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The Twilight War—a review

Monday, July 23rd, 2012

[by J. Scott Shipman]

The Twilight War, The Secret History of America’s Thirty-year Conflict with Iran, by David Crist

When President Obama made a heartfelt opening, a smug Iranian leadership viewed it as a ruse or the gesture of a weak leader. Iran spurned him. Obama fell back on sanctions and CENTCOM; Iran fell back into its comfortable bed of terrorism and warmongering. Soon it may no longer be twilight; the light is dimming, and night may well be approaching at long last. [emphasis added]

Thus concludes senior government historian David Crist’s The Twilight War, and be assured Crist’s language is not hyperbole. Crist masterfully details the tumult of U.S.-Iranian relations from the Carter administration to present day. Using recently released and unclassified archived data from principals directly involved in shaping and making American foreign policy, Crist provides the reader an up-front view of “how the sausage is made;” and, as with sausage, the view often isn’t pretty for either side. Crist’s access wasn’t limited to U.S. policy makers, as he conducted interviews with principles on the other side as well, for instance, he had secret meetings/interviews with pro-Iranian Lebanese officials in south Beirut. In all, Crist estimated he interviewed over “four hundred individuals in the United States and overseas.”

Crist begins his story with the Shah of Iran in the last days of his leadership, as popular sentiment was turning against both his regime, as well as his American enablers. He reveals the Carter administration’s fleeting notion of military intervention following the fall of the Shah, and includes details how the clerics reigned in professional Iranian military members, purging the “unreconstructed royalists.” From the start, the U.S. learned how difficult, if indeed impossible, relations were going to be with the new Iranian leadership. One State Department report summed up the situation:

It is clear that we are dealing with an outlook that differs fundamentally from our own, and a chaotic internal situation. Our character, our society are based on optimism—a long history of strength and success, the possibility of equality, the protection of institutions, enshrined in a constitution, the belief in our ability to control our own destiny. Iran, on the other hand has a long and painful history of foreign invasions, occupations, and domination. Their outlook is a function of this history and the solace most Iranians have found in Shi’a Islam. They place a premium on survival. They are manipulative, fatalistic, suspicious, and xenophobic.

While I am certain the writer of this report was not intending to be prophetic, as it turns out this paragraph captures the essence of our conflict. Each American president has thought himself equal to the challenge and each has thus far failed.

The Twilight War includes the birth of Hezbollah, accounts of the Marine barracks bombing in 1983 (from the men who were there), and the details of the Kuwaiti request for American protection of their tanker fleet from the Iranians. From this decision, the U.S. committed military force to protect Middle East oil—a difficult and at times, contentious decision. This decision resulted in continued sporadic confrontations between the U.S. and Iranian forces in the Persian Gulf.

Crist’s book is an illustration writ-large of a book previously reviewed here at Zenpundit.com; Derek Leebaert’s Magic and Mayhem, The Delusions of American Foreign Policy—as both “magic” and “mayhem” figure large in our on-going relationship with Iran. Most U.S. administrations when dealing with Iran came to rely on the “magic, ” and often divorced, or worse, ignored the realities.

At 572 pages, the fast paced narrative is a must read for anyone wanting insight into the origins and issues that remain in the ongoing U.S.-Iran conflict. The Twilight War is exhaustively sourced.  Crist says in the Notes his book was twenty-years in the making and it shows. Further, this book comes with excellent maps, so keeping up with the geography is made easier.

Tom Ricks said, “this is the foreign policy book of the year, perhaps many years,” and Ricks may be right. The Twilight War is an important and timely book on a vital topic, and comes with my strongest recommendation.

Postscript:

A copy of The Twilight War was provided to this reviewer by the publisher.

Trial of a Thousand Years, by Charles Hill—a review

Thursday, August 11th, 2011

 trial of thousand years

by J. Scott Shipman 

Trial of a Thousand Years, World Order and Islamism, by Charles Hill

Ambassador Charles Hill’s Grand Strategies, Literature, Statecraft, and World Order was the best book I read in 2010, so I had high expectations for this volume and was not disappointed. Ambassador Hill provides a 35,000-foot view of the relationships between the West and Islam in history focusing on the subtitle of his earlier work in the form of “world order.”

Unsurprisingly, as in Grand Strategies Hill goes back to the roots of modern order in the Treaty of Westphalia (1648). He provides a brief review of the world ushered in by the men who negotiated, and quotes another historian who said, “men who were laboring, each in his own way, for the termination of a terrible war. They had no idea of progress. The word “innovation” was anathema to them. The last thing on their minds was the creation of a new system of sovereign states…” Here we are 363 years later and “from the seeds sown at Westphalia” the system they set in place is has grown, but has been under siege many times from many fronts.

Westphalia was distinctive because it was “procedural, not substantive” and required a minimum number of procedures/practices to which to adhere and allowed disparate parties with different, “even mutually antagonistic, substantive doctrines and objectives” to work together. Hill points out four distinctions:

  • Religious arguments were not allowed in diplomacy.
  • The State was the fundamental entity.
  • Interstate/international norms and laws were encouraged, absent “divine sources” but based on mutually beneficial/positive agreements.
  • Use of professional military and diplomats with “its own set of protcols.” [Personal note: In another life, I was an arms control inspector enforcing the START I and INF Treaties—protocol was very serious and the true measure of the actual treaty language. There was also a strong and consistent application of reciprocity that made each party think before stretching protocol—this happened to my teams more than once.]

For Hill a central mission of the United States is the defense of the Westphalian world order. In less than 165 pages and six chapters, he outlines the origins of modern Western order and correspondingly covers Islamic order. From the beginning to the end Hill provides ample evidence of challenges to Westphalia, often from indigenous Western sources, but focusing mostly on our trials with Islam.

Hill sets the sources from whence the Western and Islamic world orders arose, where the West was grounded in Christianity, and the Islamic in the Caliphate. For two religions claiming Abrahamic roots, their worldviews were, and in many instances remain diametrically opposed. Central was the question of duality or unity. For the West, the State and religion were two complementary systems/powers—following the teaching of Christ ““Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” (St Matthew’s Gospel 22:21) For Islam there was no distinction, and the very thought was hateful to Islamists. Islam’s “unswerving devotion to monotheism” continues to this day among those groups and states using terror to upend existing world order.

I am sympathetic to Hill’s ideas; however recognize with globalization and the internet tweaks may be required. And I’ll take this segue to introduce an idea for consideration.

Westphalia’s removal of religion made trade possible among former religious enemies. Unambiguous rules for contracts and dispute resolution evolved. What if we could bridge the gap between Western jurisprudence and tribal, or non-Western legal systems? What if, instead of insisting our way or the highway we design a solution that would allow both sides to keep their respective legal processes and procedures, thereby opening untapped markets?

At least one person has already considered these alternatives. Michael Van Notten (1933-2002) was a practicing lawyer in the Netherlands and married into a Somali tribe. Van Notten used his legal training and insights gained as a member of his new family to design a method of contracting where tribal law and Western jurisprudence could peacefully and prosperously coexist. Van Notten recorded his ideas in a book called The Law of Somalis, A Stable Foundation for Economic Development in the Horn of Africa. I’ll not review this book, but wanted offer this as a teaser alternative.

After reviewing the history of the West and Islam, Hill identifies seven Clausewitzian centers of gravity for both: legal, military, the State, women, democracy, nuclear weapons, and values. Hill makes the distinction between the use of diplomacy by Islam and the Islamist (the fundamental variety). No surprises, to the Islamist a secular State is an “apostasy,” as is international law (Sharia being the single source), democracy and the rights of women.

Hill concludes, “Islamic civilization entered the international system under duress,” which he believes has contributed to the current situation of failing states and lagging economies that establish conditions where radicalized Islam can flourish. The radicalized elements reject the secular Westphalian world order, however Hill points out that some in Islam insist that sharia imposed by the state “cannot be the true law of Islam. It is not possible to apply sharia through the state; it can only be applied through acceptance by human beings (An-Na’im).” Another alternative is the Medina polity established by the Prophet (“later called the Pact—kitab—of Medina) “guaranteeing each tribe the right to follow its own religion and customs, imposing on all citizens rules designed to keep the overall peace, establishing a legal process by which the tribes settled purely internal matters themselves and ceded to Muhammad the authority to settle intertribal disputes…Although this document has been called the first written constitution, it was really more of a multiparty treaty” (Ansary).

Hill convincingly demonstrates that more often than not, rulers have co-opted Islam as a way to dominate the people (Iran comes to mind.). He quotes Professor L. Carl Brown of Princeton, “nothing exclusively “Islamic” about this Muslim attitude towards politics, any more than the politics of feudalism or of imperial Russia was distinctly “Christian.” It is the political legacy of Muslims, not the theology of Islam…”

For the Islamist, secularism is the booger man, but secularism in the Westphalian order has its own set of problems. Hill writes, “A new phenomena arose: wars motivated by religious convictions were replaced by wars driven by ideologies—surrogates for religion—each aimed to oppose, undermine, destroy and replace the Westphalian system. The greatest of these was international communism, the latest is international Islamism.”

In many respects, Trials is as good as Grand Strategies. Ambassador Hill is to be commended for his insight, courage, and conviction—this little book packs a big, enlightening punch. Strongest recommendation.

References you may find of interest (links to quoted authors above are links to the respective reference):

The Incoherence of the Philosophers, Abu Hamid Muhammed Al-Ghazali

The Crisis of Islamic Civilization, Ali A. Allawi

The Caliphate, Thomas W. Arnold

Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islamism, John Calvert

Crimea: The Last Crusade, Orlando Figes —Figes’ The Whisperers was very good.

The Morality of Law, Lon L. Fuller

The Muqaddimah, Ibn Khaldun (Translated Franz Rosenthal)

The Clash of Empires: The Invention of China in Modern World Making, Lydia H. Liu

The Government of the Ottoman Empire in the time of Suleiman the Magnificent, Albert Lyber

Byzantine Civilization and The Fall of Constantinople, both by Steven Runciman

The First World War, Hew Strachan

Mozart and the Enlightenment; Truth, Virtue and Beauty in Mozart’s Operas Nicholas Till

Muslim Intellectual: A Study of Al-Ghazadi, W. Montgomery Watt

Dialectic of Enlightenment, Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno 

 

 

Saturday, January 27th, 2007

STATE FAILURE 2.0

(Cross-posted at Chicago Boyz)

One of the sharpest points of contention between Thoms P.M. Barnett and John Robb is over the feasibility of Tom’s System Administration concept. This issue has been the topic of numerous posts and the occasional rhetorical jab between the two strategic theorists. This pattern repeats itself, in my view, for a number of reasons. First, even friendly professional rivalry causes a natural bumping of heads; secondly, Robb looks at a system and thinks how it can be made to fall apart while Barnett looks at the same system and imagines how the pieces can be reintegrated. Third, no one really has all the answers yet on why some states fail relatively easily while others prove resilient in the face of horrific stress.

Robb contends that Global Guerillas can potentially keep a state in permanent failure, despite the best efforts of System Administration intervention to the contrary. A new level of systemic collapse, call it State Failure 2.0, where failure constitutes a self-sustaining dynamic. Broadly defined, you would chalk up ” wins” for Robb’s point of view in Somalia, Iraq and the Congo. In Dr. Barnett’s column you would find Germany, Japan, Cambodia, East Timor and Sierra Leone in evidence for the efficacy of Sys Admin work. Lebanon and Afghanistan perhaps could be described as a nation-building draw at this point in time.

Why permanent failure in some cases but not others ? This is something that long puzzled me. Then today, I read an intriguing pair of posts at Paul Hartzog’s blog - ” Ernesto Laclau and the Persistence of Panarchy” and ” Complexity and Collapse“. An excerpt from the first post:

Ernesto Laclau was here @ UMich and gave a delightful talk that gave me some key insights into the long-term stability of panarchy.

…However, with the new heterogeneity of global social movements, Laclau makes the point that as the state-system declines, there is no possibility of the emergence of a new state-like form because the diverse multitude possesses no single criterion of difference around which a new state could crystallize.

Thus, there is no possibility of a state which could satisfy the heterogenous values of the diverse multitude. What is significant here is that according to this logic, once panarchy arrives, it can never coalesce into some new stable unified entity.

In other words, panarchy is autopoietic as is. As new criteria of difference emerge and vanish, the complex un-whole that is panarchy will never rigidify into something that can be opposed, i.e. it will never become a new hegemony. “

While I think Paul is incorrect on the ultimate conclusion – that panarchy is a steady-state system for society – I think he has accurately described why a state may remain ” stuck” in failure for a considerable period of time as we reckon it. Moreover, it was a familiar scenario to me, being reminiscient of the permanent failure experienced by the global economy during the Great Depression. Yet some states pulled themselves out of the Depression, locally and temporarily, with extreme state intervention while the system itself did not recover until after WWII with the opposite policy – steady liberalization of international trade and de-regulation of markets that became globalization.

The lesson from that economic analogy might be that reviving completely failed states might first require a ” clearing of the board” of local opposition – defeated Germany and Japan, Cambodia, Sierra Leone and East Timor were completely devastated countries that had to begin societal reconstruction at only slightly better than ground zero. Somalia, Afghanistan, Congo, Iraq, and Lebanon all contain robust subnational networks that create high levels of friction that work against System Administration. At times, international aid simply helps sustain the dysfunctional actors in their resistance.

System Administration as a cure for helping connect Gap states might be akin to government fiscal and monetary policy intervention in the economy; it may work best with the easiest and worst-off cases where there is either a functional and legitimate local government to act as a partner or where there is no government to get in the way and the warring factions are exhausted.

The dangerous middle ground of partially failed states is the real sticking point.


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