Yesterday’s enemies, today’s allies … and tomorrow ?

by John Quiggin on October 7, 2014

When a militarily powerful country tries to govern the affairs of millions of people on the other side of the planet, we shouldn’t be surprised that chaos results …

That’s of the grab from my latest piece in Inside Story, commenting on the utter incoherence of US (and therefore Australian) policy in the Middle East. An extended version:

How could it be otherwise? A rich and militarily powerful country has taken it upon itself to govern the affairs of millions of people on the other side of the planet, of whom it knows nothing. Its emissaries routinely elevate particular individuals, ethnic groups, religious sects and political parties as favourites, then just as quickly dump them in favour of new friends. Its tools vary randomly from overwhelming force to plaintive exhortation, with no clear or consistent rationale.

The key observation is that, with the exception of slavish obedience to the whims of the Netanyahu government, the US has switched sides on almost every conflict in the Middle East in the space of a couple of years.

My policy recommendation to the US is

an announcement that, from now on, the people of the Middle East would be left to sort out their problems for themselves. In particular, it would be useful to state that the United States has no strategic concern with Middle Eastern oil, and that energy policy is a matter for individual countries to determine according to their own priorities.

Inside Story doesn’t appear to take comments so read there (lots of other interesting stuff) and comment here.

{ 220 comments }

1

James Conran 10.07.14 at 9:58 am

“Obama could do a great service by honestly admitting that the United States has no capacity to promote a negotiated settlement between Israel and Palestine.”

I think this would be a false “admission” – it would be true for him to say that there’s not much that he, and perhaps any president, can do, given the realities of congressional support for Israel, but “the United States” could do plenty.

2

Brett Bellmore 10.07.14 at 10:27 am

” In particular, it would be useful to state that the United States has no strategic concern with Middle Eastern oil,”

I’m unclear why it is useful to state falsehoods.

For better or worse, (And I’m convinced it is for the worse.) the civilized world is dependent on Middle Eastern oil. It would be much better if we weren’t, for a long list of reasons. But we are. Take it abruptly away, and there’d be a world-wide depression, until we managed to find a substitute. And THAT is most certainly a strategic concern of the United States.

Now, I think we’d be much better off directing our efforts to achieving energy independence, and making Middle Eastern oil a convenience for plastics manufacture, rather than an essential source of energy. But until we can do that, the area is of strategic importance to the whole civilized world.

Of which it is not a part, regrettably, which is why we have to be concerned about it.

3

ZM 10.07.14 at 11:01 am

Brett Bellmore,

“For better or worse, (And I’m convinced it is for the worse.) the civilized world is dependent on Middle Eastern oil. It would be much better if we weren’t, for a long list of reasons. But we are.”

This is a good reason for you to support better government transport and energy policies – with less car driving and more public transport (electrified using renewable energy), more bike riding, and more walking. As well as helping climate change and sustainability you have shown it would also contribute to having better international relations with the middle east (except for they would need some help so they did not have a depression and people starve or have more social turmoil)

As far as plastics from middle east oil – I have wondered whether as plastics break down over their very long life cycle they will emit ghg since they are carbon based. I have not been able to find detailed studies on how plastics breakdown and if they release ghg emissions in breaking down since they are made from carbon. I think this had better be investigated before we use up all the oil in the middle east in plastics – since if plastics breaking down emits ghg people would have a very great climate change problem in the hundreds of years time or whenever it is when they finally break down.

4

ajay 10.07.14 at 11:05 am

The key observation is that, with the exception of slavish obedience to the whims of the Netanyahu government, the US has switched sides on almost every conflict in the Middle East in the space of a couple of years.

That’s kind of a stretch, frankly. The US is not “debating how much support to give to Assad against the Sunni insurgents”. It’s actually still supporting some Sunni insurgents in Syria (such as the Kurds, who are almost all Sunni, and the FSA). It wasn’t supporting ISIS two years ago and it still isn’t. It wasn’t supporting Assad two years ago and it still isn’t. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/sep/04/assad-anti-isis-pact-west-cameron-syria

Nor has the US really changed sides in Iraq. Two years ago it was supporting the Iraqi government, today it’s supporting the Iraqi government. The prime minister has changed, that’s all. I suppose the British government changed sides too when it went from being an ally of George Bush in 2008 to being an ally of Barack Obama in 2009?

On that, as well, if as you say the US is now “effectively allied with Iran as the main supporter of the Iraqi government” – well, that was true two years ago as well. Prime minister Nuri al-Maliki was and is a member of the Dawa Party, which has been pro-Iran since its foundation back in the 1970s. Like his Dawa predecessor as PM al-Jaafari and his Dawa successor al-Abadi, in fact, he lived in Iran for several years.

I have no idea where you’re getting this business about the Sadrists. They haven’t been a military force in Iraq for years, and even in their glory days were strongest in the Shia south and east – what is needed to fight ISIS is not Shia militias from Basra, but pro-government Sunni militias in the north and west. That’s why al-Maliki was seen as a problem – he was very pro-Shia, to the point where he was pushing the Sunni population in the direction of ISIS. al-Abadi was seen as being more exclusive.

Nor has the US changed sides on Yemen, which you didn’t mention.

5

Peter T 10.07.14 at 11:17 am

Actually, the post both overstates and understates the muddle that is US policy. It does not so much switch sides as either try to push forward with bit players (Chalabi, FSA), or play all sides at once (the CIA has been encouraging Baluchi insurgents in south-east Iran while State has been trying to find a way out of the sanctions mess, and Defence muttering to Iran about being helpful in Afghanistan). And then when things don’t go the way the US wants, the response has as often been dictated by spite as by interest. It’s an old story – see Cuba, or Vietnam and Cambodia, or China. The last rational, coherent US foreign policy actor seems to have died around 1948.

6

Ronan(rf) 10.07.14 at 11:18 am

Fair enough; though all that’s saying is that US policy towards the Middle East should be the equivalent of US policy towards Central Africa, except even more stridently indifferent. Which might not be a worse option but certainly isnt morally or strategically much better.
The idea that the US will just ‘do nothing’ also seems impossible, politically. The examples in the article (‘support’ for the overthrow of Mubarak, ‘support’ for the new military regime, etc) was just Obama reacting to events. The idea that the US FP establishment will never adopt a preference or opinion on a revolution and then coup in Egypt strikes me as an impossible aspiration. The US commitment to anti Assad rebels now really can’t be seen independtly from their ambivalence towards the opposition- rightly or wrongly – over the past 3 years . So doing nothing is really doing something, and still not a great option. All things considered.
For my part, I couldn’t care less if the US chooses to use airstrikes and special forces and proxy groups to degrade ISIS. This seems like a sensible use of military power. Whether that can be done over the short run is another question, but hopefully it’s the beginning of a serious process to weed them out by regional actors.

7

Ronan(rf) 10.07.14 at 11:26 am

I agree with ajay. The move against Maliki was to try to get Sunni tribes on board to move against ISIS (and potentially buy into any future Iraqi government) The US is still supporting the rebels against Assad , just also against ISIS and other Jihadi elements. And the rapprochement with Iran is overstated (but, imo,not really a bad thing)

8

Ze Kraggash 10.07.14 at 12:20 pm

It doesn’t matter which strongman the US supports and how consistently. What’s important is that this strongman gets to wield far more power than justified by the internal dynamics. Pressure builds up, then erupts. Blowback.

Either colonize the place forever (probably not an option), or let people sort things out themselves.

9

J Thomas 10.07.14 at 12:40 pm

Anything we do to attack ISIS supports Assad. It might also support some bit players that we like better, but they are bit players who mostly play because they’ve been promised our support.

Like it or not, the Iraqi government is essentially a Shia government, and there was never much chance it would be anything else from the days that we decided to exclude former Ba’ath members from government. Sunnis are not going to support it much. So they can support ISIS or they can stand aside in disgust at both sides. And the Shia army is not going to accomplish much in areas that are mostly Sunni. The US Marines never accomplished a whole lot there, given their ROE. We had the firepower to destroy every building in Anbar, but what good would it do us?

Iran is a regional power poised to get stronger. US Zionists are implacably opposed to Iran’s continued existence. US geopolitical strategy involves trying to stop Iran from being a regional power while using Iran’s status as a regional power whenever it’s useful.

The USA cares about Egypt because they have a large population and if they could get decent weapons they would be a threat to Israel. Also they have the Suez canal. That’s pretty much it. We give them enough economic aid to mostly prevent food riots and enough military aid to suppress revolt among their own people. We find military governments in Egypt easier to deal with — less hypocrisy needed on their part. Though of course not on ours.

I don’t see that US foreign policy in the middle east is at all incoherent. It just cannot be spoken aloud by government representatives because it sounds so bad.

10

Ronan(rf) 10.07.14 at 1:00 pm

“Anything we do to attack ISIS supports Assad.”

Not really. ISIS spend more of their time attacking other rebels than attacking the regime. That’s not to say it furthers the demise of Assad (which it doesn’t) or strenghtens the opposition (which it probably doesnt) , just that international politics is difficult. (Despite the lefts sometimes claims to the contrary.)
The *recent* events that have led to the reemergence of ISIS in Iraq (primarily the strenghtening of sectarian control in Baghdad and more specifically the Hawija clashes) are a better example of what you get when you ‘leave them sort it out’, perhaps this a ‘better’ outcome for some caveated definition of better, but still not exactly wonderful.

11

J Thomas 10.07.14 at 1:52 pm

“Anything we do to attack ISIS supports Assad.”

Not really. ISIS spend more of their time attacking other rebels than attacking the regime.

“The friend of my enemy is my enemy.” Assad is their only credible opposition, so hurting them helps him.

The *recent* events that have led to the reemergence of ISIS in Iraq (primarily the strenghtening of sectarian control in Baghdad and more specifically the Hawija clashes) are a better example of what you get when you ‘leave them sort it out’, perhaps this a ‘better’ outcome for some caveated definition of better, but still not exactly wonderful.

“If you want it done right, you have to do it yourself.”

The USA is unwilling to keep an occupation army there in strong enough numbers to maintain order. The USA is unwilling to run the Iraqi government all by ourselves. It follows that we can’t expect the results to be exactly wonderful.

We showed in Iraq that we were not willing to do what was necessary for acceptable results. We were willing to kill only about a million of them, and they saw how squeamish we were and then they took initiative to get what they wanted.

If we had been willing to kill say 25 million Iraqis we could have gotten a much better result “for the people who are still alive”.

But we just did not have that resolve. We stopped even before we ran out of cake.

12

Ronan(rf) 10.07.14 at 1:56 pm

There are also arguments

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2014/09/22/how-the-u-s-fragmented-syrias-rebels/

http://www.cna.org/research/2013/rebel-alliance

that US inaction has led to the dominance of ISIS (and to a lesser extent other Jihadist groups) within the opposition. I don’t neccesarily know if I buy the entire argument about *what the US could have done*, but certainly bits of it seem right.

Other claims about the inherent unviability of Arab states, or primordial religious dogmatism (re Brett) of the ‘Arab people’are (IMO) weak. The problem seems to be primarily one of economic and political failure in the Middle East. If there had been a a decade or two of genuine, inclusive economic growth and political reform then this situation would probably not be occuring. What we’re seeing (afaik) is not the breakdown of the ‘Sykes Picot borders’, but the sectarian homogenisation of commuities within those borders, and the exile or annihilation of any groups that fall outside the two dominant identities (much as happened to the Jews and Roma in Central Europe)

13

jake the antisoshul soshulist 10.07.14 at 2:11 pm

The post does overstate everything except the incoherence of US foreign policy.
Some of the incoherence is due to political realities in the US. These include: overwhelming support for whatever Israel’s current policy is, reflexive Republican/conservative opposition to whatever policy a Democratic president promotes, the reactive (rather than proactive) policy of the Obama administration. (not that I oppose that philosophically)

The US needs to be independent of fossil fuels as a energy source. Normally, I would say we need to become independent of Middle Eastern oil first, but I don’t know that we have enough time to accomplish that before solving fossil fuels.

I am not sure better or worse are proper terms, but the Middle East will have to sort it out for themselves or we will continue to see the current chaos for any foreseeable future. Of course, sorting it out will likely be a long and bloody process (see the religious wars in Europe). But, I am convinced that it would likely be even longer and bloodier if the West continues to meddle.

14

Seth Gordon 10.07.14 at 2:11 pm

James Conran: It would be an exaggeration to say that the US has no capacity to promote an Israel/Palestinian settlement, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of capacity. It can offer various bribes,[*] but the parties on the other side have to be willing to accept those bribes… which they won’t do if at least one of them thinks that being intransigent now will lead to a better offer later.

[*]US aid to both Israel and Egypt rose after the first Camp David deal, and has continued through both countries’ various political gyrations, which suggests to me that the US is bribing them not to have another war over the Sinai.

15

Sasha Clarkson 10.07.14 at 2:21 pm

“Yesterday This Day’s Madness did prepare;
To-morrow’s Silence, Triumph, or Despair:
Drink! for you know not whence you came, nor why:
Drink! for you know not why you go, nor where.”

(Quatrain LXXIV, Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam; tr Edward Fitzgerald, 3rd edition.)

All my life, and for the previous century, Britain, and then the US have been trying to create a chain of friendly regimes from the Nile to the Indus. We haven’t made a very good job of it, degenerating from nation building to perpetual crisis management. The cost, in all senses, continues to be huge. “We” are in a hole – perhaps it’s time to stop digging?

I don’t know to what extent the US in particular needs Mid-East oil. Perhaps JQ does? But without these apparently self-defeating military programmes, perhaps the US really wouldn’t need any oil but its own?

16

J Thomas 10.07.14 at 2:39 pm

The problem seems to be primarily one of economic and political failure in the Middle East. If there had been a a decade or two of genuine, inclusive economic growth and political reform then this situation would probably not be occuring.

I think you’re right, although as always concerning predicting what things would be like if they had gone different we must use a lot of guesswork.

However, that option was not open to us. To support Israel we must keep arab economies crippled. And so we have sanctions on Syria and Iran. The gulf states are no threat — their small rich populations mostly import what they need and cannot build important armies. Egypt, our former and future ally, does get trade advantages. We impose no tariffs on their exports to us provided they contain 10.5% Israeli content, and we are discussing the possibility that we will remove various non-tariff administrative barriers to trade.

Our NATO ally Turkey has a free trade agreement with Israel, but not with the USA.

If middle east nations were prosperous it would give them more ability to attack Israel. So we can’t have that.

17

MPAVictoria 10.07.14 at 2:49 pm

We have been bombing the Middle East off and on for almost 25 years and what has it gotten us? Nothing but hundreds of thousands of dead civilians, trillions of dollars wasted and chaos across the region.

Do we really have any idea what those trillions of dollars could have accomplished if they had been used to build up rather than tear down? High speed internet, quality infrastructure, access to health care and education for people across the region. Perhaps we could have bribed the Israelis and the Palestinians to make peace with that much money!

Instead we have the same people calling for bombs yesterday, bombs today and bombs tomorrow. It is absolutely bat shit insane. Yet here we are again. Why are our leaders so willing to make the same mistakes over and over and over again?

/This is all just so depressing.

18

MPAVictoria 10.07.14 at 2:53 pm

“If middle east nations were prosperous it would give them more ability to attack Israel. So we can’t have that.”

This is pretty close to the idea that the world is run by “International Jewish Bankers!!!!”

There is very little proof that free trade is the panacea for economic growth that you seem to think it is which kind of makes your whole argument fall apart.

19

ajay 10.07.14 at 2:57 pm

I don’t know to what extent the US in particular needs Mid-East oil. Perhaps JQ does? But without these apparently self-defeating military programmes, perhaps the US really wouldn’t need any oil but its own?

This is a cue for 15 people to say at once “oil is fungible. Even if the US does not burn any oil that actually comes from the Middle East, an interruption to ME oil supply would drive the world oil price up and cause harm to the US economy, and indeed to most other countries’ economies”.

The US imports about 733 million barrels of crude oil a year from the Gulf region, out of 3.6 billion barrels total imports, which, added to 2.7 billion in domestic production, gives 6.3 billion barrels total consumption. The Gulf, then, supplies roughly 11% of total US oil needs. (The US Department of Energy has an Energy Information Administration which has a very helpful website.)
The US military uses a hell of a lot of oil – it’s the single largest consumer of oil in the US (as you might expect given that it is essentially a huge organisation for moving stuff and people around). It uses 4.6 billion gallons of fuels and oils per year – about 83 million barrels. That’s still far less than the US imports from the Gulf, though.

20

ajay 10.07.14 at 3:01 pm

“Anything we do to attack ISIS supports Assad.”

I thought we’d got past the “objectively pro-Saddam” stage. Clearly not.

21

Ronan(rf) 10.07.14 at 3:11 pm

“However, that option was not open to us. To support Israel we must keep arab economies crippled”

The roots of the political and economic failure of Arab countries is (IMO) primarily domestic. US policy has rarely been particularly intelligent, but it has also mainly been reactive. The fault for underdevelopment lies mainly with Arab elites, not a Jewish conspiracy.

22

mpowell 10.07.14 at 3:27 pm

The likelihood of any of the states in the middle east developing productive economies through the use of oil wealth was always extremely low. An initially poorly developed major oil exporter is going to run a huge current accounts surplus. It can significantly improve the quality of life for the people getting the money (which is quite a few people in SA), but it rarely leads to sustainable economic growth that is not dependent on continued oil extraction. The US isn’t doing much to help matters, but they would be all screwed up regardless.

23

Guano 10.07.14 at 3:35 pm

It’s not really true that the USA has switched sides in the Middle East. Despite the fact that the Gulf States and Turkey have brought into being a terrorist group that controls significant territory in Iraq and Syria, the US is still treating these states with kid gloves. And even though there is significant overlap of interests with Syria and Iraq, relations with these states are still icy. A couple of weeks ago at the UN, the UK prime minister said that Iran is a part if the problem in the Middle East: that’s a daft thing to say about a country whose help you want to deal with a common threat. (Iran may be part of the problem, but every other state in the region is part of the problem.) The incoherence is not that the USA has changed sides but that it apparently allows Turkey and the Gulf States to set conditions for fighting the monster that they have created, so the USA is committed to creating from scratch a moderate opposition force in Syria.

Tony Blair pops up every so often to say that The West has to be engaged in the Middle East. What he fails to mention is that The West is engaged deeply in the Middle East but in an unhelpful way: it is tied up with certain states and thus is involved in their conflicts and squabbles. If it is going to engage in a helpful way it needs to disengage a bit first.

However it is probably 40 years too late for that. As some of us said back then, the response to the 1973 oil embargo should have been to seriously explore alternative energy sources and find ways of reducing oil use. That was a road not taken.

24

Shelley 10.07.14 at 3:43 pm

Why should we pay for this when my students are going bankrupt because of their loans.

25

Sebastian H 10.07.14 at 3:44 pm

“If middle east nations were prosperous it would give them more ability to attack Israel. So we can’t have that.”. There are dozens of things wrong with US policy in the Middle East, but you’ve somehow stumbled onto an explanation that is wrong both in premise and conclusion. US policy was most certainly not to keep Egypt or Jordan weak for example. And if Israel didn’t exist we’d still be concerned about a nuclear Iran.

26

Ronan(rf) 10.07.14 at 3:47 pm

@24 because potential genocide is more important than relatively wealthy US students having difficulty repaying student loans ?And because it’s not like the resources from this would otherwise be going towards student debt writedowns ?

27

Rich Puchalsky 10.07.14 at 3:59 pm

Ronan(rf): “For my part, I couldn’t care less if the US chooses to use airstrikes and special forces and proxy groups to degrade ISIS. This seems like a sensible use of military power. Whether that can be done over the short run is another question, but hopefully it’s the beginning of a serious process to weed them out by regional actors.”

Quoted for purposes of marking out to future generations why war crimes are so popular.

I wonder if I should send it to the woman I know whose child was killed in El Salvador by U.S.-supported forces there.

28

Plume 10.07.14 at 4:00 pm

Sebastion H,

Israel has the bomb many times over. Perhaps Iran is trying to get the bomb because of that, and because we and so many other Western nations have it.

If Israel didn’t exist — and it shouldn’t, at least there — then Iran has far less reason to go after the bomb. And if we hadn’t toppled Mossadegh, and put the Shah back in power, perhaps there is no Iranian Revolution and therefore no worries about the bomb. And, if we hadn’t toppled Saddam, even with the Iranian Revolution, Iran and Iraq check each other . . . and so on.

It is very difficult not to find the current problems in the Middle East connected to our past mistakes. Tragically, we’ve not learned a thing from any of them and keep repeating those mistakes.

29

Ronan(rf) 10.07.14 at 4:09 pm

Rich, please spare me the self righteousness. I know and respect your opposition to military action as (afaict) a general rule. Good on you. My position doesnt mean that I retrospectively support war crimes in El Salvador, it means that I think ISIS are a threat worth dealing with.

30

John Garrett 10.07.14 at 4:19 pm

In the short and mid run, there are no “good” outcomes for this part of the Middle East, with or without US intervention. There aren’t even, in my view, mediocre outcomes: all involve lots of dead women and children, which is my definition of a bad outcome. My belief is that with US intervention whether bombs or soldiers there will be more dead women and children than without it. As evidence I offer Iraq and Afghanistan.

John Garrett

31

Ze Kraggash 10.07.14 at 4:45 pm

12 “The problem seems to be primarily one of economic and political failure in the Middle East. If there had been a a decade or two of genuine, inclusive economic growth and political reform then this situation would probably not be occuring.”

This is a highly eurocentric judgement. Their society may or may not prioritize economic growth (and other western things: democracy, human rights, open society, etc.) as high as westerners do. I get a feeling that every time western ideas are being propagated and implemented, it’s a disaster. The revolution of purple fingers…

32

Brett Bellmore 10.07.14 at 4:55 pm

The basic problem of the Middle East, is that an area of the world which was still largely uncivilized suddenly got showered with wealth, when a valuable resource was found under it. Suddenly having lots of money didn’t make them civilized, it just gave them a lot more resources to devote to being uncivilized.

And, worse, to spread their barbarity abroad. So the world suffers from an epidemic of Islamic terrorism, funded by oil revenues.

Really, it would have been enormously cheaper to have made a push for energy independence, and let the Middle East sink back into poor barbarity. As they’ll undoubtedly do in a few decades when the oil is gone, anyway.

33

Ronan(rf) 10.07.14 at 5:00 pm

@31 – It’s not really. It’s prioritising having a job and the ability to buy food, and is quoted across classes as one of the main issues breeding resentment.
Political dysfunction as a generality means not having to deal with intrusive security appartuses and pay off govt officials. It also means political systems that dont privilege specific ethnic or sectarian groups and thus breed inter enthic tension. It is also something that’s polled as breeding resentment regionally (although with grievances more often held by the more well off afaicr)
Whether it’s ‘eurocentric’, I dont know. This isn’t outer mongolia circa 14th century we’re talking about. There is some space for a crossover of generally held human concerns.

34

Plume 10.07.14 at 5:00 pm

Brett,

Please define “civilized.” Do you mean, for instance, the reign of terror unleashed on the world by Western powers with their colonial expansion, slavery, forced conversions to Christianity? Do you mean the tens of millions slaughtered in WWI, and the even greater numbers in WWII? Do you mean the wars upon wars after WWII, initiated primarily by the United States which led to, for example, 2-4 million slaughtered in Korea and 3 million slaughtered in Vietnam? Or a million slaughtered, with 4 million exiled in Iraq?

Again, please define “civilized.”

35

John Quiggin 10.07.14 at 5:18 pm

Ajay @4 On the Sadrists, try Googling “Peace Brigades”
http://uk.reuters.com/article/2014/08/31/uk-iraq-security-idUKKBN0GU0OT20140831

As for

Nor has the US really changed sides in Iraq. Two years ago it was supporting the Iraqi government, today it’s supporting the Iraqi government. The prime minister has changed, that’s all

I dips me lid.

36

ajay 10.07.14 at 5:23 pm

Their society may or may not prioritize economic growth (and other western things: democracy, human rights, open society, etc.) as high as westerners do

The other western things, maybe not. (Though, even if “democracy and human rights” aren’t buzzwords in the ME to the same extent, I bet “justice and good government” are.) But economic growth, as represented in particular by general prosperity and opportunities for employment: yes, they do, as Ronan said. Food costs were a key issue in Tunisia, in Egypt, and in Syria, and that is an economic issue, but it’s one that is common to anyone in any sort of society.

. US policy was most certainly not to keep Egypt or Jordan weak for example.

True. Look at the Egyptian army. Count the tanks. Now look at where they’re from.

37

Brett Bellmore 10.07.14 at 5:32 pm

“Do you mean, for instance, the reign of terror unleashed on the world by Western powers with their colonial expansion, slavery, forced conversions to Christianity?”

“Still” largely uncivilized, as in present tense. I’m not talking about centuries past.

Or maybe your definition of civilization includes executing people for converting to a different religion, prosecuting rape victims for being raped, just generally treating women as chattel, destroying historical monuments, and so forth.

The Middle East is, to this day, still an uncivilized part of the planet. That’s their fundamental problem. Oil wealth just lets them spread it.

38

ajay 10.07.14 at 5:33 pm

35: huh. I missed the Peace Brigades. Interesting.

But I still think that you are over-reaching by talking about the US “changing sides” in Iraq. Maliki’s successor is the deputy head of Maliki’s party, for heaven’s sake. There is a war going on in Iraq, and Maliki and al-Abadi are on the same side as each other. It’s fairly important to understand this.

39

soru 10.07.14 at 5:41 pm

My belief is that with US intervention whether bombs or soldiers there will be more dead women and children than without it. As evidence I offer Iraq and Afghanistan.

The counter-evidence would be Syria, which, without any meaningful US intervention, has a death total[1] higher than Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Mali, Palestine, Sierra Leone and Bosnia put together. It is rivalled only by the last time the US ‘left the middle east to sort itself out’ (i.e. sit back and sell arms to both sides): the Iran Iraq war

[1] the commonly quoted figure for the total of a few hundred thousand, based on confirmed reports, is obvious nonsense; the country is simply too dangerous for journalists, let alone researchers, to visit. So heavy artillery fires for weeks on end, cities change hands by street battles, and that number stays the same.

Best estimate is that the population has dropped from over 23 million to under 17 million over the course of the war, with 5 million documented refugees, plus 6 million internally displaced.

No way there are less than 2 million bodies by now…

40

Plume 10.07.14 at 5:45 pm

Brett,

The Western powers had colonies well into the 20th century, and America, especially, was (and is) given to toppling democratically elected popular governments where it wanted to. Central and South America, especially. India/Pakistan didn’t win independence from Britain until 1947. The continent of Africa wasn’t fully liberated from colonial powers until well into the 20th century — the last nation (Zimbabwe) finally breaking away in 1980. In Asia, Indonesia, 1949, etc. etc. Vietnam, 1975, etc.

It’s far more recent than you seem willing to admit.

41

Brett Bellmore 10.07.14 at 5:58 pm

That Saudi Arabia is civilized on the same scale the US is isn’t the hill *I’d* chose do die on, but go ahead and defend that proposition.

42

Plume 10.07.14 at 6:00 pm

Brett,

That Saudi Arabia is civilized on the same scale the US is isn’t the hill *I’d* chose do die on, but go ahead and defend that proposition.

Where did I say that? I’m questioning your assertion that this is a matter of the “civilized West” versus the barbaric Middle East. IMO, it’s barbarism versus barbarism.

43

Antoine 10.07.14 at 6:06 pm

The proximate to distant causes of the current situation in the Levant and Iraq are :

1. Obama’s last-minute decision not to intervene in Syria in the summer of 2013 (leaving the French high and dry) (2013)

2. Obama’s signaling that the U.S. would withdraw ASAP from Iraq (thereby diminishing his own influence over the creation of a stable unity system in Iraq) . Until that point and after the initial disastrous invasion the U.S. had been steadfast in its commitment to back the national unity of Iraq through a process that includes all its communities ( so no, the U.S. didn’t “change sides” , its commitment was to the process , and the real switch was signaling it was no longer fully committed to it) (2012)

3. The invasion of Iraq by George W. Bush (2003)

4. The Sykes-Picot agreement (1916)

5. The schism (632)

I wonder if John Quiggin believes the American retreat in the Summer of 2013 was a good decision .

44

Ronan(rf) 10.07.14 at 6:09 pm

Point #2 @43 is a good one. It definitely seems a reasonable argument (imo) if not entirely convincing.

45

roger gathman 10.07.14 at 6:26 pm

Actually, it is not just Israel that acts as a driver of US policy – although in actuality I think this is a two way driver, and that Israel does a lot of things that the US government wants them to do while pretending to condemn them or hold them at a distance – but Saudi Arabia. Why should the US, which is buddies with all the authoritarian Gulf states and calmly watched as the Saudis invaded bahrain and suppressed a democratic revolt, care about Assad? I mean, we have no real reason to overthrow Assad. It will actually make US policy much more difficult if Syria fragments. But the Saudis fear Iran, and thus want to damage their ally. That’s it. Similarly, when Pakistan illegally steals the technology and designs to build nuclear weapons, and are financed in this endeavor by the Saudis, we do… nothing. When Iran openly pursues nuclear power and, we presume, a nuclear weapon, we go apeshit.
If the US had taken a far sterner stance towards Saudi Arabia and had established a relationship with Iran in 1989, like Israel, at that time, was advocating, we would surely not have had 9/11, and there would surely be no ISIS.
I would define the US problem in the Middle East differently. Our patchwork of short term policy decisions reflect an unthought out long term framework that has long been broken. It isn’t just the Israel connection that is responsible for this. Rather, it is literally the politics of the oil companies which has brought us to this point.

46

Ze Kraggash 10.07.14 at 6:46 pm

@33 “It’s prioritising having a job and the ability to buy food, and is quoted across classes as one of the main issues breeding resentment.”

But again, get a job -> buy stuff is the western way. There have to be other ways to feed oneself; I don’t know, to own a flock of sheep or something.

I know, it sounds naive, and I admit: I don’t know what I’m talking about. But it would be awfully sad if the only possible economy was the one of stock brokers, walmart greeters, and factory workers.

“Political dysfunction as a generality means not having to deal with intrusive security appartuses and pay off govt officials.”

As opposed to what, what kind of smooth functioning? Mass incarceration and $30-billion/year lobbying industry?

“It also means political systems that dont privilege specific ethnic or sectarian groups and thus breed inter enthic tension.”

I suspect it might be exactly the western-style electoral politics that aggravates these tensions. Not to mention purposeful maneuvering by western powers.

47

sPh 10.07.14 at 6:48 pm

“2. Obama’s signaling that the U.S. would withdraw ASAP from Iraq (thereby diminishing his own influence over the creation of a stable unity system in Iraq) . Until that point and after the initial disastrous invasion the U.S. had been steadfast in its commitment to back the national unity of Iraq through a process that includes all its communities ( so no, the U.S. didn’t “change sides” , its commitment was to the process , and the real switch was signaling it was no longer fully committed to it) (2012)”

10 years apparently not enough I guess.

This might be of interest. The original plan was for ~135,000 occupation troops over and above combat forces and combat MPs that would be retained in the zone. The actual implementation didn’t get that high – in part because there was no insurgency and the occupation troops found themselves culturally compatible with the defeated (not to mention that a high percentage could speak each others’ languages).

http://www.history.army.mil/books/wwii/Occ-GY/

It should also be noted that at that time the top marginal tax rate was 97% and the draft was still in full effect, neither of which were ever approached during Iraq Adventure 2. Somehow the warhawks never want to talk about the credit card bill.

48

TM 10.07.14 at 7:08 pm

It strikes me that Afghanistan wasn’t even mentioned yet. Do people even remember how hard the USA has worked for decades to utterly destroy a secular government and replace it with Islamic extremists and terrorists? The joke is that the US hasn’t even changed sides – the (Sunni) Islamists have, and it took 9/11 for that to dawn on Americans. The US response has been confusion ever since.

49

TM 10.07.14 at 7:12 pm

45 Makes good points about Saudi Arabia – also (like Afghanistan) not mentioned in JQ’s piece.

50

J Thomas 10.07.14 at 7:22 pm

#25 Sebastian H

US policy was most certainly not to keep Egypt or Jordan weak for example. And if Israel didn’t exist we’d still be concerned about a nuclear Iran.

Well, that’s three assertions. What would you consider evidence about any of them?

#36 Ajay

Look at the Egyptian army. Count the tanks. Now look at where they’re from.

The new ones are from Egypt, based on obsolete US designs. There are stories that they are ECM-deficient, but I don’t see how to test it until they actually go up against a first-world enemy. If it’s true, then they are almost entirely targets and have essentially zero military value.

Of course, the Egyptian army is utterly dependent on their SAM system, which is largely based around refurbished soviet SA3s and refurbished US Hawks, along with refurbished SA6, obsolete US Chaparral and Avenger systems, etc.

The whole Egyptian army consists basicly of targets.

Jordan has some refurbished British Challenger-1 tanks, plus some US refurbished Pattons. The Israelis have the best technology the USA can supply. The Jordanians have a heavy focus on special forces, since after all they have nothing to lose by trying that.

51

JW Mason 10.07.14 at 7:23 pm

This post is exactly right.

The only thing I would add is that, as an American, I strongly hope that Iran test a nuclear weapon at some point. Without a credible deterrent, it’s hard to imagine something like JQ’s final paragraph happening. American governments, to coin a phrase, only understand force.

52

Brett Bellmore 10.07.14 at 7:27 pm

“IMO, it’s barbarism versus barbarism”

Well, sure, by your lights any country that didn’t have a fictional economic system is barbarous. But on any sane scale, the Middle East is Mos Eisley, with the exception of Israel. (Which is about as civilized as is survivable there.) It’s a LOT worse than the US or Europe.

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P O'Neill 10.07.14 at 7:28 pm

It’s not easy to map the evolution of US policy towards Saudi Arabia into a specific foreign policy stance. Was it better policy in the 1950s when the Arab American Oil Company (HQ in Delaware) was literally bankrolling the Saudi government or the 1980s when Aramco (HQ: Dhahran) was ultimately footing the bills for Afghanistan and Saddam (back when he was the good Baathist dictator)? More US control in the 1950s. Much worse outcomes in the 1980s.

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J Thomas 10.07.14 at 7:41 pm

#45 Roger Gathman

I would define the US problem in the Middle East differently. Our patchwork of short term policy decisions reflect an unthought out long term framework that has long been broken. It isn’t just the Israel connection that is responsible for this. Rather, it is literally the politics of the oil companies which has brought us to this point.

That’s a good point. In a few highly publicized incidents over the years it looked like the Zionist lobby trumped the oil lobby, but it might be different for more routine matters.

And what drives oil company interests? Perhaps a middle east that has many repeated scares to temporarily drive oil prices up, but few real catastrophes that drive down supply in the long run….

55

Plume 10.07.14 at 7:56 pm

Brett,

On any sane scale if that is determined by conservative Americans. Yes. Very true. It’s what you guys are fighting for in Colorado right now. You know? The right to ram “American exceptionalism” down the throats of students who would rather learn the truth instead.

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stevenjohnson 10.07.14 at 8:03 pm

The only non-racist definition of civilization is “living in cities.” And the only non-racist definition of barbarian is “nomadic.” Civilized is not a synonym for “nice, like me.) Nor is barbarous a synonym for “cruel, unlike me.”

Living in the suburbs is an in-between state, trying to have the creature comforts of civilized life without actually committing to civilization. (Think about it, this explains a lot about US politics.) Living in off-shore bank accounts (so to speak,) given electronic funds transfer, is also close to barbarism.

57

Luke 10.07.14 at 8:09 pm

It’s funny, because Iran ought to be the ideal society for conservatives. Safe, polite to a slightly comical fault, scrupulous, and run according to religious values.

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Plume 10.07.14 at 8:11 pm

“whoever is not Greek is a barbarian.” That’s where it came from.

I think Brett and most American conservatives use it in similar fashion, but they extend it to mean American, European (Western), and allow for some leeway with regard to certain other nations. Perhaps, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Australia. Some parts of Latin America, too. Not Cuba, of course, or Venezuela.

Oh, and not San Francisco. DC and Massachusetts are borderline.

59

Matt 10.07.14 at 8:12 pm

Oil* is a fungible commodity, sure, so what happens with oil in the Middle East affects global prices. But exporters are even more dependent on the oil trade than importers. If Iraq stopped exporting oil that would be more than 80% of its foreign exchange earnings gone. The same goes for Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Libya. Whoever is in charge, if they care about being able to import foreign goods, they’ll continue to export oil. None of these countries is currently in a position to replace foreign imports with domestic manufactures either. I think that JQ’s suggestion that the USA stop treating the domestic politics of the Middle East as a strategic concern is closer to correct than rebuttals citing the global nature of oil markets.

If ascetic religious fanatics who don’t want foreign goods started ruling major oil exporters, they could shut down exports and leave the rest of the world to cope with the energy shock. Still, preparing to cope with an energy shock would be cheaper in the long term than decades of military intervention. Eventually the exports will decline no matter what the military does. It’s not like we haven’t seen the writing on the wall for decades, or survived the effects before. The 1973 oil crisis nearly quadrupled oil prices in less than a year. 30 years later, the price of oil went from $25 a barrel in early 2003 to over $100 a barrel by 2008. I doubt that oil is ever going to be as cheap again as it was in 1998. So let’s adapt and move on, rather than futilely hoping oil prices can be bombed lower.

The humanitarian angle for military intervention doesn’t work either. If you are concerned about foreign civilians dying, there are dozens of more cost effective interventions per life-year saved before you reach “bomb ISIS.”

*I’m actually thinking of natural gas also, but oil and natural gas shortened to ‘oil’ for readability.

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Plume 10.07.14 at 8:12 pm

Luke. They liked it a lot when the Shah was there.

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PlutoniumKun 10.07.14 at 8:17 pm

The article is excellent, its amazing how such a logical and simple proposal can seem so radical in the context of the muddled thinking which characterises western policy and commentary about the Middle East.

I think another issue needs to be emphasised, is that there is not an iota of evidence that a ‘hands off’ policy would alter the flow of oil. Every group in the Middle East wants to export oil at a market price – even Isis are producing oil for sale. Whoever owns the sands will produce oil for sale, and there is no possibility of there being enough unity between the Shiite and Sunni regions to assume they could use it to blackmail the wider world for whatever reason. Whoever is in control, needs to sell oil. Even in Libya, where there has been a virtual collapse of central authority, they have managed to increase output – why wouldn’t they? Everyone needs the money.

The only rational argument against a presence is that someone else (presumably Russia or China) will try to muscle in. But apart from that being unlikely, it can be countered by other means, not by interfering constantly in domestic Middle Eastern politics.

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JimV 10.07.14 at 8:42 pm

“However it is probably 40 years too late for that. As some of us said back then, the response to the 1973 oil embargo should have been to seriously explore alternative energy sources and find ways of reducing oil use. That was a road not taken.”

As a minor addendum, and as I recall, it was taken by the Carter administration, then the Reagan administration did a u-turn.

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jake the antisoshul soshulist 10.07.14 at 8:44 pm

If middle east nations were prosperous it would give them more ability to attack Israel. So we can’t have that.

If middle east nations were prosperous, they would have less incentive to attack Israel.
Or, at least. less incentive to keep the masses distracted by anti-Israel rhetoric. As far as Iran wishing to destroy Israel, I suspect that Israel’s presence as a bete noir is more valuable to Iranian leadership than any advantage they would gain by its absence.

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J Thomas 10.07.14 at 8:49 pm

#63
“If middle east nations were prosperous it would give them more ability to attack Israel. So we can’t have that.”

If middle east nations were prosperous, they would have less incentive to attack Israel.
Or, at least. less incentive to keep the masses distracted by anti-Israel rhetoric. As far as Iran wishing to destroy Israel, I suspect that Israel’s presence as a bete noir is more valuable to Iranian leadership than any advantage they would gain by its absence.

OK, you’ve persuaded me. Now all we need is to persuade the Zionist lobby and we’re good to go.

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jake the antisoshul soshulist 10.07.14 at 8:56 pm

@ JimV #62
This. If we had stayed on the alternative energy road that Carter started, we would be in much better shape on AGW, foreign intanglements in the ME, and very likely in better shape in the overall economy.

Just another one of St. Ronnie’s FUs.

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Ronan(rf) 10.07.14 at 9:17 pm

Well, John Q’s policy re ISIS in Iraq is :

“The horrors now being perpetrated by ISIS on ground prepared by the 2003 invasion of Iraq are such that it is, effectively, impossible for the United States to stand by and do nothing. But its current actions are already producing the de facto partition of Iraq widely advocated a decade ago. A coherent strategy for intervention in Syria is as far off as ever, as is any constructive contribution to the Israel–Palestine dispute.
The best policy option for the Obama administration in the short term would be to stabilise the front lines in Iraq in a way that confines ISIS to Sunni strongholds. Assistance to the less extreme components of the Syrian resistance might also be tried, though this is unlikely to succeed for the reasons set out by Juan Cole.”

I don’t see how it’s really all that different from what’s happening now. “Stabilise the front lines in Iraq” would read to me as support Baghdad and the Kurds (with weapons? more than likely), which *is* choosing proxies to do the on ground fighting for you. ( and which means special forces, diplomatic engagement, training etc)
The next step, which seems to be ‘let regional actors sort it out’, is fine but also not obviously any more effective than whats happening now (western help with bombing and organising a regional alliance.)
I’m personally easy with someone adopting whatever position they like, neither are probably going to be overly effective and there is no easy solution. But neither is ‘disengage and let them sort it out themselves’, which doesnt even make sense as a concept as it doesnt set the terms of the disengagement, doesn’t identify elements of US policy that have been succesful, doesnt speak to the political possibility of serious US disengagement, and doesnt give a plausible outline of how the end results would be any better.
On the larger point in this thread, tying this intevention to Iraq 2003 and Afghanistan; this is not an intervention for regime change (although potentially in Syria it might morph into that) , it’s responding to an ongoing crisis with a very specific target (ISIS) trying to stem their advance, degrade their capabilities and eventually (ideally) wrap them up organisationally, while working through govts and groups in the region. This might also have worked as a template for Afghanistan, working with the Taliban to attack Al Qaeda and forgetting the nation building aspects. There are reasonably good arguments for and against the intervention, I dont see any being a silver bullet.

On Saudi Arabia, as P O Neill implies the relationship really isnt one of client state anymore (if ever it was) You could make some changes around the edges, I guess, stop selling weapons, end security gaurantees etc ? Sure I’d agree, as far as it goes. But there hasnt been a huge amount of evidence that Obama (or Bush) have been overly concerned about Saudi opinion when it mattered (vis a vis Mubarak, Iraq 2003) so again I dont know how far that gets you.
The idea offered above that an alliance with Iran would have been morally any better is odd (to me) as well. The Iranians intervene incessantly in their neighbours business and are a consistent source of instability (and politically pretty repressive) Is it strategically any better ? I dont know, maybe ? Morally? I couldnt see how.
A US intervention in Iran looks (thankfully) off the cards. An Iranian nuclear bomb would be livable with, if not exactly ideal (as nuclear bombs in unstable regions and authortiarian states generally aren’t) Again, the Obama admin seems to have softened its position on Iran. Which is good, and hopefully pooints to less dogmatic engagement in the region.
But still, I think William Polks perspective is right:

“Even the most hardheaded and cynical among us should be concerned since there is a considerable danger of a spillover of any Middle Eastern war into our lives — both abroad in other areas, particularly Islamic areas, and at home. At minimum it long-term and perhaps escalating hostilities in the Middle East would hurt our economy. Additionally, it they could further damage our already fragile ecology, possibly trigger a wider conflict and certainly damage the sense of law, morality and order by which we live.
Even short of actual war, the contagion of instability, hatred and violence is likely to spread and so affect us in other areas and on other issues about which we care.
Perhaps, if our leaders could even slightly raise their eyes above their immediate interests and pay a little attention to the river of events in which we float, we could grab a handhold and stop before we reach the waterfall.
Does anyone see any such leader anywhere? I confess I do not.
I am afraid, not for me, since I am now 85 years old, but for mine and yours and everyone’s. “

A policy of washing our hands of the whole situation , or creating a foreign policy solely on some dogmatic definition of ‘national interests’, doesnt strike me as meaningful.

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J Thomas 10.07.14 at 9:28 pm

I think another issue needs to be emphasised, is that there is not an iota of evidence that a ‘hands off’ policy would alter the flow of oil. Every group in the Middle East wants to export oil at a market price – even Isis are producing oil for sale.

While I think you’re mostly right, still consider how it worked during the Iran/Iraq war.

The USA provided lots of support for Iraq, and it’s possible that Iraq invaded Iran in the first place at US request. We were happy for them to continue fighting indefinitely with no winner. Kissinger famously quipped “Too bad they can’t both lose”. But they both lost a lot of money and had to pump lots of oil to pay for it. Both cheated extensively on their OPEC oil quotas. For some unknown reason the price of oil was low then, so they had to pump lots and lots of oil to get the money they needed for the war.

Then the USA announced there was a threat that Iran would attack international oil shipping. Their goal would be to damage the Iraqi war effort by interfering with their exports. (Iraq and Iran had been attacking each other’s oil shipping for some time, with minor results.) The US Navy moved in aggressively, and Iran attacked oil shipping more while the US Navy was trying to stop them than they ever had before.

A US cruiser shot down an Iranian passenger liner that they thought might have been a threat, and an Iraqi warplane attacked the USS Stark. We forgave the Iraqis, though.

Here is a source about this stuff. Don’t trust it anything it says until you get confirmation from the unbiased, trustworthy US government.
http://www.iranchamber.com/history/articles/united_states_iran_iraq_war2.php

So while everybody in the middle east who has oil has an incentive to sell it, it’s also true that various people in the middle east who have oil also have enemies, and their enemies may consider it more important to stop them from selling it than to keep the world economy on an even keel.

However, it’s far easier for the US military to bomb people than to keep people from bombing oil facilities.

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Guano 10.07.14 at 9:43 pm

Antoine #43 How serious is your list of causes?

If the list is serious, could you explain point 1? What outcome would you have expected from an intervention in Syria in 2013 and why?

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Omega Centauri 10.07.14 at 9:46 pm

Chaos is also the enemy of oil exports. So if we let them battle it out, even if either side would happily pump oil, it could be that a lot of export capacity would be destroyed anyway. War/instability doesn’t usually resolve as a zero-sum game, usually there is a net loss. Also we have seen that the US isn’t strictly concerned with the level of oil exports, we happily embargo or bomb (in the case of IS controlled oil facilities) those exporters whom we consider to be the current bad guys. Clearly the global price of oil has been higher partly because we’ve embargoed Iranian oil.

There is also the fact, that humanitarian concerns aside, instability is bad for the rest of the world. Large refugee flows are tough on those nations who agree to take them in. That includes Europe, and even to a small extent the US.

So we try to muddle from crisis to crisis, but seem to be about as effective as a bull in a China shop.

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J Thomas 10.07.14 at 9:50 pm

So we try to muddle from crisis to crisis, but seem to be about as effective as a bull in a China shop.

And there’s the bigger picture to think about. If we get bogged down in a long-term large-scale occupation in the middle east, what are we going to do when it’s time to invade and occupy China?

71

Donald Johnson 10.07.14 at 10:01 pm

“I don’t see how it’s really all that different from what’s happening now. “Stabilise the front lines in Iraq” would read to me as support Baghdad and the Kurds “

I think it’s different in that it means less bombing, and presumably no bombing in Syria and maybe restricting our bombing to cases where there are clear military assets being blown up, and not civilians. I read somewhere recently that the Administration lifted restrictions on civilian casualties. (I doubt the restrictions were all that strict in the first place, but an open admission that they’ve been lifted doesn’t sound good.)

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John Quiggin 10.07.14 at 10:24 pm

@71 The primary difference isn’t so much what is happening right now as what is going to happen if the stated goal of defeating ISIS is to be achieved. That means driving ISIS out of Sunni urban areas where most of the population will either be supporters of ISIS or hostile to both (all) sides. As an obvious example, it implies yet another reconquest of Fallujah.

It’s possible that could be done by local (almost certainly non-Sunni) forces with intense air support, likely it would require US ground forces of some kind, possible the attempt would fail altogether. Hard to know which of those would be worst.

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Matt 10.07.14 at 10:26 pm

And there’s the bigger picture to think about. If we get bogged down in a long-term large-scale occupation in the middle east, what are we going to do when it’s time to invade and occupy China?

Is this a meta-joke going over my head? No foreign military could successfully invade and occupy modern China, or any nuclear power for that matter. The future might bring peace, or mutual destruction, but it’s not going to bring a repeat of Chinese territory being carved up by stronger foreign powers.

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J Thomas 10.07.14 at 11:32 pm

Is this a meta-joke going over my head?

Yes.

Seriously, it’s like we’re playing Battleship against ISIS while China is playing Go against us.

Who’s likely to come out ahead in 30 years?

They don’t even have to sink our battleships to win, any more than we sank the Soviets’.

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roger gathman 10.07.14 at 11:43 pm

I would think the big difference in JQ’s suggestion is that it provides an endgame – peace talks. Peace talks are ruled out by a policy that calls for the extermination of the enemy, which is what Obama and the D.C. crowd have called for vis a vis ISIS. ISIS may be “terrorists” (rather than what they look like, rebels who want to take and hold territory), but as far as I know, they haven’t called for the extermination of the United States.
Perhaps peace talks can start with canning the extermination talk on both sides.

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Ronan(rf) 10.07.14 at 11:59 pm

How could peace talks with ISIS ever really occur in the short/medium(or long) term? There are certainly (mainly local) members, even in the core, who could eventually be reintegrated into a future Iraq and Syria.. and a larger group, along for the ride, who also could, quite easily. There are probably even foreign jihadis who could be deradicalised and monitored (but not imprisoned) in the countries they came from. But there’s a leadership and set of true believers who would have to be locked up or killed.
The policy isn’t to ‘exterminate’ everyone in ISIS, but to destroy them organisationally and ideologically, in which they have more in common with the SS or Khmer Rouge than Hamas or Hezbollah.
They might not have called for the extermination of the US (although I’m pretty sure they have) but they’ve actively sought to exterminate groups much less powerful than the United States.

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john c. halasz 10.08.14 at 12:21 am

JWM @51:

That comment was especially silly-stupid. Not only don’t “we” want to encourage proliferation of nuclear weapons, (or even nuclear power, according to me), but a fatwa from Khomeini, re-affirmed by Khatemei, specifically prohibits the possession of nuclear weapons. At most, what the Iranian regime is trying to accomplish, is the development of a “break-out” capacity, as a deterrent, in their very dangerous, nuke-armed region. A version, though likely less advanced toward the threshold, of the Israelis’ “strategic ambiguity”, which itself is a hypocritically thin pretense.

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roger gathman 10.08.14 at 12:21 am

Well, it seems to me that peace talks could easily occur concerning the future of territory under ISIS control – and it seems to me that eventually this will happen. I can imagine you writing the same thing about the “impossibility” of inviting the Taliban to peace talks in 2002, and the US has been secretly trying to set such things up now for a couple of years.
As for the Khmer Rouge, didn’t the US shift to the pro-Khmer Rouge position against Vietnam in the eighties? and didn’t talks happen, as the Vietnamese forces withdrew? Hmm, the Wikipedia entry on the Paris peace talks of 1989 shows that is exactly what happened. So, there you have an answer on the parallel to the Khmer Rouge. Not that ISIS is anywhere near as murderous as the Khmer Rouge.

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Ronan(rf) 10.08.14 at 12:31 am

Nobody is going to legitimise ‘the Caliphate’ or redraw the borders of Iraq and Syria for them, and they have no reason to negotiate now because they are on the front foot and have no incentive to compromise.
I dont know enough about The Vietnam/Camodian wars, but it seems you are talking about decades down the line reintegrating ex Khmer into the Cambodian political system? Not meeting their ideolgical demands ? This is the distinction I drew.

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Ronan(rf) 10.08.14 at 12:32 am

..and these moments of compromise occured after long, drawn out wars.

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Ken_L 10.08.14 at 12:44 am

The most pernicious argument is the “we broke it so we’re morally obliged to fix it” line trotted out even by many people who say they opposed the original invasion of Iraq. Firstly it perpetuates the paternalistic ideology that the Arab world is culturally inferior to America and requires endless guidance via rewards and punishment. Secondly it is on a par with allowing a doctor who’s practically killed a patient through incompetent surgery to open them up again, because they mean well and maybe they can do better this time. There are absolutely no grounds for believing the USA can do anything significant in the Middle East without triggering another cascade of unanticipated consequences, many of which will probably be harmful.

John is right. From a moral perspective, America should withdraw from the region. If it insists on staying on the grounds of self-interest, at least let its leaders acknowledge the reasons and drop their lies about terrorist threats to The Homeland and their insufferable pretence of moral superiority.

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roger gathman 10.08.14 at 12:45 am

Right, “after long drawn out war”s. There is not a chance that the US is going to commit the resources, or have a draft, or do any of the things that back up an exterminationist agenda. As for the Cambodian case, I’m not sure what you mean by ideological demands. What happened is, territorially, Vietnam stopped supporting the government it had imposed on Cambodia and withdrew its troops. It wasn’t about reintegrating the Khmer Rouge into the system, but about territory and nationhood.
I think there is every chance, contrary to you, that the Sunni territory held, at least in Iraq, by ISIS is not coming back to Iraq. The pretense that it is, which is the raison d’etre for the US war (although the real raison might well be the media effect of the beheadings, making this something like the war of Jenkin’s ear), is a fiction for which I can’t imagine the American population is going to want to pursue a full scale war – a war that is at an appropriate scale to meet the demands of D.C. When you begin your war by making absolute demands, you can’t carry it out with post-drone bombings. So I would say that peace talks are a face saving gesture for the US as well.
Although the US, after it does its face saving gestures, then gets very revisionist and decides it could have won every war, blindfolded, and stumbles into stupid and pointless aggression again. It is a syndrome.

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Watson Ladd 10.08.14 at 1:08 am

And here I thought the divine right of kings, censorship, public executions for witchcraft, stoning rape victims, judicial torture, were bad, and democracy, human rights, an independent judiciary, freedom of speech were good. Saudi Arabia is not a good place, and the king should be killed if for no other reason than being an absolute monarch.

The Arab world had secular nationalists and pro-democracy and socialist movements. The largest strikes in history were in Karachi: yes, no longer Arab, but still muslim, and today the home of the Red Mosque and the Taliban. The tragedy is that American intervention is not modernizing the Arab world more thoroughly.

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Leopold Yehouessi 10.08.14 at 1:17 am

As much as me and any sensible person would prefer the West not to get involved, it’s looks like we are. As summarized , the bombing campaign as it stands is expensive, and given the decentralized nature of ISIS’s operations, unlikely to kill more than a handful of ISIS fighters at a time. The only reasonable strategy is to “cut them off at the (various) pass(es),” which, unfortunately, can only be done on the ground.

There are whole groups of people- Kurds, Shias, Assyrians, Shabaks, etc.- who would want nothing more than to to rid themselves of ISIS and regain stability in their countries. They need training from the West to be effective (a handful of elites could hypothetically do that job), and the West desperately needs their knowledge and expertise. Westerners involved in the Middle East- from the drafters of the Sykes-Picot agreement to the anti-ISIS coalition- have consistently gone without a deeper understanding of the Middle East, and, thus, have consistently failed.

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Leopold Yehouessi 10.08.14 at 1:18 am

Whoops, screwed up the HTML code. Should say “as summarized here,” and only “here” should be hyperlinked.

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Rich Puchalsky 10.08.14 at 1:28 am

Ken_L: “The most pernicious argument is the “we broke it so we’re morally obliged to fix it” line trotted out even by many people who say they opposed the original invasion of Iraq.”

We came in and killed people, so now we have to be the head of their family whether they like it or not. It’s a typical outgrowth of barbaric American honor culture.

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gianni 10.08.14 at 1:29 am

Why not just take a mulligan on this whole Iraq thing? Say, conquer Iraq again, spend a decade rebuilding their state and training their army, and give this all another go in 10 years.

Honestly though – isn’t that the logical end of many of the recent calls for US intervention? Basically I see there being 3 axis here: whether the US has an obligation to intervene; whether the US has the material means to intervene; and whether the US is capable, strategically or whatever, of succeeding in its goals in the region.

Most people are in agreement on the first (as the US in a way ‘started it all’), and given that current policy is an open ended commitment to the region (as well as plenty of troops *still* in Afghanistan), it seems that we have the finances and political will to keep sending blank checks to the Pentagon.

As for the last question, well, I see no reason to have faith that the US military can achieve any but the most modest of aims. Provide close air support for Kurdish troops defending their territory? Sure. It hardly makes up for our past with the Kurds. But when the goal of the intervention becomes something fuzzy, like ‘degrading the enemy’ or ‘restoring stability in the region’, we face the obvious question – wouldn’t boots on the ground in combination with air power be superior to just the latter? The historical and academic evidence on this is mixed, but there are strong arguments made against the efficacy of air power alone. The military establishment is starting to come out with the hard truth – but I don’t hear the politicians or the chattering classes willing to endorse Iraq War 2.5.

Unless there is a specific argument out there against using ground troops, saying that they specifically will hinder our ability to achieve objectives, it all reeks of political expedience. I don’t hear such an argument being made now, and certainly do not recall it being made in Iraq’03. An honest debate over bringing peace to the region and expelling ISIS has to consider putting boots on the ground. If you accept the proposition that a US military intervention will be effective (I don’t at all), you have to seriously consider the maximum option.

But if we are in for the long haul, then what make it more likely that we will do a better job rebuilding Iraq this time around? Given the widespread institutional failure plaguing the US at home, I don’t see many reasons to be optimistic about our ability to nation build overseas.

Personally, I find this whole display shameful. ISIS provokes the (notoriously) bloodthirsty US news audience, who become outraged, and demand action from their government (who are more than happy to oblige). Now, we have the clowns coming out, invoking the ISIS boogeyman as a bludgeon for their personal ideological objectives. The people prejudiced against Muslims get all outraged and accusatory, the politician war hawks say that Obama is feckless, CNN gets to tell you the terrorists are coming again. Etc etc, you all know the drill, it is the same disgusting theatrics every time. Everyone loves a good war, everyone loves to point a finger at the enemy and shout ‘look at that monster!’. Saying that we should just ‘get the *%*# out of there’ (shorter version of JQ above) is a commitment to stop getting caught up in these cycles.

At the end of the day, it isn’t about strategy, it is about psychology. Would be great if it were the other way around… but then we wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place.

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John Quiggin 10.08.14 at 1:33 am

Ronan: For quite a number of years, the US recognised the Khmer Rouge government in exile as the legitimate government of Cambodia (eg supported seating them at the UN), in preference to the Vietnam-backed government that was actually in power, having driven the KR out. I’m a little surprised you don’t remember this: it was a big deal at the time.

On the broader point, there are all sorts of ways to stop a war: a peace agreement, a truce (now 50+ years old in Korea), or just holding lines without any formal agreement.

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Rich Puchalsky 10.08.14 at 1:39 am

Perhaps if we reconquer Fallujah again, we’ll do it *right* this time.

Perhaps the death squads that we train will shoot executioner-seeking bullets that will only kill the guys in the video, rather than raping and killing family members of people suspected to be in ISIS.

Perhaps the bombs will be “surgical strikes” that will only kill the chief ISIS ideologues.

Normally there’s a tension that people like to draw in between idealism and realism. You can see it in Ronan(rf)’s comment above, where he admires the pacifists, but that very admiration means that of course he doesn’t have to listen to them because he’s admiring an ideal that can never exist in this tough-guy world. Well, if I’m going to be called self-righteous anyways, I’ll say that there are *no* virtues in the calling-for-war side here. It’s not geopolitical realism or any other kind of realism. It’s people who are easily fooled and who can not learn from history, who also want to go to war — couch bound killer suckers.

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Ronan(rf) 10.08.14 at 1:44 am

Rich- i didnt say admire, I said respect.

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Ronan(rf) 10.08.14 at 1:54 am

“I’ll say that there are *no* virtues in the calling-for-war side here. It’s not geopolitical realism or any other kind of realism”

Who is speaking of virtue ? I think there are a lot of good reasons to oppose US intervention. I don’t think it’s a morally superiour position, but pragmatically it makes sense.

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Ronan(rf) 10.08.14 at 2:16 am

John Q – it was probably a little bit before my time, but I vaguely recall what off you speak.
There isnt any medium term negotiated settlement here though, afaics(certainly not between the US and ISIS, on either side)

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bt 10.08.14 at 3:28 am

This has become a truly weird situation with ISIS. It comes on top of the fact that our friend and allies have been trying to get the US to attack Iran for the last 20 to 30 years. And then the same friends and allies try to get the US to attack Syria for them. I guess they know that Americans are just suckers and seem to be willing to waste lives and money to fight wars for no good reason.

Then along comes ISIS. And Turkey just sits there and looks at it, and probably calls Joe Biden and says that if we don’t do something it will all go BAD. And the Saudi Arabians keep sending money to them. And the Israelis, they seem to feel that chaos in the area is good for them, because it makes them look good or something, and that no one will notice that they just stole a few more acres of the land from the Palestinians on Tuesday.

It was guaranteed that the Iraq would crumble after we left, it was just a matter of time. I don’t think any of this is Obama’s fault and in fact he’s played it pretty well, considering the deplorable conditions and the truly awful nature of the various governments that are involved. His position has basically been that he’s not going to fight other country’s wars for them. Maybe once the Saudis or the Turks feel really threatened they’ll do something positive, like maybe stop trying to destabilize Syria and Syria, and stop using the Iraq as a war-proxy.

It’s a true mess, and the less America does the better. I hope Obama can keep a lid on it – I just read an editorial in the Los Angeles Time this Morning from the Kagans proposing that it is time for American boots on the ground and now Lindsay Graham wants to run for president because we’re looking weak again. Look out people.

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Omega Centauri 10.08.14 at 3:30 am

Ken_L
“we broke it so we’re morally obliged to fix it”
I’d say in a strictly moral sense that would be true. Whether it is advisable given our
record of making things worse is another question.

“drop their lies about terrorist threats to The Homeland”
Clearly the threats (real or imagined) have a great deal to do with the intense
political pressure to “take the fight to the terrorists”. Any politician who
advocates otherwise can be tarred with the terrorist appeaser brush, should an
attack actually ocurr. The public, and especially his political opponents won’t
do a cost benefit analysis (miltary action will cost X (US) lives, non-action
will cost Y: Y<X implies don't do it)". That sort of calculus doesn't satisfy the
emotional need for vengence and percieved deterrent effect. So the terror threat
is correctly seen as a career existential threat to any particular politician.

Now I think of the basic arithmetic. I read somewhere we killed something like 35
ISIS fighters overnight. So take a bombing induced attrition rate of 35/day, but
they have at least 20,000, so it would take a couple of years, assuming there are
no new recruits. So all we can really do, is perhaps allow ethnic groups with
significant outside support near the IS borders to have a fighting chace of holding
on militarily.

Rich "perhaps if we reconquer Fallujah again"
Fallujah, and most of Anbar province is being destroyed as it is. The Iraqi
military does a very poor job of targetting ISIS versus civilians. Residents
face life threats both from the IS and from their would-be liberators. And
the only likley ground force that could do the job are Shiite militias, whom the
Sunnis could hardly be expected to welcome.

I can imagine negotiated with ISIS as long as they retain the present leadership.
They are just too extremist findamentalist, and are killing too many locals.

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Rich Puchalsky 10.08.14 at 4:07 am

“I’d say in a strictly moral sense that would be true. Whether it is advisable given our
record of making things worse is another question.”

In a strictly moral sense? Do you also believe that in a strictly moral sense a rapist should marry the woman he rapes, because he has to repair the damage he’s done? The two situations appear to me to be highly analogous. Whether he’s a good provider as well as a rapist is beside the point: he should be in prison, not in charge of the life of the person he’s victimized. If his victim is desperate and needs resources, it’s not a moral duty for him to provide them, it’s a matter of criminal penalties. Only the fact that there is no criminal law enforcement between states lets us cast this as “moral obligation”, which not coincidentally goes along with continued control.

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John Quiggin 10.08.14 at 5:17 am

@Ronan (re Cambodia) I misattributed to you a comment suggesting you were older than it appears you are. Apologies for that.

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John Quiggin 10.08.14 at 5:20 am

@Rich I think this argument started at the time of the first war in a rather different context. Some of the war advocates wanted to go in, smash the place up, kill Saddam and leave. It was pretty obvious that this course of action would have produced something like ISIS in short order, hence the “you broke it, you own it” argument. That ended up in the same place, with the intervening history we all know now, even if some seem to have forgotten.

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J Thomas 10.08.14 at 5:44 am

Unless there is a specific argument out there against using ground troops, saying that they specifically will hinder our ability to achieve objectives, it all reeks of political expedience.

Well, duh! Once we put soldiers in there and some of them get killed, we will feel a big obligation not to pull them out. If we retreat before victory, the politicians who allow that will be considered losers. For the next 50 years they’ll get pulled out as examples of US politicians who lost wars that should have been won. Reagan got away with pulling the US troops out of Lebanon after we lost more than a hundred to a suicide attack. Because he was Reagan. How many other US presidents could do that?

Say “Black Hawk Down” and see who gets upset. Dead US troops got dragged through the streets and we did not retaliate, we were out of there in 6 months. See how many people say Clinton and spit. We lost 18 US soldiers killed in that operation and killed less than 2000 Somalians, and we left with no victory.

So when the bodies of US mercenaries were mutilated in Fallujah, we absolutely refused to pull out of there until after we won a definitive victory.

Once we put troops on the ground in Iraq, it will be hard for us to pull them out unless we can show that the enemy has been defeated and will not come back after we are gone.

Airstrikes are expensive, but they prove we are doing something and they are not a commitment to keep doing it forever. That commitment comes only when our allies get desperate enough that we must rescue them with ground troops or else admit defeat.

And ground troops are expensive too. We can hardly expect the bombing campaign to cost *less* once we have troops on the ground. When we were fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, it cost around $1 million per ground solder per day.

Saying that we should just ‘get the *%*# out of there’ (shorter version of JQ above) is a commitment to stop getting caught up in these cycles.

Yes it is, but politicians who are tempted to do that will have to pay a price for it. The will to be stupid is strong among US (and Australian) voters.

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Bruce Wilder 10.08.14 at 5:45 am

Foreign policy threads remind me about how stupid, how ignorant and how . . . immoral (American) foreign policy is, and how the popular discussion of it is no better.

The people, who are in charge of (America &) American foreign policy, shouldn’t be.

Everything else said is usually just irrelevant b.s.

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J Thomas 10.08.14 at 5:47 am

[sigh] more keyword moderation.

Unless there is a specific argument out there against using ground troops, saying that they specifically will hinder our ability to achieve objectives, it all reeks of political expedience.

Well, duh! Once we put soldiers in there and some of them get killed, we will feel a big obligation not to pull them out. If we retreat before victory, the politicians who allow that will be considered losers. For the next 50 years they’ll get pulled out as examples of US politicians who lost wars that should have been won. Reagan got away with pulling the US troops out of Lebanon after we lost more than a hundred to a suicide attack. Because he was Reagan. How many other US presidents could do that?

Say “Black Hawk Dewn” and see who gets upset. Dead US troops got dragged through the streets and we did not retaliate, we were out of there in 6 months. See how many people say Clinton and spit. We lost 18 US soldiers killed in that operation and killed less than 2000 Semalians, and we left with no victory.

So when the bodies of US mercenaries were mutilated in Fallujeh, we absolutely refused to pull out of there until after we won a definitive victory.

Once we put troops on the ground in Iraq, it will be hard for us to pull them out unless we can show that the enemy has been defeated and will not come back after we are gone.

Airstrikes are expensive, but they prove we are doing something and they are not a commitment to keep doing it forever. That commitment comes only when our allies get desperate enough that we must rescue them with ground troops or else admit defeat.

And ground troops are expensive too. We can hardly expect the bombing campaign to cost *less* once we have troops on the ground. When we were fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, it cost around $1 million per ground solder per day.

Saying that we should just ‘get the *%*# out of there’ (shorter version of JQ above) is a commitment to stop getting caught up in these cycles.

Yes it is, but politicians who are tempted to do that will have to pay a price for it. The will to be stupid is strong among US (and Australian) voters.

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Bruce Wilder 10.08.14 at 6:19 am

Yes it is, but politicians who are tempted to do that will have to pay a price for it. The will to be stupid is strong among US (and Australian) voters.

I do not think it is all down to the poor taste of the common man in America. The poor taste of the common man in America is a commodity carefully cultivated by PR professionals, and that cultivation is not effectively opposed.

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J Thomas 10.08.14 at 6:38 am

The poor taste of the common man in America is a commodity carefully cultivated by PR professionals, and that cultivation is not effectively opposed.

Agreed. Also, it can be hard to get good statistics. Maybe sometimes most people are against something but somehow they all believe that there are a whole lot of people who are stupidly for it and there’s nothing anybody can do….

A long time ago somebody (Kurt Vonnegut?) wrote about talking to a (FBI? Justice Department?) guy who was investigating the Mafia and having trouble finding stuff, who looked around at all the American-Italian people who claimed to have indirect Mafia connections, and the people who dressed gangster-chic etc, who said “Sometimes I wonder whether there’s any such thing as the Mafia, or if it’s all just a bunch of guys pretending.”

Sometimes I meet people who quote Rush Limbaugh, who give subtle signs that they are just pretending. But a “November 2008 poll by Zogby International found that Rush Limbaugh was the most trusted news personality in the nation, garnering 12.5 percent of poll responses.”

Maybe they’re pretending *real hard*.

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shah8 10.08.14 at 6:51 am

This is such a weird discussion.

I think it’s a pretty simple explanation for incoherent policy. There’s a lot of factional infighting between various arms of the deep states and between the daylit Administration and said deep state. People from State go haring off on their own initiative, while Defense plots behind their backs with power-brokers, while Obama surveys the field, trying to figure out how to best herd a pride full of cats. It’s not as bad as, say, when the ’30s japanese had various external companies and state organs involved in all sorts of shenanigans and refusing to listen to Tokyo, but it’s still pretty bad.

As far as what’s happening? We’re in the process of dumping KSA and Israel. Particularly the latter, as they belatedly figure out that it’s not actually all that wise to make the Emperor lose face, just because they’re chums with a few Senators.

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P.M.Lawrence 10.08.14 at 6:56 am

(Posting at both sites.)

… the CIA coup against Mohammad Mossadegh, the democratically elected nationalist Iranian prime minister …

No, he wasn’t a “democratically elected nationalist Iranian prime minister” when he was overthrown, though he previously had been before he himself overthrew Iranian democracy with a coup of his own. That assertion is perpetuating one of those “print the legend” things that has crowded out more precise details. Those are no more creditable for either the U.K. or the U.S.A., but they are muddier:-

Before Mossadegh’s violent overthrow, he had already done a Napoleon III type coup of his own and started ruling as a dictator, locking up opponents or worse in the usual manner, so the U.S.A. was actually overthrowing a dictator and not a democratically-elected social-democratic regime (he manufactured plebiscites to give an appearance of legitimacy like Napoleon III too, and just as spuriously). Mossadegh had launched his coup when his parliamentary coalition fell apart and he was constitutionally dismissed by the Shah, acting as a constitutional monarch under the Constitution of 1906 (from memory), only instead of going to new elections (as he had on an earlier occasion) Mossadegh threw over his constraints completely. But

– … the U.S.A. had been behind some of the erosion of Mossadegh’s parliamentary coalition in the first place, through bribery. But

– … not only was bribery culturally acceptable and par for the course, some of the coalition had switched for genuinely patriotic reasons, fearing that international isolation and sanctions would hurt Iran (which they did). Also

– … the U.K. wasn’t behind that latter part, and really only provided background intelligence. The thing is, Britain was geared up for replacing the Shah (as it had done to his father, when he proved risky during the Second World War), not reinstating him, and so had a pretender from the previous Qajar dynasty waiting in the wings. Yes, I know that’s like an alibi for murder being an armed robbery on the other side of town, but still. Also

– … the U.K. didn’t get any good out of the exercise anyway; it wanted to get back the oil resources that Iran had seized, and sure enough Iran gave (most of) them up after Mossadegh’s overthrow – but the U.S.A. actually got them, not the U.K., which shows that the U.K. wasn’t a major player at that point. Also

– … Iran was actually morally in the wrong on that oil nationalisation without compensation, in a number of respects: the entire oil exploration had been entirely at the cost and risk of British Empire entrepreneurs (William Knox D’Arcy et al et seq, who had nearly gone broke doing it, and had needed refinancing); the Iranian government and people had provided no unpaid inputs at all but had only undertaken not to interfere; by the standards of the time (early 20th century) the then Shah had been well compensated for his non-interference with both cash and a proportion of shares; unlike the analogous holdings in the Suez Canal Company by the Khedive of Egypt, the Iranian holdings had not been eroded (not that that justified that seizure either, since neither fraud nor force was involved in that erosion, though the Egyptian people had just grounds to seek compensation from their deposed king for the forced labour his ancestor had made their ancestors do to build the canal); and the Iranian interest in the oil fields was due for arms length renegotiation a few years later anyway, so Mossadegh had a contractual alternative open to him anyway if he were acting in Iran’s interests rather than his own short term political interests.

So you can blame the U.S.A. and the U.K. for destabilising Mossadegh while he was still legitimate (in a way that matched what some accused the C.I.A. of doing to Gough Whitlam in Australia in the 1970s), even though at that stage they were acting within accepted norms and to recover unjustly seized property. You can blame Mossadegh for seizing the British-owned oil resources, probably under the faulty impression that they had been unjustly taken from Iran since so little direct benefit was then reaching Iran (as opposed to the scheduled deferred benefit), and so blindly destroying all basis for national stability (a fool, not a knave). You can blame Mossadegh for destroying Iranian democracy, albeit with some, but not sufficient provocation (a knave, not a fool). You can’t blame the U.K. for what happened later, because it neither gained from it nor had the facilities to do it. You can’t really blame the U.S.A. for how it eventually overthrew Mossadegh as such, but you can (and should) blame it for not doing a Glorious Revolution that restored constitutional monarchy but instead making the restored Shah into a dictator who started where Mossadegh left off, i.e. not measurably improving or harming the polity, instead leaving it on the same deteriorating path – quite the opposite to earlier rounds of western pressure, that had led in the first place to the Constitution of 1906 and in the second place to the cutting down to size and bringing within constitutional bounds of the first Pahlavi (who had taken over as a dictator and overthrown the previous dynasty after the First World War, using his power base in the formerly puppet Persian Cossacks once he was no longer under the Czarist thumb – Hasan Arfa’s Under Five Shahs is a good if biassed contemporary source).

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Rich Puchalsky 10.08.14 at 11:38 am

JQ @ 97:: “Some of the war advocates wanted to go in, smash the place up, kill Saddam and leave. It was pretty obvious that this course of action would have produced something like ISIS in short order, hence the “you broke it, you own it” argument.”

Yes, I remember the original context. But I think that both then and now, however well meaning the “you broke it, you own it” reasoning is, it’s immoral. We don’t own someone else’s society or state because we invaded it and destroyed their government. If war advocates manage to get our country to commit a war crime — such as the aggressive war that we waged on Iraq — then the crime never can justify our continued control. It’s our moral duty to leave and set in place domestic political structures that will keep us from doing it again.

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J Thomas 10.08.14 at 12:06 pm

#104 PM Lawrence

Whew! You have made an exhaustive study of history from the viewpoint of which decisions on whose part were morally justified.

In my opinion, when two parties agree to binding arbitration, it’s possible to get an arbitrator who will try to be fair, and who will impose a solution that tends to guide the parties toward reduced antagonism in the future.

But when it comes to third parties coming in with armed force, or covert operations which require considerable expense, usually they hope to profit. And those hopes will have some effect on who they choose as allies and what results they hope to achieve.

Deciding who in a moral sense most deserves to die, is usually going to be a secondary consideration at best.

And I have the prejudice that usually the cost will exceed the rewards, at least directly. But people have competitors, and the cost of letting their competitors get ahead might be to lose everything. So it doesn’t matter that the costs are high and the rewards are low, because the cost of falling behind can be even higher. And anyway my prejudice might sometimes be incorrect.

So what I want for my nation is that we don’t have to pay heavily to get advantages in other countries that aren’t directly worth the cost to us (not to mention the cost to others). And I want it to not be true that we have to do that or else competitors will hurt us worse than we hurt ourselves.

It would be hard for us to stop hurting ourselves. And I don’t know how to find out whether it’s necessary, short of quitting and seeing what happens.

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J Thomas 10.08.14 at 12:11 pm

#105

It’s our moral duty to leave and set in place domestic political structures that will keep us from doing it again.

That sounds good. As it is now, we can’t depend on politicians to keep us from doing it again because they think too many voters will never forgive them for stopping us.

Could we create a tradition that the US Supreme Court has to rule on the legality before we invade a foreign country? The World Court might be better, but the same voters who won’t put up with a wuss President would never put up with letting a foreign court decide who we can fight.

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MPAVictoria 10.08.14 at 12:40 pm

Wait! Has anyone tried bombing them? Or maybe we should try training and arming local “good guys”?

/That will work for sure!

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P O'Neill 10.08.14 at 1:21 pm

Wait! Has anyone tried bombing them? Or maybe we should try training and arming local “good guys”?

Or just paying whoever trained the local bad guys to train the local good guys?

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Guano 10.08.14 at 2:15 pm

The Pottery Barn Rule (“If you break it you own it”) was a warning by Colin Powell to the neo-cons about Iraq: it was an argument for not invading because the occupier has the duties to a country that it invades and occupies. It wasn’t advice about what to do after the USA had invaded. It didn’t advocate the position that “we own someone else’s society or state because we invaded it and destroyed their government”.

Allied to the Pottery Barn Rule is something that should have been learnt from the invasion of Iraq (or even from the Vietnam War): regime change is very risky. Overthrowing a regime is easy, building a new regime (and its institutions and popular trust in those institutions) is very, very difficult. If country A invades country B it has a duty to rebuild the institutions of Country B, but that is likely to be unsuccessful. So the rule should be, avoid regime change.

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Ronan(rf) 10.08.14 at 2:19 pm

John Q -no problem. My point (as much as I had one) was more that the intent they show in the region and their adherence to a maximilist religous/political ideology makes them more comparable to Pol Pots Khmer Rouge and the SS than Hamas and Hezbollah. I would think the Islamic State is probably the moral equivalent of occupied Eastern Europe or late 70s Democratic Kampuchea at this stage.
That might be overwrought on my part, and it’s not an argument for intervention in an off itself, (and I dont think they pose a similar – or really meangful – threat to the west) but I was more trying to make the point of why I think looking for peace talks with them in the forseeable future is a fools errand.

“There is not a chance that the US is going to commit the resources, or have a draft, or do any of the things that back up an exterminationist agenda. “

But I don’t think it’s neccesary to reinstate the draft (or even commit ground troops) The US could be an added benefit just through providing logistics, air support, and organisational encouragment. I don’t think the US agenda is ‘exterminationist’, I would say more plausibly they want to degrade ISIS capabilities, stem their advances and provide support for other groups on the ground. Eventually , hopefully, split local tribes, Baathists and the less ideologically commited from them, and deal with whatever rump of the organisation remains when groups in the region do sue for peace.

“I think there is every chance, contrary to you, that the Sunni territory held, at least in Iraq, by ISIS is not coming back to Iraq.”

Let me be clearer because that’s not what I meant. My guess would be that when this fizzles out Iraq and Syria will remain geographically intact, but I wouldnt be very confident on that. They might be politically divided, with regional elites/rebels holding authority in specific areas, and to all intents and purposes quasi states, but the political entities known as Iraq and Syria will still exist would be my guarded guess (perhaps with Kurdistan cut off)
What I was saying was that I find it extremly unlikely that the Islamic state, as it now exists, will survive over the next decade. And I would guess the core of the Islamic States leadership won’t either.
I think Western policy as it is now exists only hastens their demise rather than prolongs their rule, and I dont see any plausible alternative where a response without Western help is either any less bloody or any more efficient.
I understand Americans not wanting to commit resources or lifes to this, which is of course entirely reasonable. I’m not American, so Im not really looking at it from that perspective. I think someone will eventually have to deal with the ISIS, and it’s better to have Western involvement, for practical reasons.

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CK MacLeod 10.08.14 at 5:04 pm

The key false or at best badly and misleadingly overstated assumption underlying the linked article as well as the main argument highlighted in the OP is that US policy has ever or could ever have been to “govern the affairs of millions of people on the other side of the planet.” At no time, even during the height of the “nation-building” phase of the occupation of Iraq, has the US sought to “govern the affairs” of the people of the Middle East. Governing the affairs of the people of the Middle East would require an investment of blood and treasure that the US has never contemplated. It’s not precisely an absurd concept, but it does not resemble the American neo-imperial concept as actually implemented.

The US has predictably – or consistently – acted when Americans have perceived their core interests endangered by events in the region. These interests mainly concern preservation of the international political-economic order against significant disruptions, especially by major war. Otherwise, Americans have mainly sought, like everyone else, to influence events that occur below that threshold in one way or another, with mixed results, since we have many competitors.

Contrary to the professor’s claims, which mainly focus on the US failing to achieve goals of relatively little actual interest to the US, the strategy has been overall quite successful for around 70 years, and the “trillions of dollars” may be deemed, as in fact they have been deemed by the American body politic, a worthwhile investment (for an economy with a ca. $17 trillion annual GDP). The strategy seems less successful than it has been because its fundamental tenets are simply presumed, and most of the public discussion instead revolves around aspirational matters – Arab-Israeli peace, liberalization in law, politics, and society, and so on.

In that last connection, there is of course nothing wrong with concern for the welfare of the people of the Middle East, but there is violent disagreement, not least among the Middle Easterners themselves, about the shape and content of progress or potential progress. At present, the US seems quite under the spell of a soft imperialism of low expectations. Americans do not expect things to go well for the people of the region anytime soon, regardless of what America attempts, nor do they see much profit to the US in escalated involvement, but American core interests are still affected or potentially imperiled by events there. So, America will continue to be involved, despite generally being disposed to limit and if possible to decrease its involvement, amidst uncertainty as to the region’s and the world’s willingness to cooperate.

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Ronan(rf) 10.08.14 at 5:27 pm

I think CK MacLeod makes a lot of good points, but just to add to:

“but there is violent disagreement, not least among the Middle Easterners themselves, about the shape and content of progress or potential progress”

while this is of course true, I don’t think ISIS represents any large body of ideological opinion in the region. They might have latched on to Sunni discontent, but the specific political program they push and the desire to remake regional borders is something of a niche concern.(afaik)
I don’t think ‘the west’ should involve itself militarily over the more general questions of governance in the Middle East (diplomatically, or through aid etc I don’t see a problem) , but trying to tilt the balance against ISIS is, I think, more defensible.

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CK MacLeod 10.08.14 at 6:18 pm

Ronan(rf), there is, of course, much more to be said on this topic – whole libraries to be dedicated to it, with a new special collection to be dedicated to what IS can be said to represent, but I agree with you, not least because IS has directly provoked the US and allies via political murder, producing not just a potential cause of action, but a corresponding political requirement for it.

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roger gathman 10.08.14 at 8:01 pm

CK Macleod, I think this is, if not wrong, a misstatement of the case: “The US has predictably – or consistently – acted when Americans have perceived their core interests endangered by events in the region.”

I don’t believe ” Americans” are the people who develop their idea of their interests in the region. When the Bush people referred to the rush to the occupation in advertising terms, I think they were more on the right track. The D.C. establishment for reasons that have to do with economics, ancient behaviors that haven’t been revisited, etc., makes up its mind – like a corporation deciding on a product – and then sells it to the American people. The sales pitch, the sale, and the remorse are pretty easy to pick out from the polling data over time. What happens very very rarely is that Americans think of their core interest and act on it. Did Americans, for instance, think it would be a neat idea to get high placed Saudis out of the U.S, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11? No. In fact, I think that was the last thing they were thinking should be done.

In foreign affairs, even more than in economic policy, the US is hardly a democracy in the sense that ideas begin at the grassroots and flow upward. The attitude among foreign policy elites, from what I’ve read, certainly reflects this. Those elites think that the American vulgaris needs to be led to do what the foreign policy elite thinks is best.

This pattern is known to the elites themselves, which is why they do many things to distance the disillusionment. Occasionally, a loud minority can ball up things – for instance, the minority that demonstrated against the war in Vietnam. One of those distancing tricks is to make foreign policy undiscussable – if you weren’t for the invasion of Iraq, you must be an ardent supporter of Saddam Hussein, and if you aren’t for bombing ISIS, you must be eager to chop off heads. Eventually, long after the discussion that should have happened, public opinion will break through the taboos and refuse the terms. I am rather surprised that the anti-war side – which was a decisive factor in Obama winning over Clinton in the primaries – has suddenly shut up about, well, everything, including Obama casually using Bushite logic to declare war when he wants to and where. Our present pseudo-war, based as it is on such contradictory premises as that we are going to exterminate ISIS and help overthrow Assad, calls out for discussion, but I see very little of that in D.C., where the discussion is confined to McCain-heavy or McCain-lite positions.

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Ze Kraggash 10.08.14 at 9:47 pm

Castro says that NATO is a more extremist and fanatical organization than ISIS:
http://www.cbsnews.com/news/fidel-castro-compares-nato-chief-to-isis/

Certainly way more dangerous and incredibly aggressive.

“Next year, at the ministerial meeting, we will take decisions regarding the so-called spearhead but, even before it is established, NATO has a strong army after all,” he [the new NATO chief] told the local state broadcaster TVP Info. “We can deploy it wherever we want to.”

The ‘spearhead’: http://edition.cnn.com/2014/09/05/world/europe/uk-nato-summit/

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LFC 10.08.14 at 10:36 pm

from the linked CBS report:

Castro’s scathing assessment of Stoltenberg’s comments is the latest in a string of critiques by the former Cuban leader. He has also recently weighed in on the evolution of man, the latest discoveries about black holes by University of North Carolina professor Laura Mersini-Houghton[,] and the work of British scientist Stephen Hawking.

Castro is old, probably in somewhat fragile health, and having retired from running Cuba is reduced to spewing rubbish; well, I assume it’s rubbish — the stuff about NATO and ISIS definitely is.

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LFC 10.08.14 at 10:39 pm

p.s. interesting that CBS style allows “the evolution of man” instead of “the evolution of humans” or “human evolution,” which is prob. preferable.

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QS 10.09.14 at 2:28 am

The simplest explanation is also the historical (colonial) one. Our foreign policy is “incoherent” precisely because we don’t want any side to win. We enforce divisions, propping up failing actors, to ensure and perpetuate internal schism and violence. The region is then populated by a handful of minor powers rather than any single major one, one which could challenge US hegemony.

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Omega Centauri 10.09.14 at 2:42 am

QS except I don’t believe thats the actual goal. Who was it who said (loosely) “Never attribute to malevolence that which can be explained by incompetence”.

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QS 10.09.14 at 7:36 am

I’m not arguing that the US acts as a perfect puppet master, it cannot perfectly predict nor control events. But to say that our incoherent foreign policy stems from stupidity is missing the point that incoherence may very well be the policy goal.

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areanimator 10.09.14 at 8:16 am

I find the whole discussion strange at its core. In questions of, say, economics or ecology, most people are ready to admit the interconnected, interdependent nature of problems. No one nation can provide a solution to, say, the financial crisis or global warming. But when it comes to matters of global warfare, all of the sudden we’re back in a pre-WWI, imperialist conception of politics where “we” have the power to go sort things out for “them” over there or to leave “them” alone. It seems to me a comforting fantasy, attempting to deny the fact that a singular nation-state, even a supposed superpower like the US, really has no power over geopolitical events by itself. Every actor in the system has to contend with other actors, such that, for instance, Putin is using the influence Russia has over Assad to push him to act against ISIS rather than the West-friendly rebel groups in exchange for letting Russia have its way with Ukraine, and so on and so forth. It’s all messy and tangled up in various ways, but I suppose it’s more convenient to talk about the fantasy of American imperialism (with off-putting “exterminate all the brutes”-style dream scenarios occasionally bursting forth) rather than engage with the reality of American impotence.

And even if the US could act alone, in its own best interests, the discussion still ignores the fact that “they” aren’t all “over there”. Inasmuch as there are large diasporic communities of Middle East origin in the West, “they” are actually “us”. These diasporic groups constitute parts of the electorate population and influence political actions as much as the rest of us do. This is not to posit some kind of conspiratorial “arab lobby”, but to state the fact of global interconnectedness once again. A lot of the debate and development of ideas for future Middle East governance, whatever it will be, happens outside of the Middle East, in Europe and the US. It’s not just a matter of passive “others” in their small corner of the world that “we” (whatever this “we” includes – I feel this word goes completely unexamined most of the time in discussions like these) can choose to get involved in or not.

Other than that, one can also make the point that the rise of the “deep state” structures and institutions, the military-intelligence-industrial complex, a system with its own “best interests” often orthogonal (and sometimes diametrically opposed) to the interests of the country these institutions are declared to serve being so well-documented by now, it makes no sense to talk about foreign policy of individual nations as something that can be directly related to the needs and wants of that country. Once again, this isn’t an invocation of a conspiracy theory, just an attempt to show that the issue is complicated by factors that people would rather not discuss.

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Guano 10.09.14 at 9:34 am

#122 areanimator “It seems to me a comforting fantasy, attempting to deny the fact that a singular nation-state, even a supposed superpower like the US, really has no power over geopolitical events by itself.”

In part the USA invaded Iraq in order to try to demonstrate that the US did have power over geopolitical events by itself. Bush and those around him wanted to put the USA at the centre of the Middle East and show that it could control events. That was the background to PNAC and the neo-conservative world-view.

The results of the invasion of Iraq demonstrate that even a super-power did not have this power (and Vietnam should have made that clear 40 years previously). Unfortunately this is rarely acknowledged. Perhaps we are doomed to see the USA vainly trying to shake off the Vietnam Syndrome and Iraq Syndrome over and over again, and failing to admit that regime change is difficult and dangerous, and is beyond the capacity of even a super=power.

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John Quiggin 10.09.14 at 11:05 am

A more plausible version of the deliberate incoherence story is as follows. As argued in the OP, the US has no genuine friends in the region. So, any nation or sect that gains ascendancy is bound to be seen as a dangerous enemy, and the obvious policy solution is to ally with the enemy’s enemy.

This isn’t incoherence as grand strategy. Rather the point is that a determination to control events, without any feasible objective for how to control them produces a toxic version of ‘balance of power’ politics

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Guano 10.09.14 at 12:21 pm

#124 John Quiggin “As argued in the OP, the US has no genuine friends in the region.”

Yes, but this is not recognised even when our “friends” have helped to create a threat such as ISIS. Thus the incoherence is not that the USA is now allied with countries that were its enemies; the incoherence is that the USA continues to consider as allies countries such as Turkey whose objectives are different from those of the USA and which is still trying to manipulate the USA to overthrow Assad.

The most dangerous countries in the region can be our “friends” because it can be difficult to admit that they have different objectives and are up to tricks behind our backs.

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J Thomas 10.09.14 at 12:31 pm

#124

As argued in the OP, the US has no genuine friends in the region. So, any nation or sect that gains ascendancy is bound to be seen as a dangerous enemy, and the obvious policy solution is to ally with the enemy’s enemy.

That does make sense.

Here is an alternative — The USA is genuinely friendly to Israel. But Israel has no friends in the region, genuine or false. They have invaded every close neighbor — Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt. They have made minor attacks (nuclear power plants, airports, etc) on some of their neighbors-once-removed — Libya, Sudan, Iraq (but not the other two, Saudi arabia and Turkey). They are openly discussing an attack on a tertiary neighbor, Iran.

To the extent that the USA wants to benefit Israel, our intention in any intervention among arabs would be that both sides should lose. And this is pretty much compatible with the results we’ve achieved.

So that’s three hypotheses.

1. Incompetence.
2. Keep everybody weak but our friends and we don’t have any friends.
3. Keep everybody weak except our friend Israel.

Somebody once said “Never attribute to malice anything that can be explained by incompetence”. But isn’t it better to keep your options open? When you’re planning, run it both ways and see whether either way leads to trouble…. I think maybe the idea is designed to protect malicious people. But maybe instead the people who advocate it are incompetent rather than malicious. And anyway it doesn’t have to be one or the other.

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Long-neck Vase 10.09.14 at 1:33 pm

Who was it who said (loosely) “Never attribute to malevolence that which can be explained by incompetence”.

Just can’t get into this one personally. The Cheney gang was supremely competent (the agenda of PNAC was mentioned upthread). Their goals were evil and in my opinion counterproductive for the long-term survival of the United States, and Murphy’s Law worked its will as it does, but the neoconservatives had and have those goals and they executed them with great competence. Not least of which was hiding what they were doing for six years and then destroying most of the evidence on their way out the door.

But hey, Clinton staffers vandalized W keys on computers and Occupy Wall Street didn’t order enough portapotties, so it is all evensies.

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P O'Neill 10.09.14 at 2:38 pm

NYT headline: US focus on ISIS frees Syria to battle rebels.

And that’s a reported story, not an op-ed, and based on, er, actual Syrians.

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MapMaker 10.09.14 at 2:51 pm

fixed this for you JT:

“They have been invaded by every close neighbor — Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt. They have suffered minor attacks (air force, proxy militants) by some of their neighbors-once-removed — Libya, Sudan, Iraq (but not the other two, Saudi arabia and Turkey). They are openly discussed as being eliminated by a tertiary neighbor, Iran, who has also attacked their overseas citizens in places as far away as Argentina and India.”

Now reads better!

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J Thomas 10.09.14 at 3:19 pm

#128

Now reads better!

But unfortunately false.

No arab nation has invaded Israel’s borders since Israel had borders, but Israel has invaded each neighbor there was a border with. Etc.

Apart from the details, my point is that the one nation in the middle east that the USA is friendly to (regardless whether our friendship is in some way returned) is Israel, who has no friends in the middle east and no neutral nations except as neutrality is arranged and enforced by the USA.

Turkey is a near exception. The Turks tried to establish a policy where they weren’t really anybody’s enemy, including Israel, and Netanyahu did his level best to insult them. They haven’t been completely successful at neutrality with Assad or ISIS or Kurdistan, either. Not to mention Greece.

Is there a pattern forming? Turkey is our only natural ally in the middle east. They were our good NATO ally against the USSR and are still our NATO ally, they have fought on our side in various wars, etc. But of their nearest neighbors, the only ones they have good relations with today are Bulgaria, Georgia, Armenia, and Iran, and we don’t even want them to have good relations with Iran.

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Ronan(rf) 10.09.14 at 3:36 pm

JT – your point about ‘neutrality being arranged and enforced by the US’ is largely wrong, and a mirror image of the pro Israel fanatics who imagine a peaceful relationship between Israel and its Arab neighbours is impossible. Peace deals might have been negotiated through and copperfastened (through aid) by the US, but most of the impetus for peace deals or an easing of relations have come from within the region (primarily from within Arab states)
Your point about the purposeful underdevelopment of Arab countries by the US to appease Israel is idiotic in the extreme (I say that with love and respect) More plausibly, I guess, you could say the Soviet/US rivalry during the Cold War led to the underdevelopment of the Arab Middle East (through supporting authoritarian regimes etc) I think that’s alittle simplistic perhaps, but more plausible than this conspiracising Israel as the font of all evil.

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Ze Kraggash 10.09.14 at 4:03 pm

Somehow I doubt Turkey has good relations with Armenia. As I remember from a few years ago, you can’t even travel across the border.

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areanimator 10.09.14 at 4:12 pm

I would like to ask the commenters in 124, 125 and 126 what exactly is meant by the expression “genuine friend” of a country. What kind of relationship do two countries need to be in so as to be considered “genuine friends”? On the face of it, it seems that a “genuine friend” (if it’s at all similar to the way one might use this expression to describe relationships between two individual persons) would never act against their friend’s best interests and support them “come hell or high water”, which is an impossible standard in international relationships. Countries form alliances of convenience, various institutions and entities within different countries collaborate on issues in ways that can act against stated policy, and in the end, the government of every country acts (or at least makes an effort to appear to act) in its own best interest (however construed). What possible “friends” can a nation have besides itself? And why do we need to have “friends” in order to form a coherent foreign policy?

Guano @125:

“the incoherence is that the USA continues to consider as allies countries such as Turkey whose objectives are different from those of the USA”

I don’t really see the incoherence. As a nation independent from the USA, Turkey should have, and will always have, foreign policy objectives that will differ from those of the USA. Much like you go to war with the army you have, you wage said war along with whatever allies you can muster, judging that the differences in objectives is small enough compared to whatever primary goal the war is meant to achieve. See also: Soviet-US relations during WWII. Again, isn’t this just a self-evident fact of international relations that’s taken into account when making foreign policy?

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MPAVictoria 10.09.14 at 4:31 pm

“But unfortunately false.”

Eh you are both wrong. Both sides have been in the wrong at various times.

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LFC 10.09.14 at 4:38 pm

JQ @124:

A more plausible version of the deliberate incoherence story is as follows. As argued in the OP, the US has no genuine friends in the region. So, any nation or sect that gains ascendancy is bound to be seen as a dangerous enemy, and the obvious policy solution is to ally with the enemy’s enemy.

There’s probably some truth in the notion that the US would be uncomfortable with a clear regional hegemon in the M.East, with the possible exception of a perceived ‘moderate’ regime such as that in Jordan, which of course is not in a position to become a regional hegemon. That said, I think JQ’s formulation here is way too broad and sweeping, suggesting as it does that US policymakers have a mechanical approach that simply scans for any “nation or sect” that may be gaining ascendancy and then opposes it. The US is not opposing ISIS simply because it is gaining ascendancy but rather b/c it perceives ISIS to be threat based in substantial part on ISIS’s ideology coupled w its actions (and specifically the joining of jidahism w effective territorial aggrandizement). At some level ISIS is seen as a threat not simply to US or Western interests but to the entire state system and the notions of state sovereignty and ‘sovereign equality’ (i.e. sovereign states have the same rights under intl law), all of which it obvs. rejects.

More pertinently, the idea, implied by JQ, that countries (the US in this case) simply look at the ‘balance of power’ without any regard to the ideology or aims of the forces in question is, frankly, absurd. I doubt even the most austere structural realist would sign on to this proposition. As Walt argued long ago (The Origin of Alliances), states don’t balance against ‘power’, they balance against (perceived) threat.

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J Thomas 10.09.14 at 5:11 pm

#130 Ronan

Peace deals might have been negotiated through and copperfastened (through aid) by the US, but most of the impetus for peace deals or an easing of relations have come from within the region (primarily from within Arab states)

There’s a lot of truth to that. Relations between Israel and Jordan have been strongly encouraged by the USA — Jordan is too weak to defend themselves against any of their neighbors (until Iraq was so badly weakened) and the USA has done a lot to protect them from Israel. Relations between Israel and Egypt have been maintained partly by bribes from the USA.

But a variety of attempts at improved relations have been made by arab nations. I mentioned Turkey. Assad recently tried for improved relations but Netanyahu successfully stomped on the idea and soon after Assad had too many troubles to continue. The Arab League has proposed peace deals for Palestine, as have the Saudis, etc. In each case Israel refuses to discuss it.

Your point about the purposeful underdevelopment of Arab countries by the US to appease Israel is idiotic in the extreme (I say that with love and respect)

Do you have some sort of reasoning to support that?

More plausibly, I guess, you could say the Soviet/US rivalry during the Cold War led to the underdevelopment of the Arab Middle East (through supporting authoritarian regimes etc)

During the early decadesof the Cold War, USA and USSR competed to award development projects to 3rd world nations. Egypt asked us for the Aswan Dam and we decided it was too expensive and also likely to not pay off. Egypt wound up a Soviet client. The Aswan Dam probably was a bad idea, not least because it was a giant Israeli target. You figure the USA didn’t try to sabotage the Egyptian economy while they were a Soviet satellite? Later we gave them just enough aid so they could limp along.

Iran was a US client. We gave them assistance that the Shah used well, apart from deciding most of it belonged to himself. He trained a whole lot of scientists and engineers, and tortured them when they wanted too much democracy. They helped overthrow him, the muslims took over, and a lot of the engineers emigrated. The USA has had sanctions of one sort or another against Iran ever since.

Iraq was a soviet client. They wanted to be on our side but we didn’t want them. We had Turkey on one side and Iran on the other, we thought that was enough. Still, they made a solid attempt to create a diverse economy beyond their oil. When we lost Iran the Iraqis thought they had an in. We gave them lots of loan guarantees etc, for “agricultural” purposes. Then we officially got mad at them for using the poison gas we bought the factories for them to make, and they were under sanctions right up to the time we smashed the whole economy and forbid them to rebuild because we were eventually going to rebuild better for them.

Syria has been a poor dry place for a long time. They became a Soviet client in 1956 after Israel invaded Egypt. They might have preferred us but we didn’t want them. Relations were poor before then due to a series of CIA attempts to promote coups. In 1957 they broke off diplomatic relations after a CIA coup attempt, and again in 1967 after the war. Do you think we stopped trying to sabotage their economy after the USSR collapsed? They helped us with the Gulf war, but still they were a dirty dictatorship and an enemy of Israel. We didn’t officially declare sanctions until 2004, though. Syria like Egypt had a stifling bureaucracy that probably hurt their economy quite a lot in itself. And of course the wars and preparation for wars with Israel didn’t help. And like Egypt, when they accepted USSR aid, they also got communist agitators trying to organize their people to overthrow them….

It would be simplistic to say that we have tried to impede development only because of Israel. But what we have done is entirely compatible with that interpretation, isn’t it?

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CK MacLeod 10.09.14 at 5:24 pm

roger gatham @ http://crookedtimber.org/2014/10/07/yesterdays-enemies-todays-allies-and-tomorrow/#comment-573552

Even by your own account, the statement of mine that you call a misstatement qualifies as at least literally true in two ways: Those “elites” whom you hold entirely responsible for Operation Iraqi Freedom are Americans, and in your depiction of the American system, make American policy. You also indicate that the American citizenry in general succumbed to the sales pitch. So, from the other point of view, in which American policy represents what Americans in general want, or recognize as affecting their core interests, they were finally on board with OIF.

More to the point, the notion of enduring American interests embedded within an American grand strategy or “clear and consistent rationale” somewhat bypasses the question of how a political system produces decisions or what people tell themselves about how decisions are made and what they mean. A core interest is not an interest that changes according to fluctuations in popular opinion or movement from one political administration to another. That a substantial number of Americans who were convinced about the justification for OIF in 2003 were unconvinced by 2013, or whether OIF was well-implemented and conducted, has no bearing on whether OIF emerged in relation to American core interests and a clear and predictable or consistent rationale derived from them. To use your metaphor, those interests are deeper than “the grass roots.” They are the ground in which the roots are rooted. From this perspective also, the 2002-3 decision on Iraq did not occur in isolation, in some fit of elite pique, but was a continuation or sequel to the Gulf War, whose prologue in turn was the determination, already re-affirmed through military action (the Tanker War), that free flow of oil through the Persian Gulf and, relatedly, non-domination of the region by any competitor were “vital” American interests, the term that used to be more in fashion before today’s “existential.”

On this latest chapter, you misstate the policy as it has been repeatedly articulated, though the difference may initially appear trivial to you. The policy is “to degrade and ultimately destroy,” not simply to “exterminate” IS. The difference is the difference between a long term strategy involving indirect action, and something simple and immediate. At the same time, to the consternation of war hawks and of some regional allies, the policy is not really to overthrow the Assad regime, but to bring about a settlement in Syria viewed as impossible without his departure, yet likely including elements of the regime itself. Supporting a small, disciplined and CIA-certified Jihadist-free force that in some future process might represent our position – i.e., for an inclusive government that can preserve Syria’s territorial integrity and protect civil piece – is a far cry from actively seeking to “overthrow” Assad.

Part of the difficulty in finding rebel forces in any large number to support is how constricted American policy is in this regard – including by congressional design, which reflects a strong sense of wariness on the part of your public customer. On this note, whether actions to contain and “degrade” IS, mainly focused in Iraq, including for legal reasons, happen to benefit or to be seen to benefit the Syrian regime in the short-term is quite secondary. We know it is secondary because we decided last year in a very public and democratic, if never fully formalized process, that we would not engage in acts of war against the Syrian regime. The appearance of policy contradiction originates on the ground or perhaps at the grassroots both over there and over here. We are prepared to kill and take casualties of our own in fights with IS and AQ. We have not reached that determination in relation to Assad, whether or not we should have or whether or not some of us think we should have.

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Guano 10.09.14 at 5:27 pm

#132 areanimator

“Much like you go to war with the army you have, you wage said war along with whatever allies you can muster, judging that the differences in objectives is small enough compared to whatever primary goal the war is meant to achieve ……. Isn’t this just a self-evident fact of international relations that’s taken into account when making foreign policy?”

It should be a self-evident fact that every country has its own interests and no two countries have exactly overlapping interests. However the rhetoric of international relations tends to divide nations into friend and foe. It appears to be difficult to have graduated relations; relations seem to have to be either all or nothing, and it is difficult to admit that circumstances have changed and that a “friend” is abusing the relationship.

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Andrew F. 10.09.14 at 5:45 pm

I’m not sure whether my disagreement is driven by a different understanding of US policy, or a different understanding of the word “incoherent.”

But on the policy front, a few things.

First, policies can change. There’s nothing wrong with that. No one in the US Government (in a position of influence) has the view that the necons of 2003 had. So changes in perspective matter. There is no more Cold War, and that has altered US policy as well. So changes in circumstances matter. What appears to be policy incoherence over time may actually be reflective of changes in perspective or changes in circumstance.

Second, notwithstanding those changes, US policy has been roughly consistent if you look at the bigger picture.

As objectives, the US seeks regional stability, the unhampered production and delivery of petroleum products from the region, and, increasingly, support for efforts to restrict extremist groups, particularly in ungoverned areas. It views the development of more diversified economies, better anti-corruption, and the progressive embrace of human rights and tolerance by Middle East populations and governments as important to all goals, though obviously stability is a prerequisite.

To achieve those objectives, the US has sought to enforce the status quo of states and borders (leaving aside, obviously, the Israeli-Palestinian problem) by basing large forces in the region and working closely with various foreign forces and governments across the region. It has also applied pressure for other forms of reform, some more strongly than others. It has acted in concert with many other nations to dissuade Iran from acquiring nuclear capability. Finally, where necessary, it has undertaken military action against violent groups which it has judged to be threats to its security.

The great aberration from that was of course the Iraq War (though, even there, the US plan was to topple Saddam, provide some aid and advice in the building of political institutions, and quickly exit most forces – obviously, disastrously wrong). A number of key drivers were behind the US decision to go to war, but crucial was the influence and perspective of the neoconservatives, which having flamed brightly in ascendance like an unexpected belch of natural gas from a flare stack in the night, has now mercifully been contained again.

Third, ISIL. Lost in the thread is any conception of what the US is attempting to do. In brief, the US is integrating and subordinating its approach to ISIL into a broader set of strategic goals.

One important piece of the Obama Administration’s national security strategy is that of enabling and encouraging regional governments to take greater responsibility for the maintenance of order. Part that objective is served by allowing them to become sufficiently worried about ISIL and US delay in becoming more involved that they are driven to put more of their own skin into the game. This also includes using ISIL as leverage to push the Iraqi Government into making political and policy changes that will, in the future, prevent the Sunni provinces from becoming petri dishes for insurgency and terrorism. ISIL no doubt has also served as a useful spur to governments to crack down harder on extremist financing flowing from their countries, and as a cautionary tale for those governments which seek to leverage extremist groups to their own gain.

As to air strikes, the President must put forth a military policy that is acceptable to the American public. It would be perilous to commit conventional ground forces to long-term combat operations in Syria without a clear objective which the public strongly supported.

Finally, as all of the above (with the exception of the Iraq War) should show, US policy in the Middle East is not revolutionary – it does not seek to overthrow an existing order. It works with existing power structures whenever possible to achieve its objectives. Many of the supposed inconsistencies in the article merely illustrate that fact. The US did not bring Maliki to power, but once he was in, sought to work with him so far as possible; and US leverage to have him removed when he had clearly become an impediment to the recovery of order consisted, ironically, of US refusal to become further involved until he was gone. The US did not cause the Arab Spring, or the fall of Mubarak, or the rise of Morsi or the fall of Morsi, or the rise of Sisi. But it has worked with those forces and developments to continue to achieve its objectives. And the US would prefer to see a better governed, orderly Syria, but proposed strategies to bring that about are fraught with uncertainty and contain possible branches that are highly costly. So the US explores and investigates different avenues, but tentatively and leaving room to reverse course if it discovers the avenue to be less promising than hoped.

I don’t mean any of the above by way of defense – I can find much to criticize in US policy in the Middle East, especially in the last year – but by way of explanation. There’s nothing “incoherent” about US policy.

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J Thomas 10.09.14 at 6:06 pm

#138 Andrew F

By looking at things just so, you manage to create a coherent US policy. Things which are otherwise unexplainable you explain by temporary aberrations due to Neocons etc.

I think you have done a good job of creating this. And then I wonder how much truth there is to it.

People are amazingly good at creating patterns. Particularly when we can throw out the data which is most inconsistent with our ideas.

When we get something that’s mostly consistent with the data, how do we tell whether it’s true? Mostly we can’t.

Like, suppose a US Senator who has served 6 terms in the Senate tells you all the things you already believe. Is that strong evidence it’s true? Not particularly. He could have looked at the same data (or more data, or different data) and came up with the same theory. Maybe there’s more reason to credit it when more people come up with it independently, but it isn’t really strong evidence.

Suppose that declassified public records reveal that important people were having conversations entirely consistent with your beliefs. Is that proof? I’d regard it as highly suggestive evidence. But there’s a possibility that what was declassified was basicly cover stories, to distract people from the truth.

We’ll probably never know. And yet, you made a coherent story out of incoherent facts. I think you did it very well, and it could even be true.

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LFC 10.09.14 at 6:21 pm

I agree with some (not all) of Andrew F’s 138, though I wd not use quite the same phrases he does. And the US did more than “work with” Maliki; it actively supported him much longer than it shd have.

I would also pt out that some of Obama’s rhetoric in his Sept 10 televised speech on ISIS (link) (there was also a subsequent UN speech that I haven’t looked at) was unhelpful. The reference to “destroy” (as in “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS) was unfortunate; “neutralize” wd have been a better word choice, implying a more realistic (and less apocalyptic) objective. The reference to “eradicating a cancer” was also unnecessary; this just inflames things and serves no real purpose, even if one agrees w Obama’s (debatable) statement in the same speech that ISIS is “unique in its brutality.” The stuff about “America’s blessings imposing enduring burdens” (close paraphrase, not verbatim) was just boilerplate ‘exceptionalist’ rhetoric, which for some reason his speechwriters thought necessary, but it wasn’t. It comes across as hubristic chest-thumping. He should have explained the threat and laid out the strategy without the added rhetorical crap.

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CK MacLeod 10.09.14 at 6:33 pm

Excellent comment, IMO, Andrew F (http://crookedtimber.org/2014/10/07/yesterdays-enemies-todays-allies-and-tomorrow/?replytocom=573877#comment-573877), though I would frame the Iraq War decision differently (as sketched above) – an “aberration” in some senses, but in others a typical exception, and not without precedent.

143

Ronan(rf) 10.09.14 at 7:06 pm

I’d say US policy in the Gulf (particularly since the withdrawal of the British and Nixons twin pillar policy) has been to maintain stability. US policy in the Levant I think less so (where the US has taken a more blase position on ‘stability’) Also to combat communism, in those early post war decades, which at times took precedent over ‘stability’. (Important also, I guess, to define what we mean by stability, which is a depoliticised way of framing it – stability in this case meaning primarily regime stability in those countries aligned with US interests.)

“Do you have some sort of reasoning to support that?”

I dont think burden of proof is on me here.

144

Ronan(rf) 10.09.14 at 7:26 pm

Or to put it another way. If US policy has been primarily around maintaining ‘regional stability’ then the last 30 years (when it has been most consistently involved in the region) have been a massive failure ..Iran-Iraq War, Lebanese Civil war, Gulf 1, Gulf 2, Syria.*
On the other hand, the Arab Gulf states have been pretty stable over this time. (Maybe this is a meaningless distinction, or Im being overly pedantic)

* I’m not saying any of these bar Gulf 2 are the United States ‘fault’, though they did adopt positions(for whatever reason) that would make you question how much the prioritied ‘regional stability’ as a generalisation.

145

J Thomas 10.09.14 at 7:30 pm

#143 Ronan

Your point about the purposeful underdevelopment of Arab countries by the US to appease Israel is idiotic in the extreme

“Do you have some sort of reasoning to support that?”

I dont think burden of proof is on me here.

Ronan, in all cases the burden of proof is on people who make claims.

You have made a strong claim and the burden of proof is on you for your own claim.

146

Ronan(rf) 10.09.14 at 7:35 pm

Ok, let’s agree to disagree. I’ll step back from ‘idiotic in the extreme’ and instead say, I disagree. If you have anything to suggest to read on this theory Id be genuinely,no snark, interested for the recommendation.

147

J Thomas 10.09.14 at 7:54 pm

Ok, let’s agree to disagree. I’ll step back from ‘idiotic in the extreme’ and instead say, I disagree.

OK, agreed.

When we talk about things like reasons that committees do things, it’s hard to prove any single reason. I say that US behavior in the middle east is compatible with a strong Israeli (or stupider US Zionist) influence, but if the conspirators (lobbyists, ringers, whatever) were at all competent it would be at best difficult to prove, and — given the actual results — impossible to disprove.

It’s a topic where we can certainly justify having different opinions.

148

Ronan(rf) 10.09.14 at 8:00 pm

Fair enough, though my problem was more with the ‘purposeful underdevelopment’ to appease the Israelis aspect (which I might have been misreading you on) which seems a little too strong.
I thought you were exaggerating for effect, which is why I gave the idiotic in the extreme response (which was just good natured joshing, tbh)

149

Ronan(rf) 10.09.14 at 8:43 pm

Or to put it one more way, then Ill leave it .. there’s no real divide (afaict) between Andrew F’s comment and John Q’s claim of incoherence. US policy has stressed ‘stability’, specifically in oil producing countries and particularly in relation to oil prices, which is a very specific policy aim and one that’s been reasonably succesful (afaik)

But to speak about regional stability isn’t really to say anything (it’s a meaningless soundbite) and has proved to be pretty unsuccesful if it was a genuine policy. It’s in the second part (the regional stability claim) that I think John Q’s position is right in a lot of ways. That US policy *has been* (imo) incoherent on the specifics; on what they want to achieve regionally and how they’ll do it, and so has generally been reactive and open to manipulation by regional allies.
Gulf war 2 then (not solely as an abberation but as an outgrowth of US policy) makes more sense if you look at US policy as slightly incoherent, reactive and commited to stability in specific cases (US allies) rather than as a general good.

150

Guano 10.09.14 at 9:25 pm

Seeking stability for the Gulf States has meant avoiding the issue of Sunni extremism for the last 30 years. There is incoherence in screaming and shouting about ISIS (and criticising others for being indecisive when they want more time to consider the overall strategy) when the issue of Sunni extremism has been ignored so as to avoid embarrassment to the Gulf States.

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Ronan(rf) 10.09.14 at 9:31 pm

I dont know really. Instability in the Gulf States doesnt neccesarily equate to less Sunni extremism (it probably leads to more) so I dont think the two positions are that much in opposition. I think the issue was avoided less to appease the Saudis, and more because the US didnt really perceive the threat as that great prior to 9/11.

152

J Thomas 10.09.14 at 10:03 pm

Fair enough, though my problem was more with the ‘purposeful underdevelopment’ to appease the Israelis aspect (which I might have been misreading you on) which seems a little too strong.

JQ suggested that instead of merely being incoherent, US middle east policy might involve trying to weaken any middle east nation that starts looking strong, because none of them are our friends so any of them that are strong are dangerous.

*In response to that* I pointed out that Israel looks quite strong, we are very deeply their friend — we’re a better friend to Israel than to Britain — and we do nothing to weaken them. So, since our policy is to weaken any middle east nation that starts to look strong except them, just possibly we’re doing it for them.

I did not claim it was true, but that it was a third hypothesis when the second hypothesis was that we were doing it entirely for ourselves, to every nation in the middle east.

153

LFC 10.09.14 at 10:23 pm

Re Andrew F.: “the US is integrating and subordinating its approach to ISIL into a broader set of strategic goals.” The US, across recent administrations at least, has seemed leery of actually exercising much leverage on allies to get them to do what it wants or thinks they shd do. This has been obvs. true w/r/t Israel. But seems also true now w/r/t, e.g., Turkey: WaPo headline has US admin “exasperated” at Turkey’s reluctance to act in the current sit. on its border. But at some pt exasperation shd give way to more direct exercise of leverage — current policy seems rather indirect as a means of doing this (though obvs. I don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes).

The only recent bright spot (or one of the few) for US policy in the region (broadly construed) is the settlement of the Afghanistan election dispute, transition to a new govt there, and signing of the bilateral security agreement. That cd have come out considerably worse than it has. That doesn’t guarantee the long-run outcome will be ok, of course, but it avoids the imm. problem.

154

LFC 10.09.14 at 10:26 pm

J Thomas:
So, since our policy is to weaken any middle east nation that starts to look strong except [Israel], just possibly we’re doing it for them.

The problem is that there’s little compelling evidence that US policy consists of “weaken any country that starts to look strong except Israel.”

155

MPAVictoria 10.09.14 at 10:31 pm

Shorter J Thomas: “The Rand Corporation, in conjunction with the saucer people, under the supervision of the reverse vampires……”

156

LFC 10.09.14 at 10:31 pm

JQ @124 implies the US is allying w anyone opposed to IS (enemy of my enemy). But the US is not allying w Assad. US actions might be redounding to Assad’s benefit at least in the short term, per P O’Neill above, but as P O’Neill knows, that’s not the same as having an alliance.

157

Plume 10.09.14 at 11:13 pm

The shifting alliances and complexities of factional oppositions in the Middle East just guarantee we’re going to screw up. There is no way we can’t, if we engage. One of the biggest, of course, was toppling Hussein, which sent most of this mess into motion and made Iran much, much stronger. The Iran/Iraq situation, however, was obvious enough to recognize before hand and avoid. And we didn’t. Even the first time around. But especially invasion number two.

The odd thing, though, was that we had been clearly opposed to the state of Iran from 1979 on, but opposed to Hussein rather abruptly only when he decided to invade Kuwait in 1990. Prior to that, he was BFF with Reagan, Bush Sr., Rumsfeld, etc. etc. Suddenly, with a push from the wicked witch in London, Bush Senior decides to shift the balance in the region slightly in Iran’s favor by crushing Hussein, and then Dubya finishes the job. It never seems to end.

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John Quiggin 10.10.14 at 1:03 am

LFC @156 I wrote that the US is debating how much support to give to Assad. THis was a straightforward statement of fact. The NY Times (which is the journal of record for this kind of thing) presented a debate on precisely this question

http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2014/08/22/should-the-us-work-with-assad-to-fight-isis/the-us-should-help-assad-to-fight-isis-the-greater-evil

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CK MacLeod 10.10.14 at 2:01 am

JQ writes: “I wrote that the US is debating how much support to give to Assad. THis was a straightforward statement of fact.”

Somewhere in the Pentagon and/or CIA someone is working on all sorts of possibilities not being actively considered or debated, but the statement “the US is debating how much support to give to Assad” is ill-founded and misleading. It is sloppy writing at best, and the further assertion that this misstatement is or was “a straightforward statement of fact” compounds the error.

The Obama Administration denies that there is any debate at all on that question. I do no believe there is a single significant American official or politician who is advocating support for Assad. There is some debate over whether to escalate from political opposition to a regime change policy, with a third group – a by now somewhat familiar left-liberal and right libertarian alliance – urging non-involvement. The last group has been somewhat quieter since the public beheadings, the Obama policy statements, and opinion polls showing significant support for doing something against IS. To the extent there is any significant debate regarding support for Assad, it remains a debate among defense intellectuals – such as those participating in that linked discussion from the NYT op-ed pages – and it is not a debate over how much support to give to Assad, but about whether to give any support to Assad or, more accurately, whether to align with and coordinate with Assad openly. Terrorism expert Max Abrahms has been arguing for that position for some time now, while attracting little observable support.

There are also numerous hawks who argue that the chemical weapons deal amounted effectively to legitimizing Assad, and I think there’s some truth in that argument, but there’s no prospect of repeating that deal, so it is not being actively debated in or outside of government prospectively. That debate would be more accurately termed “whether we have, intentionally or not, supported Assad,” akin to the “does attacking IS help Assad?” question.

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john c. halasz 10.10.14 at 3:31 am

CK MacLeod @150:

Maybe it’s because of your pro-Israel stance or your aggressive Americanism, but I think you’ve got this badly wrong. Loathsome as the Assad regime might be, (though no more than lot of others in the region, including “allies”, and it doesn’t pay to personalize the matter), it does represent the interests of a significant portion of the Syrian population, (not just Alawites, but Christians and secular Sunnis, etc.) in a country with a highly fissiparous social structure,- (remember the Lebanese civil war lasted 15 years),- against both fundamentalist fanatics and the prospect of complete disintegration. (And the precursor to the uprising was a severe drought which the regime either couldn’t or wouldn’t deal with).

If our elites, our “fearless leaders”, weren’t so heedless and profligate, then the obvious course would have been to try and contain the Syrian civil war, and constrain various regional actors from interfering in and fomenting it, resulting in a general and artificial Shja/Sunni regional conflict. And, as it is, dealing the weakened Assad regime in, to effect a regional settlement still remains the best course, given the dire alternatives. That’s better than a lot of gratuitous, self-righteous moralizing to cover a multitude of sins.

Despite differing initial premises, I tend to side with conservative realists like Col. Bacevich: you can have a republic or you can have an empire, but you can’t have both. Which side are you on?

161

john c. halasz 10.10.14 at 3:32 am

@159

162

John Quiggin 10.10.14 at 4:28 am

@CKM Wow, that’s some high-grade nitpicking!

163

J Thomas 10.10.14 at 6:56 am

#154 LFC

“So, since our policy is to weaken any middle east nation that starts to look strong except [Israel], just possibly we’re doing it for them.”

The problem is that there’s little compelling evidence that US policy consists of “weaken any country that starts to look strong except Israel.”

?? Are we living on the same planet?

Do you have an example of a middle east nation apart from Israel that started to look strong, that we didn’t try to weaken?

164

CK MacLeod 10.10.14 at 7:16 am

@162 Call it whatever you want, JQ. To me, if you want to discuss a policy and leading alternatives, it helps to be discussing the actual policy and actual leading alternatives, rather than the versions of them that conform to your prejudices.

@160, jch

We’ve had discussions like this before at my blog, a couple of times, and it seems to me that when I have asked you – with sincere interest – to point out what I have written that leads you to reach the conclusions you reach about my views or stances, as here in regard to Israel, Americanism, and Assad, you break off the discussion or simply ignore the request.

As for Bacevich and broader questions, like most everyone else who has studied the topic, I acknowledge the tension between “republic” and “empire,” but the notion of their mutual exclusivity, or of choosing one but not the other, was, I believe, overthrown around two hundred years ago, and replaced with the concept and, quite arguably, the reality of their interdependence for modern mass societies. At this point – I mean right here on this thread – even if I were inclined to take a side, I couldn’t be confident that what it meant to me would be the same as what it meant to you, to Bacevich, or to anyone else.

165

John Quiggin 10.10.14 at 7:55 am

If anyone still cares, there are three positions being debated in the US (I’m not counting my own suggestion of pulling out)

(a) Fight IS in Iraq, but do nothing in Syria so as to avoid helping Assad
(b) Fight IS in Syria as well as Iraq, helping Assad, but invoking a doctrine of double effect, and refraining from overt alliance
(c) Explicitly helping Assad

The Administration rapidly shifted from (a) to (b), and may yet be forced to (c)

166

dax 10.10.14 at 11:15 am

“The most pernicious argument is the “we broke it so we’re morally obliged to fix it” line trotted out even by many people who say they opposed the original invasion of Iraq. Firstly it perpetuates the paternalistic ideology that the Arab world is culturally inferior to America and requires endless guidance via rewards and punishment. Secondly it is on a par with allowing a doctor who’s practically killed a patient through incompetent surgery to open them up again, because they mean well and maybe they can do better this time.”

The argument is hardly pernicious. Every time America screws up, it washes its hands and walks away. Teflon America! And then it screws up somewhere else. You’ve elevated this deliberate obtuseness to a moral level. Unbelievable.

America (along with the UK and problably Australia) owes trillions to Iraq. If it doesn’t want to pay it to Iraq, fine then it should pays the money to the UN. But the idea that America is just going to walk away and pretend you can invade and destory a foreign country and not suffer consequences – that it was just Bush and Cheney’s fault and not the fault of America in general, which after all re-elected the pair after the fact – well that’s indigestible. Really, just indigestible.

167

Guano 10.10.14 at 12:17 pm

#165 John Quiggin

Is there much talk and/or debate in the USA about Turkey’s position? There is quite a bit in the UK press, for example

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/isis-in-kobani-turkey-ignores-kurdish-fury-as-militants-close-in-on-capturing-the-town-9785903.html

It’s still not clear to me how the USA (and UK and others) will deal with the position of Turkey. As I’ve said earlier in this thread, the incoherence isn’t that the USA has new allies but that it still has its old allies who appear to have very different objectives.

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LFC 10.10.14 at 12:51 pm

JQ–NYT link noted, thanks. haven’t read it yet but will. also noted subsequent comments by others.

Guano — “Is there much talk and/or debate in the USA about Turkey’s position?” See my comment at 153.

169

LFC 10.10.14 at 1:34 pm

@J Thomas
Do you have an example of a middle east nation apart from Israel that started to look strong, that we didn’t try to weaken?

I just think the guiding maxims of US policy in the region, to the extent they can be identified, are slightly (but perhaps only slightly) less crude than “weaken any country that starts to look strong except Israel.” (I have no particular expertise on the hist. of US ME policy, though I am somewhat interested in, inter alia, the pd of the Eisenhower Doctrine.)

170

Ronan(rf) 10.10.14 at 1:35 pm

I think what the case of Turkey shows is that there is virtually no possibility of regional powers (with the possible exception of Iran) doing anything substantial vis a vis ISIS without US engagement.

“dealing the weakened Assad regime in, to effect a regional settlement still remains the best course, given the dire alternatives. That’s better than a lot of gratuitous, self-righteous moralizing to cover a multitude of sins.”

Personally I agree with that, and I’d assume the administrations ‘end game’ still does see a place for, if not Assad, then the vast majority of his regimes elites and institutions.There wont be any radical US led overhaul of the Syrian political establishment post war, IMO.
A negotiated settlement is the best outcome, imo, but the question still stands as to what is the best way to get that. Support Assad explictly (diplomatically and with arms) and there’s no gaurantee of ‘victory’, just a lot of bad will in Syria, regionally and within the US alliance system. Strenghtening the rebels to stalemate the war (victory wont happen afaict) and then push for peace doesnt strike me (personally) as a worse (or perhaps even better,just politically easier) option.
A broader regional settlement resolving Israel/Palestine, easing the various rivalries and building regional institutions to encourage cooperation and economic development seems the best, if not at this moment realistic,long term outcome. Which is why, IMO,the US should become less commited to its current allies and adopt and more disinterested and detached perspective (but not disengage completly)

171

Ronan(rf) 10.10.14 at 2:01 pm

LFC – Salim Yaqub wrote a book (Containing Arab Nationalism) specifically on the Eisenhower Doctrine in the Middle East if youre interested (though I havent read it personally)

172

LFC 10.10.14 at 2:26 pm

@Ronan — thanks, I knew there was a fairly recent book on it, couldn’t remember author or title; this must be what I was trying to think of.

173

john c. halasz 10.10.14 at 6:38 pm

CK MacLeod @164:

Well, it’s difficult amidst all the abstracted curlicues to pin down the exact points of inference and implication; that’s beyond my hermeneutic skills. So I have to rely on a sense of the general tenor. But you do seem, at least, to be endlessly rationalizing U.S. imperial overreach, as if it were some sort of grand strategy upholding universal “liberal democracy”, where I tend to see incoherence, disintegration and devolution, on the part of grossly incompetent, irresponsible and ignorant ruling elites. (And the rise of “mass societies” in the 19th century is, at the very least, an incomplete description; the emergence of industrial capitalism was a main driver. So “making the world safe for MNCs” might be a better description of the “universal” interest that is being pursued).

As to the general issue here of the Assad regime, the U.S. doesn’t have to support, nor supply it, just acknowledge it. The Russians and the Iranians can provide the support and supplies. (Oops! Those are other pieces of the puzzle our fearless leaders have massively screwed up on.) The real trick, almost impossible to achieve, is to wean the Sunni areas off of supporting Daesh or other Islamic extremists, while leaving them sufficiently armed so that they can feel capable of securing themselves, but not so much that they can go on the offensive. Syria and Iraq likely will never again be unified states. At most peace could be re-instituted on the basis of loose confederations.

But the position of Erdogan puzzles me. Previously, he had pursued conciliatory policies toward Syria and Iran, for the sake of security and economic benefits. When and why did he become a Sunni warrior?

174

Ronan(rf) 10.11.14 at 3:16 am

Well for my part, although I’ve no real knowledge of Turkish politics, my impression is that the relationship just disintegrated post 2011. The easing in the 00s was based on mutual economic interests but when the politics became strained in 2011 + the relationship just wasn’t able to take the strain (The Turks had aspirations of increasing their regional influence with the apparent rise of Sunni movements like the MB who had links to them – the refugee situation in northern Syrian started to put pressure on Turkey socially, politically and economically – Assad began to break promises made to Erdogan about how much force he would use in response to the uprisings and the personal relationships become to fall apart – IIRC a Turkish plane (or more ) was shot down in the early days of the war – bombings related to the conflict started to occur in Turkey – the Turks started funding the opposition hoping to end the war as soon as possible, the Syrians started funding the PKK and it all just started to come apart)

My guess would be he has found himself backed into a corner, unable or unwilling to step back from his earlier position as the situation changed. (As I say though, Ive no real knowledge of Turkish politics, so dont know anything about the domestic electoral/coalitional/elite politics involved)

175

CK MacLeod 10.11.14 at 3:31 am

jch @173; It’s been almost three years since Erdogan turned against Assad publicly. You can read the former’s own explanations at this NYT article – http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/23/world/middleeast/turkish-leader-says-syrian-president-should-quit.html?_r=0 Not easy to reverse yourself on statements like this one, directed at Assad long before East Ghouta or maybe 160 or so thousand casualties ago:

Just remove yourself from that seat before shedding more blood, before torturing more and for the welfare of your country, as well as the region… It is not heroism to fight against your own people. If you want to see someone who has fought against his own people, look at Nazi Germany, Hitler, Mussolini, Ceausescu of Romania. If you do not learn your lesson from them, look at the Libyan leader, who pointed his gun against his own people and, only 32 days ago, got killed in a way that none of us desired, after using the same phrases that you use.

Erdogan’s predicament in this respect is similar to the USG’s, since Obama & co have made similar statements about Assad, and also because Obama & co likely believe them to be true statements.

As for the rest of official US Syria policy, for a few years now it’s been, I think, not too far from the one that you and Ronan seem to favor: a unity government combining regime elements with nationalist opposition forces, cleansed of war criminals and irreconcilable Jihadists; devolution of central powers as practicable and desired, but not break-up of the state.

In the past, at points when the regime seemed more vulnerable, and before the Western-recognized opposition in its earlier incarnation had been discredited, the US hoped to use the Syrian army and other elements of the government to re-build the state quickly (learning from the Iraq experience, ideally). That Assad, with Russian and Iranian support, combats this strategy aimed at his eventual removal with a traditional (and, incidentally, IS-like) counter-strategy of his own should also be considered. By implicating his dependents in unforgivably atrocious crimes, he burns bridges between the former and everyone else. In a parallel manner, Assad’s military campaigns have always focused more on nationalist or “moderate” opposition than on IS and other Jihadist-extremist elements, trying to clarify the choice for everyone else as “me or the terrorists.” IS has somewhat similarly focused much more on its competitors, and on expanding and consolidating its areas of control, than on fighting Assad.

Though Assad’s approached has many vulnerabilities, it has worked especially well in regard to the US, where the idea of funding and arming friends of Al Qaeda is a non-starter, and where people, I guess including you, who would be happy just to see the bloodshed stop, see giving into his regime as the best way to achieve that worthy goal. Yet in the same connection backers of the anti-IS campaign, who wish the US and coalition were doing much more in Syria, believe that the “double effect” (objectively aids Assad) problem has been exaggerated, and that, under a truly consequential escalation against IS, it would be at worst only a short-term concern before the conflict was clarified in a different way: Without the terrorists to point to, the Assad regime would be revealed as the true obstacle in the way of a political settlement and a return to civil peace.

With the terrorist threat being actively “handled,” the main impediment in America to supporting the Syrian opposition substantially would also be removed or reduced. To be implemented successfully, however, this IS-first strategy would eventually require a major commitment from the international community, led by the US and allies, and backed by American and other Western citizens among whom the Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan experiences have reinforced skepticism about our or anyone’s ability to shape a favorable outcome. Whether this is the wrong lesson, or a right lesson in some cases, a wrong one in others, would be another discussion. Prospects for success would also be greatly aided by Russian and Iranian cooperation, which, however, if obtainable at all, might come at a high price.

May seem hard or impossible – may go better than expected. Either way, since the American public is prepared to accept risks in order to “degrade and ultimately destroy” Jihadist extremists (i.e., Al Qaeda under whatever name), it is possible for this President to commence an attack on IS while waiting for events that might make shortening the timetable or escalating the military investment politically possible, or might turn our attention elsewhere.

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ZM 10.11.14 at 3:56 am

Worrying article in the paper today about the possibility of the conflicts escalating

“Beyond Lebanon, it has gone virtually unnoticed that two beheadings have been carried out and many more are threatened; and that a diplomat from Qatar is attempting to defuse a situation that gives Ban Ki-moon sleepless nights. The Saudis, who are Sunnis, are pumping $US1 billion ($1.1 billion) worth of French-supplied weapons into Lebanon; and right behind them are the Shiite Iranians, promising their own, separate weapons consignment for Beirut – value not disclosed.
Yet these little bits are parts of a dreadful whole, the complexities and dangers of which seem not to have been grasped around the world. The gifts of weapons from Riyadh and Tehran are just part of a slew of current arms deals in the region, estimated to be worth more than $US50 billion. And while all those weapons, no doubt, will help grow an already huge refugee crisis in the region, a UN appeal for $US1.7 billion to help the refugees, has received pledges for just 36 per cent of that target since it was launched late last year.

“There is a serious risk that the entire region will blow up,” Lakhdar Brahimi warned in an interview with Der Spiegel magazine, in which he predicted dire consequences for Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon. “The conflict is not going to stay inside Syria. It will spill over into the region. It’s already destabilising Lebanon [where there are] 1.5 million refugees – that represents one-third of the population – if it were Germany, it would be the equivalent of 20 million people.”

And as for the notion implicit in the rhetoric of Obama and his coalition cheerleaders, that Syria somehow is to be rescued by and into the civilised world, Brahimi thinks otherwise – “It will become another Somalia. It will not be divided, as many have predicted. It’s going to be a failed state, with warlords all over the place.” And to the extent that there is a military solution – Washington and Canberra and the rest say that they will retrain the Iraqi military, on which the US already has spent hundreds of billions and lost thousands of its own troops in the process; and set up shoestring budget camps in Saudi Arabia to train ‘vetted moderate’ Syrian rebels to fight IS and the regime of Bashar al-Assad.”

http://www.theage.com.au/world/the-world-has-misread-the-middle-east-nightmare-and-our-war-without-borders-20141010-1143jt.html

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Ze Kraggash 10.11.14 at 8:35 am

The bear wants honey. The bees want to protect their hive. As the bear keeps smashing the hive, the bees are getting more and more agitated. They sting, motherfuckers. The bear starts swinging his paws, in all directions.

How does this story end? What will the American public do, other Western citizens, the cunningly clever Assad, the President? Will the international community deliver a major commitment? I can’t wait to find out.

178

John Quiggin 10.11.14 at 9:05 am

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that the US has a conscious policy of knocking down any powerful government or non-state actor (except Israel) in the region.

Rather the problem is that any such actor will appear as a threat to US/Israeli interests and will provoke some kind of balancing action.

Actually, a conscious balance of power policy would be better than the sequential demonization we actually get.

179

J Thomas 10.11.14 at 9:19 am

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that the US has a conscious policy of knocking down any powerful government or non-state actor (except Israel) in the region.

I am not suggesting that either. I don’t say this is a conscious policy on the part of the USA or the US government. (What would it even mean for the US government to be conscious?)

I don’t say this is a conscious policy on the part of the US House of Representatives. (What would it even mean for the US House to be conscious?)

I don’t say this is a conscious policy on the parts of Reagan, Bush senior, Clinton, Bush junior, and Obama. (What would it even mean for Bush junior to have a conscious policy?)

I say only that for whatever reason, this is what happens.

180

Brett Bellmore 10.11.14 at 10:32 am

” Firstly it perpetuates the paternalistic ideology that the Arab world is culturally inferior to America”

Frankly, the Arab world perpetuates that perception well enough on their own, by BEING culturally inferior. It takes a mindless level of the crudest form of multiculturalism to avoid noticing that.

181

ZM 10.11.14 at 11:02 am

Brett Bellmore,

That is a very offensive comment. There are many great cultural things from the Middle East. and most of their troubles these days are from all the exploiting and dominance from European countries and America for so long now – if these Western countries were not so belligerent all the time to other countries then the other countries could concentrate more on their culture and not on being scared and angry.

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Brett Bellmore 10.11.14 at 11:21 am

Yeah, they invented algebra, and had some neat architecture. Cool. Now, if they’d stop beheading people who try to change their religion, and executing women for being raped, and sending out suicide bombers, I’d be more impressed with their current culture.

It’s the reality there that’s offensive, even if you’re militant about not noticing it.

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ZM 10.11.14 at 12:18 pm

Brett Bellmore – you were just yourself the other day on the other thread advocating executing women for having abortions! Maybe you will rethink this now perhaps?

The entire culture of everyone in the Middle East does not consist exclusively of beheadings and executions of women. This is like someone saying American culture has no redeeming features and is exclusively about American drone killings of foreigners and white Americans murdering young back men.

You yourself must see how you are in some ways like the middle eastern people who are very strict about their culture – just see how upset you get with your government if it tries to let gay people marry or implement sensible sort of gun ownership restrictions like we have in Australia. You get greatly outraged about both these matters.

I am not well versed in contemporary middle eastern culture – but i liked iranian movies very much. But after America and its allies went to war on Afghanistan and Iraq the Iranian government has gotten more strict – so the filmmakers cannot any longer make the films they would like to make in Iran. This is very sad – but not so bad as what can happen to women in Evin prison. But J Thomas notes your American prisons are not very safe for women either (probably not as bad as Evin, thankfully). Anyway – all this Anglo warring with the Middle East that seems have started right after WW2 with the Suez incident and then got exacerbated after the OPEC crisis – does not help the countries have a happy peaceful culture. Quite the opposite.

I was told a story once of Roosevelt being on a boat with I think a leader from a the middle east (I have forgotten who) – and because he was in a wheelchair the middle eastern man tried to follow him around the boat to try to get him to have better more fair relations with the middle east – but Roosevelt would not listen. It is about time the governments started behaving peaceably and not leading us into wars all the time.

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Ze Kraggash 10.11.14 at 12:34 pm

What’s so remarkable about beheading? If I had to choose between beheading and getting fried in a chair, I’d take beheading.

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Brett Bellmore 10.11.14 at 2:26 pm

“Brett Bellmore – you were just yourself the other day on the other thread advocating executing women for having abortions! Maybe you will rethink this now perhaps?”

Not really, executing somebody for committing murder is rather different from executing them for being the victim of a rape.

But I suppose you can’t distinguish between punishing somebody for doing something, and punishing them for having something done to them.

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Ze Kraggash 10.11.14 at 2:35 pm

” executing them for being the victim of a rape.”

What are you talking about?

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Suzanne 10.11.14 at 3:10 pm

@20: “Anything we do to attack ISIS supports Assad.”

“I thought we’d got past the “objectively pro-Saddam” stage. Clearly not.”

No, we haven’t. And for some reason:
http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/09/world/middleeast/us-focus-on-isis-frees-syria-to-battle-rebels.html?smprod=nytcore-iphone&smid=nytcore-iphone-share&_r=1

“Such attacks — from airspace that American warplanes now enter at will — have fueled anger at the United States among opponents of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, who wonder why the Americans are leading the fight against the Islamic State but give free hand to a dictator whose fight to remain in power has left as many as 200,000 of his own people dead.”

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Peter T 10.12.14 at 12:59 am

For a state with a dominant economic position for the last 60 years, a commanding advantage in military force the US has been astonishingly inept in its foreign policy interventions for many decades. A quick check of Wikipedia to supplement my first impressions suggests that the successes are few, the stuff-ups many. From Guatemala in 1954, through Bay of Pigs in 1961, Southeast Asia, Lebanon, Iraq… If it were Victorian Britain there would be committees of inquiry and banishments inflicted on the guilty. Instead there are medals and re-writes. And a lot of rubble and dead, mostly inflicted out of spite. D2’s aphorism about not trusting known liars comes to mind; this is an establishment which seems quite unable to achieve any decent level of professionalism in this area, and should not be trusted with with so much as a platoon.

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Omega Centauri 10.12.14 at 1:16 am

Known liar’s who caused past problems, like for instance Oliver North, are awarded their own TV shows.

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ZM 10.12.14 at 1:21 am

Brett Bellmore,

““Brett Bellmore – you were just yourself the other day on the other thread advocating executing women for having abortions! Maybe you will rethink this now perhaps?”

Not really, executing somebody for committing murder is rather different from executing them for being the victim of a rape.
But I suppose you can’t distinguish between punishing somebody for doing something, and punishing them for having something done to them.”

Women do not perform aborttions on themselves – that would be dangerous. Medical staff perform the aborttions on the women. So, this is an issue of consent not ‘doing something’ . Rape allegations allege sex was not consented to, but was forced upon the man or woman raped. Even in western countries it is difficult to prove rape without sufficient medical evidence pointing to the use of force etc – so often someone alleges rape and it is not found prosecuted or found proven in the courts. If this happens in some Islamic jurisdictions – not being able to prove you were forcibly raped means you are sometimes thought to have consented to sex – which without marriage in some jurisdictions is illegal. Sometimes you also have people taking on board vigilantism to execute what they see as justice without the state – often in these cases the state is not strong enough to deal with this vigilantism. But you yourself are often a proponent of vigilantism yourself is my understanding, and you would like a weak state too.

You say women having an abortion is murder – so women should be executed. But others say abortions are not murder and the women are wholly innocent so your wanting to execute them is wrong and barbaric.

As you can see – this is similar to the case of unproven rape. Someone says women who can’t prove rape have consented to sex without marriage which is adultery – therefore they should be executed. Others say – no , the women might have been raped but rape is hard to prove, and anyway sex without marriage is not wrong, so the women are innocent and your wanting to execute them is wrong snd barbaric.

As you can see from thus longer explanation – your argument on abortion as a criminal offence is quite like the proponents argument on rape/sex as a criminal offence .

I’m not saying you are exactly the same – I’m just saying you might be in a position to understand how upsetting all the liberal modernisation is for very traditional Islamic conservative people in the Middle East and how they might want to respond to this change with violence.

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Watson Ladd 10.12.14 at 3:19 am

ZM: Yes, they respond with violence. So we should kill the conservatives, just as Charles I was executed. There was a prospect of secular nationalism and socialism in the middle East. That’s increasingly vanished because we refuse to support it. But let’s not ignore that killing ISIS members is like killing Nazis: a stand against barbarism and for humanity.

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J Thomas 10.12.14 at 3:41 am

But let’s not ignore that killing ISIS members is like killing Nazis: a stand against barbarism and for humanity.

In that case, shouldn’t we start with our own violent conservatives?

“Charity begins at home.”

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Watson Ladd 10.12.14 at 4:11 am

If Republicans were carrying out a genocide, I’d be all for killing them. But they aren’t. Political violence is a terrible, terrible thing. But sometimes nothing else will do.

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J Thomas 10.12.14 at 5:27 am

Political violence is a terrible, terrible thing. But sometimes nothing else will do.

“Be careful when you fight the monsters, lest you become one.”

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ZM 10.12.14 at 6:05 am

Watson Ladd,
“ZM: Yes, they respond with violence. So we should kill the conservatives, just as Charles I was executed. There was a prospect of secular nationalism and socialism in the middle East. That’s increasingly vanished because we refuse to support it. But let’s not ignore that killing ISIS members is like killing Nazis: a stand against barbarism and for humanity.”

Killing people is violent – so then this is a circular argument indeed.
Conservative straw man “they’re evil – let’s kill them”
Watson Ladd “you made a violent response – let’s kill you”
Watson Ladd2 “you made a violent response – let’s kill you”
Watson Ladd3 “you made a violent response – let’s kill you”

This is like either the old woman who swallowed the fly or that Jewish song for a holy day where the same thing happens – except with multipliers of Watson Ladds killing each other.

I am very much against the execution of Charles 1 by the parliament – it was improper.

If you liken ISIS to nazis you can look at the role anglo imperialism played in each. Germany was fragmented and late to nationalise by force – and then when it did it was landlocked and the other European cou tries had lots of colonies and Germany was late and to catch up to the other European powers made great wrong plans. All the other European countries should not have been having colonies – if they had not it is fairly unlikely Germany would have had such imperial ambitions and we had ww1 then Germany had a nazi government and we had ww2.

It would be good to try not to have ww3 – so we should stop exploiting and dominating other countries.

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Ze Kraggash 10.12.14 at 7:35 am

Huh. Before you start killing imaginary nazis, maybe first you should stop giving real ones billions of dollars and supporting their military, political, and propaganda campaigns.
http://www.globalresearch.ca/americas-nazis-in-kiev-russians-are-subhuman

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rwschnetler 10.12.14 at 8:31 am

With Ze Kraggash, Watson Ladd and ZM as stars in the cast, I am watching the Nutcracker Suite from the balcony. It’s beautiful.

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Brett Bellmore 10.12.14 at 10:22 am

Ze, how about the Qatif rape case, for instance? Or Or this one?

“Be careful when you fight the monsters, lest you become one.”

To which I’d add, be careful about deciding the people you want to fight are monsters, because it can have the same effect.

The problem being, that there are monsters. The problem in the Middle East being, they’re in charge. Mind, they’re in charge here, too, but we’ve got a better grade of monster.

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Ze Kraggash 10.12.14 at 11:08 am

Brett, you said ”executing them for being the victim of a rape.” You should read your links more carefully.

The second one in particular, whilst controversial, doesn’t even seem to have any cultural quirks: one person killed another, claimed self-defense, didn’t succeed. Happens all the time everywhere, I’m sure. No one was raped. The first link doesn’t fit your description either.

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mattski 10.12.14 at 11:52 am

To which I’d add, be careful about deciding the people you want to fight are monsters, because it can have the same effect.

Brett,

Excuse me if I’m mistaken, but aren’t you here at Crooked Timber battling the liberals–obsessively–because of the horror with which you view them?

Sure looks that way.

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J Thomas 10.12.14 at 12:35 pm

#200

Excuse me if I’m mistaken, but aren’t you here at Crooked Timber battling the liberals–obsessively–because of the horror with which you view them?

Sure looks that way.

Well, but as far as we know he isn’t killing any of them. Or even fighting. He merely disagrees a lot.

The danger is still there. Sometimes it’s styles of reasoning that serve as the magic spell to turn people into monsters, and if you accept too many of the bad guys’ premises or even general approaches to thinking, you could be infected.

But “Be careful when you disagree with monsters, lest you become one” just doesn’t have the same ring.

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LFC 10.12.14 at 12:46 pm

Peter T @188:
a bit overstated, I think. There has been a mixture of, by the f-p establishment’s lights, failures and successes (Guatemala ’54 I don’t think wd count as a failure in terms of what the US admin was trying to do, i.e. remove Arbenz, though I cd be wrong on that).

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mattski 10.12.14 at 2:43 pm

J Thomas,

Or even fighting.

You don’t perceive BB’s role here as fighting the liberals??

I do. I’d say the ax he’s grinding is unusually weighty.

Further to 202,

If we look at the service to corporate interests, including and maybe especially military-industrial interests, then US foreign policy has certainly had plenty of success.

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Watson Ladd 10.12.14 at 3:25 pm

It’s not about violence, but coming to a town, killing the men and raping the women. That’s what ISIS does. And that’s what the world is refusing to stop. As for the broader question of conservatives, why don’t Arabs deserve what the French have, namely liberty and democracy? They don’t have it not because they don’t want it, but a concerted campaign of terror and repression by conservatives.

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MPAVictoria 10.12.14 at 4:01 pm

Well that esculated quickly…

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geo 10.12.14 at 4:13 pm

205: that esculated quickly

Esculation = the escalation of osculation, preferably in the direction of copulation.

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J Thomas 10.12.14 at 4:21 pm

#204

It’s not about violence, but coming to a town, killing the men and raping the women. That’s what ISIS does.

Yes, and they’re a tiny minority that does not represent anybody. The only reason they are winning is that Sunni extremists pay a lot of money to arm them.

And when they find a hospital, they kill the doctors, rape the nurses, and then they pull the babies out of the incubators and kill them and steal the incubators. Or was that story left over from last time? No, time before last.

I dunno. When we get into these situations where it isn’t at all obvious that we should be supporting either side, we start getting atrocity stories that tell us the side that is closer to fitting our interests is getting atrocitied by the horrible guys. Maybe often they’re true though I believe often they aren’t.

Maybe Saddam was the only one in the Iran/Iraq war using poison gas – we know he was because we gave it to him.

In the Bosnian war at least three sides set up “rape camps”, Bosniak and Croatian camps were mostly for Serbian women while Serbian camps were mostly for Bosniak women and some Croatian. But we heard mostly about the Serbs doing it because they were the designated enemy.

We were making a big deal of Assad using poison gas until he started looking like the lesser evil.

I’ve gotten tired of it. There are people who have a pretty big budget to lie to you, to influence your opinion. Any source you believe, they will try to subvert or imitate because US opinion is an important goal. I’m less and less willing to believe anything much, which is itself a lesser win for them.

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Peter T 10.12.14 at 11:31 pm

LFC

The Romans (Mithridates, Boudicca) and IIRC, the British after a similar couple of nasty experiences, worked out that unleashing a horde of grifters on the locals invites blowback detrimental to one’s wider imperial interests. And that, therefore, the grifters often need to be forcefully restrained. The US seems to have difficulty with the concept. Genocide, Latin American popular estrangement from the US, drugs, migration, gangs – all in part consequences of uncritical foreign policy establishment support for US grifters in Central America. And ditto, often, in the Middle East. It’s precisely the f-p establishment’s criteria of “success” that is in question.

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J Thomas 10.12.14 at 11:46 pm

#203 Mattsky

You don’t perceive BB’s role here as fighting the liberals??

I haven’t noticed that liberals who post here tend to suddenly disappear. Is Brett turning them in to be arrested, fired, moved to subsistence farms with no internet, etc?

I only see him disagree. He makes claims that mostly would convince no one unless they already agreed with him.

Some liberals respond to him, which maybe distracts them from something important. But if they have nothing better to do and they enjoy it, who should complain?

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Andrew F. 10.13.14 at 1:56 am

One observation:

American foreign policy can appear contradictory if one does not begin the analysis with American interests and the means available to a rational strategy in support of those interests.

It can appear even more contradictory if one focuses primarily upon intermediate objectives within a given strategy, losing sight of the strategy itself (and the rationale for that strategy) and the ultimate ends that the strategy is intended to serve.

For instance, US support of Maliki did not have the ultimate objective of simply maintaining Maliki in power. Instead US support of Maliki had the objective of supporting the legitimacy and viability of the Iraqi Government (which, in turn, is part of achieving larger regional objectives). At the time, there were no palatable strategic alternatives and the character of Maliki’s tenure in office was undetermined.

Circumstances have since changed. The character of Maliki’s tenure in office had become quite clear, and that character enabled, significantly, the new threat to the legitimacy and viability of the Iraqi Government that ISIL posed and continues to pose. Moreover, the US could withhold support in preference to a candidate that presented an attractive alternative – and this strategy was judged as likely to succeed.

There is nothing incoherent about US policy in that described sequence. It is only when one loses sight of the larger context – the ultimate ends of US policy, the limited means available to rationally serve those ends, and the circumstances beyond US control – that one is able to view this sequence as containing a contradiction.

One can describe a similar narrative about US policy with respect to the Syrian civil war. The President viewed the best option – given, again, the limited means available to a rational strategy, circumstances beyond US control, and the ultimate ends of US policy – as essentially very limited support to select rebel groups and rhetorical support to Assad’s departure. Not everyone agreed with this view, of course, but the presence of dissenting voices doesn’t make the decided policy less coherent.

Circumstances, however, changed. ISIL emerged as force credible enough to destabilize the region, and to enable terrorist attacks in the West. US actions, in consequence of these changed circumstances, have adjusted appropriately.

What is often missing in the analysis of US preference for Assad’s departure is an assessment of the value the US placed on that departure and the conditions under which the departure is preferred. Clearly the value placed was never equal to the cost of a strategy likely to succeed in achieving the departure under the requisite conditions.

The current US strategy selected to neutralize ISIL is very limited in its costs to the US. This strategy seeks to leverage the existing interests of other regional actors and US strengths, without committing the US to an expensive ground operation or to an extraordinarily ambitious outcome only achievable at great cost.

Such a selection is in keeping with the President’s original assessment of the degree to which US interests are threatened by the Syrian civil war, the strategies that would lead to outcomes serving those interests, and the costs of those strategies relative to the benefits achieved. In short, the Syrian civil war, so long as contained, imposes less costs on US interests than would an active US strategy to bring the civil war to an acceptable conclusion. The pessimistic view of the costs of successful strategies is predicated largely upon the lack of viable rebel groups with values and goals acceptable to the United States. And one can witness the consequences of this pessimistic view in the very limited nature of current US involvement.

As to Peter T’s point, I tend to agree with LFC.

I’d add that covert actions in Guatemala and Iran were far less important to overall US interests and strategy than other choices that the US made, such as the determination to commit itself to the defense of Western Europe and West Berlin. Judging US foreign policy as a whole by US support of covert actions in particular places, under conditions of great uncertainty (and which achieved, in some cases for decades, the intended result), seems misguided to me. Emphatically, that is not to condone US support of all covert actions, some of which were mistaken both ethically and prudentially.

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mattski 10.13.14 at 2:20 am

I haven’t noticed that liberals who post here tend to suddenly disappear.

You don’t seem conversant in the English language…

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LFC 10.13.14 at 3:54 am

Peter T @208:
I want to make clear that I think the US role in Latin America over the decades has been in many respects quite reprehensible. I agree that the criteria of “success” under particular admins are what’s in question, and often I would have disagreed w those criteria. I was simply questioning your initial framing in terms of incompetence, since some of those reprehensible outcomes might have been intended. But it’s debatable.

At any rate, w/r/t Guatemala, I’ve read C. Robin’s review of G. Grandin’s The Last Colonial Massacre (reprinted in The Reactionary Mind), which opens by recalling Reagan’s 1982 mtg w Rios Montt and goes on to remind that the Guatemalan military had killed some 200,000 people by the time the civil war came to an end in the mid-’90s. So I was not defending US policy, during the Cold War esp., in Latin America. Just wanted to be clear on that.

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LFC 10.13.14 at 4:22 am

p.s. Aspects of the history are fairly well known, at least in some circles (Chile ’73, School of the Americas, Nicaragua, etc.). No need to rehearse in detail.

With respect to recent policy in Syria and Iraq, the orig. topic of the thread, I don’t see quite the level of incoherence in US policy that some here do, though some things cd have been handled considerably better, no doubt. There was no sizable constituency in the country for a highly active intervention vs Assad, even though he was/is slaughtering his own pop. and dropping barrel bombs on villages. The humanitarian-intervention impulse in US policy has been selective and prob. inconsistent (inconsistency does not always and necessarily equal incoherence), and the Obama admin, as Andrew F’s comment above suggests, took a dispassionate, even cold (if you like) weighing-of-costs-and-benefits approach. Sometimes that may be the least bad thing to do. The advent of ISIS has changed the weighing. One can argue about whether the judgments on this score are correct, but they appear to me (as of this writing) to be at least somewhat defensible. (That’s a tentative view on my part, and I may change my mind.)

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Peter T 10.13.14 at 5:07 am

“questioning your initial framing in terms of incompetence, since some of those reprehensible outcomes might have been intended”. That someone intended to stuff-up is not a valid defence against a charge of incompetence. US policy in Central America and the Caribbean has often been a short-sighted pursuit of US corporate profits unbalanced by much, if any, consideration, of wider US political and social interests. In terms of what a foreign policy (or any other policy) is supposed to do – ie achieve a workable medium to long term balance between different interests, this is simply incompetence.

Analysis of the various moves made under Bush/Clinton/Bush/Obama in Iraq and surrounds too often leaves out the failure to engage with reality (much as, in Southeast Asia, there was a similar failure to actually pay attention to some basic facts about geography and local politics). Iraq has a large Shia majority, with close ties to Iran, and a smaller Kurdish element opposed to a strong central state and also with ties to Iran. So a strategy that starts out by destroying Sunni dominance with no plan for the inevitable Shia/Kurd move into the resulting vacuum starts with a major error. To then go on to repeatedly and insistently put off side the neighbouring regional power, the one your Iraqi allies are going to look to, compounds the error. To ignore the religious attitudes that underpin the legitimacy of your major client (Saudi) is a third error. Don’t these people ever read a book or two, look at a map and do some thinking?

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J Thomas 10.13.14 at 7:45 am

Analysis of the various moves made under Bush/Clinton/Bush/Obama in Iraq and surrounds too often leaves out the failure to engage with reality….

Sometimes it may involve a rational attempt to deal with US irrational beliefs.

I think the Bush administration had the idea that we won the war so we could do anything we wanted. So for example they set out to create an Iraqi government that did not include any Ba’aths and did not include any religious people, and they wanted that government to have an army run by Americans that Iraqis would fight and die for. When asked when we intended to leave Iraq, Bush said that the US military was still in Germany after more than 50 years but we weren’t exactly occupying Germany.

And I think maybe a lot of US voters believe that Iraq was not doing that badly when Bush handed over control to Obama, so if anything goes wrong it’s Obama’s fault. Because he’s a secret Muslim who wants things to go wrong.

And so Obama tries to do enough about anything that looks like a problem to the public that he can claim that he’s doing the right thing, even though any time he starts to do less while it still looks like a problem to the public, then he will be called a defeatist who is losing and admitting defeat.

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Brett Bellmore 10.13.14 at 10:21 am

“He makes claims that mostly would convince no one unless they already agreed with him.”

I’m making an effort to fit in here…

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Peter T 10.13.14 at 10:26 am

J Thomas

and a strategy built on irrational beliefs has what claim to competence?

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mattski 10.13.14 at 11:25 am

I’m making an effort to fit in here…

That was a step in the right direction.

:^)

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mattski 10.13.14 at 11:37 am

In terms of what a foreign policy (or any other policy) is supposed to do – ie achieve a workable medium to long term balance between different interests, this is simply incompetence.

I think this is a gray area. Pursuing one’s interest (who’s?!) and largely succeeding… can that easily be dismissed as incompetence? Like LFC I’m not remotely defending US policy in latin America or the caribbean. Otoh, I would not hesitate to call Bush’s policy in Iraq among the most incompetent in US history.

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J Thomas 10.13.14 at 12:41 pm

#217

and a strategy built on irrational beliefs has what claim to competence?

Put it this way — if you are responsible to somebody else — owners, customers, voters, senior management etc — and you fail to take their irrational beliefs into account, how competent is that?

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