Posted tagged ‘Middle East’

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.

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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.

President Obama’s Unintended Consequence

February 13, 2014

When Barack Obama campaigned for President in 2008, he pointed to the inadequacies of the Bush Administration and said “we can do better”.  Historians will have to decide whether President Obama has done better than former President Bush given the world events and political situations that President Obama had to face.  I wonder, however, whether historians and pundits will point out how Obama innocently brought many of the hurdles on himself.

The Obama Administration inherited two wars and a near financial catastrophe.  In combination, these events forced President Obama to prioritize his efforts in a way quite differently from his campaign promises.  In foreign affairs, Obama (like most other pundits) did not see the impact the Arab Spring would have, but at the same time, its is unclear what better path existed for him to follow.  The President had just announced his intention to “pivot” from the Middle East to the Far East but thanks to the Arab spring, has found it difficult to extract the US from the Middle East.  Israel has been no help for quite selfish reasons.  Historians will have a lot to sift through.

I wonder whether historians or political pundits will point out a strange “unintended consequence”.  Is President Obama a prime driver for the rise of the irrational conservative right?

A first response might be, “of course, President Obama is a socialist”.  Hmmm.

I would counter and say that President Obama is probably our most centrist President in years.  His middle of the political spectrum position has boxed Republican opponents into a strange place.  In order to define themselves as sufficiently different, Republicans have had to march far to the right and into extreme ideological territory.  Republican leaders must understand that various extreme positions do not go together and as such, will not support a broad enough platform necessary to govern.  Never the less, Republicans have been forced to pander with sources of money which have only narrow focuses on the future.  This unholy alliance has escalated into the “just say no” GOP approach.  Gridlock.

It is almost a hoot to think that had President Obama actually been more progressive in his positions, responsible Republicans would have much more area to propose sensible centrist approaches to the major domestic issues (like infrastructure, educations, transportation, and true job creation).  With the President squarely in the middle ground, the only place for the GOP was to move farther right.

Who would have thought?

 

The Inexplicable – Why?

January 21, 2014

This past week a nineteen year old female student at the University of Pennsylvania jumped to her death from a parking garage.  Family and friends were shocked and devastated.  Why would someone so young, so well off, and with so much to look forward to end her life?  Why?

Most of us have known someone whose life was cut short by some disease or accident.  We wonder why did those cells mutate, or why did that accident happen?  Some also wonder why a loving god would allow such things to happen?  We especially think this when someone ends their own life.

In the Middle East under a very different religious tradition, we are witnessing senseless “end of life” stories.  There, young men and women put on explosive vests and detonate them so as to kill or maim as many others as possible.  Why would someone ask these young people to hurt others?  Why would anyone choose to end ones life?

Several years ago, while walking along the upper banks of the Mosel River in Germany, my wife and I came across an old cemetery.  Those buried here had passed away many years ago for reasons unknown to us.

As we walk through the cemetery looking for names and dates, we eventually reached a separate section.  In this section we noticed most of the grave markers had small stones on their top edge.  We wondered why?

The answer turned out that this was a Jewish custom where on each visit a small stone should be placed “in the memory of the departed”.  In this manner the deceased “lived” on, at least in the minds of those who remembered the deceased.  Hmmm.

There are never satisfactory explanations for why people die.  When people are old or have been sick a long time, we usually say it was expected.  There are almost never satisfactory explanations why people choose to end their own life.

All that is left for those left behind is to find a small stone and place it on their grave.  The body will turn to dust, but the memory can live a long time… maybe forever.