Friday, March 20, 2015

Note to readers

Posting will be light or absent here for the rest of this month and into the beginning of April.  (And I probably should stop ranting at CT, since I actually have things to do.)

Tuesday, March 17, 2015


The notion that there is one broad path to modernity, that 'developing' countries will come to resemble 'advanced' ones in key respects, is an old idea, and it's part of the semi-conscious mental equipment that a lot of educated Westerners (as well as some non-Westerners, often with Western educations) carry around with them.  It sometimes gets expressed in passing, in contexts where it's not especially crucial to an argument and might therefore not attract much notice.  The example I currently have in mind comes from a recent article about Tocqueville in the American Political Science Review, the author of which, at the end of the article's introduction, writes that:
...[A]s places that once lay outside the scope of Tocqueville's thought come increasingly to resemble the West, his analysis of the moral psychology of modern democracy only becomes more broadly relevant.  As they modernize, developing nations will see more of themselves, for better or for worse, or for both, in Tocqueville's portrait.
These sentences appeared in an article published in November 2014, but they could as easily have been written a half-century earlier.

Alongside this narrative of Westernization, another narrative is also part of the semi-conscious assumptions of many educated Westerners; one might call this one the clash-of-civilizations, or more colloquially, the they-hate-us narrative.  One recalls the sometimes plaintive, sometimes bewildered "why do 'they' hate 'us'?" question voiced after 9/11.  In this narrative, modernization-as-Westernization produces a severe reaction, portrayed most obviously (though not only) as religiosity vs. secularism.

Both these narratives are quarter-truths (a notch down from half-truths) at best, but their presence in the discursive air suggests that quarter-truths can be durable.

Added later: Not posting on the Israeli elections because one can find plenty of discussion of that elsewhere.  This blog does not have the capacity or (always) the inclination to chase the headlines.  (If you want that, go to LGM.)         

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The 1965 Vietnam decisions fifty years on

As has been extensively reported, this month marks the fiftieth anniversary of the famous civil-rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.  It also marks the fiftieth anniversary of the introduction of U.S. ground forces in a combat role in Vietnam.  The immediate justification for the move was the need to protect the U.S. air base at Danang from possible Vietcong attack in response to Rolling Thunder, the bombing campaign that the Johnson administration launched in February 1965.  As one historian writes:
The expanded air war...provided the pretext for the introduction of the first U.S. ground forces into Vietnam.  Anticipating Vietcong attacks against U.S. airbases in retaliation for Rolling Thunder, General Westmoreland in late February urgently requested two Marine landing teams to protect the air base at Danang.... [O]n March 8 [1965], two battalions of Marines..., with tanks and eight-inch howitzers, splashed ashore near Danang where they were welcomed by South Vietnamese officials and by pretty Vietnamese girls passing out leis of flowers. (George C. Herring, America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975, 2d ed. (1986), pp.130-131)
Several months later, in July, Johnson decided to commit ground forces on a large scale (50,000 immediately, followed by another 50,000 before the end of the year).  Johnson did this without going to Congress for authorization; attorney general Nicholas Katzenbach assured Johnson that bypassing Congress was within his prerogatives (Herring, America's Longest War, p.140, citing Katzenbach to Johnson, June 10, 1965, Johnson Papers, National Security File, Country File: Vietnam, Box 17).     

One of the reasons Johnson decided to take this approach was that "he feared that going to Congress for authority to wage war in Vietnam would destroy his dream of creating the Great Society at home" (Herring, p.140).  He also declined to mobilize the reserves, call up the National Guard, seek a tax increase or do much of anything else to indicate the country was preparing to wage a war (ibid.).  While this might have avoided political problems in the short term, in the long run it helped paved the way for disillusion with the U.S. war in Vietnam, especially as it became clear that the conflict was not going to be short.

The leading explanation in the literature for the Vietnam escalation decisions of 1965 used to be, and perhaps still is, that the general commitment to containment of Communism and the specific commitment to not let a Communist regime take power in Vietnam dictated the decisions.  However, there were different escalation options on the table and containment doesn't explain why particular ones were chosen and others were rejected.  As Y. F. Khong argued in Analogies at War (1992), the Korean War experience and the fear of provoking Chinese intervention weighed heavily on LBJ, inclining him to choose "graduated" escalation options.  One consequence of that choice was to make it very likely that the U.S. would not be able to prevail against an adversary willing to pay almost unlimited costs.  As early as June 1964, North Vietnamese premier Pham Van Dong had told Canadian diplomat J. Blair Seaborn that "the NLF [Viet Cong] and its supporters were prepared to endure regardless of the cost" (Herring, p.119).  That remark proved to be accurate.


Note: Vietnam War is a new index label; previous posts here about the Vietnam War can be found under the label Vietnam in the topics index.


Added later: Re anniversaries, March 9 was the 70th anniversary of the U.S. firebombing of Tokyo; see here. (I may have something more to say about the linked piece later.)


(Post edited slightly after initial posting.)

Thursday, March 12, 2015

CCP to Dalai Lama: you will return

Via: an NYT piece about the latest clash between Chinese officialdom and the Dalai Lama:
Tensions over what will happen when the 14th Dalai Lama, who is 79, dies, and particularly over who decides who will succeed him as the most prominent leader in Tibetan Buddhism, have ignited at the annual gathering of China’s legislators in Beijing. Officials have amplified their argument that the Communist government is the proper guardian of the Dalai Lama’s succession through an intricate process of reincarnation that has involved lamas, or senior monks, visiting a sacred lake and divining dreams. Party functionaries were incensed by the exiled Dalai Lama’s recent speculation that he might end his spiritual lineage and not reincarnate. That would confound the Chinese government’s plans to engineer a succession that would produce a putative 15th Dalai Lama who accepts China’s presence and policies in Tibet.
Someone in Dharamsala must be having a quiet chuckle about this, wouldn't you think?

Monday, March 9, 2015

ISIS and the Reformation

T. Greer at The Scholar's Stage has a characteristically long post about ISIS, taking off from the much-discussed Graeme Wood article in The Atlantic (that I haven't read).  On a quick read, I agree with some of what T. Greer says, but I am leery of his endorsement of the analogy between the current struggles within Islam and the Reformation.  (D. Nexon, I believe, is also opposed to the analogy, and he knows more about the Reformation than I do.  I can't say I recall the *precise* grounds on which Nexon opposes the analogy, without refreshing my memory by looking at the relevant passages in his book or other writings, which I'm not going to do right now.) 

Speaking for myself, I'm uncomfortable about an analogy between the religious struggles within Christianity (Christendom? whatever) of the 16th and 17th centuries and the struggles within Islam today. For one thing, the Protestant reformers were not trying to recapture an historical golden age by recreating a territorial entity under their control -- i.e., no analogy to the restoration of the Caliphate.  That is just one difference.  I'm sure there are others. 

ETA: Such as differences in the content of the ideologies and the methods.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The U.S. and the Middle East (Coda)

Note: This post by Peter T. follows on his earlier posts: here and here
The Middle East is often said to be a volatile, complex region, and therefore difficult for U.S. policy to deal with.  I'm sceptical of this claim.  Take SE Asia: it has at least as many states, ethnic minorities, rebellions, disputed borders, historical animosities, religious cleavages and revolutionary movements as the Middle East.  It also has oil and a great many other natural resources, a key strategic position, and is a continuing arena for great-power rivalry.  The U.S. has a long history of covert and overt intervention in the region.  Yet today the U.S. can be said to have reasonable relations with pretty much all the states in SE Asia.  Pew Surveys find that over 60 or 70% of people in Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam have a positive view of the U.S.  This compares with 22% in the Middle East.

The main lines of U.S. policy in SE Asia are straightforward.  It has remained allied with Thailand and the Philippines despite, in both cases, erratic domestic politics.  The U.S. was not so committed to military regimes in Thailand as to be unable to get on with democratic ones, or vice versa.  Likewise, it could deal with both Marcos and Aquino in the Philippines.  There have been ups and downs with Myanmar and Indonesia (and in both, some CIA meddling), but no outright conflict.  Vietnam was, of course, caught up in the U.S. obsession with anti-communism, and it took the U.S. some time to get over defeat in 1975: a grudge the U.S. carried until 1991. Since then, U.S. relations with Vietnam and Cambodia have been pretty normal, in the sense that differences have been resolved or carried on without recourse to covert ops, sanctions or menacing talk.

If SE Asia were the Middle East, the U.S. would be bombing upper Thailand in support of a government in Bangkok allied to a regime in Vietnam under severe U.S. sanctions, while maintaining close ties to a militant Buddhist government in Myanmar funding terrorist groups in Bali, Laos and Bangladesh...or some such.

To be clear, I'm not claiming that the U.S. has not made some bad policy mistakes in SE Asia.  It misread the decolonisation movement in the late '40s and '50s, committed major forces to a strategically hopeless position in South Vietnam, and behaved atrociously in Cambodia both before and after 1975.  Yet it has been able to recover from these and, for the last two decades, managed to avoid major problems.  This is in strong contrast to the Middle East.  What explains the difference?

-- Peter T.

Note added by LFC: With respect to CIA meddling, I think the 1965 mass slaughter of Indonesian Communists by the government is one episode that stands out. (See e.g. here.)

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Thoughts on nuclear weapons and the Middle East

Update (3/11): This FP column by Graham Allison is to the point.


The U.S. and the USSR had a few close calls during the Cold War, moments when the possibility of a nuclear exchange came too close for comfort.  India and Pakistan had an apparently close call during the Kargil crisis in 1999.  The existence of these close calls means that nuclear deterrence is not an airtight guarantee against a nuclear exchange.  Nor is 'the nuclear taboo' an absolute guarantee, since an exchange between two nuclear-armed countries might conceivably occur essentially unintentionally, i.e. by accident.

However, while nuclear deterrence did not provide an absolute guarantee during the Cold War and while there were a few close calls, on the whole it worked remarkably well, at least in the narrow, relevant sense of "worked".  The Cold War never turned into a hot war between the superpowers, who wreaked havoc on the Third World via proxy wars and caused an enormous amount of human misery and death, but managed to avoid the sort of cataclysmic exchange that, in the worst-case scenario, would have meant the end of anything resembling 'civilized' life on the planet.  In other words, the "delicate balance of terror" between the superpowers (to borrow the title of a famous article by Albert Wohlstetter from the late 1950s) turned out to be quite sturdy (safety as "the sturdy child of terror," as Churchill put it, in something of a metaphorical mash-up).

These rather unoriginal reflections may serve as a prelude to the thought that, if Iran should one day acquire a nuclear weapon or the capacity to obtain one in a short time frame, the consequence would not be an existential threat to Israel, contrary to Netanyahu's assertions (n.b. I haven't yet read the full transcript of his speech to Congress).  Israel of course has its own (officially unacknowledged) nuclear arsenal, and there is every reason to suppose that nuclear deterrence would operate between Iran and Israel as it operates between India and Pakistan, and as it operated between the U.S. and the USSR during the Cold War.  That doesn't mean no possibility whatsoever that an exchange could occur, but it suggests it would be highly unlikely.  The Iranian leadership would have to be insane to launch a deliberate nuclear strike on a nuclear-armed state with a powerful conventional military, one closely allied to the most militarily powerful country in the world, and I'm aware of no evidence to suggest that Iran's leadership is insane.  (Though doubtless there are people who would rush to furnish some were they to read this post, which they probably won't.)

The 'threat' from an Iranian bomb, insofar as there would be one, would come, or so it seems to me, in the form of an increased boldness on Iran's part to throw its weight around in the region, engage in coercive diplomacy vis-a-vis, e.g., Saudi Arabia or Turkey, and generally become more of a nuisance in the eyes of its adversaries.  That's not nothing, of course, but it is not the existential threat to Israel that some people claim would be the result of an Iranian nuclear-weapons capacity.

The latest news from the talks is that Iran has rejected the proposal (or 'demand', whichever it was) for a 10-year freeze on certain nuclear activities.  However, the talks will and should continue.  Netanyahu's prescription of increased sanctions and an end to the negotiations does not seem like a prescription for anything other than disaster in the long run.  As Peter T. pointed out in his guest posts recently published on this blog (see here and here), Iran is, by virtue of its size, location, capabilities, and level of development, not the sort of country that can be sanctioned into submission -- not, at least, without setting the stage for precisely the kind of potentially explosive or catastrophic consequences that everyone should be eager to avoid.

A final note about how we think about security claims, which I'm tacking on because I just read Jarrod Hayes's post at Duck of Minerva.  Jarrod points out that a speaker's authority to make security claims may be undermined if the claims come to be seen by the target audience as 'political' (though all security claims are political).  Although I agree with this, I think Netanyahu's speech is an instance where one should focus on the objective merits of his claims as much as on their 'authority'.  Jarrod writes: "Even though the construction of security is intersubjective, it is spoken about in objective terms. Where the objectivity of the claim rubs thin, as in Netanyahu’s case, his ability to speak security is undermined."  

But the objectivity of Netanyahu's claim rubs thin not simply because it may be perceived as 'political' but because it lacks 'objective' merit.  The fact that the construction of security is intersubjective does not mean that there is not a world 'out there' about which one can make better or worse, more plausible or less plausible, claims.  The claim that an Iranian nuclear capacity poses an existential threat to Israel is unconvincing, for reasons suggested above.  It is unconvincing because it clashes with what history, logic, and evidence suggest about how the real world works.  Contrary to Patrick Jackson's view that the world does not exist independently of the mind (mind-world monism), I believe there is a 'real world', that it exists independently of our minds, and that claims about how the world works can be judged as more or less convincing on the basis of evidence.  That does not mean I am a neo-positivist (and actually since I have no research agenda and essentially no standing in the IR 'profession', it doesn't really matter what my meta-theoretical leanings are); what it does mean is that in this case we should not lose sight of whether Netanyahu's claims, irrespective of his authority to make them, accord with what we know about the real world. 

Monday, March 2, 2015

The U.S. in the Middle East (Part 2)

Note: This is the second part of a guest post by Peter T.  For the first part, see here.


The IR literature is not very good on how to recognise and deal with country-size pools of irrationality.  This is not one deluded leader and associated sycophants being irrational, which is very common indeed and extensively explored, but a whole establishment going around with eyes wide shut.  A good historical example is Wilhelmine Germany, whose diplomatic and military calculations were routinely made on the strategic equivalent of assuming, when convenient, that gravity does not exist.  In our time, we have a large number of influential people having difficulty with a straightforward piece of high-school science (admitting that checking the conclusions involves some not-so-high school statistics. But, come on, these people read the Financial Times), while other influential people argue that, yes, the science is right, but can we afford to do anything?  Meanwhile the plants have moved 100 kilometers or so poleward.  At the collective level, these people are literally dumber than carrots.

Why is this so hard?  One factor is that policy arguments more or less assume ab initio that things are, in fact, explainable in rational terms.  “Everyone is mad” is not a helpful starting point.  Another is that the policy mind exists to solve problems; it hiccups when it comes up against “This cannot be done”.  These situations are labelled “wicked problems,” but it's mostly not the problem itself that's wicked, it's that the solutions lie outside the accepted boundaries, and that changing the boundaries is not on the policy menu.  Very Serious People (VSPs) often wear quite narrow blinkers.

Really bad ideas get put off limits, after repeated experiences.  The lessons become standard phrases: Do Not March on Moscow; Never Get Involved in a Land War in Asia. Do Not Put Boots on the Ground in the Middle East is not quite there yet.  We Have Only One Planet will be up there in a few decades.

So what lessons might one draw from a long series of rational decisions that still ended up in a total mess?  The first is about the limits of realpolitik.  The presumption that everyone acts in their own interest, and that therefore all promises or commitments come with fingers crossed, is both old and very common.  While it does not preclude playing for very high stakes indeed (Saddam Hussein knew that his lieutenants' professions of loyalty were not to be relied on, just as they knew that his professions of friendship and protection were similarly hollow. So they plotted his overthrow, and he executed one from time to time), it does rely on a general acceptance that this is actually the rule of the game.  The Austrian Foreign Minister who remarked of Russian help in a critical moment that “we will amaze the world with the depths of our ingratitude” could be sure of  getting an appreciative chuckle from his fellows, even in St. Petersburg.  People lower down the social scale are less likely to be amused.  Repeated bad experiences with a foreign power’s policy choices will get a lot of people thinking very hard about how to get out of the game: to lessen or annul their dependence on the foreigners (usually this involves a messy change of leadership. In which case the realpolitik practitioners lose all leverage.  If they are indifferent to your viewpoint, why talk to them at all?  See China 1949, Iran 1979, possibly Greece 2015?). When a state takes this route, it will come back into the game with a much stronger sense of its own interests and a good few red lines that are simply not negotiable.

Again, this comes back to the blinkers worn with pride by all the VSPs. A true realpolitik would think carefully about where other people were coming from; their national pride, their obsessions, their emotional commitments.  It would try to gauge local and mass feelings as well as the preferences of the elites.  It would ask “can we do this?” before it asked “how do we do this?”. What passes for realpolitik all too often counts tanks but not the will to drive them, money but not on what it is spent.

A related point is that pursuing a primary goal at the expense of other, secondary, goals is often counterproductive. This is more than finding the balance between the long and the short term.  Number One on the little lists of the Rules of War found in the business section of the bookshop (“Leadership Secrets of [insert psycho war-monger of your choice]”) is usually “Keep your eyes firmly on the main game”. Unfortunately, Number Two is “Keep checking that what you think is the Main Game is, in fact, the Main Game”.  For your adversaries and partners may not be playing your game.  Rule Two is often sadly neglected.

The U.S. thought the point of the Vietnam War was to defeat the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese militarily.  The VC and North Vietnamese thought the point was retaining enough allegiance among the Southern population to prevent the construction of a broad-based South Vietnamese state.  In Afghanistan, the U.S. thought the main game was to bleed the Soviet Union (tellingly, one policy-maker wrote of the “ennui” of the international community towards Afghanistan in the ‘90s, as if Afghanistan were a toy one had become bored with).  It gave no thought to the maintenance of an Afghan state, or the spread of radical Islam.  If the First Gulf War was about oil, then the U.S. gave little thought to what the debilitation of Saddam's regime might offer to the various ethnic and religious groups of Iraq, or to Iran, or to wider Arab opinion. Whatever the Second Gulf War was about, there is little evidence that U.S. policy-makers gave much thought to anything other than the Vice-Presidential desire to get Saddam.

What is evident is that it cannot be presumed that policy-makers will pay attention to basic facts about the world unless really compelled to (and maybe not even then).  It is often not so much that they are ignorant or ill-informed as often simply indifferent.  Facts are there to support the policy, not to form it.  When the facts involve foreigners, who can be presumed to be mysterious and irrational, they are of even less account.  People who understand every nuance of domestic political culture blithely dismiss history when it comes to the Middle East.

The facts ignored are not esoteric: many of them are available in plain view on the helpful one-page overviews in the CIA World Factbook. Iraq: Kurdish 15-20%, Shi'ite Islam 60-65%.  Hmm.  If the CIA tells me this, maybe it's important.  Perhaps I can type “Shia” into the search engine?  Oh, look, Wikipedia tells me that Iran is Shia, that these guys take this really seriously, that the Saudis massacred lots of Shia back then, that the Iranian and Iraqi clerical leadership are very close and so on.  And a further five minutes tells me that the Kurds are not happy with rule from Baghdad.  So the Shia will help conditional on getting to govern, the Kurds will help conditional on autonomy, and the Sunni will fight.  Maybe I had better think about what that word “conditional” implies, eh? A quick look at the page for Afghanistan tells me it's a melange of different groups held together by bribes and occasional shows of brute force. In others words, about as resistant to an influx of arms and foreign fanatics as a kid's cubby-house to a bomb.  Current headline: $400 million of U.S. arms falls into Yemeni Shia rebel hands.  Who could have known?

Alfred North Whitehead remarked that “it takes a very unusual mind to undertake the analysis of the obvious.”  It is the obvious -- that Moscow is a long way east, that China is too large and populous to subdue permanently, that religion is at the centre of political identity to most Middle Easterners -- that eludes the usual minds.

-- Peter T.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Do we have readers in Foggy Bottom?

Front page of today's Wall St Journal (to which I don't subscribe but which I happened to pick up in hard copy):
The U.S. and Iran are exploring a nuclear deal that would keep Tehran from amassing enough material to make a bomb for at least a decade, but could then allow it to gradually build up its capabilities again. Such a deal would represent a significant compromise by the U.S.... (Laurence Norman, "U.S., Iran Discuss 10-Year Nuclear Freeze")
I had no idea they were reading Howl at Pluto at the State Dept.          

Monday, February 23, 2015

Peter T. on the U.S. in the Middle East (Part 1)

Note: This is the first part of a two-part guest post by Peter T.  He is a retired civil servant who worked in Australian national intelligence for 12 years, then in law enforcement intelligence and related fields.  He traveled in Asia in the 1970s and taught in Iran in 1978.  He has degrees in history and International Relations (Sydney University and University of Kent).


That U.S. policy in the Middle East is a mess is very nearly a truism.  For instance, a first quick look at my local library turned up a book by an American journalist with several decades of experience in the area, Patrick Tyler.  It's a long survey of six decades of the twists and turns of U.S. policy as shaped by the personalities of Presidents and their close associates.  Page 11: “After nearly six decades of escalating American involvement in the Middle East, it remains nearly impossible to discern any overarching approach to the region...What stands out is the absence of if the hallmark of American diplomacy were discontinuity.”  And that's from a sympathiser.

To illustrate briefly: in 1975 the U.S.'s chosen major strategic partners were Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Israel.  Iraq and Syria were in the Soviet orbit, the Afghan central government in the U.S. one, and the Kurds had just been abandoned to Iraqi mercies after a few years of not-so-covert support. Insofar as radical Islam was on the radar, it was not favoured.  A decade later, the U.S. was actively helping Iraq against Iran and the Kurds, and was running a proxy war against the Afghan government in alliance with a radical Islamic movement funded by Saudi Arabia.

A decade after that, in 1995, the U.S. was at odds with both Iran and Iraq, again offering aid to the Kurds, and becoming less comfortable with radical Islam.  By 2005, it was bolstering the Afghan central government against the tribes and radical Islamists, trying to keep an Iranian-aligned Iraqi government and the Kurds on side, but still supporting the Saudi government even as it funded a radical Islam declared to be the U.S.’s prime enemy.  By 2015, the U.S. was in a de facto alliance with Iran against a radical Islamic movement in Iraq and Syria, supporting “moderate Islamists” allied with the radicals against a Syrian government backed by Iran, propping up the Afghan government against the tribal and radical Islamist coalition it had nurtured in the ‘80s, backing the Saudi government against both radical Islam and Iranian-supported Shia populism in the Arabian Peninsula.  The U.S. is now on all sides of all the fights in the region apart, of course, from the Israel-Arab (or Israeli-Palestinian) conflict.  And, even there, it is not obvious that Israel and the U.S. are on the same sides, or which way the leverage runs between Washington and Tel Aviv.

The policy and the arguments are now approaching farce.  The think tank The Washington Institute for Near East Policy has just put out a paper arguing that “pursuing U.S. regional interests must involve targeting not only ISIS but also its Shiite adversaries.”  Presumably the authors will simply assume that some alternative force conformable to U.S. preferences can be conjured into being (new improved Iraqi Army anyone?).  And that targeting both sides in a war will produce something other than anarchy.  Or take the recent announcement that the U.S. and Turkey had agreed on the training of “moderate” Syrian rebels.  They just disagreed on who the rebels will fight, ISIS or Assad.

No Friends, Only Interests?

Iraqi Kurds, Afghan Tajiks, Hazaras, Pushtuns, Iraqi Shi'ites have all been the victims of abrupt changes in U.S. policy; Iranian policy-makers have been treated to talk of reconciliation and then slapped with sanctions; Iraqi Sunnis were first treated to “de-Baathification,” then bribed to cease fire, and are now being bombed.  With experiences like this, it is no wonder that Pew reported that only 30 per cent of Middle Easterners had a positive view of the U.S. in 2014 –  by far the lowest score of any region of the world.

We've all seen those movies where the central character ends up in a nun outfit on top of a skyscraper with an ex-lover, a criminal, a banker, a lunatic, a stuffed bear and a stolen yacht.  The French do them really well.  As you watch the film, each move is explicable (“I was on my way to get some milk for the cat when....and because I love animals...and then the door opened...”), so much so that the end result is not so much a surprise as a culmination.  The foreign policies of Great Powers are not supposed to resemble these movies.

So this is one of those outcomes – like a depression for economics – that offers a teaching moment. There are plenty of reasons offered why the U.S. did and does intervene in the Middle East: oil, Israel, the geopolitics of anti-Communism, the “war on terror”.  There are large books (often written by the policy-makers themselves) explaining why each decision was perfectly rational and the consequences unforeseeable.  It is a journalistic trope that the Middle East is a strange, complicated place where people are irrational, extremist, un-modern....

Really? The Middle East is more complicated than the Balkans, South-East Asia, Latin America? Oil may explain why the U.S. is interested, but hardly explains why, to guarantee supply, it had to impose sanctions on Iran or wreck Iraq, or encourage, abandon, protect, discourage and then promote Kurdish autonomy (see also Northern Alliance, Pashtuns, Shi'ites....).  The same books that proclaim the regrettable irrationality of Middle Easterners often also lay out in detail the (perfectly rational) calculations behind each move – both their own and others'.

What can explain this?  One common phrase, loosely paraphrased from Lord Palmerston, is that “states don't have friends, they have interests.”  Like many such aphorisms, it dissolves on closer scrutiny.  Whose interests?  How are they identified?  How are “interests” reconciled and assigned priorities?  Don't states have an interest in being seen as reliable allies?  What interests have led the U.S. into this position?

Oil as Driver of U.S. Policy?

Oil?  The U.S. interest in ensuring oil flows to the world market was offered as a reason for supporting Iraq against Iran in the ‘80s (though the U.S. also secretly sold weapons to Iran), for U.S. support for Saudi Arabia, and for the heavy U.S. presence in the Gulf.  But it sits oddly with ongoing efforts to limit Iranian exports, particularly after chaos in Iraq, Libya and Syria markedly reduced flows from those countries.  It also sits oddly with the maintenance of sanctions on Saddam and with the strategies adopted in the Second Gulf War.  There does not seem to have been any great focus on protecting oil installations or ensuring continuity of trained personnel.  There were, of course, a few planning papers, but not so much focus on the ground.

One much-cited source is a 2001 study commissioned by, among others, Dick Cheney, which identified Iraq's oil as the key to averting a looming supply crunch.  The report recommended that the U.S. “should conduct an immediate policy review toward Iraq including military, energy, economic and political/diplomatic assessments.  The United States should then develop an integrated strategy with key allies in Europe and Asia, and with key countries in the Middle East, to restate goals with respect to Iraqi policy and to restore a cohesive coalition of key allies."  It should do thiswith the ultimate goal of stemming the tide of anti-Americanism in the Middle-East and eas[ing] Iraqi oil-field investment restrictions.”  This is pretty much a description of what the U.S. did not do.

The Second Gulf War stands out, of course, as the nadir of incompetence and wishful thinking.  Yet it is not obvious that supposedly more professional and realistic administrations have a very much better track record.  The Bush I/Clinton sanctions regime killed nearly as many Iraqis as the second war and its aftermath.  The U.S. officials making Middle Eastern policy have access to all sorts of expertise.  The evidence is that they do not use it.  Further, they mostly can't be bothered to actually engage with even the most basic realities in terms of thinking through what they might mean for strategy.  This is largely a failure of imagination, but it's also due to the fact that, up until quite recently, Middle Eastern peoples mostly lacked the means to assert their own interests.  Various factions and interests in the major powers could use the place as a playground, policy could hop from one foot to the other and it didn't matter.  The locals were powerless.  Policy did not have to be careful, considered, cautious.  The oil would flow even if State made empty promises, the CIA played James Bond, and the Pentagon sold and tested new weapons.  There were few domestic consequences, and no other power cared either.  And if the U.S. stuffed up in one country, there was always another nearby.   The meddling was just another manifestation of Great Power status, but the incoherence was not because the Middle East was important but complex: it was because it was complex (as everywhere is) and weak.  If the meddling had had more immediate or drastic consequences, quite a few policy minds would have been concentrated.[1]

Some Realities

What are some basic Middle Eastern realities?  One is that politics in the Middle East has an embedded religious dimension.  It is, after all, mostly Islamic.  Secular alternatives are not realistically on offer.  Ignoring Sunni, Shia, Druze, Allawi identities is silly.  So is supposing that they can be easily supplanted.  This does not mean that people are doomed to fight over religion.  It does mean that policy that does not take the religious angle seriously will be fragile.  Of course, religious identities cross-cut with ethnic and national ones, but in this the Middle East is no more complicated than Europe.  A map of the current front lines in the Syrian civil war is pretty much a map of the country's religious and ethnic affiliations, down to the village level.

A second reality is that no policy that seeks to exclude or ignore Iran is likely to succeed.  One can no more exclude Iran from the Middle East than one can exclude France or Germany from Europe. Iran is simply too big, too central, and too closely linked to its neighbours.  It has withstood U.S.-supported invasion, sanctions and threats, developed its transport and other links with neighbours like Turkey, Armenia, Turkmenistan and Pakistan, has close ties with the governments in Baghdad and Damascus and with Hezbollah in Lebanon, and built a modest but quite formidable local defense capability.  Quite simply, Iran has the diplomatic, military, and economic capacity to withstand more pressure than the U.S. can bring to bear, and so its interests have to be taken seriously.  This means accepting Iranian control over its civil nuclear program, something that occupies the same place in Iranian politics as revocation of the unequal treaties did in Chinese politics up to 1949: the acid test of sovereignty.  The signs are that the U.S. has not yet quite grasped this.  It took 20 years for the U.S. policy establishment to grok that things had changed in China.  It looks like taking at least 40 years for the penny to drop on Iran.

So if I were a U.S. policy analyst, I would advise reaching a modus vivendi with Iran as soon as possible, resignedly accept that Iraq will be a Shia-run state aligned with Iran, back Kurdish independence, and tell State that if they get involved in the Syrian five-way dog-fight they will get bitten.  So pick one dog to back or stay out, because being bitten by a few is better than being bitten by all.  But on past form, if I were a policy analyst my advice would be entirely disregarded except as it agreed with the listener's prejudices.

-- Peter T.

[1] There are other places that resemble the Middle East in that outside powers used them as playgrounds without regard for consistency (or for the locals).  China 1860-1949, Latin America up to the 1990s or Central Asia in the period of the Great Game fit the bill, as does, ominously, Eastern Europe post-1989.  Even the tropes are the same: there is much talk of irrationality, corruption, regimes mired in ancient superstition and needing to be dragged into the Modern World, of bringing efficiency, order, enlightenment.  As well as, of course, making money.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Note to readers

I plan to take a break from posting for the rest of this month and into March.

Update (2-19): Though I am taking a break, there will be a guest post here soon Monday, Feb. 23. Stay tuned for that.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

A very belated answer to the #Historiannchallenge

With a hat tip to Matthew Linton, here are my off-the-cuff answers to a 'challenge' from Ann Little, who got annoyed last Fall because James McPherson, in a NYT interview, mostly mentioned historians who are/were male and white (ok, that's a little synoptic, but I was cutting to the chase). Note: I haven't reproduced all of the questions; i.e., I've skipped some of them. 

What books are currently on your nightstand?
I don't have a nightstand, mainly because I don't read in bed.

What was the last truly great book you read? 
Sh*t, I think I'll have to pass on that. (I did recently read "Benito Cereno" which, though not quite a book in terms of length, is great.)

Who are the best historians writing today?
I'm not really a historian, so I'll pass on that. (Though I did see a rave review last month of Sven Beckert's Empire of Cotton.)

What’s the best book ever written about American history?
This question is so silly I'm not going to dignify it with an answer.

Do you have a favorite biography?
Two that are liked are Ronald Steel's Walter Lippmann and the American Century and Sheldon Novick's Honorable Justice (about Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.).

What are the best military histories?
Not my field. However, the best military histories may be those that integrate military history with economic and political history. I'm thinking of, e.g., David Kaiser's Politics and War and P. Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. Somewhat older, Bernard Brodie's War and Politics is reflective and engagingly written. David Bell's The First Total War (which I reviewed here a while back) is interesting and provocative, if not necessarily always convincing.

You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which three writers are invited?
Let's make it two dinner parties.
1: George Eliot, Bernard Shaw, and Iris Murdoch. 
2: Karl Marx, Cormac McCarthy, and V.S. Naipaul. [Now that should be fun -- or glum, I suppose, depending on how it played out.]

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The alleged tilt to Iran

Col. Derek Harvey (Ret.), appearing recently on the PBS NewsHour, voiced some criticisms of U.S. policy in the Middle East:
Well, what I see happening in Iraq in particular — let’s take a look at that — the Abadi regime there, along with Iranian support, has given free rein to Shia militias who are conducting atrocities almost on a daily basis. And they openly proclaim the U.S. is supporting their operations, which feeds into Sunni Arab paranoia and supports the ISIS narrative about a divide and that the U.S. is aligned against Sunni Arabs in the region. So that hurts us in many ways. The U.S. has a choice here. We could declare no-fly zones, no-go zones in Syria. We could have put more capability on the ground and shown some leadership and commitment, which is what Sunni Arabs are looking for in the region, be they in the Gulf or in Ankara, in Turkey. But we have yet to really show real commitment.
The urge to have done something more in Syria is understandable, but the idea that "we could have put more capability on the ground" seems a non-starter given Obama's (also understandable) determination not to involve the U.S. in any substantial way in another ground war in the region, a determination reflected, albeit perhaps too vaguely, in the language of the proposed authorization for the use of military force just submitted to Congress.  Also, if ISIS is so concerned about appealing to Sunnis and playing up the narrative of the Sunni-Shia divide, their murder of the Jordanian pilot, who was (I assume) a Sunni Muslim, does not seem designed to further that goal, to put it mildly. 

Col. Harvey also said this:
Well, Sunni Arabs, be they in the Gulf, in Jordan, you know, in countries of Syria and Iraq, the Sunni Arab communities, Turkey, they want to see an effort directed at the Assad regime and a check on Shia militia and Iranian influence in Iraq and Syria. Unfortunately, from my perspective, the U.S. administration is focused on rapprochement with Iran, and acknowledging Tehran’s regional hegemony in the process, and that alienates Sunni Arabs, Ankara, and as well impacts Tel Aviv in Israel. So, that creates real problems for us in mobilizing support, keeping people online, and having unity of effort.
First, the U.S. is not "acknowledging Tehran's regional hegemony"; the U.S. does not have diplomatic relations with Iran and Iran remains on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. Trying to reach a nuclear deal does not equal recognizing Iran's regional hegemony.  

Second, the idea that the U.S.'s supposed focus on "rapprochement" with Iran "alienates" Sunni Arabs is overbroad: no doubt anything less than implacable hostility to the Iranian regime would displease some Sunni Arabs, but one need not be an expert on the region to find ridiculous the implication that all Sunnis feel this way.  "Sunni Arabs" are not a monolithic bloc, and although pan-Arabism is more or less defunct as a political movement, it only makes sense to assume that there are some political actors in the Arab world who still would rather work at overcoming their divisions than exacerbating them.  Who those actors are I'll leave to the regional experts, but I assume they exist, and for an analyst to go on TV and speak of "Sunni Arabs" as a bloc seems a disservice to American viewers.

As for all this "impact[ing] Tel Aviv": If the Israeli government had made any real progress on the Palestinian issue or shown itself open to genuine negotiations, it would have done more to reduce support for Iranian policies (and Hezbollah, and of course Hamas) in the region than anything else it could have done. Netanyahu's endless blustering about the (supposed) Iranian threat has accomplished nothing, except to confirm that the Israeli government is effectively clueless about its own long-term interests and how best to advance them. The main underlying problem for Israel's long-term security is Israeli policy w/r/t the Palestinian issue, not a supposed recognition by the U.S. of Iranian regional hegemony or the prospect of a nuclear Iran, which Netanyahu wrongly paints as some kind of apocalypse.

Lastly, and as already suggested, reducing everything analytically to the Shia-Sunni divide ignores that there are divisions within the 'camps,' and also other divisions.  As the Wash. Post noted in an editorial last month ("Headed Toward Chaos," Jan.13, 2015, p.A14), the conflict in Libya is mainly between "secular Sunnis [and] Islamists," a division that also "dominates the politics of Egypt, Tunisia, the Palestinian territories, and much of the rest of the Maghreb...."

In sum, the U.S. is not recognizing Iranian regional hegemony, and to put some kind of apocalyptic construction on U.S. efforts to relate to Iran in some way other than through unremitting hostility seems highly dubious.  Of course there must be ongoing concerns about the Iranian government's internal polices; it is hardly the model of a democratic, pluralist regime, and cases such as those of the Wash. Post reporter held for a long time in an Iranian jail deservedly garner attention.  Everyone remembers the Iranian regime's crackdown on demonstrations surrounding the 2009 election and the famous image of the young woman demonstrator beaten by regime-allied thugs and left to die in the streets.  However, the U.S. maintains relations with lots of governments that are human-rights abusers.  Anyway, Harvey's objections had nothing to do with Iran's domestic policies, so this whole line of discussion is of limited relevance to the interview.         

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Quote of the day (Yassin Al Haj Saleh)

From an interview in New Politics (Winter 2015) with Yassin Al Haj Saleh, "one of Syria's leading political dissidents":
[The U.S.] war on ISIS is saying that the regime that killed or caused the killing of more than 200 thousand people is only a detail; the thuggish entity of ISIS is the real danger.  And of course American military training will follow the American political priorities, using Syrians as tools in their (the Americans') war, not for concluding our struggle for change in Syria.... I do not have any essentialist grudge towards the United States, but the superpower was extremely inhumane towards my country, and its present war is extremely selfish.
[note: I don't necessarily agree with everything he says in this interview, just thought it was interesting.]

Monday, February 9, 2015


Buzan and Lawson open a symposium at The Disorder of Things on their book The Global Transformation.

Added later: The previous symposium at the same blog, on Anievas's Capital, the State, and War, should also be noted. (I've just been glancing at it and those interested in Marxian approaches to IR will find it worth a look, if not always especially easy going.)

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Weekend linkage (abbreviated)

-- L.D. Burnett at the S-USIH blog on the history of the phrase "politically correct": here.

Thursday, February 5, 2015


David McNally at New Politics (Jan. 30; link) mentions the new Greek government's decision to end its "military cooperation with Israel...if the blockade of Gaza is not lifted."  I wonder what Greece's "military cooperation with Israel" consisted of.  Not that this move will have any effect on Israeli policy, though it's laudable anyway.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Of Rawls and galaxy clusters

Not long ago in calendar time, though something like an eon ago in blogosphere time, a commenter on a Crooked Timber thread asked why Rawls limited his theory of justice to humans.  Why, this commenter wondered, are only humans deliberating in the hypothetical original position, behind the 'veil of ignorance'?  Why not, say, non-human animals, or even "clusters of galaxies"?  At the time I responded sharply and rather impolitely and got into a spat (a 'flame war', in blog-speak), rather than trying to answer calmly.  This post is my  belated attempt at a calm answer.  (Note: My knowledge of Rawls comes mainly from the original edition of A Theory of Justice (1971) [hereafter TJ], which is what I cite here.  Rawls revised or changed his views on some points after the first edition of TJ, but I don't think he changed his views on the point that is germane here.)

Rawls makes clear in TJ that, following Hume, he assumes as one of the background conditions of his project the presence of "the circumstances of justice," that is, the objective and subjective circumstances "under which human cooperation is both possible and necessary" (p.126).  The key conditions are that individuals "have different ends and purposes" that lead them "to make conflicting claims on the natural and social resources available," which resources are assumed to be moderately scarce (p.127).  I think  Rawls sees t
hese conditions as having characterized most (if not all) societies, including the relatively affluent Western societies of the mid-twentieth century.

It's this emphasis on the Humean "circumstances of justice" that underlies Rawls's position that his theory is "a theory of human justice" (p.257, italics added).  The theory does not apply to non-human entities or non-human societies that may not be subject to the constraints imposed by the circumstances of justice.  Rawls writes (p.257):
...I have assumed all along that the parties [in the original position] know that they are subject to the conditions of human life.  Being in the circumstances of justice, they are situated in the world with other men who likewise face limitations of moderate scarcity and competing claims.  Human freedom is to be regulated by principles chosen in the light of these natural restrictions.  Thus justice as fairness is a theory of human justice and among its premises are the elementary facts about persons and their place in nature.  The freedom of pure intelligences not subject to these constraints, and the freedom of God, are outside the scope of the theory.
And presumably for much the same reasons, galaxy clusters are also outside the scope of Rawls's theory.

Monday, February 2, 2015

A bilingual country?

This afternoon I had an unexpected need to communicate with someone I didn't know over the course of an hour or more, resulting from a small story involving a car and a bicycle (details I think will not be furnished on request, sorry).  The point is that he spoke no English and I speak no Spanish, apart from a few words.  (French, which I do speak to an extent (emphasis on the last three words), is useless where I live.)  Everything ultimately worked out, partly because enough people around here speak both English and Spanish.  It just underscores that parts of the U.S. seem to have become virtually bilingual, leaving those who are not at something of a (potential, at least) disadvantage in daily life.

A CNN piece from Sept. 2013 quotes an expert at the Pew Research Center as follows:
"On the one hand, [in the U.S.] the number of Spanish speakers is projected to grow to about 40 million by 2020 (from 37 million in 2011). This reflects Hispanic population growth and a large number of non-Hispanics who will also speak Spanish," said Mark Hugo Lopez, director of Hispanic Research at the Pew Research Center. "But, even though the [total] number of Spanish speakers is projected to grow, among Hispanics, the share that speak Spanish is projected to fall from about 75% now to 66% in 2020," Lopez said.
These figures don't capture variations from one geographical area to another, of course, nor is there a specific projection here for bilingualism.  It's interesting to learn that the percentage of Hispanics in the U.S. who speak Spanish will drop to roughly two-thirds in 2020, even as the Hispanic population grows, but knowing this certainly does not matter when an English-speaker and a Spanish-speaker have to communicate and can't.  Luckily my experience today did not involve anything serious.  I don't like to think about what would happen if the inability to cross the language barrier implicated a matter of life and death.

Note: edited slightly after initial posting.    

Friday, January 30, 2015

"Or was the Spaniard less hardened than the Jew...?"

Slowly making my way through Melville's "Benito Cereno."  The character Capt. Delano is quite something, given among other things to interior monologues about the supposed characteristics of "the negro" (whom, we are told, he is drawn to in some ways despite regarding "the negro" as intellectually inferior to "the white man").  Then I reach this passage, where Delano is trying for the umpteenth time to figure out Don Benito's behavior:
Why was the Spaniard, so superfluously punctilious at times, now heedless of common propriety in not accompanying to the side his departing guest?  Did indisposition forbid?  Indisposition had not forbidden more irksome exertion that day.... [Benito's] last glance seemed to express a calamitous, yet acquiescent farewell to Captain Delano forever.  Why decline the invitation to visit the sealer [Delano's ship] that evening?  Or was the Spaniard less hardened than the Jew, who refrained not from supping at the board of him whom the same night he meant to betray?
An obvious reference to Judas and the Last Supper.  But what with "the negro," "the mulatto," "the Spaniard," and "the Jew," Delano's mind, externalized on the page, is a riot of unexamined stereotypes.  (I know that the story, written in the 1850s, is set in 1799.  But still.)

Added later: Finished "Benito Cereno"; credit to this post for prompting me to read it.