Quagmire

Obama did not exactly say, “Putin, trust me, we Americans know what it means to get stuck in a quagmire, so take this warning to heart.” Nor, of course, did Putin take it that way. Pity.

President Obama noted publicly that “An attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire, and it won’t work.” Obama will quite probably be proven correct, but to understand the outrageous hypocrisy of the remark, simply remove the names by abstracting as follows:

An attempt by [a global power and a regional client] to prop up a [vicious regional dictator] and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire, and it won’t work.

There was, for you young readers who haven’t studied your history, once a guy named Leonid who discovered this for himself in Afghanistan. Too bad Leonid was too old to write a history, for we are all still suffering from the consequences two generations later, and it would have been considerate of him to have warned us against repeating his mistake. Now, to be fair, I suspect Obama has in fact read some history, judging from his path-breaking (we hoped) Cairo speech way back at the now long forgotten beginning of his White House years, but in the rush of trying to run the world, one overlooks even the most obvious of lessons, which leads to having to rush all the more to learn them all over again…which brings us to the hypocrisy of Obama’s pot calling Putin’s kettle “black.”

This very week, as Putin solidifies his military position in Syria and flattens Aleppo (wasn’t that once a city that supported Assad?), Obama, who has been vigorously arming Riyadh with the bombs it has been using the past couple years to flatten Yemen, actually opened fire against one side in the very long Yemeni civil war. Did any Houthi imagine that Obama would respond to a Houthi rocket attack on a highly threatening U.S. destroyer sneaking around off the Yemeni coast by apologizing for the havoc wrought across the world’s most abused society by U.S. bombs over the past two years? [Note: it remains unclear whether it actually was Houthis rather than some false flag element hoping to provoke a thoughtlessly violent American response.] Bad judgment by the Houthis it may have been, and yet, fighting for your political rights against the combined might of Western bombs and Western-supplied Saudi jets for two years and then watching a U.S. destroyer, armed to the teeth, sticking its nose where it did not belong (was it…no surely not…inside Yemeni waters???) must get frustrating. More to the point, to quote a certain U.S. politician, all this is going to get the short-tempered superpower that just moved from the background of the Western campaign to manipulate the Yemeni civil war into the limelight “stuck in a quagmire.”

Follow-Up:

Dear Donald, Dear Hillary, “If elected, will you continue the Obama policy of supporting the Saudi aerial war against one side in the Yemeni civil war?”

Don’t Even Think about It!

Some things are best left unsaid. On the other hand, the best lie is the one you don’t even need to tell because everyone already believes it.

Let there exist a country with no nuclear weapons but with pretensions to independence and a level of in-your-face amour-propre that is simply off the map. Clearly, I am making this up, because no country lacking nuclear weapons could possibly have pretensions of anything. Said imaginary country has no colonies and no serious military forces outside its own borders (a few trainers perhaps excepted). It is by all standard measures not a player. Yet…it plays. That, obviously, violates the rules. It shall be bombed. No other option exists.

Let there exist another country, very tiny, insignificant in every way, except that this one does have nuclear weapons. It even has its own personal superpower lackey, which it publicly shames and ridicules on a regular basis. This country also has pretensions to independence and a level of in-your-face amour-propre that…well, if one were allowed to think about it, it would be unthinkable, but fortunately for said tiny country, thinking about it is not allowed. It receives a blank check from its superpower lackey, on the back of which is the express statement: “Thinking about the actions of the recepient or the implications of this check is not allowed.” Case closed. This country has a colony, about which one is not permitted to think; in fact, one is not even permitted to call it a colony. In truth, the country is itself a colony, albeit independent, since composed entirely of foreigners who stole the land they live on, but their Indians are nearly gone, so one is no longer permitted to call them colonials. This country also regularly invades its neighbors, where it focuses on bombing concrete. Such invasions are perfectly legal because they occur only after the neighbors violate arbitrarily imposed rules unilaterally defined by this country such as performing unauthorized self-defense. The details really require no discussion, because the whole topic is not allowed to be thought about, and there really is no purpose in discussing something you cannot think about. This country shall, with the support of its lackey as needed, conduct the bombing.

If you have a problem with this, you’re a racist. Believe me, it is better if you just don’t think about it.

City on the Hill?

With the U.S. running the world, unfortunately, everyone else behaves just like us.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Rice has just excoriated Moscow and Beijing in most undiplomatic terms over their refusal to sign up to Washington’s latest attempt to differentiate “good” from “evil” in the Muslim world. Truth be told, in this case, I happen to agree with Washington: Assad does, as Washington claims, deserve to be fired for his horrifying human rights violations. It is, as Ambassador Rice, said, “disgusting” for the world to tolerate such behavior…just as it was “disgusting” for “Washington to tolerate, if not encourage,”  Israel’s slaughter of Lebanese in 2006 …just as is also “disgusting” the complete evasion by Washington decision-makers of any moral judgments concerning their threats to launch (or “allow,” via Tel Aviv) an unprovoked and potentially genocidal military attack on Iran for having the temerity to consider the future possibility of developing weapons that might in the distant future balance the weapons Israel already possesses.

Thus, there is a far larger story here than today’s arbitrary policy by this or that global power toward tiny Syria.  The U.N. spat over Syria reflects lessons learned in Moscow and Beijing over the years watching how the self-appointed leader of the world behaves. Chickens come home to roost, and in this case U.S. chickens have dealt the U.S. a defeat. The U.S. is in fact the big elephant in the room (not overly to mix the metaphorical residents of the international political zoo), and what it does…and says…has vast influence over the world that mankind is creating and thus over the long-term security of both the American people and everyone else. If morality, human rights, and civil rights constitute constraints on U.S. behavior that Washington accepts for long-term moral reasons, that helps create one kind of world. If, instead, they are merely rhetorical swords to be lifted in anger when momentarily convenient, everyone else will get the message, and that will help create a very different kind of world.

The whole idea of human rights comes from the West and even there is only hanging on by its fingernails in the face of demands by rich right-wingers and more than a few fundamentalists to engage in what they, from their mansions or pulpits, are pleased to call “realism.” Bashar al-Assad’s attack on Homs cannot but remind every thinking citizen on this planet of the U.S. attack on Fallujah, the Russian attack on Grozniy, and the Israeli attacks on South Lebanon (2006)--in which Israel effectively practiced ethnic cleansing of the region–and Gaza (2009). In each case, overwhelming force was barbarically employed against a civilian population for arbitrary tactical purposes without regard for morality by whatever power happened to be involved. Washington of course judged some of these events to be “good,” others “evil,” as convenient. Given the resultant absence of any moral consistency in U.S. foreign policy, how can Russians or Chinese be expected to accept American ideals about human rights when those ideals are judged to conflict with the short-term interests of those ruling elites?

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Western Morality & Tactical Convenience: The Lebanon Example

The standard Western version is that the July 2006 invasion was justified by legitimate outrage over capture of two Israeli soldiers at the border. The posture is cynical fraud. The US and Israel, and the West generally, have little objection to capture of soldiers, or even to the far more severe crime of kidnapping civilians (or of course to killing civilians). That had been Israeli practice in Lebanon for many years, and no one ever suggested that Israel should therefore be invaded and largely destroyed. [Noam Chomsky, “On the U.S.-Israeli Invasion of Lebanon.”]

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The wealthy, conservative elite–comfortable with the privileges it has stolen through its “realistic” (i.e., calculating, self-serving) two-sided policy of impoverishing the middle class via “globalization” or invasion–does occasionally identify a genuine bad guy to go after. Saddam was obviously one, and Assad, despite certain indications to the contrary after he replaced his father, certainly does at the moment appear to be another. But the nasty behavior of these gentlemen fundamentally has little to do with Washington’s attitude toward them, as is made clear by Washington’s “inability” to see the Saudi-enforced pillage of Bahrain or its failure to make a clear moral judgment about Israel’s barbaric destruction of southern Lebanon during the summer of 2006.

Indeed, the record of U.S. violations of its own principles is now a horrifyingly long one. Financially, under the banner of what is now called “globalization,” which really means the globalization of a financial system designed by and for the benefit of U.S. corporations, the approach focuses on a combination of American manipulation of economics to steal the national wealth of other societies plus physical violence (massacre of protesters, kidnappings, torture) by local lackeys. The historical record extents from the CIA-sponsored overthrow of Iran’s emerging secular democratic movement in the early 1950s through the overthrow of Chile’s democracy in a  U.S.-facilitated coup by the murderous General Pinochet and the exploitation of Mexico in the 1980s and the carefully manipulated fire-sale theft of (ally!) South Korea’s major corporations during the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis* up to the takeover of much of Iraq’s oil industry with the aid of U.S.-written laws carefully penned during the short but effect period of U.S. colonization. When the boys on Wall Street and their allies at the IMF fall short, outright invasion (e.g., Iraq) enforces the globalization campaign…which brings us to Iran and the current pressure against Iran’s ally Syria.

Yes, watching Damascus slaughter its citizens is sickening as was watching Israel slaughter the helpless residents of Gaza or South Lebanon, not to mention the crimes of Saddam against the Kurds back when Saddam was a valued lackey of the Reagan Administration. While his slaughter of his own people may be what appals those American citizens who want Washington to overthrow Assad, what gets the goat of Washington decision-makers is Assad’s insistence on supporting Iran’s quest for an independent (Read: anti-globalization) foreign policy. Almost all Americans with the patience to read this far will surely be confused (and angry), so, to get to the point, imagine the confusion of others contemplating Washington’s behavior! How can you possibly expect Moscow and Beijing to understand the moral foundations underpinning Washington’s identification of “good” and “evil?”

Having seen Washington support Israeli barbarism against Lebanon and Palestine and its own financial destruction of one country after another (leaving, for example, some 20,000,000 people unemployed in Asia after 1997 alone and essentially destroying the middle classes of Chile, Argentina, Indonesia, South Korea, and Iraq), if Moscow and Beijing now consider it convenient for strategic reasons to support a murderous Syrian dictator or, in the event, a vicious, fundamentalist Iranian regime looking for fame and fortune, well, our colleagues in Moscow and Beijing are just copying good, old American “realism.” Perhaps the interests of the American people (the 99%) would be better served if their elected representatives would teach the rest of the world a different lesson.


The public debate between the “national security through force” (realism/conservatism/imperialism) advocates and the advocates of a moral foreign policy (human rights/negotiation with adversaries/compromise/equality) is frequently posed in the U.S. as an argument between “realists” and “idealists.” This is a self-defeating misconception that endangers long-term U.S. national security in a world that is getting much too big for the U.S. to control and much too complex for any American to rule wisely. A truly realistic approach to security must begin to recognize that ignoring ideals imposes serious costs and following the rules derived from idealism (be they logical precepts such as “always talk to opponents because when you talk, you learn” or formal rules such as international law) even when adhering to ideals may require relinquishing tactical advantages offers valuable long-term advantages. It is, to be blunt, much cheaper to negotiate a deal with, say, a nuclear-armed Russia or a China that holds hundreds of billions of U.S. dollars that it could dump on the market or an Iran that could drive oil prices through the roof and fight an almost endless asymmetric battle than it is to fight a war (be it a military or a financial conflict).__________________
* On the Asian Financial Crisis, see Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine (Picador, New York, 2007), 332-353; Ask A Korean; “How the IMF Helped Create and Worsen the Asian Financial Crisis.

Two Societies

Is it just a coincidence that I am thinking, on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, about how to organize society?

Consider a mythical society organized on the principle of open debate in the free marketplace of ideas as the road to problem resolution. Consider an alternative mythical society organized on the principle that might makes right. We can surely agree that these constitute two clear alternatives for constructing a human community. Indeed, they are pretty good end points, two extremes, simple and mutually exclusive. One could sort out all real human societies somewhere between these two extremes, and if one did so, one would quickly see that one had thereby rated all those societies. We would all no doubt concur that one extreme was “good” and the other “bad.” We would all choose to live pretty close either to one extreme or the other. That much we can all agree on.

The disagreement would come over choosing which end of this “continuum of human societies” was to be considered “good” and which “bad.” It won’t require much imagination to guess that Saddam Hussein and Joseph Stalin would have strongly preferred living in a society based on “might makes right.” Indeed, they did and presumably enjoyed the experience, at least until Saddam went underground and Joe lay down on his final sickbed terrified of his doctors. But ask yourself how many public figures in the United States today might, in their heart of hearts, agree with Saddam and Joe.

Listen! I can almost hear the protests already! Everyone is yelling, getting angry, feeling insulted (i.e., guilty), and starting to pick up rocks to throw at me. “It depends!” they say.

I beg to differ. It does not “depend.” It is conceivable that the strongest among us might, theoretically, at least once in the course of human history happen to be right, with everyone else wrong, but even if so, that individual’s strength would be an irrelevant detail, a curious coincidence. Indeed, it would be a statistical anomaly, because there is no poison more likely to induce stupidity than power.

Can we slice and dice this fundamental choice about social organization? Can we, for example, have a foreign policy at one end of the scale and a domestic health or financial or environmental policy at the other end of the scale? Can one department of government be run according to the principle of “might makes right” while another is run according to the principle of “open debate?” How might the two respective secretaries participate in a policy-making session with the President? Would the former bring a gun to the White House, while the latter invited a dozen of his experts to testify? And what about the President himself? Can he make foreign policy at 9:00 on the basis of the former principle and sincerely devote himself to considering the needs of the domestic weak and poor at 10:00 on the basis of the latter principle? Or, to reverse the situation, can a leader who oppresses his population be trusted honestly to implement international treaties with weak countries?

Perhaps some such amazing event has occurred during some instant of history, but I would not bet my mortgage on it.

The sad truth is that today in the U.S. many CEOs of financial corporations and many politicians are doing their best to push American society as fast as they can toward the “might makes right” end of the scale.

Too Big to Exist

When corporate or government institutions become too big and too socially destructive to exist, we need a graceful method of putting them on a diet and reforming their lifestyle.

The American genius for creating magnificently productive mega-institutions has a potentially fatal downside: we have, as a society, no idea how to downsize them when they “go rogue,” i.e., become socially destructive. On balance, today, several of America’s major mega-institutions–the Imperial Presidency, Big Oil, Big Pharma, and Big Finance–either are or are fast becoming socially destructive. They are “too big to exist;” we need to figure out how to downsize them gracefully, reorienting them toward socially useful behavior.

Perhaps the first step toward this new way of thinking that needs to replace the tarnished old “bigger is better” mantra is to understand the evidence supporting the contention that these mega-institutions are so bloated that American and, indeed, global society can no longer afford them. (I call these social units “institutions” because each is truly a unified organization composed of, perhaps, separate governmental or private units, but operating according to a clear if unstated and frequently illegal set of monopolistic rules designed to maximize profit and power at public expense and, in the case of the Imperial Presidency, at the expense of the rest of the Government as well.) Consider the following examples of mega-institution misbehavior:

  1. The Imperial Presidency, i.e., the rising ability of the White House and all its military-industrial support mechanism to overshadow Congress and Constitution on foreign policy, now employs something in the neighborhood of a quarter of a million mercenaries overseas, constituting an armed force capable of making independent war on most countries–completely outside of Congressional control and often beyond the reach of U.S. judicial authorities [see Jean MacKenzie, Jeremy Scahill, Glen Ford]. Since Augustus overthrew the Roman Republic with his palace guards and established the Roman Empire, we have known the profound threat to democracy posed by a mercenary army under the command of the chief executive.
  2. Big Pharma, constituting the whole U.S. health care industry, has degenerated so far that, to boost profits, it now essentially writes off as a “business loss” all of the nationa’s elderly with the almost universal cognitive problems associated with aging. At their most vulnerable, they are thrown into the arms of untrained relatives utterly unprepared for 24/7 nursing.
  3. Big Oil, alb eit receiv ing billions annually in welfare payments from U.S. taxpayers, can destroy ever-growing chunks of the earth through careless cost-cutting measures and escape responsibility. For the rest of our lives, we will be watching BP’s poison creep with Gulf Stream currents up the North American east coast and over toward England, while everyone complains about $4 a gallon gas, a price only a fraction of the real cost.
  4. As for Big Finance, the cost of its irresponsibility is now glaringly obvious to everyone. At the very least, Wall St. should keep accurate books, and regulators should scrutinize them.

The traditional way of toppling rogue mega-institutions is of course well known: the “barbarians” did it to Imperial Rome, Lincoln did it to the Southern slave system, Gorbachev did it to the Soviet state. But as these mega-institutions take on global scale, the cost of violent overthrow rises sharply. We should be able to do better.

Key to the smooth downsizing of rogue mega-institutions is twofold: 1) the breakthrough understanding of the bottom line insight that a cherished social structure has outlived its usefulness as currently designed combined with 2) the identification of specific traits requiring elimination. Specific reforms (Step 2) without acceptance of the goal of institutional downsizing, and redirection into a socially beneficial mode misses the point. That was the mistake of the Wall Street bailout, which successfully saved the bad old exploitative system rather than taking the opportunity to dismantle it by, for example, rebuilding the wall between the stock market and personal savings accounts. Similarly, eliminating mercenary forces while leaving the political supremacy over Congress of the Imperial Presidency untouched will only have a temporary impact. Surgical removal of a specific cancerous tumor must be done in the context of lifestyle changes related to nutrition, avoiding pesticides, and exercise.

Rogue mega-institutions must be recognized as enemies of society and redesigned to return to their proper purpose of servinhg society. The Presidency’s power should be balanced with that of Congress; stock market investments should b e used to stimulate growth, not gamble with people’s mortgages and savings accounts; the health care system should exist to provide a universal right, not to make a profit; the cost of gas should b e set by government to reflect its true value, incluyding the cost of pollution clean-up and the cost of wars fought to get the oil. And no industry that takes welfare from the taxpayer should turn its leaders into billionaires immune from prosecution.

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READINGS:
To its credit, Washington is at least thinking about this issue. See comments by FDIC’s Sheila Bair.

Designing the Orderly Failure of Large Institutions

Continuing the discussion of how to plan the compulsory failure of institutions that, believing themselves “too big to fail,” are in fact too big for human society to afford.
If the wave of unemployment accompanying Washingtons post-recession care and feeding of guilty financial giants at the expense of American society did not make clear that Paulsons concept of the orderly failure of large financial institutions was poorly implemented, then the wave of foreclosures did. While many Americans were clearly playing the (housing) market in full recognition that they were trying to benefit from a giant chain letter that would hurt only the last owner of their grossly inflated mortgage, thousands of other Americans unable to pay their mortgages because Wall Street irresponsibility had cost them their jobs had their homes taken by selfish banks who, once back in possession of the houses, could not find anything to do with them except let them rot. The Bush-Cheney-Paulson billionaire bailout, so uncritically supported by Obama, may have exemplified orderly failure for the billionaires, who kept the profits of their crimes, but was anything but orderly for the millions who suffered.
All that is of course rapidly becoming old, well-understood, and quickly-being-pushed-under-the-rug history. The whole U.S. financial and political elite– from Wall Street, Washington, and many other placeswas essentially complicit and has little interest in looking too closely at issues of responsibility. But for American society, not to mention the rest of the world, the issue, beyond punishing the guilty in the name of justice, is to determine exactly what a socially responsible process of orderly failure for a large institution would look like.
Moral hazard provides guidance. Institutions should be restructured and downsized (e.g., by preventing banks from playing the market with homeowners mortgages or savings accounts) to minimize socially harmful behavior and maximize socially beneficial behavior. Decision-makers at those institutions should be held personally responsible. Filling jails with brokers has little obvious value to society, but when a financier gets rich by inventing incomprehensible but obviously dangerous (because highly leveraged) financial products, the burden of proof should be on him to justify why all of his earnings should not be confiscated to compensate for collateral damage.
In truth, society needs to understand its frailty and, more, appreciate how often failure is due not to natural constraints or normal human limitations but to egregious cheating on the part of the powerful, who regularly kill the social goose that lays the elites golden eggs. Paulson deserves credit for enunciating the highly counter-cultural concept of orderly failure. American society, as the global leader (no moral judgment here; I mean the phrase simply as honest recognition that the U.S. is the biggest elephant in the room), needs to take primary responsibility for developing not just the biggest war machine, the greediest financial district, and the most wasteful consumption society but also the global standard for institutional rejuvenation.
The U.S. has done it before. With the Marshall Plan, it transformed Nazi Germany and the Japan of military imperialist dictatorship into pillars of democracy. By its very establishment, the U.S. also transformed a West of kings into a West of republics. It then transformed itself from slave society to free society. Those were truly institutions too big to fail.
But those transformations were seen as unique. No users manual existed, nor were the respective situations perceived as members of a class, so no users manual was written despite the priceless lessons. Political science has failed us here. No busy government official will ever have time to study the crises and develop a generic process for smoothly cleaning the rot from failed institutions; that would be the responsibility of a new sub-field of political science, a field that would recognize theoretically the need for institutional renovation by force from the outside and that would recognize theoretically that the word institution comprises private and public institutions, companies and countries.
The process occurs every day. With the brilliant insight of Gorbachev that military force to maintain the existence of the rotten U.S.S.R. would be inappropriate, that empire was transformed, but of course via a decade of depression and crimehardly an example of orderly failure. We await the first book to do a comparative analysis of the financial mess of Soviet communism and Wall Street capitalismof the corruption of nomenklatura vs. the corruption of derivatives. A follow-on study could compare the corruption of Soviet industrial pollution vs. the corruption of Western Big Oils rape of the environment from Nigeria and Bolivia to the Gulf of Mexico. From such studies, done properly, would be derived a set of generic lessons of inestimable value for designing a well-functioning society.
While this task of assessing key crises of institutions failing from a social perspective even as they functioned brilliantly for the elite who benefited personally is likely to take a century to complete (and will require a profound understanding of how complex-adaptive systems operate in the social arena), we can usefully begin with a few obvious (once stated, albeit mostly ignored in current practice) principles:
  • The principle that the larger an institution, the greater its responsibility to behave in accordance with the common good should be established in law;
  • Rules for behavior should be known in advance;
  • Rules should spell out personal responsibility for institutional elites and governmental regulators;
  • The assumption should be that in egregious cases (e.g., breaking rules about leveraging, ignoring engineers warnings about installing good quality environmental protection equipment), decision-makers and their management chain will forfeit all personal earnings gained as a result of irresponsible decisions. Any claim that one deserves exemption (e.g., a golden parachute for a Wall Street CEO or denial of personal responsibility by an oil executive after a pollution spill) should have to be made publicly in court;
  • Just as buildings have plans for getting people out in a fire, institutions should have plans for emergency downsizing.
And every American should realize that the need to grade the social acceptability of big institutions applies not just to brokerages and oil companies but to the United States as a wholetoday. Americans are far more skilled at building huge institutions than in building socially beneficial institutions. More seriously, until disaster strikes, the assumption, deep in the culture, is typically made that big is better…rather than more dangerous. In fact, national downsizing of a rather bizarre type is the constant refrain of a certain class of conservatives (not those who conserve but those who believe in freeing the rich to do the exact opposite by forcing conservation down the throats of the disadvantaged). These conservatives, more properly these elitists, want not conservation by society but conservation by government. This is at least a step in the direction of downsizing, but one informed less by the theory of how to make institutions perform better than by raw greed. Nevertheless, this concept of downsizing is worth keeping, so long as the focus is shifted from downsizing regulation of, to be frank, piracy, toward the downsizing of socially pernicious behavior. Mankind has been stumbling in this direction for millennia, though the decades since Reagan entered the White House have seen the U.S. move in the opposite direction.
Part of the difficulty of making progress toward more socially responsible behavior by large public and private institutions lies in the lack of theoretical understanding of the concept of social responsibility for all large institutions. Society has no clear generic standard for the behavior of large institutions as a class. Seeing the generic issue rather than just the individual crises would facilitate asking questions in a way that would promote deeper understanding. How might one compare the harm to Iraqi society caused by the U.S. army during the occupation with the harm to U.S. society caused by the capricious approach of many banks to foreclosing on American homeowners? While this may seem at first glance to be an odd question, to ask it focuses attention on how to balance an emergency need to use force in a crisis vs. the long-range costs of force as the tool for conflict resolution. As technology improves, we gain the ability to approach closer and closer to the edge of chaos, a great achievement as long as we do not fall over the edge, but one that is becoming too dangerous without a deeper theoretical understanding of when institutions, including superpowers, become too big not to fail.

War on Gaza

If the Gazans can be penalized by collective punishment, then it follows that anyone who joins a peace flotilla can also be punished for their impertinence. Lets face it: these peace activists are embarrassing to the powers that be, and embarrassing the boss is the worst crime of all.
One and a half million destitute but, thanks to last years brave Gaza flotilla participants, not quite starving residents of the Gaza Ghetto are imprisoned still by Israels army, which guards the globe against the peril posed by these prisoners. For, despite its nuclear arms, nuclear-capable submarines, squadrons of F-16s, bunker-buster bombs, white phosphorus, and endless tanks, Israel fears the Gazans. And it should. Gazans represent a challenge for which Israel, in the end, has no answer: the fundamental demand of all humans for dignity. Admit that Gazans are humans with a right to dignity and much else follows, a chain of logic and moral reasoning that would lead directly to the collapse of the Israeli garrison state [possibly, though not necessarily, to the collapse of a reformed Israeli state], which is built on a policy of superior military force and the principle that Israelis have more rights than others. Washington, of course, understands this and thus has declared war on all who defend the right of Gazans to dignity.
One can only imagine, at this point, what manner of pressure and threat Washington has brought to bear against Greece and Turkey to force the respective administrations to defy their own populations and sign on to this war against Gaza. One boat blockaded on a legal pretext, another that withdrew at the last minute without obvious cause, a third with an axle that just happened to break itself. But the truth will eventually out, and we shall all learn what bribes were paid, what punishments were evaded by the kowtowing of Ankara and Athens. When the chickens of anti-American feeling come home to roost, Americans will of course profess to be clueless.
Montaigne, a few centuries back, had some blunt remarks that are informative in this context.
The confusion of order and measure of crimes is dangerous: Murtherers, Traitors and Tyrants, have too much gaine by it.
So, with Montaigne, one may ask:
  • Exactly what does Washington have to gain by preserving the extreme right-wing Israeli policy of endless repression of the people of Gaza?
  • Is it impossible to identify even the slightest room for compromise? 
  • Would the world we know collapse with the slightest move toward the freedom of visitors to go to Gaza, to drop off a bit of food and medicine, to offer Gazans smiles and letters? 
Well, yes, in fact, the world we know probably would collapse. If Gazans deserve smiles and letters, then Rafah Gate should truly be opened. If Rafah Gate should truly be opened, then Gazans should be allowed to travel like all other humans. If Gazans were to be allowed out, then Gazans should be allowed to govern themselves. If Gazans were to be allowed to govern themselves, then they surely should be allowed to defend themselves. If Gazans were to be allowed to defend themselves, then the great Israeli army would have to be stuffed back inside of Israel and denied the right to march through its neighbors back yards whenever it so desired. If the Israeli army were to remain inside Israel, then disputes would have to be solved through compromise, i.e., changes in Israels expansionist policy, rather than through force. Gazans hold the key to the whole empire. As we all know, Israel never has a choice.
But keeping them locked up still raises some questions that will inevitably be answered, whether Washington and Tel Aviv hide their heads in the sands of occupied Palestine or not:
  • How many votes is Washington by its repression of Gaza handing to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypts upcoming election?
  • How many potential supporters of democracy in the Mideast will instead join al Quaida?
  • How much further will Greeks, already inflamed by their recession and European-American demands that they sacrifice, be irritated by this latest slap in the face?
  • How much more will Erdogans moderate Islamic party be radicalized by Washingtons refusal to countenance any Turkish independence even on the most egregious regional issue of injustice?
  • How much more American blood and treasure will be wasted defending repressive Mideast regimes standing tall on the ramparts of sand castles?

Differentiating Friends from Foes

To develop an effective Mideast policy, Washington and Americans generally must learn to distinguish between factions and individuals rather than labeling allies and adversaries by national or religious terms.

Like the Israeli and Saudi (and U.S. regimes), the Iranian regime is a coalition drawn from a wide range of political factions. Like the Israeli, Saudi, and U.S. political arenas, the Iranian political arena includes some folks who are nicer, nastier, more patriotic, less patriotic, more prejudiced, less prejudiced than others. A wise statesman tries to ascertain some appropriate distance from each political actor (not from the state as a whole; that would be a grossly short-sighted and irresponsibly self-defeating policy). At the moment, the “Dagan faction” in Israel, for example, is far closer to US national interests than the “Netanyahu faction.”

Today, the US “distance” from the ruling clique in Tehran should probably be significantly less sufficiently closer so that we can convince them that we are willing to accept Iran’s natural role in regional affairs.This means recognizing Iran’s right to inclusion in regional diplomacy and recognition that Iran has real and legitimate national security concerns that must be addressed in any international discussion of nuclear arms or freedom of the seas or any US discussion of where it would like to install overseas military bases.

Similarly, our “distance” from the current ruling elites in both Saudi Arabia and Israel should be greater. The Saudi ruling elite wants to use the US to push Iran away so the Saudis can lead global Islam…in a radical, militant, sectarian, fundamentalist direction that harms US national security. The Israeli ruling elite wants to use the US to push Iran away so it can continue unopposed to colonize the West Bank, suppress Palestinians, and make the rules that its neighbors must follow, again policies that harm US national security.

But this is a discussion of the appropriate US attitude toward specific political factions. The issue of states or societies is quite different. It is quite reasonable for the US to aspire to support the security of the Israeli, Palestinian, Lebanese, Saudi, or Iranian people as long as the support of A does not entail discrimination against B. Offering that support unconditionally or (offering hostility unconditionally) as a function of the faction or individual in control is simply unprofessional. It gives the initiative to the adversary. It empowers the adversary. It is a policy of weakness and blindness that teaches others that they are in control, and a professional policy-maker should not control to the leader of another country.

The issue of religion is also quite different. The Shi’i Shah was a close ally of Israel. The Shi’a of Bahrain engaged in a democratic protest. The Shi’a of Iraq are (depending on your perspective) either US allies or US proxies. The Shi’a of Lebanon actually welcomed the Israeli invasion in 1982…until the Israeli army started abusing them; then they rose up in revolt under the Hezbollah flag. The fact that someone is Shi’i or Sunni or Jewish is essentially irrelevant (but of course very useful as an excuse or cover for unrelated behavior).

One must of course start somewhere, but nationality and religion are not the places to start. Organizing friends and foes by religion or nationality is counterproductive. It confuses rather than clarifying.Instead, try  “level of deprivation.” If you are deprived of food or security, you will be considering a militant stance. You deserve sympathy. If you are still militant when no longer deprived, then you deserve to be condemned. That is simple, just a starting place. But at least it is a logical, useful starting place.

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Questions for Further Consideration:
  1. Can one differentiate among factions in the ruling coalition in terms relevant to U.S. national security?
  2. Can one differentiate among factions in the ruling elite in terms relevant to U.S. national security?
  3. Can one differentiate among the genres of political thinking by the thinking public in terms relevant to U.S. national security?


Reality-Based Policy-making

How should the U.S. differentiate among the wide array of Mideast states? With whom is alliance warranted? Should any state be contained or marginalized? Is there any regime that should never be talked to or should be changed?
Regimes are coalitions of factions and individuals working together for an ever-changing combination of personal and ideological reasons. Even if a regime, a faction, or a politician is determined to be completely uncooperative, he may change his mind in five minutes. At the peak of state power, something unexpected that may change your attitude is always happening. If human society is a complex-adaptive system in which the components are all constantly adjusting in reaction to each other, so is a political faction, and so is the regime that is constituted from the lucky political factions that are part of the winning coalition.
Biasesideological, cultural, personalmay give one regime a long-term tendency that distinguishes it from another, and each state operates under a unique set of constraints. Nevertheless, nothing is fixed in concrete.
A good leader will be surveying the political landscape for opportunities and dangers as steadily as a leopard surveys the savannah for antelopes and hyena packs. The way forward always zigzags, and there is always the risk that one has zigged so much one cannot zag back. The hikers dilemma of crossing to the wrong side of a small stream to head uphill on the side that has fewer obstacles without knowing when the gorge may deepen and prevent his return provides only a weak analogy: in politics, when one player feints to the side, the others all react and may do so on longer time scales or with a time delay or with an over-reaction. They may box themselves in via public statements or the signing of agreements or the alienation of a potential ally so that they cannot go back even if they realize they should. They may talk themselves into believing their error was the correct move.
Therefore, a skilled leader makes no assumptions about the nature of the adversaries but instead constantly searches for opportunities to pursue and dangers to avoid in every direction. By that standard, few if any skilled state leaders exist. The excuse, and it is a valid excuse up to a point, is that life is too complicated: there simply is no time to reevaluate every other actor. So one assumes that allies are friends, that foreign leaders one has pleasant lunches with can be trusted, that public insults from an adversary demonstrate hostile intent, that everyone can see our own arms are only for defense, thatindeedthere is a difference between allies and adversaries and that the difference is enduring. A leopard with such a naïve attitude will have his lunch stolen by hyenas every time.
So how is the earnest leader supposed to make sense of a Mideast political environment that is not only changing but actually changing so fast that even the blindest can see the shifts occurring before his eyes? Somehow, an earnest leader must step back from labels (good, evil, friend, foe, sharing our values, hating our way of life), free his mind from the biases those labels impose, and apply some set of independent standards. He must constantly evaluate behavior in terms of that set of standards, modifying his own tactics accordingly. Perhaps intelligence submitted to leaders should delete all identifying labels, so the leader would read only: Country X sent nuclear-capable submarines to the littoral of Country Y; Defense Minister A walked out of the ruling coalition in protest and joined the opposition faction that is campaigning for compromise with the adversary. Without standards, we cannot overcome cognitive biases. Without overcoming cognitive biases, we cannot see reality; without seeing reality, we cannot protect ourselves. If achieving this goal is impossible, moving toward it, given the enormity of cognitive bias in the mind of every human, is easy: cognitive bias is a very big target.
To make sense of the Mideast, then, requires seeing it as it really is. Clear vision requires removing the blinders of cognitive bias. Whenever you assume anything, you put the blinders back on. Minimize assumptions; maximize questioning.
  • Are those military maneuvers just for training?
  • Does that insulting speech by the leader of State X indicate hostile intentor fearor his need to buttress domestic political support? Was it correctly translated? Was it designed to shock you into viewing him with respect and negotiating sincerely?
  • When has a traditional ally evolved to the point that the alliance transforms into a trap?
  • If a relationship is both alliance and trap, how do you know the ratio between the two?
Yemen has just evolved from a Saddam-style dictatorship that exploited the fear of al Quaida to get weapons from the U.S. into a highly unstable bimodal coalition between a weakened regime still in power without the old leader and a bizarre coalition of traditional tribal forces plus modernist activists. Is the new Yemen a better or worse potential ally?
Iran is constantly threatened both verbally and via the maneuvers of hostile military forces with attack for pursuing nuclear technology but responds by trumpeting its incredibly slow progress toward acquiring the ability to build even one undeliverable bomb. Like fusion power, the Iranian nuclear bomb is always just over the horizon. If Iran has hostile intent, why does it make itself a bigger target by making its nuclear progress sound greater than it is?
The regime in Israel remains under Netanyahu, leader of those calling Iran an existential threat, but has lost its three top intelligence officers Dagan, Diskin, and Yadlin, who have jointly advocated caution. Does this massive personnel change at the top suffice to make Israel more liability than ally, a country whose propensity to violence may now constitute a clear threat to U.S. national security?
Saudi Arabia has committed itself to resist the Arab Spring, using military force against Bahraini democracy advocates, employing its wealth to slow the pace of change in Egypt, and trying to maintain Saleh in office. At what point might Saudi Arabias domestic cooperation with Salafi fundamentalists, its kleptocratic approach to governance, and its regional backing for hated dictatorships constitute more of a danger to U.S. national security than its willingness to sell oil? Could it conceivably afford to stop selling its oil?
Egypt has responded to popular protests by eliminating a dictator, establishing a transitional military dictatorship, and setting a date for a democratic election. Turkey is making its mark on regional affairs by establishing itself as leader of moderates willing to work with everyone. At what point might the new Egypt and the new Turkey constitute better pillars for U.S. Mideast policy than the two traditional allies, Saudi Arabia and Israel?
The answers to these questions are unclear, but the U.S. is not even remotely prepared to get the answers. No set of standards is being used to measure the behavior of Mideast actors and identify actors whose behavior enhances U.S. national security so they can be encouraged or those whose behavior is harmful, so they can be enticed to modify that behavior.
A simple set of standards for behavior advantageous to the U.S. might include behavior conducive to a stable oil price, avoidance of sectarian conflict, growth of democratic liberties, maintenance of long-term political stability, and economic development. Define your own standards, but once you have them, apply them fairly. Cheating only blinds you to reality.
Does collective punishment of a colonized ethnic group minimize sectarian conflict? Turkey, Israel, and Saudi Arabia can all be accused of this, with the caveat that Turkey is trying to change. Does the use of military force against domestic political opponents enhance democratic liberties, economic development, or political stability? Turkey, Tunisia, and Egypt stand out as rare regional examples of states today trying to avoid such behavior.
One could take the further step of enumerating actions deemed helpful or prejudicial to the calm, moderate development of the Mideast. Helpful steps might include efforts to combat the drug trade (Iran would score a plus here), promotion of common standards for nuclear behavior (Turkey would score a plus), army refusal to fire on demonstrators (Egypt would score a plus, and Israel a huge minus). Prejudicial steps might include baiting other countries by threatening them with the deployment of major weapons systems along their borders (Israel would score a minus here), stationing troops outside ones legal borders (Israel and Saudi Arabia would score minuses), engaging in rhetorical warfare (Israel and Iran would score big minuses), using security forces to kill peaceful demonstrators (minuses to every country except, perhaps, Turkey, Egypt, and Tunisia), using military force across international borders without the permission of the states affected (unique in the region, Israel would score a minus).
Just as a coach takes cold players out of the action and focuses on using hot players, on the basis of the above analysis, policy-makers could adjust relations with other countries, cooperating more with those that engage in better behavior. The benefits of such an approach would be numerous:

  • the ability of allies to take the U.S. “captive” and manipulate it would be minimized;
  • all would see the cost of defying and the benefit of cooperating with the U.S.;
  • the existence of common standards instead of preferential treatment would make it easier for others to cooperate, minimizing hostility from adversaries who feel themselves to be the victims of discriminatory U.S. behavior.

If any such set of standards is in use in Washington, its existence is a carefully guarded secret. On any given day, in Washington, it is more than likely that no one of policy-making significance is even asking such questions. Blinders are in place; assumptions are unquestioned. Reality is carefully concealednot from you and me, but from the decision-makers themselves.

Needed: U.S. Foreign Policy Standards

Washington would provide a far better service to the American people if it devised a foreign policy that followed standards based on principle than by arrogantly taking on the duty—far beyond its wisdom—of “awarding” the world’s societies the “right” to possess nuclear arms or have democracy. Washington can neither control the world nor make the correct decisions. A better course would be to set standards of behavior, observe those standards itself, and induce others to pass thresholds based on principle rather than obedience.
Mathew Levitt of the Washington Institute, an organization wedded to the Israeli right wing perspective,* exemplified in a recent article both the need for principled standards in U.S. foreign policy and the pervasive bias in Washington preventing Washington decision-makers from creating such standards.
Fatal Flaw.    Levitt’s pointed call for the U.S. to make a distinction between those who pass an “appropriate threshold” for “partnering” with the U.S. and “participation in the democratic system would have established a logical long-term standard that Washington decision-makers could have aspired to and a route to a much improved American foreign policy if it were not for the profound bias that infects his argument. Levitt is quite right that U.S. decision-makers should observe and require that their foreign “partners” observe some standards. Furthermore, his implication that U.S. decision-makers generally fail to observe much in the way of standards and that this undermines U.S. national security (for as I read his piece, he does imply this as well, though in unfortunately muted tones) is also quite correct. Sadly, however, Levitt fails to rise above the typical bias of Washington actors and thus cannot draw from his principles much of any sound guidance to practice.
Assessing Current Partners.    If one were to require attainment of the fine threshold of democratic behavior as a minimal requirement for being accepted as a partner of the U.S., then a country with a vicious and active security service employed in brutally repressing those citizens who chose to exercise their democratic rights would clearly not make the grade. That would have caused Mubarak’s Egypt to have flunked long ago, not to mention Saudi Arabia in the 1990s (though they could claim to have cleaned up their act a bit more recently). Physical attacks on demonstrators by police or soldiers would also clearly earn a failing score; so much for Bahrain: should we remove the U.S. Navy? Soldiers and police looking the other way while a favored ethnic group terrorizes neighbors of another ethnic group, e.g., by burning their olive groves, would just as surely cancel one’s membership in the elite group of U.S. partners; even more clearly would the crime against humanity of collective punishment of an entire population: no need even to mention the charges of ethnic cleansing or apartheid or the passing of racist legislation in order to flunk Israel.
Assessing American Adversaries.     Moving from American partners to the rest, surely we must have a policy for those who, having formerly flunked out of democracy school, reconsider, hit the books, and ace the final. Without even addressing the fundamental issue of whether or not it is legitimate for a population subjected to forceful repression to defend itself (and, therefore, the question of which side truly deserves the epithet of “extremist,” in 2006 Hamas got an “A” for deciding to compete in a democratic election. Unfortunately for those who like to pick the winners, Hamas won. For playing by our rules, they were promptly overthrown and pushed out of the West Bank; fighting back, they retained control in Gaza. Like a bad student who reforms, hits the books, and embarrasses the teacher’s pet only to be kicked out of school for his impertinence, Hamas has not subsequently shown any particular fondness for democratic rules. An opportunity was lost because U.S. foreign policy was not being conducted on the basis of principle.
A Principled Foreign Policy.    Levitt’s idea of standards of behavior in foreign policy would be a brilliant innovation with the potential not only to reestablish America’s tarnished global reputation (assuming, of course, that we followed our own advice) but to offer a powerful inducement to other countries to clean up their own acts. Unfortunately, his argument is so imbued with the traditional cherry-picking habit of U.S. decision-makers accustomed to deciding which states shall have the “right” to nuclear arms or democracy that he misses the implication of his own advice: principles are not prizes for the winners; they apply to all, to enemies and friends. Even us.

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* In its most extreme version, the Zionist project calls for huge Israeli expansion.