Friday, January 22, 2010

Mexico Yesterday, Mideast Today

Geography confuses me. It’s not that I’m stupid. I know there’s a Middle East, though I’m not sure what it is in the middle of, or what it is east of, or how it connects to the Midwest. I know there is a Middle South, too, you know…not as far south as “South” America but definitely south of “North” America, and—obviously—south of the Midwest, which used to be part of Mexico…the name we use for the Middle South! What really confuses me, though, is the difference between the Middle East and the Middle South.

Everyone knows that in the Middle East, it's survival of the fittest. Just ask the Saddams and Salehs, for whom assassination paved their way to power. Just ask the Netanyahus and Ahmadinejads who waved the bloody flag of foreign threats to gain power. The Middle East is a land where differences matter. “Terrorism” is violence one opposes; “self-defense” is violence one supports. “Democracy” is voting for me; all else is inconceivable. The distinctions are crystal-clear. If you don’t believe me, just ask Santa Anna! Uh, sorry, he was in the Middle South.

The point’s the same, though. He got into a mess because a militarily advanced neighbor wanted his land (West Coast, West Bank). He also lost for the same reason – because he represented the conservative, rich elite who put their privileges ahead of their countries and gave their birthright away rather than countenance a popular movement for national liberation (which would have meant sharing the national wealth with those, you know, “lower” classes). Mubarak is reaching that age, you know. I wonder if Santa Anna is still alive! He would fit right in…over in Cairo.

There’s more similarities between the Middle East and Middle S…ah…Mexico. In both, the dominant military power spent a huge amount of effort marginalizing and slaughtering minorities, clearing the way for the advance of “democracy” (see definition, above). In both, military adventure was conducted with a self-defeating brutality that alienated civilians, equated banditry (terrorism) with freedom fighting, and transformed productive farmers into desperate fighters, who promptly attacked the invading troops of the dominant military power despite overwhelming odds (that’s what “desperate” means).

Anyway, I hope we’ve got the geography straightened out now. As for the politics, that’s easy, isn’t it? After all, it never changes.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Washington's Mideast Options

Either Washington favors a Mideast balance of power or it favors Israeli hegemony.

The Mideast BOP scenario would envision the U.S. “providing advise and consent” from afar in order to help the various regional parties manage their affairs as peacefully as possible, from which it logically follows that some accommodation is made to all, no state and no major dissident movement (Hezbollah, Hamas, Houthi, Kurd) is marginalized, and the Mideast power alignment is bimodal – with Israel at one end and Iran at the other. Turkey, with help, might make it an interesting triangular set-up, introducing the stability of a regional balancer.

The Mideast Israeli hegemony scenario would continue the traditional “might makes right” path, with all its inherent violence and instability. The main lubricant would be the “threat” of what a nuclear Iran might do with the handful of primitive devices that it manages someday to assemble in the face of what one must assume would be hundreds of very deliverable Israeli weapons in the hands of an elite more than willing to start wars. The point for Washington, except for the Protestant fundamentalist crazies who foresee/desire the destruction of the world as we know it, would be control via Israel and the assumption would be that violence is the best route to that end. Much else would follow logically – bland denial of Israeli ethnic cleansing (if Americans did it to Native Americans, why can’t Israelis do it to Palestinians?), stiffing the Turks with their silly ideas of everyone being good neighbors, continuing to empower radicals in Iran by loudly insulting and threatening them (because they are too useful to be allowed to fail), and proving—over and over—bin Laden’s point.

Two questions:

  1. Which scenario would be likely to be more stable?
  2. Is there a third option?

Monday, January 18, 2010

Engage Iran? I. Thinking About Security

Rather than continuing the long-standing provocation of tensions between Iran and the West, it may be possible to design an effective policy of quiet engagement, provided that it is thought through carefully. The post introducing this idea posed several questions that the U.S. needs to start considering very carefully, of which the first focuses on security:

What moves could Washington reasonably make to reassure Iran that complete nuclear transparency would leave it more, rather than less secure?


Offer a series of increasingly significant moves to address Iran’s security concerns; request a parallel series of moves to address Western concerns about Iranian nuclear transparency. At each step, the West gives something on security and Iran gives something on transparency. Go to the next step only when each side is satisfied.


  • Establish a regional organization to monitor air force movements designed to provide everyone with early warning of an attack.
  • Support the acquisition of ground-to-air (i.e., defensive) missiles by Iran, Lebanon.
  • Explicitly recognize Iranian right to clear set of technologies.
  • Provide all NPT members with some preferential treatment denied to states that refuse to sign.
  • Set up a regional diplomatic forum for exchanging information on significant military moves, such as the opening of new U.S. military bases or nuclear submarine maneuvers, and for seeking feedback from participating states.

More important than the specific details of the substantive steps would be that this would constitute a new policy based on a new foundation – that of late-Cold War-style confidence-building rather than the current Mideast policy approach of reliance on force and intimidation. Such a policy might not work, of course, but the U.S. has such an enormous superiority of power that it can well afford to try, and success would be a foreign policy coup that would greatly improve the U.S. strategic position.

Turkish-Israeli Alliance on Thin Ice

The hint of discord between Gonul’s and Erdogan’s attitudes toward Israel reveal discord in Ankara or is Israel being offered its last chance to avoid alienating Turkey by learning to live as a good neighbor?

Turkish Defense Minister Gonul calls Turkey and Israel “strategic allies,” while Erdogan criticizes the West’s biased position that Israel can be nuclear while Iran cannot and condemns Israel for its brutal attack on Gaza.

That’s a pretty glaring contradiction. In what sense can Turkey be a strategic ally of a country that has put nuclear arms into the region while Turkey wants, according to Erdogan, equal treatment of all on the nuclear issue? Turkey now seems actively to be undermining the U.S. anti-Iran sanctions policy with its new economic accords with Iran and refused to endorse the IAEA’s Nov. 27, 2009 resolution censuring Iran’s nuclear stance – thus opposing two key strategic Israeli foreign policy goals. The week after the resolution, Erdogan reportedly defended Turkey’s abstention and implicitly criticized the West’s emphasis on pressuring Tehran, observing, "I believe that was a very rushed process because certain steps could be taken in a more consultative fashion.”

In what sense can Turkey be a strategic ally of a country that practices collective punishment against Gazans when Erdogan says his policy is good-neighborliness? In an interview with Daniel Levy, Turkish professor Bulent Aras portrayed Ankara as viewing security as mutual – not a choice between Israeli and Palestinian security but as “inter-related.” Such a perspective is not only far more sophisticated than that of the blatantly zero-sum perspective of the ruling Israeli rightwing elite, it is a fundamentally different view of the world. It is hard to imagine how a country viewing security as zero-sum can be an ally of a country viewing security as inter-related. The former implies crushing adversaries; the latter implies compromising with adversaries.

If Gonul’s wording does not reflect factional discord in Ankara, it would seem at least to indicate some disarray and clouded thinking on the part of Ankara’s strategists.

Gonul’s record of support historical ethnic cleansing in Turkey suggests he may be more willing to excuse Israel’s behavior toward Muslims than Erdogan is. Whatever the relevance of the defense minister’s perspective on Turkey’s historical behavior toward its minorities, he appeared to be trying hard to maintain a military relationship with Israel that provides Turkey with high technology for use in attacking dissident Turkish Kurds.

The disconnect between a Turkish policy of good neighborliness with regional states and its treatment of its own Kurdish minority is a blatant flaw in Turkey’s position, one that Ankara is visibly wrestling with and one that is highlighted by Turkey’s continuing military ties to Israel.

The suggestion of factionalism in Ankara over ties with Israel remains just that…a possibility. An alternative possibility is that Erdogan is using the double message of willingness to continue strategic ties but only to the degree that Israel itself begins to adopt a good neighbor policy, i.e., end the collective punishment of Gazans and learn to live with Iran.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Engage Iran? First, Think It Through

A war of aggression, containment, and a "Nixon-to-China" gamble have all been proposed as strategies for dealing with Iran; all fall short. The best hope is "quiet engagement," a slow, incremental process out of the headlines that will require the U.S. to think through what it is willing to offer and what it wants in return.

A headline trip to Iran is likely to backfire because, unlike China (deeply worried about a perceived Soviet threat), Iran remains unpersuaded that it should risk trying to work with the historically untrustworthy American superpower. "Containment” is also inappropriate for Iran. The idea of containment is to wall in a monster too big to kill safely but too harmful to live with. One could argue for ”containment” of Goldman Sachs (destroying it outright would endanger the economy; leaving it to continue its unregulated rampage sets the world up for another unnecessary recession). One could argue for “containment” of the U.S. (too powerful to eliminate but too irresponsible in its post-9/11 militancy to live with). But the idea of “containment” of Iran, which is struggling to emerge from the 19th century, only encourages Ahmadinejad’s grandiose self-image and pushes the U.S. further into the trap of feeding Israeli militancy.

Israeli Brigadier-General Uzi Eilam recently exposed the hypocricy of the Israeli right wing hysteria on Iran:

Eilam, who is thought to be updated by former colleagues on developments in Iran, calls his country’s official view hysterical. “The intelligence community are spreading frightening voices about Iran,” he said.

He suggested that the “defence establishment is sending out false alarms in order to grab a bigger budget” while some politicians have used Iran to divert attention away from problems at home.

“Those who say that Iran will obtain a bomb within a year’s time, on what basis did they say so?” he asked. “Where is the evidence?”

The proper analogy for Iran is “engagement,” not a headline-seeking, all-your-eggs-in-one-basket gamble, but quiet talks to find a positive-sum deal. It may not work, but a sincere attempt would take some of the air out of the tires of the bandwagon of Ahmadinejad and his Iranian neo-cons (the belligerent post-Iraq-Iran War super-patriots in the IRGC) and others who use foreign threats to justify the curtailing of civil liberties.

Then again, a sincere policy of engagement might work. We won’t know if we don’t try.

But “engagement” does not mean condescending to talk and expecting Iranians to rush hither on bended knee bearing gifts. “Engagement” means accepting the concept of a positive-sum outcome and coordinating with Iran to define what that means.

Before Washington is ever likely to design a serious “engagement” policy, a debate in the U.S. about the reasonable parameters of such a policy seems an essential process of educating ourselves by thinking through the details of how to (gasp!) redesign the Mideast.

Today, there are several options on the diplomatic table for redesigning the Mideast – al Qua’ida wants civilizational war, Israel wants to eliminate all opposition to its dominance, Erdogan wants good-neighborliness and cooperation. The U.S., with its neo-cons still advocating the failed option of total control, is…ahhh…confused. Violence against Muslim adversaries is producing no victory, solving no problem, and bringing no security. Yet Washington seems unable to come up with a better vision than more of the same, expecting that magically the next time the result will be different.

Indeed, "redesign" of the Mideast is already occurring, though it is not clear that anyone is in charge. Reacting to the Israeli addiction to military solutions and the lack of creativity from Washington, Turkey is moving to offer a regional alternative based on cooperation, with the global natural gas market as the temptation for all prospective partners. This vision is attracting Syria and the new "national reconciliation-light" regime of Lebanon. Iran remains officially uncommitted, but none-too-subtle Iranian media criticism of Ahmadinejad's economic record suggests that economics may, for some factions, speak louder than diplomatic bombast. The logic of appealling to the highly acquisitive side of the IRGC, which dominates Iranian foreign trade, further suggests that, all else being equal, Iran might be persuaded to moderate its hardline foreign policy stance in return for participating in regional economic integration.

All else is currently not equal, of course. Iran is under the threat of nuclear attack, which is a powerful incentive for it to play the highly provocative "nuclear ambiguity card." No one knows who in Tehran may want the bomb, but in a situation where Iran is being threatened and pressured by nuclear powers, Tehran's price for total transparency will surely be high.

Washington should prepare itself for substantive concessions:

  1. What moves could Washington reasonably make to reassure Iran that complete nuclear transparency would leave it more, rather than less secure?
  2. What moves could Washington reasonably make to reassure Iran that it would be allowed to participate as an equal in regional policy-making?
  3. What moves could Washington reasonably make to address the concerns of Palestinian, Yemeni, and Lebanese dissidents marginalized by the current political system so as to minimize the temptation for Iran to counsel and facilitate their violent resistance?

Washington should also define a reasonable list of requests:

  1. The neo-con war policy has ensured profound Iranian involvement in Iraq for the foreseeable future. How might Iranian involvement in Iraq be channeled in ways that would be easy for Washington to live with?
  2. How might Iran assist in negotiating an accommodation among all parties in Afghanistan?
  3. What would be required for the U.S., Iran, Baluchi dissidents, and Pakistan to achieve a consensus on a policy that would pacify the province and improve the lives of the Baluchis?
  4. In an international political context of addressing the grievances of Palestinians, how might Iran participate in a way acceptable to all parties?

“Engagement” will require a Mideast policy that will promote regional security for all states, will address the concerns of dissident movements, and will make room for a rising Iran. It will require concessions from Washington but will also offer the potential for benefits. The domestic dialogue in the U.S. needs to address both the concessions the superpower should be willing to make and the benefits it wants to obtain.

Friday, January 15, 2010

DIA Chief Kills Justification for Threatening Iran

Defense Intelligence Agency: Iran not in violation as far as we can tell. So keep your eye peeled by all means, but the case for war on Iran is closed.

Lieutenant General Ronald Burgess, head of DIA, has, if you read his words with an open mind, completely exonerated Iran on the nuclear dispute:

The bottom line assessments of the [National Intelligence Estimate] still hold true," Burgess said. "We have not seen indication that the government has made the decision to move ahead with the program. But the fact still remains that we don't know what we don't know.

Hostile intent may exist…in Iran or anywhere else, but that is always an unprovable. Hostile intent may exist in the mind of the next guy you pass on the street, but that in no way justifies your murdering him just for being there. If you stop him and yell loudly, “Hey, you gotta gun?” he may feel threatened or feel insulted (having been embarrassed in front of the crowd). If he says, “No, guns are against my religion,” and says all troublemakers should be eliminated and in fact in the course of history will be eliminated, that does not justify you claiming that you have just been threatened. (If anyone thinks Ahmadinejad ever said anything on Israel more threatening than that, please send me the Farsi with citation, NOT some Western mistranslation.) It also does not justify you blowing him away. If he says, “Hey, man, search me!” and you bring in your Intelligence Unit and do so, and the Intelligence Unit reports, “We do not see any indication that this guy has a gun or that he has made any decision ever to acquire a gun, although he is studying how guns work, but well…you know…we still do not know what we do not know. He has other jackets at home or at least he might or at least he might buy another jacket, and we don’t know what pockets those jackets might have or what might be in them…,” that still does not justify blowing him away. If he says, “You can’t see my other jackets because you don’t look in the pockets of everyone’s jackets,” then you may say that he “is not dealing straight up,” but that still does not justify blowing him away. The guy is exonerated.

That is not to say that you have to leave all your cash on the street, expecting him to guard it for you.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Provoking Jihad

A group of 150 Yemeni clerics has issued the following blunt call to defend Yemen from foreign interference:

In the event of any foreign party insisting on hostilities against, an assault on, or military or security intervention in Yemen, then Islam requires all its followers to pursue jihad.

This appears to be an example occurring before our eyes of how U.S. counter-terrorism policy enflames passions, empowers radicals, and ends up generating the terrorism it was supposedly designed to combat. A systematic survey of Yemeni clerical comment on the topic would be a useful set of background information as we watch this story unfold.

It does not take many Predator attacks to stimulate a response. Washington needs to get a few more tools in its foreign policy toolbox. Unfortunately, the excuse that “we don’t have many options,” used to justify the latest self-defeating policy idea is neither true nor an excuse. It is not true because other options do exist, including contacts with dissident groups and law enforcement. It is not an excuse because in the absence of a workable policy, doing nothing trumps making things worse.

Keep an eye on how U.S. aggressiveness affects Yemeni politics.

One Small Step Toward Rational Foreign Policy

Has Obama defeated the ominous war party of U.S. and Israeli extremists and obtained time for thoughtful reflection on how to resolve the U.S.-Iranian nuclear dispute in a rational manner?

So it would seem, judging from a persuasive analysis by Gary Sick. In his review of relations with Iran before the Knesset on Dec. 23 chief warmonger Netanyahu focused on sanctions, saying calmly that “time will tell if these sanctions will be enough to halt the Iranian nuclear program,” and gave no real sense of emergency. Time will also tell whether or not Netanyahu has decided that beating the war drums is no longer a productive way of making friends and influencing people in Washington. For the moment, Obama seems to have some breathing room.

Sick wrote of an Obama “victory over Iran.” The real enemy facing Obama in Sick’s account, however, was the war party in Washington, and that is the party Obama appears at least momentarily to have defeated.

Now Clinton, who threatened to annihilate Iran during the election, is now calling for targeted sanctions “on the elite,” a remarkably more sophisticated understanding of how to conduct foreign policy.

No hint yet exists of a fundamental restructuring of U.S. policy toward the Mideast that would countenance welcoming into regional affairs an independent-minded Iran, but Iran can hardly expect anything along those lines as long as it continues its savage oppression of domestic dissidents and its policy of shoving its nuclear independence in the world’s face. One step at a time is quite enough to kick off the new decade, and this step toward re-humanizing the American image of Iranians is a good one. It is a far step from viewing Iranian officials as "mad mullahs" to viewing them as cost-benefit analysts capable of moderating policy in order to preserve their rights to travel somewhere or trade with someone. The former is a tunnel straight to war with no side exits; the latter is normal business with a tough adversary, i.e., normal foreign policy.

Let’s pretend that a “new decade” is in fact a genuine starting point, put behind us all the sorry history of mutual insults from the mouths of Iranian, Israeli, and American politicians, and look forward. Watch for:

  • Israeli rhetoric about the Iranian threat;
  • Iranian willingness to actually cut a deal, any deal on the nuclear issue, rather than just have more talks;
  • Neo-con efforts to undercut progress in U.S.-Iranian ties;
  • Any mixing of the incomprehensible mess in Yemen with U.S.-Iranian nuclear ties.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Building Civil Societies...Not State Predators

The Washington debate over the relative merits of brute force vs. state building is, in practice, vacuous. The real choice is between brute force and society building, an endeavor in which the members of the society must be central...and free to talk back to their foreign friends. The building of a centralized and powerful state structure divorced from society is the birthing of a monster.

The debate in the U.S. about how to resolve social instability in Muslim lands that may lead to terrorist attacks against the West frequently centers on the presumed choice between “state building” and military attacks on those identified as enemies. This raises a host of issues, not the least of which is figuring out whether or not Western victims actually are enemies, but that is another story. Here, I want to focus on the concept of “state building.” Bluntly stated, the above debate is so simplistic that it hardly has any value at all (even though on the surface the existence of a debate between war and state building appears to represent a huge step forward from the utterly brainless idea of blowing up everyone who expresses the slightest desire for independence or equality).

The only way “state building” will in fact represent a meaningful advance in U.S. thinking is if the concept is defined well enough to contribute to functioning societies. To put it differently, arguing about “more” or “less” state-building is vacuous. The distinction of value lies not between state building and military force but between effective steps to stimulate the rise of self-sufficient, stable, effective societies and steps that hinder such a process. Both war and the building of repressive state represent steps backward.

The missed point in most U.S. commentary on state building is the dangerously erroneous assumption that having a state is better than not having one (an assumption particularly unexamined in Washington and one that leads directly to assuming that anyone who has managed to seize power—say, via assassination—is a better person to work with than someone, e.g., Sam Adams, who “just” represents a patriotic movement demanding justice). It may in a given case make sense for Washington to deal with a local leader, but to assume that a Saddam or a Saleh deserves automatic respect while a dissident leader merits nothing more than dismissal would be a potentially costly (though hardly unusual) example of unprofessional behavior on the part of a foreign policy decision maker.

The assumption that a state is automatically better than the absence of a state would have been rejected instantly by a large number, probably a large majority, of the august men who created the U.S.A.: in no uncertain terms they placed rights (of both individuals and the 13 colonies) ahead of state power. Had the New England colonies insisted on giving priority to centralized state power, it is doubtful that a unified country would ever have come into being.

A discussion of “state building,” if not clearly defined, is dangerous because it is all too easy for Westerners to assume that means “a Western-style state” or at least “a centralized state.” There is no consensus in many non-Western societies that such a political system is desirable, not to mention any ability to create or manage it for the good of the population (a point sometimes realized all too clearly in a Washington insistent on obedience).

Without both a social consensus that a centralized state is the goal and the ability to manage it for the good of the people, the infusion of aid may amount to empowering whatever predatory mafia may happen to agree to sell itself to the patron. Washington is not the only patron vulnerable to such errors:

The republics of Dagestan and Ingushetia are flashpoints, and Chechnya, newly pacified after years of war, is again experiencing a spate of terrorist attacks. Moscow’s strategy of buying off corrupt local elites in the region has not purchased stability. Islamist radicals thrive on official corruption, interclan warfare, and the heavy-handedness of the police and security services. [Dmitri Trenin, “Russia Reborn,” Foreign Affairs Nov-Dec 2009, 69.]

A better phrase would be “civil society building.” What pre-modern societies often do need is a hand in improving civil societies that, under the stress of interaction with the modern world, have ceased working. Somali civil society, for example, began to fail in the 1980’s after years of superpower interference succeeded only in substituting a nasty dictatorship for old decentralized, clan-based decision-making processes. Similarly, Afghan society was derailed by decades of superpower interference seeking to design modern centralized state structures from the top down. In neither case were the new state structures, when they existed at all, (e.g., tax collection agencies, health care provision agencies, police) effectively connected to the underlying social building blocks of clans, tribes, ethnicity, and religion.

Even after accepting that the focus should be on civil society rather than central government, a danger still remains. Civil society cannot be “built” from the top down or from the outside in. Yes, a supportive global community can help protect a Somalia or Yemen or Bangladesh or an Afghanistan from external threats, but “society,” by definition, is composed of links among the members (Robert Putnam’s bowlers). Incentives can be offered, but the “bowlers” have to decide on their own to bowl together.

Example of how everything can go wrong include when a strong central state imports modern weapons and then gasses the Kurds or uses helicopters to attack villagers in punishment for participating in traditional religious ceremonies that have been banned by a repressive centralized state (as Yemen’s President Saleh is accused of having done). This video of the aftermath of a U.S./Yemeni regime military attack on a dissident Yemeni movement in December 2009 is not an example of "building civil society." Since the military structure of state government is easier to build than, say, a health care system, and easier to misuse for private purposes, it moves almost inevitably to center stage when a modern, centralized regime is imposed on a premodern, decentralized society. Creating a powerful state before a powerful national civil society has arisen to prevent centralized state abuses of power is exactly the wrong way to go about creating stable, peaceful societies.

So if the creation of potentially oppressive state structures is a key mistake to be avoided, what might be some ways to do things right?

Sponsor civil society dialogue. Demand that any central government desiring Western support first accept the idea of a national dialogue to be followed up by real steps to address dissident demands. One could imagine, for example, conferences to which all dissident groups would be invited. Of course, a predatory regime will use this occasion to identify dissident spokespeople. Therefore, the West needs to be proactive in making its own contacts with those individuals, raising their international visibility, and warning the regime that their disappearance will be taken very seriously. Washington’s first step regarding Yemen should have been to sit down with the leaders of the Houthi and southern dissident groups, not the provision of arms to the regime. Dissident groups should learn that they have peaceful choices. The same argument of course applies to Hamas. It’s not about approval; it’s about stimulating the marketplace of ideas instead of the marketplace of militias. The U.S. should present itself as the defender of peaceful political participation, not as the defender of pet regimes.

Use international peacekeepers to protect civil society, not the regime. In contrast to the Somali model, where an African peacekeeping force supports the government, station international peacekeeping forces in all regions of the country but with direct links in each region to the regional political structure. The goal of the peacekeepers would be to prevent the military suppression of dissident groups in return for agreement by the dissident groups to refrain from violence, thus both offering incentives to behave peacefully and marginalizing those who refuse. In the Somali case, even the most extreme of the groups, al-Shabab, is composed of various sub-groups. In Afghanistan, the heterogeneous nature of “the Taliban” has been widely reported.

The regime, enamored of its own power and privilege, will of course argue that this would “promote disunity.” Precisely so. In a pre-modern society, disunity is the goal. No consensus exists on the form that unity should take. That is the whole point. Until civil society has achieved consensus, confederacy is wiser than centralization. Moreover, the artificial imposition of unity from the outside will almost always go wrong: from Polk’s misunderstandings of Mexican politics through the Vietnam War escapade to the abysmal ignorance of the neo-cons about the complexities of global Islam, history has shown that Washington does not have the eyesight to perceive the George Washingtons or Abraham Lincolns of traditional societies.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The West & Political Islam

Americans need to take the blinders off and look squarely at the political world we are creating before we lock ourselves into a future that we may find extremely distasteful. Fortunately, we have a surprisingly wide array of choices.

The neo-con mythology about political Islam depicts a homogeneous mass of crazy, violence-prone, evil aggressors motivated by religion and willing to use any method to achieve their goals. In truth, political Islam is a highly differentiated, disunified social universe motivated by as wide a range of goals as Americans and overwhelmingly non-violent.

There are several curious aspects of this neo-con mythology. Not the least interesting is the degree to which the neo-con portrayal of Islam reflects the reality about the neo-cons themselves. The utility of the neo-con myth for various neo-con projects—above all, the transformation of the U.S. into a global empire in control of the world’s oil and the transformation of Israel into a regional mini-empire—also merits reflection. But perhaps the most curious—and most tragic--aspect of the neo-con myth about political Islam is the degree to which it is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Regardless of the true condition of the Islamic political world, to the degree that the world’s only remaining superpower portrays it as a monolithic, frightening, evil, and implacably hostile entity and treats it accordingly, then political Islam will evolve into that which it is accused of being. The greater the tendency of Washington to use force to get what it wants from global political Islam, the greater will be the tendency of Muslims to respond with force. The greater the tendency of Washington to view all activist, independent-minded Muslims as enemies, the greater will be the tendency of this highly factionalized array of political actors to unite against the common enemy. The greater the degree to which Washington views Muslim activists as evil, the greater will be the tendency of Muslim activists to conclude that they have no hope of finding an acceptable compromise with Washington.

The Muslim-Western contest has existed for far too long for a “chicken vs. egg” debate to have any value. Whether one dates it from the Arab attack on Spain, from the Crusades, from the neo-colonial era of imperialism, or from 9/11, the Muslim-Western contest waxes and wanes as each succeeding generation learns its own lessons. If the future of the world and the security of ourselves and our countries constitute our areas of primary concern, what matters is not so much the presumed nature of any specific person or group as the attitudes of broad social sectors. A man may decide to change the world but find that being a political leader is more like being a train driver, who can change the speed but must stick to the track, than being an explorer who can wander wherever he wishes.

The constant flow of the new generation into society offers endless opportunities for changing the course of events. A new Western generation may grow up imagining that war of civilizations is normal. A new Muslim generation may grow up without the frustrations that persuaded their mothers and fathers to view terrorist gangs as their only hope for justice. Support for and rates of recruitment into this or that political movement consequently change, leaving political leaders wondering why they can no longer accomplish what they were accustomed to accomplishing in the past. Physics may concern immutable laws of nature; politics concerns the possible.

In a political world of ever-evolving possibilities, yesterday’s assumptions will be today’s blinders. The neo-con myth about political Islam, born from a combination of rage over 9/11 and short-sighted desire to exploit 9/11 to fulfill private agendas, has, a decade later, become a set of blinders Americans can no longer afford to wear. We need to take the blinders off and look squarely at the political world we are creating before we lock ourselves into a future that we may find extremely distasteful.

Whatever your political views, you owe it to yourself to consider two questions:

  1. What sort of world are we creating?
  2. What can we do about it?

The Islamic world was on a role from the 7th to the 15th centuries, whether viewed militarily, culturally, politically, scientifically, or morally. Illustrating only the last point, a comparison of religious freedom in 13th century Muslim Spain with 13th century France or England or Germany would show Muslims centuries ahead of their Western neighbors. But since the 15th century, roles have reversed. That long twilight of Muslim activism, that ceding of Muslim initiative now seems to be reversing.

Today, the Muslim world is in ferment. Popular interest in politics is intense, even as Westerners are becoming dangerously jaded about their governments.

The West, with its military superiority, has the option of resisting tooth and nail, risking everything to retain its top-dog status. The West also has the option of looking for a mutually beneficial and historically innovating restructuring of our political world that would leave the West secure while accommodating Muslim aspirations. We in the West today face few challenges more urgent than the challenge of figuring out which goal is best and how to bring it to fruition.


Afghan Details

Yemeni Details

Iranian Details

Israeli-Palestinian Details


A look at the details of the political landscape in various Muslim societies and the nature of U.S. behavior will reveal that the U.S. faces a surprisingly rich array of opportunities.

Friday, January 8, 2010

What game is Washington playing in Yemen? Is it making clear distinctions between short-term enticements and long term security?

Grading Washington's Yemen Policy.

I recently posed the following question about Washington's reaction to the Yemeni situation:

Should one be impressed that a global empire can turn on a dime and alter global policy in response to a single “underpants bomber” or should one view such a reaction as ludicrously amateurish?

Failing - Missing Big Economic Picture.
Here is an economic argument about the just opened Dauletabad-Sarakhs-Khangiran pipeline making Iran and Turkmenistan partners in the global gas business that Washington is missing the big picture in its obsession with chasing terrorist gangs:

We are witnessing a new pattern of energy cooperation at the regional level that dispenses with Big Oil. Russia traditionally takes the lead. China and Iran follow the example. Russia, Iran and Turkmenistan hold respectively the world's largest, second-largest and fourth-largest gas reserves. And China will be consumer par excellence in this century. The matter is of profound consequence to the US global strategy.
Undoubtedly, Washington is trying to play both games simultaneously, always attacking Muslim "terrorists" in places that either have petroleum or sit on potential petroleum shipping routes. But is America's global domination being undermined by Washington's (take your choice) 1) obsession with Muslim extremist groups that oppose U.S. hegemony or 2) exploitation of the "war on terror" to facilitate its preference for using force to retain global leadership?

Passing - Seizing the Geo-Strategic Initiative.
In contrast, here is a geo-strategic argument viewing U.S. intervention in Yemen as a move to ensure continued U.S. domination over the Indian Ocean (with an eye on both Iran and China):

history has no instances of a declining world power meekly accepting its destiny and walking into the sunset. The US cannot give up on its global dominance without putting up a real fight. And the reality of all such momentous struggles is that they cannot be fought piece-meal. You cannot fight China without occupying Yemen.

Both arguments have merit. Washington's incessant war-making while Russia, China, Iran, and friends from Turkey to Turkmenistan quietly sign petroleum contracts looks more than a bit irrational and self-defeating. On the other hand, Yemen would certainly be a grand spot to occupy for a good old nineteenth century empire.

Saleh's past support for Saddam and current repression of dissent suggest he might be more than happy to allow Washington to transform him into a new Saddam to rule Yemen on American behalf. But recall that in the end Washington became disenchanted with Saddam and launched a war against him in 1991 that continues today, in the process doing much to stimulate bin Laden's career. Even assuming that Washington could create a Yemeni regime in the style of the cosy Saddam-Reagan relationship of, say, 1985, would this really offer Washington a solid foundation for designing a secure future?

The question is whether the U.S. should be trying to ensure its national security in the 21st century with a bet that in the end nothing has changed in the last 200 years. Might the better part of valor instead lie along the lines of asserting leadership of a new world based on recognition of Muslim demands for a new deal and the renunciation of a foreign policy grounded in the use of force just because force is what Washington possesses in excess?

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Questions About Yemen

As the Empire mobilizes its irresistable forces in outraged response to the latest pinpricks of a single fairly incompetent group of Muslim extremists, it is hard to keep the scene in perspective. The Empire looks impressive, with its endless array of weapons and dollars. Exactly how is one to assess the balance of forces?

  • Should one be impressed that a global empire can turn on a dime and alter global policy in response to a single “underpants bomber” or should one view such a reaction as ludicrously amateurish?
  • Is what appears to be the focusing onto little Yemen of something in the neighborhood of $100 million in response to the tiny Yemeni extremist challenge a move to strengthen the empire’s foundations and extend its reach or an appalling waste that cedes the initiative to the opponent at a ratio of dollars to pennies invested that even a global force cannot afford for long?

A decade of lurching from one battlefield to another has enabled the Empire to win many fights, construct an enormous array of new military bases, and make deals with all sorts of new folks. However, it is not clear that the string of day-to-day military victories adds up to anything beyond the ability to fight again on the morrow. It is not clear that any actual enemy can be defeated by using all the new military bases. And then there are those new folks Washington is dealing with.

About the only thing that is actually clear in a decade-long battle is that despite all the power and expenditure and “victories,” Washington is not yet winning. The conflict just keeps moving around, with the new battlefields appearing more complicated than the old and the old all remaining open sores very much subject to future re-infection.

Consider, since Yemen is fashionable this week, the case of Yemen.

It is now being said in the media that Washington is working in Yemen with some of Saddam’s expatriate intelligence guys. The U.S. has been fighting against these guys since 1991, i.e., most of their careers. Might they just possibly have some personal issues with a sudden joint project? It’s worse than that. For the last six or seven years, events have been pushing these anti-fundamentalist secularists into the arms of al Qua’ida, as each force searched for allies against American occupation of Iraq. Might some lasting friendships have been formed?

Then there’s Washington’s other new ally, the Yemeni regime. Former Saddam ally and currently trying to beat into submission a whole range of domestic political opponents who for some reason feel they have the right to participate in the political process, the current regime also has a record of readiness to work with local Muslim extremists that rivals that of Pakistani intelligence.

So the question arises, “Does Washington’s new effort to combat extremism in Yemen by working with such folks strengthen the U.S. or just expose it to further future disasters?

Of course, I do not know the answer to any of these questions. I doubt that anyone does. The real question is, “Is anyone even asking these questions?”

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The al Qua'ida Trap

Patrick Cockburn of the Independent on al Qua'ida trap:

the real strength of al-Qaeda is that a quite small incident, that a botched attempt by a Nigerian student briefly in Yemen to blow up a plane, can then precipitate a whole change in international relations and US—greater US support for the Yemeni government, a greater involvement in a really difficult country. This seems to me walking straight into a sort of al-Qaeda trap. You know, at the time of 9/11, al-Qaeda quite openly—leaders quite openly said that their hope was to entrap the US into ground wars in Muslim countries. And that seems to be exactly what’s happening.
Cockburn is referring to exactly the mistake that is discussed in yesterday's post on Yemeni Radicalization Dynamics.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Yemeni Radicalization Dynamics

Is Washington about to fall once again into bin Laden's trap and dig itself yet another hole in the Mideastern sands?

The biggest political story of the post-9/11 era may be the degree to which Washington’s response to the radical Islamic challenge misread the nature of that challenge, thereby empowering the most extreme Islamic elements and undermining U.S. national security. The decade of failure resulting from Washington hubris and provincialism seem, judging from the new panic over Yemen, to have taught Washington little about the process of Muslim radicalization. A few points about how that story seems to be playing out in Yemen follow. For those who have thought about the course of the Western-Islamic confrontation, it will sound all too familiar. nothing about the true dynamics underlying the

To make a very complex and poorly understood story as concise as possible, the worsening situation in Yemen seems characterized by at least the following list of underlying dynamics:

  1. Harsh U.S. military tactics inflame hostility;
  2. U.S. or proxy military campaigns in one country exacerbate violence later in another country;
  3. U.S. or proxy military campaigns in one country cause refugee flows that destabilize the society of other countries;
  4. Quick to judgment, Washington supports the very repressive regimes that were the source of the problem;
  5. Addressing the symptom of militant protest rather than the cause of popular dissatisfaction, Washington undermines its own interests;
  6. Using its military hammer to address the radicals’ talking points;
  7. Trusting local leaders who speak English and sport official titles, Washington fails to perceive the interests they share with local militants;
  8. Viewing the world through U.S. eyes, Washington fails to appreciate local regime priorities.

Again, the point here is not to claim to have “discovered” something new but to point out that, with Yemen, Washington seems in the process of making all the same mistakes that have undermined U.S. policy for a decade all over again.

Building on the abstract discussion of Muslim radicalization presented earlier, below are a few details about the Yemeni case.

War Crime Chickens Come Home to Roost. Following military attacks in December, which the Yemeni press is condemning as “massacres,” “dozens of Qaeda family members and local residents were killed, increasing anti-government sentiment.”

Military Campaigns Spread Chaos. Yemenis who fought in Iraq after the US invasion are now back in Yemen supporting radicalism there, duplicating a similar flow out of Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal. Militant leaders in Pakistan have also reportedly begun transferring to Yemen. Poor as Yemen may be, the Yemeni population is flush with small arms, and militants reportedly are even sending arms to Somali Al Shabaab insurgents even as Al Shabaab reportedly plans to send fighters to Yemen. Chaos in Somalia has provoked refugee flow into Yemen, offering Yemeni radicals further opportunities for recruitment.

Supporting Repression. With people angry at misgovernment and radicals quick to exploit it, supporting a corrupt and repressive regime plays right into radical hands; in Yemen, the current regime has become increasingly repressive in a quest for permanent power and “is to a great extent the problem, not the solution.”

Symptoms, not Causes. With poverty, civil war that has left 100,000 homeless, and a growing water shortage far more characteristic of Yemen than some American nightmare of jihadi armies, the US provides military aiddetermined and concerted effort” to finance a counterterrorism unit in Yemen and ominously responded to a question about sending U.S. troops as off the table “at this point.” Britain, however, has already sent a counterterrorism unit to Yemen, while the U.S. is sending special forces, so Brennan’s remark about U.S. troops was invalidated before he even made it. and bombardment. U.S. Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Adviser John Brennan has admitted to the press that Washington plans “a

Failing to Address the Radical Critique of the West. In “44 Ways to Support Jihad,” Yemeni-American imam Anwar al Aklaki made several points that Washington, by its behavior over the last decade, has only made more persuasive. He characterized the contemporary period as a period “when Muslim lands are occupied by the kuffar, when the jails of tyrants are full of Muslim POWs, when the rule of the law of Allah is absent from this world and when Islam is being attacked in order to uproot it.” Al Aklaki also pointedly addressed Western media bias, noting:

The danger of the Western media stems from the fact that it puts on the cloak of truth and objectivity when in reality it is no more than the mouthpiece of the devil. Can’t you see that the Western media is constantly trying to underplay the atrocities committed by the West…

Trusting Local Leaders. Washington has a tendency to trust distant politicians just because they happen to be able to say the right things in English and because they are in power. “It is a threat to US security to under-estimate the level of enmeshment between the Yemeni state and al Queda.” Underscoring Obama’s letter of support for Yemen a few months ago, the high-level January 2 meeting between U.S. Central Command chief David Petraeus and President Saleh suggests that Washington is moving rapidly to make a highly questionable commitment to Saleh.

Misunderstanding Regime Priorities. Washington not only ignores popular priorities (e.g., water, employment, good governance), but it overlooks regime priorities. The Saleh regime seems far more concerned about retaining power and, in particular, about winning a civil war against an ethnic minority called the Houthis (a fight in which the U.S. has no dog) than with the global contest between radical Islam and the West. The Houthi rebellion against regime repression and Saudi interference seems “more a reaction to a dysfunctional governmentdraw Iran into a conflict that so far seems provoked more by Saudi Arabia itself than by Iran, Saudi claims to the contrary notwithstanding. Indeed, Iranian media have recently emphasized the extent of Saudi aggressiveness. than an inspired, centralized, ideological movement,” but the type of heavy-handed Saudi and U.S. military attacks that have recently killed numerous civilians could certainly transform it into an anti-Western movement. Saudi aggression may also

These dynamics interact in complex ways that should be carefully studied before any decision to intervene is even considered. It is hard to imagine an al Qua’ida recruiting technique that could be more effective than having the U.S. attack villagers from the air. Supporting a corrupt and repressive regime while ignoring the demands of Yemeni reformers needlessly makes the link between opposing the West and improving the lives of the Yemeni people. Moreover, whatever Washington does is viewed with suspicion because of the history of U.S.
intervention in the region on false pretexts.

In essence, two conflict are occurring. One is a domestic struggle between a regime desiring power and people desiring better governance. The secon d is a global struggle between jihadis and the West. For the West to win, it must prevent the two struggles from becoming mixed. For violent jihadis to win, they must convince the populace that the struggle for liberty and justice means combating the West. To the degree that the West can use judicial means to combat jihadis while either remaining aloof from the domestic struggle for liberty or—better—in some way becoming identified as a supporter, it gains. To the degree that the West becomes associated in popular perceptions with a repressive regime, the jihadis become the symbol of liberty, and they gain. To a great extent, the story of the post-9/11 world is the story of Washington’s failure to maintain the distinction between these two struggles.

One pitfall for the U.S. is for the reform movement and general population to perceive the U.S. as their enemy. The U.S. will almost inevitably fall into this pit if it attempts a military solution to the problem of eliminating terrorism because military means, especially those employed by the U.S., are unsuited to attacking militants hidden in a civilian population. The true believers will gladly sacrifice the lives of innocent civilians in order to win the war against the U.S. Emphasizing judicial methods not only reaffirms American principles but protects U.S. interests by minimizing the number of enemies it will make.

Another pitfall for the U.S. is allowing a regime the U.S. is cooperating with against jihadis to exploit that cooperation in its domestic struggle to defeat reformers and retain control. If the regime succeeds in doing so by playing on U.S. confusion between jihadis claiming the patriotic mantle and genuine reformers, the jihadis may seize control of the opposition movement.

Washington is undercutting American interests both by relying on counter-productive military measures and by failing to respond to Yemeni needs. Doing nothing might be dangerous, but it would quite possibly be significantly more effective than the policy that appears to be emerging in Washington.