Thursday, December 31, 2009

Mideast Radicalization Dynamics

The end result of the domestic political strife in Iran may be the replacement of the regime with a kinder, gentler regime, but for the moment the strife creates yet another cycle of radicalization in the Mideast. Since this cycle is liked in many ways with the other cyles (the battle for Palestine, the Iranian nuclear dispute, the Western war with radical Islam), its immediate impact is to make the Mideast a still more dangerous place.

Farhideh Farhi portrays the radicalization of domestic politics in Iran, a process by which regime repression of within-system dissidents is pushing the dissident movement toward more hardline tactics in self-defense, thereby further radicalizing the regime, in a vicious cycle that makes compromise ever more difficult. This domestic process is occurring in the regional context of Israel’s increasingly intransigent approach to Palestine, demonstrated by the viciousness of its Gaza attack a year ago and its insistence on expanding the illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank. Globally, the Western conflict with activist Islam continues to expand, with the surge into Afghanistan and recent expansion of the U.S. bombing campaign into Yemen the latest examples. Not surprisingly, the Western nuclear dispute with Iran proves, in this context, difficult to resolve. Whenever one side offers any signal of moderation, something—possibly related to the nuclear dispute but very likely unrelated—intervenes to poison the atmosphere and obstruct progress.

As each of these cycles of radicalization feeds on the others, the momentum for war can build far more rapidly than would be justified by the actual reasons.

Violent domestic political strife tends effectively to preclude foreign policy compromise in any country. For the Iranian regime to compromise on a core issue such as its right to develop nuclear technology in the face of highly abrasive and public Western pressure is virtually inconceivable. At a minimum, a nuclear breakthrough during the current Iranian domestic crisis would probably require public silence on the part of Western leaders about Iran’s nuclear program, secret diplomatic overtures to Iran promising fundamental shifts in how the Mideast is managed that would entail greatly enhanced Iranian influence over the U.S. role in that region, and acceptance of a common standard for Mideast nuclear powers that would explicitly link what is tolerated in the nuclear arena on the part of Israel with that which is tolerated on the part of Iran.

Given the rising radicalization of the global Western-Islamic conflict, however, it is hard to imagine the Obama Administration having the courage to offer anything remotely like the above concessions. Even if the political opposition from the Israeli lobby in the U.S. to such a policy could be overcome, the question would remain of how one might reasonably launch such a policy now without having it be misinterpreted as support for, or effectively constituting support of, the repressive regime.

The distinct, but linked, cycle of radicalization in the Levant is provoked by the hardening of Israeli elite attitudes toward Palestinians in recent years, the continuation of apartheid policies toward Palestinians in the West Bank, the intensification of collective punishment of all Gazans, and the continued expansion of Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian territory (constituting an effective policy of ethnic cleansing). Such Israeli behavior not only provokes occasional violent Palestinian reactions and poisons Israel’s relations with Lebanon and Syria but offers Tehran hardliners irresistible temptations for exploitation to gain regional influence. Such Iranian behavior may frighten some Israelis but certainly offers, in its turn, its own irresistible temptations for exploitation by Israeli officials looking for ways to deflect American eyes from Israel’s repression of the Palestinians. Thus, both Iran and Israel whip up tensions that risk war even without either necessarily having any desire to go to war.

Once multiple cycles of radicalization become linked, they transform into a political structure of great durability. Extremists have a huge advantage over those counseling moderation under such circumstances. It takes concerted action simultaneously to resist the radicalization process within each cycle in order to create momentum toward peace, while it takes only a single tiny push anywhere in any one of the cycles to intensify the radicalization process, as exemplified by the emotional and self-defeating reactions in the West to the appearance of one Nigerian terrorist.

The appetites of many will be whetted by the spreading chaos, but the largest smirk of all must surely be on the lips of bin Laden.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Can Turkey Change the Mideast?

In a region dominated by extremists, Turkey is trying to occupy the vacant position as champion of moderates. It should be prepared for serious opposition from the forces benefiting from chaos.

With extremists, i.e., those who voluntarily select violence as their means of achieving goals, still in control of or retaining enormous influence over the U.S., Iran, Afghanistan, and Israel, an enormous political vacuum exists in the Mideast: the forces advocating conflict dominate the agenda on all sides, and moderates are marginalized. That is the scope of al Qua'ida's victory to date. The genius of the Erdogan-Davutoglu team is that they realize this and are acting to fill that vacuum. Turkey might have trouble leading the Mideast by force (even the U.S. seems unable to do that) and has plenty of economic competition, but it is now alone in the Mideast scaling the peak of moral leadership.

The existence of such a glaring vacant position is curious in a region so tense with competing positions and constitutes a huge failure on the part of major world powers. Religious pretensions on all sides play a role in this global failure of leadership, as does the addiction to oil. American provincialism, which appears tragically to be rising even as American involvement in the Mideast deepens, contributes a great deal, though more effort on the part of Arabs and Persians to achieve good governance and live as good neighbors would lessen the opportunities for American mischief. The irresponsible overarming of Israel combined with the granting to Israel of a blank check allowing it the unique “right” to amass nuclear arms and commit aggression without the restraints applied to other regional powers is another key factor.

The strategic calculus of Erdogan and Davutoglu seems to go approximately as follows:

  1. The regional position of moral leader as advocate of compromise and cooperation is vacant;
  2. Tensions are staying high, if not rising, with extremists on all sides pushing the region toward further conflict;
  3. The time is right to assert moral leadership before the Mideast reaches a tipping point and collapses into general war;
  4. Given the absence of other candidates with the vision to step forward, this is Turkey’s opportunity and duty.

In a sense, Erdogan wins just by trying; there is some satisfaction in trying to bring sense to a region gone mad even if one fails. However, truly to win, he does need some help from the antagonists. Turkey will have no room to negotiate if the opposing sides refuse to compromise. The U.S. and Iran will need to give a little if Turkey is to succeed in brokering a nuclear deal. Israel and Syria will need to give a little if Turkey is to succeed in brokering a peace deal. Whether or not the adversaries will compromise is unclear: everyone is letting pride get in the way and far too many politicians are making great careers out of waving the bloody flag.

But just by trying, just by making the case for moderate compromise, Erdogan is altering the tone of regional affairs. The whole complex system that constitutes the Mideast is already visibly in the process of adjusting. Washington can hardly reject Turkey’s offer of help out of hand, and the lack of such rejection empowers Erdogan a bit. Iran as well feels pressured at least to pretend to be seeking resolution. Similarly, Israel now finds itself somewhat on the defensive as Syria welcomes Turkish offers of mediation: if Israel wishes to spurn Turkish assistance, then it must find alternative ways forward to avoid looking even more like the party responsible for conflict. The terms of debate subtly shift from a search for victory to a search for compromise, which leaves conservative Arab dictatorships embarrassingly marginalized. So bit by bit, the Mideast political system readjusts, and a new tone emerges.

How far this new tone will go is the question. Turkey itself is an imperfect champion of understanding: a crackdown on its Kurdish minority will make Erdogan’s pretentions to moral superiority look hypocritical. The attitude of Turkey’s highly politicized military, comfortable with its flow of support from the U.S. and Israel, is unclear, as well.

Externally, many actors will dislike Turkey’s interference with their ambitious plans:

  • Al Qua’ida’s whole program is directly threatened, and a vicious response from jihadis seems almost inevitable.
  • Israeli right-wing ambitions for a racially pure Greater Israel exercising military dominance over the Mideast are also directly threatened, and an Israeli effort to provoke conflict—with Iran, Lebanon, or perhaps Yemen—in order to cut the ground out from under Erdogan should come as no surprise.
  • A big question is how Iran’s IRGC will respond. To the extent that it is, as alleged by the Israeli right and its American fellow travelers, an expansionist force, it seems likely to try to sabotage Turkey’s initiative. But to the extent that the IRGC is less a force for Shi’ite revolution and Iranian imperialism than a business enterprise like the armies of Pakistan and China, it may come to see opportunity rather than threat in the new cooperative vision Turkey is outlining. Turkey’s plans to transform itself into a regional hydrocarbon hub connecting, among others, Iran to West Europe will surely be noted by IRGC officers involved in the import-export business.
  • Another question concerns the Arab dictatorships. Saudi Arabia and Egypt have a big decision to make about whether or not to join Turkey on the peace bandwagon.


Expect the advocates of war to blow one of the many regional disputes out of all proportion as civilization's life or death struggle...requiring resolution through the use of more violence.


If Istanbul can open sufficient political space domestically for its Kurds, if it has sufficient time to get the diplomatic ball rolling before a new crisis alters the regional mood, and if Iran can be persuaded that economic integration trumps nuclear brinkmanship, then Erdogan may emerge as the 2010 Man of the Year.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

What We Know About Iran

We in the West can argue endlessly about Iran without achieving anything as long as our viewpoints are based on assertions about the "nature" or "intentions" of this or that Iranian because we really do not know what current leaders now intend, what they may decide tomorrow, or what future leaders may desire or believe they can achieve.

But there is much that we do know.

  1. We know that Iran has suffered repeated hostility from the West over the last 150 years.
  2. We know that Iran faces two nuclear-armed enemies whose decision-makers repeatedly make threatening statements.
  3. We know that Iran is surrounded by a new archipelago of U.S. military bases and naval vessels.
  4. We know that domestic politics in Iran is highly factionalized so that it takes the Iranian political system a long time to reach a decision.
  5. We know that the regime plays for keeps so everyone in Iranian politics is under great pressure.
  6. We know that Iran has been ostracized from normal diplomatic interaction in the Mideast for the last generation.
  7. We know that the Iranian people devote a great deal of energy to politics and that an intense domestic policy debate is currently taking place.

Given those facts, how might any human society be expected to respond? Two obvious reactions are a search for increased security and resistance to being pushed around. A third only slightly less obvious aspect is that for an outsider to impose an arbitrary deadline will fail: probably because it will be resented and also because such a society/regime will not be able to make a rapid decision and stick with it.

Reasoning on the basis of facts, not some simplistic assumption about the psychological make-up of any particular individual, should be the starting point for designing policy to cope with such a country.

There is much that can be criticized about Iran. Actually, one could also say that about the U.S., Israel, and perhaps almost every other state on the planet. To say that Iran is less than perfect is irrelevant to the issue of whether or not the West should commit aggression against Iran.

If we would prefer that Iran behave differently, perhaps we should ask ourselves how we might alter the regional political environment so as to induce different behavior.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Step Gently Toward Peace With Iran

Iran does not want what one might call a regional apartheid political system in which Israel can have nuclear weapons while Iran cannot; Israel can attack neighbors at will while Iran cannot even provide military assistance to its allies; and Iran continues to be criticized for its domestic political system because it is out of step with the U.S.-centric international political system. Iran wants respectful treatment, recognition of its right to play a leading role in the Mideast even as it chooses its own path, and a fundamental reconsideration of both Iran's and America's proper regional role.

If Kerry visits Tehran either holding a cake in his hand or a knife behind his back, the mission will fail.

Obama tried upon election to make Washington’s words about the Muslim world more civilized, but when it came to changing U.S. behavior he has had little impact. Americans need to demand a rational foreign policy that considers the perspectives of others and rejects war as the answer. To achieve those goals, talking to adversaries is essential. Nevertheless, a Kerry visit to Iran would be very dangerous at this moment.

It is tempting to compare a Kerry visit to Iran with Nixon’s path-breaking trip to China, but the conditions are very different. Nixon’s trip was a visit both sides had decided was necessary to face down a third-party threat. The problem in US-Iranian relations is a disagreement over bilateral issues. No consensus exists in Iran that there is a need to deal with a U.S. justifiably seen as duplicitous. And even after Gaza and Somalia and Lebanon and Afghanistan and Pakistan and Iraq, Americans still have not learned that war is not the answer. Therefore, even though diplomacy is desperately needed to avoid a mutual disaster, now is probably not the moment for grandstanding.

Tehran has every reason to be suspicious. Washington has been sending very clear signals for years that any deal with Iran will come only on U.S. terms, and U.S. terms are that Iran accept the U.S. domination of the global political order plus a free pass for Israel regionally. Most seriously, this means that nuclear rules that are to apply to Iran will not apply to Israel. If Kerry goes just to talk Tehran into accepting discriminatory nuclear restrictions that do not apply to Israel, his trip will only make matters worse.

What offer could Kerry take to Iran that would persuade Tehran that the U.S. was serious about addressing its concerns?

Kerry could probably offer total U.S. support for Iranian uranium refinement up to 20% (medical grade), an offer to negotiate a joint policy toward Afghanistan and Iraq, complete termination of economic sanctions, aid to modernize its petroleum industry (including gasoline refinement), and acceptance of Iran’s support for Hezbollah and still see Tehran dismiss him out of hand.

Why? Would such a list of concessions not be generous? Well, yes, if one sees the U.S. as the father of world nations, that list would be a nice handful of presents to the Iranian child. But Iran does not see itself as a child begging for toys. Iran sees itself as an emerging regional leader meriting a respectful hearing and having the right, without asking for permission, to find its own path. The U.S. needs to present the case for why Iran should choose a path that excludes the militarization of nuclear technology, not a case based on threats but a case that would persuade a true Iranian nationalist that voluntarily renouncing nuclear weaponization is the most beneficial path for Iran.

All those seemingly significant U.S. concessions would still not address Iran’s fundamental complaint that the U.S. wants Iran to play by discriminatory rules that would leave Iran a second-class citizen. The bottom line is that Iran does not want what one might call a regional apartheid political system in which Israel can have nuclear weapons while Iran cannot; Israel can attack neighbors at will while Iran cannot even provide military assistance to its allies; and Iran continues to be criticized for its domestic political system because it is out of step with the U.S.-centric international political system.

Were Kerry to put on the table an offer to accept the long-term principle of a single regional nuclear standard, Tehran might well take notice. Such a revolutionary move would also go far toward justifying Obama's Nobel Prize.

But will Obama dare to go this far? And could he back up such an offer, given the self-destructive nature of U.S. domestic politics?

Even if Obama dares to take a historic step and can pull it off in terms of domestic politics, history cautions us that the grand play that puts all eggs in one basket is inadvisable. Iranians will not have forgotten the absurd bungling of Reagan’s Iran-Contra scandal, and Obama’s impatient mishandling in recent weeks of the effort to cut a deal with Iran to trade uranium suggests that Washington still has little idea how to work with Iran.

The idea of a Kerry trip is great; the timing is probably not yet right. The alternative idea of parliamentary talks, which would be lower-level and less sensitive but still get to or possibly even involve key security official Ali Larijani makes more sense at the moment.

The urgency is great, as indicated by the Manichean blindness of Alan Kuperman’s recent call for war in the New York Times that was so ably refuted by Marc Lynch. The U.S. war party is far from dead. The urgency is also great because political conditions in Iran are getting steadily worse, empowering the most extremist elements. Extremists who see the world as black or white and worship the use of force have great power on both sides. But that does not mean, indeed perhaps that is precisely why, we should step gently down the road toward resolution of the Iranian-U.S. nuclear dispute. Now is the time for broad, quiet technical talks to lay out mutually beneficial solutions not just to the nuclear dispute but to the basic contradictions in our respective concepts of acceptable Iranian and America roles in the Mideast.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Teaching Iran a Lesson

Washington believes pressure is the way to get what it wants from Iran…and the effect so far?

Washington grandly threatens to cut off gasoline supplies. Tehran has responded to this threat by carrying out an experiment to temporarily raise gasoline production, which may or may not work of course but will certainly give Iranian leaders ideas and teach them valuable technical lessons. Washington is training Iran, whose economic abilities are minimal, to get its economic house in order.

Iran also has significant diplomatic weaknesses. Curiously, Tehran has made great use of extremist rhetoric, though it is not at all clear why they should copy the practice of their main adversaries, the U.S. and Israel. Iran has also sent arms freely to its friends, again copying the behavior of its adversaries. Everyone sends arms to their friends; Western criticism of Iran for so doing is purely hypocritical. But Iran’s awkwardness in combining “playing rough” with positive inducements has for decades undermined its quest for influence. Ahmadinejad’s failure to give Erdogan something to work with in recent weeks, embarrassing an innovative and important regional figure who has been trying to make a place in the regional china shop for the Iranian bull.

Now, under Washington’s harsh tutelage, Tehran seems to be learning a more sophisticated strategy – negotiation, courtesy, and inducements.

Iran & Egypt.

On December 20, Iranian Parliamentary Speaker and key national security decision-maker Ali Larijani held a notable two-hour meeting with Egyptian dictator Mubarak in which the two discussed, among other subjects, “regional matters.” Larijani’s summary remarks suggested significant progress in formerly cold Iranian-Egyptian relations, claiming:

There may be differing views in [sic] tactics (over Israel) between Iran and Egypt but the strategies of the two countries are not different.

Whether Iranian bravado or the sign of a real breakthrough, these are the highest level bilateral public talks in a generation, and Mubarak’s lengthy participation with an Iranian whom he greatly outranks sends a signal that perhaps he too is learning a lesson or two, regardless of what he says publicly.

Coming only a month after Ahmadinejad’s friendly visit to Turkey, in the wake of a sustained effort to make friends in the Gulf, and in the broader context of Iran’s profound influence courtesy of George Bush over now-Shi’ite-run Iraq, Larijani’s cordial visit to Cairo takes on greater significance.

A test of Mubarak’s true attitude is before him at this very moment: whether or not he will allow the Viva Palestina humanitarian aid convoy into Gaza. Building a steel underground wall with the U.S. to prevent smuggling into Gaza plus cooperating with the global pro-Palestinian movement by allowing the aid convoy on the surface to combat the utterly immoral Israeli collective punishment campaign would constitute a nicely neutral Egyptian position; let’s see if Mubarak can design such a finely balanced policy!

Meanwhile, others are also learning lessons.

Iran & Turkey.

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Davutoglu made it clear that Turkey has already learned the lesson that it must take the initiative to bring the region back to some semblance of sanity back in October, saying:

If something goes wrong, as a leading country in the region, we cannot remain silent…. We will not let civilians die in the region. We will do everything we are capable of doing.

Iran & Syria.

Syria too is learning lessons.

In a blunt indictment of Israel, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad just stated at a joint press conference with Erdogan:

Israel is the main cause for the deadlock in peace. The Israelis want negotiations devoid of principles, that is to say endless talks….We now want [Turkish] mediation more than ever.

That Syria is learning the lesson that it needs Turkish support to deal with Israel because Washington’s bias prevents the last remaining superpower from mounting its natural pedestal as honest mediator is made doubly significant in the context of the lesson Turkey has learned that it, despite being a U.S. ally, also cannot rely on the U.S. when it comes to ensuring regional stability.

In case anyone might make the mistake of thinking that the improvement in Turkish-Syrian ties is only a minor bilateral process, the official declaration at the conclusion of this week’s Turkish-Syrian cooperation council meeting noted that:

Turkey and Syria agree to clear the region from [sic] nuclear weapons and call for a diplomatic solution of the problem over Iran's nuclear program.

As Iran moves to strengthen its weak ties with its neighbors, turning--albeit haltingly--the neo-con attitude that "if you are not with us, you are against us" on its face with the much more sophisticated new (for Iran) policy of "if you are not against us, you are with us), Syrian rapprochement with an increasingly moderate, center-of-the-road Turkey only puts on a firmer foundation a Syrian-Iranian relationship that might otherwise come to be seen in Damascus as a highly dangerous adventure.

Iran & Lebanon.

It is also worth noting that “Washington’s man in Lebanon” has recently been in Syria. Let’s see; if Syria backs both Hezbollah and the anti-Hezbollah forces in Lebanon, then what exactly is Washington’s role to be?

Firas Azmeh gave the following concise summary of the significance of Hariri’s pilgrimage to Damascus:

To secure Damascus’ support, Hariri will have to commit to some core values that are key to Syria: Re-affirming Lebanon’s Arab identity, securing an unambiguous position vis-à-vis the conflict with Israel, supporting the resistance (i.e. Hezbollah) and committing to a distinguished relationship with Syria. From Syria’s perspective, all other issues may be negotiated.

Teaching Washington a Lesson.

In sum, Washington is provoking an impressive degree of instability in Mideast affairs as the various countries—both U.S. allies and antagonists—learn lesson after lesson about how to manage the heavy-handed intrusion of the world’s last superpower. That instability is, however, not paving the way for a rise in U.S. influence; quite the contrary. Antagonists are learning to strengthen themselves domestically and make alliances internationally. Allies are learning that a violence-prone America is not the friend it might have seemed during the Cold War. So both allies and antagonists are learning to work together to protect themselves from an increasingly dangerous level of regional instability provoked by Washington.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Climbing the Ladder of History

Human history is the story of man's climb up the ladder of justice. The West now stands on the step of welcoming the Muslim world. The "long war" so glibly threatened by extremists of all stripes will be the penalty for failure to take this step.

Human history is, or at least one must so hope, the story of man’s climb up the ladder of social justice. Skipping a few steps, let us zero in on the history of the U.S. and summarize it in a sentence: if the first step was declaration of self-evident truths (and a bit of a mix-up with the day’s superpower), the second step was the inclusion of black men in the dream, and the third step was the inclusion of all women.

Each step brought the next into focus. Articulation of natural rights of humans led logically to abolition. Welcoming male ex-slaves as citizens and voters led logically to welcoming women. With each step, the emerging society improved. If the Declaration of Independence gave the vision inspiring the first step, then Lincoln’s warning that a house divided cannot survive articulated the vision of the second.

That double vision of self-evident rights exercised within a united house should today inspire us to raise our sights to the necessary fourth step. It is now time for the West to articulate a vision of a global political system that will welcome Muslims.

So difficult was it for American society to conceive of a social structure including black men that a near-suicidal fratricidal war had to be fought to accomplish it. Society matured a bit as the result of that lesson and outright war between men and women proved unnecessary to accomplish the next restructuring. Difficult though it was to carry through the resolution to share power, each invitation, each compromise with those formerly marginalized strengthened and enriched society. Now it is not national society but global society that must be restructured.

The immediate challenge is one that in particular faces the party leading the resistance, Americans, and the challenge is to articulate both the goal of inclusiveness and a practical process of achieving it. This cannot be simple. That slavery made a mockery of the Declaration of Independence today seems obvious beyond any need for comment, but it took American society a full generation of agonizing argument and another century of refinements even to approach racial equality. Again, the logic of a white man granting to his wife the same rights that he had granted to male ex-slaves today also seems obvious, but that step took three more generations.

Can reform of the complex global political system prove any easier? Provision will have to be made for tribes that choose not to modernize and states demanding a reform of what today are highly discriminatory nuclear rules. But start we must if we are to avoid the Long War nightmare evoked by extremists on both sides.

Monday, December 7, 2009

White House: Honest Afghan Review?

Did Obama conduct an honest review of the true range of policy options available to the U.S. on Afghanistan…or did he play with a stacked deck?

For those concerned about U.S. foreign policy and national security (and with the number of wars today involving the U.S., it is hard to see how anyone could fail to be concerned), one of the critical questions about the recent White House review of Afghan policy must surely be whether or not the White House actually conducted an honest, i.e., open-minded review as opposed to stacking the deck by rejecting up front a portion of the options. Truth in advertising, I have already expressed my opinion on the issue, but of course I have no certain knowledge of what happens in the White House, so this remains an open issue to which the American people, not to mention the people of Afghanistan, need an answer.

The array of feasible options is broad, extending from immediate withdrawal to full-scale colonization, with endless permutations between those extremes. Consider…

Withdrawal. It can reasonably be argued that withdrawal is justified on several grounds. For each point reasonable counter-arguments also exist, but withdrawal is an option that needs to be evaluated.
  1. No army threatening the U.S. exists in Afghanistan, so the presence of the U.S. army is unjustified. If al Qua’ida remains a threat, quiet police work seems at least as likely to eliminate the threat as a public, ponderous, highly visible conventional military attack. The fact that U.S. decision makers apparently believe no more than 100 al Qua’ida members remain in Afghanistan makes this conclusion hard to argue with.
  2. The mere presence of U.S. forces in Afghanistan arguably is transforming the Afghan conflict from a precisely defined war against a terrorist group into a broad national resistance movement that will tempt all patriotic Afghans into a war against U.S. forces. Such a transformation would be a disaster for the U.S.
  3. Not only (Point #1) is there no enemy army threatening the U.S. in Afghanistan, the U.S. also has no friend there. A regime engaging in electoral corruption, financial corruption, and drug dealing does not exactly seem to merit the sacrifice the U.S. is making.
  4. Years of confused aggression, financial corruption, and misgovernment have left the world’s last superpower looking a bit flea-bitten. Compared to all the other problems facing the U.S., is a ground war in Central Asia really worth the cost?
  5. Obama was unable to articulate persuasively an answer to the core question: will it work? The experience of eight years of U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan, not to mention Soviet intervention there, U.S. invasion of Iraq, Ethiopian intervention in Somalia, and a generation of Israeli attacks on Lebanon make an incredibly strong historical case that the U.S. will fail to create a stable, friendly society through war in Afghanistan or any other Muslim society. Unless Washington can make a persuasive case that it can defy this historical trend, it should change its strategy immediately.

Withdrawal Light. The withdrawal option itself contains a rich array of alternative implementation strategies. “Withdrawal Light” covers a subset of options that seek to shift the emphasis from military to civil action. One of the strong points of “withdrawal light” is that the various options are not really alternatives but compatible aspects of a single composite strategy that really is not “withdrawal” at all but “reformed commitment.”
  1. The most obvious may be to offer flatly to withdraw whenever the various Afghan parties manage to negotiate a ceasefire. Indeed, one might well imagine that this is in fact Obama’s real policy and that he has judged that goal to be one he should not discuss in public. If this is where he wants to go, surging first is a terrible gamble that not only risks failure but also creates a political momentum in favor of more and more military effort, with each new investment being justified to “make good on” the previous one.
  2. Another variation would be to make the replacement of American forces by Muslim forces the core of U.S. policy. One could certainly argue that at the moment the Taliban has little incentive to stop fighting the U.S., since it clearly realizes that it has momentum and can almost certainly outlast the patience of the American public. For the Taliban to oppose an all-Muslim force would be far more difficult. Erdogan is on his way to the U.S. Although Obama missed an opportunity in his speech to commend Turkey’s willingness to help in Afghanistan and express his understanding for Turkey’s determination not to do so by fighting, he will have, with Erdogan’s visit, a second chance effectively to offer Turkey leadership of a global moderate Muslim crusade, backed by, say, enormous U.S. contributions of funds to the U.N.
  3. Perhaps the most attractive “withdrawal light” option is to take the moral high ground by emphasizing a combination of economic development, political reform, and an all-out war against illegal narcotics. A war against heroin refinement, regardless of who owns the labs, would go far to make the case the U.S. truly is in Afghanistan to help build a better society and thus would open wide the door for Afghan nationalists to cooperate with the U.S. rather than the Taliban.

Military surge. "Knock 'em back on their heels and then cut a deal" might conceivably work, but a convincing case that the relatively tiny increment of 30,000 soldiers will significantly advance the prospects of pacifying a country the size of Afghanistan has not yet been made. Admittedly, the surge might persuade the Taliban that withdrawal to Waziristan for a year or so in order to allow Obama to retreat before his reelection campaign would be the better part of valor. Now that’s a deal that would at least make short-term military and political sense, though it would leave Afghanistan with a very big problem for the future. A betting man might put his money on this as Obama’s real policy, and it is certainly understandable why he would keep such a policy to himself. In fact, I, not to mention Malalai Joya and many others, might well accept such a policy as an improvement over the war party’s mania for violence…provided that real efforts are made to pave the way. Such efforts should effectively push the U.S. back toward “withdrawal light.” Obama gave no reason for us to expect that this is what he has in mind, but perhaps he will surprise us.

Colonization. One must never forget the very real possibility that this is, after all, about oil and influence (e.g., vis-à-vis Moscow and Beijing) more than anything else. If this is really Iraq redux, Washington will excuse Kabul’s corruption, avoid attacking Kabul’s own heroin labs, build massive military bases. What might disprove such a cynical hypothesis? A key indicator that such traditional imperialist thinking has been rejected by Obama would be the end of U.S. opposition to including Iran in the growing regional hydrocarbon pipeline network. Pipelines will be built and will most likely go either through Afghanistan or Iran. Supporting their emplacement in Iran would greatly diminish the importance to the U.S. of Afghanistan and simultaneously give Iran great incentive to promote regional stability.

If Obama’s review honestly evaluated all options, and Obama made his decision on the basis of that analysis, then one must at least credit him with having done his best to resolve an issue that is without doubt agonizingly complex (in the conversational and scientific senses of the word). One could applaud him for having brought fresh thinking to a tragically mismanaged U.S. policy. Right or wrong, Americans could be proud of having an open-minded leader.

On the other hand, if Obama stacked the deck by considering only the highly biased set of options presented to him by his military commander in the field, then the effort should be condemned as a fraud little better than the previous administration’s mindless addiction to war as the policy tool of choice.

Peter Baker’s December 6 front page account in the New York Times made a great effort to portray Obama's policy review as honest and thorough. Unfortunately, read carefully, it provides absolutely no evidence that anything except the extremely narrow range of military options carried back by McChrystal was considered. Those options ranged from “a few more troops” through “slightly more troops than that” to “a noticeable number of additional troops.” If the White House evaluation had taken five minutes, it would have selected the central option; that’s how things work. The White House option in fact took some time but still ended up in the same place. Perhaps that tells us something...something very worrisome.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Education: Another Option for Helping Afghanistan

Here's another option Obama overlooked on Afghanistan: funding a national educational system.

The thesis of "Hammering Islamic Radicals" was that Obama’s troop surge into Afghanistan solidifies U.S. relapse into the neo-con foreign policy based on force, effectively institutionalizing an aberrant, extremist position that ignores a broad range of policy options. While a few of these options were noted, the article’s thesis stands on weak ground unless it can be demonstrated that, in fact, the policy options Obama is ignoring truly do constitute a “broad range” of serious options.

Making that case will require significant thought and research. Any reader with suggestions is cordially invited to offer them. Here, I simply wish to add one option that was suggested by a reporter interviewed on Dalgit Daliwan’s TV news program on December 4:

Fund a national educational system for all the Afghan students currently studying in madrassas so as to expose them to a modern education rather than an education that will arguably prepare them to be Taliban recruits.

I do not know how radical the curriculum of Afghan madrassas may be. One could also question the degree to which, given the deplorable condition of the Afghan government at all levels, how radical education should be in order to prepare young Afghans to build the kind of government they need. But "funding an Afghan educational system" should not be taken to mean imposing regime-controlled curriculum; indeed, the experience of an innovative new compromise madrassa in, of all places, violent Helmand Province, suggests that education might actually be a topic on which radicals and the regime can hold a useful dialogue.

But when the total cost of such an educational system for a year would only be equivalent to the cost of some 20 U.S. soldiers, according to the interviewee (i.e., $20 million)—cookie crumbs off the $30B table of military expenses for Obama’s new military surge, this is obviously an option worth considering. In fact, even under the violence-addicted Bush-Cheney Administration, the U.S. invested money in the Afghan educational system, one small Republican idea that would have been worth focusing on.


Other options include –

1. Campaign to eradicate heroin labs

2. Stress desire for Muslim rather than Western “boots on the ground”;

3. Offer the police a living wage.


Does anyone have more information about the current Afghan educational system?

Can anyone offer additional options that Obama might have considered to complement or substitute for his overwhelming focus on military force?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Form an American "People's" Party

Can national government that puts the interests of the American people ahead of short-term elite interests be achieved within the contemporary party structure?

The steady decline in U.S. national health care management, financial system regulation, environmental oversight, and national security in recent years—trends not reversed by the election of Obama—all point to one conclusion: it is time for the American people to start defending their interests against the elite. In each of the above arenas, the perspective of the elite is exactly the opposite of the perspective of the average citizen.

Health care. U.S. health care for the rich is superb; it is “only” the workers, not to mention the unemployed, and our elderly parents on pensions, and the children of young parents just beginning their careers who risk being denied affordable health care. Not only does the elite have no health care problem; the elite also benefits from the current lucrative health care industry by being able to invest with the certainty of a profitable return: there will always be plenty of sick people, and as long as the health care system is designed to make a profit, a profit is exactly what it will make.

Finance. As for the financial system, the glaring contradiction between the recent surge in Goldman Sachs profits marching step-in-step with the surge in unemployment says it all. The U.S. national financial system still contains a good bit of money (at least so long as the Chinese don’t call in their loans); the allocation of that cash is the issue, and since the beginning of the new and now evidently endless Federal bailout of bankers and Wall St. gamblers, the elite has had little reason to complain about the allocation of the cash.

Environment. The environment is not even perceived by the elite as a “separate system;” rather, it is, for them, part of the financial system…just like health care. The environment, for the elite, consists of such goodies as national forests that their corporations clearcut, leaving behind a desert that cannot return to normal forest growth. Surely, the government (i.e., the taxpayer) at least gets a reasonable return for selling the national wealth to corporations? Well, no, actually the ruling elite essentially gives the trees away, in a classic “socialism for the rich” escapade that voters are too lazy to protest.

National security. National security is a bit harder for the average person to understand. The rapid spread of U.S. military bases throughout the Mideast and Central Asia (castles literally built on sand), the endless military victories in every “face-to-face” encounter between the world’s most high-tech force and 19th century insurgents, the dramatic media portrayals of the day’s little troop surge, and dominant position in national debate of stern-faced generals calling for more war (because the generals opposing war seem to get themselves sacked and then blacklisted by the compliant media) all give the impression that—whatever Washington may be doing to the rest of the world—at least U.S. national security is being well defended. Unfortunately, those foreign bases are like the dikes around New Orleans: imposing structures but not designed for the job. Those bases would have stopped Stalin’s late-1940s push into Iran cold; they would have stopped the Soviet 1978 invasion of Afghanistan cold. And they would serve marvelously as launching pads for regional aggression. But in the context of Iraq or Afghanistan, they are recruitment posters for al Qua’ida.

The bases, the surges, the endless expensive high-tech conflict all do have one undeniable characteristic, however: they are very good for business. Blackwater, by whatever name, is doing booming business running a mercenary army outside of Congressional control, and the need for weapons and machinery and construction is endless.

So for the elite, these four critical national problems that are as plain as day to citizens simply do not exist. The state of health care, the state of the financial system, the environment, and the state of national security are, for the rich and powerful, not problems but opportunities. Speaking in another era about a different issue, in his series of 1858 debates with Steven Douglas, Lincoln criticized Douglas’ defense of racism as “blowing out the moral lights around us, eradicating the light of reason and the love of liberty in this American people” [as quoted in Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals, 207]. Lincoln argued that the “real issue” was “the same spirit that says, “You work and toil and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.’ No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle” [208].

Many problems in life are unfortunate situations that man must learn to cope with. It is important to remember that the state of U.S. health care, finances, the environment, and national security result from choices intentionally made by the ruling elite. The critical problems in all four arenas do not result from nature or foreign enemies; we Americans did it to ourselves. More specifically, the elite did it for private purposes while the rest of us were out at the mall.

The rich are surely deluding themselves if they imagine that their exploitative behavior can endure endlessly, but there is little reason to think that they are worrying much about the lives their children will live: the view of the complacent is a short-term one. As far as their own personal prospects are concerned, on the other hand, the rich tend to know exactly what they are doing.

It is, for example, now well known that Wall Street investors were so sensitive to the possibility that they would be indicted under anti-gambling laws for the highly dangerous new derivative investment practices they planned around the turn of the century that they persuaded their Congressional allies to pass a law exempting them from the anti-gambling statues. So they gambled, they lost—provoking the worst recession since the Great Depression in just five years, and right before leaving office the Bush Administration used taxpayer funds to compensate them for their losses. The Democratic side of the ruling group, complicit in passing the original exemption under Clinton, avoided any serious protest.

And the key national security decisions being made by Washington in recent years have been choices not necessities, far different than, say, the unpalatable constraints faced by decision-makers when Hitler began his global adventure. But it is not just the obvious fact that Iraq was a war of choice unrelated to the struggle against bin Laden that makes the current situation so different from facing an invasion. The original decision to respond to 9/11 with war rather than a police action was itself a choice, as was the decision to invade Afghanistan rather than give diplomacy a chance. The argument applies to any number of major decisions since 2001 as well, including the choice to destabilize the 2006 Palestinian regime after Hamas won a democratic electoral victory, the choice to support Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon, and the choice to rely on threats rather than inducements to influence Iran. Needless to say, aside from the occasional protest of a Dennis Kucinich or Mike Gravel, the Democrats were fully complicit in the fundamental U.S. post-9/11 national security strategy as well.

Given the depressingly rapid evaporation of the enthusiasm evoked by the electoral message of “change,” it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Democratic side of the ruling elite is far too complicit in the fundamental elitist policies on health care, economics, the environment, and national security to offer a strategic alternative.

In sum, it appears that only a reorganization of the national political structure akin to that when the then-innovative and crusading Republican Party was invented in 1856 will open the door to the policies required to protect American society in the 21st century.

The very secretive White House discussions about Afghanistan, discussions that evidently focused on tactics to the exclusion of any serious examination of fundamental strategy, are the most recent and most blatant case in point. Was the question of a non-military solution that addressed the needs of the Afghan people and the dangers of a global heroin epidemic even raised by the little group of military men and conservative politicians at Obama’s table? Does Obama even know Malalai Joya’s name? The rigid White House attitude toward Iran, at a point where the Iranian domestic decision-making process had obviously crumbled into incompetence and needed breathing space for restructuring, and utter caving in to pressure by Netanyahu complete the circle: the wagons of traditional national security thinking in Washington are drawn tight against the arrows of innovation.

Similar arguments could be made for the attitude toward alternative policy options in the other key arenas, but perhaps a brief checklist of what those alternatives might be will suffice:

  • Empire – oppose it, for empire is democracy’s worst enemy; cut back foreign bases and resurrect diplomacy as the conflict resolution tool of choice; on Afghanistan, take the moral high road by focusing on ending the drug trade and minimize American boots on the ground by urging a global Islamic crusade to protect the Afghan population; on Israel, support the population but oppose the Greater Israel mini-empire project;

  • Health care – a service and a right for all;

  • Environment – start with strict enforcement of current laws to protect the nation’s air and drinking water; restructure the tax system to, at a minimum, make corporations pay reasonable market prices for access to national forests and mineral resources; include environmental degradation in calculations of cost;

  • Economy – regulate first, compensate second; compensate individuals first, main street second, Wall St. last; tax to encourage work rather than financial manipulations (e.g., tax each derivative trade at a rate greater than the income tax rate paid by the average American worker).

Those are just a taste of the banquet of policy options available to a patriotic U.S. government dedicated to serving the American public. But getting there will require that the American people realize their own best interests and organize to defend them.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

If You Have a Hammer...

A consistent stance toward issues with Muslim societies is gradually emerging from the Obama Administration – emerging out of the optimistic fog of early rhetoric. The stance is simple: the U.S. has one big hammer, and that is what will be used to pound on all issues with the Islamic world.

The overwhelming emphasis Obama put on military force in yesterday’s Afghan policy speech is the cornerstone of this unfortunately shortsighted new policy. Surrender to Netanyahu’s right wing leaders of Israel’s project permanently to colonize the West Bank and collectively punish the 1.5 million helpless residents of Gaza for the presence of Hamas (regardless of whether it fires rockets at or observes truces with Israel) is the second foundation stone of this policy. Unremitting pressure on Iran backed up by enough public threats to prevent any Iranian politician who cares about his neck from advocating any compromise is the third foundation stone. And Obama—take note—smoothly tossed Yemen into the mix yesterday in a glib and false implication that Yemen was no more or less than another front in the mythical global attack on the U.S. by al Qua’ida that requires a full U.S. military response.

Of course, the policy is only “new” in the sense that it contradicts Obama’s early rhetoric of sympathetic compromise. All that is now long gone. The ugly neo-con “principles” of wars of choice, preventive war, arrogant dismissal of international law, cynical “collateral damage” (i.e., the murder of innocent civilians caught in the path of the American military machine) are back to haunt us.

Whatever the mistakes of the past, at this moment, an army of sorts is indeed gunning for U.S. soldiers, although only those actually on Afghan soil. Does that mean that today Obama has no alternative but to pour in more forces? Even if more military force may be required to prevent immediate defeat, making force the core of the proposed path to conflict resolution is hardly the only option.

  1. Obama could have chosen the moral high ground and declared war on Afghan narcotics with a massive economic aid program for farmers and a retargeting of Predators away from the homes of insurgents to the Afghan (Taliban and regime) heroin labs that truly do pose a threat to the world.
  2. Obama could also have used the power of his office and his remaining charisma to call for the Islamic world to rise up and help their Afghan brothers so as to enable American troops to depart. Thanking Erdogan for his recent efforts to find a compromise way forward in the Mideast and inviting him to lead a similar effort on Afghanistan would have constituted one big step in that direction.
  3. He could also have put teeth in his Afghan security policy by announcing a program to provide the new Afghan security forces he is training with salaries sufficient to support a family so those recruits could survive without accepting bribes from drug dealers or insurgents.

Sadly, he seems determined to box himself in as a war leader, and those options were ignored. Both Afghan hopes and Obama’s reputation now teeter on a precipice.

In sum, we are back where we have been for a decade: assuming blindly (without questioning) that the appropriate, indeed, the essential response by Washington to every global sign of Islamic political activism must be a military attack.

Is this an overstatement? Look at the evidence:

  1. Recall the experience of Gaza: Hamas won a democratic election in 2006, after making the historic decision to move from military resistance to participation in the political process only to be robbed of its victory by an Israeli-American plot to provoke Palestinian civil war. Trying once again in 2008, Hamas signed a truce with Israel and, indeed, did a rather good job of living up to its end of the bargain by ending rocket attacks. Israel did not live up to its end, however, because what Israel opposes is not Hamas rockets but the very existence of a Hamas regime and, in particular, the existence of a Hamas regime that is peaceful, integrated in the political process, and successful. I have not noticed any sincere-sounding protests coming out of Washington about Israel’s repressive behavior toward Gaza.

  1. Washington’s refusal to compromise with Iran to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough that seemed finally within its grasp is the second major piece of evidence that we are back where we were under Bush. Instead of accepting the Iranian foreign minister’s idea of trading Iranian for European uranium on Iranian soil as the essence of victory, Washington rushed to reject the breakthrough. International agents on the ground in Iran conducting uranium transfers would have constituted a great step in the direction of permanent international oversight.

These details do not portray Washington as searching for peace, compromise, a win-win solution for the long term. The details are consistent with a desire for total victory over Muslims who demonstrate any desire for independence. The details are also consistent with a simpleminded obsession with force as the answer. Even if the truth is that Washington simply is overemphasizing the one big tool in its hand, the question remains:

Is the military hammer effective?

One hint might be the continuing carnage in Iraq. Another might be the state of affairs in Afghanistan after eight years of U.S. military intervention. A third might be the dismal social disaster known by the name of “Somalia”—a disaster that started not with “Islamic radicalism” but with Cold War superpower competition that wrecked Somalia’s traditional political system several decades ago. A fourth might be the emergence of radical dissent in other countries, such as Yemen. And a huge fifth might be Gaza, where the most abjectly helpless population on earth nevertheless continues to resist external oppression. A rather different hint might be the conclusion in Ankara that finding a middle ground and taking the diplomatic initiative makes more sense than continuing to lean to the West and follow Washington’s lead.

Once there was a superpower that called radical political opponents “terrorists.” A bitter war was fought. Nevertheless, within one generation, the victorious terrorists and the defeated superpower had already begun to team up and remain the best of friends to this day. The superpower was of course Great Britain and the “terrorists” (yes, London actually used that word) were America’s heroic freedom fighters.

So I am not convinced that all Islamic radical political activists must automatically be labeled as enemies of the U.S. (though the U.S. certainly has the power to make them its enemies). However, even if one does so label them, it may still be the case that the U.S. needs a different approach. Battling Islamic radicalism is like battling with glass. Smash it, and it fractures into millions of very sharp splinters. Maybe the U.S. needs a better tool than a hammer.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Protect Your Local Billionaire

There is no time to waste; Government must take action now: we need to bail out Dubai. Dubai, for those who haven’t visited lately, is the Arabs’ version of Wall Street, and with its financial integrity and therefore the financial integrity of the global financial system as we know it threatened by Dubai’s until-now secret $80 billion shortfall, this Shangra-la of unregulated capitalism deserves a U.S. taxpayer handout every bit as much as Goldman Sachs and AIG did.

The only alternative may be the loss of the global financial system as we know it. Hmmm...

Government: Not Size, but Purpose

Good governments--big or small--exist to serve; bad governments exist to exploit. That is the issue.

Governments always exist. The issue is not the existence or size of government; rather, the issue is whom the government serves. As long as Americans waste their time debating the meaningless question of how big a government should be, reform will prove an illusion. Perhaps that is why so many who oppose reform insist on raising this straw man.

The first time a local bully demanded subservience as the price of avoiding a punch in the face, government was established...or, one might respond, the first time two neighbors shook hands and agreed to protect each other from roving wolves. When Goldman Sachs wanted its bailout to pay it back for gambling away billions of investor contributions, it demanded Big Government. When Big Oil wants a tax break, it too demands Big Government. And of course when the American voter wants the world’s best superhighway system, he and she also want Big Government. Big Government for me; Small Government for you.

To really understand politics, it is necessary to discriminate between governments for special interests and governments for all (i.e., for “society,” hence the label “socialism,” which has nothing much to do with Cold War communism but just means that the goal is to aid society rather than one group). Some of the shrill voices warning about “socialism” (e.g., Palin) may not know this; many of them do and mean exactly what they say. They oppose policies that are good for society because they badly want policies that favor their little group.

To rephrase, “Big Government” is not necessarily “socialist” nor does Small Government necessarily equate with freedom. That $19B that the American taxpayer will never again see was the ultimate in Big Government but totally capitalist, in the robber baron sense of using government to steal from the masses. The Middle Ages in Europe were classic “Small Government” – if you had a horse and a sword, you could pretty much do whatever you wanted, including grabbing a peasant girl, making a private empire in the Levant, or setting up a private toll booth to tax merchants.

When “Big Government” stops Hitler or provides a large free trade zone (e.g, the whole United States), I love it. When it bails out millionaire gamblers or bombs pre-industrial societies to protect stolen oil (no, no, I was referring to Churchill in the early 1920s in Iraq), I beg to demur.

“Big Government” for society has indeed built the world’s greatest highway system in the U.S. It also created a public education system accessible to all (like the highway system). The education system is not very good, but that’s a detail: if you don’t like it, you are free to go to the library or sign on the Internet (both also brought to you—all of “you”--courtesy of Big Government) and educate yourself further. That’s a clue: Big Government that provides and/or regulates a safety net available to all but does not restrict individuals from pursuing higher goals is Good Government. Big Government that takes from the weak and gives to the strong is Bad Government. So, generally, is government – Big or Small – that constrains everyone to the official choices (e.g., the Soviet system of telling people what they could read). The distinction is between government for private gain vs. government for service.



The small word "regulation" is of course the elephant in the room of evaluating the quality of government. For one of many horror stories that is effectively being concealed from the American people about the way life is and the terrifying way it could be if government regulation were even worse, read up on the state of America's nuclear plants.


Just for one example, today we in the U.S. (other pre-industrial and industrial societies made different choices) have a health care system designed for health industry profit, i.e., for private gain. It works brilliantly for that purpose. The point of health care reform is to design a system for service. A reformed health care service (as opposed to a health care industry) will, if ever designed, not make a profit. The public education system and the national highway system don’t make profits either. They are not supposed to; they exist to serve society. So should the health care system. It would not offer everything; “everything” is a pipedream. It would offer a safety net—details to be discussed, but for everyone. You are of course free to buy more health care just as you are free to buy a private plane or buy a book. How much "service" the government will provide is open to discussion; the concept of equal access to all is not open to discussion – not with a government designed to serve society.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Measuring Superpower Performance in Insurgencies

Assessing a big power’s performance during intervention in a developing world insurgency is inherently difficult because no single, simple measure provides a remotely accurate tool. Here’s the beginning of a metric for the job – an explanation of the dynamics driving the dual, interacting cycles of regime and opposition decline into the chaos of mutual violence. To the degree that your case study of choice fits this Chaos Scenario, the losers include the local populace and all who dream of peace; the winners are no more than those extremists on both right and left who exploit chaos for power and profit.

A conservative regime desperate to hold power relies ever more on brute force (its own weak force buttressed by that of its foreign patron). The more it does so, the more it comes—fairly or not—to be seen as an (inevitably) illegitimate lackey, consequently undermining its authority and thus pushing it further into a vicious cycle of repression, corruption, and loss of prestige. This process, in turn, makes it ever more difficult for the regime to engage sincerely and positively in the cooperation with reformers so vital to focusing it on the needs of the people rather than the narrow, short-term needs of the regime that enable the strengthening of links with civil society.

Contradictions between reformers demanding a share of power and leaders seeking to retain their personal and class positions come to the fore. Protected by the patron, the regime marginalizes reformers, forcing them into the arms of insurgents. A regime that relies on a foreign patron to maintain its position either is likely already to be composed of conservative politicians seeking power for its own sake rather than idealistic liberals. However it starts, its conservative, selfish tendencies intensify under the stress of coping with increasingly vociferous reformers, increasingly violent insurgents, and a populace increasingly alienated by the inevitable regime war crimes. The patron, lacking understanding of local conditions, trapped by its public lauding of the regime, and ultimately more interested in profiting from its intervention than building genuine local independence, is both sorely tempted not to change horses in midstream and manipulated by its client.

Opposing this elitist coalition is a cynical group of embittered activists whose experience has pushed them over the edge from idealism to fanaticism. Now convinced of their own perfection and the pointlessness of trying to compromise with a regime increasingly addicted to its own form of extremism, the activists-turned-radicals-turned insurgents’ particular form of the corruption of power knows no more bounds than does that of the regime.

The longer the contest lasts, the more immoral it becomes as the two sides compete for the title of “bloodiest butcher of them all.”

The above description is all too familiar. Eventually one side will tire, and the other will gain control of the slaughterhouse. The loser will be society, by then crushed morally and physically.

To the degree that this description comes to reflect reality in a Muslim society where the American Armed Forces are at war, not just the local society but also America will end up a loser – regardless of which side ends up controlling the slaughterhouse.

When taking stock of the Western-Islamic confrontation, this description provides a metric for evaluating the overall course of the conflict. To the degree that it is accurate, “we the people” are losing, and the forces of extremism, of chaos, of exploitation are winning. These forces may be jihadi terrorists or gun-running masters of the military-industrial complex; either way, they are believers in violence, profiteers of chaos. It is this distinction—not “body counts” or the claims of politicians or the emotional drivel of glib media propagandists or battlefield results—that voters need to understand.