April 12, 2016
Pope Francis—Overturning the Concept of “Just War”
Pope Francis is on a roll. He has already roiled the waters of western thinking on economics and society by touching on the dangers of western capitalism drifting into socially destructive greed. He has now turned his focus to an even grander theme— the place of warfare in human life and the hallowed concept of a “just war.”
The conclave that the Pope is hosting in Rome this week is of exceptional importance to the international order. He is in the process of revising long-standing Catholic doctrine on war, and in particular, on the Christian concept of “just war.” The Vatican now suggests that “just war” has become an obsolete concept; that the massive predominance of civilian casualties in modern warfare undercuts the moral ground for conceiving of almost any war as just. He also perceives the need to eliminate the underlying causes of violence and war and to reintroduce the power of nonviolent action to the world—values that emerge out of the human community itself rather than from the preferences of ruling elites.
Now, nobody expects that war as human phenomenon is going to come to end any time soon. Sadly, war may reside in the deeper recesses of the human condition; in many ways we humans glory in war. But the fact that Pope Francis speaks of the obsolescence of the idea of “just war” suggests that times are shifting at the elite level. When a major bulwark of moral philosophy like the Catholic Church begins to shift, the signal cannot be ignored.
The Pope is hardly the first to raise the issue of war and peace in human life. Philosophers, ethicists and theologians have long wrestled with the problem. “Just war theory” was essentially an attempt to set certain moral limits or restraints on the scope of war— a human evil that could not be entirely eliminated. So, along with the “glory,” there has also been a human repugnance for war.
Tellingly, the US, like some other democracies, has sought to shield its population from knowledge of the ugly face of its own distant wars; censorship (and self-censorship) has made it easier to maintain public acquiescence to the virtually non-stop American wars since the fall of the Soviet Union. One exceptionally qualified commentator, former US Army colonel and West Point professor Andrew Bacevich, has written extensively on how US society itself has grown more militarized over past several decades, particularly with the emergence of a new professional military class, manned by a volunteer force who now lead almost cordoned-off social lives. The US military is increasingly glorified in public spectacles such as the Super Bowl and block-buster Hollywood films, especially as the US public itself is now safe from being drafted into war-fighting.
As US public media shields the US public from graphic battlefield images of the victims and devastation wrought by American military assaults (“shock and awe”), war at home takes on the quality of a vast new on-line combat game, quite devoid of reality. Democracies also require total demonization of the enemy to successfully market the launch of wars.
Historically, “just war” theory particularly stipulated measured and proportional response to aggression. But today massive (and disproportionate) response —or the launching of a new war—has now almost entered the realm of doctrine —the shock and awe at work in our preemptive wars of choice.
But Pope Francis is carrying the argument of moral conduct even further in proposing to develop a clearer understanding of all the teachings of the New Testament, but under contemporary realities. In colloquial language it means, “What would Jesus do?” This phrase is not as superficial as it seems. It poses a serious challenge to Christians (and not just Christians) to consider how the moral teachings of Jesus might be made relevant to today’s world. Not as airy-fairy sentimental idealism, but as practical and meaningful muscular morality.
And of course such an issue is today particularly relevant to Muslims as well who are struggling to translate the moral precepts of the Quran into meaningful moral action today— on the personal level, but also the social, political and economic level. “What would Muhammad do,” might be a quite relevant question—requiring just as searching an answer as “what would Jesus do.” Does the so-called “Islamic State” really represent the moral precepts of Islam? Any more than the Crusaders represent Christianity? If not, how might Islam be best interpreted in a contemporary new ethical context? Indeed, what is the contemporary relevance of religious doctrine in all religions? Because, like it or not, religions will continue to have major impact on the ethical thinking of global citizenry. And religious understanding invariably evolves over time.
Of course, thinking about the morality of war need not derive solely from religious tradition. But when the powerful religious institution of global Catholicism speaks out in radical new ways, it can and will exert influence on non-religious thinking. We might remember the words of President Abraham Lincoln in his second inaugural address on the aspirations of both sides in the American Civll War:
Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other…The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully.
How can we not welcome the rise of any new thinking that complicates reversion to war as a solution to global problems? This is especially meaningful in the US where military solutions have tended to become now almost the primary response to international crisis, rather than diplomacy—perceived by some as “wimpish.” And the European Union too has already proclaimed—after centuries of hideous European wars sometimes exported beyond Europe—that for EU member states war is now “unthinkable.” That principle has so far held among the founding EU member states—a significant accomplishment. Here too we have the foundations of a new moral posture towards the use of war, at least within Europe.
The world desperately needs to distance itself from any further invocation of the power of religion as a justification in favor of war—in any religion. The world will indeed watch to see what the longer-range impact of this massive change in Catholic doctrine might bring—not just to Catholicism, but to all religions. The Pope has launched an important moral shift out of the camp of war and into the camp of peace— or at least, in contemporary terms, into “conflict management.” May he continue the pace.
Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is “Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan.” (Amazon, Kindle) grahamefuller.com
March 16, 2016
“The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention” by Rajan Menon
Graham E. Fuller (grahamefuller.com)
15 March 2016
Rajan Menon’s new book, “The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention,” (Oxford) launches a timely argument against a dominant argument lying behind so much of modern American foreign policy—“humanitarian intervention” or “liberal interventionism.” We are, of course, well familiar with Republican and neocon readiness to go to war, but the reality is that many Democrat Party leaders have been no less seduced into a series of optional foreign military interventions, with increasingly disastrous consequences. Hillary Clinton is today one of the leading exponents of the idea, but so are many of the advisors around President Obama.
Menon offers powerful argumentation skewering the concept of “humanitarian intervention,” demonstrating how it operates often as little more than a subtler form of an imperial agenda. Naked imperial ambitions tend to be recognizable for what they are. But when those global ambitions are cloaked in the liberal language of our “right to protect” oppressed peoples, prevent humanitarian outrages, stop genocide, and to topple noxious dictators, then the true motives behind such operations become harder to recognize. What humanitarian could object to such lofty goals? Yet the seductive character of these “liberal interventionist” policies end up serving—indeed camouflaging—a broad range of military objectives that rarely help and often harm the ostensible objects of our intervention.
Professor Rajan Menon brings a considerable variety of skills to bear in this brief and lucid book. Despite his first class academic credentials in the field, he also writes in clear and persuasive language for the concerned general reader. Second, Menon is no theoretician: he has worked closely with policy circles for many years and understands the players and operations as well as anyone outside government.
In rejecting the premise of “liberal interventionism” Menon is not exercising some hard-minded, bloodless vision of policy—quite the opposite. He is deeply concerned for the wellbeing of peoples and societies abroad—who are often among the primary victims of such liberal interventionism. He argues not as an isolationist but rather as an observer who has watched so many seemingly well-minded interventions turn into horror stories for the citizens involved. From a humanitarian point of view, can the deaths of half a million Iraqis and the dislocation of a million or so more be considered to have contributed to the wellbeing of “liberated Iraq?” As former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once said, she regretted the death of 500,000 Iraqi children who, in Saddam’s Iraq, had been deprived of medicines under a long US embargo, but, she concluded, “it was worth it.” One wonders to whom it was worth it? Where is the humanitarian vision behind such a comment? Libya too has been transformed from an unpleasant but quiescent dictatorship under Qadhafi into a nightmare of raging militias, civil war, anarchy and a breeding ground of ISIS and al-Qa’ida. Afghanistan is still mired in conflict. So Menon is arguing not for a hardening of hearts, but for questioning the real-world outcomes of such seemingly “well-intentioned” wars.
Ultimately the case for “humanitarian intervention” is justified by the quest for international justice, protection of civilians, and the broadening of democratization and human rights. The US has regularly invoked these principles in justifying its ongoing— indeed nonstop— wars over the past several decades. Yet the sad reality is that the selective nature of US interventions raises serious questions about the true motivation behind invoking such “universal” values. US calls for “democratization” more often operate as punishment to its enemies (“regime change”) but rarely as a gift to be bestowed upon friends (“friendly dictators.”)
Menon argues, buttressing his case with striking examples from around the world, that such selective implementation of “universal values” by a global (imperial) power ends up tarnishing and diminishing the very values they are meant to promote; as a result they create broad cynicism around the world among those who perceive them as mere instruments of aggressive US global power projection. Yet when many genuine humanitarian crises do burst forth, as in Rwanda or in the ongoing agonies of the Congo (five million dead and counting) Washington has opted not to intervene because it did not perceive its immediate national interests to be threatened.
In short, the selective and opportunistic character of liberal interventionism ends up giving a bad name to liberalism. And it cruelly deceives many in the West who seek a more “liberal” foreign policy and yet who find that, in the end, they have only supported the projection of greater American geopolitical power—and usually at considerable human cost to the Iraqs, Afghanistans, Somalias, Libyas, and Columbias of the world.
Any reader of the book is eventually forced to confront a deeper question: when is war in fact “worth it”? Few would respond “never,” but many might respond “rarely.” Yet Menon is not arguing against war as such, so much as forcing us to acknowledge the faulty “liberal” foundation of our relentless quest for enemies to destroy—in the name of making the world a better place.
The title of the book, “The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention,” suggests that at the very least such policies are self-deceiving, in other cases perhaps deliberately meant to obfuscate. Menon here poses the question whether, for whatever motivation, great powers can ever sufficiently master the complexity of foreign societies to truly engineer a better life in the countries we target for remodeling. And whether we can afford an enterprise that might take decades at the least.
In the end we become aware of the unhealthy nature of combining broad ideals married to global power. In the case of the British Empire, and now the American, this combination readily leads to the manipulation and then corruption of those ideals—discrediting US prestige and credibility and damaging the lives of those living in troubled areas.
None of this is to say that there is never room for international intervention in arenas of horrific depredations against civilian populations. But it is only when such intervention is truly international (essentially UN-sanctioned and not a mere maneuver to insert NATO into another global hotspot) that it can it take on a measure of credibility and international respect. Otherwise it ends up perceived as a US proxy move against Russia, China, Iran, or some other adversary.
Menon’s book constitutes essential reading for anyone troubled by the ugly character of so much of the international scene these days, and yet dismayed by its exploitation by policy-makers who cloak invasion, power projections and military operations in the garb of humanitarian effort. Here is a cogent critique of the recent decades of US foreign policy misadventures in which our military has become the primary instrument of US policy—and justified in the name of humanitarian goals. We rarely get to hear these arguments so clearly presented.
Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World. His latest book is “Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan.” (Amazon, Kindle) grahamefuller.com
March 5, 2016
Let’s Move Security into the Home!
Graham E. Fuller (grahamefuller.com)
5 March 2016
The FBI and Apple are wrestling over the rights of police access to private phones. Well and good. But there is a much more urgent issue: why are our intelligence and security organizations being hindered from taking national security to a higher and more effective level—into the home?
Given the vulnerability of today’s hi-tech world and the ability of only a handful of individuals to wreak havoc, disrupt society, sow crime—even to kill, the home is a vital untapped source of security intelligence. It represents the last serious gap in our security dike that urgently requires plugging.
Let’s not mince words: It is high time to initiate a broad national program that would install video cameras and microphones inside all private homes throughout the country.
Coverage of all homes is imperative, first because no house can remain above suspicion. Second, such all-inclusive coverage deflects the potential accusation that particular ethnic, political, religious or gender groups are being profiled.
Why private homes? Because they represent the last major redoubt of unsecured space, a venue in which violence (including domestic), and criminal and terrorist acts can be planned, quite out of reach of present communications monitoring. As such, homes represent a key source of national vulnerability. What good is mere cell phone monitoring when direct face-to-face meetings for illicit purposes within the home remain off limits to security and intelligence services?
The reality is that such security monitoring in the end requires camera and microphone coverage of all rooms in the home. While such comprehensive monitoring might initially seem excessively intrusive, on reflection its logic is irrefutable. First, the vast majority of citizens who are not engaged in planning crimes, terrorist acts, or propagating disloyal ideas have nothing to fear. The content of these monitoring devices would be safely stored in remote locations; it would never be accessed by security officials in the absence of any information that casts doubt upon the innocence or loyalty of a residence or person in question.
Second, the mere existence of such monitoring devices in the home would have a deterrent effect on potential perpetrators who would then be deprived of these safe havens that they once exploited. Women in particular should welcome the fact that such surveillance would likely delimit domestic violence with electronic evidence permanently available to back up potential plaintiffs’ charges.
The vast majority of American citizens who have nothing to hide could go about their daily lives confident that such monitoring was irrelevant to their own activities; indeed, they would probably be comforted in the knowledge that any neighbor engaged in nefarious activity would certainly be on camera.
Some otherwise loyal citizens might be concerned about certain privacy issues when it comes to things like cameras in the bedroom. But let’s be honest here: in our present age, whatever unfolds in most bedrooms falls far short of the explicit and prurient images now available to us all on porn websites. There is little than any of us have not already seen in brazen close-up detail on-line that should cause us concern about coverage of our modest, non-color, non-professional activities in our bedroom. Security officials would thus have little incentive to illegally view them either. From a realistic security perspective most citizens will quickly recognize that ruling out bedroom coverage would simply provide an impermissable “safe room” to exist within the house to be exploited by those of ill intent. (Indeed, there might be some who find the presence of a permanent camera in their bedroom titillating and would pose no objection.)
Indeed, standards and expectations of modesty, privacy, and security over time change for all of us. Our grandparents would have found the snap-shot, nude selfies and sexting technology of today horrifying to their closeted mode of life.
This raises an affiliated issue, that of camera coverage in the bathroom. Again, there is little need for false modesty once monitored bedrooms become the norm. Some might argue that for reasons of decorum at least microphones in the toilet area should be disabled. But the bathroom area, regrettably, can be a scene of both domestic violence and, commonly, a venue for illegal drug usage; it simply makes no security sense to exclude it.
Intelligence and security organizations have undoubtedly long sought the benefits of adding this critically valuable tool to their tool-box of investigative devices. Indeed, the domestic political environment has never been so propitious as now for public acceptance of this new frontier in public security. Terrorism, crime, domestic violence—even unhealthy thinking about our government and its leaders—are surely concerns shared by most citizens who seek greater reassurance and security in their public and private lives.
For those concerned about “civil liberties,” it’s important to remember that all such archived data would never be accessed unless an individual or home should fall under suspicion; in that case such data derived from home surveillance coverage becomes a powerful tool, a gold mine for the prosecution of anti-social actors.
Finally, to look at the lighter side of it all, with some thought, procedures could be arranged with the administrators of these repositories to make available to private individuals certain “golden age playbacks.” Once individuals applied for and passed certain clearance procedures, selected digital data could be made available at a modest price to each homeowner. This helps cover the cost of this major national domestic surveillance project. More than that, this data would represent a treasure-trove of family events and memories to be savored for many years— moments preserved forever on camera, especially when members had not thought in advance to record these spontaneous happenings.
In sum, It is no longer reasonable to expose our vulnerable hi-tech societies today to the acts of small groups of criminals, radicals, and terrorists operating from the safe haven of the home. Let’s give our security services a break. We can all pitch in at almost no cost to our own freedoms to make sure that our society is kept safe for posterity.
And, who knows, the behavior of all of us at home might just be a tad better if we recall that our actions too are being preserved on camera!
Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is “Breaking Faith: a novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan.” (Amazon, Kindle) grahamefuller.com
February 29, 2016
The North Goes South Or The South Comes North
Graham E. Fuller (grahamefuller.com)
29 February 2016
It does not take much imagination to see where refugees are taking the world over the longer run.
This issue currently lies at the heart of some very ugly American politics. It is also tearing apart one of the noblest political experiments in human history, the EU. It is radicalizing broad regions of the world and fueling global violence, from Myanmar to Tunisia and South Africa.
The basic conclusion is simple: either the North goes to the South, or the South comes to the North.
The meaning of South coming North is already clear: conditions in the South are driving refugees to flee to the North. Most refugees bring along serious political, social, economic and cultural problems of their homelands which complicate their ready integration into the North. This is especially true in smaller, and hence more culturally fragile countries in Europe—“nation-states” that possess unique cultural and social balance that any major influx of foreigners will disrupt. There is only one unique Netherlands or Denmark, or Estonia, or Norway. They are not classical “immigrant nations” as are the vast spaces of the US, Canada, Australia, even Russia and Latin America.
This larger long-term movement of populations is certain. Existing conditions in large numbers of countries in the “South” are becoming untenable—poverty, disease, misgovernance, conflict, environmental degradation, unemployment. Many of these blights are locally generated. But the West cannot deny its role in this as well. Western imperialism, remember, took over most of the known world for a good century or more; its sole purpose was to benefit the imperial metropole through resource extraction; the world order was designed to facilitate those gains. Its blessings to the colonized were mixed, to say the least.
But the blame game is not important here—the current reality is that we face a global problem of massive proportions however we ascribe the causes. And affixing blame does not solve the problem either. What is certain is that the problem today has now arrived on the doorstep of the affluent North.
The problem of migration of a billion people or so in decades ahead is daunting. It represents the paramount security problem for Western states. We are speaking of economic and social dislocations, a rise in unemployment and crime, the rise of nativist neo-fascism, greater Western involvement in the geopolitical crises and conflicts of the rest of the world. All this threatens the fracturing of the painfully constructed modern European order.
When we speak of malnourishment of hundreds of millions, loss of habitat under global climate change, greenhouse gasses emerging out of the ravished Amazon rain forest, social desperation, pandemics, violent competition for scarce resources—these are surely more urgent security issues for the West than ownership rights over rocks and atolls in the South China sea. Or the balance of military power in the Black Sea Basin. Or the degree of security and insulation that Latvians can be promised from the proximity of a powerful Russian state.
Meanwhile military budgets continue to rise in the US to fight wars that do not reflect meaningful global reality of the modern interconnected age. Over the last decades the US and Europe have been fundamentally defeated in most Third World conflicts at high cost in blood and treasure, often leaving the situation worse than it was.
More to the point what good has come out these optional US wars of choice, either for the US or for the tortured terrains in which they were devastatingly fought?
There is little to be gained in fine debates over whether the US, or NATO, or Russia, or China bear greater blame for global competition. The true geopolitical stakes may be lower today than in anytime in the past. The real issue is whether continued massive funding for such traditional armchair balance-of-power strategies is productively spent and is addressed to the true crisis of the future: gross global inequality of life.
In the US we have (partially) come to understand that the wellbeing of the poor is not just a local problem but a national one. National dimensions require national solutions for the greater wellbeing of all society. In the end there is no security behind gated communities. Islands of wellbeing in the middle of neglect and hardship are unsustainable— and unethical. Nor can Western welfare islands long exist globally, insulated from a world of gross inequities.
They are poor and lazy one might say. But they struggle harder to live each day than the average western suburbanite. And most people in the world in any case do not really want to leave their homes for some foreign country where they don’t know the language or customs. But if things get bad enough, they will come, even at high personal risk as we witness today.
Fences, patrol boats, walls, checkpoints, buying off countries to serve as refugee half-way houses, more draconian immigration laws, feel-good invective against the immigrants lurking just outside our gates—all this is fantasy, just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
If we don’t want the South coming North, then the only other option is for the North to go South. No, not in the old punitive way. In many respects the North has already “been South” in past centuries, and it hasn’t always been a pretty sight. This is not to dismiss some fine western-sponsored technological projects and NGOs like Doctors Without Frontiers. But sadly these contributions are only a drop in the bucket. Vastly more is called for. Remember the hugely generous American Marshall Plan at the end of World War II aimed at rebuilding a devastated Europe, including Germany? It was not conceived as philanthropy but as an integral part of American security policy.
How to improve conditions across the developing world? US foreign aid in this capacity has been miniscule— less than 1% of the annual US budget. Yet wasteful and unproductive Pentagon budgets run to some 54% of US annual discretionary spending. (More if we consider bloated security and intelligence institutions.) Are we more secure today? From ISIS? From refugees? From terrorism? From Russia and Chinese border politics on their peripheries? Where are our security priorities?
A Marshall Plan for the South—wouldn’t it be a gross waste, money down foreign ratholes, propping up corrupt elites siphoning off the monies? Partially true, but might not all these terms similarly apply to many US defence expenditures and the vast hangers-on of the military industrial complex with its corruptions, overruns and pork barrel? So to divert some 50% (for starters) of this security budget to Investment in a more stable South might be money well spent. And who loses from a redirection of security spending—other than the huge arms industry, and the think tank acolytes and consultants that feed off them?
There is no easy blueprint on how to render the South more liveable so that larger percentages of its populations will not feel compelled to flee to our shores. From Mexico and Central America, from the Middle East and Africa.
The problem is self-evident and multi-faceted, and no, money won’t do it all. But a couple of hundred billion “wasted” in Africa and Latin America on infrastructure projects, schools, clinics, roads might actually improve things a lot more than our non-stop wars. How have the trillions we have wasted in worsening lives in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, served our security needs? Or stopped the refugee flow North? Washington security experts need to develop some real world thinking about the implications of how peoples’ lives around the world will impact the rest of us.
Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is “Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan.” (Amazon, Kindle) grahamefuller.com
February 19, 2016
How Can Turkey Overcome its Foreign policy Mess?
Graham E. Fuller (grahamefuller.com)
18 February 2016
What does Turkey need to do to overcome its present foreign policy fiasco, one of the worst in modern Turkish history?
The irony of all this is that those directly responsible for this mess—the team of Recep Tayip Erdogan (now president) and Ahmet Davutoglu, (former foreign minister and now prime minister)—is exactly the team that one decade had made extraordinary steps in creating a new, creative and successful foreign policy. What went wrong? And how can Ankara now climb back out of the deep hole that it has dug for itself?
The answer is simple: Erdogan and Davutoglu should return to their original successful principles of a decade ago, now recklessly abandoned.
The overwhelmingly most urgent task is for Ankara to get out of Syria.
Turkey’s Syrian policy has done more to destroy Turkey’s international position than any other single factor. But let’s be clear: Ankara is not primarily responsible for the present disaster in Syria. Syrian president Bashar al-Asad is. But Erdogan has hugely exacerbated the problem, encouraged radical jihadist elements fighting in Syria, helped stir up sectarian passions, and mishandled the Syrian Kurds. All these policies have damaged relations with countries that really matter for Turkey: Iran, Iraq, Russia, China, the US, the EU, Kurdish communities, and of course relations with Syria itself.
Instead Ankara has opened a dubious, dangerous, and futureless coalition with Saudi Arabia. And it has created a damaging confrontation with Russia in which Turkey is already the loser.
What should Ankara now do?
1. Acknowledge the reality that Asad is not going to fall anytime soon—even though that was a reasonable assumption after the outbreak of an uprising against him in 2011. It must abandon the obsessive effort to overthrow him. Russia, the US, the EU, China, Egypt and even large numbers of Syrians now correctly believe that what might come after Asad is likely to be far worse than Asad. Turkey has little to gain and much to lose in continuing this fruitless struggle.
2. Work with the major powers to bring about a peaceful solution in Syria: working with the US, Russia and the EU, and rejecting Saudi Arabia’s absurd vision of a massive international Sunni army seizing control of Damascus.
3. Return to Ankara’s earlier policy of standing above sectarian struggle in the region. Turkey is predominantly Sunni, but it has large Shi’ite and Alevi (quasi-Shi’ite) populations. Turkey has not really sought to be the champion of Sunni Islam for several hundred years. Indeed, Turkey gained respect and clout when it sought to act impartially between Sunni and Shi’a groups a decade ago. It should play no favorites in that capacity now.
4. Work to improve its relations with Iran. Iran’s role in the region is growing steadily. It is vital to Turkey strategically and economically. It is a democracy in the making. Relations were seriously damaged when Turkey went all out to overthrow Asad, an ally of Tehran.
5. Work closely with Iraq to help overcome sectarian problems—not simply as a supporter of Sunnis in Iraq. Turkey does not benefit from a divided Iraq. Nor does Iran, which would prefer to exert its influence in a united and stable Iraq. Turkey is well equipped to help bring sectarian reconciliation about in Iraq, with its excellent economic relations with Baghdad and shared interests in the wellbeing of Iraqi Kurdistan.
6. Back away from strategic ties with Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia rejects everything that Turkey claims to value: moderate Islam, religious and ethnic tolerance, non-sectarianism, non-intervention, democracy, globalizing markets, cultural attractiveness and soft power. Saudi Arabia, however, seeks only to draw Ankara in to be a Sunni champion and ally against Asad, against Iran, against the Iraqi Shi’ites and the Zaydi Shi’ites in Yemen.
7. Cooperate with the other Gulf States—as long as it is on a non-sectarian basis. Ties with Qatar in particular could be productive.
8. Place priority on restoring Turkish relations with Russia. Stop trying to drag NATO into unwise confrontations with Russia. The reality is that Moscow’s entry into the Syrian equation has all but eliminated Ankara’s options and freedom of action there. And Ankara cannot defeat Russia diplomatically. Furthermore, like it or not Moscow is in fact well-positioned to forge a political settlement in Syria.
If Turkey undertakes the six policy shifts outlined above, its relations with Moscow will automatically improve.
9. Devote priority to close relations with all Kurdish elements in the region. Turkey, through the wisdom of its earlier policies, had won over the Iraqi Kurds as a close ally. But Erdogan has allowed his earlier path-breaking rapprochement with the Kurdish nationalist movement in Turkey, the PKK, to collapse. Ankara has refused to deal with the Syrian Kurdish movement, one of the few effective fighting groups against ISIS in Syria. It may be sliding into a general war against the Kurds which it might be able win on the battlefield but will assuredly lose politically.
Growing Kurdish power in the entire region is a reality—it has been on an upward curve for the last 25 years, invariably benefitting from each regional conflict to achieve greater de facto autonomy and world awareness. If Ankara is determined to stop Kurdish progress towards greater autonomy—anywhere in the region—it will only alienate the Kurds; above all such a posture will only hasten the emergence of greater Kurdish political, economic and cultural demands. Efforts to block this process of Kurdish emergence will not only fail, but will guarantee an uglier and more dangerous relationship for Turkey and the entire regional Kurdish reality long into the future.
Ironically, handled right and granted broader autonomy, most Kurds will inevitably look to Turkey as a regional protector, economic entrepôt and cultural magnet—as long as Ankara does not alienate them. Where else could the Kurds look for valuable geopolitical ties in the region?
Ankara deserves great credit for having moved generously and humanely to accommodate more than two and a half million Syrian refugees inside Turkey. When Syrian domestic violence finally begins to end, many Syrians will go back home, but not all. This could be a problem for Turkey, but also a benefit. The Ottoman tradition included an important role for Arabs within imperial rule. Today Turkey can only be enriched and strengthened through the acquisition of new Turkish Syrian citizens who can facilitate Turkish entree into the Arab world. Turkey is, after all, multinational already, with huge numbers of other ethnic groups, from the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Balkans. A stronger Arab voice and expertise will only add to Turkey’s regional clout, economic access, and skills.
Finally Turkey should cooperate with Washington where it can, but only to the extent that Washington’s own policies in the region are wise and productive. Since 9/11 (and arguably even much before) US policies in the Middle East have been disastrously bad, failing and destructive. Ankara would not cooperate. President Obama in recent times, however, has dialled back the level of US intervention and aggressiveness, especially now in Syria. If Ankara can undertake all these policy shifts its relations with Washington will much improve. That is assuming the next American president approaches the Middle East with wisdom — for which there is little guarantee.
All this also assumes that Erdogan will act wisely and not sacrifice Turkey’s foreign policy interests to his own reckless and divisive drive for greater personal power. Erdogan’s personal interests are not synonymous with the Turkish national interest.
Erdogan had once embraced and implemented Ataturk’s wise adage: Peace at home and peace abroad. Now he has abandoned those principles and is left with neither.
Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is “Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan.” (Amazon, Kindle) grahamefuller.com
February 13, 2016
NATO—America’s Misguided Instrument of Leadership
Graham E. Fuller (grahamefuller.com)
13 February 2016
On the world scene, America is a declining power. This decline is in part domestic and self-inflicted, reflecting a certain weariness and neglect of our social order. No amount of huffing and puffing from politicians will significantly change this decline.
But the decline is also relative, relative to the rise of new world powers. China, India, Brazil, even the return of a more active Russia; all now severely affect America’s former ability to dominate the global scene.
Numerous historical examples abound of imperial exhaustion, loss of spirit and decline. Yet, with our ambitions more modestly set, there is no reason why America cannot comfortably live within the framework of the newly emerging world order. Indeed President Obama, to his credit, (partially) does grasp the already serious costs of imperial overreach—even if his key strategists do not.
American strategy seems fundamentally stuck in defensive mode against rising powers. Such powers indeed do challenge American aspirations for continued hegemony. But a defensive posture robs us of our vision and spirit; it represents a basically negative orientation, like King Canute on the beach trying to stop the encroaching tide. Worse, American military power—and the budget keeps rising—seems to have become the default US response to most foreign challenges. The Pentagon has put the State Department out of business.
NATO today particularly symbolizes that myopic and defensive orientation.
So while Washington focuses on building defensive military structures, bases and arrangements overseas against Russia and China, we are being rapidly outflanked by a whole array of new economic plans, visions, projects for a new continental infrastructure and institutional developments that span Eurasia. These developments are indeed spearheaded by China and Russia. But they are not fundamentally defensive or military in nature, but rather represent the creation of a new international order from which we have either opted out, or even oppose. Meanwhile obsession with NATO and military alliances as the major vehicle of US military policy after the Cold War is a chief reason we are losing out in that new order.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union back in 1991, a top Soviet ideologist told a senior US official “We’re going to do a terrible thing to you; we’re going to deprive you of your enemy.” Indeed, the focal point of US leadership for nearly half a century after World War II was to keep communism and the Soviet bear at bay—primarily through overwhelming military supremacy, bolstered by a thriving economy. NATO was the chief vehicle of that policy.
Our mental legacy from that era lingers on. Back in the day Washington’s analytic touchstone for nearly all regional crises was “What are the Soviets doing?” That question usually topped my mission directives as a CIA officer overseas during the Cold War.
As a result, Washington viewed most complex conflicts unfolding in the developing world primarily through the Soviet geopolitical optic. Major regional issues were not appraised for their intrinsic nature, but rather as part of a US-Soviet global chessboard. Hence the Vietnam war was all about Russia or China; ditto for Salvador, Guatemala, Chile, Iran, Indonesia and countless other countries in crisis. We never saw the trees for the forest.
But after 1991 there was no USSR any more; it had imploded, stunningly, with hardly a shot fired—surely a first in the annals of collapse of empire. And NATO suddenly seemed to be without a mission.
What to do? Washington and hawkish elements among European politicians sought a new mission for NATO, lest it fall into irrelevancy. NATO was, after all, the key instrument of American influence in Europe.
So the roots of a New Cold War were planted. The US moved swiftly to scarf up into NATO most elements of the former East European Soviet empire including a newly united Germany despite early American promises to Russia that NATO would not expand into the borderlands of the former USSR.
And now we see Russian reactions in the face of this western strategic expansion at Russian cost. The reabsorption of Crimea into Russia sprang most directly from US demonstrated ability to sail warships into the Black Sea to threaten the exposed Russian underbelly there. This was followed by an ugly tug of war between the US and Russia over the geopolitical soul of Ukraine—at one time the cultural cradle of the first Russian state. And Russia took steps to prevent another US folly— efforts to bring Georgia, on Russia’s southern doorstep, into NATO.
Do these Russian actions herald a new era of Russian aggression? First let’s think about the process of dismantling old empires—such as the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires after World War I. That that process has still not fully stabilized after 100 years; witness Kosovo and Syria. In that same vein, let’s remember that the internal borders within the former Soviet empire were hugely arbitrary, even irrelevant—all these regions were, after all, part of a single country—the USSR. Many “republics” had been bizarrely drawn while others were nominal fictions or even newly contrived. It is hardly surprising that there is some post-Soviet shakedown within these old internal borders delineating the new Russia from the old empire. Whatever they are, they are not the foundations of World War III.
Now, I do not make light of the plight of small countries living on the periphery of Russia—like Ukraine, Byelorus, the Baltic, Caucasus, and Central Asian states. Living next to an imperial power after all is never comfortable. Same goes for those who live next to China, or India. And Mexico, Central and Latin American states have always cringed at a history of constant US intervention, overthrow of regimes and of course earlier, US annexation of Mexican lands. There were even attempts to rip off portions of Canada. “Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States,” as former Mexican president Porfirio Díaz once quipped.
Of course we cannot completely ignore border power plays undertaken by Russia, China, or other great powers. But these great powers will always have great sway over their weak neighbors. And each case cannot be taken as a testing point of US resolve in a zero sum game. And weak neighbors will always seek distant powers like the US to guarantee their sovereignty. (Would not Latin American states, especially in the past, have welcomed foreign “protection” of their sovereignty against US pressures?)
But today, although neocons in Washington will disagree, it is hard to build a credible case that Russia—under Putin or any likely leader—is gearing up to invade Eastern much less Western Europe. But yes, Russia is determined to maintain regional sway—as other great powers do in their backyards, especially when distant powers intrude. And let’s remember the actual conditions under which Soviet Russia invaded and created most of its East European empire: it came only at the end of a hot global war in which Russia was fighting together with other western states closing in against Nazi Germany in World War II. It was those unique conditions that facilitated Soviet aggrandizement, not sudden aggressive Muscovite ideological whim.
Today we need reconsider the preeminent role of NATO in US policy. Does not its continued existence after the end of the Cold War perhaps serve to generate new tensions with Russia after the Soviet military equivalent, the Warsaw Pact, ceased to exist? All European states know they are going to have to live and work with Russia next door, forever. Small countries on Russia’s border will of course eternally champion NATO; it gives them room for maneuver and they will be happy to drag Europe and the US into a war with Russia any day if need be. But that does not make it good policy for the US. Indeed, none other than Cold Warrior supremo Henry Kissinger remarked just last week at the Gorchakov Foundation in Moscow that “in the emerging multipolar order, Russia should be perceived as an essential element of any new global equilibrium, not primarily as a threat to the United States.”
In the Middle East the US moved swiftly to further justify NATO’s existence through its projection into the post-Arab Spring conflicts, in Libya and Iraq, as well as in Afghanistan (surely a stretch). Washington is now jockeying to create a NATO role in the Syrian conflict—a bad idea that politicizes yet further the tangled geopolitical nature of that tragic morass. The front against ISIS should be truly international, and not part of an anti-Russian military bloc’s agenda.
The much broader question today is not NATO’s indispensability, but rather the extent of US dependance upon military power—and by extension NATO and far-flung bases—as the major instrument to promote America’s place in the world. NATO is a military instrument. It possesses little cultural, economic, or even significant political or soft power. And lacks an enlightened global vision. It is obsolescent.
Meanwhile Eurasia proceeds to develop bold new architecture before our eyes— new roads, rail connections, maritime routes and institutional consultation—all under the roof of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. It represents a bold new geopolitical skein that is not fundamentally military in nature— although its geopolitical implications could have long run military implications, especially if Washington chooses to treat it as a hostile power bloc.
There may well be a time and place for some defense assistance to some countries (very carefully chosen and not unilaterally.) But are we not hobbling ourselves by primarily promoting defensive alliances against Russia and China while a positive new world is under construction all across Eurasia —one that even Europe is finding hard to resist?
January 26, 2016
Are Jihadis Reaching their Limits of Nihilism?
Graham E. Fuller (grahamefuller.com)
25 January 2016
It is hard to find even the smallest silver lining in the ongoing series of jihadist outrages that now proliferate with each daily news report. The immoral and cynical exploitation of religion (a constant of human history) is ultimately about power and intimidation. The phenomenon shows no signs of coming to an end and at this point in history happens to most dramatically center in the Muslim world. We now have the murder of the Istanbul tourists, and Pakistan’s two terrible recent attacks on educational institutions as merely the latest. Boko Haram in Nigeria may even lead the pack in wanton killings by zombie packs.
Political violence has always existed. But what are its “natural limits?”
We know about the negative legacies of colonialism and the impact of countless western invasions and wars and the struggle to control developing world energy resources. We know about US wars that have killed over a million Muslims over the past decade. We understand that the sources of political, economic and social desperation and rage still exist. We understand the suffering of Palestinians—over half a century now—under harsh and unyielding Israeli occupation. We understand resistance by any peoples—in any country—to foreign invasion and occupation.
But not even the most militant political vision can justify the wanton killing of civilians simply for the sake of spectacle and show of power. Most moral ideas almost anywhere, religious or non-religious, can be pushed to levels of blind fanaticism that discredit the original moral concept. Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, yes, all do it.
And take socialism—the vision of an economically just society. In the Soviet Union under Stalin and in China under Mao abstract socialist principles ended up justifying the deaths of more than forty million people, mainly in the quest for power. The realities of those withering experiences forced western socialists to acknowledge how even their own idealistic principles could be perverted into an orgy of death and brutality. In a different way the concept of sacrosanct free markets may be reaching the outer limits of economic and social tolerance in the US.
Is the tide of jihadi violence cresting in the Muslim world? Muslims themselves are of course the primary victims of these nihilistic acts today. And as the violence grows, there are lessons to be learned. Muslim declarations as well as anecdotal evidence makes it clear to that the vast majority of Muslims are horrified at what is being done in the name of their faith by these groups.
Still, in the end it will only be Muslims who are able to rein in such fanatical excesses within their own communities and mosques. They are the only ones with the moral and cultural credibility to pass judgment on the theology, ideology, and the acts of their fellows. US government or Israeli interpretations of Islam count for nothing, and are seen only as self-serving.
“Why don’t Muslims ever condemn terrorism?” That is a refrain we regularly hear in the west. Yet try googling “muslim condemnation of terrorism” and look at the near half-a-million hits that come up.
When and how will Muslims be able to seize some degree of their own destiny in these developments? In many places Muslim communities, such as in Syria, are often pawns in a greater game beset by warring militias. Ditto in Iraq. Or Yemen, or Libya.
In large parts of the Muslim world today it is dangerous for your health to speak out on issues of moral limits in implementing political Islam. As long as the Middle East is caught in domestic struggles and foreign wars, a high degree of religious, political and moral bravery is required to speak up, and risk assassination.
Muslims in the West, while safer, also pay for such jihadi-inspired terrorism: they are often held collectively responsible for any Muslim act of terror anywhere. It’s tough to be a Muslim in the West these days. We’ve all heard about FWM—Flying While Muslim—something akin to Driving While Black. Still, for these Muslims in the West the relatively safe environment imposes new intellectual and moral responsibilities upon them to openly discuss the implications of the perversions of their faith that now seem to be probing the outer limits. Only they can do it.
In fact, it is highly likely that the greatest intellectual breakthroughs in the contemporary interpretation of Islam and condemnation of its current outrages will take place specifically among Muslims in the West, not in the tortured Middle East. But even here, western Muslims can be accused by some as “failing to offer support to the Muslim cause.” (Just as many American Jews are deeply hesitant about public criticism of Israel even as they privately condemn Netanyahu’s policies.)
And let’s face it, “condemning terrorism” is not enough. Trying to define terrorism in some objective way agreeable to all has proven a near impossible task as each observer finds the political agenda of one group more “understandable” than others. Indeed, while all killing is bad, human society has long created legal hierarchies of immorality (evil) even within the spectrum of killing. The state kills its own with near impunity. Internationally, war is war and “understandable.” Murder may be murder, but even murder is still ranked by first, second and third degrees, along with various shades of manslaughter and criminal negligence—all with differing legal and social responses and penalties.
Muslims and other observers may differ on which elements of terrorism or political violence are more justifiable than others. But the wanton acts of the Boko Haram, ISIS, al-Qaeda branches, and Taliban rogue groups (among others) have to rank near the top of the list for outright moral condemnation, whatever one’s views of politics.
The first precondition in the Muslim world is to lower the heat whereby such discussions become permissible.
Sadly, we are going to witness many more horrors from these murderous jihadi groups even as these movements move towards the point of self-collapse. The clock would seem to be running out on them, their level of social acceptance exhausted; they have stretched their “principles” to the breaking point. The backlash from fellow Muslims—the only one that really counts in the long run— is underway. The West should “lead from behind” to the extent possible on rolling this stuff back.
As the Chinese say, “things that move to extremes must inevitably return to center.”
January 19, 2016
Who Wants Change Any More?
Graham E. Fuller (grahamefuller.com)
19 January 2016
A renowned Arab religious scholar in the 14th century, ibn Taymiyya, is sometimes quoted as saying, Al-zulm afdal ‘ala al-fawda— “oppression is to be favored over anarchy.” Although ibn Taiymiyya was no establishment figure in his time, this perspective was welcomed by all rulers since it provided explicit religious justification in support of arbitrary and often oppressive authority.
Maybe there’s not a lot new here: all rulers at all times and all places like to wrap themselves in the robes of religious, ethnic, or patriotic legitimacy in order to maintain power.
But there’s something else: ibn Taymiyya lived in a period when the holocaust of the Mongol invasions was sweeping across Asia and into the Middle East sowing destruction. It was a time of fear, widespread violence and war, calling for political caution. Sound familiar?
Is this thought, then, the product of a political reactionary? Or does it represent a fundamental insight into basic human psychology? Which of us, when confronted with anarchy in the streets—possibly getting murdered or kidnapped while simply going out to buy a loaf of bread—might not prefer authoritarian crackdown to unbridled chaos; where just staying alive is the best we can hope for in a precarious political and social environment? Ask Iraqis who got liberated from Saddam Hussein, or Libyans liberated from Qaddafi. Or Syrians today. Might the ugliness of the earlier dictatorships not look better—where at least if you stayed totally out of politics your lives were fairly safe and predictable? After all, when life, family, the social order and survival are at stake, our basic political values can get pretty rock-bottom conservative.
Sadly, these words from the 14th century Muslim world may be disturbingly relevant to today. It’s part of a political debate that reverberates through all of human history.
At the level of states, great powers tend to prefer order—virtually any kind of order—to chaos in the world in which they operate. That’s how dictators thrive and gain external support; even democratic states value foreign dictators who can keep the lid on. The US has rarely shrunk from supporting ugly dictators or regimes if it believed it to be “in the national interest.” (Unless that specific regime happens to be directly anti-American in which case terror, destabilization, or overthrow is welcomed.) The US is not especially worse than other major powers in this respect, but its global reach means that it engages in this particular kind of hypocrisy more widely and frequently than most other states.
But the chaos that flowed out of the US overthrow of Saddam in Iraq, Qaddafi in Libya, and efforts to overthrow Asad in Syria, has not only inflicted massive suffering on the populations of those countries, but has left Washington (and the EU) worse off than before—and spawned ISIS out of Iraqi and Syrian turmoil. President Obama wisely decided not to go that same route a fourth time in recently deciding that likely alternatives to Asad would be worse than Asad himself. (Obama’s “liberal interventionist” advisors were not happy.)
So, is oppression more tolerable than anarchy? And for whom? It seems even European and American publics—hardly experiencing anything at home that could remotely be called anarchy, are still willing now to ratchet up the level of police, military and intelligence surveillance powers to avoid even the possibility of any kind of terror incident. People will pay nearly any price if they believe it might make them safer. You don’t have to be a 14th century Muslim cleric to make that observation.
So what is the message here, then?
One message is that liberalism is a delicate flower. We are disinclined to be more generous, open, tolerant, or broad-minded when conditions are dangerous. We see this clearly in western politics today—in the US presidential debates, or in the mood of European societies in the face of refugees from the Middle East and Africa. Multi-culturalism and tolerance become unwelcome words.
It’s not just Muslims who think this way. It’s Chinese as well who have gone through political, economic and social hell for half a century of communist experimentation before emerging into the present era of relative prosperity and order under a Chinese government that runs a tight ship. Nobody wants to hear suggestions for an overthrow of the neo-communist order there. Don’t rock the boat, let’s cherish and preserve what we have painfully gained and work for political progress, if any, only through baby steps. Few will risk known stability in the hope of gaining some abstract and untested improvements.
Along similar lines, why don’t Muslims call for huge overhaul of their interpretations of Islam in contemporary Middle Eastern states? When bullets are flying, calls for social and theological change is unthinkable; it’s safer not to address such volatile issues.
These arguments about order are fundamental to the philosophic conservative vision—the true conservative vision and not the grotesque caricature of conservatism that has hijacked most of the Republican Party in the US today. In the end almost all of us embrace this conservative principle to some extent: don’t rock the boat if you have a lot to lose. What we disagree about is how to interpret “rocking the boat” or “having a lot to lose.” It’s all a matter of degree. What risks will we take, what experiments will we undertake, for what putative gain?
I write these words with some trepidation since this conservative political philosophy has been exploited and used to justify atrocious policies on the part of all kinds of dictators around the world, as well as justifying unacceptable foreign policies of the US.
Looking at the world around us today, it looks like we are entering a new conservative age globally, driven by fear of chaos and the increasing spread of violence across so much of the world.
Ibn Taymiyya would have recognized this phenomenon immediately.
January 11, 2016
Fuller’s Last Year (2015) Predictions— Part 2
Prediction on Turkey: (I was considerably off base on this one)
2015 Prediction:President Erdoğan in Turkey will find his influence beginning to crumble in 2015. After a brilliant prime-ministership for the first decade of AKP power, he has become mired in corruption charges and has lashed out in paranoid fashion against any and all who criticize or oppose his increasingly irrational, high-handed, and quixotic style of rule. He is in the process of damaging institutions and destroying his and his party’s legacy. I continue to have faith that Turkey’s broader institutions, however weakened by Erdoğan, will nonetheless suffice to keep the country on a basically democratic and non-violent track until such time as Erdoğan loses public confidence—which could be sooner rather than later.
2016 Assessment: Instead of politically declining as I believed he would, Erdoğan went on to hold on a plurality in the June 2015 elections—and, dissatisfied with that, quickly maneuvered to call for yet new elections in November in which he managed to win back enough of a majority to enable him to form a single party government. I did not anticipate. In the process Erdoğan increased intimidation of his opponents, and went on to arrest or detain large numbers of journalists, close down newspapers, and to manipulate and pressure the judiciary. He continues to act on the assumption that an electoral majority has given him carte blanche to rule arbitrarily with virtually no obligations of consultation with the rest of the political spectrum.
Most dangerously, after having done more to resolve the Kurdish situation than any other Turkish leader in the past decade, faced with an uncertain electorate this time he went on to create an atmosphere of insecurity in the country, and stepped up confrontation with the armed Kurdish movement inside Turkey (PKK); this policy of fear mongering led to an increase in terrorist acts and stirred increased domestic anxiety that strengthened his party at the November polls.
Erdoğan meanwhile still persists in following his ruinous and failing quest to overthrow the Asad government in Syria, even as both Washington and the EU are retreating from that policy, finally coming to understand that a victory by opposition jihadi forces in Syria poses greater dangers than the continued rule of Asad. In his zeal, Erdoğan had been willing to indiscriminately support (directly or indirectly) all armed opposition against Asad, including elements of al-Qaeda and ISIS.
Russia’s arrival on the Syrian scene with military power proved to be a major turning point in the Syrian civil war. Moscow has used its air power to take on all armed opposition in a campaign that has essentially rescued the Asad regime.In doing so, Putin has left Erdoğan’s strategy in tatters and dealt a major blow to Turkish influence on all fronts within Syria. In recently shooting down an errant Russian fighter aircraft on the Turkish border, Erdoğan unleashed a sharp diplomatic and economic riposte from Russia in which he will inevitably emerge the loser. Flailing around in desperation for alternative tactical measures, he has had to defer more to US concerns (for the moment), even seeks a nominal rapprochement with Israel (to please Washington), and aligned himself with Saudi Arabia’s essentially meaningless new “counter-terrorist” coalition of 34 countries. His relations with Iraq and Iran have seriously deteriorated. Thus, although Erdoğan has managed to gain domination over the policies of the Turkish state, it has been marked by poor judgment and dangerous tactics.
Mr. Erdoğan, you have reversed nearly all the successful foreign policy principles you innovated in your first ten years of office; would you go back to them please?
I’m going to go out on limb and say that Erdoğan’s losing game will increasingly undermine his authority, but not his power, over the next year. When the Turkish electorate will decide that he is a danger to the country is unpredictable, but his party is not up for reelection until 2019. If he continues to seek to amass power and rule in arbitrary and quixotic fashion, the damage to Turkish institutions could be grave.
Internal tensions in Turkey will rise, demonstrations and movements against him will increase. He will not lose power, but growing autocracy and heavy handed treatment of all opposition is rapidly destroying his legacy and guarantees Turkey a very tense years to come. At this point he is virtually without foreign allies, except perhaps Saudi Arabia and Qatar who may be able to provide some investment support, but little political support.
My 2015 Prediction on Iran: The role of Iran as an actor in the region will grow. Despite all the hurdles, I feel optimistic about US negotiations with Iran. Both parties desperately need success in this regard. Normalization is ludicrously long overdue and necessary to the regional order. Furthermore, Iran and Turkey, are the only two “real” governments in the region today with genuine governance based on some kind of popular legitimacy—for all their faults. Turkey is democratic, Iran semi-democratic (presidential and parliamentary elections are real, while not fully fair, but they really matter.) These two states espouse many of the aspirations of the people of the region in ways no Arab leader does. The Gulf will be forced to accommodate itself to the reality of a normalized Iran; the two sides have never really been to war, despite all the occasional bellicose noises that have emerge from them periodically over the past century. Iran is post-revolutionary power with a vision of a truly sovereign Middle East free of western domination– none of the Arab states truly are. Iran’s influence in the region will also grow in supporting growing regional challenges to Israel’s efforts to keep the Palestinians under permanent domination.
My 2016 Assessment: US-Iran relations indeed did take a stunning step forward this year with the signing of the international nuclear agreement with Iran under US leadership— Obama’s virtually sole (but impressive) success in the Middle East arena in eight years.
Rear guard actions are underway by hard-line conservatives in both the US and Iran to destroy the agreement—their ideological fervor mirror each other. Israel and its Israel-firster allies in the US are equally committed to undermining the agreement. My guess, however, is that these reactionary Iranian and American elements will not succeed in reversing the treaty, but they will set up lots of roadblocks complicating its implementation. There is still much room for military incidents in the Gulf, but as long as Obama is president such incidents will likely be handled with restraint. (There are no guarantees on this score with any next US president.)
Saddest of all, opposition to the treaty essentially undermines the prospect of more serious (and potentially valuable) cooperation between the US and Iran in other areas. Cooperation in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria will thus be harder to attain. But the treaty will hold and gradually take on greater significance and importance. It has already shifted the balance of power in the region in unpredictable directions.
The Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia of course loathe the return of Iran to a significant role in the region, but they will not publicly or explicitly oppose the treaty. In fact, they are condemned to live with it—as they have accommodated themselves countless times in the past to Gulf realities. (More on Saudi Arabia next time.)
The conservative establishment in Iran, while seeking the lifting of the sanctions, are determined to hold the line against any additional cooperation or warming of relations with the US, and to crack down against social and ideological looseness in Iran. These efforts to maintain the status quo will continue, but in the end they are a losing game: the new political and economic emergence of Iran will inexorably begin to weaken the hard liners and their control over the life of the nation. They indeed sense such trends, hence the struggle to freeze the internal scene. It’s not about nukes but about maintenance of conservative clerical domination of the nation.
December 31, 2015
Graham Fuller’s Scorecard on Predictions for 2015
30 December 2015
Having rashly ventured last year into making predictions for the coming year of 2015 in the Middle East, how do those assessments bear up today, one year later?
This self-graded scorecard comes in two separate articles: due to space limitations I take up here today two of the five predictions—and try to assess how close they came to what actually transpired, and what new trends may now be observable. The other three will follow next week.
1. ISIS will decline in power and influence.
My Prediction last January 2015
I have stated earlier that I do not believe ISIS is viable as a state; it lacks any coherent and functional ideology, any serious political and social institutions, any serious leadership process, any ability to handle the complex and detailed logistics of governance, and any opportunity of establishing state-to-state relations in the region. Additionally it has alienated a majority of Sunni Muslims in the world, regardless of deep dissatisfactions among Sunnis in Iraq and Syria. Ideally ISIS should fail and fall on its own, that is, without massive external, and especially Western, intervention that in some ways only strengthens its ideological claims. To be convincingly and decisively defeated, the idea of ISIS, as articulated and practiced, needs to demonstrably fail on its own and in the eyes of Muslims of the region.
January 2016 Scorecard Assessment:
This forecast held up pretty solidly. ISIS has indeed clearly entered a process of decline over the past year. It has lost significant territory and some major cities in both Iraq and Syria; the tide of hostility towards it now includes a modest but real (and reluctant) shift by Turkey and Saudi Arabia against it, in part due to external pressures on both those states and the rising ISIS threat to them domestically. While many Muslims may still emotionally support the idea of a Caliphate in principle, or even applaud the full-throated ISIS opposition to western military power in the Middle East, few wish to live under ISIS or see it as a model. Small but important segments of alienated western Muslim youth still volunteer to travel to ISIS to fight on its behalf, but the word is out that such an adventure is demonstrably unwise, if not fatal.
This weakening of ISIS has not, of course, come all on its own. The introduction of Western military power against ISIS—that I initially opposed— has unquestionably been a significant factor in the beginning of the ISIS retreat. While I still oppose in principle more western military force in the Middle East, especially with boots on the ground, the combination of western air power along with regional troops—Kurds, Iraqis, Iranians, HIzballah—is proving productive in turning the tide.
I reluctantly came to support western air intervention against ISIS by November 2015 in view of what I called the “collateral damage” inflicted by ISIS in vital areas outside the Middle East: massive Syrian refugee flows; their destabilizing affect in the Middle East; their illegal flow into Europe; the rise in Europe of right-wing proto-fascist sentiments and parties; the threat the refugee flow now poses to the very ideal of unity within the EU; and the rise and acceptability of xenophobic, racist, neo-fascist Islamophobic language in the American political dialog itself. All these factors are much more dangerous over the longer run to US politics and society than the few terrorist hits in the West by themselves. (See http://grahamefuller.com/isis-the-hour-has-struck/ and http://grahamefuller.com/the-deadly-collateral-damage-from-isis/ )
I forecast that this year will see the functional end of ISIS as a territorial entity in most of Syria and Iraq. That will represent a major symbolic, ideological and strategic step.
The concept of ISIS, however, while severely damaged, will not die out and will seek further territorial bases. These shifting bases will pose less of an ideological threat than does ISIS as a “state” in Syria/Iraq today, but let’s remember that the threat to the West, even by mere handfuls of terrorist-trained activists, can be generated from almost any location. This threat however should be treated as essentially an intelligence and police challenge, not an ideological problem.
For the important Russian factor in all of this, see below.
2. The Role of Russia: Last year’s prediction:
Russia will play a major role in diplomatic arrangements in the Middle East, an overall positive factor. Russia’s ability to play a key diplomatic (and technical) role in resolving the nuclear issue in Iran, and its important voice and leverage in Syria represent significant contributions to resolution of these two high-priority, high-risk conflicts that affect the entire region. It is essential that Russia’s role be accepted and integrated rather than seen as a mere projection of some neo-Cold War global struggle—a confrontation in which the West bears at least as much responsibility as Moscow. The West has insisted on provoking counter-productive confrontation with Moscow in trying to shoehorn NATO into Ukraine. Can you imagine an American reaction to a security treaty between Mexico and China, that included stationing of Chinese weapons and troops on Mexican soil?
January 2016 Scorecard Assessment
This prediction has proven robust. Russia has now inserted itself militarily and diplomatically into the region in powerful ways, Despite initial real dismay in Washington, the Russian role seems actually to have gained the (reluctant) strategic acquiescence of major elements of the Obama administration including in parts of the Pentagon. Indeed, the new Russian role is a game changer.
I believe the new Russian role to be an overall positive for the longer-term resolution of Middle East problems that require a genuine international cooperative effort. The growing Russian role presents meaningful problems only to neocon and “liberal interventionists” in Washington who still think in zero-sum Cold War terms, and who seek an free American hand in unilaterally determining the trajectory of world affairs. That “free American hand” has proven disastrous over the past fifteen years (at the least) for everyone in the region including the US; frankly the more that hand is constrained, the better for everybody—until greater wisdom prevails in Washington. Sadly, such wisdom is unlikely to prevail under any new American president.
The new Russian presence is also constraining the now highly irresponsible, erratic (and failing) Turkish policies under Erdoğan in the region. Russia has dealt a sharp blow to Erdoğan’s ambitions, although he still seems to hope to drag NATO into a confrontation with Russia.
The use of Russian airpower against ISIS represents an important new strategic element in the anti-ISIS struggle; Washington complains, however, that it is also eroding the power of the so-called “moderate jihadis.” I do not believe such jihadis truly represent a viable and desirable alternative to the unpleasant Asad regime; their victory would only open the door to a huge increase of radical forces in Syria, lend breathing space to ISIS, and a prolongation of the civil war.
Next time: How did predictions on Iran, Erdoğan, and the Taliban fare? And what new events might we anticipate?