The Lafarge Affair.

If you read the papers, it is easy to get the idea that the post-WWII order is breaking down.[1]  However, elements of one era can live on, for a time at least, in a new era.[2]  One part of the post-war order took the form of multi-national corporations operating in the developing world.

What happens when civil war or terrorism breaks out in those countries?  Do companies abandon their often-substantial investments and call the insurance company?  Do they pull out their Western leadership staff and abandon their local employees to their fates?  Alternatively, should they stay and try to continue operating?  In many developing countries, both the regime in power and the opponents willing to take up arms against it are unsavory.  In peacetime, the government can hide a lot of its brutality and oppression.  Once war breaks out, both sides come out into the open with unchecked violence.  If the companies remain, what kind of adaptations might they have to make as war drags on?

As anyone who has read Nevil Shute’s Most Secret (1945) or just walked around Paris knows, the French have long been pioneers in the use of reinforced concrete for construction.  (They call it “beton.”)  Cement is a major component of concrete.[3]  Currently, Lafarge SA is a major force in the business.[4]   It made large investments in Syria before the civil war began in 2011.[5]

The initial stage of the war raised the troubling questions of “should I stay or should I go.”[6]  Lafarge decided to stay.  Then the initial war, the basis of the company’s calculations, went sideways.  In eastern Syria from 2013 to 2015, the Islamic State (ISIS) seized control of territory and proclaimed a caliphate.  (They also videotaped and posted to the internet the burning to death of a captured Jordanian pilot, among other indications of their mind-set.)  ISIS exploited all the economic resources available within its domain.  This included extorting Western companies, as well as selling oil and trafficking in non-iconic antiquities.

Mired in this situation, Lafarge may have made some questionable choices.  Lafarge allegedly paid ISIS and other groups $5 million to insure the safe passage of employees and goods through territory controlled by the caliphate.  Local managers pressed local employees to keep working while the security situation deteriorated.  Critics also cite “lax security” at the Lafarge properties.[7]

Confusing the effect with the cause, a French court has “indicted” Lafarge SA.

[1] And not just because Donald Trump got elected president.  Doesn’t matter what the daily edition of the New Republic (i.e. the New York Times) thinks.

[2] See, for a highly readable example, R. F. Arragon, The Transition from the Ancient to the Medieval World (1936).

[3] On the deeply fascinating subject of Portland cement, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portland_cement

[4] Liz Alderman, “France Indicts Cement Giant on Charge of Aiding Terror Groups in Syria,” NYT, 29 June 2018.

[5] If you look at news photographs of Syrian cities during the war, you will see that a huge market existed for concrete and cement before the war.  Commonly, one sees that artillery fire and aerial bombing blow out the front walls of apartment buildings.  The poured-concrete floors then fall downward like the pages of a book, rather than disintegrating or collapsing straight down.  The back walls and staircases serve as the hinge or binding.  So, the concrete appears to be generally of high quality to the eye of a non-expert.

[6] See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xMaE6toi4mk

[7] Without seeking to exculpate the company, it is fair to ask just how Lafarge could have provided adequate security against ISIS when the governments of Syria and Iraq could not defend themselves without foreign military aid.

Advertisements

Indonesian Islam.

Back in the day, Seymour Martin Lipset wrote The First New Nation: The United States in Historical and Comparative Perspective (1963).  Like most of Lipset’s work, it was about several things at once.  For one thing, it was about the United States as the first colonial territory to gain its independence from a colonial overlord.  Therefore, American could serve as a model for all the Asian and African countries recently or about-to-be liberated from European empires.  For another thing, it was about the related issue of how to create a stable democracy.  (That’s what most of the leaders of new nations said that they wanted, although the historical record now suggests other ambitions.[1])  According to Lipset democracy is intimately connected with economic growth: “[t]he more well-to-do a nation, the greater the chances that it will sustain democracy.”  This idea lay behind both the Marshall Plan to aid Western European economic recovery after the Second World War and the First Gulf War (1990-1991).[2]

Time hasn’t fully born out Lipset’s ideas–so far.  China, for example, is an increasingly prosperous autocracy.  In many Muslim countries, oligarchies have gobbled up national wealth, while the vast majority of people have little opportunity.  More importantly, religious belief can outweigh political theory.  It isn’t clear that the beliefs of Islam are compatible with Western conceptions of democracy.  Traditional Islam rejects any separation of church and state, it rejects law derived from legislatures rather than the Word of Allah, and it rejects the very idea of nation-states in favor of the “umma” of all Believers.[3]  Moreover, Islam is socially conservative in ways that Western liberals find repugnant.  Women’s rights and gay rights antagonize social conservatives.

Indonesia provides an interesting case.  It is the most populous Muslim country in the world.[4]  Piled on top of religious conservatism are hostilities related to ethnic or religious minorities.[5]  The very small share of people with Chinese ancestry play an out-sized role in the economy and have long been the target of Muslim hostility.  Women’s rights and gay rights have a salience in Muslim concerns because of Indonesia’s popularity with Western tourists.

Like Turkey, Indonesia has a democratic system.  Can democratic politics can be used to impose an Islamist agenda?  In 2002, Jemaah Islamiya—an Islamist group linked to Al Qaeda—killed 200 people in bomb attacks on the Indonesian island of Bali.  Repression followed.  Recently, however, there have been both a mass mobilization of Muslims against the Christian governor of Jakarta and renewed terrorist attacks.  There is also legislation pending to criminalize public display of affection by gay people.

Will Southeast Asia become the next front in the war against radical Islamism?

[1] A friend insists that there is a scene from one of Ionesco’s plays in which a character says “We will drink wine under the willow trees.  AND YOU WILL BE MY SLAVES!”  I haven’t been able to run it down.

[2] It was a war for oil prices and oil markets, not a war for oil companies.  The historically-minded men and women behind the war were aware that the 1970s “oil shocks” had pitched the world close to the edge of depression and that the Great Depression of the Thirties had been the principal cause of the Second World War.  They didn’t want that to happen again.

[3] We’ll probably hear complaints that the University of Michigan Museum of Art is a sign of creeping Islamization.

[4] Indonesia’s population is 270 million.   87.2 percent Muslim, 9.9 percent Christian, 1.7 percent Hindu, and 0.7 percent Buddhist and 0.2 percent Confucian.

[5] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Islamist Shift Unsettles Indonesia’s Democracy,” WSJ, 29 June 2018.

Ground Up in Iraq.

Iraq is a weak country that is being ground up in the struggles of other, stronger countries.  In 1979, the Iranian Revolution created an anti-American Shi’ite republic that soon was at daggers drawn with both the United States and with the Sunni monarchies on the Arabian peninsula.  Saddam Hussein attacked Iran.  His regime survived this misjudgment in large part because Saudi Arabia and Kuwait bankrolled Iraq’s war effort with loans.  When Saudi Arabia and Kuwait refused to forgive the debt—“they hired the money didn’t they?”—Hussein sent his army into Kuwait to exert pressure on the Saudis.  Much to Hussein’s discomfort, the Americans pounded his army to bits in the “Hundred Hours War.”  However, the George H. W. Bush administration pulled itself up short of invading the country, but Iran remained implacably hostile.  In 2003, the George W. Bush administration abandoned prudence.  The Americans invaded Iraq and overthrew Saddam Hussein.

Whatever—tyrannical—system for maintaining social cohesion created by Saddam Hussein fell with him after the American invasion in 2003.  Shi’te fell out with Sunni, and both fell out with the Americans.  Eventually, a kind of peace returned, the American left, and Iraq’s Shi’ite-dominated government went to oppressing the Sunni minority while stealing everything officials could get their hands on, from oil earnings to soldiers’ pay.

Meanwhile, civil war fractured Syria.  Iran offered its support to the Assad regime against the Sunni rebels.  Then ISIS invaded Iraq from its base in eastern Syria.  Many Iraqi Shi’ites turned to Iran for support, while the American shouldered their way back in, mostly by supporting Kurdish fighters in both Iraq and Syria.  The government of Haider al-Abadi leaned rather more away from Iran and toward the Saudis and the Americans.  The Obama administration—sensibly determined to slow Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and recognizing that the American people didn’t want to participate in another large war in the Middle East—refused to choose sides in the Sunni-Shi’ite split.  The Russians had no such obstacles: forged an alliance of convenience with Iran in order to aid their Syrian client, Assad.

Now ISIS is beaten.  People are looking around at the aftermath of the storm.  It is an ugly sight.  Recent elections toppled Abadi’s party from first place to third.[1]  The anti-Iranian and anti-American party of Moqtada al-Sadr came first, followed by an anti-American, pro-Iranian party.  Sadr quickly began plastering over these cracks by issuing emollient statements and forging a coalition with the anti-American, pro-Iranian second place finishers.  “We believe in setting up an Iraqi government in the way that protects Iraq from all regional and international conflicts, making it immune from the hostility between the U.S. and Iran, or between Iran and Saudi Arabia,” announced one Iraqi politician.  More than that, they profess to want to end the sharing-out of government ministries on a party basis.  This played a role in the patronage and corruption that undermined both public support for the government and economic progress.

This sounds like a good plan, if a very ambitious one.  It also would have sounded like a good plan in 2003 or 2012.  Have the minds of Iraqis changed enough to make it possible?  Beyond that, will Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United States be content to stand down from their own rivalries in Iraq?

[1] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Iraq Faces Diplomatic Balancing Act,” WSJ, 15 June 2018.

Turkey and the Kurds.

Turkey’s stance on the Syrian civil war has grown complicated.[1]  There are Kurds in Syria, in Iraq, and in Turkey.  Kurdish nationalism has threatened the territorial integrity of all three countries.[2]  If the Kurds can establish a Kurdish state in Syria and/or Iraq, then they will have a base for supporting rebellion by Kurds in Turkey.[3]  The civil war in Syria caused a collapse of authority by the Assad regime in many parts of the country.  Since 2012, in the northern part of the country, along the border with Turkey, Syrian Kurds established their power in a number of enclaves.  The first Kurdish troops joined up, at least in part, to oppose ISIS on its own demerits.

Then, in 2015, ISIS reared its ugly head as a threat to Iraq.  The army of Iraq collapsed.  Shi’ite militias, armed by Iran and led by Iranian generals, rose up to resist ISIS.  The United States sought to counter two enemies—ISIS and Iran, which were themselves enemies—by mobilizing Kurdish troops against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria.  The Americans tried to put a veneer of we’re-not-only-Kurds on this by recruiting some Arab fighters for what is called the Syrian Democratic Forces.  This hasn’t fooled anyone.

By mid-2016, Kurdish forces seemed intent on linking-up several of their enclaves along the border with Turkey.  In August 2016, the Turks launched a major attack on ISIS forces across the border to pre-empt a Kurdish conquest.  As the ISIS caliphate began to crumble, it became a matter of time until the Turks, Kurds, and Americans would have to decide on next steps.  In late January 2018, Turkey—an American ally in NATO—attacked Kurdish troops—American allies in Syria.

Meanwhile, Turkish-American relations have continued to sour.  Recep Tayyip Erdogan has led Turkey since 2003.  In July 2016, opponents of Erdogan tried to overthrow him in a coup.  They missed their punch.  Erdogan blames Fethullah Gulen for organizing the coup.  Gulen lives in the United States and the U.S. refuses to extradite him to Turkey.  In 2016, Erdogan began building links to Iran and Russia.

Sometimes, there aren’t good solutions to problems.  If you wanted someone to fight ISIS and if you didn’t want it to be only Iran and its Iraqi clients, then either the Kurds or the Turks were going to have to do it.  The Turks showed no interest in a major intervention.  That left the Kurds, with all the baggage that choice would carry.  Similarly, should the United States now choose Turkey or the Kurds?  Erdogan seems bound away from a Western orientation.  The Kurds have proved themselves valuable allies at a time when the Syrian civil war continues down an uncertain path.  Perhaps there is a way to compose the differences between Turkey and the Kurds, at least over the longer term.  Or perhaps not.  Won’t know until we try.

[1] Sewell Chan, “What’s Behind Turkey’s Attack on American-Allied Kurds in Syria,” NYT, 23 January 2018.

[2] The Assad family allowed one Turkish Kurdish leader to operate from Syria for a long time.

[3] This is the same reason that Israel will never accept the creation of a Palestinian state.  Doesn’t matter what commitments they may have made in earlier and different times.  For that matter, this is the same reason that there isn’t a Confederate States of America.  Before we start preaching to others.

Pakiban III.

Pakistan never wanted anything to do with the American war on the Taliban.  An ideological congruence existed between the Taliban and powerful elements in Pakistan.  An Islamist regime gave Pakistan strategic depth to its east against India.  Afghan Islamists had been valuable allies in the war against the Soviets.  Pashtun values have a powerful appeal for some kinds of people, even if they aren’t Pashtuns.[1]

On the other hand, after 9/11, Americans were hot under the collar.  Richard Armitage flew into Pakistan and made Pervez Musharraf an offer he couldn’t refuse.[2]  But neither Armitage nor Musharraf supposed that the Americans would still be in Afghanistan 17 years later.  They were going to invade the country, kill Osama bin Laden and his merry men, and leave.  Yet, here we still are, with no clear purpose except to avoid defeat.  In the meantime, Pakistan’s policy has turned back to its original pole-star.  Moreover, it has sought alternatives to being bullied by the Americans.[3]

Pakistan sees India as its essential enemy.  Pakistan blames India for the dismemberment of greater Pakistan in the successful secession of East Pakistan/Bangladesh.[4]  The Pakis believe that India has been supporting a secessionist movement in Baluchistan.  Paki leaders have, for a long time, suspected that India would exploit conditions in Afghanistan as a way to put pressure on Pakistan.  In particular, Afghanistan has long argued that the existing Afghan-Pakistan border needs to be revised.   To this end, Pakistan has pursued closer relations with both China and Iran.  Since 2017, Pakistan has been trying to patch up its relationship with Russia.

So long as the United States remains in Afghanistan, it is subject to pressure from Pakistan.  The chief supply routes to American forces there run through Pakistan.  To this end, the Obama administration and the early Trump administration tried to rein-in India in Afghanistan.  They hoped to conciliate Pakistan and win its support against the Taliban.  At the same time, the United States has poured in financial and military aid, while soft-pedalling concerns about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.  On the other hand, American troops and American drones have attacked Taliban forces in their Pakistani safe-havens.  This has enraged Pakistanis.  For example, in 2011, anti-American protests flashed across Pakistan.  These temporarily shut down supply routes to American forces in Afghanistan.

That approach has not worked.  In August 2017, the Trump administration called on India to do more in the fight in Afghanistan.  This guaranteed a bad reaction from Pakistan.

During the Clinton administration, the Taliban sheltered Al Qaeda from a combination of ideological congruence and Pashtun values.  The United States hesitated to attack Al Qaeda from a combination of prudence (not wanting to accidentally set off an Indo-Pakistan nuclear war) and incredulity (that a tiny movement could actually declare war on the United States, that the U.S. could kill the people responsible, and that Bill Clinton—a “dope-smoking draft dodger”–could be president).  While the Paki conditions still apply, none of the American ones do.  Get out.

[1] Compare https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3bmDhfEtNh0 with https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a16jACPxSig

[2] See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P1zcuYLRbq0

[3] Yarioslav Trofimov, “”Pakistan’s Fears Fuel Afghan War,” WSJ, 25 August, 2017

[4] There is a lot of self-delusion in this view.

CrISIS 10.

The United States invaded Iraq in 2003.  Almost immediately multiple insurgencies sprang up.  Then Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia (AQIM) appeared .to make things still worse by fomenting a brutal civil war between the Shi’ite majority and the Sunni minority.  Eventually, Iraqis and Americans came to their senses.  Together, they destroyed AQIM and killed its leader Zarkawi.  The few survivors of AQIM slunk away to neighboring Syria.  Here they found safety as it was a foreign country plunged into a civil war in which neither the Americans nor the Iraqis wanted to engage themselves.  The Syrian civil war radicalized some of its participants.  Some of these joined with the remnants of AQIM, which re-branded itself as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.  Eastern Syria is thinly populated in comparison with the western parts of the one-time country.  Government forces were stretched thin as well.  ISIS established its rule over the area.  From this base it invaded Iraq in 2014.  An Iraqi army rotted by corruption and sectarianism in the years after the Americans had withdrawn collapsed.  ISIS proclaimed a “caliphate.”

It was not to be, not for very long anyway.  ISIS fielded highly-motivated irregular soldiers without heavy weapons.  They could win where they were out against weak and distracted armies like those of Syria or Iraq.  They could never prevail against well-armed conventional forces like those of Turkey or Iran (or Israel if they made too much progress in that direction).  Iran sent military advisers and “volunteers” to help direct the Shi’ite militias, and called in Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon.  The Americans re-entered the fray with Special Forces.  More importantly, they mobilized the Kurds against ISIS.

Now ISIS has been effectively destroyed in both Iraq and Syria.  However, if ISIS is defeated, “ISISism” is not.[1]  During its brief run of successes, ISIS won the loyalty of other radical Islamist groups in places as far apart as West Africa, Afghanistan, and Indonesia.  The dame factors that attracted Islamist volunteers from all over to Syria and Iraq still seem to draw new volunteers to the new hot spots.  Then there is the potential for “lone wolf” attacks.

In May 2018, several families (with children in tow) attacked churches in Surabaya, Indonesia, while a young Chechen ran amok with a knife in Paris.  The ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan has been launching attacks on civilians, rather than concentrating on military or government targets.  Four American soldiers were killed in a fire-fight with Islamists in Niger.

Is an organizational or institutional approach to this problem really helpful?  Before there was ISIS, there was Al Qaeda.  Before there was Al Qaeda there were the “Arab Afghans” who went to fight the Soviets.  There are subtle variations in radical Islamist ideology and there are ambitious, unhinged men eager to claim the mantle of leadership.

What seems to matter most is not the particular group or leader.  Rather, it is vital to understand and address the basic conditions that turn a relatively small number of people into serious problems.  For the sake of discussion, consider whether one source for the adherents of radical Islamism are the awful failed governments and societies across much of the developing world.  For the sake of further discussion, consider whether it is in just such places that the radicals have the best hope of operating.  Eventually, both questions lead to Pakistan—and its nukes.

[1] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Faraway ISIS Branches Grow as Group Fades in Syria, Iraq,” WSJ, 18 May 2018.

My Weekly Reader 21 May 2018.

It can be difficult even for diplomats and foreign policy scholars to know a foreign country.  The Soviet Union long constituted a black box to outsiders.  Censorship, propaganda, and tight police surveillance of foreigners and their Soviet contacts kept Westerners from the fuller understanding that can be achieved of an open society.  If that was true of a great power in a long period of international confrontation, it can also be true of minor states on the outer periphery of world affairs.

Take the case of Libya.  The resources needed to foster an understanding of any foreign society are—in economic terms—“scarce.”  To understand Libya, it would take learning Arabic.  There aren’t a lot of people with the ability and commitment to do this.  It would take living in the country for an extended period to develop a sense of the society.  There aren’t many people with a reason to do so: oil industry people, diplomats, journalists, and the occasional academic.  One could try to develop human contacts in such a way as to not get them killed by the regime.  That last is a matter of personality and training.

Would it even be worth the trouble?  The United States had—and has—little reason to invest scarce resources in what amount to backwaters.[1]  Libya is a geographically large country made up mostly of desert.  Only six million people live there, many of them semi-nomadic tribesmen.  It has abundant oil and natural gas reserves, but so do many other places in the Arab region.  Saudi Arabia and Egypt rank much higher than does Libya.  Then, there’s the whole Israel versus the Palestinians engouement.  Since 2003, Iraq has occupied a central place for many specialists.  All of these soaked up the attention and scarce human resources of the American foreign policy establishment.  Americans largely depended upon the expertise of other countries with a reason to care more deeply about Libya.  Chiefly this means France, whose former colonies and current pawns surround Libya, and Italy, once the colonial ruler and now just a boat-ride away from a place teeming with people who don’t want to stay there.

Occasionally, however, Libya intruded upon American attention.  From 1969 onward, Libya had been ruled by a savage dictator, Muammar Qaddafi.  In the 1980s, his malevolence got the better of his self-control.  He had meddled in a civil war in Chad; he had sponsored murderous international terrorism in the West; and he had tried to acquire nuclear weapons.  All of these initiatives had gotten Libya a series of bloody noses, with the promise of worse to come.  At this point, Qaddafi’s self-control got the better of his—international—malevolence.  He went back to persecuting his own people and left other people alone.  Libya fell off the radar screen.

Then, came the “Arab Spring”[2] of 2011.  In January 2011, anti-government protests began in Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria.  In February 2011 they broke out in the eastern Libyan port-city of Benghazi.  Quaddafi vowed to drown the rebels in their own blood.[3]  “Humanitarian intervention” soon followed.  The governments of Britain and France outraged by the prospect of a massacre of “people everywhere [who] just want to be free,” wanted military intervention to protect Benghazi.  They didn’t want to send troops and they didn’t have the airborne command and control systems, or targeting drones, or air refueling capacity to make air-strikes work too well.  So they dragged on the United States to do its bit.[4]  Next thing you know, not only have the government forces headed for Benghazi been bombed to smithereens, but the Quaddafi government has been bombed out of existence.

This “success” had untoward consequences.[5]  Western experts believed that Libya had a good chance at a peaceful transition to a democratish state.  However, one now-experienced observer of Middle Eastern affairs has remarked that “the terrible men who ruled the countries of the Arab world had destroyed almost everything that might hold their societies together without them.”[6]  That proved about right—in Iraq, in Egypt, in Syria, and in Libya.  Libya came apart like a leper in a hot-tub.[7]  Islamists fought secularists, the long-suppressed regions fought each other, and gangs of criminals seized what they could.  After this failure of yet another Rodney King moment, the French, the British, and the Americans quickly threw up their hands in disgust.  One American official later characterized the change in attitude as “the hell with it.”  “Humanitarian intervention” soon ended.[8]

Other foreign powers did not.  They intervened to pursue their own interests.[9]  The criminals in coastal towns went into the migrant-export business, deluging Italy with desperately poor people who had used the Trans-African highway system[10] to reach Libya.  The flood of unwanted immigrants contributed to, but isn’t the only cause of, the rise of “populist” parties in Europe.

Could any of this have been foreseen?  Probably not, given the relative ignorance of Libyan conditions.  Still, there doesn’t seem to have been any worst-case analysis on the part of proponents of humanitarian intervention, nor any reflection on how far their own countries would be willing to go if conditions went South in a hurry.  But this is an old story.  “In his experience, premonitions of disaster were almost invariably proved false, and the road to Calvary entered on with the very lightest of hearts.”[11]

[1] The same went for Afghanistan and almost anywhere in Africa.

[2] The term alarmed many historians.  It made them think of the “Springtime of the Peoples” in the Revolutions of 1848-1849 in Europe.  These revolutions carried all before them for a time.  Then the revolutionaries, coalitions of people united only by what they were against—the current regime—fell out over what they were for.  The old guard regained control.  Firing squads, cavalry arriving in villages with coils of rope around every saddle horn, dungeons, and clipper ships packed with emigrants to America followed.  However, History is a college major in steep decline.  It offers only entertainment and the vicarious experience subjected to rational analysis that might lead one to not do something spectacularly stupid later in life.  Apparently there is no market for it.  “Viddy well little brother.”

[3] OK, that’s a cliché.

[4] Reportedly, the American military and intelligence chiefs were opposed to this intervention.  They had more wars—in Afghanistan and Iraq—than they could conveniently handle.

[5] See: “The Shores of Tripoli” and “The Hacked Election.”

[6] Dexter Filkins, New York Times Book Review, 20 May 2018, p. 24.

[7] Same as did Syria.

[8] Apparently governmental humanitarianism has a much shorter half-life than does NGO humanitarianism.

[9] Two things here.  First, Qatar supported the Islamists, Egypt and Russia supported the not-so-Islamists.  Same as in Syria.  Second, one aspect of America’s post-Cold War “triumphalism” has been the belief that other countries don’t have a right to their own foreign policy.  It should come as no surprise—although apparently it does in Washington—that other countries disagree.

[10] It’s not the American interstate system.  Still, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trans-African_Highway_network

[11] Pat Barker, Regeneration.  I forget the page number.