What would Bismarck drive? 3.

ISIS looks like a coalition of old Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia survivors, Iraqi Ba’athists, and conservative Syrian Sunni rebels against the Assad government. If ISIS wins in western Iraq and eastern Syria and establishes a caliphate, what will happen to that coalition? Will the coalition hold together in happier times once external dangers are reduced? Or will “hunting season” open as the members pursue disparate goals?[1]

If you look at this over the long-run, working to strengthen good governance and economic development around the world is a good idea. The Islamist movements and the refugees seeking to break into Europe (and the US for that matter) are fleeing stagnant economies, misgovernment, and often violence.[2] “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Alas, I’m not sure that we know how to do this—aside from empires.

The Iraq War was a disaster.[3] As a result, Americans don’t want another real war at the moment. It would take a real war to slow down Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons by any significant amount of time. It would take conquest and occupation to stop it entirely.[4] So, the odds are that President Obama’s pursuit of an agreement with Iran to delay that country’s acquisition of nuclear weapons by some indefinite, but shorter, period is about the best that we can hope for.

However, confessing that we don’t want to do anything serious about Iran estranges us from Israel and Saudi Arabia. A nuclear Iran appears to both Israel and Saudi Arabia as a grave security threat. One of these days, the two countries may decide that Allah/Yahwey helps those who help themselves.[5] Perhaps the key decisions will be made in Jerusalem. Israel and Saudi Arabia have a community of interest in doing something about Iran’s nuclear program. The Saudis probably could not manage a pre-emptive attack on their own. The Saudis probably could not manage to fend-off an angry American reaction on their own. In both cases, a tacit alliance with Israel would be very valuable. On the other hand, Israel and Iran have a community of interest in doing something about ISIS, while Saudi Arabia has not made much of an effort against ISIS because it is beating up on Iranian clients in Iraq and Syria. It is difficult to imagine Israel working a deal with Iran over ISIS if it meant tolerating Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons. It is easier to imagine Saudi Arabia turning on ISIS as part of a deal with Israel. The thing all the decision-makers—in Riyadh, Jerusalem, Tehran, and Washington—are bearing in mind is that any attack on Iran’s nuclear program will start a bigger war in the Middle East, rather than end the current ones. So, perhaps cooler heads will prevail. Perhaps there will be a grand bargain instead of Armageddon. An American presidential campaign in which a host of Republican hopefuls appear to have been recruited from clown college and the anointed Democratic candidate once voted for the Iraq War just to appear tough enough to be president doesn’t inspire confidence.

[1] See: Gordon Craig, Problems of coalition warfare: The military alliance against Napoleon, 1813-1814 (Colorado Springs: U.S. Air Force Academy, 1966); Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War, vol. 6: Triumph and Tragedy. .

[2] It appears that the long drop in homicide rates in most American cities has been problematic for local television news stations. Perhaps they should just keep news crews in some place like South Sudan.

[3] In a few years, someone is going to add a chapter to one of those What If? books that explores “counter-factual history.”   My own version runs something like the following. Saddam Hussein was 66 when he was overthrown by the coalition of “the all-too-willing”; he had a bad back, but was afraid to have surgery because it would involve general anesthetic and something might happen; his sons were violent morons who were unlikely to be able to either share or hold power after the eventual death of their father; Iraq had attacked Iran in 1980 and the Iranians were—and are—eager for pay-back; the Shi’ite majority and the Kurds were eager to chart their own course, if only the Sunni minority would get their boot off the necks of the vast majority of Iraqis; and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia (the ancestor of ISIS) was operating in Syria from about 2002. So, even without the invasion, things might have shaken-out pretty much as they did. Only, we wouldn’t have our finger-prints all over the rubble. See: Richard K. Betts and Samuel P. Huntington, “Dead Dictators and Rioting Mobs: Does the Demise of Authoritarian Rulers Lead to Political Instability?”, International Security, Vol. 10, #3 (Winter 1985-1986), pp. 112-146.

[4] Perhaps we could partition the place with Russia? See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anglo-Soviet_invasion_of_Iran

[5] One of the ways to think about Saudi Arabian intervention in the Yemen civil war is as an opportunity to give their soldiers and flyers some combat experience before, you know…..

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What would Bismarck drive? 2.

Israel (and therefore the United States) is going to have to decide some things pretty soon.[1] First, would Israel rather have a whole Syria under Assad (weakened for a long time by its terrible civil war) or would it rather have a Syria partitioned between a mini-state headed by Assad and the rest of Syria run by ISIS? Second, is there anything that Israel can do to shape the outcome? I don’t know. Israeli intervention might bring down on the head of Israel all sorts of hostility from the Arabs, just because. The governments of Jordan, Syria, and Egypt probably wouldn’t object to Israel beating up on ISIS. How would Saudi Arabia view such action? Then, there is the tension in many Arab countries between “the Street” and “the Palace.” How would ordinary people respond to Israeli attacks, regardless of how sensible those attacks might seem to the rulers?

What will happen inside the Cauldron? ISIS can (but may not) tear apart the carcasses of Iraq and Syria. Then its advance slams up against both strong states (Turkey, Iran, Jordan, Israel) and hard cores of enemy peoples with their back to the wall (Kurds, Shi’ite Iraqis, Alawite and Christian Syrians). At this point, the going will get a lot tougher. Will ISIS pause to regroup or will it attempt to maintain the momentum? I don’t know. They’re a bunch of fanatics. They might try to topple a bunch of other governments. On the other hand, the original armed expansion of Islam came in stages. Maybe that analogy will authorize ISIS to pause to consolidate its base in preparation for a renewed advance. If ISIS does pause to consolidate its base, it isn’t going to have a lot with which to work. The caliphate will consist of landlocked desert without much oil. Most of the world will be hostile toward the caliphate. Still, in their own particular way, they’re “Goo-Goos.”[2] Perhaps they’ll find a way.

If ISIS can’t swamp the surrounding strong governments, does that mean it can’t do any harm? That’s hard to tell. Governments find it useful as a heuristic device to link every new outburst to some earlier example. Start listening to the newspeople on the Devil Box, count how often they refer to an “Al Qaeda-affiliated” or “ISIS affiliated” something or other. On the other hand, radical Islam has a wide appeal in certain geographic and psychological realms. (See: The Islamic Brigades I, II.) So it is hard for me to tell what ISIS or Al Qaeda really controls. What does seem clear is that Islamist uprisings will continue to occur and that “foreign fighters” will continue to flow toward where the fighting is taking place. Libya, northern Nigeria, and Mali already have their share of troubles. Cameroun, Niger, and Chad are feeling the effects. Tunisia is a small place with limited ability to defend itself. Algeria survived one bloody civil war between secularists and Islamists: it could flare up again. (If that happens, the fleets of refugees crammed on fishing boats will be headed for Marseilles instead of Sicily. See: The owl and the pussycat I, II.) Whatever the formal links between ISIS and the Islamist movements in these countries, ISIS will do whatever it can to support them. Pretty much on the principle of setting fire to a neighbor’s barn so that they themselves can sleep better at night.

[1] One of those things is NOT the creation of a Palestinian state. There isn’t going to be one. The current version of Fatah is a spent force. There is no way that Israel will agree to put a Hamas-controlled government endowed with all the trappings of national sovereignty in charge of the West Bank. No Arab government has ever shown a real concern for the fate of the Palestinians. If Egypt and Jordan, for example, had wanted a Palestinian state, they could have created one on the West Bank and Gaza when they controlled thos territories between 1948 and 1967.

[2] “Goo-Goos”: derisive late 19th Century American reference to “Good Government” reformers who preceded the Populists.

What would Bismarck drive? 1.

Why hasn’t ISIS attacked Jordan? First, Jordan isn’t a failed state as are Syria and Iraq. It has an army and an air force and a BYK.[1] They will fight. Second, if ISIS heads too far west, then ISrael will get into it. That won’t be calibrated airstrikes and under-motivated conscripts either.[2] Third, ISIS is still busy in Syria and Iraq.

Why hasn’t ISIS attacked Turkey? First, Turkey isn’t a failed state as are Syria and Iraq. It has an army and an air force and an SPI.[3] They will fight. Second, the Turks are Sunni Muslims, and Turkey is the conduit for foreign fighters. Third, ISIS is still busy in Syria and Iraq.

Can the government of Iraq reconcile the Shi’a majority with the Sunni minority? No. The Shi’ites had their chance when the Americans left. They threw it away by persecuting the Sunnis. Now, in a moment of great danger, the Shi’ites want to make nice with the Sunnis. You can see how the Sunnis would be suspicious. What happens when the crisis passes? Back to the previous behavior? Furthermore, it isn’t clear to me that the government put in place after the United States overthrew the Maliki government last Fall are doing more than putting up window-dressing to pacify the Americans.[4] So, I suspect that the country will have to be partitioned.

Can ISIS conquer Iraq? No. Two thirds of the population are Shi’ites; twenty percent are Sunnis; and the rest are Kurds. The Kurds will fight and the United States will support them. Iraq’s Shi’ite majority would not have anywhere to run. Their backs would be against the wall. The civil war in Iraq during the American occupation showed that the Shi’ites are capable of great violence. They would fight hard—even savagely—against ISIS. Iran will commit troops to prevent the fall of the Shi’ite parts of Iraq to ISIS. The Sunnis areas? Well, that’s another story. Perhaps Iran would be content to have Kurdish and Shi’ite Arab buffer states between itself and an ISIS caliphate. How would the United States regard this outcome? “Another fine mess.”[5]

Can ISIS conquer Syria? Well, that’s yet another story. Years of very destructive civil war have ravaged the country. This has eroded the strength of the Assad government in ways that are not yet true of the government of Iraq. Recep Erdogan, the president of neighboring Turkey, wants the Assad government gone. Saudi Arabia wants the Assad government gone. The Russkies and the Iranians want Assad to stay. My suspicion is that nobody will get all of what they want. Like Iraq, the country will have to be partitioned. I believe that most of the Alawite and Christian populations live in the west of the country. Like the Shi’ites in Iraq, they will have their backs to the wall (in this case, the Mediterranean) as ISIS advances. They will fight hard to hold it, while being ready to yield the rest of the country to ISIS. A revived Medieval Principality of Antioch could emerge to abut Lebanon. (Or perhaps the two will merge.) Between Hezbollah in Lebanon and Assad in “Antioch,” Iran would have a couple of client states on the Mediterranean. On the other hand, such a retreat by Assad would bring ISIS that much closer to Israel.

[1] Brave Young King.

[2] See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atomic_bombings_of_Hiroshima_and_Nagasaki#/media/File:Atomic_bombing_of_Japan.jpg

[3] Semi-Psychotic Islamist, as President.

[4] See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ngo_Dinh_Diem

[5] See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W3qcj2MzPYc

CrISIS 2.

In a review-essay in the Wall Street Journal, James Traub makes a number of important points about the Islamic State.[1]

Al Qaeda Classic misunderstood the appeal of ISIS just as much as did Western observers. Western powers at least had the excuse that they were busy with many things and on many fronts. Al Qaeda had much easier contact, but still under-estimated its rival.

Americans have debated whether “nation-building” is possible in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Billions of dollars already have been lavished on the effort in both countries, yet it would be hard to claim that the effort has been a success. However, ISIS appears to demonstrate that it is possible, and on a shoe-string budget compared to what Americans have spent. Recent reports have suggested that ISIS has begun to encounter al sorts of problems, so they may be presiding over the start of a “nation un-building.” Even that will not solve the problem of nation-building however. Can there be an effective alternative approach formulated by the West?

Former Baath Party members have been venting their rage at the Americans for more than a decade, often in alliance with radical Islamists like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and now Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. How long can this alliance between the former supporters of a secular regime and religious extremists survive? By their excesses, the jihadists once drove many Sunnis into alliance with the Americans and—tacitly—with the Shi’ites. Subsequently, the Shi’ites returned to a policy of persecuting the Sunnis. Nouri al-Maliki gets the blame for this in American media, but the reality is that he had wide support among Shi’ites. This makes it difficult to imagine that the Sunnis will readily abandon the Islamists. So long as it is directed against Shi’ites and Americans, the alliance ought to be able to paper over any other divisions. At least neither party will abandon the alliance until after victory has been won.

The Saudis and their Gulf clients see the struggle in Iraq as part of a larger confrontation between Sunnis and Shi’a Islam that has been going on for a long time. The rift has been open for centuries, but it has been particularly acute since the Iranian Revolution toppled the shah. Defeating ISIS so that the Shi’ite majority in Iraq can sleep better at night isn’t at the top of the Saudi agenda. The uncertainties about the negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program will not make the Saudis more committed to opposing ISIS.

Could all this have been avoided had the self-satisfied, moralizing Baby Boomers who have run American foreign policy for the last twenty years or so been content to leave dictators in place? Saddam Hussein did not have to be overthrown. The Syrian rebels did not have to be encouraged to go on resisting after it had become clear that the Bashar Assad regime was going to hold onto power. The Gaddafi regime in Libya did not have to be bombed out of existence.

It has become a common belief that things would have gone differently had the Obama administration been willing to stay on in Iraq. Regardless of the truth of this belief, will the US be willing to stay on after the defeat of ISIS to prevent a return to stupidity? In ceding so much of the active role in opposing Iraq to Iran, is the US preparing the ground for a partition of the country. Will Saudi Arabia and Jordan absorb the Sunni parts of the country?

How serious a danger is ISIS? To the United States and other Western societies, ISIS is not very dangerous. It isn’t Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. It may be a loathsome ideology, but it does not control a powerful state. So, a sense of proportion is needed. So, too, is patience. “Keep them penned in and wait for the food riots to start,” as one character in William Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition described America’s Cold War policy of containment.

[1] James Traub, “The Demonic Wellspring,” WSJ, 14-15 March 2015.

The Islamic Brigades 1.

Why do young Muslim men go to fight in foreign wars? The “Afghan Arabs” were a feature of the resistance to the Soviet Union, then of Al Qaeda’s attack on the United States. Arabs went to fight in Chechnya in small numbers, and now in Syria in larger numbers.[1] What draws or drives these young people to take up arms for a non-national cause?

There is a sensitive discussion of one case in the New York Times.[2] Islam Yaken (1993- ) grew up in a middle-class family in Cairo. Conservatism and modernity co-existed in his family. His mother and sisters wear the veil, yet his parents sent him to a French-language private school, and then on to university. Like many young American men of his age, Yaken fell in love with body-building. He got “ripped” by any standard. He imagined himself as a future fitness instructor. Yet he had not abandoned religious faith.[3]

Obstacles barred his path. For one thing, the conservative cast of contemporary Islam disparages physical pleasure.[4] Both sex and body-building are physical pleasures. Yaken Islam desired women, even talking of emigrating to find a career and a “hot” girlfriend.[5] For another thing, in Egypt or America, it is hard to turn personal training into a decent livelihood. Yaken failed to break into an established gym, and had to make-do with private lessons in smaller gyms.

Leaving Egypt for greener pastures entered his mind.[6] Go where? Make a start how? The answers seemed impossible. A return to the conservative religious values in which he had been raised also entered his mind. Like the 17th Century English Protestant writer John Bunyan, he excoriated himself for “sins” that others would hardly notice. He grew a beard. Still Shaitan tormented him—in the form of girls in Levis and ballet flats.

In early 2012, when Islam Yaken was 19 years old, the Muslim Brotherhood came out in the open as a result of the fall of the Mubarak regime. After years of repression by the Sadat and Mubarrak governments, the Brotherhood had survived. Apparently, they had triumphed over their enemies. Their intransigent defense of strict conservative religious doctrines—something to believe in when secular society offered nothing to believe in—may have seemed like an explanation. They were in full throat. Sheikh Muhammad Hussein Yacoub preached before huge crowds of followers in a Cairo mosque. Yaken Islam became a follower. Religious commitment did nothing to assuage the terrors that haunted him. If anything, they worsened.

In July 2013 the Egyptian military regime re-asserted itself. A heavy hand fell on the Muslim Brotherhood. By August 2013 Yaken Islam had decided for jihad in Syria. He went to Turkey, then crossed the border to join the ISIS fighters. For a year-and-a-half he has been a soldier, physical training instructor, media personality for ISIS. He has found “a life free of [sins].., a greater cause, an Islamic state.”

He was young, foolish, sexually frustrated, living in a puritanical society with little economic growth or political freedom. All true, but not everyone seeks the easy path. There is a lot of will-power and striving in a six-pack.

[1] For example, there are at least 600 Egyptians fighting with ISIS, probably many more than that.

[2] Mona El-Naggar, “From Cairo Private School to Syria’s Killing Fields,” NYT, 19 February 2015.

[3] He used a mat in his room both for prayer and for crunches.

[4] “Suppose a young man falls in love with a girl in college. He doesn’t touch her or talk to her or send her messages. He doesn’t even look at her. That’s still fornication!”—Sheikh Muhammad Yacoub, video imam.

[5] The attitude toward women is not so different from that of many American men of his age (regardless of generation).

[6] Apparently this is common talk among young people. If it ever starts, the tide of Egyptian boat people will vastly out-number the Libyan one.

Your country gets an F.

In days of old when knights were bold and Nationalism was in flower, the sociologist Max Weber defined a State as a government that maintained law and order within the borders of the country, provided basic services to citizens, managed the economy, and dealt with foreign countries. Some countries do this really well. Who wouldn’t want to be a Canadian, eh? Other countries do this less well. Weber was discussing European countries at the end of the 19th Century.

However, in the 19th and 20th Centuries Western imperialism gobbled up a bunch of territories that had never been countries (notably in Asia and Africa), then divided them in to “nations” when the tide of imperialism ebbed after the Second World War. The imperial powers had not had the time to do very much to turn these places into “nations,” so some of them have come unglued in the years since independence. Tribal or religious loyalties may be stronger than patriotism; corruption may be so bad that the government can’t provide adequate public services; or rebels, war-lords, or terrorists can operate without much hindrance from the government. When these things happen, a country can be called a “failed state.”

The ten worst-off countries in 2011 were: Somalia, Chad, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Iraq, and Cote d’Ivoire (Coat Dee-Vwar). Most of them have made the Top Ten list since 2005. (See: rut.)

You know how people try to cheer you up by saying that there’s somebody in the world with worse troubles than you? Well, Somalia is the last guy in that chain. Somalia is in the “Horn of Africa,” on the east coast across from the Arabian Peninsula. It is close to the equator, arid, with very little land to farm. Herding and fishing are important to the economy. Britain, Italy, and Ethiopia all conquered chunks of the territory in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (Mogadishu has some Art Deco buildings worthy of South Beach.) Much of it became independent in 1960, although Ethiopia held on to important chunks. An army general named Siad Barre seized power in 1969. He became a Communist, started a war with Ethiopia, and ran the economy into the ground by 1990. Just to get even, Ethiopia stirred up various tribes against the government. Siad Barre got chucked out in 1991, but no one could agree on who to put in his place. Northern Somalia declared its independence, various soldiers tried to seize power elsewhere, and civil war broke out.

The war caused a famine, bandits (called “technicals”) molested the humanitarian aid workers, and the US sent troops to stop the parts of the violence that might accidentally get on American television. This didn’t work out and left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth about intervening in humanitarian crises. (See: “Black Hawk Down”; see: Rwanda a little while later.) Civil war dragged on to the point that government just disintegrated; after 9/11 the US got very hostile to “Islamists,” of whom there are a great many in Somalia and encouraged people to fight them; many Somali fishermen and soldiers turned to piracy on the Indian Ocean; and drought hit the country in 2011. There are probably a million refugees and internally displaced people. Curiously, it has some of the best internet and cell-phone service in Africa. What about Nigeria?

Ammo.

            C.J. Chivers came to reporting for the New York Times by an unusual rout. He graduated from Cornell in 1987, then went in the Marines as an officer. He served in the First Gulf War, then in peace-keeping operations in Los Angeles after the Rodney King riots. He left the Marines as a captain in 1994. Graduate school in journalism at Columbia followed. His first reporting job came with the Providence Journal in Rhode Island. He worked there from 1995 to 1999. In 1999 he moved to the Times, where he had the police beat until 2001. Thereafter he became a foreign correspondent covering the wars with radical Islam. He’s covered the Americans war in Afghanistan, the Russian war with Chechnya, and the American war in Iraq. Lately, he’s been covering the wars in Ukraine and Syria.

As a former Marine, Chivers knows more than does the usual reporter about military weapons. As a war correspondent in the Greater Islamic Area, he’s run into a lot of AK-47s. These qualifications give his reporting a certain cast. He can make firearms themselves tell an interesting story about the conflicts in which they are used. For example, he wrote The Gun (2010), a history of the AK-47. (See: The Gun That Made the Nineties Roar; The Arms Barometer).

Recently, he published a story about the ammunition that has been recovered on the battlefields where troops have engaged ISIS. It turns out that ISIS captures much of its ammunition from defeated foes. Indeed, it appears to select target for attack to some degree or in some cases by the prospect of capturing important stocks of weapons. It isn’t hard to do because a lot of the opponents of ISIS don’t put up much of a fight. Sometimes, anti-Assad groups of Syrians rebels or the Syrian troops they are supposed to be fighting just sell to ISIS the arms that they have been given by foreign patrons.

About 80 percent of the ammunition examined came from the Soviet Union before its collapse, post-Soviet Russia, the United States, China, or from Serbia (the perpetual bad-boy of international morality). A lot of the ISIS ammo came out of captured Syrian warehouses—or off dead Syrian troops. The Soviet Union/Putinia were long-terms sponsors of Syria, so about 18-19 percent of the ammo was manufactured in some version of whatever we’re calling Russia this week. Most of this was produced between 1970 and 1990. So, did the Russkies stop selling to the Syrians from 1990 on? Or was more recently supplied ammo stored in warehouses closer to the center of power? Or was this AK-47 ammunition purchased by the US government from an American re-seller of ammo to fit the AK-47 and other Russian weapons and then given to either Iraqi security forces before they were supplied with American M-16s or to Syrian “moderates”? About 26 percent was manufactured in China during the 1980s, but it is impossible to tell when it was shipped to Syria. About 18 percent of it was manufactured in the United States during the 2000s, so this is ammo supplied to the Iraq security forces after the American invasion of Iraq. Probably, most of this ammo came into the possession of ISIS after the collapse of the Iraqi army in Spring-Summer 2014.[1]

The story by Chivers complicates the Obama administration’s idea of building up “moderate” alternatives to ISIS. For one thing, why is it necessary to train and arm “moderate” fighters when the solution that occurred to ISIS was to go get the weapons that they needed by brute force? Why didn’t “moderates” seize the arms they needed from Syrian forces? Fpr another thing, “moderates” appear to have sold some of the weapons that they have received to ISIS to avoid trouble. Won’t they do that with any new weapons that they receive?

[1] C.J. Chivers, “ISIS’ Ammunition Is Shown to Have Origins in U.S. and China,” NYT, 6 October 2014.