January 31, 2010

Keystone Terrorists

Take a look at this fun clip from the upcoming terrorist comedy Four Lions by Chris Morris.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:57 AM | Permalink | 12 Comments »

January 30, 2010

The World is a Dangerous Place

Sometimes my home in the Pacific Northwest reminds me of the Shire in JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. My neighbors may think that's a little bit silly, but that's how Portland, Oregon, looks and feels when I return from the dangerous and broken parts of the world that nobody wants to visit.

Nowhere, however, is safe. No place, no matter how blessed or civilized, can stave it all off forever. Someday, hopefully later rather than sooner, my hometown will become one of the dangerous and broken parts of the world that nobody wants to visit.

From Willamette Week, one of our locals newspapers:

In the reasonably near future, perhaps within our lifetimes and quite possibly as soon as tomorrow, an earthquake will strike Portland with roughly the same force felt this month in Port-au-Prince.

But while the Jan. 12 Haitian quake lasted less than 40 seconds, the shaking in Portland will continue for at least four minutes. Portland will feel a quake with a strength, duration and destruction never before experienced in the developed Western world.

Our cataclysm will begin 75 miles off the Oregon coastline. The ocean floor will split, sending shock waves racing under the water as fast as 17,000 mph. Those shock waves, felt first as a rumble, will slam into Portland in 30 seconds. The rattling will grow into a pulsing undulation that will repeatedly shove the ground up and down as much as 6 feet.

Landslides will ensue in the West Hills, sending mansions crashing on top of each other. Several of the 10 bridges across the Willamette River will collapse—the Steel Bridge, Sellwood Bridge and Marquam Bridge, most likely—and the rest will be impassible. Big Pink and other office towers will sway so violently their granite and glass facades will shear off and crash into the street, piling rubble up 4 feet deep. The Multnomah County Courthouse will tumble. Underground gas, power and water lines will be pulverized. The soil beneath the Portland International Airport will temporarily turn to soup.

About half an hour later, a 30-foot wall of water will crash into the Oregon coastline, with the tsunami flooding as high as 100 feet above sea level, sweeping in and out for hours.

This is not a pitch for the next Hollywood disaster movie. It is the scientific consensus on what will happen here sooner or later. And the latest data suggest it may in fact be sooner.

If you live within 300 miles of me up or down the West Coast, you might want to read the whole thing and figure out what you will do when this happens.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 6:05 PM | Permalink | 25 Comments »

January 29, 2010

Threatening Israel Isn’t Enough Anymore

Iran's tyrant Ali Khamenei posted a comment on his website (yes, even he's doing it now) predicting the inevitable destruction of Israel, a task he generally delegates to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. "Definitely, the day will come when nations of the region will witness the destruction of the Zionist regime," he wrote. "How soon or late ... depends on how Islamic countries and Muslim nations approach the issue."

Israelis should be pleased to hear they'll be allowed to exist a bit longer if Saudi Arabia dithers. And Saudi Arabia is going to dither for a long time.

According to the Financial Times, a majority of citizens in 18 Arab countries think Iran is more dangerous than Israel. And according to a report by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a substantial number of Saudi citizens are even willing to support military action against Iran's nuclear weapons facilities.

A third of Saudi respondents say they would approve an American strike, and a fourth say they'd back an Israeli strike. The actual number is almost certainly higher. Supporting Israel is taboo in the Arab world, and that goes double when Israel is at war. This is not the sort of thing most Arabs are comfortable admitting to strangers, yet one-fourth of Saudis just did.

(Intriguingly, a clear majority of Saudis interviewed in the same survey think their own terrorism and religious extremism is more troubling than either Iran or Israel. There may be hope, at least in the long run, for that region yet.)

Iran's rulers constantly threaten Israel with violence and even destruction because they know the Arabs are against them. They need to change the subject to something they all can agree on. Ever since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini seized power in 1979 and voided Iran's treaty with Israel, regime leaders have believed they'll meet less resistance while amassing power for themselves in the region by saying, Hey, we're not after you, we're after the Jews.

It isn't enough anymore. Even arming and bankrolling terrorist organizations that fight Israel isn't enough anymore. Most Arabs simply do not believe Ahmadinejad and Khamenei when they not-so-cryptically suggest that their nuclear weapons will be pointed only at Israel. By a factor of 3-to-1, Saudis believe Iran would use nuclear weapons against either them or another Arab state in the Persian Gulf before using nuclear weapons against Israel.

Most Arabs hate or at the very least have serious problems with Israel, and I expect that will be true for the rest of my life, even if the Arab-Israeli conflict comes to an end. Yet the Middle East is forever interesting and surprising, and "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" even applies to an extent when "the enemy of my enemy" is the "Zionist Entity."

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:39 AM | Permalink | 37 Comments »

January 27, 2010

Why They Hate Us: Middle Eastern Politics and the Principle of the Strong Horse

If you read only one book about the Middle East this year—aside from mine, of course, after it's finished—read The Strong Horse by my friend and colleague Lee Smith. It is, as far as I am concerned, required reading for everyone who is interested in this topic. If you enjoy my work, you really need to pick up a copy.

Lee and I met in Lebanon in 2005, and have been friends ever since. We've spent I-don't-know-how-many evenings in Beirut and Jerusalem discussing Middle Eastern politics and conflict, sometimes expanding each others' knowledge and other times arguing. We don't argue so much anymore, except around the edges once in a while. I should say he won some of our arguments in the end, partly because he relocated to the Middle East before I did and was farther along on the learning curve, but he also claims I shaped some of the way he came to think about the region in that he believes the issues are largely Arab rather than Islamic per se. Whether he's right about that, or if I am, it's certainly an argument worth thinking about. Sometimes his prognosis is gloomy—the Middle East is the kind of place where it's extremely difficult, if not impossible, to remain optimistic and hopeful for long—but we both have a lot still invested in the region, including mutual friendships in several Middle Eastern countries on both sides of the front lines.

The Strong Horse is the product of Lee's on-the-ground experience there as a traveler and a resident since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. He was drawn to the region for the same principle reason I was—he wanted to figure out what on earth compelled suicidal hijackers to ram airplanes into our buildings. He stayed on for additional reasons, of course, as did I, and his book is about so much more than Osama bin Laden's murderous gang, but that was his starting point as it was mine.

His book is not so easy to summarize, so I invited him here to speak for himself and go over some of the main points.

The Strong Horse Cover2
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MJT: The title of your book is The Strong Horse. Can you tell us exactly what that concept means?

Lee Smith: It comes from Osama Bin Laden’s observation that when people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse. I know this idea will be confused with the notion that Arabs understand only force, an idea often, and incorrectly, attributed to the Bush administration. It is useful to recall that throughout history most of mankind has “understood” force. Those lucky few who are fortunate enough to be able to live their political lives free of the fear of violence are largely concentrated in the capitals of contemporary Western Europe and along the east and west coasts of the United States, who not coincidentally happen to make up the primary audience I was writing for, so I wanted to explain that the inhabitants of the Arabic-speaking Middle East are not as fortunate as we are. To say that Lebanon is held at gunpoint by an armed gang, or that Lebanese journalists are assassinated for their work, Syrian intellectuals and Egyptian rights activists are typically thrown in prison and tortured, and regional minorities like the Shia, Druze, Alawi, Christians, Kurds and Jews have often been the target of purges and political violence all in the name of Arab nationalism, a corporatist ideology that seeks to erase communal as well as individual difference, is not to say that Arabs only understand force, but that violence is a central factor in Arab political life and it is impossible to understand the region without taking this into account.

Lee Smith in Jerusalem

MJT: On the first page of your book, in the first paragraph even, you said we all took 9/11 too personally. I think a lot of readers who will love your book might also be a bit startled when they see that. Can you explain what you mean?

Lee Smith: Yes, it took me a while to get to that point in my thinking about 9/11. As I say in that same passage, as a lifelong New Yorker, someone who was raised there, went to school and lived there, I took 9/11 personally, as an attack on my hometown, my family and friends. That’s the reason I went to the Middle East to find out what happened, because I took it personally. However, as I spent more time in the region I came to see 9/11 outside of the framework of Islam v the West, even as this conceit has great appeal across the American political spectrum. The right of center tends to argue that there is a war between Western civilization and the lands of Islam; the left of center typically contends that the problems of the Middle East are essentially the result of Western interference in the region, from colonialism to Zionism to American hegemony in the oil-rich Persian Gulf. After a while, I came to see that the issues in the region began in the region and belong to the region, and while Western influence has often been harmful, and more often beneficial, to the Arabs, it has been a very minor factor in shaping a region thousands of years old. There is indeed a clash, but it is between the inhabitants of the Arabic-speaking Middle East, and the 9/11 attacks were essentially an overflow of those issues that reached American shores.

MJT: There are indeed a number of clashes in the Middle East that have little to do with us, and it's easier to see this up close than it is from a distance. There are, for instance, clashes between Islamists and secularists; between Sunnis and sectarian minorities like Shias, Christians, Alawites, and Druze; between Arab Nationalists and ethnic minorities like Persians and Kurds. Why would one of these factions think it could get a leg up on the others by killing thousands of people in the U.S.?

Lee Smith: I am not sure if that’s exactly how I’d explain 9/11. But let me start by saying that it’s true one of the ways that various groups compete against each other for shares of power is by going after third parties. For instance, I argue in the book that Hezbollah’s dominant, though largely obscured, issue is the region’s Sunni majority. There is no doubt that Hezbollah despises Israel and would very much like to bring about its demise, but their deeper, perhaps existential, concern is not the some 5 million Jews on Lebanon’s southern border, but the Sunni sea that has engulfed the Shia for more than a millennium. And so fighting Israel establishes this Shia militia’s credentials as genuine Arabs, even as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi argued shortly before his death that Hezbollah was actually a Zionist front that protected the Jews from the real, i.e. Sunni, resistance. So, here is some of the sectarian animus at work in the region, the clash of Arab civilizations.

The same holds true for the Islamic Republic of Iran. Why does Iran care so much about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? They don’t share a border with Israel, they have not taken in Palestinian refugees like Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, nor are they even an Arab state. Sure, it is a Muslim power and Jerusalem is important to Muslims, but Indonesia is also a Muslim state and it is not anywhere near as vocal as the Tehran regime on this subject; nor of course does the Indonesian government provide many hundreds of millions of dollars of financial support to armed groups that fight Israel, like Hezbollah and Hamas, as the Iranians do.

The reason Iran has inserted itself in the Arab-Palestinian crisis is in order to project power in the region by shaming Sunni states, like Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. All of these states, US allies, either have peace treaties with Jerusalem or have opted out of any active participation in the war against Israel. The Iranians calculate that the Arab masses prefer resistance to reform, accommodation and compromise, and so Tehran has picked up the banners of war that the Sunni states have put down. Again, this is not to say that Iran’s rhetoric about destroying Israel is all a put-on, I don’t think it is. But the main reason they are ratcheting up the noise is because they see resistance ideology as a way to get a leg up, as you put it, on their real regional adversaries, the Sunni Arab states. And these countries, along with Israel, are all part of the US-backed order of the Middle East, which means that Iran’s posture toward the Sunnis, as well as Israel, is an enormous issue for us, our major strategic concern right now in the Middle East, bigger than Afghanistan, bigger than Iraq and much bigger than the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

So, let me come back to 9/11. There’s no doubt that the region is rife with anti-Americanism and an attack on the US, even as it kills thousands of civilians, is apt to win acclaim in too many corners of the Middle East. Bin Laden and the 19 hijackers certainly understood this, but I am not sure the dynamic I am describing is as clear-cut with regard to 9/11. Instead I tend to see 9/11 like this: Middle Eastern regimes, almost all of them, but most notably Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia use various so-called non-state actors to advance their regional interests and deter each other. For instance, Syria’s relationship with Jordan’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic Action Front, and Jordan’s friendliness toward the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, means that these two states effectively deter each other—if you use Islamists against me, I will unleash Islamists on you. Al Qaeda, as a transnational outfit, seems to be a group that has been supported, manipulated and penetrated by a whole number of Middle Eastern security services, including but not exclusive of the Saudis, Egyptians, Syrians, Libya, Pakistan, and Iraq before Saddam’s downfall. This is not to say that any of these regimes have Al Qaeda or any of these terror organizations under their thumb; when you have a group of people with weapons, money and a deadly ideology it is difficult to manage them very closely. I think this is what happened on 9/11—one of these outfits had the wherewithal to carry its war elsewhere and they did, to the United States.

MJT: What, specifically, do you suppose Al Qaeda hoped to achieve with its attacks in New York and Washington?

Michael J. Totten and Lee Smith in Jerusalem (Photo by Noah Pollak)

Lee Smith: What’s maybe more interesting is what Bin Laden never anticipated—that the 9/11 attacks would lead to the Bush administration’s freedom agenda. I call Bin Laden the father of Arab democracy because it was only after 9/11 that Washington figured it had to address the vicious political culture that had cultivated a Bin Laden. Al Qaeda is not pleased that democracy is part of the political debate now in the Arabic-speaking Middle East.

But I think it’s really hard to say what Al Qaeda hoped to achieve, besides, obviously, the carnage that exceeded their hopes, as we know from that post-9/11 video in which Bin Laden expressed surprise at the results. In the aftermath, the US entered the region in force and with purpose. Some commentators suggested that this is just what Bin Laden had hoped, to tie down the Americans and get them to act in such a way that the Arab masses would have no choice to stand against the US. However, what we know is that some of Bin Laden’s colleagues thought it was a very bad idea to rouse a sleeping giant. And as for turning the region against the US, we shouldn’t forget that a lot of people in the region cheered the attacks. Our mutual friends and colleagues in Lebanon tell us that people were handing out baklawa in the streets of Beirut, nor of course was this the only Arab city where 9/11 was celebrated.

MJT: On the subject of anti-Americanism, I think you nailed it, and it really isn't that complicated. You wrote, "Anti-Americanism is the region's lingua franca, and from Nasser to Nasrallah it has not changed in over fifty years. The United States is hated not because of what it does, or because of what it is. The United States is hated for what it is not, not Arab and not Muslim."

Now, surely the fact that the U.S. plays a powerful role in the Middle East feeds into this. Like you said, it goes back to beginning of our presence in the region. If we had the geopolitical footprint of, say, Belize, hardly anyone in the Middle East would spend much time even thinking about us. But since we aren't going to shrink our footprint to the size of Belize or even Europe—not even with Barack Obama as president—is there really much we can do about this?

Lee Smith: The short answer is no. The long answer is also no—but I’ll elaborate anyway. Arab anti-Americanism, as I point out in the book, did not begin with the Bush administration, but goes back to the very beginning of our presence in the region and becomes the pre-eminent channel for anti-colonial sentiment after the Suez Crisis of 1956. The irony is that as President Eisenhower asserted the US’s anti-imperialist credentials and demanded that the French, British and Israelis withdraw from Egypt and leave Nasser alone. We had effectively ruined France and Great Britain’s position in the Middle East and it was not long before they left entirely—France left Algeria and Great Britain abandoned its position in the Persian Gulf. Hence, we were the only remaining Western power in the region and all the anti-colonialist sentiment was directed at us, even if our presence there has never resembled anything like that of a classical colonial power.

There is also a tribal element behind the anti-Americanism that I detail in the book, but it dovetails nicely with the once reigning anti-colonial sentiment articulated by the Arab nationalist intelligentsia, a theme encouraged at the time by our Cold War rivals in Moscow. Of course it was nonsense: Colonial powers extract wealth from their holdings for their own sake, as Syria did during its 15-year-long occupation of Lebanon; they don’t typically go in and produce wealth for the sake of the locals, like the Americans did in discovering oil in Saudi Arabia, marketing it, and protecting it and the Saudi Royal family for some 65 years at the expense of the American taxpayer. The money we’ve spent over the years protecting the Gulf, including the outlay for the Bahrain-based 5th Fleet, dwarfs the figures we’ve provided Israel and Egypt, the two top US aid recipients.

Of course, neither facts nor precise language will have much effect on Arabs who hold anti-American positions, nor on Americans or other Westerners who have similar views, from a so-called leftwing perspective. The major concern then is with that portion of Americans who really affect how we interact with the world, not just US policymakers, but our opinion-makers, journalists, talking heads etc., and whether or not they understand the sources of anti-Americanism and the various political and strategic purposes to which it’s put. For instance, Hendrik Hertzberg recently wrote in the New Yorker that, “Obama damped down the flames of global anti-Americanism.” Maybe Mr. Hertzberg missed the footage from Pakistan when they were burning the effigy of the 44th President, just as they did with the 43rd President, but this New Yorker writer has no choice but to ignore reality because anything other than fulfillment of the wish that Obama will make us loved around the world, rather than hated, as ostensibly Bush did, is too terrifying to contemplate.

I think this need to loved is about two things. First, anti-Americanism, not just of the Arab variety but the entire genre, is very old, dating back to even before the founding of this country. Barry Rubin has a book on anti-Americanism where he goes into this: Europeans felt they had to justify to themselves why they weren’t coming to the new world, this new Jerusalem, this city on a hill, so they concocted a narrative, some of it based on sheer fantasy, imaginary beasts, etc., about why the new world, America, was a very bad and dangerous place that rationalized their decision to stay in Europe. That is to say, anti-Americanism is originally a European phenomenon: we rejected Europe by coming to these shores and they rejected us in turn. The Europeans have had problems with America, the idea and reality, for 300 hundred years and it’s not going away anytime soon. This is the well from which our prestige intelligentsia is drinking; a large portion of our elite is relieved to see America put down so long as they are not included among the great unwashed by the people who, for some good reasons, they admire and, for not such good reasons, whose love they desire: the Europeans. It’s a prestige thing for this section of our elite. They don’t hate America, they love it. They just want their version of it—urbane, often ironic, international—represented to that part of the rest of the world that’s of most concern to them: Europe.

Since the ideas of the world that this class of Americans holds—the junior-year abroad school of US foreign policy—are rooted in insecurity, fear, and what the French call ressentiment, they are not very clear ideas about the world, neither about the scary parts nor the relatively gentler regions, like France, for example. I love France, I love the French, I especially love their strategic posture: can you imagine, a nation so devoted to its historical character that it is still trying to project power even though it has neither the military nor the economy to do so? Some would say it’s the opposite of what Obama is trying to do with the US—turn what is in reality a great power into a middling power, like France. I deeply admire France’s aspirations, even as many of their policies are repugnant. The fact is that France is usually successful to the extent its calculations are cynical, which is characteristic of French foreign policy throughout the ages. The idea that France’s actions on the world stage embody some sort of moral authority is perverse, ahistorical, and anti-intellectual insofar as there is scant evidence in the written record of France ever acting in such a fashion; but there you have it, our prestige intelligentsia was outraged that Bush didn’t take his marching orders from the French President on Iraq.

The other reason we are so concerned with anti-Americanism is quite simply mortal fear—we want to be loved because it is scary to be hated by scary people who set fire to things when a cartoon offends them, and blow things up when they get really mad. To be sure, Americans seem to be needier than the inhabitants of any other great power in world history—did the Romans require love? The Ottomans? The Brits?—but the fact is that people really do hate us. Maybe they hate us for what seem like good reasons, at least to them anyway, maybe it is about our policies, for instance. But many Arab Sunnis hate Arab Shia for what seem like good reasons to many Arab Sunnis—they hate the way the Shia practice Islam; they hate Shia “policies” about Islam. So maybe if the Shia don’t want to get blown up by a madman like Zarqawi they should change their policies regarding Islam and become Sunnis. Of course it’s ridiculous, as is the notion that Bin Laden and friends want to kill us because of our “policies.” We support Israel, they say; but we also are allied with every Arab state except Syria. We support Arab regimes that tyrannize their own peoples, they say; and then we deposed Saddam and you saw how the Arab Sunni masses reacted. The issue is not our policies; the issue is an existential one, and it is not about us, rather it is about a society that makes no room for difference, or what is known in academic circles as “the other.” If Zarqawi becomes a folk hero for slaughtering Arab Shia, this is not a region where a non-Arab, non-Muslim superpower is going to find much love.

We are a Great Power, and while some Americans, including some of our policymakers, may say they are uncomfortable about it, we all benefit from our size and ability to project power, hard and soft, the latter of which is earned exclusively by the successful employment of the former. But power and wealth are always going to attract attention from dangerous characters; it earns us envy as well as respect and there’s not much you can do about it because this is part of human nature. We all know the apparent paradox about how big guys get into so many fights because little guys are looking to prove themselves. A wise club owner will hire small, quiet—and deadly—men to keep peace at his bar, but the USA is not a tavern, we are big whether we like it or not, and so we seek to shrink ourselves at our own peril.

I’d love to ask the President about the last fistfight he was in—not as a macho, posturing thing, but just to find out what he thought in the aftermath, regardless of the outcome. Did he think, “what did I do to make that vicious drunk come after me? Maybe he was covetous of my iPhone? Maybe my date was dressed too provocatively?” Or did he think, “gee, that was scary as hell and it spun out of control real fast and I’m pretty lucky I was able to handle myself and my pals were there, and next time it might not be a wild haymaker I can see from a mile away but a crisp jab that catches me on the chin.” There are reckless and dangerous predators in the world; some of them pick fights in bars, some of them rule nation states, and others run planes into buildings.

In short, I think American foreign policy gets stupider the further it’s removed from our actual experience of the world. Surely before the President met and then successfully courted his beautiful wife, the First Lady, he struck out with other women, perhaps like most of us, many other women. The lesson that any half-sane adult American male draws from dating is that no matter how hard you try you can’t make people love you. Love is given by choice. By matching actions to words, you can earn respect, but you cannot coerce love, not from another human being, and certainly not from a foreign people.

MJT: Okay, so given all that, what would you say to the president of the United States if he invited you into the White House and asked what you think he should do about this?

Lee Smith: About all of it? Can we stick to the Middle East? The region is changing very quickly, or it already has changed, and we have come a very long way from Nasser, and even Saddam, a Nasser clone. Saddam’s fall showed just how weak the Arabs, by which I mean the Sunni Arab states, are. Saddam was one of their security pillars against the Iranians; their other security pillar, their expeditionary force, is Al Qaeda, which also took a serious blow in Iraq.

Let’s talk about Al Qaeda for a moment. The jihadi movement, what is often referred to as a transnational network of rogue or non-state actors, is a function of Arab regimes and their security services. There are other players in there, namely the Pakistanis and Iranians, but by and large the Salafi-Jihadi movement is an Arab affair. No doubt that you would have people, maybe more than we care to imagine, willing to carry out jihadi operations without state support, but it is impossible to sustain the movement as such without the funding, logistical and political support of actual states. This is not to say that these states have total control over their jihadi assets—look for instance at the recent episode in Afghanistan where the guy who was presumably controlled by Jordanian intelligence turned around and killed seven CIA officers and his Jordanian handler. It’s an index of how poorly we understand the wars we are fighting that no one drew the obvious conclusion from this awful story in order to define more precisely what Islamic terrorism is. How much money did we give this guy? How much did the Jordanians give him? Who else was paying him before he killed himself and 8 others? The Pakistanis? The Iranians? The Syrians? This is how these regimes fight and deter each other, through terrorist organizations.

OK, Michael, how about you and I conduct an experiment in adventure? Let’s get 50 of our closest friends to join us in a cave in Afghanistan. We’re all taking our girlfriends or wives, some of us more than one wife, our kids and other family members who would enjoy the outing. We should bring along that rich pal of yours who has a very big trust fund so we don’t have to worry about working to pay for our food and the other expenses that our steadily growing band of 250 will be running up. He’ll be able to keep drawing money out of his various accounts because his rich family is close to a powerful Arab regime, members of which at least tacitly approve of our work and will help us grease important wheels. But now that we have furnished our cave, one big expense that we didn’t anticipate is weapons. How will we get money for weapons? Sure we can smuggle drugs, a lucrative, if risky and high-profile, enterprise, but why not play it on the safe side and petition one of those Islamic charities for aid? After all, they are funded by some of those 5000 Saudi royals with millions at their disposal, the 5000 Saudis, in other words, who constitute the Riyadh regime.

Now that we have our guns, Michael, I’m embarrassed to say that we don’t have anyone who knows how to use them, so who do we know who is in the business of training people how to use guns? Maybe one of the foreign intelligence services that have set up shop here alongside us to make sure we and other like-minded folks don’t cause trouble within their borders. We’ll promise not to make any trouble for them if they keep paying and arming us, and we’ll even do harm to their rivals if they like. Of course we don’t have to keep our promise and in fact it is better that we don’t because our willingness to act against them will vouchsafe our seriousness and earn us more respect and money, until of course they tire of our shenanigans and plot to kill us. But in the meantime, now that we’re armed and trained, we can start to plan quality operations and can even take our show on the road and send some of the boys abroad, but we will need logistical support; among other things we are going to need passports because if you travel under your own name it is going to set off alarm bells all around the world; the Jordanians, for instance, know who Michael Totten is because they’re here, just like all the other mukhabarat, and it being Jordan they’ll warn their American and the Israeli allies, the two states we’d most love to attack. So who is going to get us passports? Do we have anyone in the cave here who can forge documents for us? No? Maybe one of the security services can help us out.

You see what I’m driving at? Al Qaeda, Islamist terrorism, is a function of states. Yes, it is an ideological movement with its own history and sources and political ambitions that run counter to the current nation-state system of the Arabic-speaking Middle East; but it is a movement that is sustained by Middle Eastern regimes and their intelligence services who use terror organizations to advance their own strategic interests and deter other states from using terror organizations against them.

I can’t repeat this enough because the President needs to understand this. All of us need to understand it. The Bush administration understood it but the lesson seems to have evaporated into thin air with all the confusion and miscommunication that left some Americans with the belief that the White House was claiming Saddam was directly responsible for 9/11. But this is not what the administration said, and we know for a fact that Saddam did work with Al Qaeda and with Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Ayman Zawahiri’s outfit that constitutes the core of the Bin Laden group. But we’re moving away from this understanding and it spells real danger for core American interests and citizens.

If you want to fight Islamist terror you have to go to the heart of the matter and that is Middle Eastern regimes, but this is not what we’re doing now. In fact, we are doing the opposite, counterinsurgency is the opposite of going to the source of the problem. COIN is a losing hand for us. No matter how good the US military gets at counterinsurgency it is never going to have the same sort of success as Arab regimes do. The Arabs can’t win wars, but Arab regimes have never lost to an insurgency, ever. Thank God that the Americans will never emulate the tactics of these regimes—the collective punishment, rape, torture and murder that Arab states typically employ to put down insurgencies, but if you don’t do it you will not defeat an Arab insurgency. Everyone says the Surge was successful, but maybe we should ask the family and friends of the almost 500 Iraqis killed in mega-terror attacks in Baghdad since August. Relative to Iraq’s population, that’s close to two 9/11s. Maybe someone can explain to me how the blood and mangled flesh of almost 500 people is the harvest of a successful counterinsurgency. Prime Minister Maliki—whose political future is obviously jeopardized by the violence, and this is of course the point of the operations—and his security officials are pointing fingers at their neighbors, especially Syria and Saudi, and the Americans are hushing them up. Why? Because we want to ignore the role of states in terrorism, and the President still seeks to engage the Syrians on our way out of Iraq, as the sage men who authored the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group report counseled. That is, explain to Iraq’s neighbors who have been working so hard over the last 6 years to destabilize the country that a stable Iraq is in their best interest, a subtle point that they are obviously too foolish to understand without American policymakers explaining it to them. American elites have a hard time distinguishing between intelligence and cunning, largely because their lives do not depend on them outwitting murderous rivals. In hard places, intelligent people is what the cunning eat for lunch.

Ask people in the Obama administration about Syrian involvement in the Baghdad attacks and they tell you this is why we haven’t sent an ambassador back to Damascus yet. That’s how we punish states that kill our men and women in uniform and target the Arab civilians whose lives are under our protection as an occupying force—we withhold diplomats. Pretty stern stuff, no? Bashar al-Assad must be shaking in his boots.

There’s another reason we need to focus on the role of states in terror. We have an investment in the state system because it is how we interact with the rest of the world—politically, diplomatically, etc. We fare much less well with armed NGOs. We rightly refuse to have relations with groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, but if we continue to see our struggles in terms of COIN, in due course we will have no choice but to open up relations with all these so-called non-state actors. Our professional diplomats will be out of work if we don’t find someone for them to talk to, and our top military officials will also be on board. This would be a catastrophe for us, utter chaos, not least of all because we simply don’t have the human resources to deal with every ambitious freelancer who understands that the easiest way to get the Americans at the negotiating table is to start killing Americans.

Remember that one of the points of democracy promotion was to strengthen the Arab state, as well as liberalize it—we want states to control their borders and take responsibility for the actions of their citizens, inside and outside of those borders. The last thing we want is for the Arabic-speaking Middle East to return to its post-Ottoman, pre-state condition. Our friend Tony Badran has an interesting observation concerning the COIN people and why they regard TE Lawrence as an authority on the region. Lawrence was operating in a pre-state environment and the COIN people downplay the role of states. But if you see the political organization of the region in terms of authoritarian regimes that are capable of patrolling their borders and watching over problematic actors when their own security is at stake, then Lawrence is not as compellingly instructive.

The fact is that Arab states are weak as it is, and I’m not referring to their inability to provide a better life for their peoples. I mean they can’t defend themselves. The fact they use Al Qaeda to protect them from Iran, and each other, is evidence they are feeble affairs. The Saudis and Egyptians and the rest of the Arabs are waiting on the Israelis to strike the Iranian nuclear program because they can’t do anything about it themselves. As I was saying above, the Arab moment is over, by which I mean the Arabs no longer set the tone and tempo of the region, nor are they even capable of shaping their own destiny. If the Israelis do attack the Iranians it will reveal for all to see what is quite clearly the case: the major regional nodes now are Israel, Iran and perhaps an ascendant Turkey. That’s who is calling the shots in the Middle East today, not the Arabs.

But that hardly means our role in the region is over. Rather it means that we are more necessary than ever for the vacuum will be filled by those who do not obviously share our concerns or interests, including the stability of international markets and above all the security and welfare of the American people. The major strategic interest that has kept us in the Middle East, that has made us the undisputed strong horse, is the same as it was 65 years ago—oil, which after homeland security is our most vital interest.

That said, now there’s another vital interest in the region for us, to prevent the proliferation of WMD, especially nuclear weapons, but this also includes any systems that these regimes might conveniently misplace only to be recovered by one of the terror outfits they use as assets. The uptick of Islamist violence and terror now coming out of Yemen, some of it washing up on our shores in the form of Major Nidal Hasan and his colleague Umar Faruq Abdelmuttalab, is sufficient evidence that we aren’t going anywhere. Even if the Obama administration truly wants to reduce our regional profile, they are finding that our national security will not permit it.

So how do we carry ourselves in the Middle East? My advice comes from the book’s title: the strong horse not only punishes his enemies, he also rewards and protects his friends, sometimes by punishing their enemies. This is a precept derived from the most basic principle of human relations—to protect those whom you love from harm and to be prepared to do harm to those who would injure them. Bizarrely, these principles are frequently neglected by our policymaking establishment, on both sides of the aisle, a culture that among others has counseled rapprochement, engagement and even comity with those that have made their enmity toward us and our friends and allies clear. Policies that go against the natural course of affairs—warming to enemies and freezing out allies—are destined to fail. Socrates reminds us that a dog knows well enough to distinguish friends from enemies. So should our policymakers. So should the President of the United States.

*

The Strong Horse by Lee Smith is available from Amazon.com. I can't recommend this book strongly enough. If you enjoyed this brief interview, you should enjoy The Strong Horse even more.

*

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Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:41 AM | Permalink | 77 Comments »

January 26, 2010

Iran’s Private Army Digs in for a Wider Lebanon War

“There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” — Henry David Thoreau

The Obama administration needs to start paying attention to Lebanon again before it explodes.

The Washington Post reported over the weekend that Hezbollah is moving long-range rockets and missiles away from the Israeli border and even north of Beirut in a move that would make a Third Lebanon War much more destructive over a much larger area than the Second Lebanon War in 2006. The previous conflict was mostly, but not exclusively, confined to the Hezbollah-controlled Shia areas in the south and in Beirut’s southern suburbs. Israel Defense Forces Brigadier General Aviv Kochavi says Hezbollah is now capable of firing rockets all the way to Tel Aviv from as far north as Beirut. Depending on where Hezbollah is placing its arsenal, taking out launch sites from the air might endanger America’s allies and Hezbollah’s enemies in the Christian, Sunni, and Druze parts of the country.

IDF Major General Giora Eiland says if a third war does in fact start, “Israel will not contain that war against Hezbollah. We cannot.” The last Lebanon war didn’t end well, and as Dwight Eisenhower once said, “If a problem cannot be solved, enlarge it.” The problem, though, must be enlarged in just the right way and to just the right size.

“The only way to deter the other side and prevent the next round,” Eiland continued, “or if it happens, to win — is to have a military confrontation with the state of Lebanon.”

That would make for both too much and too little enlargement. Too much because Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s “March 14″ parliamentary majority is being held hostage by Hezbollah, Iran, and Syria and is not really part of the larger problem; too little because the problem is much larger than Lebanon. Hezbollah is but a piece of a region-wide resistance bloc. It can’t be effectively dealt with without acknowledging what it is — the Lebanese branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Syria is the logistical hub Iran uses to maintain its division abroad on the Mediterranean. Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah doesn’t answer to anyone in Beirut, but to his patrons and armorers in Tehran and Damascus.

It looks like he’s itching for a fight, but no war need be fought at all if Israel can convince Syria and Iran to back off. Jerusalem doesn’t strictly require American backup and support to enlarge the scope of the problem to include those two countries, but having it would certainly boost the deterrent effect.

Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei might be undeterrable, but Syria’s Bashar Assad certainly isn’t. Turkey convinced his more ruthless late father, Hafez Assad, to cease and desist supporting the Marxist-Leninist Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) back in the 1990s, and did so without firing a shot by threatening to invade. Turkey didn’t want to invade, yet Turkey never had to. Syria, meanwhile, has continued sponsoring or even outright committing terrorism against the more “reasonable” Israelis, Iraqis, and Lebanese.

Syria is without question the junior partner in its relationship with Iran, but Tehran’s Islamic Republic regime would have a lot less power in the region — especially in Lebanon — if Assad were spooked into noncooperation. Without assistance from Syria, Hezbollah would develop serious logistics problems that might eventually render it as militarily weak as Hamas. Without support from Iran, Hezbollah would eventually run out of cash and ammunition entirely. No other government in the world would give money and guns to a totalitarian-minded Shia militia.

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 9:58 AM | Permalink | 41 Comments »

January 24, 2010

Forces of Fortune

The Egyptian Islamist theoretician Sayyid Qutb believed the West — in particular the United States — posed an existential threat to Islam. He feared that globalization, spearheaded by the American colossus, might eventually destroy Islam by tempting pious Muslims with freewheeling capitalism, the separation of religion from government and the unleashing of decadent “animalistic desires.” Qutb, in word and in deed, took up the sword against Gamal Abdel Nasser’s secular government. Nasser hanged him in 1966, but Qutb’s ideas transformed the world by inspiring Osama bin Laden’s Qaeda theology.

Vali Nasr, in his outstanding new book Forces of Fortune, shows that Qutb was at least half wrong. Globalization, free trade and market economics aren’t a threat to Islam per se. What they are a threat to is the totalitarian vision of Islam that Qutb’s followers hope to impose.

Read the rest in the New York Times.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 7:52 AM | Permalink | 57 Comments »

January 22, 2010

The Middle East Has Always Been Hard

President Barack Obama admitted in an interview with Joe Klein at Time magazine that he was "too optimistic" about his ability to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that it's "just really hard." Those of us with experience in the region are thinking, "Well, duh," right about now, but at the same time, I sympathize. In the first half of the last decade, I felt naively optimistic about the region myself.

Things were looking up after the demolition of Saddam Hussein's Baath party regime in Iraq, the termination of the second Palestinian intifada, and the Beirut Spring that ousted the Syrian military occupation from Lebanon. I was hardly alone in getting carried away. Middle Easterners felt it too — or at least some did. "It's strange for me to say it," Lebanon's Druze leader Walid Jumblatt said shortly after the uprising against Bashar Assad's overlordship in his country began, "but this process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq. I was cynical about Iraq. But when I saw the Iraqi people voting three weeks ago, 8 million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world. The Syrian people, the Egyptian people, all say that something is changing. The Berlin Wall has fallen. We can see it."

The Middle East's "Berlin Wall," so to speak, may have cracked, but it didn't fall. Iraq all but dismembered itself after its successful election. Hezbollah blew up the Levant and put Lebanon's "March 14" revolution on ice. Palestinians elected Hamas and transformed Gaza into a suppurating jihad state. It could be a while before I allow myself to feel upbeat and sunny again. The Middle East makes suckers of everyone who feels upbeat and sunny.

Nothing happened in the region when Obama took office that justified a renewed sense of optimism. If the Green Revolution in Iran replaces the Islamic Republic regime with something more civilized, that will be something. Even then I'd be careful. Violent conflict is the default state of affairs in that part of the world, and it always has been.

Most Westerners who get involved in the Middle East come away disappointed and disillusioned after a while. One common problem is a kind of projection, a belief that the region is more like our part of the world than it actually is. For instance, Obama said, as though it surprises him, that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is hard "even for a guy like George Mitchell who helped bring about the peace in Northern Ireland."

Northern Ireland is in Western Europe — in the United Kingdom even. The two conflicts resemble each other in a couple of ways, but Ireland is nothing like Gaza. The people of Belfast are no less inheritors of the liberal Western tradition than residents of Dublin and London. No part of the world at the turn of the 21st century was more amendable to conflict resolution than Western Europe, and that included even the rough parts of Western Europe. The war there was barely even a war compared with the Middle East's wars. Slightly more than 100 people were killed on average each year in Northern Ireland during "the troubles" between 1969 and 2001, fewer than the number murdered in many American cities during peace time. Each year of the second intifada, by contrast, was 10 times as deadly. (Each year of the Lebanese civil war, meanwhile, was 100 times deadlier.)

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:01 AM | Permalink | 81 Comments »

January 20, 2010

Checking In

I haven't dropped off the face of the world—just wrapping up another chapter. I'm about three-fourths finished with the book now. Hang on, I'll be back shortly…

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:05 AM | Permalink | 7 Comments »

January 16, 2010

Quote of the Day

Appeasement is much harder to accomplish than it seems. It is not just a matter of saying to the stronger side, There you go, have what you want, it’s all yours, just sign on the dotted line. The appeaser much accomplish two crucial tasks.

First, the appeaser must, to the greatest extent possible, disguise the fact that he is appeasing. He must portray himself as a peacemaker, as a man who has prevented or ended a war on decent terms. That is why, for example, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, returning from Munich after handing a chunk of Czechoslovakia to Hitler, said in an address from Downing Street on the evening of September 30, 1938, that he had achieved “peace with honor,” and that, as a thankful result, everyone should “go home and get a nice quiet sleep.” He had not appeased; he had kept the peace. Now go to sleep, go to sleep…

Second, the appeaser much persuade the victim to cooperate. Chamberlain was fortunate in this case, because Edvard Benes, the president of Czechoslovakia, had no visible alternative to surrendering the Sudetenland; his small country could not resist a German blitzkrieg, especially if Britain was on Germany’s side. As a result, Chamberlain was able to present the carve-up of Czechoslovakia as a sort of diplomatic euthanasia that the victim agreed to. He was lucky. If the victim resists, the appeaser is in a bind, because euthanasia turns into murder, and, instead of being a benevolent guide, soothing the victim as it is put to sleep, the appeaser must hold down the screaming victim as the terminal injection is administered. It is a very nasty business.

From Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War by Peter Maass.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:30 AM | Permalink | 17 Comments »
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Winner, The 2008 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

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