Losing Control of Foreign Affairs

International law is collapsing in the Mideast-Central Asian region, and its replacement by conflict between states, client statelets, and private militias poisoned by the rising use of mercenaries threatens to cripple the ability of states to manage foreign affairs. As bad as the record of states has been, the behavior of private armies, free from any society’s control, promises to be far more dangerous.

International law, so painfully designed in recent centuries to offer human civilization some measure of protection by both giving states control over military force and regulating how those states use that monopoly, is collapsing before our eyes in the Mideast-Central Asian region because of the short-sighted misuse of power by all sides, but in particular by those very global powers most responsible for designing and benefiting from the current system of international law. In essence, international law offers states a monopoly of force plus total control over their own populations in return for constraints limiting their legal rights to start wars. People are thus sacrificed in cases where repressive regimes exist in hopes at least that this very imperfect system will inhibit war. The greater the education of the masses and the better the exchange of information among increasingly connected societies, the more repressed populations will protest and organize to combat repression. Since the weaknesses and injustice inherent in current international law are not being addressed as fast as people worldwide are becoming aware of their rising potential to take matters into their own hands, the system is cracking and–in the Mideast-Central Asian region–is collapsing.

This process of collapse begins with local dictatorships being protected by global powers, which leads to local protests that are repressed with violence, thus promoting radicalization leading to wars of national liberation, civil wars, a steady rise in the use of violence both by local dictatorships and the repressed populations. The violence radicalizes both sides while also offering all manner of opportunity for war profiteers, criminal gangs, extremist groups, and arrogant politicians willing to sacrifice their people for personal gain. This cycle of violence is now provoking the rise of secretly sponsored militias and private militias in a cycle of institutional decentralization that may well be even more dangerous than the cycle of violence provoking it.

The cycle of institutional decentralization is leading to a loss of control over military force, a nightmare scenario in which private armies are gaining sufficient power to challenge states. Both Syrian and Iraqi society have already reached the point where it is virtually impossible to distinguish “good” militias from “bad,” or even to tell what side a particular militia is on…or what its political goals are. At best, militias protect only a favored ethnic group, thus provoking beggar-thy-neighbor civil wars; at worst, they are no more than self-financed criminal gangs. Locally, people are desperate for any organized force that offers them a modicum of security; internationally, aggressive global powers are seeking ways to maintain the benefits of empire without paying the price of actually doing the fighting, a contradiction seemingly resolved first by remote-controlled drones and second by hiring mercenaries. The latter is a pact with the devil in which states relinquish power to private armies that have no purpose but to foment the endless violence that justifies their paychecks. The rich states doing the hiring either do not care about civil liberties and the rule of law in the first place or blindly make exceptions for their mercenaries, who end up with blank checks to act with impunity outside of the legal system of the hiring state. When their power reaches a sufficient level, they essentially transform themselves into independent pirate enterprises that have no societies over which to rule and simply run amok. While the Islamic State and Boko Haram may be the obvious examples, Shi’i militias in Iraq; the FARC in Colombia; a variety of militias in Syria patronized by the Gulf States, the U.S., and Turkey; the Taliban in Pakistan; Hezbollah in Lebanon; Hamas in Gaza; and militias in Nigeria and Somalia are equally pertinent examples. Another important but murky layer is the pseudo-official militia, of which many examples exist, including illegal settler military groups in Palestine protected by the Israeli regime, Colombian armed groups formed by cattle barons protected by the Colombian regime. As these three layers interact, even official state governmental structures may decline into something more properly considered to be what might be called “semi-official client militias:” no longer real states, controlling perhaps little more than the former state capital, supported only by a minority of the population, and manipulated by a foreign patron. Baghdad under U.S. occupation, Bahrain after the Saudi military intervention (supported by Pakistani mercenaries), the restored Yemeni regime re-installed by Saudi Arabia, Baghdad today as an Iranian client entity, and Damascus under Russian protection exemplify this layer.

The New World Order

Client Pseudo-States

Semi-Official Militias

Private Militias

Corporate Armies???

The result is a nearly complete continuum of official to private military regimes, all calculating the degree to which, on any given day, they should fight with or trade with any of their many active adversaries. It appears, for example, that one day historians will tell us that virtually every state opposing the Islamic State both attacked the IS and simultaneously purchased from IS the oil that keeps it afloat. Perhaps the only people to whom this insane situation makes sense is the war profiteers.

The one element missing from this continuum going from official states to private armies is the corporate army, though the story of Blackwater illustrates how rapidly we are approaching a world in which a private corporation will be able to launch a war against a state.

…Erik Prince, who is a top target on Al-Qaeda’s ‘hit list’, has moved to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, where the crown prince Sheik Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan is paying him $529 million to create an 800 person battalion[10]. Trained by Prince and US Navy SEALs, the small army will serve as sort of Praetorian Guard for the crown prince’s own purposes, a useful tool during times of turmoil in the Middle East. It would not be the first time that a foreign player has patiently watched the US experiment – and struggle – with a concept before adopting it and all best practices as their own. [http://yris.yira.org/essays/707.]

Already Blackwater is, independently of the U.S., organizing military forces for other countries, very possibly for uses that will harm U.S. national interests. A U.S. corporation enriched by the U.S. government as a security arm of the U.S. government has now morphed into an independent international player completely outside of the bounds of international law, as much a lone wolf as a terror gang and with potentially far more power. Whatever loyalties or moral self-constraint Blackwater may have, its evolution shows where current trends are pulling naïve and short-sighted governments: toward a world in which private interests increasingly control global politics, even to the extent of fielding private armies. Corporate armies already play key roles in wars among states, enabling tiny rich states to become overnight military powers; how far behind, if no action is taken, will be the decision of a private corporation to invade a state?


  • Saudi Arabia and/or the UAE have hired hundreds of ex-Colombian army soldiers to help it subdue Yemen. With the half century-long Colombian civil war now winding down, Colombia has many veterans with broad experience repressing the poor, supporting rich cattle barons, and punishing democracy advocates: just what the petroshiekhs and their Salafi allies need to colonize Yemen. [Middle East Eye 11/2/15.]
  • According to mercenary analyst Tim Shyrock, “Without much notice or debate, the Obama administration has greatly expanded the outsourcing of key parts of the U.S.-led counterinsurgency wars in the Middle East and Africa…” [The Daily Beast, 12/10/15.]
  • Houthi forces have reportedly killed Blackwater mercenaries in Yemen. [El-Akhbar.com.]

Israeli Subversion of U.S. National Security?

Is Israel not just a national security burden but an adversary intentionally causing the U.S. harm? So a careful reading of the Stuxnet evidence suggests.

A debate has been blazing through the dry tinder of American denial and political correctness for a couple years now, even at the highest levels of government, about the degree to which Israel may be harming U.S. national security. The usual argument concerns whether or not having Israel as an ally harms U.S. national security because of the baggage associated with supporting Israel’s policy of security through strength, over-the-top hostility toward Iran, and blatant repression/ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. That is bad enough, but it gets worse.

A far more serious argument concerns the degree to which the Israeli government may intentionally cause harm to U.S. national security. Israel’s attack on the U.S.S. Liberty and associated murder of 34 Americans comes to mind as an old example. Washington should have learned then that Israel was a country not to be trusted with powerful weapons. But of course Washington did not learn anything of the kind and evidently even went so far as to cooperate with Israel to jointly plan covert cyberwar against Iran – the very state that has over the past decade been, upon occasion, cooperating with the U.S. against Sunni extremists! And we wonder why some Iranians seem to feel they should have the option of acquiring powerful weapons of their own.

Now, it appears that Israel may have deliberated sabotaged the highly sensitive and dangerous (both politically and technically, given the ultimate harm Stuxnet might do to any of the world’s nuclear reactors) U.S. cyberattack on Iran. According to David Sanger of the NYTimes [6/1/12], who broke the scandal wide open:

the N.S.A. and a secret Israeli unit respected by American intelligence officials for its cyberskills set to work developing the enormously complex computer worm that would become the attacker from within.

As reported by Philip Weiss [ Mondoweiss 6/12/12], it may well be that Israel:

coded StuxNet to escape, without telling the Americans, so as to undermine American attempts to occupy them with cyberwar to prevent hot war. That is, the implication of Sanger’s article (which he now seems to be trying to retract) is that the Israelis deliberately exposed our cyberwar attack so as to make it more likely they could start a war with Iran…

A myth haunts the American political scene – that Israel and the U.S. share values. As with all good myths, this one has a basis in fact: in the early days, many Israelis greatly resembled American pioneers trying to build civilization and find peace in a new land. But the regional nuclear superpower that Israel has become through the shortsighted support of the American taxpayer is no longer a pioneering society, and the values its current ruling clique espouses are less democratic and more expansionist than those of many of America’s foremost adversaries. 

The Stuxnet attack has greatly harmed U.S. national security both by handing Iran all the justification it could ever need for developing weapons of mass destruction to defend itself and by establishing the precedent that the so-called leader of the free world (I apologize to readers too young to recall the meaning of this old phrase) thinks cyberwar is not just consistent with international law and decent human behavior but also an activity that the President should be permitted to engage in without the express approval of Congress. (“It ain’t unconstitutional because it ain’t war as long as we use virtual means, even if the resulting industrial destruction or even potentially nuclear catastrophe is very real indeed.”) 

Sanger noted that Iran has now:

announced that it had begun its own military cyberunit, and Brig. Gen. Gholamreza Jalali, the head of Iran’s Passive Defense Organization, said that the Iranian military was prepared “to fight our enemies” in “cyberspace and Internet warfare.” 

The U.S. will surely come to rue the day it encouraged its adversaries to engage in cyberwar, a field in which–unlike conventional armaments–the U.S. has no natural advantage and, given its old and poorly organized infrastructure, many natural disadvantages.

And now it appears that Israel may have intentionally contributed to making this harm to U.S. national security even worse…in order to trap the U.S. in not  just a cyber war (and economic war) but also a traditional military war with Iran. Israel, then, stands accused of doing exactly what bin Laden apparently tried, with such success, to do by attacking the World Trade Center – suck the U.S. into a foreign war.

Perhaps all this is inaccurate, but the American people will never know unless we shine the piercing light of transparency on this scandal. If the Netanyahu regime is innocent, then let it make its case for all the world to hear…in the courtroom where it belongs. It is not the identity of the leakers that should be investigated but the truth of what the Obama and Netanyahu regimes have been doing. Even more important, American national security clearly requires a public debate about the pros and cons of associating with Israel, the nature of the harm that association may do to U.S. national security, and the degree to which extreme right-wing Israeli factions may intentionally be causing harm to the U.S.

The Existential Threat to Western Elite Privilege

Are our leaders truly protecting us, as they claim, from a dark and looming Islamic menace? Must all else be sacrificed on the altar of securing the nation against terror today just as it was sacrificed on the altar of securing the nation against the communist menace during the long Cold War? Somehow, it all seems a bit too familiar and a bit too convenient.

A threat obviously does exist: a tiny number of individuals have become convinced that a battle to the death is the only way to achieve justice for the Islamic world. Exacerbating this situation, the violent and unsympathetic nature of the Western response has greatly enhanced this splinter faction’s influence. Nonetheless, the West has had all the time in the world to amend its approach to the Muslim world in order to make room in the global political system for their existence and their hopes and their grievances. Choose your favorites from among the innumerable symbols of the West’s response: Grozniy, Jenin, Lebanon, Gaza, Fallujah, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo. None of these was a legitimate, much less rational or even self-serving, response to bin Laden’s terrorist challenge, much less to a very much justified Islamic political critique. The West has insisted in the rudest and clumsiest fashion that it will contemplate no such thing as making room for an independent Islamic political force.
For those old enough to recall, it feels all too familiar. History does not repeat: it is simply not credible that exactly the same menace requiring exactly the same response is required in two successive historical periods, with not a moment’s peace separating the two. It is far more likely that the identity exists in the minds of those who, by their power, set the rules of the game.
Alain Badiou has just summarized this from the French perspective:

Honte aux gouvernements successifs, qui ont tous rivalisé sur les thèmes conjoints de la sécurité et du “problème immigré”, pour que ne soit pas trop visible qu’ils servaient avant tout les intérêts de l’oligarchie économique ! [ Alain Badiou, “Le racisme des intellectuals,” Le Monde 5/5/12.]

“Shame on successive regimes which have all competed with each using the intertwined themes of security and the “immigration problem, so as to thinly veil their service above all to the interests of the economic oligarchy.” Yes, there is an existential threat: an existential threat to elite privilege; the elite knows it, and the elite is defending itself.

When Does Cover-Up = Treason?

When powerful officials cover up their errors to protect themselves and that cover-up means not just the continuing deaths of both Americans and innocent foreign civilians but the worsening of the long-term situation and the undermining of national security, is there a point at which such a cover-up should be considered a sign of incompetence, a punishable offense, or even treason?

Pentagon is suppressing an unclassified report by a Pentagon investigator just back from Afghanistan that charges, according to its unofficial version published in Rolling Stone:

Senior ranking U.S. military leaders have so distorted the truth when communicating with the U.S. Congress and American people in regards to conditions on the ground in Afghanistan that the truth has become unrecognizable. This deception has damaged America’s credibility among both our allies and enemies, severely limiting our ability to reach a political solution to the war in Afghanistan…. 

the situation demonstrates a growing and expanding willingness on the part of our country’s senior military leaders to use “Information Operations” even on domestic audiences to manipulate the system in order to get what they want….

Without a change in our strategy in the field and a return to honest and frank public statements by our leaders, the likelihood of the United States Armed Forces suffering an eventual defeat in Afghanistan is very high.

Little wonder the Pentagon is suppressing this historic expose of Obama’s misguided war: no sin is worse in Washington than embarrassing the big guys. My question is this:

How serious does a cover-up have to be for it to be considered treason?

Winning Coalition for the U.S.-Iranian Nuclear Dispute

As Tehran, Washington, and Tel Aviv maneuver, the world is trying to figure out what the three sides really want, but there are no “three sides.” The conflict pits zero-sum militarists against positive-sum moderates.

All three sides are constantly in flux internally and in relation to each other, so even if the world knew all the secrets of each, where they are headed would still be unknowable for they do not know themselves. Yet logic can carry us rather far once we abandon the hopelessly simplistic image of “good” and “bad” regimes.
Starting with Tehran, it seems fairly safe to assume that at least three distinct perspectives are well represented within the factionalized and bitterly competitive ruling elite: 1) nuclear arms are “haram;” 2) nuclear arms per se may be risky but nuclear ambiguity is a great bargaining chip; 3) neither national security nor the realization of national goals is possible in a nuclear world without nuclear arms (i.e., this third faction may in turn be composed of a faction that feels the bomb is the only way to defend Iran and another faction that is committed to the high risk road of international adventure). It is illogical to assume that a fundamentalist religious regime claiming its right to rule is derived from God would repeatedly and publicly insist that nuclear arms are evil if it were committed to building them, so it is only logical to assume that some measure of genuine regime antipathy for owning nuclear arms truly exists. To the degree that nuclear ambiguity serves as a catalyst for persuading adversaries to negotiate in good faith, i.e., to offer something Tehran really wants, the Tehran faction that consider nuclear arms haramand the faction that is open to a pragmatic, positive-sum bargain will be thrown together, and Iranian media are replete with indications that the latter faction should not be discounted.

Hossein Mousavian–former Iranian nuclear negotiator with ties to Ali Larijani, a background of cooperating with the U.S. as an Iranian official, and now living in the U.S.–published a well-balanced and moderate op-ed in the Boston Globe that is rumored to present the position Jalili was advocating in Istanbul. Mousavian’s recommendations for Washington were surprisingly low-cost:

the United States should credibly demonstrate that the ultimate goal is “engagement’’ and not regime change. The P5+1 should offer a package that includes three major elements: 1) recognition of Iran’s inalienable rights for enrichment; 2) removal of the sanctions; and 3) normalization of Iran’s nuclear file. 

Although a neutral observer of the U.S.-Iran conflict might well imagine that Washington would at a minimum need to recognize Iran and address its legitimate national security concerns, Mousavian evidently considers neither of these concessions essential to making progress on the initial nuclear phase of the bilateral discord. For any Washington officials who may wish to avoid war, that is good news: tough U.S. moves toward peace can be postponed for later…presumably after the election.

The degree to which Mousavian represents the views of major Tehran power-holders of course remains unclear, but he has presented a low-cost set of U.S. moves that could put U.S.-Iranian discourse on a more professional foundation and his background suggests it is logical to assume his views will resonate with at least some portions of the Iranian national security establishment.
It should, in brief, be obvious to serious national security decision-makers in Washingtonthat it is in the national security interest of the U.S.to grease the wheels for an Iranian factional realignment by presenting compromise offers that promote cooperation rather than making hardline demands that equate to an Iranian surrender.

Factionalism is of course not limited to Iran. Tel Aviv is firmly under the control of the “Greater Israel” faction that is committed both to maximizing Israeli power and permanently subjugating the Palestinian people. But even this faction is fundamentally split between those represented by risk-seeking Netanyahu who seem eager to fight to the last American to shove Iran back into client status and those, represented by recently retired and risk-averse Mossad chief Meir Dagan, who worry about provoking a disaster for Israel. Neither moderate nor liberal factions appear to play any significant role in the current Israeli power structure, but many representatives of such views speak out bluntly and regularly in the Israeli media, cautioning about not only a self-provoked disaster for Israel but the immorality of Israel’s repression of Palestinians and the harm that the Israeli garrison state is doing to Israeli democracy. These out-of-power thinkers represent a potentially revolutionary force for Israel’s future that was far more influential traditionally in Israeli politics than it is today.
The extraordinarily bitter and irresponsible factionalism in Washington separates two sides of the old superpower coin: the neo-con, zero-sum militarist faction vs. the empire-light conservative Democrats. But progressive, moderate perspectives remain among Washington officials, even if marginalized, and the argument that Washington could, by skillful diplomacy, elicit more cooperation from a factionalized Iran can be turned around: a less awkward, short-sighted, and egregiously uncooperative Tehran could also elicit a more balanced, more positive-sum attitude on Washington’s part. The more Tehran removes ambiguity from its nuclear policy, the easier it will be for those forces in Washingtontrying to prevent war to prevail. To put it differently, the more Tehranhardliners hide what they are doing in Fordo, the more Iranian representatives at nuclear talks make speeches that lack detailed substantive compromise offers, the more they empower American neo-cons and Israeli “Greater Israel” advocates.
The current situation, then, is three sets of internally competitive factions, one in each country. As illustrated in “The Current U.S.-Iranian-Israeli Political Impass,” this unfortunate reality prevents resolution of the nuclear dispute by confusing common interest in national security with domestic political infighting, separating and weakening the forces in each country that could, if interacting, find a solution. This situation greatly empowers extremists because they do not need close coordination: it only takes one actor to start a war.
The road to a positive-sum solution that could potentially end the nuclear dispute with mutual acceptance of the independence and national security of all lies in the joint realization of those in each regime favoring cooperation that cooperation needs to begin at the factional rather than national level. Once coordination between the cooperative factions of the U.S. and Iran begins, the tone of the debate changes from “how can we defeat the enemy” to “how can we solve the problem.” Redefining the terms of debate is critical to finding a real solution. Once that happens, it becomes vastly easier to persuade members of the flexible faction to joint in, thus building momentum to marginalize extremists.

Two recent indications of apparent Iranian interest in cooperation are Larijani’s offer of eventual “permanent human monitors” and Jalili’s weekend reference to Khamenei’s fatwah as an opening to “disarmament.” While perhaps indicative of an Iranian interest in compromise, these rhetorical initiatives fall far short of the type of major substantive concession that Iran, with its huge nuclear infrastructure, could afford to make. Without harming its stance of nuclear ambiguity, Tehran could, for example, open the Fordo underground refinement facility or the Arak heavy water plant to full public inspection or announce temporary termination of construction and/or operation pending the removal of sanctions. Closing one while keeping the other open would demonstrate flexibility while making the statement that Iran has multiple options in the face of continued Western intransigence while weakening protests from Netanyahu that Obama’s willingness to negotiate was only giving Iran more time. A temporary concession made on the requirement of a Western response within a specified time would empower U.S. advocates of compromise now fatally weakened by Iranian refusal to go beyond rhetorical steps that can easily and not unreasonably be dismissed by Western cynics.

In sum, the simplest picture of what is happening that everyone needs to keep in their heads is not “Iran, the U.S., and Israel,” but three sets of factions vying for influence. To prevent war and resolve the nuclear dispute, the Tehran, Washington, and Tel Aviv factions willing to define a deal centered on the concepts of mutual security and a willingness to do business together must figure out a way to coordinate and shift the debate from zero-sum barbarism to positive-sum rationality.

Drones for Peace?

Are Tehran and Washington figuring out a positive-sum method of employing drones for peace?

Drones have brought enormous new layers of risk to international relations, causing insecurity, murdering innocents, creating provocations, facilitating illegal warfare by the Imperial Presidency outside of Congressional control. But now one sees glimmers of an unstated Tehran-Washington agreement to use them not for war but peace.  In this perhaps unnegotiated and certainly not admitted deal, Washington illegally violates Iran’s borders to acquire evidence that Iran is living up to its promise not to build nuclear bombs, and, having–so far–evidently acquired that evidence, can thus justify opposition to Israeli warmongers. Tehran, for its part, publicly claims that Washington is doing no such thing while bragging that it is nevertheless using its own drones to keep a careful watch over Washington’s threatening naval armada in the Persian Gulf.

Thus, each side has neatly made the argument that it is guarding national security so that no hostilities need occur. While this apparent deal is a risky game and falls a bit short of a serious, long-term, positive-sum relationship, it is at least better than the childish prancing about that the world has seen in recent years by war-advocates and the terminally insecure on both sides. As long as the American drones are used only to discover Iranian secrets that confirm Iranian public assertions and Iranian drones are not attacked by U.S. warships, this tricky game can perhaps make a contribution to cooling the tempers of extremists calling for war or brinkmanship.

Defeating Ourselves in Afghanistan

Long-time author and reporter on the Afghan debacle of the last generation Steve Coll describes a collapsing U.S. Afghan policy that is also “destabilizing” Pakistan and is seen by the Pakistani military (not to mention himself) as imperiled because “the logic chain of the American military campaign is broken.” [The New Yorker 3/29/12.] Too focused on short-term advantage and, more seriously, benefit specifically of American and allied elites rather than the populations of either Afghanistan or America, Washington’s policy all too often amounts to lifting rocks only to drop them on its own feet. Afghanistan is just the most recent example in a long line of making the same mistake over and over.

U.S. policy toward the Muslim world is manifestly ineffective. The particular locus of crisis moves around, but the bottom line is the same: harsh military repression combined with long-standing background economic policies that support client regimes while undermining popular economic development jointly provoke fully justified anti-American feeling. The U.S. needs a new grand strategy, a real strategy thoughtfully constructed of an incremental series of mutually supporting and logically consistent steps that build on each other to create a political atmosphere in which momentum builds toward an outcome of benefit to both Muslim and American societies, rather than focusing exclusively on elites. 

Elites of course prefer padding their own pockets, but the price (albeit one paid primarily by the populations) is recurrent instability, including terrorism and wars. To a degree, current U.S. policy does already have “an incremental series of mutually supportive and logically consistent” components, though one should not push the ‘logically consistent’ part too far, but the real problem is that these components rest on a zero-sum foundation. That may be the tried and true historical foundation for great power politics, but the world has changed. Events from 9/11 to the 2007 financial crisis to the horrifying years of the Iraqi insurgency should suffice to demonstrate how outdated and self-defeating the old zero-sum policy of force has become. As columnist and strategic thinker William Pfaff put it:

The United States’ millenarian notions of a national destiny and the militarism that has infected American society have been responsible for a series of wars from which Washington has gained little or nothing, and suffered a great deal, while contributing enormously to the misfortune of others. [“Manufacturing Insecurity,” Foreign Affairs 11-12/10, 140.]

One can obviously make a strong moral argument for positive-sum policy, but that is not needed; even from the perspective of pure self-interest, zero-sum foreign policy in a tightly interdependent world is a self-defeating proposition. The most effective way to achieve a more rational and stable situation is by designing a positive-sum strategy while keeping one’s gun in one’s holster. (Everyone knows the gun is there.) Even if U.S. policy were perfectly logical, with all moves fully consistent, a policy based on a zero-sum foundation that considers force the conflict resolution method of choice is in today’s world a non-starter.

The Peace Candidate on Washington’s Afghan War

It was a waste, there’s not gonna be a happy ending, and I think the Republicans have dug a hole for themselves because they’re trying to out-militarize the president, say ‘we should do more.’ Yet 75 percent of the American people say ‘we’ve had enough.’ [Ron Paul on Face the Nation.]

But as the whole decade-long Afghan war demonstrates, U.S. policy toward the Muslim world is far from logically consistent. The Pakistani-Afghan theater of the broader U.S. confrontation with politically active Islam is a case study in mutually contradictory, self-defeating policies based on a zero-sum view of the world that comes dangerously close to defining the world’s one billion Muslims as “the enemy.” Washington seeks military victory but it is precisely its use of military force to resolve political, cultural, and economic disagreements that breeds hostility. Washington wants Pakistan’s support while seeking to deny it desperately needed Iranian gas imports. Washington provides nuclear technology to India, thus aggravating Islamabad insecurity and contradicting its policy of opposing Iran’s nuclear program. And the rising prospect of a U.S. military retreat from Afghanistan seems increasingly to look, in Washington’s eyes, like defeat rather than transformation from a vigorous but short-sighted military policy to a vigorous but long-term policy of encouraging politically-active, reformist, independent Islamic stabilization and development. 

Grand Strategy

Grand strategy is composed of a coordinated set of policies. Faced with Hitler or Attila, one naturally turns to violence because destruction appears the only alternative. Fortunately, no such threat is even remotely visible on the political horizon, so the U.S. has choices. Counterintuitively, however, the U.S. has restricted itself since 9/11 (with the exception of some fine words, e.g., in Cairo) to a grand strategy of military empire, arbitrarily denying to itself a range of powerful foreign policy tools that, in the hands of a skillful superpower, can have impressive effectiveness.

The ineffectiveness of brute military force for creating a new world of long-term benefit to American society has in barely a decade been made glaringly clear. Iraq and Lebanon are in Iran’s orbit, Somalia a basket case, Afghanistan a looming U.S. defeat, and Pakistan a crisis very visible on the horizon. Turkey is alienated, and Israeli democracy under domestic attack. The U.S. should seize the opportunity to come up with a more effective grand strategy than the combination of invasion, drone bombings, and blatant military threats backing up economic sanctions to force adversaries to surrender in return for the right to kneel at the “negotiating” table. [“Grand Strategy.”]

A policy of support for independent, reformist Islamic political  activism would not be a policy leading to U.S. empire or U.S. control over local resources or U.S. military bases for dominating Central Asia, but it might be a policy consistent with U.S. security and with a reasonable probability of being effectively implemented. 

A Practical American Plan For Iran

The current U.S. policy toward Iran is more emotion than calculation, born more of desperation than calculation. Bilateral acceptance of a positive-sum strategic attitude would be a game-changer.

Just as a chess game does not begin with checkmate, a state’s strategy should not begin with war. Threats, sanctions, the invasion of states bordering an adversary, the construction of archipelagos of military bases surrounding an adversary, terrorist campaigns to murder enemy scientists, references to “preventive” war, and the open consideration of using weapons of mass destruction against a non-threatening state simply because that state might be building or researching weapons of mass destruction are extremist options that should be saved for extreme circumstances. The possibility that an adversary will want some of the same weapons that everyone else has is not an extreme situation.
The current U.S. policy toward Iran is more emotion than calculation, born more of desperation than calculation. History teaches us that it has little likelihood of succeeding. It is much more likely to provoke momentum toward precisely the disaster it claims to be designed to avoid. The further one pushes the current policy the more intense will become the resistance of a cornered adversary and the more nervous will become the rest of the world.
The alternative is a new grand strategy, a real strategy thoughtfully constructed of an incremental series of consistent, mutually supporting, and logically consistent steps that build on each other to create a political atmosphere in which momentum builds toward a beneficial outcome. The most effective way to achieve this is by designing a positive-sum strategy while keeping one’s gun in one’s holster; everyone knows the gun is there.
A simple positive-sum American strategy for dealing with Iran should include the following components, implemented more-or-less in the following order, with Steps 1-7 to be implemented over a period of days, Steps 8-10 over subsequent weeks, and Steps 11-13 presented slowly, keeping time with Iran’s quid pro quos, over the ensuing months:
Step 1. Call Larijani’s Bluff.
In initial response to the offer by Mohammad Javad Larijani of “permanent human monitoring” to watch over Iranian nuclear transparency, Obama should respond positively to this conciliatory signal.
Step 2. End Anti-Iranian Terrorism.
Washington cannot demonstrate that it is negotiating in good faith with Iran unless it takes action to address the Israeli point on the triangle. A delicate first step vis-à-vis Tel Aviv would be a public statement by Secretary of State Clinton that the U.S. opposes the murder of scientists, a statement that should privately be underscored at a minimum by the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, if not at a higher level.
Step 3. Terminate Rhetorical Threats. Obama should order that no one in his administration make any further public threats about the U.S. or Israel launching a war of choice against Iran. Anyone who violated this order should immediately be fired.
Step 4. Recognize the Islamic Republic.
It exists; it governs; therefore, recognize it. Then, figure out how to deal with it.
Step 5. Offer to Negotiate Naval Rules of Engagement.
States go to war, sometimes with good reason, but no one wants a war by mistake. The greatest risk of war by mistake now appears to be a naval incident in the crowded Persian Gulf. Obama should suggest technical talks to develop mutual naval rules of engagement for the Persian Gulf.
Step 6. Combat Illegal Narcotics.
An obvious positive-sum issue begging to be addressed is the flow of illegal narcotics out of Afghanistan, where the war is setting up a situation analogous to that in Colombia during the Cali heyday of Pablo Escobar. Washington should move promptly to identify precise technical solutions designed to minimize smuggling into Iran.
Step 7. Avoid provoking sectarian conflict.
The U.S. should avoid any participation in minority campaigns either by Baluchis or Kurds to dismembering the Iranian state.
Step 8. Offer to Discuss Regional Sectarian Issues. Along with avoiding the provocation of sectarian conflict, Washington should at least discuss cooperation on regional sectarian issues of concern to Iran, specifically in Iraq and Bahrain, according to the following principles:

  1. Start with cautious exchanges of views;
  2. Offer broadened venues including other regional states;
  3. Expect slow progress;
  4. Use these talks initially as an indicator of Iranian sincerity and be ready to respond quickly to Iranian signs of cooperation.
Step 9. Ignore Insults/Threats From Tehran; Condemn Anti-Iranian Insults/Threats By Tel Aviv.Washington should ignore any threatening rhetoric from Tehran and express displeasure at any threatening rhetoric from Tel Aviv, setting, as it were, a new standard of politeness.
Step 10. Put Mutual National Security on the Table.
Washington must concede up front that Iran, like every other state, has legitimate national security concerns. This gives Iran a key reason for being cooperative. It also has the advantage of permitting Washington to introduce the other side of this three-sided coin – the security concerns of the U.S. and Israel.
Step 11. Make Rejection of WMD a National Security Gain.
Washington should make the case that rejecting weapons of mass destruction can lead to enhanced security. The logical case is straightforward: “we” promise not to use weapons against you that “you” do not have. Many attractive offers can be made in this context in return for Iranian nuclear transparency:
  1. Offer to support the idea of Russian sales of defensive missiles for protection against an aerial attack in return for nuclear transparency;
  2. Offer to terminate drone overflights of Iran;
  3. Offer to limit Israeli offensive capabilities by removing U.S. bunker-buster bombs from the Israeli arsenal, constraining the use of AWACS, rationing the supply of jet fuel;
  4. Offer to advocate Iranian-Israeli talks to constrain the routes of Israeli nuclear-capable submarines. 
Step 12. Present a Plan for Resolution of the Nuclear Dispute.
  1. Offer to support the Iranian-Pakistani gas pipeline in return for nuclear progress;
  2. Offer to trade the end of sanctions for permanent human monitoring.
Step 13. Afghanistan.
  1. Offer to discuss resolution of the Afghan conflict;
  2. Include Iran in multinational effort to plan for the future of Afghanistan.
The point of defining a positive-sum strategic plan for dealing with Iran is not to solve all the problems but to create a context within which the problems can be discussed rationally. Doing business rationally does not mean all cooperation/no conflict, but it does mean the possibility of mutual benefit exists. Mutual recognition of that would be a game changer.

Israeli Attack’s ‘Dire Consequences’ for U.S.

Pentagon recognition of Israeli threat to U.S. national security is rising.

This blog is not a news blog, for the purpose of reporting some secret tidbit no one else knew. Many play that game, and transparency is certainly one invaluable component of democracy, so I applaud them. My goal, however, is to promote deeper thinking and, in particular, to violate taboos. 
One of the most serious taboos in U.S. politics today is the question of whether or not Israel harms more than it aids U.S. national security. Violating taboos is hard. The whole purpose of a taboo is to prevent people from thinking; when the taboo magic works, people turn silently away upon hearing a violation, like proper guests at a fancy dinner party when a child utters profanity. Such willful blindness is very nice manners at a dinner party; on the issue of national security in the nuclear age, however, it is idiocy of the first order. So when THE MAN on the spot indicated that he agreed with me that Israel’s policy toward Iran constitutes a threat to U.S. national security, I was naturally pleased.
I recently wrote:

The Israeli war party claims that Iran poses a threat to Israel because of Ahmadinejad’s remarks about looking forward to Israel’s elimination (which falls far short of threatening to start a war to accomplish that goal). By the Israeli war party’s own standard, Israeli references to keeping “all options” on the table–code for nuclear war–constitute an existential threat to Iran. It is not just Israeli possession of nuclear bombs and delivery systems but the public war threats by the Israeli war party leaders (who run the government) that makes Israel a threat to Iran. Given that the U.S. desperately needs stability while it nurses its own wounds from a decade of military and financial irresponsibility, that Israeli threat to Iran also constitutes a threat to the national security of the U.S. (not to mention being a threat to the Israeli people, a point being made by ex-Mossad head Meir Dagan).

According to the New York Times, a recent Pentagon simulation of an Israeli attack on Iran called Internal Look:

has raised fears among top American planners that it may be impossible to preclude American involvement in any escalating confrontation with Iran.

Gen. James N. Mattis, “who commands all American forces in the Middle East, Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia,” reportedly “told aides that an Israeli first strike would be likely to have dire consequences across the region and for United States forces there.”

According to the NYT, “In the end, the war game reinforced to military officials the unpredictable and uncontrollable nature of a strike by Israel, and a counterstrike by Iran, the officials said.” [Thanks to Friday Lunch Club for alerting me to this valuable report.]

Nothing in the substance of this report is surprising. The news here concerns not substance but the signs that American military officers at the highest levels are awakening to the threat to U.S. national security posed by the warmongering irresponsibility of the Israeli war party.

Since the Iraqis failed to “welcome us with flowers,” it must have become obvious to even the most tuned-out Americans that war is unpredictable, though that particular outcome was in fact predicted and indeed was obvious to all but the most biased and self-serving politicians chasing their own private agendas. Unfortunately, those waving the bloody flags of war against Iran have no shortage of their own private agendas, and the risk of losing control once folks start shooting over the crowded Persian Gulf is so high as to be nearly inevitable. The slaughter of a whole Iranian airliner full of civilians in 1988 by the U.S. Navy ought to suffice to make this point. Now imagine what might happen if an Israeli jet mistakenly bombed a U.S. ship. Who in Washington would believe or admit that the fault was Israel’s? Then, there is the danger of an Israeli provocation, similar to the Israeli attack on the U.S.S. Liberty in 1967. Let’s face it. If Israel starts a war, the pressure on the guilty politicians to cower behind an American shield will be almost irresistable.

The combination of an irresponsible “war on terror” exploited for partisan advantage and unrestrained corporate corruption facilitated by partisan self-interest cost the American people a lost decade. The American people now face the risk of losing a second decade in a row. Let’s hope that the generals who recognize this danger can communicate their concerns effectively to the politicians who speak so glibly about yet another war of choice.

Connecting the Dots: War Profiteers Target Iran

The pro-war political propaganda of a defense industry booster firm reveals one way that war-profiteering corporations promote international tension and war for private gain.

The formula is pretty simple: 

Arms Factory + War-Mongering ‘Independent’ Propaganda = $$$.

Once you have a factory that makes weapons, buy yourself an “institute” that churns out “academic” analyses of world affairs designed to wave the bloody shirt. Either you win by selling Washington arms that will sit and rust somewhere or Washington will actually use those weapons, in which case you win again by expanding your market and also by opening a sub-division to rebuild the country you just helped destroy.

Forbeshas described the now scandalous process by which think tanks are degenerating into glitzy propaganda arms of the military-industrial complex: 

in Washington, think tanks are becoming so political that they are more like lobbyists than academic institutions…. 

the pressure on researchers to conform to partisan political objectives is going to become even more intense, and if they are going to be expected to function as de facto lobbyists they are going to expect to be paid like lobbyists, which will ratchet up pressure to raise money from those with a purely bottom-line perspective. I fear that honesty and truth will get more and more lost in the process.

A simple example of how this is currently pressuring the U.S. into war against Iran follows.
In a highly biased piece of war-mongering propaganda, the Lexington Institute, which was described by Harper’s as “the defense industry’s pay-to-play ad agency,” is beating the drums for a war on Iran. The Institute dismisses claims that Iran is several years away from a bomb as an “Obama Administration” claim that “may be irrelevant,” (which of course also means it may “be” relevant), carefully avoiding the fact that it is not only the Administration but numerous military/intelligence officials in both the U.S. and Israel who consider Iran years from the bomb, not to mention considering the idea of attacking Iran bad for U.S. and Israeli national security.

The Institute then tosses in the standard scare tactic that “Once Iran’s nuclear infrastructure is rendered bomb proof then the world’s only recourse will be sanctions.” God forbid that the world turned to the recourse of persuading Israel to relinquish its demands for military dominance over the Mideast (that truly irritates Iran) and the colonization of Palestine (that opens the door for Iran to interfere in Levantine affairs) or that the world turn to the recourse of actually negotiating a positive-sum solution to the broader U.S.-Iranian strategic argument. Oh, no, threats and some sort of war–be it intel, military, terrorist, or economic—will be the only solution.
After admitting that an Israeli attack would not destroy the Iranian nuclear infrastructure and would provoke terrorism, the Institute nevertheless argues that Israeli aggression would have its benefits. An Israeli non-nuclear attack, the Institute broadly implies, would warn Iran that Israel might consider a nuclear attack! Now there’s some good news for all us war profiteers! And even if Israel doesn’t attack at the moment, that’s OK too – just gives the U.S. more time to arm Israel with the long-range Arrow 3 interceptor “specifically designed to go after Iranian ballistic missiles.” The bottom line is clear: for the offense industry, the threat of war against Iran is good news however you look at it.

Must-Read War Profiteers website.

See this report for the latest on corruption of Halliburton/KBR.

For the other side of the coin, Iran’s military-industrial complex, see here. The money quote:

the IRGC is not only an army, but a monster conglomerate with myriad military-industrial, economic and financial interests. Top managers – and the array of enterprises they control – are bound to the ethos of antagonising the West, the same West from whose sanctions they handsomely profit. So, for them, the status quo is nice and dandy – even with the everyday possibility of a miscalculation, or a false-flag operation, leading to war.

2010 Congressional Report on Contracting Fraud in Afghanistan and How It Endangers U.S. Forces