Not Evil, Just Stupid

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And in an age of near universal literacy and information access in the developed world, stupid is an evil all its own. Perhaps the greatest of all evils. This is now abundantly clear with the poorly disguised attempt to smear a veteran and sitting congresswoman as a traitorous Manchurian candidate and its hilarious response.

Despite the feverish conspiracy theories of the right, it has long been my position that Hillary Clinton, and the people who religiously tend to identify with her, are not in fact these brilliant puppet masters. As fun as it is to joke about these people being reptillian baby eaters, the truth of the matter is that while indeed the Clintons (just like the Bushes and Trumps) are monstrously corrupt, they are also remarkably stupid. Hillary in particular, who lacks the charisma and trend-reading ability to her husband, is a living embodiment not of evil but of incompetence. The network she can call out to speak on her behalf is more a patronage network of fellow incompetents than it is anything else, though that network surely does exist as we can see clearly this week,

My evidence is Mrs. Clinton’s entire record in policy. Let’s break it down.

-As First Lady she was given the opportunity to reform America’s healthcare system. Her attempts went down in history for being so undiplomatic that they failed before they even began. She also faked a southern accent during this time despite not actually being a southerner.

-Her tenure as a senator from the State of New York consisted of trying and failing to censor video games in a second wind of the prior decade’s Tipper Gore war on music. This was concurrent with her attempt to ban flag burning, which the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional, and her support for Bush’s disastrous war in Iraq, the biggest foreign policy blunder quite possibly in all of American history.

-She then ran her first presidential campaign in 2008. Her record specifically on Iraq doomed both her and her Republican analog, John McCain, both of whom lost to a previously unknown upstart senator who ran against that war and the people who made it. During this campaign, Hillary Clinton engaged in endless race-baiting attacks on her opponent implying something nebulously foreign about him in a precursor to Trump’s birtherism and insisting that ‘the real America’ of the midwest and south would never vote for him….for *some* reason. She then refused to concede her clear loss in the primary and hung around for a strangely long period of time. Far longer than, say, Bernie Sanders did against her in 2016. She did this, most likely, as a negotiating tactic to be Obama’s declared successor and Secretary of State.

-Upon becoming Secretary of State she quickly went on to show what a mistake the first of Obama’s corrupt bargains would end up being for any hopes of reversing Bush’s ruinous administration. She was the decisive force for convincing an undecided Obama to intervene in Libya. Now, Libya is a failed state fought over warlords that incubates terrorism, Islamic extremism, and has a burgeoning chattel slavery industry. Despite this enormous failure, Hillary pushed again for greater levels of intervention in Syria, this time on the side of outright and undisguised jihadists. Her very own emails, which her fans often deride as ‘but her emails’ to deflect from their actual contents, show that she was aware of this and still supported ‘Operation Timber Sycamore’ (which you can look up yourself as the documentation is truly enormous) anyway.

-In the 2016 campaign, Hillary Clinton then went on to run the most well-funded campaign in history into the ground. Everyone save Matt Taibbi preemptively called the election for Clinton. Her staff’s one original idea aside from riding celebrity accolades was to signal boost Trump over his republican challengers using their media contacts in something called ‘The Pied Piper Strategy‘, thinking he would be the easiest candidate to beat. Most likely, Hillary would have beaten nonentities like Rubio and Jeb!, but someone like Trump was always going to be more of a challenge to the ultimate insiders of the Clintons. Then, in the general election, Hillary Clinton ran what could only be described as a Romney-style campaign based on insulting voters who weren’t already in her camp, failing to campaign in the right locations, and generally ignoring the strong ground game. Plus, she had a close run with a previously little known self-described socialist from Vermont. A challenger that, despite all the post-election rhetoric from all sides, went on to deliver a greater percentage of his base to Hillary than Hillary ever did for Obama after losing to him 8 years before. Hillary then went on to promise her priorities after her inevitable coronation as ‘the removal of Assad from power’ (mentioned in literally every 2016 presidential debate in the general) and even more of the same policies of offshoring and deindustrialization that everyone outside of finance hates. Oh but don’t worry, she had some great one-liners.

-In the post-election hellscape of her failure, Hillary Clinton and her fans who treat her like she is their mother, have greatly exaggerated Russian cyber interference in American discourse in order to absolve themselves and their entire overpaid consultant class from the blame they deserve for blowing the most winnable election in history. This has unleashed a McCarthyite hysteria that has hijacked the Democratic Party, public discourse, and the media and created an opposition to Trump that looks like the republican loyalists to Bush from 2001-2008, where accusations of disloyalty and secret sympathies dog the discourse as a cover for avoiding substantive debate. This is a big reason why the Democrats of this decade became like the Republicans of last decade. Reflexively in support of military intervention, in love with intelligence agencies, and using the same model of going all out religious revival in social issues to distract their supporters from the fact that very few policies they support actually help their base in any real material way.

Into this post-Clintonian apocalypse, only Tulsi Gabbard has had the courage to stand up directly and challenge the odious legacy of this accurately stated ‘Queen of Warmongers’ and symbol of corruption. This is why her candidacy, even more than Bernie’s, is the true anti-bipartisan consensus run. You can see just by the hysterical reactions of the Beltway class to her factually accurate statements about the results of U.S. interventions in the Middle East. Yes, we did support AL Qaeda aligned groups in Syria and Libya. Hillary herself admitted to it in her emails…which is why those emails were always a scandal. Not because of how she handled them, but because of the lack of judgment on matters of policy she showed in them.

Finally, someone stands up against the insanity of our endless war state and against the neoMcCarthyite rhetoric used to defend it from both parties. The same candidate with the spine to call Trump ‘Saudi Arabia’s Bitch’ is the one who can accurately identify Hillary’s miasmic influence on American politics. it is time to throw all of these bums and their acolytes into the trash where they belong.

The fact of the matter is, Hillary Clinton is nothing but an attention-seeking and uncharismatic sociopath with no self-reflection or ability to learn. Everything she has ever touched has turned to ashes and manure. Her ability to create spectacular backfires is a welcome addition to the message-driven Gabbard campaign, as few in this country are loathed as much as Hillary Clinton is-especially by independent and anti-establishment voters. By giving her un-endorsement she has already served an unintentionally useful purpose for those who wish to bring about change. By inspiring all her servile op-ed ghouls to come out in her defense she shows who is willing to make the death rattles on behalf of a dying order and who isn’t. She is not showing her power, but her weakness. A head of a cabal she may be, but rather than pulling the levers of power this cabal spends its time sitting and sulking at a world waking up to their many failures and rank incompetence.

I would say ‘Go away Hillary,’ but I know after crawling back into her spider hole of bitter resentment and abject failure that she will only give us a few months more at most before reappearing yet again with more rot and decay than ever before.

In Praise of Indigenous People’s Day

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‘The Battle of Old Sitka’ by Roy Troll

If you have been following this blog for a while, you probably know I have nothing but disdain for so much of the fashionable woke causes of today. We are bombarded on a daily bases by performative virtue signalling largely sold as snake oil by grifters to the guilt-ridden white bourgeoisie and those over-eager to have passionate opinions without doing the necessary work to justify such strongly held views. No doubt today you are seeing many of those very people loudly proclaiming their inheritance to replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day. Be not afraid though, broken clocks are right twice a day after all.

From the undeniable fact that the largest mass human die-off in recorded human history was due to Eurasian pathogens made short work of much of the Native American population, to the subsequent enslavement, murder, and conquest of these then-weakened communities (I maintain that direct European conquest would likely not have happened in that era save for certain coastal and island areas were it not for the full-fledged apocalypse of smallpox and company creating a literal post-apocalypse-but that is a big enough topic to be the subject of another post), the reasons for replacing a Holiday celebrated in the United States, a (future) country Columbus never set foot it, are obvious. Even leaving aside that Columbus was a grifter, fanatic, and died convinced he had found the edge of Southeast Asia despite everyone else realizing it was clearly something else which was a direct result of him believing the world was much smaller than it actually was-a fringe view even in his time- there are plenty of reasons to neither give up a holiday nor continue it in its present form.

The mass destruction of indigenous culture goes beyond the human toll. It robbed the world of art, thought, philosophy, biodiversity, and language. While I am hardly one to use ‘imperialism’ as a catch-all phrase of bad things, the specific form of Spanish and English colonialism towards the New World resulted in positively ISIS-levels of cultural vandalism where the pathologies of the present rob the future generations of Earth from its material heritage. If the conquest in hindsight seems inevitable, the mass destruction, Palmyra style, of religions and cultures surely was not as it was fueled purely by ideology. Conquistadores cared little for converts, but the people that came after them did. And from Torquemada’s ideological children to Cotton Mather’s bastards, a varied mosaic of thought was swept away for the barren and monolithic desert of Christian fanaticism. A legacy that very much infects almost everything today in contemporary North America.

But Indigenous People’s Day is not mainly a marking of the past but first and foremost a statement of the future. The Natives are still here. Despite everything many still keep their cultures as intact as reasonably possible.  They aren’t going anywhere. And of equal importance, it is about time that we who dwell in North America recognize how much they contributed to us. Half of the vegetables commonly used in cooking today in the world have a New World origin. Most spices come from Mesoamerica originally. Languages used as codes to baffle the Axis Powers and vital contributions especially welcome in our benighted postmodern age towards contemporary art still pour out from Native artists who are both cutting edge and traditional alike. Even our urban legends and modern myths increasingly adopt the fantastic creatures who were spoken of in these lands long before the Europeans came.

We might also do well by recognizing what they have still to give. There are ways of thought that would be a welcome break from the endless Alt-Protestant shrieking that almost all sides of our culture have degenerated into. No one is more suspicious of that famously ambiguous and mealy-mouthed phrase ‘decolonization’ than me, but we sure as hell could use some decolonization in our politics and philosophy on this front when it comes to anthropocentrism, economic priorities, and the dominant sects whose theology holds sway over much of the populace. So much of the intellectual legacy of Northern Europe is a stain on the thoughtful, including even in strategic culture. There are histories whose very concept of strategy remains to be explored as political theory. More on this later at some point, I promise.

Anyway, if you would like to explore something contemporary and native I recommend starting with Nechochwen:

Much Wailing and Gnashing of Teeth for Syria’s Kurds

First let me say that the YPJ/SDF is probably the most sympathetic non-state actor in the entire Syrian Civil War. Second, I will state clearly and definitely that the present Turkish government under Erdogan and the AKP is second only to that of Saudi Arabia as a force for destabilization and horror in the contemporary Middle East. There is no question that at this point Erdogan is the primary villain of Syria’s long unfolding tragedy.

That out of the way, the hysterical response to the ‘western betrayal’ of ‘the Kurds’ is utterly bizarre and hard to fathom…at least for anyone who thinks first in terms of strategy and not in emotional sentimentality. For the following reasons:

  1. Turkey was always the bigger geopolitical prize than ‘the Kurds’ (i.e. the Rojava/SDF-there is no one unified faction of Kurds) and so both the United States and Russia were always going to jockey for influence in Ankara first rather than over a thin strip of unrecognized territory in northern Syria. This has always been the case and should surprise exactly no one.
  2. The United States had better chance holding on to South Vietnam in 1975 than it ever did holding on to to Syria’s northeast. A handful of operators ostensibly helping Kurdish forces battle Islamists was just as much there to prevent Kurdish-Damascus rapprochement as for any other reason. But the Syrian government is in the region to stay and the U.S. never really could be. As it is, prompt withdrawal of American forces increases the odds of Kurdish-Syrian and Syrian government forces being able to coordinate a response to Turkey’s blatant act of invasion at the head of a force of neo-Bashi-Bazouks.
  3. If Russia acts to clip Turkey’s wings in northern Syria (one can hope though that hope is far from likely at this point) it will be easier to do so with U.S. forces gone from the immediate area as the first thing they want gone is American influence there. This is far more likely to happen than the Americans being able to hold back the Turks themselves.
  4. What is the alternative? The far left (most vocal western factions wailing about betrayal) joins forces with the neoconservative right to voice support for some kind Israel-like creation of a Kurdish state that will set off a series of regional wars requiring an endless commitment to arming and equipping Kurdish forces against all their neighbors forever? No doubt Netanyahu and the ghost of Trotsky alike gets wet at the thought.
  5. Worst of all, from my very subjective perspective, all of this has overshadowed the great news that the Saudis might be forced into a corner by the Houthis in Yemen. But the House of Saud teeters perpetually upon the brink of collapse in a way that the AKP in Turkey definitely seems not to. And if anything, taking a ‘strong line’ against a Kurdish bogeyman probably further bolsters Erdogan’s position at home.

States have permanent interests and not permanent friends. The Kurds of the Rojava/SDF themselves should and probably do know this. They would be fools if they did not. But so much of the commentary coming from across the board in the developed world have forgotten this principle. Be not surprised when the ‘betrayal of the Kurds’ is used in future interventionist rhetoric for why we need to be more involved in this war or region at large.

But arguably this sequence of tragic affairs is a direct result of NATO involvement in the Syrian Civil War in the first place. Play stupid games, win stupid prizes.

Solutions From Hell: The Return of the Liberal John Bolton

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Bolton the War Walrus is out, and while his damage is done the world is still better off with his absence near the levers of power. But as one entrenched ghoul of a dying school of foreign policy retreats, another rises to take their place. A shinier, brighter, more urban and diplomatic version of such policies…but under the surface a similar beast nonetheless. This beast, skeletal head rearing from long sleep upon its lich-like throne, is Samantha Power.

I have no plans to read yet another establishment book endorsed by the likes of Thomas Friedman-something that would surely be regarded as the kiss of death in any sane society. You can read about it indirectly for yourself here if you wish. This is not a book review or even a commentary on her past publications, one of which I have read. No, it’s about what this book tour portends.

You see, the public is finally starting to turn against the ruinous tide of ever-expanding American military involvement abroad. It is unsustainable, it is dangerous, it creates power vacuums filled with even worse actors than the ones removed, and it fuels the refugee crisis (and thus the far right). Indeed, a strong case could be made for it being the truly decisive and quantifiable issue in the exploding Hindenburg airship levels of upset that was the 2016 election. Tulsi is back on the debate stage for the near future and Bernie and Warren are starting to make noises about coming around to many of her positions. Trump ran on some of these critiques of foreign policy though obviously most of his rhetoric was hollow. But he is president and the uber-hawk of Hillary Clinton will never grace high office again unless we start electing deadites. It is logical after continuous failures on the part of the foreign policy establishment since at least (being generous here) 2003 that a reconning is overdue. You could neither explain to the average American what they have benefited from all of this much less the average person in the countries we have destroyed.

With the stark absolutism of the right now holding the reigns of executive power incompetently it is only a matter of time that this wounded but still very influential network of operators sees a chance to re-engage the conversation for more American Exceptionalism and more operations of questionable strategic value in an upcoming Democratic administration. Naturally, self-interest as rhetoric becomes replaced with humanitarian intervention. You know, like in Libya, the intervention Samantha Power did everything she could to help bring about. The one that has re-introduced chattel slavery to North Africa and given Al Qaeda a new home base of operations between the factions of warlords scrabbling over the corpse of a nation. Obama himself was eventually rumored to lump Samantha Power into what he deemed ‘the stupid shit caucus’ though he still bears blame for letting such actors influence him. He would go on in later interviews to imply that Libya was his administration’s greatest mistake.

Power is a smart and serious academic if obviously one so beholden to the discredited doctrine of liberal hegemony. Though it is telling that even in her earlier and more earnest work the ultimate example she gives of the horrors on non-intervention is Rwanda, a country that is far better off after its war compared to where it was before than any nation of recent American intervention. I do believe that she has the smarts to know some of what she says about her time in policymaking is rhetorically embellished and, more importantly, I do think she is capable of self-reflection. This makes the apparent timing and self-hagiographic nature of her new book even more alarming. As multiple reviews of her newest work have pointed out, she barely mentions Libya, the arming of jihadists in Syria, or the Obama administration’s tacit support of Saudi Arabia’s campaigns of nation-wide extermination in Yemen. So what is going on here?

In summary: she thinks she will be national security adviser or secretary of state in a near future Democratic administration. She is putting herself out there to catch someone’s eye in either this cycle or the next.

If you are like me and opposed to the entire trend of 21rst Century American foreign policy, this cannot be allowed to happen. We already barely survived Bolton, we can’t afford the slicker and more subtle version more likely to win over undecideds on this issue. And make no mistake, despite the intentions, the results as shown time and time again are the same. Humanitarian intervention on a global scale is liberal hegemony which is, in turn, neconservative militarism and a bonanza for for-profit military contractors. Same results in increases in refugees, terrorism, right-wing nativism, and the like. It has happened to many times in recent memory alone to be worth recounting here, and worse of all to the strategist, it is not even helpful for American power projection. As I have argued before, it is, in fact, detrimental to the long term sustainability of the world position of the United States.

So pay close attention to which campaign Samantha Power, Lich of Humanitarianism, grafts her phylactery to. I would be willing to bet that Kamala Harris and Jow Biden are her top two choices. And in a universe where the bad Barney the Dinosaur impersonator Cory Booker and the absolute nonentity Beto O’Rourke actually stood a chance probably them too. If Power is there, that campaign is not worth supporting if you want real change on the foreign policy front.

And be prepared for Samantha Power to take the still-warm seat of John Bolton, if not in terms of the actual office, then in the role played in the mind’s eye of the populace. The public face of endless war.

 

Jack Vance: Science Fiction’s Trickster Against Teleology

If there is one science fiction author that Francis Fukuyama and the general neoliberal ‘thought leader’ establishment would dislike, it has to be Jack Vance. Not that I suspect such classes of people have heard of him as he wrote genre fiction with a noticeable lack of mid-life crisis-having college professors having affairs with their students to compensate for existential despair. While such literary guardians search fruitlessly for the meaning of history, Vance just comes up with a darkly comic ‘LOL’ in response.

Jack Vance was an author of immense output whose ‘golden age’ of writing occurred between the 60s and 80s (though he was active from the 40s-oughts) and who spanned numerous genres and themes. He is also, full confession, my favorite author.

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Image taken from a comic adaptation of ‘The Moon Moth’ by Jack Vance. Adaptation by Humayoun Ibrahim.

Though Vance’s best and arguably most famous works are his ‘Dying Earth’ series, which I cannot recommend heavily enough, right now I want to focus in particular on his science fiction space operas, which was the majority of his output. There was a succession of settings which one could argue, albeit without concrete proof, were all different time periods in the same history of a future Milky Way.

Whether one calls it the Oikumene, the Gaean Reach, or what have you, Jack Vance had a fairly consistent view of far-future space colonization in a setting of faster than light drive. Most high space settings, when they include time dilation and forgo any violation of the lightspeed barrier, often focus on how much cultures diverge from planet to planet. In faster-than-light drive settings, however, this effect is often downplayed. Not in the case of Vance. If anything, the opposite seems to occur and contact with others leads many people to intentionally differentiate themselves. What comes from this is a theme of highly bizarre alien cultures (though almost always the cultures are human in origin) which are often not isolated but in contact-especially commercial contact-with each other.

In the variety of settings across the time of Vancean Space, there usually seems to be a pleasant core region (usually centered around Earth) where living standards are high but high population densities and the monolithic nature of culture has quashed any sense of adventure or counterculture. This leads many to migrate outwards, past the bubble of First World type planets, and into a wild frontier of what habitable worlds can be found there. Cults, communities focused on professions or hobbies, and general societal rejects have then created a halo of space where they can do what they want on their various colonies, albeit with little security or stability as the inevitable rush of grifters, criminals, and space pirates follows them for these new opportunities far away from state police or military control.

Even ‘The End of History’ as it pertains to Earth and its nearby colonies is really just the impetus for starting it elsewhere. And as some stories imply (not even including the Dying Earth series) such as The Last Castle, life on the core worlds may too one day degenerate from its present bucolic nature.

Often, a typical space-bourne Vancean protagonist is someone from the core worlds who finds themselves on a secret mission or stranded by chance in some odd sector of space or planet. In these types of stories, there are often multiple cultures on each planet, with the ‘Planet of Adventure’ series going the furthest by having a world divided up into spheres of influence based on the natives and three alien species from elsewhere. The unifying factor is that all of these species have taken towards humanity as servitor races through abduction as a race easy to genetically manipulate. Each of these species then has a form of humanity modified to be their junior partners with varying results. In some the modified peoples are outright slaves, in others they eke out a semi-independent organization while presenting a deceptive face to their masters, and in others, the human-alien hybrids have actually become the dominant force over their supposed masters.

Another kind of Vancean protagonist is that of the person born and raised on these strange and faraway worlds. Often, such types experience culture shock if they go to the core worlds and we see the process mentioned above is portrayed in reverse. Since these are the characters who are more likely to face intense danger such as pirate attacks of wars between worlds, they tend to be a bit more action-oriented.  The ‘Demon Princes’ saga of novellas, my personal favorite of Vance’s science fiction, fits this setting the best. A group of criminal masterminds who once destroyed the protagonists’ home colony on a slaving raid is hunted down, Kill Bill style, by the main character. But the story is more of an excuse plot to take us on a tour of this bizarre frontier of space. Each of the big baddies have personalities that loom larger than life over their respective narratives, and each has effectively retired to use their ill-gotten gains to pursue careers as what can only be described as ‘failed artists.’ The various planets they settle on to do this also affect these post-criminal hobbies to great degrees, from an incel impotent surrounding himself with a cloned harem of his one past true love to a jilted fantasy author whose many characters have become distinct personalities jockeying for control in his own brain, to a god-complex LARPer who uses a giant land crawler bristling with weapons to terrorize a planet full of pre modern peasantry, all the strange grotesquerie of flush with success humanity is there. The galaxy for the successful gangster is like one giant Little St James Island.

A truly great and genre-bending tale is ‘The Dragon Masters,’ which is about a world were humans having once fought off a costly reptilian alien attack have now technologically degenerated into a medieval-style culture where genetically modified ‘dragons’, which are the former reptile alien captives, are now dumb beasts bred for war and ridden into battle by the knightly human class of the planet. The real twist occurs when, after this long-lived culture introduced, the old reptile aliens return for a second invasion, now riding atop giant human-modified brutes descended from those they took captive on their last raid. An epic battle of aliens riding beast-men and men riding beast-aliens ensues.

In general, Vance tends to like worlds with a rural, even pre-modern vibe. Planets where elaborate cultures of social prestige and Byzantine rules of public conduct are fascinating but often skin deep covers for the base greed and sensual drives of humanity everywhere. Haggling, negotiation, commerce, and espionage are near-constant themes be it do or die pulp adventure or sedate social climbing. The sheer amount of cultural protocol makes you wonder how many anthropologists enjoy these stories. The short ‘Moon Moth’ or ‘Languages of Pao’ are good starters on these types of themes.

But always Vance straddles a line between extremes. He never glorifies his strange cultures, showing the more insular ones in a kind of parochial light and all as a mixed bag. Neither does he glorify the safe homeworlds of humanity’s first civilizations. He is telling an aggressively values-neutral tale of both the highs and lows of cultural diversity, erring on the side of diversity being positive but also quantifying that with a strong *but not all forms of it*.

Be they alien to the culture they are exploring or natives, almost all of Vance’s space heroes are reformers in some sense. Or at least disruptive personalities. Although his most overt trickster character is in Dying Earth, you still see many lesser versions of this personality type in his science fiction. Change is good, if rough as a process. Diversity is not stasis but can and should be an unfolding process. One cannot help but kept the impression that Jack Vance, had he lived in the future of his own creation, would have spent his youth out in the frontier and only later retired to the core worlds. This was, after all, a guy whose sense of irony was so cultivated that when a publisher begged him to write a conventional space opera he responded by writing a book literally titled ‘Space Opera’…but made it about an interstellar opera company and how a variety of their shows are perceived in the different planetary cultures they go to.

But then again, there are enough protagonists of his who end up adopting a strange new planet’s culture even if their first interaction with it was hostile. As a person who was born and raised in America but often found myself more comfortable living abroad, I can certainly see this. Vance was a very well-traveled person in his early life before partial blindness and age eventually relegated him to his Oakland home before he died in 2013.

In his future, just like in ours, history will never end nor will it go inevitably in just one direction either until the human race is extinct. And even then events will still unfold, just without us. No matter how many planets we colonize, the process of repulsion, which I discussed before in more metaphysical and theoretical terms here, remains a part of the human experience.  And the various tricksters will always keep things interesting even if all we have to look forward to is entropy.

And yes, since I mentioned it enough here I am sure eventually I will make a sequel to this post specifically about the fantasy of Jack Vance such as The Dying Earth and Lyonesse.

 

Syrian Foreign Policy: The Alliances of a Regional Power-A Book Review

Zarrhedine Boddhisatva

Sorry to disappoint you, but my illustration of General Issam Zahreddine becoming a wrathful Boddhisatva in Ba’athist-and Allied Heaven is not included in the book. But here it is anyway.

Dr. Francesco Belcastro’s recent survey of Cold War era Syrian foreign policy released this year by Routledge is a necessary historical and theoretical tour of a decisive time in Middle Eastern foreign policy history. ‘Syrian Foreign Policy: The Alliances of a Regional Power‘ not only show the extreme utility of Neoclassical Realism as an analytical theory, but also the past events that led to Syria’s extremely dangerous present situation.

Full disclosure: Belcastro is a personal friend of mine and a former academic colleague as well. We once shared a work office right next to the toilets in St Andrew’s oldest still used building and our attempts at work were accompanied by the periodic sounds of flushing broadcast through the paper-thin walls. Despite that, we ended up both successfully completing our dissertations. And now its time to welcome him to the published authors club.

With a special focus on the years of 1963-1989, this book charts the tensions between a popular ideological conception of foreign policy and a stark self-interested realism. The main focus of this is the first incarnation of Ba’athist foreign policy under Salah Jadid in the 1960s. Pan-Arabism had popular support both at home and abroad and until the brutal wake-up call of the Six Day War Syria was clearly committed to leveraging its weak frontline position as the keystone of an anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian alliance. Such a network, it was thought, would give Syria a stronger international position. Such hopes were dashed with massive Israeli victories against Syria and Egypt in 1967.

This would lead to the downfall of Jadid and the rise of Hafez al-Assad, he who founded the present dynasty still in power in Damascus. Assad too was a Ba’athist but of a more cautious nationalist bent. Syria’s position was now weaker than ever before and clearly needed a new path. Prioritizing regime survival over regime legitimacy, Assad’s goal was to reorient the inherited failed strategy.

Though Egypt would make gains in the Yom Kippur War, Syria would not. This coupled with the break of Egypt into the United States’ camp of the Cold War and the continual deterioration of Syria-Iraq relations left a relatively weak country in a dangerous region in need of some bold risky strategic interventions. This was when the relationship between Syria and both Iran and Russia-so relevant today-started to grow. Pan-Arab ideology had given way towards an axis of resistance against the US-Israeli push into the region…and eventually in modern times to the Gulf monarchies as well. The Iranian Revolution heightened and accelerated this already process by making tentative diplomatic feelers turn into an overt alliance against common foes. It would soon meet with measurable successes as Syria alone in the Aran world stood up for Iran against a brutal Iraqi invasion and Iran assisted Syria in checking Israeli attempts at expansion into Lebanon.  As it was, an asymmetric battle in Lebanon would finally give Damascus the victory over Israel it long craved, something impossible in prior pan-Arab coalitions that revolved around taking on massively superior Israeli conventional forces in set-piece battles.

Belcastro uses this and many other case studies to show how while the prior more ideologically driven foreign policy once gave the state a meaning (both internally and internationally) the realities of a divided Arab world and intrusive Cold War politics eventually meant these trends had to be reigned in for the state merely to survive without becoming the puppet of a neighbor or a universal pariah. A succession of chapters shows various bilateral relations between Syria and other countries (Jordan, Iran, Iraq, etc) and how each of these examples supports this evolution. The point is clear: foreign policy may have to tilt towards ideology for a variety of reasons-but the greater the crisis faced the more likely realpolitik is to assert itself over time. All states are implicitly realist in nature when the chips are down, but its the speed of them coming to terms with prioritizing realism over professed international purpose that determines their ability to successfully adapt to dangerous changing circumstances. Idealism may often be a necessary domestic component of policy and regime legitimation, but such is a temporary arrangement that begins to present dangers if rigidly adhered to.

(I immediately thought of a similar example in later Roman Empire, when the adoption of a single monotheistic religion was viewed as a way to bring the decaying state together-but the very universality of any such theological claims led in fact to greater alienation and division than ever before. So too, it seems, was the case with the Pan-Arab nationalism. The fact that Ba’athists were in charge of Syria and Iraq at much of the same time and positively loathed each other for much of that time being the most blatant example).

With the loss of the Soviet patron and Russia’s withdrawal from the region after the collapse of the USSR (if temporarily as Russia would return after the Arab Spring), the Syria-Iran alliance became all the more strong. First against Iraq and then against the United States once Iraq fell to it in 2003. Syria’s position in the 21rst Century was quite different than it was in the Cold War but one decisive factor remained the same: That of a small country with hard to defend borders surrounded by stronger neighbors trying to hold on as a frontline state. But while the primary frontline used to be that with Israel, it now seems to be one of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry.  As a country with massive sectarian divides and with Iraq having been opened to this clash of regional powers since the failure of the American occupation, Syria occupied a uniquely vulnerable position between spheres of influence: something than explains the immense amount of foreign interference that flooded the country-particularly the rebels-upon the outbreak of the Civil War. To really understand the context of this going back pre-Arab Spring and pre-Iraq, you cannot do better than Dr. Belcastro’s book.

As a personal observation, it appears that Syria’s realist turn was a success that enabled the state and its regime to survive past many others in the region. However, this has come at a price. Iran has certainly increased its influence over its junior partner and Russia went from helpful pals with a naval base to the de facto dictator of Syrian affairs with other countries (especially Turkey). Considering the weakness of Syria right now and its relative diplomatic isolation, one cannot help but wonder what prospects in diplomacy it actually has anymore. However, having survived attempted sectarian dismemberment by its international foes, one could be excused for allowing themselves some sliver of optimism regarding the internal cohesion of this country. Its cultural diversity was often seen as a liability by others, but having weathered the ultimate storm it has defied the worst-case fate that once seemed likely. Such are the events that build up greater levels of solidarity for the future.

 

Why Does the Western Left Hate Diplomacy?

‘President Nixon: When the President says he voted for me, he voted for the lesser of two evils.

Chairman Mao: I like rightists. People say you are rightists, that the Republican Party is to the right, that Prime Minister Heath is also to the right.

President Nixon: And General DeGaulle.

Chairman Mao: DeGaulle is a different question. They also say the Christian Democratic Party of West Germany is also to the right. I am comparatively happy when these people on the right come into power.

President Nixon: I think the important thing to note is that in America, at least at this time, those on the right can do what those on the left talk about.

Dr. Kissinger: There is another point, Mr. President. Those on the left are pro-Soviet and would not encourage a move toward the People’s Republic, and in fact criticize you on those grounds.’

Source

NIXON CHOU

Because the Left-of-Center collectively is all about guilt by association and purity culture rather than actual accomplishment. See, you can’t say I hid the answer after a wall of text. Now on to why I came to this conclusion and why I am speaking of it right now.

Purity culture is a term I first became acquainted with through the evangelical prominence in the early and mid oughts. It was a cultural movement that espoused cult like behavior such as teenagers wearing rings that proclaimed their virginity untill marriage and other such behavior of self-righteous dorkishness. It was continued in evangelical colleges where adult students were (and presumably still are) subjected to curfews and bans on mixed sex gatherings as if they are children in a gulf Arab monarchy.

Coming from the same strain of thought, even if neither acknowledges it, is the incredibly knee jerk puritanism of anyone on the secular side that, like their religious contemporaries, values intent and social signaling more than actual reality. After all, statistical data from places with large evangelical populations often shows greater levels of crime, divorce, teenage pregnancy, etc. So too is it with the wokescold brigade on the left-a brigade that has hijacked the discourse of centrist liberals and actual leftists alike in order to posture as the elect of politics. Though in their case it is more often dictated by the tropes of popular entertainment with its clear cut narratives or good guys and bad guys. I surely cannot have been the only person to notice the sheer amount of nerds who identify first with the entertainment products they consume that have these opinions. This is the true end result of the union of neoliberalism and puritan culture.

Regular readers of these posts know I usually make the case that in terms of systemic structure and power that liberals are more like conservatives than they are the proper left. I still hold this position. But psychologically I do think there is immense overlap with liberals and the left. And that this, along with evangelicals on the right, is based off of an immense commitment to moralism rather than the hard, messy, and morally neutral world of power politics.

Nowhere is this unfortunate cultural baggage more clear than on the rare instance that such people have opinions on foreign policy…a world even more morally gray than that of the domestic as it lacks a final arbiter (a la state) of authority which one can appeal to. And thus it is not one for the attention of those whose understanding of the world is still stuck in Hollywood-and-YA-addled childhood. Granted, proportionally speaking, the western wokes avoid foreign policy like the plague. There is little room for basing one’s identity around a gender or individual conception of anything. Much like the rightists who prioritize social issues over all else, their provincialism is implicit-if perhaps made hypocritical by their constant claims of worldiness. This is good as it means there are less of them to wade through in my field…but also bad because when they do happen to dip their toe in the water it means the takes get nuclear hot and there are few correctives to be found.

Take for interest leftists trying to make sense of Tulsi Gabbard’s foreign policy focused run. She is far too independent of any doctrine to be a comfortable match with either them or liberals. Leftists discount her views, even when they agree with their own, for being of the wrong intentions. Leaving aside the farce of an idea that anyone could run for high office in America today on a platform of interventionist internationalism that wasn’t liberal hegemony, they get hung up on her civic nationalism even though it leads to the closest approximation to many of the same ends they share. Their point isn’t to accomplish anything in terms of policy, its to signal one’s ideological purity. Of course, history is full of examples of how one should never want the pure in government-no matter what side they are on. That’s Khmer Rouge level stuff in the making there. A government, by the way, once indirectly supported by the United States and directly supported by China. Though Chinese and American patriots alike often have a hard time squaring this with their own self-regard, it makes perfectly sense when one views issues in a purely strategic lens-something moralism and wokeness inevitably prevents anyone from doing.

This is directly parroted on the milquetoast neoliberal side of things, showing that the connection is clearly puritanical wokeness itself as it is what the left and liberals share together. Kamala Harris, who has largely run a substance-free campaign based on virtue signaling and easy identitarianism (while surrounding herself with the very people who the democratic establishment likes to staff administrations with to ensure no rocking of the boat) got taken to task on her ghastly Lock-Upesque criminal justice record in last night’s debate. Aunt Ruckus’ rattled campaign’s response showed everything about how this attitude is so dangerous to foreign policy as well as the campaign’s general hollowness on critical thought.

You can’t talk or even be in the same room with objectionable governments without it being seen as some kind of violation of our present niceties. Diplomacy is only for friends and amongst friends. (Saudis and Emiraties, of course, always exempt). The world stage is for showing your virtue, not for negotiating and getting things done. That is the implicit view here. Similar iterations of this view can be found in the far left, the neocon right, and among the media bobbleheads of the extreme center. Leftbeards (the neckbeards who swapped fedoras for flat caps and/or ushankas) are the first people to call Tulsi a Hindu nationalist for…meeting with Modi…a world statesman? Well, anyone who wants relations with India has to meet with Modi and exchange meaningless niceties with him, and any (and many) other American politicians have met with Modi in the same capacities. In the Bush Era, Nancy Pelosi met with Assad herself. And they should meet with these people because relations between two such huge countries are important. Another, darker, explanation is anti-Hindu prejudice. The left having (often rightly) defended Muslim minorities means it is accustomed to that issue, but has yet to extend the same courtesy to Hindus who are being conflated with right wing policies due to a single government. Needless to say, if the things leftbeards said about Hindus were said about Muslims said leftbeards would have a conniption.

Bolsonaro is probably the single most odious and even potentially dangerous world leader around right now, but it would be foolish not to have relations with him or meet with his government.

To bring it back to the North Atlantic puritanism that lurks at the center of this view is a kind of Huntingtonesque assumption that the first factor in determining relations is shared values, not shared interests. The reason the United States does not compete with any other liberal democracy is because all other liberal democracies are subordinate to the United States, not because they are liberal democracies. One needs only look at the combatants list of the First World War (and many other conflicts to boot) to see that the domestic composition of states matter little when their core interests are at stake. The United States supported far right governments in the Cold War, but also far left movements against the Axis. Democratic Athens obliterated other democratic city states who allied with Sparta. The Roman and Carthaginian republics fought three knock down drag out wars despite, from a foreign perspective, having more politically alike with each other than almost any other state around then.

But in the teleological view of the left and liberals alike (along with religious nuts and neocons/right-liberals) diplomacy is the means to an End of History, be it world revolution or cosmopolitanism or the Book of Revelation. That means that, consciously or not, they are predisposed to see the world as marching in some predetermined direction with morality as the key to hastening this process.

But the world is a chaotic place and diplomacy can only look so far ahead. There is no ultimate arbiter be it god, Meryl Streep, or a unified global working class. There are as there always have been, tribes of humans divided by geography, interests, culture, and circumstance. The best hope you have for progress in this reality is to look home first. If you want a global coalition to fight something like climate change, you first need a variety of governments that arise within their own circumstances and who are prepared to calculate the different costs of climate change (and occasional benefits) that show up for each biome and region. You also need to reduce defense spending in as many countries as possible, which means you must set aside messianic projects of international social engineering which are likely to raise the hackles of any weaker partners.

If you want to take on the rapacious policies of the right and the center alike, you need a realist, not an idealist, left. And if you want an alternative to endless war to help bring this about you need diplomacy. The very definition of diplomacy is to talk to people no matter what their values or domestic policy structures are. There are so many people in this world today that would benefit from a re-engagement with the Treaty of Westphalia, how much good it did, and how it ended one of Europe’s most destructive wars in an age of religious fanaticism by recognizing the rights of princes to determine their own domestic structures. It takes an adult to recognize that it’s the very opposite of purity culture that gets things done on the international stage.

Before the rise of numerous absolutist ideologies, religious and secular, it was taken as normal that different states had different structures and values. Hence why there were different states in the first place. It is the most natural view to have, and the most practical. The reason it is not common in liberal democracies anymore (though it remains common everywhere else among left, right and center, tellingly) has more to do with immense levels of propaganda and cultural baggage on this very issue-an issue that no matter what direction of the ideological spectrum it comes from-is all about creating a world where the reality of calculating balance of power is denied for the comforting fable of a world where crisis management is a means to some greater glory, rather than just the day by day necessities of getting by in a chaotic world. This, in turn, sabotages our ability as good strategists to do crisis management at all.

Considering that this view of a homogenized and moralistic world cannot be achieved, it actively thwarts real work in practical diplomacy. When a country decides not to have relations with another, or to impose sanctions, over something out of the control of the bilateral relationship, it merely increases the likelihood of something bad to happen for the psychological comfort of the governing and media class of the sanctioning country. This is why the one unquestionably good thing Trump is doing, negotiating with North Korea, is so vehemently despised by so many in the Democratic Party who supported the Iran Deal, while it is also upheld by many who opposed the Iran Deal on the other side. Purely partisan lines of attack know that Anglo-moralism can always be alluded to as a criticism when one is out of power. The fringes, especially the left-fringes, also seem to have adopted that lesson.

It is time to force people to re-learn it. For the sake of diplomacy, realists must take the initiative and not let such puritan rhetoric stand.