Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Smoke from Middle East Fires

Gatestone Institute has a new page: a weekly roundtable discussion described thusly:

This week we are proud to present the inaugural episode of “The Call,” an unconventional foreign policy round-table that will be posted regularly on Monday afternoons. Each “Call” will focus on a single subject to which panelists will bring insights drawn from their experience and contacts in the worlds of finance, investigative reporting, military operations and intelligence work.

The weekly discussion will be followed by regular blog-posts.

None of the panelists adhere to any common ideological line or political affiliation, and are united simply by the fact that they like talking to each other:
First, the players:

  • Mike Breen Vice President of the Truman National Security Project, is a former US Army officer who served in tactical and operational assignments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • Pepe Escobar is an investigative reporter based in Sao Paolo, Brazil and author of the “Roving Eye” feature for the Asia Times.
  • David Goldman, aka Spengler, is the author of How Civilizations Die: (And Why Islam Is Dying Too) and the former head of fixed income research for Bank of America.
  • Rotem Sella is the foreign affairs editor at the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv
  • David Samuels is a Contributing Editor at Harper’s Magazine
That’s quite a line-up. Journalists and writers, but also a group which has had a life outside the MSM. Their inaugural roundtable is of particular interest if (as I do) you find the turmoil and brutality in the Middle East perplexing — the inevitable smoke and confusion of wars, the toppling of regimes whose replacements often seem worse than what came before, and especially the aftermath of the cynical “Arab Spring”.

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It is exceedingly unfortunate that America found itself with this peculiar executive administration just as the Middle East began to heat up due to the friction of its own internal stresses. The insertion of our government into this mess via our State Department is alarming. Almost-President Clinton’s visit to Egypt the other day was a good example of a journey without a coherent destination. The welcome she received by the whipped-up demonstrators clarified what needs to be done — i.e., to cut back on the years of financial aid now that we are dealing with tyranny of a different order entirely.

Americans have watched what amounts to an endless tennis game: we read the reports on one side of the court, and lobbing the ball are players with some mean serves. In particular, the chaotic barbarity in North Africa, the radicalization of places like Morocco, and the chronic backwardness of the Sub-Sahara. On the other side of the court, we have the whimsical “leading from behind” strategy of the current administration (cf the strange case of Libya) and the increasingly shopworn alliances with other Western nations (or polities), who no longer trust us to behave as rational actors.

The situation spirals downward and we wonder: is anybody really home in the Oval Office or Foggy Bottom? Do these two factions actually talk to one another? Do they have a grasp of their mutual overall strategy or a real understanding of the complexities of “foreign affairs”? Or is the only available template “the Chicago Way”?

That imposed pattern simply doesn’t have the finesse or resiliency to make it past the environs of American urban politics. Unfortunately, the ward system seems to be the only tool in the administration’s fix-it box.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Clinton, being from another planet entirely, appears to be the sole designer of whatever passes for ‘foreign affairs’ of late. However, her ongoing and active collusion with the OIC to strip the United States of its first and second amendments aligns well with Obama’s extensions of the Muslim Brotherhood at the federal level here.

Obama knows how to bow, but that’s the extent of his experience in the larger world. An early childhood in Indonesia has left him with the ability to recite the Shahada from memory (a prayer he calls “one of the most beautiful”) but he returned to an American private school education early on.

Being the offspring of a philandering African father and a Midwestern American Communist mother — both of his parents despised America — makes Obama definitely not “one of us”. He may or may not be a citizen (that point was made moot by the Dem machine once they found him useful) but for sure he is not an African American in the sense our culture understands that term. He’s cut from a peculiar cloth whose divergent pattern makes B. Hussein Obama unique as an American president.

He is ‘foreign’ by heritage, by formative childhood experiences, by characterological make-up, and especially by virtue of his political philosophy, one of which is a knee-jerk antipathy to the Constitution he took an oath to preserve. These complications leave him particularly unsuited to the give-and-take of Washington politics.

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So here we are. Given the ineptitude of our politicians (I don’t see any “statesmen” among them) what are we to think or do about the turmoil in the Middle East?

That’s where this roundtable discussion at the Gatestone Institute may help clear away some of the fog of war. Or at least limn the outlines of the conflict(s) more clearly. The power grabs are coming fast and furious (so to speak).

For example, take their views on Syria (gulp):
The Godfather IV: Shooting in Syria

David Samuels: The final days of Assad will be one of those great Godfather movie scenes where everyone watches everyone else to see who will try to shoot him first, which is why he’s put every Sunni in the army command under 24 hour surveillance. So the real danger is the trusted Alawite who is in charge of Assad’s security at the palace or runs the intelligence apparatus and is owned by Vladimir Putin. Which means that Assad has a perverse interest in things getting worse as a way to ensure Putin’s continued backing — since other members of his inner circle would have even less popular and international legitimacy than he does. Let’s call that the Paradox of Putin’s Alawite.

Mike Breen: A question for David about the script for Godfather Part IV, shooting now in Damascus. If Assad himself ends up like Sonny in that tollbooth, what difference would it make? Knowing they hang together or hang separately, and with more than enough lawyers, guns & money for a long last stand, don’t the elite circle the T-72’s and keep fighting? And if not, what’s their way out?

Pepe Escobar: So far, defections from the Assad regime have been mostly irrelevant, but one group of people should be watched closely. If any of them defects, the Assad clan may be in serious trouble. The group includes Jamil Hassan; Abdel-Fatah Qudsiyeh; Ali Mamlouk; and Muhammad Deeb Zaitoon. These are the directors of Syria’s four intelligence agencies (yes, this is an ultra-hardcore police state). And then there’s Hisham Bakhtiar — the head of the National Security Council and the top Assad intelligence adviser. [my emphasis here —D]

The problem goes beyond the fact that Assad is gross, megalomaniac and totally inept. I’d say Putin already owns most if not all of the above. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov will have a breather of three months or so to go with this “transition” farce. If the army does not kill every FSA or mercenary Salafi-jihadist in sight, then Putin will say “let’s get rid of the bastard”. What Russia wants is Tartus and the weapons contracts — all the rest is cosmetics.

Assad is right on the Saudis and Turks though, and even more on Qatar. I picked up this exchange from al-Akhbar English, have friends there, I do trust them — not bought by the House of Saud:

Assad and Kofi Austin Powers in Damascus on Monday:

Annan — How long do you think this crisis will continue?
Assad — As long as the […] regime funds it.
Annan — Do you think they are behind all the funding?
Assad — They are behind many things that happen in our region. They believe they will be able to lead the whole Arab world today and in the future.
Annan — But it seems to me that they lack the population needed for such an ambition.

[collective laughter]

Time to start considering Qatar as the next superpower…

David Goldman: Pepe Escobar wrote in Asia Times that Russia has effectively scotched the possibility of NATO intervention and that status quo simply drags on. I agree with his tactical reading but see another dimension in Russia’s motives. Our Asia Times colleague M.K. Bhadrakumar wrote last month: “[The Putin-Netanyahu meeting] brings up a core aspect of Russia’s “intransigence” with regard to the Syrian situation. While Western commentators look at Syria being a “client state” of Russia, they blithely overlook Russia’s fear that ascendancy of radical Islam in Syria can easily spread to its extended neighborhood in Central Asia and the North Caucasus.” The Israelis read Russia in exactly this fashion.


Unfortunately, Turkey made a very serious mistake in Syria. It thought that, as in Libya the regime would collapse quickly and would be replaced with the AKP’s “brothers” the Muslim Brotherhood. The “Sunni brotherhood” was instrumental in embracing Sudan’s bloodthirsty dictator Omar al-Bashir, but Bashar al-Assad was only an “Alawite brother.”

Turkey really does seem up the creek in Syria.
Pepe Escobar: The House of Saud does not feel threatened by AKP. But in Syria they are missing the plot. Post-Assad — if there is one — will certainly be hardcore Muslim Brotherhood; good for Qatar, not good for Saudi. Most of the Sunni business elite in Syria actually is in bed with the regime — and they haven’t abandoned it. Jordan is already ultra-wobbly. [my emphasis — D]
From there the discussion moves to take up the fragile nature of Jordan right now. Since we don’t pay attention to states or situations until they turn chaotic, this discussion of Jordan’s woes is especially welcome.

Mike Breen gives a trenchant description of the layers of Jordan’s population at the moment. It’s far more varied than you’d think…and that variety is the key to its fragility.

Mr. Breen says:

So my question is this: what happens when the rest of the region’s safety valve and buffer zone, with a seemingly infinite capacity to absorb semi-permanent refugees from its neighbors, goes belly-up itself? I’d argue that Jordan’s calming influence on the neighborhood is often undervalued but will be understood as essential when it’s gone — and gone could be upon us sooner than we think.
The roundtable has much to say about key issues, including Syria’s formidable stash of WMD [imho, those WMD originated in Iraq under Saddam, and were shuffled off to Buffalo before we could find them thus permitting the “Bush lied” meme — but this discussion doesn’t go there —D], Turkey’s internal dissensions, and The Iranian Bomb.

As mentioned earlier, this is the launch of a series of discussions on current affairs: “finance, investigative reporting, military operations and intelligence work”. It’s not clear what they mean when they say that each week’s conversation will be followed by “regular blog posts”. There is certainly plenty of material for further clarification and detail. It would be good, for instance, to see more in-depth analysis of Jordan’s current situation.

Toward the end of the round table, Mr. Breen mentioned an author, but gave no title to his essay nor any background on the writer. Need I say no URL? [In fact, the whole discussion could use more links to the subjects they broach. Internet protocols demand that for the further education of readers. And if not links, then a short bibliography list at the end of their post.]

In my view, the best thing out there on this remains Colin Kahl’s paper from last month — and much of my own thinking on this tracks with Colin’s much more informed and considered opinion. I’d urge everyone who hasn’t yet to give the report a read.
I googled the name but didn’t see anything for June by Mr. Kahl. The subject(s) appear to be Syria’s current state of affairs and/or Iran’s continuing bomb-building operation. If any or our readers can supply a link to the paper, I’d be grateful.

Meanwhile, do check out this new cooperative effort to clarify complex and muddled situations, about which most of us are in the dark — and understandably so. Sometimes, too, we forget the sheer numbers of individuals who have been displaced by the turmoil, fleeing from terror to refuge only to find the refuge itself becoming another source of terror.

The Middle East is hell and the flames are flickering ever wider.

Gatestone Institute is becoming crucial to understanding world events as it branches into new material all the time. See the essay on Palestine at the top of the home page as an example, or the post I linked yesterday on Britain’s new pork-free cuisine. Hint: no bangers for you, mate.


Anonymous said...

Great reference, interesting and unusually informative site. Thank you.


Anonymous said...

I think this is the paper Breen referenced: http://www.cnas.org/riskandrivalry