The once great Ottoman Empire went into a prolonged decline.  Rulers of peripheral territories attempted to make themselves functionally independent.  The most successful of these hustlers was Muhammad Ali, nominally the governor of Egypt.[1]  Among his other ventures, he launched an Egyptian conquest of the neighboring Muslim states south along the Nile.  That territory is called Sudan.  After his death, this “khedivate” went into decline, the British occupied Egypt to safeguard their own interest in the Suez Canal,[2] and an Islamist rebellion in Sudan got out of hand (from the Anglo-Egyptian perspective).[3]  Afterward, things cooked along very unhappily until Britain’s retreat from empire after the Second World War.  Over Egyptian protests, Sudan got its independence in 1956. 

            Independent Sudan has not had a happy history.  For one thing, hardly anyone had any notion of “democracy.”  There have been half a dozen military coups d’etat, but the reality is that two dictators ruled the country, one from 1969 to 1985 and the other from 1989 to 2019.  Army officers have entrenched themselves as the key government institution, raking in wealth along the way.  They aren’t much inclined to surrender their advantages.  Under external pressure they have been willing to make occasional cosmetic gestures toward a “democratic transition.” 

For another thing, British rule had papered over the conflicts between Arabs and non-Arabs, Muslims and non-Muslims, Arab Muslims dominated the North, non-Arabs occupied the western territory of Darfur, and the South is peopled by Christians and Animists.  Between 1955 and 1972, and then again between 1983 and 2005, civil war pitted North against South.  Overlapping this struggle, between 2004 and—to be honest—the present, the Khartoum government has waged war in the western territory of Darfur.  The North-South war ended with the creation of the new country of South Sudan in 2011.  Both conflicts were deadly in an extreme.  Huge numbers of refugees fled the conflict. 

Under very heavy pressure, the Muslim military leaders agreed to surrender territory to rebels as part of “peace processes.”  As is the case with “democratic transition,” the soldiers don’ttake these commitments seriously over the long run.  In both cases, they are just waiting for some other crisis in some other far-away place to divert the attention of foreign meddlers. 

At the end of 2018, an internal economic crisis led to huge demonstrations in the streets of Khartoum.  In April 2019, the soldiers tossed overboard the long-ruling dictator, Omar al-Bashir; in Summer 2019, they struck a deal with civilian opponents of the government.  Since then, Western governments, especially the United States, have been supporting a democratic transition.  Earlier in April 2023, two different factions of the soldiers fell out over who would actually rule. 

Is “Democracy” something that can be established in any culture?[4] The answer to that question rests with the choices of the “men with guns.”  Whether Washington likes it or not. 

[1] On this fascinating, complicated man, see: Muhammad Ali Pasha – Wikipedia 

[2] On their other activities, see: The Perils of Adventure 2 | waroftheworldblog 

[3] The movie “Khartoum” (dir. Basil Dearden, 1966) manages to make the whole thing dull.  The several versions of “The Four Feathers: (dir. Zoltan Korda, 1939; dir. Shekhar Kapur, 2002) are rather better movies without throwing more light on the subject.  See Rudyard Kipling, “Fuzzy Wuzzy.”  Fuzzy-Wuzzy by Rudyard Kipling (

[4] Walter Russell Mead, “In Sudan, Another ‘Democracy’ Push Fails,” WSJ, 25 April 2023, is seething. 


            Victory in the Cold War left the United States as the sole remaining superpower.  The Western-led open world economy spread into much of the rest of the world.  Western countries claimed their peace dividend by reducing defense spending.  Yet not all were happy with the outcome.  Expanded international economic integration disrupted established industries in Western countries, even as they raised hundreds of millions of people elsewhere out of abject poverty.  Social division strained democratic politics, especially in the United States.  China, Russia, and Islamic radicals declined to be chained to the chariot of American-led “progress.”  They and others sought to increase their own power. 

Until recently, in these efforts they mostly had to contend with the rhetorical disdain of the West.  The leader of the pack, the United States, began to play a less influential role.  In large measure, this change in role can be blamed on the disastrous invasion of Iraq.  The decision to proceed with a “coalition of the willing,” rather than paying attention to what important international partners said by their refusal to participate; the gruesome civil war that the American invasion made possible; and the repercussions throughout the Middle East of the flunked war both diverted American attention from real issues and left the American people disgusted with international relations.  President Donald Trump’s then well-founded disdain for the Continental European allies, his hostility to Iranian adventurism, and his determination to coerce China alarmed both America’s foreign policy elite and many foreign leaders.  From both these adventures, the United States ended up in a very different place than had been the case at the end of the Cold War. 

            Now many in the West are truly alarmed.  In the absence of reliable American leadership, some of the traditional allies are “tightening their relations with the U.S., increasing their defense spending, and intensifying efforts to strengthen the network of alliances that underpin the world order.”[1]  What they are doing, really, is waiting to see if the Americans are going to shake it off and come back to the center of the ring for the next round. 

            What if the Americans don’t shake it off?  What if other countries value the American-created and American-led world order more highly than do the Americans themselves?  In that case, many countries will find themselves confronting a loose and temporary, but momentarily potent, coalition of predators.[2]  What then?  The Serpent Prince of Saudi Arabia seems to think that the question already has been answered.  President Joe Biden has failed to come up with any suitable response to Iran, so Saudi Arabia has been open to Xi Jinping mediating a truce for the moment in the Iran-Saudi Arabia conflict, while also exerting pressure on the world oil market.[3]  He’s an early adopter of the post-American world.  Lots of people are not yet ready to make that jump, and don’t want that jump to become necessary.  Nevertheless, they are watching to see how it shakes out. 

            At the heart of this dilemma is a more fundamental question.  Is American weakness on the international scene only perceived or is it real?  Only Americans can answer that question. 

[1] Walter Russell Mead, “America Shrugs, and the World Makes Plans,” WSJ, 28 March 2023.

[2] For a historian, there are inescapable questions about parallels to the period between the two World Wars.  Analogical thinking can be dangerous.  You have to pick the right analogy, not just the one at hand. 

[3] Which doesn’t do any good for any democratic politician in any country. 

Franco Still Dead.

            Back in the day, “Saturday Night Live” had a long-running gag about a news anchor reporting that “Spanish dictator Francisco Franco is still dead.”  Wasn’t funny then (unless you were high) and it’s meaningless now.  The reference offers the chance to think about an important issue.  Is the chief objective of American foreign policy to defend American democracy or to create a democratic world? 

            In a straight fight between two countries, allies don’t matter.  The wars of the 20th Century spread far outside such boundaries.  They were most commonly wars of coalitions: the First World War (1914-1918), the Second World War (1939-1945), and the Cold War (1945-1990).  An entire century convulsed over issues of national independence, representative government, and human rights.  In the end, the champions of democracy triumphed over the champions of authoritarianism. 

            Yet it wasn’t that simple.  In the First World War, the parliamentary governments of France and Britain made common cause with Russian autocracy and the Italian and Japanese monarchies.  In the Second World War, the United States and Britain joined with the Soviet Union and Kuomintang China to form a “Grand Alliance.”  During the Cold War, America’s allies included some very undemocratic countries: Greece under occasional dictatorships, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran for a time, South Vietnam, and many African and Latin American countries.  The reasons for these alliances were pragmatic: America needed allies, but many countries were not democratic.[1] 

            Now the Biden Administration is being criticized for taking a more puritanical view.[2]  President Joe Biden talks a lot about a global struggle between democracy and authoritarianism.  Well, the democracy is all on one side in the twilight struggles with China and Russia, but there’s authoritarianism on both sides.  The catalogue of authoritarian states not aligned with Russia or China is long: in Africa there are Angola, Nigeria, and Ethiopia; in Southeast Asia there are Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Myanmar; in South Asia there are India, Indonesia, Malaya, and Sri Lanka; and in Central Asia and the Middle East there are a host of unfree countries. 

            Is democratic government a natural and inevitable stage of social, political, and economic development?  If it is, then it can be held back for a time by a dictator or monarch, but it also can be swiftly brought into being by toppling the dictator, provided the country is sufficiently “developed.”[3]  Or is each country or civilization the unique product of historical developments in government and culture?  If it is, then democratic countries will have to tolerate diversity and practice inclusiveness while seeking common ground in shared real interests.  Failing that, a country could wall off sin by aligning with and trading with only real democracies. 

            Conservative “realist” critics of the Biden foreign policy see it pushing an advanced and extended one-size-fits-all view of Democracy.  This alarms or alienates potential allies whose real interest lies in countering the rise of Russian and Chinese power.  Many observers can’t help but notice current American weakness.  So, the old plan may be the best plan. 

[1] “If Hitler invaded Hell, I would at least find a few kind words to say about the Devil.”—Winston Churchill. 

[2] Walter Russell Mead, “The Cost of Biden’s ‘Democracy’ Fixation,” WSJ, 4 April 2023. 

[3] As in Iraq in 2003. 

Where we are with Iran.

            The radioactive isotope U-235 can be “enriched” to higher levels of purity by the use of special centrifuges.[1] Enriched to low levels (3.67 percent), U-235 can be used as fuel for nuclear power plants.  Enriched to very high levels (90 percent), U-235 can become the basis for a nuclear weapon.  Enrichment is a slow business in the early stages, but each successive step becomes much faster from higher levels of purity.  According to one expert, it might take a month to enrich U-235 from 20 percent to 60 percent, then a week to go from 60 percent to 90 percent.  However, more centrifuges are required to achieve each higher level of purity.[2] 

            The development of nuclear material is one step.  The development of the technology of making an actual weapon, and the development of ballistic missiles are additional steps.  There is nothing to say that these steps have to be done sequentially, rather than in parallel.    

            Iran had developed a large infrastructure of uranium-enriching centrifuges, along with other elements of nuclear weapons development.  Alarmed, the international community imposed increasingly severe economic sanctions on Iran.  Eventually, the Iranian government agreed to negotiate. 

            The 2015 international agreement limited Iran to possessing 660 pounds of U-235 enriched to 3.67 percent and required the shut-down of many of its centrifuges.  In return, Iran won removal of some—but not all—of the international economic sanctions.  Many other issues regarding Iran’s foreign and military policy were set aside for further negotiations.  Many economic sanctions were retained as leverage for these proposed future talks. 

            President Donald Trump soon abandoned the 2015 agreement and plastered Iran with sanctions.  Iran then began moving away from compliance with the 2015 agreement.[3]  Iran increased its supply of U-235 that had been enriched to 3.67 percent; enriched some of its U-235 to 20 percent; restarted some its centrifuges; and blocked international inspectors from some of their agreed work.  According to a February 2021 report from the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran now possesses ten times the amount of enriched U-235 allowed under the agreement.  If processed into weapons-grade material, that would be enough for three nuclear weapons.  In addition, Iran has “largely ignored” an agreement on missiles and has allowed an agreement to expire that permits the security cameras to view Iran’s nuclear fuel.[4] 

            There are several ways of interpreting the series of measures taken by Iran.  One way is to see it as slicing the salami, seeing exactly what it can get away with without provoking an attack.  Another way is to see it as a slow ratcheting up of pressure to both force a revival of the 2015 agreement and to improve Iran’s position in negotiations. 

            In the nature of the production process, holding down both the amount of enriched U-235 and the number of centrifuges are key.  In mid-April 2021, Israel caused a major “mishap” at the centrifuge facility at Natanz.  Perhaps several thousand centrifuges were destroyed. 

[1] Rick Gladstone, William J. Broad, and Michael Crowley, “Iran Says It Won’t Make Bombs, But It May Be Inching Closer,” NYT, 18 April 2021. 

[2] Thus it would take 500 centrifuges to move from 20 percent enrichment to 60 percent enrichment, and 600 centrifuges to move from 60 percent to 90 percent enrichment. 

[3] As American bombing in Vietnam showed, this latter strategy doesn’t always work.

[4] David E. Sanger, “On Iran, Biden Walks a Tightrope Between Force and Diplomacy,” NYT, 29 June 2021. 

The Iran Problem.

            For decades, Shi’ite Iran pursued nuclear weapons, developed ballistic missiles, and supported terrorists around the Middle East as proxies in its war with Sunni Muslims.  With the American people clearly wary of any new war in the Middle East, President Barack Obama’s administration negotiated a multi-national agreement with Iran on part of these issues.  In return for relief from some of the painful international economic sanctions, Iran agreed to limits on its nuclear weapons development program for a limited time.[1]  President Donald Trump unilaterally abandoned the agreement.[2]  Both Iran and the Democrats bitterly criticized Trump’s action.  The election of President Joe Biden, then, seemed to promise a ready return to the agreement by both parties.  Nevertheless, difficulties arose in completing this restoration.[3] 

            For one thing, Iran’s government now wants more than it got from the Obama administration.  It wants more sanctions relief to allow it access to international financial services.  It wants to keep the nuclear-fuel production capacity it built up after President Trump abandoned the agreement.  To increase pressure on the Americans, it announced that it would raise the cap on enriching uranium from 3.67 percent to 60 percent, cutting the time needed to produce nuclear weapons if talks broke down. 

            For another thing, the United States government now wants more than it got from the Obama administration.  It wants immediate agreement to limits on Iran’s ballistic missiles and its support for proxy terrorism.  Furthermore, the United States wants to push out the duration of the agreement to prevent Iran from building a weapon for much longer than the original agreement.[4] 

            For yet another thing, Israel sees Iran’s government as a deadly enemy.  It sees the nuclear weapons program, the ballistic missiles, and the regime’s constant denunciations of Israel as warnings of a new Holocaust.  Israel has done everything it can—short of a bombing campaign conducted in co-operation with a nearly-as-skittish Saudi Arabia—to slow down Iran’s weapons programs.  Israeli intelligence purports to believe that Iran is much closer to making a weapon than do Americans.  The Israelis disliked the original deal, will really dislike any softer deal, and may see a no-deal as lighting a fuse. 

            The Iranian regime that negotiated the agreement with the Obama administration[5] has passed its sell-by date.  The Biden administration’s negotiations  took place under the shadow of a looming Iranian election likely to be won by “hard-liners”[6] who had criticized the original agreement.  In fact, this is what happened.  In contrast, the recent Israeli elections changed nothing except the prime minister. 

[1] I supported the agreement then and support it now.  That doesn’t mean that the critics of the agreement didn’t have valid points.  It’s just a case of “half a loaf is better than none” when the alternative is to start bombing. 

[2] His administration either re-imposed or created new sanctions for a total of 1,500. 

[3] Steven Erlanger and David E. Sanger, “Two Nations Divided By a Common Goal,” NYT, 10 May 2021. 

[4] Since these seem to have been the major Republican complaints about the original agreement, it would appear that we are actually experiencing Donald Trump’s second term, just without the egregious personal behavior.  See also: China policy, North Korea policy, Afghanistan policy, illegal immigration policy. 

[5] President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. 

[6] “Hard liners” is a term from the Soviet-American Cold War.  American observers often conjectured that a struggle took place within the Kremlin between “hard-liners” and “soft-liners” or “moderates.”  For a time, British diplomats applied the same sort of analysis to understanding the pre-war Nazi regime.  At least in the latter case, the distinction between “hard-liners” and “moderates” was purely wishful thinking.  Probably an example of projection.