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Posts from my Coursera classes 3 — on knowing Shia from Sunni

Thursday, June 19th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- Bush, Reyes and McCain as leading indicators of a difficult learning-curve ]
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Here’s another in my series of posts taken from MOOCs I’ve been participating in. This one comes from the Changing World Order Coursera MOOC from Leiden University, and deals with the knowledge senior US politicians have shown of the distinction between the Shia and Sunni branches of Islam — as fundamental as the distinction between Protestant and Catholic within Christianity, and similarly basic in that further distinctions of detail also merit our awareness and consideration.

I am posting it here today not just because it’s part of the series of “bigger picture” mini-essays [1, 2] I’m drawing together as I continue to participate in these MOOC discussions, but also so that I can link to it in my post on Nomenclature, ISIS and beyond.

Here’s the post in question:

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As to the knowledge of these distinctions present in American politicians, here are some data points, one from George W Bush shortly before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, one from the incoming Democratic chair of the House intelligence Committee in 2006, and one from John McCain in 2008.

President GW Bush:

A year after the Axis of Evil speech, President Bush met with three Iraqi Americans … As the three described what they thought would be the political situation after Saddam’s fall, they talked about Sunnis and Shiites.  It became apparent to them that the president was unfamiliar with these terms. … So two months before he ordered U.S. troops into the country, the president of the United States did not appear to know about the division among Iraqis that has defined the country’s history and politics.  He would not have understood why non-Arab Iran might gain a foothold in post-Saddam Iraq.  He could not have anticipated U.S. troops being caught in the middle of a civil war between two religious sects that he did not know existed.

— Peter Galbraith, The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End

Rep Silvestre Reyes:

In 2006, the New York Times reported on Rep Silvestre Reyes’ answers to two questions:

  • Is Al Qaeda Sunni or Shiite?
  • Which sect dominates Hezbollah?

Silvestre Reyes, the Democratic nominee to head the House Intelligence Committee, failed to answer both questions correctly last week when put to the test by Congressional Quarterly. He mislabeled Al Qaeda as predominantly Shiite, and on Hezbollah, which is mostly Shiite, he drew a blank.

“Speaking only for myself,” he told reporters, “it’s hard to keep things in perspective and in the categories.”

— New York Times, Refresher Course for Congress: Telling Sunni From Shiite

Sen. John McCain:

Sen. John McCain, traveling in the Middle East to promote his foreign policy expertise, misidentified in remarks Tuesday which broad category of Iraqi extremists are allegedly receiving support from Iran.

He said several times that Iran, a predominately Shiite country, was supplying the mostly Sunni militant group, al-Qaeda. In fact, officials have said they believe Iran is helping Shiite extremists in Iraq.

Speaking to reporters in Amman, the Jordanian capital, McCain said he and two Senate colleagues traveling with him continue to be concerned about Iranian operatives “taking al-Qaeda into Iran, training them and sending them back.”

Pressed to elaborate, McCain said it was “common knowledge and has been reported in the media that al-Qaeda is going back into Iran and receiving training and are coming back into Iraq from Iran, that’s well known. And it’s unfortunate.” A few moments later, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, standing just behind McCain, stepped forward and whispered in the presidential candidate’s ear. McCain then said: “I’m sorry, the Iranians are training extremists, not al-Qaeda.”

A McCain Gaffe in Jordan, Washington Post, 2008

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Somewhere between intelligence and decision-making, there’s a gap…

– hipbone

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Previous posts in this series:

  • Posts from my Coursera classes I — dehumanization, consequences
  • Posts from my Coursera classes 2 — angles on the Taliban
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    Reading a partisan cartoon: the parable of a dog’s ears and teeth

    Friday, November 16th, 2012

    [ by Charles Cameron -- on the difficulties that may be posed when "reading" graphics ]
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    The question I want to ask in this post is: how much can you safely read into a political cartoon?

    Here is the particular cartoon I have in mind:

    It was published in The Guardian (UK) yesterday, and as you may be able to see, it portrays Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu as a puppet-master, with British politicians Tony Blair and William Hague as his puppets, and was published to illustrate the cartoonist’s view of British reaction to the Gaza situation.

    How much can we read into it?

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    If you are used to seeing cartoons such as these —

    showing Khamenei pulling Ahmadinejad‘s strings and Petraeus as a puppet of GW Bush, when you come across the Netanyahu cartoon in the Guardian, you may well view it as another in a long series of political cartoons suggesting that someone is running someone else’s show behind the scenes. It’s the old idea of the eminence grise, in other words, expressed in cartoon form.

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    If, on the other hand, you’ve been exposed way too often to cartoons like these —

    the one portraying Churchill, FDR and Stalin as Jewish puppets, taken from a 1942 issue of the Nazi paper, Fliegende Blätter, or the one depicting McCain and Obama as Israeli puppets, taken from a 2008 issue of the Saudi paper, Al-Watan… you may well see the same cartoon in a very different — and distinctly antisemitic — light.

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    The last two graphics, at least, are extremely offensive, and I would like to offer another graphic here — one which also uses our “puppet master” theme — as a visual equivalent of offering a glass of water to cleanse the palate:

    I’ll be addressing this My Fair Lady poster from a very different angle, in a later post in my “form is insight” series — this one on “dolls within dolls”, the “world stage which we have dotted with stages of our own devising” and “turtles all the way down”…

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    Having hopefully reduced the emotional freight which some of the cartoons above must surely have carried with them, I would now like to offer you some background which seems relevant to me. Characteristically, perhaps, it comes from a very different field of knowledge.

    EC Zeeman‘s April 1976 article Catastrophe Theory in the Scientific American was my introduction to the mathematician Rene Thom’s remarkable body of work, an introduction which sailed mostly over my head — but one of Zeeman’s points, which he illustrated with the graphic below, made perfect sense to me.

    The annotation to this illustration read in part:

    If an angry dog is made more fearful, its mood follow* the trajectory ‘A’ on the control surface. The corresponding path on the behaviour surface moves to the left on the top sheet until it reaches the fold curve; the top sheet then vanishes, and the path must jump abruptly to the bottom sheet. Thus the dog abandons its attack and suddenly flees. Similarly, a frightened dog that is angered followes the trajectory ‘B’. The dog remains on the bottom sheet until that sheet disappears, then as it jumps to the top sheet it stops cowering and suddenly attacks.

    My translation:

    A dog that reaches the point where its ears are fully pinned back, indicating full-on fear, and its teeth are also fully bared, indicating full on rage, will behave differently depending on whether its fear level or its rage level was the first to be raised to “full”.

    Just as a dog’s reaction to a full on mix of rage and fear may depend on which stimulus came first, so — I am suggesting — our own reaction to the cartoon in question — inherently antisemitic, or merely critical of a particular Israeli operation — may depend on our previous exposure to cartoons, politics, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or antisemitism.

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    We now have several levels of ease or difficulty in reading graphics. The Zeeman graphics are hard to read because they’re too small to be legible — but put them in the context of Zeeman’s article, and view them full size as originally published, and the only problem might be in following Zeeman’s text, itself a popularization and simplification of Rene Thom‘s work.

    The Bart Simpson graphic is fairly straight forward, and regular viewers of the show would “read” it in line with hundreds of similar frames in which Bart writes repeated lines on a classroom chalkboard, from Season 1 episode 2′s “I will not waste chalk” to Season 23′s “There’s no proven link between raisins and boogers”.

    And then there’s the disputed Netanyahu graphic… which can be “read” differently, depending on what previous “puppet master” associations the viewer beings to the task. Here, it seems to me, the task of interpretation can be viewed in one of two ways: (i) as an exploration of how it is likely to be read, which I’m suggesting will depend on previous association, and (ii) as an exploration of what “must have been” in the cartoonist’s heart.

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    Assessing the cartoon’s probable impact on segments of the public is one thing — knowing what the cartoonist intended, even though we tend to conflate the two, is quite another. Not for nothing does St Paul in I Corinthians 2.11 ask (in my own translation)

    Who knows the qualities of a man but the spirit of that man within him?

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    Clausewitz vs. Sun Tzu

    Monday, December 13th, 2010

      

    This article at SWJ blog has stirred a lively debate in the comments section with some very able practitioner-scholars weighing in.

    ….Sun Tzu?s ancient military philosophy of indirectness and gradualism runs counter-culture with much of mainstream western military strategy. Western reliance on superior technology and firepower shaped American counterinsurgency doctrine to be largely lethal in nature and enemy focused. Clausewitz instructed generations of military officers that the destruction of the enemy?s army is the primary goal in all combat1; therefore, all political-military conflict results in offensive action where attrition of the enemy force becomes a universal requirement. Clausewitzian war theory „worked? in both world wars in that the Allies did accomplish their desired goals; however critics such as Israeli strategist Shimon Naveh raise valid questions on whether Clausewitz?s fixation on offensive action and attrition warfare helped or hindered the Allied causes2. Despite Clausewitzian strategy?s seemingly illogical structure, application of his theories in the major 20th century conflicts created an enduring military school of war strategy with „On War? taking a sacred position.

    In fairness to Clausewitz, this is over the top.

    The US military could use more Sun Tzu; it is far more Clausewitzian in the perspective of the officer corps than it is “Sun Tzuite”, but the armed services are not the Children of Clausewitz. Not even the US Army. We’d probably be better off if the American military was more thoroughly one or the other in terms of strategic culture than the industrial age, bureaucratic, ad hoc, legacy thinking non-strategic hodgepode that currently prevails.

    I do not expect that to change. American military organizational culture is driven more by appropriations than by ideas.

    Some Related Links:

    Sonishi.com Interview with Martin van Creveld on Sun Tzu

    Sonishi.com Interview with Chet Richards on Sun Tzu and Boyd

    Christopher Bassford on Sun Tzu, Jomini and Clausewitz

    Colin Gray on Clausewitz and the Modern Strategic World

    The Clausewitz Roundtable

    Strategy of the Headless Chicken

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    Tracking the Mahdi on WikiLeaks

    Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

    by Charles Cameron

    A quick search for “Mahdi” and “Mehdi” and “Twelfth Imam” in the 294 messages so far published in diplomatic Wikileaks reveals some references to individuals with those names, and a couple to Moqtada al-Sadr’s Jaysh al-Mahdi (spelled “Jaysh al-Madhi” in one cable by someone who is perhaps confused by the similarity of the name to that of Mahatma Gandhi), along with three cables in which Mahdism is touched upon.

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    09ASHGABAT1182 of September 16, 2009 reports a comment by an undisclosed source who is “adamant” that the US should not enter into direct talks with Iran’s leadership:

    Not only, he insisted, is the Iranian leadership “untrustworthy,” and dominated by a group of “messianics,” who base crucial decisions about domestic and foreign policy on a belief in the imminent return of the “Missing” (Twelfth) Imam.

    From my point of view, any foreign policy based on or strongly influenced by belief in the imminent return of a prophesied figure of good or evil, whether that figure be Moshiach or Christ or Mahdi, Antichrist or Dajjal, should be cause for concern: from a religious perspective, because messianic expectations are precisely what Matthew is talking about when he writes that “false Christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect” (Matt 24.24) – and from a secular perspective because such identifications have been made again and again across history, often with disastrous results (think Waco, think the 1979 siege of Mecca, think the Taiping Rebellion).

    That’s why I’m interested in monitoring the various strands of apocalyptic thinking out and about in the world today.

    2

    A little over a month earlier, on August 3, 2009, 09RPODUBAI316 under the sub-head “A Benevolent Dictator’s Fall from Grace” discussed the idea that the “Arab street” (both Sunni and Shi’a are mentioned) initially saw some Mahdist qualities in Ahmadinejad:

    A Syrian journalist and blogger, who owns a media consultancy firm in Dubai, believes that many in the Arab street initially viewed Ahmadinejad when he came to power in 2005 as a “benevolent dictator.” Citing the tradition of the Mahdi, the media consultant argued that both Shi’a and Sunni Arabs are taught from early childhood to await the arrival of a strong and unimpeachable figure who will lead the Muslim world. The media consultant maintained that even secular Arabs view the world, albeit unintentionally, with this ingrained mindset. Our contact argued that Ahmadinejad played in to this narrative, and when Ahmadinejad arrived on the international stage many Arabs saw him, in contrast to their own flawed leaders, as a humble and pious man who was brave enough to stand up for his people and the greater Muslim world by confronting Israel and the West head on. However, both the intensely competitive campaign period and the forceful reaction by the Iranian people to the official election results have led some moderate Arabs to rethink Ahmadinejad’s true disposition. The election, the media consultant said, led some Arabs to understand that despite his astutely crafted and well-marketed image in the Arab world, Ahmadinejad is resented by many Iranians for domestic mismanagement, incompetence, and corruption. Because of this public fall from grace, so the media consultant told us, Ahmadinejad is no longer the “untouchable, holy figure” in the Arab world he once was — his flaws have brought him down to the level of the Arab world’s own imperfect leaders.

    I’m reminded of the way that Steve Davis of Charleston, SC, among others, projected messianic qualities onto then-candidate Obama, when he wrote:

    Barack’s appeal is actually messianic, it’s something about his aura, his spirit, his soul, that exudes enlightenment in the making.

    I interpret Obama’s Lebanon, NH remarks as making light of that sort of projection (McCain’s video makes light of it, too), whereas Ahmadinejad appears to take his own status within the aura of the Mahdi all too seriously.

    3

    The last reference allows me to end on a happier note.

    The French diplo Jean-Christophe Paucelle is quoted in 09PARIS1046 of July 31, 2009 on the topic of Ahmadinejad’s inauguration.

    First he mentions that since non-Muslims had not been invited to previous inaugurations, European members of the diplomatic corps might not know which door to take if they wished to walk out on the ceremony, should such an action be called for… and then he discusses an additional reason why the French would attend the ceremony, despite the contested nature of the election:

    Paucelle said that the case of detained French citizen Clothilde Reiss has also influenced the EU decision to attend the inauguration ceremonies. “We think she may be released soon, and we don’t want to create another irritant,” Paucelle said. “There are enough already.” He reported that the French have reason to believe Reiss may form part of a group of detainees likely to be released on the August 7 anniversary of Imam Mahdi. Paucelle noted that a letter released July 29 by Ahmadinejad supported the idea of granting clemency to post-election protesters during Mahdi celebrations. “The Iranians will need to take face-saving measures, and so she will likely transfer to house arrest or some other status,” Paucelle said. He added that, of course, she may not be released at all next week, but the French remain optimistic that she will soon be out of prison.

    Clotilde Reiss was indeed not released on that occasion — but she was in fact freed somewhat later, on Sunday, May 16th, 2010.

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    Obama’s Night

    Wednesday, November 5th, 2008

    Senator Barack Obama acheived a historic milestone tonight and is now the President-Elect of the United States. He was as gracious in his victory speech as Senator John McCain was earlier in making his concession. A positive tone that has been absent for too long in recent election cycles.

    I voted for Senator McCain. I am not a supporter of President-Elect Obama but I hope that Republicans and conservatives will start their period of loyal opposition by modeling the respect for the new president that President Bush was seldom accorded. There will time enough for rough political battles in the future without sinking into partisan rancor now. The other side ran the better race and our immediate priority should be to get our own house in order. There are  reasons the GOP just was clobbered that cannot be waved away that go beyond media bias or the political skills of Barack Obama.

    Congratulations to those Obama supporters and Democrats in the ZP readership, it’s your night tonight as well.

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