Friday, November 13, 2015

Putin the Peacenik

The Russian intervention in Syria is actually a positive step toward an end to the nightmare that the Syrian civil war has become, To see why what has been widely regarded in the United States as a major negative event, is a potentially positive development, it is necessary to dispel some myths..

Myth. # 1: Bashar al Assad is the bogeyman who singlehandedly turned Syria’s Arab Spring moment into a nightmare.

The popular image of a “dictator” is a solitary figure -- probably crazy -- who says “jump” and all his minions ask “how high?” In fact the Syrian regime that has grown up in the 40 years since Hafez al Assad came to power in military coup rests on an interlocking elite sitting atop the military, economic and political establishments. Bashar is the accidental face of that regime. (His older bother, who was being groomed to take over, died in a helicopter crash and Bashar was called back from his career as a eye doctor in London to take over.)

There was a great deal of hope in Syria when Bashar took over after his father’s death in 2000. The regime that had been markedly successful in the 1980s in developing the economy, expanding education and health care, improving the lives of rural peasants and creating an urban middle class, had become old and tired. Instead of infusing new blood into the tired old elite, getting the economy back on track, reducing corruption, and allowing greater latitude for political expression, Bashar fell under the sway of his father’s inner circle and there were no reforms, no progress, and declining support for the regime.

There is no doubt Bashar al Assad is ultimately responsible for the decision to respond to peaceful protests in 2010 with unrestrained force. There is no doubt that Bashar al Assad is ultimately responsible for the decision to use chemical weapons against Syrian protesters. But he is not solely responsible for those decisions and may not have initiated them. Bashar is the single most influential figure in the Syrian elite. But faced with strong agreement by the top military brass and/or governmental ministers, he is powerfully constrained to go along.

Myth #2: Bashar al Assad could have been thrown under the bus by the Syrian elites.

The relevant example seems to be Egypt. Faced with massive unrest and protests, the Egyptian military and political powers that be chose to arrange for the ouster of Hosni Mubarak rather than engage in bloody repression. The Syrian elite could have done the same thing.

Yes, they could have, but one of the most glaring differences between Egypt and Syria is the nature of the elite. The Egyptian elite was relatively broadly based in Egyptian society and, particularly the military wing, had a high degree of legitimacy, even among those most opposed to Mubarak.

But the Syrian elite is drawn heavily from the Alawite minority. The vagaries of history and geographical isolation created a tightly knit community in a mountainous area of rural Syria that was regarded with suspicion and disdain by their neighbors. Faced with periodic persecution and aggression, the Alawites developed a distinctive culture that included a version of Shi’a Islam that relied on esoteric teachings known only to the elders of the community. French colonial policy in Syria after World War I, as elsewhere in the world, actively recruited members of minority communities to participate in the administration. A key to Hafez al Assad’s rise to power was a cadre of fellow Alawite military officers.

The Egyptian elites could coolly calculate that Mubarak could be removed from power without threatening their own status and position. But the Syrian elite perceived an attack on al Assad as an attack on the Alawites and feared that they and their community would be swept away if they opened the flood gates.

President Obama was widely criticized for his slow and lukewarm response to the anti-Mubarak movement in Egypt. He seems to have been determined not to make the same mistake in Syria and early in the game announced that Assad had to go. That encouraged the protestors but also made it more likely that the Damascus elites would resist change.

Myth #3 The “Syrian Civil War” is a Syrian civil war

There are multiple dimensions of war in the area marked “Syria” on maps. At the local level, there is conflict between a shifting array of militias and armed groups and the Syrian armed forces.

There is no single entity opposed to the Syrian regime. There are mostly small local militias organized around a leader, often a local notable or tribal chief and there are Islamist fighters in several distinct groups. While they all share the loose goal of getting rid of the Assad regime, they are more often divided by regional and local issues, and distinct visions of what the ideal future looks like. On any given day two or more of these groups may be cooperating; it is equally likely they are shooting at each other. The distinction often made in the West between “Jihadists” and “moderates” gets cloudier and less useful the closer to the Middle East one gets.

Almost from the beginning forces outside Syria got involved. Some came to support the regime; some came to oppose it. On the one hand, Iran offered aid and comfort to its long time friends in Damascus and Hezbollah sent thousands of fighters from Lebanon to aid in the cause. On the other hand, some money and arms flowed from the Gulf States and a great deal of money and arms came from Saudi Arabia to the diverse forces fighting the regime. For Hezbollah the issue was preserving supply lines for weapons. For Iran and Saudi Arabia, the immediate issue was influence in the region. The broader issue was what each perceives as a struggle between Shi’a and Sunni states for the future of Islam.

The interlocking conflicts moved to yet another dimension with the increasing involvement of the United States, France and Britain. The use of poison gas, the indiscriminate bombing of civilians including the use of so-called barrel bombs, the flood of refugees to neighboring countries and hundreds of thousands of refugees moving from one part of Syria to another resulted in the involvement of a host of international agencies. The UN Security Council called for an end to the conflict. A series of talks, or at least talks about talks, have gone nowhere.

A seriously complicating factor (as if the situation were not complicated enough already) has been the sudden and surprising emergence of the group known variously as ISIL, ISIS, the self-styled Islamic State, or just plain Islamic State. Moving quickly out of their original base in Iraq, ISIS fighters have gained control of a significant area in Syria, often by defeating local militias or a Jihadist group. The most important fact of ISIS involvement in Syria has been providing a common enemy for everyone else.

Myth #4 Putin is Just Out to Cause Trouble in Syria

Saying “Putin” when what you mean is “the various groups, organizations, individuals and interests that shape Russian foreign policy decisions” is convenient shorthand but it obscures far more than it reveals. The Russian government is a constellation of large bureaucracies, each with its own turf and interests. Putin is undoubtedly the most important player in decision making but he is not alone. And the menu of options from which Putin and his advisors choose, the assessment of the risks and rewards of those options, and the details of implementing decisions are defined by agencies and bureaus with their own perspectives and ways of doing things.

Vlad did not wake up one morning and say to himself, “It’s a fine fall morning. I shall send some troops and a wing of fighter bombers to Syria because Obama is a wimp and I can get away with it. And, oh yeah, I’ll tell the pilots to turn off their transponders so they can fool the Americans.”

Governments always have multiple reasons for what they do. And what they do is always the result of an interaction between the goals, intentions and interests of the people making the decision and the situation in which they find themselves. Political psychologists talk about “the fundamental attribution error”: when we think about our own behavior we focus more heavily on the situation we’re in; when we think about other people, we focus more heavily on what kind of people they are. When we think seriously about U.S. policy in Syria, we take into account the difficult and confusing situation on the ground and the assets available to the U.S., as well as President Obama’s strengths and weaknesses and the quality of his advisors. But when we think about Russia’s actions, we tend to put more emphasis on our understanding of Putin and far less on such factors as the long standing relationship between Damascus and Moscow, or the consequences for Russia if the al Assad regime is replaced by Islamists.

The Potential Positive Consequences

From an international perspective, there are two primary struggles in Syria: against al Assad and against ISIS. Of course, it isn’t that simple. For the U.S. and our friends, making sure that al Assad is not replaced by radical Islamists is critical, which immensely complicates things. There’s been a long and frustrating search for “moderate” anti-regime groups to support, the embarrassing spectacle of the small contingent of Syrian fighters trained and equipped by the U.S. at enormous cost who lost or surrendered their equipment to Islamist fighters almost as soon as they crossed the border into Syria. Groups like al Nusra are good guys because they are fighting al Assad and sometimes ISIS; they are very bad guys because they are ideological kin to al Qaeda.

The Russian military has changed the dynamics in Syria. Their air strikes and cruise missile attacks have supported a renewed offensive by the Syrian army and the recapture of a few strategic assets from rebel forces. Any damage done to ISIS is a more or less accidental bonus. (The bombing of the Russian airliner over the Sinai Peninsula is unlikely to change Russian goals or behavior.) Whatever hopes opponents might have had that the Syrian army and/or regime was on the verge of collapse have vanished.

The immediate impact has been significant: Iran, a critically important player has now been invited to join the talks about talking about talks that have been held periodically in Vienna. And the Russians tabled a proposal for a transitional regime that was immediately rejected by everyone else. But reading between the lines it did suggest that al Assad would not necessarily remain in power indefinitely. If a bus came along some months from now and al Assad were standing close to the curb ...

For the first time in five horrific years, it is possible to see the first faint outline of an end game. The initial stages of the bargaining process include the understanding that there is a “hurting stalemate”( it’s a no-win for everyone) and getting the involvement of all the key players.

The Russian intervention in the Syrian civil war has shattered any illusions that the regime can be defeated on the battlefield. But even the regime’s most ardent supporters do not think the Syrian military can ever hope to regain control of the country.

If Iran agrees to participate, the major international players will be involved in talks about Syria’s future. Getting representatives of the patchwork of rebel factions, and the al Assad regime to agree to join the discussions will be a major hurdle.

There is a painfully long way to go before there will be any hope the suffering of Syrians will end and certainly no guarantee that some kind of solution will emerge in Vienna, let alone on the ground.

Whatever he may have intended in getting involved in Syria, Vladimir Putin has tilted the odds toward peace.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

From Problem to Crisis to Chronic Condition: Refugees In Europe

Over the past few years tens of thousands of people have made an arduous and perilous journey from their homes in Africa to Europe.  Endemic violence and anarchy in Somalia, brutal civil war in Sudan, an increasingly violent and repressive government in Eritrea, and the chaos that has descended on Libya after the ouster of Qadhafi have impelled desperate people to pay smugglers for the opportunity to board boats in Egypt, Libya or Morocco and hope to land in Greece, Spain or Italy.  The journey across the Mediterranean is usually miserable and all too often fatal.  Somewhere between one and two thousand people have drowned each year when overloaded, decrepit boats or flimsy rubber rafts sank.  (As I am finishing this blog entry the Spanish coast guard is announcing that a raft trying to cross the 9 miles from Morocco to Gibraltar overturned in high seas.  Fifteen people were rescued, 11 people died.)

The countries of the European Union have developed processes and policies for dealing with this influx.  Migrants are held in camps until they can be registered, then permitted to travel within the European Union to a country where they can hope to be given a residence permit.  Germany and Sweden have been the preferred destinations because their strong economies and relatively low unemployment have led to more liberal criteria for issuing temporary residence permits that allow people to seek jobs and find a place to live.  France has long been a magnet for people from their former North African colonial possessions, especially Algeria.

Ultimately each migrant=s case will be reviewed by a local court to determine if the person will be allowed to stay or must return home.  The decision will hinge on whether the applicant is deemed an economic migrant or political refugee. [Click here if you want a discussion of the various international legal categories of people who have been left their homes.]

The system worked reasonably well until this summer when the flow of people was more than doubled by desperate Syrians.  The EU countries accommodated some 250,000 migrants in 2014; more than one million will have arrived by the end of this year.  The approaching winter weather will slow the flow somewhat but will make even more miserable for those on their way or who have already arrived.

I want to address three major points: 

  • why the sudden influx of Syrians;
  • the short term impact of the crisis;
  • the longer term implications for Europe

Why the sudden surge in Syrian refugees?

Five years of civil war have forced roughly half of all Syrians to flee their homes.  Around 7.5 million of the  12 million Syrians who have been displaced by the war have stayed within the country.  Those who have left Syria have ended up in Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.  While some have found shelter with relatives or have had enough resources to live on their own, most have ended up in refugee camps in Turkey or Lebanon run by a collection of international NGOs (Non-Governmental Organization).
Desperate Syrian refugees began showing up in significant numbers in the flow of people from North Africa to Europe in the spring of 2015.  The increasing flow of people and some highly publicized sinkings of boats carrying hundreds of refugees led to a shift in strategy by European countries.  Patrols by Spanish, Greek and Italian naval vessels increased sharply in an attempt to curtail the smuggling traffic, as well as respond to ships in distress. 

A combination of push and pull factors has fueled this year’s Syrian exodus. 

The biggest push has been the steadily worsening conditions in the countries of refuge.  More people cross the border from Syria every day, swelling the population in the refugee camps or joining the thousands of their countrymen who have the means to rent some shabby living quarters and buy enough food to survive or who find shelter with relatives.  Syrian refugees get food aid from the UN’s World Food Programme but donations from member countries have not kept pace with demand and the amount of food aid has been slowly decreasing since last January and more cuts loom in the days ahead.  Each day life in Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon or Jordan gets a little more difficult.  The World Food Programme has just announced that they will have to start classifying recipients in terms of how badly they would suffer if food aid were cut off.  The shortage of funding may mean they will have to restrict food aid to individuals and families who would starve without it. 

One major pull factor has been the belief that life in Europe will be better than the camps.  This has been fueled by reports from those who have survived the treacherous journey that Germany is particularly welcoming. 

A second pull factor has been the creation of an overland route to Europe.  The EU crackdown on the Mediterranean routes plus the economics of the sordid business of smuggling desperate and vulnerable people from the Middle East to Europe encouraged the development new routes.  All you need is a long haul truck and driver who meets “clients” somewhere in Turkey,  instead of moving people from Lebanon or Jordan down to North Africa then procuring passage on a boat to cross the Mediterranean. The number of smugglers has increased substantially and the cost of the journey has dropped.  By some accounts the standard rate was $6,000 per person for a trip to Europe in January of this year, while it is now about $1500.  In the same week that the heartbreaking photo of a 3 year old boy who drowned off the coast of Turkey became a social media sensation, a truck with 60 decomposing bodies was discovered in Austria … apparently abandoned by smugglers who were on the verge of being apprehended.

The result was the arrival of thousands of migrants, primarily Syrian but also Afghans and Pakistanis, at the Hungarian border every day beginning in the late spring.  Unable to register and process the wave of migrants, Hungary initially loaded migrants onto buses and trains and expedited their arrival in Austria.  But soon Hungarian authorities tried to stem the flow altogether by building fences and barriers in their borders with Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia.  They were quickly forced to relent by pressure from the rest of the EU and the flow of desperate people continues, putting pressure on governments to cope.  Meanwhile thousands of people keep arriving from across the Mediterranean. 

The members of the EU have tried to respond to the administrative, financial and political burdens the migrants have placed on member countries with a package of financial assistance and waiving the requirement that migrants register in the first EU country they enter.  This shifts much of the burden to Austria and Germany, and to a lesser extent France and Sweden.

Germany has shouldered the primary responsibility for housing the migrants and adjudicating their status. Political refugees are entitled to residence permits in Germany and eligible to look for work and accommodations outside settlement camps.  Economic migrants are subject to being returned their home countries.

Some Syrians and many migrants from Pakistan or sub-Saharan Africa would like to make it to the United Kingdom where they have relatives or acquaintances from their home countries.  Since they lack formal authorization to enter the UK, a favored strategy is to make it to the city of Calais, the French terminus of the Chunnel, and hop onto one of the many trains ferrying cars and truck on flatbed rail cars under the English Channel.  “The Jungle” is the aptly named informal settlement that houses some 10,000 migrants outside Calais while they wait to try their luck.

Short Term Impacts

  •  For those who survive the perils and rigors of the long trek through the Balkans to Western Europe or the dangerous trip across the Mediterranean in overloaded, often decrepit boats, the major short term impact is that life is markedly better.  Germany may end up housing as many as 800,000 migrants by the end of the year in camps that are cleaner, safer, and with more certain access to food and medical care.

  • For the governments at whose doorsteps the migrants first arrive, particularly Greece, Spain, Hungary and Italy, there is a large financial burden in providing temporary shelter and humanitarian services to a growing number of people.  There is the cost of processing each migrant, examining papers and registering people before they can move on to their desired destination elsewhere in Europe.  And there is the logistical challenge of physically moving people from the entry point across the country. 
  • For governments like Germany who have become the destination of choice for migrants, there are the financial and logistical challenges of taking care of such a large number of people.  (One might even say a staggering number of people: if there really are 800,000 migrants by the end of the year, that will be equal to 1% of the German population.  If that were to happen in the U.S. it would mean about 3.2 million people!)
  • For the European Union as a whole coordinating efforts to deal with the crisis and the impact on local governments has been politically challenging.  Efforts to develop an EU-wide approach have often been stalled by the sharp differences in short term interests among member states.
  • The EU is attempting to negotiate an arrangement with the government of Turkey to expand and improve refugee facilities in Turkey.  The obvious hope is that better living conditions just across the border from Syria will encourage refugees to stay put.  Turkey has tried to strike a hard bargain, asking for not only more financial support but also progress on the long stalled negotiations to join the European Union.
  • I think there is relatively little the U.S. can do in this situation.  I think the practical issues, from transporting people to the U.S. to the lack of facilities for housing thousands of people while their status is determined, make it unlikely that we could offer refuge to enough Syrians to make a difference.  In addition, a proposal to bring thousands of refugees to the U.S. in the next few months might well ignite a political firestorm .  The initial reaction to the Obama administration’s announcement of a slight increase in accepting refugees over the next three years included charges by some Republican Presidential contenders that terrorists would lurk among the refugees and put us at risk. 

Longer Term Impacts

  • Helping refugees adapt to life in Germany or elsewhere is an enormous task.  Imagine what kinds of help you might need if you suddenly found yourself in a country where you did not speak the language, were unfamiliar with the culture, were priced out of all but the most rudimentary housing, and could not expect to find any but the most menial job.  And if you had young children ....
  • The longer war rages in Syria, the greater the economic and political strain on host nations.    Europe has far less experience with immigration than the U.S. and arguably less tolerance for diversity.
  • There has been an initial outpouring of support and sympathy from many people in Europe.  German public opinion has been strongly supportive of the government’s leading role in dealing with the crisis.  Individuals from all over Europe have volunteered money and time to help with the crisis.  But the longer the crisis goes on, the more likely it is that people will become increasingly sensitive to the costs of hosting so many refugees.  The anti-immigrant, xenophobic, faintly Fascist appeals of extreme right wing parties will sound more reasonable to a growing number of people (this is already happening in Hungary) and resentment of and discrimination against refugees will become a significant problem. Neo-Nazis in Germany, the National Front in France, and Greece’s New Dawn are a few examples of parties currently far to the right of the mainstream who might be expected to gain support as the problems posed by refugees and migrants continue.
  • There are some people who argue that the great wave of migrants is actually a great benefit for Europe.  The optimistic, perspective points out that Europe has a long term demographic problem.  The birth rate in many countries has fallen below replacement level: populations are growing older and smaller.   There are fewer workers to fill available jobs and shoulder the burden of supporting a growing number of retirees.  In the medium to long run, settling both refugees and economic migrants in Europe would offset the graying of the population and forestall an economic crisis.

The road ahead

The sudden addition of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees to a persistent flow of migrants from Africa, Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere in the Middle East transformed a persistent problem into a highly visible crisis. 

I think the flow of Syrians refugees will slow sharply as winter sets in and travel to Europe gets even more difficult and dangerous.  The flow may not resume at the same level next spring because conditions in the countries bordering Syria will improve, there will be fewer Syrians with the financial means to pay smugglers, and the challenges imposed on Western European economies and political systems by the large number of refugees who have arrived this year will reduce the attractiveness of those countries to new refugees.

I do not think the hardships and disruptions suffered by Syrians who have been forced from their homes will end very soon.  While there is some reason to think that a political process is beginning to emerge that could lead to an end of the worst of the violence in Syria, that is probably many months away and in the meantime the level of violence will probably escalate.  I will try to address those issues in the next blog entry.

Side Note On International Law

International law and the international community in general recognize three types of migrants.
One is the internally displaced person, someone who has been forced to move by war,
persecution or economic distress who stays within their native country.  The second group is
refugees, who have been forced from their home country by war or persecution.  And the third
group is economic migrants, people who have left their home country in search of jobs.

Internally displaced persons are the responsibility of their own government, which may or may
not choose to accept assistance from international non-governmental organizations and UN

There is a significant debate going on among international relations scholars and human rights
organizations over the notion of "sovereignty."  The traditional understanding, rooted in four
centuries of theory and practice and strongly advocated by countries such as China and Russia, is
that "sovereignty " means that how a country conducts affairs inside its own borders is nobody
else's business.  The emerging revisionist perspective argues that the right of sovereignty comes
with a "responsibility to protect" and that gross abuses of people by their own government may
justify intervention by the international community. 

Refugees have a distinctive legal status and there is general acceptance of the idea that countries
are obliged to offer some shelter and haven to people who would be in grave physical danger in
their home country because of war or systematic persecution. 

Economic migrants have no international legal status.  They are at the mercy of the host country,
generally tolerated as long as they fill a need and do not provoke a backlash from the local
citizens, but always vulnerable to abuse by unscrupulous employers and in danger of becoming
scapegoats when the local economy turns down

Monday, August 3, 2015

The Nuclear Agreement Between Iran and the P5+1

I am strongly supportive of the agreement between Iran and the P5+1.

[China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States with the European Union sitting in as an observer.  The public announcement of the agreement was made by the Iranian Foreign Minister and the European Union  Foreign policy chief. Nonetheless everyone in the U.S. credits or blames President Obama for the deal.]

I believe that it will prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons and an effective delivery system for a very long time, if ever.  I am also optimistic that the resumption of trade ties will, over time, lead to a more open Iranian society and a less disruptive role in regional politics.  That positive perspective will inescapably color my analysis, although I’d like to think I can minimize its effects.

There are two broad areas I’d like to explore in this piece.  The first is an analysis of some of the most salient features of the agreement and the second is a discussion of the political dynamics we’ll see played out over the next two months.


Arms Control
.  Iran has always asserted that its investment in nuclear research and development was meant for civilian programs such as medicine and electricity generation, whidch it is fully entitled to do under the Non-Proliferation Treaty.  Even Iran’s harshest critics do not claim that the Islamic Republic has in fact developed nuclear weapons.

The negotiations focused on controlling Iran’s progress toward nuclear weapons.  By limiting the number of centrifuges Iran could operate and restricting the amount of enriched uranium it could possess, the P5+1 negotiators extended the “breakout” period from as little as a month to a year. 

Enriched uranium: uranium ore is almost exclusively U238 but that isotope is not sufficiently radioactive to power reactors for electricity generation, let alone to make weapons.  The most effective way to get U235, the useful isotope, is to put uranium in a centrifuge that spins the lighter U235 out of the ore.  It is necessary to repeat the centrifuge process (cascading the ore from one centrifuge to the next) many times to get enough U235 to be useful.  So limiting the number of centrifuges Iran can operate at any one time and limiting the amount of enriched uranium Iran can store makes it far more difficult for Iran -- if it wanted to -- to get enough enriched uranium to make a nuclear warhead.  Iran’s current stockpile of enriched uranium must be reduced by 98%.

“Breakout”: the amount of time it would take a country to physically produce a nuclear weapon.  The more nuclear technology a country has, the more enriched uranium it has produced, the shorter the time from the decision to build a weapon until it is completed.  The most common estimate is that Iran’s breakout time  before the agreement was one or two months.  The negotiators firmly believe that after the agreement is implemented Iran’s breakout time will be at least a year.

.  Critics of the agreement point out that it does not allow for “any time, any where” inspections.  What it does do is give the International Atomic Energy Agency sweeping access to all of Iran’s declared nuclear facilities for inspections and monitoring that are a good deal more thorough and intrusive than anywhere else in the world.  The agreement sets up a mechanism for dealing with sites that Iran has not declared but are suspected of harboring nuclear research.  There’s a fairly complicated 24 day period of negotiation, but if there is no agreement between Iran and the parties to the agreement, inspections can be ordered.

The secret documents.  Critics of the agreement have seized on a set of agreements between the IAEA and Iran covering inspections of Iranian military facilities potentially involved in weapons development.  These so-called side agreements are not part of the 100 plus pages of the P5+1 and Iran agreement and have not been shared with the P5+1 countries.  The IAEA, as well as defenders of the agreement, point out that they are highly technical arrangements and this is a typical way of getting access to highly sensitive areas in a country.  It seems to me that this is no different than the steps the EPA, FDA or SEC or other regulatory agencies in the U.S. takes to protect trade secrets and intellectual property when they regulate a company or product.

Sanctions.  The United States has imposed a wide range of economic and military sanctions on Iran since 1979.  Some of the legislation authorizing those sanctions give the President discretion in their implementation; some require an act of Congress to alter or eliminate.  Individual European countries, as well as the European Union have imposed sanctions on Iran for both nuclear activities and human rights and terrorism abuses. and the United Nations Security Council has imposed its own set of sanctions. Iran demanded the immediate lifting of all sanctions.  That obviously did not happen, but the UN Security Council did vote to suspend its sanctions related to nuclear activities just a few days after the agreement was signed.  And several European countries have begun to relax their economic sanctions. Most of the European Union sanctions on nuclear or weapons technology will remain in place for the next eight years.  Nothing in the agreement obliges the United States to lift any of its sanctions. The nuclear agreement does not involve the potential lifting of sanctions related to human rights or terrorism.

An important aspect of the sanctions component of the agreement is “snap back.”  If Iran does not live up to its side of the bargain, the UN sanctions are supposed to snap back into place.  The most interesting aspect of the snap back provisions is the fact that the Security Council veto does not apply.  Despite the fact that China and Russia are extremely protective of their right to stop Security Council action by voting “no” -- even if everyone else votes “yes” -- they agreed to give it up in this instance.  If Iran is accused of cheating before the Security Council the question to be voted on will be “should we continue to suspend the sanctions?”  If one of the permanent members, e.g. The United States, votes “no” then the sanctions will snap back into place.  No single country can prevent Iran being punished for violating the agreement.

There is a second set of UN sanctions aimed at Iran’s ability to develop ballistic missiles, the most effective way to deliver a nuclear weapon.  Those sanctions have not been lifted and will not be lifted for at least ten years and some of them remain in place for at least fifteen years. 

Lifting sanctions is one of the most controversial parts of the agreement.  The argument by opponents of the deal is that Iran will suddenly have access to tens of billions of dollars in assets currently frozen in Europe or the U.S. and will use that money to support Hezbollah, Assad of Syria, Hamas and other disruptive and malevolent forces in the Middle East. 

The argument by supporters of the deal is twofold.  First of all, Iran was motivated to strike a deal because the economic sanctions, plus the decline in oil prices, have hurt the economy. Unemployment, especially among educated young urban dwellers, is high.  Corruption and inefficiency are endemic.  The announcement of the agreement on nuclear activities has unleashed a wave of high expectations in Iran that foreign trade and investment will reinvigorate the economy and improve the situation for everyday people.  Half of all Iranians are under 30 years old which means that the revolution and the early days of ideological fervor are ancient history.  The long term survival of the regime may well depend on its ability to deliver a brighter future to younger Iranians.  Teheran is studded with (illegal) satellite dishes, social media is pervasive, and younger Iranians are aware of  the outside world.  

The second part of the argument is that even if some elements of the Iranian political system are eager to increase support for radicals abroad and undermine regimes like Saudi Arabia, Iran’s most important clients, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, have a limited capacity to absorb increased spending. 

All in all, the most likely short term effect of lifting economic sanctions will be an increase in domestic spending.  The longer run effect may well be a growing, educated young  middle class, the sort of people who spearheaded the wide spread protests after the 2009 elections.  The pressure for a more open, liberal and democratic Iran will become stronger and, as the old revolutionary generation dies off, it is highly likely that the Iran of 2025, when many of the limitations on the nuclear program expire, will be far less eager to support revolution elsewhere in the Middle East and far more interested in stable and co-operative relations with its neighbors.


Early in the classic movie Casablanca, the local chief of police comes into Rick’s bar to pocket his bribe money but is very publicly shocked, yes shocked that there is gambling going on!  Well, I am shocked, yes shocked, to find partisan politics underlying reactions to the recent agreement between Iran and the P5+1!

The Role of Congress
.  Congress has given itself until September 17 to weigh in on the agreement with Iran.  The House and Senate could vote to approve the deal (and 100 unicorns wearing sparkly tutus and carrying leprechauns on their backs could come prancing down Pennsylvania Avenue); they could avoid voting on it (and here come the unicorns again), or they could vote to reject it.  Since the Republicans have a majority in both the House and the Senate and are unanimous in their opposition, voting to reject is the most likely outcome. 

When President Obama immediately vetoes the bill rejecting the deal the real drama will begin.  It takes a 2/3 vote of both the House and the Senate to override a Presidential veto. There is little doubt the House will vote overwhelmingly to override the veto.  Between the Republicans who sincerely want to torpedo it and those Democrats who calculate that voting to override is a safe vote -- it mollifies the passionate opponents of the deal in their district but they expect the Senate to fail to override so the agreement will remain intact -- the House will easily muster the 2/3 super majority.  The Senate will be where the action is.  More precisely, the Senate is where the action is right now, with intense lobbying of a fairly small number of Senate Democrats.  The Republicans will need to convince 13 Democratic senators to vote to override the President’s veto. 

The Game is Afoot.  Google “Iran nuclear deal” and the first thing you will see is a sponsored ad damning the deal.  The ostensible sponsor of the ad is; the real sponsor is the American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC) which is believed to have as much as $40 million to invest in opposing the agreement.   Most of the money from AIPAC and other well endowed conservative organizations will be spent on media buys in states with a Democratic senator who is seen as vulnerable to pressure.  Supporters of the agreement have a lot less money.  For example, J Street, the most important liberal Jewish lobbying group, has perhaps $5 million for media. 

Of course President Obama and his administration don’t rely on mass media campaigns to rally support. He has been busy talking to key senators on the phone, key figures in the administration have been making the rounds of talk shows and meeting with supportive interest groups and lobbyists.  The usual suspects among liberal groups, such as MoveOn are mounting grass roots campaigns to support the president and the agreement.

And The Hypothetical “Person in the Street”?

A recent CNN/ORC poll showed that over half of the people who had an opinion about the Iran nuclear deal thought Congress should reject it.  But a poll of Jewish Americans conducted by the LA Jewish Journal found that 48% of their respondents supported the deal (and 54% thought Congress should approve it) while 28% opposed it (and 35% thought Congress should block it) and 25% said they hadn’t heard enough about it to have formed an opinion.  Other polls have been just as widely divergent: only 38% of the respondents in a PEW poll supported the deal but 56% of the people in a Washington Post/ABC poll were in favor. has an excellent analysis of the remarkable impact of question wording on these poll results.  The more details of the agreement that were included in the question, the higher the level of support. 

Beyond the impact of question wording and other methodological niceties, all the polling reflects the fact that for the large majority of Americans, the Iran nuclear deal is a domestic political issue.  Regardless of the poll, the single most important variable predicting support or opposition was self-proclaimed ideology: people who think of themselves as liberals or Democrats are disproportionately supportive; people who think of themselves as conservative or Republicans are disproportionately opposed.  This reduces the effectiveness of AIPAC and other opposition groups to sway Democratic senators to vote to override a Presidential veto.  The strongest opponents of the agreement, conservative Republicans, aren’t going to vote for a Democratic senator regardless of what they do on this issue while the strongest proponents are the very people the senator counts as a core constituency.


I am one of the large group of observers who think it a Presidential veto will be sustained in the Senate and there is even a small chance in the House, as well. 

I think that the agreement will forestall an Iranian nuclear weapon and will have a moderating effect on the Iranian political system over the next ten years.  I think that the Iran of 2025 will be less dominated by socially conservative religious figures, have a much improved economy and will be less active in promoting regional instability. [Yes, that’s a bold prediction that no one will remember in one, let alone ten years.  Unless I’m right; then I will certainly remind one and all.]

In the very unlikely event the Obama administration fails to block attempts to derail the agreement, I think that:

1) Congress would have blocked the removal of American economic sanctions; the UN sanctions are already being removed and much of the European Union is lining up to resume economic ties with Iran.  U.S. sanctions alone have not been enough in the past to bring Iran to the negotiating table; they won’t be in the future.  Iran will feel justified in resuming and accelerating its weapons program (all the while claiming it doesn’t have one) and seeing real economic progress.  By 2025 Iran will have a nuclear arsenal, a robust economy, and some important infernal reforms. 

2) It will be an embarrassing blow to President Obama and significantly deepen the partisan bitterness in Washington. 

3) It will be a significant blow to the United States as a super power.  The partisan gridlock of the past seven years has made American style democracy much less attractive to the rest of the world.  American diplomats will find it far more difficult to take a leading role in making global policy or coping with difficult situations since both our friends and our foes will have to wonder whether Congress will undo whatever American diplomats agree to.

4) Rightly or wrongly, Israel will be blamed by the administration and its supporters for interfering in American domestic politics.  It is hard to see how the Obama-Netanyahu relationship could get much worse, but even if AIPAC and its allies fail to block the deal, Israel will become even more firmly associated with the right wing in American politics.

Since I don’t think those bad things will happen, I intend to sit back and watch the political games play themselves out.  Congress is in recess until after Labor Day and I think there will be less public activity and less hyperbolic rhetoric until then.  I think the first two weeks in September will be interesting with breathless tallies of the latest vote counts and shrill partisan debate competing for attention with the start of the NFL season and continuing efforts by Republican Presidential candidates to do or say something that will get them more than 9 or 10 percent support in polls of Republican primary voters.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Iranian Nuclear Agreement?

March 23 is the rapidly approaching deadline for concluding talks between Iran and the P5+1 on Iran’s nuclear program.  More or less.

While “P5+1" sounds like a jazz combo or an algebraic expression, it is diplomatic short hand for “The Five Permanent Members of the United Nations Security Council [China, France, Russia, United Kingdom and the United States] plus Germany” ...

Often in negotiations the term  “deadline”  is more like the anarchist’s take on rules: there are no laws, merely suggestions.  The first deadline in the current round of talks that began in March 2014 was the end of July but that was extended to November 2014 and then to March of this year.  Sometimes negotiating deadlines are fudged and extended because no one wants to admit that the talks have failed. But more often, as in this case, there is real progress but a final deal can’t be reached quite yet. 

During the initial stages of talks in March 2014, Iran said it would voluntarily suspend those parts of its nuclear program that the P5+1 found most problematic and in return the U.S. and the Europeans lifted some of the economic sanctions that had been imposed over the years.  Although there are skeptics who doubt that Iran has lived up to its word, most observers and the Governments involved are satisfied that Teheran has complied.

As much as you might like an extended discussion of centrifuge numbers and technology, the intricacies of Iran’s nuclear research sites at Fordow and Arak, the details of IAEA inspections or the technology for creating of highly enriched uranium, this essay will concentrate on domestic politics in the U.S.

The old adage “Politics stops at the water’s edge” has been true in the United States only on extremely rare occasions and then only for a short time.  Two perspectives  have defined American attitudes toward Iran since the revolution of 1979: implacable enemy or challenging opponent.

The implacable enemy image is rooted in memories of the revolution of 1979, that saw the pro-American Shah replaced by fiercely anti-American mullahs and the 441 day ordeal for Americans held hostage after the U.S. embassy was invaded.  This image of Iran starkly simple: by its nature as a revolutionary Shi’a theocracy, a dictatorship of mullahs, Iran is fundamentally committed to relentless opposition to Western civilization.  In practice that means undermining and destabilizing moderate Arab governments by exporting radical Shi’a Islam and seeking the destruction of Israel by funding and directing terrorist organizations like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.  In the longer run it means acquiring nuclear weapons, medium and long range missiles to deliver them on Israel and Western Europe.  The Iranian political system is monolithic and radical, there are no “moderate” mullahs or “reformist” politicians.  Negotiations are a fool’s errand; Iran will not keep any promises it pretends to make.  In the long run only regime change will defang the monster.  In the short run, Iranian plots and subversion have to be vigorously resisted and whatever actions can harm the regime: crippling economic sanctions, support for dissidents, “black ops” like the Stuxnet virus [a computer virus that disrupted Iran’s nuclear program in 2010 is widely reputed to be a joint U.S.-Israeli product] and other blows to the nuclear program; should be pursued.

The challenging opponent view of Iran sees the country’s politics as complex and sometimes contradictory.  There are multiple institutions, from the Supreme Leader ostensibly at the top of the hierarchy down through a “Council of Guardians,” an elected President and executive branch and a popularly elected parliament.  The Revolutionary Guards are a military organization with extensive business interests that is independent of the traditional uniformed military establishment.  Particularly in parliamentary and presidential politics, there are factions and degrees of resistance to change, within the rather narrow boundaries permitted by the Supreme Leader and other senior clerics.  Elections, even when every candidate is pre-approved by the guardians of the status quo, do have consequences.  The major Iranian decision makers are rational and act in what it sees as their self interest.  Negotiations are difficult and often frustrating but the right mix of sticks and carrots can lead to an agreement that will be honored.

The Iranian revolution and its contemporary rhetoric is stridently anti-American.  Some Iranian leaders, for example Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have called for the destruction of Israel.  Iran is labeled by the U.S. State Department as a “state sponsor of terror” because of its attempts to destabilize and overthrow governments friendly to the U.S. by using proxies like Hezbollah.  As a result, the implacable enemy image is more deeply entrenched in American politics than in Western Europe, China or Russia.  It is politically easier and more emotionally satisfying to punish your enemies than to reward them.  Thus during the past 25 years the United States has typically played “bad cop,” pushing for economic sanctions and punitive measures to compel Iranian good behavior.  European governments, along with China and Russia have been the “good cops,” offering incentives and rewards to persuade Iran.

This long standing bias toward the implacable enemy image, especially among more conservative politicians and analysts, has been reinforced by an “if Obama is for it; I’m agin it!” attitude among many Republican members of Congress. As rumors of real movement in the current talks have spread and there are indications that a major agreement will be reached before the end of March, the criticism of Obama’s policy and American negotiators has become louder.  The President has wide latitude in reaching agreements with foreign countries and many of the sanctions imposed on Iran over the years can be lifted without prior approval from Congress, so there is relatively little that can be done to scuttle the talks.

The invitation from Speaker of the House John Boehner to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel to address a joint session of Congress is the last, best hope of avoiding a deal with Iran. 
There will, I think, be no surprises in Netanyahu’s speech. 

He will say that Iran is hell bent on getting nuclear weapons to destroy Israel, the emerging deal does nothing to end Iran’s nuclear weapons program.  Iran cannot be trusted to live up to any agreement; they have consistently lied to international inspectors and tried very hard to hide their most important facilities.  Netanyahu has been a major figure in Israeli politics or the past thirty years; his view of the world is clear and consistent.  Netanyahu’s approach to Iran is shaped, I think, in a larger perspective on the world rooted in post-World War II Zionism.  Anti-Semitism is a permanent feature of almost every culture in the world and can erupt into violence at any time.  Only in an Israel that is the Jewish national homeland can Jews feel secure and the existence of Israel is the only guarantee that the Jewish people will survive.  (This explains Netanyahu’s response to the Charlie Hebdu murders in Paris and the killings in Copenhagen: urging French and Danish Jews to emigrate to Israel.)  A nuclear armed Iran would have the ability to fulfill the most rabid anti-Semite’s dream, the destruction of the Jewish people.

Boehner’s move plays well with those who think snubbing or insulting the White House is a good thing and with those who hope that Netanyahu’s evocation of an implacable Iran bent on getting nuclear weapons so that it can destroy Israel will sway public opinion to oppose any deal.

Netanyahu’s speech is unlikely to have any impact on public opinion about an Iranian nuclear deal.  It will reinforce those who already knew that any deal with Iran would be a bad deal.  It will not weaken the commitment of those who support the emerging agreement either because they agree with it on the merits or because they are loyal Democrats who want to support their president. 

The invitation to Netanyahu has already had some impact on American politics by highlighting the tensions in U.S.-Israeli relations.  Last year’s failed attempt by Secretary of State John Kerry to broke peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians led to some acrimonious exchanges between U.S. and Israeli officials, with some of the most hawkish and staunchest anti-Palestinian leaders in the Israeli cabinet openly deriding any chance of peace with the Palestinians.  The mid-level State Department official who opined in a conversation with a reporter that Netanyahu was “...too chicken shit ...” to reach a deal with Palestinians and the senior official who earlier seemed to blame the Israelis for the failure of the talks were reflecting the views of many in the white House and State Department.  The personal tension, bordering on overt dislike, between Obama and Netanyahu seems to be rooted in sharp differences in policy, contrasting personal styles, and Netanyahu’s open preference for Mitt Romney in 2012. 

For the past five decades it has been an article of faith in both the U.S. and Israel that the two countries share a special relationship.  Israel has a unique position in American foreign policy because it is the only democracy in the Middle East, it is a trusted and reliable ally in  a dangerous neighborhood, it is widely admired for its David-like ability to defend itself against much larger hostile attackers, and there are a significant number of pro-Israel voters and campaign contributors who are key to success in key Congressional districts and a key part of the traditional Democratic Presidential voter base.  In turn Israel looks to the U.S. for support in the UN, for defense technology, and economic support from the American Jewish community. 

The underpinnings of that traditional relationship have ben slowly changing over the past 30 years. 
The heroic saga of the founding of Israel against overwhelming odds by idealistic young men and women, captured for a wide American audience in the 1960 movie Exodus remains the dominant image, but there has been growing sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians among younger Americans. 

The association between support for Israel and political liberals has been attenuated by the political emergence of fundamentalist Christians (often to the chagrin of both religious and secular Jews) who see the establishment of Israel as fulfillment of prophecies about the beginning of “The End Times” and the imminence of the Battle of Armageddon in which the forces of evil will be decisively defeated, Christ will return, and the world will end. 

The first generation of Israeli leaders shared a generally liberal ideology that stressed secular democracy, social welfare, and the integration of waves of immigrant into society.  The divisions in Israeli society between secular Jews and religious, especially conservative religious,  Jews have deepened and become more obvious and have increasingly complicated American Jews’ views of Israel.

The fact that Netanyahu gave a major address to AIPAC, the most important pro-Israel and increasingly conservative and Republican leaning lobby, the day before he addressed Congress and AIPAC ‘s role in the attempt by predominantly conservative Republican senators to legislate Congressional review for any agreement the White House makes with Iran was coordinated with AIPAC threatens to make U.S.-Israeli relations part of the bitter partisanship that makes Washington D.C. seem so dysfunctional.

The Bottom Line  What I think will happen

1.   The most likely outcome at the end of the month is a “framework agreement” as opposed to final deal with all the “t’s” crossed and “i’s” dotted.  Iran will agree to suspend attempts to enrich uranium beyond the level needed for a power plant reactor and to more robust inspections; the P5+1 will agree to phased reductions in sanctions.  Talks will continue until the details are hammered out.  The agreement will last for ten years.

2.   The U.S.-Israel relationship and the deal with Iran will be issues in the run up to the 2016 Presidential election, as Republican candidates stress foreign policy issues in their critique of the Obama administration.  “Soft on Iran”, “weak on Israel” will join Benghazi and failure to check Putin’s designs in Ukraine as rallying points for the Republican base. 

3.   The U.S.-Israel relationship has been strained at times in the past and will undoubtedly be strained in the future but it will not change dramatically in the next few years. But the increasingly strident partisanship and generational change will make the relationship less “special” and automatic.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Some Thoughts on the War Against ISIS

ISIS… seems as if it is yet another eruption of violence and terrorism in the Middle East and now the U.S. is launching air strikes and sending “advisers” to Iraq.  It's enough to make Yogi Berra sigh, “It's de ja vu all over again.”

It seems to me that there are three critical questions that ought to be front and center in any discussion of whether we as Americans have any reason to get involved:

Who are we opposing and are they any different from any of a large number of other bad actors around the world ?

Are there any national interests … do we have anything at stake?

Can we succeed?


ISIL, ISIS, IS, the so-called Islamic State ... how many groups do we have to keep track of?  We’re only concerned with one group, that started out as al-Qaeda in Iraq shortly after the US invaded in 2003 as part of a larger resistance movement among Sunni Iraqis.  But when al-Qaeda in Iraq shifted the focus of its violent assaults on Shia Iraqis to include Sunnis and began to challenge Sunni tribal leaders and local power brokers for control and began to pick fights with other Sunni-based anti-government groups, they were quickly isolated and relegated to hideouts in the desert. 

Then Syria collapsed into civil war.  The anti-Assad protesters were never a unified, organized movement.  When the Assad regime turned to large scale violence against its opponents, they splintered into a farily large number of locally based groups, ranging from middle class secular democrats to rural and urban poor religiously inspired factions.  Some of these groups included people with military training and experience; others were more dedicated than capable. 

What started as a protest movement against an entrenched dictatorship quickly became redefined by actors outside of Syria as part of a larger struggle between the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam.  Iran and Hezbollah, the powerful Shia militia in Lebanon, came to aid of the Assad regime because they defined the struggle as Syrian Sunni forces (aided and abetted by Sunni fundamentalists in Saudi Arabia and Gulf). 

Not to be outdone, conservative social and religious forces in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States began to actively support some of the Syrian groups who shared their values and were quite willing to define the struggle as Sunni versus Shia.  Al-Qaeda in Iraq saw an opportunity to reinvent itself and joined the fray.  Relatively quickly the struggle for support and dominance among the increasingly well armed Islamist groups became as important as the struggle against Assad. 

Al-Qaeda in Iraq emerged as one of the major beneficiary of outside aid and one of the most effective fighting forces and expanded its self definition to be the Islamic State in eh Levant, or ISIL in English.  In Arabic the Levant (the part of the Arab world bordering the eastern Mediterranean Sea) is known as ash-Shām; hence ISIS as the acronym.  When ISIS had succeed in establishing control over a significant area of Syria adjoining its strongholds in Iraq, (and been kicked out of al-Qaeda itself for failure to consult and “notorious intransigence”) it chose to reinvent itself again as the Islamic State and declared the establishment of a Caliphate.  (In Sunni Muslim political theory an institution that combines religious and civil leadership for all Muslims throughout the world.  The last Caliphate was abolished at the end of the Ottoman Empire.)

If you think “Islamic State” is a grandiose term for a group of fundamentalist hard liners who control some territory by fear and violence and/or you want to disrespect them, you add “so-called” to the Islamic State.    Somewhat arbitrarily I’ll use ISIS in this essay.

Unlike al-Qaeda itself, or other violent movements around the world (e.g. Boko Haram in Nigeria, al-Shabaab in Somalia, the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda), ISIS exercises effective control over a significant portion of Syria and Iraq, including major cities such as Mosul and Fallujah.  It is far more violent than other groups, both in terms of the number of people it kills and its willingness to engage in mass executions of people it considers heretical, apostate, or non-Muslim.  ISIS is better financed than other armed groups and militias in the area and no longer relies solely on donations from wealthy fundamentalists in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf but has the assets of looted banks in cities it has conquered and oil fields in Syria and Iraq that it controls.  And ISIS troops are better equipped (including American supplied weapons and military equipment seized from defeated Iraqi army units), trained and led.

When ISIS started to move beyond the territory it had captured in Syria from either the Assad forces or other rebel groups into Iraq, the Iraqi army disintegrated.  ISIS fighters moved with lightning speed to capture such major Iraqi cities as Mosul and Fallujah and threaten Baghdad itself.  They looked unstoppable until a combination of Kurdish military units (the pesh merga) and American air strikes blunted the advance on Haditha Dam and the city of Kobani. 

The ISIS program is simple: establish a society in which adherence to the strictest and most conservative version of Islam leads to purity and righteousness and which offers to restore the glories of the Golden Age of the 11th and 12th Centuries when the world of Islam stretched from China to southern Europe and was the center of civilization.  It is that simplicity and vision of grandeur that lies at the heart of ISIS’ propaganda appeal to disaffected Muslim youth throughout the Middle East and in Europe and North America. 

Actually, the dreams of ISIS and similar Islamist movements have less to do with the highlights of Islamic civilization in the Middle East during the Middle Ages than with a glorified vision of a bedouin camp.  They do not long for the days when Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo or Toledo were cosmopolitan crossroads where scholars explored ancient and modern philosophy, laid the foundations of modern science, medicine and mathematics, and poetry, music and graphic arts flourished.  ISIS and other fundamentalist conservatives dream of a simple community where there is no moral ambiguity or confusion about gender or age appropriate roles and life is regulated and constrained by traditional social norms.   

Typically when we say “terrorist” we mean someone who uses violence randomly against innocent people in order to spread fear and undermine peoples’ trust in each other and their government.  ISIS is no longer a terrorist group in that sense.  They certainly use violence as an expression of ideology when they seek to eradicate entire groups like the Yazidis or Iraqi Christians and by all accounts they use violence as a tool of suppression and control in the areas they occupy.  But ISIS has gone beyond trying to undermine an existing order to conquering territory and creating new systems of control.

This matters because the fact that ISIS exercises direct control over territory, acting like a government with administrative structures and responsibility to provide basic services like water and electricity and law and order, poses different strategic challenges than would a more fluid and amorphous band of terrorists with distinct hideouts and safe havens.


I assume that nations, like individual humans, act only in their self interest.  (That doesn't mean selfishness – there are many times and ways in which you or I can see that what is good for us is also good for someone else; often we realize that we can only get what we want if others get what they want.)

Let’s start with what I think is NOT an issue: the threat that they’re going to come get us.  I do not think ISIS is a direct threat to you and me.  They are focused on establishing and expanding their state and expelling the West and all its evil works from the Muslim world.  Diverting resources to some kind of spectacular assault on a symbolic target in the US or Europe does not directly contribute to the primary goal. 

There is concern in some quarters that some of the British, French or American citizens who have already joined ISIS forces will return home (or perhaps be sent home) to cause trouble.  To the extent that this is a real possibility, I think the precautions already in place and the additional measures being taken by European and American security services should be quite adequate.

Paradoxically, the more people worry about ISIS or returning jihadists coming to get them, the more it serves ISIS’ interests by reinforcing the image of them as a ferocious and frightening force and making people less supportive of attempts to deal with them.

Many knowledgeable observers disagree strongly with this analysis.  Ryan Crocker, former US ambassador to Iraq who also served in Syria, Pakistan and Afghanistan has said  "If we don't think we're on their target list, we are delusional." 

I think there are two major U.S. interests potentially threatened by the emergence of ISIS:  human development and stability.

Human Development:  whether you agree with John Donne that “no man is an island” or want to argue pragmatically that a society or world with extremes of wealth and poverty cannot last, ISIS is a clear and present danger to any hope of a decent future for the citizens of Iraq and Syria and beyond.

I'm using “human development” to include the political, economic and social dimensions.

Politically, Iraq under Saddam or Syria under the Assads were stagnant regimes in which opportunities for political involvement and action were carefully limited.  Elections were a cynical sham and regime critics were often jailed.  The original ideological ferver of the regimes, based on the promise of democratic socialism and guided development,  had long since played itself out There was some room to do or think what you wished as long as you did not openly challenge the status quo.  One factor underlying the authoritarianism and anti-democratic features of many regimes in the developing world has been the concerted effort to replace parochial communal identities with a national one.  To a significant extent that did work:  especially in urban settings, an Iraqi or Syrian identity did exist as a felt reality that was more important than religious or ethnic ties.

 Economically, the physical quality of life and standard of living did improve over time in both Iraq and Syria, although the rate of growth has slowed dramatically in the past two decades and the distribution of wealth has become more unequal. 

Socially, both Saddam’s Iraq and the Assads’ Syria invested in secular, Westernised education and promoted equality and opportunity for women.  Development was uneven, poverty and traditional attitudes toward gender roles persisted, but until political and economic stagnation drastically slowed progress, peoples’ every day lives did improve.

But ISIS government in the areas it controls verges on repressive totalitarianism.   Some people are by nature so impure, so far removed from the ISIS version of “orthodox” Sunni Islam  that they cannot be allowed to survive.  For the others,  the ISIS progrm of creating a new, pure state with new, pure and righteous men and women demands coercive enforcement of unconditional public adherence to a rigid code of behavior.  

The idea of International Stability offers a second rationale for outside intervention against ISIS. 

The new secular national identity that has emerged in many less developed countries around the world including Iraq and Syria, does not mean that older religious, ethnic or tribal identities disappear.  When day to day life is interrupted by a major upheaval that undermines national identity and the institutions that support it, those older identities surge into the foreground, complete with the negative stereotypes of other groups that make it possible to displace the anxiety and distress of social upheaval into anger and hostility directed at them. 

ISIS and similar movements turn that anger and hostility into violence and destruction, threatening the continued existence of the national government.  For all the myriad faults of national governments around the globe, a world in which the traditional nation-state is the dominant form of political community offers a better hope for the future than any other system, especially one based on religion, ethnicity or tribal ties. 

The global economy that supports the high standard of living in Western Europe and North America and is largely responsible for the significant improvement in the standard of living for billions of people in less developed countries, ultimately rests on orderly relations between nations and internal peace within them.


The question of whether we should get involved in the struggle against ISIS is moot.  It does not matter whether you believe that there are vital national interests at stake and we can be successful in defending them or whether you believe that the President has committed the United States to the effort, we are conducting air strikes in both Iraq and Syria, soon there will be 3,000 American military “advisors” trying to put the Iraqi army back together


As usual, much depends on what “win” means. 

If “win” means forcing ISIS out of Iraqi territory and the areas they hold in Syria in the next few months, I think the answer is no.

I think that would require a very large, very effective military force that combined infantry, heavy weapons and air strikes.  Even if the various forces fighting (or fleeing) ISIS: the Iraqi army, Iranian Revolutionary Guards,  the Kurdish pesh merga, and the many disparate Syrian opposition groups could somehow communicate and co-ordinate (two chances: none and less than zero) they lack both the personnel and firepower.  And a series of pitched battles in the areas currently controlled by ISIS would produce a staggering number of dead and wounded innocent civilians. 

If “win” means contain ISIS militarily in the short run, cut off their sources of funding, supplies, an recruits and expect (hope?) that ISIS will collapse as a governing body in the face of discontent and unrest in Mosul, Fallujah and other cities aided and abetted by fighters from Shia Iraqi militias and Iran?  

This would require:

Increased air strikes.  We have already had some success helping Iraqi and Kurdish  units with air strikes.  After a string of rapid victories, ISIS was unable to hold the Hamidi dam and has so far failed to conquer the border city of Kobani.  The US has been able to persuade other countries, including France and Britain and Qatar to play a role in an air campaign but the bulk of heavy lifting will be done by US aircraft. 

Cutting off outside support to ISIS and expecting an insurgent campaign from within.  It is estimated that ISIS gets several million dollars a month from contributions from wealthy conservatives in Saudi Arabia and Gulf States, oil sales on the black market, and the flow of new fighters from elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa and from Europe and North America.  Western governments have substantial experience in following the money and disrupting the flow to groups like al-Qaeda and international criminals. 

Figuring out what to do with the estimated 30,000 ISIS members.  It is one thing to target ISIS leaders for drone strikes, dealing with thousands of young men from across the Arab world and beyond is a fundamentally different challenge.  But if ISIS does collapse in the face of external pressure and internal resistance and the foot soldiers disperse to their home countries or other troubled regions, we may end up with a whole series of ISIS-like groups.

I think (perhaps “hope” is a better word) that this can be done.  The problems to be solved and obstacles to be overcome in securing the cooperation of governments like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey and non-governmental forces like Syrian and Iraqi tribes and militias are significant.

                            The Kurds will continue to be a major factor in this struggle but
                            where do I list them?  While the powers that be in the Kurdish
                            region of Iraq look like a government, walk like a government,
                            squawk like a government and tax like a government, it suits
                            everyone’s interests to pretend they’re not a government.  But the
                            Kurdish miliary is far better organized, and has far more combat
                            experience than anti-regime militias in Syria or the Iraqi army or
                            the various tribal militias in Iraq.

I also think a that US politics may be as big an obstacle to a strategy against ISIS that require sustained effort over many months.  Right now those on the left who have deep reservations about US involvement are effectively silenced by popular revulsion at ISIS brutality and beheadings and by the desire to support a beleaguered President.  And Obama’s critics on the right have largely restricted their criticism to the notion that he isn’t doing enough.  Polls suggest that there is broad support for “doing something” about ISIS.

But as this operation drags on with little visible success and perhaps some American casualties, I think it is likely that both those who think we are doing too much and those who think we are doing too little will become increasingly disenchanted with Obama and the issue will become more and more contentious.  A more bitterly partisan, grid-locked Congress and the bevy of 2016 Presidential contenders will probably lead to every small success being trumpeted as “THE TURNING POINT!” and every small setback framed as “WE KNEW IT WOULD NEVER WORK!”

For better or worse we are profoundly involved in the future of Iraq and Syria. I think one of the most important lessons we should have leaned from Iraq and Afghanistan is that in long run the political, economic and social dimensions of complex situations are more important than the military.  If we persist in treating ISIS as essentially a military problem, we are very unlikely to be happy with the results.