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.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Afghan Bottom Line

To win in Afghanistan, Washington needs a plan. To garner support for the effort, it needs to articulate that plan. Here's a proposal.

The question of how to bringing sufficient peace, stability, and good governance to Afghan society so that the war can end with hope for Afghans and the world has no easy answer, but the first step is to focus our thinking on the underlying principles, and the second step is to set clear priorities.

All the endless debate over tactics is nothing but a sandcastle unless it stands on a foundation of correct principles and priorities. The choice between the goals of a well governed Afghan society on the one hand and some combination of establishing Central Asian military bases for the empire, guarding pipeline routes, or defeating an insurgency on the other is a choice that matters. All the above goals may be defensible, but where to put the focus matters profoundly.

Three core underlying principles should define Washington’s starting point:

· Local Control: Muslim socio-political reform should be managed first by locals and second by neighboring non-Western societies;

· Civil Society First: The method should always give precedence to civil society reform with military action firmly subordinated;

· Afghan Independence: The goal should not be incorporation into the American system but the establishment of an independent society.

To begin the arduous process of implementing these principles, make the following two steps top priority:

  1. Washington announces that it will vacate any region of Afghanistan that is either -
    • peaceful and drug-free or
    • guarded by an international force, preferably from Muslim societies
  2. the international force will have two duties -
    • preventing the use of force to resolve conflict
    • eliminating illegal narcotics, with emphasis on destruction of the refinement business.

Let those who disagree make their case…but at this level. Before the U.S. can sensibly consider issues related to military tactics or which Afghan politician to support, it needs to determine why it is in Afghanistan and what would constitute an acceptable exit strategy.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Washington Demanding Immediate Iranian Response

Washington is coming perilously close to demanding from Iran the type of rapid, top-down response on the nuclear issue that would be characteristic of a dictatorship.

A wiser course might be to welcome the democratic process, profess its patience in waiting for the Iranian political process to function, and try to articulate for the Iranian people an explanation of why it would be logical and fair for their government to accept a uniquely discriminatory set of nuclear rules.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Western-Islamic Confrontation: Palestinian Front

In my overall evaluation of where the world stands in the Western-Islamic confrontation, I concluded that the world is headed in the wrong direction, steadily losing security and failing to find solutions.

In a thoughtful scorecard specifically of the Israeli-Palestinian front, Daniel Levy reached similar conclusions, arguing that Washington not only missed an opportunity to use Netanyahu's insistence on continued expansion of settlements against him--as the justification for accelerating movement toward Palestinian liberty--but that Washington is continuing to dig itself deeper into a hole. Levy's idea is a perfect example of my more general argument that progress in Western relations with the Muslim world would be possible if Western leaders could only think more creatively.

Levy carefully avoided the less polite conclusion that Washington "missed" its opportunity because it actually does not want Palestinian liberty. There is every reason to think Washington would not look too closely if the Palestinian issue just magically evaporated one fine morning. There is also every reason to think Washington would be delighted to see a "one state-one colony" solution, if Palestinian acquiescence could only somehow be purchased.

Levy is right that Washington's tactics are self-destructive, but the issue which needs to be faced is not the quality of tactics but the nature of Washington's underlying principles.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

War Is the Answer

Ef you take a sword an' dror' it
An' go stick a feller thru,
Guv'ment aint to answer for it.
God 'll send the bill to you.

Thanks to Henry Mayer for this quote. Anyone recognize it? Clue - comes from another era when Americans thought war was the answer.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Western - Islamic Confrontation Scorecard

Now that a full decade of frontal military confrontation between the West and Islam has passed with no sight of any resolution of the disagrement or, sadly, even of much improvement in mutual understanding, a moment of contemplation of that which we have wrought and its implications is long overdue.

Great attention is paid by all participants in the global confrontation between the West and Islam to the tactical details of which side may be winning the battle of the day, but the really important question of where this confrontation is taking the world seldom gets the attention it deserves. That, at least, is how it seems to me, sitting in the U.S. Perhaps Islamic thinkers and actors take a longer-range perspective, and, if so, comment on that would be most welcome. Deep thinking about the point of all the carnage is, in the U.S. at least, all too scarce.

Now that we are a decade into the depths of a confrontation that perhaps was in some sense unavoidable but should never have been so mismanaged as to descend to the level of Fallujah 2004, Somalia 2007, Lebanon 2006, or Gaza 2008-9—much less the oft-threatened nuclear attack on Iran, we humans desperately need to take a deep breath and contemplate our position and the direction that our behavior is propelling us in.


Iraq. Even if one were to take a narrow U.S. perspective and argue that progress has been made in Iraq because American deaths are down and troop withdrawals are looming on the horizon, in truth the current state of affairs in Iraq does not constitute progress because the soldiers and the violence are merely being transferred to the much more dangerous Afghan front. Shifting the location but continuing the violence is not progress.

Afghanistan. The American invasion of Afghanistan, often justified as a war to protect Afghan women, is (eight years later) turning out so badly that major Afghan women's rights leaders are saying they would rather fight alone for justice than do so with American "help." And Afghanistan is metastasizing into Pakistan, thus sucking in both India and Iran.

Note, for example, this assessment of a recent terrorist attack in Peshawar from the Pak Institute for Peace Studies:

Experts believe that the involvement of a foreign hand in the said attack could not be ruled out since the use of remote-controlled car bombs is not the modus operandi of the TTP and Al Qaeda which mainly rely on suicide attack.

Whether this is taken as evidence of foreign (Indian?) involvement or simply as evidence of Pakistani perceptions, it still serves to intensify regional intentions. (For a sobering checklist of South Asian conflict zones, see "Armed Conflicts in South Asia: Overview and New Dimensions" by Khuram Iqbal & Safdar Sial.)

Pakistan. Within Pakistan, for the past month the conflict has been killing an astonishing several hundred people a week, as combat heats up in one area as soon as it cools off in another--from Swat to Bajaur to Malakand to Waziristan and all coming against the ominous background of constant political violence in Karachi, undermining any argument that progress is being made. Signs of the improvement in local level governance that would seem the minimal requirement for making such progress are hard to discern.

The summary report on a recent Pakistani conference of journalists found, for example, that:

when participating journalists were asked about the leading causes of extremism in Pakistan in a survey during the workshop, a consensus appeared to have been formed on poor governance, flawed government policies, non-delivery of basic needs to the society, political exploitation and misuse of the religious narrative by the extremist elements as the leading cause of extremism in the society.

Iran. However one views the Iranian front, it is hard to see any progress. From the perspective of the Iranian people, the behavior of the regime this summer evokes memories of the worst oppression of the Shah and, in the 1930s, his father. If one's goal is Iranian power projection, the existential threat being posed by Israel should be more than enough reason to lie awake at night. If one accepts Israeli propaganda about a coming Iranian threat, Iran's steady growth in power gives little reason for joy. And if one sees Israeli propaganda as a cynical effort to distract attention from its anti-Palestinian campaign by tricking Washington into an unnecessary war with Iran, despite the almost certainly disastrous consequences for all, then there is definitely no reason for joy.

The smaller fronts. The problems on “minor” (no insult to the endangered inhabitants is intended) fronts such as Somalia and Gaza remain completely unresolved. The retreat of the U.S. proxy Ethiopian intervention force left Somalia much worse off than before their arrival, having spread destruction and further radicalized and factionalized Somali politics. Israel’s attack on Gaza in December 2008 only taught Hamas the lesson that offering to compromise will get it nowhere. Worse, new “minor” fronts, most obviously in Yemen and Baluchistan (which ominously involves Iran) but perhaps also Xinjiang and Uzbekistan, continue to open.

Entanglement with other issues. Moreover, the longer the confrontation with Islamic societies continues, the greater is the risk of its entanglement with other international political disagreements. Israeli arming of Georgia, thus encouraging their rash adventure in Ossetia and thus aggravating Russian-American relations, is one case that has already occurred. The links to Russia, however, go far beyond just Georgia, as dangerous as that pocket crisis seemed for a while.

Other links, whose significance is a dark cloud on the horizon, go through former Soviet Central Asia, where the combination of left-over Soviet-style dictatorships and domestic political grievances create a combustible mixture that the Taliban can hardly be expected to overlook forever. Russian Central Asian specialist Sanobar Shermatova provides details.

The confrontation with Islam also provides all manner of enticements for a Moscow that surely recalls the days when it was a major Mideast player. First, the booming narcotics trade out of Afghanistan is becoming and, more to the point, is beginning to be perceived in Moscow, as a threat to Russian national security. Second, nuclear threats against Iran make it hard for Moscow to resist selling Iran the world-class defensive missiles that Iran would so happily pay for. Third, Israel’s hard-line attitude toward Syria fairly begs for a renewed policy of Russian military support to Syria. It might well be good for the world were Moscow to play a more proactive Mideast role, but to the degree that Moscow’s participation takes the form of providing military support to the side Washington opposes, it risks complicating the situation—as in the Cold War days—by adding a layer of big power competition to an already near incomprehensible political morass.


The above considerations all point to the conclusion that a decade of vicious war that has caused the death of countless tens of thousands of innocent civilians and wrecked several societies has left the world worse off than it was at the start. Moslems have hardly made any progress in gaining a sympathetic ear for what they understandably perceive as unjust treatment at the hands of Western governments. The security of all in the Mideast, including Israelis, has declined: multinational conflicts threaten to engulf the region around Afghanistan, the region around Iran, and the region around Israel-Palestine. The U.S. has suffered a major strategic defeat: having both lost its aura of moral superiority and demonstrated the uselessness of all its military superiority for actually creating secure, stable, friendly societies in the region—is less secure than it was on 9/11.

It thus seems time to move a bit less quickly, to insult less, to surge less, to shoot less, to scrutinize more carefully the motives of so-called friends, to give so-called enemies a bit more benefit of the doubt. It seems time to think a bit more about the long-range implications of our actions.

Government cannot do this: it simply cannot effectively self-police. It cannot effectively question its own assumptions and motives; it cannot sponsor its own reform. Even now in the post-Bush era, the media remains a hopeless captive of its own self-imposed taboos. The population is in denial; we can expect no Vietnam War-style anti-war movement; no pre-Civil War-style moral crusade (then against slavery, now against reliance on war to solve problems). Whether or not academia can provide the combination of analysis of fundamentals plus leadership to guide American society toward a solution remains to be seen. No other candidate to do the job is even visible on the horizon.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Iran Uncertain About Turkey

Perhaps the various parties to the Iranian nuclear dispute have begun to figure out by themselves the seriousness of the issue and the superficiality of much of their own behavior, or perhaps they read yesterday’s blog. [Truth in advertising: neither Hillary nor Ali Larijani has personally communicated with me on the issue.] I said yesterday that Tehran had “fumbled the ball” by rushing to pour cold water on the idea of a Turkish role in the transfer of uranium to and from Iran, and I stand by that assessment. But a fumble is not the ball game. Whatever the reason, suddenly today both Washington and Tehran appear grudgingly to be behaving more thoughtfully.

In an effort to make up for the shortsighted and amateurish remark by Secretary of State Clinton that the U.S. would make no further changes (as though Washington had been bending over backwards to be understanding!), U.S. Ambassador to the IAEA Glyn Davies took a step back from the confrontational cliff, calmly stating:

We want to give some space to Iran to work through this. It’s a tough issue for them. We’re looking for an early, positive response.

At the same time, reports of Iran’s rejection of a Turkish role notwithstanding, Iranian and Turkish officials were discussing the possibility. In February 2006, when Erdogan supported Iran’s right to peaceful use of nuclear technology but in the context of firmly opposing an Iranian nuclear bomb, Iran suddenly found itself unable to locate sufficient gas to meet its export commitments. Whether or not Iran manages its relations with Turkey more smoothly this time remains to be seen. Erdogan’s tone is more conciliatory now, but Bilkent professor Mustafa Kibaroglu’s assessment that Turkey would oppose Iran having nuclear arms presumably remains the case. Subsequent to that apparent bit of Iranian blackmail, Istanbul reported that both sides requested Turkish help in achieving a compromise.

Turkish-Iranian relations are, at the moment, heavily coated in sugar, but the potential for the relationship to turn overtly competitive has hardly been missed by commentators. As long as Turkey remained in Washington’s shadow, the idea could go nowhere, but now Turkey is asserting a regional leadership role with an innovative diplomacy that is far ahead of anything seen out of Washington in the past and even makes Obama look slow and awkward. Yet Turkey’s diplomacy also looks nothing like the confrontational attitude so popular in both Iran and Israel, offering a vision dramatically different from that of any other major regional player. So…will Tehran view this as a challenge or an opportunity?

Hard of Hearing

The leader of the Israeli war party is finally granted access to the man elected to bring “change.”

The Reception.

As Haaretz put it:

The White House wanted Netanyahu to sweat before being granted an audience with the president, and wanted everyone to see him perspire.

The delays in finding a time to meet, and pushing it to a late hour - after the news programs on Israeli television - make Netanyahu look as if Obama threw him a bone. In such circumstances, it is no longer important what will be said at the meeting, and the extent to which there will be an attempt to present it as an achievement. The prime minister of
Israel was humiliated before all.

The Context.

For a little context, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad summarized Israel’s situation as follows:

The source of the problem is the Israeli invasion of others’ land. If there is an invasion, people react. Therefore, the thing to do is to withdraw from the occupied land and sign a peace treaty.”

There is one clear message that Israel should understand, al-Assad said: “Only peace can protect the Israelis. If they believe they are defenseless, it is not war, but peace that can protect them. The experiences in Lebanon and Gaza showed them that they cannot reach a conclusion by military means and moreover, that these means will drag them to failure.”

A few days ago British Foreign Secretary David Milibrand put it like this:

"Settlements are illegal in our view and an obstacle to peace settlement in the West Bank and East Jerusalem," Miliband told a news conference after talks with King Abdullah II.

"The settlements challenge the heart of... a Palestinian state."

The Reality on the Ground.

In case you have overlooked the situation on the ground, consider this Haaretz commentary:

I thought they would feel right at home in the alleys of Balata refugee camp, the Casbah and the Hawara checkpoint. But they said there is no comparison: for them the Israeli occupation regime is worse than anything they knew under apartheid. This week, 21 human rights activists from South Africa visited Israel. Among them were members of Nelson Mandela's African National Congress; at least one of them took part in the armed struggle and at least two were jailed. There were two South African Supreme Court judges, a former deputy minister, members of Parliament, attorneys, writers and journalists. Blacks and whites, about half of them Jews who today are in conflict with attitudes of the conservative Jewish community in their country.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Tehran Fumbles Diplomatic Ball With Turkey Over Nukes

Following up instantly on my thought about Turkey as a neutral guarantor of everyone’s honesty in the delicate negotiations over Western reprocessing of Iranian uranium, El Baradei has proposed the idea only to have Iranian media immediately throw cold water on it, leaving Erdogan just a bit humiliated. That is no way to treat a new friend.

IAEA chief El Baradei’s trial balloon about Turkey temporarily guarding prospective Iranian uranium in transit to Europe for further enrichment provides the first test of Turkey’s bold initiative to broker a more peaceful Mideast. Iran’s initial abruptly rejectionist response suggests that Turkey is going to have a tough time making any progress.

The semi-official Iranian PressTV news service quoted an “anonymous” source as coldly observing:

It seems the IAEA chief is trying to take advantage of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to Turkey to gain media coverage on a closed issue.

If that represents the official Tehran line, it shows a degree of self-defeating narrowmindedness that matches any of the diplomatic mistakes of its Western adversaries. Whatever Tehran’s level of trust in Istanbul, it behooves Tehran to treat the idea with public politeness. Is Ahmadinejad taking this opportunity to slap Erdogan in the face as he arrives for the big Islamic summit, or is this a further example of disarray in the now highly-factionalized Iranian decision-making process on this hotly debated issue?

Alaeddin Boroujerdi, Parliament National Security and Foreign Policy Commission Chief, suggested some flexibility in Iran’s approach, though without reference to Turkey:

If we cannot buy 20 percent enriched uranium to supply Tehran’s reactor fuel, we could accept exchange in limited amount provided that we receive 20 percent enriched uranium in advance.

A detailed Tehran Times review of the uranium exchange issue emphasized that Tehran was still considering its response, with its distrust of the West being the obstacle. Meanwhile, Ali Larijani, a key decisionmaker on the issue, is in Najaf consulting with Ayatolla Sistani.

Turkish leaders have been pouring into Iraq in recent days. What might Sistani’s views on the nuclear crisis be? Surely the nightmare of a temporary nuclear storage facility in Iraq is not crossing anyone’s mind!

As long as Tehran conducts its own “arrogant” diplomacy, to use a word of which it is fond, giving Istanbul nothing in return for its efforts, Israeli right wingers will have no incentive to compromise, Turkey will be left out in the cold, and Iran will remain in Western crosshairs.

Iran has just failed a small test of its sincerity and unnecessarily made Erdogan look bad. Perhaps its official response will be more thoughtful, but at the moment Netanyahu and Lieberman must be laughing over their morning coffee.


Iran Must Judge

Iranian decision-makers must judge two issues to determine how to preserve Iranian national security:

  1. Can they trust the West enough to compromise?
  2. Would Israel actually launch an unprovoked nuclear war of aggression?

Leaving aside all the many issues of psychology, misinformation, cultural blinders, and factional politics, let’s just look at some facts that Iran must consider.

Can Iran Trust the West?

  • Washington is already conducting a highly public economic war against Iran with its sanctions.

  • Washington has refused further compromise even though negotiations are continuing.

  • Washington has warned that its patience is limited.

Might Israel Start a War?

  • Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister has just stated that Israel is not bluffing in threatening to start a war.

  • Western media report that Israel is in the midst of a war of murder to undermine Iran’s nuclear research; Israeli media coverage of these reports does nothing to undermine confidence in their veracity.

  • The Jerusalem Post, in its coverage of the issue, quoted right wing extremist John Bolton as noting that Israel has “done so in the past,” noting that Israel “undertook the very important operation, in September 2007, to destroy the North Korean nuclear reactor in Syria.” The Post also referred to a recent Israeli book claiming that Israel was sabotaging Iranian research.

To trust an opponent that is refusing to compromise, warning that it is capable of starting a war, already conducting an economic war, and allegedly also already conducting a war of sabotage and murder would take a lot of faith. This leaves Tehran in a serious predicament: if Tehran cannot trust the West to compromise but must take seriously Western threats of attack, then what choice does Tehran have? It can rationally neither compromise nor continue its defiance!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

General Jim Jones to Israel: "Do Something"

If the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is at the "epicenter" of all America's global problems, then it stands to reason that something must be done about it. Is Israel listening?

National Security Advisor General James Jones recently stated that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the “epicenter” of America’s problems worldwide. This remark, not only highly insightful for a top Washington policy advisor but also—in the context of the spineless Washington response to the Goldstone Report—was stunningly politically incorrect. If the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is at the epicenter of all America’s problems, then it is incumbent upon our Israeli ally to allow Palestinians their freedom. No friend of the world’s only superpower could seriously contemplate aggravating the full range of the superpower’s global responsibilities for the sake of its own narrow political advantage, nor could it rationally imagine that a superpower worth its salt would seriously contemplate allowing a remote and tiny client state to behave so abusively.

Americans, not to mention Israelis, should think carefully about Jones’ remark. He did not say the Palestine conflict was the most important problem but the "epicenter." Of course, the disintegration of Pakistan or a nuclear attack on Iran would be a more serious problem per se, but neither is at the center of the whole Western conflict with Islam. Only the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has that particular characteristic of inflaming everyone's passions and striking everyone as egregiously immoral.

Washington’s support for Israeli repression of the Palestinian people is a political cancer infecting every global issue that touches any Muslim, any minority, any third world group, anyone who cares about human rights. General Jones has sent a clear signal that the Goldstone Report needs to be taken seriously and that it is time for Israel to think about the global implications of its misbehavior.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Israeli Mis(?) Calculation on Iran & Turkey

By pushing for total military dominance over the Mideast and the imposition on other states of rules it can openly ignore, Israel is provoking the emergence of a new Mideast strategic triangle composed of Israel, Iran, and Turkey. Is Israel making an historic miscalculation?

Let us assume that the whole Western world is diligently trying to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue in a way that will bring peace and stability to the Mideast. (Do not laugh in my face…just go quietly to the kitchen, make some coffee, and laugh by yourself.) It is just an assumption, OK? A conversation has to start with something, so we will start with this assumption.

Now, take a look at Israel’s reaction during the delicate semi-public two-level negotiations that have been taking place 1) between Iran and the West, 2) among the many players in Iran’s highly fractured and unstable domestic political process.

One might assume that Israel, concerned as it claims to be, about the possibility of a future Iranian-Israeli nuclear conflict, would hold its breath publicly while quietly reassuring its (patrons? clients?) in Washington that it will support any reasonable compromise to defend its security.

Nope, in the midst of the delicate back-and-fro, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak sabotages the negotiations by publicly demanding that Iran give up its legal right under international law to refine uranium for civilian purposes! This is the act of an official intent on preventing agreement that would stand in the way of complete and unilateral Iranian surrender to Israeli military dominance of the Mideast. So much for any dreams Obama may have had of making his own decisions about U.S. foreign policy.

A few days later, after the issue had, with Barak’s encouragement, become a domestic Iranian hot potato causing Iran to back off, Netanyahu came out publicly in support, perhaps hoping that Israel will not be blamed by the West for screwing the deal if it indeed falls through.

Given the enormous military superiority of nuclear Israel (a fact admitted by Olmert, Carter, and Gates) over non-nuclear Iran, one might at first glance find Israeli military dominance over the Mideast a rational objective on the part of Israel, but this absolute refusal by Israel to countenance a compromise that would permit Iran to play a normal role in Mideast affairs or be treated by anything remotely resembling a common set of rules looks rather less rational in the light of Turkey’s recent behavior.

And Israel appears determined to provoke Turkey into moving away. The viciousness of both Israel's 2006 invasion of Lebanon and its destruction of Gaza in December 2008, accentuated by its refusal to accept any criticism of its behavior, were hard enough for Turkish leaders to stomach. Then, Israel's rejection of Turkish efforts to broker an Israeli-Syrian compromise were a direct slap in Istanbul's face.

Although NATO member Turkey has been trying for years to “join the West” and has traditionally been a close military ally of Israel, it appears that the type of total military dominance over the Mideast that Israeli officials evidently aspire to is, for Turkey’s new moderate but independent-minded leaders, going a step too far.

There would, very simply, be no room whatsoever for Turkish independence or flexibility in the Mideast envisioned by Israeli leaders.

The Mideast Israeli leaders want would be tightly hierarchical. Two sets of rules governing possession of nuclear arms and technology, even for peaceful purposes, would exist – one for Israel and one for everyone else. In addition, Israel would have the right to do to its enemies what it did to Gaza in December 2008 and what it did to Lebanon in 2006. Israel, for example, would have the right to define the type of arms its neighbors could possess, a right it has already asserted regarding the state of Lebanon. Not only non-state actors like Hezbollah but states that violated Israel’s injunctions would be open to attack. Interstate transfer of arms as well would be open to Israel attack.

Turkey evidently foresees such a Mideast as a rather suffocating place in which to catch one’s political breath.

Israel may have succeeded in scuttling the compromise so laboriously worked out by the U.S., Russia, France, Germany, etc. with Iran, but it has already begun paying the price. First, obviously, Iran still has its uranium, despite clear indications in recent days that sincere efforts to negotiate a reasonable compromise (e.g., multiple shipments to trusted third countries, e.g., Turkey, of Iran’s low-grade uranium with multiple return shipments of Western research-grade uranium to establish mutual trust) might very easily produce an agreement the West could live with. Second, the evident Turkish feeling over the past year that Israel is creating an uncomfortable Mideast has been strengthened. This is undoubtedly not the last payment Israel will have to pay for its ambitions. Indeed, the next may be the reemergence of Russia as a major Mideast player, starting with Russian arms shipments to enable Lebanon to defend itself against Israeli aggression.

Imperial overreach in the Mideast over the past decade has opened the door to the emergence of Iran as a regional power. Iran has captured the world’s attention, making itself simultaneously the major adversary of Washington and an invaluable potential partner, needed to resolve both the Iraqi and Afghan quagmires. Iran has achieved the dream of decades in gaining its current level of influence over Iraq, as well.

Now, mini-imperial overreach threatens to provoke a second realignment by pushing Turkey out of Israel’s orbit, thus facilitating its own emergence as a regional power. Turkey of course has whatever resources it has, regardless of the diplomatic shifts, but Turkey’s resources—military, geographic, cultural--are considerable. The change is in the degree to which Turkey is now becoming willing to make use of those resources to assert a position of regional leadership. Given the tense tug-of-war between Israel and Iran in the broader context of the erosion of the U.S. regional military position, Turkey’s repositioning may have even more significance than even its respectable weight would merit.

"America-Replacement" Strategy for Afghanistan: A Simple Plan

In the context of the three basic principles for resolving the Afghan conflict that I discussed earlier, here's an implementation strategy:

  1. Washington announces that it will vacate any region of Afghanistan that is either - A. peaceful and drug-free or B. guarded by an international force, preferably from Muslim societies
  2. the international force will have two duties - A. preventing the use of force to resolve conflict, B. eliminating illegal narcotics, with emphasis on destruction of the refinement business.
This solves the current problem that no one understands what American goals are and puts the U.S. on the right side of morality. To those who protest that the devil is in the details, I say, "Try any desired scale."

The international community will provide stability; state-building will be up to the Afghans...with international funding to be transferred directly to the lowest possible levels.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Erdogan's Calculus: An Analytical Approach

Erdogan's diplomatic initiative to break the Mideast logjam with fresh thinking has provoked lots of smoke but much less analytical fire. How might we think through the options facing the region?

Turkey appears to be challenging the world to think more deeply about the state of affairs in the Mideast and to move toward a positive-sum solution. Most of the relevant actors seem unable even to imagine and perhaps do not want a situation in which the U.S., Iran, and Israel might all benefit.

Yet, it seems obvious that all three countries, and Turkey as well, would benefit if an international security regime that put a cap on the militarization of nuclear technology. Indeed, the leaders of all of those countries except Israel have called for this, although, with the exception of Prime Minister Erdogan and Foreign Minister Davutoglu, most seem to have trouble imagining a balanced way to get there. Moreover, the degree to which current powerholders rely on the fear of nuclear war to buttress their personal positions constitutes an enormous obstacle. Beyond that, settling the nuclear issue seems workable only in the context of fundamental changes in U.S. and Israeli foreign policy. What Erdogan and Davutoglu undoubtedly have thought about but are, perhaps wisely, not discussing in public is the degree to which removal of Mideast nuclear tensions depends on the willingness of Washington to replace its 21st century military-centric Mideast/Central Asian policy with a diplomacy-centric policy and the willingness of Israel to replace its post-1980s (roughly) Greater Israel policy with a "good-neighbor" policy of living within its legally recognized borders.

For Turkey, in particular, the rationale of trying to bridge the nuclear gap between Iran and its antagonists is crystal clear. Turkey's plan of becoming the regional energy hub virtually requires resolution of the nuclear crisis. Even more important, Turkey would almost certainly lose from a prolongation of the crisis: if it turns to war, Turkey gets the fallout; if not, Turkey will come under pressure to participate in a wasteful regional nuclear arms race. Moreover, the higher the tension, the more Turkey is likely to be forced back into subordination to its American bloc leader. That, in turn, seems likely to raise the prominence of the Turkish armed forces in domestic affairs, undermining both the delicate position of Turkish democracy and the fortunes of the Erdogan regime.

If the challenge Erdogan has taken on is great, the logic of it is so persuasive that his effort can be assumed to be sincere. How he and his foreign minister rank the various goals that they surely have in mind is more difficult to answer.

Ergogan's major goals:
  • security - a peaceful regional environment, requiring both resolution of the nuclear crisis and resolution of Iran's demand for a "place at the Mideast table"
  • economic - international acceptance of Turkey as the hub of hydrocarbon pipelines from Iran, Kazakhstan, etc. into Europe
  • moral - justice for Palestinians and the creation of a less egregiously unbalanced regional nuclear regime
  • personal - success could cement the hold of moderate, reformist Islam on Turkish politics and make his name in history.

Debate has arisen over the reasons (e.g., economic) for Erdogan's initiatives to restrain Israeli militarism and invite Iran "to the Mideast table." A better analytical approach is to recognize that he almost certainly has a wide range of goals, as indicated above. These four goals, then, constitute the obvious (albeit not necessarily the only) "driving forces" underlying Erdogan's initiative.

Starting, for analytical simplicity, with the first two--security and economic, axes representing the range of possible outcomes can be defined as follows:

  • Security - from "zero-sum" to "positive-sum;"
  • Economic - from "isolated" to "regional hub."

The objective of both the selection of driving forces and the way that the axes are defined is to provoke interesting analysis. In this light, it may be advantageous to define "security" as "zero-sum to positive-sum" to underscore the distinction between competing blocs and a mutually beneficial regional security regime (rather than, e.g., "insecure" to "secure"). Similarly, defining the economic extremes as "isolated" and "regional hub" focuses on Turkey's economic policy choices rather than outcomes (e.g., "poverty" and "wealth"). It may seem likely that becoming a regional hydrocarbon hub would produce wealth, but that is an analytical conclusion.

The two axes now define an analytical landscape of possible futures that can simplistically be thought of as offering four broad alternative options. Rather than getting bogged down in the typical scenario analysis exercise of weaving fairy tale stories about each one, it is analytically useful simply to conceive in a general way of the distinctions by suggesting the obvious alternative outcomes with titles.

The result, as graphed, shows what we may take as Erdogan's calculus:

  • In a zero-sum security context with Turkey economically isolated, regional tensions and the absence of regional economic integration can be expected to interact, with each making the other worse, generating a vicious cycle.
  • The combination of a zero-sum security context with regional economic integration may seem fairly advantagous but is likely to be unsustainable, generating instability.
  • A positive-sum security environment lacking regional economic integration might be sustainable but would leave Turkey relatively weak.
  • The combination of a positive-sum security regime and economic integration would be mutually reinforcing, generating a virtuous cycle in which participants increasingly see cooperation as to their advantage.
Now we have the analytical raw materials for beginning to think seriously about where Turkey stands and how it might design an effective policy. The image alone helps structure thinking, but the essential element is still missing. The key at this point is not to construct stories about how you think the future might develop in each quadrant of our analytical landscape but to ask a simple question with inevitably complicated answers:

how are the underlying dynamics likely to affect behavior in each quadrant?

Briefly, we have decided that economics and security are the key elements affecting the future, and we have made some simplistic guesses about how they might interact (e.g., to produce a vicious cycle at one extreme and a virtuous cycle at the other), but we have yet to do any real analysis. What has been accomplished is the setting up of the analytical stage in preparation for serious evaluation of how Erdogan may be assessing his options and how Washington and Tehran might determine the appropriate reaction. Those wishing to proceed (be they students writing a term paper or decision makers) should start by asking, "As X (e.g., economic integration) increases, what else happens?" Grab pencil and paper. It gets complicated.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Defense of the Morally Bankrupt

Today a band of willful men will attempt to pass a bill (H.R. 867) calling on the U.S. Government to stick its head in the sand; to speak, hear, and see no evil; and to refuse to discuss charges of war crimes during Israel’s vicious and equally willful attack on the people of Gaza in December 2008. In a move that would make John C. Calhoun proud, this band will adopt the final defense of the morally bankrupt and instead attack free speech. Knowing well that their position cannot stand in the light of day, they will demand that the charges being brought against them in the closest arena the world has to a court of law simply “not be discussed.”

For a long sad generation, slavery was an issue that “could not be discussed” in Congress, thus allowing the pressures to build to the point that only a horrifying domestic war could resolve the issue. And today it is the barbaric collective punishment of the people of Gaza that “cannot be discussed.” Just as history today blames Calhoun for paving the road to the U.S. Civil War, so may history one day blame this petty group of American supporters of the Israeli right wing for paving the road to the destruction of Israel.

The right to buy and sell and oppress and murder slaves by Southern plantation owners could “not be discussed;” the right to oppress and bomb and murder Palestinians by the Israeli Army and the extremist politicians who control the Israeli government “cannot be discussed.” Of course not. What else can these so-called American “friends” of Israel do? When one is complicit in the rape of Fallujah and the endless rain of Predators on innocent Central Asian villagers, how can one protest the same behavior from those who perfected such tactics?


In depth:

1."No Partner for Peace; Our American Problem" Analysis by Israeli human rights worker Jeff Halper.

Despite the mission’s charges over Israeli war crimes, South African jurist Richard Goldstone actually bent over backwards to protect Israel as much as possible. Thus the report does not mention Israel’s 42-year occupation of Gaza or its three year siege which has left a million and a half Gazans without adequate food, medical care or the basic necessities of life. Nor does it mention the fact that, rather than defending itself, it was Israel which violated the cease-fire with Hamas and refused repeated appeals by Hamas to renew it....

When, recently, I did the rounds of Congress and the State Department promoting a just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I was told that “justice” is not an active element in American foreign policy.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Judging Government

Among all the cute phrases dreamed up by humans, perhaps “political science” is the most humorous. (I claim to be a political scientist, so I can say that.) I mean, you have to admit, there is precious little science guiding the actions of our leaders in regards to, say, the war in Afghanistan or health care or the regulation of Goldman Sachs. To be a little more polite, let’s say that “political science” is a goal. To bring us one step closer to that goal, which would presumably enable the creation of decent government, I propose the following simple metric for judging the quality of every official act by politicians:

Was their action on balance “for the elite” or “for the people?”

I am a political scientist; I can make the implementation of this simple heuristic as complex as you like. It can be arithmetic or really mathematical (e.g., based on calculus) or complex or graphical or philosophical. A nice little graduate seminar could be held on the merits of the various methods.

The point remains, however: if a politician does something that advances the interests of the society in general, that politician has done good; if it is just the elite that benefits, the politician has done bad. If you want good government, you need to be able to tell the difference, whether you are a political scientist or a barber…or even a TV news commentator.

Protecting the Economic Elite

Washington is setting us up for a new recession provoked by Wall Street gamblers even as we teeter on the edge of a second bursting bubble...this time in commercial real estate.

Goldman Sachs is sitting pretty, having—with taxpayer help—defeated its competitors and recouped the losses on its gambling debts (which contributed greatly to causing the recession in the first place. And now, the real Obama, who looks more and more like a corrupt Republican every day, is putting into law a program that will ensure that, whatever economic catastrophe may ever occur in the future, Goldman will come up a winner. Carefully avoiding the problem of insufficient government regulation (the open door that led to the recession), the new law will ensure a permanent pipeline of taxpayer funds to protect the millionaires of Goldman Sachs.

Concerning that law-in-the-making, FDIC Chair Sheila Bair testified to Congress:

The oversight council described in the proposal currently lacks sufficient authority to effectively address systemic risks.

Ouch! Would someone please explain to me why Geithner is still employed by the U.S. Government?

Actually, Senator Maria Cantwell has explained this mystery:

...the nation's largest banks are posting record profits....many of these banks have resumed their old habit of using other people's money to gamble with the same risky unregulated derivatives that led us into this crisis.

In the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and with job losses and home foreclosures mounting, it's no wonder the rest of us are asking how this can be allowed to continue.

Look no further than the powerful lobbying arm of the financial services sector, which has spent at least $220 million this year lobbying Congress to stave off new rules to prevent another collapse.

For a real lesson in civics as it actually works in modern America, here are the gory details of one particularly egregious case of how your officials in Washington sold you down the river to please their masters on Wall Street.

It's simple - the American people do not control their government. In fact, even the government does not appear to control the government: Wall Street does.

As for the rest of the economy, manufacturing in the U.S. (and China) is increasing, but contrasting that good news for the economy, employment in U.S. manufacturing continues to decline. In addition, disposable income for Americans was flat for the last two months, so one might wonder who is going to buy the products being manufactured.

And it is not just Main Street that continues to suffer, as unemployment steadily worsens. Not only have we just had, with CIT, the first bankruptcy of a TARP-bailed company, but bank failures continue at their 2009 rate of slightly more than two per week. And now we are, apparently, finally moving into the long-feared crash in commercial property, which will further pressure banks. These points only add weight to Ron Paul's argument that Washington's bailout is going to cause a new round of trouble. According to Wilbur Ross, investor and money manager aiding the government to get control of toxic assets:

A huge crash is now starting….Occupancy rates are going down. Rent rates are going down and the capitalization rate -- the return that investors are demanding to buy a property -- are going up.

Note that I am citing both Bloomberg and the World Socialist Web Site, sources that you might not expect to be sending the same message.

In case you think I am being too flip or unfairly focusing on the bad news, here, in simple English, is the academic summary of the state of affairs by Princeton economist Alan Blinder from a paper prepared for a Federal Reserve Bank of Boston conference:

Emergency rescue operations have increased concentration in the banking industry, and the too-big-too-fail (TBTF) doctrine may have been abused by many of our once-illustrious financial companies. A variety of miscreants imposed enormous costs on innocent bystanders by dragging the economy down. And taxpayers have been forced to shoulder a variety of huge actual and potential bills. All this suggests the need for fundamentally rethinking the rules and regulations that govern our financial system. [Thanks to Econobrowser for pointing out this paper.]

For the details, consider the Congressional testimony by Robert Johnson, Director of Economic Policy at the Roosevelt Institution, that the House Financial Services Committee is trying to suppress to protect the guilty:

the most important dimension of all of the needed financial reforms is the precise intersection between Too Big to Fail financial institutions and OTC unregulated derivatives….. We have a financial architecture in place governing derivatives that has failed profoundly. The bailout costs, lost output around the world, and breathtaking rise in unemployment are the result of that financial failure. [Thanks to Democracy Now, perhaps the most honest news service in the U.S., for revealing this.]

Brooksley Born, head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and target of intense hostility from the Washington-Wall Street cabal that brought us this recession, recently put it like this:

we have to close the regulatory gap. ... We cannot afford as a society to go forward with an enormous unregulated market that poses this kind of danger because it’ll happen again if we don't take the appropriate steps. ... We need to take a lesson from the existing futures markets where exchange trading has been safe. As much as possible of the over-the-counter derivatives market should be traded on a regulated derivatives exchange. The transaction should be cleared on a regulated clearinghouse. There should be robust federal regulation of any remaining OTC derivatives market. And personally, I think that remaining market should be limited as much as possible to no more than the customized contracts that are needed for specific businesses to hedge particular business risks.

In case the above make your eyes glaze over, try this even blunter statement from McClatchy, a news source vastly more reliable than the ones you normally pay attention to:

Why didn't Wall Street firms tell potential investors that the bonds they were selling them were rotten? Why did their business partners, including subprime mortgage lenders, ignore glaring evidence that borrowers weren't qualified and give loans to virtually anyone with a heartbeat?

The answer is simple: Because they could.

For the details of how the near-criminal, if not literally criminal, process going from a single tricky mortgage to a naïve homebuyer to large-scale fraudulent Wall Street investments occurred, read the full McClatchy article. But the above quote is the bottom line.

Evidence that Washington is "governing for the elite:"

  • emphasis on bailing out Wall Street with trickle-down for the people;
  • no punishment for Wall Street executives;
  • officials like Elizabeth Warren appear to be getting the cold shoulder from the White House.

What would help to change my mind about Washington:

  • taxing derivatives;
  • tight oversight of all derivatives trading (i.e., "moving derivatives trades onto regulated exchanges");
  • ending the exemption of derivatives trading from regulation, including regulation under state gambling laws(!);
  • a law making it illegal for senior officials in financial arms of the government to come from Wall Street or banking positions (that constituting a clear presumption of conflict of interest) and the removal of all such officials;
  • reenactment of Glass-Steigal;
  • replacement of Geitner by Warren;
  • making it illegal, with stiff jail sentences for corporate executives, for a company to purchase a mortgage without informing the homeowners;
  • breaking up Goldman Sachs into separate companies;
  • creating a comprehensive regime for breaking up failing companies that are "too big to fail;"
  • new "trust-busting" legislation for the financial industry.

Now, is the difference between "governing for the people" and "governing for the elite" becoming clear?

Project: List Washington folks who favor “government for the people” and “government for the elite”

Government for the People

Elizabeth Warren, TARP Superwoman

Sheila Bair, FDIC Chairwoman

Maria Cantwell, Senator

Brooksley Born

Dennis Kucinich, Presidential candidate 2008 so if you failed to vote for him…

Government for the Elite


Hank Paulson

Barack Obama

Tim Geitner

Melissa Bean, congresswoman from Wall Street and member of House Financial Services Committee

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Turkey Moves Toward Regional Leadership

In a Mideast region being ripped apart by greed, short-sightedness, arrogance, refusal to compromise, a growing addiction to violence, and the virtual absence of wise leadership, Turkey appears to see itself as the leader of a new moderate regional coalition. Can Washington maintain pace?

On October 30, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu held a joint press conference in Iraqi Kurdistan, saying:

It is time for Arabs, Turks, Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis to rebuild the Middle East. Therefore, it is time for everyone to take brave steps.

This does not automatically mean equality for Turkish Kurds, of course, and yet, it seems an improvement over the Turkish military attacks of last winter and suggests a real openness in Turkey to questioning sensitive political taboos.

Turkey’s Kurdish Question. One small but perhaps “brave” step taken by Turkey was the release on October 20 of five PKK members who surrendered in the name of achieving a peaceful settlement but had been arrested. Whether or not Turkey will institute reforms to make its own Kurds feel more welcome as Turkish citizens remains to be seen. That 100,000 people would turn out in Turkish Kurdistan to welcome the PKK members home as heroes was a signal that Istanbul should tread lightly in Kurdish regions. It might start with a “brave” step to open a dialogue in response to the call for a “civilian constitution” by Mehmet Şerif Gençdağ, who spoke on behalf of the returnees. Co-chairman of the Democratic Society Party, or DTP, Ahmet Türk underscored the point by stating in a speech in Kurdish that “introducing freedom in Turkey will not lead to the country’s disintegration, an excuse currently being used by people to generate fear in society.” A hardline stance toward Turkey’s Kurdish minority by Istanbul would certainly give the lie to its protestations of wanting a policy of peace and cooperation throughout the region. If Istanbul is serious, it will have to take care to avoid letting those parties desiring continued regional tension exploit Kurdish sensitivities for that may be the most serious ticking bomb that could explode in Erdogan’s face.


Too ambitious?

In a partial answer to those who may think Erdogan is overextending his country, Turkey is moving forward with plans to become the regional energy hub by cooperating with Kazakhstan and Russia.


Turkey: Mideast Peacemaker?

At the same time as Turkey was negotiating the shoals of its Kurdish question, Prime Minister Erdogan was in Iran criticizing nuclear powers for imposing “arrogant sanctions” against Iran.

Turkey is positioning itself to be the agent of a possible historic regional realignment. If any genuine willingness can be found in the West to follow through on Obama’s conciliatory message of understanding that came in the early, optimistic months of his administration, then it could be Erdogan who will end up earning the Nobel Peace Prize by facilitating a Western-Islamic compromise.

Although Erdogan may yet face domestic opposition to his effort to move Turkey away from its traditional foreign policy subservience to Washington, Turkey has much to gain from flexibility. If it can succeed in moderating Tehran’s treatment of its people and reach agreement with Iran on a joint activist stance supporting Muslim democracy combined with resistance to Arab dictators, resistance to al Qua’ida terrorism, and resistance to Israeli expansion, it will transform regional affairs. Turkey and Iran together have the power to provide real regional leadership, should they be able to agree on the way forward, and moderate Islamic activism is a position that currently has a very large vacancy.

Erdogan spelled out part of what a Turkish-led moderate bloc would mean a few days before his late-October visit to Iran, telling al Jazeera:

We are not in favor of presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iran and in our region. But it is not fair and unjust to put pressure on Iran while someone else in the region has such weapons. The world must assume a fair attitude. In that case a totally different environment of confidence will emerge.

The vision of a single set of rules to govern regional nuclear rights would fundamentally shift interstate relations, where the region is currently dominated by Israel’s exclusive possession of nuclear weapons.

Going beyond nuclear rights, Erdogan laid out a general principle that could, if accepted in Washington, go far toward resolving its conflict with Iran:

Iran has a long-standing political tradition of its own. You cannot ignore Iran and any attempt to encourage negative approaches to Iran will damage efforts to ensure peace in the region.

A Turkish commentator reassured Washington (whose own invitation to Erdogan was postponed because of “a Turkish holiday,” thereby affording Erdogan time to consolidate ties with Iran and Iraq first) by soothing that the new warmth in Turkish-Iranian relations does “not signify a shift toward an Iran-oriented foreign policy.” Perhaps not, but it does signify a shift toward acceptance of Iran as a legitimate player combined with a hint that Iran might facilitate its acceptance by some unspecified shifts of its own. In noting politely that “Iran has always been a key actor in regional peace and stability because of what it has done and what it will not do,” [emphasis added] Erdogan seemed to be telling Washington to accept Iranian prominence and telling Iran to avoid destabilizing behavior. It is not yet clear whether either side will be willing to accept Erdogan’s advice. After all, it was Larijani who only two weeks ago reaffirmed Iran’s commitment to defending the rights of Muslims. Whether or not Tehran and Istanbul can come to agreement on how that should be accomplished remains to be seen.

Western Calculus.

But a Turkish-sponsored Western-Islamic compromise remains far in the future, for such a compromise would entail a highly uncharacteristic voluntary Western pullback from its current aggressively militant stance. The astonish shortsightedness of the West in refusing to participate in NATO war games in NATO partner Turkey without the presence of non-NATO Israel and the hostile reaction to the U.N. report on Israel’s war crimes in Gaza bode ill for Erdogan’s hopes to be a regional peacemaker.

Iranian Calculus.

And that’s not the sum of the obstacles in Erdogan’s path by far. His hopes of success also hinge on his ability to persuade Iran to play ball. As Gülnur Aybet put it:

Turkey’s primary purpose in this visit is not to act as a mediator between Iran and the West but to deliver an independent Turkish message to the Iranian authorities that Iran is not being convincing about the civilian intentions of its nuclear program to the international community. However, Turkey insists it will engage Iran on this issue as a country which empathizes with Iranian sensitivities.

But Erdogan has a good shot at persuading Iran to moderate its behavior. Iran can only gain by a conciliatory attitude toward Turkey. Israel’s hardline attitude makes triangular relations a zero-sum game, affording Iran a golden opportunity to enhance its regional position at Israel’s expense by pulling Turkey away from its close ties to Israel. Turkey also represents the route for Iran to break out of the West’s economic embargo and improve ties with Europe. Not content to wait for the future Nabucco pipeline, Turkey and Iran have, according to Iran’s PressTV, signed an agreement for Turkish aid in constructing an oil refinery that directly undermines Western economic sanctions and thus offers Tehran a powerful incentive to compromise with Turkey on other issues. Beyond this, for Iran to receive sympathetic attention from NATO member Turkey puts a serious crack in the anti-Iranian Western front that Tehran would be very foolish to spurn. Washington risks being overtaken by events.

Indeed, Tehran seems determined to maintain the diplomatic momentum. Majlis Speaker and prominent regime foreign policy spokesperson Ali Larijani stated enthusiastically:

The Islamic Republic of Iran perceives no limitation or restriction on the expansion and development of its brotherly relations with Turkey.

In addition, Ahmadinejad’s just-announced decision to participate in the November 5-9 meeting of the Organization of Islamic Conference in Istanbul suggests the two sides are determined to keep the diplomatic momentum going. Iran, still a regional outsider, hardly seems to have much choice if it still aspires to regional prominence. Even its one state ally, Syria, seems to be moving into the Turkish orbit with the creation of the Turkey-Syria High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council. Ahmadinejad will thus evidently see Erdogan again before Erdogan manages to find the time to visit Washington; Ahmadinejad would be well advised to take advantage of his luck and show up in Istanbul with a substantive package of security compromises for his host.

Potential Western Benefits.

If Iran has good reason to play ball with Turkey, the West also stands to gain. The economic benefit of having a second source of critically-needed natural gas for Europe to reduce its dependence on Russia is hardly trivial. In security terms, the West also stands to gain. Muslim, NATO-member Turkey is well positioned to persuade both sides to moderate their positions on the nuclear issue, persuading Iran to behave with real transparency in return for an unambiguous Western acceptance of an Iranian civilian nuclear industry. Aside from the nuclear issue, a West seeking resolution of the Afghan and Iraqi conflicts would surely benefit from any joint Turkish-Iranian steps to combat illegal narcotics and stabilize Afghan and Iraqi societies.

With Turkey having just doubled its commitment of troops in Afghanistan and taken over NATO command in Kabul, Turkey is in an increasingly strong position to persuade Washington to listen to its views. The same is true for Iraq, where Turkey is accelerating its efforts to provide economic support and just signed “more than 40 agreements ranging from fighting Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) terrorism to energy cooperation and sharing water” even as it implements diplomatic initiatives toward the Kurds.

Can Washington Compromise?

Whether or not the West will come in sufficient time to appreciate the opportunity Turkey is offer, however, remains unclear. Will the West shoot itself in the foot to the extent of alienating Turkey in order to pander to the Israeli rightwing? Or, to put it differently, will Washington’s regional ambitions prevent it from accepting the idea of an independent and regionally powerful Iran?

If Washington is indeed determined to learn from the Dec. 2008 Gaza experiment the lesson that the right way to deal with the Muslim world is military suppression of those who refuse to subordinate themselves to Western preferences plus obdurate refusal to allow independent Muslim entities to participate as equals in the global political system, then that may indeed be the result.

Before the Israeli rightwing cheers too loudly, it might contemplate the implications of a Mideast in which Turkey and Iran are jointly leading an international movement in opposition to Israel and, simultaneously, managing a future Nabucco gas pipeline keeping West Europe warm. While Washington empire-builders may extrapolate from tiny Gaza that military force can repress larger Islamic societies, it seems clear that Erdogan has learned something very different—that the chaos resulting from Western/Israel military suppression of Muslim desires for independence is simply becoming too dangerous to continue tolerating. Maybe Greater Israel advocates in Israel and the Washington elite should rethink the lessons of their Gaza Laboratory.