Bernie Has Already Won

Superficial reporters keep asking if Bernie really thinks he can win. Bernie has already won. Bernie is the only candidate in this election representing the people and fighting for democracy. Hillary is so self-satisfied it would have nauseated the brilliant young woman with a law degree from Yale who “doesn’t bake cookies”–had she only known what she would turn into. Trump is running a campaign of brain-dead hatred that reminds one of the young Hitler more and more every day.

Bernie, however, has changed the political environment, laid the groundwork for a future based on the renewal of American democracy by focusing debate on cleaning our own house first. Setting that desperately needed priority in a land possessing more power than its leaders or people have any idea how to employ properly, for our own long term benefit, is a contribution that only a handful of American politicians before him ever accomplished.

That handful no living American politician. Obama tried but ended up kneeling before the corrupt elite, Hillary once appeared headed for greatness before falling in love with her own new position as card-carrying member of the elite.

Bernie, in contrast, has already achieved a renewal. We are depending on him to continue his campaign, to sharpen the content of his message, and to lead progressives in Washington for the rest of his remarkable career…whether he speaks from the bully pulpit or not.

 

 

For a Great America

Platform for a reformed and regenerated exceptional America…

  1. One man, one vote: Terminate Citizens United to restore democracy. A government controlled by billionaires will never be just.

  2. Never too big to jail: Create a financial system for society, not for billionaires.

  3. Criminalize war-profiteering: End foreign policy for the war-profiteering elite. Foreign policy will not be made in the interest of society as long as elections can be bought.

  4. Only one world: Make the economy serve the environment. The truly wealthy are those with fresh air to breathe and clean water to drink.

Logic Raises a Clear Target: Salafi Violence in Yemen

Invaluable as research may be, logic raises a clear target. Attack the target at will, but don’t pretend it is not there.

Events are blips chained together in a complex, adaptive array never visible in its entirety at a glance. One narrative to make comprehensible the events in Yemen over the past year holds that Riyadh sent its military into Yemen “to fight the Houthis.” Perhaps, but it takes a lot of explaining to sell this intricate interpretation of events. By Ockham’s Razor (shave away extraneous detail), when A.) a semi-Salafi regime intervenes in a civil war, with B.) the readily predictable and predicted impact of aggravating the level of social chaos and thus empowering a range of semi-independent Salafi rebel groups, the burden of proof rests on the shoulders of he who would argue that A was not done for the purpose of achieving B.

Is this attempt to reduce the complexity of Yemen to a clear logical statement still overly detailed? Shave again:

If a regime implements a long-term policy that steadily and visibly empowers a particular faction within the regime, then the longer the policy is maintained, the greater the justification for assuming that the regime supported said faction from the start.

Perhaps Riyadh cannot or at least does not bother to differentiate among its various foreign policy goals, e.g., defeating the Houthi effort to create a Yemeni state independent of Saudi Arabia or at least defend its own autonomy, opposing the rising regional influence of Iran, dominating regional oil and gas reserves, and radicalizing Sunni Islam. In truth, at a certain level of analysis and for a certain period of time, these goals are not mutually exclusive. Nevertheless, one cannot have four goals all of which are primary, and the Saudi Yemen war has consistently benefited only the goal of empowering the most radical branch of Sunni Islam–that branch espoused by the Islamic State and al Qua’ida.

Perhaps some Saudi officials are primarily pursuing a greater hydrocarbon empire. Perhaps some Western officials and CEO’s, not contemplating too deeply the risk of that war backfiring and destabilizing the whole Saudi sand castle, think they will benefit by arming this hydrocarbon empire. But, by Ockham’s Razor, the core truth of the Saudi Yemen war appears to be the over-riding desire in Riyadh to control and radicalize Sunni Islam. The simple “Ockham’s Razor” line of reasoning proves nothing; it is not intended to do so. It is intended to provide a logical starting point for analysis when evidence is inconclusive. The truth may indeed be far more complicated, but to the degree that the simple inference that radicalizing Islam is the core Saudi goal has validity, then the West should ask itself if a more radicalized Islam is indeed the outcome that it desires; the West should ask itself if a destroyed Yemen or a Yemen ruled by al Qua’ida in the Arabic Peninsula would indeed be a good thing…for those are the outcomes that the year-long Saudi military campaign in Yemen is in the process of achieving, and by Ockham’s Razor, the world seems logically entitled to infer that such an outcome was intended from the beginning.

Regarding world affairs, innocence is a claim that cannot be taken  on faith.

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Foreign Policy to Defend Democracy

Democratic societies whose public servants conduct a foreign policy based on “good guys” vs. “bad guys” undermine their own long-term security. The attitude of a state toward another state should rest on an assessment of the counterpart’s behavior, not its race, religion, or ideology. Perhaps needless to say, such an approach to foreign policy formulation hardly exists in the modern world.

States may rationally select partners for many reasons, and having a foreign policy based on case-by-case judgment, i.e., with no permanent partners at all, is by no means the least rational basis for foreign policy, though it takes a very clear-thinking statesperson to guide such a policy. Possibly the most incompetent and self-defeating (taking “self” to refer not to the leader but the society) foreign policy of all is the typical one, based on old prejudices and habits from an era long gone. To discern the difference, a logical method of distinguishing classes of foreign policy behavior would be a nice tool, if we could but design it. Hard as it may be to identify any real-world regimes with such a tool for identifying other regimes worth supporting, a simple continuum from selfish behavior to behavior for the common good would make a solid, if not revolutionary, foundation.

In the complex arena of foreign policy, doing harm is almost as common (and vastly more costly than) doing good, implying that there is sufficient room for improvement to anticipate real value even from a simple tool. If we can accept foreign policy based on the assumption that a general minimization of harm done would, over time, benefit us all, then we are set to move forward to a definition of broad categories of behavior that should be viewed as harmful or beneficial to the common good regardless of the identity of the actor.

Debates over exceptions will of course explode the instant one attempts to categorize specific behaviors as harmful to the common good and thus warranting opposition, but at least a default attitude (e.g., “war is bad”) would serve to make one hesitate and demand justification. In the case of good behavior by an adversary, the burden of proof would be put on one’s own leaders to justify any inclination they might have to oppose good behavior simply because done by the wrong regime. In addition, having the scale at hand would make it easier to notice and harder to “ignore” a shift in behavior. The continuum also offers an easy way to promote the common good: attacking the bad behavior of adversaries need not be the focus of foreign policy; a great step forward could be made simply by applying the continuum to one’s own behavior, to see if “we” are truly setting an example for the world.

Several common behaviors suggest themselves immediately as harmful to the common good:

  • colonization;

  • aggression surpassing the scope of a threat;

  • collective punishment;

  • preventive war;

  • denying autonomy to a disliked and marginalized minority;

  • putting reporters on trial in secret;

  • arresting anyone for “insulting” a leader.

Several other common behaviors seem to deserve immediate support:

  • nuclear transparency;

  • obeying international law.

This short set of criteria already suffices to generate a good deal of thought…and no little embarrassment. Consider the example of how the West might tackle the problem of finding partners in the Mideast. Israel is guilty of colonization of the West Bank, multiple cases of aggression beyond the scope of any threat, nuclear ambiguity, and collective punishment of the residents of Gaza. Saudi Arabia is guilty of multiple cases of aggression beyond the scope of the threat (or perhaps “preventive war). Turkey is guilty of denying autonomy to a disliked minority, putting reporters on trial in secret, and arguably for arresting people for insulting the leader. Iran was guilty of nuclear ambiguity.

Are the charges accurate? Are there justifications? To what extent are the categories of equivalent seriousness? Given the ease with which one could find similar guilt among leading Western democracies, is the test so tough that no powerful state can pass? What constitutes passing?

That last question leads to two particular cases that stand out not for the nature of the states’ behavior so much as the change. Iran has, or at least one may so hope, abandoned nuclear ambiguity (in stark contrast to Israel). Turkey has, over the last year, shifted from a policy of democratization and inclusion of Turkish Kurds in its political system (note that the former has little meaning without the latter) to a policy of repressing the Kurds by not just fighting their extremists but also by marginalizing their politicians and more broadly restricting freedom of the press and freedom of expression for the whole Turkish population.

These two dramatic cases raise the issue of whether current regime behavior or the direction of change is more important. Given the extreme differences in the development of civilized governance within a given state over time and across states at any particular time, it might well be more logical to emphasize the direction of change. Given the need for progress in governance to evolve from within a society than be imposed from without, emphasizing the direction of change is also more likely to have practical value, particularly if the international community both practices what it preaches and reacts quickly to changes.

Obama’s decision to avoid receiving Erdogan at the end of March 2016, months after Erdogan’s shift toward repression and centralization became clear to the world, might thus be judged a good move but too little, too late. It may well be imagined that Erdogan has by now become so committed to his new policy of repression that a factional realignment of forces within his political party can offer much hope of setting Turkey back on the path to modernization, democratization, and secular inclusivity.

The Western call for new anti-Iranian sanctions for testing missiles in the context of the nuclear agreement is even more curious, sending the nearly unmistakable signal that despite the huge concession Iran made in settling the nuclear issue in the absence of a similar requirement being levied on Israel, the West remains committed to subjecting Iran to discriminatory rules. Is there any other state in the world that has been ordered by the West to forego the testing of missiles? More pointedly, are Saudi Arabia and Israel required to sign up to the rules concerning missiles that Iran is being told to follow? Of course, one might protest that “Iran is different,” but this argument is like pouring water into a wicker basket in view of the aggressive foreign policy of both Saudi Arabia (preventing Bahraini democratization, internationalizing the Yemeni civil war, pursuing regime change in Syria) and Israel (invading Lebanon, retaining the Golan Heights, imprisoning the people of Gaza in a ghetto).

The real issue in Tel Aviv and Riyadh is that, being both essentially fundamentalist religious regimes and expansionist nationalist regimes, they do not welcome the rising competition from yet another state playing the same game. For Tel Aviv and Riyadh, the issue is clear: they desire neither the military competition for regional influence nor the direct ideological challenge to their dreams of religious empire. For Western regimes, the Mideast confusion of competing fundamentalist religious and sectarian interests complicating and aggravating aggressive nationalist claims and counterclaims is—if addressed as such—impossibly arcane. To deal with this problem, Western regimes tend to simplify it by assigning essentially meaningless labels that facilitate decision-making while ensuring that those decisions will be counterproductive. In an effort to evade the cultural complexities of the Mideast, Western regimes thus become captive to those complexities, making themselves servants of whatever cultural group they happen to label as “friend,” for “friend” as a political term among states means “looking the other way,” i.e., renouncing your right to think for yourself and criticize your counterpart when you perceive improper behavior. A Western state should never support or oppose a Mideast state because of the religion or sect of the Mideastern society; the Western state’s attitude should instead be grounded in an open-eyed assessment of the nature of the behavior in question. Making this assessment with a carefully defined set of behavioral criteria in mind could help Western leaders to distinguish more accurately between beneficial and harmful behavior.

How the West should react to violence is the obvious case-in-point. The constant need for Western states to decide whether to support or oppose the endless Mideast acts of violence in the name of Shi’i, Jewish, or Sunni Salafi interests will always provoke a pointless and useless debate as long as the underlying question is: “Which sect’s acts of violence should the West support?” From the long-term perspective of Western democratic societies, the answer in the abstract is “None.” As the events from 9/11 to the late March 2016 terrorist attack in Brussels should make evident, sectarian violence is not in the interest of Western societies. Indeed, even if we have forgotten the horrors of the 16th century religious wars in France or the Thirty Years’ War a century later, we should have learned the lesson from the KKK and Kristalnacht.

But Western politicians try endlessly to distinguish “justifiable” violence by a regime or private group by looking first and foremost at the sectarian identity of the guilty. Over time, that approach accomplishes two things: it exposes Western politicians as hypocritical (thereby weakening the West’s credibility as a moral leader) and establishes a dynamic that degrades the foundations of Western democracy by setting into motion a cycle of cynicism and violence. Bad behavior, short-sighted behavior, brutal behavior, emotion-based rather than thoughtful behavior is always more readily copied than the other kind. The world is watching the steady contagion of calls by politicians for sectarian policies (building walls, patrolling urban regions based on the sect of the inhabitants, banning political parties that support the political integration of minorities); collective punishment (by mistreating refugees, stripping minority regions of political rights, suicide bombers or wars against cities); drones to kill presumed but untried and perhaps unidentified opponents (to date, in “other” countries). In each case, society goes down a slippery slope: the principle is at first violated in some seemingly benign manner (e.g., racial targeting) or extreme manner presumably done as an exception (e.g., killing a known and identified individual combatant posing a direct and immediate danger) that then leads both to less benign or more common violations while also quickly establishing a precedent. It may take generations for a leading world power to convince the world to accept a new principle (banning slavery; allowing women to participate in politics; religious freedom; the right to criticize the leader; open trials; making such terror weapons as poison gas, white phosphorous, barrel bombs, nuclear warheads illegal; granting autonomy to repressed minorities). Popularizing barbaric forms of behavior that violate accepted moral and legal principles, in sad contrast, happens effortlessly and almost instantly, with unpredictable but reliably negative consequences for progressive democratic societies. A world of wars against cities, repression of minorities, and the freedom to use whatever weapon one can design or buy is a world in which dictators and extremists flourish: only societies aspiring to peace and civil liberties suffer.

Democratic societies need to impose upon themselves a higher standard of behavior–particularly in the implementation of foreign policy–not just in some idealistic quest to make the world a better place but as the core of self-defense.

U.S.-Iranian Tactical Cooperation

A delicately balanced tactical military coalition including the U.S., Iran, and a range of Iraqi Shi’i militias is supporting Baghdad’s campaign to retake Mosul. The likelihood of this coalition holding together depends on how quickly it can defeat the Islamic State for its members have very different long-term agendas.

In a move closely paralleling the ground portion of U.S. strategy toward the Iraqi-Syrian theater, Iran plans to deploy army sharpshooters. The U.S. currently has 3,500 soldiers in Iraq and the Pentagon is planning to rotate in 1300 new soldiers this spring.The U.S. has also reportedly taken over Rmeilan Airbase in Kurdish-controlled Syria. A report in March, denied by CENTCOM, claimed that the U.S. is now running two bases in Syria. CENTCOM appeared to have been splitting words, for the spokesman continued by observing that “U.S. forces in Syria are consistently looking for ways to increase efficiency for logistics and personnel recovery support.”

How Washington and Tehran plan to coordinate their joint, boots-on-the-ground battlefield support for the various armies fighting the Islamic State is a hot political topic of immediate tactical military concern that officials in neither capital appear willing to discuss publicly. It is only logical to assume that Iranian and U.S. soldiers will be within firing distance of each other during the Iraqi campaign just launched to retake Mosul,. In Syria, with America’s Kurdish allies moving from the north toward Islamic State positions and Iran’s Damascus allies moving from the south, keeping a safe distance between U.S. and Iranian sharpshooters/targetteers/trainers may currently be less of a concern, though there is little reason for longer term nonchalance: a battlefield friendly fire incident is becoming increasingly possible and a false-flag operation to mar slowly warming U.S.-Iranian relations an extremely serious likelihood.

Just as U.S.-Russian air war strategy in the Iraqi-Syrian theater has become mirror-image, so has U.S.-Iranian ground strategy. But this appearance of a grand anti-Salafi coalition is marred by continued U.S. diplomatic support for Saudi military participation in the anti-Islamic State effort on the one side and the disagreement between Tehran and Washington over Assad. Short-term military cooperation thus contradicts long-term divergence of  political goals, setting the two sides up for a major problem that will require astute diplomatic maneuvering. Given the profound domestic political factionalism in both capitals, the likelihood of a rational diplomatic compromise appears slim.

The March 19 Islamic State attack on a new, supposedly secret U.S. base in Iraq and the public hostility of the Iranian-supported (if not controlled) Iraqi militias to a U.S. whose occupation is such a recent memory suggest a pitfall in the current U.S. strategy: the potential for so alienating the highly nationalistic militias that the U.S. effectively pushes them into a deal with the Islamic State.

US Iran Tactical Alliance

The above graph, “Competing and Cooperating in Iraq,” illustrates the current situation, in which a U.S.-Iranian-Shi’i militia coalition faces the Islamic State.

US Iran Tactical AllianceThis delicately balanced coalition could easily evolve into that illustrated in the second graph, “The Road to U.S. Defeat in Iraq,” where the militias are shown as having renounced cooperation with the U.S. in favor of a deal with the Islamic State. Such a deal would likely take the form of splitting Iraq into a Sunni region around Mosul and a Shi’i region around Baghdad. This would simplify the life of both sides by focusing their energies on the areas where they are popular while maintaining Iran’s route to the Levant but would represent a significant defeat for the U.S. goal of retaining influence in the central Mideast.

Putin’s Next Mideast Move

Does Putin have a strategic plan for the Mideast, or did he simply want to remind the world that the Sov…(sorry)…Russia still exists?

Putin showed his tactical skill and consolidated his military hold on a base in a non-state. Wow! There’s nothing like an isolated military base in a region in flames surrounded by ungoverned territory. One need only recall how fast the city-sized American bases in Iraq blew away in the desert sandstorms…which begs the question, “Does Putin have a strategic plan for the Mideast?”

Putin currently has three things going for him regarding the Mideast:

  • no personal record of interfering, getting bogged down, and slinking away;

  • a door opened wide by the West for marching in to take care of the Islamic State;

  • an Iran, now acceptable to the West (within limits), looking for assistance.

If Putin wants to turn his little escapade in Syria into a real strategy for establishing a Russian presence in the Mideast as a major player, he will never get a better chance than this.

Scenario 1. Turkey in Flames

It gets better from the perspective of a Kremlin looking to reassert itself, since Turkey is going up in flames, alienating both its friends and its own population. At the moment, Russian media appear to have the most accurate reporting on Ankara’s policy toward the Kurds and towards the Islamic State, and Moscow is making its case right now before the U.N. Obama looks hypocritical, as he dithers, trying to play both sides of the street, leaving the U.S. at the moment with no credible, defensible policy either toward its Turkish NATO partner or toward its new military ally, the Syrian Kurds.

This context could tempt a risk-taking Russian leader to push too hard and get into a real fight with menacing but preoccupied and self-defeating Turkey. Indeed, the proximity of Russian and Turkish forces on the Turkish border with Syria or Rojava or Islamic State plus the pattern of Turkish attacks on Syrian Kurds who have already established a degree of military coordination with Moscow make a serious Russian-Turkish clash almost predictable…even without the threatened Turkish invasion. This may have been central to the Kremlin’s decision to semi-withdraw: it makes Putin appear to be a peacemaker, thus facilitating his “return” to the battlefield in response to whichever of the daily Turkish provocations he chooses to notice. Erdogan, on the other hand, may decide that he needs the distraction of an international incident to cover his war against Turkish Kurdistan (a phrase justified by the overwhelming mass of evidence suggesting that Ankara is demonizing Kurds as a group rather than attempting to reassure Kurdish civilians and distinguish between them and the Kurdish extremists).

A Russian-Turkish confrontation might proceed as follows:

  • Moscow announces that it is providing anti-aircraft missile defense for Rojava;

  • Ankara announces plan to attack the Islamic State;

  • Ankara sends soldiers to protect the refugees on the Turkish border who have fled the Russian bombardment of Aleppo, taking the opportunity to blame Russia for the humanitarian catastrophe;

  • the stream of Turkish troops continues and moves straight past the refugee camps into the Syrian desert, cutting Rojava in half;

  • Ankara informs the U.S. that it must cover its “anti-terror” forces with air support and immediately does so.

What does Putin do?

Scenario 2: The Iran Card

Over the last six months, Putin has become the leader of a coalition comprising Iran, Assad’s forces, and Lebanese Hezbollah, with Putin flying the planes and the locals putting the boots on the ground. This coalition now stands exposed in an advanced military position. Two possible outcomes threaten to undermine Putin’s new status as a Mideast decision-maker: a defeat of these forces while Putin stands aside or an Iranian decision that continued support for Assad is too costly without firm military support by Moscow. It seems likely that Tehran will argue forcefully for some demonstration of Moscow’s commitment and that Putin will be persuaded that he must show some backbone.

To consolidate the new Russian coalition in the Mideast:

  • Installation of the SS-300 defensive missiles (less advanced than the missiles Putin has already put into his Syrian base) in Iran may be the simplest and safest move Putin could make to reassure Tehran. This would serve notice that Moscow has friends and will protect them.

  • A much more impressive step would be to play some military role in coordination with Iraqi and Iranian forces to support the long-awaited Iraqi campaign to retake Mosul. Washington would have a very hard time finding a legitimate reason for publicly opposing such a move, and it would effectively invite Iraq to join Moscow’s coalition. Given the difficulty Baghdad has had persuading Turkish military “visitors” to return to their own country, Baghdad might calculate that offering Putin landing rights for his splendid air force would enhance both Baghdad’s prestige and its chances of staying in control. Moscow could also mollify any Kurdish nervousness by offering arms or economic assistance.

In reality, it would seem reasonable to anticipate that both these scenarios will begin to play out simultaneously, with innumerable interactions having unpredictable consequences. Not the least of the wrinkles is the lack of any obvious benefit to the region’s Sunni majority. Putin can hardly offer Aleppo to Riyadh or Ankara as the new capital of a Syrian Sunni semi-autonomous area with the Russian military bases in the neighborhood – perhaps a post-Islamic State Raqqa?

At the moment, the vision in Putin’s mind may well be: A) providing air support for the Mosul campaign evolving into Iraqi membership in his Mideast coalition, B) negotiating a new Alawite regime in Damascus without Assad, C) overseeing the establishment of a semi-autonomous Rojava [Plan B: sacrifice the Kurds to mollify Erdogan], and D) launching a joint air war on the Islamic State with Washington. Low-cost, low-risk route to consolidating Moscow’s regional position: what could go wrong?

Putin Falls Short

Putin now strides the world stage, having caught everyone’s attention. But what of fundamental significance did he actually deliver?

Moscow has, with its Syria campaign, demonstrated a degree of tactical competence embarrassing and worrisome to the plodding, divided, and ideologically-bound Washington. In six months, Putin has shown that he can go anywhere, take the battlefield initiative, and wreck havoc…and he did it so well (tactically) that he walked away calmly leaving behind a solid little imperialist military base. Americans should really not mind that the next time a wave of U.S. imperialism blows into town there will be an adversary around to calm the Potomac fever.

Strategically, however, the Russian performance leaves much to be desired. Indeed, aside from demonstrating that Putin has the professional competence to leave town in time to save his own tail (not, in itself, by any means a valueless skill), what Putin really did in Syria was little more than copying the neo-con disaster in Iraq. What the world needs, in stark contrast, is a better answer. The world now has two powers that are very good at smashing stuff, possibly better than just one, since the existence of a second player may serve to minimize hubris, but smashing stuff is precisely the addiction that got us into this mess in the first place and certainly is not going to get us out. Putin deserves no credit for simply repeating the imperialist mistakes of the past.

Putin also merits the world’s condemnation for choosing to support a local bully who deserves to be headed for a World Court trial. Whatever else one says about Bush and Cheney, at least they targetted a truly evil criminal, whereas Putin supported one. Saddam and Assad are prime examples of why the concept of state sovereignty (holding that states are above the law) needs to be modernized.

Putin has consolidated Russia’s global position somewhat, but he certainly has not made the world a better place: he has not resolved any conflicts. Does he have a solution to the Syrian refugee problem? Has he figured out a way to put a less criminal team into place to rule in Damascus? Does he have a plan for defeating the Islamic State and, more importantly, replacing it with something that can offer civilians acceptable governance? Putin has surprised the world several times now, at a tactical level, starting with his barbaric onslaught on the city of Grozny. Where is the leader who can surprise the world with a morally acceptable strategic vision?

Designing a Mideast for People, Not Politicians

It is time to redesign the Mideast—for the inhabitants. Borders should reflect local aspirations, not the wishes of colonialists, corporations, or kings…and certainly not sectarian or religious extremists. This vision will remain a dream and the reality a nightmare, however, until the legal, institutional, and financial structure for implementing foreign policy is reformed to make it a little easier for politicians to choose constructive peace over destructive war.

A sort of raw democracy is spreading across the Mideast, not the nice Western kind with elections but the disorganized kind where desperate people vote by putting their lives on the line, and the list of places where significant social groups have formed to demand self-rule is impressively long: Palestine, Iraqi Kurdistan, Rojava, Sunni Iraq, Sunni Syria, and Houthi Yemen are among the most obvious, with Turkish Kurdistan next in line.

Can the world, which so loves to interfere in the Mideast, come up with a plan for facilitating the rational and peaceful realization of group aspirations for self-rule? This process is occurring already by extremely painful and dangerous self-organization, in a manner utterly devoid of fairness in view of the absence of any mediating structure. Houthis fighting for survival morph into aggressors against the rest of Yemen; jihadis take over Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis fighting for political rights; Syrian Kurds have the temporary support of both Washington and Moscow but face the threat of a Turkish invasion; Palestinians are left to be crushed, ignored by the world. Surely, the world can do better than either allowing the temperature of this political conflagration to continue to rise or returning to arbitrarily selected oppressors licensed to kill inside their borders.

The U.N. should declare a new class of political entities—essentially, autonomous regions—and define for them a bill of rights. The concept is of course hardly new, but the legal edifice and bureaucratic support structure fall far short of what is needed to address current global demands for redress of political suppression of minorities. The U.N. should further set up an office to which aspiring autonomous regions can apply for international recognition. While putting a concept on paper offers no guarantee of anything, once set up, precedents tend to gather momentum. Just look at the Magna Carta. With this precedent set and the U.N. office opened, Iraqi Sunnis, for example, would have an officially recognized third option, in addition to their two current choices of submitting to discrimination from the Shi’i regime in Baghdad or joining the Islamic State jihad.

For starters, these “autonomous region” entities should declare their borders and agree not to attack outside those borders, while other states should be prohibited from attacking across the borders into the regions. In other words, there should be no such nonsense as Ankara asserting the right to fire cannons into Syrian Kurdish areas or Israel asserting the right to steal the homes of Palestinians on the West Bank…or Syrian Kurds taking over Sunni villages. This would also establish a default procedure for such messy cases as the Houthis moving from defending themselves to attacking other social groups: to apply for protection, they would have to agree to vacate areas inhabited by non-allied groups.

Putting a little muscle behind the nice words, the U.N. should have a permanent force of mediators to facilitate the holding of votes in contested areas and to adjudicate disagreements. For example, a rule should be incorporated into international law for how to resolve delicate counterclaims about villages whose inhabitants were removed (ethnic cleansing) to permit another ethnic group to steal the land.

Self-governing regions have existed for centuries, but in each case every detail has to be argued out anew: there is no standard approach. Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in a manner designed to ensure the failure of the Hamas regime, which was not even allowed the freedom to maintain the local sewage system or import medicine yet Israel asserted complete freedom to bombard Gaza at will. Although this was an obviously unjust situation, Israel had not exactly violated a clear international law because it is not at all clear what international laws apply to “autonomous regions” or “ghettos” or whatever the legal term for Gaza may be. International law should be crystal clear: either a state “owns” a subordinate territory, in which case it has responsibilities to the residents or it walks away, in which case it loses all rights to interfere (a child is either a dependent or a free adult, and, by the way, even children may have some rights). A standard U.N. approach would facilitate matters by offering an abused population the ability simply to point to the rules and call for their enforcement.

Reality’s obvious cold splash in the face regarding this theorizing is the absence of force to compel all sides to follow the new rules. The designing of government, legal systems, democracy, justice is the work of centuries, many centuries, but it has to start somewhere. Today, the urgency of stopping the painfully clear decline of civilization in the Mideast, or perhaps more properly, in the behavior of the world toward the Mideast, demands some action. The outdated and much abused concept of state sovereignty, exploited by repressive regimes everywhere to justify their mistreatment of minorities (at the moment including Tel Aviv toward the Palestinians, Damascus toward Sunnis, Ankara toward Kurds) needs, in the name of civilization, a major overhaul: a concept that came out of the sectarian violence of the 30 Years’ War to offer a primitive Europe some measure of security has today become a critically dangerous impediment to security by facilitating a level of repression that threatens to overwhelm public authorities across the globe. The convenient bivariate choice of state sovereignty or chaos is vastly too simplistic in an age of massive individual and group empowerment, endangering more than protecting security.

The result of allowing legal principles to lag behind “facts on the ground” is that all sides typically disagree, with the conversation degenerating into chaos, but even when major actors agree, for them to find a path down which to stride hand-in-hand to resolve the type of sectarian conflict raging across the Mideast seems beyond the capacity of any set of politicians. The U.N. should provide such a path, such a set of bureaucratic procedures so that when, for example, an Obama and a Putin agree that a group such as the Syrian Kurds deserves its chance, a procedure will be available with a bureaucracy in place to follow that procedure.

When a state leader orders the military to attack, a vast bureaucracy springs into action, doing what it is hired and trained to do: a single word is all that is required from the politician at the top. When well-intentioned leaders want to solve complex sectarian discord, they are required virtually to reason from first principles and simultaneously launch a domestic legislative battle to obtain the necessary funds to do anything, and then look for expertise to conduct a novel and untested approach. Elephantine and grossly over-funded organizations, euphemistically known as “defense” departments, are structured to destroy things and naturally so on a regular basis, greatly harming everyone’s security; no remotely equivalent state structure for repairing what has broken exists. If names were more accurate, then it would be easier for voters to understand that when a state decides to buy itself a trillion dollar “destruction department,” it logically should also buy itself a trillion dollar “repair department.” The global political system is bureaucratically and financially structured to encourage war and discourage peaceful compromise across socio-cultural divides.

The U.N. cannot compel, but it could accomplish much by offering a few thoughtful opportunities to entice violence-prone politicians gently toward the rule of international law and the logical conduct of foreign policy.

Fitting Policy to the Real Mideast

A few thoughts on why the whole world is stumbling around in a daze when it comes to dealing with the Mideast…

The Mideast socio-political onion can be peeled to reveal a multitude of different levels of the “truth.” The level showing the whole Mideast as the victim of Western (including Israeli and Russian) interference is a persuasive one. An alternative level of rising relevance is Saudi-Iranian competition for regional control. A third level is the story of modernization (not necessarily implying Westernization). Interaction among levels must also be considered: Western interference both intensifies Saudi-Iranian competition and is intensified by that competition, for example. Similarly, both Arabs and Iranians have at various historical periods had cultures arguably the most sophisticated in the world, but each group now finds itself far behind to a great extent because of external manipulation: when the process of modernization takes center stage in a society, the degree to which that society is independent to make its own decisions makes a great deal of difference.

One would like to inquire into the chicken-and-egg question of which level comes first, but the question has no answer because an infinite array of causal pressures operate simultaneously. That does not mean the question, false though it may be in its simplistic form, does not merit investigation, however, because at any time a decision by a significant external player to resist the temptation to flood the region with armaments or to implement a historic policy of focusing its resources on positive actions to help the region rather than negative actions to take advantage of the region or simply to coerce it could serve as a significant tipping point. A current example is the opportunity presented by the fact that about a quarter of Syria’s entire population is now outside Syria and looking for a place to live. Imagine the impact of some state welcoming these millions and offering them the opportunity to create a new society! War is not the only possible response to events one does not like: those states that do not appreciate Moscow’s sudden aggressiveness in the Mideast over the last several months have the option of taking those Syrians Moscow does not want in its new little empire and creating a new and improved model of “Syria.”

If one cannot determine which image of Mideast reality is causal (for all the images, or levels, are “true” in the limited sense that they actually exist and influence events), one can at least attempt to keep all of them in mind whenever trying to figure out what is actually happening. So doing will make much more reasonable any subsequent discussion of such questions as, “What are U.S. national interests?” or “Can we make a positive difference?” [The U.S. has repeatedly demonstrated quite effectively that it has the capability to make a negative difference: it is very good at smashing stuff, and, not to pick on Washington, Moscow has also just recently demonstrated its own ability to “cure the disease by killing the patient.”]

In order to select a proper state policy toward the Mideast, then, one must ask how a candidate policy will affect each layer of the onion independently and also consider the impact of that impact resulting from the inherent interactions that occur between the layer under evaluation and other layers. In contrast, if one starts by assuming that the real story of the Mideast is simply Sunni-Shi’i competition or simply aggression by whatever sect one happens not to like at the moment or simply the result of evil Western interference, then one will “simply” be assured that whatever policy one selects will be doomed to failure.

Fighting Back

If the worst strategy is giving up, then getting down in the gutter with those who insist on trying to kill you (be they independent actors or states) is the second worse. It works best against lone criminals, worst against mistreated societies.

When the enemy lives off violence, what the defensive force may have believed was a strategy turns out to be nothing more than a counter-productive, very short-term tactic. At best, it only gets the defender a moment’s respite for finding a real strategy.

The real strategy is not surgery but addressing the causes.