Mideast Sand Castles

Childish posturing? Muslim civil war? Or do the two authoritarians have a plan?


Albeit a bit less super than they were and surely less super than they think they are, the two old superpowers are once again intensifying their competition in the Mideast. Having made its big move into Syria to fill the vacuum left by Washington’s long-standing confusion, Moscow is now wisely consolidating its new Shi’i stronghold. Its point has been made: Mideast problems can no longer be resolved without Moscow’s participation. Washington, having forgotten its excesses earlier in this century, is grasping at loose sand trying to erect its own Sunni castle. The effectiveness of Washington’s move was instantaneous, shattering the superficial unity of the Sunni Arab Peninsula states/fiefdoms/oil baronies. If Moscow’s new-boys-on-the-block Shi’i allies were not content with their enhanced strategic position, they certainly must be now. Castles in the sand or not, the Shi’i castles look wet and well-packed relative to the massive but dried out, blowing-away-in-the-wind strongholds of the old money Sunnis.

In this interesting context, Washington’s chief has curiously decided that the timing is perfect to meet Moscow’s chief. Like everything else about the new guy on the Potomac, one can only wonder at this decision. Does he intend to cut a deal, on his heels, with the man with the Cheshire Cat grin? Putin has a couple reasons for his grin, from U.S. post-election infighting to last year’s smooth little display of gunboat diplomacy. It is hard to imagine how he might be cowed by Trump’s famous snarl.

Perhaps, however, these two gentlemen are more sophisticated than appearances would suggest. Perhaps they have something in mind that would enhance the reputation of each. Are they dreaming of a new Treaty of Tordesillas?


Update Jul 8, 2017: If we believe a piece in the Guardian based on body language, it was all about one-upmanship, and, in the end, the great meeting boiled down to a hand wrestling match won “hands down” by Putin. The two great authoritarians strode together across the world stage looking…very small.


Making Saudi Arabia Great Again

Trump has officially joined the U.S. bipartisan tradition of transforming the House of Saud into a modern military power, but there is a difference, for the Saudis have decided, as well-armed regimes are wont to do, to go on the offensive. One might have thought that the semi-official Salafi jihad that fought the Soviets in Afghanistan and brought us 9/11 would have taught Washington to let the petro-sheikhs focus on managing Oil, Inc. Their financial manipulations were, after all, quite effective, as the rapid collapse of the Arab Spring–and specifically the return of the Egyptian military dictatorship–suggests. But no, Washington now likes Saudis as the shock troops for outright military confrontation, and the new generation of Saudi leaders seems delighted.

Trump–uneasy with Iran’s complicated political stance of stern independence, partial democracy, and willingness to make a landmark nuclear settlement with Obama—evidently feels more comfortable with the authoritarian and starkly male-oriented, and increasingly aggressive Saudi religious plutocracy. Put more simply, Washington and Riyadh both want an alliance against Tehran. But Tehran is not only in the midst of a tacit military cooperation with Washington against the Islamic State but also now enjoys the military protection of Putin, anchored by his new Syrian bases. In any case, that anti-Tehran alliance is the apparent dream in the eye of both Trump and Salman.

So, the Saudis now have the West under control: Trump has, as the titular head of what is no longer called the “last remaining superpower,” conferred upon the petro-sheikhs full authority to consolidate control over the peninsula and, indeed, as much of the Mideast as they can…including semi-democratic Iran. Trump will, following the hallowed footsteps of his much esteemed predecessor Obama and others before him, provide the bombs, and it shall be called the “elimination of extremism.”

A problem does, of course, exist, but it is very theoretical—i.e., beneath the notice of all who want to make someone or something “great again.” More important, it is very long-range, i.e., unlikely to reach fruition within the horizons of someone focused on the mirror. So, it does not matter. But for those self-hating intellectuals who want to inflict pain upon their own brains, here it is: all who understand history know full well the difficulties that exist when two caliphs simultaneously claim authority over all Islam. No religious prejudice is implied: having two contesting chiefs of Christendom has also been known to cause difficulties, as has two contesting chiefs claiming to rule the whole world of communism or the whole world of fascism (this latter, by the way, a not utterly irrelevant comparison, these days). Competing claims for absolute authority do not predictably generate positive-sum conflict resolution in a predatory species.

In the event, the two competing claims for the position of Caliph that have now implicitly been made are pitting the very, very rich and now very, very well armed Salman against the very skillful political operator Erdogan. One can only observe in awe how in a mere afternoon the latter took down the leader of…well, not only is “the last superpower” a bit dated, but so is “the free world”….In any case, Erdogan pinned his opponent not only quickly and in his opponent’s home territory but with cameras running. Just look at the expression of satisfaction on Erdogan’s face.

Compare Erdogan’s march to total power (setting the 21st century model for how to destroy a democracy) and his scornful defiance of Washington (not just violating U.S. constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and assembly but also asserting the right to kill U.S. troops) with Salman’s desperate struggle to gain the upper hand after two years of total air control over poor, starving Yemen. Endless bombs or not, Salman is still trying to figure out the distinction between defeating the opponent and destroying everything…not just the enemy, but one’s allies, one’s own economy, perhaps even the stability of one’s own…well, we are getting ahead of ourselves. The point is that Salman will have his work cut out for him, no matter how hard Trump tries to make the Saudis great again.

Swimming in the Swamp: The Mideast Extremist Triangle

Mideast War Triangle

The implications of promoting the transformation of Saudi Arabia from financial empire to military empire are vast and unpredictable, but one thing is certain: whether the Saudi elite takes on its old persona as the source of Salafi extremism or adopts its new persona as regional policeman, the further stimulation of Mideast chaos is the entirely predictable short-run outcome. Whether you think aggravating chaos across the Mideast by empowering the fundamentalist authoritarian rulers of Saudi Arabia will be good or bad for the security of the American people is a judgment call, and your judgment is likely to be influenced by your attitude toward the choice between authoritarian and democratic government.

The real swamp in Washington is the vastly profitable collusion with Sunni extremism (extremist dictators who alternatively if not simultaneously promote and provoke extremist Salafis). The dictators get protection (from external enemies and domestic democrats), global status, and personal wealth. The West gets oil, bases, personal wealth for the elites, war (which, in certain circles, can burnish a resume), and—as the direct result of the endless war–all the justification for repressing domestic dissent an authoritarian could desire. Between these two groups stands the crucial third group, those Salafi jihadis the dictators pump up and push out. These precious jihadis serve three purposes: 1) they propagate the messianic version of Sunni Islam that constitutes the core justification for the Saudi regime’s family rule, 2) they provoke conflict with Shi’i Islam to destabilize the Mideast to create opportunities for the expansion of Saudi influence, and 3) they frighten the West into doing Riyadh’s bidding.

Trump just dumped a cool $100 B into this swamp, thus becoming a card-carrying member of Riyadh’s loyal Potomac pool club of political fish and arms merchant fish…a club that of course managed to sign up that other President so admired by Trump: one Barack Obama.

Whatever one may think of the efficacy of Trump’s domestic policies, he has just had a tremendous impact on the Mideast with his $100 B in arms plus his rhetorical calls for attacking “extremism,” by which all will understand that he means those who refuse to swim in the swamp. Specifically, the world can count on rising Saudi-Iranian tensions, a further empowerment of Iranian state extremists in the IRGC as they react to Saudi pressure, a further empowerment of the new state extremist faction in Riyadh favoring military expansion (tested in Bahrain and now proudly on permanent display over Yemen), the continuing collapse of Yemeni society, further authoritarian crackdowns against democracy advocates in Bahrain, further conflict in Syria, as well as intensifying ripples of religious conflict in Iraq and Pakistan. Most of all, the world can count on the prolongation of the great saga of Salafi jihadi violence, invigorated—as always—by state repression and societal chaos.

Erdogan Humiliates Trump on Washington’s Embassy Row

If you watched the TV evening news last night (May 17), you saw—right on Embassy Row in downtown DC—what the 15 million Turkish citizens of Kurdish ethnicity have been living through under Erdogan’s campaign of oppression. You also learned why all those who love liberty reject authoritarian leaders.

At the end of a state meeting with President Trump, Erdogan’s gang of…well, you saw the video…gave Trump a slap in the face as well as spitting on American values with a brutal public demonstration of what the Mideast’s newest authoritarian thinks of American liberties. Make no mistake; this was an attack on America and should be treated as such; the fact that it comes only days after Ankara launched an air attack on Syrian Kurdish allies of the U.S. that came very close to killing U.S. soldiers and followed up that attack with a public warning that American troops were in danger of being hit the next time only underscores the seriousness of Erdogan’s little demonstration about his attitude toward democracy…not just in Turkey but here in the U.S. as well.

What I would like to know today is this: has the U.S. ambassador to Turkey been recalled yet?

You’re Fired!

Investigated me? You’re fired! Or, perhaps not. Perhaps, with Pence, we should all just assume that Trump fired Comey out of his patriotic concern for the welfare of the American people.

Senator Paul said he has seen no evidence…so therefore, he implied, Trump was correct to fire the man who is in charge of gathering it. Whatever the truth of the mess over Trump and Russia, firing Comey right after he requests additional funds to pursue the investigation certainly gives the impression that the White House has something to hide. Unless Trump moves rapidly to appoint an undeniably independent-minded replacement for Comey as FBI chief, what will any outsider be able to conclude except that we are witnessing a cover-up?

Republican Senator McCain compared Trump’s firing of Comey to Nixon’s infamous Watergate cover-up and noted:

This scandal is going to go on. I’ve seen it before. This is a centipede. I guarantee you there will be more shoes to drop, I can just guarantee it. There’s just too much information that we don’t have that will be coming out. [The Hill.]

White House deputy press secretary Sanders suggested that the world should move on from the Russia investigation, implying that the dismissal of Comey was, after all, intended to interfere with the FBI investigation.

Republican Senator Burr said he was “troubled” by Trump’s action.

Republican Senator Corker noted the importance of having an investigation “free of political interference.”

Republican Senator Flake tweeted that he could not “find an acceptable rationale” for Trump’s action.

We ain’t seen the end of this yet.

Shutting Down Everything Except the President

Is the White House intentionally humiliating Congressional Republicans? Provoking a government “deconstruction” shutdown (which would not shut down the President’s flurry of executive orders) may be exactly what the White House wants.

Why would a president possibly want to “shut down the government?” If a president ran for office precisely because he or she did not like the government, because he or she wanted to “deconstruct” democracy, then the particular U.S. concept of a “government shutdown” would constitute a brilliant trap for those who support democracy because, at least in the U.S., a “government shutdown” does not shut down the government. It simply shuts down Congress and the bureaucracy, i.e., national parks, protection of food, protection of the environment, and a massive host of other services that the populace treasures. It does not shut down the President.

A so-called government shutdown in fact leaves the President free to go rogue, like a corporate CEO with no board of directors looking over his shoulder.

Even with Congress in session, Trump acts as though its members are little more than his mid-level managers. Trump’s recent remarks and decisions suggest that he is trying to send a message that he does not want a Constitutional separation of powers (i.e., partnership) with Congress but, rather, that he views Congress as a subdivision of his organization.

Unilateral Trump actions ignoring Congress:

  • his idea of withdrawing from NAFTA

  • his cruise missile attack on Syria

  • his use of the biggest non-nuclear bomb in the US arsenal in Afghanistan

  • his shifting tactics on health care

  • his efforts to exploit the threat of a government shutdown to achieve his most controversial goals

  • his uncoordinated invitation to the extremist and seemingly criminal right-wing Philippine leader Duterte

Trump seems to view himself as CEO of America. Democracies do not have CEOs using their organization for self-enrichment, they have elected representatives serving the public. Congressional Republicans may wish to consider whether or not they believe Congress should be a separate and equal branch of a democratic system (along with the executive branch).

Even for a CEO, this seems odd behavior. If a CEO were to marginalize and ignore both his board of directors as well as all his corporate officers and start making decisions in private with his personal advisers, what would be the reaction of shareholders, corporate officers, board members, other corporations seeking business ties…or the judiciary?

Dictators Need War

A second-rate dictator can survive by suppressing his own people, but to achieve first-class dictatorial stature, nothing works as well as war.

Erdogan may have pursued authoritarianism by suppressing freedom of the press and the independence of the judiciary, but he achieved it by turning on the Kurds–both peaceful Turkish Kurds and militant Syrian Kurds, using the Kurds as scapegoats to justify his drive for personal power. And it worked: it is the oldest con in the book.

Unfortunately for everyone, he is now locked in. It would take political genius indeed for Erdogan suddenly to turn democrat and welcome all his people as full citizens with equal political rights. It is crucial to remember that Erdogan attacked Turkish citizens of Kurdish descent not for defense but after the pro-Kurdish party had just won a breakthrough electoral victory gaining national support and the right to 80 seats in parliament. The issue facing Erdogan at that moment was not “terrorism” but the prospect of a moderate, democratic, pro-Kurdish party peacefully getting enough votes to deny Erdogan his dream of re-writing Turkey’s constitution to replace Turkish democracy with authoritarian rule under himself.

Having used the Kurds as his scapegoat to achieve full power, it is highly doubtful that he will find the will and the way to turn away from racial repression domestically, but–ominously for a Mideast already filled to the brim with chaos–as long as Erdogan holds grimly onto power over a society split right down the middle, the logic of his position will propel him toward a general war against Kurds region-wide. The two Turkish bombing strikes that immediately followed Erdogan’s referendum victory should be interpreted in that context: they are a portent of things to come.

Dictatorship feeds off war because war is the easiest way to con (“in this historic moment of threat, only I can save you”) a population into bending its knee and accepting repression. If the repression was originally justified as protection against a domestic minority, the logic of the situation predicts further racism; if the minority lives on both sides of the border, the logic of the situation predicts regional war.

Dictators need tension, violence, and–even better, from their perspective–war. This sad conclusion has nothing in particular to do with Turks or Muslims; it is simply part of the human condition…at least, until we achieve a higher level of civilization. The people of Turkey are now but the latest victim of a very old political dynamic that Americans are just as vulnerable to as every other society.



Ankara’s Shock and Awe

Getting insulted in world affairs may be childish, but sometimes, perceptions really do matter.

With President Trump’s congratulatory message for his very narrow and suspicious referendum victory in his pocket, Erdogan has just finished two straight days of bombing the U.S.’s Kurdish allies in Iraq and Syria. Erdogan’s bombs missed U.S. troops by a full six miles. Now, did the American superpower, with its “America First” leader just shy of 100 days in office, just get slapped down or did it just get slapped down…by the now fully in command “Turkey First” leader?

Of course, in international affairs we should all be cautious and thoughtful; it’s not about pride or other such childish emotions. But a couple serious questions do follow from Erdogan’s behavior, which is considerably more bellicose than  “North Korea First” Kim’s remarks (mere remarks; no bombs in the neighborhood) about what he might do to a certain U.S. aircraft carrier.

One question concerns the Islamic State, a terror operation that the U.S. has been trying for a couple years to defeat, going all the way back to the battle of Kobani, when Erdogan gave the very strong public appearance of being an ISIS supporter. (And note that, whether or not Erdogan actually does support ISIS, his attack on U.S. allies within sight of hapless U.S. troops (!) does not exactly enhance the U.S. military position on the battlefield.) But more seriously, if Washington allows Ankara to kill soldiers allied with the U.S. while U.S. soldiers are watching from the sidelines, who in the future is likely to put their lives on the line alongside the U.S.?

A second question concerns Putin, another “My Country First” sorta guy. Will Washington’s humiliation by Ankara make Putin take Trump seriously as a negotiating partner whose voice needs to be listened to concerning world affairs?

A third question gets us back to the young Mr. Kim, whom decision-makers on the Potomac sometimes underestimate. I will just take a stab in the dark and make the assumption that someone has brought Erdogan’s shock and awe to Mr. Kim’s attention. Will Mr. Kim now decide to take Washington more seriously?

No further questions…but would someone please tweet me some answers?






Money Machine

Spin up a nice social hurricane by internationalizing a civil war. As the wind rises, chaos ensues, leading to desperation, anger…and extremism, requiring more war, and so the machine cycles around, and the faster it spins, the more money flies off.

After two years of providing the bombs for Riyadh’s air war in Yemen, Washington has now faced up to the predictable–and widely predicted–outcome: a dangerous resurgence of al Qua’ida, which feeds off chaos. So the internationalization of the Yemeni civil war that constitutes the worst mistake of the Obama Administration is now sucking Washington further into yet another Salafi trap.

It is, of course, not that simple, for Salafi extremists–be they al Qua’ida, ISIS, or fundamentalist Saudi officials–will not be the only winners of this latest and rapidly worsening Mideast disaster. Those U.S. politicians who pander to the military-industrial complex for campaign funds or who just curry votes by parading as great military leaders will also no doubt reap their share of short-term payoffs.

Yemenis will, naturally, be the losers, as they long have been, as their nation is destroyed. Americans too will be losers, as their own nation experiences further undermining of democracy in the face of a surging military-financial-industrial complex whose war-profiteering seems immune to interference from mere politicians.

War leads to chaos, which leads to more war, and of course we allow those who build the bombs to make a nice profit. One could imagine a price structure that rewarded arms manufacturers only during peacetime; one could imagine a law prohibiting CEO’s of bomb-making corporations from earning a salary as long as the government is dropping their bombs. One could imagine legal penalties for bombing hospitals, markets, and wedding parties. One could imagine a Constitutional prohibition on executive branch wars unauthorized by Congress. One could imagine financial incentives for companies marketing nation-building hardware rather than nation-destroying hardware. But, were someone to be so rude as to suggest that capitalism might be employed to incentivize peace rather than war, such a troublemaker would immediately be shouted down as “unpatriotic.”

Is Congress Alive?

No excuse exists for a unilateral Presidential decision to launch a military attack on another country that is neither posing a direct and imminent security threat to the U.S. nor even posing such a threat to any other identifiable entity. If the White House had time to notify Moscow, it had time to request legal authorization from Congress. War is not the President’s private affair. No member of Congress has any business leaving town this weekend: it is time for Congress to take a stand on the U.S. wars in Syria and Yemen…or is it just a “fake legislature?”