Posted tagged ‘Middle East’

The World Around Us

September 3, 2019

Say what you will but one must give credit where credit is due.  President Trump has sucked all the air out of “world awareness news”.  Whether it is just one more mistruth or stinging slanderous verbal attack, President Trump is aiming for the news cycle’s center of attention.  And there seems to be no depth Trump is not willing to descend in order to be the lead story at 6 pm.

What about 

  • Brexit – With the United Kingdom poised to withdraw from the European Union without any negotiated terms, America’s “special relationship ally” is headed down a dangerous path based solely upon political misinformation.  British voters heard politicians remind them of the woes associated with free movement of labor where Eastern European laborers, willing to work for low wages, were pushing out UK workers.  “Don’t you want your sovereignty back”, asked the politicians.  British citizens voted in favor of Brexit in a referendum partially on promises of a brighter day tomorrow and no problems with the “Brexit” itself.  Pundits tell us “sunshine and no problems” was never true and voters were misled.

Of course, British citizens have the right to decide for their future and Brexit or no Brexit is a British choice.  What is important to Americans is the precedent where use of a referendum fueled by misinformation and no route to revisit the referendum vote is an abdication of responsible governance.  In the age of mis-information, Americans should recognize how fragile democracy can be and from history, once democracy is taken away, what an ugly path authoritarianism can be.

  • Burning of the Rain Forest – Brazil’s hinterlands are a world wonder.  According to environmentalists Brazil’s rain forest sucks up CO2 and pumps out O2 helping to offset the developed world’s production of global warming gases.  Recently when pictures emerged (even from space) of large Amazon Rain Forest parcels ablaze, the world (not necessarily the US) took notice.

The fires were not an accident of nature but rather the purposeful intent of local farmers to increase the area of land available for raising cattle.  Free enterprise at work.  What basis does the rest of the world have to deny Brazilians the right to pursue their own future?

The world has no right to deny Brazil its chance to develop its economy.  If keeping the rain forest green is important for global warming reasons, the developed world needs to offer trading opportunities that make it preferable for Brazil to keep the Rain Forests green.

To draw a line under the irony of Brazil raising cattle, is reportedly the new customers were from China!  Why is China not a potentially good customer for US farmers.  Hmmm.  

  • North Korea – When President Trump broke with past precedents and agreed to meet with North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-Un, the President signal that making a deal and using personal diplomacy were his specialty.  Our President pointed out that in only a short time he had done more than any President before him.  Now two years later, how do things stand?

The recent picture of Chaiman Kim standing beside a submarine thought capable of firing a nuclear tipped missile off the US shores captures the notion of what happens when one pokes a bees nest with a stick and then walks away.  Our President has no way to put the North Korean behavior back in a box especially since neighbors China and Russia are at odds with President Trump and US Foreign Policy.  North Korea seems determined to follow a nuclear course of their own.  Americans are getting a reminder that good relations builds coalitions which in turn present a united front towards countries which disagreeable policies.

  • Japan-South Korea – Two US allies have descended into a tit for tat, destructive foreign policy with respect to each other.  The basis for Japan and South Korea’s quarrels is routed in history with Japan’s occupation of Korea during WWII as the most recent reminder.  The US has the credentials to remind both countries that there are bigger adversaries than each other.  But with an “America First” policy, the Trump White House is blind to the cracks forming in our Pacific defense wall.  Hmmm.


  • India-Pakistan – “The little old lady who lived in a shoe, she had so many children, she did not know what to do”.  Little old ladies, India and Pakistan fit this fable to a Tee.  But add to this children’s story that these old ladies have nuclear weapons and have been ready in the past to attack each other, there should be genuine worry in the White House about keeping the peace.

What me worry(?), says Alfred E Trump. 

President Trump acts as if those 2 billion plus countries were like Australia and New Zealand.  No problems there.

  • Middle East – Probably no place else in the world has the Trump doctrine been more poisonous.  Give the Israeli and Saudi Arabian governments what ever they seek and the Middle East will take care of itself.  This attitude certainly clears the calendar to allow for more golf but like giving candy to a baby, Israel and Saudi Arabia will misuse whatever the Trump White House gives.  Even if one thinks that Israel and Saudi Arabia will act as surrogates to contain Iran, the three countries shackled by theocracy and selfish objectives can open more cans of worms before the tweeting President can retweet.


  • China – Most Americans still think of China as a back water country with “coolie-like peasants running around” keeping busy.  Wrong.  China has burst into the 21st century with tall buildings, high speed trains, and economy second only to the US.  The Chinese political system is built around one party.  Who ever controls the Communist party controls China, and the Communist party membership realizes that their individual good lives rests upon the Communist Party remaining in charge.  Chairman Xi knows that economic stability is key to keeping the masses placated.  Over twenty years of double digit growth has satisfied much but not all China’s population so Xi is aware of keeping the image of a strong, growing, and peaceful China before his citizens.  

China has a long history and expectation that life presents surprises but real change takes a long time. Xi is not fooled by President Trump.  Quick “tariffs fights” are not going to happen and worse, during these trade wars, China will see little reason to cooperate with US wishes.  Hmmm.

  • Russia – Although the Russian economy is small compared to the US, the EU, or China, Russia’s nuclear weapons make Russia a player.  The Communist Party rule, as with China, insulates President Putin from normal political pressure.  Accordingly, Russian foreign policy is geared to what’s good maintaining the Party and indirectly what’s good for enriching Putin.

With Russia’s fingers in the Middle East, coveting former Soviet countries in Eastern Europe, and a supposed ally of North Korea, US Russian foreign policy must be thoughtfully constructed and executed.  Not President Trump’s long suite?

President Trump is simply unqualified to lead the US in a world as complicated and intertwined as we find today.  Despite the President’s insistence that he, Donald Trump, is the smartest person in the room, the facts speak otherwise.  The 35% Trump supporters probably do not need to think further about this matter.  For the rest of us, we should realize that the next President’s most pressing task will be to provide leadership that will bring sensibility back to our allies, and to appoint qualified Americans to rebuild our domestic institutions.  The 2020 election cannot come soon enough.

The Middle East Mess

December 13, 2018

Recently, PBS broadcasted a documentary “Letters From Baghdad” which tells the story of Gertrude Bell, the British writer, traveler, and expert enormously knowledgeable about Palestine.  Ms Bell, in the early 20th century, advocated for Palestine self rule and self determination following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire.  Modern Iraqi borders bear Ms Bell’s efforts.

The Middle East we know today presents a bewildering array of seemingly intractable  contradictions.  The Israeli-Arab impasse, the Shiite-Sunni conflict, and what makes one want to be an infamous suicide bombers, seem to defy logic.  

Gertrude Bell, however, foresaw this Middle East dysfunction.  On one hand, she opposed the Balfour’s Declaration which called for a Jewish homeland because she didn’t believe the Arabs could accept giving up land to Israelis.  On the other hand, Ms Bell worked diligently advising British Governors how to best administer the region.  Subsequently, Bell proposed boundaries creating and defining an Iraqi State. Bell thought these boundaries would encompass a State internally balanced (Sunni, Shiite, and Kurd) and that no one sub-group would have enough power to rule over the others. 

Time and the sheer destructive influence of oil wealth have shown Gertrude Bell’s hopes to be unfulfilled but most surprisingly, modern scholars are just as befuddled on how to nurture a modern Middle East.  Events such as George Bush’s Iraq War, Israel’s West Bank expansions, and the Sunni Saudi Arabia face off against Shiite Iran present puzzles in the 21st century.  Oil (and the greed that follows), irrational and incompatible religious traditions, and millions of poor and largely uneducated residents characterize the Middle East but do not suggest how to end the nonsense. 

For example,

  • in Yemen, norther tribesman (Houthis) allied with Iran are fighting against Saudi backed “government” troops and in the process destroying everyone and everything in their way.  Why? 
  • Hezbollah and Hamas militias allied with Iran continually are plotting to attack Israel.  Why?
  • Israel, simultaneously, nibbles and then gobbles Palestinian land on the West Bank claiming that the bible said the land was Israel’s. Why?
  • And, what makes anyone think that blowing themselves up and killing other innocent men, women, and children makes sense?  Why?

A little more than 100 years after Gertrude Bell’s work the Middle East remains a mess. 

Danger Ahead?

February 11, 2015

It is relatively quiet on the domestic political scene. Alabama’s Supreme Court Justice, Rory Moore has fiendishly interrupted the gay marriage issue in Alabama, and in the process, struck a blow for State’s rights. In Congress, funding of the Homeland Security Department raises the prospect of a potential “shutdown” if agreement between Democrats and Republicans cannot be reached. Other than that, the Washington grid lock seems mostly in recess. Is this a time President Obama can relax?

Probably not. Look around the world and tell me what his next steps should be.

Syria is a political (and humanitarian) mess. Attempting to remove Basher Assad predictably has lead to an Iraq repeat, Arab killing Arab (and anyone else who gets in the way). Iraq is still highly suspect and shows no signs of uniting Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis into one functioning State. Egypt appears to be tilting further towards absolute authoritarian rule, albeit a secular dictatorship. Jordan, while currently flexing its muscles in its revenge battle with ISIS forces, is only inches away from chaos should the Monarchy be usurped.

And then there is Iran and Israel.

Iran’s government seems quite stable, but its foreign policies extend (and meddle) well into the Middle East.  Experts claim Iran is pursuing centuries old Persian and Shiite aspirations. Iran’s fingers are in Hezbollah, Hamas, Yemen, and Iraqi’s Shiites goals. Iran is also engaged in negotiating a nuclear development agreement with the West. This agreement may come to pass or may continue to be drawn out while Iran continues its nuclear programs in secret.

Israel suffers from a different type of instability. Israel is a full blown democracy where religious interests continue to hamper a secular view of the world. As a result, Israel sees advantages is Egypt’s authoritarian government, is ambivalent over the turmoil in Syria and Iraq because it sees these situations as enablers for its ambition in the West Bank. But Israel’s largest concern is Iran and in particular Iran’s nuclear program. Negotiations with Iran is out of the question because Israel fundamentally does not trust Iran to keep any promise, as well as Israel is not keen on making any concessions itself.

Hmmm. Is that all on the foreign stage?

Don’t overlook China and its aspirations to regain the leadership role China played in South East Asia thousand of years ago. (India, Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan, and South Korea may take exception to this goal.) And who can forget about Russia and their aggression in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. On one level, Russia can be said to be reliving its Eastern Europe role dating to back long before the Czars.

While the pundits may look for an over arching foreign policy, it is hard to see one. Prioritizing these situations might be more helpful and in the long term present a better chance for lasting solutions.

First, the Middle East is not the most important hotspot in the world regardless of the chaos taking place.

Second, Russia is significantly more important than the Middle East. Russia has a second rate economy but a first rate military with both nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. Confronting Russian military aggression, which may become necessary, must be a last resort.

Third, China represents the most important place where American diplomacy needs to be placed. With 1+ billion people and the first or second strongest economy, China is going to become more powerful whether we like it or not. If you want fo think about doomsday, consider India has also 1+ billion people and nukes, Japan has a highly advanced technical and manufacturing infrastructure and is said could convert to a nuclear power over a weekend, and places like Vietnam, the Philippines, and South Korea are proud people who want to access minerals lying off their shores, these countries might be ready to fight for what they see as their rights.

But China represents something more. China has a lot to lose. China is now a very rich country after centuries of poverty. Under the motivation of not regressing, China could choose to exercise positive leadership including economic development and defense against rogue states in its region.

Similarly, Russia has both much to lose and much to gain by behaving responsibly on the world stage. Russia could also provide economic leadership through export of oil and gas, and security with targeted action against rogue regimes from India to Turkey.

I hope that President Obama sees the path forward as going through China (first), Russia (second), and then and only then through the Middle East. Of course both Russia and China may choose to pursue their own future vision.  And then what?

The alternative that peace is achieved in the Middle East (in some presently unknown manner) but relations with Russia and China sour. Are we better off?

Hmmm.  Better focus on those policies with the greatest potential payoff.

The Case For Afghanistan

November 24, 2014

President Obama has announced the complete withdrawal of US combat troops from Afghanistan by 2016. Unfortunately it appears that one of the phased withdrawal steps due by January 2015 will not be met. The President has agreed to allow US troops to conduct further operations in coordination with Afghan forces. Hmmm.

The decision to withdraw completely almost assuredly will set up an analogous situation in Afghan as we have just seen in Iraq. The Taliban will gain ground and continually threaten major Afghan cities. If the US has withdrawn, its capability to confront Taliban forces will severely strained.

A bigger risk, however, will not be on the battle field but at home in the political world of the 2016 Presidential election. Once again, the GOP will label Democrats as soft on defense and ineffective as leaders. Hmmm.

Afghanistan represents a difficult piece of culture and geography. From the days of Alexander the Great, each successive invader has had difficulty deciding when to leave.  What’s in it for the US to remain?

One advantage, some say, if the US keeps a sustainable Afghan force, is this presence would require an overall military size helpful in responding to flare ups other places in the world. The support infrastructure to maintain an Army in Afghanistan could also support a more rapid deployment of US troops to other locations in Asia or the Middle East, for example. And with a growing Chinese presence and a rejuvenated Russia, maintaining US military strength is a strong argument.

We must be careful, however, if any of our political or military leaders suggests that staying in Afghanistan is necessary to complete the Afghan transition to democracy. While Afghanistan does not present the Middle East “Sunni-Shiite conflict”, Afghanistan presents its own set of obstacles.

Afghanistan is a relatively recent State which has been cobbled together from dozens of ethnically different groups. The idea that modern Afghanistan can be anything other than a loose confederation of tribes for the foreseeable future is just dreaming. Poverty, corruption, and tribal jealousies will rule the day. The reason to remain in Afghanistan does not include helping to birth a democracy.

The rub in the “being ready for other contingencies” argument is an statement the US cannot make publicly.  More to the point, it will not sell well on the Sunday talk shows.

Another damaging aspect will be the budgetary considerations. How can the US support a continued war while cutting domestic spending?

Former President Johnson once said he would not be the first US President to lose a war when referring to a Vietnam withdrawal. President Obama may see that same writing on his history wall.  While leaving Afghanistan is inevitable since connecting it to US national interests any longer is too much of a stretch, President Obama may be thinking, “not on my watch”.

The case for Afghanistan is for the Afghanis to decide. We went there in hot pursuit of al Qaeda and removed the Taliban government because they tolerated al Qaeda presence. It is not our position to tell the Afghan people what type of leaders they should have. If religious conservatives like the Taliban, so be it.

The risk, of course, will remain that ISIS or al Qaeda or some other look alike will return. But frankly, a residual force of 14,000 will not be much of a deterrent anyways.

What say Chuck Hagel?

Something More To Worry About

November 23, 2014

There is no doubt that ISIS represents one the worst movements in the world today.  The only question is whether ISIS is more or less diabolical than Muarmar Kadaffi or Saddam Hussein were? Or, are the people who have died at the hands of ISIS any more dead than those who died as a consequence of some stupid Sunni or Shiite blowing up themselves (and anyone nearby)?

Is the pursuit of martyrdom the catalyst for all this inhumanity?  Maybe but there is a more basic cause.

Poor and uneducated people all over the world (and throughout history) are the pawns of those seeking power and wealth. In the Middle East and through out the Muslim world, the common person is the potential target of others who seek to improve their personal position.

  • First rule, blame everything that is wrong on someone or something else.
  • Second rule, emphasize that a supernatural being (god or allah) is on their side and will reward the loyal follower.

Simple rules and universally applicable.

Al Qaeda stressed the Paradise awaiting its warriors, especially the 7 virgins due each suicide bomber. Now ISIS has moved up scale. They are operating more similarly to a normal government (not out of some cave) with a traditional military branch and field fighting.

ISIS has also found that marketing (symbols like their black flag) can extend their reach. Most experts, however, predict ISIS will be defeated if they choose to engage in traditional armed conflicts. Hmmm.

So why is there something more to worry about.

There are reports that the ISIS black flags (like the Under Armor logo) are showing up in Pakistan. Why is this a worry?

Pakistan has most of the ingredients an insurgency needs,like wide differences between the rich and the poor. Most Pakistanis are dirt poor and uneducated. Government officials, on top of that, are prone to graft and corruption and seem to be indifferent to providing basic public services. Hmmm.

So what is the worry?

Pakistan also has the bomb. Were a ISIS like insurgency take hold, the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons could be put in jeopardy. From an ISIS perspective, their efforts toward power and wealth could take a big jump forward. With the bomb, the West could no longer kick sand in their eyes and lesser powers like Afghanistan or Iraq would be hard pressed to defend themselves from Pakistani inspired uprisings.

What does this mean?

Currently the focus is upon defeating and dismantling a group that calls itself ISIS. The playground is Syria and Iraq. The rhetoric captures ISIS as a group of people as opposed to a business model. The West would do well to see ISIS is fundamentally a business model and not a collection of people.  A business model could suddenly jump to another land like Pakistan.

What if the Taliban rebranded themselves as ISIS?

Framing ISIS as a group of people, however, makes it easier to explain and convince other Americans that their government is protecting the homeland. Regrettably, ISIS is much more than a group of people. It is a business model which at its core seeks to change who is wealthy and powerful.    And, best of all, a business model is far more portable.

Business models can be beaten with other models which work better. The West’s efforts towards defeating ISIS with guns needs to augmented. When ISIS or any other look alike group’s approach can be shown as more costly to the people it is trying to win over, then progress can be made on eliminating the extremist groups to seek to pray upon dirt poor and uneducated.   Hmmm.

Caught Again In The Middle

July 11, 2014

“Ground Hog Day” is a movie where the same sequence of events seems to reoccur to Bill Murray all the time. It’s like deja vu all over again, so to speak. Looking at the news reports covering events in Gaza reminds me of that movie.

Once again, inexplicably, radical arab elements have chosen to fire enormous numbers of rockets into Israel. We have been here before. And we know what to expect. Israel will extract serious damage in retribution. In short, the poor, average Palestinian Gaza citizen will get the crap beat out of them.

After the rocket supply is exhausted, and world condemnation shifts to Israel (who will keep pounding), a cease fire will be agreed to. As the dust settles, we will see that Gaza wil have slid a little further into the sewer of humanity. And nothing else relating to a lasting peace between the Palestinians and Israelis will have changed.

World opinion can be an important goal. When Israel disproportionately responds to a Palestinian provocation as is too often the case, world opinion sides with the weaker Palestinians. So when peace talks are progressing (like a snail) and Hamas (or some other radical group) acts out (kidnapping, bombing, or stray rocket fire), how Israel responds can impact world opinion.

Almost always, Israel’s response has the flavor of an Arab argument settlement. “If you steal my chicken, I will steal two of yours”.  That’s like but even better than “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”.

This particular Hamas provocation seems over the top. Firing over 100 rockets a day from Gaza where Israel has established blockades and strict boarder controls is impressive. But why this suicidal action? What are the Palestinians thinking?

There are two leadership attributes of resistance movements which seem to be in play. (1) For a resistance to flourish, it must have an enemy. With a well defined enemy, the rest of the citizenry will accept hardship when promised a better life in the future. (2) A resistance does not have to deliver the mail, sweep the streets, or fill pot holes. In short “resisting” is not governing or making a government work. It is perfect, however, for resistance leaders to scrape out a living while others remain destitute.

With this Hamas mind set matched against the Israeli negotiating philosophy (step one, divide the spoils in half, Israel takes its half and then Step 2, Israel returns to the bargaining table to dispute the other half), it is hard to see any end to this mayhem.

Israel’s past actions have brought it close to being an apartheid State (the way it is occupying the West Bank), and its excesses in reacting to provocations could justify “crimes against humanity” charges.  Hmmm.

But what else could Israel have done with a belligerent such as Hamas and Hezbollah and the tactics they select?

You Get What You Ask For

April 25, 2014

Yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel would withdraw from Peace talks with the Palestinian Authority. Netanyahu said the reason for this decision was the Authority’s reconciliation with Hamas uniting both Gaza and the West Bank. Netanyahu describe the event as a choice between peace or terrorism.

Israel would never negotiate with terrorists, he said. The principle of not negotiating with terrorists is well proven strategy. The question is whether this view applies in this case.

What if somehow magically the Palestinian Authority and Israel has agreed to a set of swaps and a mutually acceptable border along the West Bank. Presumably the West Bank would emerge as a new sovereign state of Palestine. Why shouldn’t one expect that the Palestine would reach out to Gaza and seek reunification?

Netanyahu’s huffing and puffing are suspicious. News reports had indicated that both sides were still at odds over details of a settlement. The talks were about to end anyways due to the previously set end date.

Consider that Israel’s continued building of new settlements, and its claim to all of Jerusalem suggest Israel has no intention of land swaps that would provide a distribution of land similar to what existed at the time of the 1967 borders. These indications of a Hamas reconciliation was in fact a “gift” to Israel. Netanyahu could righteously profess Hamas was the reason, not the overall negotiations.

Of course it takes two to negotiate. The Arab world (and Iran) have been irrational about their reluctance to recognize Israel’s right to exist. Hamas and Hezbollah, in addition, have spearheaded the irrationality expression by perpetrating outrageous acts of violence. Lost in this violence unfortunately has been the political goals and rational routes to achieve them.

Israel negotiating position has been suspect for quite some time. It is not even clear that Israel would live by borders it drew if the Authority agreed to them.

In many regards, Israel is caught in a lose-lose position. Israel could simply annex all the lands on the West Bank and make the Palestinians Israeli residents. Demographic trends, however, predict that in time the Palestinian birth rate would produce a voting population greater than that of the Jews. If, as a consequence, Israel denied full citizenship to the Palestinians, Israel could look forward to being likened to the old South Africa… apartheid.

President Obama is faced with the disappointment of having tried to broker peace and having not succeeded. Given the behavior of both sides, Obama ought to withdraw and focus on other world regions.

The Palestinian Authority and Israel must now experience the natural consequences of their behaviors. While the US is obligated to defend Israel if necessary, the Middle East no longer plays the critical role in world affairs it once did.

In diplomatic terms, President Obama ought to tell Prime Minister Netanyahu he wishes him good luck and call when he is in the area.