Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Explaining Syria . . . today

See the last entry in Thinking Enemy for a discussion of how the current anarchy in the Mideast began. This entry addresses the Syrian mess - - as simply as I can explain it.

                Syria is located Northwest of Iraq, bordering Turkey, with its back to the Mediterranean. It contains several valuable ports and the routes for the lucrative movement of oil from countries in the region.  Composed of many factions and religions, it was ruled with a rough hand by the Assad family starting in 1970. It supported the US with intelligence and other means during the war against Saddam. The Obama Administration saw a way to advance their vision of US values by encouraging Assad’s overthrow in the Arab Spring.

Now imagine please . . . the geographic situation described above as a crossroads in a densely populated area where seven roads run together, creating seven-pie shaped territories at 6, 8, 10, 12, 2, 3 and 5 o’clock respectively. The seven territorial “pies” intersect and overlap, each ruled by a gang at war with one or more of the others. Also every segment contains populations from the other segments, some only large enough to be victims, but some significant enough to threaten stability from within.

Gang 6 is fighting gangs 8 and 10, as well as gangs 3 and 5, but they are allied with gang 12, and indifferent to gang 2.   

The 10’s are fighting the 6’s, but would like a major piece of 8’s territory where many of their relatives live.

Gang 5 is fighting everybody but would like to ally with gang 3, except their last emissary was beheaded as an answer.

The 2’s risk collapse from attacks by the 3’s, and are allied with the 12’s in response, but domestic religious and ethnic minorities within 2 fear the alliance with 12 more than the radical teachings of 3, and invite this most bloodthirsty of gangs in.

You get the picture.  Every “pie shaped wedge” has a flexible list of friends and enemies, with many of their own people dwelling in other sectors, and many restive people from those other segments threatening domestic revolt.

In the midst of this multi-sided gang war with its indistinct boundaries and mixed populations, an outside agent (the US) weighs in with plans to train and deploy thousands of proxy fighters.  It recruits people who want to fight 6, but plans to use them only against 3, in an alliance with 2, who by the way hates them. One of the most respected US generals suggests (no kidding) maybe we can use 5 to attack 3 inside 2, even though 5 remains at war with us, our ally 2 and their ally 12. (12 having also waged an undeclared war against us for a decade.)

And another outside agent (Russia) is sending troops to work with 12 to support 6 against gangs 8, 10, 2, 3, and 5 (all of whom are fighting each other), even though it might accidently engage US troops and begin a wider war in the process.

I have used gangs and pie shaped territorial wedges numbered like the face of a clock because it is less confusing than writing out the names of the participants.  But obviously 6 represents Syria, 8 is Turkey, 10 the Kurds, 12 Iran, 2 Iraq, 3 ISIS and 5 Al Qaeda.  Each is fighting some or all of the others, and each has ethnic and religious enemies from the others mixed into their territorial slice.  If this sounds crazy, it is.

In fact it is even crazier than it sounds, because the violence is beyond description. Fathers are beaten to death before their families. Children are crucified and buried alive. Women are stripped and sold in slave markets. Recently the 5’s caught four men from 12 fighting for 2. They hung them upside down and burned them alive, claiming this is what 12 and 2 (our ally) had recently done to captives of their own.  Who knows – maybe so. And of course, 6 is still dropping massive nail bombs onto civilian neighborhoods in order to cleanse their territory and create mass refugee movements.  (It’s working.) The US is flying air attacks from 8 against 3 in support of 10, while 8 launches independent attacks against our ally 10 from the same airfields.

Good grief.

So why not just get the hell out and let them eat each other?  Great question. 

Well first, remember that we started this rock slide by failing to ensure stability when we replaced Saddam, and then compounded the problem by overthrowing more strongmen, thereby creating anarchy that supported our values even less.  (Honestly, can’t anybody here play this game?) 

Second, we have committed to support some people (like 10, the Kurds) who fought with us and will be massacred if we abandon them. 

Third, the instability is already spreading, as radicals and fanatics and disaffected minorities in other countries see the possibility of overthrowing their rulers. Now we are back to looking at threats to American survival interests (oil) across the Mideast. 

And finally, the most radical and most threatening participants in all the gangs have attracted tens of thousands to their cause. If they are victorious, their attraction will grow, and their graduates will return to their homes (to include in the US) with new skills, ready to put them to use. We need to break the cycle of success there in order to reduce the danger of metastasis.

Is there a simple lesson from all this?  Yes.  If you combine enough bad ideas from academicians, politicians, diplomats and the military, you can break Humpty Dumpty in a way that can’t be put back together again. Perhaps we should be asking whose fingerprints are all over the shattered glass.  We won’t have to look far.

Explaining Syria . . . the background

Recently my favorite radio host asked me if I could explain the situation in Syria simply.  Well . . . um-m-m . . . The story isn’t short, but it can be made simpler than many “experts” pretend.   The basic story is that colonial powers imposed national boundaries upon people and groups that had been at blood feuds with each other since time immemorial. New lines on the map did not make them feel any sense of shared identity with their traditional enemies caught inside the same lines.  When the colonial powers departed, they left behind local governments that could only keep up the fiction of nationhood through force.  And when the Arab Spring (encouraged by the US) ended those “strongman” governments, the fiction of nationhood evaporated and the blood feuds returned.  With a vengeance.  This pattern has been played out in several nations.  Here is the run-up to what happened in Syria. 
            Syria is not a nation, in the sense of a people held together by a common set of beliefs and values. Like most Mideast states, Syria is a geographic entity that contains a broad  collection of peoples who share some history and common interests, but also differ in religion, culture, loyalties, narrative of the past, and vision for the future. Calling Syria a nation is like calling America a nation before Europeans arrived.  Yeah, there were lots of American Indians, but they were local tribes living separately, with little in common and frequently at war. There was no nation. Until the 19th century, the Mideast was marked mostly by the rulers and the ruled – not nations sharing values and beliefs.
            When the British, French, and other colonial powers began to occupy the Far East, Near East, and Mideast, they crushed local opposition, and imposed boundaries to serve their own interests, regardless of traditional loyalties.  Many academics today castigate the colonizers, but in fact the British ended slavery, minimized local fighting, and generally improved health and sanitation. Not as first priorities, or course.  That was making money. But there was to some extent less conflict during British colonial rule than before . . . or after. 
The Brits used local minorities to set up colonial governments. The minorities feared the local majorities and other minorities more than their colonial overlords, and used their skills to remain in power after the departure of the colonial powers post-World War II. The result was conflict everywhere in the post-colonial era, as groups small and large struggled for power and dominion over the shells of states that the Western Powers left behind. Of course, in some areas a single tribe (like the House of Saud) with a single religious focus (Wahhabism), won domination without carrying colonial baggage.  But in general, former colonies (like Libya, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, etc.) came to be dominated by strongmen with a Western vision of political power, but based on tribal or family ties. They ruled their nations with a combination of benefits for those who cooperated, and broken heads for those who didn’t.  And opposition generally coalesced along family, tribal, and religious lines as well. 
During the Cold War, those strongmen feared democracy, and were attracted to the  centralization of power promised by socialism, so they frequently supported the USSR and opposed the US. Although we had plenty of strongman supporters ourselves (Batista, Marcos, the Shah of Iran), those in North Africa and around Israel tended to line up against us. Meanwhile, whether they favored West or East, strongmen who wanted modern power had to turn to non-Muslim states for economic, military, intelligence and technical assistance.  This in turn alienated conservative religious factions even within their own households, just as revolutions in communications and transportation made networking by those disaffected parties easier than ever before.  The end of the Cold War produced a transitional period where socialism had failed, but the strongmen were not yet sure of the new alignment.  The dramatic US victory in the Gulf War pushed them toward us, and the Neo-Conservatives in power generally welcomed the stability they promised in a part of the world vital to modern economies.
Some strongmen pushed back, however – especially in Iran and Iraq. And for years they were in conflict with each other and with us at the same time.  We developed a policy called “dual containment” where we favored neither, and tried to play off one against the other to maintain regional stability. It was a difficult business, and after 9/11 the Neocons saw a solution in the conquest of Iraq, and its conversion to a peaceful, unified democratic nation on the order of Germany after the Second World War. This vision showed a complete misunderstanding of Mideast history and circumstances in general, and Iraq in particular.  (Be patient – we are getting to Syria.) But it might have worked if the US had stayed for generations as it did in Germany and Japan.
But Americans wanted out, and the new President Obama obliged them, confident that his support of the Arab Spring (overthrowing strongmen region wide) would bring democracy and a peaceful resolution of those ridiculous ancient grudges based on religion and blood feuds. (“Clinging to their God and their guns,” he called it within the US.)  Predictably, the opposite happened. Supporting the overthrow of Qaddafi, et al, released hatreds long suppressed but now equipped with modern weapons. Iraq fractured along minority Sunni / minority Kurdish / majority Shia lines. And states with more ethnic and religious factions (like Syria) fractured into more and smaller pieces.
And now a flashback within the flashback.
        Until the Clinton Administration, US national interests were identified as either survival, vital, important, or peripheral. Maintaining the flow of Mideast oil was a survival issue – we would fight for it. Reducing child labor globally was peripheral – we addressed it when convenient. Both Republicans and Democrats agreed with this approach, which is why “politics stopped at the water’s edge.”
But as President Clinton began his second term in 1997, the new Secretary of State Madeline Albright declared for the first time that American VALUES constituted an American SURVIVAL interest. That is, the US would use all elements of national power, to include military power, to advance our values worldwide.
         The Bush Administration was careful to couch the invasion of Iraq in Clintonian terms (promoting human rights and democracy), and thus obtained the support of many Democrats who later regretted their decision.  While President Obama eschewed the direct use of military power (except under the auspices of NATO command), he was willing to “lead from behind” in promoting his Administration’s values in the Arab Spring – thereby overthrowing the strongmen and their anti-democratic policies which had previously kept the order that served our more venial interests. The expectation of what would follow turned out to be as flawed as the assumptions of the Neocons when they invaded Iraq. So in chasing calculated interests, Bush & Co. pulled the cork from the bottle by overthrowing one strongman, loosing the caustic catalysts of tribalism and religious fanaticism in one country. Obama & Co. smashed the bottle while chasing their vision of values, and loosed a witch’s brew on the entire region. 
In Libya, Qaddafi's overthrow led to both anarchy and religious strife, as well as the distribution of his massive store of weapons to radical groups everywhere. For example, Qaddafi reportedly owned more shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles (useful against the US Air Force and civilian airliners) than Great Britain. Many are now missing. (Press reports stated that one of the men killed in Benghazi told friends he was going to Libya as a contractor to recover those missiles.)
        Despite anarchy in Libya, and the rise of anti-American religious fanatics to power in Egypt, Obama’s team saw another chance to spread their values in Syria, and publicly encouraged the overthrow of President Assad. Once again, the result did not go as planned.
Which brings us to Syria . . . in the next installment of Thinking Enemy.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

ISIS through the Looking Glass

"Alice, I don't think we are in Wonderland anymore."

 (I intentionally confused my metaphors there, to demonstrate the level of confusion in this situation . . . did you get that? Just checking.)

            So retired General David Petraeus, the guy who came closest of anyone in the last 15 years to actually doing something that worked in the Mid East, thinks the answer to ISIS is to peel off the moderates from Al Qaeda and use them as our proxy force. (Note - he is one of Obama's chief advisers on the current war.)  Wow. Who said you can't change sides three times in the same war?

Perhaps before we go swapping jerseys again, it is worth considering how we reached the point that we are losing to several different enemies at the same place and the same time.

            At the end of WW II in Europe (stay with me), we denazified all of Germany. That meant we removed anyone who had cooperated with the Nazi party from any position in government or business.  Example: If you had been a member of the Nazi party in 1945, you could not be a mail man in 1946.  As a German friend once explained, to hold any job of significance while the Nazis were in power, you had to join the party.  That was even at the lowest level, like teacher, or railroad engineer.  So because we threw the Nazis out, and with all the people with genuine moral convictions dead in the camps, the only people who could get jobs in government were the mediocre and what was left of the political opposition. Which meant the Communists.  And thus (over General Patton's objections) official US government policy ensured the new Germany was penetrated from the beginning with far leftists, starting in elementary schools. 

            That was an interesting contrast to what we did  in Japan, where we left the cult of the Emperor intact, and used Japanese troops as constabulary forces in Asia until we could get our own troops in place.  The Japanese navy that fought us in 1945 ran the mine clearing operations for the Inchon Landing in 1950.

The difference, I think, was that the US elite did not feel the future was threatened by Japanese militarists and Emperor worship, while Fascism posed a real and continuing ideological threat. Just listen to the rhetoric of the political left on the campaign trail today. They are far more worried by the competition from the moderate Right than our sworn enemies in Iran or ISIS. So we starved the Germans, and gave the Japanese a pass. (If you don't understand the "starved the Germans" reference, look up the Morgenthau Plan.)

In light of that background, consider the de-Bathization program conceived by the Neocons in 2004 and implemented by US Ambassador Paul Bremer. It systematically drove out every person who understood how to make a secular government work, and replaced them by Shia Iranian sympathizers, bent on revenge against the previous ruling Sunni minority.  This drove the Sunni into the arms of either:

a. radical Al Qaeda, trying to overthrow the American backed Shia government; or

b. radical ISIS trying to overthrow everyone, to include radical Al Qaeda. 

President Obama and his ideologues then doubled down on this losing concept, by supporting radicals all over the Mid East during the Hindenberg-like crash of the Arab Spring.  Result -- the creation of lots of radical sides, all of them opposing us.

The motive for the Morgenthau plan was clear: Revenge. Make every German feel the pain of losing, and make sure Germany never again had the wherewithal to threaten the global order. The joint Neocon / Progressive plan of the last decade has been more ideological: institute the mechanism of diversity, democracy, and capitalism which would then work its magic, making people understand that their best interests are served by building governments around secular, diverse, free markets.  Except the people of the Mid East disagree, and use every opportunity to advance their more tribal/religion-centric view of the world.

And so here we are, through the looking glass, watching the Mad Hatter yell "Clean cup!! Clean cup!" while everyone changes chairs and sides. I guess General Petraeus at least gets credit for understanding what is NOT working, and proposing something different.  But somehow, like Alice, the prospect of a new seating arrangement at a table full of madmen does not make me feel better.