Neither Ankara nor Washington nor Tehran can figure out a logical strategic response to the increasingly consolidated and powerful IS. It would be ironic indeed if the long mistreated and repressed Kurdish people turned out to be the ones who slapped some sense into all the self-important politicians of Washington, Ankara, Riyadh, Baghdad, and Tehran.
The Kurds–the one group with a relatively clear, logical, consistent strategy toward the Islamic State (IS)–have reportedly launched a military attack to free Sinjar, claimed to be key to the unity of the revolutionary extremist entity that now rules from Mosul (in the former state of Iraq) to Raqqa (in the former state of Syria). If all this is true, then the Kurdish attack has numerous implications:
1. its success would make cooperation with the Kurds very important for any state opposing IS and establish the Kurds as a major player;
2. its success would offer Baghdad a major opportunity to regain the initiative, and the response of Iran will say much about the direction that country wants to take now that it is sitting at the negotiating table with world powers to settle the fate of Syria;
3. Kurdish success would force the US to get off the fence and show its hand – either by supporting the Kurds and making a serious effort to defeat IS or by betraying the Kurds and revealing that it really does not care about defeating IS.
The current US policy of tolerating Turkish shelling of Kurds while bombing IS in support of Kurdish attacks will have its internal inconsistency exposed if the Kurds find themselves in control of IS transportation routes between Raqqa and Mosul, and Washington will need to determine its priorities. Will Washington protect the Kurds against Turkey and work with Iran to stabilize Iraq…or continue to waffle between anti-IS strategy and anti-Assad strategy, allowing a golden opportunity to slip away?
The current Turkish policy of attacking the Kurds who are allies of the U.S. is equally frought with internal inconsistencies: what is a NATO member doing attacking the military ally of the U.S. at the same time as the U.S. is supporting that ally’s military offensive against an entity (IS) that is supposed to be the common enemy of all three? And how can Washington tolerate such behavior?
The current Iranian policy of calling the U.S. an enemy even while supposedly working alongside the U.S. to restore Baghdad’s control over Iraq and the current Iranian policy of fighting IS in Iraq while giving IS a pass in Syria in order to focus on protecting Assad are no less contradictory.
Neither Ankara nor Washington nor Tehran can figure out a logical strategic response to the increasingly consolidated and powerful IS. The longer the key players continue to hesitate and trip over their own feet, the more empowered will be the Salafi extremists and the more chaotic will be the core of the Mideast, with predictable consequences for the stability of all the states surrounding the core, from Turkey to Saudi Arabia and for the security of the U.S., West Europe, and Russia. The regional hydrocarbons are precious to be sure, but it would be vastly cheaper simply to establish the priority of defeating IS and then buy the hydrocarbons from whatever non-extremist regime ends up in control. It would be ironic indeed if the long mistreated and repressed Kurdish people turned out to be the ones who slapped some sense into all the self-important politicians of Washington, Ankara, Riyadh, Baghdad, and Tehran.
During the first week after the Vienna talks about the future of Syria, state behavior demonstrated no movement toward conflict resolution and, if anything, revealed increased determination to fight for zero-sum victory. Despite some cooperation against the Islamic State, in general Syria remained a battlefield for contradictory state agendas.
Following the Vienna talks, the world might have hoped for at least some international steps away from private agendas and in the direction of compromise. Iran and Russia might have laid out a mechanism for fair and open elections, e.g., by proposing an interim, internationally monitored regime for the purpose, rather than proposing elections to be held under Assad’s control. Turkey and the U.S. might have moved toward some arrangement supporting a Kurdish entity in Syria with safeguards against Kurdish attacks on Turkey or Turkish attacks on the Syrian Kurdish entity. Iran and Saudi Arabia might have worked out an arrangement for respective spheres of influence or joint pursuit of economic interests in Syria. New international financing of refugee camps in neighboring countries might have been offered. Specific regions, e.g., Rojava, might have been offered precise military security guarantees. U.S. steps to encourage Sunni-Kurdish cooperation, in particular the avoidance of ethnic discrimination in ethnically mixed areas being seized from the Islamic State would seem a particularly non-controversial and low-cost positive opportunity lost during the week. One week after the Vienna talks, it is hard to detect any movement in these directions. Instead, international attention remains focused on warfare, with a subordinate effort to control the refugee flow into Europe (but not on altering the horrifying conditions provoking that flow).
The diagram tells a clear story of state focus exclusively on punishments to resolve the Syrian conflict. The numbers indicate events in date order. Even the events categorized in the blue quadrant belong there only in the sense that they represent a positive-sum outcome for the states opposing the Islamic State (not clearly contributing to a positive-sum resolution of the Syrian conflict per se). Both the absence of events in the green quadrant and the absence of any movement over time toward the green quadrant suggest the absence of progress toward a positive-sum resolution of the Syrian conflict.
Toward a Solution
Instead of the state-centric solution, which may make global leaders feel comfortable but which is all but irrelevant in the ethnic war zone of the central Mideast, a more realistic approach might be to actually listen to the people who live there. If there is a single clear message coming from the diverse population of Sunnis, Shi’a, Kurds, Alawites, and smaller minorities across the region formerly occupied by Iraq and Syria, it would seem to be this: “Get off my back!” Kurdistan offers a model: in the absence of major interference from global powers, Kurdistan has not only figured out how to govern itself and avoid the fatal temptation of trying to conquer its neighbors, but it has managed to establish critical trade ties with, of all countries, Turkey. If Turkey can live in peace with a Kurdish state, then perhaps there is indeed hope for the region.
Ali Khedery, who spent 2003 to 2010 advising the U.S. in Iraq, summed up the steps forward in “Iraq in Pieces” [Foreign Affairs, Nov/Dec 2015, 33-41]: “broker cease-fires, deploy peacekeepers, and, as administrative and security conditions permit, allow every district in Iraq and Syria to conduct cascades of UN-monitored referendums.”  Even if the security disaster justifies the continued military moves of the global powers so eager to profit from interfering in the Mideast, they should be emphasizing the definition and defense of peaceful regions, followed immediately by the facilitation of local self-government. The millions of refugees would be likely to vote with their feet faster than the U.N. could even organize referendums.
Obama just put military “boots on the ground;” Putin seems suddenly to have several thousand troops in Syria; Khamenei appears to be keeping pace; Erdogan is firing cannons at the backs of Syrian Kurds even as they attack the Islamic State. Where are the U.S. or Russian or Iranian or Turkish civil society boots on the ground? Where are the construction crews and aid packages to construct new cities for the refugees?
Beyond such straightforward steps that any state sincerely trying to help the Syrian and Iraqi people could take unilaterally, where is the creative diplomacy?
Are Ankara and Washington trying to define mutually acceptable rules for the existence of a Rojava canton? Surely, now safely elected, Erdogan could understand that chaos on his Syrian border is not conducive to Turkish national security?
Are Moscow and Washington discussing a way to ensure each an acceptable sphere of influence in a new Syria? Surely the threat of the Islamic State is sufficient to persuade both that sharing influence and defeating the Islamic State would be more advantageous than an endless proxy war?
Can Tehran and Riyadh find no common ground in a collapsed state that contains both Sunni and Shi’i populations in need of peace? If the Islamic State poses the threat of terrorism and needless expenditure of resources to the U.S. and Russia, it poses a potentially existential threat to Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Is it so difficult for all the European states and Turkey now so preoccupied with the flood across their borders of Syrian refugees to imagine that aid dollars to resettle refugees within the Mideast would be more effective than moving the whole Syrian population into Europe and Turkey?
When one looks at the international resources being poured into warfare in Syria and the lack of activity to build peaceful society there, the utter failure of the Vienna talks to spur the international community into taking positive action stands as a crushing indictment of the regimes concerned.
After four years of unrelenting savagery in Syria partly provoked by, steadily fueled by, and frequently serving the interests of a wide range of globally significant states, those states finally decided that they should take the extraordinary step of actually sitting down together to discuss the mess that they—and Syria—are in. The result in Vienna was a brilliant, lowest-common-denominator agreement that the mess should be cleaned up, and then they all poured more gasoline on the fire. So, where does this leave Syria?
It seems logical to consider the propensity to use force on the part of the Vienna participants to be a key causal factor of the Syrian crisis. To implement this factor in an analytical framework for evaluating the possible futures of Syria, a continuum going from “offering rewards” at one extreme to “punishment” at the other is defined. [The slightly distinct choices of “violent” vs “peaceful” approaches is less satisfactory because violence is actually just an extreme version of punishment. This may appear a tedious distinction but has major impacts in actual world affairs: the misuse of negotiations as a weapon (“we only talk to people whom we like” or “surrender and then we will negotiate”) rather than as an opportunity to find common ground has plagued international diplomacy in recent years. Peaceful methods of punishing and thus unnecessarily alienating opponents who might otherwise have proven open to compromise are well known to those whose goals are zero-sum.]
But focusing on the choice of punishment or reward is to focus on method. A different perspective might focus on goals. A general way to start thinking about goals, rather than delving immediately into enumerating them, is to consider the willingness of the players to compromise, viewing the achievement of a positive-sum outcome vs. a zero-sum outcome to be the most fundamental set of alternative goals (assuming that a negative-sum outcome, albeit highly likely in reality, would never be anyone’s goal).
With the propensity to use force and the degree of support for a positive-sum outcome as the two causal factors, perhaps it will be possible to think more usefully about the future of Syria than the participants in the Vienna meeting did, judging from the meeting’s public report, which called for such achievements as the maintenance of a currently non-existent state and its currently non-functioning institutions.
The two factors generate four scenarios, a mechanical step designed to create an analytical framework for asking the interesting question, “How?” The answer should be phrased in terms of dynamics but importantly of multiple, alternative (or more realistically, interacting) dynamics. One quarter of the analytical framework depicts the portion of the landscape of potential futures in which the actors prefer offering rewards to achieve a positive-sum outcome. How this abstraction, for Syria, actually take place will surely have considerable impact on the outcome, so the model should reflect the likely existence of multiple processes, perhaps simultaneous and interacting, perhaps mutually exclusive alternatives. In other words, the complexity of reality is such that it is simply delusional to think of a set of four alternatives per se–“success,” “failure,” and a couple of muddled-up ones—as having much analytical value. To derive useful scenarios, each quadrant of the landscape needs a description laying out the major alternative sets of dynamics that are considered likely candidates as the real-world future unfolds.
It is not at all clear what states might prefer a positive-sum outcome, but assuming for the moment that such were the case for Syrian conflict, would rewarding the state or rewarding all political actors or rewarding citizens individually (e.g., by protecting refugees and providing them with jobs) be more effective? Do rewards even work in the absence of punishments? In practice, punishments are so greatly favored by external forces and domestic ruling elites once a crisis breaks out that it is not clear that any convincing evidence even exists to demonstrate how effective a policy strongly emphasizing rewards might be. Truth and reconciliation committees as well as pardoning in advance state leaders accused of criminal behavior rather than holding them accountable in court have both been tried by various states for domestic purposes with mixed results. Across state borders, war crimes trials of key leaders plus forgiveness for those “just following orders” has had some success, from Nuremburg to Serbia, but only for defeated states. The leaders of victorious states remain outside the law, too big to jail. The world may know the impact of a three-trillion-dollar war, but what might be the impact of a three-trillion-dollar aid program? In contrast to the Vienna meeting’s emphasis on preserving the Syrian state, an effective reward strategy might well consist of ignoring the state as a permanent Syrian structure (replacing it with temporary U.N. mandate status or a confessional structure on the Lebanese model) combined with rewards to all cooperative political groups (e.g., formal recognition of their legitimacy) and individuals (e.g., economic and physical security, civil services, jobs, civil liberties). The problem here is not the cost, for the funds saved by avoiding war would surely go a very long way, but the political punch of war profiteer armaments firms plus the much longer time frame of building a society in comparison to destroying one. And yet, with the Syrian conflict now in its fifth year and the Iraqi conflict in its second decade since the U.S. invasion, wars as well as “democracy building” risk outlasting the patience of the populations paying for them. Identifying the most important alternative processes that might govern the outcome, given consensus on emphasizing rewards in a search for a positive-sum outcome, will clearly not be a trivial step in the analysis. The gap between analytical frameworks and reality, to conclude this warning message, is not trivial.
But any formal beginning point offers at least the hope of improving on the current real world mess. With “conflict resolution strategy” and “goal” of the decision-making states as the two key axes along which the possible futures of Syria might be plotted, four ideal quadrants within the landscape of future possibilities are generated. (The ability of Syrians to control their own future is obviously being ignored in this analysis, just as the Vienna participants chose not to invite any Syrians to attend.) The red quadrant represents the determination of each of the international actors to punish adversaries in order to achieve victory at the expense of the rest. The red color could thus be said to represent the anger that most participants would feel as they returned home, defeated and humiliated. Punishing adversaries to achieve unilateral victory is a short-term strategy, one example of how unequal the four neat-looking quadrants actually are.The green quadrant represents a totally different concept of political process in which the goal is to devise a creative solution that will offer something to everyone. The degree to which this entails sacrifice is a function of the creativity of the participants. Peace, the growth of trade, and the development of a healthy civil society are beneficial to most, albeit not to aspiring dictators, war profiteers, or criminal gangs. In the Syrian case, both Saudi Arabia and Iran could end up with hydrocarbon pipelines crossing Syria; Russia could retain its naval base while the U.S. retained ties to the Kurds. Many apparent contradictions only appear so because of the limited imagination of the sides in an argument. But it is crucial to understand that pursuing any potential solution in the green quadrant will require careful thinking, gradual implementation, and long-term attention to detail. It is Syria’s tragedy that the U.S. is entering into an election season.
The gray quadrant could be labeled the “zone of hypocrisy,” a murky region in which diplomats pretend to be nice in order perhaps to avoid the dangers of losing legitimacy at home or sliding into an unwanted great power military conflict but all the while remain intent on defeating their adversaries. This is the zone where negotiations are offered as rewards for submission in the hopes that weaker adversaries will then reject negotiations, allowing the aggressor the opportunity to attack with the justification that “they only understand the language of force.”
The blue quadrant represents the curious situation in which the adversaries prefer a positive-sum outcome but decide that punishing others rather than cooperating is the only way to achieve the win-win goal. The apparent contradiction lies in the details: if all prefer positive-sum outcomes, then presumably they will work to minimize the duration of punishment and the number of adversaries on which it is inflicted while they hasten to define clear conditions for escaping from that punishment. This last point is important: international negotiation success frequently hinges on the precision of the escape clause. Just to note the most famous current example, the details of exactly what Iran has to do to achieve an end to the economic war launched against it by the U.S. and exactly what the U.S. will do to reward Iran are now the crux of U.S.-Iranian relations. For Syria, if the world wants the positive-sum solution of a Syrian democracy to be created by the Syrian people, as all Syrians come together to sing Kumbaya, exactly what will Assad be doing and exactly who will be in control of the Syrian armed forces?
Clearly, a political landscape depicted as four equal quadrants is grossly simplistic, but it sets the stage for a few observations. The red and green quadrants are extremes, the red to be avoided at all cost by those desiring a long-term solution built on improving civilization as we know it; the green an extreme to be undermined at all cost by those who wish to overthrow the contemporary system (e.g., the Islamic State) or continue to exploit its well-known deficiencies (e.g., war profiteers). In the Syrian case, many forces may turn out to be much closer to revolutionary forces than they may appear. In particular, Turkey seems to be at a three-sided tipping point, hesitating to choose among democracy, a race war against the Kurds, and a bid to re-establish a caliphate under its control. Iran also stands at a tipping point, vigorously debating the choice between accepting its new invitation to become part of the regional decision-making process or focusing on leading a Shi’i revival. Add to this equation a newly aggressive Saudi Arabia jumping from a quick military victory in Bahrain to an agonizing conflict in Yemen, an Israel quietly eyeing the possibilities of expanding its influence across the region, and a widespread Kurdish sense that their moment is finally coming after decades of repression. It will take a great deal of diplomatic creativity to devise a positive-sum outcome addressing all the contradictions inherent in these various aspirations.
The red and green quadrants are regions of relative simplicity and durability. A common decision to place policy here offers the hope of success. The gray and blue quadrants, in contrast, are areas of instability and rapid evolution. To the degree that regimes follow the internally contradictory strategies of the gray and blue quadrants, anticipate rapid tactical shifts, e.g., a short-term punishment followed by a diplomatic breakthrough and alliance shift.
At the moment, the emphasis is on punishment, with all sides adding military force. Europe is trying to buck this trend by improving its treatment of Syrian refugees, but that is a small step so far in comparison to U.S., Russian, and Iranian military moves plus the steady Turkish rise in hostility toward both its own Kurds and Kurds in Syria. Perhaps even more seriously, everyone appears clearly to see the many uses of the Islamic State, giving the lie to the Vienna meeting’s call for its defeat. Turkey is using the Islamic State as the rock on which to smash Syrian Kurdish aspirations for liberty; Saudi Arabia can never make up its mind whether Sunni extremists are friends or enemies; and Iran may well be contemplating the possibility of letting the Islamic State survive in control of Sunni Iraq and Sunni Syria in return for keeping its allies in control of Alawite Damascus; at least, such would seem to be the logic of tacitly joining the U.S. to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq but insisting on blocking the elimination of Assad’s dictatorship. Russia is blatantly using the Islamic State as cover for returning to the Mideast. As for the U.S., is its priority the defeat of Assad or the defeat of the Islamic State?
Rewards, enticements to persuade others to implement moderate, constructive policies are few and far between. The U.S. is not even protecting its own Syrian Kurdish allies-of-the-moment. Is the U.S. offering Iran anything to persuade it to relinquish Assad? Is the U.S. offering Turkey anything to induce it to step back from war against the Kurds? Are Russia and the U.S. seriously discussing any sort of real, long-term joint influence over Syria? Is anyone discussing the possibility of some sort of shared Iranian and Saudi hydrocarbon zones across Syria? Syria does not need to be a zero-sum bloodbath.
If actions were plotted, they would probably occur almost all in the red quadrant. One immediate question is to track post-Vienna actions, e.g., Obama’s instantaneous announcement of boots on the ground and Turkey’s attacks on Syria Kurds while they were fighting the Islamic State. The trend of actions over the next few weeks will reveal much about whether or not any serious, solution-oriented discussions occurred behind the scenes at Vienna.
Judging from the official document released by the participants in the Vienna talks on Syria, the Islamic State won a smashing victory simply by sitting on the sidelines watching the international cockfight.
The first two conclusions of the “mutual understanding” resulting from the October 30 Vienna peace talks on Syria expose the fundamental flaw: both points say the same thing – that the “state” is more important to these officials than the “people.” Point 1 calls for preservation of Syria, even though it is precisely the existence of that post-colonial institution that lies at the root of the endless mistreatment of the minorities shoved into it. Point 1 serves the convenience of global leaders eager for stability and influence rather than helping the people who live there. Point 2 calls for the preservation of “state institutions;” in so far as I am aware, the only state institution that currently functions in Syria is Assad’s barrel-bomb war machine. Only with Point 3 is any attention granted those poor people in what used to be called “Syria” who have not yet succeeded in emigrating. And who in this world ever remembers “point 3” of any list?
Whatever may have been accomplished with a wink during lunch, the document these diplomats released gives no hint of anything more than a tragic lowest common denominator sellout of the Syrian people by governments trying to maximize short-term benefits and apparently incapable of imagining creative, positive-sum solutions. The participants in this little meeting should contemplate this: the failure of the Vienna meeting to demonstrate progress constitutes a huge victory for the Islamic State.
This is a curious outcome. If the Islamic State threat does not suffice to focus the minds of global leaders, then exactly what will it take? Certainly, Putin is riding high for the moment, but he could have been happy with consolidating his links to the Allawites, keeping his naval base, and taking home his new position as one of the arbiters of the Mideast. Iran could have been satisfied with its new acceptance by everyone as a member of that arbitration committee, a huge step forward for Iran’s prestige and national security, plus a clear message from Washington that its military presence in some portion of post-Syrian space would be acceptable; from that the U.S. and Iran and Russia could have proceeded to elimiinate their common Islamic State enemy, with the now non-existent Syrian state replaced by Russian, Iranian, Saudi, Kurdish, etc. spheres of influence.
Indeed, this outcome is so obvious given the fear inspired in everyone (except of course the odd couple Erdogan and Assad) by the increasingly well entrenched Islamic State that perhaps, with a wink and a nod, the participants indeed did agree to exactly that but are all just too embarrassed to admit it in public. Well and good, except that agreements kept secret when they should be trumpeted as historic successes just set up the good guys for becoming the road kill of extremists. So, tragically, at the moment, the Islamic State appears to have won a very dangerous victory that can only fill its propaganda machine with new energy.
Whatever the real story of the Vienna meeting, it was handled badly and for that the world will pay.
Washington has only one ally in Syria: the Kurds. Should Washington protect or abandon its ally?
U.S. Syrian policy is in disarray, with NATO ally Turkey and Russia now both openly attacking the only “ally,” “friend,” or “partner” that the U.S. has in Syria: the Syrian Kurds. It seems to be decision time in Washington: either abandon the Kurds once again or actually protect them. Betraying the Kurds is easy; been there, done that, over and over. But the obvious alternative appears to be walking away from the Mideast. Such a step, given the appalling failures of the last generation, deserves serious consideration: let the Russians take care of the Mideast if they are so eager. And yet, the idea of putting our money where our mouth is also deserves consideration.
This time is different. The Kurds are not just a repressed and marginalized minority this time: they actually have a functioning autonomous region, and its accomplishments are very impressive in comparison with those of Baghdad. Shouldn’t they be rewarded for creating and defending a region of stability with a regime supported by the people and a policy of nonaggression?
As for the Syrian Kurds, who are there only because of long-time Turkish ethnic discrimination that drove them across the border from their homeland, they have also demonstrated an unusual ability to defend themselves and an unusual willingness to fight the Islamic State. Should such behavior not be encouraged?
These two questions are admittedly set-ups. It would be hard to snarl a flat “No!” to either. The real question concerns the cost of saying “Yes.”
Military Cost. If the U.S. is going to support the Kurds and not end up looking like a wimp or an idiot, it will have to provide them with effective air cover against its Turkish NATO ally and against the Russians.
Economic Cost. “Support” must also entail a long-term commitment to enabling Syrian Kurdish society a self-sustaining entity. Maybe it will evolve into part of Iraqi Kurdistan; maybe it will be so open-minded that other Syrian ethnic groups will flock to join it; maybe it will evolve into a province in a new democratic Syria. But in the meantime, it will need food, medicine, arms, trade options, sources of energy.
Political Cost. Can Washington make a persuasive argument to Ankara that a U.S.-protected Rojava is better for Turkey than a mass of angry Kurds looking for revenge against Erdogan and/or independence from Turkey? Can Washington make a persuasive argument to Tehran that Kurdish autonomy is consistent with an Iranian sphere of influence in Syria? Can Washington make a persuasive argument to Moscow that neither its naval base nor its diplomatic position as a Syrian decision-maker will be threatened? Can Washington persuade Ankara and Moscow that it will actually shoot down an attacking plane inside some very well defined region?
These costs are real and will probably be fairly high, but the other side of the coin is the gains. Is either the U.S. or the world better off if the U.S. remains involved in the Mideast? Given recent history, the answer is not easy, and the question needs to be considered carefully. If future policy emphasizes civil society over military attack, then perhaps so, but that seems a very high barrier for impatient America to jump.
Would deserting the Kurds enhance the stature of the U.S.? Can the U.S. design and implement a policy to support the Kurds that will enhance the stature of the U.S.?
If the first question is easy to answer, the second is hard, for creative diplomacy seems a lost art, and yet, the president who prevented war with Iran might just be able to pull another rabbit out of his hat…as long as he starts by clearly articulating to the American people the necessity and morality of finding a positive-sum compromise to the Syrian disaster, one that offers security to all the ethnic groups and leaves both Russia and Iran as players. It’s a long shot, but rather than running for the sidelines or pouring gasoline on the flames, perhaps making an example of the Kurds might be a better option.
Erdogan moved smoothly from his electoral war campaign against the Kurds, fought both inside Turkey and in Syria, to attack the Syrian Kurds in the back as the votes were being tallied and as the Syrian Kurds were attacking ISIS. Obama’s limping Syrian militancy and Putin’s sudden Syrian militancy during the summer while Erdogan put his new anti-Kurdish policy into shape did nothing to dissuade him, and the Turkish people apparently voted for war, so he is wasting no time carrying out his promise. The Mideast seems just to have changed significantly: to the degree that Turkey is transforming itself into a new militant force, the region is on the way to significantly more severe instability…a far cry from Erdogan’s own recent policies of good neighborliness and opening the door to genuine Turkish democracy by a revolutionary attitude of inclusiveness toward that quarter of Turkey that is arguably Kurdish.
He may become the great new military hero, he may tear his country apart, but caution he seems to have cast to the winds, and the winds of the Mideast are blowing hot and hard.
Over the past week, U.S. ally Saudi Arabia has allegedly slaughtered some 100 Yemenis at wedding parties. Unless we are simply trying to exterminate the Yemeni people, this murder must be considered a significant battlefield defeat for the U.S., given the huge number of new enemies it must surely have created. How many millions of dollars of aid has been canceled out by these two war crimes? What boost in al Qua’ida recruitment will result? How many revenge attacks by embittered Yemenis must American society suffer in payment for looking the other way while the petrosheikhs build their empire? What will be the time lag? Long enough for the guilty to escape the short arm of justice?
Saudi Arabia is famous for its harsh punishments; in the motherland of the Salafi jihadis, what is the punishment for aerial terrorism?
In the home of the “leader of the free world,” as the saying used to go, what is the punishment for an official aiding and abetting aerial terrorism by another state?
But, of course, Riyadh has denied the charges. Must have been some other air force…just like the dozens slaughtered at a wedding party in September,an event admitted by a Yemeni official, who called it a “mistake.” He did evidently did not specify what the “mistake” was – the slaughter, the failure to keep it quiet, the decision to bomb the village, or the Yemeni government decision to invite Saudi Arabia to bomb the Yemeni people in the first place.
And still the poor Yemenis keep insisting on getting married…
America’s future is being undermined by self-defeating foreign policy tactics.
The global struggle for ascendancy mercilessly discards the incompetent. Success requires a logical strategy and a vast array of linked tactics of some degree of rationality. Americans should be concerned about the dimness with which our officials during this sad new century have seen any logical strategy and the incompetence of their tactics, which seem almost regularly to emphasize one tactic in isolation and to implement even that one badly. With such a self-defeating approach, one can easily achieve defeat by oneself; enemies are a redundancy.
The U.S. is rich and comfortable, albeit less so than 20 years ago. It is also complex, in terms of economics, infrastructure, finance, consumer supply and demand, energy, communications, health, environment, and food safety. Complexity offers enormous gains…but at the price of requiring the careful maintenance of a delicate and finely tuned set of interlocked and ever-shifting components. In other words, it is easy to attack.
As a plot against America, 9/11, to be frank, was nothing: a narrow and local attack apparently designed to send a message of protest against U.S. military and financial policy, as well as the more significant intent to trap the U.S. in a no-win war against Islam. The next attack will be more imaginative and more costly; the extreme vulnerability of our highly tuned domestic system makes that almost inevitable.
We have a lot to lose and will lose it unless we learn to defend ourselves effectively, but an effective defense requires an understanding of the full array of available and required tactics. If, for example, the U.S. is perceived to commit an outrageous, intentional war crime, regardless of the particular battlefield result, it suffers a significant defeat in the overall struggle for survival. A barbaric enemy gambling everything on an attempt to overthrow the ruling system may win simply by causing chaos, but a superpower claiming the right to make the rules and enjoying a highly complex socio-economic system wins by balancing the tactic of selective military violence against a host of much more suitable tactics, of which the reputation for moral superiority is probably the most valuable. Bin Laden appears to have understood this, for his attack was perfectly designed to infuriate Americans into voluntarily descending into the gutter of barbarism, lowering themselves to the level of the jihadis, i.e., handing the jihadis the equality they could never have seized through their own violence.
Lowering ourselves to the level of our opponents is not the only common self-defeating tactical error we seem to make on a regular basis. Another is the failure to follow through with tactical linkage. Assume that military strikes are required; almost never will such strikes in isolation be successful in giving victory to the side representing civilization. Civilization is the antithesis of war. Recovery from cancer requires not just chemotherapy but good nutrition and a clean environment. Civilization requires a network of healthy, cooperative societies. For every ounce of warfare, we need a pound of social reconstruction. The battle of Kobani was not a U.S.-Kurdish victory because Kobani has not become a safe city in which Kurds can reconstruct their civilian lives economically and militarily secure. As goes Kobani, so goes the Mideast.
Perhaps as important as implementing the chosen tactic of the moment in the context of the rest of the tactical toolbox is consistency. Helping a new ally win a battle matters far less than establishing a reputation for consistency and reliability: set a policy, then defend it. Help an ally for clearly expressed reasons and avoid abruptly betraying it for some short-term profit. Adopt policies for consistent reasons. A no-fly zone is not a policy. It has meaning only to the degree it rests upon a set of tactics that give it meaning: stop aerial aggression by all means, but follow through with the military aid, economic aid, and ground forces necessary to enable society inside the no-fly zone to thrive. Make the no-fly zone a symbol of what life could be like for the region at war if “our side” won.
Fighting the battle for civilization and winning, one village at a time, is a great goal. One alternative is admitting we do not have the competence to do this and staying out of the fight. A second alternative is to enter the fight only to pour gasoline on the raging fire. That last alternative is the worst for that is the approach that not only intensifies the chaos the enemy wants to create but raises the likelihood of getting ourselves burned along with our adversaries and all the many innocent bystanders. “Do no harm” applies to practicing foreign policy as much as to practicing medicine.