Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Elite vs. People

Inflammatory headlines, irresponsible rhetoric, and mutual misunderstand make the intensification of the Western-Islamic confrontation appear inevitable. Headlines focus attention on the news of the day, no matter how unrepresentative it may be of underlying trends. Politicians on both sides see the confrontation as beneficial for a host of reasons from crass self-promotion to genuine conflicts of interest. Mutual misunderstandings and misperceptions give the impression of enmity when insecurity is closer to the truth; actions born of ignorance create real hostility that could easily have been avoided.

The basic problem is less a matter of irreconcilable differences than a matter of how the two sides are defined.

In the West, politicians and media typically paint a picture of a zero-sum confrontation between Western society and a religion, a race, or a group of countries. The meaning of the confrontation and the path to resolving it would be instantaneously transformed if it were instead perceived as a confrontation between power-hungry, violence-prone elites on one side and common people on the other.

Many groups benefit from this confrontation:

  • Politicians (in Western electoral systems; Christian, Jewish, and Moslem fundamentalist movements; and Moslem dictatorships) use fear and nationalism to marshal support;
  • Arms manufacturers gain endless profit from endless war;
  • Armies in the countries fighting insurgencies gain resources and power from the very rebellions they are charged with suppressing;
  • Big Oil (both Western oil companies that buy the petroleum and corrupt elites in Moslem societies who sell the petroleum) just keeps getting richer as the price rises.

It is in the interest of all these groups—call them The Elite--to convince everyone else that a clash of civilizations is occurring in which neutrality, compromise, and consideration of potential positive-sum outcomes are immoral and treacherous. Indeed, the fact that these extremists so often fall back on the emotional charges of immorality and treachery to prevent thoughtful dialogue is the key clue to the situation: what they fear more than anything else is that people will simply start talking, analyzing the situation, and searching for mutually beneficial solutions. The extremists understand with crystal clarity that their hold on power depends on the myth that “our society” faces an existential threat from “your society.”

Political elites in general are manipulators of people’s
tragedies and dreams

--Ilan Pappe

It is not the societies that face existential threats, however; it is the power structures. Western control over global oil and the concomitant continuation of the West’s orgy of consumption probably are essential to the maintenance of the current power structure, but this behavior is not essential to the average person. Indeed, it is extremely dangerous. The longer the world continues to consume oil as though it had no limits, the sooner the collapse will occur and the harder it will hit. What would be in the real interest of our societies would be slowing the consumption of oil as much as possible to ensure that the supply lasts until a viable alternative can be made available.

An international political system organized to maximize egalitarianism and local control—a democratic, global confederacy of units composed of people who choose to be members—would be in the interest of society. The democratic nature of the system would enable all units to participate; the confederate structure would minimize central control but overcome the tendency of our current system based on state sovereignty to spawn “rogue states.” Such a system would certainly undermine current power structures – both of the states that compose the current system and of movements such as al Qua’ida who are challenging that system: superpowers, dictatorial client states, and extremist anti-system movements would all be extraneous in an all-inclusive, participatory system based on the rule of law but designed to maximize local initiative.

What is good for The Elite is bad for society. Ahmadinejad, bin Laden, and Bush all have built careers out of the clash of civilization myth. Moslem oil exporting elites and the Western military-industrial complex both benefit from the artificially high oil prices resulting from global conflict, and they both benefit from the conflict itself – the wars inflate their importance, provide profit, marginalize opposition, and create opportunities.

Just for one example, a more efficient economy and strengthened civil liberties are clearly in the interest of the Iranian people and almost certainly recognized by most Iranians as among their top goals, but Ahmadinejad is maintaining an impressive level of political support despite failing to deliver on either score simply by waving the bloody flags of fear and nationalism. Every one of the endless threats and insults flowing out of Washington and Tel Aviv is pure gold in Ahmadinejad’s pocket, on which he skillfully obtains compound interest.

Similarly, those threats and insults panic ignorant Western voters, convincing them to grant “near dictatorial powers” to elites with a private exploitative agenda. Constraints on civil liberties that undermine democracy to solidify elite control are sold to voters as necessary for security. Environmental destruction for the short-term profit of the rich is sold as necessary for energy independence. A war of civilizations designed to empower extremists is sold as the only way to survive.

So, what is good for The Elite is frequently bad for society; fear and anger are the tools the power-hungry use to manipulate society. That is not necessarily completely true or always true, of course. But where one starts matters. Starting with the assumption that people everywhere have a common interest that differs from the interests of those with power is a fundamentally different perspective than starting with the assumption that a zero-sum conflict exists among societies or cultures. It opens doors to a host of new ways to overcome problems.

To assert that the enemy is not someone else’s culture is not at all to belittle the real dangers that exist. All major global cultures include individuals and, today at least, movements that are absolutely dangerous to humanity. The danger comes, first, from those individuals and movements; second, from the ignorant who are tricked into supporting them or the desperate, angry, and frustrated who understandably seek any port in the storm. But the solution is not the destruction of a culture, a religion, or a country.

This essay just touches the surface of a very complicated issue that strikes at the heart of the organization of the world into sovereign states. To get a little deeper into the issue, see this discussion of international security as a trap and this discussion of the concept of a national security commons.

The key to resolving the confrontation between the West and Islam lies in redefining the definition between “them” and “us.” When The Elite vs The People becomes recognized as the real confrontation, then the door will open to addressing the needs of the desperate, the angry, and the frustrated of all societies, at which point the power of The Elite to manipulate us will wither away.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Forecasting Terrorism

The obsession with the level of terror in some Western circles is a dangerous delusion. Terror is a result, not a cause. Those interested in predicting it need to focus on what causes it, rather than on the terror itself. Looking for imminent terrorist incidents, while certainly an important police matter, is not the proper focus of political analysis or government thinking; such an approach will leave the initiative permanently in the hands of the terrorist because of the enormous time lag between cause and result. Rather, the focus needs to be on what persuades people to adopt violent tactics. That, of course, is complicated because many dimensions contribute to the decision to adopt terror or any other particular tactic. The trick is to identify a sufficiently complete and causal set of dimensions for effective prediction while keeping it small enough to be analytically manageable. Terror is a tactic and thus not causal at all, except to the extent that terror may cause counterterror and copycat terror.

To get a sense of the likely future course of Islamic politics—and of the likelihood of anti-Western terrorism, a focus on the three dimensions of "force," "aspirations," and "organization" may be more productive. These dimensions are defined as follows:
  • Force - the degree to which force (violence, oppression) is the means of achieving goals;
  • Aspirations - the degree to which local aspirations are being addressed;
  • Organization – the degree to which political opposition is organized.
Combining these three dimensions may be thought of as generating eight alternative "ideal type" scenarios ("ideal" because in fact all three dimensions are continuous), as shown in the "Dimensions of Dissent" diagram here. This diagram depicts a political world in which behavior results from various combinations of three dimensions, or causal factors. The point is to provide an easily remembered model or "default" world with two critical extremes (red and white).

If extreme force is being applied to frustrate people’s aspirations in a context of highly organized resistance, one can predict headline-making behavior (red octant). If the resistance is grossly outclassed militarily by the powerholders, asymmetric warfare is probable, and from there—when the powerholders are already applying extreme force that very probably harms bystanders--it is an easy step to attacks on bystanders by the resistance. Indeed, once powerholders with superior military capabilities cross the threshold from democratic action to the use of force, they can hardly expect a weaker but well organized resistance to forego the use of whatever weapons it may have.

The opposite extreme is the case in which all sides operate within a democratic space, aspirations are addressed, and the political opposition is unorganized (white octant). A crisis would then be surprising.

Extremism begets extremism; force begets force. Hamas rockets cannot be understood without considering the 10,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails or the Jewish-only roads in the West Bank. The fact that the type of force used by one side differs from the type used by another is beside the point: one uses the tool at hand. One side closes newspapers or denies certain groups the right to participate in politics; the other side uses roadside bombs.

But force of course does not automatically beget force. The fact that force was used in the first place presumably implies that the elite was trying to prevent someone from realizing his aspirations. When everyone in a defeated army is fired in an economy that offers no employment opportunities, resistance is predictable. When food prices suddenly rise to the point where the average person can no longer afford to eat (e.g., Egypt and Pakistan today), resistance is predictable. To the degree that fundamental aspirations (employment, access to food, respectful treatment) are denied by force, resistance is predictable.

But effective resistance against an organized regime usually requires organization by the resistance. Hence the common delusion in elite circles that one can ignore the provocative nature of force and ignore the unsatisfied aspirations of the oppressed as long as opposition organizational structures are smashed. This is a delusion for several reasons, including the difficulty in an increasingly connected and educated world of smashing resistance organizational structures as well as the tendency of underlying frustrations and resultant resistance efforts to rise exponentially in the face of repression. Examples of resistance forces that show surprising organizational capability under severe conditions are today legion – e.g., Hezbollah’s ability to occupy Beirut in a space of hours, al Sadr’s on-going reorganization of his militia, the rise of the Pakistani Taliban over the past year, the ability of Hamas to institute effective governance in Gaza.

Determination of where various Moslem societies are and the direction in which they are moving in this three-dimensional analytical space of "force x aspirations x organization" should provide much more long-range guidance about what lies ahead than looking for specific plots or setting “terrorist threat levels.” Rather than waiting until a dissident group gets organized, plans the use of violence, and puts that plan into action, this model raises warning flags throughout the process, revealing opportunities to, for example, moderate regime repression or address popular aspirations long before terrorist cells ever get organized.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

"All Options" Are Off the Table

It is one of the tragedies of the post-9/11 era that it has become popular in certain circles loudly to insist that "all options" are on the table precisely when the speaker is determined to avoid the whole range of positive, ameliorative, conciliatory options that virtually always exist. Instead of implying an openness of mind, "all options" in fact has come to signify that all options except military ones are precluded.

Even a lightning bolt zigzags its way to earth. It would be a challenge in international affairs to identify many historical events when absolutely nothing of value could have been achieved by trying one of the infinite number of conciliatory options that always exist. It is scientifically impossible to predict in advance that such options will all prove to be worthless. At the very least, their failure provides justification for harsher measures and rallies the uncertain to the cause.

But the extremists now having their moment at such extraordinary expense for the rest of us have made a fine art of fake offers of compromise. Offers to “negotiate” are delivered to public fanfare with the worm of preconditions having already rotted the timber. The process is simple. Identify the key goal of the opponent (e.g., security) and the key lever the opponent has for obtaining that goal (e.g., rocket attacks on the colonial power or gaining the technical ability to refine bomb-grade uranium) and then “welcome” the opponent to the negotiating table, provided only that he gives up precisely that lever which gives him any hope of ever achieving his goal. When the opponent then predictably rejects the offer or as soon as any individual public figure from the opposition camp even reacts negatively, one immediately sighs sadly and condemns the opponent’s “intransigence,” thus firmly bolting the door that was in fact never cracked open in the first place.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Livni to Palestine: You Can Be Free As Long As We Control You!

According to Haaretz,

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said Wednesday that a future Palestinian state must be established according to Israel's security needs, including supervision of border crossings and the disarming of militants.

Let me translate that into plain English. It means:

no Palestinian state!

A political entity established according to the security needs of another state is not a state; it is a colony. A state has certain powers: it controls its own borders, it has the right to self-defense.

Reverse the situation. Suppose Hamas offered to accept the existence of an Israeli state provided that the future Israeli state were established according to Palestine's security needs! Such needs would presumably include Palestinian access to the sea and the return of Palestinians ethnicly cleansed from what is now Israel. After all, what is the meaning of "security" if it does not include the right to defend the people's access to their own homes? It would certainly also include territorial integrity for the Palestinian state - the removal of apartheid-like Jews-only roads on the West Bank. It would of course also include the removal of Israeli citizens from the West Bank. It would also include freedom from attack by Israel and access to not only its own taxes (which Israel steals at will) and to international assistance and trade (without Israeli embargoes) sufficient to enable it to function. HOWEVER, that would not be all. If those million or so illegal squatters who have been violating the U.N. by living on Palestinian land went back to Israel with a chip on their shoulder and advocated a new war of expansion against Palestine, then even their presence within Israel's 1967 borders would violate the "needs of the Palestinian state."

And what about Lebanon? Given the repeated Israeli invasions of Lebanon since 1978, an Israeli state that meets the security interests of Lebanon would be defined as a state with a military so weak that it would be incapable of launching any sort of ground, air, or sea attack across the Israeli-Lebanese border, not to mention a Mossad so weak that it would be incapable of mounting any sort of assassination operation in Lebanon.

And what about Iran? What if the Israeli state were allowed to exist so long as it met the security needs of the Iranian state? Israel has nuclear weapons. Where is Israel to store all those bombs and missiles and submarines in order that they no longer pose a threat to the security of the Iranian state? On the moon?

States cannot be established according to the security needs of other states. The real problem here is the outdated notion of state sovereignty, but as long as the world choses to retain this dangerous and outmoded concept, all states must accept constraints on their security. Total security does not exist in an international political system of independent states. That is why we have armies and treaties and alliances and peacekeeping troops and diplomats and confidence-building measures. That is why we talk to and work with opponents - we want them to have a stake in cooperation with us.

Until we become mature enough to create a unified global government, no state can have total security. Any state that seeks total security merely provokes hostility on the part of the rest. Of course, if we did have a unified global government, then who would protect us from our government? That's a complicated philosophical discussion we can postpone...say, until the next century. For now, interstate security is all about balance.

Since our leaders have such trouble bending their minds around this concept, perhaps we should go back to the neatest solution ever invented. All of you with kids know it well: let one side slice the cake, and let the other side choose a piece first. Let Livni divide the Palestinian region into two independent entities with borders, access to the sea, access to water, assigned military capabilities, etc., etc. Then let the Palestinians select which one they prefer to live in.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

War Criminals & Voters Who Deserve Freedom

Voters! You have, to your credit, endured months of public debate by our eager candidates, and it is to be hoped that you have learned much. Now that you have successfully completed your training, the time has come for you to pass the final exam and become official participants in the electoral process. Your exam, an open-book, pass-fail essay exam, follows.

[Directions: Read the paragraph and answer the questions that follow,
giving the reasoning behind your responses.]

Senator John D. Rockefeller, presenting the findings of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence concerning intelligence leading up to the Iraq war, stated:

In making the case for war, the Administration repeatedly presented intelligence as fact when in reality it was unsubstantiated, contradicted, or even non-existent. As a result, the American people were led to believe that the threat from Iraq was much greater than actually existed.

It is my belief that the Bush Administration was fixated on Iraq, and used the 9/11 attacks by al Qa’ida as justification for overthrowing Saddam Hussein. To accomplish this, top Administration officials made repeated statements that falsely linked Iraq and al Qa’ida as a single threat and insinuated that Iraq played a role in 9/11. Sadly, the Bush Administration led the nation into war under false pretenses.

Is there any form of behavior by a public servant more inexcusable, more immoral than starting a war under false pretenses?

Is it illegal?

Should it be illegal?

Should the government of a democracy have any standards at all...or should presidents be four-year dictators?

[You have six months to complete this test; all who turn in thoughtful responses will pass...and will be encouraged to vote. Those of you who fail will receive a $100 coupon redeemable at your local mall on election day.]

Signs of Reason in…Tel Aviv(!)

Latest self-appointed Israeli warmonger slapped down by Israeli (!) officials...but the Western epidemic rages on.
On Friday Israeli Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, who is seeking to become Israel’s next prime minister), said in a newspaper interview that "if Iran continues with its program for developing nuclear weapons, we will attack it.” Swiftly denouncing Mofaz, Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai observed:
Turning one of the most strategic security issues into a political game, using it for the internal purposes of a would-be campaign in Kadima, is something that must not be done.

Indeed. The epidemic of inflammatory remarks by self-serving Western politicians who seek career benefits (or stock profits) from whipping up ignorant voters has been more dangerous over the past seven years than the Islamic terrorism which opened wide the doors to such behavior in the first place. Not only do such remarks made it more difficult to find rational solutions and raise the likelihood of extremist “quick fixes” that will exacerbate the very insecurity they are supposedly addressing, but the constant repetition of outrageously extremist remarks of the type made by Mofaz, as well as neo-cons and extremist Protestant “political preachers” in the U.S., creates a cancer that eats away at the moral integrity of society. Just as Hitler endlessly repeated the Big Lie to entice Germans into supporting anti-Jewish pogroms to pave his way to control of the German state, the propaganda campaign against the mythical Iranian nuclear monster paves the way toward a war society dominated by the military-industrial complex.

Political figures like Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai with the courage to speak out against such reckless irresponsibility are all too rare. How many denounced Hillary Clinton for her obscene “we will obliterate them” remark or the mad doctrine of preventive war and the constant Bush/Cheney threats that “all options” are on the table?

But to create a responsible, moral political culture, much more than just denunciations of warmongering are needed. If society deems it improper to make racial slurs, how much worse is the advocacy of war against a whole people, race, or religion? Irresponsible remarks that add to a war fever are not just dangerous and wrong but direct incitements to mass murder. How else can one describe a needless war? A “needless” war is a war caused by inflammatory rhetoric rather than political realities. Inflammatory rhetoric is improper because it promotes action based not on need but on the rhetoric itself, i.e., the rhetoric creates a twilight zone distortion of reality.

In the real world, Iran has an outspoken leadership but, in practice, a rather cautious foreign policy characterized by repeated offers to negotiate as an equal; has no colonies; and has no armies in other people’s lands. Iran is ruled by a politically combative group of factions...that are in agreement that Iran has as much right to nuclear technology as any other country and outraged by the discriminatory treatment to which Iran is being subjected on this issue. The latest U.S. NIE on the subject judged that whatever Iranian nuclear weapons program may have existed appears to have been on hold for several years, and is still short of actually creating even the most primitive sort of actual weapon. Israel’s nuclear weapons program, in contrast, is well developed, ready for war, and years (probably decades) ahead of anything Iran could even dream of. And Israel’s program is not on hold. Israeli politicians regularly threaten Iran, and Israel’s track record of invading its neighbors suggests that its threats should be taken seriously. Also in the real world, regional superpower Israel has not relinquished its “right” to use those weapons…even in an offensive, first-strike war, while Iran has repeatedly rejected the morality and rationality of even possessing such weapons.

In the twilight zone rhetorical world, Iran is an irrational and aggressive bully that only understands the language of force, implacably hostile and terrifyingly powerful, a country that would commit suicide by employing whatever primitive WMD capability it could acquire against one of the world’s great nuclear powers backed up by the world’s greatest nuclear power. Nuclear Israel, in contrast, is an innocent, democratic, pioneering society trying to live in peace but under threat of immediate destruction.

To justify war by the rhetorical evocation of an imaginary world is morally outrageous and should be recognized as a crime. Inflammatory rhetoric about war by public figures is the moral equivalent of pouring gasoline on a fire consuming a whole nation and should be punished accordingly.

Politicians who advocate war should be put on “administrative leave” pending public trial for “endangering the good of mankind.” Given that they chose to pose as leaders, the burden of proof of innocence should be on them, and the bar set high. People who want to be leaders should be expected to set standards of behavior superior to the average person. The shocking reality is that today the situation is often the reverse: politicians behave with a level of irresponsibility that would not be tolerated in the general population. The man in the street is not allowed falsely to scream “fire” in a crowded theater; he is not allowed to advocate discrimination against minorities. So how can we justify allowing politicians to lie in order to build support for a war?

If the theater is indeed burning, screaming “fire” is still a questionable tactic, but at least it gets people’s attention. In contrast, if the danger is merely that the theater does not have sufficient fire extinguishers to put out some possible future fire, then screaming “fire” and provoking people to trample each other is, to put it politely, "inappropriate"…and murder charges may result. Aggressive rhetoric about war is all the more inappropriate. If a war cannot be justified by careful analysis, then it cannot be justified.

Establishing a legal process for judging the permissibility of words uttered by political figures would underscore the seriousness of the crime and encourage people to think about the implications. Questions that society now evades would be center stage. For example:

  • Should the advocacy of a war of choice be considered a crime?
  • Should the advocacy of the use of nuclear weapons be considered a crime?
  • Should the advocacy of the use of nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear state be considered a crime?
  • Should the advocacy of the use of force to prevent a state from building (not using) weapons be a crime?
  • Should warning that war will be “inevitable” unless some action is taken by the opponent be a crime?
  • Should threatening that “all options are on the table” be a crime?
  • Should the above be considered crimes at the same level or should the seriousness of the violations be scaled?
  • Should hostile rhetoric by a regime with the power to carry out its threats be considered more criminal than the same rhetoric by a regime that is obviously helpless to do anything more than talk?

And the penalty? Merely getting society to the point of considering what penalties should be imposed for inciting war would be a huge step forward; more important than the actual penalty because the fundamental purpose is to raise the moral bar, to set a standard of responsible behavior. But for egregious cases, I would suggest: suspending the speaker from all public office for some period of time without pay and condemning the speaker to working on his or her hands and knees removing land mines and gathering up unexploded cluster bombs, followed by hospital service in a war zone.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Pakistani Taliban: Tandem Talk & Terror

Najmuddin A Shaikh, foreign secretary of Pakistan 1994-97, has warned that valuable time is being lost in the tribal regions and raises the specter of future U.S. military action against Pakistan-based Taliban reminiscent of the bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail should cross-border insurgent operations continue. (The agreement now being negotiated between the Pakistani government and the Mehsud tribes reportedly does not include any stipulation that Mehsud will halt cross-border raids into Afghanistan.)

Even as the article was being published, Tehreek-i-Taliban (PTT) Mohmand Agency amir Umar Khalid was telling reporters that the PTT would continue its struggle against the U.S.

Indeed, it is not clear that these tribes could control Baitullah or what impact this agreement will have on other insurgent forces. Taliban threats against those deemed to be in violation of sharia, Taliban terrorist attacks on girls’ schools, and clashes with the Pakistani army continue even as the talks proceed and arrested militants are released.

According to Shaikh,

While our political leadership remains totally preoccupied with the judicial crisis and the general public keeps clamouring for greater political leadership and action on the economic crisis, the most serious crisis of all — the situation in the tribal areas and along the Pak-Afghan border — does not appear to be moving in the right direction…

Our claim that a multi-pronged strategy of political, economic and military engagement is being pursued in the tribal areas has little credibility for the simple reason that no concrete evidence of this policy’s implementation can be seen. The Political Parties Act has not been amended to allow the political parties to function in the tribal areas; and while the FATA Secretariat may well have drawn up development plans for the area nothing appears in the press to indicate that the Rs9 billion provided by Pakistan or the $150 million provided by the Americans for yearly developmental expenditure is being expended on projects that are increasing employment opportunities in the area. Instead we have grim pictures in our media of abandoned schools and unmanned hospitals.

Meanwhile, unmanned aerial vehicles have reportedly been sighted flying over various areas in the Northwest Frontier Provinces.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Dismissive Iraqi Resistance Reaction to Nasrallah's Speech

On May 26, Hezbollah Secretary General Hasan Nasrallah gave a speech on Hezbollah’s foreign policy that, depending on the reaction of Arabs throughout the Mideast, could turn out to be an important contribution to the development of Arab nationalism. Here’s the reaction of one Arab group that evidently is not buying Nasrallah’s sudden expression of concern for the whole region. Thanks both to "Arab Woman Blues" and Amre al-Abyad, who translated this article.

Comments by Dr. Abdallah Suleiman Al-Omaree, spokesman for the 1920 Revolution Brigades, an Iraqi insurgent group, from an interview with al Jazeera:

Regarding the statements made by Nasrallah - where he (Nasrallah) urged the Iraqis to resist, Al-Omaree made it very clear that he (Nasrallah) was pushed to do so by the neighbouring country (IRAN) who is working on destabilising Iraq. Al-Omaree adds that these statements by Nasrallah came at the right time (for Iran) as a bargaining tool on other issues.• Furthermore, Al-Omaree didn’t exclude the fact that Nasrallah's statement was an attempt by him to gain a free ride on the resistance struggle and achievements. A move that would polish his image in a last minute propaganda stunt.Otherwise how can one explain that he has just remembered the Iraqi resistance now? It would have been timely, had Hezbollah come out and called the dead resistance fighters as martyrs when the Resistance had asked them (Hezbollah) to do so. But this latter did not .

No one ever said becoming the leader of Arab nationalism would be easy. As Jean-Francois Revel discussed in a chapter entitled "La revolution n'aura pas lieu dans le tiers monde" of his 1970 book Ni Marx Ni Jesus about world revolution, the past (p. 79) is the enemy of traditional societies trying to modernize. The past includes a "structural blockage" (p. 81) in society, a major example of which is sectarian disputes within Islam that inhibit cooperation among Arabs to defend their interests against outside interference. As long as sectarianism trumps nationalism, Arab unity is likely to remain a mirage.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Anniversary: Israel Invades Lebanon (1982)

On June 6, 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon in an "incursion" to push back the PLO that ended only in 2000, when Israel finally departed Lebanon after a 17-year struggle against Hezbollah. An invasion presumably intended to defeat Israel's Palestinian opponent and possibly to seize Lebanon's Litani River ended with the Palestinian resistance continuing, a new Lebanese enemy created, and the Litani still in Lebanese hands...after 18 years of quagmire.

Collateral Damage: Vietnam Analogies to Iraq

Few debates can be more important for Americans concerned about the course of our involvement in Iraq than the issue of how and to what degree analogies to the American war in Vietnam can teach relevant lessons for the American war in Iraq. The two wars are obviously in some ways very different, in particular the glaring distinction that South Vietnam was fighting both a civil war and a defensive war against a North Vietnamese invasion before the U.S. intervened. The Lebanese war against the Israeli invasion of 1982-2001 and the Algerian effort to end French colonialism are probably much closer analogies to Iraq, but it is only the Vietnam War that one can hope many Americans will be conscious of, so drawing analogies from Vietnam is important.

I have tried repeatedly in this blog to stimulate thinking about this infinitely complex and so very poorly understood issue. My point here is simply to focus attention on the real impact of large-scale U.S. attacks on a highly mobile enemy with the following intriguing quotation from a Vietnam War website:

Westmoreland's operational concept emphasized the attrition of North Vietnamese forces in a "war of the big battalions": multi-battalion, and sometimes even multi-division, sweeps through remote jungle areas in an effort to fix and destroy the enemy. Such "search and destroy" operations were usually unsuccessful, since the enemy could usually avoid battle unless it was advantageous for him to accept it. But they were also costly to the American soldiers who conducted them, and to the Vietnamese civilians who were in the area.

Now, replace sparsely populated jungle with densely populated cities, and consider the import of the remark that such mass attacks were “costly” to the local population. One can easily hypothesize about the meaning of the word “costly” in terms of friends losing their ability to help because their lives have been ruined, neutrals turned into enemies, propaganda bonanzas for the other side, and the impact of on the rate of recruitment of volunteers from the local population to join the rebels. It would be valuable to collect and assess confirmatory or disconfirmatory evidence for this hypothesis either from the Vietnam or Iraq War, not to mention other conflicts, in particular Israel’s wars on Gaza and Lebanon.

Whatever the truth about the impact of “collateral damage” on the ultimate outcome of wars may be, it is pretty obvious (e.g., from recent harsh U.S. tactics in Sadr City) that Washington has not accepted the hypothesis that it is critical. We will all no doubt discover over the next few years to what degree this may turn out to be the key issue deciding the outcome of Washington’s war in Iraq.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

The Campaign Speech on Foreign Policy I'd Like to Hear

Recently, a candidate for leadership of a great country made a speech on how he would treat a certain self-important little ally. Comments were phrased with, one hopes, a view to getting elected. A thousand years from now, when the people of that great power will certainly be far less ignorant and far more mature, perhaps they will permit a real leader to come into power and make a speech about a similar relationship. In that speech by the incoming leader of the great power in the year 3009, this new leader of the third millennium will state:

I pledge myself to be the leader of my country, not of any other country…but with consideration toward all other countries.

No other country’s security is sacrosanct at the expense of the security of its neighbors.

No other country deserves special privileges, nor, indeed, does our own country.

The rules of international relations should apply to all equally. No religion that demands a special place for itself deserves support; no country deserves support if that support requires the subordination of a neighbor; no country or people merits special treatment.

No country deserves to have the power to destroy all other countries – that is a fool’s game that only breeds hostility and ensures instability. There is no greater threat to any country than for that country to put itself on a pedestal and demand that all others recognize its superiority. My goal will be the achievement of a common security framework through the elimination of such exceptionalism.

We may not force other countries to the negotiating table but equally we offer no guarantee that we will support a country that refuses to negotiate.

As leader, I will probably not be able to achieve peace for all time, eliminate disease, or put smiles on every face 24 hours a day, but I will use all elements of national power to construct a world in which each common citizen of this small globe has reason to look toward the future with hope.

We have all heard some unfortunate remarks made by power-hungry politicians in various countries. Politicians speak for many reasons. Politicians address themselves publicly to many audiences.

As your new leader, it will be my policy to attempt to reason with any who may be willing to reason with me. I will not speak to people or fight with people or ignore people because of what they say but because of how they behave and because of how I may feel I have the opportunity to convince them to behave.

I do not wish to be president to sulk, to sneer, to conquer, or to obliterate; I wish to be president because I believe I can help in some, perhaps modest, manner to promote better behavior. If I turn out to be overconfident in my ability to do that, then at least I believe that I will be able to set an example of better behavior. And it is no mean achievement for the most powerful leader of the most powerful country on earth to set a better example.

Trapping the Next U.S. President in Permanent Confrontation With Islam

If the terms of the new U.S.-Iraqi security arrangement now reportedly under negotiation are being correctly reported, the implication is clear: a country that hosts another country's military with the guest army having the right to conduct military operations without the host country's permission and whose laws take precedence over the host country's laws is a colony. No more, no less.

Will the world be a better place with overt, permanent colonization of Iraq by the U.S.?

The answer to this question may be debatable. The urgent need for an open discussion of such a fateful return to 19th century politics is not.

Consider, for a start, the likely attitude of Iran. Iran has tolerated U.S. intrusion into its neighborhood these last five years with a mixture of cooperation, patience, and restrained resistance for several reasons, including:

  • its happiness at seeing its main enemy, Saddam, finally eliminated;
  • its recognition that patience was paying off since the Iraqi disaster was strengthening its own position;
  • its understanding that the U.S. presence was temporary.

If Iraq is turned into a permanent U.S. colony, exactly why should Iran continue to play ball, supporting the regime in Baghdad and intervening diplomatically to persuade various Iraqi parties to avoid violence?

Second, consider the propaganda victory this gives al Qua'ida, which will be able persuasively to present itself as the defender of Arab liberty in the face of a new crusade. Beware the confusion of religious extremism and nationalism in the Mideast. If American heavihandedness were to enable al Qua'ida to stand before all Sunnis as the accepted symbol of Arab nationalism, American national security would be truly at risk and the new U.S. administration might well face a term in office even worse than that of Bush.

Third, what would this mean for Iraq? How is a government to stabilize Iraq without legitimacy, and how can it gain legitimacy if it is so visibly a colonial client regime?

Colonial status for Iraq would open the door to war with Iran, reinvigoration of al Qua'ida's position throughout the Mideast, and endless civil war in Iraq: in short, a very neat gift from Bush to his replacement.