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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.

US Foreign Policy, Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood

Wednesday, January 30th, 2013

The Obama administration, though they would not characterize it as such nor have much desire to acknowledge it at all, have attempted  a strategic detente with the “moderate” elements of political Islam.

This policy has not been entirely consistent; Syria, for example, is a quagmire the administration has wisely refrained from wading directly into despite the best efforts of R2P advocates to drag us there.  But more importantly, under President Obama the US supported the broad-based Arab Spring popular revolt against US ally, dictator Hosni Mubarak, and pushed the subsequent ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Libyan revolution against the entirely mad Colonel Gaddafi. These appear to be geopolitical “moves” upon which the Obama administration hopes to build.

I would like to emphasize that there is one legitimate and valid strategic pro to this sub rosa policy; namely, if everything went well, it would provide the United States with powerful triangulation against revolutionary, apocalyptic, radical Islamism as expressed by al Qaida and various Salafi extremist movements. There are reasons, rooted in takfirism, strategy and the politics of lunacy that our terrorist enemies frequently hate and revile the Brotherhood as traitors, apostates or whatever. Isolating the most actively dangerous and violent revolutionary enemies from a large mass of potential allies is, at least, a good strategic goal.

It is also my view, that this “outreach” is as politically sensitive  to the Obama administration as was the China Opening was to Nixon and about which they have been equally opaque and misleading for fear of a domestic backlash. The weird, foot-dragging, dissembling, embittered, kabuki drama inside the Beltway about public statements and intelligence on whether Benghazi was caused by obscure crackpot Islamophobic film makers or a well-orchestrated terrorist attack  is in my view due to a major foreign policy strategy never having been framed in public for what it is. I’m sure people will differ strongly with me on this (which is fine), but I would characterize detente with Islamists as a strategic shift on par with the “Pivot to Asia”.

The downside here is that first, things are not likely to come out well at all, as unfinished revolutions tend to give birth to monsters; and secondly, any detente with “moderate” political Islam is an uncertain gamble based on certain exceptionally optimistic conceptions of not only what the Brotherhood might do, but about it’s very nature.

While the removal of Arab dictators resonated with American values , it was questionable realpolitik while the administration’s de facto support of  Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood faction over poorly organized secular liberal modernists was an act of realpolitik that required a compromise of the democratic values so recently invoked to justify abandoning Mubarak. This was cynical diplomatic flexibility worthy of Talleyrand.

Unfortunately, the most democratic thing – perhaps the only thing – about Mr. Morsi and his Brotherhood supporters was his election.

The Egyptian people who are subjected now to thuggery from both Morsi’s Islamist stormtroopers and from the security forces of the Egyptian military are less sanguine than are the Brotherhood’s cheerleaders inside the administration. The Egyptian people, in fact, seem to be in revolt against domination by the Muslim Brotherhood’s shadow government.

The first question to ask in assessing if the Obama administration policy here is wise would be “What is the nature of the Muslim Brotherhood?” Americans love to personalize foreign policy, but if  Morsi were to be toppled or die, the Brotherhood will remain what it currently is, the best organized political force in Egypt and one widely influential throughout the Arab world and the West itself.

I am not an expert on the Muslim Brotherhood, nor am I an Arabist by education. Most of us aren’t – a group that I fear includes most of the Obama administration officials involved in shaping this policy. Almost fifty years after King Faisal determined to export Wahhabism, more than thirty years since Khomeini’s Revolution and more than ten years since 9/11 the USG still has less in-house expertise related to Islam than it did about the Soviet Union and Communism a decade after the Berlin Blockade.

Perhaps we all should begin learning more?

Here is an analysis from FPRI; it is extremely critical but it touches on organizational aspects of the Muslim Brotherhood that I have not seen elsewhere (hat tip to David Ronfeldt). Feel free to suggest others, both for and against. The Brotherhood is a very large group with a long history that includes violence , terrorism and subversion on one hand and peacefully representing expressions of pious, middle-class, social conservatism in other places and times:

Lecture Transcript: What Every American Should Know about Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Delivered by Eric Trager 

….Two years ago when I was doing my dissertation fieldwork in Cairo, I sought out interviews with leaders from the Muslim Brotherhood, and I was referred to a man named Muhammad Morsi, now the President of Egypt. At the time, President Mubarak was ill and had gone off to Europe for operations amid a lot of mystery surrounding his health. I asked Muhammad Morsi whether the Muslim Brotherhood would run a presidential candidate if Mubarak died tomorrow. Here is what he said:

[From an audio file played by Trager]

Eric Trager: You don’t see the Muslim Brotherhood nominating a presidential candidate [if Mubarak dies tomorrow]?

Muhammad Morsi: No… because society is not ready… Our society is not ready yet to really defend its worth. We want a society to carry on its responsibilities, and we are part of this society. Another thing, if we are rushing things, then I don’t think that leads to a real stable position.

When he made that statement, I don’t think he was lying, and I don’t think he was being coy. I think that he didn’t expect that he would be faced with this reality in a mere six months. He did not expect that Mubarak would step down six months later and, to be completely honest with you, neither did I. My dissertation was entitled “Egypt: Durable Authoritarianism”—until the revolution.

What did Morsi mean when he said that the Brotherhood was trying to build a society? Let me give you some background on the Muslim Brotherhood. It was founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, who was a schoolteacher in Ismailia. The Muslim Brotherhood’s goal was then—and remains now—to establish an Islamic state in Egypt. The way it pursues this goal is by trying to Islamize Egyptian society. Through social services, education, and the mosque, it sought to make Egyptians more religious and more Islamic as a grassroots strategy for building an Islamic state. That’s very, very different from a strategy that says, “We’re going to run for president, run for the Parliament, and use that power to transform society.” Rather, the Brotherhood says, in effect, “We’re going to Islamize society to build towards power.” It was a long-term strategy; it took them 84 years before they ran for and won the presidency. So Morsi told me in 2010 that the Muslim Brotherhood was not going to run for the presidency because it was not done Islamizing Egyptian society….

Read the rest here.

Form is insight: the funnel, part 1

Thursday, October 11th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — a post in my importance of form in intelligence series — Afghanistan, the complexity — also a Blackfoot Tale from Grinnell ]

Funnel image credit: Oxsite


One of my favorite tales of all time is the Blackfoot legend of The Bull Band, which begins thus in Grinnell‘s telling:

The people had built a great pis’kun, very high and strong, so that no buffalo could escape; but somehow the buffalo would not jump over the cliff. When driven toward it, they would run nearly to the edge, and then, swerving to the right or left, they would go down the sloping hills and cross the valley in safety. So the people were hungry, and began to starve.

Somehow I’d come by a sense that the pis’kun was a sort of funnel – perhaps from Joseph Campbell, whom I once heard tell this tale in his own words – and today I looked around my foolscap-sized screen and discovered that John Canfield Ewers reports what he calls a “buffalo fall” pretty much how I’d imagined the thing, in his Indian Life on the Upper Missouri:

The Piegan band called Never Laughs was camped on the Teton River a few miles north of the present town of Choteau. Their chief announced, “Now we are going to make a buffalo fall.” They built a corral below the cliff and piled rocks in a great V-shape on the slope above the fall. Then they chose a man to lead the buffalo to the fall. But each time he lured them in between the lines of rocks they broke away before they reached the cliff edge. After this had happened three times, young Many Tail Feathers became angry…

So that’s the shape I’m thinking of here: “a great V shape” – let’s call it a funnel.


I want to use the funnel to illustrate a movement in time, an imperative in intelligence, and a loss in nuance.

First, some background.


We are in a tricky situation here, because our minds would like to grasp a problematic reality (which resembles a landscape) by means of a thought (which resembles a road sign).

What’s up in Afghanistan?

Drought, and a huge humanitarian catastrophe, say those whose eyes are focused on human beings as fellow creatures in need of food, water and shelter. Preparations for getting the oil in Khazakstan to market, say those who focus on geology, resources, economics. The start of a strategic corridor that also includes Tibet and Kashmir, contested by India and Pakistan, the nuclear locals, and Russia and China, the nuclear regionals, in a four-sided tug of war. Islam itself, the religion of God, or a perverse and puritanical variant thereof. Or one man, Osama bin Laden.

Clearly a complex landscape – and we would like, depending which road sign we follow, to bomb the shit out of them, bring in truckloads of food and medicines, establish a stable government with which to ink a pipeline deal, export their Wahabi brand of Islam to the world — or discreetly support the US in its mission to extirpate the terrorists of Al-Qaida without rousing the more fundamentalist and simplistic of our citizens to topple the government and institute a radical Islamist state.

So much depends on whether we are in Peshawar or the Pentagon, in poverty or power. So much depends on our perspective, and the parallax it brings with it.

Because no matter what point of view we choose to consider the landscape from, some parts of the terrain will seem so close together as to be indistinguishable which we can understand to be worlds apart if we can only view them from another angle, in a different perspective.

I am not arguing for moral relativism. I am arguing for a recognition of complexity, and for an admission that sound bites and white papers cannot handle this style of problem. I have painted a highly impressionistic portrait of the complexities at work here, where China touches the tip of the eastwards panhandle of Afghanistan, where Kandahar can stand proxy for Jerusalem, where the national sport is a sort of polo with a goat’s head for a ball, and the tea served in thin, curved glasses is green and sweet.


I have checked Google and Dogpile, and as far as I can tell from poor memory, my sense of my own style, and the absence of the same text in the search engines, the above is my own work — the text of the bulk of which I found somewhat haphazardly on my hard drive while working on Part 2 of this post. If anyone else claims copyright, count me an admirer and let me know. I believe it’s “mine” for whatever that concept may be worth, I’m skeptical about solo creativity in any case, myself.

In part 2 of this post, which is definitely almost all borrowed from bright other beings, I’ll try to illustrate the funnel as it applies to America, Afghanistan, Obama and Osama, in a series of “zeroing in” quotes illustrating the complexity of the situation and analysis as contrasted with the “yes” of a kill-decision…

Why do people cover their mouths?

Thursday, October 4th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — mostly amused, a little curious ]


The image is from Vanity Fair‘s Exclusive: President Obama Considered Putting Osama bin Laden on Trial if Taken Alive, teaser for a forthcoming article, which includes this intriguing Obama quote:

I mean, we had worked through a whole bunch of those scenarios. But, frankly, my belief was if we had captured him, that I would be in a pretty strong position, politically, here, to argue that displaying due process and rule of law would be our best weapon against al-Qaeda, in preventing him from appearing as a martyr.

That — the quote itself, the Vanity Fair piece I grabbed it from, their upcoming full article by Mark Bowden, and or Bowden’s own book The Finish, plus any and all ramifications and queries relating thereto — strikes me as the sort of thing we might like to discuss here.

Not that I personally have any competence in such matters.


What I want to know, just out of idle curiosity, is this: why do so many of the people in the photo want to keep their thoughts to themselves?

Of the destruction of places of prayer

Monday, August 27th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — the destruction of sacred spaces considered — réfléchissons ]

A church in Missouri is destroyed:

because someone hated a black man becoming President.

A mosque is destroyed in Massachusetts:

because someone hated Islam.


A synagogue is destroyed:

during Kristallnacht.

A mosque is destroyed:

in Gaza.


A mosque is destroyed:

in Gaza.

A synagogue is destroyed:

in Gaza, by Palestinians.


A mosque is destroyed:

by Hindus.

A church is destroyed:

in Kosovo.


A world hertiage site mosque in Timbuktu is destroyed:

by fellow Muslims.

The cathedral in Haiti is destroyed:

by act of God…

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