Posts Tagged ‘Middle East’

The Muddle East

August 3, 2014

imagesColumnist David Brooks recently opined (quoting Richard Haass) that the Middle East may be entering its Thirty Years War. The reference is to the cataclysm that engulfed 1600s Europe, mostly faith-based conflict, prosecuted with utmost savagery, causing monumental death and destruction. (It ended with the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, basically establishing the modern concept of the sovereign nation state.)

We were long told that the Mid East’s repressive regimes provided “stability.” UnknownThis was always nonsense: the deceptive stability of a volcano before eruption. Like volcanos, such regimes build up internal pressures leading to inevitable explosion.

The only hope is venting the pressures peacefully by means of an open society. That’s the path to genuine stability. But unfortunately most Middle Easterners seem too bloody-minded for this. Egypt blew its chance; its newly entrenched regime seems bent on trying to contain the pressures more fiercely than ever, and to destroy any chance for a civil society where disparate groups can coexist.

The poster boy is Syria, where Assad thinks he’s winning, as if creating a wasteland is a victory. Libya seems to be descending into a Hobbesian tribal war of all against all. images-1Half of Iraq has fallen under a replica of a Seventh Century caliphate – a theme park you wouldn’t want to visit. Israelis and Palestinians are locked into a spiral of violence that can create only losers, no winners. Predictably, Israel’s Gaza operation has killed way more Israelis, and damaged its security more, than Hamas alone ever could have.

Thomas Friedman divides the world between the realms of order and disorder. In modern times, the former has actually expanded hugely overall, but it’s been a tough slog, and we don’t sufficiently appreciate the achievement. Unknown-1It’s a fundamental law of the cosmos that in the long run disorder (“entropy”) increases. Hence it’s much harder to build – and maintain – order than to disrupt it. It’s the difference between rolling a stone up a hill and rolling it down. The last few years have seen a great recrudescence of disorder. We mustn’t be complacent.

I’m always struck by how these situations reliably mobilize the requisite legions of young men to pick up guns and revel in nihilistic violence. Like in today’s Ukraine too; and the 1990s Yugoslav conflicts; and a thousand other examples one could name. That mentality seems so totally alien to my own. But some would say I delude myself, and we all harbor such proclivities. images-3Philip Zimbardo explained his famous Stanford “prison guard” experiment* by saying people aren’t innately evil but, rather, conform to the circumstances in which they find themselves.

Some people (especially young men) seem all too eager to embrace circumstances empowering them to violence (especially if they see nothing better to do with their lives). Society’s Job One is to curtail such circumstances. And the fact is that our modern Western societies have done an absolutely terrific job of this. The Muslim societies of the Mid East, not so much. And they don’t give enough young men better things to do with their lives. Maybe it will indeed take a Thirty Years War before they find a better way.

images-4Curiously, the fossil record suggests that in the Middle East, for tens of thousands of years, people actually lived side-by-side with members of – not different tribes, or races, or religions, or sects – but a different species – Neanderthals.

* Students assigned to role-play as “guards” got into those roles so thoroughly that the experiment had to be stopped because of “prisoner” abuse.

World in Tumult: Tufts EPIIC Symposium

March 3, 2014

MENA Postcard aOn Sunday we attended this annual event at Tufts University. This year’s topic was the Middle East and North Africa. The six-day symposium hosted around fifty international visitors. (Our daughter Elizabeth made a presentation, see below).

The morning speaker was Nicholas Burns, former U.S. diplomat and high State Department official, currently at the Kennedy School.

Nicholas Burns

Nicholas Burns

He invoked America’s tradition of supporting people struggling for democracy, but also acknowledged a tension between such ideals and security interests. The Mid East is not a single entity, and policy must be individually tailored to each Arab country. Thus we did support democracy in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt; but in Bahrain, not so much. A concern there was buffering Iranian power.

Egypt is a dismaying case – right back under an authoritarian military regime (maybe even more repressive than Mubarak’s), outlawing the nation’s largest political group. Not smart, Burns said, if you’re trying to unite the country. (Egypt’s regime is actually not trying to do that.) Burns thinks America should do more to nudge Egypt’s regime toward democratization.

I consider overdone the notion of security concerns conflicting with democratic advancement. In the longer, larger view, U.S. security interests are best served by a more democratic world (a democratic Russia wouldn’t do what it’s doing today; nor, indeed, would a democratic Syria); and by our being perceived as a true supporter of people’s democratic aspirations.

Regarding Syria, Burns thinks America missed a big opportunity a couple of years ago in failing to materially support the revolution (see my 2/5/12 post); and another when President Obama failed to punish Assad for crossing his “red line” on chemical weapons (see my 9/11/13 post).  Burns was scathing about an international community that thinks it can do nothing about Syria; and about America’s too long trying to work with the Russians who’ve given us nothing. Russia and China have used their Security Council vetoes to block even humanitarian aid to Syrian victims. When, he queried, will there come Syria’s “Srebrenica moment” – recalling when atrocities in Bosnia finally shamed the international community – led by the U.S. – into forceful action, including a bombing campaign, to finally resolve the situation in 1995 (with a 1999 Kosovo repeat) – sidestepping the UN where similarly Russia’s veto protected Serbian aggression. Burns said that in Syria we should likewise go around the UN and intervene, at least to create humanitarian corridors, with a coalition that many Arab states would join.

UnknownBurns acknowledged the familiar refrain, “We can’t be the world’s policeman.” But he said Syria is everyone’s concern, and likened America’s role to that of the world’s system operator. Since WWII, and especially since 1991, America has indeed fulfilled this vital role. If we don’t, the world could go to Hell.

And so, Ukraine — whose “profound crisis” Burns felt compelled to address despite the conference focus on the Arab world. He ruled out direct military engagement against Russia, as far too dangerous, but otherwise called for the assertion of confident American leadership, using every possible means to “dishonor” Putin, including expelling Russia from the G-8.

During the question session, an attendee from Russia bridled at the negative characterization of Putin; actually denied that Russian troops had entered Ukraine’s territory; and said Burns was wrong about Russia blocking humanitarian aid in Syria. She cited a Security Council resolution ten days earlier, authorizing such aid, with both Russia and China voting in favor.

Burns responded that, yes, such a resolution had passed; but so watered down by Russia and China that it was toothless and meaningless. He called this one of the most cynical actions in UN history.

I wonder, had Obama manned up on Syria, would Putin now have been emboldened to invade Ukraine? This is why projection of weakness is so dangerous – more dangerous, in fact, than resolute action. Wimping out on Syria may well have bought us an even nastier problem. So often in such matters, avoidance of costs today only means greater costs tomorrow.

Russia claims it’s only acting to protect its people — against nonexistent threats. Then there’s all the hysterical rhetoric about “Nazis” in control in Kiev put there by a Western conspiracy. Even if these ludicrous lies were true, Russia’s military aggression would make no sense. The Russians are drunk on military testosterone.

Curt Rhodes

Curt Rhodes

In the afternoon session, Curt Rhodes, founder and leader of Questscope (an NGO helping vulnerable young people in the Mid East) gave a truly eloquent description of what it means to be a refugee. And Elizabeth Robinson discussed her summer visit to the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, holding 85,000 displaced Syrians, where she researched the camp’s economic life.

Elizabeth Robinson

Elizabeth Robinson

She had interviewed the camp’s head, Kilian Kleinschmidt, working for the UN, which has taken over responsibility from Jordanian authorities. Kleinschmidt is trying to make Za’atari a different kind of refugee camp, where the inhabitants themselves are empowered by having more say about what goes on.

It may be noted that the 85,000 in Za’atari actually comprise less than 1% of all those made refugees by Syria’s conflict – a number now approaching half the country’s population. These are real people, no different from you or me. Imagine what it means, what it feels like, to lose every aspect of normal life. And to the 9+ million refugees, of course, must be added the 140,000+ killed; at least 11,000 of them starved and tortured to death in the regime’s dungeons. Srebrenica moment? I guess the world now has a greater capacity for shame than in the ’90s.

Assad continues to insist he’s fighting terrorists. Syria must be populated almost entirely by terrorists to necessitate air-dropping barrel-bombs in crowded urban centers. Reportedly, Assad was recently asked, by his children, why all the violence? He replied, “Because there are bad people in the world.”

Inger Andersen

Inger Andersen

Happily, the afternoon ended on a hopeful note, with a talk by Inger Andersen, a World Bank Vice President. Talking about the Arab Spring, she stressed that revolutions take time, and we should not lose heart over setbacks. Andersen saw real progress happening in some of the countries, notably Tunisia, Morocco, and Yemen. But, while there’s been a political awakening, economic awakening is a tougher thing. In any major transition, growth can be expected to slump, and the Arabs face a double crisis: the original economic dysfunction, compounded by the uncertainty and other fallout of abrupt change. However, Anderson saw opportunities for big benefits just from opening up and simplifying the business climate, though entrenched “rentier interests” will resist. And ultimately, political reform that cements citizen rights and pluralism will promote economic growth. Andersen said that a spirit of freedom has been released in many Arab hearts and minds, and she sees a region transformed, with a newfound optimism for the possible.


November 29, 2012


Let’s not forget how this started. The opposition was scrupulously nonviolent until the regime responded with extreme violence. That (to borrow a phrase) opened the gates of Hell.

The rebels have committed some atrocities. Shooting captured soldiers is wrong. However, some perspective is required. Soldiers in war are subject to getting shot; and at least the opposition atrocities seem limited to combatants, whereas regime forces indiscriminately target the civilian population. Indeed, the intent is specifically to terrorize civilians.


That’s especially true of the “Shabiha,” non-military gangs of sociopaths deployed to rape and murder. Some of them, when captured, have also been shot. That, frankly, I’m fine with.

In any case, all this blood is on Assad’s hands, because when you start a war you are responsible for the inevitable consequences. Assad could still choose to stop it at any time.

Shabiha victims

But this horror could go on for a very long time, until one side or the other is beaten. The rebels won’t give up; they’re never going to return to acquiescence in rule by Assad’s criminal enterprise, and the international community could not bring that about, even if it wished to, which (apart from Russia and Iran), it does not. So the only hope is to end the regime.

I am appalled that the U.S. is not doing more to achieve this outcome. The Brits and even the French have recognized the opposition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. Oh, for the days when America exercised real leadership! Ours was the first nation to recognize Israel’s independence in 1948. But Barack Obama’s America is shamefully more wishy-washy.

And it’s not as though we don’t have vital national interests at stake in Syria. The longer the conflict goes on, the more it threatens the rest of the region. And Assad’s fall would be a huge strategic blow to his ally, Iran, arguably our biggest geopolitical adversary.

Some fret that we don’t really know who all these rebels are, and maybe some are bad guys. Well, it would be peachy if Syria could be handed off to a George Washington type, but one never gets such ideal choices in this imperfect world. And whatever government replaces Assad, it could hardly be worse; certainly not worse for us, if it’s not aligned with Iran.

And if we’re worried about the outcome, the best way to influence it is to be involved in the process. If we want a future Syrian government friendly to our interests, or at least less hostile, then it behooves us to befriend now the people who will shape that government, by supporting and helping them as strongly as possible. True, one can’t count on gratitude*, but what should we expect if we don’t even try?

Thus our failing to help the rebels more today could well prove vastly more costly tomorrow. And there’s a lot we can do on the cheap. Yes, we’re suffering war fatigue; is there no end to the Muslims we must bomb? But still, what do we spend a gazillion dollars on our military for, if not to use it? We can afford to lob a few at Assad’s goons – just so they know they’re not merely fighting women and children and ragtag under-armed nobodies. We can disrupt and demoralize the criminal forces without boots on the ground.

Assassinating foreign leaders is a no-no, of course. But in a war situation, military assets are legitimate targets, and that includes military commanders. Bashar Assad commands his military. Killing him with an American bomb, or drone strike, would be a very good thing. While that would not immediately end the war, and the regime would try to soldier on, I suspect it would fall apart, with in-fighting over the diminishing spoils of its criminality.

Would any of this be “legal”? The concept of international legality does have great value, but we should not permit that important value to be held hostage by the obstructionism of one or two shameful countries (Russia and China). The old expression, “The law is an ass,” applies in such a situation; it can be more important to do what is right than what is legal. And in this case, our position would not be a lonely one. This is no longer your father’s Middle East. Even almost the whole Arab world would welcome our acting more forcefully to end this mess. The squeals of Russia and China can be ignored.

*Old tale: Frog and scorpion want to cross the Jordan. Scorpion says, “Give me a ride on your back.” Frog says, “I’m afraid you’ll sting me.” Scorpion replies, “Why would I do that? We’d both drown.” Frog says OK, and they set off. In mid-stream, scorpion stings frog, and as they both go down, Frog says, “Why did you do that?” Scorpion replies, “This is the Middle East.” (Alternatively, “It’s in my nature.”)