Is Moscow Stabilizing the Mideast?

Israel holds a massive U.S.-funded hammer; Saudi Arabia also has more arms than it appears capable of using wisely; Iran, a natural regional power, sits crippled by international sanctions and antagonized by its marginalization: a dangerous regional setup. Will Moscow’s now promised (again) defensive missiles rebalance the strategic regional equation just the right amount so as to give it a new stability?

With American arms pouring endlessly into Israel and Saudi Arabia, a defensive Russian system to enhance Iranian national security would go far toward balancing the regional military equation: all states seek security and its lack frequently provokes dangerously risky behavior. The ground-to-air S-300 missiles to Iran, if delivered, will bring in tow Russian prestige and, most likely, Russian personnel, making Russia a player again in the Mideast. It can be assumed that Putin, a cautious strategic thinker, will be determined to protect what he delivers. The missiles should also make it easier for decision-makers in Tehran to advocate moderation in world affairs and a focus on economic development. Iran in a post-sanctions environment combined with improved ties to Russia will have many options and may find its interest in (not to mention its fear of) Israel relatively diminished. This, in turn, could hardly be more timely for the U.S., which needs Iranian cooperation to find solutions to three dangerous crises: the Yemeni civil war, the Syrian civil war, and ISIS. Ukraine or not, is Moscow doing the U.S. a favor?

With American arms pouring endlessly into Israel and Saudi Arabia, a defensive Russian system to enhance Iranian national security would go far toward balancing the regional military equation: all states seek security and its lack frequently provokes dangerously risky behavior. Particularly in a region plagued by three militant religious states, marginalizing and discriminating against one of the region’s natural powers is a recipe for trouble.

If Iran reacts to the provision of legitimate defensive capabilities and the opening of economic doors by focusing on building its strength, the Mideast could become a remarkably more stable region, but it will first have to creep through a vast domestic and international minefield. Israeli aggression against Iran’s Syrian and Lebanese Hezbollah friends will constitute a constant war magnet, as Israeli air strikes in Syria during the final days of April—raw meat for every Iranian hardliner—demonstrate. Similarly, Iran will surely have to contend with increasing hostility from a Saudi Arabia already becoming noticeably more oriented toward regional anti-Iranian military adventures. Some Iranian factions may view Russian support as an opportunity for more aggressive regional behavior, but two factors will influence any such argument:

  1. Iraq at the moment represents both a challenge (defeating ISIS) and an opportunity (consolidating the already predominant Iranian influence;
  2. Syria, Iran’s No. 2 issue in an environment where an Israeli attack is removed from the strategic equation, is a place where a hardline policy by the U.S. will likely provoke a hardline Iranian response but equally where an international diplomatic environment conducive to taking Iran’s strategic concerns into account might well persuade Iran to compromise.

But the lure of warming political and economic ties with both Russia and China plus likely counseling from both to move cautiously in combination with U.S. support for a Syrian compromise may persuade Tehran to accept a positive-sum solution. The current broad international pressure upon Riyadh to moderate if not abandon its rash military interference in Yemen enhances the likelihood of such an outcome. To phrase it more realistically, in terms of dynamics rather than snapshots of events or decisions, consolidation of Iraq as part of Iran’s sphere of influence, U.S.-Iranian cooperation against ISIS, new warmth in relations with Russia, enhanced Iranian national security, and international economic opportunities may each enhance the impact and attractiveness of the other factor, generating a slow but steady movement of Iranian foreign policy toward pragmatism.

An Iranian move toward moderation, in turn, could hardly be more timely for the U.S., which needs Iranian cooperation to find solutions to three dangerous crises: the Yemeni civil war, the Syrian civil war, and ISIS, and the two are already unofficially working together to address the latter. Ukrainian tensions notwithstanding, is Moscow doing the U.S. a favor by offering Iran enhanced national security?

Iran Outmaneuvering Saudi Arabia Over Yemen

With President Rouhani’s calm style, the new U.S.-Iran nuclear deal, and Iran’s coordination with the Pakistani-Turkish Yemeni peace initiative, Iran is projecting a degree of moderation and rational behavior far beyond the norm for major actors involved in the Mideast. The contrast with Saudi Arabia’s air campaign interfering in the Yemeni civil war could hardly be more blatant.

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Saudi Contradictions

If you live in a sand castle high on a hill, running wildly in every direction might cause your castle to collapse and slide down into the valley. An internally contradictory foreign policy is the political version of running in every direction; adding an aggressive military component to that policy is the political version of behaving “wildly.”

If you believe the media, you will conclude that Saudi Arabia–the homeland of the infamous Salafi extremism that brought the world Islamic-sanctioned beheadings, the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, and al Qua’ida—has just launched a new military campaign against both its competitor for leadership of the Mideast (Iran) and the very ISIS extremists who constitute the most recent generation of Salafi jihad against every race, creed, and religion that disagrees with them. Since the Salafi fundamentalists of Saudi Arabia are very comfortably ensconced in the heart of the Saudi petro-elite that rules the country, one might think the media are pulling the wool over our eyes  by claiming that the Saudi regime would launch military moves against both ISIS and Iran simultaneously. Perhaps not; perhaps the hapless media are simply reporting the confusion that appears to be running rampant in Riyadh.

The first contradiction in Saudi policy is religious. The Saudi state confers the authority to control education upon the religious fundamentalists whose ancestors teamed up with the House of Saud to create this new state out of the various desert tribes in the first place. To make it simple, these fundamentalists tend to view with favor much of the creed of ISIS and perhaps to finance its operations, albeit not necessarily personally committing out any extremist acts. But puritanical Sunni extremists building an empire of fear are hardly likely to be satisfied with getting payoffs under the table to exclude their religious homeland from their jihad, so a Saudi military policy to undermine Iran—the leader of the anti-ISIS campaign—directly undermines the security of the Saudi state. Iran is a political adversary of Saudi Arabia, a situation both normal and amenable to all manner of modification via neighborly diplomacy. ISIS is now the leader of a global jihad begun not by Saudi citizen bin Laden but by the Saudi state back in the 1980s, partly in cooperation with Washington’s anti-Soviet effort in Afghanistan and partly as a wholly Saudi effort to conduct a (generally peaceful) crusade to spread the global influence both of the Saudi/Salafi version of Sunni Islam and, naturally, of the Saudi state per se. If Riyadh moves against Iran, it undercuts Iran’s efforts to defeat ISIS. If Riyadh moves against ISIS, it undermines its own existence as the fundamentalist religious center of global Islam, and simultaneously threatens to split the Saudi elite into its two internally contradictory halves (the petro-elite seeking secular political power in the modern world and the religious fundamentalists yearning for pretty much the same 13th century Caliphate whose vision dances in the eyes of ISIS.

The second contradiction is military: even if Riyadh could figure out a way to distinguish persuasively between its own fundamentalist version of Salafi Sunni Islam and that of ISIS while also making the case for marginalizing Iran in regional affairs, how could it win both wars simultaneously? Pursuing Goal A undermines Goal B. Certainly, Riyadh could hire a massive Pakistani mercenary army, following the model used to destroy the freedom movement of the tiny, unarmed population of Bahrain, but the population of Bahrain, already oppressed by their rulers, was insignificant in military terms in comparison with either ISIS or Iran. How many Pakistani mercenary deaths would it take to spark a revolt within the already divided Pakistani society? And, back to the first point, exactly what is the distinction between the official Riyadh version of Salafi Islam and the version practiced by ISIS? In making your response, consider the new Saudi military attack on the Houthis in Yemen, who have been fighting for their political rights for a generation; the Saudi repression of Bahraini democracy movement; Saudi treatment of women; the Saudi justice system’s treatment of everyone from criminals to female drivers to reform-minded bloggers; the theocratic control over the Saudi educational system; and Saudi treatment of their own Shi’i minority.

The competition between the Iranian and Saudi states for status and influence in the Mideast is a normal feature of international affairs; the region has room for both. The competition only appears zero-sum to the degree that arrogant and short-sighted politicians on both sides allow it, by their own incompetence, to cloak itself in the zero-sum death shroud. The two states share a security need for a peaceful Persian Gulf and an economic need for a peaceful Mideast in which they can both build pipelines across the desert to sell their precious hydrocarbons. Pragmatic politicians could readily devise a positive-sum arrangement that would enable the leaders of both states to wear the resplendent garments of successful leadership.

The competition between ISIS and the Saudi state, in contrast, truly is a zero-sum battle to the death. If the Saudi security state controls Saudi foreign policy and sets the goal of keeping Riyadh as the leader of the Sunni world, then it is hard to see how it can tolerate a competing ISIS caliphate. If the Saudi state is under the control of Sunni fundamentalists, then logically either Riyadh must swallow ISIS and run the new caliphate or ISIS must overthrow the Saudi state and swallow Saudi Arabia. Two Sunni states deriving their legitimacy from their claim to be the guardian of their religion’s purity would seem too much for the Mideast to contain. This contradiction could be resolved by the Saudi regime redesigning itself as a normal, modern, secular state, but that socio-political revolution still seems more than the Saudi elite can contemplate, thus leaving the ISIS-Saudi competition a fight to the finish that merits Riyadh’s full attention.

History is replete with examples of mildly repressive elites who burn down their own castles by undertaking aggressive and overambitious new campaigns that backfire by intensifying long-standing internal cracks in the socio-political edifice of the state. The very best chance that ISIS has of surviving may well be to provoke exactly the type of internally contradictory initiative that Riyadh, sitting in its castle of sand, is now embarking on.

Meeting the Extremist Challenge

The extremist challenge accuses the world of leaving whole cultures behind. This accusation is justified. Recognition of our guilt is the first step to meeting the extremist challenge.

Subjected to various forms of violence—invasion, sectarian conflict, dictatorship—that destroyed social and political, not to mention physical, infrastructure, Iraq, Syria, and Libya are now fertile soil for extremism because extremism offers hope when no rational solution is working. The extremists are not the problem; the problem is the hopelessness of life in a country violence has destroyed. This is why a “war against extremism” will at best only have a temporary effect. Remove every extremist by a magic wand this minute and a million more will arise the next, be they religious, sectarian, political, the soldiers of an invader, or just plain criminals…unless the need to improve conditions is addressed in a manner that the population finds acceptable.

Iraq, Syria, and Libya have now followed in the footsteps of Somalia and Afghanistan. Note the pattern. Whether by foreign military aggression, foreign military “assistance,” domestic aggression by a dictator, civil war, or the onslaught of a jihadi gang; whether a short war in recent years or a generation-long conflict, violence generated extremism, not a solution.

Everyone in today’s world has access to some weapon of war; wars in small countries can be continued endlessly, even after the original protagonists are long dead and the original issues forgotten. The trouble in Somalia began as a superpower (are you old enough to remember that word?) conflict in the 1970s. A modern, centralized client dictator replaced the traditional network of distributed power, and “things fell apart:” the traditional political system collapsed. Ditto Afghanistan. Even if you date the Iraqi collapse from only 2003,

Destroying the functionality of a society, debasing a culture, erasing effective governance are shockingly easy goals to achieve, and the array of organizations thirsting to profit from the process is endless. A war against extremism? War is precisely what extremists want! If the extremists are criminals, war is their road to profit. If the extremists are uncompromising ideologues, war is their road to victory.

If attacked, we must fight, but that fight is no solution; it is but the means of finding time to invent a solution. The measure of our sincerity in wanting a solution will be the degree to which we devise a Marshall Plan for the Mideast, with such a plan funded at a level that exceeds the expenditures of war.

  • Waging war is profitable. Can peacemaking be made profitable?

  • Extremists exploit sectarian animosities, which tend to be rooted in discriminatory distribution of resources. Can a method be devised for distributing state revenues in a way that promotes cross-sectarian cooperation?

Sunni jihadis, to cite the current most-feared class of extremist, have demonstrated the ability very rapidly to evolve strategically and tactically, innovating faster than traditional states have been able to respond. It is time the world sharpened its thinking.

Oppose Extremism…and Promote What???

Here we go again, with another war against an “ism.” Not that exterminating extremism isn’t a great goal for those who aspire to civilize humanity, but “ism” isn’t exactly a “thing” that can be shot. More, this particular “ism”– extremism–pops up in the most embarrassing places.

Those who advocate the extermination of ethnic or religious groups are extremists against whom war may or may not, in a given case, happen to be necessary for our survival or the most effective approach. Indeed, war is likely to be exactly the response that such extremists want, for wars are messy, and it is in that mess that extremists flourish. Nonetheless, war against these people who call for, and certainly against people who engage in, efforts to exterminate ethnic or religious groups is justified. Perhaps the following statement is not too curt: those who prefer war, deserve it, though even when morally defensible, war may well not be the answer for those who prefer peace.

To avoid the impression that one is using fancy language to conceal an effort to exterminate a whole society or culture, the distinction between “extremist” and some ethnic or religious label is critical. Thus, Obama is correct that we should not make war “against Islam,” but it is important to continue by spelling out that we also oppose Jewish extremism (e.g., stealing Palestinian homes for illegal settlers, terror attacks on Palestinian olive groves) but have no intention of making war “against Judaism.” The war is against one who beheads a journalist or one who burns an olive grove or one who leads a cavalry charge into a Sioux village massacring women and children or one who drops white phosphorus on urban civilians or one who drops a nuclear bomb on a city. Yes, this discussion is embarrassing.

It is also critical to understand that extremist wars against cultures, societies, minorities need not be accompanied by shock and awe. In fact, as Australians regarding bushmen; Americans regarding…well, the Sioux and the Cherokee and others; Israelis regarding Palestinians; Chinese regarding Vietnamese and Tibetans all clearly recognized in certain eras present or past, a very slow war—taking at least a generation—against the culture/language/self-identity of the enemy can be considerably less expensive and more effective than actually killing them all. The moral distinction is…indistinct. The moral right of the minority facing extinction to fight back seems rather solidly grounded.

If “war against extremism” is one buzz phrase for the negative, then perhaps it is worth taking just a moment to identify what we are fighting for: a “war for….” I suggest that the real goal should be to maximize the range of human cultures sharing the planet. Speaking just for my own society, the cultures that U.S. society has exterminated over the past three centuries form a sobering list and their loss has made us far poorer than we might have been. Iroquois ideas about government were arguably among the most advanced in the world in the 1700s, while contemporary American society still today falls far short of appreciating the sophistication of First Nation concepts of man’s place in nature or the moral superiority of sharing (be it sharing the commons or sharing possessions) as opposed to capitalist greed or the definition and rights of leadership as a privilege rather than a right and a privilege to be removed as soon as the leader fails to work for the common good. The process of civilizing ourselves should not be a process of winner-take-all but of becoming sophisticated enough to appreciate the particular contributions of each culture. So that’s my take on the positive view.

But back to the negative side of laying out a strategy for destroying that which we oppose. Wars to “take the hill” are at least conceptually straightforward. Wars against “isms” are a conceptual nightmare. Clear thinking and honest self-criticism are the two legs on which a war against extremism might stand tall enough to have a prayer of success.

Anti-ISIS Strategic Calculus

The Western strategic calculus regarding the Islamic State, certain tactical successes notwithstanding, rests on denial and wishful thinking. Wars “against terror” are band aids concealing metastasizing socio-economic cancer.


ISIS is making moves in Afghanistan, expanding steadily (if slowly, now) in Syria, holding its own in much of Iraq (albeit on the defensive around Mosul), fighting in force in Libya, and making officially acknowledged inroads into Turkish society. Bin Laden fought his whole adult life to create a global terrorist organization that has spent much of its effort on the run trying to survive. ISIS, in six months, has effectively established a state that appears, over the short term, impressively stable and, more impressive, able to push forward in several directions simultaneously. It has also very effectively split NATO by A) cowing Turkey or B) convincing Turkey that it is too useful to be alienated.

This pattern contains a serious message: U.S. policy is failing because a military challenge with little if any socio-economic follow-through tends to play the radical game. The Mideast needs a new deal, which will not be pleasant for the U.S. ruling elite: it will mean lower profits and embarrassing compromises, higher oil prices to fund Mideast social services, less U.S. influence over partners in pacifying the region (e.g., Tehran), and a vastly more complicated policy challenge. There is, sadly, very little evidence that Western policy-makers are up to the challenge and not so very much evidence that Mideast policy-makers (specifically in Tehran and Ankara and Riyadh and Baghdad) are either.

[Thanks to Carlos Latuff on Middle East Monitor for cartoon on Saudi-ISIS financial ties.]

The more one examines the details of the success of ISIS, the more complicated it becomes. Outside support for Sunni radicalism, both for long-term religious and short-term political reasons, is one source of complications [e.g., external support for ISIS, as in Latuff’s cartoon of Saudi funding of ISIS]. Another is non-Sunni but equally extreme behavior by a host of short-sighted, self-centered actors [e.g., state terrorism, as in yAce’s cartoon of Israeli bombing of Palestinians].

Cartoon MEM - Latuff 1270248_10152574731841926_1125983768113376083_o

[Thanks to yAce on Middle East Monitor.]

More fundamental, however, is the absence of any attractive alternative for regional inhabitants. Western policies focusing on the elimination of terrorism are but band aids over metastasizing cancers. Addressing external sources of support for terrorism is still just a tactical response. Reforming external state terrorism and other forms of external exploitation (e.g., supporting Mideast client dictatorships or looking the other way at corrupt Mideastern leaders who sell oil to the West only to steal the profits from their own people) are, in contrast, the type of fundamental reforms that would open the door to a new deal for regional populations that would have the potential for undercutting the current appeal of extremists. For Palestinians in Israel or Lebanon, Kurds in Syria or Turkey, Sunnis in Iraq, Shi’a in Yemen, what evidence exists that peaceful behavior and working “within the system” will gain them their fair share of resources, social services, political access, and police protection? Therein lies the key to a practical policy for stability. Anti-Western terror is the canary in the mine, but the West is still not getting the message.