Archive for Syria

The Rising Cost of Stupidity and Brutality

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Middle East Conflict, US Domestic Politics, US Values and Freign Policy with tags , , , , , on February 26, 2012 by whatafteriraq

The recent flaps concerning indiscretions by American troops in Afghanistan (urinating on Taliban corpses, burning copies of the Quran) and Syrian brutality against its own population have one very common and powerful thread: both were acts that were not intended for widespread public attention or scrutiny but have become, in the new vernacular, “viral.” They both illustrate that the impact of electronic mediation has both a liberating and a constraining impact.

The simple fact that arises from the electronic mediation of the world is that potentially there is no such thing as entirely private behavior. The ability of handheld video cameras recording and sending via satellites images of the horrors of war made their first appearance in coverage of the latter stages of the Vietnam conflict, and the images of violence they portrayed helped turn public opinion in this country against the war. What those early electronic “pioneers” could do is peanuts compared to the capacity to transform private acts (or public acts you would just as soon remain unobserved) into full-scale media events. The ability to be stupid or to behave intentionally atrociously now carries a much higher price than it used to have.

The recent uproar over Quran burning and corpse desecration dramatize this impact. People have been righteously indignant over these acts in ways that almost totally miss the point. What was done in both cases was not new or more despicable than has been done in the past; they were not. Past indiscretions in warfare, however, generally occurred when the cameras were not around, so that stupid behavior was only a non-electronic memory of those who witnessed it. Cell phones with the capability to take what are effectively motion pictures means anyone who does virtually anything anywhere has it potentially immortalized electronically; Facebook and similar outlets guarantee whatever is done is an instant global media event. Do something really stupid and the world knows about it. When one of your buddies records the event with the full knowledge of the participants (the urination episode) the stupid add to the problem by acting as willing producers and stars of the production. Afterwards, somebody (normally the government) has to apologize for the indiscretion, an action that is itself subject to criticism.

This phenomenon has spread to purposive acts of thuggery and atrocity. The Arab Spring, after all, is ingrained in global minds as much for the brutal resistance of besieged regimes recorded on shaky mobile phones as it is for anything else. Syria is just the most recent and egregrious example of brutality as a television event. Once again, the point is not that such behavior exists in any unique sense in Syria, or in Egypt and Libya before it. Governments and others (occupying powers, for instance) have been doing this for millennia. Imagine for a moment Genghis Khan and the Golden Horde sweeping across the Eurasian plain slaughtering everybody they encountered as a modern media event. The point is that such behavior was much easier to get away with when it could be denied and no contrary hard evidence like motion pictures could be broght to bear as counter evidence. That is impossible now; if you are a despot who wants to savage your population, you probably still can do so, but you cannot keep it a secret or within the realm of plausible deniability. The cost of thuggery has risen; whether (or when) that cost becomes too great to bear is a question for any potential brutalizer.

This cost extends to domestic public behavior. In the United States, the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles should have been the warning bell. The LAPD is still living down those privately recorded images of police brutality, and everytime a cop uses arguably excessive force, part of the reaction is going to be from the video accounts of those actions. The result is to change how police act and is a conscious part of contemporary police training.

The point is the same in both venues. The bar of acceptable behavior both in international crises and in domestic actions has been raised by the knowledge that just about anything that happens is likely to be subject to outside scrutiny. It does not matter if an indiscretion is committed by a 19-year-0ld soldier in the traumatic aftermath of battle or a 20-year-old college student getting drunk at a fraternity party; whatever you do may well be on global television, and even if it is not, it is still out there somewhere in cyberspace ready to come back and bite you in the posterior at some point in the future.

Institutions try to confront and surmount these problems to minimize them, but such efforts are almost inevitably incomplete. The U.S. Marines, for instance have produced an impressive guide on appropriate behavior by Marines in Afghanistan (“Afghanistan: Operational Culture for Deployed Personnel.” Quantico, VA:: Center for Advanced Operational Cultural Learning, 2009–available on the web) that specifically covers urination and Quaran burning. Obviously, not everyone read or internalized it. The simple fact is that in war particularly, people will do stupid or evevn venal things. In the past, most of these transgressions went unobserved or not noted; today, no stupidity goes unnoticed. 

These simple new parameters are a fact of modern warfare (or modern life more generally) that are not going to go away. They cannot be reversed, and the best that can be done is to try to understand and contain them as much as possible (damage limitation). This is a new and, I think, sadly underdeveloped area of inquiry and understanding, with implications that need to be incorporated into future planning. One particularly evident area is that of military occupations, which will be the subject of the next posting.

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The Arab Spring: Libya and Syria

Posted in Egypt, International Terrorism, Libya, Middle East Conflict with tags , , , , , , , on September 18, 2011 by whatafteriraq

Libya and Syria have become the poster children for the varied impacts that the so-called Arab Spring have had on the Islamic Middle East. They are not the most important countries to have undergone changes (Egypt, the outcome of whose upheaval remains a work in progress, can claim that distinction), but they do represent the most polar outcomes that the popular uprisings have produced to date. In Libya, the rebels–with the generous and probably critical assistance of Western militaries–have succeeded in dislodging long-time ruler Muammar Gaddafi, whose whereabouts remain a mystery of the Carmen San Diego variety at this point. In Syria, the regime of Bashar al-Assad remains in power in the face of worldwide condemnation but little effective action, and seems likely to remain so for the foreseaable future.

The countries and their situations are a study in similarities and contrasts. Both are, of course, majority Sunni countries (as are most Muslim states), both have a diverse population that is tied together by common religion, both have long-standing traditions since achieving statehood of authoritarian rule in which the military has played a prominent role, and both have ties (admittedly of different varieties) to international terrorism. On the face of it, Syria is in many ways the more important country by virtue of size (71,500 square miles of territory to Libya’s 43,000 square miles), population (22 million to 6.5 million) and strategic location: Syria has long borders with Iraq and Turkey and less lengthy borders with Lebanon, Jordan and Israel, whereas Libya borders six North African countries, the only one of which that has strategic significance being Egypt.

There is, of course, one very significant difference between the two which explains the highly differential way the international community has reacted to demands for political change in the two countries. That difference, of course, is that Libya has a large amount of very desirable petroleum, and Syria does not. The contrast is enormous. Using CIA World Factbook figures, Libya exports approximately 1.5 million barrels a day (15th largest in the world), while Syria exports 155,000 barrels a day, about one-tenth of the Libyan figure and 56th in the world. Known Libyan reserves stand at 47 billion barrels, comparecto 2.5 billion for the Syrians. Moreover, Libyan oil is relatively cheap to extract and is particularly “sweet” (low-sulfur content), a particularly important factor for Europeans who have geared their refineries to processing sweet crude and can only deal with other oil with considerably more difficulty and expense.

Oil production has driven the economies of the two countries in opposite directions. Libyan GDP per capita, for instance, is about $14,800 (84th in the world), and while it is distributed in an unequitable manner of which the Tea Party would be proud and Ayn Rand disciples envious, it is considerably higher than in Syria, with a per capita GDP of $4,800, 151st the in the world. Prior to the revolution, Libya was a classic “petrolist” state (to borrow Thomas L. Friedman’s term), where huge oil revenues (95 percent of export earnings, 80 percent of government revenues) were used to buy off the population and blunt its democratic urges. Petrolist success took a hit with the success of the revolution in Libya.

Libya has succeeded in throwing off its shackles for the moment, and Syria has not. The outcome in Libya is far from ordained, and could vary from a total democracy to the rise of a new dictator: prudence suggests somewhere in between, whatever that may mean. The al-Assads cling to power, and despite universal pleas for them to cease their repression and to step down, Bashar al-Assad shows no indication he will do either. Nobody wants to talk about his success in holding power, but it is not unlikely, at least in the short run.

The key element in Libyan success and Syrian failure is outside pressure. Put simply, it is highly unlikely that the Libyan rebels would have succeeded without the covering air power of NATO to suppress government forces (attacking them directly, preventing their forays against rebel units in the field intent on their destruction). These rebels, it must be remembered, were a pretty woebegone, rag-tag coalition when they began, and the early prognosis for them was not good until NATO airpower shifted the balance of power. There has, to put it mildly, been nothing like that in support of Syrian dissidents who are, as best one can piece together from media reports, been treated much more harshly than the Libyan government treated its citizenry. Why the difference?

The answers, of course, are pretty obvious. The first and overwhelmingly most important is that Libya has something the outside world wants (oil), and Syria does not. This makes Syria, despite its geography and demographics, much less important to the world–and specifically to the countries that can militarily interfere–than Libya. The fact that Libya is a short and undefended flight across the Mediterranean Sea from Libya and that effective assistance did not include putting boots on the ground (sand?) and thus creating the possibility of many casualties, added to the ease of making the decision to help Libya but not Syria. Any actions against Syria are likely to have to come from neighbors, who show neither the interest nor capability to tangle with the regime in Damascus. Human rights violations alone are simply not enough.

The other element has been that the coercive capacity of the Syrian government has proven more capable and resilient than that of Libya. On the face of it, the Libyans has the wherewithal to expunge the rebels but could not. Part of the reason was geographic (target cities were fairly far away), and traversing the terrain meant crossing open territory and being left vulnerable to NATO air power. Partly, however, the Libyans seemed less capable (ruthless, blood thirsty)than Syrian forces). For the time being, Syrian brutality has succeeded; it may not in the longer run, but for the moment, the Syrians have held the line.

None of this suggests how the revolutions in either country or the region will come out. There are simply too many variables, someforeseeable and others not, that could influence the ultimate outcomes. Roughly nine months after the Arab Spring erupted in Tunisia and spread through the region, however, the experiences in Libya and Syria do suggest the range of possible outcomes.

U.S. Humanitarian Activism: Libya and Syria

Posted in Middle East and US Election, Middle East Conflict, Obama foreign policy, US Domestic Politics, US Values and Freign Policy with tags , , , , , , , , on August 21, 2011 by whatafteriraq

The remaining hot spots from the Arab Spring are in Libya and Syria. In both cases, popular uprisings erupted against tyrannical governments inspired at least patrially by the Arab Spring events that began in Tunisia and moved quickly to Egypt and elsewhere. Distinguishing characteristics of these two cases, however, have been the continuing brutality of the regime against its dissidents and the dogged organized resistance to the regime’s actions by those seeking change. This level of resistance and the need for continued bloody suppression distinguishes Libya and Syria from places like Bahrain and Yemen, where dissidence was fairly quickly suppressed and things returned to fairly quickly to whatever passes for normalcy.

Libya and Syria are different from one another and from the others. Their duration sets them aside from other Arab Spring events. Libya has produced a full-scale revolutionary movement that, with the considerable assistance of NATO air forces, may be closing in on the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime; the effort in Syria has been less organized and militarized, but worldwide publicity has resulted in a steady drum beat of international demands for the resignation of Syrian president Bashir al-Assad that are increasingly difficult for him to resist.

The level of violence, even savagery, of government oppression of resisters in both countries has raised both to the level of international humanitarian disasters or crises–situations where there is widespread atrocity against or abuse of a country’s citizens by its government. One response to such a situation is humanitarian activism, which I define as intervention (including military force as its most dramatic manifestation) in humanitarian crises by other countries to end the conditions defining the disaster. The United States has a long, if uneven, record of action or inaction in such situations; in both Libya and Syria, however, the United States has adopted a fairly passive form of opposition to the disasters, preferring to defer leadership to others. Why?

It seems to me that to understand when the United States does and does not become personally invested in these kinds of situations requires looking at three variables. The first is American mood at the time. Is the United States feeling especially optimistic about its internal situation and place in the world, in which case it is likely to become internally activist, seeking to spread its own message and gospel to others? Or is the United States feeling insecure and recessive, turning inward and evincing a sense of isolation from world events that is part of the U.S. historical DNA?

Second is the nature of the international environment in which any proposed action might occur. Partly, this assessment reflects Americans’ self-assessment and confidence in themselves, their ability to shape the world, and their confidence in their world role. At the same time, this assessment includes the competing demands on American national security resources elsewhere in the world: can the United States afford to divert scarce resources (especially military) to humanitarian missions that can or might be needed elsewhere?

The third variable is geopolitics, and it also has at least two facets. One is the American relationship with the country in which the disaster is occurring. There were, for instance, no shortage of what now are called humanitarian crises in countries with which the United States was allied dring the Cold War (Central Africa and Central America offer fine examples) where the Unied States did not condemn the harsh treatment of populations by “friendly” rulers; given the dangers of Cold War escalation, however, all we did with similar events in the communist world (e.g. Cambodia) was condemn them. Context may be everything. At the same time, the attitude and willingness of friends and allies is also a geopolitical factor: the United States almost certainly would not have dispatched and kept force in the Balkans in the 1990s and beyond were it not for the insistence of NATO allies.

Different periods of recent history can be gauged in these terms. During the Cold War, there was basically no such thing as humanitarian activism, because geopolitical, Cold War considerations precluded it. The term entered the lexicon after the Cold War ended, and there was a spate of such activism by the United States in the 1990s, when all the variables aligned favorably: the American mood was confident and expansive, the rest of the environment was fairly placid and undemanding, and there were few geopolitical inhibitions to preclude identifying and stomping on the bad guys who abused and denied the rights of their citizens.

And then there is now. The United States has not acted decisively in either the Libyan and Syrian cases. In Libya, we play a very limited supporting role (that has had opposition anyway), and beyond leading the verbal condemnation of Assad, have done very little in Syria. Admittedly, these are two countries where the U.S. has few interests and even fewer levers of influence it can apply, but it has clearly not been an instance of any kind of humanitarian activism by any measure.

The three variable help explain this. Two of them are negative. In the current economic climate, the United States is not feeling good and positive about itself, and were the Obama administration to propose any more than what it is doing, it would be accused of taking its “eye off the ball” of our real priorities, of trying to divert attention away from its internal problems, or both (most likely both). At the same time, the United States is still heavily invested in military adventures elsewhere in the region that strain resources; the American people would hardly embrace a new Middle Eastern military adventure. The only positive variable is international support for activism. Europe, after all, is devoting resources to Libya (which it arguably cannot afford), and even other Middle Eastern countries have condemned the Syrians. In a sense, this willingness of others to take the lead relieves the United States of any pressure it might otherwise feel to get out front on either crisis.

Libya and Syria may or may not represent the long-term future of American humanitarian activism, but they are likely to be models for the next few years, until American prosperity and self-confidence reappears and we are looking at the world differently than we are today. If one is against such interventions anyway, then “let the bad times roll,” since they are keeping us from doing what we have no business doing anyway, as Ron Paul would argue. If the United States is the shining city on the hill (Reagan’s typification) and should be ready and willing to help transform the world, wait for a better day.

The Search for Middle Eastern Analogies

Posted in Egypt, Libya, Middle East Conflict, US Values and Freign Policy with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 27, 2011 by whatafteriraq

The pace of events starting a short two months ago and now lapping at the gates of Damascus has left us all breathless and even sppechless as we try to comprehend what had happened, what it means, and what it may bode for the future. One of the endeavors that inevitably follows from our intellectual disarray is the search for analogies: is what is going on in the Middle East enough like something that has happened in the past that we can draw comparisons with that past that will help us predict and possibly affect wherever these events are leading?

If such an analogy exists in any helpful way (i.e. is close enough to contemporary happenings truly to be instructive), no one has yet found it. The unfolding scene bears some resemblance to what happened two decades ago in Eastern Europe, but it is also different–different people from different cultures, the nature of who and how their oppressions had been imposed, etc. Unless one can draw an analogy with some obscure bit of Middle Eastern history (which I am certainly incapable of doing), we seem stuck. The uncomfortable result is that we do not know exactly what to do, and possibly more importantly, what the impact of whatever it is we do is on the outcome, for good or for bad. It is this uncertainty that has made our responses seem so hesitant and tentative; critics who cry for more decisive responses are either clairvoyant about the future (insights they fail to share with us) or demagogical (here’s another way to attack Obama,so let’s go for it!).

Let me suggest that our difficulty in deciding what to do is the result of at least five questions, the answers to which we either do not know or which we fear. Stating and looking at them will not solve the dilemma of policy understanding; but it may clarify the parameters of the discussion.

1. Who are these people? What has been common to all the uprisings is that they have apparently populist roots: people gather in the streets, the demonstrations grow when not suppressed, the government finally reacts with violence that fans the flames rather than dousing them, and at some point, either the government caves in or the guns come out. In either case, the question of leadership of the insurgents has been a mystery. Clearly, there are organizers, at a minimum people who view on the social media what has happened in neighboring countries and say, “Why not us?” The problem is that we (the U.S. and the West generally) apparently do not possess very much helpful information about who the leaders that could answer subsequent questions.

2. Where do they come from? Large parts of the Middle East are, of course, artificial states with competing ethnic and/or religious groups, but is it disenfranchised of oppressed minorities that are behind the uprisings? As best one can tell in places like Egypt or even Libya (an artificial state but one without notable ethnic rivarlies), the situation appear not to have these characteristics. Syria, on the other hand, does have these cleavages, and it would actually be  to understand what is going in if such motivations are at play.

3. What are they there for? The universal chorus coming from the various uprisings is a call for “freedom,” but what does that mean? At the most obvious level, it means freedom from whatever authoritarian ruler at whom they have directed their ire, but that does not tell one enough about what they are FOR, only what they are against. All the movements say they want democracy, but given the scant background the region has with democratic principles, is that window dressing, or something more profound? One answer may be that they are sincere in their desires but have given very little thought to their operational meaning. In other words, they have and continue to spend a lot more energy on how to overthrow the old regime than about what to do after they succeed. If they don’t know, how are we to know, or even guess intelligently?

4. What are we doing? The outside reaction has moved slowly. It began with cheerleading from the sidelines, which worked fine (at least so far) in Egypt and Tunisia, but that has clearly not been enough in places where the government has resisted, especially violently. The most extreme reaction, of course, surrounds the UN-sanctioned military effort that, at least according to reports today (Sunday) seem to be having some impact on the fighting on the ground in favor of the insurgents. The UN mandate, of course, does not extend to influencing internal politics, only to guarnateeing humanitarian rights. Once one goes beyond that, as the UN did to its chagrin aover a half-century ago in the then Belgian Congo, and the results paralyzed UN responses to these kinds of crises as a result. Do we (the West, the UN, the U.S.) really want to get back into George Bush’s “regime changing” policy mode, albeit under the cover of international action?

5. Will the outcome of these processes be an improvement, either for the countries involved or the rest of us? This is really the $64 question, and its answer would clearly help resolve our response dilemma. Unfortunately, the answer also lies in the answers to the first four questions, and we don’t know these. Also, we lack an appropriate analogy to wrap around and help guide us. So we are left with simply listing the possibilities and hoping a good one is correct.

I will not attempt to suggest all the possibilities or which may apply to individual countries (and one of the probably safe assumptions is that the outcomes will differ by country). The most optimistic outcome is for pro-Western, pro-American democratic regimes to emerge or evolve. The insurgents, by and large, express democratic desires but are a little more circumspect about us. The most unfavorable outcomes involve the emergence of new, replacement autocracies that are even more objectionable than those they replace. Imagine, for instance, a Qadhafi who is also an extreme, fundamentalist Islamist. Nobody talks that way in the region, but anything is possible. In between are a whole range of options that are more or less deomcratic and more or less anti-western. The permutations afre seemingly endless.

Since we do not know what the answers to these questions, and especially the last one, will be, we watch what is infolding with fascination but a sense of unease. If it is true that one should generally look before one leaps and that leaping in this case means knowing what one is leaping into and what the effect will be, caution would seem to be the better part of valor. Unless, of course, one has a really good analogy we can work with.

Israel and the Iranian Bomb

Posted in Iran, Israel and the United States, Middle East Conflict with tags , , , , , on August 22, 2010 by whatafteriraq

The September 2010 edition of The Atlantic features a story on what it represents as Israel’s plan to attack and try to destroy the Iranian nuclear facilities before Iran can get to the point of producing a nuclear weapon–a prospect the Israelis argue is quite imminent, meaning the attack could come quite soon.

The article, by Jeffrey Goldberg, is titled “The Point of No Return,” and it is decidedly more sanguine about these prospects than one would assume from the normally fairly restrained Goldberg. Indeed, Goldberg seems at least receptive to, if not enthusiastic about, the purported Israeli plan, whereas his colleague Robert D. Kaplan, usually more hawkish on such matters, counsels Kissingerian restraint (deterrence) in his companion article, “Living with Nuclear Iran.”

The possibility that Israel would entertain and possibly even commit to an attack aimed at destroying the Iranian nuclear program is certainly nothing new, although it has been a prospect that most of us have set aside as sufficiently lunatic or far enough in the future to be intellectually avoidable. The Atlantic article strips away both of these veils, showing that the intent to attack permeates a great deal of the Israeli decision process (notably the top) and that the prospects are upon us. Goldberg indeed hints that he believes such an action is probably inevitable.

At the risk of distorting Goldberg’s argument, it strikes me that it has three basic parts. The first, and most familiar, is that the Iranian nuclear program represents an intolerable existential threat to Israel. In one sense, this is entirely true: Iran in control of a few deliverable nuclear weapons that the Israelis could not intercept (which may be the real meaning of the Iranian drone aircraft announced this week) could indeed destroy so much of Israel as to threaten its existence. The nature of that threat, however, needs qualification the Israelis rarely add.

First, Israel has arguably become “the state that cries existential threat” in much the same way as the little boy cried wolf. It seems that every threat the Israelis face is labeled existential, and that Israel responds militarily with actions/provocations that either make the threat worse or produce new threats. Israeli policy in Gaza is a poster child for this problem. Second, the Israelis act as if they were alone in all this. Not so. The United States and the Soviet Union/Russia have posed physical existential threats to one another since the perfection of the ICBM, and we have learned to adapt to and deflect the problem. Our mechanism (which is the Kissimgerian solution) is deterrence, an approach the Israelis reject because they Iranians are allegedly crazy, meaning they cannot be deterred. Third, the Israelis have posed an existential threat to Iran (and the rest of the Muslim Middle East) for over 40 years. The Israelis say that situation is different, because they would not attack anyone. If you were the head of an Islamic government in the area, would you accept that argument?

Second, the Israelis apparently think there is agood chance they can get away with an attack, because they have done so in the past with attacks against Iraq and Syria. Maybe so, but maybe not. Syria and Iraq were much more defenseless than Iran and were considered far less important than the Iranians. Iran is, after all, a very large, populous country with a wealth of natural resources that much of the world covets. Syria, in particular, is none of those things. Will the world sit so idly by in Iran is attacked? I, for one, do not want to find out.

Third, the Israelis are counting on American support for this endeavor–or at least that the U.S. will dampen opposition to the action. One Israeli air force officer even suggests it would be better if the U.S. did the bombing for the Israelis, since we have superior assets for such an attack. President Obama has, quite predictably, declared that no options are off the table in this situation, but a U.S. surrogate attack on the Israelis’ behalf is presumably right at the edge of the table, ready to be pushed off.

If any other country in the world proposed anything like what is discussed in this article, the international condemnation would be thunderous; even in the deeply divided partisanship of current American politics, if it was not Israel making the threat, both sides might suspend their guerrilla political war long enough to issue a condemnation. If the Israelis go ahead and make the attack (which, by the way, will almost certainly fail to destroy the Iranian program) the only places there will be rejoice will be in Jerusalem and the Republican National Committee.

This whole idea is ludicrous beyond description, and needs to be treated as such. If the United States government has not already done so, it should issue a private warning to the Israelis that they are strictly on their own and that their action will be condemned by Washington as quickly and as resolutely as was the joint British-French-Israeli invasion of Suez in 1956. If Israel unleashes these dogs of war, let it deal with the consequences alone. We have and should continue to support and protect Israel; we should not suborn Israeli aggression.

Israel and the Iranian Nuclear Threat

Posted in Middle East Conflict, Middle East Peace with tags , , , , on May 2, 2009 by whatafteriraq

I attended a panel discussion yesterday in which the topic of Iran’s nuclear program came up. The two principal commentators on the subject were the dean emeritus of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies (Dr. Robert S. Wood) and a retired U.S. Navy admiral, William Pendley, who has had direct experience by virtue of being a participant in talks with North Korea in the 1990s. They both agreed in essence on four points, as I took it (I apologize to Bob and Bill if I have distorted their views).

First, they agreed that Iran was likely to acquire nuclear weapons, and that there was very little the United States could do about it if the Iranians are resolute enough in their intentions. Second, they agreed that the major reason the Iranians want nukes is as a deterrent–mostly against the United States–and a matter of prestige (Bob Wood drew the analogy between Iranian weapons and the French nuclear force de frappe). Third, both asserted that Iran’s possession of a few weapons in and of itself did not matter much in the world; if there is a problem, it will be if Iran gains the capability to produce weapons grade materials–avoiding that has been a major part of North Korean negotiations. Fourth, the “major” concern that Iranian pssession could produce is the possibility that Iran might share nuclear weapons/materials/technology with terrorists, who might use those weapons.

I was amazed at these conclusions mostly because they were reasonably close to my own, as expressed in Chapter 8 of the 4th edition of Cases in International Relations, “Pivotal States.” The bottom line of this analysis is that Iranian nuclear prospects are not as dire as some have led us to believe. That is, until one enters Israel into the equation. Then things get scary.

Israel has warned repeatedly that it will not tolerate the Iranian development of nuclear weapons and has threatened to take actions to prevent or reverse that possibility. Similar Israeli warnings against Iraq in the 1980s and Syria in the 2000s that resulted in preemptive Israeli strikes that wiped out the Iraqi and Syrian programs are clear testimony that their threats are not idle. Thus, one cannot rule Israeli military actions against Iran out at some further point in the developmental cycle of the Iranian program. What actions the Israelis might take and whether they would be successful are not entirely clear, both since the Iranians have designed their nuclear program and facilities to be resistant to the kind of air attacks the Israelis made against Iraq and Syria and, possibly more importantly, because Iran is not Syria.

Iraq and Syria were both essentially powerless to do anything to prevent Israeli attacks or to retaliate against their attackers. Iran, however, is a much more formidable potential foe. It is, after all, a country of 65 million people, and it has the military capability to absorb and fight back after an Israeli attack–unless the Israeli attack is a large-scale nuclear strike, which presumably (?) it would not be.

What happens if Israel decides that the Iranian possession of nuclear weapons is intolerable, that such weapons represent a deadly threat to Israeli existence, and thus that it has no choice but to take out that threat? All three conclusions by the Israelis are certainly not impossible; whether they are even likely given the nature of the current Israeli ruling coalition is arguable.

The short answer to the question is that we don’t know. The possibilities range from limited tit-for-tat attacks between Iran and Israel to a gradually escalating regional conflict that could drag in outside powers–and notably the United States–and widen to global conflict. Efforts would certainly be made to localize and contain the violence, but if Israel’s very continued existence came into question (which is not entirely impossible to imagine), would those efforts work? Because we cannot answer any of those questions in advance, we not only do not know, we profoundly do not want to find out.

There are only two ways to avoid the possibility of an Iranian-Israeli nuclear conflict. One is to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons, thereby avoiding the scenario that could set off the Israelis. If Bob and Bill are correct, there is not much we can do to prevent that from happening. Certainly, an entreaty that continuing down the nuclear path might only lead to confrontation with nuclear-armed Israel would only reinforce Iran’s perceived need for the weapons in the first place.

The other is to prevent the Israelis from attacking Iran. During the past eight years, the United States showed no particular skill at nor inclination to restrain the Israelis, and they might not be restrainable under any circumstances. However, what the United States could do is treat Israel to a little “tough love” by letting them know in no uncertain terms that if they attack Iran, they are strictly on their own and that, should the operation turn bad, they can expect no help from the United States. That might be a difficult message for the United States to deliver, but if it were accompanied by the assurance that Israeli restraint would be rewarded by American commitment should the Iranians threaten Israel, it might be more palatable.

Israel would not like this message. They would/will argue their very existence is threatened by Islamic possession of nuclear weapons capable of destroying Israel.  They are quite correct in that assessment, but then, the United States has been vulnerable to nuclear annihilation since the Soviet arsenal grew to assured destruction proportions in the 1960s. We have relied on deterrence to keep that destruction from occurring, and maybe that’s what the Israelis should do as well.

Is Iraqification Succeeding?

Posted in Getting out of Iraq, Iraq and Election, Iraq and Vietnam, Iraq War, Leaving Iraq with tags , , , , , on July 29, 2008 by whatafteriraq

In What After Iraq, I devote a chapter to Iraqification as the likely outcome of the Iraq War. The essence of the argument is that the outcome will resemble the process of Vietnamization (from which, obviously, the term is drawn). As it evolved, the policy of Vietnamization involved turning the war gradually over to the South Vietnamese with the “reasonable chance” they would be able to maintain their independence after the transfer of responsibility from American to South Vietnamese forces was completed.

There were really three dynamics to Vietnamization that have been transplanted to Iraq:

1, A recduction in acceptable outcomes from the American vantage point. In Vietnam, that meant backing down from a guarantee of Soth Vietnamese independence to the “reasonable chance” of that outcome.

2. The training and preparation of South Vietnamese forces to be robust enough to withstand a North Vietnamese onslaught.

3. The creation of conditions in surrounding countries to maximize the likelihood of South Vietnamese survival (notably sealing off Cambodia and Laos as infiltration routes).

Obviously, all this did not work out as planned in Vietnam, but it is clearly the basis of U.S. efforts in Iraq. The United States has backed away from the absolute goal of Iraqi democracy to the more measured standard of a stable government survival in which a democratic outcome is possible. The Iraqi armed forces have been recruited and trained, although that process is ongoing. Some efforts have been undertaken to neutralize influence from Syria and Iran, although those could hardly be called glowing successes (but then, neither were Cambodia and Laos successes).

Something like Iraqification is, after all, the only possible outcome. The United States will leave, and it requires some semblance of success behind it as it lowers the flag and departs. Although what will happen after we leave is still debatable, it is at least arguable that the situation will be stable. Sounds like Vietnamization to me!

The major forces seem to be aligning behind this outcome. Obama and McCain are, as argued in previous posts, “schlepping” their way toward the goal of full or large-scale withdrawal by 2010, and the al-Maliki government has embraced that outcome as well. Will it come as any surprise if the SOFA that is negotiated after January 2009 does not move in this direction as well?

Does the movement toward Iraqification favor one side or the other in the November election? No one, of course, uses the term, even if both have embraced its dynamics. Getting the U.S. out of Iraq certainly favors the Obama position, but McCain’s support for the surge will be trumpeted as having moved the situation to the point that Iraqification can be implemented. Sounds like a wash, although both candidates will doubtless take credit. If there is an advantage, it will be the direction the reasidual debate about Iraq will go. If it goes toward “how we won the war,” it will redound to McCain’s advantage (proof he knows how to “win wars”–despite never having won one); if it goes back to what we were doing there in the first place, the advantage goes to Obama.

In the end, Iraqification helps out everyone, by putting Iraq behind us. Then, the question will be how we treat Iraq once we’re gone. We forgot (arguably abandoned) Vietnam as fast as we could, and hardly noted it when the “reasonable chance” of success failed. Will we do the same things if events work out poorly after we leave Iraq?