Sliding Toward U.S.-Iran War

Leaders, not societies, cause wars, so any evaluation of the likelihood of war should pay close attention to the nature of the leaders. Concerning the question of whether or not a war may occur between the U.S. and Iran by mistake, the nature of the leaders is of particular concern.
One of the primary factors contributing to the health and functioning of a political system is the nature of the leadership. Attitude toward skeptics, attitude toward new information, attitude toward colleagues, and attitude toward tradition on the part of leadership and opposition circles in the U.S., Iran, and Israel suggest a degree of dysfunctionality serious enough so that it could provoke a U.S.-Iranian war by mistake. The Leadership Cohesiveness chart enumerates half a dozen continua along which a political leadership can be evaluated. These “continua” or “axes” constitute a set of lens that can be used to reveal how effectively the leaders of the U.S., Iran, and Israel can be expected to manage their respective countries’ national security. Several of these axes suggest that the leadership in the U.S., Iran, and Israel will in the next few years be increasingly exclusive, dogmatic, and scornful, posing severe obstacles to any effort to reevaluate strategies, cool tempers, or search for pragmatic positive-sum solutions in a negative-sum national security environment poisoned by the fear of terrorism, the fear of aggression, and religious prejudice.


On the other hand, some politicians apparently actually do want a war between the U.S. and Iran, as suggested by Republican Senator Lindsey Graham’s barbaric ravings after the U.S. mid-term elections about “taking containment off the table” and “neuter[ing]” Iran.


Attitude Toward Skeptics. The more inclusive the attitude toward skeptics, the more likely a regime will be to give serious consideration to alternative perspectives, thus enhancing its ability to find a solution. In both Iran and Israel, an extreme right-wing regime rules with little evident interest in considering the opinions of actors outside the ruling faction. The present U.S. regime appears much more inclusive, but its policy toward Iran over the past two years has in substance closely adhered to the Neo-Con handbook for intimidating adversaries, and the recent electoral defeat appears likely to strengthen that bias. In none of these countries, does a conciliatory attitude offering the adversary genuine accommodation appear likely to gain even a fair hearing, much less become official policy.
Attitude Toward New Information.  Both stress and ideological commitment are likely to impair the receptivity of leaders to new information that challenges their belief structure. In the U.S. the heating up of the political environment resulting from the combination of unusual levels of hostility between the parties, the approach of the presidential election, and intense factionalism within the Republican Party seem likely to constitute increasingly severe obstacles to open-minded analysis, a trend that can be expected to intensify if the extremist (judging from their rhetoric) Tea Party advocates gain further power. The emergence of a moderate cross-party faction would of course alter this prognosis but currently appears unlikely. In the aftermath of the failure of the Brazilian-Turkish nuclear initiative, the domestic repression of moderates following Ahmadinejad’s reelection, the uncompromising attitude of senior clerics supporting Khamenei, the steady rise in the power of the (anti-Saddam) War Generation, and the failure of Obama to make a convincing case that his administration is ready to deal with Iran in a fair manner, it is likely to take a great deal of new information indeed to overcome Iranian distrust of the U.S. and to make a conciliatory attitude toward the U.S. politically viable in Iran. As for Israel, the rising tide of fascism appears so far to face virtually no serious, organized opposition: rising settler violence with police support; Netanyahu’s successful and publicly insulting defiance of Obama combined with Obama’s timid retreat; the collapse of the Israeli left; the weakening of Israeli democracy and strengthening of overtly racist laws all suggest a declining willingness to consider new information.
Attitude Toward Colleagues:  In all three countries, public rhetoric is enflamed and attitudes toward colleagues in other factions or parties hostile to the point of undermining domestic political stability. In both Israel and Iran, armed groups are using violence to make political points, while demonstrations are held to provoke opponents in ways reminiscent of Ireland in years past. In the U.S., be it accusations that Democrats opposing the neo-con wars were somehow unpatriotic, insulting remarks about Obama, or Tea Party attitudes toward violence as a political tool (also here on immigration and here for a general review), evidence of a breakdown in the norms of political behavior is mounting, as well. Congressional behavior in the health care debate also suggests an increasingly contemptuous attitude toward colleagues based on an assumption that winning, rather than making good policy decisions, has become the primary goal of many.
Attitude Toward Tradition:  Rising racism at the center of the Israeli regime is a clear challenge to the Israeli tradition of democracy. In Iran the post-revolutionary tradition of clerical control is being challenged by the military. In the U.S., a whole range of traditions—protection of U.S. civil liberties, non-use of nuclear arms for aggression against non-nuclear powers, “empire-lite” by persuasion rather than overt invasion—have been undermined since 9/11. In all three countries, tradition is becoming a weaker and weaker bulwark against sudden, emotional shifts in behavior.
The U.S./Israeli/Iranian Ca
To the degree that skeptics are excluded from the debate, new information is viewed with a dogmatic attitude, colleagues are treated with scorn, and traditional values are challenged, policy becomes the captive of the emotional tide of the moment. With numerous political actors in each country pouring gasoline on the fires of national security fears for a host of personal and ideological reasons, massive nontraditional military moves (Israeli threats of aggression against Iran, U.S. armada in the Persian Gulf and its huge Mideast/Central Asian archipelago of new military bases surrounding Iran, and the Iranian nuclear program), and a continuing jihadi effort to provoke civilizational confrontation, the danger of a U.S.-Iranian war by mistake seems only likely to increase in the absence of a fundamental shift in strategic thinking.

War Clouds Gathering: Neo-Cons Vs. Mullahs

Bin Laden could, without careful thinking in Washington, emerge as the real winner of the U.S. midterm elections.
With the U.S. midterm election behind us and the specter of a reinvigorated War Party preparing for a presidential election against a weak, confused, and nearly leaderless Democratic Party that has no structured liberal faction, it is now time for everyone worldwide to focus their thinking on the threat of the world’s first nuclear war, for “nuclear” is exactly the form that outright U.S./Israeli aggression against Iran is likely to take if any direct military effort is launched to destroy Iran’s massive, decentralized, and well-buried nuclear industrial establishment. With the most extreme elements in U.S. politics now once again drunk on hubris, the likelihood of Washington offering Tehran a fair deal is declining. With blatantly discriminatory U.S./Israeli pressure against Iran uniting all Iranians, and thus pushing all Iranians into the loving embrace of the most militant, autocratic, and zenophobic elements in Iran, the likelihood of Iran compromising is also declining. Should Obama fail to pull a diplomatic rabbit out of the hat in the next 24 months, the likelihood of a Republican White House taking a cautious, thoughtful approach to the Iran issue is also declining. The economic swamp in which the U.S. will almost surely still be stuck in two years, will only make the already angry electorate even less willing to think and more eager for emotionally satisfying bravado. In all probability, in two years, the White House will be addressing Iran in one clear and unrestrained language: the language of force. Our so-called friends in power in Israel will surely do little to dissuade us from such a path. [See “The Role of Israel” in Michel Chossudovsky’s “Toward a World War III Scenario.”] Even if the above overstates the eagerness of U.S. and Israeli rightwingers to confront Iran militarily, there remains a huge danger of a war erupting by mistake. Falling into violence is all too easy when both sides insist on marching along the political cliff face.
A timid president desperately trying to govern with the consent and cooperation of the conservatives he defeated even at the height of his influence two years ago is now knocked back on his heels. Ahmadinejad has just won a huge victory, in that the U.S. is now weaker and less able to conduct effective, consistent policy. But this is a very short-term victory, very possibly to be followed in two short years by catastrophe not only for Iran but for the whole world. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that he will take this brief opportunity to protect his country by making a unilateral effort to lower tensions. Nuclear war is not “targeted;” Strontium 90 back in our milk will be the least of our worries if Washington either launches nuclear war against Iran or facilitates Israeli aggression. The real winner is bin Laden—as the probability of the Victory for al Qua’ida Scenario continues to increase. Bin Laden has just moved one huge step closer to the global Western-Islamic clash that he has so skillfully been provoking for the last two decades. In this situation, can Obama pull himself erect and find the inner strength to lead the U.S. toward some accommodation with Iran? Time is short, and Obama is far weaker than he was 18 months ago when he addressed the Muslim world from Cairo.

Imagine a Different Israel

Can we imagine a moderate, secure, democratic Israel?

Imagine a moderate Israel dedicated to living in peace and cooperation with all those who were willing to meet it half way, without regard to religion. Such an Israel could be Jewish and democratic existing within its 1967 borders plus or minus mutually agreed variations or it could incorporate both Israeli and Palestinian societies and territory in one secular and democratic state. But it could not be Zionist, expansionist, fascist, garrison state, or colonial empire.
Such a state could be holder of a regional nuclear monopoly, holder of the region’s greatest nuclear force, or it could renounce nuclear rogue status and lead the region toward the vision of a denuclearized Mideast. But it could not threaten nuclear aggression against other states nor could it threaten non-nuclear aggression under the cover of its nuclear force.
Such a state could be the region’s most democratic state and could also be the region’s greatest military and economic power. But it could not possess a foreign policy based on overwhelming superiority of force, nor could it believe that its neighbors understand only the language of force.
Such a state could be a home for the world’s Jews. But it could not institute an apartheid regime condemning Muslims under its control to second-class status.
Such a state could be an ally of the U.S. and as such could make a critical contribution to explaining the region to Americans and introducing Americans to Israel’s neighbors. But it could not teach the U.S. such lessons as how to conduct urban warfare to defeat an independence movement through bloodthirsty and barbaric collective punishment. It could not use its alliance to trick the U.S. into a pathological state of permanent war against Islam.
Such a state could be secure with its American backing. But militarist factions within such a state could not pervert that backing into a power grab nor could militarist factions in the U.S. exploit “Israeli security” to advance their own private agendas.

American Security & Israel: The Core Issues

How American underwriting of the Zionist pursuit of a Greater Israel–with its implementing policies of military pressure against Iran as well as collective punishment, ethnic cleansing, apartheid regarding Palestinians–may affect U.S. national security is an issue of such sensitivity that some just want to shove it under the rug.
Ephraim Kam, Deputy Director of the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel, wrote a commentary in Haaretz on March 23, 2010, in which he professed to have difficulty understanding Petraeus’ claim that resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli dispute would mitigate America’s broader problems with the Muslim world.
His piece was opinion, not analysis, but still, just to look serious, he might have asserted straight out that American association with the Israeli apartheid, ethnic cleansing, and collective punishment of Palestinians angers no one else in the Muslim world. He might have asserted straight out that allowing democracy in the Palestinian colony, as was tried with the January 2006 election that Hamas won, rather than creating a militia to overthrow Palestinian parties not favored in Tel Aviv, would do nothing to undermine those members of Hamas favoring anti-Israeli violence and would do nothing to undermine those fringe radical groups that fire rockets at Israel against the wishes of Hamas. He might have asserted straight out that all global Muslim expressions of outrage at Israeli behavior are hypocritical, that in fact no Muslim cares about Palestinians. He might have asserted that resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would have no impact on Lebanon’s Hezbollah, even though it is being pulled two ways – both toward democratic participation in the Lebanese system and toward resistance to Israel. He might futher have asserted that Lebanese Hezbollah members have no patriotic feelings and no interest in autonomy, that all they aspire to is to take orders forever from Tehran. He might have asserted that Syrians also aspire to nothing more than serving Tehran’s highly dangerous foreign policy purposes. He might have asserted that a calmer and more moral Mideast would have no impact on the Iranian national security community’s thinking about the degree of risk that Iran should assume. He might have asserted that a Washington decision-making community freed of Israeli right wing propaganda still would be unable to find the presence of mind to conceive of more effective ways of dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue than economic warfare and threats of military attack.
If he had made all these assertions that flow logically from the pretense that no connection exists between repression of Palestinians and the broader conflict between the West and the Muslim world, then at least the issue under discussion would be clearly on the table, visible for all to see. Then, we might actually have a serious dialogue about the linkages between Israel and that Western-Islamic confrontation.
Well, I guess that explains it: he did not make those logically implied assertions because an open dialogue about such linkages is exactly what he and his fellow right wing expansionists are afraid of.
What Petraeus said was intellectually trite, a fact long obvious to all global affairs thinkers, but politically dynamite. All of a sudden, in the U.S., it is no longer “anti-Semite” to discuss the impact of Washington’s obeisance to the Israeli right wing on American security. Petraeus, being one of the guys on the ground and thus personally at risk, is more concerned about American soldiers being killed than he is about what might be politically correct on the Potomac, and he wants Americans to have that discussion.
What do you say: discuss it or cover your eyes?

Ближневосточный мир или фашизм?

(“Online Journal“, США)
Уильям де Б. Миллс (William de B. Mills)
Ближневосточный мир или фашизм?

Оптимист смотрит на историю как на движение прогресса, веря в то, что по мере распространения образования оно одновременно проникает вглубь, и мы можем учиться у истории. В соответствии с этой точкой зрения, которую можно назвать «религией», поскольку она по большей степени должна приниматься на веру, варварство ХХ века научит нас ценностям международной законности и демократии, и обе эти института будут использованы не в интересах одного класса или этнической группы, а в интересах всего человечества.

Согласно этому оптимистическому взгляду на вещи, Обама имеет в виду именно то, что говорит, и в конце концов выступит в поддержку мира и справедливости на Ближнем Востоке, полагая, что, если в прошлом «мир», установленный с помощью тоталитарного контроля, достаточно неплохо удерживался в течение продолжительных периодов времени, то сегодня человечество возмужало, а мир сжался до таких размеров, что мы можем оставить 1984 год Орвелла позади. Поэтому Обама еще больше поймет, что мир между Израилем и Палестиной – это лишь одна из сторон многогранной монеты, которая, безусловно, включает и мир между Ираном и Западом, и что наиболее надежный путь к достижению одного требует одновременного движения к другому. Исходя из этого, США будут определять свою позицию поддержки безопасности Израиля, не основываясь на мифе о «богоизбранном народе», представлении о «конце Света», чувстве вины за беспрепятственные зверства нацистов или краткосрочном удобстве использования (Израиля) в качестве «непотопляемого авианосца», а просто потому, что израильтяне – такие же люди и заслуживают того, чтобы жить в безопасности, также как этого заслуживают палестинцы. Обама также поймет, что Иран заслуживает того, чтобы играть активную роль в ближневосточных делах не из-за проводимой им двусмысленной ядерной политики, подобной израильской, а в силу присущей ему важности и оригинальности мысли. Таким образом, Вашингтон предложит Ирану искренний компромисс, а Тегеран проявит зрелость и мудрость, чтобы пойти навстречу. Вашингтон обуздает израильский милитаризм, окажет поддержку находящейся в осаде израильской демократии даже при том, что одновременно будет помогать строительству палестинской демократии. Вашингтон осознает, что путь к миру – это правильный путь, и что вопрос не в том, какой этнической группе следует оказывать поддержку, а в том, что поддерживать – фашизм или демократию. И тогда Вашингтон изменит мир, как это и должна делать сверхдержава.

Пессимисты же воспринимают историю как повторение старых, со времен прародителей ошибок, считая, что гордыня возьмет верх над смирением. Согласно этой точке зрения, которую можно назвать «реализмом», так как она поддерживается большинством свидетельств истории, ничто не ценно, а все цели – краткосрочны.

В соответствии с этой пессимистической точкой зрения, если нефть будет заканчиваться, Вашингтон использует приличный кусок того, что осталось от военных авантюр, для того, чтобы захватить последнюю ее каплю. Если какой-то коррумпированный режим предложит свою помощь, Вашингтон с жадностью ее примет. Обама, будучи черным и имея исламское имя, что сейчас является крайне чувствительным моментом, – не что иное, как необычайно удачное прикрытие, за которым консервативная военно-финансовая элита может спрятать свое манипулирование миром так, как она не могла это сделать при Буше-Чейни. Под прикрытием красивой риторики с подмигиванием и бесконечных разговоров о переговорах палестинцев предадут забвению при помощи бульдозера. Израильская военщина получит все, чего она хочет, но ценой сползания Израиля к фашизму, контролируемому государством-гарнизоном, которое сможет существовать только в условиях нескончаемой войны, плавно распространяющейся с Западного берега к Ирану, объединяя регион мусульманской нестабильности на Ближнем Востоке с регионом мусульманской нестабильности в Центральной Азии. Сверхдержава, сфокусированная на силе, а не на правлении ради людей, превратится в новую Веймарскую республику и, очень вероятно, заразится фашизмом, поскольку ее необразованное население будет становиться все злее и злее, не понимая, к сожалению, причины и следствия. Таким образом, сверхдержава все равно изменит мир, хотя и совсем по-другому.

Mideast Peace or Fascism?

Whether peaceful or fascist, the future of the Mideast is an undivisible whole. [My thanks to Online Journal for first publishing this essay.]

The optimist sees history as progress, believing that as education spreads it also deepens, so we can learn from history. According to this view (which one may call a “religion,” since it must be taken mostly on faith), the barbarism of the 20th century will teach us the value of international law and democracy, with both institutions used for the good not of a class or ethnic group but of mankind.

According to this optimistic view, Obama means what he says and will in the end support peace and justice in the Mideast, believing that while “peace” via totalitarian control may have worked rather well for extended periods in the past, mankind has today matured and the world has shrunk to the point of putting Orwell’s 1984 behind us. Obama will thus further understand that peace between Israel and Palestine is one side of a many-sided coin that certainly includes peace between Iran and the West and that the most reliable route to the one is to move simultaneously toward the other. Hence, the U.S. will grope its way toward a position of supporting Israeli security not because of some “chosen people” myth, “end of days” fundamentalism, guilt over Nazi atrocities unhindered, or the short-term convenience of an “unsinkable aircraft carrier,” but simply because Israelis are human and deserve security just as much as Palestinians do. Obama will also understand that Iran deserves an active part in Mideast affairs not because of its Israeli-style nuclear ambiguity but because of its intrinsic importance and originality of thought. Washington will therefore offer genuine compromise to Iran, and Tehran will find the maturity and vision to meet it halfway. Washington will curb Israeli militarists, support the maintenance of beleaguered Israeli democracy even while helping to construct Palestinian democracy. Washington will realize that the road to peace is the right road and that the question is not about which ethnic group to support but whether to support fascism or democracy. Then Washington will, as a superpower should, change the world.

The pessimist sees history as repeating old mistakes since human DNA preordains that hubris will trump humility. According to this view (which may be called “realism” because most historical evidence supports it), all issues are zero-sum and all goals are short-term. 

According to this pessimistic view, if oil is running out, then Washington will use a good bit of what is left in military adventures to seize the last drop. If a corrupt regime offers support, Washington will greedily accept. Obama, being black and having what has now become an extremely sensitive Islamic name, is nothing more than an extraordinarily fortunate cover behind which the conservative military/financial elite can hide their manipulation of the world in a way they never could under Bush/Cheney. The Palestinians will be bulldozed into oblivion under the cover of beautiful rhetoric delivered with winks and endless talks about talks. The eager Israeli militarists will get everything they want, but the price will be Israeli descent into fascism under the management of a garrison state that can survive only amidst perpetual war, moving smoothly from the West Bank to Iran, joining the region of Muslim unrest in the Mideast with the region of Muslim unrest in Central Asia. The superpower, focused on power instead of governing for the people, will turn into a new Weimar Republic and very likely catch the fascist disease as its uneducated population rightfully becomes angrier and angrier but sadly without understanding cause and effect. And thus, in a different way, the superpower will change the world anyway.

Does Political Islam Have a Center?

Is there a centrist position in political Islam, and could the West benefit from cultivating, rather than suppressing, it?

The post-9/11 American prejudice is that Muslim societies have only two groups: the quiescent, obedient ones and the terrorists. So, I’d like to pose a few questions that any specialist would no doubt find laughably simplistic. From the perspective of Muslim studies, they are simplistic; from the perspective of the average American, I’m afraid they are not. So specialists need to take them seriously and provide answers:

Meaning of “Centrist” or “Middle of the Road:”

Note that I said “centrist,” not “moderate.” I would take “centrist” to indicate non-violent when feasible, advocating rule through law and discussion but not necessarily behaving in a manner a citizen of a rich, comfortable industrial state might call “moderate” because in a highly corrupt and polarized traditional dictatorship (apply these loaded terms where they fit), “moderation” may not be what is needed to reach the center. Just to make the point for American readers, “moderation” would not have freed the slaves or eliminated segregation; “moderation” would not have gotten women the vote; “moderation” would not have earned workers the right to independent unions. If society is far to the right (oh, think the behavior of the police during anti-globalization protests in Seattle or during the Republican convention in New York or the attitude of government toward the poor of New Orleans fleeing Katrina), then “centrist” does not somehow magically transform into “just a little less far to the right;” rather, “centrist” still must contain some semblance of aiming at the “center,” i.e. half way between repressive elitism and revolutionary destruction. A “centrist” Obama Administration, for example, might have broken up Goldman Sachs and jailed all executives convicted of interfering with government regulators; few would have termed that “moderate,” but it would have been right in the center between the right wing demand for unregulated Wall Street greed and the public ownership concept of modern socialism—which would call for the replacement of Goldman by a governmental institution to manage trading for the public welfare.

Being Centrist in Muslim Society.

Returning to Muslim societies, and without forgetting the questions posed above, how should a centrist political Islamic activist behave? The answer for such a person in Turkey may be easy…well, at least if that person is ethnically a Turk. But what if that citizen is a Kurd and wants to participate in a peaceful, democratic movement for regional autonomy? What about a member of Iran’s green movement peacefully marching while being beaten by the Basij? What about a member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood being thrown in jail for aspiring to vote or, indeed, an elected Muslim Brotherhood member of parliament for aspiring to serve? What about a poor Shi’ite resident of South Lebanon watching Israeli jet bombers roar over his house at low altitudes in fake attack runs to remind him of the terror of the summer 2006 war? What about a farmer in Gaza being shot at for walking in his fields along the Israeli border?

Americans, not least those over-confident folks in Washington driving their aircraft carriers here and there, would benefit from considering these questions. I will try to as well, in coming posts. Chime in!


In 2008, Khalil al-Anani wrote an intriguing article still well worth reading called, not coincidentally, “The Path of Centrist Political Islam” January 29, 2008 on the Common Ground News website.

Building Civil Societies…Not State Predators

The Washington debate over the relative merits of brute force vs. state building is, in practice, vacuous. The real choice is between brute force and society building, an endeavor in which the members of the society must be central…and free to talk back to their foreign friends. The building of a centralized and powerful state structure divorced from society is the birthing of a monster.

The debate in the U.S. about how to resolve social instability in Muslim lands that may lead to terrorist attacks against the West frequently centers on the presumed choice between “state building” and military attacks on those identified as enemies. This raises a host of issues, not the least of which is figuring out whether or not Western victims actually are enemies, but that is another story. Here, I want to focus on the concept of “state building.” Bluntly stated, the above debate is so simplistic that it hardly has any value at all (even though on the surface the existence of a debate between war and state building appears to represent a huge step forward from the utterly brainless idea of blowing up everyone who expresses the slightest desire for independence or equality).

The only way “state building” will in fact represent a meaningful advance in U.S. thinking is if the concept is defined well enough to contribute to functioning societies. To put it differently, arguing about “more” or “less” state-building is vacuous. The distinction of value lies not between state building and military force but between effective steps to stimulate the rise of self-sufficient, stable, effective societies and steps that hinder such a process. Both war and the building of repressive state represent steps backward.

The missed point in most U.S. commentary on state building is the dangerously erroneous assumption that having a state is better than not having one (an assumption particularly unexamined in Washington and one that leads directly to assuming that anyone who has managed to seize power—say, via assassination—is a better person to work with than someone, e.g., Sam Adams, who “just” represents a patriotic movement demanding justice). It may in a given case make sense for Washington to deal with a local leader, but to assume that a Saddam or a Saleh deserves automatic respect while a dissident leader merits nothing more than dismissal would be a potentially costly (though hardly unusual) example of unprofessional behavior on the part of a foreign policy decision maker.

The assumption that a state is automatically better than the absence of a state would have been rejected instantly by a large number, probably a large majority, of the august men who created the U.S.A.: in no uncertain terms they placed rights (of both individuals and the 13 colonies) ahead of state power. Had the New England colonies insisted on giving priority to centralized state power, it is doubtful that a unified country would ever have come into being.

A discussion of “state building,” if not clearly defined, is dangerous because it is all too easy for Westerners to assume that means “a Western-style state” or at least “a centralized state.” There is no consensus in many non-Western societies that such a political system is desirable, not to mention any ability to create or manage it for the good of the population (a point sometimes realized all too clearly in a Washington insistent on obedience).

Without both a social consensus that a centralized state is the goal and the ability to manage it for the good of the people, the infusion of aid may amount to empowering whatever predatory mafia may happen to agree to sell itself to the patron. Washington is not the only patron vulnerable to such errors:

The republics of Dagestan and Ingushetia are flashpoints, and Chechnya, newly pacified after years of war, is again experiencing a spate of terrorist attacks. Moscow’s strategy of buying off corrupt local elites in the region has not purchased stability. Islamist radicals thrive on official corruption, interclan warfare, and the heavy-handedness of the police and security services. [Dmitri Trenin, “Russia Reborn,” Foreign Affairs Nov-Dec 2009, 69.]

A better phrase would be “civil society building.” What pre-modern societies often do need is a hand in improving civil societies that, under the stress of interaction with the modern world, have ceased working. Somali civil society, for example, began to fail in the 1980’s after years of superpower interference succeeded only in substituting a nasty dictatorship for old decentralized, clan-based decision-making processes. Similarly, Afghan society was derailed by decades of superpower interference seeking to design modern centralized state structures from the top down. In neither case were the new state structures, when they existed at all, (e.g., tax collection agencies, health care provision agencies, police) effectively connected to the underlying social building blocks of clans, tribes, ethnicity, and religion.

Even after accepting that the focus should be on civil society rather than central government, a danger still remains. Civil society cannot be “built” from the top down or from the outside in. Yes, a supportive global community can help protect a Somalia or Yemen or Bangladesh or an Afghanistan from external threats, but “society,” by definition, is composed of links among the members (Robert Putnam’s bowlers). Incentives can be offered, but the “bowlers” have to decide on their own to bowl together.

Example of how everything can go wrong include when a strong central state imports modern weapons and then gasses the Kurds or uses helicopters to attack villagers in punishment for participating in traditional religious ceremonies that have been banned by a repressive centralized state (as Yemen’s President Saleh is accused of having done). This video of the aftermath of a U.S./Yemeni regime military attack on a dissident Yemeni movement in December 2009 is not an example of “building civil society.” Since the military structure of state government is easier to build than, say, a health care system, and easier to misuse for private purposes, it moves almost inevitably to center stage when a modern, centralized regime is imposed on a premodern, decentralized society. Creating a powerful state before a powerful national civil society has arisen to prevent centralized state abuses of power is exactly the wrong way to go about creating stable, peaceful societies.

So if the creation of potentially oppressive state structures is a key mistake to be avoided, what might be some ways to do things right?

Sponsor civil society dialogue. Demand that any central government desiring Western support first accept the idea of a national dialogue to be followed up by real steps to address dissident demands. One could imagine, for example, conferences to which all dissident groups would be invited. Of course, a predatory regime will use this occasion to identify dissident spokespeople. Therefore, the West needs to be proactive in making its own contacts with those individuals, raising their international visibility, and warning the regime that their disappearance will be taken very seriously. Washington’s first step regarding Yemen should have been to sit down with the leaders of the Houthi and southern dissident groups, not the provision of arms to the regime. Dissident groups should learn that they have peaceful choices. The same argument of course applies to Hamas. It’s not about approval; it’s about stimulating the marketplace of ideas instead of the marketplace of militias. The U.S. should present itself as the defender of peaceful political participation, not as the defender of pet regimes.

Use international peacekeepers to protect civil society, not the regime. In contrast to the Somali model, where an African peacekeeping force supports the government, station international peacekeeping forces in all regions of the country but with direct links in each region to the regional political structure. The goal of the peacekeepers would be to prevent the military suppression of dissident groups in return for agreement by the dissident groups to refrain from violence, thus both offering incentives to behave peacefully and marginalizing those who refuse. In the Somali case, even the most extreme of the groups, al-Shabab, is composed of various sub-groups. In Afghanistan, the heterogeneous nature of “the Taliban” has been widely reported.

The regime, enamored of its own power and privilege, will of course argue that this would “promote disunity.” Precisely so. In a pre-modern society, disunity is the goal. No consensus exists on the form that unity should take. That is the whole point. Until civil society has achieved consensus, confederacy is wiser than centralization. Moreover, the artificial imposition of unity from the outside will almost always go wrong: from Polk’s misunderstandings of Mexican politics through the Vietnam War escapade to the abysmal ignorance of the neo-cons about the complexities of global Islam, history has shown that Washington does not have the eyesight to perceive the George Washingtons or Abraham Lincolns of traditional societies.

The West & Political Islam

Americans need to take the blinders off and look squarely at the political world we are creating before we lock ourselves into a future that we may find extremely distasteful. Fortunately, we have a surprisingly wide array of choices.

The neo-con mythology about political Islam depicts a homogeneous mass of crazy, violence-prone, evil aggressors motivated by religion and willing to use any method to achieve their goals. In truth, political Islam is a highly differentiated, disunified social universe motivated by as wide a range of goals as Americans and overwhelmingly non-violent.

There are several curious aspects of this neo-con mythology. Not the least interesting is the degree to which the neo-con portrayal of Islam reflects the reality about the neo-cons themselves. The utility of the neo-con myth for various neo-con projects—above all, the transformation of the U.S. into a global empire in control of the world’s oil and the transformation of Israel into a regional mini-empire—also merits reflection. But perhaps the most curious—and most tragic–aspect of the neo-con myth about political Islam is the degree to which it is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Regardless of the true condition of the Islamic political world, to the degree that the world’s only remaining superpower portrays it as a monolithic, frightening, evil, and implacably hostile entity and treats it accordingly, then political Islam will evolve into that which it is accused of being. The greater the tendency of Washington to use force to get what it wants from global political Islam, the greater will be the tendency of Muslims to respond with force. The greater the tendency of Washington to view all activist, independent-minded Muslims as enemies, the greater will be the tendency of this highly factionalized array of political actors to unite against the common enemy. The greater the degree to which Washington views Muslim activists as evil, the greater will be the tendency of Muslim activists to conclude that they have no hope of finding an acceptable compromise with Washington.

The Muslim-Western contest has existed for far too long for a “chicken vs. egg” debate to have any value. Whether one dates it from the Arab attack on Spain, from the Crusades, from the neo-colonial era of imperialism, or from 9/11, the Muslim-Western contest waxes and wanes as each succeeding generation learns its own lessons. If the future of the world and the security of ourselves and our countries constitute our areas of primary concern, what matters is not so much the presumed nature of any specific person or group as the attitudes of broad social sectors. A man may decide to change the world but find that being a political leader is more like being a train driver, who can change the speed but must stick to the track, than being an explorer who can wander wherever he wishes.

The constant flow of the new generation into society offers endless opportunities for changing the course of events. A new Western generation may grow up imagining that war of civilizations is normal. A new Muslim generation may grow up without the frustrations that persuaded their mothers and fathers to view terrorist gangs as their only hope for justice. Support for and rates of recruitment into this or that political movement consequently change, leaving political leaders wondering why they can no longer accomplish what they were accustomed to accomplishing in the past. Physics may concern immutable laws of nature; politics concerns the possible.

In a political world of ever-evolving possibilities, yesterday’s assumptions will be today’s blinders. The neo-con myth about political Islam, born from a combination of rage over 9/11 and short-sighted desire to exploit 9/11 to fulfill private agendas, has, a decade later, become a set of blinders Americans can no longer afford to wear. We need to take the blinders off and look squarely at the political world we are creating before we lock ourselves into a future that we may find extremely distasteful.

Whatever your political views, you owe it to yourself to consider two questions:

  1. What sort of world are we creating?
  2. What can we do about it?

The Islamic world was on a role from the 7th to the 15th centuries, whether viewed militarily, culturally, politically, scientifically, or morally. Illustrating only the last point, a comparison of religious freedom in 13th century Muslim Spain with 13th century France or England or Germany would show Muslims centuries ahead of their Western neighbors. But since the 15th century, roles have reversed. That long twilight of Muslim activism, that ceding of Muslim initiative now seems to be reversing.

Today, the Muslim world is in ferment. Popular interest in politics is intense, even as Westerners are becoming dangerously jaded about their governments.

The West, with its military superiority, has the option of resisting tooth and nail, risking everything to retain its top-dog status. The West also has the option of looking for a mutually beneficial and historically innovating restructuring of our political world that would leave the West secure while accommodating Muslim aspirations. We in the West today face few challenges more urgent than the challenge of figuring out which goal is best and how to bring it to fruition.


Afghan Details

Yemeni Details

Iranian Details

Israeli-Palestinian Details


A look at the details of the political landscape in various Muslim societies and the nature of U.S. behavior will reveal that the U.S. faces a surprisingly rich array of opportunities.