Posted tagged ‘shiite’

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. 

Looking Around Corners

June 18, 2013

New York Times columnist David Brooks said, in evaluating President Obama’s policies toward Syria (and maybe NSA spying), that the American people want a President who can look around corners and tell America what the government should be doing.  Brooks was contrasting President Obama’s tendency to quote poll numbers when saying why he was pursuing a certain course of action.  Hmmm.

I agree most people prefer a leader who is brave, bold, and right in his/her judgement.  From my earliest days with the cowboy hero who wore a white hat, I plus all America have been conditioned to respect leaders who do the right thing no matter what the mob thinks.  (I am not as sure about the impact of the modern “super heros”, however.)

“Looking around the corner” presupposes the “looker” sees things correctly.  I wonder whether Brooks thinks “W” and Dick Cheney saw very clearly around the corner when they elected to invade and occupy Iraq?  There are huge responsibilities that go with doing the un-obvious.

In the Clinton years, “triangulation” was popular.  Clinton would float an idea or policy position and see how the polls reacted.  If favorable he continued, if not, he floated a new idea or variation.  It was pretty clear that getting reelected was priority number one for Bill.

This proposition is also complicated by estimating what “no action” will bring.  Our media tells us, “only America can do it”.  Using Iraq as an example there can be few clearer examples of letting the genie out of the bottle.  Once out, it is extremely hard to predict what will happen, and usually it can be impossible to get the genie back in.

Many argue that had the US should have gotten involve in Syria sooner, thousands of lives might have been saved.  Maybe.  But maybe not.  Those fighting the Syrian government have yet to explain clearly how things will be different should the insurgents win.  If the rest of the Middle East is relevant, we should expect hard line Islamists to use the polling box as a tool to gain control and push everyone else out.  Once with control, the Islamists (depending upon whether they are Sunni or Shiite) will move to populate the military and the government with their supporters.  In the end, the “today have nots” will become “tomorrow’s haves” and “today’s haves” will become the “have nots”.  Simple but totally unpredictable.

When one looks back at the folly of Cheney’s Iraq War, one normally thinks of the many US dead and grievously wounded and the tremendous cost.  There is another unrecognized cost.  Iraq was not broken and had “W” had the fortitude to wait, the balance of power between Iran and its natural enemy Iraq would made the Syrian situation play out differently.

With Hussein still in power (and our no fly zone still in place), the US would have been much freer to pick a side amongst the Syria insurgents.  Today all that can be seen “around the corner” is that sunnis are just waiting to kill shiites and those insurgents most likely to win will be unsavory and become our new “friends”.

Maybe David Brooks is wrong.   Maybe President Obama did look around the corner and didn’t like what he saw.


The Middle East’s Muddled Message

February 10, 2012

The Middle East is a mess.  This is not new news.  It was that way when President George W Bush invaded in 2003.  Some people just don’t need facts or background to commit other people’s children to war.

Now people are saying the Arab Spring has cast the Middle East in a somewhat different light.  We are told “look what the power of social media can do.  People thirst for democracy and freedom.  If given a chance, they will throw out the tyrants and…”

If you look at the details, however, it really is the same picture.  Most of these countries are dirt poor and poorly educated.  Governments cling to power with behind the scenes deals with Muslim leaders.  The first function of these governments is to ensure the leaders and their bureaucrat supporters get a privileged cut of the meager national resources.  Keeping their citizens poor, uneducated, and dependent upon the government, works well and has been a well practiced formula.

With Iraq today, we are seeing that you can put a new dress on but that doesn’t change the person inside the dress.  Iraq has traded a Sunni tyrant in Saddam Hussein for a sharply partisan, ineffective Shiite lead government whose main interests are in garnering as much power and wealth as they can.  This time, Shiites rather than Sunnis, see the wealth as their right.

Tunisia was the first Arab Spring country to topple its tyrant in 2011.  Not much has changed there but things also have not deteriorated.

Egypt followed with a dramatic ouster of Hosni Mubarak.  The West chose not to support him.  Democratic elections have followed and Islamic groups have gained a large majority in their legislature.  In and of itself, this is not a problem.

What is a problem is that these new elected officials want the military (the former power behind Mubarak) to cease interfering with the daily administration of government.  Again why should this be a problem?  The answer is that the military controls revenue producing businesses and that means money.   Trying to take this money away from the military will have unforeseen consequences.

Libya was home to the next worst despot, Muammar Gaddafi.  When uprisings began the West intervened.  “The west thought it could help these brave people gain freedom and democracy”.   After a protracted, but one sided fight, Gaddafi was ousted, and later killed.  Hurray, democracy had won and Libya was better off without Gaddafi.  (Sound like Dick Cheney and Iraq?)

Oh, wait, Libya is currently splintering into numerous armed militias all trying to gain enough power and land to ensure they receive a generous share of oil money.  Different land but the same story.

Syria now commands the front pages.  The Arab spring one year later has engulfed Syria.  No surprise, Bashar al-Assad was not sleeping during the Arab Spring.  He saw what happens when a government loosens its power and even more clearly, what happens to that county’s leaders.  Backed by Russian help, the Assad government has adopted exceedingly strong measures to put down those who want a new government.  The cruelty with which the resistance is being subdued is appalling.  The alternative for Assad would not be pleasant either.

So what is the message here?

Intervention can achieve short term goals.  Longer term, however, a different group of chickens may come home to roost.  US foreign policy with respect to the Middle East better be pragmatic and short on idealism.

The Setting of Back Fires

November 12, 2011

Get ready, it is almost here.  Soon America will be drenched in 24/7 nonsense.  Reality will give way to magnificently constructed spin.  Yes, Karl Rove and his friends will be back with their version of “trick or treat”.

The Cross Roads crowd will be putting the television airwaves aglow with opinion forming messages.  Today they are airing one on raising taxes.  It shows former President Bill Clinton saying he would not raise taxes for the rich or poor.  The message, of course, never mentions the deficit or the debt, or does it mention GOP opposition to President Obama’s jobs proposal.  The President proposes to fund his jobs bill with taxes on the top 2%.

Protecting the top 2% won’t fly next year when the Democrats (both the party and progressive super pacs) decide to spend money.  The moral and logical argument on the necessity of higher taxes and the clear reasons why the top 1% do not pay enough already will swamp any conservative message.  Next year there will need to be other spins.

One that is beginning fosters the notion that President Obama has lost the war in Iraq.  President Bush had won it, and in just 4 years Obama has lost it.  Politically this is a great issue.  President Obama will have to fight with one arm tied behind his back.  Here’s why.

The Iraq invasion and occupation was probably the greatest foreign policy mistake of this the last two centuries.  The reasons for invading were never justified and the resulting turmoil following regime change has been morally repugnant.  The famous surge was in fact a shame.  What actually took place was the fruition of a covert program to pay militias for both the Sunnis and the Shiites to stop their insurrections.  With three distinct groups, what do you think is going to happen when US forces leave?

President Obama’s handicap is that to denounce the Iraq war for what it was will be seen and advertised as a slap against our service men and women.  The 4400 dead will be held up as heros and President Obama will be said to have no respect for them.

Logic and facts will be put in abeyance.  Despite having spent almost $800 billion on a war of zero necessity, the President will be caught in the position of having to say we fought a good war and now the Iraqi people have decided what future they should have.

The unblemished truth is the invasion and occupation was a huge mistake.  President Obama’s role was to extract American troops steadily but over as much time as he could get in order to provide for the greatest chance of stability.  In accordance with the Iraqi government’s wishes, the end of 2011 is that time.

Bush defenders and the foreign entanglement supporters will rise and criticize President Obama.  Karl Rove is a member of neither one of these groups.  Rove is just a mud slinger who cares not what mud he slings.

Is Iraq Ready?

August 18, 2010

The death of 61 Iraqis lined up at an Iraqi Army recruiting center this week has underscored again the foolishness of Bush/Cheney decision to invade in the first place. Now with US troops poised to withdraw, questions are being raised on whether the Iraqi Government and its military can keep order once the US has gone home. The proper response is “who cares?”

Iraq was a mess before the invasion and is a mess now 8 years later. Only a strong and decisive government can bring order to Iraq. This type of authority most likely will look like a dictatorship since all the evidence to date suggests the separate pieces of Iraq society can not agree on anything.

Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds all want a piece of the power so that they can control the moneys associated with oil. Syria, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran all have their strong preferences on who should run Iraq, again for reasons that best serve their own national interests. This is no country for old men.

Reports indicate that those responsible for the suicide bombing of those 61 were Sunni clans whose allegiance and good behavior the US had bought around the time of the “surge”. When things settled down, the Shiite lead government stopped paying off these clans and surprise, surprise trouble is returning.

Soon we will hear the neoconservative drum beat about why we cannot abandon Iraq. We will be told al Qaeda will return and ready themselves for attacking the US. We will not be told that staying in Iraq will require the Defense Department budget to remain bloated providing lots of jobs and profits to the military-industrial sector of our economy. We will not be told that the US has more than fulfilled its moral responsibility to rebuild what it broke in Iraq. We will not be told that these divisions within Iraq and its neighbors existed before the invasion and that there is no way for the US to fix what only Iraqis can fix.

So, to the question, “is Iraq ready”, your answer should be “who cares”?

The Higher Power’s Legacy

August 27, 2009

In the run up to the invasion and occupation of Iraq, George W Bush told the world that he did not seek his own father’s (George H W Bush) advice but instead talked with a “higher authority”. Only a cynic like Dick Cheney could keep a straight face and commend the President’s seeking supernatural advice. (Cheney had already made the decision to invade and was busily cooking the evidence to confuse the American public if not the President.)

Unfortunately, the higher authority let “W” down with apparently bum advice, and the Iraq invasion and occupation is history.

Today when there are so many other things that our imaginations and energy could be tackling, America is still stuck with the higher authority’s sticky paper on our hands. Iraq, even though the daily death toll is down, is simply a mess. This poor excuse for a democracy is really a theocracy waiting to happen. Most evidence points to Shiite control and an alliance with Iran for starters. This will trigger Sunni resistance, and unless the Shiites strike a sweet deal with the Kurds, there will be three factions preferring violence to allowing one (Shiites) to rule.

Afghanistan is another piece of the legacy. For 7 years, nation building was overlooked with the lame excuse that Iraq was a higher priority.  As a consequence, corruption and ignorance were allowed to flourish in Afghanistan. Bringing peace and stability to Afghanistan today will require a huge Army of occupation (probably in excess of 500,000) which we do not have and could not afford.

The Legacy keeps on giving. From Abu Ghraib to secret renditions to Guantanamo to the secret CIA prisons and the torture memos, Americans are being forced to confront these issues when these events never needed to have happened. Financially, the legacy is Broadway material. The actually fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost Americans over $1 trillion so far, and this figure does not include the future VA health care for the mangled bodies of US wounded or the post dramatic stress syndrome cases that are mounting.  The music just keeps playing.

The question, I guess, will always be laying out there as to whether “W” was listening to the higher authorities advice, or just thought he knew better. There’s plenty of evidence to support both notions.  On the other hand, maybe the higher authority gave bad advice because “W” had not bothered to ask on other important issues, like when “W” found it completely ok to sanction unlimited use of the death penalty, denying the reproductive rights of women, demonizing the life styles of gays and lesbians, and tuning his back on the risks posed by global warming. I hope if President Obama is faced with any similar decision during his Presidency, that he does not waste any time consulting a higher authority and instead, uses his time to gather data and listen to a wide range of knowledgeable people.

The Swamp

August 14, 2009

In a land, far, far away, the good King (or so he thought he was) sent his knights in shining Hum-V’s to fight the evil prince and free his subjects so that they could all live in peace and happiness. The good King sought no one’s advice but rather sought the counsel of a higher authority. With the outcome that has ensued, one wonders whether there was in fact a higher authority or simply that the good King didn’t listen. For sure the evil prince was routed and the shackles removed from his subjects, but that is where the plan ended and venture into the swamp began.

The good King has given many reasons for dispatching his Knights in shining Hum-V’s and has claimed on many occasions that his crusade was successful. Despite the good King’s statements, the evidence on the ground is different. The freed subjects actually do not (and have not in the past) get along with each other, even on the simplest of matters, and without the reimposition of another evil prince, there is no obvious route to a peaceful and functioning society.

The good King has now been replaced by a new King who wants to bring home his Knights in shining Hum-V’s. The new King is finding there is one little problem. As his Knights loosen control just a little, the subjects begin fighting in the most inhumane ways (of course in the name of their god) and chaos erupts. What should the new King do?

You can’t make bad decisions good, just by wishing or staying longer. You must accept that if the subjects do not want to act in a modern and civilized manner, they need to be left to live as they wish. If the subjects instead chose to obey the commands of charlatans, and subjugate their women to second class status, then they must live that type of life and reap the consequences.

The US invaded and occupied Iraq without International sanction and did so without any imminent danger present. We broke Iraq and we were certainly obligated to help “fix” it. Thousand of American lives later and the better part of a trillion dollars wasted, it is time to say enough. It is time to get out.