My Weekly Reader 29 June 2017.

A pessimist’s analysis of the American position in the world might run something like the following.  The United States is the world’s only global power.  (As such, it performs many of the vital military, political, and economic functions of a world government.)  It faces a host of regional powers bent on disrupting the global order created through American leadership after the Second World War.  Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and radical Islamist jihad all offer examples of the failure of military power as a solution to challenges.[1]  Moreover, the foundations of American power have been cracked by changes in America’s society and economy.  Liberal internationalist elites ignored the human costs of their policies until they inspired a backlash under the last three presidential administrations.  Domestic politics have come to center on divisive identity politics and the expansion of entitlements (including the entitlement to not be taxed) beyond what the traditional economy can support.  In light of these grim facts, America should shift from “hard” (lawyers, guns, and money) power to “soft” power (diplomacy, humanitarianism); America should seek to lead from behind by encouraging allies to assume their responsibilities; and America should do its nation building at home.

Eliot A. Cohen takes sharp issue with this point of view.[2]  “The chances are growing that the United States will find itself using military power chronically and at varying levels of intensity, throughout the early decades of the 21st century.”  Even over the short-run, the United States faces complex challenges: China’s rise as an economic and military power in a key region for American interests; an aggrieved Russia trying to punch above its weigh while it still can; and a transnational radical Islam that will continue to inspire local insurgencies.  These quarrels may have to be resolved in places as different as the high seas, the anarchic peripheries around or between failing states, and even outer space.  So far as he’s concerned, micro-lending isn’t going to cut it.  “Hard” power will have to be at least part of the response.

Cohen is equally persuasive, alarming, and rough-edged in the rest of the book.  Asking whether America possesses the means to use force where needed, Cohen answers with a qualified “Yes.”  His deepest concern lies in the nature and quality of thinking about the use of the instruments of power, rather than about the quality and quantity of those instruments.  One danger springs from what he sees as the capture of strategic thinking by process-oriented bureaucrats.  Plans, working papers, studies, and a deep dive into minutiae introduce rigidity and myopia into thinking about the long-term strategic environment.  In short, dopes have a large voice in the use of military power.  Another concern arises from our public discourse on these issues.  The United States, says Cohen, needs to do some serious thinking and debating on its relationship to the outside world and on how and when to use military force.  Not only must Americans recognize the need for force, they will have to accept that the country is in for a series of long wars with no easy resolution, let alone parades.  In the White House, in Congress, and in the Pentagon, decision-makers are too much concerned to define the “end state” of any military action.  Get in, wreck stuff, get out defined the 1991 and 2003 wars with Iraq.  Neither resolved the basic problem.  Here Cohen could profit from a review of the post-WWII experience.[3]

Left largely unaddressed is the problem of paying for all this power.  It seems presumptuous to believe that Americans will prefer national security to Social Security.

[1] Hence, the Obama administration recognized that the American people opposed any new war in the Middle East.  From this perspective, a deal to slow down Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons made a lot of sense.

[2] Eliot A. Cohen, The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power and the Necessity of Military Force (2016).

[3] See: https://waroftheworldblog.com/2017/06/29/soldiers-become-governors/

Soldiers Become Governors.

Modern war is about destroying the enemy’s army and seizing control of his territory.  Even when it can be achieved, victory still brings problems.  If Army officers wanted to be civilian bureaucrats they wouldn’t have gone into the military.  Yet civilian bureaucrats lack the means to effectively govern conquered territory.  Both civilians and soldiers agree to ignore this reality in what one scholar labels the “denial syndrome.”  Unfortunately, scholars have a lot of evidence with which to work in sorting out good practice from bad.[1]  People can’t help but compare the successful occupations of Germany and Japan after the Second World War with the disastrous aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  What went right with the earlier occupations?  What went wrong with the later occupation?

After victory in the Second World War, the American military occupied huge territories of the defeated enemies.  Those countries acknowledged that they were beaten and that the war was ended.  The military had created immense global logistical systems that enabled it to move supplies to the conquered areas.  It had very large military forces available to support and enforce American military government.  The desire to avoid any renewed military danger from Germany or Japan inclined Generals Lucius Clay (Germany) and Douglas MacArthur (Japan) to sort out the conquered people, not just to punish them.  The suddenly developing Cold War with the Soviet Union motivated Americans (and the Germans especially) to not want a break-down of civil affairs.

Very different conditions prevailed in Iraq.  The war plan assigned far too few soldiers to occupation duty, then American forces were further drawn down.  Very quickly, the George W. Bush administration transferred authority in Iraq to what proved to be an inadequate Civilian Provisional Authority.  Iraqis did not acknowledge that they were beaten and that war had ended.  Instead, Sunni-Shi’ite-Kurdish conflicts broke out into the open.  Shi’ites looked to neighboring Iran for support, while Iran sought to undermine the American and Sunni positions.  While Germans had feared the Soviet Union, many Sunni embraced the insurgency that quickly became associated with the radical Islamists of Al Qaeda.

One—depressing—“lesson of History” might be that people fail to learn from History.  The George W. Bush administration failed to study the “good occupations” of Germany and Japan.  The Obama administration continued the same chaotic occupation policies launched by the Bush administration.  One reason for this failure may lie in the clash between any “lessons” History teaches and what people want to believe.  Lost in the adulation of the occupations of Germany and Japan is the reality that Americans raised in an environment of inter-war isolationism were only constrained to embark on internationalism by harsh necessity.

Also lost in recent accounts is the reality that Rome wasn’t built in a day.  By focusing tightly on the brief periods of military administration, then jumping ahead to the long-term outcomes, it is easy to attribute change to military government.  This analysis falls short of a real explanation.  On the one hand, civilian governments by the defeated peoples took decades to create democratic political cultures.  They wanted to avoid repeating the errors of the past.  On the other hand, Germany became a democracy because the victors in the Second World War partitioned the country, then parked 20,000 tanks on top of the place for almost half a century.

[1] Susan L. Carruthers, The Good Occupation: American Soldiers and the Hazards of Peace (2016); Nadia Schadlow, War and the Art of Governance: Consolidating Combat Success into Political Victory (2017).  In a typically American solipsism, the authors ignore the contemporaneous British experience with the government of conquered territories.

My Weekly Reader 9 June 2017.

Once upon a time, a professor of American diplomatic history said that there were two kinds of countries—lions and jackals.[1]  The United States is a lion (with tooth problems) and Pakistan is a jackal.  Since its creation in 1947, Pakistan has battened on great powers—first Britain and later the United States—by pretending to associate itself with their causes in return for the aid that keeps the failed-from-the-beginning state afloat.  Pakistan also sees India as the chief opponent.  As a result, it sees Afghanistan as a vital interest, whether to give Pakistan “strategic depth” or to prevent the country from being caught between two fires.  In practice, this meant joining the anti-Communist alliance in the Cold War.  Then it meant playing a leading role in the struggle against the Soviets in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989.[2]

In 2001, after the 9/11 attacks, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told Pakistan’s ruler, Pervez Musharraf, that either his signature or his brains would be on an agreement with the United States to cooperate against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.  Musharraf agreed.  Then didn’t.  In 2009, Richard Holbrooke struck a deal that tripled non-military aid to Pakistan provided the country returned to civilian rule.  Pakistan didn’t.  In May 2011, Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in his Pakistan hide-out.[3]  Soon afterward, another American diplomat told the Pakistanis that the SEALs who killed Bin Laden had uncovered a treasure trove of information that—among other things—compromised the government of Pakistan.  Either Pakistan began cooperating with the United States or trouble would follow.  Pakistan agreed to cooperate.  Then didn’t.[4]  Yes, hundreds of greater and lesser members of Al Qaeda fell captive.  However, the attacks continued in Afghanistan.

Countries, like individuals, are prone to blame others for their troubles.[5]  Pakistan’s elites blame India and the United States for Pakistan’s troubles, rather than a historical record of incompetent governance.  Still, there is something to be said for the Pakistani position.  Had the United States guaranteed control of Afghanistan to Pakistan, the Pakistanis might have been willing to act seriously against the Taliban.  The Taliban guarantees Pakistan would remotely control Afghanistan, so Pakistan—through the ISI—arms and aids the Taliban.

Americans seems reluctant to acknowledge that allies may have foreign policy interests of their own.  Similarly, Americans are reluctant to acknowledge that its opponents may have legitimate—to them—foreign policy objectives.  So long as the United States remained the “biggest, baddest” power in the world, it didn’t matter much what foreigners thought.  However, in the last two presidential administrations (Obama, Trump), the United States has engaged in a policy of strategic retreat.  Henceforth, it will matter what foreign powers—like Afghanistan or Israel, or Saudi Arabia—think about American power.

In the Afghan case, however, there is a pattern that has repeated itself from 1979 to the present.  So, American leaders may yet get it right.

[1] W. Stull Holt, in conversation.

[2] Husain Haqqani, Magnificent Delusions (2013); Daniel Markey, No Exist from Pakistan (2013).

[3] See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bKht-_lX-u0

[4] Iran opposes Iraq, but the United States refused to choose during the Obama administration.  Pakistan opposes India, but the United States refused to choose during the Obama administration.  Now Donald Trump is president.

[5] Some are more prone to this habit than are others.  British colonial officials, who had wide experience with people subjected to troubles by the British, held Persians (modern-day Iranians) in absolute contempt for this trait.

Memoirs of the Addams Administration 21.

There are drafts, then sketches, and then doodles.  President Donald Trump issued a doodle of a proposed budget for fiscal 2018.  The $4.1 trillion plan calls for $54 billion increase in defense spending; an $800 billion reduction in Medicaid spending spread over ten years, a $192 reduction in food stamps, and a $72 billion cut in disability payments.  The plan also called for substantial tax cuts.  Projecting economic growth of 3 percent, the plan projects a balanced budget in ten years.   Neither Social Security nor Medicare, the real engines pulling the budget train at high speed toward a washed-out bridge, received any attention in the budget plan or from Democratic critics of the plan.[1]

Meanwhile, the president made a densely-packed foreign trip.[2]  His first stop came in Saudi Arabia.  Here he played up the minor chord in his campaign rhetoric on Islam, while muting the major chord.  He said positive things about Islam-in-general (“one of the world’s great faiths”), but called on Middle Eastern countries to turn away from radical-Islamists-in-particular.  He promised another vain effort to settle the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.  He also made clear his concern (to put it mildly) about Iran.  Then he sold Saudi Arabia $110 billion in weapons and flew to Israel.  Here he met with both Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas.  Trump told Netanyahu that radical Islam and Iran were the common dangers to Israel and the Sunni Arab states, so maybe they could work something out?

Lost in the commentary was any sense of reality.  The Muslim world is torn by a Sunni-Shi’ite civil war.  President Obama could not afford to choose sides because an attack on nuclearizing Iran would have expanded America’s war in the Middle East at a moment when few Americans had any stomach for big wars.  The Iran agreement slowed down Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons while still leaving them bound by sanctions for other issues.[3]  However, Obama’s refusal to choose allowed the Russians to choose the Shi’ite side.  Now President Trump is taking the logical next step.[4]  As for peace between Palestine and Israel, it isn’t likely to happen.  Israel cannot afford to have a Palestinian state created on the West Bank.  It would just be taken over by Hamas, as happened in Gaza.  The West Bank is a lot closer to Israel’s population centers than is Gaza.  It’s well within flying range of the Hamas rockets.

At home, the appointment of one-time FBI director Robert Mueller as special counsel to investigate the whole Russian mess either made things worse for the president or made them better.[5]  It depends on whether actual “collusion” took place between the Trump campaign and the Russian “organs of state security.”  It is not much remarked that the names of the dominant figures in the Trump campaign, Steve Bannon and Kelly Ann Conway, never appear in rumors of collusion.  So far, it has been minor, peripheral figures—and Michael Flynn.  Even with Flynn, the abundant leaking of information about his communications with Russians never mentions the hacking.  The leaks do suggest that he has other grounds for taking the Fifth.[6]  All of them involve things he did not tell the White House.

[1] “Trump’s budget proposal raises bipartisan concerns,” The Week, 2 June 2017, p. 7.

[2] “Trump’s Middle East reset,” The Week, 2 June 2017, p. 6.

[3] In short, he earned the Nobel Peace Prize he had been awarded early in his first term by Europeans intervening in an American election after the fact.

[4] That’s certainly how it looked to Iran.  “How they see us: Uniting the Middle East against Iran,” The Week, 2 June 2017, p. 17.

[5] “Mueller: Trump’s worst nightmare?” The Week, 2 June 2017, p. 19.

[6] “Flynn: The center of multiple scandals,” The Week, 2 June 2017, p. 19.

My Weekly Reader 30 May 2017.

Ali Soufan was born in Lebanon in 1971, but ended up living in the United States and became an American citizen.[1]  “Education’s the thing, don’t you know.”[2]  In 1995 he got a BA in Political Science from Mansfield University.[3]  Later on he got an MA in International Relations from Vanillanova.  Then he went into the EffaBeeEye.

No chasing bank-robbers or goombas for him.  The harps had those jobs sewn up.[4]  He spoke Arabic and the Bureau only had eight Arabic speakers, so he went into counter-terrorism.  In 1999 he went to Jordan to liase with the Jordanian intelligence service, which had uncovered leads to what would be called the “Millennium bomb plot.”  Here began another theme in his career.  He found a box of files in the CIA station, allegedly ignored by the over-worked agents, containing maps of the targets.  The CIA seemed more vexed than grateful.  In 2000 he went to Yemen as part of the team investigating the bombing of the USS “Cole.”  Here he made important discoveries.  He went back to Yemen after 9/11 to pursue leads.  Here he figured out that the CIA had held back information from the FBI that might have allowed him to connect the “Cole” attack with the 9/11 plot.[5]  The CIA seemed more vexed than grateful.  Then he interrogated captured Al Qaeda terrorists.  Subsequently, some of his subjects were transferred to CIA control and were subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques.[6]

By 2005 Soufan had become fed-up or burned-out.  He resigned from the Bureau to start a consultancy.  In 2011 he published The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda.[7]  Here he tracked the campaign against Al Qaeda from 9/11 to the killing of Osama bin Laden.  Now Soufan has published Anatomy of Terror: From the Death of Bin Laden to the Rise of the Islamic State (2017).[8]  The American invasion of Iraq (2003) triggered a disaster.  Partisan observer—Soufan included–put too much emphasis on the botched occupation.  Iraq was a social IED waiting to be tripped.  The invasion itself lit the fuse.

Even before OBL died, Al Qaeda had transformed into something else, something worse.  It had become Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.  The remnants of that group fell back to Syria and became the Islamic State (ISIS).  More importantly (unless you’re stuck inside the Caliphate), ISIS called for the “lone wolf” attacks that have wreaked havoc in Europe and the United States.  Boko Haram (Nigeria), Al Shabab (Somalia), Jumatul Mujahedeen (Bangladesh), and Abu Sayaf (Philippines) all align themselves with the ideology of Al Qaeda.  We live with the results.

[1] I conjecture that his parents fled the awful Lebanese civil war of 1975-1990.  See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lebanese_Civil_War  So, that’s one anecdotal argument against President Trump’s “Muslim ban.”  The recent suicide bombing in Manchester, England, offers an equally compelling anecdotal argument on the other side.  So, we probably shouldn’t rely upon anecdotal evidence.  “Well, d’uh,”–my sons.

[2] I think that’s from one volume of the trilogy U.S.A. by John Dos Passos, but I can’t find the exact reference.

[3] Mansfield is a former teachers college in the middle of nowhere in north-central Pennsylvania.   He got his BA when he was 24, so he lost some time somewhere doing something.

[4] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whitey_Bulger

[5][5] Before people start jumping all over the CIA, read the Report of the 9/11 Commission.  Not just the executive summary, but the whole thing.  Then look at the list of Commission members and run down their career tracks.

[6] Soufan subsequently made public comments on the results obtained by the different approaches.  The CIA seemed more vexed than grateful.

[7] In Western culture, black flags usually denote pirates.  Until the 18th Century, captured pirates rarely got a trial.  You just hanged them at the yard-arm or threw them overboard if there were some sharks handy.  This is a plea for cultural sensitivity on the part of radical Islamists.  Falls under the heading of “enlightened self-interest.”

[8] At least he didn’t call it Al Qaeda: Covenant or Al Qaeda: Dead Men Tell No Tales.

Talking Turkey.

To rehash the well-known, the Islamic State (ISIS) seized a lot of territory in eastern Syria, then broke out into western Iraq several years ago.  This encumbered the fair hopes of the Obama administration to beat a dignified retreat from the Iraq mess.  Destroying ISIS at minimal costs in American lives became the policy choice of the Obama and Trump Administrations.  That grinding effort, which has involved a lot of work by both the Kurds and the Iranians, looks about ready to pay-off with the Iraqi capture of Mosul and the Syrian Kurds’ capture of Raqqa (the capital of the ISIS caliphate).

To rehash more of the well-known, the Kurds are a Muslim ethnic group divided between Iran, Iraq, Syria, and—fatally—Turkey.  Kurdish nationalism threatens to disrupt these countries.  The Turks, in particular, see their own Kurdish political party (PKK) linked to the Syrian Kurdish political party (PDK) and to its American-armed militia (YPG).[1]  They’re probably right.[2]  Iraq’s wing of the PKK has attacked Turkey in support of its Turkish partners.  Hoping to earn American patronage for their ambitions, the Kurds of Iraq and Syria have done much of the heavy lifting in the fight against the Islamic State.  So, it is important to keep the Kurds happy.

To rehash still more of the well-known, the president of Turkey—Recep Tayyip Erdogan—is a moderate Islamist head-case who is bent on turning the country into a Sunni version of Iran.  He barely scratched out a majority in a referendum on super-charged presidential powers in April 2017, yet he sees the vote as an endorsement of his ambitions.

This puts the United States in a bit of a quandary.[3]  Over the short-run, who cares what the Turks want?  The militia of the Syrian Kurds, the YPG, is seen by American military leaders as the best bet to capture Raqqa.  American military leaders also see Turkey as having no real alternative strategy.  So when Turkey bombed several YPG positions and threatened land forces incursions, the US military began running convoys of American military vehicles flying large American flags through the target area as a warning to Turkey.

Over the long-run, many people should care what the Turks want.  On the one hand, Erdogan is an anti-Western Islamist.  He is aiming at a dictatorship.  His victory in the referendum on expanded presidential powers fell far short of the expected majority and is dogged by charges of fraud.  Political turmoil seems the likely future for Turkey.[4]

On the other hand, Turkey is a member of NATO (brought in to the alliance, in part, because Greeks won’t fight).  Turkey has the second largest army in NATO; it is an industrializing country; it has sought membership in the European Union (EU), and the Turks have been extending their cultural influence through the southern tier of states liberated by the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Erdogan has battered Europe with an engineered refugee crisis.  The European Union is never going to admit Turkey to its ranks, even if it has to soak up huge numbers of outsiders without Emma Lazarus to provide a moral justification.[5]  He has both barked at and cowered before Vladimir Putin.  He is afraid that the U.S. has struck a bargain with the Kurds.  And he will visit Washington in May 2017.  The regional implications of Turkey’s course matter far more than do the headlines about ISIS.

[1] If the Kurds get Russian military assistance, maybe they could be re-branded as the RPG?

[2] The Americans engage in a lot of hair-splitting over this issue.  The U.S. government insists that Turkey’s PKK is a terrorist organization, while Syria’s PYD and—even more—the YPG are not terrorists.  Instead, they are “partner forces.”  Which people can read as “allies” or “hired guns” as is their wont.

[3] Yarolslav Trofimov, “In Syria, U.S. Is Caught Between Ally Turkey and Kurds,” WSJ, 5 May 2017.

[4] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Erdogan’s Narrow Win Could End Up Undermining Him,” WSJ, 17 April 2017.

[5] A “wall” is more likely.

My Weekly Reader 1 April 2017.

Since 9/11 the imperatives of the war against radical Islamism have imposed an un-true interpretation of the enemy.  The radicals (Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, Al Shabab, ISIS) form a minority within Islam, their most common targets are fellow Muslims, and the assistance of Muslim states is essential to victory over the Islamists.  Hence, it has become commonplace to describe the radicals as not truly Muslim, as heretics at best.

To argue differently is to open oneself to charges of Islamophobia.[1]  Nevertheless, radical Islamism diverges from contemporary Islam much more than it diverges from foundational Islam.  Originally, the Prophet Muhammad preached a single community of Believers (the “umma”), led by puritanical religious figures (a theocracy), and living in permanent hostility to Unbelievers (the conflict between the dar al-Islam/House of Peace/Islam and the dar al-Harb/House of War/Unbelievers).  Jews and Christians, the “Peoples of the Book,” were tolerated in return for payment of a tax, bit barred from proselytizing.  Slavery remained a hall-mark of Muslim societies from the time of the Prophet through the 19th Century.  Subsequently, mainstream Islam moved toward what Western observers think of today: fractured into nation states too weak to pull a hobo of their sister; economically stagnant in the face of swiftly rising populations; ruled by tyrannical soldiers and monarchs, and struggling to reconcile “modernization” in all its forms with core cultural values.

Gilles Kepel and others have argued that dissatisfaction with these governments sent people streaming toward a renewed religious commitment in the last decades of the 20th Century.  Some of those people turned back to a fundamentalist version of Islam.  The fruit of this commitment has been harvested in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, France, Germany, Spain, and Britain.

It’s not difficult to narrate the rise and fall of the Islamic State.  It’s just difficult to explain—comprehend really—why people are willing to give their lives in support of it.  Graeme Wood argues that the “foot soldiers [of ISIS] view their mission in religious terms and spend great energy on piety and devotion.”[2]  They are filled with religious passion.  Dexter Filkins isn’t sure this is actually the case.  His own experience as a war correspondent in Afghanistan and Iraq for the New York Times leads him to believe that “the motives for joining a militant organization were varied and complex.”[3]  Psychopaths and sociopaths found a justification, not a motivation, in religion.  Possibly Wood’s response would be to point again to the identity between the theology of ISIS and the theology of early Islam.  In the 7th and 8th Centuries the Arabs over-run vast tracts of the Byzantine and Sassanian Empires.  Historians conventionally describe these armies as fired by a passionate religious enthusiasm.  Would Filkins argue that they actually were madmen and criminals?

The two different strands of interpretation can be reconciled if one understands that religious faith is intended to redeem those who feel themselves to be ruined by sin.[4]  Religion may become a tired and stifling bourgeois convention that upholds the established order.  It doesn’t normally start out that way.  So, perhaps ISSIS recruits a wide range of troubled people who are self-aware enough to embrace beliefs that may heal or channel their flaws.

[1] It isn’t immediately apparent why mouthing ignorance-based platitudes favorable to Islam is less Islamophobic than is mouthing ignorance-based platitudes hostile to Islam.  Both approaches seem to be based on an indifference to learning about Islam.

[2] Graeme Wood, The Way of the Strangers: Encounters With the Islamic State (2017).

[3] Dexter Filkins, “On the Fringes of ISIS,” NYT Book Review, 22 January 2017.

[4] See, for one example: https://waroftheworldblog.com/2015/02/24/the-islamic-brigades-1/