Third time lucky ?

So, it seems, we are signed up for our third Iraq war in 20-odd years. Obviously, this isn’t because the last two turned out brilliantly. So, what is the reasoning here? More precisely, given that Australia’s policy is just to follow the US without question, what is the reasoning of the world leaders, most importantly Obama, who are pushing this war? There seem to be two main points here

* ISIS/ISIL are barbaric terrorists who behead hostages. That’s a good reason for trying to capture and try those responsible, and perhaps for trying to kill them if that’s not possible. But there’s nothing special about this particular group. There are plenty of barbaric terrorists out there. And one of our leading allies in the fight, Saudi Arabia, routinely beheads people for such crimes as apostasy and “sorcery”. None of this justifies a war that is going to cost tens of billions of dollars (Australia alone looks to be up for several billion, assuming a long war) and an unknowable, but potentially large, number of lives.

* ISIS/ISIL threaten to take over large non-Sunni areas of Iraq and undertake ethnic/religious cleansing. That threat looked like a significant a month or two ago. But some limited air support for Kurdish and Shia militias appears to have turned the tide. As far as I can tell, ISIS/ISIL are now confined to Sunni areas where they have a fair degree of popular support. Changing that will be a costly and bloody business.

I expect most readers here will agree with me, and don’t plan to argue about with those who haven’t learned from the past. But I would like a pointer to any serious analysis making the case for a new war.

139 thoughts on “Third time lucky ?

  1. faustusnote @ #22 said:

    The first four minutes or so is very impressive propaganda, isn’t it? Did you watch past the drive bys? There are tribal meetings in Anbar where the members of the awakening admit to error and pledge allegiance. Later on they have explicit footage of finding the leaders of the awakening and murdering them in their homes. Their facility with IEDs is also going to make a return of US ground troops controversial.

    I think some of the IED footage is pretty old, a sort of compilation album of Al Quaeda’s greatest hits. ISIS will have trouble applying the same tactics to the US which has greatly improved counter-IED tactics and in any case will not have a large infantry footprint.

    faustusnote said:

    I agree with you that they probably won’t last, though I observe that they are setting out to break the “so long as” clause in your Lawrence quote (they unite tribes under one state!) My concern is the damage they will do on the way to burnout, especially in Syria.

    But that’s the point of my Lawrence quote and the potted history of Baathist pan-Arabism: Middle East Arabs struggle to get out of their tribal rut and into a national groove, Turkish and Iranian exceptions prove the rule. Everywhere else in the region it is tribal vendettas, turbocharged by sectarian fury, that splits and splatters their constructive potential.

    That’s because tribal divisions between regions are essentially micro-races, massively amplified by extremely vigilant sexual selection, comparable to the valley tribal differentiation in PNG and Afghanistan. The sectarian factor is obviously critical in regulating reproductive practices.

    Here is a list of modern Middle Eastern conflicts. Note the number and intensity of conflicts in the “post-modern era” from 1975 onwards, when the confluence of tribe & sect really started to fizzle & crackle. Starting with the Lebanese Civil War of course.

    The combination of Muslim Brotherhood ideology and Saudi Arabian better-the-hotheads-inside-the-tent-pissing-out jihadist funding has spread like wildfire over the region. It’s been a recipe for chaos in every country but the one doing the exporting.

    ISIS will not overcome this because messianic theology of jihadism is not adequate to paper over the tribal cracks. Likewise the messianic ideology of communism was not adequate to paper over national cracks. The secession urge of Russian ethnics in post-communist Ukraine is an example. “Blood is thicker than ideology”, as Dr Knopfelmacher used to say.

    Of course political actors operating under ideological delusions can do an awful lot of damage in the process. The bloody history of 20th century history is testament to that fact. But lest we forget that tribal politics has always been more destructive than national or ideological conflict over the long term, as Hobbes perceived in his masterpiece.

    A middle sized nation with a middle class citizenry is a good compromise between ethnology and ideology.

    No doubt the arbitrary drawing of national boundaries by imperial bureaucrats did not help matters much. But plenty of peoples have inherited crooked timber in their state and don’t make a great song and dance of it. Thank God Australia is a state with natural boundaries, “girt by sea”. Let’s keep it that way.

  2. The reason that the supposedly anti-Western ISIS has been able to grab so much of Syria is that over 170,000 Syrians have died since March 2011 at the hands of foreign terrorists armed and paid for by the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey and their allies. In spite of the terrible toll and the destruction The Syrian Army is still winning because they have the support of the Syrian people. This is confirmed by a href=”http://candobetter.net/node/3888″>press conference (includes 52 minute video) of 20 June 2014. In that press conference four observers verified that the Syrian Presidential elections of 7 June in which Bashar al-Assad won overwhelming support of Syrian people, both at home and abroad, were conducted fairly.

    One reason Syrians are fighting so hard is they have witnessed, since 1990, the scale of the crimes committed against neighbouring Iraq as a result of (1) two illegal invasions in which Australia participated and (2) illegal sanctions in which Australia also participated. The sanctions deprived sick Iraqi children of medicine and starving Iraqi children of food. The death toll was at least many hundreds of thousands. One estimate puts it as high as 3.3 million. One of may who has testified to the criminality of these wars and sanctions is former United States Attorney-general Ramsey Clark.

  3. Link was not properly formatted in the previous copy of this post. My apologies. Please delete, Professor Quiggin

    The reason that the supposedly anti-Western ISIS has been able to grab so much of Syria is that over 170,000 Syrians have died since March 2011 at the hands of foreign terrorists armed and paid for by the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey and their allies. In spite of the terrible toll and the destruction The Syrian Army is still winning because they have the support of the Syrian people. This is confirmed by a press conference (includes 52 minute video) of 20 June 2014. In that press conference four observers verified that the Syrian Presidential elections of 7 June in which Bashar al-Assad won overwhelming support of Syrian people, both at home and abroad, were conducted fairly.

    One reason Syrians are fighting so hard is they have witnessed, since 1990, the scale of the crimes committed against neighbouring Iraq as a result of (1) two illegal invasions in which Australia participated and (2) illegal sanctions in which Australia also participated. The sanctions deprived sick Iraqi children of medicine and starving Iraqi children of food. The death toll was at least many hundreds of thousands. One estimate puts it as high as 3.3 million. One of may who has testified to the criminality of these wars and sanctions is former United States Attorney-general Ramsey Clark.

  4. I think there’s a lot wrong with your analysis, Jack. Let’s start here (my emphasis added):

    ISIS will not overcome this because messianic theology of jihadism is not adequate to paper over the tribal cracks. Likewise the messianic ideology of communism was not adequate to paper over national cracks. The secession urge of Russian ethnics in post-communist Ukraine is an example. “Blood is thicker than ideology”, as Dr Knopfelmacher used to say.

    Your second point (that I have bolded) contradicts your previous sentence about communism. And 75 years is a long time. If Islamic State are around for 75 years, they’ll do an awful lot of damage. I also think you underestimate the power of brutality here: ISIS are not papering over the cracks with just Jihadism, but with brutality. Isn’t that how every other middle eastern leader has done it? How else could minority Sunnis rule majority Shia in Iraq for so long?

    You then say

    Middle East Arabs struggle to get out of their tribal rut and into a national groove

    but this is obviously not true. Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Egypt have all done perfectly well. And what about the extraordinary unity shown by Palestinians during the first Intifada? In every case where a “tribal” conflict has exploded, it has had some external actor intervening to destabilize the situation: Israel in Lebanon (actively fomenting christian-muslim divides!), us in Syria, us in Iraq. The upheavals in Egypt had nothing to do with tribalism and showed that blood is not, in fact, thicker than ideology – a fact about the muslim brotherhood that the Saudis find quite terrifying.

    I would say that the modern history of the ME is one of tribal divisions being exarcebated and accentuated by outside forces in order to stave off ideological unity, which in Iraq would have occurred along communist lines, and in Egypt/Palestine/Saudi Arabia through the Muslim Brotherhood. Turkey and Iran have united disparate groups through the application of ideology connected to the state, as did Iraq for a long time. This is exactly what ISIS is doing: they aren’t uniting only through religion, but through a vision of a state that unites all tribes and gives them a common identity.

    The challenge for ISIS is to carry this off while being uniquely brutal. I don’t think they can do this, but it’s also possible that they are not actually very brutal in settled Sunni areas, in which case their access to oil, the construction of ordinary functions of a state (e.g. a trading economy, welfare system, regular army) and continued expansion is going to make them very appealing. And because ordinary Iraqis are exhausted by the tribal conflict and the predations of al Qaeda, they may be successful despite their brutality. Remember: one key point of difference between ISIS and al Qaeda was over suicide bombings. ISIS reject the use of suicide bombs against muslim civilians and consider their use to be cowardly. They want military victories, not civilian terror. For many citizens in Iraq, this is a huge boon.

    (Also, ISIS describe their split differently to the western media – the way they tell it they won a spiritual and political debate with al Qaeda and they rejected al Qaeda, not the other way around).

    I think like many people of your political persuasion, you exaggerate the role of tribalism in the middle east, and exaggerate the extent to which ordinary people give a toss about that stuff. After 11 years of war and chaos, most people in Iraq just want peace. If ISIS bring them that, at the cost of a few beheadings and a bit of communal violence against people who aren’t like us I think they might be inclined to accept it. And how many people are going to have the energy to fight it? Who is gonna die in a ditch usurping a state that they consider to be no more or less valid than the last pack of brutal bastards who passed through?

  5. There are plenty of reasons for the West to ignore ISIS/ISIL.

    (1) They are not in our region.
    (2) Thay are not a credible country or force on a global scale.
    (3) If they become a country they will be a weak country*.
    (4) It is the business of Middle East peoples to sort out the Middle East.

    *Note: They will be encircled by Turkey, a rump Syria, a rump Iraq, Iran, Kurds, Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. They will have no credible manufacturing base and no raw materials apart from oil.

  6. Copied from original article of 18 Sep 2014 by Tony Cartalucci:

    As Australia, United States invade Iraq, threaten Syria … Terronoia Theatre Presents: Staged ISIS Attacks

    The FBI has foiled yet another entirely fabricated terror threat of its own creation, with missing mechanisms in two firearms provided to a potential terrorist being the only thing that prevented this latest case of entrapment from going “live.”

    A Rochester man, Mufid A. Elfgeeh, is accused by the FBI of attempting to provide material support to ISIS (undercover FBI agents), attempting to kill US soldiers, and possession of firearms and silencers (provided to him by the FBI). The FBI’s own official press release stated (emphasis added):

    According to court records, Elfgeeh attempted to provide material support to ISIS in the form of personnel, namely three individuals, two of whom were cooperating with the FBI. Elfgeeh attempted to assist all three individuals in traveling to Syria to join and fight on behalf of ISIS. Elfgeeh also plotted to shoot and kill members of the United States military who had returned from Iraq. As part of the plan to kill soldiers, Elfgeeh purchased two handguns equipped with firearm silencers and ammunition from a confidential source. The handguns were made inoperable by the FBI before the confidential source gave them to Elfgeeh.

  7. faustusnote @ #29 said:

    Your second point (that I have bolded) contradicts your previous sentence about communism.

    No, you are out on a limb, chopping logic. My general point is that “rationalism in politics…the politics of the book” ((Oakeshott) will always fail, since it is an ideological implant rather than ethnological growth. The specific analogy I picked to illustrate this point was the post-OPEC disintegration of ideological grafts throughout Eurasia: Soviet communism in nationalist “Slavia” and Baathist nationalism in tribalist “Arabia”.

    In both cases centrifugal ethnic forces having been getting the upper hand over centripetal civic forces. (Obviously the Slavs have a scaled up and superior political culture to the Arabs, they established nationalism.) In both cases secessionist movements are being financed and organized by plutocratic forces seeking minerals & energy control. Scotland looks like a similar case.

    Wahhabist Islamism, the new ideological kid on the block, is literally “the politics of the book”, in this case the Quran. My prediction is that Wahabbist jihad will be even less successful than Baathist nationalism in papering over the tribal cracks. It is sectarian and regressive whereas nation state formation requires a secular and progressive middle class

    faustusnote said:

    but this is obviously not true. Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Egypt have all done perfectly well. And what about the extraordinary unity shown by Palestinians during the first Intifada?

    Huh? Your shopping list of successful Arab “nations” plus $2.50 would get you a cup of coffee. But no cigar. The whole history of post OPEC Mesopotamia is the collapse of Baathist secular nationalism and the resurgence of Wahabist sectarian tribalism. A regression from modernist to pre-modernist forms of social organization, probably based on the fact that backward provincial hicks want to retrieve their oil wells oases frim corrupt metropolitan elites.

    Your poster children of Arab nationalism – Iraq, Syria and Palestine – are still in the middle of bitter civil wars that are based on tribal & sectarian differences. The Palestinaians are onto their third Intifada now and seem to be even more divided between Fatah nationalism and Hamas sectarianism. The very opposite of getting into a “national groove” and doing “perfectly well”.

    faustusnote said:

    The upheavals in Egypt had nothing to do with tribalism and showed that blood is not, in fact, thicker than ideology – a fact about the muslim brotherhood that the Saudis find quite terrifying.

    I didn’t say the “upheavals in Egypt” were based on “tribalism”. I said that the Mesopotamia’s chronic inability to master state formation had a tribalist basis. The Big Three Middle Eastern states – Turkey, Iran & Egypt – reject Arab sectarian tribalism and have all at one stage or another followed the Kemalist model of reclaiming imperial glory through military-led secular nationalism.

    But they have not controlled sectarianism, such as Muslim Brotherhood or Khomenism. Islamist theology in the Middle East seems to play the role of communist ideology used to play in the West. That is, a seductive blind alley.

    Even though Egypt is a member of the Arab league it’s elites are not really on-side with Arabic Islamism. So they will reject pan-Islamic ideology in favour of Egyptian ethnic nationalism. It’s pretty hard to miss those pyramids sitting in ones office in Cairo. Solidarity with Hamas is a poor substitute.

    Unfortunately the Egyptian elites are having difficulty making Egyptian nationalism work, due to corrupt military nepotism. The Muslim Brotherhood masses are sick of living off the scaps thrown from the Mubaraks family table.

    Iran and Turkey face a similar conflict between modernising pragmatism and sectarian principle. See the fate of the Shah. But Islamism is a cure worse than the disease. See the fate of the Ayatollahs.

    This just shows that the World-Historic dialectic between ethnology and ideology is having the devil of a time reaching a satisfying synthesis. Civic Ideology works, if at all, only as a complement with ethnic solidarity. Think “the Great Patriotic War”.

    That leaves Saudi Arabia and Oman in your list. Saudi is the paradigmatic model of a Gulf client state which is built on tribal loyalty, mobilised by sectarian theology, financed by hydrocarbon plutocracy and protected by the Anglo-American military. Other examples are Kuwait, Dubai, Oman, Qatar, Emirates etc.

    None of these pseudo-states even remotely resemble a nation with secular constitution and a dominant middle class. The ruling sheiks/sultans spend half their time whoring, shopping and boozing to London, where they launder their petrodollars in the SW1 property market. Most of the domestic hard yards are done by exploited and oppressed guest worker proletariat. You will never build a nation out of that.

    And I notice some significant absences from your list, notably Lebanon, Libya and Tunisia, early risers in the so-called Arab Spring. Many liberals attempted to subsume these uprisings into a kind of post-Cold War narrative of democratic Color Revolutions. One does not here much about them these days. In reality the Arab Spring is just the same old, same old Arab Street running amok. Provincial unrest led by rebellious tribes against corrupt metropolitan rule. Net particularly democratic and definitely not a proper nationalist uprising as instanced by, say, Soldiarity.

    faustusnote said:

    I would say that the modern history of the ME is one of tribal divisions being exarcebated and accentuated by outside forces in order to stave off ideological unity

    Ah, the old imperial divide-and-rule theory. Well, you would say that wouldn’t you. This theory denies agency to the hapless natives in the face of the Great Gaming sahibs. Once upon a time, there was some truth in that. But really, the West has well and truly lost the imperial Machiavellisn art. Do you see any statesmen of the calibre of Talleyrand, Castlereagh, Metternich, Bismark or even Kissinger? The cupboards bare.

    The US is really not up to the Great Game. During WWII The US was drawn into the Middle East to prevent the Nazis & then Soviets from grabbing the Prize. The US actively thwarted Anglo-Franco intervention in Suez. And it was quite happy to give its blessing to the Baathist experiment with the United Arab Republic, as a constraint on communism.

    Recently it has intervened in the ME to protect Israel. But if you believe that this is the reason Arabs are always at each other’s throats then you would believe anything. Indeed the one thing that gives the Middle East some kind of “ideological unity” is the paradigmatic “outside force”, namely Israel. Nearly All Islamic peoples agree that the Zionist entity should be dissolved.

    If you want to see what’s queering the ME political pitch you need not cast a paranoid eye about for sinister “outside forces”. The malevolent hand of the Saudis, in the form of the sleek Prince Bandaar, is right in front of our noses, It was the spoiler of Baathism, the swing state in OPEC, the financier of Wahhabist jihadism. The Saudis have pushed the sectarian djinni out of its bottle. But so far it has worked out just fine for them.

    faustusnote said:

    I think like many people of your political persuasion, you exaggerate the role of tribalism in the middle east, and exaggerate the extent to which ordinary people give a toss about that stuff. After 11 years of war and chaos, most people in Iraq just want peace. If ISIS bring them that, at the cost of a few beheadings and a bit of communal violence against people who aren’t like us I think they might be inclined to accept it.

    I don’t have any “political persuasion”, I just want to get the facts. According to Darwinian theory, the “role of tribalism” is default in human nature. It takes a Hobbesian leviathan to overcome our innate mafioso tendencies. “Ordinary people” may not “give a toss about” who rules. But, as Steve Sailer said, “in a Middle East insurrection, you don’t count noses, you count balls.” That’s why the Taliban took over Afghanistan. But all that did was encourage Al Quaeda to take over the Taliban. You see how this Alpha-male will-to-power deal works in the state of nature?

    The one glint of silver lining in the dark clouds of Middle Eastern upheaval is Algeria. Back in June 2007 I suggested that the most likely path to progress for Middle Eastern Arabs was a massive Alpha-male bloodbath followed by a female emancipation, sort of Edward Luttwak “Give War a Chance” meets Germaine Greer “you go, girl” scenario:

    Probably most of the sectarian Alpha-males in Algeria have been killed or are in shell-shock after two generation of internecine warfare. So the women are picking up the pieces. Same thing happened in Germany and Japan after the wars.

    I have no firm prediction whether this will happen in Mesopotamia. It’s a long shot, but worth a bet.

  8. Ikonoklast, today ISIS released 46 Turkish hostages, including the Turkish consul in Mosul, “without conditions,” and the Turkish govt claimed to have concluded no deals with them. The same day, Turkey opened the border and 60000 Kurdish refugees crossed. Far from “encircling” ISIS, Turkey are standing off, taking their refugees. Why? Because they want ISIS to exerminate the PKK, leaving vulnerable Kurdish civilians begging their past oppressor for protection. Dreams of Kurdish separatism are dying a bloody death in Syria and Iraq. Meanwhile, rather than being encircled by Syria as you suggest, ISIS are taking land north of Aleppo, further encircling Syria’s second city.

    Yesterday ISIS simultaneously launched two raids in Baghdad: one on a prison, the other on the HQ of the Badr militia. They failed to liberate prisoners, but they killed scores of people. The US tactic of degrading and destroying them is apparently not enough to stop them launching raids inside Baghdad’s capital.

    There is talk of beheadings and genocide in Kurdish areas that they are invading. At the very least they are engaging in ethnic cleansing of the same kind as we saw in Yugoslavia. But to you it’s no one else’s business?

    Jack, your comment is a mess of self-contradictory assertions, leavened with pop psychology and misused “Darwinian theory.” I don’t find it convincing.

  9. faustusnote @ # 35 said:

    Jack, your comment is a mess of self-contradictory assertions, leavened with pop psychology and misused “Darwinian theory.” I don’t find it convincing.

    The regions intractable problems are, for the most part, of its own makings. Since it is a critical geo-economic region it is inevitable, although regrettable, that some outside agency occasionally step in and try to impose some order on the chaos. It’s just a pity that the US is more willing than able to do the job properly.

    I can’t see this cycle ending anytime soon. When a cultural region repeatedly shows the same patterns of behaviour over a long time we can reasonably expect that Darwinian naturalism, rather than Boasian culturaliam, should play a larger role in the explanation of things. This goes doubly for a region like the Middle East where sexual selection savagely reinforces natural selection. This is not “pop psychology”, it’s Darwinism 101.

    The fact that I noticed that the Middle East has a variety of dysfunctional state formations – tribalism in Arab Mesopotamia, corrupt military nepotism in non-Arab ex-imperial states and Wahabbist ideology in Gulf client statelets – is not “a mess of self-contradictions”, it’s a critical difference. It pays to notice these things.

    Someone who thinks that “Iraq, Syria and Egypt…are doing perfectly well”, that one Intifada means that “Palestinians…show extraordinary unity”, that Saudi Arabia might find its featured export of Wahabbist sectarianism is actually a “quite terrifying” bug and who DOESNT see that tribal ethnicity ultimately trumps civil ideology, that the “outside force” of Israel is actually the greatest promoter of Islamic “ideological unity” is very unlikely to find the evidence of his own ‘lying eyes “convincing”. Twerp.

  10. “I can’t see this cycle ending anytime soon. When a cultural region repeatedly shows the same patterns of behaviour over a long time we can reasonably expect that Darwinian naturalism, rather than Boasian culturaliam, should play a larger role in the explanation of things. This goes doubly for a region like the Middle East where sexual selection savagely reinforces natural selection. This is not “pop psychology”, it’s Darwinism 101.”

    Um, this is actually racist and orientalist – and most likely in violation of the comments policy.

  11. Going back to the original question: will this time work better?. Depends. Mainly on whether US policy can stop trying to do three things at once, none whole-heartedly, and can accept some basic facts about the region. So probably not. Worth re-capping:

    – in 1980 the US did nothing to restrain Saddam’s attack on Iran. Then when that backfired, it went into panic mode and enlisted as Saddam’s ally against Iran (escorting tankers, providing intelligence and munitions, backing Iraq in the UN). When Saddam went into Kuwait, the US had little choice but to intervene. But stopping short of Baghdad and then refusing aid to the inevitable Shia and Kurd uprisings left Iraq crippled – neither able to recover, nor to reconstitute itself as a Shia/Kurdish majority state – no doubt for fear of how such a reconfiguration would affect US interests and influence. The result was several hundred thousand dead Iraqis and the destruction by neglect of what modernisation Saddam had managed. Iraq was, in effect, in limbo – not a sustainable position for a state. The Bush II idiocy had the inevitable effect of bringing the Shia and Kurds into power in Baghdad, both with Iranian backing, and pushing the Sunni out. The Sunni backlash – against both the US and the Shia – cemented Shia control of Baghdad. The US response was to bribe the Sunni into temporary quiet and run (again, it had little choice in the latter – nobody wanted it to stay).

    The Syrian war, Maliki’s mismanagement, the US legacy and Sunni ideological and financial backing from the Gulf states has now produced IS. As Faustus notes, IS is violent, ideologically uncompromising and intent on re-assserting Sunni dominance. If it wins Baghdad or Kirkuk, there will be a bloodbath. So, again, little choice but to intervene. But, as in 1982, 1991 and 2003, intervention means accepting a Shia/Kurdish Iraq, and probably an Allawi/Christian Syria, both backed by Iran, in the teeth of Saudi/GCC/Israeli preferences. It means going to Tehran and working out a modus vivendi there. Is the US capable of such a shift, in the face of such opposition? Probably not. But its current policy works to produce this result regardless. the issue will be whether it follows through or again tries for some unworkable compromise. How many times can you fall between two stools?

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