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 consistency...as 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.