Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Middle East: The Confusing Mess: Allies At Odds

An Israeli Soldier on the Golan Heights, photo from Associated Press.  If you are wondering what is up with the clown hat, it's a helmet cover.  They create a less obviously head shaped profile than  an uncovered helmet.  Handy when you are working in an area where people are looking for heads to shoot I guess.
The historical context and ethnic/religious dynamics of Middle East Conflict are something that I talk about frequently in my posts.  Unfortunately this is not a topic that can ever be fully explained in a single blog post.  When you find a YouTube video, or an article that makes the Middle East clear and easy to understand you should probably assume that the person who made it is pushing an agenda, and is at best being less than fully honest.  And that guideline goes for me too, when you read my posts you should realize that I am trying to present what I see as the relevant context to the points that I am trying to make.

One of the books that I have on the Middle East is History of the Arab-Israeli Conflict by Bickerton and Klausner (the first few editions were called "A Concise History..." but they dropped the "concise" bit as the book kept getting longer), and that book which is essentially just a collection of brief descriptions of the things that have happened in the history of a country that is less than 70 years old (and printings of original documents) is hundreds of dense pages long.  And that book does not offer interpretation or real narrative, and covers only one part of the Middle East (if you would like a easier read that provides valuable insight into the Arab-Israeli conflict I would recommend The Lemon Tree by Sandy Tolan.  It is not an exhaustive history book, but it is a well researched non-fiction book that is very readable and has a compelling narrative).

I say this simply to illustrate why even the issues of a single territory, roughly the size of Vancouver Island, is too complicated to fully explore in a single post.  When you find a neat Youtube video that make the Middle-East simple, clear, and presents and unambiguous good actor, you need to realize that the information is very biased.  You should also realize that extreme bias does not necessarily mean lying.  The confusing thing about the Middle East is that different sides of a given conflict will present seemingly contradictory accounts of events, but often both sides are simultaneously right... and simultaneously wrong.

And sometimes people on the same side can radically disagree on what is going on.  Take the current issues for Israel and the US regarding al Qaeda and Iran.  The US is focused on fighting al Qaeda, and has erroneously decided that ISIS is the same as al Qaeda and should be fought with a mixture of insufficient half measures and talks with Iran.  Israel is focused on avoiding the eradication of the state of Israel and the slaughter of Jews (which is a stated goal of Iran's leadership, and reaffirmations of that goal are ongoing.  Iran's supreme leader actually tweets about wiping out the Jews).  Israel's approach focuses on total opposition to Iran and antagonizing Western allies (like the US) by pandering to Israeli religious hard-liners.

So even though the US and Israel are allies, they disagree on who the main enemy is.  A fantastic illustration of this is that Israel actually has relatively friendly relations with the al Qaeda group that has seized the Golan Heights.  Israel does not pretend that al Qaeda is no threat to Israel, but al Qaeda is far preferable to Israel than the Iranian backed militias.  As far as Israel is concerned, al Qaeda is the lesser evil.  For the US, al Qaeda is the Big Bad.  Al Qaeda has been attacking the US for decades, and the US has poured TRILLIONS of dollars into the War On Terror over the past decade and a half.  The US has been so serious about fighting al Qaeda that we eviscerated our own Constitution and civil liberties with the Patriot Act.  We have invaded two sovereign nations under the auspices of battling al Qaeda.  People have been tortured by our government, held indefinitely, subjected to secret trials, governments have been toppled, thousands have died, back-scatter radiation is used to take naked pictures of travelers in airports, grandmas in wheelchairs get groped by TSA agents, and international goodwill toward the US has been squandered, all in the name of battling al Qaeda.

And now our closest ally in the Middle East is getting cozy with al Qaeda, and the US is getting cozy with Iran.

How could this happen?

In terms of the here and now, much of the blame should be placed on Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu and Obama.  As far as I can tell both Obama and Netanyahu have decided that their mutual antipathy is more important than good governance.  Obama and Bibi dislike each other.  They dislike each other so much that they both actively work against each other.  Bibi even came to the US at the request of Republican lawmakers in order to undermine our President over the Iran issue.  (Note: the fact that I think that Bibi is probably right about the danger of negotiation with Iran over nukes does not mean that Bibi's trip to Washington was not an egregious act.)  It sometimes feels like Obama and Bibi have decided that, civilian deaths be damned, they are going to stick it to each other even if it means blowing up the entire Middle East.

But it is not that simple.

The US is concerned about al Qaeda, and ISIS, and the Taliban.  All terroristic Salafist groups.  As of right now, the US is actually lucky that because of the way ISIS has set itself up, al Qaeda and the Taliban cannot cooperate with ISIS without joining ISIS.  This is a complicated issue, but the upshot is that we are currently fortunate that other Salafist extremist groups are fighting ISIS.  With the advances that ISIS is making that may not remain true for very long.

The US went to war in the Middle East to combat terrorism, and in the process, toppled the government of the regional counterbalance to Iran, and created a power vacuum where even more pernicious expressions of Islamic fundamentalism (of both Sunni and Shia varieties) could flourish.

When the Arab Spring began the US cheered on the pro-democracy movements.  Then kind of cringed as some of those movements turned into anarchy and civil war.  Long story short, Syria became an endless parade of mind boggling horrors.  I don't even like to describe some of the things I have seen video of or read about from the Syrian Civil War. But worst of all from a US perspective there wasn't even a good guy to back in Syria.  The Obama administration knew that backing Assad from the outset would be the move most likely to favor the US, and on that one issue even Russia agreed.  But backing Assad would mean backing a bad, bad man.  Even if cold realities of realpolitik favored backing Assad, Obama has consistently tried to plot as moral of a course as he could.

Obama could not bring himself to back the bad guy (of course every step of the way Obama is beset by a damned if you do, damned if you don't onslaught by the Republicans), and the stage was set for ISIS to emerge.  Then ISIS spilled across the border into the power vacuum of Iraq.


Obama has always been a politician in search of compromise.  When he ran for president back when the recession was just starting, he campaigned on promises to look for common ground.  He was even going to look for common ground on issues like abortion.

I bring up abortion because it is a perfect microcosm of the problems that can arise when you assume that everyone is going to be willing to settle for mutually unsatisfactory compromises.

Meaningful negotiation and compromise relies on mutual good will, and good faith.  The Republicans and Democrats in the US are not interested in good will and good faith with each other.  While I place a greater share of the blame for the poisonous climate of political victory over good governance on the heads of Republicans, Democrats have not covered themselves in glory either.  For both parties, party victory is more important than the good of the country.  That means that wedge issues are what is campaigned on, rather than campaigning on how to best achieve agreed upon goals.  Why would one campaign on realistically discussing how to eliminate the deficit, when one can simply call an opponent a baby-killer/woman-hater.

And that brings us to the other element that is needed for meaningful negotiation, a shared reality.  There can be no negotiation on issues like abortion, because the disagreement is based on fundamental differences in worldview.  If you believe that an unborn fetus is a person with all the rights of a person, then abortion is wrong.  If you believe that the potential for life does not outweigh the rights of a person to decide what to do with their own body, then you are probably pro-choice.  The issue is not one where there is any real middle ground, because the issue is one where the underlying assumptions about reality determine one's position on the issue.

Obama seeks dialogue and compromise, domestically and abroad, but the abortion issue presents a microcosm analogy for why there is so much trouble with that approach.  US politics are too poisonous to allow for debate on actual issues that can be resolved.  Political debates and campaigns are fought on the basis of us vs. them, and political dialogue is focused on intractable issues, like abortion.

So Obama could start a conversation with "let's talk about student debt."  And the most politically profitable Republican response would be "you're a baby-killer."

Since voters seem to respond to this sort of political dialogue, both sides engage in these tactics.  And there is no national third or fourth option, and both parties are committed to maintaining these political wedges.  So continuing rounds of "debate" over issues like guns and abortion are had.


So despite getting raked over the coals domestically for trying to find middle ground, Obama still tries to treat others as sane, reasonable, honest actors at home and abroad.  And when it comes to the Middle East he is faced with one of the masters of divisive wedge issue politics in Benjamin Netanyahu on one side, and an Iranian leadership that is happy to tell Obama that they are willing to be good boys.

So between Bibi treating Obama as the enemy, and Iran at least pretending to be an option for historically meaningful statesmanship, Obama seems to have chosen Iran.

I think this is a mistake, but an understandable one.  Bibi is busy undermining Obama, engaging in racist scare politics in Israel, and even going so far as to reject the possibility of Palestinian statehood, which seriously undermines the moral argument for the US backing Israel.  Clearly they don't like each other, and the fact that they keep playing an international version of bumper cars seems to indicate that they are more interested in screwing each other over than trying to coordinate strategies.


So back to ISIS and al Qaeda.

Al Qaeda is an Islamic fundamentalist terrorist organization that seeks to destroy the US, and Western power.  For millions of people around the world, Osama bin Laden was seen as a kind of Robin Hood type character.  He was the plucky underdog taking the fight to Western imperialist powers.  For us in the West, he was a murdering criminal who slaughtered civilians.  Once again, the worldview that people bring to the topic determines where their sympathies lie.

After 9/11 the US sought to destroy al Qaeda's ability to carry out attacks against us.  Now bin Laden is dead.  Al Qaeda has fragmented into various smaller terror franchises.  The power structures of the old al Qaeda have been dismantled.  We went in like the sorcerer's apprentice, and tried to smash what we had created (the sorcerer's apprentice enchanted a broom, the US funded, equipped, and trained the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan as a cat's paw to use against the USSR) and like the sorcerer's apprentice, we are left with hundreds of autonomous offshoots plaguing us at every step.

But we still need to protect ourselves, even if our efforts thus far have been less than totally successful.

ISIS is one of those offshoots, but ISIS is not al Qaeda.  ISIS is a competitor to al Qaeda and the Taliban.  ISIS is an emergent theocratic state.  It is terroristic, and it sponsors terrorism, but it is not simply a terrorist organization.  It is like a brand new state sponsor of terrorism that is busy building a territory through slaughter and medieval rules.  ISIS is essentially a political organization style straight out of the 7th century.  Their methods seem ghastly to us in the West, because they are playing by a totally different rule book.  The West plays by the rules established in the Treaty of Westphalia and subsequent treaties.  ISIS plays by the rules of the Prophet (as they see them).

But that is not what really makes ISIS different from al Qaeda.  What really makes ISIS different is their goal.  ISIS seeks to bring about the end of days.  ISIS is literally trying to end the world.  I think it is hard for many in the West to wrap their minds around a worldview that sees the Apocalypse as a desirable goal.  It is also challenging to accept that this goal and frightening worldview could be attracting growing numbers of followers.  But ISIS's message is attractive to many people, even people from the West (I really need to try to write a short blog post on this topic).

Thus far, the US response to ISIS has been to treat it like it was al Qaeda 2.  And Obama has tried to act against ISIS, without doing anything politically risky like actually fighting ISIS, while also trying to avoid offending Muslims by saying things like "ISIS is not Muslim."  But the need to face this threat, and the desire to defuse other problems in the Middle East has seemed to blind Obama to other threats, like Iran.

Obama has sought, throughout his Presidency, to engage in diplomacy.  He has reached out to leaders of other countries in an effort to solve differences peacefully.  His attempt to negotiate with Iran is of a piece with his style of leadership.  Obama is looking for peaceful solutions.  Trying to resolve conflicts without further bloodshed.

This is laudable.

However, in the case of Iran it is also very questionable.

Iran wants nukes.  Iran claims that it only seeks nuclear capabilities for peaceful purposes, but they are not seeking to trade for uranium, they want nuclear enrichment capabilities of their own.  In a chaotic and tense Middle East where there is much animosity toward Iran from Arab states (remember, Iran is not Arab, it is Persian.  It is also Shia, not Sunni), as well as Israel and the US, this is a dangerous threat to the balance of power in the region.

Obama just wants to fix the Iraq mess, and avoid the world blowing up.  Israel is more focused on survival, and wants to avoid a more powerful Iran.

So even if Obama and Bibi could put aside their personal differences, the fundamental differences in the way they view events that are unfolding in Syria and the broader Middle East means that the US and Israel are not in sync strategically.  At least in immediate goals.

It's a confusing mess.


This entry has already gone on too long.  I started out trying to make things clearer, but I feel like I just made things more confusing.  Hopefully some of you will find useful information here.  I welcome feedback, even the negative kind.

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