imposes restraints even as it liberates creativity.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Global Power Evolving

The meaning and nature of power in global affairs is evolving rapidly, and our understanding of how is slipping dangerously behind the changing reality. The result is a rising tendency to use power in ways that turn out to be counterproductive…generating exactly the type of world we do not want.

Simplistically, the traditional and fairly accurate image of power used to be a hierarchical one: start with diplomacy; should that fail, try economic pressure; should that fail, use the military. By “accurate,” I mean very simply that it worked: if you had more military power and used it, generally, you won. The side with the most military power, no coincidentally, generally also had the most economic and diplomatic power.

Today, a much more sophisticated image of power is required in order to apply power effectively. The types of power are more varied. The relationship among the types of power are less predictable and certainly not necessarily hierarchical. Actors possessing one type of power do not necessarily possess the others. Even though military power is increasingly good at destruction, its ability to accomplish anything useful is declining. The categories of actor possessing significant power are multiplying.

One way to sort through this would be maps illustrating who possesses what amount of key types of power. I suspect the results would surprise most people. Judging from the policies of various countries, the results would apparently come as a shock to most decision makers as well. Of course, one really doesn’t ever know how much power any actor actually has or even in principle how to measure it. But mapping actors and their power, using the kind of maps made available by Worldmapper would nonetheless be an informative exercise.

Just imagine a world map of actors with the now critical power to influence the price of grain! Where would you rank Monsanto Corporation, in comparison, say, to the world’s major military powers?

Imagine a map of world actors in terms of the power of their ideas! How many actors would even make the list? And how many of them would be countries? Think of the changes in only the last 20 years - the power of the communist ideal today seems almost laughable. Now we have the power of jihad. And what has happened since 9/11 to the attractiveness of the idea of democracy?

Although technology makes the application of power more efficient, the rising confusion between application and result make the impact of that power less predictable. The impact on Ahmadinejad's career of the U.S. invasion of Iraq is a case in point. Failure to correct this mismatch is likely to make the world a very unpleasant place.

Quote of the Day: "Moral Cowardice of Western Intellectuals" on Israel

Kishore Mahbubani:

The liberal internationalists were at the forefront of calls to hold Sudan and China accountable for the misery in Darfur under the concept of "responsibility to protect". Yet, many of these same voices did not bring up the concept of responsibility to protect when collective punishment was imposed on the people of Gaza. There is one point that needs to be emphasized here: there is always a litmus test to assess a person's intellectual and moral courage. In the West, especially in America, this litmus test is provided by the Middle East issue.

The intellectual and moral cowardice of Western intellectuals on this issue is stunning. Paradoxically, by censoring their views on Israel, they have done great damage to Israel by failing to point out to it the sheer folly of remaining in perpetual conflict with its neighbors. The next time any Western intellectual calls upon the rest of the world to show courage by speaking "truth to power" he or she should lead the charge by speaking "truth to power" on the Israel-Palestine dispute.

Building Up Arab Nationalism

The big question in the aftermath of Nasrallah’s recent call for a nationalist (i.e., not sectarian-based) Islamic (i.e., not just Arab) resistance is the degree to which anyone aside from his Lebanese Shi’ite followers (Iraqi Shi’a, Sunni Arabs, or non-Arab Moslems) will change his behavior in response to Nasrallah’s call. The answer of course remains unknown, but Israel’s heavyhanded firing by its army on Gazans protesting Israel’s economic war of collective punishment against Gaza certainly enhances the likelihood that Nasrallah’s dismissing of the utility of negotiations will fall on receptive ears. Do Israeli voters really want their government building up Nasrallah’s credibility as the potential leader of Arab nationalism by demonstrating the accuracy of his words before they are hardly out of his mouth?

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Emotional Reactions to Economics

When gasoline prices rise, people use less of a rare resource that, at least in the U.S., is commonly wasted. Moreover, gasoline is a poison wrecking the very air we breathe. People drive everywhere, causing politicians to pave over a huge percentage of our land and making people fat because they become accustomed to evading exercise. Yet, any rise in the price of gas is treated as a disaster.

The greatest expense for an individual by far is his house. Americans now have an astounding anti-inflationary gift that is putting money in their pockets - the cost of buying a home is rapidly declining. Everyone who wants to buy is significantly richer today than they were a year ago - the difference is far greater than any raise you could expect to get at work. Yet, every decline in the cost of housing is treated as a disaster.

Am I confused...or does the media interpretation of events represent the views of a particular influential minority?

Hezbollah Offers Islamic World a Plan

Hezbollah challenges the West with a "strategy of liberation"

On the 26th, Hezbollah Secretary General Hasan Nasrallah gave a speech in which he laid out Hezbollah’s position on Lebanese domestic politics and its fundamental strategic calculus on foreign affairs. Whether or not you agree with the speech, whether or not you choose to take Nasrallah at his word or not, he spoke clearly and laid out a viewpoint that will surely resonate throughout the Islamic world. For that reason, this is a speech that those interested in the confrontation between Islam and the West will ignore at their peril. (Here, I will comment only on his foreign policy remarks, as reported by al Manar; if he had other significant foreign policy remarks that al Manar omitted from its English report, please send me comments.)

I would very much like to hear who those who understand both Arabic and Persian think is the most effective Islamic speaker in the region today. Judging from the precision and logical clarity of this speech, Nasrallah is trying to be and, indeed, may already be that person. That he has some achievements unmatched by any other Islamic leader on his resume (2000, 2006, and the decision not to press for total control when he had the chance this month) only add to the effect. His speech represents a clear attempt to speak for all Moslems in delivering this challenge to the West.

Nasrallah’s strategic calculus:

I tell anyone whose country is under occupation: Don't wait for consensus…take up your arms and head to liberation. This is what happened in Lebanon. The resistance that constituted a part of the Lebanese people depended on its will and the strength of its fighters in the battlefield. The Arab and Islamic worlds should have helped them, but many of these governments lagged behind, however Syria and Iran spearheaded the countries that assisted the resistance and consequently the historic victory in 2000; a clear victory for Lebanon, the resistance, the Arabs and the Umma. It was also a clear defeat to Israel and its "from-Euphrates-to-Nile- Rivers" scheme in the region. The strategy of liberation adopted by the resistance was successful while the strategy of negotiations failed to gain back an inch of Lebanese land and the strategy of wait-and-see was making the enemy stronger.

Just in case anyone might miss the message, he added:

In occupied Iraq, there are those who believe in resistance and others in politics…Today, you must take the decisive position. The resistance has been dealing severe blows to the US occupation army. Iraq is called to follow the strategy of the resistance.

I predict this is a message that will be heard loud and clear not just in Iraq but in Pakistan, Somalia, Palestine, and everywhere else a Moslem population feels under attack by the West. It is of no use to debate whether or not some Moslem population in fact is under attack by the West; it is of no use to whine that the speech represents interference in someone's internal affairs. The issue here is perceptions.
To the extent that Westerners are troubled by the clearly stated challenge of this speech, they need to consider why so many Moslems share this perception. Nasrallah gave an important clue to the answer in his speech, when he noted the hope of Lebanese back during Israel’s early invasions a generation ago that the world would defend Lebanon against Israel. In the event, of course, it did not, and so Hezbollah rose to the occasion.
This is not an issue of “preventing terrorism.” To the degree that Moslems perceive themselves to be cornered by Western military and economic pressure with no choice other than resistance, they will find Nasrallah’s strategic calculus convincing. If the West does not want to face the consequences, it has a choice. Its choice is…to give Moslems a choice.
  1. For an assessment of the speech as a major strategic error because of its likely negative impact on Western ears, see this post by Abu Muqawama. In particular, Abu Muqawama asks why Nasrallah would make remarks that appear to endorse al Qua'ida's terrorism in Iraq.
  2. For an initial indication that Sunnis may respond positively to Nasrallah's call for a nonsectarian approach to resistance, see this post by Badger.

Hate Crimes

According to this piece in the New York Times, Joe Lieberman has asserted the right to censor the Internet - no, not that the U.S. has the right, which would be dangerous enough, but that he has the right! He has "demanded" that videos he does not like be removed.

The legal issue is whether or not a video or other publication may inspire hatred and violence. Clearly, Joe Lieberman's recent speeches on Iran do exactly that. Given that we all (is this "given"???) accept that crying fire in a crowded theater is unacceptable, the issue becomes one of applying this standard. There seems to be plenty of room for compromise here: if calls for Islamic resistance against American imperialism are to be considered out-of-bounds, then certainly calls for nuclear attack on a non-nuclear country should be even more clearly out-of-bounds.

I'll trade you one hate-filled Islamic militant for one hate-filled neo-con.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Forty Years of Israel Aggression Against Lebanon

Former Lebanese minister of finances George Corm:

Personnellement, je fais partie de ceux qui pensent que le Liban a été martyrisé par Israël durant 40 ans et que sans des garanties très solides qu’Israël ne s’en prendra pas encore au Liban, désarmer le Hezbollah aurait été une erreur majeure. Rappelons que la première attaque d’envergure de l’armée israélienne contre le Liban a eu lieu en 1968. Dix ans après, elle a occupé une large partie du sud du Liban de façon permanente. En 1982, son armée a occupé une bonne moitié du Liban, dont la capitale Beyrouth (environ 20 000 victimes au cours de la période de juin à septembre 1982). C’est à la vigueur de la résistance du Hezbollah que le Liban doit d’avoir obtenu l’évacuation de la plus grande partie de son territoire en 2000.

Like taking aspirin for a headache caused by brain cancer, criticizing a national resistance movement for arming itself without addressing the underlying security threat resolves nothing. This CNN timeline of the history of Lebanese-Israeli relations, which shows 40 years of Israel aggression, is instructive. If you simply want to feel good while you die from brain cancer, then aspirin may be a solution. If you simply want to look good in order to get elected as leader of, e.g., a superpower, then calling for the abolition of an in-your-face national resistance movement or uppity nationalist leader who won't do what the superpower wants may be a solution. But if your goal is to resolve a problem (e.g., brain cancer or the instability resulting from insecurity), then the solution needs to address the cause of the problem.

NOTE: My apologies to the reader; I am well aware that this sounds so obvious as to be condescending. Well, perhaps it is; but do not take offense: if you are not guilty of making the mistake, then you are not the one being insulted.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Somali Insurgent Offensive Vs. U.S.-Supported Ethiopians

While all eyes are focused on the complex dance of Lebanese clients and their international patrons, the U.S. confrontation with Islam continues apace in Somalia. As in Lebanon, resolution of local issues is complicated by the larger competition between external forces (in Somalia, al Qua’ida and the U.S. rather than Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, the U.S., France, and Israel, as in Lebanon), which enflames the fighting, intensifies antagonisms, and imperils local efforts at conciliation. Unlike Lebanon (since the retreat of U.S. forces in 1983, the retreat of Israeli forces in 2000, and the retreat of Syrian forces in 2005), the Somali situation is further enflamed by the participation in the fighting of foreign ground troops.

Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, a Somali insurgent leader, announced plans to expel U.S.-backed Ethiopian troops from Somalia by force despite on-going indirect peace talks in Djibouti –
talks that were undermined before they could even get started by a U.S. missile strike that killed not only an insurgent leader but two dozen others.

Indeed, opponents of the Ethiopian intervention force fighting in Somalia since December 2006 seem to be on the offensive this week, making good on their promise to avenge that missile attack and enhancing their negotiating position vis-à-vis traditional enemy Ethiopia in preparation for reconvening the talks on May 31. The Islamic Courts Union reportedly seized the agricultural center of Jilib on May 17.

The U.S. missile attack was the fifth since early 2007 on Somalia, attacks which have highlighted a U.S. policy that, according to Lynn Fredriksson, Advocacy Director for Africa, Amnesty International USA, has placed short-sighted counter-terror concerns at the forefront of U.S. involvement in the region, while human rights and humanitarian concerns are routinely pushed aside.” According to Ms. Fredriksson, the attacks have led to “civilian casualties, destruction of civilian property and livelihood, and the widespread belief that the U.S. protects the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and backs up Ethiopian forces, without genuine concern for civilians.”

The UN has warned that half the population faces famine. Troops fired on “tens of thousands of rioters” demanding food earlier in May.

U.S. missile attacks on insurgents may not slow their military activities but do seem quite effective against negotiations. Meanwhile, an additional 50,000 Somalis have been displaced so far this year, for a total of over 10% displaced out of a population of 8,000,000.

War Party Marginalized?

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Pakistan: Talks, Not War

In Iraq, the regime is attacking in Mosul with U.S. support but peacefully moving through Sadr City under an agreement reached with Iranian help that bans U.S. troops in the area; in Lebanon, fighting provoked by the hardline, U.S.-supported regime ended with a compromise favoring Hezbollah; in Somalia, negotiations have been suspended for a few days, while the insurgents/nationalists intensify attacks on the U.S.-supported Ethiopian intervention forces.

Meanwhile, despite “despite explicit expressions of concern from the United States about such truces,” Pakistan has negotiated a deal with the Taliban in the Swat Valley that appears to give them a significant measure of autonomy. For a less than enthusiastic summary, see Threatswatch.

The negotiations were successfully concluded despite a U.S. missile strike about which Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani said, "I strongly condemn this. It's absolutely wrong. It's unfair. They should not have done this action."

The agreement itself raises numerous questions:

  • Although the Pakistani government claims that no militias will be allowed, the Taliban has already made it clear they will observe the peace only so long as sharia law is implemented.
  • The government claims that women will not be compelled to wear veils or give up education and barber shops are not to be attacked, raising the question of what the contents of “sharia law” will be in this case.
  • Despite the agreement, militants launched an attack on government positions the very next day, on May 22. Tehreek-e-Taliban Swat spokesman Muslim Khan denied his group had been involved, raising the question of what has changed.

A Dawn editorial pointed out one of the most intriguing questions:

FATA is emerging as a ground zero as mixed signals come from Washington and Islamabad on the NWFP government’s initiative to strike peace deals with the militants. The US has been wary of such accords because of their history; militants have used the agreements signed with the military in recent years to bide time, regroup and continue their terrorist activities, of which Pakistan too has borne the brunt of late. The argument advanced by the Frontier government that the proposed peace deals will succeed this time round because they are being underwritten by an elected government as opposed to the earlier agreements signed with the military, and which were not backed by public mandate, can only be sustained if all concerned are on board. This is hardly the case. Washington and Kabul aside, even Islamabad has not extended its unconditional support to the Frontier government’s engagement with the militants. Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi has been heard on occasion parroting the line the Americans want to hear: no compromise with the militants. Thus, mystery surrounds the issue: the ANP-led government is talking to the militants; the PPP does not have a clear stance on the matter; the US and Nato keep carrying out bombing raids on Taliban/Al Qaeda targets inside Fata; and Kabul has been assailing what it calls Pakistan’s policy of ‘appeasing the Taliban’.

And all of that for just one valley.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Jewish Fanatics Burn Bible

Israeli religious fanatics from a Jewish madrassah...sorry, yeshiva...burned Bibles with the support of the local mayor (he called burning documents designed to persuade Jews to convert a "commandment").

This does not mean all Jews are fanatics.
This does not mean all Jewish mayors are fanatics.
This does not mean Israel is an enemy of Christianity.
This does not justify bombing Israel.
This does not mean that Israel poses an existential threat to the West, to Christianity, or to the U.S.

We should publicize Israeli religious fanaticism (as the above-cited Israeli newspaper did). Insulting another man's religion is bad, it is dangerous, it is against our principles. We should consider whether or not we wish to support a country in which such events occur. We should certainly ask if the government of Israel has condemned this insulting behavior. We should educate Israelis about democracy and help them to become responsible members of the modern world. But many countries contain fanatics, although it is admittedly not clear how many contain schools that teach and/or encourage such fanaticism. It is important not to overreact. There are many educated, morally righteous people in Israel. They should not be grouped with the fanatics or subjected to collective punishment because of the behavior of the fanatics. This needs to be dealt with calmly and kept in perspective. It is an issue of concern but one to be solved through reasoned discussion, not violence. This is the 21st century; the Middle Ages ended long ago.

War, Inc.

This blog does not advertize movies. This blog is serious. But then, War, Inc. is not just a's history. Or rather, current events. Things have changed since you were young. Back then, the media brought the news, and Hollywood brought entertainment.

Baghdad Regime Conquers Itself; Now, About Governing...

The impressive new army of the government of Baghdad today invaded itself (with only a little help from its colonial masters). Excited at finally being able to rule his own capital, rumor has it that Maliki intends to unify the whole Iraqi colony. The successful conquest of the slums of Baghdad present Maliki with a decision point: will he empty his capital and turn it into a Pyongyang-like showpiece ghostcity or will he actually govern* it?

* Govern: provide the standard array of civil and administrative services to the population (e.g., food, water, means of livelihood, security, education...) [You know, all the stuff that, say, your average radical militia typically provides.]

An Arab Voice

Sometimes a member of a group that has been victimized (in this case, a “Middle Easterner, an Arab woman”) can just cut through all the academic intellectualizing of us arm-chair political scientists and see things with embarrassing clarity.

Israel is a racist, chauvinist state based on so-called Judaism. It tortures, imprisons, steals lands, ethnically cleanses, erases history, destroy homes, displaces, exiles...

Iran is a racist, chauvinist state based on so-called Shi'ism. It tortures, imprisons, steals lands, ethnically cleanses, erases history, destroys homes, displaces and exiles...

Citizens of the smug and comfortable United States of America, do not for an instant think she is letting you off the hook just because you were not specifically cited.

Attacking Iran to Sabotage Obama?

Angry Arab noted on May 19, “Nobody knows American politics more than Hariri rags. This Hariri rag, for example, reports that if Obama wins the presidency, Bush will attack Iran in the two months separating the election from inauguration.

Don’t laugh; just because that thought is idiotic and criminal does not mean that it is not frighteningly believable. Would Obama have the courage to stand against the thoughtless tide of American anger against the Iranian victim that would inevitably result or would he allow himself to be locked into four more years of self-defeating American aggression?

Concerning poor Lebanon with its elites so fond of inviting external patrons to involve themselves in its internal disputes, how long would Hariri last under such circumstances? And if he did manage to survive Hezbollah anger, would he really want to see another 20-year-long Israeli occupation of his country?

P.S. Does anyone who reads Arabic see anything in the “Hariri rag” article worth translating?

Monday, May 19, 2008

"State Within a State:" An Opportunity?

What would happen if one of the Moslem states that has an opposition "state within a state" inside it simply declared that the existence of that feared "extremist" militia/party was an opportunity rather than a threat and began negotiating how to share the duties of government with it?

So Siniora or al-Maliki, just to mention two examples, calls up Nasrallah or al-Sadr and says, "Let's stop the nonsense. You exist. We're rather tied up at the moment with all this national governance business, so we not only accept your existence, we applaud it. All the territory you say you control is yours. Please give us the phone numbers of your local tax collectors so they can have lunch with our national tax collectors and figure out who keeps what. Keep as much as you want, but obviously the more you keep, the more stuff you are responsible for. Here's what we propose...if you keep 10%, you do the garbage collection and hospitals, we do the rest; if you want 30%, you add police; 50% you add education, etc. Just work it out. Oh, yeah, your title is Governor. Congratulations, Mr. Governor. Please send a report in to the national government quarterly. Have a nice day."

External Patrons & the Collapse of Moslem Polities

Shifting the burden of political compromise to one of cracking down on superficial symptoms such as political instability or the rise of opposition militias is needlessly intensifying local political instability and sacrificing independence to external patrons.

In comparison to most other societies, Islamic societies seem to be experiencing an unusually large amount of political discord. That is pretty obvious. Differentiating between myriad local causes and a few overarching systemic causes originating at the level of the global political system is not so easy, since the two classes of causes interact in any number of ways. But making that distinction is critical to figuring out the solutions. To the degree that the problem is one of distinct local issues of governance the solutions will be very different from those for a situation characterized by a Western-Islamic confrontation.

One of the many patterns that seems to be cropping up with disturbing frequency across the Islamic world is a process of burden shifting that is needlessly intensifying local political instability and, as an unintended consequence, enhancing the power of external patrons over local clients. When external patrons gain influence over local actors, a society’s political process is warped to serve the interests of the patrons rather than the society. The numerous clients in the Mideast who knowingly sell their freedom to external patrons in return for help in fighting their domestic battles are playing with fire.

Burden-shifting is a very common but subtle dynamic in human affairs. We are usually rather good at perceiving symptoms and, perhaps unfortunately, quick to identify solutions that have at least some success in addressing those symptoms. This is arguably unfortunate because those “symptomatic solutions” tend to be short-term “solutions” that provide false assurance and thus blind us to the more fundamental solutions that the situation actually requires. Tricked into thinking we have solved the problem once the particular symptom we have noticed takes a temporary turn for the better, we walk away from the underlying problem, which proceeds to worsen.

But that is just the beginning of the problem. Often, the short-term palliative we have come up with creates a new problem that intensifies underlying problem, perhaps by aggravating the symptom we were complaining about in the first place or perhaps by inhibiting implemention of the fundamental solution (that we haven’t even figured out yet). The “Shifting the Burden” diagram illustrates this whole process. Note that the actual problem is not even in the diagram! Think of the REAL PROBLEM as something hovering in the background, messing up your life but as yet unrecognized by you.

Any number of different specific examples of burden shifting may exist, the research challenge being to identify which ones are operative in any specific situation. One example that appears particularly common today in the Islamic world is “Shifting the Burden of Political Compromise,” illustrated in the graphic. The implied problem in the background is poor functioning of the political system. This problem generates a variety of symptoms, such as political instability and the rise of militias.

A common symptomatic solution to address these symptoms is for the regime to adopt a hardline stance toward domestic political opponents, entailing:

  • neglect of social services to those represented by the opposition (e.g., to Palestinians both in conquered territory and even in Jerusalem by Israel, to tribal regions in Pakistan, to the rural Shi’a in Lebanon, to the residents of Sadr City in Iraq, to the rural poor in Colombia, Bolivia [under the previous regime], and Venezuela [under the previous regime]);
  • the closing of opposition media;
  • efforts to minimize opposition participation in the political process (e.g., refusal by the Siniora-Hariri regime in Lebanon to allow Hezbollah additional ministers);
  • the organization of pro-regime militias (e.g., the AUC in Colombia, Hariri’s funding of a Sunni militia in Lebanon over the last two years);
  • military strikes against opposition militias (e.g., al Maliki’s attack on the Mahdi Army in Basra and Sadr City).

This hardline stance may initially reduce instability and the activity of militias but over time is likely to increase those symptoms because it will in practice tend to minimize efforts to resolve the real underlying problem, which is the absence of power-sharing. One could imagine a sophisticated two-track effort by a regime to, say, attack opposition militias but invite the opposition to participate in the political process. Indeed, both Qatar vis-à-vis Lebanon and Iran vis-à-vis Iraq seem to be advocating such a process at the moment. However, most politicians seem to find it too difficult to juggle a combined hardline/softline policy. Even if a politician happened to have the creativity and open-mindedness to advocate such a sophisticated policy, the hardline aspects will provoke radicalization of the opposition (e.g., Hizballah’s tough reaction to Siniora’s recent attempt to destroy its communications network) and politicians frequently fall into the simplistic trap of labeling the opposition as “evil,” making compromise much more difficult. In brief,

H1 = the more the regime adopts a hardline stance, the more political instability and related symptoms will be provoked.

In addition,

H2 = the more the regime adopts a hardline stance, the less power-sharing will occur, and the less power-sharing occurs, the more
instability will be generated.

That describes the dynamics of the blue arrows.

The red arrows represent an additional set of dynamics. A hardline stance is difficult (e.g., military confrontation is expensive and provokes domestic opposition so it gets increasingly expensive over time). Therefore,

H3 = the more a regime implements a hardline policy toward the domestic opposition, the more tempted it will be to request the support of an external patron.

But that support will come at a cost (patrons want payback), and the cost is likely to be that the patron is getting involved because it has broader reasons of its own to desire the suppression (or at least marginalization) of the opposition, so the cost is insistence of the patron on an even more extreme hardline stance. Thus,

H4 = the more a regime asks for external support for a hardline
policy, the more hardline that policy will become, and the less opportunity there will be for power-sharing.

Of course, like H1- H3, that is just an hypothesis. Such need not be the case: it depends on the attitudes of the various external patrons. The lesson for client regimes: choose your patron wisely.

In today’s Islamic world, the following process is all too common: governance is poor, but the burden of political compromise is deemed too great by the regimes, which therefore adopt a hardline stance in order to alleviate the symptoms. This hardline stance threatens to provoke a domestic reaction that will get the regime overthrown, so it calls in external support, which gets the regime involved in a much bigger game, one that it cannot control, and the influence of the patrons rises. But two can play that game, and the opposition also calls on external patrons. As the process continues cycling, both sides become radicalized. Political disputes turn military; policy differences are distorted into sectarian differences; and each side increasingly thinks and speaks of the opponent as “evil,” thus defining any solution aside from a “final” one as immoral. In practice, a “fundamental solution” has now been defined as impossible, so the society disintegrates.

The subtle process of burden shifting is bad enough by itself. When it aggravates the process of selling out one’s independence to an external patron, it should come as no surprise that the result may well be aggravation of sectarian strife that may lead to years of turmoil, the undermining of economic progress, and the destruction of society. The most critical lesson here is that the many societies we see engulfed in sectarian strife today got there less because of “traditional hatreds” than as a result of external interference that intentionally enflamed local divisions in order to facilitate the manipulation of local actors.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

External Encouragement of Lebanese Conflict: Evidence?

Lebanese political instability can be viewed on many levels. The knee-jerk reaction in some circles is to explain everything as an Iranian plot. The opinions typically range far ahead of the evidence, so…what evidence is there?

Here’s one piece, for what it may be worth (I have no way of judging):

well trained militias have run over the airport and allowed an Iranian jet with 400 people aboard to land. Who were these passengers is still a mystery but some unconfirmed rumors claim that these 400 were elite members of the Iranian Party of God who might have been the ones to have spearheaded the Beirut and the Chouf offensives.

And here’s a bit of evidence on the other side:

For months the Egyptian daily Al-Akhbar has been publishing reports about Sunni groups receiving military training in Tripoli and in Palestinian camps. In one story published on 10 January, Al-Akhbar reported that the U.S., Egypt and Saudi Arabia had agreed on a strategy of fostering increased cooperation between Tayyar Al-Mustaqbal and Fatah in an attempt to offset the influence of Hizbullah and Hamas. Although most of the reports are unsourced, the parties mentioned have not issued denials. The newspaper has also reported that Ahmed Al-Khatib, a former leader of the Arab Army, a Lebanese Sunni militia with Nasserist leanings, and Tayyar Al-Mustaqbal, were coordinating their activities. Al-Khatib is said to have set up recruiting and training centers in the Beqaa Valley. During Lebanon's civil war, Al-Khatib fought alongside the Palestinians.

A balanced review of the evidence of external intervention in Lebanon’s domestic political battles would be a valuable contribution…and a nice shift from the typical polemical treatment of this issue. Now, shall we return to that discussion about chickens coming home to roost?

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Hezbollah vs the Druze: Rhetoric Swamps Analysis

The rhetoric about Lebanon among observers has been almost more “exciting,” if one can excuse the word, than the actual events, but as for the level of useful information being provided, I have my doubts.

Just for one example:

What happened between Hezbollah and the Druze?

Did Hezbollah attempt to take control of Druze villages? Further, did Hezbollah want to take or retain control? (Maybe yes, maybe no.)

In the end, did they in fact achieve military control of any Druze villages, and, if so, how long did it last?

Did Hezbollah instead want to establish supply routes? Or did Hezbollah just want to make a point about its power?

Did Hezbollah in fact achieve either of these goals?

How is the situation in Druze regions different militarily, logistically (relative to any possible trade goods with Syria Hezbollah may wish to move through Druze territory), politically (e.g., degree of Druze unity) from the situation two weeks ago?

These seem like simple questions, but I don’t see anything remotely like consistent, detailed, believable answers.

One answer:

In the actual fighting, Hizbullah and its militia allies had little difficulty in brushing past the rudimentary defences of the main Sunni areas of West Beirut, but it was a different story in the mountainous Chouf area to the southeast of the capital. There Hizbullah met stiff and effective resistance from Druze fighters of the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) of Walid Jumblatt, who had been singled out by Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hizbullah, as the chief instigator of the government plans to clip the movement's wings. An attempt by Hizbullah to enlist the help of Talal Arslan, the head of the main rival clan among the Druze to that of Mr Jumblatt, backfired, and the Shia fighters met a unified and determined foe during their ill-fated thrust into the Chouf.

The military setback in the Chouf has served notice that Hizbullah has little chance of expanding its area of operations at the expense of other groups. In the weeks leading up to the recent flare-up, there had been controversy over a number of land transactions on the fringes of the Chouf, which had been portrayed by Mr Jumblatt's supporters as a bid by Hizbullah to encroach on Druze territory. It was assumed that Hizbullah's aim through these purchases and its subsequent military moves was to establish a corridor linking its positions along the coast south of Beirut to areas in the Beqaa Valley via the Chouf.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Lebanon - Comments by Participants (4)

A Tripoli sheikh:

Beirut’s fall and what is happening in the Druze mountains should serve as a lesson: if the Future Movement was unable to defend Beirut, the Islamists will protect other regions, especially in the north. Hizbollah is pushing the country toward its break-up.

Radicalism & Representation

Robert Fisk, perhaps the most eminent reporter of the Lebanese scene, says “As a Tehran versus Washington conflict, Iran has won, at least for now.” Well, yes, although it is quite possible that it was Washington’s idea to provoke this week’s showdown, after a year of building up a mercenary Sunni militia that was supposed to enable Hariri (fils) to confront Hezbollah, Tehran does seem to have come out ahead.

However, the Lebanese political struggle is not primarily a Tehran-Washington conflict. It is primarily a conflict over political power between a sectarian group (i.e., a group that is definable by religious or racial features) that can also be distinguished on economic basis (the Shi’a tend to be the poor of Lebanon) which is underrepresented in national government and two other sectarian groups (Sunnis and most of the Christians) who are relatively richer and have long had the power without bothering to extend governance (e.g., civil services) to those on the outside.

The distinction between viewing the Lebanese instability as a Tehran-Washington conflict and viewing it as a political struggle for representation is critical because the solutions are fundamentally different, depending on which is correct. The debate is complicated and the answer unclear (and, by the way, I am certainly not implying that Mr. Fisk actually believes this to be primarily a Tehran-Washington conflict; after all, he did say “As a…”). It all goes back to the origins of Hezbollah. Hezbollah arose as a national liberation movement against Israeli aggression with the aid of Iran…but which part of that sentence is the more important – “against Israeli aggression” or “with the aid of Iran?” More to the point, which is more important today? Is Hezbollah today primarily an agent of Iran or primarily the party representing one-third and rising portion of the Lebanese population that is Shi’ite and poor?

Perhaps the only way to know for sure would be for Hezbollah to take control of the government and demonstrate its loyalties by its behavior as leader rather than as opposition. What we do know is that nature abhors a vacuum, and Hezbollah has over the past generation moved into the power vacuum of the Lebanese Shi’ite poor. Hariri (pere) with all his Western support and Saudi money rebuilt downtown Beirut; he did not build or provide effective governance (hospitals, schools, homes, jobs, or security from Israel) for the poor rural Shi’a.

For Washington to blame Iran is an exercise in futility. Were Iran to vanish, Hezbollah would still be the most powerful military force and the best organized political party in Lebanon. It would still constitute the source of public services for the rural Shi’ite poor. It would still be the only organization in Lebanon willing to defend the country against Israel. It would still be the leader of Shi’ite aspirations for political equality. One can of course argue about how high on the list of priorities of Hezbollah’s leaders the lifestyle of their followers is; but as long as no other organization provides them with effective civil services, that is beside the point.

It is fashionable in rightwing Western circles to go far beyond Fisk’s position and flatly blame Iran for Lebanon’s problems. Blaming Iran for Hezbollah does many things. Blaming Iran for Hezbollah exacerbates tensions, enhances Ahmadinejad’s career prospects, provides an excuse for not facing up to the need to help Lebanon create a decent system of government for all its people, puts the regime under the thumb of the West, scares Saudi Arabia into toeing the line, and avoids the embarrassing truth that Hezbollah exists because of Israeli aggression. But what blaming Iran does not do is lead to a solution to the problem of Lebanese political instability.

The pattern is clear in rural, Shi’ite Lebanon; in Sadr City; in Gaza; in Somalia; in southern Afghanistan; in the tribal regions of Pakistan –
  • First, if there is a power vacuum, some group will move in to fill that vacuum.
  • Second, if that group and the people that group speaks for are ostracized, they will be radicalized.
Wringing hands and deploring the rise of “Islamic extremists” is ignorance, hypocrisy, or both. Extremism is opportunistic. Opening the doors of government to such a group may not guarantee that everyone will instantly turn moderate, but slamming the door in its face will almost certainly guarantee the opposite.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

"Talking" Under Attack: The Somali Case

Peace talks moderated by the UN began in Djibouti on May 12 between the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), buttressed by Ethiopian troops, and the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia (ARS), which wants Ethiopian troops to depart before engaging in direct talks. Some 1,000,000 people have fled their homes since the U.S.-supported intervention of Ethiopian troops.

As with Lebanon, Pakistan, Palestine-Israel, and Iraq, the real action seems to be taking place between hardline and softline factions on each side. For example, Indho Ade, defense secretary for the ARS, has rejected his party's peace talks even as they get started.

Talking is not a prize to be conferred on an opponent in payment for some concession. Talking is recognition that "final solutions" are not the solution.

Lebanon - Comments by Participants (3)

A former Lebanese government minister:

I think the first item on the agenda is to bring opposition ministers back into the government and to negotiate a new electoral law, before holding early elections. The opposition will never allow elections under the current law.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Understanding Divided Societies

Lebanon is complicated. Don't believe anyone who claims that the current political instability is simply a matter of blah vs. blah. It's not.

If you want a concise overview, this Real News video is not bad. As is typical of Real News videos, it is far more balanced than most international events news reports.

Nevertheless, it makes the typical Western mistake of putting the word "sectarian" in the first sentence. Yes, most Shi'a certainly seem on the side of the opposition, and most Sunni on the side of the government. But it is arguably more realistic to view Lebanese political instability as a struggle between those who have effective representation in the national government (i.e., receive social services) and those who do not. (For a somewhat different interpretation that stresses the class nature of the conflict and sees Hezbollah as a throwback to sectarianism rather than a modernizing influence, see this interesting summary of Lebanese history.)

It is also arguably more realistic to view the instability as a competition between feudalism and modernity, but with some twists that Americans may have a hard time digesting. By "feudal," I mean a political system that remains under the control of traditional oligarchical families who effectively inherit power. They are no less feudal for having replaced war horses with Mercedes. The feudal forces, albeit with a modern capitalist veneer, are supported by the U.S. On the other side are the modernizers, but modernizers with an Islamic twist: it is arguably the case that the main road to political modernization in the Mideast is not the Western road of middle class democratization and civil rights but the road of what we might call "sectarian nationalism." In the case of Lebanon, it may be Shi'ite nationalism that will offer the successful alternative to continued control by traditional oligarchies. It is, after all, Hizbollah, that has the most modern political party in the country (i.e., a party structured bureaucratically and pursuing a platform rather than structured under a family and run for that family's benefit).

Think of the story as taking place in two concentric circles. The inner circle is Lebanese society, composed of groups of minorities that do not trust each other, or control each other, and that therefore are accustomed to cutting deals to prevent mutual destruction. The outer circle is the circling wolves of foreign interests fighting a proxy war at Lebanon's expense. Absent the outer circle, the Lebanese would probably find a compromise, but it is to the perceived, albeit short-term, benefit of numerous outside forces to persuade their Lebanese clients to take a hardline position. Hence, the mess.

Those Americans who sincerely think that "we are just trying to help" need to understand that there seems (to me, at least - I invite Lebanese to comment on this point) to be the following fundamental difference between Lebanese and American societies: Americans (still) trust each other (though it has lately been getting harder) and have confidence that their system is stronger than any individual leader, so they can (until fairly clear red lines like undermining the Supreme Court or arresting people without due process or presidential refusal to implement the law are crossed) accept a winner-take(almost)-all system. First, Americans don't expect gross violations of the rules; second, Americans assume that after 4 years, the other side will get another shot. In Lebanon, none of these assumptions holds, so no one can view with equanimity the prospect of letting the other side get effective control. Two different systems based on two different social realities.

The problem comes when outsiders try to impose a winner-take-all system on a society such as Lebanon's. Hardball politics in a system based on the rule of law is tolerable; hardball politics where leaders stand above the law gets people killed.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Lebanon - Comments by Participants (2)

Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt:

The US has failed in Lebanon and they have to admit it. We have to wait and see the new rules which Hezbollah, Syria and Iran will set. They can do what they want.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Washington's Role in Modern Lebanon

As'ad AbuKhalil, professor of political science at the California State University, Stansilaus and the creator of the Angry Arab News Service blog at, pointedly summarized on Democracy Now the role of Washington in Lebanon over the last generation as follows:

I think that people may remember, back in the 1980s, the United States government, for two years in the administration of Ronald Reagan, deployed troops from ’82 to ’84. And there was a civil war, and the United States was supporting the rightwing militias of Israel in Lebanon, and they used the discourse of supporting the central government of Lebanon.

Something similar is taking place right now in Lebanon, and this is very much similar to what’s happening in Sudan, in Palestine, in Iraq, in Afghanistan and Somalia. The United States is basically instigating, funding and arming civil wars in all those places. We hear a lot about this inability of the international community to tolerate armed militias. Of course, Hezbollah is an armed militia, but so are the pro-militias of the government. There’s a Los Angeles Times article today detailing the efforts by the United States and allies to create militias throughout the country. And the Washington Post indicated that this government of the United States spent $1.4 billion to prop up the administration of Siniora in Lebanon.

And basically, what happened in Lebanon in the last few days is a partial coup d’etat that was in response to a full coup d’etat that was engineered by the United States and Saudi Arabia and Israel from behind the scene back in 2005, capitalizing on the assassination of Rafik Hariri.

And things have gotten to this point because America basically is responsible, more than their clients in Lebanon. I mean, there were ideas of dialogue in Lebanon, and things were moving in that direction, and then, suddenly, lo and behold, the Assistant Secretary of State of the United States for the Near East, David Welch, shows up in Lebanon, and he basically wanted to stiffen the resolve of the clients and to basically prevent the possibility of dialogue. And then, Walid Jumblatt, one of the clients of the United States and Saudi Arabia and Lebanon today, escalated by deciding on taking the issue of disarming Hezbollah, which is supported at least by half of the Lebanese, and Lebanese parties, including clients of the United States, agreed that the issues of disarming Hezbollah should be left for internal dialogue of the Lebanese themselves.

But it seems the Bush administration, while it’s sailing into the sunset, wanted to achieve a victory that has long eluded it in Iraq and elsewhere. They were getting too excited about Lebanese affairs in the Washington Post, who were celebrating the so-called Cedar Revolution. Well, they tried to push them further, and look what happened. This is something that experts have warned the United Nations about. If you push things to that point, the other side is going to lash out, and they did lash out, even if one, like me, does not like the scenes of these militias and armed thugs running into the streets of Beirut and so on. But basically, we have to say that this is the doing of US foreign policy, and this is the true face of the Bush Doctrine in the Middle East.

Causes of Muslim Extremism

The following editorial in Pakistan’s Daily Times on May 6 is too subtle to reproduce in part. The argument is neither particularly easy nor beyond question. One might well raise an eyebrow at the degree of faith expressed in Saudi Arabia’s purported new view of extremism as “the new religion masquerading as Islam.” On that point, I’d like to see the evidence.

Nevertheless, this editorial deserves to be read carefully and completely by everyone concerned about where the Western confrontation with Islam is headed. It is important that a newspaper in a Moslem country lay out the argument that, aside from whatever mistakes or bad intent Washington may have been guilty of, Moslems also share a significant amount of the blame for Islamic extremism. Why? Because “the collapse of Arab nationalism tilted the Arab world into a new-found faith in Islam” promoted by a conservative Saudi state that opposed such nationalism. Strong words from a country as dependent on Saudi money as Pakistan.

The editorial also makes a second important point: “It is tragic that every time we help the US to win, the Muslims are the biggest sufferers.” Indeed. It would be a real sign of progress in a global political scene that is rapidly deteriorating if the new administration that will come into power in Washington next January were to focus on trying to overcome that tragic pattern of events. The editorial proposes that “Now that Saudi Arabia and Iran are embarked upon a new and less adversarial relationship, they should agree that when Sunnis and Shias kill themselves they will not tell their funded madrassa leaders to simultaneously blame the West for the carnage.” Washington should not only encourage such a move toward moderation by the two Moslem state leaders of extremism but should also advocate and support a broader effort to put the focus on improving Arab educational systems, to minimize not only Shi’ite-Sunni antagonisms but also Moslem-Western antagonisms. Of course, educational changes will be of little value unless the reality that “every time we [Muslims] help the US to win, the Muslims are the biggest sufferers.”

What this editorial omits is the way Washington promotes Islamic extremism for its own short-term benefit, provoking Islamic religious extremists against Moslem nationalists, which in turn radicalizes the nationalists, and provoking intra-Islamic sectarian strife by encouraging conservative regimes to adopt hardline stances against domestic opponents. Americans could do with a little improvement to their education, as well.

Editorial: Muslim extremism and wars

The ambassador of Saudi Arabia in Pakistan, HE Mr Ali S Awadh Asseri, in an interview given to Daily Times, has made some thought-provoking remarks on the state of the Muslim mind that need to be dwelt upon. Correctly, he said that there was a need to revisit “the logic behind the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq” and engage the fighting sides there in dialogue. He spoke of Muslim extremism in the same context: “Those few who are engaged in their nefarious effort to promote the cult of extremism and violence are heretics and deviants. They must be controlled through a combined effort of all peace-loving nations of the world”.Of course, the world knows about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But those who think clearly separate the two wars on the basis of the sanction behind the two invasions and it is the extremist who equates the two to whip up immoderate emotion that has never benefited the Muslims. The war in Iraq has been analysed and the neocon administration of President George W Bush has been found guilty of having made a trespass into the region on false pretences. But if we are to get at the root of the current Muslim mind we must also look into the war of Saddam Hussein against Iran. And blaming the United States will not do this time.The collapse of Arab nationalism tilted the Arab world into a new-found faith in Islam. This movement was greatly encouraged in all kinds of ways by Saudi Arabia which emerged as the ideological antithesis of Nasserism. But what was seen as the victory of Islam against secular nationalism was also objectively the victory of the United States in the Middle East against its Cold War rival, the Soviet Union. It is tragic that every time we help the US to win, the Muslims are the biggest sufferers. And Saudi Arabia helped America win its war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan too, and we are still living with the devastating after-effects of this victory. In fact, the victory of Islam against Arab nationalism came with a “faith package” that was funded by Saudi Arabia under the tutelage of its great mufti of immoderate views, Mr Bin Baz.The rise of Islamism was accompanied by a recrudescence of its historical rift when in 1979 the Islamic Revolution broke out in Iran and immediately threatened the Arabs living across the Gulf. The Iranian revolution was understandably anti-American, but it also saw the conservative Arab states as America’s proxies. A new conflict began at this point which cannot be laid at the doorstep of the wicked West which is allegedly determined to destroy the Islamic world. In fact if we look at the transformation of Pakistan from a liberal Islamic state into a fanatically extremist one, with laws framed to reflect this tightening of the faith, we will clearly see the effect of a pan-Islamic change in the direction of intolerance. The Islamists, while fulminating against the West, have more effectively and violently eliminated the traditional pockets of moderation among fellow-Muslims.Pakistan has seen the rise of extremism in the words of the religious leaders who have engaged in sectarian polemic while blaming the West for the “conspiracy” of pitting Muslim against Muslim. A “relocated” war between the Sunni Arabs and Iran was fought in Pakistan for over 20 years and it is still going on in the Kurram Agency and its adjoining areas. The Arab Islamists that fled their own country to fight jihad in Afghanistan — with Saudi money no less than American money — spread around their new intolerant faith that first materialised into governance in Afghanistan under the Taliban and is now spreading in Pakistan too under the name of Talibanisation. No one except the Muslims is to blame for this. If the image of Islam is negative in the world — and that includes friendly states like China — it is not the Western media covering the Sunni-Shia war of Iraq which is to blame, but the Muslims themselves.How can we say goodbye to this extremism and Muslim-kill-Muslim violence? Now that Saudi Arabia and Iran are embarked upon a new and less adversarial relationship, they should agree that when Sunnis and Shias kill themselves they will not tell their funded madrassa leaders to simultaneously blame the West for the carnage. The biggest plus in the Islamic world today is that Saudi Arabia has begun to see extremism in the new religion masquerading as Islam which is, in the words of Ambassador Asseri, a faith of peace, not of violence and aggression. It is our great good fortune that Saudi Arabia is today asking the Muslims the right questions and has the capacity, by reason of its spiritual leadership and economic clout, to change their way of thinking.

Lebanon - Comments by Participants (1)

Ambassador Yussuf Ahmed, Syria’s representative to the Arab League, to Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Faisal at the Arab League meeting on Lebanon:

"Now you want to send forces to Lebanon? Why didn't you think of sending these forces to confront the Israeli invasion when Lebanon was incessantly being bombed?"

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Pro-U.S. Regimes in Lebanon & Iraq Provoke Opponents

In both Iraq and Lebanon over the past two months the following has occurred:
  1. A top U.S. official visited;
  2. A few days later, the pro-U.S. regime launched a military challenge to opposition groups that were maintaining a peaceful stance and participating in politics but who disagreed with U.S. policy toward their respective countries;
  3. The opposition groups, when provoked, responded with force;
  4. Civilian deaths occurred and many more were feared, generating widespread calls for compromise;
  5. As of this weekend, compromises are in place that seem on the surface to be defeats for the pro-U.S. regimes but that also leave the opposition groups with tarnished images. Whatever the appearances, the facts are that each opposition group retains its right to keep its weapons and participate in politics.

Will either side learn to be less prone to violence?
Will the regimes become less willing to follow the advice of Washington?
Will Washington itself learn anything at all?
Are the facts I have listed even the key facts, or was my selection biased?
Is the apparent pattern of recent events in Iraq and Lebanon just coincidence?


Forecast: More Chickens Coming Home to Roost

Based on the State Department’s own annual report on terrorism, it seems that the long-anticipated spread of terrorism from Iraq into the rest of the Middle East has begun. According to analysis by Joel Brinkley of the San Francisco Chronicle (thanks to Juan Cole for noting this), the State Department report noted terrorism in Morocco, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Kuwait, and Yemen provoked by the U.S. occupation of Iraq!

I argued at the beginning of April that:

as long as American troops and bases remain in Iraq, they serve as a convenient target for al Qua’ida and represent an incredibly powerful motivational issue to aid in the recruitment of new members. For this reason, the termination of U.S. military operations in Iraq would constitute an immediate and very significant loss for al Qua’ida. The U.S. invasion of Iraq was a gift to al Qua’ida, eliminating an Arab Sunni enemy, creating a convenient battleground, enhancing al Qua’ida’s reputation, and distracting attention from the shattered al Qua’ida headquarters organization. Five years later, al Qua’ida itself has gained time to reorganize, and the chaos flowing out of the U.S. occupation of Iraq has given the al Qua’ida message of global Sunni jihad a huge boost. That the U.S. succeeds in eliminating al Qua’ida from Iraq should come to Americans as little solace: such a victory would only return the situation to what it was after 9/11; Washington invites them into Iraq and then kicks them out. Iraq has been a sideshow for al Qua’ida, but one that brought al Qua’ida much profit.

Now the State Department itself has provided shocking evidence of just how “powerful” Iraq has been as a “motivational issue to aid in the recruitment of new members.” Admittedly, from a certain perspective, that might not be considered bad news: the more al Qua’ida recruits, the easier it will be for the neo-cons to justify a war policy and the greater the profits of the military-industrial complex.

Whatever the actual motivations of current Washington decision makers, the candidates for the White House should be thinking long and hard about what is happening. There has been some public discussion in the U.S. recently about foreign policy chickens coming home to roost. The next administration in Washington will need to construct roosts quickly, for some very nasty, new Bush-bred chickens are going to be coming home.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Foreign Policy For the New American Administration

It would be naive, I suppose, to anticipate that the candidates for the U.S. presidency might put aside their immoral bluster about innocent populations they would "obliterate" to give some intelligent thought to the type of world the winner will inherit next January. So, perhaps we should do it for them. All with the foresight to estimate where current global political dynamics are carrying us are cordially invited to share their visions. The world can use your help.

One of the clearest trends I can see is the intensification of determination in official Washington to solve problems with military force. Closely allied with the use of force is the desire to ostracize and totally defeat those who disagree rather than trying to find areas of potential agreement think creatively about possible compromises. The May 8 editorial in Pakistan's Frontier Post quoted in my previous post neatly dismissed that approach to foreign policy, though its argument could have been even stronger if it had referred to the endless Colombian civil war, the endless Palestinian-Israeli conflict, or the coming tragedy in Lebanon.

Whoever enters the White House next January is going to be boxed in by a whole series of conflicts from which it will be extremely difficult to disengage. The failure of the candidates today to reject publicly and clearly this path of confrontation will only further limit their own freedom of action once elected...digging the ground out from under their own feet.

Learning From Afghan Policy Failure

The following Pakistani perspective on Bush Administration policy toward Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan in a recent editorial in the blunt-talking Pakistani newspaper, The Frontier Post, addresses the long-term implications of fundamental foreign policy choices made by Washington after 9/11 and being implemented to this day across the Islamic world. This editorial gets to the heart of why the irresistable military force of a superpower seems, despite smashing so much and killing so many, to be accomplishing so little in the confrontation with Islam.

Bunk talk of desperation

Indisputably, the American occupiers are in despair as abysmally, if not more, in Afghanistan as are they in Iraq. Yet, if one were to listen to their bunk talk of desperation, they would have it believed that their occupied Afghanistan is still in the throes of the insurgency because the Taliban and the al-Qaeda have regrouped in our tribal region. But when was it that Afghanistan was at peace since they invaded it, ousted the Taliban and demolished their al-Qaeda allies some seven years ago? Visibly, at peace it never has been, in trouble it perpetually has been; for which the Bush administration and its international coalition allies in Afghanistan are squarely to blame. They all have contemptibly betrayed the Afghan people and served only a clutch of their proxies in the occupied state. The UN had undertaken to disarm the warlords who had staged a comeback after the invasion and to demobilise their lethally-armed militias. It has left the job undone forgetfully, leaving these warlords to keep their fiefdoms under their thumb with their private armies all intact. The Germans took upon them the task of raising, training and equipping a powerful police force. They have long forgotten if they had ever made any such commitment. The Italians had promised a massive help to Kabul to build a viable judicial system in the country. Apart from building a few court rooms, they have nothing else to show for this assistance. The British had assumed the responsibility to rid the country of poppy cultivation and drugs trafficking. Instead, Afghanistan on their watch has become the world’s biggest poppy grower and drugs supplier. And that huge corps of NGOs in the country, which has uniquely formed up into a trade union to be the first-ever of its kind in the world, has gobbled up the bulk of the donor money but has not any respectable showing on the ground to proffer for its performance. For their own part, the Americans have no ground whatsoever to flaunt even a slight posture of one-upmanship and have every cause to be ashamed of their Afghanistan adventure, gone so awry as has it been for their lackadaisicalness, perfidy and even cowardice. They had all the military prowess, which if combined with imaginative and creative political initiatives, could have pacified the war-ravaged and civil strife-torn country. But that was not to be. In the first place, for fear of accumulating body bags of their own they did not put enough boots on the ground to corral the fleeing Taliban and al-Qaeda remnants, and latterly to tame and discipline the resurgent warlords. Instead, they resorted to blind aerial bombings, killing innocent civilians by droves, which earned them enemies than friends, particularly among the country’s Pakhtun majority community that bore all the brunt of their deadly air actions. As the Taliban were predominantly Pakhtuns, the American commanders singled out the Pakhtun-populated areas for their brutal military campaign. Worse, instead of securing the border with Pakistan to plug off the flight of the Taliban and al-Qaeda rumps into the Pakistani territory, the Americans left it unsecured on the Afghanistan side, no lesser for keeping their military assets preserved for their intended aggression on a sovereign Iraq on the basis of lewd lies as part of their grand geopolitical design for the Middle East. And if at all our tribal region has become the haven for the Taliban or al-Qaeda, as they claim, who else is to blame if they not themselves. For its part, Pakistan kept deployed at any time no less than 80,000 troops to plug the border on its side. And even as not even fractionally as well equipped and well served as were their American counterparts, these soldiers gave a good account of themselves despite operating in the most inhospitable terrain and in very dire conditions. Hundreds of them have died in action, appallingly without an acknowledgement of the sacrifices of their precious lives from the American commanders who for the most part have kept their own troops ensconced in fortified bases to murder and maim more civilians than the militants with their savage artillery barrages and with bombardments of their helicopter gunships and fighter planes. Still worse, with their military incursions in our tribal areas, they have murdered our innocent compatriots in scores, horrifically including children and women, leaving a populace angry as much with them as with our own state. And if anti-American sentiment is sweeping this tribal region of ours stormily, it is also being rocked with anger against the Islamabad establishment, making a military campaign increasingly infeasible there, in spite of all the blackmail, bullying and arm-twisting of the American commanders and their political bosses. Indeed, the time has come for the Americans to forget all about a legacy of President Bush to be remembered by his compatriots and to concede defeat of their war in Afghanistan. They must let President Hamid Karzai to seek out political resolutions to his country’s troubles and let also the new Pakistan leadership to pacify our restive tribal and adjoining settled areas politically. For many a time has President Karzai extended his hand of peace to the Taliban, including their top brass, but had to pull it back every time under the pressure of the Americans and their allies. And now that after the British, who struck a peace deal with the Taliban in Musa Qila, the Kandhar-based Canadian force is venturing out for similar deals at the local levels, the American lords must sit back and allow President Karzai a free hand. Nor should they create any obstructions in the way of the Pakistani leadership to pacify the restive tribal region with political means. For, our tribal people are never amenable to force or coercion but are always very forthcoming to peaceful settlements. If they think that a military campaign will succeed in Afghanistan or in our tribal region, they are just deluding themselves. It will never. This tells history.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Bush's Intensifying Confrontation with Islam: Pakistan's Turn

On May 5, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte gave a short address at the semi-official National Endowment for Democracy (NED) on Pakistan. The money quotes were:

...let me be clear: we will not be satisfied until all the violent extremism emanating from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas is brought
under control.
It is unacceptable for extremists to use those areas to plan, train for, or execute attacks against Afghanistan, Pakistan, or the wider world. Their ongoing ability to do so is a barrier to lasting security, both regionally and internationally. Pakistan’s Government must bring the frontier area under its control as quickly as possible and we are certainly prepared to provide appropriate assistance to the Government of Pakistan in order to achieve that objective.

And, in response to a question from the audience:

we want to be supportive of the Government of Pakistan’s efforts to
enhance the standard of living, the level of development of that region, and we’re very supportive of those efforts. In fact, we have a five-year, $150 million a year program to support the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. But when it comes to the issue of international terrorism, we don’t think that area should be a platform from which attacks can be conducted against other parts of Pakistan, nor do we think it should be a platform for the conduct of attacks into Afghanistan across the border, where we have, of course, great interests in the stability of that country and we have our own troops and other NATO troops
stationed there who end up being the victims of some of these attacks. And of course, we don’t want to see the tribal area being used as a platform for plotting and executing international terrorist activity against the West. So any kind of agreement or understanding which might be negotiated, we would have to look at in the light of those imperatives for United States policies.

Pakistan, you have been warned!

Background on both Negroponte and the NED.

Beyond the specifics of U.S.-Pakistani relations, it is instructive to place this speech in the broader context of Bush Administration policy during his final year in office. As I wrote in mid-March:

"To understand the dynamics underlying contemporary global political strife, it is essential to comprehend that choices exist. Bush could try to leave office on high note by leading the world away from the law of the jungle toward mutual understanding. Annapolis was the wave of a hand in this direction, though it was clear from the start, given Bush’s refusal to invite two of the key players – Hamas and Iran, that it did not constitute a sincere effort at a new direction.

Alternatively, Bush could pull back and allow others freedom to maneuver. Since the neo-con policy of force is not working, perhaps others have better ideas. Intentionally or not, the effect of the NIE was to put Europe in the driver’s seat in terms of leading the charge against Iranian nuclear program. Beyond this, for every Islamic problem facing Bush, local initiatives to resolve the situation peacefully exist but are being blocked by U.S. policy....

There is little indication, however, that Bush will consider these alternatives. Rather, if various disparate pieces of recent evidence are put together, the resulting pattern suggests that in the waning months of his administration, Bush means to intensify American pressure on the Islamic world, further promoting the emergence of an Islamic political fault line that will split Moslem societies even as it leads to more severe confrontation with the West. If the policy of force has not worked after six and a half years, then apply more force!"

Those comments preceeded the decision of U.S. proxy al-Maliki to attack al Sadr, the decision of the U.S. to send its troops into Sadr City, the recent U.S. missile attack on Somalia, the intensified U.S. rhetoric of recent weeks blaming Iran for its self-inflicted problems in Iraq, and the decision of the pro-U.S. Lebanese regime to intensify its confrontation with Hezballah this week by cutting its phone lines. Now, it's Pakistan's turn.

Immorality Turns to Farce

Not just professional policy makers and academics but anyone with even the most basic sense of decency must be rolling his or her eyes today at the antics of the cabal in charge in Washington. Only in a Monty Python skit could one imagine appointing the head of an outside-the-law prison for torturing Moslems and avoiding letting them come to trial as a representative to a Moslem country. If anything demonstrates conclusively the mindless arrogance and utter amateurishness of the Bush Administration it is the decision to send former Guantanamo prison head Jay Hoodformer to Pakistan as military envoy.

The real question is not why such an inexcusably insulting decision was taken, slapping in the face the new democratically elected Pakistani government; indeed, perhaps that is the reason. (For background on an ominous shift that may be occurring in Washington's attitude toward Pakistan, see the analysis posted by Hassan Abbas.) The real question is why this representative of a U.S. government policy so out-of-line with U.S. constitutional guarantees of right to due process--the cornerstone of democratic freedoms--has not been retired in disgrace and himself brought to trial. But, of course, we all know the answer to that question. Even in an election year, no one--not the candidates, not the American people--has the guts to examine the morality of U.S. behavior since 9/11.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Behaving Like a Superpower

The pro-Iranian U.S. colonial regime in Iraq (ironic, yes; misprint, no) is now warning its citizens to flee the "Sadr City" section of the country's capital so a free-fire zone can be created.

In Vietnam, the U.S. destroyed villages in order to save them (that was before fleeing by helicopter from the Embassy roof; the "light at the end of the tunnel" was the headlight of a rescue helicopter). In Iraq, the U.S. is destroying the colonial capital in order to save it. The U.S. is also bribing the pro-Saddam Sunnis not to attack it while it concentrates on fighting the poor Shi'a whom Saddam oppressed.

Is there any opponent too small, too weak to attract the concentrated fury of the world's last superpower?

Given the enormous amount of force Washington is employing against these urban guerrillas and their mosques and hospitals and homes, exactly what will Washington do if once again faced with a real enemy (and, no, I do not mean Iran)? If you smash mosquitoes with a sledgehammer, what do you use for elephants?

These are not cheap shots. The role of a superpower is to develop grand global strategy for long-term global security and progress, i.e., to be the CEO and provide vision. Expending huge amounts of energy to antagonize (the U.S. pressed the attack via arrests and then outright military moves against al Sadr despite his declaration of a ceasefire) a local political faction that opposes the U.S. presence in its own country but is not, aside from that, an enemy of the U.S. seems a spendthrift and ultimately untenable approach to managing a big world.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Attack Iran...Then What?

What plans do the glib and arrogant war party politicians in Washington and Tel Aviv have for dealing with the consequences of the war of aggression against Iran that they keep threatening?
In a recent post, I argued that even if total victory over Iran were guaranteed in advance, to launch a “preventive” war, i.e., a war of choice, a war of aggression, against Iran would be a questionable deal for the U.S., certainly entailing some serious costs that the politicians with their smug grins are not anticipating.

So, what about the reality in which nothing is guaranteed? In a word,

Short of total victory, would a U.S. attack on Iran be worthwhile?

Incomplete victory could occur in any number of ways – military victory but political defeat (a soberingly familiar outcome), inconclusive military advantage (also familiar), or a victory so expensive as to feel like defeat. The U.S. has been fighting continuously in Iraq for 17 years, off and on in Somalia for 15 years, and in Afghanistan for 7 years (not counting the war against the Soviet Union). Israel fought in Lebanon for 18 years (1982-2000) and re-invaded in 2006. In Iraq, a vicious secular dictator has been replaced by utter social chaos plus a terror campaign that did not exist there until we invaded. In Somalia, utter social chaos existed when we intervened on a humanitarian mission and remains now that Washington is supporting the overthrow of a government whose independence was viewed with disfavor. In Afghanistan, a vicious regime that befriended bin Laden has been replaced by a civil war. In Lebanon, civil war was supplemented by a national war of liberation, provoking the rise of Hezballah, now the most modern political party in Lebanon and a model for all Moslems trying to organize national anti-Western movements. This record suggests the possibility that an attack on Iran might also have unpleasant long-term consequences that should be considered before it is too late.

Military Victory but Political Defeat:
Unprovoked military attack would be likely to unite and outrage the Iranian population, just as 9/11 united and outraged Americans. As with 9/11, if the Iranian government continued to exist, conservatives would be likely to reap the benefit of the subsequent “rallying around the flag.” Just as after 9/11, foreign policy militancy would most likely overwhelm calls for moderation. The reservoir of goodwill toward the U.S. visible in modern Iranian society would vanish; any calls for compromise would be attacked as “treachery.” An attack on Iran would leave Iran weakened militarily but more unified and committed both to acquiring weapons sufficient to protect it and to getting revenge. Even a solid U.S. military victory would thus leave the world a more dangerous place.

Inconclusive Military Advantage:
Making war on an industry is a strange concept. Iran denies planning to acquire nuclear weapons but brags about its nuclear industry, which has been widely reported to be vast in scope and widely disseminated throughout the country. Moreover, military power today comes in many guises. Aside from the obvious question of the likelihood of total success in destroying Iran’s nuclear industry, the ability of even the U.S. to destroy all forms of Iranian military power is an open question. What about guerrilla warfare in Iraq? What plans may Iran have put in place regionally or globally to respond even after destruction of the homeland? Might nuclear-armed Pakistan or China--concerned about Iranian oil--or Russia--concerned about limitless growth in American power—provide just enough support to enable Iran to keep resisting? How long would Americans tolerate endless, one-sided, unprovoked slaughter by their own government? Might this war, in ways different from but reminiscent of the years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, just drag on?

Victory So Expensive As to Feel Like Defeat:
“No,” the militarists will surely answer, “this will be a truly overwhelming “shock and awe” campaign that will transform one of the world’s great cultures into a desert. Iran will have no surprises for us. Iran will not manage to fire any of the Russian anti-ship missiles it has reputedly purchased at all the U.S. ships now arguably trapped in the Persian Gulf. Iran’s oil wells will sit quietly waiting for pro-American groups to start operating. Saudi oil facilities will come through unharmed; the Saudi Shi’a will remain loyal to Saudi Arabia. American troops and their families in Iraq at the end of that long supply line will continue to receive food and water. Iranian naval mines will prove to be paper tigers. There will be no ships sunk in the Straits of Hormuz, no oil stoppage, no global depression. In contrast to the war in Iraq, Al Qua’ida will find no opportunity to exploit this American adventure. This war may have fallout, but it will have no fog: all will go according to plan. It will not be like Somalia or Lebanon or Iraq or Afghanistan. The war will play so well on TV that far from turning against Washington, the American people will voluntarily, even eagerly trade in democracy for imperialism. Scientific militarism will control every detail.” That would sound good on the campaign trail, if one of the slick war party candidates were honest enough to go into such detail, but where’s the evidence?

Or will the Iranians’ brand new Russian anti-ship missiles sink a couple aircraft carriers, a Shi’ite revolt force a Vietnam-style flight from Iraq, and attacks on Israel by Lebanese Hezbollah provoke Tel Aviv into another disastrous 1982-style ground war trap? Will the American people kick out the war party and take a turn back toward isolationism? After all, why not, given that the world’s lone superpower now arguably faces both the absence of a credible threat for the first time since the beginning of WWII and a recession caused by mismanagement at home.

The U.S. attacked tiny Afghanistan, a semi-feudal society with no power projection capability, in 2001 and remains bogged down, having facilitated an explosive growth in Afghan heroin exports and provoked destabilization of the bordering region of Pakistan.

The U.S. attacked Iraq, a country whose military and economic capabilities had been severely degraded by a dozen years of U.S. military attack and economic embargo. We remain bogged down there, as well, having destroyed the country’s ability to govern itself, facilitated the rise of Iran as a regional power, and given al Qua’ida a new lease on life.

The U.S. fought two wars against such pathetically weak opponents that Washington decision makers did not consider post-war planning to be necessary. Years later, still with no light at the end of either tunnel, the war party is contemplating a third war, against a vastly larger and more unified opponent that has had years of warning time to conceive of all manner of high tech and asymmetric countermeasures. It would seem that even the most eager imperialist would have to admit that a bit of post-war planning might be in order. (Only a fundamentalist hoping for a final explosion that would end the world and bring to earth a savior to carry the souls of the chosen few to heaven could “rationally” argue against post-war planning.) Post-war planning does not begin with “assuming everything goes according to plan...” Post-war planning begins with evaluating the range of possible outcomes and preparing to deal with each of them.
  1. What is the plan to deal with military victory but political defeat?
  2. What is the plan to deal with inconclusive military advantage?
  3. What is the plan to deal with victory so expensive as to feel like defeat?
  4. And finally, what is the plan to deal even with the long-term implications of total victory?