In a smooth two-step, Putin implemented a bold military move changing the strategic situation of the whole Mideast with his third hand behind his back while warmly embracing Erdogan publicly with the other two.
One might wonder if Erdogan feels used. While the world watched Putin smoothly entice NATO’s only Muslim member into a backroom deal, Putin was setting up a new Russian military base in Iran. The sequence of events is stunning:
August 9 – Erdogan meets Putin, supposedly resetting bilateral ties
August 16 – Russian bombers depart from Iran and bomb Syrian rebels.
Where exactly does this leave Turkey?
Whatever the long-term role for Turkey planned by Putin, for the moment, Turkey appears sidelined: Ankara’s new Russian friend is slaughtering Turkey’s allies in Syria and consolidating a network of military bases across the center of the Mideast, with the very significant features of being done with the permission of the official regimes involved and without any military opposition. Low cost/big impact.
The facts so far are consistent with a variety of possible Russian strategies including an intent to displace Washington region-wide and the simple desire to establish a strong, short-term negotiating position, but the most likely appears to be a low-risk effort to establish a permanent Mideast position that will put Moscow at the center of any international decision-making process. In a year of tactical prowess, Putin has assembled an impressive series of bargaining chips. Certainly as their value mounts, the temptation to view them as “essential” will also increase, but by his quick pseudo-withdrawal (fly in/fly out) from Syria earlier in 2016, Putin has already demonstrated that he is capable of changing course without warning and treating it as something to brag about. At the moment, Putin appears to have assembled at very low cost to Russia chips of significant value for the purpose of making Moscow the new co-decision-maker about Mideast affairs hand-in-hand with Washington, whether Washington likes it or not.
Moscow: Co-Mideast Decisionmaker with Washington.
Perhaps Putin will stop supporting the Kurds and turn his back on Turkish military moves against them in a hard-ball effort to undermine the U.S. How well Turkey would fare as the only Sunni member of a Shi’i-Russian coalition is something for Erdogan to ponder. The initiative at the moment is clearly with Tehran and is likely to stay there: Tehran and Moscow have a wide range of strategic interests in common, while Moscow’s intent regarding Ankara is probably more to weaken Turkish ties with the West and minimize Turkish support for anti-Assad rebels than to pull Turkey into an alliance. This is a negative mission that Putin can abandon at any time at little cost as part of an overarching effort to establish a permanent position making Russia a key Mideast decision-maker. Given the inability of Washington to find a winning strategy in the Mideast despite incredible commitment of resources over the last half century, such a strategic plan seems quite within the realm of possibility for Moscow.
A pointed comment in an RT article about the Russian bombing campaign from Iran lays out a rather clear picture of Moscow’s mid-term plans:
As for Khmeimim Airbase in Syria’s Latakia province, used by Russian task force since September 2015 to deliver airstrikes against Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) – its airstrip is not suitable for the heavy Tu-22M3. But that is subject to change, as Damascus granted Moscow permission to station a permanent military airbase at Khmeimim, and the Russian Air Force is preparing to thoroughly refurbish and modernize the airfield, so it will be able to accommodate all types of military aircraft in the near future. [RT.]
As for Turkey, it is starting to look like one of Moscow’s new chips.
A review of recent history sheds light on the highly contentious issue (both in the minds of Iranian security officials and Western observers): the nature of Iran’s strategy.
Marginalized by Washington for decades, Tehran cooperated with the U.S. after its invasion of Afghanistan to set up a new regime, maneuvered carefully to expand its influence in Iraq during and after the U.S. occupation of that country, and delicately practiced nuclear ambiguity to persuade the U.S. to negotiate. These three complicated sets of tactics gained Iran a minimal degree of security and opened the door to Iran’s return to the global diplomatic stage.
Now, with a no doubt disappointing year having elapsed since the nuclear accord and thus perhaps feeling that it is not going to get the economic or diplomatic benefits it had anticipated, Tehran has firmly and quietly eliminated America’s monopoly of military power over the Mideast, sending a loud message that it will not be marginalized any longer and, surely, acquiring promises of new weapons from Russia in return for the valuable landing rights at Hamadan.
Iran now finds itself, at little clear cost, significantly more secure from aerial attack by either Israel or Saudi Arabia. It may have to accept the removal of Assad but will at least have Russia on its side of the negotiating table for any grand Syrian solution. Russia could of course walk away from Iran but only at the cost of relinquishing its new air force facility which it will no doubt increasingly value as balancing U.S. bases in Bahrain and Turkey. Tehran will have to follow Russia’s lead regarding Assad–at least until it gets whatever weapons Putin promised, but surely the feeling must be spreading in Tehran that Assad has made himself something of a dead weight. Perhaps, indeed, Tehran is looking for a way to cast him aside. Hamadan has just become a bargaining chip of great value to both Tehran and Moscow.
In comparison with Ankara’s rhetoric and missteps or Riyadh’s bleeding war in Yemen, Tehran’s chessboard maneuvering for position is looking increasingly impressive.
One may look with incredulity at Putin’s determination to copy the failed tactics of Washington, but who cares about the lessons of history? So, in yet another tactical coup, the world is now presented with a surprise new Russian air base…this time in Iran. Will Tehran, now reassured about its national security, be more willing to compromise, or will it waste its opportunity? Will a chastened Washington and a newly prominent Moscow now find grounds for cooperation?
Once again, Putin has seized the tactical initiative by copying US behavior to expand its military base network in the Mideast, bomb alleged terrorists, make the Mideast a more disturbed place but doing it all roughly in concert with Washington’s goals (“Gee, I’m only trying to lend a hand!”) Well, the last generation of U.S.-led military intervention in the Mideast has led to…where we now find ourselves, so it is quite possible that bipolar intervention might somehow lead to something better…if Moscow and Washington can quickly work out some rational compromise based on, for a change, non-military means. That compromise, however, will no doubt start with Moscow having bases in both Syria and Iran.
The good news is that this offers Tehran an opening to a more moderate stance on the grounds that it now has greater national security. A cornered state will take risks, while a secure state can afford to plan for the long term. Moreover, a state with a patron needs to consider the patron’s interests.Of course, Iran could interpret things differently, an outcome that will be impacted by A) the sincerity of Washington’s fulfillment of the spirit of the US-Iranian nuclear agreement and B) by the speed with which Washington and Moscow work out some arrangement to avoid a needless and dangerous regional rivalry.
Any rivalry between Moscow and Washington at this delicate point only opens the door for regional extremists (not all of them Muslim) to exploit the situation, leaving the rest of the world to clean up the mess. With Washington ineptly entangled, after all its hard-earned lessons, Putin seems determined to tread exactly where forewarned that quicksand lies. Do his repeated tactical surprises add up to a rational strategy?
“It’s all my opponent’s fault,” say the glib politicians. The only value of such remarks is to help people realize that, yes, it is important to determine who is guilty. Voters do not need doctorates in history to understand thousand-year-long historical processes, however. They just need to know the context, the sequence of key events and processes.
Historical hostility among Muslim schools of though has existed across the centuries, but to attribute contemporary Islamic violence to historical roots is only correct to the degree that the calls of some U.S. Protestant extremists for the murder of disliked foreign leaders can be traced back to the Christian civil war of 16th century France. Historical roots exist but explain little of the explosion of violence within politically active Islam over the last half century.
A perhaps slightly more significant long-term historical process is the response of a classical culture set deeply in a conservative religious milieu to the cultural challenge of modernization. The collision between Medieval Christianity and modernization reached its climax between that 16th century French civil war and the French Revolution. The analogous Islamic collision with modernity hardly began more than a century ago and appears still well short of its climax today. To understand the frustration and anger of Muslims today, one might start by recalling the attitudes of Christians in La Rochelle in the 16th century or Germans during the Thirty Years and the English during the time of Cromwell in the 17th century.
The key contextual factor in understanding the contemporary Western-Islamic confrontation, however, is not some long-term historical process, but the medium term Western intrusion into the Muslim world that began a century ago as the leading industrial states started converting from coal-based to petroleum-based economies. Quickly realizing that outright military invasion and colonization was unnecessarily inefficient, the West settled on a century-long policy of economic invasion, buying regional lackeys and transforming them with an addictive flow of weapons into repressive autocrats to manage the cheap delivery to the West of Muslim hydrocarbons.
No short-term process such as the pathetically hypocritical “war on terror” or the even shorter-termed rise of the Islamic State* can be understood, nor can the blame for such processes be accurately assigned, without putting today’s events in the context of the Western economic war of the last century against Muslims living in oil-rich states, a campaign of exploitative contracts of course backed up as needed by the state terror of military campaigns.
A sustained policy of crooked contracts enforced by military terror does not teach respect for democracy or human rights or middle class moderation.
- The rise of the Islamic State must itself be understood in the context of the last two decades (i.e., the context of provoking the rise of the jihadi movement as a convenient tool for kicking the USSR out of Afghanistan, the more recent context of the US occupation of Iraq, and the short-term context of once again aiding jihadis as a convenient tool for getting rid of Assad). Thus, even the contemporary context for understanding the Islamic State needs to be broken into three sequential periods. An overview of the contemporary context of the Islamic State is given in “Empowering Extremists.”
Western policy toward the Mideast is replete with contradictions that undermine Western goals by preventing the West from making any progress: violent regime change leads to chaos which leads to the empowerment of autocrats claiming to be pro-West and jihadis searching for ways to attack the West. Both Moscow’s intervention in Syria and Ankara’s turn toward repression first of the civil liberties of Kurds and then also the civil liberties of all Turkey’s citizens appear at first glance to constitute a new and serious pair of additional obstacles for Western interest, with the new rapprochement between Moscow and Ankara only seeming to make things worse…but the clouds on the strategic horizon may hide an opportunity.
The fool’s game of stimulating Sunni extremists by destabilizing Mideast regimes and leaving a power vacuum for jihadis to fill or by actually supporting jihadis is a practice that the West needs to abandon. Easier said than done, but perhaps the Turkish situation presents an opportunity. Stopping the global Islamic State menace is more important than regime change within Syria, especially since the only approach anyone seems able to come up with for that regime change is endless chaos for Syrians and the empowerment of Sunni extremists. Hence the double attraction of a Western deal with Moscow to oppose jihadis in Syria and negotiate the details of who rules in Damascus and how far the rule of Damascus extends with Putin. This approach seems likely to further reduce Turkey’s role in Syria, a plus for both Moscow and Washington, while leaving the door open to improved US-Russian coordination against the Islamic State and, perhaps, in support of the stateless Kurds. With the international emphasis thus shifted to focus on the Islamic State, quiet efforts to encourage Ankara to start moving back toward the protection of civil liberties for all its citizens, from ethnic Turkish journalists to ethnic Kurdish voters might make some slow headway as time passes and Erdogan begins to reflect on the costs of rising repression. Pressure on Ankara right now is likely to be counterproductive; for the West to clean up its own foreign policy stance vis-a-vis the broader Mideast first would put the West in a stronger negotiating position for the difficult conversation about Turkey’s future that lies ahead.
Trying to march in every direction simultaneously results in tripping over one’s own feet. The priority goal for Western Mideast policy should be to stop doing harm, i.e., to stop facilitating the rising jihadi menace. Aiding a badly compromised Syrian revolt against Assad and enticing Ankara to return to moderation and democratization can take second place. As for ensuring American mastery of the sands of Araby, well, that was always the chasing of a mirage.
The voters who really want to make America great would be delighted to hear that Hillary knows they exist. She could have formed a dynamite trio and made history by calling Elizabeth and Bernie to the stage as her two key policy gurus, but, alas, Hillary seems to be looking backwards.
The history of Democratic presidents who turned their backs on progressives (e.g., Bill Clinton, Obama) is too long. Progressives are waiting to hear something from Hillary to indicate the most minimal degree of sincerity in her claims that she has any intention whatsoever of working for fundamental progress to deal with global warming, to reduce financial corruption, to strengthen democracy at home, or to find a morally justifiable resolution of the mad war against Islamic societies. Just one little commitment, one precise promise to call for some reform law, one promise to do X on Day Y, one clear statement that she will rely on a known reformer in the field of foreign or financial policy. Not a murmur, right? The country is sick of neo-cons pretending to care about the American people.
My eyes blur when I look at Hillary; I keep thinking I see W.
Americans have lost the opportunity for a leader focused on reforming government with the focus on the needs of Americans. The election choices, aside from the courageous Green Party* no one has ever heard of, are thuggish and immature irresponsibility or conservative-lite with a nice smile. The most shockingly outrageous decade of national policy since at least the McCarthy era generated, officially, an historic cover-up. How did we get to this impasse?
It is the complicity of mainstream Democratic leaders with the Neo-Con war policy that has prevented a serious public debate over the degree to which the foreign policy behavior of the US lies at the root of the anger so visible in the Islamic world. Even Bernie skirted this issue, focusing instead on the domestic policy failures of the elite of the Democratic Party. Bernie recognized the degree to which the Hillary faction running the party was out of touch with American aspirations and in league with the Republican Party regarding the two-party practice of putting corporate interests ahead of the interests of American society, but Bernie did a poor job of articulating the linkage between a domestic policy of favoring wealthy corporations and a foreign policy of dominating other countries by military force. As a result, Americans now have no responsible leader capable of guiding a self-cleansing public debate. So naturally an opportunist has been sucked into the intellectual vacuum: giving vent to our frustrations but at the price of replacing the self-examination we need by blind rage and contempt, not just for others but for us…and our values. To protect ourselves, we the American people need to confront our past, or we will become–ever more seriously–the victims of our past leaders’ mistakes.
*The Green Party is based on four principles: ecology, social justice, grassroots democracy and non-violence. The Republican Party contemptuously rejects all four, while Hillary simply does not understand these philosophical concepts.
Hitler famously exploited democratic rules to gain the power to destroy German democracy, the result being World War II. The lessons are clear: 1) democracy and the liberties it is supposed to deliver are about something far more profound than winning elections or gaining the momentary support of a majority; 2) forgetting this lesson can be catastrophic. Nonetheless, the historical examples of populations momentarily putting their freedom in the hands of a single man, who then uses this power to control them, are so numerous that far more effort should be put into studying how wanna-be dictators gain the momentary adulation of a naive population…and unfortunately there is nothing so naive as a population that enjoys civil liberties, because they forget so quickly that dictatorship is the natural order of things.
So consider this scenario:
Using Democracy to Kill It
Suppose a leader wanted the absolute control necessary to lead his country in a dramatically new direction that he knew was opposed by a majority of his people. Suppose that he launched an ethnic war against a minority group that was mostly loyal to the homeland but increasingly successful in democratic politics…and insisting on the right to express an independent viewpoint, one that would not toe the ambitious leader’s new line. When his concocted ethnic war failed to unite the rest of the population behind him, suppose the leader then meticulously tracked the political attitudes of soldiers, police, judges, journalists, and educators, making a list of the thousands who held opinions that differed from his own. Then suppose that he started a rumor that a certain faction was plotting rebellion and that he not only had such a list but was about to use it to purge everyone not obedient to him? One can imagine that such a scenario might well provoke a dissatisfied faction to fall into the crafty leader’s trap by launching a premature coup.
Rather than debating the details of how this scenario might be playing out in some real-world case, the bigger question would be, “How can a society retain civil liberties if the ruling faction is taking full advantage of events to impose dictatorship by playing to the crowd (mob)?” After all, “mob rule” is technically democratic as long as a majority joins the mob, right? Since Augustus destroyed the increasingly self-defeating Roman Republic in its final corrupt days by proclaiming his dedication to the people, history has been filled with examples of leaders who greased the wheels of dictatorship by trumpeting their love for freedom. People voted with their feet for Lenin; people voted with ballots for Hitler. Superior indeed is the society that can see through such trickery.
It will happen again. When it does, will political scientists be able to see it as it unfolds, understand the process, and be able to explain it well enough to help the voters who are being tricked or to guide policy-makers in other regimes on how to minimize the damage?
Among the many methods for peering into the future, one of the simplest in concept (very complicated in practice but with the inestimable attribute of being totally transparent when examined step-by-step) is the mapping of the conceptual chains explaining the dynamics.
The dynamics are the things that change. When democratic procedures are misused to install a dictatorship, first the way the rules are used changes, and then the rules themselves change. The spirit of democracy centers on the two-sided coin of majority rule plus minority rights. A budding dictator will use the existing rule of majority rule to ram through policies without regard for minority opinions in a vicious zero-sum approach. He will likely accompany this with a campaign of ethnic (e.g., “it’s all the fault of Group X”) or political (e.g., “anyone who opposes me is a traitor”)slander.
Once he has whipped up the baser emotions of the majority and grabbed power by these subtle shifts in how the rules are used, he will take the bolder second step of changing the rules. The “democratic” passage of a harsh new law that is then applied retroactively is a canary in the mine of rising dictatorship. College students in the U.S. who studied Russian during WWII, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union were allies, suddenly found in the 1950s that their former classroom work was destroying their careers under budding strongman Senator Joseph McCarthy, who accused them of being traitors simply because they had studied the language of “the enemy.” A second canary in the mine of budding dictators is suddenly to assert that criticism equals disloyalty, again of course applied retroactively. The careful dictator wannabe will be careful to wait until the mob is indeed whipped up before trying this patently absurd claim. Amazingly, it works like magic, over and over. Such rule changes make “slam dunk clear” that the days of liberty are gone.
Now returning to the question of developing a conceptual mapping of the dynamics underlying the rise of authoritarianism by democratic means, a re-reading of the above discussion of changes in the way the rules of democratic behavior are used and changes in the rules themselves reveals quite a number of concepts and how they are linked.
Blaming a religious or ethnic minority – a trait you were born with is almost never the source of society’s problems, and virtually every politician knows this, but such irresponsible politicians also know that telling lies about “those others with that religion” or “those others of that race” can oil their drive for power if done under just the right circumstances.
Thus, one could start the conceptual map with the concept “minority is to blame” which requires a contributing event (e.g., violence by one individual who happens to belong to the victim minority). Now, we have one tiny path toward a drive for power by means of a persuasive hoax. Keep adding concepts, think about when they may link together in some causal way, and soon you will have a complicated map of (more than likely) a vast network of paths that can lead you from here (democracy) to there (dictatorship).
Then, sit back and ask yourself, “Is there any country in the world right this minute that this conceptual mapping seems to be talking about?”
If the title insulted your sense of decency, well, good – it should have: sectarian war and principles are two concepts that should not go together.
The Wall St. Journal just published an interesting review of the Kurdish campaign against a key Islamic State-controlled town on the Syrian-Turkish border, noting that Ankara is supposedly worried about Kurdish expansion into Arab regions of Syria and that Washington recognizes that the Kurds should not lead the assault on the traditionally Sunni Arab city of Raqqa. Then the Journal stops, for U.S. newspapers seldom address fundamental issues of principle. But the principle is the point.
For once I can comfortably concur with both Washington and Ankara: yes, the U.S. should avoid supporting a Kurdish attack on an Arab region. But the reason is not to cut a backroom deal with Erdogan or for any other tactical goal. The reason is that the U.S. should discourage sectarian warfare, even by “good guys,” because when men in white hats engage in sectarian warfare, their hats get dirty. Was that too cute? Sectarian warfare turns decent soldiers into criminals; decent societies into repressive societies. Societies that do not believe in making war on cities, committing torture, committing genocide find themselves doing so and thus change, decline. Need I cite examples? Yeah, this is a hard issue for Americans, so some examples could include one Lt. Calley from my sad generation, the French experience in Algeria, and any number of campaigns in the U.S. Civil War. The principle is: no sectarian war.
By definition, the principle is not restricted to “the other side.” If we have principles, we are supposed to live up to them…otherwise, they aren’t principles but tools. So, just as Kurds should not run a campaign against Arabs, Israelis should not be in military occupation of Palestine, Shi’i military forces should not be taking control of Sunni cities in Iraq, and ethnic Turks should not be occupying ethnic Kurdish areas of Turkey. Yes, indeed, principles get embarrassing. But without a moral compass, politicians do not know where they are going.
Every U.S. diplomatic conversation with Ankara should note this principle. Sectarian war is a double-edged sword with no handle. If Ankara cannot find citizens of Kurdish descent in sufficient numbers to maintain peace in Kurdish regions, then something is fundamentally wrong with the Turkish socio-political system. Change could be brought about by stressing the desire to recruit and promote Kurdish Turks for military/police service in the Kurdish region, just as the (black) head of a certain U.S. city recently invited blacks to apply for jobs as police. If Ankara is not willing to have those Turkish citizens who identify themselves as ethnically Kurdish in the military and police in units defending security in Kurdish regions, local governance run by people locally elected, pupils taught by local Kurdish teachers, local Kurdish opinions represented in the media, and everyone having the option of voting for a party of their choice, then Ankara should offer peaceful division in accordance with the results of a referendum in each electoral district. Black (Palestinian/Sunni/Kurdish/white) lives matter. If a regime (or government at any level) wants to rule, it is the responsibility of that authority to entice the broad mass of the population throughout the area it proposes to rule into accepting that rule.*
If Erdogan or Netanyahu or whoever rejects this noble advice, then the relevant states do not deserve to be called “allies.” Washington does not approve of Beijing’s attitude toward Tibet; China is not a U.S. ally: we do not need to start a war or refuse to interact, but the disagreement on principle sets a certain limit. “Alliance” carries with it costs and rewards; it should amount to something more than just tactical convenience. We Americans could of course sound a bit more sincere if we started by applying this principle more carefully at home.
- That is democracy; the whole voting thing is just a method. Of course, “off with their heads” is another way to go.