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Washington: The Playbook is Back

It was striking, in US media coverage of Donald Trump’s first hundred days in office, that most observers noted with relief that his foreign policy has turned out to be less radical than they feared. In fact, it’s not radical at all. He has already fired cruise missiles at a Middle Eastern country, a ritual that has been observed by every American president since Bill Clinton.

The old Donald Trump was an “isolationist” who opposed US military intervention overseas unless US interests were directly threatened.. When it seemed likely in 2013 that President Obama would attack the Syrian regime over its alleged use of poison gas on civilians, Trump tweeted: “The only reason President Obama wants to attack Syria is to save face over his very dumb RED LINE statement. Do NOT attack Syria, fix U.S.A.”

And lo! Obama did not attack Syria after all, although it had crossed the “red line” he had drawn in a statement the previous year.

On sober second thought – and after being warned by James Clapper, his Director of National Intelligence, that the evidence suggesting that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s regime was responsible for the gas attack, while robust, was not a “slam dunk” – Obama decided not to launch cruise missiles at Syria. (Curiously, there was no Trump tweet praising Obama and taking credit for his change of mind.)

This was the moment when Obama broke decisively with the foreign policy orthodoxy in Washington, and the think-tank “experts” and the reigning media pundits never forgave him for it. Towards the end of his second term, he explained his decision to Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor-in-chief of The Atlantic, in the following terms.

“There’s a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow. It’s a playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment. And the playbook prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarised responses….In the midst of an international challenge like Syria, you get judged harshly if you don’t follow the playbook, even if there are good reasons why it does not apply.”

It did not apply because destroying the Assad regime would just hand Syria over to the jihadi fanatics of Islamic State and al-Qaeda. It did not apply because the Russians might intervene to save Assad, perhaps leading to a direct US-Russian military confrontation. It did not apply because there was no support for an attack in Congress. And it did not apply because it was not even certain that the Syrian regime was to blame.

“Don’t do stupid shit” was Obama’s prime rule in foreign policy, and emulating George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in order to destroy Saddam Hussein’s non-existent “weapons of mass destruction” definitely qualified as stupid. Even treating the Middle East as a region vital to American security was stupid. With the Cold War over and the United States no longer dependent on Middle Eastern oil, it wasn’t even important any more.

Fast forward to 2016, and Obama must have been torn when he contemplated his successors. Hillary Clinton had worked for him and would preserve his legacy in domestic affairs, but she was totally orthodox in foreign policy and would follow the playbook wherever it led. Whereas Donald Trump, in his crude and simple way, actually shared Obama’s distrust of the foreign policy elite.

But with Trump it was just gut instinct, not a reasoned analysis of why the playbook was wrong. Once he was in office, and another poison gas attack in Syria landed on his desk, that instinct was swiftly overwhelmed by an even stronger urge to do something dramatic.

In politics, the Law of Mixed Motives always applies. No doubt Trump was truly horrified by the images of dead “beautiful babies”, but he was also aware that his policy successes in the first hundred days were sparse and that his popular approval numbers were way down.

So off went the cruise missiles, although the evidence that the Assad regime was responsible for the gas attack was even less certain than last time. It was purely a gesture, aimed mainly at the US domestic audience, and there has been no follow-up. But it did conform to the playbook’s rules, and the response by the “lamestream” media verged on the ecstatic.

Trump doesn’t give a fig for the playbook, but he does care about popularity. He campaigned as an isolationist, but now he has discovered that a little sabre-rattling abroad yields instant popularity at home.

He is surrounded by people who still believe in the playbook, and they now know how to press his buttons. There will probably be more “limited” military strikes with cruise missiles, not just in the Middle East but also in north-east Asia. And there may well be more wars, because sabre-rattling is not a precise science.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 8. (“Don’t…more”)

Refugees, Sexual Harassment and Angela Merkel

Chancellor Angela Merkel opened Germany’s doors to a million refugees and migrants last year – three times as many as the rest of the European Union put together. Critics in Germany predicted a popular backlash, and warned that even her own Christian Democratic Party (CDU) would turn against her.

In the case of the CDU, at least, they were dead wrong. At the party’s annual congress on 15 December, Merkel’s speech – in which she did not retreat one inch from her frequent assertion that “we can do it” (accept and integrate the refugees) – got a ten-minute standing ovation that brought tears to her eyes.

Despite a dip in the opinion polls, she also still enjoys widespread popular support – or at least she did until the ugly events in the city of Cologne on New Year’s Eve.

In the crowds that gathered in front of Cologne’s railway station to celebrate the New Year, hundreds of young men in gangs began harassing and robbing German women. “All of a sudden these men around us began groping us,” one victim told German television.

“They touched our behinds and grabbed between our legs. They touched us everywhere, so my girlfriend wanted to get out of the crowd. When I turned around one guy grabbed my bag and ripped it off my body.” There were 379 complaints to the police, 40 percent of which involved sexual assault, and two accusations of rape.

Only thirty-one men were arrested in connection with these offences, a police failure that caused popular outrage. But the incendiary fact – which the police at first declined to reveal – was that 18 of the 31 men arrested were asylum-seekers, and all but five were Muslims. So there was a firestorm of popular protest about the Cologne attacks (which also happened on a smaller scale in Stuttgart and Hamburg).

The German authorities did their best to contain the damage. The Cologne police chief,
Wolfgang Albers, was suspended for holding back information about the attacks, and in particular about the origin of the suspects.

Chancellor Merkel felt obliged to promise that she will change the law which says that asylum seekers can only be forcibly sent home if they have been sentenced to at least three years in prison, and if their lives are not at risk in their home country.

The new law will say that migrants sentenced to any jail-time, or even put on probation, can be sent home no matter where they come from. It’s the least she could do politically, as the extreme anti-immigrant parties are already making a meal out of the Cologne events.

But what on earth made those young Muslim men, the beneficiaries of Germany’s generosity, think they could sexually attack young German women in public (and rob them while they were doing it)?

They were not professional thieves, and I very much doubt that they would sexually attack young Muslim women in public if they were back home. I suspect that they were mostly village boys who still believe the popular Middle Eastern stereotypes about good Muslim girls whom you must not harass, and “loose” Western women who are fair game for sexual assault.

I once lived in Istanbul for a while with my wife and two little boys, and we had the same experience as most other Westerners: when my wife was out with me or with the children, she was treated with respect. When she was out alone, she was the target of constant sexual harassment.

At least once a day, as young men passed her in the crowded streets, she would suddenly experience the full frontal grab – and if she protested, they would simply laugh at her. So I taught her what a Turkish woman would say if the same thing happened, and it did help. She still got molested, but when she rebuked the attackers in Turkish they were overwhelmed with shame and panic, and disappeared into the crowd as fast as possible.

This was back when Istanbul only had three million people (it now has 14 million), but already my Turkish friends were moaning about how their city was being “villager-ised” by people migrating from the countryside. Even Turkish women who looked too “Western” were being harassed, and they blamed the ex-villagers.

When you take in a million refugees, more than half of them from the Middle East, you may expect them to include a few religious fanatics who may be or become terrorists. They will also include a considerably larger number of ignorant hicks who think that it is not a crime or a disgrace to attack non-Muslim girls sexually.

No good deed goes entirely unpunished, and this is part of the price Germany will pay for its generosity. It’s not an unbearable price, even if it involves one or two more Islamist terrorist attacks than would otherwise have occurred – and in a couple of years most of the young Muslim men who attacked women in Cologne will have figured out that being free, as German women are, does not mean being immoral or freely available.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7, 8 and 9. (“The German…events”)

After the Iran Nuclear Deal

The thing to bear in mind about Tuesday’s deal between Iran and the P5+1 countries (the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China) is that without it Iran could get nuclear weapons whenever it wants in a short tme. It has the technologies for enriching uranium, it could make the actual bombs any time it likes (every major country knows how), and the sanctions against Iran could not get much worse than they are now.

If you don’t like the current deal, and you really believe that Iran is hell-bent on getting nuclear weapons, then your only remaining option is massive air strikes on Iran. Not even the Republican Party stalwarts in the US Congress are up for committing the US Air Force to that folly, and Israel without American support simply couldn’t do it on its own.

Then what’s left? Nothing but the deal. It doesn’t guarantee that Iran can never get nuclear weapons. It does guarantee that Iran could not break the agreement without giving everybody else at least a year to respond before the weapons are operational. Sanctions would snap back into place automatically, and anybody who thinks air strikes are a cool idea would have plenty of time to carry them out.

So the deal will survive. Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu can fulminate about how it is a “an historic mistake” that will give Tehran “a sure path to nuclear weapons,” but he cannot stop it.

Netanyahu is obsessive about Iran, but even his own intelligence services do not believe that Tehran has actually been working on nuclear weapons in the past decade. The Israeli prime minister has burned all his bridges with US President Barack Obama, and his Republican allies in the US Congress cannot stop the deal either.

John Boehner, the speaker of the House of Representatives, said that the deal will “hand a dangerous regime billions of dollars in sanctions relief while paving the way for a nuclear Iran,” and he can probably muster a majority in Congress against it. (Congress, as Washington insiders put it, is “Israeli-occupied territory.”) But he cannot muster the two-thirds majority that would be needed to override Obama’s inevitable veto.

There will be a 60-day delay while Congress debates the issue, but this deal will go through in the end. So far, so good – but this is not happening in a vacuum. What are the broader implications for Middle Eastern politics?

Ever since the victory of the Islamic revolution 36 years ago, Iran and the United States have been bitter enemies. They have not suddenly become allies, but they are already on good speaking terms. Since almost all of America’s allies in the Arab world see Iran as a huge strategic threat, they are appalled by the prospect of a US-Iran rapprochement.

That is not a done deal yet. While Iran strongly supports Bashar al Assad’s beleaguered regime in Syria, Washington still advocates Assad’s overthrow and arms some of the “moderate” rebels. It even supports Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign against the Houthi rebels who now control most of Yemen, and publicly accepts the Saudi claim that the Houthis are mere pawns who are being armed and incited to revolt by Iran.

But nobody in the White House, the State Department or the Pentagon really believes that the civil war in Yemen is an Iranian plot. Very few believe any longer that Assad can be overthrown in Syria without handing the country over to the Islamist fanatics who dominate the insurgency there. And the most powerful force among those fanatics is “Islamic State”, whose troops are already being bombed by the United States in both Syria and Iraq.

The highest US priority in the Middle East now is to prevent Iraq and Syria from falling into the hands of Islamic State and its equally extreme rival, the Nusra Front. Iran is giving both the Syrian and the Iraqi governments military support that is essential to their survival, so there is obviously the potential for closer US-Iranian cooperation here.

By contrast Saudi Arabia and Turkey, currently America’s two most important allies in the region, are pouring money and weapons into the Nusra Front in Syria, which is why it has been winning so many battles against the Assad regime in recent months. The prospect of an Islamist regime in power in Damascus is acceptable to Riyadh and Ankara, but it is deeply unwelcome in Washington.

So yes, a grand realignment of American alliances in the Middle East is theoretically possible now that the long cold war between the US and Iran is over. In practice, however, it is most unlikely to happen. The long-standing military and economic ties between Washington and its current allies will probably triumph over cold strategic logic, and American policy in the Middle East will continue to be the usual muddle.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“That is…Iraq”)

The Strategy of the Paris Attacks

After Ahmed Merabet, a French policeman, was killed outside the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris last week, his brother Malek said: “My brother was Muslim and he was killed by two terrorists, by two false Muslims. Islam is a religion of peace and love.”

It was moving, but to say that all Muslims who commit cruel and violent acts in God’s name are “false Muslims” is like saying that the Crusaders who devastated the Middle East nine hundred years ago were “false Christians”.

The Crusaders were real Christians. They believed that they were doing God’s will in trying to reconquer the formerly Christian lands that had been lost to Islam centuries before, and they had the support of most people back home in Europe.

Similarly, Said and Cherif Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly believed they were true Muslims doing God’s will, and some people in Muslim-majority countries agree with them. But there is an important difference from the Crusades: the supporters of the young French terrorists are a minority everywhere, and among Muslims living in Western countries they are only a tiny minority.

This is not a “war of civilisations”. Seventeen innocent people killed in Paris is not the equivalent of the Crusades. For that matter, neither was 9/11. These are wicked and tragic events, but they are not a war.

There is a war going on, but it is a civil war within the “House of Islam” that occasionally spills over into non-Muslim countries. As foot-soldiers in that war, the three killers in Paris probably did not fully understand the role they were playing, but they were serving a quite sophisticated strategy.

Two of these Muslim civil wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq, were ignited by US-led invasions in 2001 and 2003. Four others, in Syria, Libya, Yemen and the northern, mostly Muslim half of Nigeria, have begun since 2011. Others go back even further, like the war in Somalia, or have flared up and then become dormant again, like Mali and Algeria.

In every one of these wars the victims are overwhelmingly Muslims killed by other Muslims. From time to time non-Muslims in other countries are killed too, as in New York in 2001, in London in 2007, in Bombay in 2008 and last week in Paris, and these killings do have a strategic purpose, but it’s not to “terrify non-Muslims into submission.” Quite the contrary.

The great Muslim civil war is about the political, social and cultural modernisation of the Muslim world. Should it continue down much the same track that other major global cultures have followed, or should those changes be stopped and indeed reversed? The Islamists take the latter position.

Some aspects of modernisation are very attractive to many Muslims, so stopping the changes would require a lot of violence, including the overthrow of most existing governments in Muslim countries. But that is the task that the Islamists in general, and the jihadi activists in particular, have undertaken.

As they are minorities even in their own countries, the Islamists’ hardest job is to mobilise popular support for their struggle. The best way to do this is to convince Muslims that modernisation – democracy, equality, the whole cultural package – is part of a Western plot to undermine Islam.

This will be a more credible claim if Western countries are actually attacking Muslim countries, so one of the main jihadi strategies is to carry out terrorist atrocities that will trigger Western military attacks on Muslim countries. That was the real goal of 9/11, and it was spectacularly successful: it tricked the United States into invading not one but TWO Muslim countries.

But smaller terrorist attacks that lead to the mistreatment of the Muslim minorities in non-Muslim countries also serve the cause. They can create a backlash that victimises the local Muslim minorities, thus generating yet more “proof” that there is a war against Islam.

This strategy actually has a name. Appropriately it is in French: “la politique du pire”. It’s the strategy of making things worse in order to achieve one’s ultimate goal – in this case, revolutions that will sweep away the existing governments in almost every Muslim country and put the Islamists in power instead.

There is a sub-theme in some of the Middle Eastern wars that muddies the waters a bit: in Syria, Iraq and Yemen the general radicalisation has also revived and militarised the age-old conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims. But even in these countries most of the killings are of Sunni Muslims by other Sunni Muslims.

There will be more attacks like the ones in Paris, because lost young men seeking a cause abound in every community, including the Muslim communities of the West. We can’t arrest them all, so we will go on having to live with a certain amount of terrorism from both Muslim and non-Muslim extremist groups and trying not to over-react — just as we have been doing for many decades already.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 14 and 15. (“This strategy…Muslims”)