My comprehensive plan for US policy on the Middle East

by John Quiggin on October 3, 2015

Four years ago, I put forward a comprehensive plan for US policy on the Middle East (reproduced in full over the fold). Looking back from 2015, I think it’s clear that it would have yielded better outcomes all round than the actual policy of the Obama Administration, or any alternative put forward in the US policy debate. Not only that, but it needs no updating in the light of events, and will (almost certainly) be just as appropriate in ten years’ time as it is now.

Feel free to agree or disagree.

Comprehensive plan for US policy on the Middle East





{ 136 comments }

1

cassander 10.03.15 at 11:39 pm

So, you think the biggest problem with the middle east is that Israel isn’t paranoid and aggressive enough? Interesting theory….

2

P O'Neill 10.03.15 at 11:50 pm

I see that “Middle East” became “Israel” even more quickly than in the original comment thread.

3

geo 10.03.15 at 11:56 pm

Assuming for a moment that such a policy were possible, given the state of US domestic politics, why don’t you think that joining the near-unanimous international consensus on a two-state solution and withholding further diplomatic, economic, and military support for Israel until it withdrew from the occupied territories and recognized a Palestinian state wouldn’t have been a more effective — not to mention moral — US policy?

4

heckblazer 10.04.15 at 1:49 am

Well, Obama’s attempt at a nuclear deal and rapprochement with Iran seems a whole lot better than nothing I’d say.

5

5566hh 10.04.15 at 2:02 am

Seriously though, I think a non-plan isn’t really that useful. Why not have an actual plan? Something like this:

1. End all drone strikes
2. Cut off all military aid to countries in the Middle East
3. Cut off diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia
4. End all CIA or other covert support for groups in the region
5. Put sanctions on any state in the region that funds terrorist groups
6. Abolish the CIA, or at least covert CIA political interventions (this would help to address a lot of other problems outside the region too)
7. Withdraw all US forces from the Middle East
8. Encourage Britain to abandon its plans for a base in Bahrain
9. Provide development aid (non-military) to the region
10. Put diplomatic pressure on repressive regimes in the region

6

cassander 10.04.15 at 2:28 am

>2. Cut off all military aid to countries in the Middle East

Will make israel more paranoid and aggressive, will put iraq at serious risk of total collapse.

>3. Cut off diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia

will result in them immediately acquiring nuclear weapons from pakistan.

>4. End all CIA or other covert support for groups in the region

Will result in the collapse of the opposition to assad.

>5. Put sanctions on any state in the region that funds terrorist groups

Frankly, that’s pretty much everyone who exports oil. Since the rest of the world isn’t going to embargo the oil exporters, those sanctions will accomplish nothing.

>6. Abolish the CIA, or at least covert CIA political interventions (this would help to address a lot of other problems outside the region too)

When, exactly do you think the CIA last had a political intervention in the middle east? 1953?

>9. Provide development aid (non-military) to the region
>10. Put diplomatic pressure on repressive regimes in the region

How would you do that when you’ve cut off relations, military support, aid, and trade with all of them? You plan is literally to throw away all levels of power then say “now change!” Rarely have I seen such magical thinking.

7

Val 10.04.15 at 3:12 am

A U.S. air strike killed 20 MSF workers and patients in Afghanistan. A U.S. spokesperson called it collateral damage

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/03/kunduz-charity-hospital-bombing-violates-international-law

It’s bullshit. That’s what contemporary warfare does – kills civilians. The vast majority of those who die in contemporary warfare are civilians. It’s not collateral damage, it’s what war does. I don’t know (as I’ve written on my blog) how anyone can justify war these days.

8

Frank Wilhoit 10.04.15 at 3:17 am

The United States has only one option left in the Middle East. That is to build a time machine, go back to 1911, and prevent Winston Churchill and Jacky Fisher from converting the British Navy from coal to oil. Admittedly, serious obstacles stand in the way of implementing this approach, but there is no alternative.

9

John Quiggin 10.04.15 at 3:40 am

@5 This amounts to spelling out my plan

@8 Or, alternatively, set the time machine for 2015, when the US is virtually self-sufficient in oil, and the price is at a historic low (the supposed need to control ME oil was always nonsense, but it’s nonsense on stilts now)

10

5566hh 10.04.15 at 3:44 am

cassander: Well I’m glad you at least liked 1, 7 and 8. Some of your points are reasonable, but I think you’re exaggerating a bit in your treatment of 9 and 10. There would be no need to cut off relations, aid, or trade. Yes, you’d have some sanctions, but there would still be trade. (Perhaps 2 was a bit over-the-top and unnecessary. But certainly Saudi Arabia should lose its status as a US ally.) With regard to 6, by ‘political interventions’ I meant any kind of covert payments to anybody. If the CIA is not doing that now, that’s great, if it is, it should stop.

11

Peter T 10.04.15 at 4:03 am

The time machine has much to recommend it.

As for the last four years, Obama has:

1. continued drone strikes
2. reached an accord with Iran
3. pressured (with Russia) Syria into abandoning chemical weapons.
4.committed tactical airpower in support of the Baghdad government, Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, Assyrian Christians and Iraqi Yazidis, all under attack from ISIS.
5. tried – with no success – to build up a secular alternative to the Assad regime.
Personally, I would regard 2, 3, and 4 as good results, particularly as US airpower in conjunction with local forces was almost certainly instrumental in saving these communities from death or enslavement. 5 was a doomed effort, 1 is counterproductive.

12

Anderson 10.04.15 at 4:11 am

Quiggin’s plan is reactionary, antisemitic, imperialist, warmongering Western propaganda.

… Well, surely I wasn’t expected to read it first.

13

Matt 10.04.15 at 5:14 am

I don’t see why collapse of the opposition to assad is presented as a problem. Assad’s government has committed atrocities. So has every opposition group bigger than a breadbox. There is no “good guy” faction that can replace Assad’s government with a little American help. Is it just “USA must oppose everything Iran/Russia supports out of reflexive spite?” The hypocritical whining coming out of the US government lately about Russia interfering in the Syrian civil war is pretty special.

14

Val 10.04.15 at 5:16 am

Peter T @ 11
Do you have any evidence on who got killed by the “tactical airpower” – in light of my comments above that in contemporary warfare it’s mainly civilians who get killed? Genuine question.

15

Peter T 10.04.15 at 5:29 am

Well, I have followed the Kurdish operations fairly closely, Their opponents are quick to highlight civilian casualties, and so far they have been very few (in the 10s). This is because the US, sensibly, has followed very stringent rules of engagement, has access to good information on the ground and is using precision weapons sparingly. Civilian losses in Kurdish operations have been very light, as they at pains to avoid alienating the population. Even Iraqi government operations have been fairly restrained (for example, complaints from Tikrit residents about government forces mostly came back to locals from pro-ISIS tribes being excluded by returning anti-ISIS tribes, who had suffered same nasty massacres at ISIS hands).

By contrast, Assad’s air force and army has been indiscriminate, and ISIS and an-Nusra openly proclaim a genocidal agenda (“Christians to Lebanon, Allawi to Hell”).

More largely, civilians do die in war. Sometimes because they are targets, or because no-one cares (eg US in Vietnam). Sometimes the civilian/soldier boundary is very blurry, because the “civilians” (children excepted) are part of the fighting, as they see the cause as their own.

16

Chris Bertram 10.04.15 at 6:35 am

@Matt, the overwhelming majority of civilian deaths are down to the regime. ISIS may get the headlines, but their capacity for killing people is far less impressive than Assad’s (or, more likely, they have less opportunity).

17

Chris Bertram 10.04.15 at 6:40 am

@JQ your post is premised on the naive belief that the purpose of policies is to solve problems. Most recent policies of the British government (the Australian one for that matter) have a political function rather than a governmental one. “Do nothing” might be the most effective policy, but it is hopeless politics (and media relations). Currently, Cameron is trying to push “bomb Syria” and that’s partly because “something must be done” and partly because he thinks he’ll embarrass the Labour Party. Perhaps one should hope for better from Obama, but it seems not.

18

Val 10.04.15 at 7:39 am

Peter T @ 15
Thanks, I tried to reply but my comment disappeared (two links but I don’t know if that’s why). Anyway, I guess it varies, there certainly seems to be a lot of contestation over figures for civilian deaths. I heard the overall 85% civilian deaths in contemporary warfare figure from someone who has been directly involved in forensic investigations, so I took it as a general guide.

I realise, as Chris Bertram says, that ‘do nothing’ may be politically impossible, but really what is the alternative? Actually I just realised I saw something about alternatives on one of the websites I looked at, but can’t remember which. Maybe will try again later.

19

John Quiggin 10.04.15 at 7:39 am

Chris @17 If (as we agree) bad policy is driven largely by the belief that “something must be done”, what response is more appropriate than a simple statement of “do nothing”?

After all, there are plenty of issues where (for good or ill) that’s the response of the public and even sometimes the policy elite.

20

novakant 10.04.15 at 7:55 am

JQ – really “doing nothing`’ must include stopping arms exports and military aid to the ME – unfortunately it doesn’t look like that is ever going to happen, so your “doing nothing” isn’t really what it is meant to be …

the overwhelming majority of civilian deaths are down to the regime. ISIS may get the headlines, but their capacity for killing people is far less impressive than Assad’s

As much as one might resent this fact, the collapse of the opposition threatening Assad means less bloodshed rather than more, the cardinal sin resulting in the bloodshed was the US trying to destabilize the regime by propping up the opposition and refusing tom engage diplomatically – same old, same old.

21

Chris Bertram 10.04.15 at 7:56 am

I completely agree John. But once an issue is at the forefront of the news cycle, politicians don’t have the courage to do that (or the temptation of taking advantage for short-term gain is too great). Lucky are the policy areas that escape a moment in the spotlight, for there rationality has a chance.

22

John Quiggin 10.04.15 at 8:23 am

As I said in the OP, I expect my proposal will be just as relevant in 10 years time as it is now.

23

Peter T 10.04.15 at 9:17 am

Okay. So we airlift Allawis, Druze, Syrian Shia, Christians (30 per cent or so of the Syrian population) out, re-settle them in Arizona and leave the Islamists to fight it out. Oh, wait, we need to airlift out the Assyrians and Yezidi too. Then the Iraqi Shia and ISIS can fight it out. Iran will certainly intervene in force, but not our worry. Oh, and we’d better get most Jordanians out of the way too.

US policy is often clueless, often based on some Beltway fantasy, but there are very real people at stake here, not just tiresome geopolitics. Most US policy derives from stupid game-playing, but some part derives from genuine, well-founded fear of the consequences of inaction.

24

Chris Bertram 10.04.15 at 9:24 am

@Ze K … there are quite a number of reports that support the claim, but here’s one:

http://newirin.irinnews.org/dataviz/2015/8/17/syria-government-threat-bombing-douma

25

JPL 10.04.15 at 11:15 am

WRT the “problem” of the Middle East, I think it would be ethically irresponsible of us to go as far as the OP suggests (we have a responsibility to do what we can to alleviate human suffering); but I do think we can place one precondition on whatever solution anybody finds for this problem: that it should absolutely NOT involve “military” means of any kind whatsoever. No military action, response or threats. Not a killing of even one person, whatever anyone’s judgment is about that person’s role, status, blame, etc. Other than that, everyone is free to work it out. Although it would be desirable, the working out of a solution to the “problem of the Middle East” need not wait on the solution to a logically more fundamental problem, i.e., the identification of the problem.

(I just want to emphasize that I’m not referring here to what the journalists thoughtlessly call “a political solution”; I mean that in thinking about the problem and its solution the idea of military force should be completely removed as a possible application. Of course, someone will say, “Oh, that’s just unrealistic. That’s not the way the real world works. You’re so naive, etc.” But it doesn’t have to be realistic to carry out the exercise in thought, and we might learn something along the way, see new possibilities. Thought has not been taken far enough here.)

26

Lee A. Arnold 10.04.15 at 11:56 am

Will someone please ask Donald Trump whether he will send more US troops into the Middle East?

27

Layman 10.04.15 at 1:17 pm

Peter T @ 24: “US policy is often clueless, often based on some Beltway fantasy, but there are very real people at stake here, not just tiresome geopolitics.”

If those very real people were starving, the U.S. would not feed them. If they were homeless refugees, the U.S. would not take them in. If they were poor, the U.S. would not employ them. If they were sick, we would not cure them. To help them, it seems we are only willing to bomb them. In light of that, are you really sure you understand the motivation for what we’re doing?

28

Marc 10.04.15 at 1:32 pm

@30: that’s an utterly false characterization that pretends there is no such things as foreign aid and no such thing as refugees admitted to the US – there are millions from Vietnam, for example, and large Somali and Hmong populations. I know that hating everything about the United States is deeply fashionable for some, but that doesn’t make it productive or true. No European nation has *anything* to say to the United States about welcoming immigrants.

29

Watson Ladd 10.04.15 at 1:33 pm

Layman, the US takes in over 50,000 refugees for resettlement every year, is a major funder of global development programs, and private charity is more extensive in the US than any other developed country. International relations are not solely the province of the Pentagon.

Val, I assure you artillery strikes and tank battles killed civilians. In fact, most wars in Europe killed more civilians than soldiers, due to the impact on food production, transportation, and public safety. Are there mistakes? Absolutely. But let’s not pretend that the Taliban aren’t going to have mass executions when they come back into power, and smash even more artifacts than before.

The fact is ISIS is carrying out a genocide. We can kill them all, thus defending millions of civilians in their path, and ensuring that Iraq and Syria can become democratic liberal states instead of theocracies. Instead we’re being told that Arab lives don’t matter, that they will never become democratic. Never mind that Japan has a functioning democracy despite being feudal until the 19th century and had extremely powerful anti-democratic thinkers until the postwar period.

30

Val 10.04.15 at 1:55 pm

Watson, according to Wikipedia the U.S. gives a lot of aid in absolute terms, yes, but is well down the list as a proportion of GDP https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_governments_by_development_aid#Official_development_assistance_by_country_as_a_percentage_of_Gross_National_Income_in_2013

31

Ted Lemon 10.04.15 at 2:14 pm

“Over the fold” doesn’t seem to be working. I see nothing over the fold on either this article or the linked article. If your plan for the Middle East is “we don’t need a plan for the Middle East,” this isn’t the clearest way of saying so! :)

32

Watson Ladd 10.04.15 at 2:21 pm

Val, those statistics exclude charitable giving, which is a major, major part of the US contribution to foreign aid.

33

Layman 10.04.15 at 3:56 pm

Watson Ladd: “Instead we’re being told that Arab lives don’t matter, that they will never become democratic. “

If you want to try to correct people, suggest you dispense with this sort of strawman nonsense. Beyond that, contrast what we spend killing people with what we spend on aid, and how that ‘aid’ actually materializes, and then we can talk.

34

Matt 10.04.15 at 4:07 pm

I think that the Assad government has killed more civilians than the opposition groups. I believe this is a matter more of military capabilities than intent. Increasing the military capability of groups fighting to take territory from the central government is not doing the vast majority of Syrians a favor. It doesn’t even seem to serve US “interests” unless we’re all going to admit that “the opposite of whatever Iran/Russia want” is definitionally the US national interest. If they drink fresh water, we must all drink salt, because spite.

35

Donald Johnson 10.04.15 at 5:40 pm

Ze– That isn’t the impression I get from the Angry Arab site–I don’t recall him taking a stand on who kills more civilians. His point is that all the armed factions are bad (can’t recall what he says about the Kurds) and that the so-called moderate rebels are not much different from al Nusra.

My impression from the human rights groups is that the government has killed the most civilians, but if the Islamists won they would be genocidal, so Assad is the lesser of the evils.

As anyone who remembers the fights about the Iraq death toll here and elsewhere, it’s really hard to count the dead in these wars and maybe even harder to distinguish between civilians and fighters or to tell how many civilians our side is killing.. One thing I noticed with Iraq is that the latest study published in PLOS in 2013 found a lower violent death toll than the 2006 Johns Hopkins study, but roughly agreed with them about the percentage killed by coalition forces ( over one third). The media based count of IBC found a lower percentage of civilian dead attributed to the coalition, which I suspect shows that the press just passed on the official storyline most of the time, where anyone our side killed was automatically a terrorist unless proven innocent beyond a reasonable doubt.

36

Donald Johnson 10.04.15 at 5:44 pm

Here is a link to the PLOS study on Iraq–

http://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.1001533

35 percent of the violent deaths attributed to coalition forces.

37

Donald Johnson 10.04.15 at 5:46 pm

And here is a link to a Physicians for Social Responsibility paper which discusses the various studies and estimates of the death toll in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Their numbers are on the higher side–

http://www.psr.org/assets/pdfs/body-count.pdf

38

geo 10.04.15 at 6:28 pm

JQ@9: the supposed need to control ME oil was always nonsense, but it’s nonsense on stilts now

http://www.dreamscape.com/morgana/enforce.htm:

“Documents recently obtained from Cheney’s Energy Task Force as the result of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the public-interest group Judicial Watch indicate that Cheney and his colleagues had their sites on the black gold under the Iraqi desert well before Sept. 11.

“Last July, the Commerce Department finally turned over records that included “a map of Iraqi oilfields, pipelines, refineries and terminals, as well as two charts detailing Iraqi oil and gas projects and ‘Foreign Suitors for Iraqi Oilfield Contracts’,” according to Judicial Watch’s subsequent press release. There were also similar maps and charts for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The documents were dated March 2001.”

See also: http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article4458.htm.

If only Bush and Cheney had listened to people who knew something about the oil industry and believed in the free market …

39

Donald Johnson 10.04.15 at 7:06 pm

Ze k–

I’ve found it hard to navigate the Syrian Observatory’s website back when I tried, but the NYT occasionally gives a breakdown of their figures and they do not support the meme that was common a couple of years ago in the West, before ISIS became the chief official enemy, that Assad had killed 100,000 of his own people. Rather, the figures seemed to show that civilians were a minority of the dead, with the bulk being armed fighters on both sides. The NYT doesn’t give a breakdown of who killed the civilians. Whether the numbers are true is a separate question, but it is funny how the Western mainstream accepted the implication of Iraq Body Count’s numbers, which allegedly showed nearly all civilians after the invasion months of March/April 2003 were killed by fellow Iraqis and not our forces, while mostly ignoring the Syrian Observatory’s numbers where they conflicted with the propaganda description of nearly all dead being civilians and the victims exclusively of Assad.

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/20/world/middleeast/syria.html?_r=0

40

Donald Johnson 10.04.15 at 7:18 pm

The UN apparently thinks the Syrian government has caused the greatest civilian death toll with its indiscriminate bombing and shelling. I would link to the latest report, which I skimmed recently, but there is some technical glitch for the English language version. The following link is to a press conference.

http://www.ohchr.org/en/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=16379&LangID=E

41

Collin Street 10.04.15 at 7:56 pm

I really am not very comfortable discussing politics in a space where room is made for a person whose position is in as many words, “we need to kill them all to stop genocide”.

42

Piquoiseau 10.04.15 at 8:30 pm

I think it’s wishful thinking to imagine that simple negation of all Middle East policy will rectify all the problems with actually existing Middle East policy. To cite just one example, cutting off aid to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel would cause a huge international crisis.

43

adam.smith 10.04.15 at 8:36 pm

As for the US not having any ME policy–I’m all for less interference, but I have no idea what not having a policy means. Break up all diplomatic ties to all ME countries? Have the same ones to all countries? Maintain the status quo? Ditto wrt trade relations. Weapons sales? Withdraw all aid workers&payments, too? Or just don’t do anything that involves CIA or military?

Just as a sidenote @Donald Johson: assessing the death toll is even harder than your comment suggest. From the PLOS Medicine Stuy

…resulting in approximately 405,000 (95% uncertainty interval 48,000–751,000) excess deaths attributable to the conflict.

i.e. even this well done study with a pretty large sample size tells us nearly nothing–we’re reasonably confident the death toll was between 50 and 750 thousand people, i.e. the lower end of the estimate of that study is lower than the IBC numbers, the higher end is multiple times the IBC’s estimate.

Also this:

The media based count of IBC found a lower percentage of civilian dead attributed to the coalition, which I suspect shows that the press just passed on the official storyline most of the time

could go either way–the household-survey-based method could also overstate the impact of invaders due to self-reporting bias.

44

Layman 10.04.15 at 8:38 pm

“To cite just one example, cutting off aid to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel would cause a huge international crisis.”

I’m afraid it’s not at all clear that the resulting crisis would be ‘huger’ than the ones we get for the aid. U.S. aid to Israel (for example) is almost entirely military aid. We’re sponsoring Israel’s efforts to colonize the West Bank and to periodically destabilize Lebanon. These are international crises, and we’re funding them.

45

Abbe Faria 10.04.15 at 10:02 pm

“Looking back from 2015, I think it’s clear that it would have yielded better outcomes all round than the actual policy of the Obama Administration, or any alternative put forward in the US policy debate.”

The biggest policy choice was withdrawal of US forces from Iraq in 2011, where you got what you wanted. The last 4 years have absolutely vindicated those who argued for leaving ground troops to train and support the Iraqi Army – given that would have prevented the ground invasion and conquest of 1/3 of the country by ISIS.

http://thepage.time.com/2011/12/14/remarks-by-senator-john-mccain-on-iraq/

46

joshd 10.04.15 at 10:33 pm

@Donald Johnson @adam.smith

“One thing I noticed with Iraq is that the latest study published in PLOS in 2013 found a lower violent death toll than the 2006 Johns Hopkins study, but roughly agreed with them about the percentage killed by coalition forces ( over one third). The media based count of IBC found a lower percentage of civilian dead attributed to the coalition, which I suspect shows that the press just passed on the official storyline most of the time, where anyone our side killed was automatically a terrorist unless proven innocent beyond a reasonable doubt.”

You should take a look at this, which compares these studies:
https://www.iraqbodycount.org/analysis/qa/plos-ibc-others/

That link does not specifically address the coalition percentage, but there’s little difference between them on that. One important issue is that none of these household surveys give a “percentage of civilian dead attributed to the coalition”. They don’t give a percentage of civilian anything. They give estimates of total violent deaths in which there is no distinction between civilians and combatants, and they give percentages of the total violent deaths attributed to the coalition, which as you say is somewhere around a third. And IBC is also somewhere around a third, varying above or below depending on time-frame.

For PLOS, their coalition percentages are 27% (Sibling) and 35% (Household). The IBC percentage for civilians in that period is 13%, but this is irrelevant to the PLOS figures because they aren’t percentages for civilians. The comparable IBC figure (with combatants included) is 27%, exactly the same as the PLOS Sibling, only moderately lower than the Household, and well within the error margins. So PLOS says very little about either IBC’s totals (see link above), or about IBC’s coalition percentages. It would instead suggest IBC is probably not very far off on either question.

For the earlier JH/Burnham one, that said 31% coaltion (again, not a civilian figure). For that period, IBC is 27% (for civilian) and 39% (for civilian+combatant). So the comparable IBC figure here (39%) is actually higher than JH/Burnham and again there’s little difference anyway.

The main large difference is on the total number of deaths (and somewhat on when and where), not on coalition percentage, and only really with one survey, the Burnham one. PLOS is much closer to IBC (and to IFHS, ILCS, Iraq war logs, hospital/morgue stats, etc.) than Burnham on the total number. This other idea that they differ a lot on coalition percentage isn’t true and seems to rest on misinterpretations.

47

Tabasco 10.04.15 at 10:42 pm

I don’t know (as I’ve written on my blog) how anyone can justify war these days.

I don’t know (as I’ve written on my blog) how anyone who thinks like I do can justify war these days.

There you go, Val. I’ve fixed it fir you.

People who don’t think like you do, such as Vladimir Putin, as well as just about every other national leader in the past 10,000 years, justify war as being in their nation’s interests, Kumbaya sentiments notwithstanding. Whether or not those beliefs have been correct is another question.

48

Donald Johnson 10.04.15 at 10:43 pm

Adam Smith–

I saw that range–not being a statistician I can’t understand why the span was so large. They presumably tried to design their study to answer the question of the true death toll and that’s what they came up with? Most of the discussion seemed to assume the mid- range figure was likely accurate. It was consistent with the IFHS study in 2006.

On the other hand, the IBC method is guaranteed to be an undercount of total deaths and given that much of it comes from official sources, it will likely also undercount civilians killed by the coalition.

49

novakant 10.04.15 at 10:59 pm

The comparative body count is wholly immaterial – policy has to be based on an assessment of what’s politically possible and there was no way that Iran and by extension Russia would ever have allowed regime change in Syria. With that in mind, the west’s support for the rebels appears downright criminal, a bit like Bush 1 encouraging the Shia to rise up against SH back in the day. But hey, we should never forget that there’s a lot of money to be made by encouraging conflict in the ME.

50

Peter T 10.04.15 at 11:09 pm

There’s a strong temptation, evident in the OP, to just walk away from the mess. Because all sides will have some innocent blood on their hands, all judgements will be more or less uncertain and people will die whatever you do. We saw this with Bosnia too. Until the rapes and murders were too much to bear. But inaction has consequences as much as action. ISIS’ ideology is not a firm basis for lasting rule, but it can, in even a few decades, impose immense costs on the people it rules, those it attacks and those around them. One form of US intervention has limited those costs.

JQ would have no patience with those who, because economic policy is often inept, cruel or stupid, advocated doing nothing at all. But he has no problem doing this in foreign policy.

51

era abrams 10.04.15 at 11:15 pm

so if i get the joke, it is a non plan, which means you think it is ok that we continue to spend billions of dollars a year supporting insane dictatorial regimes that torture their own citizens (I leave it to the reader to supply the name(s) of the regime) ?

Here is a much better comprehensive plan:

The Gov’t of the United States of America believes that the following are fundamental, in alienable rights that must be honored by any state: equality before the law; freedom from torture, hunger, and arbitrary detention.

Therefore, the United States will not spend one thin dime on any gov’t that violates these basic principles.

52

John Quiggin 10.04.15 at 11:29 pm

@54 and others: Layman @30 has it pretty much right. The US is at or near the bottom of the list in terms of development aid, refugee intake, and many other forms of help to people in desperate need (I’ve looked at the various attempts to tweak the stats by people like Watson Ladd above, and they don’t stand up). The $3 trillion or more that has been spent making things worse in the Middle East would have been enough to meet the UN Millennium goals several times over.

So, “we have to do something” doesn’t cut much ice.

53

Layman 10.04.15 at 11:40 pm

“The last 4 years have absolutely vindicated those who argued for leaving ground troops to train and support the Iraqi Army”

Yes, if we just keep bombing people a bit longer, we’ll suddenly succeed. Bombing can’t fail, it can only be failed.

54

Peter T 10.04.15 at 11:41 pm

If I were in fact arguing that “something must be done…” you would be right. Now try, please, to realise that when a group of people has the means and will to kill/enslave/drive away another group, and is in fact doing so, doing nothing does not help the victims. Nor does wishing for a time machine. Or complaining about stuffed-up policies and bad choices in general. Or washing one’s hands and saying that, since it’s all very messy, just looking the other way is best.

I am not endorsing US policy in general, or intervention in general. I am saying that, from the point of view of a Yazidi, Kurd, Christian, Shi’a, Druze or civilized Sunni, survival is at stake, and some forms of US intervention have demonstrably aided in their efforts to preserve themselves, their ways of life and their cultural heritage.

55

Layman 10.04.15 at 11:43 pm

“Now try, please, to realise that when a group of people has the means and will to kill/enslave/drive away another group, and is in fact doing so, doing nothing does not help the victims.”

You will need a longer list of countries we need to bomb and invade.

56

Anarcissie 10.05.15 at 12:03 am

Piquoiseau 10.04.15 at 8:30 pm @ 46 & adam.smith 10.04.15 at 8:36 pm @ 47 —
‘Cold turkey.’ To get a more complete idea, imagine US policy after the Collapse. Because ‘things that can’t go on forever, don’t.’

57

Peter T 10.05.15 at 12:15 am

That there is a continuum between all and nothing continues to elude many people here.

58

Layman 10.05.15 at 12:21 am

“That there is a continuum between all and nothing continues to elude many people here.”

‘Some’ has not worked – if anything, it has made things worse. Now what? You say ‘more’, but how much more, to what achievable purpose? Every failure results in a call for more, but when the ‘more’ has happened, another failure is the result.

Me, I’d like to stop being complicit in blowing up wedding parties and hospitals. We’ve been bombing Afghanistan for 14 years. Is it better yet?

59

Peter T 10.05.15 at 12:44 am

Layman

Try to actually, you know, read the words. I am not arguing for more. I am observing that, without help from US tactical air-power, Kobane and Cizire Canton would have fallen to ISIS, Shingal would have fallen to ISIS, the Iraqi government would have had great difficulty in recovering Baiji and Tikrit, and the Kurds would have had great difficulty in holding Kirkuk. Without the limits on movement imposed by tactical air-power, ISIS would be able to concentrate forces for more powerful offensives. And that the human cost of continued ISIS success is huge. The west (though not as much as the locals) has a large stake in ISIS’ defeat, and military means are an essential part of that defeat.

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Harold 10.05.15 at 12:45 am

Quick! We have to do something to further enrich the armaments manufacturers, banks, and their lobbyists, retired military, and hangers on!!

61

Layman 10.05.15 at 1:02 am

@ Peter T, doing it again tomorrow is ‘more’. How not?

62

John Quiggin 10.05.15 at 1:04 am

@63 Equally, without access to health services, education, agricultural aid and other services the US could easily have afforded with a fraction of the money spent in Iraq and elsewhere, millions of people have died unnecessarily and continue to do so. Why not do something cheap and beneficial instead of expensive and usually counterproductive?

63

John Quiggin 10.05.15 at 1:08 am

geo @42 Of course Bush and Cheney thought US control of Iraqi oil was a big deal. They were stupid as well as evil. So what?

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Peter T 10.05.15 at 1:13 am

@66

Because, right now, doing some limited military things is essential to the ability to do anything productive. Your argument is a variation on the “we can’t do anything about this here (and it’s illegitimate to protest about this) until we have atoned for all past sins and moreover fixed Africa”.

I note that, although I point to specific ways in which specific forms of military action have been crucial in preserving people from death, enslavement or flight, the response is always to call for it to end on the basis that some other forms of military action have not worked.

Harold, Layman:
“I am about to be killed. Please help!”
“Certainly. I shall stand here and shout slogans. And deplore your death and blame the US.”

65

LFC 10.05.15 at 1:59 am

I agree with Peter T, who is making, as he says, a specific point about a specific policy. I can’t pretend to be an expert on or even to have followed the Syrian situation all that closely. With hindsight, past US policy on Syria specifically (and, it goes without saying, US policy in the wider region) leaves a lot to be desired. But I do think the use of force in these specific cases of particular communities under attack by ISIS is justified. How ISIS arose in the first place and who is to blame for that is a worthwhile question but not directly relevant to the immediate policy choice. That the US could and should spend considerably more on development aid, refugees, etc. and less on its overall military budget and mil. assistance to certain countries is also true, but again not immediately relevant to the question of policy vis-a-vis ISIS.

There is a WaPo story today (only read the headline para) about how ISIS rules its
territories and generally runs itself. Its fighters are paid salaries and get some other benefits; the local population has trouble even finding the basics of life, while it is subjected in various degrees to punishments, incl. in some cases execution, and the women are often taken as sex slaves. The use of the phrase “violent extremism,” favored in some Western govt circles, is actually too vague, broad, and anesthetizing to capture what ISIS is about. There are various kinds of violent extremists. ISIS can be seen as currently distinctive in its ideology and scope of oppression of the local population. The Assad regime doubtless gives it a run for the money in certain respects, though, of course, from a different ideological vantage.

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LFC 10.05.15 at 2:03 am

And now of course the Russians have started their own use of air (and ground?) power, claiming to be targeting ISIS but more likely hitting what they take to be the most immediate threats to Assad’s survival, regardless of who poses them.

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Harold 10.05.15 at 2:38 am

There is no such thing as “some limited military things”. Or the time to do that was in 2001 — something very limited and then stop. We are just committing war crimes.

68

Harold 10.05.15 at 3:00 am

I do agree that Isis has to be stopped, but more important, we must not create/encourage/support/give arms that somehow ALWAYS end up in the hands of ever expanding future Isises and Talibans. How hard is it to understand? People do not react well to foreign troops/advisers/special forces/exiles/proxies on their soil. They do not welcome them with rose petals.

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adam.smith 10.05.15 at 3:02 am

‘Cold turkey.’ To get a more complete idea, imagine US policy after the Collapse. Because ‘things that can’t go on forever, don’t.’

OK, so after collapse. So we de-recognize all states in the region. Obviously that means no diplomatic or economic connections either, so kick out all their diplomatic personnel. Since those folks won’t have valid passports anymore, you probably wouldn’t be able to travel to the US from those countries or as a (former) citizen of those countries, either. What do we do with the now stateless people of said (former) nationalities that live in the US?

The cutting off of all economic ties–are we going to seize all assets held by ME nationals (and former governments) in the US? To me that seems to be the only viable option here and it would most closely approximate the reality after a US collapse.

All of this is going to be a bit tricky with some of the multilateral agreements the US is party to this would violate. Does the US unilaterally renounce all those?

I could go on. Now you say, “Oh, but that’s not what I mean. You’re completely exaggerating.” But we’re talking about a region where the recognition of statehood is, in fact, one of the most contentious political questions. So, unless you want to go to the extremes I describe, you have to start formulating a policy of some kind, starting with the fact which states and which governments you’re going to recognize. There is currently no country in the world without a ME policy.
If you want to end all military and intelligence activity of the US in the ME, as seems closer to the actual debate people are having here, then you may want to specify that.

70

Val 10.05.15 at 3:19 am

Tabasco @ 51
I don’t know (as I’ve written on my blog) how anyone can justify war these days.

I don’t know (as I’ve written on my blog) how anyone who thinks like I do can justify war these days.

There you go, Val. I’ve fixed it fir you.

(This could turn out to be a very messy and ineffective use of italics but I’ll give it a go)

No you haven’t. Presumably you haven’t read my blog post, but even so you could have worked out that I, and people like me, don’t feel any need to justify war. We are against it.

I’m writing more about ‘ordinary people’ who don’t like wars, but think they are necessary to defend innocent people. I know quite a few people like that and I imagine you might also. My point is that if disproportionately more ‘innocent people’ are getting killed in wars than the nominal combatants, how can wars be justified?

That’s also the kind of calculation the UN and the Security Council do, at least in theory, to decide whether wars can be justified. I am specifically not talking about ‘realpolitik’ or anything of that sort, I am talking about justification. Different concept.

Also the “Kumbaya” attempt to discredit my ideas isn’t going to work, it’s transparent.

Also btw, as I’ve mentioned before on this blog, the ecofeminist theory is that wars arose with the development of patriarchy, about 3-5000 years ago, not 10,000 as you claim.

(And I am absolutely not going to get involved in another ‘do chimpanzees make war’ discussion here).

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Val 10.05.15 at 3:20 am

obviously I needed to use block quotes as well as italics. Another skill to be learnt!

72

geo 10.05.15 at 3:23 am

JQ@67: It wasn’t just Bush and Cheney. That control of Middle East oil was vital has been the unbroken consensus among US policymakers since the State Department declared in 1945 that the oil reserves of Saudi Arabia were “a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in world history.” Hundreds of US policymakers have echoed this view, and I doubt that a single one has ever expressed a contrary view. Can we at least agree that the belief that “US control of [ME] oil is a big deal” has been the virtually unanimous view in every American administration we know of?

And not just US policymakers. The members of Cheney’s Energy Task Force included, along with other high US officials, representatives of the energy industry. Can we also agree that the belief that “US control of [ME] oil is a big deal” has also been the virtually unanimous view of the US energy industry since oil was discovered there?

Presumably at least some of those policymakers and/or oil executives consulted one or more economists at some point during the last hundred years. Did all the economists consulted fail to point out that oil is fungible, and therefore political control of oil is irrelevant?

But even if every US policymaker, oil executive, and energy-industry economist was mistaken in believing that control of Middle East oil is a big deal, the left-wing critique of US foreign policy is still correct. The substance of that critique is that the purpose of US foreign policy is not to secure the “national interest” — a propagandistic fiction — but rather to secure the perceived interests of the society’s most powerful economic actors (and in case of incompatible interests among those actors, the interests of those most vitally affected by the policy in question, as measured by their willingness and ability to expend resources to secure their favored policy); and that to this extent, America is not a democracy.

The point of the left-wing critique is not that US Mideast policy is not very successful in achieving its goal of doing the best for the energy industry — i.e., is “stupid” in its choice of means — but rather that this is a morally corrupt goal, undemocratically arrived at.

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Peter T 10.05.15 at 3:38 am

Overall US policy in the Middle East is morally corrupt, and mostly profoundly stupid. I agree. Now that leaves the ISIS problem. Any ideas? Or does Harold’s hand-waving cover it?

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cassander 10.05.15 at 3:45 am

@5566hh

> There would be no need to cut off relations, aid, or trade.

except you explicitly called for that in 2 and 3.

>Yes, you’d have some sanctions, but there would still be trade.

the definition of sanctions is cutting people off from trade.

More broadly though, you completely ignore the way that the US presence restrains the behaviors of many of the actors in the neighborhood. Without everyone in the region capable of doing so, the israelis, saudis, and iranians in particular, would likely become more bellicose, not less, because the stakes would be much higher.

@layman

>If those very real people were starving, the U.S. would not feed them. If they were homeless refugees, the U.S. would not take them in. If they were poor, the U.S. would not employ them. If they were sick, we would not cure them. To help them, it seems we are only willing to bomb them. In light of that, are you really sure you understand the motivation for what we’re doing?

Except, of course, for the people the US does feed, the refugees it does take in, and the people it does employ….

https://www.usaid.gov/what-we-do/agriculture-and-food-security/food-assistance
http://www.state.gov/j/prm/ra/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foreign_trade_of_the_United_States

@geo

> but rather to secure the perceived interests of the society’s most powerful economic actors

assuming this to be true, geo, how do you explain the more than a decade the US spent enforcing sanctions against saddam, refusing to allow him to sell more oil, against considerable diplomatic pressure to allow him to do so? Or allowing most of the oil contracts in post saddam iraq to go to non american companies? Or do you just ignore those niggling details?

> but rather that this is a morally corrupt goal, undemocratically arrived at.

at exactly what point in the last 20 years do you think american policy was “undemocratic”? Because with the possible exception of the iraqi surge, I’m not aware of any time when the US position didn’t get at least plurality support.

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John Quiggin 10.05.15 at 4:20 am

“Now that leaves the ISIS problem. Any ideas? “

I have one. Let’s (US + client states like Oz) not do the thing that created ISIS, and before that, Al Qaeda, namely, use a lot of military force in a region where nearly everyone has good reason to hate us (and those who don’t, like Netanyahu, mostly despise us).

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Peter T 10.05.15 at 4:27 am

Should have said, any ideas that do not involve a time machine?

btw, US policy may contribute to al quaeda or ISIS, but they do not “create” them. Very violent Islam-inspired radicalism is a thread that runs from the Philippines (Abu Sayyaf) to Nigeria (Boko Haram). The variant in Algeria led to the deaths of over 100,000 people.

77

Val 10.05.15 at 4:30 am

@ 77
Excuse a maybe dumb question but can you or anyone explain to me how the UN peacekeeping process relates to the situation in Syria? or why it doesn’t?
http://www.un.org/en/peacekeeping/operations/peacekeeping.shtml

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Harold 10.05.15 at 4:45 am

@79 btw, Peter T.: “US policy may contribute to al Quaeda or ISIS, but they do not ‘create’ them.
Right. Don’t be disingenuous. It is a well-known fact that the USA and its client state Saudi Arabia spent a great deal of money creating Al Qaeda in Afghanistan to “give Russia its Vietnam”. Publishing children’s textbooks full of submachine guns and financing the building of the huge tunnel system that Osama bin Laden took refuge in (but neglecting to keep a map of same). It is true that the Mujadeen were already there but we deliberately blew them up into a world-wide menace.

79

Peter T 10.05.15 at 4:55 am

Val @ 77

Because there is no peace to keep. UN forces only go in as part of a ceasefire deal. They are distinct from forces authorised under the UN Charter, which can engage in combat.

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Peter T 10.05.15 at 5:10 am

Harold

Again, read what I wrote. Wahhabism goes back to the C18, and the ghazi tradition well before that (Shia remember the very nasty sack of Karbala in 1802). The CIA and Saudi very foolishly funded the groups that turned into al-quaeda, but they did not create young men imbued with fanatical zeal and looking for a place to “defend Islam”. They did not create the movement, they directed part of it it towards Afghanistan. Again, the taliban came out of religious schools in Pakistan whose roots go back to the Indian Muslim Deobandi school in the C19. Nor did the CIA create the Algerian GIA, or Boko Haram, or Abu Sayyaf. Nor, in these matters, is Saudi a US client: it was fostering this sort of thing from its earliest days.

Nor, again, does this sad and stupid bit of history help in dealing with ISIS.

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Harold 10.05.15 at 5:48 am

Peter T.: “US policy may contribute to al quaeda or ISIS, but they do not ‘create’ them.”

This is sort of along the lines of “guns don’t kill people – people kill people”.

If you give a violent person a gun, are you not an accessory to murder?

If you give them money to buy guns, knowing they will do so and who they will use it on, and in fact guns of your own manufacture — are you not an accessory to murder?

You are as guilty as they are, legally speaking — if in a somewhat lesser degree.

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steven johnson 10.05.15 at 6:26 am

In the long run the greatest magnitude threat to peace in the Middle East is a nuclear arsenal owned by people with plans to use them. The OP’s program is already in place in regards to that threat. I on the other hand suggest 1)nuclear disarmament for a short term fix, and 2) regime change in the US.

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John Quiggin 10.05.15 at 6:31 am

Just to be clear, my reference to the US actions that created AQ and ISIS were

(i) The stationing of US troops in Saudi Arabia, which was Bin Laden’s casus belli; and
(ii) The invasion of Iraq, which was a necessary precondition for ISIL

Every time US (and Oz) troops are sent to the Middle East, we run the risk of such consequences.

In the absence of a time machine, can I suggest the advice apocryphally attributed to Einstein “Stupidity is doing the same thing twice and expecting a different outcome the second time”.

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Peter T 10.05.15 at 6:38 am

True, but the moral issue does not help in deciding what to do about ISIS.

Around the world there are large numbers of young men with poor social and economic prospects. In many places their prospects are getting poorer. In some places, their grievances are reinforced by weak or corrupt governance, the expectations placed on them by strongly patriarchal cultures, socio-political exclusion, a culture that is affronted by global norms and – in the Sunni tradition – a strand of religious thought that is both puritanical and exalts violence. Add in elite backing for this last and you have all the ingredients for a social explosion.

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Ronan(rf) 10.05.15 at 7:45 am

Stationing soldiers in Saudi did not “create” al Qaeda. As has been shown al Qaeda is better understood in the context of elite power struggles in the gulf, and their war against the US as primarily strategic (ie the US pulling out would collapse the Gulf monarchies, leaving space for them to take control )
As has been consistently noted, saying the US should have no policy says nothing. The US will have a policy, the question is what that should be. The United States is not going to adopt a policy of opening its doors to regional refugees or investing heavily locally to ease the burden. If The United States had done “nothing” (.what ever that means) over the past 4 years (and that is more or less Obamas preference) things would not “be better in Syria today.”
The United States is not the cause of all radicalism in the region. The Iraq war might have created all Qaeda in Iraq but (1) these strains of radicalism, their grievances and the institutions to channel them exist independently of the US, and (2) saddam and Assad would have faced challenge from them at some stage. It is little more than a gotcha for people to keep pushing this sound bite as if it has any useful practical value.
I don’t know if I agree with all peter t is saying, but at Least he’s making an argument. Why is it that the only time one of the worst humanitarian crises of recent decades gets mentioned is to make a comment about the United Stares ? We really are dancing very close to not just a major breakdown regionally (which should be enough to worry about) but the spread of that crisis into our own backyards . With the risk of being self righteous and/or rude, I really think the US and it’s many problrms is beside the point at this stage. And I really think the recent history of places like Central Africa show that places can fall apart and cause huge human suffering without significant input from the United States and it’s “clients” (and no, even from a cold eyed realise stance, they don’t want a Congo on Europes doorstep)

(Apologees for rushed + stilted writing style, on phone )

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Peter T 10.05.15 at 10:05 am

Ze K

Actually ronan. But – US supported Saddam (against Kurds) in the 80s, declined to support Shia after the First Gulf War, has consistently supported the regime in Egypt in preference to the Muslim Brotherhood and so on. US policy has been all over the place – often on opposing sides or for some imaginary middle.

It’s really not about the US. In a milieu where most political issues are seen through a religiously-tinted lens, any sharp divide will manifest in a religious form. Think Europe in the C16/17.

87

Layman 10.05.15 at 12:07 pm

Peter T @68:

Harold, Layman:
“I am about to be killed. Please help!”
“Certainly. I shall stand here and shout slogans. And deplore your death and blame the US.”

This sort of nonsense is highly objectionable. To show how, consider your own response, which would be “Very well, I’ve saved you, by bombing your house. Sorry about your mother and sister, but these things happen when one Does Something.”

88

Layman 10.05.15 at 12:21 pm

More Peter T, @80

Should have said, any ideas that do not involve a time machine?

If the last hated military intervention, with its massive collateral damage, created the current crop of extremists; then what can one expect this intervention to do in turn? One shouldn’t need a time machine to learn

btw, US policy may contribute to al quaeda or ISIS, but they do not “create” them. Very violent Islam-inspired radicalism is a thread that runs from the Philippines (Abu Sayyaf) to Nigeria (Boko Haram). The variant in Algeria led to the deaths of over 100,000 people.

Well, it’s not like any of those peoples were subjected to years of violent oppression by Westerners, is it? Pfui!

89

P O'Neill 10.05.15 at 12:32 pm

I imagine, this is their strategic response to Nasserism, and if so, it’s been going on for at least 60 years now.

But Nasserism itself is part of the problem.One element of the Egyptian political cycle is that the general switches the uniform for a suit and becomes president, and then alternates between tolerating Islamism to give the middle class an outlet for frustration, and then represses Islamism to make it more radical and scare the middle class back into the fold. Nasser, Sadat, Mubarak all did it and al-Sisi will too (he just started at a different stage in the cycle). Before there was Afghanistan, Al Qaeda was being born in Egyptian jails.

90

ZM 10.05.15 at 12:41 pm

“And I really think the recent history of places like Central Africa show that places can fall apart and cause huge human suffering without significant input from the United States and it’s “clients” “

I don’t think that is entirely accurate given global interconnectedness. Global and regional inequality definitely has an effect on the national and regional politics of poorer countries. I think that decreasing global inequality is necessary, I am sure if the U.S. And the EU and China and other smaller countries began negotiating to achieve an end to the conflict by offering to assist with decreasing inequality and assisting poorer countries in the Middle East to meet the Sustainable Development Goals in 15 years that way there would be a lot of support, and they should negotiate with Assad to transition Syria to more democratic governance which I am sure he would probably agree to as his country is getting ruined and then he could have a better legacy as introducing democracy.

91

Anarcissie 10.05.15 at 2:18 pm

ZM 10.05.15 at 12:41 pm @ 96 —
Western imperialism and colonialism go back about 500 years, and in any case we have now observed the victory of capitalism, so conditions in central Africa, like everywhere else, have had significant input, to put it very mildly, from capitalism’s Big Dog, its predecessors, and its many followers and hangers-on. Disaster accumulates on the periphery.

92

LFC 10.05.15 at 3:39 pm

Ze K @92
The baathist government wasn’t sectarian.

Saddam oppressed Shia and Kurds (under some obvious and non-controversial definitions of “oppressed”). It was not a “US narrative,” but something that happened. (Which is not to justify the ’03 invasion, which was not justifiable.)

93

LFC 10.05.15 at 3:52 pm

Ze K @90
Isn’t there a noticeable pattern now where the US (and Israel) systematically weaken and destroy secular political forces (secular Arab nationalism) in ME, replacing them with disunited sectarian factions?

The failures of “secular Arab nationalism” (and pan-Arabism) can’t all be attributed to US and Israeli actions. The US/UK/etc did overthrow the relatively secular regime of Saddam, but OTOH the US is supporting the relatively secular regime of al-Sisi.

Btw Margaret Warner (PBS NewsHr) had a revealing and fairly extended interview w al-Sisi about a week or ten days ago (I don’t have the exact date handy). I’ll try to post link later. She asked him about, inter alia, why he’s jailing opponents of the regime. Response boiled down to (I’m not quoting verbatim obvs.): ‘we’re not at your level of ‘development’, we can’t be expected to follow your notions of human rights and democratic participation. Every country has its own traditions and needs. What Egypt needs above all is stability so we can develop economically.’ etc. The usual b.s.

94

novakant 10.05.15 at 4:25 pm

Seriously, discussing these matters without mentioning the blooming arms trade of the five UN security council members (and a couple of others) fueling the conflicts of the ME is completely naive at best and disingenuous at worst:

http://www.theguardian.com/world/ng-interactive/2015/apr/23/middle-east-arms-trade-saudi-arabia-iran

And this game has gone on for decades …

95

geo 10.05.15 at 4:39 pm

cassander@78: Within any strategy, there are short-term objectives and long-term ones. In order to achieve the former, one may have to incur costs to the latter . Saddam posed a long-term threat to US control of ME oil: by his control of Iraq’s enormous oil reserves, by threatening Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and perhaps most important, by his challenge to US “credibility,” which, as every gangster knows, is indispensable when you’re running a system based on intimidation. It means, among other things, that you may have to off an otherwise valuable subordinate if he gets above himself.

Democracy is both procedural and substantive. If an administration is elected by more-or-less legitimately democratic procedures (less, in the case of the Bush administration), then it has procedural democratic legitimacy. But if it conceals or misrepresents its goals, or lies about the facts on which its policies are based, or attempts to intimidate or marginalize dissenters both within and outside the government — or, like the Bush administration, all three — then it is not behaving democratically in a substantive sense.

This is a very common usage. Consider the present system of campaign finance. Even assuming it was arrived at without any violations of procedural democracy, can anyone seriously contend that it is substantively democratic?

96

LFC 10.05.15 at 4:58 pm

Val @81:
Excuse a maybe dumb question but can … anyone explain to me how the UN peacekeeping process relates to the situation in Syria? or why it doesn’t?

Peter already gave a brief answer to this. Bit of elaboration: without getting too much into the technicalities of the UN Charter etc., there are basically two situations for deployment of UN-authorized military operations w ‘blue helmet’ forces (i.e. multinational contingents under UN auspices).

1) Peacekeeping forces can be sent in to help ensure that a ceasefire deal that has been reached actually sticks and is observed. Such forces in some cases go beyond monitoring ceasefire violations; they disarm and demobilize the groups that have been fighting, and in some cases help restore and run govt institutions, etc.

2) ‘Peace enforcement’ ops, often under Ch.7 of the UN Charter, can be and increasingly have been sent in before a ceasefire or settlement is reached and while the parties are still fighting (though I think these are not typically full-scale civil wars w/ the intensity of the Syrian conflict). An analysis of these kinds of UN deployments to civil wars in Africa from 1992 to 2011 showed that increasing the number of armed soldiers in these missions (as opposed to police or observers) reduced the number of battle deaths (Hultman et al, “Beyond Keeping Peace: United Nations Effectiveness in the Midst of Fighting,” Am. Pol. Sci. Rev., November 2014).

3) The kind of ‘peace enforcement’ mission referenced in (2) cannot be deployed in Syria (even if the Sec. Council agreed to authorize it, which it wdn’t for political reasons, vetoes etc.) because the level of violence in Syria is such that the mission likely would be unable to operate w any effectiveness, unless it was *exceptionally* large, well-equipped, and supported by air power. Anyway, the political circumstances are such that the Sec. Council is not going to authorize this.

97

Matt 10.05.15 at 5:16 pm

Measles kills more people than ISIS. And the solution to measles, unlike ISIS, is well-demonstrated. Better yet, most of the world’s measles hotspots are not currently war zones, so you don’t need to pay for the huge overhead of Marines and helicopter gunships to accompany the health workers.

Sanitary disposal of sewage and treatment of drinking water is another intervention with excellent outcomes for human health and life expectancy, that can be implemented at relatively low cost, and that largely doesn’t require armed protection for aid workers.

When you hear “children dying,” think vaccinations and clean water, not laser guided missiles.

When/if the world ever gets so developed then the only remaining severe risks of premature death are in war zones, then there’s a better argument for armed intervention or at least aid-workers-with-armed-protectors. Until then, the “we must help” argument for supporting military action is ridiculous. There are much better ways for the USA to help overseas if you genuinely want it to help and aren’t just, for instance, thrilled by the spectacle of war, or hoping to advance some cryptic “interest” of powerful nations.

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geo 10.05.15 at 5:35 pm

Matt@103: Wow, that was powerful. I’m going to repeat it — probably in your own words — as often as I get a chance. (You won’t mind my plagiarizing you, will you?)

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TM 10.05.15 at 5:43 pm

novakant: “Seriously, discussing these matters without mentioning the blooming arms trade of the five UN security council members (and a couple of others) fueling the conflicts of the ME is completely naive at best and disingenuous at worst”

Absolutely, and one would think it shouldn’t be so hard to agree at least on this point. Worth noting that Pope Francis excoriated the arms trade in his speech to Congress.

“Here we have to ask ourselves: Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society? Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood. In the face of this shameful and culpable silence, it is our duty to confront the problem and to stop the arms trade,” he concluded. The comments were met with a surprisingly strong response from the members — starting with clapping, then followed by a standing ovation — given the large ties between the Hill and the defense industry
http://www.defensenews.com/story/defense/2015/09/24/pope-calls-end-arms-trade/72735718/

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Harold 10.05.15 at 5:51 pm

The pope is “handwaving”, dontcha know?

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Matt 10.05.15 at 6:43 pm

@geo: I’m flattered. Feel free to plagiarize.

102

LFC 10.05.15 at 8:46 pm

Matt @103
the “we must help” argument for supporting military action is ridiculous

Who is making a generalized “we must help” argument? That preventable, poverty-related disease kills many more people (and esp. more children) than ISIS (or other violent non-state groups) do is certainly true, and while much more remains to be done to tackle the former problem, it’s also the case that some progress has been made (child mortality worldwide was roughly cut in half from 1990 to now, from c.12 million under-5 deaths a year to c.6 million [a significant percentage of these occurring in the first month after birth]).

The argument for combating ISIS is not “children are dying; we must help.” The argument, rather, is that ISIS is a fanatical, merciless group that wants to institute by violent means its vision of a resuscitated caliphate –a perverted caliphate, btw, since, as has been pointed out (e.g. here), the historical caliphates were largely respectful of other religions (which ISIS isn’t) — impose its version of fundamentalist Islam on all inhabitants under its control, and enslave or kill anyone who offers any resistance. Moreover and importantly, its program necessarily entails territorial conquest and the fomenting of civil war. Is there any indication that it would be willing to stop w Syria and northwestern Iraq? As already said, there is much to criticize in US policy in the ME over the years and in many cases it has served narrow elite interests, but the use of some force vs. ISIS seems justified in light of its actions.

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Matt 10.05.15 at 9:20 pm

Peter T for example said:

“Now try, please, to realise that when a group of people has the means and will to kill/enslave/drive away another group, and is in fact doing so, doing nothing does not help the victims. Nor does wishing for a time machine. Or complaining about stuffed-up policies and bad choices in general. Or washing one’s hands and saying that, since it’s all very messy, just looking the other way is best.”

In this framing, the choice is between fighting ISIS and doing nothing. But declining military action against ISIS does not mean doing nothing in the whole wide world. Why shouldn’t Western powers decline to get involved in “messy” war situations and instead try to do good by means where the outcomes are more certain and achieved less dearly?

Are there so few victims of premature death outside war zones that rich nations simply can’t find enough aid opportunities without intervening in wars? No, certainly not. Should ISIS victims command much more expensive lifesaving measures than infectious disease victims? This is more of a judgment call, but I would also say no.

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Ronan(rf) 10.05.15 at 9:21 pm

Yes, precisely. I’m sure pretty much everyone here would support commiting the same sort of resources to measles eradication as is commited to war, but of course (1) that really isnt the choice (money spent on the military wont be funneled into global health), and (2) it isnt the topic of the thread. I like Matt’s comments generally, but I found that quite disingenous.
The comparison also isnt between ISIS and measles eradication, if anything it’s between the breakdown of order in Syria and the region and measles eradication. The collapse of the Levant into decades of disorder would be a considerably worse humanitarian catastrophe (and would also probably lead to a resurgence of deaths by treatable diseases.)
Now note what I didnt do. I didnt call for military action. Personally Im ambivalent on the question, but debates on the topic go nowhere so I think it’s better just to not bring it up.
JQs post was that US policy should be ‘nothing.’ There’s a whole lot of ground between nothing and war that could be debated, and various solutions (meaningful or not) that could be discussed. Novakant’s comment on the global arms trade, for example. What are the diplomatic possibilities for a solution. How do you deal with the refugee crisis. What are comparisons to peace building in other contexts. What does it mean for US/European security (not just the actual, rational threat, but the potential for political and public backlash to the refugee situation/a hypothetical attack)
All of this would mean though (imo) accepting that the usual hobby horses (US FP, Israel/Palestine, the Islamification of Crewe etc) are no longer the point.

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Ronan(rf) 10.05.15 at 9:23 pm

cross posted with Matt (I also want to retract the disingenuous comment, whihc ws unfair)

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Matt 10.05.15 at 9:53 pm

I understand that our feelings and our values are closely connected, and I’m not interested in trying to swim against the tide of all human feeling. So I’m not going to try to convince other people that their mother’s life is worth exactly the same as a stranger’s life, even though I think that’s probably true. I can’t even feel that equivalence myself, and to the extent that I succeeded at persuading I fear that I would be convincing people to value family members less rather than valuing strangers more.

I harbor some hopes that people can do better by the numbers when it comes to people who are all remote strangers. Most Americans will never encounter a Vietnamese victim of measles or a Yazidi victim of ISIS in the flesh. Without the overwhelming influence of social ties, without being swamped by emotion, it should be possible to do better by following the numbers instead of reactive, instinctive horror. I do recognize a sort of technocratic dry rot potential living in this proposal: it’s possible that people will finally internalize “measles kills more than ISIS,” stop caring so much about ISIS, but not actually follow through and do more about measles. I don’t want to anesthetize people to spectacular suffering in the course of trying to get them to prioritize more common kinds of suffering. I hate it when whatabouterry is used to justify a comprehensive program of inaction, and I’d doubly hate it if I were driving that sort of apathy myself.

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geo 10.05.15 at 10:32 pm

Ronan@110: that really isnt the choice (money spent on the military wont be funneled into global health)

I assume you mean “money not spent on the military won’t be funneled into global health.” That’s true, given the current balance of political forces, but there’s no reason to accept the choices we’re presented with, if they’re rigged choices. Why shouldn’t we spend less on the military and funnel that money into global health? Much easier said than done, of course, but it seems like a worthwhile objective for political activists.

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John Quiggin 10.05.15 at 10:59 pm

To get the numbers right, even if only five per cent of the money being wasted on ME wars, aid to Egypt and Israel, maintaining a carrier strike force in the region and so on were reallocated to helping the global poor that would more than double the current US government development aid program.

So, the US could do a lot less than it does now, and still do massively more good.

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John Quiggin 10.05.15 at 11:05 pm

Novakant, I’d be interested in your spelling out your thoughts on the armaments issue. Obviously my proposed policy would preclude military aid, including subsidised weapons deals. But my preferred interpretation would be no involvement at all including no arms sales.

The scale of US arms sales (around $10 billion a year, with something like half of that going to the ME) is large in absolute terms, but not relative to US spending on its own military adventures and standing forces in the region.

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Peter T 10.05.15 at 11:30 pm

I understand the reflexive aversion to war (in fact I share it), and I also share the view that the US (and others) spend far too much on the military, sell too many weapons abroad, and meddle far too much in the Middle East and elsewhere. But there is, right now, a major threat to peace in Iraq and Syria, a threat that can only be countered by military action. The Iraqi Kurds have mobilised 150,000 against ISIS, Shia militia have left homes and jobs in the south to defend Baghdad, Syrian Christian, Yezidi and Kurdish communities have mobilised pretty much all their young men and women. In the last three days alone, ISIS suicide bombs have killed over 100 civilians in markets in Iraq, reportedly killed 300 Yazidi prisoners and another 300 from opposing Sunni tribes. This sort of carnage goes on week after week.

One can agree with pretty much everything said here about the evil and stupidity of past US actions, and still see that some forms of US military support for groups fighting ISIS is essential if these people are to win at acceptable cost (and that cost is not just to the groups opposing ISIS, but also to the populations under its rule – prolonged war costs all sides). Tactical air support under the current rules is actually making a difference.

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Layman 10.06.15 at 12:06 am

Peter T, I think you must address the question of Afghanistan. We’ve been fighting there for nearly 14 years, and it is still a mess. Do you think we should quit, or keep trying, and, if the latter, for how long?

If it is not clear, this is by way of asking you what it will take for you to decide that we can’t ‘win’, if ‘win’ means ‘make the Taliban no more, and replace them with reasonable people’. And then apply that same question to ISIS.

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Neil 10.06.15 at 12:17 am

Peter T, its not clear to me that you’re wrong that the US should be involved in fighting ISIS. But as far as I can tell, you haven’t addressed the central point that John Quiggin is making, about opportunity costs. You keep arguing that US involvement can help prevent a worse outcome in Syria. Well, maybe. But that’s not quite the right question: the right question is more along the following lines: suppose that the US disengaged from Syria and spent the money on global poverty alleviation instead. Isn’t it very probable that many fewer people would die as a result? In fact, if I understand John Quiggin’s point, he is claiming that spending a small proportion of the money currently expended on war in the direction of poverty alleviation would save many more lives.

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Val 10.06.15 at 12:34 am

Peter and particularly LFC, thanks very much for your clarifications on UN and peacekeeping, much appreciated.

To talk about something I do know a little more about, on the ‘spend money on vaccinations rather than war’ question, it’s probably an obvious point to most people here, but worth repeating – inequality and violence have a huge impact on population health. If you reduced inequality and violence (including war) you would get as much population health improvement, if not more, than from a vaccination program. Not that it’s an either/or of course, but in health terms reducing violence and inequality is worth doing in itself.

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Peter T 10.06.15 at 12:55 am

Layman

As I hope I have laid out in the case of Iraq and Syria, my general position is that military means must be used sparingly, never as a first resort and always carefully tailored to local conditions. But that, within these bounds, it can be a useful instrument (outside them, it’s usually a disaster). Afghanistan is a very different case to Iraq/Syria. The short answer is that “making the Taliban no more” or “replacing them with reasonable people” is, in the Afghan context, not achievable. So it should not be attempted. If the aim is the traditional form of Afghan governance (weak oversight from Kabul, Pashtun tribal violence confined to the hills, others mostly left alone), then modest military support MAY have a place – anything more is likely counter-productive.

ISIS is very different – everyone else is its enemy (even al-quaeda affiliated groups) and much of the population under its rule is not happy. “Winning” here means removing it from control of territory and the ability to muster significant forces, and the experience to date is that this is do-able.

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Peter T 10.06.15 at 1:33 am

Neil

If the US were to cancel the F-35 and direct the money saved to aid or health or whatever, I would cheer. I am sure you could find many other sources of funds better spent elsewhere. But if opportunity cost means anything, it involves ranking spending by priority, not just cutting things you hate and replacing them for things you like at random. The air campaigns in Iraq and Syria are achieving a great deal at modest cost; the US aircraft carrier fleet very little at great cost. In short, it’s perfectly possible to have both useful guns and plentiful butter, within any reasonable budget.

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LFC 10.06.15 at 1:41 am

Val @119: you’re welcome, I’m glad I was able to clarify the peacekeeping thing somewhat.

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Layman 10.06.15 at 1:55 am

“ISIS is very different – everyone else is its enemy (even al-quaeda affiliated groups) and much of the population under its rule is not happy. “Winning” here means removing it from control of territory and the ability to muster significant forces, and the experience to date is that this is do-able.”

If we can’t remove the Taliban from control of territory, why do you think we can remove ISIS from control of territory? It’s tempting to think that the essential difference is that we’ve already discovered we’re wrong about what can be achieved in Afghanistan (and Iraq, BTW), but haven’t yet discovered that we’re wrong about what can be accomplished in Syria.

And, make a proposal. What should we do, how should we do it, what will it accomplish, and when?

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Watson Ladd 10.06.15 at 2:36 am

Layman, Taliban control of most of Afghanistan ended very quickly in 2001. The US was capable of taking one of the strongest armies in the Arab world and annihilating it within a week. The Russians were capable of establishing a regime that could sustain itself, so long as it received external funding. So yes, violence can keep the Taliban from power.

Sure, global health improvements matter. But political improvements can enable poor countries to spend on health initiatives themselves, as well as reduce the level of poverty in a region. We’ve run into this wall with some childhood vaccinations where the remaining unvaccinated areas are too rural to access efficiently. This is despite roadbuilding being within the capability of anyone with a hammer and some rocks: the states are too disorganised to provide that service.

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The Temporary Name 10.06.15 at 2:37 am

The US was capable of taking one of the strongest armies in the Arab world and annihilating it within a week.

Afghanistan is not an Arab country.

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Peter T 10.06.15 at 2:50 am

The coalition has removed the Taliban (an imprecise term btw) from control of Kabul, the provincial capitals and central and northern Afghanistan. The issue now is how to divide power between Kabul and the Pushtun regions. Government efforts to impose control unite the religious and ethnic Pushtun opposition, but there is probably space for a negotiated solution.

On the military side what we should do is what “we” are doing – use local forward air controllers to deliver precise targeting information (in conjunction with other sources) to then strike ISIS forces in support of local ground forces. Also, continue to attack ISIS movement where its military character can be firmly established. The sort of thing that has recovered Kobane Canton, saved Cizire Canton, pushed ISIS back from Yazidi and Kurd areas, helped recover Tikrit, reduced ISIS supplies of oil to a trickle…Beyond that, very little – maybe provide more help with mine clearance and IED detection and disposal, as these are a major source of civilian casualties.

A large part of the attraction of ISIS is the coupling of holy ferocity with an assurance of victory. Military defeat undermines it ideologically as well as practically.

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Bruce Wilder 10.06.15 at 3:24 am

I saw President Obama’s press conference on teevee a few days ago, and I was, as always, impressed with his ability to extemporize intelligently. The contrast with the reporters, who are generally stupid and rude — eager for a gotcha, but completely incapable of a critical perspective — probably enhances Obama’s apparent grasp of issues.

In the course of responding to a question about mideast policy, Obama observed how difficult it was to shape events. His immediate point was to suggest that Russia risked entering a quagmire in extending its support of Assad’s regime in Syria. And, somehow, he managed to suggest to my mind that the examples of U.S. efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan were suggestive of the extreme difficulties, without, of course, actually criticizing those efforts. I remember particularly, in speaking of U.S. efforts in those two unfortunate and benighted countries, that he said, as he is wont to do in his rhetorical way, that the U.S. had some of the best people making those efforts. “best people” I have a conceptual memory — I don’t usually remember quotations or song lyrics — at least not exactly. And, I may have missed the words in this case, but not the gist: he was saying the best people had been making a well-resourced, costly effort.

I strongly wished one of the reporters would discard their prepared questions and challenge him, ask if if he really thought he had good people working on these efforts, if he thought his choice of people might have something to do with the rampant corruption and absurd levels of incompetence?

We make these questions into dichotomies, in ways that tend to miss the actual choices, that miss what about the choice leads to the actual consequences.

I usually regard “no policy”, “no action” as a rhetorical dodge, a debater’s tactical pose. It is a silly business.

But, up against the argument that so-and-so is a terrible evil or a terrible danger or terrible risk and we must do something [stupid, vicious and wasteful] — up against that argument, even the emptiness of “do nothing” looks like the height of wisdom.

Two advocates of two different and opposing flavors of futility had a debate: would they televise it?

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ZM 10.06.15 at 4:35 am

Watson Ladd,

The global economy has structural inequalities, so like in national economies you use taxing and transfers to make things more equitable, countries need to do this internationally to less inequality between nations – tied to spending measures targeted to lessen inequality within these nations – to implement the sustainable development goals by 2030.

Current U.S. Middle East policy is the same as your gun policy – give people access to dangerous weapons so everyone can defend themselves with ultimately the ones with the most power able to intervene with bombing or capital punishment – instead of regulating and limiting access to weapons and looking for other non-violent solutions.

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John Quiggin 10.06.15 at 5:43 am

I should concede that, of all the insider participants in the US policy debate, Obama’s thinking “don’t do stupid stuff” comes closest to my own, which would add the point “and remember that most of the things that looked good in the past have turned out to be stupid in retrospect”

AFAICT, no one with any power is suggesting doing less “stupid stuff” than Obama is doing, and few show any signs of recognising that the existence of a problem does not imply the existence of a US-imposed solution.

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Harold 10.06.15 at 7:08 am

“Best people” — perhaps an allusion to”The Best and Brightest”, David Halberstam’s ironic designation for the “whiz kids” of academia and industry whom John F. Kennedy brought into his cabinet to preside over our disastrous Vietnam adventure with policies and methods that contradicted the advice of the State Department and other sane people.

The slogan of the medical profession — “first do no harm” is worth recalling here.

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Watson Ladd 10.06.15 at 10:56 am

Layman, Iraq is an Arab country. Again, political change is possible, and there is such a thing as liberalism in the Arab world.

ZM, the question of why countries are poor has a lot to do with the institutions they have. Some countries do extremely well in pursuing development goals even with limited resources, while others don’t. This is particularly clear in the case of India, which buys grain to let it rot every year instead of have a functioning market provide it to those in need.

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Harold 10.06.15 at 3:50 pm

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geo 10.06.15 at 4:39 pm

I’m not sure “don’t do stupid stuff” and “first do no harm” are invoking the right categories to evaluate US foreign policy. Those phrases take for granted that what the policymakers are intending to do is uncontroversially in the “national interest,” but that they’re going about it incompetently. Hence what’s needed is smarter policymakers.

But the issue is — or ought to be — their intentions, not their competence. For reasons I’ve explained in this and previous threads (eg, the one linked to in the OP), I think the purpose of US Mideast and energy policy is to keep the US energy industry profitable and to maintain military supremacy in a region whose resources it would be essential to control in the case of a serious international conflict. Whether they’re any good at achieving this purpose is, from as moral point of view, beside the point.

Remember how liberal intellectuals criticized the Indochina War as a “mistake” [in other words, stupid]? Taking that line was just a way to avoid working out any more radical criticism of American foreign policy.

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Layman 10.06.15 at 4:39 pm

Peter T @ 126, I think you’re quibbling about the Taliban. It looks to me as if they still control territory, that they’re still a force to be reckoned with, that the Afghan forces can’t reckon with them absent extensive US military support; and that such support must be extended indefinitely else a resurgent Taliban recover much of what they’ve lost. Since an open-ended commitment to kill Afghans (and foreign doctors) for their own good is insane, presumably that support will end. What then will 14 years of killing have accomplished, if the result is a power-sharing agreement between the Taliban and a collection of warlords?

I also think you’re begging the question: You say ISIS is a different kind of problem than the Taliban, and that they can be destroyed by military action. Why?

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Watson Ladd 10.06.15 at 6:09 pm

Harold, the point is that both Afghanistan and Iraq have a history of secular regimes. In Afghanistan that was a Soviet supported Stalinist state after a republic and monarchy. In Iraq it was a nationalist regime. Of course I know which one is Arab and which one isn’t: it’s also irrelevant whatever the cultural history is, just as it ceased to matter that Germany didn’t have a unified medieval government during the rise of Prussia.

One need only look at the US to see that multiethnic democratic states are possible and sustainable. The issue is that the US failed to politically revolutionize either Afghanistan or Iraq. Instead Islamism retains the ability to establish durable regimes and political legitimacy. It’s sad that we can’t make a puppet state better than Stalin could, especially for those who are going to be victimized by the regimes that are in place.

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Peter T 10.06.15 at 11:16 pm

Layman
Layman @134

What the media call “the Taliban” is a loose alliance of Pushtun tribes and Islamists. The Pushtuns object to non-Pushtun dominance in Kabul, the Islamists to the character of the government. Talks have been going on for some time between government and various Taliban alliance groups on a settlement and, given that Afghanistan has no tradition of strong central government, some accommodation can probably be reached with key groups. That will not end the violence, but violence is an Afghan way of life (I went through there in 78, before the war – it was one large open-air gun shop). It will diminish it.

ISIS is much more ideological, less ethnic, more united. Their base is angry young men. They have no allies, nor want any (they do have backers). They make no deals. If the coalition against them can wrest back control of the cities, they will become a roving band of guerilla die-hards, gradually fading away (see, eg GIA in Algeria).

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Layman 10.06.15 at 11:47 pm

@ Peter T, senior U.S. military leaders are now calling for the extension of significant U.S. forces in Afghanistan beyond this year, saying that a further drawdown of forces in accordance with current plans will make it impossible for Afghan forces to contain the resurgent Taliban. Do you agree with them? Should the U.S. maintain an open-ended commitment of ground forces in Afghanistan so long as the Taliban remain a threat?

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Peter T 10.07.15 at 12:03 am

Should the U.S. maintain an open-ended commitment of ground forces in Afghanistan so long as the Taliban remain a threat?
No.

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Layman 10.07.15 at 1:30 pm

The question answers itself, but raises another: What was the point of the 14-year exercise in killing? More to the point, how will you bound the ISIS adventure so as not to repeat the same violent futility? Using proxies doesn’t change anything favorably. Draw some lines, please.

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Peter T 10.08.15 at 8:42 am

Layman

Short answer: Iraq is different to Afghanistan, and the US is (sensibly) pursuing a very different strategy. Key difference is that Pashtuns are near 50 % of the Afghan population, organised in large blocks, while Sunnis are 30% of Iraq at most and ISIS only part of the Sunnis (significant numbers side with the Baghdad government). So ISIS loses wherever it comes up against comparably motivated forces (Shia, Kurds). US air support is a tactical multiplier that makes the fight shorter.

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Layman 10.08.15 at 11:13 pm

I hear you, Peter T, but I also know that no one said our plan for Afghanistan was to kill and die for 14 years and then walk away, leaving the evil enemy in place, when we realize that military force is inadequate to the problem. The promise, at the time, was that the plan could and would succeed. So I’m less than impressed by encouraging words about how doable ISIS is now, and I wonder (again) what line you would draw. What would cause you to decide we could not win, or that winning wasn’t worth the cost, however calculated?

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Peter T 10.09.15 at 12:35 am

Layman

Whose “we” here? Kurds, Shia, non-ISIS Sunni and even other Islamists have no choice but to fight, because ISIS has and will continue to attack them. Negotiation or containment are not options. For outside forces, the choice is whether and how to intervene. So far the US sensibly has kept its intervention light (air support under stringent conditions plus training). This has made a significant difference on the ground, in allowing anti-ISIS forces to retain or recover territory (Kobane, Cizire, Tikrit, Baiji, Mosul Dam, Shengal). So it makes sense to continue this modest assistance until either ISIS changes (unlikely), collapses internally (also unlikely) or is driven away from major population centres.

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