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Making Historical Analogies about 1914

Friday, January 10th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

The Independent has a short, quasi-sensationalist, article featuring historian Margaret MacMillan discussing what is likely to become the first pop academic cottage industry of 2014….making historical analogies about 1914 and World War I! MacMillan is a senior scholar of international relations and administrator at Oxford ( where she is Warden of St Antony’s College)  with a wide range of research interests, including the First World War on which she has published two books.  I am just going to excerpt and comment on the historical analogies MacMillan made – or at least the ones filtered by the reporter and editor – she’s more eloquent in her own writing where each of these points are treated at greater length:

Is it 1914 all over again? We are in danger of repeating the mistakes that started WWI, says a leading historian 

Professor Margaret MacMillan, of the University of Cambridge, argues that the Middle East could be viewed as the modern-day equivalent of this turbulent region. A nuclear arms race that would be likely to start if Iran developed a bomb “would make for a very dangerous world indeed, which could lead to a recreation of the kind of tinderbox that exploded in the Balkans 100 years ago – only this time with mushroom clouds,”

…..While history does not repeat itself precisely, the Middle East today bears a worrying resemblance to the Balkans then,” she says. “A similar mix of toxic nationalisms threatens to draw in outside powers as the US, Turkey, Russia, and Iran look to protect their interests and clients. 

Several comments here. There is a similarity in that like the unstable Balkan states of the early 20th century, many of the Mideastern countries are young, autocratic, states with ancient cultures that are relatively weak  and measure their full independence from imperial rule only in decades.  The Mideast is also like the Balkans, divided internally along ethnic, tribal, religious, sectarian and linguistic lines.

The differences though, are substantial. The world may be more polycentric now than in 1954 or 1994 but the relative and absolute preponderance of American power versus all possible rivals, even while war-weary and economically dolorous, is not comparable to Great Britain’s position in 1914.  The outside great powers MacMillan points to are far from co-equal and there is no alliance system today that would guarantee escalation of a local conflict to a general war. Unlike Russia facing Austria-Hungary over Serbia there is no chance that Iran or Russia would court a full-scale war with the United States over Syria.

On the negative side of the ledger, the real problem  is not possible imperial conquest but the danger of regional collapse. “Toxic nationalism” is less the problem than the fact that the scale of a Mideastern Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict is so enormous, as are the implications . Nothing in the Balkans after the turn of the century compares to Syria, then Iraq and then other states sliding into a Muslim version of the Thirty Year’s War. An arc of failed states from Beirut to Islamabad is likelier than, say, a new Persian empire run by Tehran’s mullahs.

Modern-day Islamist terrorists mirror the revolutionary communists and anarchists who carried out a string of assassinations in the name of a philosophy that sanctioned murder to achieve their vision of a better world

Agree here. The analogy between 21st revolutionary Islamists and the 19th century revolutionary anarchists is sound.

And in 1914, Germany was a rising force that sought to challenge the pre-eminent power of the time, the UK. Today, the growing power of China is perceived as a threat by some in the US.

Transitions from one world power to another are always seen as dangerous times. In the late 1920s, the US drew up plans for a war with the British Empire that would have seen the invasion of Canada, partly because it was assumed conflict would break out as America took over as the world’s main superpower.

Imperial Germany’s growing power was less troublesome to Edwardian British statesmen than the strategic error of the Kaiser and von Tirpitz to pursue a naval arms race with Great Britain that did not give Germany’even the ability to break a naval blockade but needlessly antagonized the British with an existential threat that pushed London into the French camp.

As to military plans for invading Canada (or anywhere else), the job of military planning staffs are to create war plans to cover hypothetical contingencies so that if a crisis breaks out, there is at least a feasible starting point on the drawing board from which to begin organizing a campaign. This is what staff officers do be they American, French, Russian, German, Chinese and even British. This is not to be taken as serious evidence that the Coolidge or Hoover administrations were hatching schemes to occupy Quebec.

More importantly, nuclear weapons create an impediment to Sino-American rivalry ending in an “August 1914″ moment ( though not, arguably, an accidental or peripheral clash at sea or a nasty proxy conflict). Even bullying Japan ultimately carries a risk that at a certain point, the Japanese will get fed-up with Beijing, decide they need parity with China, and become a nuclear weapons state.

Professor MacMillan, whose book The War That Ended Peace was published last year, said right-wing and nationalist sentiments were rising across the world and had also been a factor before the First World War

In China and Japan, patriotic passions have been inflamed by the dispute over a string of islands in the East China Sea, known as the Senkakus in Japan and Diaoyus in China. “Increased Chinese military spending and the build-up of its naval capacity suggest to many American strategists that China intends to challenge the US as a Pacific power, and we are now seeing an arms race between the two countries in that region,” she writes in her essay. “The Wall Street Journal has authoritative reports that the Pentagon is preparing war plans against China – just in case.” 

“It is tempting – and sobering –to compare today’s relationship between China and the US with that between Germany and England a century ago,” Professor MacMillan writes. She points to the growing disquiet in the US over Chinese investment in America while “the Chinese complain that the US treats them as a second-rate power”.

The “dispute” of the Senkakus has been intentionally and wholly created by Beijing in much the same way Chinese leaders had PLA troops provocatively infringe on Indian territory, claim the South China Sea as sovereign territory and bully ships of all nearby nations other than Russia in international or foreign national waters. This is, as Edward Luttwak recently pointed out, not an especially smart execution of strategy. China’s recent burst of nationalistic bluffing, intimidation and paranoia about encirclement are working along the path of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Another similarity highlighted by the historian is the belief that a full-scale war between the major powers is unthinkable after such a prolonged period of peace. “Now, as then, the march of globalisation has lulled us into a false sense of safety,” she says. “The 100th anniversary of 1914 should make us reflect anew on our vulnerability to human error, sudden catastrophes, and sheer accident.

Agree that globalization is no guarantee against human folly, ambition or the caprice of chance.

What are your thoughts?

Manhunt: Radicalization, & comprehending the full impact of dreams

Saturday, June 8th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — how do you intercept messages that come via dreams? I’m thinking of al-Balawi ]
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My little graphic (below) may be kidding — but what of reality?

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In the bin Laden documentary, Manhunt, which I mentioned before seeing it here, and discussed briefly here, another passage (at 1.22.31) that is missing from the CNN transcript concerns the dream which radicalized Humam al-Balawi, the Khost bomber. Balawi speaks, the subtitles translate for us:

God blessed me to have this dream. I dreamed I saw Zarqawi. He was in my house. His face was like a full moon. He was busy. Preparing an attack. I wishes I could fight with him. Be killed with him. I am your humble brother from Jordan. I am 32 years old and a medical doctor.

I’m not suggesting there was no prior fertilization of Balawi’s mind and heart, nor that he was influenced by no other drivers: I just wonder what the impact of such a dream would be, given that intense smuggling goes on between our waking and dream lives, of a kind that no intercepts can capture for analysis.

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How powerful can influence can a dream exert?

Consider this example, taken from Marie-Lousie von Franz, On Dreams & Death: A Jungian Interpretation, p. 64:

She sees a candle lit on the window sill of the hospital room and finds that the candle suddenly goes out. Fear and anxiety ensue as the darkness envelops her. Fear and anxiety ensue as the darkness envelops her. Then, the candle re-lights on the other side of the window and she awakens. She died the same day.

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If I may borrow a bit from some unpublished writings of mine…

Dreams as early indicators:

The western secular paradigm considers dreams to be of little or no significance, and it is therefore entirely possible that intelligence gleaned from the recounting of dreams will seem of little interest to western analysts. In the Islamic view, however, certain dreams are of considered to be of real significance, their importance being indicated by the hadith reported by Bukhari:

Narrated Ibn ‘Umar: Allah’s Apostle said, “The worst lie is that a person claims to have seen a dream which he has not seen.”

— Sahih Bukhari, book 87: Interpretation of Dreams, #167.

One early indicator of a Mahdist tendency in a given population, therefore, would be the presence of dreams about the Mahdi in a given discourse — in jihadist chat rooms, for instance — while the frequency of such mentions would be a useful heuristic measure of the development of such a movement. Thus Yaroslav Trofimov reports [Siege of Mecca, hb. p.50.] that in the run-up to the 1979 siege of the Grand Mosque and Ka’aba in Mecca, many followers of Juhayman al-Otaibi, the leader of the raid, dreamed dreams:

Then, one after another, hundreds of Juhayman’s supporters experienced detailed, vivid dreams. Mohammed Abdullah’s sister appears to have been the first, quickly followed by others. In their sleep, they all had the same vision: Mohammed Abdullah standing by the sacred Kaaba in Mecca’s Grand Mosque, accepting allegiance as the blessed Mahdi amid multitudes of believers. Militants from as far away as Lebanon who never encountered Mohammed Abdullah in person claimed to have had the same dream.

It is worth noting here that while, as Trofimov suggests, much of the dreaming “must have been caused by self-suggestion” this in no way invalidates their significance as indicators. Indeed, Reuven Paz writes of the mediaeval scholar Ibn Sirrin‘s still-popular Interpretation of Dreams that “high selling rates of this book can provide us an indicator for rising apocalyptic notions”. Paz also notes a “sizable number” of jihadis publishing their dreams and visions on Jihadist forums on the web [p.4..

Dream narration of this sort certainly corresponds to hikayat as discussed by Michael Vlahos in his essay Terror’s Mask: Insurgency Within Islam — still one of the most necessary pieces I have read on al-Qaeda..

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Closer to home, in one sense, than the siege of the Grand Mosque, is the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers and Pentagon. This too had its dream precursors, as we can tell from the video transcript of bin Laden‘s taped meeting of mid-November 2001:

UBL: He [Abu-Al-Hasan Al-Masri] told me a year ago: “I saw in a dream, we were playing a soccer game against the Americans. When our team showed up in the field, they were all pilots!” He said: “So I wondered if that was a soccer game or a pilot game? Our players were pilots.” He didn’t know anything about the operation until he heard it on the radio. He said the game went on and we defeated them. That was a good omen for us.

Shaykh: May Allah be blessed.

Unidentified Man: Abd Al Rahman Al-Ghamri said he saw a vision, before the operation, a plane crashed into a tall building. He knew nothing about it.

Shaykh: May Allah be blessed!

and notably:

UBL: We were at a camp of one of the brother’s guards in Qandahar. This brother belonged to the majority of the group. He came close and told me that he saw, in a dream, a tall building in America, and in the same dream he saw Mukhtar teaching them how to play karate. At that point, I was worried that maybe the secret would be revealed if everyone starts seeing it in their dream. So I closed the subject. I told him if he sees another dream, not to tell anybody, because people will be upset with him.

(Another person’s voice can be heard recounting his dream about two planes hitting a big building).

For your in-depth reading pleasure, see Iain R. Edgar, The Inspirational Night Dream in the Motivation and Justification of Jihad if you can get past the paywall…

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Vlahos quotes Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples, on this point — I’ll present my own version of that quote here, because it describes a mindset that, mutatis mutandis, many of our opponents share to this day:

It was commonly held, in all cultures before the modern age, that dreams and visions could open a door into a world other than that of senses. They might bring messages from God; they might disclose a hidden dimension of a person’s own soul; they might come from jinns or devils. The desire to unravel the meaning of dreams must have been widespread, and was generally regarded as legitimate; dreams told us something which it was important to know.

Dreams are “outside the box” of waking reality — and we need to learn to appreciate the force of dream logic, if we want to think outside our own western prejudices, and inside our adversaries’ heads…

Great question!

Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — from Paradise Regained: Overcoming Terrorism in Star Trek Into Darkness ]
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Matt Ford, guest-blogging at Grand Blog Tarkin [includes spoilers] asks:

How many young Americans learned Arabic and Pashto or studied counterterrorism and international relations because nineteen men flew three planes into a building and one into the ground, killing thousands?

Great question!

And how many in the UK after 9/11? — and after 7/7?

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Also worth reading [and also includes spoilers]:

Amy Davidson, Is “Star Trek into Darkness” a drone allegory?

Syria is Not Rwanda

Monday, April 29th, 2013

Anne-Marie Slaughter had a short but bombastic WaPo op-ed on Syria and chemical weapons use that requires comment:

Obama should remember Rwanda as he weighs action in Syria 

….The Clinton administration did not want to acknowledge that genocide was taking place in Rwanda because the United States would have been legally bound by the Genocide Convention of 1948 to intervene to stop the killing. The reason the Obama administration does not want to recognize that chemical weapons are being used in Syria is because Obama warned the Syrian regime clearly and sharply in August against using such weapons. “There would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical-weapons front or the use of chemical weapons,” he said. “That would change my calculations significantly.”

….But the White House must recognize that the game has already changed. U.S. credibility is on the line. For all the temptation to hide behind the decision to invade Iraq based on faulty intelligence about weapons of mass destruction, Obama must realize the tremendous damage he will do to the United States and to his legacy if he fails to act. He should understand the deep and lasting damage done when the gap between words and deeds becomes too great to ignore, when those who wield power are exposed as not saying what they mean or meaning what they say.

This is remarkably poorly reasoned advice from Dr. Slaughter that hopefully, President Obama will continue to ignore.
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The President, on the basis of advice very much in the spirit of this op-ed, drew a public “red-line” about chemical weapons use for Bashar Assad, or some variation of that, on six occasions, personally and through intermediaries. On the narrow point, Slaughter is correct that this action was ill-considered, in that the President wisely does not seem to have much of an appetite for jumping into the Syrian conflict. Bluffing needlessly is not a good practice in foreign policy simply to pacify domestic critics, but it is something presidents do from time to time. Maybe the POTUS arguably needs better foreign policy advisers, but doubling down by following through with some kind (Slaughter fails to specify) military intervention in Syria is not supported in this op-ed by anything beyond mere rhetoric.
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First, as bad as the Syrian civil war is in terms of casualties it does not remotely approximate the Rwandan Genocide in scale, moral clarity, military dynamics or characteristics of the major actors. This is a terrible analogy designed primarily to appeal to emotion in the uninformed. Syria is engaged in civil war, not genocide.
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Secondly, the “credibility” argument has been lifted by Slaughter from it’s Cold War historical context where the United States capacity to provide a nuclear umbrella and effective deterrent for allied states was tied to the perception of our political will to assume the appropriate risks, which in turn would help avoid escalation of any given conflict to WWIII. This psychological-political variable of “credibility” soon migrated from the realm of direct US-Soviet nuclear confrontation in Europe to all manner of minor disputes (ex. -Quemoy and Matsu, civil unrest in the Dominican Republic) and proxy wars. It was often misapplied in these circumstances and “credibility” assumed a much greater exigency in the minds of American statesmen than it it did in our Soviet adversaries or even our allies, to the point where American statecraft at the highest level was paralyzed by groupthink in dealing with the war in Vietnam. By 1968, even the French thought we were mad.
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Absent the superpower rivalry that kept the world near the brink of global thermonuclear war, “credibility” as understood by Johnson, Rusk, Nixon and Kissinger loses much of it’s impetus. If “credibility” is the only reason for significant US intervention in Syria it is being offered because there are no good, hardheaded, reasons based on interest that can pass a laugh test.
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The historical examples President Obama should heed in contemplating American intervention in Syria is not Rwanda, but Lebanon and Iraq.

Only Amateurs Negotiate in Public

Friday, April 26th, 2013

There is much buzz right now about whether the cruel Syrian Baathist-Alawite regime of Bashar Assad, struggling to hold on to power in the midst of civil war against rebel Sunni forces, crossed   President Obama’s “red line” by using Sarin gas, a war crime. That is not really the important point for Americans. There are two things to consider here.

First, specifically how would intervening militarily in Syria’s awful civil war be in American national interest?

It is important to get a clear cut answer here because everyone arguing that Assad has “crossed a red line” that we will “not tolerate” is making a de facto argument for some kind of intervention on our part. Maybe if no one can define such an interest it is because there isn’t any and intervening will bring the US nothing but costs in blood and treasure without gaining anything of strategic value. I’m not against intervention per se but there really ought to be a coherent reason so we can rationally measure it against the potential costs which, from where I sit, look rather large.

Secondly, in important matters of state, you don’t negotiate in public with a potential adversary if you really hope to gain a concession from them and if you reach the point of issuing a public ultimatum, you don’t bluff.

The people who have advised President Obama to make these “red line” statements to Syria through the media instead of quietly through diplomatic channels are either professionally incompetent at statecraft or they were hoping to manipulate the President by getting him to back himself into a corner with tough rhetoric so that if Assad did not blink then Obama would have the choice of looking weak and foolish or of approving some kind of action against Syria. Either way, the President was poorly served by this advice. Maybe he needs some new foreign policy and national security advisers who actually know something more about the world than domestic politics and being lawyer-lobbyists.

As a result that the President never really had any intentions of, say, invading Syria this year, we are now being treated to nervously asserted, lawyerly parsing of what really counts as “red lines” and what technical level of Sarin gas particulates constitutes “use”. It is an embarrassing climb down for the administration but also for the United States that never needed to happen. Empty posturing is not a substitute for a policy. Saying “Do something!” is not a strategy.

This is no brief for Assad’s regime. He’s definitely a bad actor and runs a nasty and now democidal police state he inherited from his mass-murdering father, Hafez Assad. I’m open to hearing why the US should aid in a regime change because the outcome will be in our interests in some concrete and definable way. Oh, yeah, and it might help if the person making the pitch knew something about Syria and regional geopolitics, or was at least consulted about it.

Let’s think long and hard this time.


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