Checkmate in Baghdad and Geneva

October 4, 2013

“Domestic policy can only defeat us; foreign policy can kill us.” – JFK

War is a messy business. Serial wars get even more untidy over time. Often, it’s hard to know where one begins and another ends. Such is the case today as the Arab spring looks like another Muslim winter. America and Europe stumble from one conflict venue to another wondering what happened to all those rosy assertions about jasmine, justice, moderation, and modernity. The Islamic world is a mess and no one has a clue as to where or how the sequential mayhem ends. In Syria, the nanny states of the West are again perched on the brink of another sectarian and/or tribal abyss.

Nonetheless, the optimism of intervention still prevails. Today you hear argument after argument about the responsibilities of power and success – or preaching about very selective humanitarian concerns.  If you read enough foreign policy analysis you might come to believe that someone has the answer, or that somehow Europe and America have the “responsibility” to make the Third World well. Never mind that the very words “developing” and “emerging” have become geo-political oxymorons, triumphs of hope over experience.

Ironically, the grand strategy, if there is one, when you strip away the boilerplate, can be summarized with a single word – that word is “more.” More is the mantra of imprudent expectations; bailouts at home and flailouts abroad. If one “investment” doesn’t work, surely the original sacrifice wasn’t big enough. No thought seems to be given to developing a new game plan. More aid, more pandering, more troops, more drones, or more missile strikes; but never more common sense. It’s always more, and more is never enough.

And now ‘more’ is accompanied by “red line” moralizing, the color coded version of chicken. Alas, the no-fault/default cultures of Europe and America are unlikely enforcers of any kind of norms and standards in the less civilized world. The West insists, ironically, on measures of accountability and restraint that have been abandoned in Europe and America. Political decay, especially in the First World, has consequences.

All the rhetoric about global responsibility is a rehash of the “white man’s burden” trope. Worse still, the hand-wringing and preaching seems to validate “orientalism,” guilt driven theories that excuse and forgive Muslim pathology because the chaos is thought to be the results of European racism, colonialism, or exploitation.

Ironically, much of the confused strategic rhetoric originates with senior military officers and the Intelligence Community.

Since Vietnam, the Pentagon has sought to redefine most wars as either guerilla, insurgent, or conventional conflicts. Conventional conflict is a distant third in most deliberations. Real wars might have to be declared and put to a vote. Unfortunately, the accepted taxonomy ignores ground truth and the worldview of likely opponents.

Most wars in the troublesome Muslim world are in fact religious wars, conflicts where the nexus is a clash between religious and secular values. The most obvious evidence of religious war, external to the Muslim world, occurs at the tectonic plates of religion, those borders where Muslim and non-Muslim polities meet. South Asia, North Africa, the Balkans, the Caucasus region, Thailand, and the Philippines are obvious examples. Even China has pockets of Muslim irredentism.

When ayatollahs and imams rant about “jihad,” or holy war, they have few illusions about the nature of contemporary conflict. Indeed, most Muslim clerics seem to grasp global strategic reality better than American generals who insist on parsing various Muslim wars into local insurgencies with local motives. Religion has become the invisible camel in the infidel tent.

The most celebrated version of the official US military view in these matters is contained in Army Field Manual 3-24; Counterinsurgency, the doctrinal bible that David Patraeus helped write and subsequently rode to four star notoriety. Unfortunately, like too many of his over-schooled peers, General Patraeus is more likely to be remembered for his social life than his military insights or battlefield achievements. Equally misguided was the US Marine Corps decision to adopt the Army manual in the interests of tactical ecumenism.

Religious war is now a global phenomenon, thanks in part to the failure of flag officers to acknowledge that threat. The Pentagon doesn’t have any official guidance for religious war beyond political correctness.

Within the Ummah, modern wars are of two types; civil and proxy. Contemporary revolutions in Iran, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, the Sudan, Somalia, Mali, and Egypt are religious civil wars. These in turn are of two classes; sectarian (i.e. Shia vs Sunni) or secular/sectarian. Secular military dictatorships, Egypt today for example, have been in the clerical crosshairs since Mohammed’s time. Libya and Syria are examples of secular oligarchies where tribal rivalries created opportunities for Islamists.

Syria is a prominent example of modern proxy war, where principals (Russia and the US or Iran and Israel), once removed, are attempting to settle old scores or exploit a regional opportunity. Any notion of moral “red lines” or WMD thresholds in Syria is just another flight from reality, a veil for political egos and hidden agendas.

The American Ranch Hand campaign (1962-71), which poisoned Southeast Asia for nearly a decade, was the most egregious, sustained modern use of chemical warfare. Granted, the putative aim of the Agent Orange campaign was defoliation; still, the net effect was to poison civilians and water sources under the canopy. No American administration is well-positioned to point fingers at Syria when the US Air Force, the Pentagon, and the White House have yet to acknowledge or accept responsibility for the mutilation of a generation of American GIs and several generations of Vietnamese children.

We might also recall those gassed Kurds and Persians (1988) of recent memory who perished from indifference if not complicity. Or we could mention the million or so Rwandans (1994) who fell to tribal clubs and cutlery. Such events barely make the evening news in the West. With these and Vietnam, ‘moral’ superiority about chemical warfare or genocide, if it ever existed, is a void not a high ground.

The recent gas attack in Syria is not an exception, nor is it a rule. Identifying culprits is probably irrelevant.  Nations adhere to international conventions or “norms” as it suits their interests. Credible force is the only reliable sheriff or deterrent. And a false flag prologue is often the pretense for the use of force.

Clearly there is more than a little overlap in any conflict taxonomy. Nonetheless, the need for a new vocabulary for the age of intervention is underwritten by two indisputable facts: religion underwrites much of the typology and too many conflicts are misrepresented as insurgencies when they are in fact civil wars. If Libya or Syria were true insurgencies, America should have sent guns to Gaddafi and Assad.

The ‘insurgent’ paradigm suits the politics, not the reality, of modern war. Terms like Islamic, religious, or “civil” war are avoided because the US military has no charter, doctrine, or legal authority for intervention in overseas internal disputes; and surely no moral authority for taking sides in religious rivalries. The Sunni tilt in American foreign policy since 1979 speaks for itself, a grim litany of blowback and failure.

At a minimum, you could argue that American intervention has made Shia fanatics, Hezb’allah, the Taliban, and now a global al Qaeda possible. Recall that America helped create a vacuum in southern Lebanon for Hezb’allah to fill. Recall also that clandestine support to the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan in the Soviet era made the Taliban possible. Imprudent signals to Islamists made the recent Muslim Brotherhood electoral success possible in Egypt too. In the geo-political arena, unqualified support for Saudi and Emirate oil oligarchs makes Salifism and related religious fascism possible worldwide.

The incompetence of intervention has more than a little to do with the caliber of American generals since Korea. Surely, David Patraeus was no guerilla fighter like Joe Stillwell and Martin Dempsey is no cavalry officer the equal of George Patton. At Benghazi, American military honor was compromised by timidity, if not bureaucratic cowardice. General Dempsey claims that he did not act because Mrs. Clinton didn’t give him a green light. Under Dempsey, the military ethos changed from “no man left behind” to “cover your behind.” Victory is no longer a staple of any flag officer’s resume or vocabulary.

The Intelligence Community is also part of the rhetorical decay. While at the White House, John Brennan literally scrubbed any reference to Islam, Islamists, jihad, or holy war from public and administration conversations about national security. He actually convinced most government departments, contractors, and the Press to delete any language that might suggest linkage between terror, religious war, and Islam. The Director of National Intelligence now refers to Islamic terrorists as “nefarious characters.” At CIA, Brennan is now well placed to police the language and analysis of National Intelligence Estimates.

And the chickens of strategic decline are home to roost as America again sides with the Sunni in Syria. Dithering in the West for two years has allowed Bashar al-Assad to regain the tactical advantage on the battlefield. And strategically, the Alawite regime now has a clear victory.  American gun sights have been lowered from regime change to “let’s make a deal.” Never mind that time is as good a gift to Assad as any aid from the Persians and Russians.

And the proxy war is a disaster. Vladimir Putin throws a ‘Hail Mary’ in Syria, and Foggy Bottom and the White House morph into cheer leaders. Worse still, the American administration embarrasses itself by trying to take credit for the Russian initiative. Say what you will about Putin, he is a better friend to Syria than Obama is to Israel. When the next “red line” is in the works, it might have to be drawn around Israel.

The Russian strategy may look a little like a deus ex machina, but compared to the Obama amateurs, Putin plays the great game like Winston Churchill. And putting John Kerry in  a diplomatic cage match with Sergei Lavrov is like watching  a bear  toy with a cocker spaniel. Checkmate in Baghdad and Geneva!

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The author provided intelligence support to Ranch Hand at Tan Son Nhut AB in 1968 and 1971. He writes occasionally about the politics of national security.

 

 


Turkey, a fourth front against Israel?

June 7, 2010

“By gnawing through a dike, even a rat may drown a nation.” – Edmund Burke

Turkey has long been held up as an exemplar of a model Islamic state; secular, moderate, democratic, and collegial. Nonetheless, the inherent contradictions of an “Islamic republic” may be coming home to roost in Anatolia – putting the lie to secular, moderate, and collegial.

Ankara, a NATO “partner”, has been backsliding for some time now; indeed, ever since the Islamists achieved power in democratic elections. The so-called “freedom flotilla” which attempted to run the blockade to Gaza a few days ago is the latest symptom of the march backwards. The convoy, masquerading as humanitarian relief, originated in Turkey with a political cargo of 700 pro-Hamas activists – spoiling for confrontation. The agitators got the fight they were looking for, and predictably, Israel is now vilified for defending its borders against hard core Islamist Turks and a small mixed bag of “progressive” nitwits.

Lest there be any doubt about Turkey/Hamas nexus in this contrived confrontation at sea, it should be noted that the unrealized port of debarkation in Gaza was festooned with Turkish flags and a gargantuan portrait of Recep Tuyyip Erdogan, Turkish Prime Minister. The Turkish sponsor of the Gaza flotilla is the IHH (Isani Yardim Vakfi), a radical Islamist organization registered In Istanbul with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood (al Ikhwan) and the Union of Good (Itilaf al-kahayr), a collective of Islamist funds which supports Hamas.

We might also note that Hamas itself is a militant step-child of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, a network now operating in over 40 countries. The Brotherhood is illegal in Egypt where it has been responsible for countless assassination attempts and gratuitous acts of terror for nearly a century. Nonetheless, Hamas is held up as the people’s representative in Gaza. Never mind that the Hamas insurgency split the Palestinians into two irreconcilable factions. Yet, somehow Israel is supposed negotiate a two state solution with two groups of Arab fanatics, who can’t share the same tent, no less a country.

Caroline Glick’s 15 Oct piece in the Jerusalem Post ”How Turkey was Lost”, sounded an early alarm about the Turkish malignancy, a cautionary tale about confusing elections with democracy. She described Ankara’s back sliding since the election of Erdogan, head of the formerly outlawed Islamist AKP. Since Erdogan came to power in 2002, Turkey has given Hamas a reception usually reserved for heads of state, eliminated the visa requirements for Syrian travelers to Turkey, and now cancelled air exercises with Israel and begun joint military maneuvers with Syria. Glick seems to believe that the Turks have cast their lot with the Shiite Crescent. If what she suggests is true; we now have an Islamist fox in the NATO henhouse – and Turkey’s campaign for membership in the European Union has hit the hard rocks of reality.

The irony of elections in a country with a Muslim majority is that it often represents the camel’s nose under the tent; opening the door for religious opportunists to hold the one election that could be the last. On this score, Algeria evokes hot flashes of déjà vu. Islamists might be fanatics, but they’re not morons; they will use Western institutions to undo apostates and infidels. Such are the vicissitudes of democracy. And such is the dilemma also in Afghanistan; where the choice is between the corruptible Karzai and the incorruptible Taliban, Mullah Omar. Not too many good options in this neighborhood. If Omar ever ran in a UN supervised election; he might win in a landslide.

The big problem with Afghanistan, like Iraq before, is its potential for distraction. The only accomplishment of elections in Iraq was to reverse the sectarian poles – and assist Iraq in becoming the second Shiite nation in the Crescent, another potential ally for theocratic Tehran. Over time, American good intentions have managed to do to Iraq what the ayatollahs could not.

Land-locked Afghanistan is not an immediate, or should we say proximate, threat to America or Israel. Afghanistan has six neighbors; five of which are Muslim states, all with a vested interest in neutering the Taliban and al Qaeda.  As Bernard Lewis has reminded us so many times; Islamic fundamentalism is more of a threat to dar al Islam (the Muslim world) than it is to the West.

Elections in Turkey, Iraq, and Afghanistan could be meaningless. And another UN supervised circus proves nothing. Nation building might better be done by the natives. If we can’t influence electoral probity in Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, or the Emirates; why do we think we can do it in Kabul?   With Turkey now backsliding, the European Union pandering, and the White House apologizing; someone might ask why another American kid should die in any Muslim backwater to underwrite another election.  Indeed, the larger question should be: why does the West need to save Islam from itself?

The difference between the Bush and Obama brands of Islamic illusions are negligible. The Turkish slide to the theocratic side drops one of the last veils covering the “moderation” myth. Turkey, on a larger scale, is similar to Algeria; Islamists will use elections to come to power, but their objective is not pluralism, moderation, or any notion of democracy as we know it.

The exposure of Islamic irredentism in Turkey may be a blessing. Turkey was long thought to be a progressive influence in the Muslim world, a bulwark against the worst instincts of Islam. Indeed, Turkey was thought also to be a friend and ally of Israel. The Turkish attempt to break the Gaza blockade is a signal event; non-state Sunni actors in the terror campaign against Israel are giving way to Turk and Persian state sponsors. Ankara and Tehran may now take the lead in the jihad against Israel and the West.

Indeed, the Turkish flotilla fiasco opens a fourth front against Israel. Shiite and Sunni terror groups torment Israel from three directions on land; and now an unapologetic Muslim state sponsor agitates on the high seas. Arabs and Persians make common cause when it comes to Israel and now the Turks have joined the anti-Semitic axis on a sea-going front. These “freedom” flotillas have a lot more to do with intimidating Israel than they have to do with assisting Gaza.

The seismic signals from Turkey may provide some incentive for America and its allies to reexamine alliance membership and strategy – in the war “we are not having with Islam.” Ankara’s NATO participation was long thought to be a reward for modern democratic institutions. Now, other questions need to be answered; did we let a Muslim democracy into NATO or has the Western alliance been suborned by a theocratic 5th column? More importantly, if and when the Israeli navy meets another “freedom” flotilla off Gaza, this time with a Turkish naval escort; what’s the NATO battle plan?