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The Twilight War—a review

Monday, July 23rd, 2012

[by J. Scott Shipman]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Putin and Syria: Siloviki Realism in Geopolitical Strategy

Thursday, July 12th, 2012

Russian President Vladimir Putin made a foreign policy speech to Russia’s ambassadors and Foreign Ministry officials that is very much worth reading in context of his dispatch to Syria of a fleet of warships, including a battleship, to the modest Russian naval base in Tartus. Under Putin’s hand, Russian support for the bloody regime of Bashar Assad has consistently been more about safeguarding and expanding Russia’s strategic place in world than about Syria:

….We are forced to admit that no reliable solution for overcoming the global economic crisis has been found yet. Indeed, the prospects are looking more and more worrying. The debt problems in the Eurozone and its slide towards recession are just the tip of the iceberg as far as the global economy’s unresolved structural problems go. The traditional powerhouses of global development – the USA, the EU, and Japan – are seeing their leadership erode, but the absence of new development models is putting a brake on global growth. There is increasing competition for access to resources, and this provokes abnormal fluctuations on the raw materials and energy markets. The traditional Western economic powers are being weakened by the crisis, which has exacerbated social and economic problems in the developed economies, and by the multi-vector nature of global development today. We can already see this for a fact now. 

Colleagues, this is no cause for joy. We should not take delight in this turn of events, and much less feel malicious glee. On the contrary, we cannot but worry over these developments, because the consequences of these tectonic shifts in the global economy are not yet clear, nor are the inevitable shifts in the international balance of power and in global policy that will follow. 

We are all the more worried when we see attempts by some actors in international relations to maintain their traditional influence, often by resorting to unilateral action that runs counter to the principles of international law. We see evidence of this in so-called ‘humanitarian operations’, the export of bomb and missile diplomacy, and intervention in internal conflicts.

We see how contradictory and unbalanced the reform process is in North Africa and the Middle East, and I am sure that many of you still have the tragic events in Libya before your eyes. We cannot allow a repeat of such scenarios in other countries, in Syria, for example. I believe that we must do everything possible to press the parties in this conflict into negotiating a peaceful political solution to all issues of dispute. We must do all we can to facilitate such a dialogue. Of course this is a more complex and subtle undertaking than intervention using brute force from outside, but only this process can guarantee a lasting settlement and future stable development in the region, and in Syria’s case, in the country itself….

It would be harder for Putin to have been more clear about what his priorities were, or that for Russia, R2P as a doctrine has no standing whatsoever in international law [ incidentally, he’s correct on that point] and Syria is not going to be allowed to go the way of Libya, if the Kremlin can prevent it.

Generally, the media reported this speech, highly misleadingly, as Putin’s prediction of “Western decline” when the message was Russia’s opposition to Western military intervention in Syria to remove Assad from power. Putin neither overestimates the means at Russia’s disposal to accomplish his limited objective (blocking intervention) nor inflates his objective to an unrealizable, vaguely defined, abstraction.

Contrast, with the speech on Syria made recently by SECSTATE Hillary Clinton. Here is a snippet that gives the tenor of her remarks:

….What was accomplished in Geneva by the action group was, for the very first time, to enlist not only all five permanent members of the Security Council including Russia and China, but also important leaders in the region and in the Arab League in support of such a transition. The issue now is to determine how best to put into action what was accomplished there and is continuing here. And I really hope everyone reads the communique from Geneva, because for example, one of the earlier speakers from Syria expressed concern there was nothing about political prisoners. Well, indeed there is. And a call for the release from detention. So it would be very helpful to get everybody on the same page if we’re going to work together about what we have already done and what we need to be doing as we move forward.

Under the Geneva communique, the opposition is for the first time put on an even basis with the government. They are given equal power in constituting the transition governing entity that will have, as we just heard, full executive authority. That could not have been imagined three months ago, let alone a year ago.

So although none of us here is satisfied or comfortable with what is still going on inside of Syria, because it is against every norm of international law and human decency for a government to be murdering its own people, there has been in the last several months, starting in Tunisia, a steady, inexorable march toward ending this regime. What we need to do is to follow through on what each of us can contribute to the end of the Assad regime and the beginning of a new day for Syria. 

….Now what can every nation and group represented here do? I ask you to reach out to Russia and China and to not only urge, but demand that they get off the sidelines and begin to support the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people. It is frankly not enough just to come to the Friends of the Syrian People, because I will tell you very frankly, I don’t think Russia and China believe they are paying any price at all – nothing at all – for standing up on behalf of the Assad regime. The only way that will change is if every nation represented here directly and urgently makes it clear that Russia and China will pay a price, because they are holding up progress – blockading it – that is no longer tolerable. 

First of all, the Secretary of State needs a more effective speechwriter. Period.

Secondly, there is a substantive problem here with an obsession with the minutia of process, possibly because the legal principle behind American policy on Syria is a novelty of intellectuals and is not accepted by two veto-wielding great powers that sit on the UN Security Council. Moreover this focus on minutia of process obstructs clear thinking in regard to the larger geopolitical picture and the ways to get to the end in mind – the removal of Assad’s regime – or the consequences for opposing American policy. Russia and China are told their continued support for the Assad regime, which they see as being in their own interests, is “intolerable” – an outburst of unseemly frustration as we have no stick and strangely offer no carrots for these states to change their positions. Instead we choose to moralize  in public, a diplomatic technique with a long pedigree of failure.

The comparison of statecraft between Russia and the United States is unflattering. Russia has vastly fewer cards to play, but because  Putin has grounded his policy in a siloviki assessment the realities of power, has limited his objectives to those within Russia’s means and related those to the larger diplomatic context that would appeal to other powers, he has played those cards well. Moreover, Putin has positioned Russia to be an indispensable party in a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Syria at very little cost, as Secretary Clinton herself has admitted and capped it off with a naval show of force in the eastern Mediterranean.

We, who have a wealth of resources to employ, have squandered them ineffectively and navigate the ship of state with our heads in the clouds. We forced a vote in the UNSC on Syria, ignoring all signals that the end result would be failure. Syria shoots down a Turkish warplane intruding in it’s airspace (likely at our request) and we had no plan to capitalize on the incident. We gratuitously leak information or disinformation about covert operations that serves more to make us look amateurish than to intimidate our opponents. We do not even appear to be well-informed about the Syrian opposition we are aiding inside Syria, as opposed to expatriate organizations. Some of the fighters in the opposition are as morally objectionable as Assad’s militia thugs and secret police killers.

We play at tactical geopolitics while the Russians do strategy.

Byzantium, Constantinople, Istanbul

Sunday, July 8th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — different styles of online communication, main topic: Istanbul in three Islamic videos ]

There’s passionate and visceral communication, and there’s communication that’s more scholarly, dispassionate and calm. Let’s begin and end with calm.


Visceral communication is essential for getting people out of a theater on fire, but a 30% application of scholarly distance and calm may be prerequisite for avoiding panic — and scholarly communication may be important for conveying in detail the high-dimensionality of a complex topic, but a drop of visceral may ease the salient points into more general circulation.

In an earlier, text heavy post — Damascus, Dearborn, Rome, Vienna? — I belabored you with details as to just how much ambiguity and fog surrounds the use of place names in scriptural and prophetic contexts. Here I’d like to give you a visceral sense of what some prophetic voices are doing with those place names.

One of the easiest ways to move from scholarly to visceral is to switch from text quotation to video clip, so that’s what I’ll do here — but my first video clip will be relatively calm and scholarly as video clips go, the next one more visceral and exhortatory, while the third and final clip will use all the tricks of the feature movie trade to provide a Tolkien-heroic account of the Muslim siege and taking of then-Christian Constantinople in 1453.


First, a very short clip from Adnan Oktar, aka Harun Yahya, widely known in the Islamic world for his lavishly illustrated books, CDs and DVDs presenting an Islamic version of creationism, the Mahdist end times — which he sees as entirely peaceable — and more besides.

In this clip, he’s talking about Istanbul, and he means that very city, even if it has sometimes been called Byzantium or Constantinople — or even on occasion, Rome.


My second clip is far longer, and presents an interview with Sheikh Imran Nazar Hosein, Islamic scholar, sometime Trinidadian diplomat and sometimes fiery YouTube preacher, whom I have quoted previously in Al-Awlaki and the former and latter rains and elsewhere.

Hosein discusses the prophecies of the conquest of Constantinople by Muslim forces as part of the background for a grand sweep overview of what he terms the first and second Arab Springs — which he locates a century apart and views as both engineered by an Anglo-American alliance to advance a Zionist agenda — and contemporary events in Bahrain, Saudi, Syria, Iran, Israel, and Russia:


It’s an hour-long interview, perhaps you didn’t watch the whole way through. Hosein concludes this interview, centered in Islamic prophecy about Constantinople, with a Saudi-American alliance facing off against an Iranian-Russian alliance in service to very long term Zionist interests, making the video a window not only on the Sheikh’s own worldview but also on how widely perceptions of the world situation can diverge:

I want the viewing audience to know that a situation is evolving in the world before our eyes, and we must understand it, that the two major powers in the world are now moving in a collision course, that collision course between these two major powers, the American-led alliance and the Russian-led alliance, is going to lead to nuclear warfare of such a magnitude that there is only one word that we can look for in the vocabulary to fit it, and that’s called Armageddon, that is, millions and millions and millions are going to die, most of them probably in North America and Europe, Europe of the East and Europe of the West — and what is left of the world after that, the Zionists hope that they can cope with it, and they can somehow survive and come out on top and Israel will rule the world, the rump that is left after the two giants engage in a war of mutual destruction, That is what we are facing now…

Is that what you thought scholarly Islamists were thinking? By what paths did a highly educated and world traveled man come to that conclusion?


My third clip speaks for itself. It is a trailer for an upcoming motion picture about the siege of Constantinople, presented as heroic spectacle with improbable but striking feats of arms, beautiful but not excessively modestly dressed women, obligatory mass choruses of Allahu Akbar, and at least one reference to the Antichrist.


I can’t wait to see it — but I expect to do so with mixed emotions. Perhaps they will stir up a decent blog post or two.

What emotions will they stir in those who identify with the heroic Mehmet II, and how much of an echo will those emotions find in the world around us? Long shot — any Turkey-NATO impact?


To return to a calmer clime:


Byzantium, Constantinople, Istanbul. I have prayed in the Sultan Ahmed — click image above to glimpse its beauty — I have relaxed deliciously at a nearby hammam.

The history of Istanbul could be the rich study of many lifetimes, its promise — for better or worse or a little of both — may have been variously prophesied or predicted, but remains to be seen.

On fire: issues in theology and politics – ii

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — burning and blasphemy ]

The question here is a simple one: which is the more blasphemous? burning holy scripture — or burning oneself, a human being?

Now I imagine you think the answer to that’s quite obvious, and I do too. But there are people with the opposite opinion to mine — and when we burn their scriptures, even by mistake, even making apologies afterwards, they get enraged, and kill people. There may be many other factors that contribute to their rage, but this is the trigger, the religious sanction, the thing that pushes them over the top.

Someone tweeted the other day:

Souls are being burned alive in Homs & others riot over ink & paper. Where’s the logic?!

It is not my purpose to attack or defend anyone’s beliefs or opinions here — what I would like to do instead is to see through the rage and glimpse that logic: I would like us to avoid needlessly triggering it.

I want to bring what may at first seem utterly incomprehensible to us, a little closer to our comprehension.


In the Quran 5.32, we read:

We ordained for the Children of Israel that if any one slew a person – unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land – it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people.

On the one hand, that sets an extremely high value on human life — the Jewish equivalent is found in the Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 37a — and on the other hand, it can be claimed that that high value is set not by humans but by their Creator in his revealed Word, the Qur’an.


What metaphor or analogy would allow me to understand that logic in terms of my own culture? Not the rage itself, not the killings — but the logic that potentiates them?


If you think, as the melancholy Jaques has it in As You Like It, that all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players – and as Hamlet might think, pondering what more things might be in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in philosophy – why then —

How does one weigh the value of the life of a Jaques, or Hamlet, of one of us, one single human being – of whom Shakespeare, again through his Hamlet, said:

how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! ..

against the value of a single copy of the Works of one William Shakespeare – who then continued on, through that same Hamlet’s voice, to ask:

And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?


Shakespeare, the First Folio, Hamlet?
God, the Scripture, you or me?


It is said the imperishable Quran is writ in heaven before time was, and there is a hadith of Tirmidhi that describes Allah reciting Suras 20 and 36, Taha and Ya Sin, upon hearing which the angels responded “Happy are the people to whom this comes down, happy are the minds which carry this, and happy are the tongues which utter this”.

I am not a literalist, I am a poet — so that makes poetic sense to me, the way Shakespeare’s “all the world’s a stage” makes sense.

In reading these words, I see for a moment the beauty, the devotion that is possible towards this book, the fervent dedication.

I am not about to kill people in the name of Shakespeare or the Gospels — yet I can understand a reverence for that which is greater than I, for that which is more than we dream of, and for that which “comes down” from thence.


Suppose the body is a perishable scaffolding, and the book an eternal transcript written in the immortal soul…

And now recall what that eternal transcript says:

We ordained for the Children of Israel that if any one slew a person – unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land – it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people.

The paradox here, surely, is that we are each of us the quintessence of dust – each of us more than is dreamt of in philosophy.


May the soul of Mohamed Bouazizi rest at last.

On fire: issues in theology and politics – i

Sunday, February 26th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — suicide, protest, martyrdom, the self-immolation of Buddhist monastics ]

You can set your enemies on fire, you can set yourself on fire, you can blow yourself and your enemies up…

Protest, mayhem, suicide, martyrdom?


As usual, my interest is in the theological sanctions and constraints involved — in this case, by Buddhist self-immolation — so this excerpt from a Q&A with Lobsang Sangay, the prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile caught my eye:

Q: Does Buddhism allow self-immolation?

A: It’s a complex issue. One could refer to Jataka tales, which concern the previous births of the Buddha. In one story, the Buddha, in a previous incarnation, gives up his body to feed a starving tigress and her four cubs. Some other stories also talk about self-sacrifice by the Buddha.

Although suicide is violent and prohibited in Buddhism, some Buddhists believe it depends on the motivation. If you do it out of hatred and anger, then it is negative. But if you do it for a pure cause … it’s such a complex theological issue. You can’t go either way or have a definitive answer. But the action is tragic, so painful.

That’s a start: it’s a theologically complex issue…

The young Karmapa Lama, second in influence only to the Dalai Lama himself, is quoted in a Guardian report as discouraging this form of protest:

These desperate acts … are a cry against the injustice and repression under which they live. But I request the people of Tibet to preserve their lives and find other, constructive ways to work for the cause of Tibet.

In Buddhist teaching life is precious. To achieve anything worthwhile we need to preserve our lives.

It should be noted, however, that a number of monks in exile from China are depicted in the same article, bearing posters that call the self-immolators “burning martyrs”.

Robert Thurman, Je Tsongkhapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia and president of New York’s Tibet House, provides his own justification for such acts:

When you destroy your body, you violate your own life, the lives of what Buddhists call “the 84,000 cells” that constitute it. This does seem violent. Yet in this case, the individual sacrifices herself to appeal to her enemy, to convey the perhaps all-too-subliminal message that they have nothing to fear from her, that she will resist their relationship of fear and harm by removing herself from being the target of their ultimately self-destructive, evil behavior. That is true non-harming—perfect resistance by complete surrender. If your victim prevents you from harming her by harming herself and taking herself out of your reach, then why were you afraid of her and wanting to harm her in the first place? Since she won’t harm you, she must love you. She wants you to stop fearing and hating; she wants you to be happy! Indeed, she cries out to you with her very life to wake up and behold the power of love—how it does not fear death, how it gives itself away to reality, how it overwhelms hatred.

And we should remember that even within Buddhism, self-immolation is not an exclusively Tibetan phenomenon. Here’s the celebrated Vietnamese zen monk and poet Thich Nhat Nanh, hearkening back to the days of the Vietnam War in his open letter “In Search of the Enemy of Man” (addressed to Martin Luther King):

The self-burning of Vietnamese Buddhist monks in 1963 is somehow difficult for the Western Christian conscience to understand. The Press spoke then of suicide, but in the essence, it is not. It is not even a protest. What the monks said in the letters they left before burning themselves aimed only at alarming, at moving the hearts of the oppressors and at calling the attention of the world to the suffering endured then by the Vietnamese. To burn oneself by fire is to prove that what one is saying is of the utmost importance. There is nothing more painful than burning oneself. To say something while experiencing this kind of pain is to say it with the utmost of courage, frankness, determination and sincerity. During the ceremony of ordination, as practiced in the Mahayana tradition, the monk-candidate is required to burn one, or more, small spots on his body in taking the vow to observe the 250 rules of a bhikshu, to live the life of a monk, to attain enlightenment and to devote his life to the salvation of all beings. One can, of course, say these things while sitting in a comfortable armchair; but when the words are uttered while kneeling before the community of sangha and experiencing this kind of pain, they will express all the seriousness of one’s heart and mind, and carry much greater weight.

The Vietnamese monk, by burning himself, says with all his strength and determination that he can endure the greatest of suffering to protect his people. What he really aims at is the expression of his will and determination, not death. To express will by burning oneself, therefore, is not to commit an act of destruction but to perform an act of construction, that is to suffer and to die for the sake of one’s people.

In a later post, I’ll return to Nhat Hanh‘s comment about monastic ordination, comparing it with the symbolism of the “red” given to cardinals on their elevation to that dignity.


Someone who is neither a monk or nun, nor a Tibetan, nor even a Buddhist — a Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi — set himself on fire in Sidi Bouzid not so long ago, and the rippling wave of events triggered by that act have included the toppling of long-entrenched dictators — is it so remarkable that an 18 year old nun, Tenzin Choedon, and other Tibetans too might hope that an act of self-immolation would galvanize the population around them and the world, resulting in the toppling of the hated Han regime in their part of the world?

I am not sure whether Prof. Thurman’s attempt to tie the Buddhist monastics’ mode of self-sacrifice to the notion, “see, we’re no threat” really works, but it is surely worth considering when it comes from a man who often speaks as a western mouthpiece for the Dalai Lama…

There are of course differences between monastics and laypeople.

Bouazizi’s self immolation was an act of despair, Tenzin Choedon’s an act of courage — as the photos of her standing there, ablaze and unflinching, while another woman offers a silk scarf into the flames in the traditional gesture of respect clearly show.

And when Prof. Thurman declares that the nun wanted her people to be happy, he surely doesn’t mean that she wanted them to be pleased at the sight of her standing there in the middle of the street ablaze — but that she wanted her people to be liberated from the repressive yoke they were and are under, and to feel the joy that comes with liberation from dictatorship.

But Bouzazi’s act, too, must have required considerable courage, while Tenzin Choedon’s act was surely also born of desperation. We humans, as individuals, are by our very nature blended beings.


As an Addendum:

Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche in his book, Dharma Paths, tells the Jataka tale of the Buddha giving his body to feed some tiger cubs as follows:

In one of his previous lives, the Buddha was born as the youngest of three princes. When he was only five years old, the three princes were in a forest playing together at hide-and-seek and other games. As they were walking in the forest, they came to a cave where they saw a wounded female tiger with five cubs. The mother tiger was very weak and was unable to provide food for the baby tigers. The Buddha’s older brothers went to search for some food, and they asked the young prince to stay near the cave to take care of the mother tiger and the five cubs.

While the Buddha was taking care of the wounded tiger and her five cubs, he began to think that it was not proper to kill other beings and give their flesh to the tiger. He found some large thorns and pressed them into neck, and as the blood came out, he let the cubs and their mother suck the blood. In fact, he gave his whole body to the five cubs and their mother as an act of generosity. As he did this, the Buddha prayed, “Right now I am only able to give temporary help to these starving beings, just removing their hunger. May these tigers who are enjoying my flesh, blood, and bones be reborn to a higher realm, and may I be able to teach them and lead them out of cyclic existence.”

We are naturally entitled to take the Jataka tales as scriptures, morality tales, or legends, fairy-tales — but the Rinpoche makes it clear in his telling that the bodhisattva who would later become Gautama Buddha “gave his whole body”.

In the Chod ritual of Tibetan Buddhism, practitioners symbolically give their own flesh to sate the hungry demons…

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