Foreign Legions 13 January 2020.

A bunch of historical examples can be offered of peoples hiring foreigners to do their fighting for them.  The Roman Empire came to rely upon foreigners to fill up the ranks of the army once citizenship became de-linked from soldiering.  The Arabs recruited large numbers of Turks driven off the steppe by the Mongols.  The little Crusader states in the Holy Land depended upon the military religious orders to aggregate individual European Christian volunteers into formidable props to their survival.  The Englishmen John Smith and Guy Fawkes fought for foreign rulers.  The French and Spanish armies included regiments of Irish Catholic refugees from English Protestant oppression.  In the 19th Century both France and Spain created “Foreign Legions,” while Britain came to prize the Gurkhas.  During the Spanish Civil War, the Comintern created the “International Brigades” to fight against the Nationalists.  Muslims from many countries fought against the Soviet in Afghanistan.  Most recently, the Islamic State marshalled thousands of foreign volunteers under its black flag.[1]

The death of Qassim Suleimani brought some peripheral notice of his reliance upon “foreign legions” to fight as Iranian proxies.[2]  Suleimani adroitly used both Shi’ite and—less frequently–Sunni militias on behalf of his government’s long-term effort to expand Iran’s influence in the Middle East.  Suleimani deployed these militias in the civil wars in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, while Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza are closely linked to Iran.  This policy brought so much success that Iran is unlikely to abandon it just because its original architect is dead.

Foreign volunteers have reasons for signing-up.  Some come for adventure; some are inspired by religious or ideological commitment; some are veteran soldier seeking something that civilian life can’t provide.  The motives for governments that recruit foreign volunteers are less varied.  Where military service has become socially undesirable or where the native population possesses skills too great to be wasted on the battlefield, foreign troops allow a country to punch above its weight.  Foreign soldiers cost only money.  No one cares if they die.

Only about one percent of Americans do military service.  Most of those who do serve come from the South and from military families living close to bases scattered through the South and West.[3]  Over three-quarters (79 percent) of Army enlistees have a family member who has served in the military; almost a third (30 percent) have a parent who has served.  Inevitably, that means that casualties are similarly distributed.  This trend has been developing ever since the military became All Volunteer in 1973.  There’s a political element to this as well.  Politically liberal areas often resist military recruiters in the schools and universities, while liberal parents rarely have done military service.  Young people have few models of military service.

Is this one reason for the “forever wars”?

No, I’ve never been a soldier.

[1] See: https://waroftheworldblog.com/2015/02/24/the-islamic-brigades-1/; https://waroftheworldblog.com/2015/05/08/the-islamic-brigades-ii/; and https://waroftheworldblog.com/2016/06/17/the-islamic-brigades-iii/

[2] Karim Sadjadpour, “The Sinister Genius of Soleimani,” WSJ, 11-12 January 2020; Dion Nissenbaum and Isabel Coles, “Iraqi Militias Remain a Wild Card,” WSJ, 10 January 2020.

[3] David Philipps and Tim Arango, “The Call to Serve Is Being Unevenly Embraced,” NYT, 11 January 2020.

The War with Iran 10 January 2020.

The American invasion of Iraq in 2003 created both opportunities and dangers for Iran.  On the one hand, it toppled an enemy leader (Saddam Hussein) and liberated the fellow Shi’ites of Iraq to dominate a “democratic” government.  On the other hand, it put the powerful military of Iran’s American enemy right on the country’s door-step.[1]

An important role in developing the opportunities and confronting the dangers fell to General Qassim Suleimani.  Suleimani occupied a powerful position in Iran’s government.  The New York Times has described him as “an American vice president, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and C.I.A. director rolled into one.”[2]  Suleimani worked to increase the power of Iraq’s Shi’ite majority, extend Iranian influence over Iraq and into Syria, and push the Americans to pull out.  Some Americans and a good many Iraqis died in the ensuing violence.  Both the Bush II and Obama administrations had thought about killing him.  Both seem to have decided that killing Suleimani would not advance American strategic interests at those particular times.  Clearly, President Trump and his closest advisors made a different decision.  On 3 January 2020, an American drone fired two missiles that killed Suleimani and some of his myrmidons.

It is impossible at this early date to foresee the long-term consequences.  Still, it is possible to suggest some factors that will influence events.  First, the killing of Suleimani is unlikely to deepen the existing abyssal hostility between the two nations.[3]

Second, domestic factors will push Iran to retaliate for the assassination.  General Suleimani in the front rank of Iran’s leaders.  Trying to deter the United States from weeding-out other leaders could push Iran’s hardliners toward action.  The same is true of maintaining the regime’s legitimacy in the eyes of the public.  You can’t get out big crowds every year to chant “Death to America!” in the streets and then go “Never mind” when you get slapped in public.

Third, there is a huge imbalance of power between the United States and Iran.  American superiority in conventional weapons would probably preclude a real Iranian conventional attack on American forces.  The recent missile strike in Iraq both hit a remote facility with few Americans present and was telegraphed hours in advance to allow the Americans to take cover.  At the same time, President Trump claims to want to end the “endless wars” launched by the Bush II Administration.  That desire should bar any attack on Iran by American ground forces.

This reality could shape the behavior of both sides.  Iran can pursue an “asymmetrical” response.  Iran could use allies like Lebanon’s Hezbollah or Iraqi Shi’ites to attack American forces or American interests.  Those would not have to be limited to the Persian Gulf or even to the Middle East.  One key factor might be how robust are American defense and intelligence resources for dealing with such “asymmetrical” threats.

On the other hand, American air power is there and ready to be used.  For example, Iran firing missiles at American ships in or around the Persian Gulf would trigger air strikes.  Those strikes might not be very restricted.  They would inflict still greater public humiliation on the regime.

So, future headlines may be full of car bombs and “smart” bombs.

[1] At the same time, the Americans were occupying Afghanistan on Iran’s eastern border.  You can see how Iranian leaders might get a little skittish.

[2] Max Fisher, “Is There a Chance Of a Wider War?” New York Times, 4 January 2020; Amanda Taub, “Will Strike Deter Attacks, Or Lead to Even More?” NYT, 5 January 2020.

[3] It is now impossible to know if the policy pursued by the Obama administration would have led to an actual improvement of Iranian-American relations or merely postponed the current confrontation.

The Attack on Iran 9 January 2020.

“Trump did it, so it must be the wrong thing.”  Fair rule of thumb/heuristic device.  However, seen in a historical perspective, some further thought may be in order.

First, the military historian John Keegan dissected the liberal mindset with regard to international order on the eve of the Second Iraq War in 2003.  He called this mindset “Olympianism.”  According to Keegan, it “seeks to influence and eventually control the behavior of states not by the traditional means of resorting to force as a last resort but by supplanting force by rational procedures, exercised through a supranational bureaucracy and supranational legal systems and institutions.” Keegan regarded this view as delusional, but widespread.  He describes the “Olympian ethic” as “opposition to any form of international action lying outside the now commonly approved limits of legal disapproval and treaty condemnation.”[1]

European states weren’t the only ones touched by “Olympianism.”  The Report of the 9/11 Commission tells readers that the US Government struggled to respond to the early attacks by Al Qaeda.  These early attacks included the bombing of two embassies in East Africa, and the attack on the USS “Cole” during a port call in Yemen.  The Director of the Central Intelligence Agency doubted he had the authority to kill some foreign terrorist just because the terrorist was trying to kill Americans.  Much thought went into how to capture Osama bin Laden.  Many Republicans, but also Democrats, belabored President Bill Clinton over the missile attack on a suspected Al Qaeda site in Khartoum, Sudan.  The evidence in the 9/11 Report suggests that the Clinton administration then slow-walked the investigation of the “Cole” bombing so that it wouldn’t be forced to do something that would lead to a further tide of abuse.  Attempts to kill Bin Laden in Afghanistan with cruise missiles failed because the diplomatic proprieties required the US Government to inform the government of Pakistan that the US would be flying cruise missiles across its territory.  This in spite of the fact that Pakistani intelligence had close ties to the Taliban government that was sheltering Bin Laden.

The response to the killing of Qassim Soleimani suggests that “Olympianism” has taken hold elsewhere.

Second, the war correspondent-turned historian Thomas Ricks has sought to explain the poor performance of the US Army in recent wars.  In his explanation, during the Second World War, Chief of Staff George Marshall and ruthless subordinates like Dwight Eisenhower and Omar Bradley, transformed a sleepy, gerontocratic peacetime army into a devastatingly effective instrument of war.  They did so, in part, by getting rid of any commander who didn’t cut the mustard.  After George Marshall and his followers had passed on, the Army reverted to a cautious, self-protective rather than self-critical, bureaucracy.[2]  Generals don’t get fired, except for egregious personal misconduct—when it comes to public attention.

If Ricks is correct in his analysis, how should we understand the apparent lack of enthusiasm in the Pentagon for the strike at an Iranian leader who has been asserting his country’s influence throughout the Middle East at the expense of the United States?

Third, it seems unlikely that President Trump’s order to kill General Soleimani is going to have a worse outcome than the decision by the Bush II administration to invade Iraq or the decision by the Obama administration to overthrow the government of Libya.

[1] John Keegan, The Iraq War (2005), pp. 109, 115.

[2] Thomas E. Ricks, The Generals: American Military Command From World War II to Today (2012).  See also: https://waroftheworldblog.com/2015/08/10/command-crisis/

The Kurdish Crisis-of-the-Moment 16 October 2019.

The Kurdish crisis requires some explanation. First, the idea of Nationalism[1] began in Western Europe, then spread to other areas, slowly.  Eventually it reached the Middle East during the last stage of the Ottoman Empire. It penetrated the Greeks of Ionia, the Armenians, the Kurds, and the Arabs.

Just as the body’s immune system generates resistance to dangers, so did Nationalism among the subject peoples of the Ottoman Empire generate Nationalism among the Turks. Horrific things followed. In brief compass, the Ottoman Turks drove out the Armenians during the First World War, and the revolutionary Turkish Republic slaughtered large numbers of Greek Christians. Regardless of whether these were acts of “genocide,” a ton of Greeks and Armenians died as a result of Turkish government action. (Certainly, lots of Greek soldiers deserved to die for their actions in Turkey, but most of them got away to ships for home, while the civilian population was abandoned to the revenge-minded Turks.[2])  However, many Kurds remained within the boundaries of modern Turkey.

Second, when the George W. Bush administration decided to attack Iraq in 2003 for no good reason, one effect was to fracture the country into its component parts.  A Shi’a Arab majority in the east opposed a Sunni Arab minority in the west and the Kurds in the northern part of the country. Us liking it or not, the Iraqi Kurds saw their self-governing territory as the core of a united Kurdistan. The projected Kurdistan would include Turkish Kurdistan, Iraqi Kurdistan, Syrian Kurdistan, and even Iranian Kurdistan. So, Kurdistan has many enemies and few friends.  OTOH, “neither are they afflicted by the disease of indecision.”[3]

Third, when ISIS attacked out of eastern Syria and over-ran much of Iraq, the armies of Iraq and Syria were rotted by corruption and civil war. The US faced a choice: leave it to Turkey, Iran, and–needs be–Israel to solve the ISIS problem OR thrust ourselves back into regional affairs. The Obama administration chose a partial re-engagement.  Send Special Forces troops as trainers and target-spotters and send US air power. The real heavy lifting would be done by an “Arab” army of mostly Kurds, with an icing-on-the-cake of “moderate” Arabs.

Fourth, basically this worked OK.  Not perfect, but OK. Now we’re faced with the question of how to get out of the “Forever War.” What do we owe to the Kurds, who have been fighting for their own nationalist interests? What do we owe to Turkey, a NATO ally with a large and restive Kurdish population? What do we owe to ourselves, to our self-image?  “You dance with the girl you brung,” my Dad always said.[4]

Fifth, Russia gets Syria? So what? The place is a ruin. The Russians already have alliances with Iran, the Shi’ites in Iraq, and the Alewites of Syria.  All formed under the Obama Administration. Turkey has already bolted on NATO. Much of that seems to be on the watch of the Obama administration. Focus on the essentials of American interests: oil from Saudi Arabia; and–more importantly–the Far East.

[1] I’ll leave aside all the BS that has been talked about of late about Patriotism as “the love of one’s own country” versus Nationalism as “the hatred of other countries.”

[2] See: Smyrna.

[3] See: “”In Harm’s Way.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yXzNQHNsQHk

[4] See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wcBplbfXgSY

Iran Amuck 2 30 June 2019.

In the judgement of one expert,” the “Iranian economy has long been riddled by endemic mismanagement, corruption, cronyism, and brain drain.  Sanctions make all these problems worse.”[1]  However, the flaws are innate to the regime, rather than springing from the sanctions.[2]

American economic sanctions against Iran have a long history.  They began with President Jimmy Carter; were tightened by President Ronald Reagan; were greatly strengthened by President Bill Clinton, then were slightly eased by Clinton after the election of an Iranian president seen as “moderate” in the West; then were renewed under President George W. Bush.

In 2005, Iran announced that it would begin enriching uranium for its nuclear program.  At the behest of the Bush administration, the United Nations began imposing international economic sanctions.  In 2010, the Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed a law greatly strengthening sanctions.  Eventually, the pressure from the sanctions forced Iran to negotiate with an American-led coalition.  In 2015, the negotiations produced an agreement on delaying Iran’s march towards nuclear weapons in return for relief from some of the sanctions.

The agreement aroused controversy.  On the one hand, Iran remained under sanction for other actions.  Incomplete relief from sanctions continued to hamper improvements in the living conditions of ordinary Iranians.  Iranian hard-liners could argue that the sanctions relief hasn’t been worth giving up the chance at nuclear weapons.  On the other hand, Iran remained an active opponent of the United States and its regional allies.  Conservative critics of the Obama Administration could argue that only limiting Iran’s nuclear program, without addressing its other behaviors, hasn’t been worth sanctions relief.[3]

The Trump Administration falls heavily into the latter camp.  It has sought to re-open the negotiations with Iran with the intention of getting a better deal.  On 8 May 2018, Trump .withdrew the United States from the agreement.  Trump also announced that the United States would re-impose the previous sanctions and sanction any European companies that traded with Iran.  Within a year, Iran’s oil exports had declined by more than 50 percent.

On 8 April 2019, Trump designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps as a terrorist group.[4]  The designation carried with it further economic sanctions.

On 5 May 2019, after Iran had designated the U.S. Central command as a terrorist organization and after the U.S. had discerned Iranian preparations for action against American forces, a carrier battle-group and bombers were ordered to the region.

On 8 May 2019, the US increased sanctions on Iran’s exports and ended “waivers” granted to some countries to continue buying Iranian oil.

On 12 May 2019, four oil tankers were attacked in the Persian Gulf.  The Trump Administration claimed that Iran had attacked the tankers.  Iran soon .announced that it would return to enriching uranium.

On 13 June 2019, external explosions badly damaged two tankers in the Gulf.

The 2003 Iran War suggests a need for caution in all long-term projections.

[1] Helene Cooper, “How the U.S. Ratcheted Up Pressure on Iran and How Iran Responded,” NYT, 16 June 2019.

[2] The parallel to Venezuela is striking.

[3] See: https://waroftheworldblog.com/2018/07/24/iran-and-we-all-should-run/

[4] The IRGC handles terrorism abroad.

Iran Amuck 26 June 2019.

Like his predecessors and a great many other people, President Donald Trump opposes the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran.[1]  A host of countries had imposed severe economic sanctions on Iran to coerce the country into an agreement.  President Barack Obama negotiated a multi-national[2] agreement that would delay Iran’s progress toward a weapon in exchange for relief from international economic sanctions.  The goal was to stop Iran’s nuclear program at a line one year away from constructing a nuclear weapon.  The alternative course would be war with Iran.  American public opinion at the time opposed a new war, so a deal made sense.

The nuts-and-bolts of the issue are that: a) it takes a lot of effort to get uranium from 3.67 percent purity to 20 percent purity; it takes much less time and effort to get uranium from 20 percent purity to 90 percent, the level required for a nuclear weapon.

The agreement required Iran to hold a maximum of about 600 pounds of “low-enriched” (3.67 percent purity) uranium until 2030 and no high-enriched uranium.  Iran already had more than 600 pounds of low-enriched uranium, so Iran exported the surplus.  The agreement also required Iran to submit to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

As a presidential candidate and as an elected president, Trump disparaged the Iran agreement as “the worst deal in the world.”  In the view of President Trump and other critics of the agreement, one problem is that the agreement isn’t a permanent solution.  It ends in 2030.  After that, Iran will be free to pursue its nuclear ambitions once more.[3]  Furthermore, the agreement did not constrain Iran’s actions in other areas like Iraq, Yemen, and Syria, or in the development of ballistic missiles.  For American allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia, the agreement stank to high heaven.[4]  Another .problem is ballistic missiles.  Iran possesses missiles that can hit most Middle Eastern countries (e.g. Israel, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan).

In May 2018, President Trump withdrew the United States from the multi-lateral agreement with Iran.  Since then, the United States has imposed increasingly severe economic sanctions.  Both Iran and the other parties to the agreement continued to abide by the terms.

In June 2019, Iran announced that it, too, would withdraw from the agreement.  Iran would begin stockpiling nuclear fuel above the threshold set by the agreement.  It might also begin enriching that fuel above the level needed for nuclear power plants and toward the level needed for a nuclear weapon.  Among the current unknowns are whether Iran has the technical capacity to make a bomb, and whether Iran had the technical capacity to miniaturize a bomb to fit on a ballistic missile.  The answers are not readily apparent.

IF Iran sprints toward completion of one nuclear weapon, THEN how will the United States respond?  IF Iran is just bluffing, THEN the ayatollahs may hope that other countries will push the United States into accommodation.  IF not, THEN can Iran survive a hi-tech war?

Both Iran and the Obama policy are about to be tested.

[1] Michael Crowley, “How the Nuclear Deal Splintered into a Crisis,” NYT, 18 June 2019.

[2] Iran, the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China.

[3] President Obama seems to have believed that the Iranians would get fed-up with the clowns running the country before 2030.  Then a new Iranian government would pack in guns for butter.  I hope so.  However, President Obama also bet on the “Arab Spring.”  Some places actually play politics more hard ball even than in Chicago.  So,…

[4] Could they persuade someone in a position of authority to see it their way?  If so, how?

My Weekly Reader 16 May 2019.

If you want to think about “God” in simple evolution-of-ideas terms, then the stages would run something like the following.  At first, humans believed all Nature was alive and that all living creatures possessed an “anima” (spirit, soul).[1] Later, seeking to appease these powerful natural forces, people “personified” them as “gods.”  There were many things that could go wrong or right in life, so there were many gods.  Build temples, offer sacrifices, and hope for the best.[2]  Then they refined this polytheism into each city having one particular patron god or goddess, along with the others.  That deity lived in a temple in the particular city that s/he protected.  Participation in religious rites figured as an important duty, rather than as a choice.  The deity didn’t move around.  Greek and Roman religion were merely stems from this stock, but elaborated non-religious ethical systems of great power.[3]  Animism yielded to Polytheism.

After a while, what became Western civilization diverged from this broad cultural pattern.   The Hebrews developed “ethical monotheism.”  That is they believed that only one real God existed; all the others were false gods.  That God existed everywhere in the world, rather than being bound to the confines of some runty city-state.  That God had made a “covenant” with His “chosen people.”  He would protect them if they worshipped only Him.  He didn’t settle for mere rites and offerings.  He also required adherence to a moral code of action in this world.  Then Christianity emerged from Judaism by opening the “covenant” to anyone who would profess the faith and by extending the “covenant” to include a promise of life after death.

If you want to go all sociological-psychological, then you might argue that Christianity amounted a generational revolt by young men against the old men who ran Judaism.  Alternatively, you could argue that God now wanted all of His Creation to share in the benefits and strictures of the faith he had granted first to the Jews.  Polytheism yielded to Monotheism.

Then, in the 7th Century AD, another monotheistic faith arose: Islam.  This, too, is an example of ethical monotheism.  If you want to go all sociological-psychological, then you could argue that the Prophet Muhammad borrowed much from Judaism and Christianity, and then preached his new faith to the polytheist Arabs at a critical moment in their history.  Alternatively, you could argue that God had gotten fed-up with the inability of Jews and Christians to follow His instructions.  He had sent Muhammad to call back the whole world to the benefits and strictures of the faith he had granted first to the Hebrews.

Since then, Judaism and Christianity have divided between growing secular majorities and shrinking “fundamentalist” minorities.  Islam, however, has not followed the same path.  The Koran remains the unalterable Word of Allah.

“Every schoolboy knows” the term “a willing suspension of disbelief” when approaching a work of fiction.  What might make understanding between faiths easier would be a “willing suspension of his belief” on the part of the individual.[4]

[1] For a serious, accessible, and sympathetic portrayal of this belief system, see Brian Moore, Black Robe (1985).

[2] I suppose one could think of this as either bribery by the people or extortion by the gods.  Living now in a more secular age, it appears that politicians have become the new source of manna.  Reading the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal in parallel each day, I conjecture that Democrats believe in the bribery interpretation and Republican believe in the extortion interpretation.  But what do I know?

[3] If not of universal compliance.  That’s one of the things that makes Ancient History so much fun.

[4] I stole this from Eric Ormsby, “Allah: A Biography,” WSJ, 17 January 2019.