Posts Tagged ‘Iran’

The Thinker

The last debate

It’s probably a good thing that most Americans are geography impaired. Many Americans cannot tell you what their neighboring states are, let alone pick out Iran or Syria on a globe. Mitt Romney seems to fall into this category as well, since during yesterday’s presidential debate he came up with the preposterous claim that Iran needed to help Syria so it could have access to the world’s oceans. Maybe he confused the landlocked Afghanistan with Iran. In any event, Iran has plenty of access to the world’s oceans as the southern part of Iran presses up against the Persian Gulf, and it depends on access to it to export most of its oil.

Overall, yesterday’s debate with President Obama did not reflect well on Romney’s grasp of foreign policy. Worse, he could not draw clear distinctions between how his policies would vary from Obama’s. He either tacitly or explicitly agreed with most of Obama’s policies, the inescapable implication being that Obama was doing a good job as commander in chief. Moreover, he drew a lot of false conclusions. For example, he criticized the president for turmoil in the Middle East, as if it was his fault. Even the casual observer of the Middle East understands that revolution, particularly in that part of the world, requires turmoil. It’s an area where democracy is virtually unknown and despots are aplenty. His reasoning is also suspect because it suggests that we can actually control the political process underway across the Middle East. All we can really do is attempt to influence policy by reaching out to leaders, the opposition, and by working with other countries to affect jointly desirable outcomes, such as ending Iran’s nuclear program.

We have tried using force to get our way and it didn’t work in Iraq, although we did squander hundreds of billions of dollars before a wiser president than Bush got us out of Iraq. Sadly, I predict the same will be true in Afghanistan as proved true in Iraq. Yes, we will be out by the end of 2014. Even Romney wants that to occur. But Afghan troops will be no more ready to take control of their country than Iraqi troops were. Afghanistan is likely to look a lot like Iraq in 2015, likely with no clear winner but with a heavy and destabilizing Talibani influence but the government retaining control in most major cities. But we’ll be out of there and most importantly al Qaeda will not be coming back. They will wisely stay out of Afghanistan. The Taliban will not let them back in, as they lost power the last time they let them in. The Taliban knows that as long as they make mischief only within their borders that we will leave them alone. That’s the bottom line in Afghanistan that both sides know we will accept, just not state publicly.

President Obama demonstrated a firm grasp of these nuances, and rightly called Romney out on some of his more absurd statements, like his fretting that our navy had fewer ships than at any time since World War One. Aircraft carriers did not even exist then. One aircraft carrier today is the equivalent of dozens if not hundreds of navy ships in the World War One era. It’s actually much more than that since it allows us to project a large concentration of air power at trouble spots across the world.

Both Obama and Romney found plenty of reasons to talk about domestic policy, since most Americans yawn at foreign policy. As usual, the moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS Newswas caught in the middle and had trouble bringing their focus back to foreign policy. By this point in the campaign there was really nothing that either candidate could state that Americans had not heard before. Instead, the casual listener could only go with gut assessments of the candidate. Obama looked the image of the sober commander in chief he has been. Romney looked again like he was trying to imitate Ronald Reagan, not succeeding very well and seemed a bit trigger happy as well.

The sad fact for Republicans was that the debate was a sure loser for them. Americans overwhelmingly approve of Obama’s foreign policy. We are out of Iraq, and are getting out of Afghanistan. We are war weary, so Romney’s saber rattling fell flat. It was not surprising then that Romney was happy to turn the conversation to domestic policy, where he holds better cards. Overall, Americans see no compelling reason to spend lavishly on defense at this time, particularly when we are entering an era of austerity and the obvious foreign threats against us are diminishing. Moreover, it is astonishing to most of us who pay attention to foreign policy that Russia is our biggest national security threat, as Romney recently asserted. The Cold War is long over. Russia retains an impressive nuclear arsenal but does not appear to have any imperialistic desires at the moment. It has its hands full controlling its own population.

In short, Romney got pwned last night. By the end of the debate it seemed that Romney knew it as well.

 
The Thinker

Iran’s metamorphosis

Some of you may have been wondering when I was going to talk about the civil unrest underway in Iran. Like many of you, I have been too caught up in events there to give it much analysis. Moreover, I do not know that much about Iran other than what I know about it from watching the media. Unquestionably, the recent election was rigged. The massive street protests and the predictable crackdown underway are compelling and heart-wrenching to watch, even if the snippets we see are posted days or hours later and taken from hand held cell phone cameras.

I do not know if a new Iranian revolution is imminent or whether a harsh repression by Iran’s clerics will stifle dissent for a generation, such as what happened in Tiananmen Square in China some twenty years ago. I do know that theocracy is not a natural fit for a country that is so well educated and technologically advanced. This means that Iranian clerics, if they were wise, would be working toward measured political accommodation of the people rather than repression.

Unfortunately, when you live in a theocracy you tend to get stilted thinking rather than pragmatism. Just as Pope Benedict cannot see reason when it comes to contraception, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will not adjust his notion of pure Islam to accommodate the reality that is modern Iran.

Much of the unrest is a consequence of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s attempts to turn Iran into a modern state. You cannot build a great state when it rests on the foundation of uneducated minds. It takes engineers, scientists, academics and many learned people to get there. In short, you need a society where education is valued and where modern technology is embraced. Iranians have done a remarkable job of embracing technology. The third most used language on the social networking site Twitter is Persian. Pictures of the rallies in Tehran show a crowd where cell phones were as numerous as the hundreds of thousands of protestors.

It is likely that Shi’ite Islam (as Ayatollah Khamenei interprets it) is not compatible with 21st century technology. Yet, this technology is here to say. Satellite receivers are technically illegal in Iran, but are pervasive nonetheless. Attempts to disrupt unwanted communications only lead to clever ways to circumvent these limitations and, to the extent they succeed, breed anger, hatred and resentment.

There are some societies where the culture accepts a high level of government censorship and control. China appears to be one of them. I am betting that Iran is not one of these countries. Iran is also an overwhelmingly youthful country. For many Iranians, the Iranian revolution is at best a distant memory or happened long before they were born. However, they do understand the present and the power of what they have in front of them, and they like their Internet connections and cell phones. Moreover, Iranians are a very chatty nation, with reputedly the highest number of bloggers per capita in the world. If Khamenei were reading tealeaves, he would be wary, if not very afraid.

It may take a generation or two, but widespread higher education (which has been underway in Iran for a generation) opens minds, broadens perspectives and retards insularity. In the United States, if you look at where the most highly educated people live, you will also find fewer churchgoers and greater tolerance for different ideas, cultures and beliefs. I certainly see it here in the Washington Metropolitan region. We have long been a melting pot of various ethnicities and cultures. Our attitudes are correspondingly relatively progressive.

With this in mind, perhaps our foreign policy toward Iran needs to be rethought. During the last presidential campaign, Senator John McCain was caught on camera (obviously in an unscripted moment) singing “Bomb, bomb Iran”. The implication was that the country was so intrinsically evil that there was no reasoning with Iranians, so we might as well bomb them into submission. It should now be clear that such actions would prove counterproductive, alienating the educated and increasingly liberal components of Iran who are becoming a majority. I am willing to bet that should a new Iranian revolution succeed then the next government will be far less hostile toward Israel. Educated Iranians already understand that the purpose of Ahmadinejad’s fixation on Israel is to cover his own deficiencies as a leader.

Repression may work in Iran for a month, or a year or possibly even a decade. However, the forces that have been unleashed in Iran because of this clearly fraudulent election cannot be kept bottled forever. A newer, more pragmatic and more progressive government will emerge from Iran in time. The United States should practice patience. The Iranian people have come around. In time, so will its government.

 
The Thinker

Delusional Paranoia on Iraq

While I was driving home from church today, I was listening to a rebroadcast of NBC’s Meet the Press on CSPAN Radio. NBC reporter Tim Russert was interviewing Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. The topic, of course, was our War in Iraq and President Bush’s controversial strategy to add tens of thousands more American troops in Baghdad.

Senator Graham was strictly towing the party line. Of course, he thought President Bush’s strategy deserved a chance to succeed. He decried Congress for trying to micromanage the war. He kept reiterating the same points. If we leave Iraq now there will be a bloodbath. The Middle East will explode into a regional conflict. Al Qaeda will have a new base for the training and recruitment of terrorists. He also said Iraq would become a puppet regime for Iran, Turkey would invade Kurdistan and neighboring Sunni states would support the Sunnis cause in Iraq’s civil war. He implied that all this would lead to the same paranoid conclusion shared by President Bush and many on Capitol Hill: the terrorists would follow us home. They assert that failure to confront the terrorists today in Iraq could then mean goodbye United States of America and hello Islamic Republic of America. Goodbye internets, hello burkas.

Senator Graham needs a reality check. No one knows for sure what would happen if America precipitously withdrew from Iraq. I will grant you that a couple scenarios are more likely than not. If we withdrew, I think you could count on more Sunni vs. Shiite violence in the short term, although arguably there is plenty enough of it going on right now. The de facto partitioning of Iraq, already well underway, would accelerate dramatically. Many of the other scenarios he posed sound dubious at best. I would call some of them ludicrous and ultra paranoid.

With much of Iraq in turmoil and ungovernable, I doubt the Iranian army would want to join in the fray. I also doubt that if a Shiite state emerges from the civil war that it will want to be at any other nation’s beck and call. Iraqi Shiites have lusted for a nation of their own for too long. At best, their army could only partially protect the Shiites. In any event, there are many Shiites in Iraq and armed militias like the Mahdi Army have proven they can fight effectively. Like the United States, Iran has a finite number of soldiers available for messy occupations, and occupying a large part of Iraq would be a tall order. In addition, Iranians are Persians, and Shiite Iraqis are Arabs. Iraqi Shiites speak Arabic and Iranians speak Farsi. This introduces both language and ethnic differences. They may all seem like towel heads to us outsiders, but it is very unlikely that Shiite Iraq could ever successfully work as a client state of Iran. Iran and Iraqi Shiites have religion in common and not a whole lot else. In fact, there is likely quite a bit of animosity that still lingers. Twenty-five years ago, Iran and Iraq were engaged in a bloody war that killed at least 875,000 people.

Turkey could invade Kurdistan, but it would come at a great cost. First, they desperately want to become part of the European Union. Invading another country is not a great way to go about it, particularly since the invasion would be unprovoked. Second, the Kurds are hardly helpless. While the rest of Iraq has descended into anarchy, they have used their relative tranquility to increase their armed forces and readiness; an invasion would hardly be a cakewalk. If Turkey did try to occupy Kurdistan, it would probably devolve into a bloody occupation like the one we are seeing in Iraq. Third, even if American forces did leave Iraq, most likely they would relocate to Kurdistan anyhow. It makes a convenient base to keep track on elements of al Qaeda in Iraq, check Iran’s influence, and dissuade Turkey from invading. At least initially, the Kurds would welcome our presence as a stabilizing influence. In short it is hardly a given that our withdrawal would cause the whole region to explode into conflict.

Why do Senator Graham’s warnings sound so familiar? Tim Russert nailed it: this line of thought is peculiarly reminiscent of the Domino Theory so popular and proven so incredibly wrong that existed during the Cold War. The theory was that if we did not check communism in South Vietnam, it would creep all over South Asia. President Lyndon Johnson himself figured we might have to surrender the Pacific Ocean to the forces of communism if we failed to contain it in Vietnam.

Then as now, we got it mostly wrong. At least that is the opinion of the noted late historian Barbara Tuchman. I am in the final part of her book, The March of Folly (1984). It concludes with a long hard look at the waste of time, lives and resources trying to keep South Vietnam from falling to the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese Army. It is painful reading, and not just because tens of thousands of Americans needlessly lost their lives there. It is also painful because here we are forty years later and we are repeating the same stupid mistakes. Ironically, the people who put us in Iraq were the very same people who harbored so much resentment that we let Vietnam fall in the first place. Iraq became their ideological battlefield that would prove we could do a Vietnam situation again, only do it right this time.

Of course, many on the right will say that Iraq is not Vietnam. In some respects of course they are right. However, you do not have to get too far into this part of Tuchman’s book to realize that when it came to how the war was executed many of the same strategies were used. These included candid intelligence assessments that were ignored by politicians and trumped up incidents used to justify unilateral escalation of the conflict. Both conflicts also had numerous attempts by the U.N. to keep the solve the conflict before armed force was used, and in both cases we found we would rather fight and prove our manliness than use diplomacy. In both conflicts there was amply warning that we would be entering a Pandora’s Box, yet we let our fears and hubris dictate our actions. In both conflicts, we studiously chose to ignore the history of the region, assumed the best case and supported anemic and corrupt leaders on the assumption that it was better to support the devil you know.

In Vietnam, for example, Tuchman notes that China gave weak support to the Communist North Vietnamese government and the Vietcong. This was because historically the Vietnamese and the Chinese have not gotten along. The USSR’s support of North Vietnam was far more in the moral support area than in advisers and money. Vietnam was just one of many areas of influence around the world that interested them. (One of them was Iran, which led to our engagement in Iraq and providing Saddam Hussein with intelligence and munitions.) Moreover, communism in Vietnam was a logical response to the times. As Tuchman makes clear, France’s interest when Vietnam was its colony was simply to exploit its people and devour its natural resources. The French ruthlessly suppressed any dissent. Little thought was given to bridging the cultural differences between the western and eastern culture. Communism in Vietnam was a generally recognized pragmatic means by the residents of Vietnam to bring about their fondest goal: genuine Vietnamese nationalism and sovereignty.

The result of our hasty exit from Vietnam in 1975 was a united country that had been artificially split in two. The communist menace hardly leached across South Asia. It ended with Laos and Cambodia, and all our massive secret bombings failed to bring stem it. Today Vietnam, like China, is more communist in name than in ideology. Thirty years later, we have diplomatic relations with Vietnam. Cambodia is no longer communist. Laos remains a socialist state with a communist underpinning, yet remnants of the Hmong still wage occasional insurgent strikes to try to end the socialist state.

To me the lesson of Vietnam means we that should now exercise some perspective. Most likely, our worst fears are a result of our own paranoid delirium. For them to be realized depends on many really improbable ifs being executed. It allows for no possibility that other natural events and forces in the region might counteract these forces. It assumes, for example, that groups like al Qaeda can wield more power and influence than historic ethnic forces. Moreover, it assumes that by using our own force there that we can truly achieve our aims. One thing we should have learned to date from this conflict is that our presence (and in particular our use of armed forces) exacerbates the situation and provides much of the animus to keep the conflict going.

What is needed now is exactly what we should have done before we invaded Iraq: a cold, clinical and dispassionate assessment of the likelihood that our imagined risks will play out, as well as a comprehensive understanding of the historical forces at play in the region. Yes, I think further bloodshed is likely if we leave Iraq. I doubt strongly though that the terrorists will follow us home. As I mentioned in another entry we were the domino that fell on 9/11. We acted predictably and precisely the way that al Qaeda wanted us to act to effect a one time aim: inflame the Muslim world when we retaliated. At its heart, the violence underway today in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East is the result of the same thing that drove the conflict in Vietnam: the desire of a people to direct their societies consistent with their own culture and values. Instead, the Arab world is rife with oppression, hopelessness and poverty. “Moderate” states that we support like Egypt are actually secular states where human rights exist on paper, but not in practice. Al Qaeda is a sad example of the effects that extreme oppression can cause over many decades. Al Qaeda though is just one force at work. There are many others. They are already moving their chess pieces. The movement will continue whether we stay or go. It is folly to think that we can contain or redirect the energy of these forces. They must be expressed and they will be expressed whether we wish it or not.

Just as the USSR eventually collapsed under its own bloated weight, so must these oppressive Arab regimes. It is this oppression and not our occupation that is causing the kettle to boil. Our presence simply stirs the cauldron. I am convinced though that although the path to resolution of these feelings in the Middle East may be bloody and messy, it will be resolved most quickly and with the most finality when we come to our senses and allow these natural forces to play out.

 
The Thinker

No Longer the Top Banana

We Americans are in denial. We assume that our country is a military superpower. The sad fact is that we no longer are one. We were demoted. The rest of the world largely understands this. The polite ones, like most of the European countries, feel it is kinder not to draw it to our attention. Like a once popular diva, they are content to let the realization slowly dawn on us. Eventually, after performing at enough half-empty concert halls, they know we will figure it out.

Other countries have been observing us warily. They have mostly coped by staying at the far edges of the gorilla cage hoping we would not notice them. Of all the gorillas in the cage though, we were the most fearsome. We looked like we weighed 800 pounds. We thumped our chests, howled and hissed a lot. We liked to kick those lesser gorillas who pouted or spat at us. However, often we would settle down. We could smile nicely and even share our bananas with our friends. Sometimes other gorillas tried to acquire favor by giving us some of their bananas. Occasionally they helped us beat up other obnoxious gorillas in the cage. Who though could predict when we would go through another manic phase? Therefore, most gorillas stayed out of our way. More than once, they looked at us with scorn. They wondered what was it about us that even though we had so many bananas, we could still be such a loose cannon. Now, after watching us get kicked hard in the ribs a few times, falling over and squealing in pain, we no longer look quite so fearsome. In fact, now that we are on the floor of the cage, some are working with the other gorillas to figure out a way to keep us there.

How can this be? The United States has the best-equipped, best-trained and most expensive military in the world. We can move our power anywhere in the world. Our aircraft can slip through radars. Our spy satellites can see basketballs on the ground from hundreds of miles away. Our intelligence services reputedly have computers than can sift through millions of calls per second.

The irony is we lost our superpower status in part by being too good at winning conventional wars. We have outthought and outspent our rivals. There is no nation left in the world, except perhaps foolhardy ones like North Korea that would directly attack the United States. In that sense, we have succeeded. Fear and intimidation may be crude methods of ensuring compliance, but they tend to be effective. Unfortunately, what we largely missed is that we failed to prepare sufficiently for unconventional wars. While we have the ability to defend our own borders from attack, we no longer have both the will and the means to require other regimes to bend to our will.

The recent war between Israel and Hezbollah is a textbook case for our changing times. Israel is the 600-pound gorilla in the Middle East part of the gorilla cage, thanks largely to the many bananas we have given it. If it chooses to do so, it is bye bye Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan or any country in that region that threatens its existence. It might come at the cost of using its nuclear weapons and give the country permanent ostracism from the world community. However, as long as it has its nuclear card and other Arab states do not then Israel can win any conventional war against any state in the Middle East.

Of course, these countries are no longer stupid enough to directly wage war against Israel. Instead, they use proxies. Why should Syria put its soldiers at harm when there are passionate paramilitary forces ready to do its dirty work? These forces have no expectation of realizing their ultimate goals in the short term, but they do have tenacity and unbelievable passion. Their method of success is to use the equivalent of Chinese water torture. They are realizing that modern wars are won through attrition. They are realistic and expect that this war will last generations. Yet they are also confident of ultimate success.

Unlike Israel, the United States does not have enemies on its doorsteps. If we had to defend our two thousand mile border with Canada against the threat of rockets, we would be as inept, if not more inept than the Israelis were against Hezbollah. We might even imitate some of their tactics, perhaps by leveling large parts of Montreal and Toronto. It is unlikely though that it would solve our problem. Even if Canada had the will to remove paramilitary groups from its border with us, it is unlikely they would have the means and the people to finish the job. This was the essence of Lebanon’s problem. Its military was too poorly equipped to ensure that Hezbollah could not attack Israel. Not all the Israeli air strikes in the world could coerce them to do something they were incapable of achieving. In fact, the air strikes made Lebanon less capable of restraining Hezbollah.

Fortunately, although Canadians will bitch about us Americans from time to time (and we about them) they do not hate us. We have cordial and even friendly relations. We have a mutually beneficial relationship based largely on trade.

Israel is now uncomfortably awake to its new reality. It is floundering to try to find a solution. It hopes that the presence of tens of thousands of international troops on its border with Lebanon will at least delay the problem. If there is a solution to Israel’s security problem, it cannot be won by arms. It can only happen through political discourse. Given the new dynamics, any viable solution would require significant and probably currently unacceptable conditions from Israel. There is no viable way to neutralize paramilitary forces like Hezbollah until the animus that causes it to work for Israel’s destruction goes away.

The United States was bitchslapped in Iraq. As I warned before the war, we could not succeed with less than half of the forces needed to do the job. While we could have brought sufficient forces to control Iraq, it would have been at the cost of something else. We would have had to leave volatile places like South Korea with a skeleton American presence. Otherwise, we would have had to reinstate the draft. The Bush administration though realized that the draft was not politically viable, since the war with Iraq was a war of choice, not of necessity. Even had we the 250,000 or more troops needed for the invasion of Iraq, it is still unclear whether the strife we are seeing there today could still have been restrained. Regardless, we would still be viewed as an occupying Christian army in a Muslim region of the world.

Apparently though our current administration refuses to acknowledge our karmic lesson in Iraq. It prefers delusion, which has had the consequence of immense folly. Worse, we are making noises that show we have learned nothing from our experience. Because now we are working hard to take punitive actions against Iran. We still suffer from the delusion that through coercion we can really keep Iran from having the nuclear program it wants. Naturally, our administration is straining at the leash to find punitive tools to use against Iran. Its bellicose words, which began with our president’s unwise decision to publicly label Iran as part of an “Axis of Evil”, have been consistently harsh. Now, since Iran has refused U.N. nuclear inspectors access to its facilities, we are pushing for economic sanctions and boycotts.

What a stupid and pointless thing for us to do. Not only will it not work, it would simply give Iran a reason to play its oil card. The oil card trumps any sanctions the world community can put in place. Even the most modest reductions in its oil exports are likely to cause enormous spikes in the price of oil. It is like those old Roadrunner cartoons. Iran is playing the roadrunner. We are the coyote. The anvil that we dropped to kill the roadrunner will instead hit us on the head.

You would think by this point we might have a clue. Yet a reduction in oil exports by Iran in response to sanctions is one of the better scenarios. Iran’s navy has convenient access to the Persian Gulf. It could easily put a stop to much of that region’s oil exports. We could of course use our military to try to stop it, but that would simply cause more tremors in the oil markets. It would also likely cause an all out war between the United States and Iran. Like it or not, the international community will accommodate Iran, not the other way around. Our short-term need for steady oil prices trumps any long term concerns about their potential nuclear capabilities. The United States may not like the idea of unconditional talks with Iran on its nuclear program, which Iran is proposing. However, if we were operating with our prefrontal cortex we would be accepting such talks. We simply delude ourselves if we think that tough talk will have any deterrent effect on Iran. Iran has the trump card and we have nothing to trump it.

This shows why we are no longer a superpower. If we were a real superpower, we would have figured out effective ways to counter these threats. We have not. The game has changed. We are just beginning to assess what it might take to deal with these new threats. The effect though is that America has lost its claim of being a military superpower. Arguably, we retain other superpower statuses, such as the world’s economic superpower. Unless, like the Cold War, we can develop effective tactics against these new military tactics, we will never be a military superpower again.

 
The Thinker

Good intention wreak unintended consequences in the Middle East

Hindsight should always be 20:20. Strangely though, we seem to be unable to learn lessons from our attempts at nation building, particularly in the Middle East. Why is this? Let us ponder the wreckage and see if we can learn the lessons that seem to escape our current leadership. Then let us examine how we might do things differently in the future.

So Iran, which claims that its nuclear program is purely for peaceful purposes, may be building the bomb. This seems a rational assumption. After all, its latest president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is not exactly firing on all cylinders. For example, he thinks the Holocaust is a myth. Even though Iran is a signatory to the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, he feels Iran can give lip service to it. Perhaps channeling the spirit of Saddam Hussein, he is quite comfortable throwing out inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency whenever he finds it convenient. Never mind that by doing so he is violating the treaty.

Meanwhile, a leading Iranian newspaper is sponsoring an international cartoon contest on the Holocaust. Reputedly, this is being done so that Jews will know how it feels to suffer the gross sacrilege Muslims are going through with the publication of imprudent cartoons featuring the Prophet Muhammad. I have to wonder why Jews would feel offended if indeed the Holocaust were truly a myth. Do they think that Israelis are not aware of the many virulently anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish cartoons already routinely printed in Middle East newspapers? Moreover, there is the wee problem that it was not Jews but a Danish newspaper that published the offending cartoons. Meanwhile the rioting over these cartoons continues unabated across the Muslim world. Nine Muslims died today alone in Libya. These Muslims seem to think that by accidentally killing more people (all fellow Muslims so far) and destroying more property that the Prophet Mohammad and Allah are pleased. Somehow, I doubt it.

Over in Iraq voters in a recent parliamentary election, rather than voting for secular candidates, voted for sectarian and religious ones instead. The majority Shi’ites, at the insistence of their firebrand cleric Moqtada Sadr, nominated Ibrahim Jaafari as the new prime minister. Jaafari is the current ineffectual interim prime minister. Sadr, of course, wants closer ties with the Shi’ite country of Iran and wants nothing to do with a national unity government promoted by the United States, or for that matter the United States.

In addition the Palestinians have elected Hamas into power. As you probably know, this is a political party whose professed aims include the destruction of the state of Israel. The many suicide bombers that have killed Israel citizens demonstrate the sincerity of their beliefs. Palestinians voted this way quite mindfully of the implications. Although unhappy with the outcome, even President Bush complemented Palestinians on how well they followed the Democratic process.

So perhaps democracy is spreading all over the Middle East. Arguably, even our current nemesis state Iran is a democracy. (It would flunk our test of being a real democracy, since clerics have the final say on whether a candidate gets on the ballot.) Unfortunately, Americans are not getting the desired outcome for the billions of dollars we invested. We assumed that democracy would to lead naturally to pro-Western, pro-American governments happy to sell us oil. Unfortunately, the evidence suggests (with Kuwait perhaps the exception) that in the Middle East people will vote for those with virulently anti-American, anti-Israeli and pro-Islamic state positions. For the most part, they are democratically saying, “Bring on theocracy!”

This should not surprise us. From interpreting the Quran, a theocracy should be the natural form of government in a predominantly Muslim country. Values we cherish like pluralism and secularism are much harder to instill when submission to the will of Allah trumps all.

Where did our good intentions go wrong? How did Iran become such a problem for the United States? Why are Iraqis voting for religious and sectarian parties? Why would the Palestinians, whose better relations with Israel are now finally bearing some fruit, suddenly prefer a religious government with murderous impulses toward Israel?

I see two overall reasons. First, our government has engaged in short-term thinking and ignored the long term likely consequences. Second, we projected our worldview on the Muslim worldview and assumed it would be a natural fit.

Case Iran. How did Iran get to hate us so much? It is because during the Cold War, we used Iran like a ten-dollar whore. It was just another pawn in our international chessboard. We wanted to deny the Soviet Union access to warm water ports. Therefore, it made sense for us to promote an Iranian king, the Shah of Iran. It was convenient for us to overlook his excesses and his oppression of his people. He was a means to an end: containing the Soviet Union. We discounted the ill will that would result if the Shah were overthrown. We assumed we could contain Iran so this would never happen. Our outcome in Iran though was partly a result of bad timing. Islamic fundamentalism was sweeping across the Middle East at the time. Iran was the first place in modern times where it would be tried as a form of government. Perhaps in the context of those Cold War times our choice was unavoidable. On the other hand, perhaps instead of allowing Iran to become a monarchy, we should have promoted real democracy. Had we done so perhaps its current clerics would not be associating us with the Great Satan. Perhaps instead of hearing regular chants of “Death to America” they would be peeling the bells for their democracy day.

Our tactics were similar in Iraq: contain the Soviet Union with what you have to work with. Consequently, we promoted Saddam Hussein, the very man we revile. Why did we help him? We aided him because our plan for containing the Soviet Union using Iran collapsed when the Shah was overthrown. In Iraq, we took big risks, including looking the other way as we did in Iran when Saddam ruthlessly oppressed its citizens. Saddam became too powerful and his ambitions became too imperialistic, resulting in a situation we could not contain.

As far as the needs of the Palestinian people, we have been unabashedly pro-Israel since its creation. We came late to the table in recognizing that the Palestinian people had legitimate needs. We looked the other way or offered the mildest protests every time another Jewish settlement was established in occupied Palestinian territories. We often aided Israel in the Security Council. We made sure that virtually no resolution against it would pass. We should have been cutting our aid to Israel as it expanded its settlements. More often, we simply increased our aid. The more Israel whined, the deeper we dug into our pockets.

This is what hindsight should show us if we were to look back on the past objectively. It should also inform us that democracy is not always the solution. Even if we are able to install a democratic government in a Middle East country, the odds are that its citizens will elect leaders opposed to our interests. Should this surprise us? For the culture of the Middle East is much different than our own culture.

Fostering democracy in the Middle East may or may not take wings, but it will not necessarily lead to a world more aligned to America’s interests. Neither is democracy in the Middle East a panacea for our nation’s long-term security. Perhaps President Bush is finally sobering up. In his latest State of the Union address, he said our nation is addicted to oil. Unfortunately his policies did a lot to increase our addiction. However if we were to follow through on his suggestion to dramatically reduce our need for oil from volatile spots like the Middle East, in the process we should also increase our national security. For whether democracy or more totalitarianism results in the Middle East in the future, the outcome is less likely to affect our national security.

 
The Thinker

How Iraq will dissemble

Whelp, the chickens have come home to roost for Mr. Bush. I was surprised that our miserable failure managed to eke out a win last November. However, as I pointed out then, this would not change the fundamental dynamics of what he unwisely set into play. Right now pollsters tell us that the Vietnam-redux unfolding in Iraq trumps all of our other concerns. Even so, Americans do not seem too excited with the “good” economic news that Bush keeps touting. Sky-high gas prices might have something to do with it. A diarist on DailyKos makes a convincing case that the real unemployment rate is holding steady and is a lot higher than our official labor statistics. Americans, sensing this truth, are unlikely to believe economic data that contradicts their wallets. Also likely contributing to our mood is our sense that the benefits of growth seem to be going disproportionately to the upper class and stockholders. Well duh!

For whatever reasons, Americans are in a sour mood. Bush’s anemic poll ratings in the low forties are likely to go even lower. He is trapped in a box of his own making. Let us shed tears, but none for him. Instead, let us save buckets of tears for our dutiful soldiers, marines and airmen who have paid and are paying the price for his bungled leadership.

Our retreat from Iraq will happen, but not because we will succeed in bringing real stability and democracy to Iraq. No, it will happen because it must happen. We get to grit our teeth and watch as Bush’s house of cards slowly falls, to the inevitable suffering of many more innocent people. One sign can be found in today’s news: the Army now admit they will not come close to meeting their recruiting goals this year. The fundamental flaw with our all-volunteer army is that it only works in peacetime or during wars of short duration. Only the foolhardy or the excessively patriotic will volunteer to lose life or limb when their neighbors will not. The rest of us are left to the extreme edge of the cheering section, way inside the safety zone. Lately though our cheering has been halfhearted. Our beers taste flat. We are urgently looking for distractions, but are finding the distressing fact that our team is getting its butt kicked is impossible to tune out. Therefore, we are getting really ticked off at the coach.

Since our president rarely does anything without consulting his political adviser Karl Rove, I expect we will see substantial troop reductions in Iraq (likely under some transparent guise) during the first half of 2006. Why? There are midterm elections coming up my friends. The last thing Republicans want is to have the Congress return to Democratic hands. For Republicans power is paramount and responsibility is a word they cannot apply to themselves. Republicans are likely to be scapegoats next year unless Republicans can give the appearance that America will soon go back to Norman Rockwell mode. So despite Bush’s bravado about staying the course, expect that the real course he will stay on is the one he thinks that will keep him and fellow Republicans in power. (However, if he actually stays the course, expect at least one house of Congress to change hands in 2006.)

Eventually the situation in Iraq will completely devolve. We can expect in the next few days that Iraqis will say that they need another six months to work on their constitution. They will need more time than that but they likely will never finish it. It is clear the insurgency has picked up a big head of steam. As American forces go through the pretense of strategic pullbacks next year expect the insurgency to occupy the territory. As for Iraqi forces, expect them to scatter faster than the South Vietnamese Army when the North Vietnamese Army approached Saigon. Iraq will balkanize unless a new strongman can be found who can keep the country together. Presumably, Saddam Hussein will not be available. However, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi probably hopes that he can fill his shoes with a less secular version of a glorious dictatorship. In the unlikely event that Saddam turned out to be available, well, the bull has run through the china shop. There is no going back to early 2003.

Therefore, the most likely scenario in Iraq is civil war. That is why Iran is sending arms across the Iraqi border. It is not necessarily in order to get the Great Satan, although if their shells are lobbed at Uncle Sam’s forces they would not be upset. No, the arms are for their Shi’ite brothers who, after all, are the majority in Iraq who have never really held the reigns of power. The Iranians know the real deal: sectarian civil war is coming in Iraq, if it is not already here, so their side needs to be ready. Shi’ite Iraq looks promising as a future Shi’ite state, although Iran is likely hoping that in time it will be absorbed into a greater Iranian empire.

If you want a likely playbook of what will follow, possibly as soon as next year, think of the diaspora that occurred when Great Britain decided to turn greater India into India, and East and West Pakistan. Where there are pluralistic communities inside Iraq, expect them to become single ethnicity. Shi’ites are mostly already where they already need to be. Sunnis living in predominantly Shi’ite territories will beat a hasty retreat toward predominantly Sunni areas. With luck, Sunni areas may affiliate with friendly countries too. Jordan is possible but Syria is more likely. The Kurds will claim their state although whether they can keep it is another question. Turkey will be watching them anxiously. The moment the Kurds seem too uppity or too weak Turkish troops will cross the border en masse. The notion of a new stable, peaceful and democratic Iraq will prove yet another mirage that our leaders conjured up gazing wistfully into the Arabian Desert.

Yes, it will be a shame. Moreover, I will be ashamed. (Heck, I already feel ashamed.) Rumors to the contrary notwithstanding (after all, according to the Right, all us liberals were secretly hoping for the worst) I ache for the suffering of the Iraqi people. I am sure most of them would prefer something like a democratic government and a real peace. I wish we could have given it to them. A few short months after we invaded Iraq I knew that we could not make it happen. I feel ashamed because my country needlessly set this house of cards in motion. Despite plenty of well-respected experts pointing out before the war that what has unfolded would be the most likely scenario, our leaders refused to let reasoned judgment get in the way of their prejudices. Instead, this will be more sad evidence that our leaders see the rest of the world through a greatly distorted prism. They could not grasp with the complexity of the Iraqi problem as it actually was. Instead, our leaders of course had to act from their own foolish preconceptions. Hit the patella of a neoconservative and you get preemptive war. They cannot help it anymore than a crack addict can avoid his next fix. However, blame yourself if helped put these fools in power.

With luck, things outside of Iraq will not spiral too badly out of hand. I hope that the civil war there will not spark riots in Egypt. I hope it will not trigger the untimely toppling of new King Abdullah in Saudi Arabia by Islamic insurgents. I hope that the ethnicities in Iraq will quickly create defacto borders that will be grudgingly respected by the other sides. If we keep all our fingers and toes crossed, perhaps in ten years or so they will form a loose federation, perhaps an Iraq-lite. Here’s hoping.

Therefore, our exhausted troops will leave sooner rather than later, possibly to be sent to the next theater of war, assuming they do not mutiny outright. Their next theater of war likely will not be one of our choosing. Nevertheless, it does beg the question: after defeat in Iraq how do we regroup and win this war against Islamic extremists?

For my thoughts on this, please come back in a few days. Because that is the real war that will continue. We need to seriously and soberly grapple with it. Iraq has been a costly and unnecessary sideshow from a main event that will keep coming.

 

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