Public opinion and foreign policy.

Back in April 2014, almost half of Americans (47 percent) thought that the United States should be “less active” abroad.[1] That included both Republicans and Democrats (45 percent each, which suggests that Independents were still more likely to favor caution). However, markedly more Republicans (29 percent) than Democrats (12 percent) or all Americans (19 percent) thought that the US should be “more active” abroad. The Republican “don’t knows” amounted to 26 percent, compared to 43 percent for Democrats and 34 percent for all Americans. Thus, there was a more intense division of opinion among Republicans than among Democrats, while Democrats were more uncertain about the right course of action.

By August 2014, Americans were generally feeling surly about the country’s situation. The vast majority (71 percent) felt the country to be “on the wrong track,” and well over half (60 percent) felt it to be “in decline.”[2] A lot of this had to do with the still-unsatisfactory economic recovery and with the continuing dead-lock between the legislative and the executive branches, but some of it probably arose from foreign policy issues as well. In the wake of the rapid advance of ISIS in western Iraq, as well as in light of other domestic reverses (like the ObamaCare roll-out fiasco in Fall 2013), only 42 percent of Americans believed that President Obama could “manage the government effectively,” while a stinging 57 percent thought that he could not. That left only 1 percent who weren’t sure.[3]

A year and a half later, the course of events had shifted opinion among both Republicans and Democrats.  The rise of ISIS from Summer 2014 on, the terrorist attacks in Western countries, and the controversial Iran deal all worked to polarize opinion. The events sent many Republicans back toward a traditional policy of engagement. By December 2015, only 32 percent of Republicans wanted to “focus more at home,” while 62 percent favored being “stronger abroad.” That left only 6 percent saying that they “didn’t know.” The same events sent many Democrats toward a policy of disengagement. Among Democrats, 69 percent now said that the US should “focus more at home,” while only 23 percent favored being “stronger abroad.” That left only 8 percent saying that they “didn’t know.”

Partly, this may be a reflection of the dissolution of established verities. Only 44 percent of Democrats sympathized with Israel in its war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip in Summer 2014, while only 51 percent of Americans overall sympathized more with Israel than with the Palestinians. In contrast, 73 percent of Republicans sympathized with Israel. Whatever the merits of Israel’s policy, the actual implementation of blockade, bombings, and artillery fire in an urban area crowded with women and children as well as missile-firing militants made for gruesome television viewing.

Or perhaps it was just the return to a presidential election campaign that caused many Democrats and Republicans to adopt policies in knee-jerk opposition to their rivals’ policies. For example, in March 2015, 53 percent of Republicans supported automatic registration of all eligible voters. Then, Hillary Clinton endorsed this proposal. Soon, only 28 percent of Republicans supported automatic registration of all eligible voters.[4]

In any event, American voters will get a clear choice in November 2016.

[1] “Behind Shifting GOP Mindset,” WSJ, 4 February 2016.

[2] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 22 August 2014, p. 17.

[3] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 8 August 2014, p. 15.

[4] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 19 June 2015, p. 15. Still, only a minority (48 percent) of Americans supported the idea, while 36 percent were opposed.

The Iran Dilemma.

Tom Friedman’s opinion on Middle Eastern matters must command respect. Friedman has remarkable access to American government sources. The Obama administration often appears to voice its views through his column.

Since the Revolution of 1979 overthrew the Shah, the United States and Iran have been at odds. At the same time, Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Iran have been at odds. So, an alliance of convenience formed between the United States and Saudi Arabia. Recently, the upheavals in the Middle East have consolidated the grip on power of Iranian clients in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen. Over the longer term, however, Iran’s long pursuit of nuclear weapons has been profoundly destabilizing to the region. (See: Bomb ‘em ‘till the mullahs bounce.)

Friedman’s recent column on the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program lays out some essential issues, even if it does not fully explore them.[1]

First, the Obama Administration hopes that a nuclear deal with Iran will be “transformational.” If sanctions are lifted, Iran can be drawn into the larger world. Contact with more liberal societies may—eventually—turn Iran into a “normal,” non-revolutionary state.

Second, the Obama administration sees Iran as a legitimate counter-weight to the Wahhabist version of Islam sponsored by America’s nominal “ally,” Saudi Arabia. Iran has competitive (if not “free”) elections; respect for women beyond the norm in the Muslim world; and real military power that it is willing to use. In contrast, Saudi Arabia is an absolutist monarchy that sponsors the spread of the extremist Wahhabism that can easily turn into Islamic radicalism, but will not use its powerful military for more than air shows.

Third, “America’s interests lie not with either the Saudis or the Iranian ideologues winning, but rather with balancing the two against each other until they get exhausted enough to stop prosecuting their ancient Shi’ite-Sunni, Persian-Arab feud.”

Fourth, “managing the decline of the Arab state system is not a problem [the United States] should own. We’ve amply proved we don’t know how.”

Points worth discussing.

What caused the collapse of the Soviet Union, contact with the West or the inherent stupidity of Communism? Is expanded contact with the West eroding the power of the Chinese Communist Party? These examples go to the “transformational” aspect of the issue.

Is the Obama administration hoping for a Nixon-Kissinger style “opening” (as to China) that will remake the politics of the Middle East? If so, is the game worth the candle? What American interests will be advanced by such an opening? Iran will fight ISIS and Saudi Arabia will back opponents of the Shi’ite government in Baghdad regardless of such a change.

Does the Obama administration accept that we are witnessing the undoing of the Sykes-Picot borders? If so, which borders are likely to be redrawn? Iraq, Syria, and Libya are failed states. What about Saudi Arabia (home to most of the foreign fighters in ISIS) or Egypt?

Finally, Friedman argues that “if one assumes that Iran already has the know-how and tools to build a nuclear weapon, changing the character of the regime is the only way it becomes less threatening.” First, he accepts the thrust of the piece by Broad and Sanger, that Iraq knows how to make a nuclear weapon. (See: A note of caution in Iran.) Second, he argues that changing attitudes is the “only” way to deal with the danger. Really? Soldiers usually plan for an enemy’s capabilities, not his intentions—which can be hard to discern.

[1] Thomas L. Friedman, “Looking Before Leaping,” NYT, 25 March 2015.

Your mind is in the Qatar.

Qatar is about the size of Connecticut, but has a lot more going for it than insurance companies and casinos on Indian Reservations. Once an impoverished sandlot that lived from the pearl fisheries, Qatar now earns an immense amount of money from the sale of natural gas.

The ruling sheikh, Hamad bin Khalifah Al Thani (1952- ,r. 1995-2013) set out to make Qatar “important” to other people. On the one hand, he wants Qatar to be important to Americans in case the neighbors–either Saudi Arabia or Iran—took it into their minds to do his country some nastiness. What Iraq had tried to do to Kuwait in 1990, some other power might do to Qatar. He got the Americans to build a local command center for Central Command (which runs American military operations in the Middle East and Southwest Asia) at Doha. He enhanced the importance of Qatar for the world energy market by building a huge natural gas condensing plant to facilitate exports and earnings.

On the other hand, the sheikh wanted to be a player in the Middle East. In 1996 he created the “Al Jazeera” news network to promote an Islamist message. Beginning in 2011, Qatar has been financing upheaval in the Middle East. It has funded both the “Arab Spring” uprisings (which Westerners like to think of as “liberal” and “modernizing”) and Islamist groups (which Westerners think of as “illiberal” and “anti-modern”). Money flowed to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, to Hamas, and to the Al Nusra Front fighting the Assad government in Syria.

Blaming Qatar for pursuing a two-faced policy by seeking close ties to America while funding Islamists groups misses the point. The Middle East is torn in its attitudes toward “modernization” and “Westernization.” Islamism is one face of that controversy. The rise of Islamism threatens the established order in the Middle East. People with an interest in history will note the radical difference between American policy in Europe after the Second World War and contemporary American policy. Then, the Americans had a better solution than its opponents and they were in favor of dramatic change to solve problems. Now, the United States doesn’t appear to have any positive alternative to offer and isn’t comfortable with change.

Qatar falls into a larger pattern. Qatar’s ruler may believe that you can’t get anywhere by pandering to the Americans. You’ll just end up living in Los Angeles and selling rugs at craft fairs. The military government in Egypt and the moderate Islamist government in Turkey also have both bridled at American policy of late. Egypt and the United Arab Emirates combined to bomb rebels in Libya without bothering to inform the United States first. Turkey refuses to have its army fight ISIS until the Americans agree to overthrow the Assad government in Syria.

Qatar also seeks to influence American opinion through “Al Jazeera America” and donations to the Brookings Institution. For American conservatives, this is an illegitimate international influence on American policy. For them, it falls into the same category as Islamist illegals entering the US through our porous border with Mexico. There is another way of looking at it, however. American journalism no longer invests many resources in foreign reporting. American journalists rarely have the language skills or the cultural competence to get outside of a restricted safe zone, either physically or intellectually. (It’s hard to understand the exaggerated importance assigned to the demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square otherwise.) Qatar seeks to enrich the information and perspectives offered to American to help them better understand events in the Middle East. Maybe people should spend more time watching an alternative news source? You don’t have to believe what you see and hear. It’s a free country.

“The tiny nation that roared,” The Week, 27 September 2013, p. 9.

Why the Crimean War mattered

In the middle of the Nineteenth Century there were five “Great Powers” which charted he course of European diplomacy: the Austrian Empire, the German kingdom of Prussia, France, Britain, and Russia.  Of these, Austria held pride of place.  The Austrian Empire dominated both Germany and Italy, and had an alliance with Russia to maintain the international system created at Vienna after the fall of Napoleon.

To the southeast lay the Ottoman Empire.  In those days it included much of the Balkan Peninsula, the future Arab countries of the Middle East, and modern-day Turkey.  Plagued by centuries of sloth and despotism, the Ottoman Empire had been disintegrating for many years.  Europeans expected it to break up, eventually.  When would that time come and who would gather up the bits and pieces?  This last question put Britain, one of whose “lifelines of Empire” ran through the Eastern Mediterranean, at odds with Russia, which shared a long border with the Ottoman Empire.  When Russia and the Ottomans went to war in 1853, Britain and France (which had its own interests in the Middle East) joined the Ottomans in 1854.

The British Army that went to war against Russia suffered from several disabilities.  First of all, it lived in the shadow of its previous successes.  The most recent and most important of these had come under the command of Sir Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington.  Wellington had commanded the British troops fighting against Napoleon’s armies in Spain (1808-1814) and then had defeated Napoleon himself at Waterloo (1815).  Whatever the “Iron Duke” had done was good enough for his successors—even if conditions had change.  The senior ranks of the army were filled with men who had served under the duke in their younger days.  These were now long past, so a virtual living history museum now led the army.  Second, Britain’s subsequent wars had been comparatively small-scale fights in distant India.  Officers drawn from the ranks of the British aristocracy often chose not to accompany British troops to India.  Instead, they allowed professional soldiers from lower social groups to command on foreign duty.  A “European” war against Russia appeared as very different and more acceptable service than did Indian service.  Those with little experience of real war would take command.

The war took place around the edges of the Black Sea, first in the future Rumania, later on the Crimean Peninsula.  The Russians had invaded the Balkan portions of the Ottoman Empire, but had then retreated.  The British and the French decided to invade Russia itself by capturing the port of Sebastopol.  From September 1854 to September 1855 the British and French besieged Sebastopol while other Russian forces tried to raise the siege.  Bloody battles followed at Balaclava, Inkerman, Eupatoria and Tchernaya.  All were defeats for the Russians.  Sebastopol finally surrendered.

The subsequent peace treaty did nothing to solve the problem of Ottoman decadence.  The behavior of the Austrians, who had remained neutral while their Russian ally was beaten, led to Vienna’s isolation when first Italy, then Germany, were united at its expense.  The rise of a powerful Germany, the long-term hostility between Russia and Austria in the Balkans, and the continuing collapse of the Ottoman Empire provided the fuel for the First World War.