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.

 

 

The Court Stenographers

hillary_clinton_charlie_rose

Where would we be without good journalism? Nowhere really. Not those of us outside the circles of power anyway. So it is a shame that this vital service has been so thoroughly colonized in the supposedly free and developed world by Court Stenographers. Not entirely, of course. But in the Twenty-First Century and the ‘rally round the flag’ effect of 9/11 it surely must be at least 75%.

‘Court Stenographer’ naturally implies the vital role that those who keep impeccable records of court processes. And indeed I mean that analogy, if unfavorably, towards the press corps of powerful nations’ capitols. Anyone who has dealt with them from a policy perspective-which I have- knows that those who cover powerful institutions largely just repeat the talking points they are given by the internal press corps of those very institutions. But Court Stenographer can also have another simultaneous meaning as well…where the court is taken to mean the court of a monarch, with the relationship such journalists being similar to that of the town crier.  When I speak of Court Stenographers I am speaking of both of these things at once.

Most people, I feel, pretty much suspect this already. As Chomsky once implied, many a tinpot dictatorship would envy the slavish obsequiousness of the Beltway Press towards the DC establishment. Surely it is impressive that societies have replaced overt censorship with an ostensibly free press that merely chooses what to cover and what not to, which candidates to boost with coverage and which not to, and which opinions are deemed unacceptable for polite society and which others to promote. This is not me railing at injustice here for I am genuinely impressed. Living in a society that seems hell-bent on unlearning all power politics for the sake of the smooth balm of ideological complacency, I can’t admit to feeling much but admiration for those in the ship of state who have created and fostered this system.

This feeling does not, however, extend to many or most of the journalists themselves. Sure, plenty make huge bucks (probably) knowing what they are doing, trading favorable coverage for promotions and access and effectively serving as the royal court’s influence peddlers, but what about the more regular rank and file? While more than enough have a quite jaded and sardonic view of the process there does seem to be this grotesque culture of ‘Wow I’m Such A Brave Journalist™ Who Loves Coffee© Always Drinking So Much of It Because I Am Always Out For The Scoop© And What I Do Is Very Heroic And Woe Is Me For Being So Poorly Paid As I Perform This Vital Service To Society®’ which applies most to the very people who do the least to expand the public’s knowledge or critical thinking abilities.

How much of this is genuinely felt and how much is affectation I do not know. I do know, however, that you only get Gumshoe Reporter status in my book if the work you do actually expands knowledge, holds truth to power, and tells uncomfortable things about the society that our more sensitive and polite elites would rather not speak about. It should shake, rather than uphold, the pieties of our politicians and talking heads. So much of groupthink one hears today is really just recycled and empowered via media coverage. The same few talking points about specific public figures, good or bad, depending on consensus.

A politician or government worker who holds secrets is wise to guard them. It is part of the test of their capabilities. But the journalist who breaks a story is also being honest to their true calling. The best of all possible worlds is one where people do what they should be doing as their duty as well as possible, regardless of the clashes with others. The journalist who sells out to the political powers that be is compromising their own professional integrity just as I would have been had I, when a federal employee, broke my silence on matters which I was professionally not allowed to speak of to others.

A well-functioning society is one where the consensus we have is that we all do our jobs well. It is just a shame we have yet to figure out how to make this work. But surely the Court Stenographers do us no service…though thankfully a minority of other journalists do.

Swords Against Nerdery: A Khaldunian Theory of the Sword and Sorcery Genre

swords against wizardry

I’ve been a stalwart fan of the Sword and Sorcery genre and its iterations for a very long time. It is second only to horror and weird fiction for my fictional genre enjoyment. I have also been just as much a foe and hater of high fantasy for an even longer period of time. I never really gave much thought as to why this is until recently, assuming that the rank corniness and ethical Manicheism of high fantasy as compared to the more ambiguous and earthy nature of sword and sorcery were alone enough to clinch the deal for me. But my recent discovery that cultural commentary need not all be a horror show of religious fanatics, entertainment industry neoliberals, and blue-haired-septum pierced woke scolds jarred some thoughts about this topic. Indeed, the people mentioned in the sentence above-the ruiners of cultural critique-are a big part of the difference between traditional fantasy and sword sorcery, and more importantly, the kinds of people each appeals to. Plus, if your rivals are going to use such language in the real world, ridiculous as it is, you might as well be able to meet them on a level they can understand. Much like a sophisticated vocabulary is not a good idea when speaking to children.

What makes S&S what it is are protagonists with base motivations, magic being rare and mind-bending if not outright a cosmic horror, glories being relegated to a mythical past if even mentioned, and above all the love of a good tale about powerful outsiders, usually barbarians or criminals, and the decadent magical and political forces they often find themselves at crossed swords with. There are no grand battles of good vs evil or light vs darkness here. Large conflicts tend to be one local petty kingdom vs another with the protagonist happening to find themselves on one side or the other through chance, personal vendetta, or mercenary motives. This is the stuff of Robert E Howard, usually considered the inventor of the genre (as well as the maker of its two greatest incarnations, Kull and Conan), not of Tolkien or his many many increasingly terrible imitators. This is the less famous and far more interesting world(s) of Imaro, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, Kane, Jirel of Joiry, and Nifft the Lean.

What I like most about the genre aside from its general fun, of course, is its Ibn Khaldun-derived general view of human nature and of societal processes. Unlike the dominant ideologies of our time (which are reflected in our dominant fantasies apparently), history isn’t a teleology. It isn’t going along some pre-determined path. It is rather a series of competitive crisis managements that fail or succeed to different levels amongst a series of cultures and societies that were born into some form of success or stability and have been declining towards their fall and replacement ever since. Then the cycle begins anew. This is neither the reactionary thought of a Burke, the Catholic Church, or of modern-day patrician centrism, where a magical tower is continually built towards the heavens, nor is it the edginess of the pure radical, who revels in the demolishment of all for a wholly new leap in the dark, but rather sociology as a natural process. In fact, both of these extremes are often the antagonists of S&S stories. The first as the cloistered evil wizard or decadent king in their ivory or onyx tower, the second as a re-awakened cosmic horror or the monsters that dwell out in the wilds. Often, one is summoned by the other.

The protagonists of this genre tend to share things in common too. An outsider status, tight but rare friendships in an untrustworthy world, and a disdain for declared authority. Most importantly, many of these characters follow the Khaldunian path of barbarian nomads by eventually leveraging their advantages into kingship, toppling the old order but replacing it with a new and more vigorous one. Conan, the most famous hero of the genre, becomes king of Aquilonia. Kull was king of Valusia aeons before him, both were barbarians who started out fighting those very kingdoms. Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser eventually end up as the local bigwigs on a subarctic settlement, Imaro as a legend across the lands with a mixed reputation. All come across dark entrenched forces that more live by inertia in entropy than by dynamic action. Most importantly, the various wizards, sorcerers, and the like are usually not world-threatening menaces but rather merely another cog in some kingdoms political machine, or a criminal guild’s most prized member, or the secret forces behind events within kingdoms. The decadent throne of Valusia was only given vigor by Kull, and first he had to survive assassination attempts by literal lizard people who had secretly controlled the kingdom and held it in bondage to old ways by puppeting previous kings. If that is not a conspiracy theorists fever dream come to life, I don’t know what its. But symbolically it resonates much as Pizzagate is obviously an (ironically hilarious) farce that no one should actually believe, but it speaks volumes about how many view our present ruling classes. It was after all only after the various housecleanings of Conan that Aquilonia entered its golden age, even if this, like all times before, could not last.

kull

S&S is, in effect, the Virgin vs Chad meme of fantasy genres. Cold steel always outperforms the elaborate machinations of a bunch of tower-dwelling neckbeards, court eunuchs, and inbred aristocrats. In a temporary, ever-fluctuating world, only the right use of force and alliances can see you through. This is not a glorification of violence and always taking the offense either. The vast majority of S&S heroes, when not being thieves, are usually wronged before they act. They do not seek fights, but rather respond decisively when such battles are forced upon them. The kingships of Kull and Conan are remarkable for how much less warlike they often are compared to their neighbors, with the real battles being keeping the decadent dying courts of rivals at bay.  Meanwhile, all of these outsider protagonists tend to be extremely well traveled, multiple language speaking, highly analytical thinkers. The Nerd-Wizards, on the other hand, so haughty and proud in their rote-learned intelligence, are almost helpless without prestige, ceremony, and dependency on established power networks. Their lack of contact with the brute reality of the world is their undoing.

It all reminds me of recent commentary I read somewhere (source presently slips my mind) about the superiority of speculative realist philosophies against correlationist ones, with the hobbies of the thinkers compared with their thought. It basically broke down that the realists tended to like hiking, travel, adventure, while the correlationists and idealists were often desk bound thinkers. This was shown by the nature analogies used by each, with correlationists tending strongly towards inanimate solitary objects like furniture and the realists using animals, plants, ecosystems, and weather.

And look, there I managed to tie this post into my fascination with Speculative Realism too. Anyway, back to the point.

It is these decadent courts whose thumb we presently dwell, tolerant as they are of neckbearded nerd-wizards in their towers and court lanyards that are the most aggressive threats to the world arise. Lacking true fortitude and strength as intrinsic character traits, they must rather pretend they have it through fraud and posturing- a far more dangerous proposition. Fantasy Bill Kristol types in effect. And if some group or leader came about who actually was interested in changing these entrenched interests they would face plots and palace coups aplenty from the dark forces that fester in the shadows of the kingdom. But that’s no reason not to try anyway. Even if you fail it will make for a good tale around a few pints, anyway. And someone needs to Hold the Sword against this high fantasy loving nerd tyranny we live in, where neoliberal nerds who identify their politics with the entertainment they consume are the predominant cultural force of strange cosmic horror summoning sorcerer class. If we must live in a nerd-dominated culture, then we can at least speak the language of the Chadliest of nerds…and that is of Sword and Sorcery. It is not like high fantasy represents anything but the pathologies of both liberals and reactionaries alike and their presently collapsing world views.

Anyway, here is a picture I did for a Mandy style movie poster (Mandy may take place in the 1980s but it is very much a S&S genre film-trust me) of Tulsi Gabbard clearing out the wretched dungeon of the Democratic establishment (special guest MBS, with Hillary, Booker, Harris, Podesta, Biden, and Power all thrown).

Tulsi Mandy Style Dungeon

But seriously, read nonfiction first for real commentary, people. Actual history and philosophy will always rule at the end of the day. But maybe…maybe sword and sorcery can help on the propaganda front anyway. It certainly can break up the high virgin fantasy monotony.

 

 

Black Mahakala: Macro-History as Annihilationism

mahakala

I just finished reading Speculative Annihilationism by Matt Rosen, the newest entry of note in the growing canon of speculative realist philosophy. I have posted on this subject before, in particular about my working side quest of integrating Object-Oriented Ontology and adjacent thought into geopolitics. But Speculative Annihilationism (let’s use SA from here on out) is something that works with macro-level history in general at least as well.

A short summary of Rosen’s argument is that materialist archeology shows the way to handle the snuffing of anthropocentrism in philosophy across the board. So much of what we study at the archeological level is already extinct. Australopithecus, the dinosaurs, civilizations whose genetic descendants may still live but whose cultures, languages, and cities do not. The extinct lack the ability to engage with correlationism and phenomenology, yet their existence is undeniable if there is enough evidence for the archeology of their past to even happen. Therefore, we are forced to reckon with extinction, no matter our feelings about it. To quote the author:

‘SA’s dark perversion is this: deterritorialization always has the upper hand over reterritorialization. At the core of every assemblage-materiality is an unavoidable fragility, a tendency towards discontinuity, disparity, and extinction, a becoming-nothing at the core of every becoming-something-this is what it means for a species to be a species-towards-extinction. Cataclysm, annihilation, and extinction are the rules; assemblage, coming-together, and being-something are the strange, uncanny, and interruptive exceptions.’

Rosen’s argument has many facets and subtleties that someone like me who views metaphysics are largely back burner stuff to policy and scientific questions is inadequate to fully explain. Suffice to say that it is worth reading in its entirety and also a powerful case that extinction, entropy, and the like is the ultimate reality. If one takes casual time as a measuring stick we are all already dead in a sense, since death is the inevitable end process of life. So too is it for species and the self, all of which are in fact reducible to breaking down physical processes whose intangibles we construct outside of science as the humanities. Whereas much of currently existing speculative realism is constructive, hearkening to process theory and seeing a culmination of material events, SA brings us back to decay as the norm and construction as the outlier. Extinction, in the end, for everything. In truly and unambiguously material terms.

I believe this is incredibly useful as a philosophical and linguistic tool for deep history, particularly for the materialist. If we view all states, nations, cultures, cities, religions, and artforms as dead on arrival-or more practically always living on borrowed time-with extinction the only given, we are liberated from the curse of teleology and trying to make sense of every societies place in history and better able to appreciate it on its own terms. Terms that do not need to be those of the purely subjective and idealistic such as found in postmodern schools of thought. It also levels the playing field between long-dead states and currently living ones for the purposes of study. They are subject to the same overall experience of unexpected rise (most attempted state formations fail after all) and predictable decline and fall so it is just as enlightening to study civilizations across the world that lie in different ecologies and time periods no matter where they are. A wide knowledge base across the board gives you a vaster repertoire of case studies and minutia even if you know how it all turns out.

It is also worth noting that SA, much as it does on the individual level, provides a great counter-example to the hubris of presentism. Something all too common in current dominant cultures, as well, no doubt, as future ones. I often speak of my favorite historiographer, Ibn Khaldun. One thing about his evolution of thought that is often overlooked is that he grew up in North Africa in the late Middle Ages. North Africa’s heydey of global relevance had already come and gone. The Sahara was already growing and the crop yields shrinking, even then. In such a setting there were as many ruins as there were currently occupied cities and buildings. The leftovers of numerous cultures dotted the countryside and signs of a glorious past leered mockingly through the dust of time at the less prosperous present. It is easy to see how Khaldun was molded by this experience to help him come up with a cyclic theory of state formation and state death. One I think is still among the most accurate macro-historical thesis of all time. In his works is implicitly a shared assumption with SA-that construction is more the outlier, and degeneration the more common norm. Entropy is ever present and can only accelerate due to time unless a very unlikely event interrupts it. State formation is so fascinating and impressive precisely because it is so rare compared to state degeneration, be it dramatic degeneration or slow motion.

Unlike many other speculative realist philosophers, who betray their continental roots by more often being Eurocentric to the extreme, Rosen draws some direct comparisons to Hindu thought in his conclusion. This is long something I have advocated. Though I am neither Hindu nor Buddhist, certain branches of these religions philosophies overlap with many trends in speculative realism. Over the past few years-my most intense time brushing up on that philosophy-I have also been re-engaging with reading about these religions as well.

The figure that best shows the overlap of Speculative Annihilationism in particular with these thoughts is Mahakala. In Hinduism, Mahakala is Shiva’s most wrathful form, the ultimate destroyer, and consort of Kali. In Vajrayana Buddhism, he is the ultimate meditative figure for contemplating the void and the eminent entropy of all through time. Whether taken as a literal god or a symbolic figure of a process, Mahakalan History (I’m now coining this term) is applying the concepts of SA to macro-history. Especially, in my case anyway, to the macro history of states and civilizations. The end point is taken as an unavoidable extinction, but the process of getting there, of engaging, in Rosen’s terms, with ‘the putrifying other’ is always enlightening. Beneath the facade is the degenerating process, past, present, future, other and self. We are, after all, along for the same ride they once were.

What if Iran kicked America’s Ass?

iranian poster

The war drums in Washington are beating the steady staccato they often do when the hint of conflict is teased to a conflict-hungry media and war-weary public. While I get the impression that Trump himself does not want a full-blown conflict here, he is easily impressionable both by America’s more unsavory allies as well as people in his administration. Right now, even if he is just being used as a public face of the stick in a carrot and stick approach, John Bolton is easily the most dangerous man in the world.

But I have made my views quite clear on dangerous and flawed U.S. policy towards Iran on multiple previous occasions. I want to examine a more interesting issue right now…what if the worst comes to pass and there is, in fact, a U.S.-Iran war in the near future? More specifically, what if Iran far outperforms expectations, or America far underperforms, or both?

It is not as much a position for provocation’s sake scenario as you might think. While its nearly impossible to see Iran winning a conventional conflict against America, they would obviously not be foolish enough to fight in such a way like, say, Iraq did in 1991. The First Gulf War was such an overwhelming American military victory that basically stopped everyone-for the time being-from seeking to directly challenge the US with vast formations of tanks and planes. In a strange way, that victory has unintentionally been bad for Washington, which is far less skilled outside of such conventional warfare.

While every strategist around the world must know that Iran would be a far tougher nut to crack than say Iraq or Libya, and private conversations are almost certainly filled with such concerns among military brass, the public face of the issue so far has been one of self-confidence. For all we know it may be warranted, but there is a stronger case to be made for Iran being able to do serious damage to the U.S., and possibly even come out winning more than losing in a direct confrontation. I feel there are military officers who know this and who could talk down the more ridiculous congressman into continuing our present low-level siege warfare. But with Bolton, Tom Cotton, the Saudis, and possibly the Israelis all pushing for a greater escalation, it is quite possible that a cascade of events could drag countries to places even against their own wishes a la summer of 1914.  Here is how that could happen in the very real possibility that Iran outperforms the expectations of our political elite:

Iran today has probably more raw potential military power than North Vietnam did in 1964, if a far smaller pool of battle hardened veterans. Its ability to strike throughout the region is greater, and its population’s strong desire-no matter their politics towards the present government-to avoid a return to being an American puppet could be forged into a type of total war mobilization that would never be able to be replicated in the U.S. The Forever War and the various mistakes of the United States policy leadership since 2003 and onwards have alienated the public from the Pentagon and the interventionist mindset far beyond repair. That already gives Iran a leg up on morale for a long haul battle.

Iran’s special forces have become as hardened in Syria as U.S. forces are through their constant deployments. They have built long term relationships with state and non-state actors alike in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq (and possibly to a much lesser extent, Yemen), all of whom know that while the United States will not always be in their near abroad, Iran always will be.  Meanwhile, Iranian ally Hezbollah showed in 2006 it can be called upon to tie many Israeli forces down if needed. Their performance in Syria more recently also is impressive.

Iran would most likely cede the air to the overwhelming superiority of American jets, but it’s land-based missiles could wreak havoc on the ships that launched them and their logistical support. They could bypass many American technological advantages by the use of physical and human communication and launch terrorist attacks against American allies-especially European ones who are far more reticent about U.S. hawkishness towards Iran. Meanwhile, oppressed Shia minorities in Saudi Arabia (which tend to live in the regions with the countries oil fields) could be mobilized as a fifth column to damage that notorious and unpopular government from the inside.

Even assuming that the initial stages of the conflict go quite well for Washington, Iran’s ability to damage American allies and dependents combined with its ability to hold out in a conflict longer means that in order to squeeze out a victory the U.S. might be forced to use ground troops in the region. This might work in Iraq where the terrain and local divides could provide an in, though the casualties would be immense as a civil war was touched off. Most likely, I think, Iraq tries to play the neutrality card between the two countries. Either way, to bring about some kind of victory at this point U.S. troops (and more and more naval and air resources) would have to be dispatched, possibly entering Iran proper. A country filled with mountains and large cities. If they even could. After all, a U.S. military exercise in 2002 (with estimated Iranian capabilities than being less than they are now, and American power stronger and more belligerent at that point than at present) showed they might not even be able to land.

As the current Syrian War shows us, cities play the role of castles and forts these days more than ever before. A great place to bog down an invader and give them lots of PR when it comes to the infliction of human misery on people. Around these cities is the difficult terrain of the Iranian plateau and who knows how many emergency cave complexes and hidden bunkers to back up the asymmetrical fight. All of these points, once again, towards Iran being able to last a long time.

And the longer it lasts, much like say the United States in the 1770s, the more likely foreign support for Iran increases. This support could be direct (Russian jets from Syria over Iraq and Iran) to indirect, with an increasingly distracted America coming under pressure in the Taiwan Strait, Ukraine, the Baltic, or Afghanistan from coordinated Chinese and Russian action. If so, the cost of even a hard-won victory and the fall of Tehran would fatally undermine the U.S. global position not just in the Gulf but around the world. This means the Pentagon will be reluctant to commit the full and decisive forces it would need to truly beat Iran, and thus Iran’s chances of outlasting, embarrassing, and undermining America increase. Meanwhile, the hard anti-American left and right alike are driven to win in Europe as a new flood of refugees pours out of the region, radicalizing the internal politics of American allies and moving these countries from seeing Washington as a guarantor of peace into the primary underminer of it. As it becomes more and more obvious that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have the most gain from the belligerence-and are most likely working directly with Al Qaeda type organizations to fight a fully sectarian war, people around the world-perhaps especially American troops will start to wonder why anyone would die for the Gulf Arab leadership and their jihadist friends.

For the most dramatic outcome, you just might have Iran being the spark to create a truly global anti-American balancing act. An event which for many powers in the world probably feels far overdue. America’s ability to act unilaterally outside of the Western Hemisphere will be effectively gone for good, and the embarrassment would probably set off a political bloodbath at home. I believe this analysis holds true even if the war is a technical victory for Washington. Considering that this would have resulted from a war of choice, it would go down in history as one of the biggest great power self-owns in history. Upon the level of Austria-Hungary declaring war on Serbia in 1914, The Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, or the numerous Carthaginian attacks on the city-state of Syracuse-that latter example being the very one I am currently reading about which inspired this post. No one would have predicted that little Syracuse could have drawn with and even occasionally defeated the western Mediterranean’s then-greatest power, but with terrain, audacity, and a greater appetite for sacrifice than their opponents, they did. Considering that present day Iran lives under such existential threat by American power that their military and strategic apparatus is likely far less complacent in terms of promotion, doctrine, and self-confidence, it was easy for me to think of this connection. Especially when reading about Carthage’s vast sums of money not being able to offset their extreme adversity to casualties when fighting abroad.

Of course, considering the regional and international coalition that Iran would face, it is also true that even an Iranian victory would be incredibly costly and thus they would wish to avoid all-out conflict in the first place. Let us hope Washington’s notoriously bumbling elites can be convinced to see present events in the same light.

There we are. I guess its time to be labeled an Iranian shill now.

Facts Don’t Care About Your Grifters

Grifters

Its been a bad couple of months for the grifter. Hot on the heels of the implosion of the Russiagate spy thriller industrial complex and the sudden flailing about of its most shrill and conspiratorial partisans we have also been the witness to two utterly unsurprising and overdue reckonings with the more traditional conservative grifter.

First came the much vaunted Peterson vs Zizek debate, which you can watch here. While I have little invested in either of these two famous commentators I was curious as to how an obvious carnival barker such as Peterson would perform against an actual intellectual like Zizek. Zizek, it must be noted, is not a philosopher I consider myself a huge fan of in many ways. I am firmly on a realist and he on the idealist. He loves Hegel, who I cannot stand, and is part of a long-running unfortunate trend of left-wing thinkers who are aligned first and foremost with anthropocentrism. That being said, he is undeniably a philosopher and an intellectual, words that Peterson aspires to be but has always come up short on attaining.

What happened in their debate is mostly notable for how unused to being challenged Peterson was on his own talking points. He has based most of his career on conflating Marxism and Postmodernism (two ideologies that really could not be more different) and has never had to confront the fact that his image of Marxism was entirely divergent from its actual real world manifestation-as well as that the cultural feed for the social justice nuts he decries has much more to do with the inherent pathos of the classical liberalism, individualism, and Christianity that is part and parcel of the very ‘west’ conservatives love to champion.

Hardly a surprising result of the debate of course. But then it happened again even more recently. Ben Shapiro, an even more blatant fraud than Peterson (though beloved by the same demographic of alienated and terrified young men and bitter divorced dads who create such spawn) showed how utterly unused to being challenged by critical questions he is on live television.

The similarities between these two and others like them, aside from apparently voiceboxes that approximate various tones of a deflating Kermit the Frog, is the nature of the conservative grift. Conservatism by its very nature often trends towards the anti-intellectual. ‘Don’t rock the boat’ and a reflexive desire to defend entrenched power is hardly conducive to critical thought, even if a conservative position happens to be the more correct one. Naturally, however, said entrenched powers know they need a propaganda wing too, hence the vast amount of astroturf funding that goes out via think tanks and various organizations affiliated with big money to prop up things like Turning Point USA and the like. If you were actually to leave public discourse in its natural state, critics and not defenders would thrive.

This creates a money pit. The grifter may or may not actually believe what they say but senses an opportunity to make bank. No trickster could fault such a tactic, and be sure that I do not. It’s a rough world out there in the post-recession hellscape. The problem is that these artificially buoyed people become both convinced that they themselves are wholly responsible for their success (which jives nicely with the ideology that they expound) and then enter into a feedback loop where they begin to believe their own bullshit-assuming of course that they already didn’t. Such incestuous behavior leads to Peterson inventing his own political theory in a vacuum or Shapiro writing his own articles about himself in the third person and giving them self flattering and hyperbolic titles. Meanwhile, both take immense pride in being expert debators but (until recently) only debated psychologically frail college students and utterly superficial news anchordolls. Much like Uri Geller, the spoons only bend when the spoons have been chosen by the person who claims to be able to bend them.

It is worth noting, however, that this is not new. The last proper conservative intellectual in the English speaking world was Edmund Burke, all the way back in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries-and even he was not recognized as anything near an orthodox conservative in his time. While overly reactive against the (legitimate and inevitable) class basis of the French Revolution, he was still a person of nuanced thought who charted a course rooted in history and against many of the dominant tides of thinking in his day. There hasn’t really been a conservative political thinker of such importance or impact since in Britain, America, or their offshoots. Despite what people try to say (including desperate liberals who like to maintain the facade of the rational conservative as someone to hash out the enlightenment project within the salon, god forbid they have to talk to anyone left of them or of unorthodox persuasion) the entire experience of conservatism has drifted far away from anything properly intellectual since basically the industrial revolution. It is telling that the figure of the last generation most held up as an example of former conservative rationality and class was William F Buckley, himself a Bill O’Reilly style pundit more than any kind of proper thinker with anything of substance to say.

But there is money in it and fools aplenty willing to eat up bargain basement level platitudes and superficial gotcha moments packaged as philosophy. In this way, the mainstream right resembles the hypersensitive and hysterical trends of the moralistic wings of the left. Much like two sectarian branches of the same religion, both despise each other more for their similarities than the differences. Both are also clearly cultural inheritors of the protestant reformation and liberal patrician thought and their respective glorification of virtue signaling intent over action and accomplishment. The irony is that while this world views only work in a vacuum, they can only be disseminated in public forums. With the right challenger, they can be made to look utterly foolish under the disinfectant of exposure. It is important to hold interviewers to a high standard in order to best combat these grifters and their influence lowering public debate to that of the tattletales of the elementary school classroom. If so confronted, as Peterson and Shapiro have been recently, their influence will be undermined.