Waving the Bloody Shirt.

For many people, the Confederate battle flag is an attempt to distinguish between the heroism of the armies of the Confederacy and the evil cause for which those armies fought.

Fundamentally, the Civil War was about slavery. All you have to do is to a) read the Articles of Secession of the states, OR look at the nature of post-Reconstruction white rule in the states of the defeated Confederacy. (Or you could watch “Birth of a Nation” (dir. D.W. Griffith). See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I3kmVgQHIEY Really remarkable.)

Slavery was an evil institution that showed no sign of evolving in a positive direction or dying out on its own. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n9JaQy6wfbE No, actually, the clip tells you all you need to know about slavery and the people who experienced it.

The armies of the Confederacy fought heroically and well against a stronger opponent. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R1Xu_Jni4V4 Often (although certainly not always), to be a native white Southerner today is to feel oneself to be an heir to this admirable legacy. There is nothing wrong with this sense of identity—unless there is also something wrong with “Band of Brothers.”

However, the armies of the Confederacy fought heroically for the freedom to maintain the racial supremacy of whites over blacks. (Not just slavery, when perhaps 1 in 4 Southern families owned a slave, but the legal and social superiority of any white person over any black person. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AbXTl0WX4RE.)

Curiously, Northerners fairly soon abandoned the myth of the victorious cause. Yes, for decades, Republicans politicians were prone to “wave the bloody shirt.”[1] Yes, “Marching through Georgia” was played at the Republican national convention.[2] (See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xs43o85zot8.) However, the Spanish-American War (1898) is often seen by historians as a moment of national reconciliation. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RAYbLdpghRA Certainly, by the 20th Century, the Civil War had lost its power to inspire a sense of identity among Northerners. Today, one rarely sees a Prius with “Grand Army of Republic” bumper sticker or a Chevy Volt with an American flag license-plate holder.

In contrast, during the 1950s and 1960s, visible assertions of identification with the Confederacy in the form of the Confederate battle flag began to proliferate in parallel with the advance of the Civil Rights movement. For example, the Georgia state flag adopted in 1956—two years after “Brown versus Board of Education”–included the Stars and Bars for the first time. For example, the Confederate battle flag became a fixture at the South Carolina statehouse in 1962 in opposition to the civil rights movement.[3]

It is not possible to disentangle the two strands of the Civil War in the South.   It is not possible to claim only one part of the heritage of the South without claiming the other part. They were intertwined.[4] There is no easy way out of this dilemma. All chortling aside, it is a dilemma which Northerners have never faced. So, it is a sense of triumph won without cost.

[1] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waving_the_bloody_shirt

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marching_Through_Georgia


[4] In the same fashion, it is not possible to celebrate the triumph of the Westward Movement without acknowledging the chicanery, violence, and racism that robbed and butchered the Indians. My ancestors played a part in that and I am heir to its legacy.


Robert H. Scales (1944- ) grew up in an Army family, went to West Point, went into the field artillery, served in Vietnam, won the Silver Star for his actions when an NVA attack over-ran his fire-base, and then climbed the greasy pole to the rank of Major General. This involved a combination of education (Ph.D., History, Duke University); field commands (South Korea, Germany); staff appointments (V Corps, Training and Doctrine Command); and teaching (Artillery School at Fort Still, Army War College at Carlisle Barracks). He is the author or co-author of six books. Two of those books are Certain Victory: The U.S. Army in the Gulf War (1994), the official history of the Army in the First Gulf War; and The Iraq War: A Military History (2003), a history of the initial military defeat of Iraq in 2003.

General Scales has thought a lot about warfare in the Arab world, so his opinions are worth consideration. Some of them are at odds with the dominant beliefs that appear to have led to a series of disasters, so they are worth careful consideration. You never know. We might learn something. Stranger things have happened.

He has argued that Arab armies don’t do “modern warfare” very well.[1] Western armies (Britain, France, Israel, United States) have beaten up on Arab armies a whole bunch of times. So far, “Westernized” Arab armies (Syria, Iraq) have not performed well against ISIS. General Scales is NOT arguing that Arabs lack courage or ability as soldiers. Rather he argues that Arab culture differs markedly from Western culture. Arab culture centers on powerful loyalties to “family, tribe, and clan.” The “nation” is a more remote concept. As a result, Arabs fight best when organized in groups based on sub-national loyalties. He cites the example of the long defense of Ramadi against ISIS (October 2014-May 2015), although Western media focused chiefly on the final ISIS victory. In Scales’ view, such troops fight best on defense and markedly less well on offense. However, the Egyptian attack across the Suez Canal in the 1973 Yom Kippur War shows under what conditions Arab conventional armies can be successful. The Egyptian attack set limited, specific, and achievable goals; it relied on careful training of troops and rehearsal of movements; and it accumulated over-whelming fire-power on a circumscribed battlefield.[2]

General Scales offers his advice on future operations in Iraq against ISIS. The next campaigning season starts in April-May 2016. What needs to be done? First, stop trying to build a “Western” army for Iraq. Acknowledge the power of sub-national loyalties. Build an army that includes militias based on the real loyalties in Iraq. Second, the attack on ISIS cannot be a drawn-out battle of attrition. It has to be prepared on the model of the Egyptian 1973 offensive. Third, the Americans are going to have to commit an immense amount of airpower to support this attack. Air support will have to be on the level of Operation Desert Storm. Fourth, the objective must be to break the will to fight of ISIS, not merely to retake territory.

All this sounds persuasive. Still, a couple of questions arise. First, if Arabs fight best for “family, tribe, and clan,” then why is ISIS doing so well? If Arabs don’t fight well on the offensive, how has ISIS over-run so much of Syria and Iraq? Second, sub-national loyalties can also be anti-national loyalties. Is defeating ISIS still going to lead to the disintegration of Iraq?

[1] Robert H. Scales, “The Iraqi Army Can’t Be Westernized,” WSJ, 26 June 2015.

[2] For the Egyptians, that meant a lot of surface-to-air weapons to negate the Israeli air superiority over the battlefield and a lot of anti-tank weapons to negate the Israeli armored advantage on the battlefield. The Egyptian offensive went awry when they moved out of the reach of their air defenses, when the US poured in aid to Israel, and when the Israelis proved exceptionally resolute.

Race and Policing.

In August 2014, a police officer shot to death Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. In August 2014, 44 percent of Americans described race relations as bad.[1] Among African-Americans, 80 percent believed that the shooting “raises important issues about race that need to be discussed,” and 37 percent of whites agreed. In contrast, 47 percent of whites believed that “race is getting more attention [in the media] than it deserves.”[2] In December 2014, after the failure of a grand jury to indict police officers in the death of Eric Garner, 44 percent of Americans described race relations as bad, and 36 percent thought race relations were getting worse. In January 2015, 40 percent of Americans thought race relations were “fairly good” or “very good.”[3] In March 2015, 38 percent of Americans described race relations as bad.[4] Then, in April 2015 came the shooting of Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina, and the death of Freddie Gray, and the Baltimore riots. Soon afterward, 61 percent of Americans said race relations were bad; 44 percent thought that race relations were getting worse.[5]   In sum, less than a year ago, a large minority of Americans, but a huge majority of African-Americans, thought that race relations were bad. Broadly, this pattern continued until Spring 2015. Then the deaths of Walter Clark and Freddie Gray triggered a lurch toward seeing race relations as bad.

Clearly, this growing sense that race relations are bad is related to police use of force. In December 2014, after a grand jury declined to indict the police officer who shot Michael Brown, 48 percent approved the decision, and 45 percent disapproved it, including 85 percent of African-Americans.[6] When, on 3 December 2014, a grand-jury refused to indict New York police officers in the death of Eric Garner, 57 percent of Americans saw this as an error, 22 percent saw it as the correct decision, and 21 percent weren’t sure or didn’t know. Within the majority believing the decision to be an error were 90 percent of African-Americans polled, but only 47 percent of whites.[7] Again, there is a consistent majority of African-American opinion holding one opinion. White opinion seems to have shifted as case after case of grand juries refusing to indict police officers came to their attention.

In December 2014, 40 percent of Americans believed that deadly force was more likely to be used against an African-American.[8] In April 2015, 44 percent of Americans believed that the police are more likely to use deadly force against an African-American.[9] At the same time, 37 percent of whites and 79 percent of African-Americans believe that the police are more likely to use deadly force against African-Americans. A hair over 50 percent of Americans didn’t believe that race is a factor in police officers’ decision to use force.

There are at least two possible explanations for the divergence of views between African-Americans and Caucasian Americans. One explanation is that intense media attention to an unusual series of controversial cases has allowed African-American activists to foment anger. In this interpretation, the passage of time will heal wounds. Another explanation is that American society remains deeply segregated, so Caucasian Americans have no sense of the range of real experiences of African-Americans. In this interpretation, African-Americans are broadly correct in their perception and Caucasian Americans are living in a dream world.

By December 2014, a huge majority of Americans–some 87 percent–wanted body cameras on police so that contested incidents can have some kind of documentary record. (The racial divide on the issue was virtually non-existent: 90 percent of African-Americans and 85 percent of whites favor the cameras.)[10]

Which interpretation is more nearly correct? In early June 2015, a Washington Post effort to quantify police shootings found that US police had shot and killed at least 385 people in the first half of 2015. Two-thirds of the unarmed people killed by the police were African-Americans or Hispanics.[11] So, apparently, the police are more likely to use deadly force against African-Americans, and Hispanics as well.

According to the 2012 census, 63 percent of the population was non-Hispanic white; 17 percent was Hispanic-Latino; 12.4 percent was African-American; 4.4 percent was Asian-American, for a total of 96.8 percent. Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, and Arab Americans made up the remainder.[12]

About 50 percent of all American homicide victims are African-Americans.[13] If African-Americans make up about one-eighth of the population, then they are massively over-represented among the ranks of those liable to be murdered. Many African-Americans live in a violent place that white Americans cannot or will not bother to imagine. Moreover, use of the death penalty has dropped off sharply since it was re-instituted in 1977, but 77 percent of those executed have been put to death for killing a white victim.[14] Without wanting to argue for a wider use of the death penalty, can this be read as a subtle affirmation that “Black Lives Don’t Matter”?

Are African-Americans more likely to use deadly force against police officers? In January 2015, the Washington Post reported that 511 police officers had been killed between 2004 and 2013. Of the 540 people identified as having been involved in the killings, 43 percent were African-American and 52 percent were white.[15] Thus, it appears that Hispanics and Asians aren’t likely to kill police officers; whites are statistically somewhat under-represented in the killing of police officers; and African-Americans are dramatically over-represented.

These statistics just add another layer of complexity to understanding the violent police-community interactions that have so deeply troubled America in the last year.

The discussion shouldn’t stop there however. Race relations aren’t just about policing. In the aftermath of the riots in Baltimore attending the arresting-to-death of Freddie Gray, 50 percent of African-Americans believed that poverty and a lack of opportunity explained “a great deal” of the rioting.[16] To take just one example, in the wake of the “Great Recession,” white people are dramatically better off than are African-Americans. An average white household possesses 13 times as much “wealth” (assets, not income) as does the average African-American household.[17] In contrast, 39 percent of whites believed that poverty and a lack of opportunity explained “a great deal” of the rioting. That means that 61 percent of whites and 50 percent of African-Americans either did not believe that poverty and a lack of opportunity explained “a great deal” of the rioting or they “didn’t know.” You don’t have to believe that the rioters in Baltimore were driven by poverty and a lack of opportunity to believe that the focus on policing is a way of avoiding taking about other, more troubling and difficult dimensions of race relations.

[1] Dalia Sussman, “Views on Race Relations Worsen, Poll Finds,” NYT, 5 May 2015.

[2] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 29 August 2014, p. 17.

[3] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 16 January, 2015, p. 17.

[4] Dalia Sussman, “Views on Race Relations Worsen, Poll Finds,” NYT, 5 May 2015.

[5] Dalia Sussman, “Views on Race Relations Worsen, Poll Finds,” NYT, 5 May 2015.

[6] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 12 December 2014, p. 19.

[7] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 19 December 2014, p. 19.

[8] Dalia Sussman, “Views on Race Relations Worsen, Poll Finds,” NYT, 5 May 2015.

[9] Dalia Sussman, “Views on Race Relations Worsen, Poll Finds,” NYT, 5 May 2015.

[10] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 19 December 2014, p. 19. There is something very American and contemporary about believing that the solution to a problem is to be found in technology.

[11] “Noted,” The Week, 12 June 2015, p. 16.   About a quarter of the people killed were subsequently identified as mentally ill. Harder to organize the mentally ill, march on city hall, chant “No sanity, no peace.”

[12] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Race_and_ethnicity_in_the_United_States#Racial_makeup_of_the_U.S._population

[13] “Noted,” The Week, 16 May 2014, p. 18.

[14] “Noted,” The Week, 16 May 2014, p. 18.

[15] “Noted,” The Week, 23 January 2015, p. 16.

[16] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 15 May 2015, p. 17.

[17] “Noted,” The Week, 26 December 2014, p. 16.


Here’s what a former FBI profiler has to say about the Charleston shooter.  http://www.businessinsider.com/dylann-roof-was-a-paranoid-narcissist-says-fbi-profiler-joe-navarro-2015-6

Probably he’s correct.  However, I wonder if we’re going to learn–once somebody gets his hands on the shooter’s birth certificate–that he wasn’t born Dylann Storm Roof?  Perhaps he was born Dylan Something-Else-Entirely Roof.  The mutations of his name reflect the psychological turmoil going on inside him from when he was in his early teens.  Here’s my reasoning/puzzlement.

First, Dyl-ann.  Really?  what Southern working-class father is going to name his son Dylann, rather than Dylan?

Second, look at what he’s wearing in a couple of the pictures.  Some of them show him wearing what appears to be a woman’s watch: narrow gold band noticeably smaller than the watch itself.  Then, although he February arrest report lists him as weighing 120 pounds and he doesn’t look even remotely like a lifter, he is shown wearing a Gold’s Gym wife-beater.  Picture of a big heavily-muscled guy on it.  Is this aspirational or something else entirely?

Third, to my mind, the kid looks to have been deeply depressed from his mid-teens onward.  His step-mother describes him as “bright,” but he did 9th grade twice and soon dropped out.  Been drifting ever since, a worry to his family.  Started abusing drugs.  Sometimes Depression manifests as “violence.”  Mostly verbal and directed at other people in an externalization of what the depressed person feels about themselves.  But it can turn into actual physical violence too.

Lots of times, parents aren’t trained to recognize the signs of this and don’t know anything about it.  Easy to confuse it was something else.  Like “he has his head up his backside.”

So, I’m wondering if the kid is gay.  Closeted gay youth in the rural South.  Can’t find a way to come out.  The watch and the Gold’s Gym shirt and possibly adopting the extra “n” on his name may have been little clues that he was trying to drop.  Hoping to provoke some kind of discussion/revelation.  Apparently that didn’t work.  We probably will not know anything definite about this unless they find some trace on his computer search history.  Feels like he doesn’t fit in.  Looks for something to grab onto.

Which brings us to Storm.  Somewhere on-line I read that it is a name commonly adopted by white supremacists.  May be the same with Roof.  He found something to which he could belong.  Make a name that would ring out.  By doing something terrible.

Anything else?  Yes, one thing.  He bought a gun (far as I can tell), rather than being given one.  Practiced with it.  Probably found out that he was a poor shot.  There’s a laser aiming light under the muzzle of the Glock.  Did it come with the pistol or is after-market?  Maybe it’s another sign of failure.

Last, what is the third patch on his jacket, across from the two flags and over his heart?

Annals of the Great Recession IX.

In the first five years after the “Great Recession” (i.e. 2008-2013), 60 percent of the new jobs that were created in the “recovering” American economy were low-wage jobs. By early 2013, a quarter of jobs paid less than $10 an hour. At the same time, from 2006 to 2012 the top 50 companies that relied on of low-cost labor paid $175 billion in dividends to stock holders. That is, middle and upper-income group stock portfolios rebounded from the recession while lower-income group earnings were held down. This created the much debated problems of the “working poor” and the legal minimum wage.[1]

Who are the “working poor”? The answer depends on your definition. One definition is people living in families in which at least one member is working but earns under the government-defined poverty line: $11,702 for an individual and $23,021 for a family of four. By this count, there are 46.2 million “working poor” in the United States. A broader definition, favored by activists, is anyone working who cannot afford the basics: food, clothing, housing, transportation, child-care, and health-care.

Who falls into this group? About 10 percent are white, mostly living in the South and Southwest. More than 25 percent each are African-American or Latino, distributed much more evenly around the country. Big business chains (Walmart, Target, fast-food chains like McDonald’s and Pizza Hut) that base their strategy on low-cost labor employ a lot of these people. Broadly, poor people come from poor families. Men from poor communities tend to have little education when the modern economy puts a premium on education; they have lousy jobs and are frequently unemployed; often they don’t get married or get divorced; lots of kids grow up in single-parent homes and go to the same lousy schools as did their parents. All this raises the prospect that we have created a hereditary under-class that amounts to a huge waste of human potential.

The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. It hasn’t budged since 2009. Between 2009 and 2012, inflation raised the cost of living by 7 percent. This knocked the real minimum wage down to $6.75. Raising the minimum wage would lift many of these people a little further up the ranks of the poor. Critics warn that this would just lead to job losses through automation. (Some economists argue that these low-wage jobs can’t be automated. This is undoubtedly true of some low-wage jobs, but the self-check-out lines that are already common at grocery stores and hardware stores could easily spread to fast-food chains.)

Lots of employers appear to have privatized profit while socializing costs. Low wages and no health-benefits are possible—in part—because a lot of working people earning the minimum wage have to rely upon food stamps and other forms of public assistance. An estimated 3.5 million people—minimum wage workers and their dependents—depend on food stamps to feed themselves. The cost shifted from employers to tax payers is estimated at $4.6 billion. Raising the minimum wage to just over $10 an hour would move these people off the welfare rolls.[2]

Unionization is another possible response. This would allow workers to bargain more effectively for higher wages. Only 11.3 percent of American workers belong to unions, about half of them to public-sector unions. One barrier here is that 24 states have “right to work” laws that obstruct unionization.

Then, perversely, the federal government offers incentives to the working poor to not make more money. The Earned Income Tax Credit (i.e. transfer payment from higher income groups) falls as the recipient earns more money. In one case, each additional dollar earned reduces the EITC by 88 cents. Working more hours or getting a slightly better paying job doesn’t make any sense.

In short, the problem of the “working poor” involves a lot of difficult problems that have deep roots and have been building up for a long time. That doesn’t mean that we should just throw up our hands in despair. Simple and obvious solutions, however, may have unforeseen effects or even none at all.

[1] “Working, but still poor,” The Week, 8 February 2013, p. 11.

[2] “Noted,” The Week, 21 March 2014, p. 16.

An eye for an eye.

Here’s the narrative of the Sunni-Shi’a conflict in the Middle East as seen through Saudi Arabian eyes.[1] Back in the day, as my students often refer to any historical event that occurred before the latest installment of “The Dark Knight,” the dispute over who should lead the Faithful divided Islam into Shi’ites and Sunnis. Over many years, the two different schools of thought pretty much learned to live with one another. Later still, most people stopped caring about the argument in any concrete way. For fifty years in the middle of the 20th Century conflict turned on rivalries between conservative monarchical (and pro-Western) regimes like Saudi Arabia and Iran, and revolutionary, “democratic” (and pro-Soviet) regimes like Syria and Egypt. Still, that did not mean that particular religious identity had ceased to matter to people, just that they wouldn’t fight over it. Then came the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Not only did the Iranian ayatollahs overthrow the Shah, they also claimed the right to lead all of the “ummah,” and they attacked the conservative monarchies that had once been Iran’s partners. The Sunni countries, led by Saudi Arabia, weren’t taking this pretentious claim lying down: they counter-attacked by questioning the ayatollahs. Political conflicts began to activate the long-dormant conflict between sects.

Then, in 2003, the United States attacked Iraq. The American invasion overthrew the established order (a Sunni minority ruling a Shi’ite majority), then, first, Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and, then ISIS arose out of the conflict. From 2011 on, the civil war in Syria turned up the flame under the Sunni-Shi’a struggle.   The Iranians backed the Assad regime in Syria and the Shi’ite state in Iraq. Now, the Iranians have supported (fomented) trouble in Yemen by the Houthis. This has finally alarmed the ever-patient Saudis: “Until this war, there has been a sense that Iran was encircling Saudi Arabia, [and] that this Shi’ite revival is occurring at the expense of Sunnis.” With the outbreak of fighting in Yemen, however, “It was no longer a Shi’ite crescent, but a Shi’ite circle.” The Middle East has been engulfed in violence as a result of the immoderation of Iran.

What gets left out of this narrative? The most obvious thing is that Iraq attacked Iran at the start of the Iranian Revolution. In the long (1980-1988) war that followed, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait financed much of the Iraqi war effort. Iran had done little beyond rhetoric at this point to threaten either “revolutionary” Iraq or the conservative monarchies. It looks more like trying to profiteer off a weakened Iran on the part of Iraq and then an attempt to fend off the consequences of an ill-considered adventure by Iraq on the part of the Saudis.

A second thing to consider is that Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship of Wahhabism, a conservative brand of Sunni Islam, did not arise as a response to a challenge from Shi’ite Iran. Rather, the Saudi monarchy and Wahhabism have been long-term allies. The oil shocks of 1973 and 1979 vastly enriched Saudi Arabia.[2] The wealth sucked out of Western countries allowed the Saudis to embark on a vast Wahhabist propaganda/proselytization campaign in many areas of the Muslim world.[3] That propaganda described non-Wahhabi Muslims as “apostates.”

All narrative demands simplification as a means to clarity. Some narrative simplification can be carried too far in the service of political advocacy. Doubtless this page is a case in point.

[1] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Sunni-Shi’ite Conflict Is More Political Than Religious,” WSJ, 15 May 2015.

[2] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wahhabism#Afghanistan_jihad

[3] Including northern Nigeria, where Wahhabists opposed the local brand of Sufi Islam. Out of this struggle and from the many failings of the Nigerian state, emerged Boko Haram.

Menagerie a trois.

Many Saudis blame Iran for fomenting the fighting in both Syria and Iraq, fighting in which Sunnis have been the biggest losers.[1] Government spokesmen equate the Houthis in Yemen with Hezbollah in Lebanon. A spokesman for the Saudi military stated Saudi Arabia’s view of Iranian strategy: “Wherever the Iranians are present, they create militias against these countries. In Lebanon, they have created Hezbollah, which is blocking the political process and has conducted wars against Israelis, destroying Lebanon as a result. And in Yemen, they have created the Houthis.” (Obviously, this is a simplistic analysis that ignores many other factors. However, not many people doing applied politics have the spare time to read the American Political Science Review.) Facilitating this equivalence is the Houthis’ firing of rockets into Saudi Arabia, which Saudi officials compare to Hezbollah’s firing of rockets into Israel. That is, the Saudis see the rocket as the Iranian weapon-of-choice. Since Iran is in hot pursuit of nuclear weapons, it is easy to see why this alarms the Saudis.

Alarmed over the looming escape from sanctions by the Iranians, the Saudis are beginning to draw distinctions. “Israel is an enemy because of its origin, but it isn’t an enemy because of its actions—while Iran is an enemy because of its actions, not because of its origin,” said a former Saudi diplomat. In theory, the Palestinian issue still obstructs Saudi-Israeli co-operation. In practice, anything that appears to be an existential threat to both countries will lead to lesser issues being swiftly resolved or adjourned.[2]

There are hints of other ramifications as well. Saudi Major General Anwar Eshqi (retired), now the director of the Middle East Center for Strategic and Legal Studies, told the WSJ that Saudi Arabia wants Israel to be integrated into the Middle East. “[W]e can use their technology while they can use our money.” When the United States cut off aid to Egypt after the coup against Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government, Saudi Arabia immediately stepped in to more than make up for the lost aid. Since then, Egypt has gone ahead pretty much as it prefers without paying much attention to Washington. What if the same thing happens with Israel? Well, the Israelis are not likely to make an open break with the United States because it is the chief source of advanced arms and cover in the UN’s Security Council. Still, the Bush Administration’s attack on Iraq and the Obama Administration’s embrace of the “Arab Spring” have had long-term consequences that undermine American influence in the Middle East.

[1] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Saudi Arabia and Israel Find Common Ground on Iran,” WSJ, 19 June 2015.

[2] See: What would Bismarck drive? 3,” May 2015.

Good enough for government work.

What follows is the sort of quibbling over details that appeals only to scholars. However, historians believe that human affairs are “contingent.” That is, even if humans are storm-tossed in some vast sea of historical processes, the actions that individuals take or do not take always have consequences.

Commenting on the troubles in Yemen and Libya, Professor Daniel Benjamin (US State Department counter-terrorism co-ordinator, 2009-2012, and now a professor at Dartmouth) said that “The forces that drove the Arab Spring [of 2011] were of such enormous dimensions that it’s unrealistic to think any president or any group of leaders could steer these events.”[1] It is possible to take a different view.

For one thing, the “forces that drove the Arab Spring” have been totally mastered. Protests in Morocco, Algeria, Jordan, Oman, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Djibouti, and Somalia all soon ended after largely cosmetic concessions by the authorities.   Something harsher was required in in Egypt and Syria. Under pressure from the crowds in a few urban areas and from the United States, the Egyptian military dictatorship bent but did not break. Now it has reasserted its power, using the threat of Islamism as its justification. Seeing what was happening in Egypt, the far more ruthless Assad government in Syria took a strong line with the urban malcontents.   They malcontents are mostly in refugee camps at the moment. What the Syrians were left with was an uprising among conservative Sunni Muslims who have been joined by a flood of Islamist foreign fighters, just as the insurgency in Iraq attracted hordes of Islamist jihadis. What does Islamism have to do with the American liberal vision of the “Arab Spring”?[2]

For another thing, the United States played an active role in creating the chaos that now engulfs both Libya and Yemen.   The Obama Administration exceeded its mandate from the UN when it expanded its involvement in the Libyan rebellion from protecting civilian lives to toppling the Gaddafi regime through air-power.[3] Then the U.S. walked away when the overthrow of Gaddafi opened a Pandora’s box of troubles. Much more reasonably, the U.S. also supported the initiative by the Saudi-dominated Gulf Co-operation Council to push “president” Ali Abdullah Saleh out of office. Here alone the Americans had a clear goal: to preserve the ability to hunt Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula jihadis.

As the NYT headlined the story in which Daniel Benjamin was quoted, “Killing Terrorists May Be Best U.S. Can Hope For.” That’s a modest goal. Not transformative of the entire Middle East. Not a lasting solution to the problem of radical Islam. Not the sort of thing to win someone a Nobel Peace Prize. But manageable within the limits of our power.

[1] Mark Mazzetti and Scott Shane, “Killing Terrorists May Be Best U.S. Can Hope For,” NYT, 17 June 2015.

[2] See: “Arab Youth,” September 2014.

[3] It also helped poison Russian-American relations. See: “Obama versus Putin,” September 2014.

Climate of Fear XVII.

In 2006, a Pew poll reported that 79 percent of Americans saw global warming as a serious problem; in 2010 the number fell to 63 percent; and a recent poll reported that the number has risen to 69 percent. Similarly, in 2009, 57 percent of Americans accepted that there was “solid evidence of [global] warming”; in 2015, 68 percent agree.[1]

How do we explain the fluctuations? There are a number of possible answers. First, people trade off fears about climate change with fears about economic growth. When the economy tanks, people worry that environmental regulations will cripple recovery; when the economy recovers, people start to worry about the environment.

Second, the deep polarization of American politics causes the party out of power to swing against whatever the party in power proposes. In a classic example of this, in March 2015, 53 percent of Republicans supported automatic registration of all eligible voters. Recently, Hillary Clinton endorsed this proposal. Now, only 28 percent of Republicans support automatic registration of all eligible voters.[2] Many Republicans responded to the push by the Democrats for major climate legislation in 2009-2010 by clinging to their skepticism about climate change. Still, this hardly tells all of the story. For one thing, apparently, male Democrats are slightly less interested in the issue of climate change than are female Democrats, and the Democrats couldn’t get their climate change bill through Congress when they controlled both houses in 2010.[3] For another thing, what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. The Republicans now are the “party in power” in both houses of Congress. If parties become more intensely opposed to the position of the party in power, then perhaps the spike in climate change belief really reflects a knee-jerk response among Democrats.

The economy always fluctuates, but climate change is a continuing problem. The changing salience of climate change as a problem suggests something not very quantifiable about the continual intrusion of short-term concerns into the response to long-term problems. Parties alternate in power, sometimes every two years, but climate change is a continuing problem. The changing salience of climate change as a problem suggests something not very quantifiable about the continual intrusion of irrationality and passion into politics. Americans have no monopoly on this trait, as the bitter Greek debt negotiations show.

[1] David Leonhardt, “Americans’ Concern Over Climate Change Is Again on the Rise,” NYT, 17 June 2015.

[2] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 19 June 2015, p. 15.

[3] I know, I know: “super-majority,” “filibuster,” “gerrymandering,” and “the Koch Brothers.” However, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid could not even muster the support of all the Democrats. See: Carl Hulse and David Herszenhorn, “Democrats Call Off Climate Bill Effort,” NYT, 22 July 2010.

“Die for Danzig?” Marcel Deat, “Mourir pour Danzig?” L’Oeuvre, 4 May 1939.

Fighting Russia isn’t a very popular idea. Fighting Russia over Ukraine doesn’t have much support in spite of the obvious Russian intervention in the rebellion in eastern Ukraine. But fighting Russia if it attacks a fellow member of NATO seems like a no-brainer. That’s what a military alliance is all about, right? Well, not necessarily.[1]

Back in 1956, in the midst of the Eisenhower administration and at the height of the Cold War, 82 percent of Americans believed that a Russian attack on one member was an attack on all and that the US should fight, while 8 percent opposed it, and 10 percent weren’t sure. In a recent Pew Research Center poll, 56 percent of Americans supported using force against Russia if it became involved in a “serious military conflict” with another NATO member state, while 37 percent were opposed, and a mere 7 percent weren’t sure. Among some other NATO countries, support then falls off by small steps. Support for fighting slides down through Canada (53), Britain (49), Poland and Spain (48), France (47), Italy (40), and Germany (38).[2] In Germany, 58 percent opposed fighting Russia, while only 4 percent weren’t sure.

With regard to the conflict in Ukraine, Poland (50 percent) and the United States (46 percent) most strongly support sending weapons to the Kiev government. Thereafter, support declines among other NATO members through Canada (44), Britain (42), and France (40), before falling off sharply in Spain (25 percent), Italy (22) and Germany (19). Similarly, 62 percent of Americans favor admitting Ukraine to NATO, but only 36 percent of Germans supported such a move.

One way to think about this is that, in spite of the frequent media references to a revived Cold War, most people in the West aren’t there yet. Still, it may be where we are headed. Favorable opinion about the United States among Russians has fallen from 51 percent in 2013 to 15 percent in June 2015 and favorable opinion about NATO has fallen from 37 percent to 26 percent over the same period. Favorable opinion about Russia in the NATO countries has fallen from 37 percent to 26 percent.

Another way to think about this is that there has been a significant disaggregation within the NATO alliance since the end of the Cold War. The United States and Germany now represent opposite poles on a number of key policy issues. As the creation of the Eurozone and the negotiations over the Greek debt crisis show, Germany has become the dominant power in Europe. Americans demonstrate a resolution (or belligerence) unmatched by the Germans. This is something with which future leaders of both countries will have to wrestle.

Still another way to think about this is that we are witnessing yet another phase in the troubled, tortuous relationship between Germany and Russia. Before the First World War they were two conservative empires in opposed alliances. Between the wars they were ideologically opposed states driven to co-operate by their international pariah status. Since 1945, the partitioned Germanys first clung to their dominant partner, then West Germany’s “Ostpolitik” began opening a road East based on economic complementarity. Vladimir Putin’s assertion of Russian power and interests among the non-NATO former members of the Soviet Union has challenged that relationship. Belarus and Georgia may be next, but people worry that he will not stop at the borders of the Baltic states. Putin’s own moderation—or lack of it–holds the key.

[1] Naftali Bendavid, “Poll Shows West Is Divided On How to Deal With Russia,” WSJ, 10 June 2015.

[2] The Polish stance is worth some thought because Poland is going to provide the most likely battlefield in such a conflict.