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

samantha power

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.

 

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.

The War Comes Home: A Book Review of ‘The Management of Savagery’

jihadjohnmccain

In the aftermath of the First World War there was a famous example of ‘the war coming home’ in the German Freikorps, which largely fought as anti-Bolshevik forces in the power vacuum of Eastern Europe before returning home and disproportionately joining far right movements that would be eventually subsumed under the Nazi Party. The famous and impressive Czech Legion which found itself stranded and forced to cross the length of civil war Russia to escape the other end in coastal Siberia experienced a similar phenomenon. Perhaps most analogous to modern day audiences, and the one with by far the most soldiers deployed abroad was the Japanese Army in Eastern Siberia. They were those who played the largest role in the Siberian Intervention and arguably did the most to secure the deliverance of the Czech Legion.

Japanese troops were kept fighting a low level guerrilla war of occupation in Siberia past the end of the rest of the intervening powers in that war. Although their presence succeeded in extracting oil and gas concessions in the region before departure, it was a failure in its main (if unstated) goal of making Primorye partially detached from the nascent USSR and open to business with Japan (see ‘Japan’s Siberia Intervention‘). A long and expensive intervention soured the public and domestic pressures brought the troops home. Some troops would terrify the home country with the influences they had picked up from the reds. Many others of those troops, specifically the officers, would go on to influence the growing cadre of right wing radicals in the army, a faction that would one day go rogue in the seizure of Manchuria and then go on to usurp the government, setting the Japanese Empire on an inexorable path towards self-immolation in World War II.

Max Blumenthal’s new book: ‘The Management of Savagery: How America’s National Security State Fueled the Rise of Al Qaeda, ISIS, and Donald Trump’ is far more contemporary, but is charting a very similar process to these events that happened almost a century ago. But this time there is only one seemingly unstoppable world power and a host of non-state actors.

I was fortunate enough to attend the book launch where I purchased my own copy and had it signed by the author. You may recognize his name, along with his colleague Ben Norton, as the co-hosts of the podcast ‘Moderate Rebels’, which is my personal favorite podcast which I have referenced a few times before. At that event, Blumenthal referred to the book (whose release had to be delayed and relocated due to complaints from a combination of Beltway lanyards and Syrian rebel backers) as ‘the most dangerous book in Washington.’ Its not hard to see why this could be so.

The book charts the rise of American-backed Jihadism, a process that really swung into full action with the Soviet War in Afghanistan and the golden opportunity for the CIA to inflict revenge for Vietnam on the arch-foe. Though most people in DC know of this story and the reverberations of it (Steve Coll’s quite good book Ghost Wars is a common staple around Washington) there seems to be a collective cultural and political denial that this still happens. Not only that, but that this process, only really briefly interrupted by the immediate post 9/11 rush to combat the Taliban (itself a partial creation of these policies, if unintentionally) also has domestic blowback similar to the kind once experienced by multiple nations in the interwar era.

9/11 was used by many of the more hawkish elements of the American defense establishment, as well as a crisis hungry media (I was overjoyed to see I am not the only person who remembers that the top news panic story of summer of 2001 was the false claim of a rise of shark attacks world wide-its referenced directly in the book) to roll out an ambitious neoconservative plan of reckless expansionism. This parade of wars, botched operations, and flagging public support soon after Iraq turned sour in turn led to the rise of various media grifters seeking to make a buck (or a public profile) off of the War on Terror. Both Islamists often recruiting from the west to fight in regime change wars coming home to commit terrorist attacks (The Manchester Bombing for instance) as well as radicalized far right racist terror of a more indigenous persuasion not only fed off of the blasted detritus of American policy failures abroad but also each other directly in the domestic field.

The events are recent and many of them I have written about here before. But Blumenthal weaves a convincing narrative about just how interconnected all of this is, and how the neoliberal/neoconservative center is the ultimate enabler of the extremism it claims to be the bulwark against (see my last post for more on what I call ‘Trident Theory’). Right wing grifters and Jihadists alike feed off of each other. ISIS recruitment documents prove they intentionally provoke this as a strategy. The smarter people on the far right must know more terrorist attacks by Islamists are good for them electorally. Perhaps Steve Bannon himself wants to secretly and indirectly ‘adopt a muj’.

Much of this is enabled by conscious decisions by foreign policy elites in various countries. The grotesque tableau of the humanitarian warrior who loves refugees so much they want to make more of them by leveling their country allied with the Bolton-hawks who are just in it for the fireworks and the forceable opening of new markets abroad. For the specifics of this tale of woe we have all lived through, knowingly or not, I cannot recommend ‘The Management of Savagery’ enough. Especially as Representative Ilhan Omar faces critiques both by the xenophobic right and the increasingly pro-neocon center and center-left and the media does it best to drown out the necessary issues driven candidacy of Tulsi Gabbard.

To bring this full circle I am reminded of the first college essay I ever wrote that I could be genuinely proud of. It was a comparative study of a historical and (then) contemporary event, presaging what I often do now. It was an essay for a history class on the Japanese Empire taught by the excellent Professor Roden of Rutgers University. I first cleared with him that I could add contemporary elements and he graciously accepted.

It was about the Japanese Empire’s fall to radicalization to an extremist elite that festered in the military and intelligence services. It spoke about the connections of the rhetoric of the ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’ as compared to what was then Bush’s Second Term and ‘Freedom Dividend’. It spoke of traumatic events leading to sea changes in public opinion (The Great Kanto Earthquake, 9/11), the lack of a unified or bold opposition, and debilitating wars that only expanded with time-all under the ideological impetus of a form of national exceptionalism.

I was an undergraduate then and aside from its core ideas it probably wasn’t very good by my current standards. If it still exists anywhere its on an old computer in storage or a lost thumb drive. But I will say this: despite all the insanity of politics in our present time one thing that is decidedly different from both the interwar period and the early to mid oughts is that there really is opposition to this stuff. Perhaps not yet unified, but it is there. The effects of these policies, after all, are undeniable and all around us. There is more dissent today. Maddening as the present can be I know I felt far more alienated from discourse in the Bush Jr years. In very real material terms Bush killed far more people pursuing the quixotic dreams of American Exceptionalism, expanded far more of the surveillance state, and had more of a media lock than Trump-so far- has. People never would have believed back then that a common Middle Eastern moniker for extremist Islamic sects was ‘American Islam’, or that the Iraq War’s greatest beneficiaries was Al Qaeda, who was given a second wind by the chaos there, but the amount of people willing to hear such uncomfortable truths is far higher now.

I had no hope then. I have the modicum of some now. Take from that what you will.

 

 

 

 

For much of the ‘Third World’ the Cold War was the Good Old Days

 

Nonaligned Meeting

When looking at the potential for future multi-polarity in world affairs it becomes important to consider what kind of multi-polarity is preferable and what is not. Surely, no one but the most diseased wiki-youtube edgelords of the alt right and neoreactionary movements pine for the days before World War II, where the entire planet was either exploited by rapacious colonial powers or had to live in fear from the periodic eruptions of late-comer powers with a world war or two in tow. But between the endless devastation of the first half of the Twentieth Century and the increasingly schizoid overreach of the dying post-9/11 neoliberal consensus, and the foul upswing in religious and ethnic identitarian non state actors it has unintentionally spawned, lies a far more instructive period of history to what our near future could learn from.

The Cold War, like any era, was a time filled with horrors of its own. It should never be the point of the serious historian or strategist to grow sentimental, idealistic, or above all become afflicted with that disease of critical thinking…nostalgia. But some time periods are simply more constructive for examples of this issue than others. Then, as now, the world lived under the threat of nuclear weapon armed powers. Now, perhaps as then, such enforced great power stability could give smaller and more independent countries the room to grow both diplomatically and developmentally. If they are up to the task anyway.

There were epic disasters in that time period, of course. The Khmer Rouge, the multiple attempts by outside powers to subjugate and divide Vietnam, the rule of Idi Amin in Uganda, Apartheid South Africa, Pakistan’s attempt to retain Bangladesh, the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, and many more. But none of that outshines the vast achievements in human economic development made across the planet in this time-achievements that would slow or even reverse with the end of the Cold War and the triumph of neoliberalism. This is because the end of the Cold War also led to a diminishing in the power of small states diplomacy for the omnipresent dictatorship of a globalized market. We see the results of this now.

In countries like America and Britain we sigh at the decadent boomers who think with hard work and gumption you can get a college degree for the price of a used car and view hoarded wealth as a sacred entitlement. We rightly condemn that generation’s war on the postwar consensus of their actually hard working forefathers for the sake of tax breaks while gutting civil society and the planet itself with no regard for future generations This effect, however, is still restricted to the victory addled Anglosphere more than the rest of the world. While North America and the North Atlantic lived off the accumulated fat of times past, and even made some gains with it, other places actually did have to build from nothing. Many succeeded.

In much of the rest of the world the destruction of the final colonial powers (Japan, Britain, France) as well as the large scale stability of the situation between the United States and the USSR and the removal of the perennial German threat saw a massive wave of development guided by various modernist visions of a future for newly independent states. Perhaps more importantly, the ability to extract aid, technical advisers, and good deals from the major powers was increased by the fact that they were in a constant state of rivalry. Egypt under Nasser was particularly adept at using diplomacy to aid development and to grow living standards, but others would soon follow suit.

When the paranoia of the immediate post-Stalin Soviet Union and post-McCarthy United States started to peter away, more and more of the astute started to realize that this too was simply more of a great power competition than any ideological battle. In addition to the loosely affiliated nations of the so-called Non-Aligned League, it became more and more possible with time to seek a more fluid status in the international realm by rejecting the thinking of binaries. France, despite its pro-western tilt, made concerted efforts to reach out and develop connections with Eastern Bloc nations, while communist Yugoslavia maintained both NATO and the Warsaw Pact at equal distance-which in turn helped it extract better aid and trade deals from both as well as boost its international position with other independent states. Technological developments too were spread not just from the defense budgets of the competing powers (a la space exploration) but also in a desire to show off what they could do and how they could be of use to the Third World. Nowhere was this more apparent than the Green Revolution in agriculture whose spread was assisted by experts being encouraged to come to other nations. While both Washington and Moscow often tried to compete with technologies and aid in a way framed as a competition between capitalism and communism, the truth was they were using their technological advantages to buy influence and allies. And this was often a net boon for many newly independent countries. This was not a company hiring a few locals as it extracts raw materials for profit. This was genuine developmental assistance.

With the end of the Cold War, this favorable conjunction for national development would also end. While new opportunities would open up to a select few who had reached a level of development strong enough to take advantage of the changes that came in the late 80s and through the 90s (mostly, and perhaps tellingly, in already partially developed post Soviet countries such as Kazakhstan and Estonia), the majority of the Third World effectively lost its bargaining power. Even leaving aside that the collapse of living standards in much of the former USSR was the largest peacetime loss of human development in recorded history, the consequences for the Third World would often be quite dire as well.

Much aid dried up almost immediately. The US lacked a need to compete with anyone. Meanwhile, the type of economic exchange between the North Atlantic plus Japan and the rest of the world moved towards a more unchecked and predatory phase. Many developmental and technological advisers were replaced by voluntourists and vulture capitalists. While trade increased, development often slowed or stopped at the same time more and more resources were extracted. While the most extreme forms of poverty has continued to reduce since 1991, the majority of the people who experience that boon are in China, a country far less tied to neoliberalism than most others. Many other successes come from nations who had already set up a path to success before ’91. Meanwhile, the countries targeted for regime change such as Libya and Syria have seen an utter collapse of living standards in systems that once two were somewhat independent and working towards developmental success. To further this, the very pioneers of the present economic order are now facing rising poverty rates, especially in rural and post-industrial areas.

In a world were all gains are temporary but can at least be made somewhat long term in the right circumstances, it behooves us to think about what opportunities could be returning to developing countries as the Chinese economy reaches out to challenge America’s. For all the various dangerous multi-polarity can bring, there could be a bounty of opportunities for the independent nations of the world…ready to open a bidding war of experts and assistance between the great powers.

Its either that or give in to nostalgia as the only refuge.

 

Despite all the Agent Orange, the Jungle Grows Back

Fighting wildfires

The DPRK-USA summit in Vietnam is about to start. Given the generations that have passed since a frozen armistice was put in place and the decidedly erratic character of the American president I will withhold from speculating on how effective such talks will be. I do support having them, however. Everyone should. There is not a person on this Earth that would benefit, long term, from renewed hostilities on the Korean peninsula. Even the usually gleeful for conflict types in policy and business would suffer when China, now a nuclear armed nation came to the DPRK’s defense. Though we do not presently look like we are are staring down the barrel of such a confrontation, leaving the festering sore of nonexistent relations between Pyongyang and much of the rest of the world is of little benefit to anyone.

My concern here is that Pyongyang has an astute eye on Venezuela, and rightfully so. Saddam Hussein had no up to date weapons of mass destruction but for domestic reasons could not come out and say it. His lack of them hardly prevented the war that came his way. Qaddafi then saw an opportunity for his nation to be lifted from U.S. sanctions and in return give Bush a (minor) victory by renouncing such weapons. This failed to save him from an attack launched by the Obama administration under heavy pressure from Britain and France. This taught the world, and especially Syria, that it wasn’t worth giving up your WMD’s. In fact, it might be just what you need to make more powerful foes think twice. Everyone knows Israel, which once was subjected to endless conventional attack, has not been so attacked since it (unofficially) became a nuclear power. Everyone knows that North Korea’s bargaining position has been stronger since it became one. The intercontinental ballistic missile is the ultimate sovereignty guarantor.

Meanwhile, while this noteworthy and laudable attempt to normalize relations with North Korea goes forward, the US is attempting at the very same time to topple the government of Venezuela. This is extremely counter productive and will put Pyongyang on edge. Considering that all factions in Venezuela are unpopular, and that so far most of the army seems to be sticking with Caracas, it flirts with the risk of conflict or disruption that could set off another wave of migrants and conflict. Even if it does not, outside of private corporate interests who seek the Venezuelan economy opened to them, the average American stands no chance at benefiting from any major US-backed operation there…but will no doubt pick up the tab for it as always. Indeed, Maduro’s popularity is extremely low but not lower than Macron’s (who arguably treats opposition protesters worse), and opposition to US military intervention in that country is significantly higher than even the percentage of the people who want Maduro gone. If they want him gone, they will do it their way.

So far of candidates running for high office, only Tulsi Gabbard has raised a voice of opposition to our destabilizing actions in Venezuela, particularly at this sensitive time. The odds are high that if reaching a deal is more difficult than expected this would be the reason why.

This is just one issue among many that one could point to in order to make the counter-point to a growing Beltway-Lanyard narrative about America’s supposed withdrawal from the world. Robert Kagan, a well respected prognosticator despite a very long record of supporting failed policies, uses the phrase ‘the jungle grows back.’ We often see this narrative used increasingly by democrats and ‘never Trump’ conservatives to critique Trump from the neoconservative right. They are setting up a false binary where we must choose between pure isolationism and endless brushfire-war militarism. This is obviously false because there is quite simply no way the worlds largest economy could return to anything resembling prewar ‘isolationism’, much less give up its numerous diplomatic ties.

There is this assumption that undoing World War Two, the crucible of American world domination, lurks as a potential in every part of the world. But the Second World War was not normal, it was bizarre. Most of human history does not have quite so large conflicts in all out total war for global hegemony where the triumph of one side was so clearly preferable than to the other. The circumstances that made the prewar era do not exist any longer. And most tellingly, it would hardly be the United States to which much of the world would look to for deliverance at this point in time. This is because rather than intelligently shoring up its position once its last remaining true rival, the Soviet Union, fell in 1991, the United States has gone on not to uphold the stability to the post Cold War world but to endlessly undermine it. In so doing it has not only undermined its own position through over-expansion, but also made itself the most feared and least trusted nation on planet Earth. Trump’s bumbling obviously doesn’t help, but this problem dates back on some level to the over-expansion of NATO in the Clinton administration and especially from the unhinged Bush Jr. presidency. If the rest of the world doing its thing is the jungle, then we are Agent Orange. And the overreach of so much of our consensus foreign policy has made a lot of those jungle dwellers nostalgic for the days without chemically induced mutation.

In my time at the State Department I often found that the foreign service officers who had served in countries that struck an independent course of self sufficiency were often the ones more content with their ‘hardship’ (not fully developed nation) postings. Prewar Syria and Belarus were commonly lauded places to be. There is, perhaps, a reason why foreign service officers are restricted to two years per post abroad. You don’t want them getting any funny ideas about countries pursuing independent paths of development.

This needs to be kept in mind when doing big diplomatic negotiations like the one currently in Vietnam. A country that we dumped endless amounts of chemicals on, then left, and allowed the jungle to grow back. Now Vietnam is doing better than ever before in modern history *and* has positively warm relations with the United States. Diplomacy, its cheap and effective and our war to preserve the artificial construction of South Vietnam was for nothing. But in addition to hard power backing up diplomacy it also needs the soft power of knowing you are reliable and trustworthy.

Many in North Korea may be looking at Venezuela and wondering how many concessions it is worth giving the United States. It didn’t have to be this way, and it sure doesn’t in the future. There is a professional and political class in desperate need of replacing.

‘The Hell of Good Intentions’, A Review

hell of good intentions

Stephen Walt was one of the most influential contemporary international relations theorists to me when I first entered the field of IR as a Master’s student over a decade ago. Of the currently active crop of IR thinkers he remains my favorite, so it should be no surprise that the coming of his newest book, ‘The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy’ was an instant acquisition for my massive nonfiction library. Though Walt and I have diverged on some issues in the past few years, our overall diagnoses of both what ails the US foreign policy mainstream as well as what to do about it remains extremely similar.

I am not going to go over the details of the book as many of its themes have been covered on this blog multiple times already. From the incestuous navel gazing of the Court Eunuchs of the Beltway ghoul class to the virtues of America’s fortuitous geography in its rise and options towards grand strategy, to the virtues of offshore balancing to those lucky enough to be able to practice it, all can be found here in various posts. If you know many of my bugbears you can guess what are Walt’s, and vice-versa.

What I will do, however, is review how good a case Walt makes for covering this topic as a single book meant for a large audience. Unsurprisingly, this book is meant for a similar audience as the very one it rightly criticizes. This means Walt takes a very different tactic than I do. Whereas I tend to go after people outside-of-the Beltway and show how the fables of liberal hegemony are directly counter to someone’s interests, Walt wants to convince those who are a bit more integrated into these elite circles. This is not a criticism of mine, as its important to be firing on all cylinders here. I am merely acknowledging that if he is the Martin Luther King Jr of foreign policy realism than I am more the Huey Newton-to use a somewhat tortured and tongue in cheek analogy. I try to convince people who are non-centrist independents, the few sane paleocons, and leftists and he goes more for the liberals and centrists.

Keeping this in mind, Walt does an excellent job. Not only does he wage a thorough and quite multi-topical demolition of both the record of our very own Late Ming court eunuch equivalents whose lanyards are the modern version of the old quill said eunuchs once used to hold in their piss (analogy once again mine), but also the long term effects of these luxury wars we have found ourselves in. For someone who is sometimes (unjustly) criticized in academic circles for ignoring domestic factors and how they shape foreign policy, it is worth pointing out that, so far, this book seems to have little in the way of big newspaper reviews. Quite possibly because it also criticizes the general neoconservative/liberal bias of major legacy papers such as the Washington Post and the New York Times’ op-ed section. Had this book come out in the twilight of the cursed Bush II presidency I have no doubt it would have been given more media attention, but in a world where both parties now identify openly with unthinking hawkishness-from Trump embracing Pompeo and Bolton to the Democrats rallying around the flag of the national security state and even bizarrely ex-Bush Junior officials-there is little mainstream attention paid to this work so far despite the fact that Walt is a distinguished and well known scholar in the field.

Fascinating that. I’m sure its just a coincidence.

Needless to say, this is *the* work to get your foreign policy orthodoxy questioning people to engage with series realist critiques of both the present system and what to do about it. The book even helpfully closes out a useful list of talking points and arguments that could be deployed to make the case for a more restrained offshore balancing strategy. Worth keeping around to push the needle especially as a reckoning with the establishment must be only one or two more of their failures away.

My only real critiques of the text as follows:

While Walt does mention how the Lanyard Ghoul (once again, my phraseology) class has an intrinsic reason to back mindlessly hawkish policies due to them making money and status off of such policies, he only barely mentions the privatization and for profit militarization of much of the DoD in the past few decades. This is not something that could be easily reversed without major structural reform not only of The Pentagon, but also our entire political-economic system as it presently stands. This, along with environmental issues, are some of the reasons being a realist actually made me evolve more structurally left wing positions over time. Also, when living in DC, as I currently do, one sees how this recession-proof city really functions as more and more ‘Beltway Bandits’ move in with the attached monstrous apartment complexes clearly designed for pod people in tow. In DC the policy is made, and DC itself is increasingly economically reliant on what Eisenhower once called ‘the military-industrial complex’….except that now said complex has a profit motive above all, and thus far less reasons to uphold the national interest first. This entails not only many jobs that rely directly on the perpetuation of bad policies to exist, but also an army of lobbyists to see that their voices are disproportionately heard in government.

My second criticism is just a minor oversight but one worth mentioning. Walt rightly bemoans the lack of foreign policy focused elected leadership in office currently. While I agree with the argument overall, and also with his complaint that the cause suffers when certain people from a family with the last name of ‘Paul’ do much of the public speaking on its behalf, he is missing one very persistent and vocal figure in congress: Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii. The entire reason she has managed to restore realist and restraint positions to the discourse is because she is charismatic and is a rare figure focused on foreign affairs. Personally, I would love to see Walt support her mission in congress as congruent to his own.