Exceptional Israel?

Look at the latest pictures of the Israeli “Defense” Force in action ask yourself what is exceptional about Israel. Perhaps there was indeed an exceptional element in the return to Palestine of mistreated European Jews, the kibbutz movement, and the willingness to share the land with its inhabitants that was–hard as it may seem today–apparently common in the days before the creation of the Israeli state by the private Jewish militias and their successor, the IDF. Maybe…but that element in the European Jewish colonial story is hard to detect in Netanyahu’s hard, new, expansionist Israeli garrison state drunk on the hubris of America’s blank check.

“Wait, you are being unfair,” the right-wing, Likudnik supporters of Netanyahu the the U.S. will protest. “Everyone in the Mideast plays hard. What is so special about soldiers being allowed to mistreat minority civilians?” But that’s the point. Be it manhandling a crippled child or bombing civilians in Gaza with white phosphorous or looking the other way while terror gangs burn precious Palestinian olive groves, in the Mideast there is nothing at all special about thuggish regimes behaving in thuggish ways.

The only thing “exceptional” about the Netanyahu regime is the bent knee of certain American politicians.

Exactly What Does Netanyahu Want?

Netanyahu’s attitude toward the recent Western-Iranian nuclear accord is exactly the attitude of IRGC hardliners, a similarity that should make all of us very uneasy. What is really going on?

The level of hypocrisy in the treatment of the Iranian nuclear issue by the Netanyahu crowd, which—may I point out–includes many in the U.S. who were elected to public office to represent the interests of Americans and who also make a point to claim that they care about Israeli national security (even though that is not their responsibility), is illustrated by what should be the laughable idea that since Iran has now retreated from whatever plans it may have had for pursuing nuclear technology, therefore Israel deserves MORE weapons. Israelis concerned about their security are the first people who should be thanking Obama for significantly constraining Iran. Israelis concerned about their security are the first people who should be demanding that Washington do everything it can to ensure that the nuclear accord is honored. Obviously, in the first place, this means that Washington must be very careful to honor its commitments, for surely the Iranians will not abide by their agreement to curtail nuclear research one second after they decide that Washington is reneging.

Hence, current efforts by the GOP to prepare new sanctions are a direct threat to Israel, because such new punishment of Iran in response to its concession would be taken by any neutral observer, much less the highly suspicious Iranians (after all the times they have been mistreated by the West), as evidence that the U.S. cannot be trusted.

Nevertheless, the Netanyahu faction and its U.S. followers are demanding either A) that the U.S. discard the greatest diplomatic success it has had in years or B) that Iran be punished for saying “Yes.” Whatever it is that Netanyahu wants, it is not stopping Iranian nukes.

Israelis concerned about their national security should be cautioning the U.S. to avoid giving Iranian hardliners any excuse to cheat and should be coordinating carefully with the U.S. to ensure that Iranians get very visible and highly valuable rewards for backing down on their nuclear research program. Israelis concerned about their national security should be demanding that Israel follow the Iranian lead toward a Mideast nuclear regime that seeks to curtail and then eliminate nuclear weapons from the Mideast, which would constitute hard evidence that Iranian moderates could wave in the face of Iranian hardliners. Israelis concerned about Israeli national security should also be coordinating meticulously with the White House to set up the best possible international process for policing the nuclear agreement to minimize the possibility that it might fail. Stabbing the U.S. in the back, subverting U.S. diplomacy, and trying to push the U.S. into a war of aggression are not actions that enhance Israeli national security.

Far be it from me to pretend to read his mind, but there are a few obvious ways in which Netanyahu benefits from whipping up anti-Iranian war fever: 1) he gets elected; 2) he makes Americans forget what his supporters on the West Bank are doing – e.g., running terror raids burning olive groves; 3) he gets tons of U.S. weapons, which he obviously likes very much using; 4) he gets enormous influence over U.S. foreign policy. He thus becomes a global player (Ahmadinejad played this same game but less successfully.)

Perhaps others can improve on this list. In any case, Netanyahu clearly wants a war fever and is determined to find a way to get it back…even at the risk of actually provoking Iran into building the bomb after all.


Retired Israeli officials have made some very pointed observations about the illogical stance of Netanyahu. For example…

19 July 2015. Efraim Halevy, former Director of Mossad & head of Israel’s National Security Council: “If the nuclear issue is of cardinal existential importance, what is the point of canceling an agreement that distances Iran from the bomb in order to try to include in it clauses that pertain to terrorism, which certainly does not pose an existential threat to Israel?” [Yedioth Ahronoth, hosted by Americans for Peace Now]  [As quoted from Jewish Currents.]

The answer to Halevy’s rhetorical question is that the point of canceling the nuclear agreement in order to confuse the issue with “terrorism,” i.e., Iranian support for Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Assad and Palestine, is that those who are trying to confuse the two issues really are not concerned about the nuclear issue, always more red herring than reality in any case. The concern of the Netanyahu crowd is having the freedom to expand if possible and to maintain military hegemony over the region. Their concern is not nukes (Iran is impossibly far behind in that race) but the idea that Iran might have an independent foreign policy.  Israeli military hegemony requires that the U.S. roll over and play dead, which requires a war fever. The expansionist aspirations of the Greater Zion folks require the maintenance of “the Iranian nuclear threat.”

Will the New Governing Structure of the Mideast Work?

The increased diplomatic flexibility and the weakening of the taboos in which U.S. Mideast policy has been imprisoned for a generation of the new, post-nuclear accord Mideast may facilitate the always challenging effort by U.S. decision-makers to discern the U.S. national interest in the Mideast. Seen vaguely under bipolarity and only occasionally under U.S. hegemony, will tripartite oversight work better?

The U.S. national interest in the Mideast lies in promoting secularism, sectarian equality, and governance that both promotes economic development and rules with the consent of the governed. The new, post-nuclear accord Mideast is likely to be more conducive to such goals, not because of the intent of its regimes but because the rise in diplomatic flexibility resulting from the weakening of the U.S. taboo prohibiting criticism of the Israeli right wing and the elimination of the U.S. taboo on conducting state-to-state affairs with Iran offer the hope of reduced tensions. Reducing tensions facilitates the focus on economic growth: Iran will be freed from the Western embargo, which in turn will stimulate both regional and global economic cooperation. The Israeli right’s warmongering is likely to fall on increasingly deaf U.S. ears. Enhancing these likely near-term trends will be a flood of second-order diplomatic developments already visible in the Russian re-entry into the region and indications of a Chinese interest in establishing a military presence. Washington will have far more policy options in a world where it can balance Iran against Israel; regional countries will have far greater freedom of maneuver in a Mideast graced by the active involvement of Russia, China, and the U.S.

U.S. policy toward the Mideast has long been bedeviled by the simplistic urge to identify friends and then anoint them as “good,” a naïve enough step, but even more illogically, to assume that those not labeled as “friends” are by definition “evil.” Even if this sequence of assertions made sense, the whole sequence would remain invalid simply because no Mideast state is ever likely to be a “friend,” i.e., an entity genuinely concerned with the U.S. national interest. Even to hope for a long-term relationship based on sincerity and common goals is asking rather much. Foreign policy toward a region as convoluted and misunderstood as the Mideast should be based on demonstration of what we stand for and a willingness to do business on a case-by-case basis.

This simple logic, to our great misfortune, is a very hard sell to a busy policy-maker overwhelmed with the pace of Mideast change and the need to make rapid tactical adjustments in the nearly complete absence of any real insight into Mideast perceptions. Those in the Mideast who choose to style themselves as “friends of America” have acquired enormous power over U.S. policy by using political taboos in the U.S. as their primary weapon. The new Mideast political structure that is now emerging with noteworthy changes on virtually a daily basis seems likely to facilitate, indeed necessitate, a U.S. assertion of independence by means of the implementation of the less emotional, more professional attitude that other states are not prospective lovers, but simply prospective business associates, whether that business be trade or security.

The Emerging Mideast Political StructureThis new Mideast structure, instead of having the U.S. alone at the top, will have a troika: the U.S., Russia, and China. What China lacks in military power it will make up for by a more subtle and less threatening (thus, more acceptable) focus on the construction of long-term economic ties; its ability to compete for influence in the Mideast should not be overlooked. Russia is not the Soviet Union and need not exactly be feared, but it retains more than sufficient power projection capability to tip the balance and the decision-making capacity to choose its battles wisely, something that the U.S. consistently lacks, perhaps in part because the cost of being No. 1 seems to be that one can never “opt out.” The current series of informal but very serious U.S.-Russian discussions at every possible venue offering diplomats the fig-leaf of coincidental meetings is a welcome development but a needless charade. U.S.-Russian discussions about the Mideast should become a regular part of running the world, just the way major CEO’s have always “dropped by the club” in the evening for casual chats with their fiercest competitors. And China should be at the dinner table as well. The Mideast has made it crystal clear to the world that it can no longer be taken for granted to be abused or ignored as convenient for Western regimes. A quiet Tuesday evening at the club for Chinese, Russian, and U.S. policy-makers to share concerns about the Mideast would be a highly valuable step toward smoothing relations between the Mideast and the rest of the world.

Beneath the new global big power troika at the top of the Mideast political structure lies an expanded and empowered regional governing structure consisting of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel, and Iran, with a reality much more flexible that this simple list might imply. Yesterday, the essential structure was the U.S. at the top with three allies underneath: Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Israel. Today, beneath the new troika stand a Saudi Arabia making overtures to Russia, a Turkey blatantly undermining U.S. national interests by provoking sectarian warfare with the Kurds, and an Israel still trying to provoke the U.S. into committing aggression against Iran in the interests of Israel’s right-wing, militant faction. In this context, one could be forgiven for asking what the term “ally” actually means.

Similarly, it is now unclear to what degree the U.S. has any enemies among Mideast states. All are, more or less often, adversaries; all can be potential partners on a range of issues. The most pro-U.S. regional societies contain extremely dangerous political movements that cause enormous harm to U.S. national security even as they derive support from powerful and presumably patriotic American politicians. Nothing in politics misleads like a label.

But the point goes far beyond simply questioning the meaning of “ally” or “enemy.” Imagine running a company with a troika at the top and a square just beneath! Think of how such a cumbersome management structure would empower trouble-makers at the bottom! And the Mideast happens to have an extraordinarily large and vigorous selection of “trouble-makers,” another misleading label, by the way, that is commonly employed–with a sneer–on the banks of the Potomac to indicate an outsider with whom one disagrees, regardless of the merits of his cause. Trouble-makers make trouble because they are ignored, oppressed, marginalized. Many, in the Mideast, deserve the utmost sympathy and attention, and giving them sympathetic attention will typically limit the amount of “trouble” they cause, a point that most powerful people do not understand.

The third layer in the Mideast is composed of small states, a layer which is so complex that one cannot even make a list. Is Syria a state? Washington and Moscow are currently trying to answer that question. Is Iraq or Yemen still a state? How about the Islamic State or Rojava? Would the Mideast be better off with dozens of principalities? Should the world be discussing the creation of a regional security regime that would protect a Palestinian entity, three confessional entities in Lebanon, a couple of Kurdish entities,  Sunni and a Shi’i Iraqi entities, Alawite and Sunni entities in the portion of Syria excluded from Rojava, Houthi and Sunni entities in Yemen, etc.?

The fourth layer is composed of a host of militias that bubble up from a seething social sea of discontent and discriminatory if not utterly absent regimes.

A huge amount of diplomatic effort is currently going into figuring out how to extinguish the Islamic State fire. The Islamic State is a structure resting on the temporary combination of jihad and Iraqi Sunni discontent with a discriminatory government. Fires need to be extinguished, but jihadi lightning is not going to disappear any time soon, so the dry tinder of legitimate Sunni discontent logically needs be dealt with…in a benign manner. The issue of social justice, or to put it negatively, sectarian injustice, lies at the heart of Mideast instability: Israeli repression of Palestinians, Bahraini repression of Shi’i, Iraqi repression of Sunnis, Turkish repression of Kurds, Saudi repression of Houthis.

So, the core issue for Mideast affairs now is whether the new global triumvirate replacing the former hegemonic U.S. which replaced the older Cold War bipolar leadership can improve upon the two previous political structures, to wit:

  • Will the changes at the top enable Tehran, Baghdad, and Riyadh to devise a joint plan to help Iraqi Sunnis?

  • Will Washington finally help the Palestinians?

  • Will Washington protect the Kurds from renewed Turkish repression?

  • Will Tehran really support a new Syrian regime open to all sects?

  • Will anyone support an inclusive regime in Yemen?

The structure of Mideast politics at the top is undergoing a revolution, but the problems of the Mideast flow up from the structure at the bottom: whether the man in the street gets treated according to his behavior or on the basis of his ethnicity and religion. The big question for the Mideast today is whether or not the new political structure emerging at the top will be able to create conditions of greater political and social justice at the bottom.

Alternative Paths to a New Mideast

The restructuring of the Mideast has begun, with the sectarian division of Syria and a trade-off letting Saudi Arabia win in Yemen and Iran win in Syria constituting two possible alternatives. Can the Big Powers actually agree on a deal and implement it?

The U.S.-Iranian nuclear accord appears to be restructuring the Mideast, despite the desperate efforts by those profiting from the current mess to prevent that from happening. It is beginning to dawn on politicians in a number of capitals that playing with jihadi matches is in the process of setting an uncontrollable firestorm. What that structure will look like remains unclear, but at least two outcomes seem quite possible: 1) the complex Lebanonization of Syria and 2) a simple trade-off by which Riyadh gets Yemen and Tehran gets Syria. Riyadh and Tehran may well decide that dividing the region makes a lot more sense than endless warfare, but many on the sidelines are going to find such a cozy deal very unpalatable.

Durant 35 ans, nous avons vu lentement se creuser un gouffre entre les sunnites, dirigés par leur champion saoudien, et les chiites, commandés par leur leader iranien. Les premiers étaient censés défendre les États-Unis et leur modèle économique capitaliste, tandis que les seconds aspiraient à mourir en délivrant le monde de l’impérialisme anglo-saxon.

Ce conflit n’avait jamais existé à ce degré d’intensité dans l’Histoire, ni structuré de clivage économique. Il culmina avec les Frères musulmans, al-Qaïda et Daesh, trois mouvements financés par les monarchies du Golfe, à un moment ou à un autre, alliés à Israël contre les chiites. [Voltaire Net.]

To the degree that the Sunni-Shi’i conflict flowed from Cold War strategy–albeit now certainly serving very real Iranian, jihadi, and Israeli purposes–can it be viewed as something essentially artificial and thus something that can just be “turned off?” Things take on a life of their own, for sure, but local wars have their foreign sponsors. The Islamic State, without the aid of certain governments that claim to be its enemies, will not have it so easy. Iran has now been given, by Obama, an opportunity to redesign its foreign policy tactics to be more in tune with Western sensitivities without necessarily sacrificing its core strategic interests. As for the militarist right wing in Israel, without the “Iran threat” to mobilize Congress on its behalf, exactly where will it be in the emerging new Mideast?

That emerging new Mideast, according to Thierry Meysson, will be structured around a Saudi-Iranian compromise that seems likely to take the air out of the advocates of a greater Zion resting on Israeli regional military hegemony: i.e., a deal that “gives” poor Yemen to the increasingly bellicose Saudis while allowing Iran to retain its sphere of influence in Syria. The first half of this deal makes a lot of sense at a certain cold-hearted strategic level for Saudis: they get expansion and border security simultaneously (assuming, of course, that they can actually win a war in Yemen without burning down their own house). The second half of the deal makes a lot of sense for Iranians: they get to keep what they have by sacrificing what they never claimed to have and have little reason to think they could ever keep if they got it. That said, Tehran will have to swallow hard to sacrifice Yemen, and it is far from clear that Tehran has yet made that decision.

One obvious alternative to this restructuring of the region is the Lebanonization of Syria. That has its own problems: the opposition of Syrian patriots, the unwillingness of Ankara to live with a Syrian Kurdish entity on the Turkish border, the demographic complexity of ethnicities within Syria, the ease with which jihadis (for whom continuation of a Sunni-Shi’i sectarian war is an existential issue that, at this point, they presumably believe in) could upset the apple cart, the danger of pro-Saudis and pro-Iranians stepping on each other’s toes, and the apparent opposition of Moscow.

The first obstacle in all these strategic considerations is for Washington, Moscow, Tehran, and Riyadh to get on the same page. Then comes actually persevering long enough and with sufficient skill to overcome the fierce opposition of lesser players who have the advantage that undermining a strategy is easier than implementing one.

GOP-Likudnik Alliance Standing in the Way of History

While Republicans search for a way to undermine the new U.S.-Iranian nuclear deal, Secretary of State Kerry speaks publicly about talking to Moscow about including Iran in a refurbished anti-ISIS coalition. Given Turkish double-dealing, Washington does indeed need a refurbished strategy, and the whole diplomatic world can see that the nuclear deal opens the door to one including Iran.

The GOP of course has a shot at taking over the White House, but its gambit of undercutting a major U.S. foreign policy success may just make the GOP irrelevant by Election Day: the world is moving right along despite GOP-Israeli opposition to turn that opened door into a new reality. Tehran logically is trying to exploit Washington’s polite, if still none too friendly, invitation to participate in world affairs. Of course, Tehran would love to have global support for its desire to station troops in Syria! But the fact that Tehran is asking for approval in advance is Point #1 in support of the argument that a new phase is developing in Mideast affairs. Point #2 is that Moscow is defining the nuclear accord as confirmation that Iran can now participate in Mideast decision-making, which is the fundamental goal that Tehran has always had and precisely what Washington, intimidated by Israel’s warmonger-in-chief Netanyahu the Great, has always opposed. (Challenging Netanyahu were 340 U.S. rabbis who signed a letter to Congress endorsing the nuclear accord.) Point #3 is that Tehran is lobbying, with some success, Sunni states for their support!

Iran’s friendly overtures to Sunnis (“putting all us Sunni and Shi’i peace-lovers in one camp and global Sunni jihadis in another”) is brilliant diplomacy. What the fundamentalist Sunni regime in Riyadh is going to make of this…well, some of those folks are going to be tying themselves in knots, given recent ISIS terror strikes inside the jihadi homeland. Egypt, with its own ISIS problems prompting it to return to regional affairs after three years of focusing on domestic issues, seems suddenly eager to work with Iran.

Brilliant diplomacy or not, Tehran’s initiative to Sunnis is not likely to persuade Riyadh unless Tehran’s actions on the ground move in step with its new words. Tehran would be wise not to call too loudly for Iranian troops in Syria and to mumble something about “all leaders eventually having to step aside.” Here is the relevance of a fourth element suggesting that the old U.S. War Party – Likudnik  – Saudi Coalition against Iran and any other politically active reformist Muslim movement: Point #4 is that Iran is apparently now promoting, as a replacement for Assad’s dictatorship, the Lebanese model! It is, admittedly, rather difficult to imagine that Tehran decision-makers are united in support of a Syrian confederacy that would eviscerate Assad’s and, more, the Alawites’ power, leaving Assad as an elected figurehead at best in a multi-sect gathering of autonomous local statelets. That is the Lebanese model, and its literal application to Syria will be contentious. Nonetheless, for Tehran to give public backing to such an idea would represent a big step away from its formerly implacable support for Assad. No wonder Tehran wants the legitimization of militias! But that would risk returning Syria to precisely where it is at the moment—a land ravaged by militias. Tehran needs to find another way to project influence, as, indeed, do all the other powers interfering in the Syrian civil war.

Whether such steps would make an impression in Riyadh is one thing; another is Moscow’s reaction. Moscow, long ago run out of the Mideast by Washington, is now being courted by all sides, including Riyadh. The desperately outdated Iranian military needs Russian arms, not so much to use, for they would hardly defend Iran against the Israeli threat, but as a sign of Iranian diplomatic legitimacy. If those S-300 defensive missiles ever arrive and come with lots of Russian soldiers to “install and maintain,” that would give Iran a significant shield against Israeli aggression: less the ability to shoot down Israeli bombers than the risk of killing Russian troops. This is not the time for Iran to be giving anyone evidence that, as certain Saudis and Israelis claim, Tehran is intent upon reestablishing the Persian Empire. (The unveiling of a new surface-to-surface missile by Iran is, by the way, exactly the kind of provocative move that harms its interests; Iran can be its own worst enemy.) In fact, this is not the time for a new Ottoman empire, a new Caliphate, or a Zionist empire either.

Tehran has until November 2016 to establish itself as the new moderate in a region overflowing with extremists…and thereby relegate to history the GOP-Saudi-Likudnik regime-change threat. Can Tehran reinvent itself that fast?

Innovation for Society = A Healthy Stock Market

For a healthy financial system, corporate socialism to coddle billionaires and puff up the stock market is not the answer. Rather, as has always been common sense knowledge, the answer is economic fundamentals. Obama’s attack on the Koch Brothers for “standing in the way of history” is right on target.

To fix our corrupt and dysfunctional financial system, which has over the past generation transformed itself from being the engine of growth into a massive casino sucking the lifeblood out of our economy, we need to name names, put the financial deviants on trial, and focus on economic fundamentals. Derivatives don’t build the economy, but solar energy can.

As the stock market enters its second week of decline, Obama hits the financial nail on its head:

When you start seeing massive lobbying efforts backed by fossil fuel interests or conservative thinktanks or the Koch brothers, pushing for new laws to roll back renewable energy standards or prevent new clean energy businesses from succeeding, that’s a problem. That’s not the American way, that’s not progress, that’s not innovation. That’s trying to protect the old ways of doing business and standing in the way of the future….It’s about the past versus the future. And America believes in the future.” [The Guardian.]

The GOP under its Koch Brother sponsors no longer stands for the traditional conservative goal of business growth: the GOP has become the Party of Troglodytes, like the British factory workers who smashed spinning jennys, turning their backs on progress rather than adapting. More oil, more market bubbles, more poison flowing from Canada’s tar sands into American rivers…to further enrich a few billionaires at society’s expense. Obama was exactly correct: “It’s about the past versus the future.”

Corrupt Financial System Building Up for a New Crash

The world’s late-August, long-overdue market correction is sending a message that we need to take to heart: the billionaires are overreacting to Chinese policy moves because they know they have once again created the conditions, through their own avarice, for an historic financial collapse.

The current global stock plunge is not, so far, terribly serious, yet it matters because of the consistency of the decline and because it lasted over a weekend. Mostly, however, its significance lies in its message: we, the rich, are not confident. The rich, gamboling and gambling on Wall St. and in its lesser casinos, have overreacted to a very small Chinese financial correction precisely because they know that their behavior since the Great Recession of 2008–which they caused–has been nothing if not criminally irresponsible. In a word, they in their hubris have managed to blow the old bubble back up again, and they know they are sliding around on its soapy surface waiting for it to pop.

China’s economy has its own bubble, Europe is in the midst of a dirty financial civil war that is only going to get worse, and the U.S.–focused on pandering to the billionaires–has blown its opportunity to reform its financial system and thus remains stuck in the moral equivalent of recession. Whether measured by the number of homeowners who lost their homes, the number of total workers, the wages of those workers, the benefit packages those workers have, the number who have dropped out of the employment picture as a result of disenchantment with the system, or the number on food stamps, Americans remains in recession…except for the 1% who are nervously sliding around on the top of that stock market bubble irresponsible politicians have once again allowed them to puff up for their personal profit. The message, the meaning of the current little (so far) market slide is that the billionaires are scared…as well they should be. This in itself would be a good thing except that the thing about billionaires is that when they fail, we are the ones who pay.

Mideast Taboos Crumbling

Obama is knocking down Mideast taboos, making the resolution of all problems a little easier and the world a little safer. Meanwhile, certain senators play for the Likudnik gallery at the expense of U.S. national security, while the Republicans stand like deer in the electoral headlights.

With the U.S. Congress still tying itself in knots over the Obama Administration recognition that Iran is a real state with which one can actually discuss things and, blush, even do things—regardless of what Netanyahu’s little band of colonialists may think, the U.S.-Iran nuclear accord has already altered the face of the Mideast. Sunni Turkey and Shi’i Iran, on opposite sides regarding Syria for several years, have just cut a nice little ceasefire deal that could become the dress rehearsal for the obvious solution to the whole Syrian civil war, i.e., a “confessional” cutting of the Syrian pie Lebanese-style, so everyone gets a piece.

One very interesting aspect of the little information so far available is the apparent absence from the table of Saudi Arabia. Since when, one might ask, does Turkey represent the regional interests of Sunnis? A second striking absence is of course that of Washington, which seems either to be playing it cool—very astute, if true—or to be out of the loop. No matter, Obama still deserves credit for removing the very damaging taboo against Iran.

The Islamic State, recognizing that any Turkish-Iranian accord will put them right in the crosshairs, tried and failed to derail the accord. We shall see what impact all this has on the fight against the Islamic State, in which Turkey and Iran are officially on the same side already, albeit not very effectively.

The biggest Mideast taboo is the militaristic behavior of Israel; that taboo remains firmly in place…for now. The second biggest taboo was the exclusion of Iran. That has now been removed and in only days is already causing visible aftershocks. As regional diplomacy gains flexibility, the highly discriminatory rules of state behavior will increasingly be challenged. Expect the powerful to express outrage. Encourage Obama to have the courage to stay the course. Pray for a new U.S. president who will think before acting: opportunities will exist.

The Theory of Intervention in a Complex World

To the degree that a foreign dispute is sectarian or otherwise cultural in nature, it will be complex in the scientific sense of being characterized by self-organization, co-evolution, and other dynamic processes making it extremely difficult to understand. U.S. national security in the current world requires a scientific discipline to guide decision-makers faced with the perilous questions, “Should we intervene…and how?”


Society is complex. Culture, ethnicity, self-identity…even if all the interacting facets of society were fixed, we could hardly unravel social impulses and taboos. “Wait,” you interrupt, “culture changes so slowly as to be effectively fixed, and obviously ethnicity is fixed.” Culture changes slowly? The election of a leader who takes his country on the path of aggression can, in the space of a few years, significantly, painfully shift the culture of how managers treat employees in a civil service or the morality of the whole population. A democracy that becomes an international bully will become more authoritarian, more intolerant at home, digging its own grave. As for self-identity, a child will tell his mother that “I can do whatever I want,” a succinct self-identification if there ever was one; a young adult will self-identify as a patriot; a mature individual may self-identify as a “citizen of the world.” Even ethnicity changes. The Alawite ethnic group, so important today in Mideast affairs, arguably does not even exist, having been dreamed up by French colonialists for their own political purposes. It seems that none of the aspects of our existence which we most cherish is fixed. What sense, then, does it make to put transitory features on a pedestal? Nonetheless, logical or not, the social features impact life and death decisions.

Yet all that social complexity is but the foundation, in and of itself not substantially more interesting than the concrete in a building foundation. The fascinating and significant part is the behavior. Behavior is what makes humans great…and what gets us in trouble. The social complexity only matters to the degree that it affects behavior. If we behave according to an agreed set of rules, then culture, ethnicity, and self-identity become nothing but incidental bits of trivia. We not only resist other people’s rules but also blame other people’s ethnicity or culture for their “failure” to accept the rules we like. The result is a seething social foundation provoking a riotous behavioral complexity.

Perhaps it is no wonder that we can build atomic bombs but cannot govern ourselves. After all, the basic idea of the atomic bomb is simplicity itself: just put a bunch of uranium atoms real close together and “boom!” Governance, in contrast, requires manipulating countless semi-independent actors in a vague hierarchy of social structure “resting,” or rather bouncing up and down, on a jiggling and evolving social foundation.

One reason for our confusion, painfully evident in the endless missteps of Western regimes trying to influence Mideast affairs but also at the core of Western problems with China and a fatal weakness for North American First Nation people in their efforts to manage the white invasion of their land, is the lack of human agreement across cultures about what constitutes the core “actor.” The typical First Nation view of contracts in the early days of contact with whites seems to have been that one could buy and sell the right to use something, e.g., land, but not the right to keep it or prevent others from using it or to destroy it. One might call the core actor here “God” or “our heritage,” but it is certainly not the individual. Centuries later, whites can still hardly even imagine a society with such a…well…civilized moral vision. Where Chinese may make business decisions on the basis of family or clan interests, Westerners may see nepotism or corruption. Regarding the Mideast, Westerners are likely to view suicide to make a political statement as a sign of insanity: it is very hard for someone convinced that his personal survival and success constitute the most important criterion for governing behavior that in a different society, the ethnic group might be the core actor.

There is no language in which to negotiate a political solution if the two sides do not understand what each considers to be the core “actor.” Is it individual voters, ethnic groups, religious groups, political parties, economic classes, or billionaires vs. the rest of us? At what level is the actor worth dying for? For the last 150 years, a civil war has been fought in Colombia in which the core actor in the minds of most politicians in Bogota has probably been the cattle baron class. What would the impact on U.S. foreign policy have been if the question had been posed in the beginning in Washington: “Mr. President, would you like to commit the U.S. to spending billions of dollars over the next few decades to support a campaign by the rich cattle baron class to disenfranchise the landed peasantry?” A struggle some in Washington may have seen as essentially communist vs. non-communist or drug dealer vs. the U.S. public was not necessarily viewed in the same way in the land where the battle was actually being fought. The point here is not to debate which perspective is correct: it is always hard to say at the start what the end result of a long struggle will be; rather, the point is the importance of figuring out how a conflict is viewed by the participants before involving oneself.

There is also little hope of foreseeing an adversary’s behavior without comprehension of the adversary’s priorities, and one’s opinion about what constitutes the core actor leads directly to one’s priorities. Whether “Allawite” was a real traditional ethnic group or just the invention of French colonialists a century ago, if a certain group of people have made a political alliance and now call themselves “Allawites,” then that group now constitutes an actor, and one must then ask where the members of that group placed their self-identity on, say, a continuum going from “Syrian citizen” to “Allawite.” Note that the very state of Syria is, of course, yet another French invention, and there is absolutely no reason to assume that anyone living there would automatically pledge any allegiance whatsoever to this foreign concept inflicted upon them after the European carnage called WWI. Indeed, the whole concept of “state” rests very delicately upon the shoulders of the average member of most Mideast societies. After all, that too is a Western invention and a rather recent one, designed to mitigate the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War, a period of insane ethnic conflict aggravated by all sorts of war profiteers…rather like the situation in the Mideast today.

Perhaps the best strategy is to back off and let the various Mideastern social groups have four centuries or so to work out their internal affairs. We in the West are very proud of our accomplishment…of having finally all learned to love, or at least respect, each other—German bankers and Greeks, for example. Give the folks in the Mideast some breathing room: learning to love your neighboring sect takes some time. One can only hope that four centuries from now, the newly structured Mideast state system will not bring to our globe a pair of world wars like those that the newly structured European state system inflicted upon mankind. Do we in the West really want to tell Arabs and Turks and Iranians and Kurds and Allawites, etc., etc. to follow in our footsteps?

Who Are We Dealing With?

To conclude from the above overview that getting involved in foreign sectarian conflicts is always a bad idea is much too simplistic. The overview does, however, argue for two steps before implicating the country in such a foreign dispute:

  • Determine how the participants really view the battle. This is critical to judging what outcome will be in our interests.

  • Determine how the participants’ perspective might be changed to our advantage. This informs the key implementation step, namely, the selection of tactics.

If the first decision concerns the strategic issue, “Should we get involved?”, the second concerns the tactical issue, “What type of involvement will serve our interests?”

Strategically, involvement may be counterproductive. If a landed elite is trying to dispossess poor farmers, then supporting the elite is likely to provoke, rather than prevent, a rebellion by the poor. If a friendly regime discriminates against a domestic ethnic group, then supporting the regime is likely to provoke, rather than prevent, sectarian civil war.

Tactically, involvement in the wrong way may backfire. Do drones stop rebellions by dangerous radicals or infuriate and radicalize moderate civilians? Does military aid save a modernizing society or pass it into the hands of a military dictatorship, paving the way for a more lethal revolution in the future?

If these are simplistic questions, then why are these exactly the questions that Western countries so consistently answer wrong when contemplating intervention?

Needed: A Theory of Sectarian War As a Complex Phenomenon.

It is no wonder a Western state can easily come up with the wrong answers to the basic questions that need to be answered with precision before intervening in a foreign ethnic dispute: we really have no process for determining these answers, Figuring out the actual dynamics of a foreign dispute involving sectarian and cultural divisions is theoretically an unresolved research question, albeit much studied. Complexity itself is an unresolved scientific phenomenon, especially as applied to social issues, and complexity—coevolution, emergence, self-organization, etc.—lies at the heart of the problem of understanding cultural and sectarian disputes. If humans dedicated the rest of this so-far benighted and barbaric century to creating a scientific discipline for understanding sectarian war, it would be a century well spent. Perhaps the first step in this daunting effort is to recognize that complexity, being a story of everything influencing everything else in an environment of endless motion in no particular direction, represents not just confusion but opportunity because a complex environment is one open at all points to influence.

U.S.-Iranian Shared Interests

Iran has gotten a lot of bad press in the U.S. and Israel; the other side of the coin is carefully concealed. But an active Iran participating in world affairs offers some real benefits. Several are subtle and long-term, but there are also some obvious benefits for U.S. national security that many Americans overlook because the media ignores them:

  • Iran opposes Sunni jihadis.

  • Iran has oil and gas that West Europe needs to free itself from dependence on Russia.

  • An economically progressing Iran will be a natural trade partner for Pakistan and help stabilize that country, perhaps preventing it from becoming the next failed state overwhelmed by Sunni radicalism.

Phone your Congressional representatives. They probably didn’t know this either.