Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Fragile Flourishing of Basra

Things really seem to be looking up in the Iraqi port city of Basra.

After decades of neglect, corruption, crime, and --more recently-- sectarian thuggery, this nexus of shipping and oil production stands a chance of becoming a major locus of trade and cultural development for the nation of Iraq. With The Iraqi-planned and executed "Knight's Charge" last month, a monstrous melange of Iranian-backed Mahdi Army/Special Groups militias and brutal but banal criminal rackets was flushed out like a long-neglected septic tank. The results for the lives of ordinary Basrans has been nothing short of a revelation.

Along Basra's corniche, a road running along the Shatt al Arab waterway that empties into the Persian Gulf, a rebirth is underway. Restaurants stay open late, no longer forced by insecurity to shut early. Men smoke water pipes in outdoor cafes, unconcerned about kidnappers.

On a recent night, Salam Hassan, 20, sold Arabic pop music CDs and cellphone ring tones on the sidewalk. A few months ago, Sadrists beat him up and fired a bullet that grazed his knee.

His crime: selling non-Islamic religious songs and ring tones.

After the offensive, he reopened. Now he sells 20 CDs a day, a sign that his customers also are bolder.

Weddings in Basra had become silent affairs. Kidnappers often targeted them, and gunmen sometimes tossed grenades into the wedding processions of rivals.

The sounds of drums and dancing now fill the streets every Thursday, when most weddings take place. Cars and buses are decked in flowers and play loud music as revelers head to local hotels for ceremonies.

"It's like a gift from God," exclaimed Abdul Emir Majid, 52, whose nephew was getting married on a recent day.

Of course, it is that selfsame God who is seen by others as demanding a return to a more austere and furtive way of life. While roundly routed by Iraqi Security Forces, the Shiite militias circle ominously against the day when the government relaxes its guardianship of Basra's sputtering reawakening. Not all are optimistic that they will not succeed in squelching the hopes of its people for a safe, prosperous, and free life.

Such a reversal would be a tremendous loss for the future of Iraq. The potential of Basra's port and the thriving commerce and cultural exchange which stand to burst forth from this long-neglected and bitterly beleaguered city would very substantially contribute to the improvement of all Iraqis' lives. Such port cities can tend to become the nuclei of cosmopolitan attitudes and of educated, well-heeled middle classes who will brook no militant or theocratic threats to their affluence and freedom. The huge infusions of capital which would flow from the restoration of the port of Basra as the mercantile Mecca it has been in the past would facilitate the growth and solidification of such a class. They would, in turn, constitute a formidable voting bloc whose interests the Iraqi government would be ill-advised to spurn.

Once known as the "Venice of the East," Basra is traditionally depicted as the point of departure of Sinbad the Sailor. Like that legendary figure, the long-dormant spirit of adventure and discovery which may be poised to re-infuse the souls of Iraq can form the basis for whole new cycles of tales to animate the imaginations of Arabs whose dreams have been dark and narrow for far too long.

Keep an eye on Basra; its fortunes in days to come will describe the tides whose rise (or fall) will underlie the keel of the Iraqi ship of state. Much is riding on that voyage, and may fair winds and following seas await it.

Friday, May 30, 2008

All al Qaeda are Belong To Us

Posting has been virtually non-existent for the last few days, as I have been poring over a recent profusion of articles and posts about the very dark days in which the worldwide Sunni Jihadist insurgency (typified by al Qaeda) finds itself of late. No victory dance, here. The end zone is still a ways away (yes, I used a football analogy. Try not to faint), but there is a growing sentiment that al Qaeda's crescent may be on the wane.

TigerHawk has a post which contains a couple of the articles I was going to cite (serve me right for procrastinating). He refers to an earlier post over at the Belmont Club in which he lays out some of the conditions which would have to pertain in order for a strategic victory over al Qaeda to occur, centering on the discrediting of its claim to destiny as a result of sustained and cumulatively humiliating military defeats:

Al Qaeda's switch to the wholesale slaughter of Muslim civilians did not happen by accident. In the early days it attacked military or governmental targets: Mogadishu, Khobar Towers, the African embassies, the USS Cole, the Pentagon, and United Flight 93's likely target (the World Trade Center was civilian, but a symbolic bastion of the infidel power structure and not a Muslim target in any case). Then the United States moved the fight to the heart of the Muslim world with invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Al Qaeda needed to achieve palpable victory over the United States and its allies in those theaters in order to sustain its credibility as an organization and the credibility of its ideology. When the United States proved impossible to dislodge by direct attacks, al Qaeda had no choice but to resort to terrorism against Muslim civilians, and that is proving to be its undoing.
Woven into the heart of al Qaeda's ideology is the doctrine of takfir, the idea that Muslims who do not march in ideological/theological lock-step with its militant and austere form of Islam should be considered apostates, and so become legitimate targets of Jihad, along with and in more or less equal measure to out-and- out 'infidels.' Further, they view any hapless Muslims who become collateral damage in the cause of Jihad to be "involuntary martyrs," and so to earn the same privileges in the afterlife as those who willingly sacrifice their lives. In short, it was open season on anything that moved, and --shockingly-- this has had the effect of alienating al Qaeda among the very people for whom it was ostensibly fighting. By proactively and aggressively moving the fight into the enemy's home lands, the US has forced the Jihadis to make their stand among ordinary Muslims, and thus to focus the minds of those Muslims on the actual practices of a group which they may have passively supported from a distance...but found it much harder to back --let alone join-- when their loved ones were getting shredded while buying figs at the market.

An article in the latest issue of The New Republic by noted al Qaeda expert Peter Bergen, along with Paul Cruickshank, expands on the progressive erosion of al Qaeda's claim to legitimacy by citing various previous supporters --including some very high-status individuals-- of the Sunni Jihadi group's aims, who went unprecedentedly public in renouncing its vicious tactics. Conventional counterterror approaches have been augmented by community-based anti-radicalization efforts, which serve to contest the designs of Jihadi recruiters, notably in London, where radical mosques had proliferated like pigeons on Trafalgar Square. Al Qaeda and affiliated groups have been characteristically accommodating in alienating prospective supporters and operatives through the escalating succession of outrages they have executed and planned:
In December, Al Qaeda's campaign of violence reached new depths in the eyes of many Muslims, with a plot to launch attacks in Saudi Arabia while millions were gathered for the Hajj. Saudi security services arrested 28 Al Qaeda militants in Mecca, Medina, and Riyadh, whose targets allegedly included religious leaders critical of Al Qaeda, among them the Saudi Grand Mufti Sheikh Abd Al Aziz Al Sheikh, who responded to the plot by ruling that Al Qaeda operatives should be punished by execution, crucifixion, or exile. Plotting such attacks during the Hajj could not have been more counterproductive to Al Qaeda's cause, says Abdullah Anas, who was making the pilgrimage to Mecca himself. "People over there ... were very angry. The feeling was, how was it possible for Muslims to do that? I still can't quite believe it myself. The mood was one of shock, real shock."

Whatever their beef with the Saudi regime, it is simply astonishing even to an infidel like myself that al Qaeda would be so outlandishly self-defeating as to target the Hajj for space's sake. I can think of no finer way to announce to the mass of Muslims that you are unfit to bear their standard than to spill Muslim blood in the vicinity of the Rock. And yet, these are the the depths to which al Qaeda has shown itself willing to sink in its depraved bloodlust.

In a recent interview with the WaPo, CIA Director Michael Hayden provided an upbeat assessment of the comprehensiveness with which al Qaeda is losing ground before the onslaught of overt and covert efforts to defeat it worldwide. Citing the dramatic progress in Iraq, increasingly muscular internal counterterror efforts by the Saudis, as well as covert actions in the Pakistani frontier provinces (about which he is reassuringly tight-lipped --some covert ops I am more than comfortable with knowing very little about, despite my powerful curiosity), Hayden lays out a bracing catalog of body-blows to al Qaeda's organization and members. Similarly, in a piece in Investor's Business Daily, the author enumerates the multiple fronts on which terrorist organizations across the globe are falling like...well, dominoes to global efforts to undermine and defeat them:

Has there ever been such an epidemic of terrorist surrender? And the trend is growing. For the first time, the possibility of a world without major terror organizations is real. The world has shrunk for them, while the nations that fight back are getting stronger.

Significantly, those doing much of the winning are U.S. allies — the ones we supposedly don't have.

The British have sprung to life after years of ineffectiveness. They now show their old mettle as they break the Taliban.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi, Colombian and Philippine militaries have become effective anti-terrorist fighters after U.S. training. Those countries' forces were directly responsible for victory in Mosul, and big reversals in the jungles of Colombia and Philippines.

U.S.-trained anti-terror forces now form a united, global front of sorts. It's a bad time to be a terrorist.

So where are the naysayers now with their conventional wisdom that the war can't be won? The tables are turning on terrorists all over the world. As victories crescendo, it should be trumpeted loudly: The surge is working.

Taken as a whole, I must confess that I am pleasantly surprised at the swiftness with which our internally-riven and self-doubting Western societies have made real progress against such a widely distributed, multifarious, and ideologically driven foe. Much work lies ahead, and I fear that al Qaeda may yet land a catastrophic blow here and there as it struggles to regain some of its deteriorating Arab Street Cred. And I haven't even gotten into the matter of Iran, and its quest to claim the mantle of Jihadist primacy through its machinations. Also, there is the wild card of what might happen if a hopelessly geopolitically unsophisticated Obama should saunter into the Oval Office, a prominent "Kick me" sign --conveniently written in multiple languages, including Arabic and Farsi-- prominently displayed on his back.

But I'll take these signs for the real hope that they offer, and save the last of my Paddy's Irish whiskey for a day when "the base" finally sinks back into the earth.

It'll keep.


EDITED (5/30/2008, 2:10 PM) for clarity, Typos, and closer approximations of humor.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Memorial Day, 2008

Over at The Belmont Club (one of my very favorite blogs), I found this post on an article at the Clairmont Institute's site, regarding the "American mind for war." On this Memorial Day (or what's left of it at this hour), it got me thinking about the dynamics among the American public and the military which serves and discomfits it.

The article is actually a review of the book The Echo of Battle: The Army's Way of War, by Brian Mcallister Linn. Sounds intriguing, and I have placed it on my (absurdly long and rapidly growing) queue. In brief, the American Mind for War holds that the mass of the American public jealously guards the highly desirable quality of its peacetime life and, though quick to anger, is generally loath to surrender the comforts of that life to the horrors of war. Once drawn in, however, the author contends that the US' wars have tended to unfold in describable ways:

Because of this American mind for war, America's conflicts have fallen into two broad types: professional wars and citizen wars. Professional wars were small wars fought by the volunteer standing military, in which professionals were left alone to do their job. Citizen wars, on the other hand, drew in the American public—through conscription, mass voluntary enlistment, or direct attacks on the population—and thus had to be won quickly. That is not to say the American mind for war is amoral, but rather that morality, like so many other aspects of American thought, is pragmatic. If wars can be won by bombing military targets with as few casualties as possible, Americans will seize the chance. If wars can be won by capturing capital cities or winning decisive battles without involving civilians, wonderful. But if not, the American mind for war dictates that attacks grow steadily more devastating to enemy armies and then enemy populations until they have no choice but to give up the fight. The sooner the war ends in victory, the better-for everyone, but especially for us. It is brutal logic, but logical nevertheless.

If the circumstances of Vietnam and the current conflict have created disaffection among Americans, it is because they violated the American mind for war. The draft made Vietnam a citizen war, but the United States could not ramp up the brutality because of the threat of escalation to a conventional or nuclear war with the Soviet Union. The conundrum of Vietnam short-circuited the American mindset for warfare so totally that it sent spasms of discontent through American society and culture that can still be felt, well beyond even strategic after-effects like the Weinberger/Powell Doctrine and Vietnam Syndrome.

The current war is disconcerting in its own ways, because the precipitating incident on 9/11 did draw the civilian population into the war. Then the initial rhetoric from just about everyone about the Global War on Terrorism linked the conflict to great citizen wars of the past, and the American public became engaged emotionally. Yet the country did not mobilize in any meaningful way. Whatever their feelings about Afghanistan and Iraq, the citizenry never felt the pain of separating from their peacetime lives. The military has fought the war with the professional force that has kept the brutality to a minimum—probably even to the extent that it has hampered their fighting effectiveness. This feels like citizen war, but it is being fought like a professional war, which drives the American mind for war half-mad [emphasis added].

Many opponents of this War (whether referring to particular theaters of operations --like Iraq and Afghanistan-- or to the Long War as a whole) often observe that the general population is not being asked to sacrifice, and conclude that this is a cynical manipulation by power brokers in the Bush Administration. The reasoning goes that, if this were truly a meaningful National pursuit, then they would have been called to do more than live their lives, go shopping, etc. Since they are not being called to do so, then, the War must be seen as an attempt to quietly hijack the Republic in the service of some shadowy nefarious ends (typically involving the "Military-Industrial Complex"), while lulling the populace into a false sense of normalcy, deviously annealed by periodic injections of fear.

It seems to me that a far more parsimonious explanation for the way this War is being conducted is that our highly professional, all-volunteer military is judged to be quite sufficient for the tasks at hand, and that their efforts on our behalf are best served through the preservation of a free, prosperous, vibrant society at home. Much as Vietnam was prevented from ramping up to a Total war (in the mold of WW2) by the threat of confrontation with the USSR, so this Long War's potential escalation is checked by the fact that the success of Western Civilization itself amounts to a powerful strategic weapon in the clash of ideologies in which we are engaged. Any escalation which undermines that success and the example it provides for the people who labor under the yoke of our foes' dark visions effectively removes that weapon from our arsenal, and so makes victory more difficult to attain. We have tasked our professional military with shouldering the bloody burdens of liberty, while we tempt our enemies with its fruits.

And, with extremely few exceptions (disproportionately trumpeted by a hostile press), the members of that military have hoisted that burden with a professionalism and grace and humanity which cannot help but be noticed by any with clear eyes to see. So effectively have the warriors of our conventional military and Special Operations Forces interdicted and crushed and generally thwarted the murderous designs of our foes, that we can continue to enjoy the luxury of peacetime prosperity here at home (and make no mistake: temporary economic slowdowns aside, we are fabulously prosperous by any reasonable calculus). Some mistake this peace for the norm, and rail against those who would pierce it with rumors of war. They have the luxury to do so because others toil to keep the monsters at bay.

As I sit in my little slice of the American Dream, clicking away on my shiny new laptop, I choose, rather, to take these moments to reflect on the immense debt I owe to those who man the ramparts in my stead. Self-sacrificing but not stupid, patriotic but wide awake, they place their bodies between myself and those who would see me dead or enslaved. It hardly seems adequate to tap some appreciative words on this keyboard, or to buy them a beer, or to proudly volunteer some of my professional time, or to answer back whenever I hear them maligned. But, since they are off doing all the heavy lifting, I suppose this will have to do for now.

5/27/2008 9:27AM - Edited for clarity and flow.

Phoenix Has Landed

Following its long cruise and harrowing Entry, Descent, and Landing (EDL), NASA's Phoenix lander has touched down on the vast northern plains of Mars. It is equipped to search for water ice in the shallow subsurface of what may in the distant past have been a Martian seabed, and to test for the constituents of life itself.

As is usually the case when these missions achieve their objectives, the chief feelings I experience (after I'm done bouncing up and down in my chair in a child-like geekgasm of glee) are awe and pride. The sheer complexity involved in getting a spacecraft from the surface of the Earth, across millions of miles of space, and nailing a precise entry into the atmosphere of another planet --itself hurtling through space at very high speed-- then shedding the tremendous kinetic energy of its launch and cruise phases, and bringing it to rest in a usable condition on that planet's is simply breathtaking.

The ingenuity of the human species, the spirit of inquiry and exploration has once again enabled us to place a robotic avatar of our consciousness on the surface of another world. This is not a concept that ever gets old for me. Light-minutes away from where we sit right now, a machine sits in the thin whispery winds of the Martian atmosphere, bathed in the glow of a visibly-smaller sun, its three broad footpads sunken into the sand and gravel of a world on which no human has ever (yet!) walked. It is both a humbling and an exalting thought.

I have avidly followed the progress of the twin rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, since they bounced to the surface of Mars, over four years ago. Two images from those rovers (here and here) occupy a place on my office wall. I pore over the true-color images and often imagine what it would be like to be standing behind the rovers as they capture them (usually editing out the part about the cramped, smelly, terrifyingly necessary pressure suit I would perforce be wearing at the time). Indeed, I think I've been spoiled by the ever-changing landscapes those mobile probes have afforded, and it's going to be hard to adjust to a fixed platform again. Small price to pay for the wealth of data which Phoenix stands to provide.

I live in hope that I will last long enough to see humans live and work off-planet. Mars is about as good as it gets in the neighborhood of old Sol for such protracted excursions, and ultimately for colonization. With all of the other topics to which these pages are usually devoted, it should scarcely surprise that I would be very enthusiastically in favor of not having all of humanity's eggs in one basket. If nothing else, the wealth of ideas which would at first be the chief export of any off-world colony would enrich the species immeasurably (can you imagine a fresher perspective?). But the prospect of some natural or human-made calamity erasing all that there ever had been or would be of humanity is simply too appalling to contemplate. Larry Niven once said that "the dinosaurs became extinct because they didn't have a space program. And if we become extinct because we don't have a space program, it'll serve us right." Bit harsh, but basically says it.

So, when I hear of another successful mission to deepen our understanding of the Red Planet, my hope-meter twitches ever so slightly in the right direction. With many more missions in the offing, these promise to be "days of miracles and wonder" indeed.

Well-met, Phoenix. May you have a pleasant and productive stay.

Friday, May 23, 2008

From Kosovo to Kuwait: Renaissance and Retrogression in the Islamic World

Here's another bit by Michael Totten in Commentary (I beg your indulgence; I'm apparently on a Totten jag for the moment). The subject is an enclave of the Moderate Muslim whose more widespread emergence is a larger strategic aim of the Long War (I'm growing to like that term more and more; vague and epic. Beats the tar out of "War On Terror" anyway).

Reporting from Kosovo, Totten writes:

American flags are on sale at kiosks everywhere. They fly in front of government buildings. The world's second largest replica of the Statue of Liberty sits atop the five star Hotel Victory. The largest street downtown was renamed Bill Clinton Boulevard. Many businesses are likewise named after Clinton. One cafe owner called his establishment “Hillary” and placed two gigantic pictures of Bill and Hillary on the walls. Don't assume, though, that this makes Kosovars Muslim versions of Euro-lefties. Clinton is rightly hailed as a liberator, but one resident told me “We are Republicans here in Kosovo.” They want a strong American President who won't back down from commitments.

Relax. I'm not saying that a goal of our endeavors is to create sanitized, pro-American cheerleading squads across the globe. Geez. My point is that Kosovar Muslims were actively getting squished under Belgrade's boot when Bubba launched his 'illegal war of choice' in the Balkans. The result of that action was the rescue of hundreds of thousands of Muslims from "ethnic cleansing."

Intriguingly, they appear to be grateful.

Again, we are not trying to win sycophants, but gratitude like this is instructive for where it appears and where it doesn't. In the year following 9/11, when the US really needed to know who its friends were, some distinctly unhelpful ideas were coming out of Kuwait. Yes, Kuwait, the nation of Arab Muslims which we led a coalition to wrest from the bloody maw of Saddam's Iraq. So, what makes the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo differ so profoundly from their co-religionists on the Persian Gulf?

Once again, we turn to Steven Den Beste, who proposes that the enemy we face is --of course!-- not Islam. It is not Iraq. It is certainly not Afghanistan. It is not Saudi Arabia, though that nation does appear to be one of primary sources of what --at the most fundamental level-- we are fighting in all of those places, and many other places besides. He rather infelicitously terms it "Arab Culture," (and later amends it to "Arab Traditionalism." Still not entirely satisfying --as Den Beste is the first to admit-- but less freighted with scarily overgeneralized implications).

What he is talking about is the intellectual and cultural heritage of Muhammad's consolidation of previously fractured Arab societies under the banner of his religion. The empire which he and his successors built was unprecedented in its reach and power, and impressive in its accomplishments. But that empire fell hard and has been sinking since, like a ship falling into the deepest submarine trench, its bulkheads collapsing, tortuously, one by one, with nothing to stop it. What remains is a shell of its former self, no more the vibrant, assertive culture which initially swept outward from Arabia than the lurching zombies of horror films are the living, thinking individuals they resemble:

The problem with our enemy's culture is that in the 20th century it was revealed as being an abject failure. By any rational calculation, it could not compete, and not simply because the deck was stacked against it. The problem was more fundamental; the culture itself contained the elements of its own failure.

The only Arab nations which have prospered have done so entirely because of the accident of mineral wealth. Using money from export of oil, they imported a high tech infrastructure. They drive western cars. They use western cell phones. They built western high-rise steel frame buildings. They created superhighways and in every way implemented the trappings of western prosperity.

Or rather, they paid westerners to create all those things for them. They didn't build or create any of it themselves. It's all parasitic. And they also buy the technical skill to keep it running. The technological infrastructure of Saudi Arabia (to take an example) is run by a small army of western engineers and technicians and managers who are paid well, and who live in isolation, and who keep it all working. If they all leave, the infrastructure will collapse. Saudi Arabia does not have the technical skill to run it, or the ability to produce the replacement parts which would be needed. It's all a sham, and they know it. Everything they have which looks like modern culture was purchased. They themselves do not have the ability to produce, or even to operate, any of it.

History is littered with the corpses of cultures which failed to compete and thus perished. However, we are not faced with the problem of Etruscan traditionalists bombing cafes in Rome. Something sets the traditionalist threads of Arab culture apart, and that something has led to the formation of a very dangerous phenomenon. As Den Beste points out, Muhammad's recitations contained a very powerful message about the fate of Islam. In short, it was supposed to rule the world. Nothing particularly new there either. Trouble is, that it really seemed to be going well there for quite a while, and the (pre-Muslim) shame/face culture of the Arabs has been unable to digest the horrifying reality of how altogether Over those days are. Again, rare is the empire which will simply go quietly into that good night, yet go they have, generally kicking and screaming.

But then, they didn't have oil.

The immense hydrocarbon oceans under the sands of Arabia were the zombie potion that cursed the Arab empire to live on as the ravening revenant that it's become. The geopolitical status and outrageous (unearned) wealth which befell the retrograde regimes in the region halted what would have been the "normal" historical process of utter cultural collapse and reconstitution in a new form. Thus arrested in its cultural evolution, the power which oil wealth afforded Arab civilization also prevented the final shaming of the Old Ways which would have been the agonizing spur for it to evolve into a new form. The spectacle of the world's powers groveling and scheming to keep the black gold flowing has not been helpful for the final erasure of the hope for a restoration of the march toward global Caliphate.

The vanguard of that hope is typified by al Qaeda and the Wahhabist school of fundamentalist Islam which it uses as the foundation for its acts of barbarism against Muslims and non-Muslims alike. It is that Wahhabi strain of Islam which holds that a return to the "purity" of the earliest days of the religion is what will return it to its former greatness. Alas, it is also that strain of Islam that is so profligately funded by the petro-coffers of the Saudi government, which finances the establishment of traditional Madrassas worldwide, and so keeps the dream of the Caliphate shambling on.

Den Beste argues that it is the virulent export of that dream's most militant manifestations which has pressed the world (and the United States in particular, as the prime example of the success of those 'godless' cultures which exist as a constant insult to the pride of the Arab) to take steps to resume and hasten the full, ignominious fall of 'Arab Traditionalist Culture,' so that it can have its Renaissance and commence with discovering the bootstraps by which it will lift itself into the 17th Century...and hopefully beyond. The notion is that by conquering Iraq, facilitating its emergence as a free, prosperous, competitive --but distinctly Arab-- society, and letting it thrive, we will have presented the surrounding countries with a salubriously humiliating mirror on their own failures to reach similar levels of societal health and prosperity. I can think of nothing more subversive than the spectacle of an Iraq which absorbs (if not exactly accepting) the "Foreigner's Gift," and is able to achieve the status of a power in the region...without a burkha in sight.

Which brings us back to Kuwait and Kosovo.

In this quite lengthy but very informative account of the history of the Balkans, some very dire warnings about the potential for the ascendancy of "Arab-style," fundamentalist Islam are sounded. The ethnic Albanian Muslims are depicted in their agonizing tug-of-war with Serbs and Croats and others over the course of centuries, culminating in the consolidation of an Islamist identity which threatens to become a cradle of Islamism in Central Europe. While ominously traditional skeins of Islam have undoubtedly been present in the region, and while a great deal of brutality can be laid at their feet (hardly a market on which they have had a corner, though!), there are strong indications that the export of Wahhabism into the area is unlikely to take root. Indeed, as Totten mentions in the above-linked article, a sizable proportion of the Kosovar Muslim population belongs to the Sufi sect, a mystical-esoteric tradition within Islam (branded heretical and brutally suppressed among Salafist/Wahhabi groups) which is most decidedly non-political and whose adherents tend to be among the most 'liberal' of Muslims. It is hard to imagine a population in which Sufis thrive having any patience whatsoever with the intolerant, legalistic Wahhabi strain of Islam.

Kuwait, in stark contrast, is very much in the mold of the traditional Arab culture (see here for one of many examples). Although it owes much to the US for liberating it from the brutal expansionist adventures of Saddam's Iraq, the larger goals of the American strategy for the region cannot help but be profoundly threatening to the status quo in that nation. Make no mistake, the women of Kuwait are unlikely to sit quietly at home when they are confronted with the sight of female parliamentarians just to their north.

The more uncomfortable we can make nations which still sleep-walk under the veil of traditional Arab culture, the more we will hasten the day when "Moderate Muslim" will become a term which is applied with less incredulity. It is a day I truly hope I will live to see; if nothing else, it would be really cool to take my son to see the Pyramids someday (hey, he's just over 2 and a half. It could happen).

Wednesday, May 21, 2008


This started out as a reply to Mr Hengist's excellent Head-Banging post. In fairly short order, though, it began to grow to "dude, why don't you go get your own blog" proportions, and I decided to give it its own paddock.

I was thinking today about the dissonance between what I feel about the prospect of an Obama presidency (I hope I haven't been too vague about what those feelings are), and my experience of the quality and character of the (many) folks I know who are BO supporters. These are not simpletons; they are smart, well-educated, articulate, kind humans whom I am lucky to know...and yet they throw their support behind someone I have tried mightily and failed utterly to not see as a (generally) silver-tongued but sophomoric greenhorn who could do great damage to this Nation's domestic and --especially-- foreign policy if elected. Now, given some of my own experiences, I exist in a state of perpetual humility regarding my capacity to get things Seriously Wrong. But the more I look and poke and sift and analyze, the more convinced I become that an Obama presidency would be a setback at best, and quite possibly a catastrophe. And yet all these good people earnestly believe that he would be a boon to a nation ravaged by policies which they see as having been themselves disastrous. This is not the kind of dilemma I sleep well without accounting for.

I have arrived at the tentative conclusion that at least part of what is "wrong with" those Obama supporters is a function of what is right with America:

In this Nation, we live in a society in which you can say pretty much whatever you feel (fires and movie theaters aside, of course)--including publicly declaiming that your speech is being suppressed-- in near-total safety from any official reprisal (some permit ordinances may apply). This freedom has afforded citizens the space to plumb our individual and collective consciousness with an historically unprecedented depth, unmoored from the structures and strictures of scriptural or secular constraint. This postmodern awareness has permitted a granularity to our perceptions and ruminations in which exceedingly fine distinctions can at times take on disproportional dimensions.

Not surprisingly, this has not been an unmixed blessing of liberty. For instance, the deconstruction of previously absolute moral and metaphysical containers for our thoughts and actions has had many beneficial effects, unlocking untolled human energy (e.g., that of women) previously sequestered in philosophical Faraday cages. Indeed, I make my living applying some of the products of this enhanced self-scrutiny in the form of psychodynamic therapy. A far more unfortunate offshoot is the mode of thought which can so radically relativize all cultural and philosophical systems that they can be seen as equally valid, because they are all defensible within describable frames of reference. For example, because some identifiable group can claim a grievance against another, then the aggrieved group comes to be perceived as having as legitimate a claim as that of any party who may offer a rebuttal. It's All Good.

There are many groups which can claim grievances against the United States, and many of them cleave to some very robust memes. We done screwed up good and proper on many occasions. That said, I take serious issue with the viability of a perspective which can maintain that the aggregate of the US' actions in the Middle East warrant reprisals of the brutality and malice of those which are planned and have been executed against our citizens. But a combination of postmodern thinking and identity politics has made it de rigeur to at least entertain such notions. National self-criticism is an essential part of the healthy functioning of this Republic. It has allowed it to evolve into more than the sum of its parts...and it started off with some pretty fine parts. It is the very oxygen of liberty, and it is one faculty of our society which so animates the people who gravitate toward Obama. But too much oxygen can induce seizures, and lapses in otherwise very sound judgment.

Shielded from the aggressive ambitions of other nations by two vast oceans --less of a deterrent than they once were, to be sure, but still not inconsiderable-- and by the most powerful military in the world, we find ourselves free to rebuke the militaristic impulse itself (again, with impunity). Thus Obama can talk about utilizing our military as a kind of global SWAT team, sent in when things get dire, but then promptly withdrawn when the acute crisis is past. I suspect that this perspective flows from a deep mistrust of military might, a wariness borne of the decidedly un-nuanced single-mindedness with which armies have been deployed through history. Allowing the military to get too big, or to take on too prominent a place in the enactment of policy abroad, the reasoning goes, is an invitation to [insert grainy jack-booted newsreel here].

The trouble is that, while far from perfect (show me any comparably large group of humans that does a whole lot better!), on balance our military has thwarted far more tyranny than it has imposed. This seems to be an unpalatable thought to many, who have accepted the premise that our society cannot claim any right to defend or spread its interests and values abroad...let alone at gun-point. In many cases, there is a strong thread of anti-capitalism running through this portion of the argument. Indeed, Obama's anti-NAFTA positions (or postures, depending on who you believe) reflect the anti-Globalizing tendencies of the transnational Left pretty closely. Unfortunately, the balkanization (pun intentional) which I believe likely to ensue with each successive disconnection from the grid of international commerce would mark a retreat back down the slope which has lifted Western Civilization so far clear of the mire of frequent warfare that there is an ever-shrinking cohort for whom Great Power War even lies within living memory. Aside from the ever-present threat of Mutually Assured Destruction during the Cold War, one of the primary historical developments which has made great-power war so unimaginable today has been that very international web of commercial and cultural interrelationships known as globalization that many of these so-called transnationals would set about eroding with the imposition of protectionist regulatory regimes.

Globalized markets depend on legal and political stability and security, so that contracts and other rule sets can reliably be struck and enforced, protecting investments and the flows of goods and services and people and ideas. Again, I make reference here to Barnett's Core-Gap distinction, one of the most useful concepts I have encountered in my studies of these matters. Barnett shows us that the lion's share of US and allied military deployments since the end of the Cold War have been into areas which fall outside of the protective network of interconnected mercantile democracies which he calls the Core. It is the growth of that Core (and concomitant shrinking of the lawless and disconnected Gap) which holds the greatest promise for undermining the sources of misery and terrorism and poverty and war...but only at the price of continued assertive installation and enforcement of the rule sets which would make that possible. Obama's supporters' hopes for a world without war and with a greater emphasis on internal, social issues are laudable. Lamentably, it appears that History has other plans for us.

In a similar vein, generations have passed since an enemy marched across American soil, leading to a perception of the absolute security of US borders, a sense of safety which allows large numbers of Americans to truly believe that national borders are becoming obsolete...and that this would be a good thing. From regulated international trade to the elevation of international organizations like the UN, the unmistakable drift of the Transnational Progressives is toward something more resembling a World Government than a marketplace of sovereign nations. I know this because I used to believe it wholeheartedly. I envisioned a kind of "United Federation of Planets" (h/t to Mr Hengist here) model of global affairs. Of course, Sir Thomas Moore's great joke on history is that "U-Topia" actually means "No-Place."

Now, some would astutely argue that Europe has much more recently experienced the carnage which can ensue when national borders are seen as porous, so one would expect its nations to be a mite more prickly about the matter of sovereignty than the formation of the EU would suggest they are. But Europe, on closer inspection emerges as the exception which proves the rule. Over the course of the Cold War, Europe allowed itself to become comfortably benumbed to the dangers of a looming USSR by a long-standing American umbrella of nuclear and conventional deterrence, and by the stable network of rule-driven trade relationships which that umbrella has allowed to form. European nations had the luxury to rely on the long, pregnant pause from history afforded by the Pax Americana, and to radically de-fund their militaries, spend that money on elaborate social support systems, and increase the permeability of the membranes which separate them into distinct entities. Unfortunately, that epoch of uneasy but generally stable peace was a great mirage; Western Europe had essentially outsourced its recourse to force to a United States which obliged by maintaining (at mammoth expense) its long stalemate with the Russian Bear. So, again, the idealistic vision of a post-historical world which is held so dear to the hearts of transnational progressives like Obama and many of his supporters forms a lovely vista indeed...but it is broader by far than it is deep.

I could go on. I could, for example, talk about the strong populist proclivities of the Obama camp. The idea that the wealthiest people in this Nation should pitch in and support the struggling remainder sounds perfectly reasonable and even noble...until one considers that it is predicated on the redistribution of wealth whose continued generation is assumed to be a constant. Of course, high taxation and other redistributionist schemes would act to degrade the incentive to generate wealth at current levels, ultimately creating the conditions (e.g., increased off-shore investment) which will progressively undermine those Progressive policies and the programs they are designed to fund. Again, it is a strength of America (the dynamism and robustness of its economy --even during periods of relative slow-downs-- which makes possible the widespread creation of personal and corporate wealth) which creates the conditions for the Obama critique and its earnest, incessant calls for "Change."

I suppose I could also expand on the Obama complaints about what he appears to perceive as this Nation's unsatisfactory use of international diplomacy to address its differences with rogue regimes. Much has already been said about that on this blog, and not a bit of it can possibly improve on what has already been said by the august grandfather of political blogging, Steven Den Beste about the concept of Diplomacy as Obama and his supporters admirably but mistakenly conceptualize it.

In short, I do get it. After all, it was really not so long ago that I would have been right there, boycotting Starbucks, Questioning The Timing, making fun of John Bolton's moustache, and basking in the satisfaction that an African American candidate stood a stone's throw from the White House, where he would set about deconstructing the tottering hubristic edifice of American Empire. For the children.

Thus do I preserve my high estimation of the intelligence and character of my friends, while still heaping what I believe to be amply-earned derision on the candidate who speaks to their finer angels. If anything, it makes me even more proud of the Nation which fosters and facilitates their earnest pursuit of their ideals, even as in many cases I judge those pursuits to be based on faulty intel.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Banging my head on the wall isn't helping as much as I'd hoped...

[By Mr.Hengist]

It's been a disappointing POTUS campaign on all fronts, and an excruciatingly long one at that. This dull, throbbing headache-of-an-endless-campaign provides for an occasional break from the monotony with a burst of sharp, stabbing pains which linger long past the original offense. This past Saturday we were provided with, not one, but two such insults.

Let's begin with Barack Obama (and please forgive the ellipses, as this is an AFP quote and the transcript of this event in Roseburg, Oregon, on Saturday May 17, 2008, is not available on the remarkably unhelpful official Barack Obama 2008 website.):

"We can't drive our SUVs and eat as much as we want and keep our homes on 72 degrees at all times ... and then just expect that other countries are going to say OK."

Well. Yikes. I suppose it goes without saying that I don't expect foreigners to give me the OK on any of these things. In point of fact, the thought had never occurred to me that their opinions on these matters should be of any concern to me. Probably the Europeans think my car is too big, but I think their clown cars are absurdly small; they literally make me laugh, but I wouldn't presume to tell them to stop embarrassing themselves and get a normal American-sized car. They can bicycle to work like the Chinese for all I care, but that's my point - I just don't care what they drive, but apparently what they think about my car matters a great deal to Obama. Since most people in the world can't afford a car their opinions of my car are almost certainly irrelevant, because when economies develop and people get their hands on disposable income, they invariably buy - cars, and big ones if they can afford them. My home is kept at a comfortable temperature? Most of the rest of the world can't afford indoor climate control, their stoic disapproval of my comfort notwithstanding, and the same rule that applies to cars also applies to indoor climate control. Perhaps the most jaw-dropping of his examples is that the rest of the world disapproves of how much we eat. Obama would, therefore, as POTUS...

... what? Where was he going with this? What are we to take away from this, in terms of what policies he would try to implement as POTUS? This kind of stream-of-consciousness blathering tells us more about Obama's general worldview than it does about his actual intentions made manifest. We could play games and try to imagine what laws he would try to get enacted (Food Police! see how easy and stupid it is?) or what policies he would implement such that America would finally get the pats-on-the-back for which he seems to yearn. I lose patience with that quickly; I try not to play "fill-in-the-blanks" when it comes to an opponent's arguments, and I discourage it in others. This lack of specificity is a liability to which Obama and his supporters should be made to own-up, but instead Obama vaguely hums a tune and his supporters sing along.

Obama's gripes are sufficiently vague that his adoring fans can project on him their own dreams, and that seems to be the point. His followers get the message in the form of a kabuki semaphore: I am a transnational progressive citizen of the world. This may qualify him as First Citizen of the World, but it disqualifies him as POTUS.

Next up, we have also-ran Boo Hoo Hillary, speaking to Kentuckians on the same day:

"I'm proposing new legislation that would create a Strategic Energy Fund that will invest in developing and deploying clean and alternative energy -- homegrown energy. We can create this fund without new taxes on the hardworking Americans who are paying more at the pump, but from the windfall profits of the oil companies that just announced the largest earnings of any companies in the history of the planet. We'll tell them to play or pay -- to invest in alternative energy themselves, or to pay a portion of their excess profits from the spike in oil prices into the Strategic Energy Fund."

It's hard to know what to make of this since investments by American petroleum companies in alternative energy are already being made (by way of examples, Chevron, ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, etc.). Although having one Democrat candidate make actual proposals is a welcome contrast to the fuzzy feelgoods of Obama, the problem here is that the actual proposal actually reeks. American petrochemical companies are already "playing" and the SEF would mandate how much they'll have to invest in their own programs or have the difference confiscated by the Congress. For two years only, she promises, a "fee" (which most assuredly is NOT a TAX, youbetcha!) will skim "excess profits" without any new taxes on American taxpayers, if you can believe that - and apparently some people do.

All of this is predicated on those "excess profits" which so offend Liberals, Socialists, Communists, and a variety of assorted fans of a command-economy, so let's ignore the fact that someone who had a serious shot at being the POTUS actually used the anti-capitalist term "excess profits" and give the proposals two seconds of thought.

(tick-tock) There - done: What would happen if these companies were to rebalance their balance sheets so that profits return to Hillary's y.2000-2004 target levels and they do it by simply increasing their reinvestments in petroleum energy? As an unfunded program, SEF would be DOA, that's what. Unless, of course, Hillary was lying, and she'd make up for the shortfall with a "fee" on taxpayers. Ah, well, it's all moot - Hillary crossed the Rubicon, burned the bridges behind her, and will apparently go down with the ship, but I'm hoping that doesn't happen before there's a vicious floor-fight at the convention in Denver.

You'd think I'd be grateful that McCain throws the term "market-based" into his Climate Policy, but it just reminds me that he actually has a "Climate Policy" which includes Cap and Trade to combat Climate Change, and my headache just gets that much bigger.

Obama: An Unqualified Success

It really is starting to feel like going after Obama's grasp of foreign policy is not unlike dynamiting fish in a bucket. But every time it looks like he has committed the ultimately breathtaking blunder which will never be topped, he manages to outdo himself more stunningly than I'd ever had the audacity to hope.

The latest oral-pedal event took place in Oregon this weekend, when the junior Senator declared that "tiny countries" like Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, and Cuba should not be considered serious threats, and should be engaged directly by the highest levels of the USGOV. The 'reasoning' here is that previous US Administrations engaged in direct talks with the USSR, which was a "greater" threat, and that it was on the strength of those talks that the Berlin Wall fell, Communism collapsed, etc., etc.

Once again, words simply fail me. Ed Morrissey's above-linked fisking of the latest Obama silliness is worth reading in its entirety, in order to grasp the full breadth of Obama's awe-inspiring incoherence on matters of past and present geopolitics. Indeed, watching Obama stammer and stumble through his speech, it was easy to imagine a part of him screaming, "do you even hear what the devil you're saying here, dude?!" The premise that the mere size of an opponent's national acreage or military budget should determine our assessment of the threat it represents goes way beyond the merely naive:

[T]he danger in Iranian nuclear weapons has nothing to do with the capacity of its Shahab-3 ballistic missiles. Iran’s sponsorship of terrorist organizations will allow them to partner with any small group of lunatics who want to smuggle a nuclear weapon into any Western city — London, Rome, Washington DC, Los Angeles, take your pick. That’s the problem with nuclear proliferation; it doesn’t take a large army to threaten annihilation any longer, which is why we work so hard to keep those weapons out of the hands of non-rational actors like Iran. The Soviets may have been evil, but they were rational, and we could count on their desire to survive to rely on the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction. The Iranians believe that a worldwide conflagration will have Allah deliver the world to Islam, so a nuclear exchange may fall within their policy, and that’s assuming we could establish their culpability for a sneak nuclear attack to the extent where a President Obama would order a nuclear reprisal.

Let's be charitable here. Let's work temporarily under the assumption that Obama does understand the radical asymmetry at work with a nation like Iran, much of whose military leverage rides on the support of non-conventional forces like Hezbollah, and which therefore represents a greater threat than a simplistic accounting of its stand-up military would indicate. Let us assume, further, that he understands the prestige that direct, high-level, unconditional talks would confer on such a nation. Let's say that he was short-handing his message for a political speech, but that his actual plans if elected would possess a great deal more subtlety. Even granting such a mountain of mulligans, however, we are still left with a prospective leader who is so strikingly unable to refrain from giving a damningly mistaken impression of his plans --despite his much-vaunted eloquence-- that any rational, reasonably well-informed observer of history and world affairs who simply took him at his word would be forced to conclude that he is either a rank neophyte, a certifiable dunce, or a knowing enemy propagandist.

By contrast, we have John McCain, who today fired back at Obama's latest foray into aggressive self-disqualification. For all his faults --and they are legion-- McCain has shown an admirable grasp of the stakes in our dealings with Iran, and an excellent ability to put the relevant issues into words which do not require an army of spin doctors and media apologists to finesse into an easily digestible paste:

Senator Obama has declared, and repeatedly reaffirmed his intention to meet the President of Iran without any preconditions, likening it to meetings between former American Presidents and the leaders of the Soviet Union. Such a statement betrays the depth of Senator Obama’s inexperience and reckless judgment. Those are very serious deficiencies for an American president to possess. An ill conceived meeting between the President of the United States and the President of Iran, and the massive world media coverage it would attract, would increase the prestige of an implacable foe of the United States, and reinforce his confidence that Iran’s dedication to acquiring nuclear weapons, supporting terrorists and destroying the State of Israel had succeeded in winning concessions from the most powerful nation on earth. And he is unlikely to abandon the dangerous ambitions that will have given him a prominent role on the world stage.

Say what you will about McCain, but when it comes to matters like these, he Gets it. And, unlike the current crop of Democratic candidates (or our current President), he is actually able to be intentionally funny when the situation calls for it.

Ah, Obama. I wonder what he'll say next...

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Lebanon's Layers (With A Side of Crow)

Operating under the quaint notion that anyone might actually be reading this (besides you, Mr Hengist, bless yer heart), I thought it rather important to point out that my last couple of posts on the situation in Lebanon appear to have been based on a rather muddled understanding of some key points, and that it has caused my analysis to go somewhat-to-badly askew in places. Embarrassing, but a good opportunity to share my learning curve (still on-going!) on this very complex nation.

One key premise from previous posts was that Iran and Syria were renewing their efforts to weaken the Lebanese government through Hezbollah power plays. Not much question there. I further tied the timing of this to the recent worsening of Iran's fortunes in Iraq with Maliki's government successfully pushing back against Mahdi Army, and the growing impatience of Iraqis with the meddling of Tehran in their affairs. Given the compelling evidence of Hezbollah's influence with the Shiite portions of the Iraqi 'insurgency,' it doesn't seem to be an unwarranted leap to suggest that Iran and Syria may be trying to reestablish the initiative on another front. Where I think I really jumped the rails on this point was in my overly simplistic depiction of the political landscape of Lebanon, in particular the short shrift I gave to the Druze and Christians in their ability to fend off the aggression of forces like Hezbollah, if sufficiently provoked, as Michael Totten summarizes in an article for Commentary Magazine:

Far less attention has been paid to Hezbollah's military and strategic failure in the Chouf mountains southeast of Beirut where Lebanon's Druze community lives. Hezbollah picked a major fight there and lost. After three days of pitched battles, its gunmen were unable to conquer a single village--even when they brought out mortars and heavy artillery.

The Druze are among the fiercest of warriors, and everyone in Lebanon knows it. They are well-known in Israel, too, where they often serve in elite units of the Israel Defense Forces and suffer lower-than-average casualty rates in battles with Hezbollah and Palestinian terrorist groups. Most of Israel's Sunni Arabs abstain from military service, but Druze Arabs are as loyal to the Israeli state, and are as willing and able to fight for it, as their Lebanese counterparts are in their own country. There's a reason two of the Middle East's religious minorities--Maronite Christians and Druze--live in Lebanon's mountains in significant numbers: attempts to invade and subjugate them are ill-advised, very likely to fail, and therefore rarely attempted by even large armies.
This would appear to argue pretty forcefully that Hezbollah would be unwise to overplay its hand in Lebanon, especially after having demonstrated with very little room for ambiguity that its claims to be a Lebanese resistance force and social movement are little more than window dressing for its true ambitions. I think the impression I mistakenly gleaned, and embedded in my posts, was that the resistance within Lebanon to what will likely be seen (accurately) as a blatant Syrian/Iranian stratagem would be weak and scattered. I have no idea if such resistance would be strong enough to galvanize the various factions in defense of Lebanese sovereignty, but I think I was overly pessimistic in projecting that such resistance would almost surely be inadequate to the task.

Another point on which I believe I erred was in projecting too confidently that al Qaeda would find fertile ground for injecting itself into the Lebanese theater on behalf of the Sunnis. While it was evident as long ago as 2003 that Salafist Jihadi factions were developing disturbingly unmolested footholds in parts of Lebanon, especially in the lawless Palestinian refugee camps, it has also been shown that the landscape in which they might function is more complex and treacherous than they would like:

Al-Qaeda operatives in Iraq have alienated some of their most natural supporters through their unusually brutal tactics. Although it is too early to predict whether they will repeat this pattern in Lebanon, the Palestinians have shown a preliminary willingness to act against al-Qaeda operatives. In April 2004, Fatah forces in Lebanon arrested a Saudi al-Qaeda affiliate who had come to Ein el-Hilweh from Syria. Fatah has also skirmished with members of Asbat al-Ansar and Jund al-Sham (a splinter of Asbat) in Ein el-Hilweh, most recently at the beginning of January 2006. The January al-Qaeda warning for Palestinians to "return to Islam" and threats to "eliminate" Palestinian leaders will only escalate hostilities.
Now, if there is one thing that al Qaeda operatives have demonstrated again and again, it is their chronic inability to rein in their most brutal tactics in their quest for domination. It is entirely possible that the indigenous Palestinian and other groups will not take kindly to foreign-backed Jihadists' ravening appetite to usurp the authority of any groups they deem less pure (basically, anyone).

Make no mistake, though: al Qaeda has Lebanon squarely in its cross-hairs. This post from the Counterterrorism Blog, resolves some of the apparent contradictions in the volatile coexistence of Sunni and Shiite terror groups within Lebanon:

The [directly al Qaeda-linked Palstinian splinter group] Fatah al Islam is the latest marriage of convenience between a group of committed Jihadists, rotating in the al Qaeda’s constellation but gravitating around Damascus influence. The group accepts Bashar’s support and the Syrian regime tolerates the organization’s “Sunni” outlook: Both have a common enemy, even though they may come at each other’s throats in the future. The men of Bin Laden anywhere in the world, including in Lebanon, have the same standing order: Bringing down the moderate Arab and Muslim Governments (even in multiethnic societies) and replace them with Emirates. The men of Bashar Assad and Mahmoud Ahmedinijad have converging goals, bring down the democratically elected Government in Lebanon and replace it with a Hizbollah-Syrian dominated regime, as was the case before 2005. Thus each “axis” has one objective in Lebanon: crush the Seniora Government. They will take all their time to fight each other after.

That this is very explicitly on the agenda of the senior-most al Qaeda leadership is beyond question, as this article from US News and World Report concludes:

The nearly perfect conditions for an al Qaeda-like outbreak of violence in Lebanon have not been missed by the group's senior leadership. On April 22, al Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri suggested the Middle East's most liberal and diverse nation could play an important role in the ongoing conflict with the West. "Lebanon is a Muslim frontline fort," he said. "It will have a pivotal role, God willing, in future battles with the Crusaders and the Jews.

"I call upon the jihadist generation in Lebanon to prepare to reach Palestine and to banish the invading Crusader forces which are claimed to be peacekeeping forces in Lebanon," he said, in reference to the United Nations peacekeepers on Lebanon's southern border with Israel.

Having been so roundly humiliated in their play to subjugate Iraq, al Qaeda's leaders desperately need to re-establish some cred in another theater. I expect they are banking on the fractious nature of Lebanese populations and politics, coupled with the ever-popular effort to undermine Israel and target its maddeningly prosperous civilians, to bootstrap them back to something resembling the force they once were. If recent history is any reliable indication of how they fare against concerted resistance, however, they may be in for another rude Awakening.

I trust that my hypothetical readers will forebear my imperfect and evolving understanding of this dauntingly complicated front in this Long War. The more I have learned about Lebanon, the less inclined I have been to flagellate myself overmuch for getting much of it wrong. It is the solemn duty of armchair analysts such as myself, however, to consume as much information as possible, and to let go my ego as new data make dodos of even my most confident formulations. Let us hope that our foes are quite a bit less willing to abandon the narratives and methods which have failed them so satisfyingly so far.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Osama Joins in the Goal-Post Moving

In yesterday's post, I talked about how Tehran, apparently chastened by the abrupt worsening of its fortunes in the Iraqi theater of its proxy war against the West, seems to have shifted its focus once again to Lebanon. By weakening the Lebanese government (aided by that government's craven capitulation to Hezbollah's latest challenge to its legitimacy) Iran and Syria have set the stage for a new round of combat, hard on the border with Israel.

Osama bin Laden's latest recorded rant is conspicuous in the near-absence of any mention of Iraq as the central front in al Qaeda's global jihad. Instead, he has taken the occasion of the 60th anniversary of Israel's founding to hold forth on that State's illegitimacy and promise (yet again!) to bring about its demise. About a third of the recent messages from bin Laden and his head henchman Zawahiri have dealt primarily with Iraq, so it may be premature to posit a larger trend. However, given the recent fortunes of AQI, it would seem that any 'sensible' Salafist might be looking to massage the message around now.

The Israeli "occupation" has long served as a handy rationalization for assorted acts of barbaric xenophobia, and the sheer intractability of that situation all-but guarantees that it will remain so for the foreseeable future. Given such an inexhaustible well of grievance, it make sense that both al Qaeda and Iran should turn their attentions thence when things go ill elsewhere. Given the competition between Sunni al Qaeda and Shiite Iran to become the vanguards of global Islamist supremacy (despite the apparent tactical cooperation in which they will at times engage), it is also not unreasonable to speculate that AQ will strive to position itself as a counterweight to Tehran's jockeying for
dominance in Lebanon, and for a crack at the Jewish State. The Sunni population of Lebanon could very well find itself in some very dire straits if the machinations emanating from Tehran and Damascus should blow up as messily as it is looking an awful lot like they will (the Christians and Druze, it appears, will be on their own). Those Sunnis may well be looking for a strong horse in the months to come. I would not be at all surprised if intel of AQ 'redeployments' should begin leaking out of Lebanon in the relatively near future.

In principle, there are advantages to a scenario in which Sunni and Shiite extremists duke it out, to the detriment of both. However, the toll in human suffering will be devastating. One can only hope that, in relatively short order, the people of Lebanon awaken to true sources of their suffering and rise up against their foreign tormentors. Alas, it is far more likely that they will find some way to torture the facts so as to make it the fault of Israel and Bush.

Either way, the prospects for a "peace agreement" between the Israelis and 'Palestinians' are looking even more dim than usual these days.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Iran So Far Away?

Earlier this month, I wrote about the backlash in Iraq against the increasingly brazen intervention of Tehran within its borders. With PM Maliki's courageous pushback against Sadr's Iranian-backed goons in and around Baghdad, and the increasing professionalism and nationalistic esprit de corps within the Iraqi Army, Iran shows every sign of having suffered a severely bloodied nose. Indeed the recently more conciliatory tone set by Iranian spokesmen on Iraq has the authentic look and feel of a tactical retreat. This would, of course, be a very significant strategic gain in our overarching goal of going into Iraq, which was and is to apply pressure on regional actors to change their behavior vis a vis fostering extremism and supporting terrorism.

However, it would be dangerously naive to assume that the Gamesters of Tehran are not running more than one table at a time. In an article for The Weekly Standard, Reuel Marc Gerecht writes at length about the recalibrations taking place within an Iranian government knocked off balance by the deterioration of its proxy campaign within Iraq. Among the more ominous avenues available to the Mullahs is that of fomenting mayhem in Lebanon:

Israel may soon be embroiled in an ugly war with Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic fundamentalist movement supported spiritually and militarily by Tehran. This could turn into a two-front confrontation, as Hezbollah, revolutionary Iran's most faithful offspring, is demonstrating its willingness to use force to become the dominant player in Lebanon. Rearmed massively by Tehran since the 2006 summer war against Israel, Hezbollah could again let the missiles fly against northern Israel, while Hamas attacks from Gaza.

The recent and dishearteningly successful challenges of the Lebanese government by Hezbollah have set the board for a disturbingly promising gambit by Iran to regain its feet in the region. By so humiliatingly delegitimizing the Lebanese government, and revealing the Lebanese Army to be powerless/unwilling to defend the sovereignty of that ailing nation against its thuggish tactics, Hezbollah has shown itself once again to be a formidable shaft in Iran's quiver. Thus weakened, Lebanon teeters on the brink of dissolving into bloody wasteland of warring sectarian militias. Sunni, Druze, and Christian populations, now certain that the Army will not protect them from Tehran's Shiite shock troops, will look to their own, and enlist help where they can find it...including from groups such as al Qaeda. Into the ensuing maelstrom, Iran will stretch its arm (wrapped in its Syrian sock puppet) to graciously restore order...and so the last nail will have been driven into the pine box of the Cedar Revolution.

If this sounds unnervingly like what Iran has been trying to accomplish in Iraq, then you have been paying attention.

There are two main aspects of this situation which are especially worrisome. The first is the absence in Lebanon of a cohesive national identity like that which --for better or worse-- was forged (possibly in both senses of the word) by Saddam in Iraq over the course of the calamitous 1980-1988 war with Iran. That nationalistic impulse --animated by the primordial enmity between Persians and Arabs-- has arguably formed a basis for the unwillingness of the Iraqi people to allow Iran to impose its will on them, once its designs became so transparent. I fear that a similar pushback will be hard to come by in a Lebanese society which has long been more salad than melting pot. My second main concern is the fact that, unlike Iraq, Lebanon sits squarely on the border with Israel. In the midst of the turmoil which may soon overwhelm Lebanon, one of the few unifying threads among the various Islamist factions will be their blistering loathing of the Jewish State (or "Zionist Entity," if you must). Imagine a pressure cooker with one escape valve, bleeding live steam toward its neighbor to the south.

If there is in all of this one hopeful note --if it may be so termed-- it is the fact that Hezbollah has tipped its hand by effectively abandoning any pretense of being a Lebanese resistance movement with even a bissel of political legitimacy. Having once expelled Syrian forces from within its borders, it is conceivable that even the fractured populace of Lebanon will resist such a naked power grab by its erstwhile occupiers. I would, however, not bet the farm on this. More likely, the government of Ehud Olmert will [re]discover its vertebrae and "take steps" to interdict Syrian/Iranian aggression from its northern border...or finally fall for failing to do so. The likely result of this would be a repeat of the 2006 Summer War, with the gloves off.

Or, alternately, a show of resolve from the US, Israel, and a sufficient subset of the Lebanese people will push the Iranians into a corner where they must risk open warfare, something which, despite all of their eschatological bluster, they have been consistently circumspect about least until their "peaceful" nuclear program has borne its final fruits.

I judge it to be highly unlikely that full-on war with Iran is in the offing --the strident fantasies of the Left notwithstanding. However one should not mistake this for anything remotely resembling "peace," and those who hang their hopes on diplomacy and persuasion would do well to get a clue.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Neo Neocon on the "Anti-War" of Yore

To say time is short today would be an insult to short things everywhere. So I will just drop this link from the marvelous Neo-Neocon, and run off. I think the post and accompanying links will be singularly unsurprising to those who lean toward the right. They may be shocking to those who go the other way and still somewhat idealize the "Peace" movement of the '60s (as I used to do until really quite recently), unaware of the hard Communist ideology and purposeful subversion which lurked under the flowery fog of the Age of Aquarius.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

WaPo: Only Bigots Won't Vote For Obama

[by Mr.Hengist]

Today, the WaPo brings us harrowing tales of racism encountered by brave and earnest Obama campaigners canvassing the smallminded local hillbillies of flyover country. Here's a paragraph which is worth noting:

"The bigotry has gone beyond words. In Vincennes, the Obama campaign office was vandalized at 2 a.m. on the eve of the primary, according to police. A large plate-glass window was smashed, an American flag stolen. Other windows were spray-painted with references to Obama's controversial former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and other political messages: `Hamas votes BHO' and `We don't cling to guns or religion. Goddamn Wright.'"

Vandalism is inexcusable, but is this is evidence of bigotry? Not at all - so what is it doing in this article? It's an effort by the Washington Post to delegitimize these issues because they're problematical for Obama. The Liberal MSM and likeminded pundits will be delivering this message throughout the campaign: If you don't vote for Obama then you are a racist. Only the more clumsy amongst them will put it so bluntly.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Supporting the Unsupportable

Yet another denizen of the elitist Left has let the mask slip from their veneer of mawkish "Support for Our Troops." Recent comments by alleged author Stephen King offer a glimpse into the extent of the contempt in which some of the beneficiaries of our Nation's hard-earned freedoms hold those who bravely volunteer to uphold those freedoms in the most hostile places this side of Berkeley. King's lame attempts to lend some nuance to his statements do little to extricate his foot from his mouth on the topic.

Clearly, this is not the first time we have heard this line of 'reasoning.' John Kerry earned the harshest criticism for his comments in October 2006, which suggested that not doing your homework and doing poorly in school would leave you no option but to become "stuck in Iraq." Kerry, of course, is a highly decorated veteran when it comes to casting aspersions on the US military, even when it is the truth which earns a Purple Heart in the process. This, coming from a man who was once a hair's breadth away from becoming Commander In Chief of the very folk whom he has held in such low regard (and it appears that the feeling was mutual).

It is not at all surprising that the "anti-war" movement should cleave to this narrative. Vintage Viet Nam protesters still have a hard time reconciling themselves to the collective shame of having spat on returning soldiers, and shouted "baby-killer" at physically and emotionally wounded citizens returning from horrific battles for which a great many of them did not voluntarily enlist. Any proper post-modern peacenicks are likely to have a hard time feeling righteous and sensitive with that kind of joo-joo clinging to them.

So much better, then, to shift gears and portray our military as being composed of poor, undereducated, deluded innocents, malevolently manipulated into the prosecution of an unjust war by unscrupulous power brokers for the sake of their shadowy Corporate overlords. Why revile when you can condescend? You can see how this approach kills multiple birds with one stone: you get to protest the projection of American power abroad, attack globalized capitalism, bash Bush, and still feel good about protecting the rights of the oppressed.

The trouble is that it simply doesn't hold any water. In order for this narrative to sustain any scrutiny, it is necessary to posit that our all-volunteer military is substantially composed of people whose educational and intellectual and demographic characteristics would render them more amenable to manipulation and deception than the general population. At the very least, it must be shown that enlistees have few options besides a stint in the military, for want of the opportunities which a more elevated station in society would afford them. Alas, there does not appear to be any there there, as this study by the Heritage Foundation shows quite clearly. To wit:

In summary, the additional years of recruit data (2004–2005) sup­port the previous finding that U.S. military recruits are more similar than dissimilar to the American youth population. The slight dif­ferences are that wartime U.S. mil­itary enlistees are better educated, wealthier, and more rural on aver­age than their civilian peers.

Recruits have a higher percent­age of high school graduates and representation from Southern and rural areas. No evidence indicates exploitation of racial minorities (either by race or by race-weighted ZIP code areas). Finally, the distri­bution of household income of recruits is noticeably higher than that of the entire youth population.

And what are these relatively affluent, well-educated people doing in the face of an allegedly unjust and irrational foreign policy? It appears that they are enlisting and re-enlisting in droves. Such data make it rather difficult to sustain the argument that anyone with an ounce of intelligence would see through the pack of lies being fed to them by some Machiavellian cabal of Corporate-kowtowing Neocons. Instead, we see (if we care to look) a dedicated group of rational actors, freely choosing to put their skills and blood on the line in the service of a cause which they are eminently qualified to discern and defend.

Of course, one of the primary characteristics of Liberals and "Progressives" is the quality of looking at the world not as it is, but as they feel it should be. When one is in the habit of subordinating the observable reality to a set of idealistic abstractions, it is only a matter of time before one or the other has to give. In the battle between the Is and the Ought, though, the smart money will predict that it is the former which will make the Stand.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

AQI's High Noon in Mosul?

There are increasing indications that al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) is gathering for what amounts to a last stand in the Northern Iraqi city of Mosul. Iraqi and Coalition Forces continue to capture and kill key AQI personnel, gather timely intelligence, and otherwise shape the battlespace for what may very well be the decisive set of operations against the Sunni Jihadists in Iraq. After US and Iraqi forces all-but completely pacified the "Baghdad Belts" which were so crucial for the sustenance of the Sunni insurgency and its Jihadi allies of convenience, AQI commenced its 'phased withdrawal' northward along the Tigris, losing major players along the way:

Pity. Such an attractive bunch.

One of the things which is striking about this chart, and about this map of AQI safe havens, is the directness of the line it describes up the Tigris, and westward into Syria. They seem to keep drawing lines in the sand, only to have them turn into chalk outlines. And, as Michael Yon reports in his March 23rd Dispatch (a ripping good read, as usual), AQI's reputation has preceded them, and they are finding it markedly more difficult to cow the local populations into submission with their signature brutality.

None of this bodes well for the fate of the Caliphate in Iraq, and the prognosis for AQI as a going concern is growing increasingly grim. With a combination of serious and sustained COIN operations (to win the trust, respect, and cooperation of the local populations) and fiercely effective strikes by increasingly well-informed Special Forces and regular US and Iraqi military units (to excise the tumors in those populations' midst), the Jihadis are getting low on options.

As Michael Yon predicted, we are seeing an increased tempo of operations in Tal Afar, Mosul, and other cities of Northern Iraq. No grand set-piece battles, mind you; just good solid COIN and surgical assaults. But with this steady effort, the foundations of AQI's ability to wreak havoc on Coalition Forces and on innocent Iraqis are being progressively eroded. It may be that they are nearing total collapse. Still, as Yon points out:

There are no guarantees, but this could be the endgame for major combat operations in Iraq. Combat is likely to heat up in Mosul and western Nineveh by about May. There likely will be some reports of increased US and Iraqi casualties up here, but this does not mean that we are losing ground or that al Qaeda is resurging – though clearly they are trying. If there is an increase in casualties here as we go into the summer of 2008, it is because our people and the Iraqi forces are closing in. We have seen just how deadly al Qaeda can be. This enemy is desperate. They know they are losing. They are not likely to go out easy. The enemy is smart, agile and adaptive. Likely they will land some devastating blows on us, but at this rate, our people and Iraqi forces appear to be driving stakes through al Qaeda hearts faster than al Qaeda is regenerating.

Between these developments and the continued brisk pace of operations against Mahdi Army and other Shiite militias in Baghdad and environs, we may just have the draw on our foes in Iraq. They are banking on us to flinch. Let us hope most fervently that that will be their last in a long series of deadly mistakes.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008


In this blog, I've made repeated references to Counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy and its applications in Iraq and elsewhere in this Long War. Although I've linked the fascinating Counterinsurgency Field Manual, by General Petraeus et al. (which I consumed as part of my rather eccentrically-conceived notion of my citizen's due diligence in preparation for Petraeus and Crocker's testimony before Congress last September), I am enough of a realist --if you'll pardon the expression-- to not expect less loony folk to actually read the book.

Still, unless one has at least a passing familiarity with COIN doctrine and its practical applications in Iraq, then one is in danger of seeing "The Surge" as little more than a shallow attempt to bolster what had been a demonstrably failing strategy by simply throwing more troops at the problem. This is most emphatically not the case, though --as usual-- you'd never know it by relying solely on the MSM as a source. In point of fact, the Surge in troop levels was only the most visible aspect of what was clearly a fundamental shift in strategy, one which has been paying tremendous dividends...and just in the nick of time!

I recently encountered a couple of articles which present some very vivid pictures of COIN doctrine in action, and I thought I'd take a few moments to share them.

The first is an article from the Small Wars Journal, by Australian counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen, who is currently serving as special adviser for counterinsurgency to Secretary of State Rice. It is a wonderful insight into the thinking behind COIN tactics and strategy, organized around a set of "commandments" for military units rotating into an AO where insurgents compete for the public's cooperation. I simply cannot do it justice in a short summary, as it is so pithily written, filled with nuggets like these:

Counterinsurgency is armed social work; an attempt to redress basic social and political problems while being shot at. This makes civil affairs a central counterinsurgency activity, not an afterthought. It is how you restructure the environment to displace the enemy from it. In your company sector, civil affairs must focus on meeting basic needs first, then progress up Maslow’s hierarchy as each
successive need is met.

This is about as far from the "whack-a-mole" strategy which had previously been employed (and to which those like Barack Obama would have us return) as can be imagined. The crucial element in successful COIN operations is the intimate understanding of the host nation's society on as fine-grained a level as possible, such that the subtle signs of opposition or cooperation can become apparent and insurgents' tactics anticipated and interdicted. It is the kind of warfare which becomes possible when one's military is a highly trained and professional force of volunteers, versus a mob of conscripts.

Kilcullen's article is targeted at the level of Company commanders, and very skillfully addresses the concerns of those who must organize the activities of that number of fighters. At a much finer level of resolution is this article, by Captain Craig Coppock, US Army. It is a remarkable document which yields a wealth of practical insights into the day-to-day activities of a counterinsurgent operating at the level of the platoon or individual rifleman. The stress is clearly on the formation of intimate connections with the local population. It is by taking the time to establish relationships and gather extremely detailed data on the fine points of the AO ("Area of Operations") that the individual soldier, Marine, etc. is able to "get inside the enemy's planning cycle," and anticipate the next attack.

Readers who have never served nor intend to serve in the military (like myself) may wonder why I am directing their attention to articles which are so clearly aimed at those brave souls who choose to pursue a career in service of their country. The simple fact is that, as I have previously stated, most of us looking in from the outside will tend to have little to no idea of what it is that our military actually does on its various missions. If there is one idea that COIN operators must internalize and eternally apply, it is that a lack of understanding can lead to serious mistakes. The fact that such mistakes do not tend to be fatal for the rest of us the way they can be for those who are more directly in harm's way does not make it any less crucial that we try and minimize the number of conclusions we reach with incomplete or distorted information. Whether it is knowing which house to strike, based on information gathered from locals whose trust a soldier has painstakingly cultivated, or knowing which candidate should get our vote, based on a comprehensive and deeply-considered evaluation of well-sourced information, the consequences for our Nation and for the world in which it exists can be just as weighty.

One of the pieces of advice in the Coppock article is to vary one's patrolling habits, and so avoid predictable patterns which an alert enemy can exploit. Similarly, an over-reliance on established habits of thought and ideology are ripe targets for cynically manipulative operatives of political campaigns (to say nothing of advertising agencies and criminals). Taking the time to think inside of unfamiliar spaces can insulate us against such sneak attacks. It rewards the (considerable!) effort that it requires with the satisfaction of knowing that one has outmaneuvered even the most wily of adversaries. And so, as it goes for COIN, so does it go with citizenship and liberty as a whole:

Embrace counterinsurgency. It is not the cut and dry direct action fight that we all trained for. It is a thinking man’s game. You must outsmart your enemy. Do not get discouraged when you do not see immediate results. Some areas will be more resistant than others. This is not a reason to write the AO off as a lost cause. You just have a lot of work to do. Start small, start safe. Changing the dynamic of a neighborhood takes time.