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Rofer on The Fall of Beria and Putin’s Vanishing Act

Thursday, March 19th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

Lavrenty Beria (center) 

Russian President and brazen strongman Vladimir Putin reappeared Monday, looking wan and a little uncomfortable for the cameras, but jesting at the mad swirl of internet rumors sparked by his extended absence from public view. One of the rumors, which may have been true, was that Putin was engaged in a power struggle with his own siloviki inner circle unhappy with Western sanctions placed on Russia.  Many commentators could not help but recall similar incidents from the Soviet past and friend of ZP, Cheryl Rofer had an excellent post featuring one of the most sinister figures in Russian history, Stalin’s fearsome secret police chief, NKVD boss, Lavrenty Beria:

A Soviet Coup – The Fall of Lavrenty Beria 

….As Putin moves toward more authoritarian rule, we can expect to hear rumors whenever he goes out of sight for more than a couple of days. Both wishful thinking and the real possibility that some in his government are unhappy with his actions will continue to mix in the question of a coup. And anyone over 60 years of age is a candidate for sudden death or stroke.

Boris Nemtsov’s death, among other things, may have caused concern among various members of Russia’s elite that they are vulnerable or may have set off a fight between the FSB and Chechen politicians and security services. Nemtsov was one of Boris Yeltsin’s potential successors, along with Putin in the late 1990s. Putin has not been kind to his political rivals, but Nemtsov is the first to be murdered. And it is not clear who murdered him; the FSB and Chechen authorities are seriously arguing about this. Fear of being killed, however, is a powerful motivator toward a coup.

The situation more and more resembles the undertainties of the Soviet Union as Putin consolidates power. Succession in the Soviet Union was a vexed question, but is nominally by popular election in post-Soviet Russia, not yet fully normalized. Putin has played fast and loose with elections, first as Yeltsin’s handpicked successor and later with his tradeoff with Dmitry Medvedev as Prime Minister and President.

If Putin were seriously ill or dead, or if a coup seized power, we would not hear about it immediately. Nobody in the Russian government takes stability for granted – instability is one of Putin’s great fears – so those in power would want to project continuity, that nothing is wrong, until the change can be introduced smoothly.

In today’s world of social media and a somewhat more open Russia, suppressing that kind of news will be more difficult to do than after Stalin’s stroke, but, given all that we do not know about the Kremlin’s current activities, suppressing that information for at least a week or two seems entirely possible.

Stalin succeeded Lenin, with some question as to Lenin’s intentions, in the 1920s. He then set about consolidating his power and eliminating rivals. Stalin died of a stroke in March 1953. What happened next got complicated. This description is condensed from Mark Kramer’s “Leadership Succession and Political Violence in the USSR Following Stalin’s Death,”Chapter 4 in Political Violence: Belief, Behavior and Legitimation, Paul Hollander, ed., New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

As is the case in Putin’s Russia, no single person was obviously Stalin’s successor. A group of high-ranking men took over immediately after his death in what they called “collective leadership,” within which an extreme power struggle took place. Lavrenty Beria was one of those men. He had been Stalin’s hit man and thus perceived by the others as the most dangerous. His removal suggests how a coup might take place against Putin.

Cheryl nails a key problem of stability in Putin’s post-Soviet Russia.

Like the USSR, there is no accepted de jure process for removing an incapable or dangerous ruler other than natural causes. unlike the old Soviet Union, Putin’s Russia is a hollowed out state. The USSR had a Politburo, Presidium and a Central Committee – an intact senior leadership cadre on standby in case a General-secretary were to die. The succession structure around Putin is sketchy at best and thus while the regime is outwardly strong, in reality this vulnerability renders it dangerously fragile – too much so for the Earth’s other nuclear superpower state.

….Stalin suffered a stroke on March 2 and died on March 5. His death was publicly announced on March 7. Even before the stroke, potential successors began maneuvering. By March 3, they agreed on the immediate post-Stalin government: Georgii Malenkov would be head of government, with Vyacheslav Molotov as foreign minister, and Beria in charge of state security. Ten of Stalin’s favorites were added to the Communist Party Presidium, including Nikita Khrushchev. Malenkov, Beria, and Khrushchev were designated to oversee Stalin’s documents and personal papers. All this was approved by the Communist Party’s high officials.

The men had had close calls with Stalin’s purges and understood well that their positions were precarious, surrounded by rivals. The CPSU presidium rapidly adopted reforms after Stalin’s death that would make such purges less likely in the future. Malenkov delivered a speech to the Presidium in April 1953 denouncing the cult of personality without criticizing Stalin directly. Beria moved to reform the police and gulag system. Forced Russification in Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic states would cease. As often happens when rigid governments relax, however, social unrest increased.

Khrushchev early on, with Beria’s help, managed to oust Malenkov from the Presidium, arguing that Malenkov’s other positions were incompatible. By June, however, he had allied with Malenkov to remove Beria. They added the support of other Presidium members. They did not tell all their colleagues, however, that they planned not only to remove Beria, but also to arrest him. Beria was the most distrusted of the group, and the others were willing to see him demoted, although not all were likely to agree with his arrest. His access to Stalin’s files and his previous position meant that he had compromising information about them that could be used to bring them down. Beria was very active in other areas immediately after Stalin’s death, raising suspicions that he aspired to the top position. He replaced the top people in the MVD, the central security organization of the time, with people loyal to him.

The events of 1952-19533 are among the most murky and controversial in Soviet history and may never be fully known.

Stalin, who may have been already suffering from vascular dementia (thus aggravating his already paranoid suspicion) before his fatal stroke, was as most historians agree, preparing a new purge.  The scale of this purge is still under debate, but Stalin had already been promoting an anti-semitic campaign against “rootless cosmopolitans” since circa 1948, when he had Molotov’s wife (who was Jewish) arrested for “treason”.  Stalin cunningly separated Beria from his day-to-day control over the security services and for good measure, also arrested Beria’s longtime rival, Abukumov, replacing him with more pliant figures. Stalin began distancing himself from his henchmen (“the Oligarchs” in Adam Ulam’s phrase) longtime cronies like Voroshilov and Poskrebyshev were sent into a disgraced semi-retirement. Formal meetings of the politburo became rare events while the presidium was enlarged with new faces while Stalin cooked up “the Leningrad affair” to end the careers and lives of some of the Party’s rising stars and “the Mingrelian Affair” to put pressure on “the Big Mingrel” himself, Lavrenty Beria.

When the “Doctor’s Plot of Kremlin doctor assassins was abruptly “uncovered” by Stalin’s pathetic puppet Ryumin, it would have been very hard for senior nomenklatura to avoid seeing the terrible danger that they all found themselves. Most of the unfortunate doctors who aere arrested by the MGB and lavishly tortured had conspicuously Jewish names. They were accused of planning to kill Comrade Stalin and having killed Zhadanov and this was all too reminiscent of the Kirov case that launched the Great Terror.

Some scholars, like Arkady Vaksberg and Edvard Radzinsky think Stalin, who had grown more intensely anti-semitic in his old age, had intended a grand pogrom of Soviet Jewry, finishing off what Hitler had begun. Walter Lefeber saw Stalin’s machinations as contest of wills between Stalin and  Malenkov over the danger of  a Cold War “capitalist encirclement” and the need to prepare in a hurry for WWIII with America. Most historians, regardless of ideological stripe, agree something quite terrible was in the offing.

Then, after ominously threatening all of his inner circle at a late night drinking session at his dacha, the dictator had a massive stroke during the night and within two days, Stalin died. Perhaps with some help from Beria.

…..A sudden rebellion in East Germany was crushed by Soviet troops on June 17, 1953, causing the plot against Beria to be put on hold temporarily. Because Beria controlled all the internal security forces, the plotters had to use the military to arrest him. General Kirill Moskalenko, the commander of the Moscow Air Defense Region, was willing to cooperate. A total of ten military men were enlisted into the plot.

A meeting of the Presidium was scheduled for June 26. The military men were to remain concealed in the cars behind darkened windows and then enter the building through a side door left open by aides to Malenkov and Khrushchev after Malenkov transmitted an electronic signal to his chief aide who would be stationed outside the chamber where the Presidium was meeting.

Beria, as usual, arrived just before the meeting was to start. Malenkov changed the agenda to focus specifically on Beria’s activities. This was a complete surprise to Beria. Malenkov laid out Beria’s “misdeeds” and  alleged that Beria had been seeking to displace the collective leadership and to foment discord among Presidium members. He then proposed a number of possible remedies, all of which included removing Beria from the posts he held. He invited the other members of the Presidium to join in enumerating Beria’s “mistakes,” which they did. This put them on record as supporting Beria’s removal.

As Malenkov summed up the accusations, he pressed the button to alert the military, who marched into the room. He then declared that Beria “is so cunning and so dangerous that only the devil knows what he might do now. I therefore propose that we arrest him immediately.” Moskalenko brought out their guns and arrested and searched Beria.

The first public indication that something had happened to Beria was on June 28, when his name was omitted from a list of Presidium members who had attended the Bolshoi Ballet the previous evening. His arrest was announced on July 10. After a closed trial on December 10, Beria was executed on December 23. 

It is important to recall the degree to which Lavrenty Beria was dreaded and loathed by Stalin’s other associates. These were hard men, fanatical Communists, soaked in the blood of innocents up to their elbows; but the blood on Beria went right up to his chin.

Unlike the previous Soviet secret police chiefs under Stalin’s control such as the ailing Menzhinsky, the sycophantic poisoner Yagoda or the insanely murderous dwarf Yezhovwho all served short periods of time before being discarded or dying, Beria was far more than a torturer, spy or policeman to Stalin. An energetic, intelligent administrative wizard with his own power base in Transcaucasia where he reigned supreme, Beria, who Stalin called “his Himmler”, was the Oppenheimer and Groves of the Soviet atomic bomb and (like Kaganovich) Stalin’s all purpose trouble-shooter. This was the key to Beria’s long tenure. While he did not relish personally administering torture as Abakumov did, Beria did not shrink from beating recalcitrant prisoners senseless in his luxurious office. In his hours of rest and amusement, Beria was a habitual rapist and pedophile (his own wife was originally one of his victims) and an enthusiastic practitioner of vendettas. It may be surmised from Beria’s dogged retention of high positions that even Stalin himself was cautious in how he moved against his fellow Georgian protege. As senior Soviet historian General Dmitri Volkogonov wrote “All of the other members of the Politburo, including Malenkov, were afraid of this monster”.

Cheryl concludes:

This is how a coup against Putin might go: the plot is set up in extreme secrecy. Kramer notes that the ability to keep the 1953 plot secret among so many actors was remarkable. Everyone recognized the high stakes and secrecy was normal. Those circumstances would not be too different today. The confrontation would be different, but likely in a meeting that allowed the plotters to outnumber Putin. Today’s Russia no longer requires the cumbersome Soviet methods of accusation and appearance of legality.

There isn’t enough information available to speculate who might lead a coup. It could come from a more moderate faction who believe that Putin is damaging Russia with his war against Ukraine, or from a more nationalist faction who want stronger action against Ukraine and other targets. Or there may be other, less obvious motivations.

To strike the King, it must be a killing blow. Khrushchev knew that it would not be only his head on the block if he failed – Beria would torture his whole family to death or exile his children to the Kolyma or the Arctic circle to die slowly.

The Siloviki around Putin would have to roll the same iron dice.

Early Endorsement

Thursday, February 5th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a “zen“]

Stalin: Volume I. Paradoxes of Power 1878-1928 by Stephen Kotkin

I’ve read quite a bit about old Uncle Joe.

Most of the major biographies of Stalin sit on my shelf, including those from Adam Ulam, Roy Medvedev, Robert Tucker, Simon Sebag Montefiore, Dimitri Volkogonov and other historians more obscure. I’ve read extensive commentaries about the Kremlin Mountaineer from Robert Conquest, Richard Pipes, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn,  Milovan Djilas, George Kennan, Nikita Krushchev, Leon Trotskii, Amy Knight, Vyacheslav Molotov, Anton Antonov-Oveseenko, Al Resis, Pavel Sudoplatov, Walter Bedell Smith, Eric Hobsbawm, Herbert von Dirksen, Anatoly Dobrynin and various biographers of Churchill, Truman, FDR, Hitler and Mao. I’m not a Soviet expert, but for a layman, I can throw down rather well on Josef Stalin and his Soviet system.

So, with that in mind, if you are a Russian history buff or Soviet studies person you need to run, not walk, to get yourself a copy of Stalin: Volume I. by Princeton historian Stephen Kotkin.

It is simply that good!

Pinker, Blake and Moebius

Thursday, January 29th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — looks like I’ll have an “Author’s blog” up soon to accompany a book I’m working on, and it’ll be called “Seeing Double” — which is what this post is about ]
.

Steven Pinker, I’m sorry to say, appears to be one of those

One can imagine a world in which oracles, soothsayers, prophets, popes, visionaries, imams, or gurus have been vouchsafed with the truth which only they possess and which the rest of us would be foolish, indeed, criminal, to question. History tells us that this is not the world we live in. Selfproclaimed truthers have repeatedly been shown to be mistaken — often comically so — by history, science, and common sense.

The characters I’m interested in here are the visionaries – and my point is that truth as fact is not the only truth there is.

**

Can “history, science and common sense” really detract from the “truth” of this image by Blake?

Blake_De_antro_nympharum_Tempera_Arlington_Court_Devon

or this, by Moebius?

Moebius Floating City

**

Pinker is interesting — that single para of his just gave me a chance to rant — so let me return you to his whole piece.

I have other disagreements with him, no doubt, but he’s a mind to be engaged with.

T. Greer on Sun Tzu the Radical

Sunday, January 4th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

T. Greer at Scholar’s Stage had an outstanding post on Sun Tzu and his classic The Art of War the other day in which I learned a number of things that were new to me, which is the best kind of blog post!

The Radical Sunzi

When translated into English, the Sunzi Bingfa, usually titled Sunzi’s Art of War, is a fairly small work. When we take away the commentary and annotation added by its translators we are left with a sparse text indeed: Roger Ames’ translation is 71 pages long, the Denma Group’s translation is 66 pages, Victor Mair’s translation is only 56, and Ralph Sawyer’s translation clocks in at a mere 30 pages total. [1] The brevity of the Sunzi explains its staying power. The Sunzi only has space for a foundational discussion of abstract strategic principles, leaving no room for detailed discussions of either the tactics or the political realities of its time. This is what gives the Sunzi its transcendent feel. Great power competition between the kingdoms of Chu, Qi, and Qin faded into the realm of memory centuries ago; the proper way to deploy squadrons of crossbowmen and charioteers is now a question that interests only the historian. In contrast, the strategic principles outlined in the Sunzi endure. Their very terseness frees them from the historical context from which they came and allows them to be applied by men living thousands of years after they were first etched into bamboo.

Timeless as it may seem, however, the Sunzi was the product of problems experienced at a specific time and a specific place. It is my belief that we cannot really understand the Sunzi if we do not first understand the world from which it came–the world of the Warring States.[2] A few historians and scholars of Chinese thought have written this sort of analysis; the best of these attempts to place the Sunzi within its historical context are usually focused on the broad, macro-historical trends that divided the Spring and Autumn period that preceded the Sunzifrom the Warring States period that gave birth to it. From this perspective the Sunzi and the other military manuals that followed it were the natural product of a world torn asunder by wars waged on an ever increasing scale between large infantry armies fighting in the name of territorial, bureaucratized states.[3] There is, however, more to the Sunzi‘s historical setting than the institutional history of ancient China. Just as important is the intellectual milieu of early Warring States times. The compilers of the Sunzi were not the first Chinese to write about war. When read as a response to these earlier voices, the Sunzi’s vision of war and politics is nothing less than radical. [….]

Here comes the important part, one that demonstrates a curious symmetry with the cultural shift  between the post-Dark Age heroic-aristocratic Archaic Greece to the Classical Greece of the Golden Age that laid the foundations of Western civilization:

….The Sunzi that Meyer describes is radical–at the time of its compilation it was possibly the most radical attack on ancient China’s old aristocratic order etched in bamboo. The Sunzi‘s assault on the old regime begins with its opening line:

The military [bing] is the great affair of the state, the terrain of life and death, the way of survival and extinction, it cannot but be investigated. [4]

To modern ears this sentence may sound controversial, but it is hardly subversive. Its revolutionary nature only becomes clear when we see what it was written in response to. The place to turn is the Zuo Zhuan, China’s oldest narrative historical account and one of the few preserves of the old Spring and Autumn ethos. One of its better known dictums reads:

The great affairs of state are sacrifice and warfare.[5]

Meyer comments on the contrast between the two statements:

[In the Sunzi] all mention of sacrifice is eliminated, telegraphing the text’s contention that martial matters must be viewed in purely material terms. Rather than “warfare,” the “military” is held up as the great affair of state, implying (as the text goes on to elaborate) that there are uses for military power beyond the ‘honorable’ contest of arms. Moreover, the word that the Sunzi uses by reference to the “military,” bing???, does not evoke the aristocratic charioteer but the common foot solider, who had become the backbone of the Warring States army.[6]

The Sunzi‘s insistence that military methods were more important to the state’s survival than sacrifice was not merely radical–it was nonsensical. In the early Chinese world view, sacrifice and warfare could not be separated from each other. As with the Aztecs, Maya, and many other premodern peoples, for the Chinese of Zhou times, warfare was a sacrificial ritual. The Lost Book of Zhou, an early warring states record that chronicled the conquests of the semi-mythical King Wu, provides a clear picture of these views. It contains an interesting narrative account of the King’s return to his clan’s ancestral temple to report his victorious conquest:

Read the rest here

I just finished reading a book by the Israeli scholar Moshe Halbertal, On Sacrifice; here’s an enormous difference between a culture that “sacrifices to” and one that is worth or requires “sacrificing for“. It is not only a cultural difference, it is cognitive. Strategy is possible in a “sacrificing to” society only to the extent that it does not conflict with (often maximalist) religious dictates, which will often mean a rational strategy to achieve victory is impossible. The Jews at Masada or the Greeks of the Trojan War would have understood the precepts of warfare of the ancient Chinese of the Zhou era very well.

In war, the bronze age peoples sacrificed to. We sacrifice for – and to spend our lives to best effect we need strategy.

ISIS and the Crisis in American Statecraft

Tuesday, December 30th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

A Facebook friend with an astute comment pointed me toward this Wall Street Journal article by Joe Rago on the mission of General John Allen, USMC  as “Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL”. What is a “Special Presidential Envoy” ?

In diplomatic parlance, a special envoy is an official with full powers (a “plenipotentiary”) to conduct negotiations and conclude agreements, but without the protocol rank of ambassador and the ceremonial duties and customary courtesies. A special envoy could get right down to business without wasting time and were often technical experts or seasoned diplomatic “old hands” whom the foreign interlocuter could trust, or at least respect. These were once common appointments but today less so. A “Special Presidential Envoy” is typically something grander – in theory, a trusted fixer or VIP to act as superambassador , a deal-maker or reader of riot acts on behalf of the POTUS. Think FDR sending Harry Hopkins to Stalin or Nixon sending Kissinger secretly to Mao; more recent and less dramatic examples would be General Anthony Zinni, USMC and former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell.  

In practice, a presidential special envoy could also be much less, the foreign policy equivalent of a national commission in domestic politics; a place to park thorny, no-win, political headaches the POTUS wants to ignore by creating the illusion of action and get them off the front pages. The position is really whatever the President wishes to make of it and how much power and autonomy he cares to delegate and what, if anything, he wishes the Special Envoy to achieve. Finally, these appointments are also a sign the President does not have much confidence or trust in the bureaucracy of the State Department or DoD, or their respective Secretaries, to carry out the administration’s policy. I wager that this is one of the reasons for General Allen’s appointment.

This means that General Allen is more or less stuck with whatever brief he was given, to color within the lines and make the best uses of any carrots or sticks he was allotted ( in this micromanaging administration, probably very little of either). Why was he chosen? Most likely because the United States sending a warfighting Marine general like Allen ( or a high CIA official) will always concentrate the minds of foreigners, particularly in a region where the US has launched three major wars in a quarter century. If not Allen, it would have been someone similar with similar results because the policy and civilian officials to whom they would report would remain the same.

So if things with ISIS and Iraq/Syria  are going poorly – and my take from the article is that they are – the onus is on a pay grade much higher than General Allen’s.

I will comment on a few sections of the interview, but I suggest reading the article in full:

Inside the War Against Islamic State 

Those calamities were interrupted, and now the first beginnings of a comeback may be emerging against the disorder. Among the architects of the progress so far is John Allen, a four-star Marine Corps general who came out of retirement to lead the global campaign against what he calls “one of the darkest forces that any country has ever had to deal with.”

ISIS are definitely an bunch of evil bastards, and letting them take root unmolested is probably a bad idea. That said, they are not ten feet tall. Does anyone imagine ISIS can beat in a stand-up fight, say, the Iranian Army or the Egyptian Army, much less the IDF or (if we dropped the goofy ROE and micromanaging of company and battalion commanders) the USMC? I don’t. And if we really want Allen as an “architect” , make Allen Combatant Commander of CENTCOM.

Gen. Allen is President Obama ’s “special envoy” to the more than 60 nations and groups that have joined a coalition to defeat Islamic State, and there is now reason for optimism, even if not “wild-eyed optimism,” he said in an interview this month in his austere offices somewhere in the corridors of the State Department

Well, in DC where proximity to power is power, sticking General Allen in some broom closet at State instead of, say, in the White House, in the EOB or at least an office near the Secretary of State is how State Department mandarins and the White House staff signal to foreign partners that the Presidential Special Envoy should not be taken too seriously. It’s an intentional slight to General Allen. Not a good sign.

At the Brussels conference, the 60 international partners dedicated themselves to the defeat of Islamic State—also known as ISIS or ISIL, though Gen. Allen prefers the loose Arabic vernacular, Daesh. They formalized a strategy around five common purposes—the military campaign, disrupting the flow of foreign fighters, counterfinance, humanitarian relief and ideological delegitimization.

The fact that there are sixty (!) “partners” (whatever the hell that means) and ISIS is still running slave markets and beheading children denotes an incredible lack of seriousness here when you consider we beat Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and Fascist Italy into utter submission in the largest war in the history of the world with barely a third that number.  The best that can be said here is that Allen, in trying to be a herder of cats, got them to graciously agree on letting the US set a reasonable list of open-ended operations and policy priorities.

Gen. Allen cautions that there is hard fighting ahead and victory is difficult to define….

I think my head is going to explode. I’m sure General Allen’s head is too because this means that President Obama and his chief advisers are refusing to define victory by setting a coherent policy and consequently, few of our sixty partners are anxious to do much fighting against ISIS. When you don’t know what victory is and won’t fight, then victory is not hard to define, its impossible to achieve.

At least we are not sending large numbers of troops to fight without defining victory. That would be worse.

Gen. Allen’s assignment is diplomatic; “I just happen to be a general,” he says. He acts as strategist, broker, mediator, fixer and deal-maker across the large and often fractious coalition, managing relationships and organizing the multi-front campaign. “As you can imagine,” he says, “it’s like three-dimensional chess sometimes.”

Or its a sign that our civilian leaders and the bureaucracies they manage are dysfunctional, cynical and incompetent at foreign policy and strategy. But perhaps General Allen will pull off a miracle without armies, authorities or resources.

Unlike its antecedent al Qaeda in Iraq, Islamic State is something new, “a truly unparalleled threat to the region that we have not seen before.” Al Qaeda in Iraq “did not have the organizational depth, they didn’t have the cohesion that Daesh has exhibited in so many places.” The group has seized territory, dominated population centers and become self-financing—“they’re even talking about generating their own currency.”

But the major difference is that “we’re not just fighting a force, you know, we’re fighting an idea,” Gen. Allen says. Islamic State has created an “image that it is not just an extremist organization, not just a violent terrorist organization, but an image that it is an Islamic proto-state, in essence, the Islamic caliphate.” It is an “image of invincibility and image of an advocate on behalf of the faith of Islam.”

This ideology has proved to be a powerful recruiting engine, especially internationally. About 18,000 foreign nationals have traveled to fight in Iraq or the Syria war, some of them Uighurs or Chechens but many from Western countries like the U.K., Belgium, Australia and the U.S. About 10,000 have joined Islamic State, Gen. Allen says.

“Often these guys have got no military qualifications whatsoever,” he continues. “They just came to the battlefield to be part of something that they found attractive or interesting. So they’re most often the suicide bombers. They are the ones who have undertaken the most horrendous depredations against the local populations. They don’t come out of the Arab world. . . . They don’t have an association with a local population. So doing what people have done to those populations is easier for a foreign fighter.”

Except for the “never seen before” part – we have in fact seen this phenomena in the Islamic world many times before, starting with the Khawarijites, of whom ISIS are just the most recent iteration – this is all largely true.

ISIS, for all its foul brigandage, religious mummery and crypto-Mahdist nonsense is a competent adversary that understands how to connect  in strategy its military operations on the ground with symbolic actions at the moral level of war. Fighting at the moral level of war does not always imply (though it often does) that your side is morally good. Sadly, terror and atrocities under some circumstances can be morally compelling to onlookers and not merely repellent. In a twisted way, there’s a “burning the boats” effect in openly and gleefully committing horrific crimes that will unify and reinforce your own side while daunting your enemies and impressing onlookers with your strength and ruthlessness. Men flocked to Spain to fight for Fascism and Communism. A remarkable 60% of the Nazi Waffen-SS were foreigners, most of whom were volunteers. Ample numbers of Western left-wing intellectuals were abject apologists not only for Stalin and Mao but the Khmer Rouge during the height of its genocide. ISIS atrocities and horror are likewise political crack for certain kinds of minds.

The problem is that none of this should be a surprise to American leaders, if they took their responsibilities seriously.

William Lind and Martin van Creveld were writing about state decline and fourth generation warfare twenty five years ago. We have debated 4Gw, hybrid war, complex war, LIC, terrorism, insurgency, failed states, criminal insurgency and terms more obscure in earnest for over a decade and have wrestled with irregular warfare since John F. Kennedy was president. Yet the USG is no closer to effective policy solutions for irregular threats in 2014 than we were in 1964.

A more hopeful sign is that the new Iraqi government is more stable and multiconfessional after the autocratic sectarian rule of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. His replacement, Haider al-Abadi, has been “very clear that the future of Iraq is for all Iraqis,” Sunni, Shiite and Kurd. He has restored relations with Middle Eastern neighbors and believes in the “devolution of power” across Iraq’s regions, Gen. Allen says. “Maliki believed in the centralization of power.”

So did we. Maliki and Hamid Karzai were originally our creatures. There was at least a bad tradition of centralization in Iraq, but we imposed it in Afghanistan ex nihilo because it suited our bureaucratic convenience and, to be frank, the big government technocratic political beliefs of the kinds of people who become foreign service officers, national security wonks, military officers and NGO workers. Unfortunately, centralization didn’t much suit the Afghans.

Critics of the Obama administration’s Islamic State response argue that the campaign has been too slow and improvisational. In particular, they argue that there is one Iraqi-Syrian theater and thus that Islamic State cannot be contained or defeated in Iraq alone. Without a coherent answer to the Bashar Assad regime, the contagion from this terror haven will continue to spill over.

Gen. Allen argues that the rebels cannot remove Assad from power, and coalition members are “broadly in agreement that Syria cannot be solved by military means. . . . The only rational way to do this is a political outcome, the process of which should be developed through a political-diplomatic track. And at the end of that process, as far as the U.S. is concerned, there is no Bashar al-Assad, he is gone.”

Except without brute force or a willingness to make any significant concessions to the states that back the Assad regime this will never happen. What possible incentive would Assad have to cooperate in his own political (followed by physical) demise?  Our Washington insiders believe that you can refuse to both bargain or fight but still get your way because most of them are originally lawyers and MBAs who are used to prevailing at home by manipulation, deception, secret back room deals and rigged procedures. That works less well in the wider world which rests, under a thin veneer of international law, on the dynamic of Hobbesian political violence.

As ISIS has demonstrated, I might add.

The war against Islamic State will go on long after he returns to private life, Gen. Allen predicts. “We can attack Daesh kinetically, we can constrain it financially, we can solve the human suffering associated with the refugees, but as long as the idea of Daesh remains intact, they have yet to be defeated,” he says. The “conflict-termination aspect of the strategy,” as he puts it, is to “delegitimize Daesh, expose it for what it really is.”

This specific campaign, against this specific enemy, he continues, belongs to a larger intellectual, religious and political movement, what he describes as “the rescue of Islam.” He explains that “I understand the challenges that the Arabs face now in trying to deal with Daesh as an entity, as a clear threat to their states and to their people, but also the threat that Daesh is to their faith.”

While Iraqi and Iranian Shia have ample existentiall motive to fight ISIS. Sunni Muslims find ISIS brutality pretty tolerable, so long as it is far away from them personally and furthermore ISIS religious-theological lunacy is not terribly far removed from the extreme Salafi-Wahhabi version preached and globally proselytized by our good friends, the House of Saud – or exported violently by our other good friends, the Pakistani Army.  Or at least Sunni Muslims are not bothered enough yet by ISIS to pick up arms and fight.

General Allen is doing his best at a herculean task, but American statecraft is broken and seduced by a political culture vested in magical thinking.


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